altMere Christianity by C. S. Lewis (Macmillan, 1978; originally published 1944)

Mere Christianity grew out of a series of radio talks Lewis gave in the 1940's. Consequently, although he reworked them slightly to be more suitable for the print medium, they still retain an informal, easy-to-read flavor. I don't want to say Lewis dumbed down his talks for the sake of the average BBC listener (and me) but ... he did. There's none of the head-spinning intricacies of philosophy and literary criticism found in some of his other books. As with the others, there are some allusions that made more sense to a mid-20th-century Englishman than to a 21st-century American, but they're minor and easily puzzled out—or ignored. There's nothing dated about the content of this very worthwhile book. [Emphasis in the quotes below is mine.]

Table of Contents

  1. The Law of Human Nature
  2. Some Objections
  3. The Reality of the Law
  4. What Lies Behind the Law
  5. We Have Cause to Be Uneasy
  1. The Rival Conceptions of God
  2. The Invasion
  3. The Shocking Alternative
  4. The Perfect Penitent
  5. The Practical Conclusions
  1. The Three Parts of Morality
  2. The "Cardinal Virtues"
  3. Social Morality
  4. Morality and Psychoanalysis
  5. Sexual Morality
  6. Christian Marriage
  7. Forgiveness
  8. The Great Sin
  9. Charity
  10. Hope
  11. Faith
  12. Faith
  1. Making and Begetting
  2. The Three-Personal God
  3. Time and Beyond Time
  4. Good Infection
  5. The Obstinate Toy Soldiers
  6. Two Notes
  7. Let's Pretend
  8. Is Christianity Hard or Easy?
  9. Counting the Cost
  10. Nice People or New Men
  11. The New Men

From the Preface

[This book] did at least succeed in presenting an agreed, or common, or central, or "mere" Christianity. In that way it may possibly be of some help in silencing the view that, if we omit the disputed points, we shall have left only a vague and bloodless H.C.F. [Highest Common Factor, for those who have left elementary mathematics far behind]. The H.C.F. turns out to be something not only positive but pungent; divided from all non-Christian beliefs by a chasm to which the worst divisions inside Christendom are not really comparable at all. If I have not directly helped the cause of reunion, I have perhaps made it clear why we ought to be reunited. Certainly I have met with little of the fabled odium theologicum from convinced members of communions different from my own. Hostility has come more from borderline people whether within the Church of England or without it: men not exactly obedient to any communion. This I find curiously consoling. It is at her centre, where her truest children dwell, that each communion is really closest to every other in spirit, if not in doctrine. And this suggests that at the centre of each there is something, or a Someone, who against all divergences of belief, all differences of temperament, all memories of mutual persecution, speaks with the same voice.

We must therefore stick to the original, obvious meaning [of "Christian"]. The name Christians was first given at Antioch (Acts 11:26) to "the disciples," to those who accepted the teaching of the apostles. There is no question of its being restricted to those who profited by that teaching as much as they should have. There is no question of its being extended to those who in some refined, spiritual, inward fashion were "far closer to the spirit of Christ" than the less satisfactory of the disciples. The point is not a theological, or moral one. It is only a question of using words so that we can all understand what is being said. When a man who accepts the Christian doctrine lives unworthily of it, it is much clearer to say he is a bad Christian than to say he is not a Christian.

I hope no reader will suppose that "mere" Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions—as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else. It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable.

It is true that some people may find they have to wait in the hall for a considerable time, while others feel certain almost at once which door they must knock at. I do not know why there is this difference, but I am sure God keeps no one waiting unless He sees that it is good for him to wait....

When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house.

From Book 2, Chapter 5: The Practical Conclusion

Do not think I am setting up baptism and belief and the Holy Communion as things that will do instead of your own attempts to copy Christ. Your natural life is derived from your parents; that does not mean it will stay there if you do nothing about it. You can lose it by neglect, or you can drive it away by committing suicide. You have to feed it and look after it: but always remember you are not making it, you are only keeping up a life you got from someone else. In the same way a Christian can lose the Christ-life which has been put into him, and he has to make efforts to keep it. But even the best Christian that ever lived is not acting on his own steam—he is only nourishing or protecting a life he could never have acquired by his own efforts. And that has practical consequences. As long as the natural life is in your body, it will do a lot towards repairing that body. Cut it, and up to a point it will heal, as a dead body would not, A live body is not one that never gets hurt, but one that can to some extent repair itself. In the same way a Christian is not a man who never goes wrong, but a man who is enabled to repent and pick himself up and begin over again after each stumble - because the Christ-life is inside him, repairing him all the time, enabling him to repeat (in some degree) the kind of voluntary death which Christ Himself carried out.

From Book 3, Chapter 2: The "Cardinal Virtues"

Prudence means practical common sense, taking the trouble to think out what you are doing and what is likely to come of it. Nowadays most people hardly think of Prudence as one of the "virtues." In fact, because Christ said we could only get into His world by being like children, many Christians have the idea that, provided you are "good," it does not matter being a fool. But that is a misunderstanding. In the first place, most children show plenty of "prudence" about doing the things they are really interested in, and think them out quite sensibly. In the second place, as St, Paul points out, Christ never meant that we were to remain children in intelligence: on the contrary, He told us to be not only "as harmless as doves," but also "as wise as serpents." He wants a child's heart, but a grown-up's head. He wants us to be simple, single-minded, affectionate, and teachable, as good children are; but He also wants every bit of intelligence we have to be alert at its job, and in first-class fighting trim. The fact that you are giving money to a charity does not mean that you need not try to find out whether that charity is a fraud or not. The fact that what you are thinking about is God Himself (for example, when you are praying) does not mean that you can be content with the same babyish ideas which you had when you were a five-year-old. It is, of course, quite true that God will not love you any the less, or have less use for you, if you happen to have been born with a very second-rate brain. He has room for people with very little sense, but He wants every one to use what sense they have. ... God is no fonder of intellectual slackers than of any other slackers.

Temperance is, unfortunately, one of those words that has changed its meaning. It now usually means teetotalism. But in the days when the second Cardinal virtue was christened "Temperance," it meant nothing of the sort. Temperance referred not specially to drink, but to all pleasures; and it meant not abstaining, but going the right length and no further. It is a mistake to think that Christians ought all to be teetotallers; Mohammedanism, not Christianity, is the teetotal religion. Of course it may be the duty of a particular Christian, or of any Christian, at a particular time, to abstain from strong drink, either because he is the sort of man who cannot drink at all without drinking too much, or because he wants to give the money to the poor, or because he is with people who are inclined to drunkenness and must not encourage them by drinking himself. But the whole point is that he is abstaining, for a good reason, from something which he does not condemn and which he likes to see other people enjoying. One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give up a thing himself without wanting every one else to give it up. That is not the Christian way. An individual Christian may see fit to give up all sorts of things for special reasons—marriage, or meat, or beer, or the cinema; but the moment he starts saying the things are bad in themselves, or looking down his nose at other people who do use them, he has taken the wrong turning.

From Book 3, Chapter 3: Social Morality

The first thing to get clear about Christian morality between man and man is that in this department Christ did not come to preach any brand new morality. The Golden Rule of the New Testament (Do as you would be done by) is a summing up of what everyone, at bottom, had always known to be right. Really great moral teachers never do introduce new moralities: it is quacks and cranks who do that.

From Book 3, Chapter 5: Sexual Morality

The Christian rule of chastity must not be confused with the social rule of "modesty" (in one sense of that word); i.e. propriety, or decency. The social rule of propriety lays down how much of the human body should be displayed and what subjects can be referred to, and in what words, according to the customs of a given social circle. Thus, while the rule of chastity is the same for all Christians at all times, the rule of propriety changes. A girl in the Pacific islands wearing hardly any clothes and a Victorian lady completely covered in clothes might both be equally "modest," proper, or decent, according to the standards of their own societies: and both, for all we could tell by their dress, might be equally chaste (or equally unchaste). Some of the language which chaste women used in Shakespeare's time would have been used in the nineteenth century only by a woman completely abandoned. When people break the rule of propriety current in their own time and place, if they do so in order to excite lust in themselves or others, then they are offending against chastity. But if they break it through ignorance or carelessness they are guilty only of bad manners. When, as often happens, they break it defiantly in order to shock or embarrass others, they are not necessarily being unchaste, but they are being uncharitable: for it is uncharitable to take pleasure in making other people uncomfortable. I do not think that a very strict or fussy standard of propriety is any proof of chastity or any help to it, and I therefore regard the great relaxation and simplifying of the rule which has taken place in my own lifetime as a good thing. At its present stage, however, it has this inconvenience, that people of different ages and different types do not all acknowledge the same standard, and we hardly know where we are. While this confusion lasts I think that old, or old-fashioned, people should be very careful not to assume that young or "emancipated" people are corrupt whenever they are (by the old standard) improper; and, in return, that young people should not call their elders prudes or puritans because they do not easily adopt the new standard. A real desire to believe all the good you can of others and to make others as comfortable as you can will solve most of the problems.

Reading this out of context might lead one to think that Lewis would approve of the relaxations of the rule of chastity itself that have taken place since his time; I think it's clear that he would not. He remains firm on chastity—it's modesty or propriety he considers flexible. What struck me was the part I highlighted, with regard to language, and it works both ways. I should think better than I do of young people who use casually (and frequently!) language that not that long ago marked one as scum of the earth, and I wish they would think more kindly of their elders who grew up in a time when certain racial terms, now only used by the "scum of the earth," were in many circles considered normal and not improper. "A real desire to believe all the good you can of others and to make others as comfortable as you can will solve most of the problems" would do the job well.

You can get a large audience together for a strip-tease act—that is, to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now suppose you came to a country where you could fill a theatre by simply bringing a covered plate on to the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so as to let every one see, just before the lights went out, that it contained a mutton chop or a bit of bacon, would you not think that in that country something had gone wrong with the appetite for food? And would not anyone who had grown up in a different world think there was something equally queer about the state of the sex instinct among us?

...There is nothing to be ashamed of in enjoying your food: there would be everything to be ashamed of if half the world made food the main interest of their lives and spent their time looking at pictures of food and dribbling and smacking their lips. I do not say you and I are individually responsible for the present situation. Our ancestors have handed over to us organisms which are warped in this respect: and we grow up surrounded by propaganda in favour of unchastity. There are people who want to keep our sex instinct inflamed in order to make money out of us. Because, of course, a man with an obsession is a man who has very little sales-resistance. God knows our situation; He will not judge us as if we had no difficulties to overcome. What matters is the sincerity and perseverance of our will to overcome them.

I've heard before the comparison of our appetite for sex and our appetite for food; what I note now is how much the latter is now veering off course as well. We may not actually have food stripteases, but I've seen cooking shows and food videos and bizarre recipes that could almost be called food pornography. There's more to food than nutrition, just as there's more to sex than reproduction, but when the basic purpose of an appetite is almost forgotten, and when any instinct is kept inflamed for profit—it's a sure sign we're on the wrong track.

A repressed desire or thought is one which has been thrust into the subconscious (usually at a very early age) and can now come before the mind only in a disguised and unrecognisable form. Repressed sexuality does not appear to the patient to be sexuality at all. When an adolescent or an adult is engaged in resisting a conscious desire, he is not dealing with a repression nor is he in the least danger of creating a repression. On the contrary, those who are seriously attempting chastity are more conscious, and soon know a great deal more about their own sexuality than anyone else. They come to know their desires as Wellington knew Napoleon, or as Sherlock Holmes knew Moriarty; as a rat-catcher knows rats or a plumber knows about leaky pipes. Virtue—even attempted virtue—brings light; indulgence brings fog.

From Book 3, Chapter 6: Christian Marriage

Before we consider this modern view [of marriage and divorce] in its relation to chastity, we must not forget to consider it in relation to another virtue, namely justice. Justice, as I said before, includes the keeping of promises. Now everyone who has been married in a church has made a public, solemn promise to stick to his (or her) partner till death. The duty of keeping that promise has no special connection with sexual morality: it is in the same position as any other promise. ...

To this someone may reply that he regarded the promise made in church as a mere formality and never intended to keep it. Whom, then, was he trying to deceive when he made it? God? That was really very unwise. Himself? That was not very much wiser. The bride, or bridegroom, or the "in-laws"? That was treacherous. Most often, I think, the couple (or one of them) hoped to deceive the public. They wanted the respectability that is attached to marriage without intending to pay the price: that is, they were imposters, they cheated. If they are still contented cheats, I have nothing to say to them: who would urge the high and hard duty of chastity on people who have not yet wished to be merely honest? If they have now come to their senses and want to be honest, their promise, already made, constrains them. And this, you will see, comes under the heading of justice, not that of chastity. If people do not believe in permanent marriage, it is perhaps better that they should live together unmarried than that they should make vows they do not mean to keep. It is true that by living together without marriage they will be guilty (in Christian eyes) of fornication. But one fault is not mended by adding another: unchastity is not improved by adding perjury.

From Book 3, Chapter 7: Christian Forgiveness

I remember Christian teachers telling me long ago that I must hate a bad man's actions, but not hate the bad man: or, as they would say, hate the sin but not the sinner. For a long time I used to think this a silly, straw-splitting distinction: how could you hate what a man did and not hate the man? But years later it occurred to me that there was one man to whom I had been doing this all my life—namely myself.

Christianity does not want us to reduce by one atom the hatred we feel for cruelty and treachery. We ought to hate them. ... But it does want us to hate them in the same way in which we hate things in ourselves: being sorry that the man should have done such things, and hoping, if it is anyway possible, that somehow, sometime, somewhere, he can be cured and made human again. ...

The real test is this. Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one's first feeling, "Thank God, even they aren't quite so bad as that," or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. 

From Book 3, Chapter 9: Charity

Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or anger today is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible.

From Book 4, Chapter 8: Is Christianity Hard or Easy?

When [Jesus] said, "Be perfect," He meant it. He meant that we must go in for the full treatment. It is hard; but the sort of compromise we are all hankering after is harder—in fact, it is impossible. It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad. ... This is the whole of Christianity. There is nothing else.

It is so easy to get muddled about that. It is easy to think that the Church has a lot of different objects—education, building, missions, holding services. Just as it is easy to think the State has a lot of different objects—military, political, economic, and what not. But in a way things are much simpler than that. The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden—that is what the State is there for. And unless they are helping to increase and prolong and protect such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time. In the same way the Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became Man for no other purpose.

From Book 4, Chapter 11: The New Men

No man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, May 23, 2019 at 10:50 am | Edit
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Florida supposedly makes it easy to renew my driver's license. I can renew in person (cost $54.25), online (cost $50.00) or by mail (cost $48.00 plus one stamp). You read that right—it's cheapest to renew by mail, and they charge extra for online renewal, which ought to be easiest and cheapest. No problem. We need to write a check now and then to keep in practice.

The DMV kindly mails me a reminder letter, well before the expiration date, letting me know that my license is expiring but that I don't have to worry bout REAL ID compliance because I already am. They give me my options renewal options (see above), and a place where I can change my address. Perfect.

But then they include a whole page about REAL ID compliance, which they have just stated is unnecessary. And a third of a page where I can check off any of 20 charities to which I can contribute the whopping sum of $1 if I increase my payment by the same amount. REALLY? On my driver's license renewal? Since when is the DMV in the business of distributing charitable contributions? And what makes them believe I think any one of their 20 organizations would use my money better than my own list of preferred charities?

But what's even stranger is the next page, an entire page dedicated to something else that's none of the DMV's business: voter registration. Yes indeed, you can use your driver's license renewal form to register to vote, or to change your registration. Most of it is conveniently filled in for you. And there's a place at the bottom to sign. That's for the voter registration, I'm sure, since you are agreeing to "protect and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Florida," and last I knew that wasn't a requirement for being able to drive legally. In fact, I don't even remember that being part of registering to vote, as if I were being sworn in as President, but I registered a long time ago. Be all that as it may, I'm certain that many people simply sign in the box, assuming it's part of the license renewal, leaving themselves open to fraud or even identity theft.

What should have been a one-page application or less—instructions, place to change address, what more do you need?—has become four pages of small and confusing print. 

Plus, these four pages are labelled Page 1, Page 2, Page 5, and one without any page number, with no hint as to where or what might be pages 3 and 4.

One more thing. The instructions clearly state where to mail your application form and check—though it's less clear which part of the four pages must be returned. They even include a handy pre-addressed envelope for the return. The catch? The address on the envelope is not the same as the address in the instructions. Not to mention that the back of the envelope specifies a way to make out the check that also differs from the instructions.

Finally, there's this confusing and disturbing statement:  Your completion of a driver license or identification card application will constitute notification of consent for voter registration purposes.  Huh?  What exactly am I consenting to?

I'm going to take a chance and send in my form (hopefully the right pages) and my check (hopefully to the right address), as best I can figure out—with the additional hope that I have not in the process consented to something I shouldn't have.

It's a good thing there's plenty of time before my current license expires.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, May 20, 2019 at 7:00 am | Edit
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As I said to a choir friend, on revealing that I had no idea who or what the Blues Brothers were, there is no limit to the depths of my ignorance when it comes to pop culture. Today I experienced Exhibit B, in a way strange enough to be worth reporting.

The first thing I saw on my Facebook feed this morning was a short post by a friend. It said, simply,

JFK blown away what else do I have to say?

The next thing I did was run to Google News, more than half expecting to read about a new terror attack on New York City.

I found nothing of the sort. And no one else on Facebook was talking about it, so I concluded it was a joke or a comment meant for other eyes than mine, and forgot about it.

Then this afternoon, I got a haircut.

One thing that annoys me about Supercuts (but it's true almost anywhere) is the incessant music in the background: music I don't know with a pounding drumbeat I can't stand and incomprehensible words. I view it as part of the expense of a haircut. At least the volume is acceptable.

But today, as I was sitting in the chair getting trimmed, they played a song with kind of a catchy melody, and I managed to make out a few words, notably a refrain of "we didn't start the fire." That was intriguing, and that line sounded familiar even if the music did not.

If you know me, you know it's hard for me to let a mystery rest, so as soon as I was back in the car and before turning the key, I pulled out my phone and queried on that phrase. Then I knew what nearly all the rest of you know: That's the title of a song by Billy Joel. (For the record, I have heard of Billy Joel. I couldn't tell you anything about his music, but I have heard of him.)

And then it got weird. I started reading the lyrics, noting that they actually made some sense of the apparently garbled words I had heard. And somewhere in the middle I read this:

JFK blown away what else do I have to say?

I still don't know what Don was trying to say on Facebook, but now I know where it came from. What were the odds against solving that problem, on the same day, at Supercuts?

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, May 17, 2019 at 3:22 pm | Edit
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altPast Watchful Dragons: The Narnia Chronicles of C. S. Lewis by Walter Hooper (Macmillan, 1971)

No other analysis of the Narnia books stands a chance with me now that I've read Planet Narnia. And both books are best read only by those who have already absorbed and fallen in love with the Chronicles. But for such people there is value. I didn't find Past Watchful Dragons nearly as interesting this time as when I first read it—several decades ago, I believe—possibly because through my "C. S. Lewis Restrospective" I've already absorbed much of what Hooper says here, sometimes several times over.

For me, the best part of the book—the reason I recommend it—is Hooper's inclusion in Chapter 5, "Inspiration and Invention," of a long fragment of the only substantial Narnian manuscript that survived Lewis's decluttering fervor. The story never saw publication, though many elements show up in other Narnian tales, most notably The Magician's Nephew. But in this case the boy Digory has a special gift: the ability to talk with animals and trees in our own world—until he tragically loses it. I would really like to have seen what Lewis would have made of that part of the story had it continued. Of course it made me think immediately of my friend Diane, who talks with trees and would probably approve of the reason Digory lost his gift.

Reading it also made me appreciate how much work must go into getting a book from the initial idea to the final version, as this fragment, despite the good story line, sounds amateurish, clearly lacking the beauty and polish of the other tales of Narnia.

I'll end with one of my favorite quotations. I had no idea it was from C. S. Lewis until I found it here, quoted a couple of pages before the story fragment.

There are only two times at which you can stop a thing. One is before everyone is tired of it—and the other is after!

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, May 15, 2019 at 5:31 am | Edit
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Thinking of my own mother on Mother's Day.

  • Four children
  • Seven grandchildren
  • Eleven great-grandchildren...and counting

Every one of them a credit to their heritage.

I have the best siblings, children, nephews, and grandchildren imaginable.

Now that's a legacy.

Happy Mother's Day to all the wonderful mothers in our family!

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, May 12, 2019 at 6:12 am | Edit
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I've written a little about face blindness (prosopagnosia) before. It's something I didn't realize I was afflicted with until late in life, though once I learned what it is, I realized that I've had it as far back as I can remember. I had just thought that I was particularly incompetent at recognizing people. When I was a teenager, I think I irretrievably insulted one of my best friends by failing to recognize her when I passed her in the street. This wasn't after a hiatus of 40 years and lots of changes—we'd last seen each other maybe a year before. But I had moved to another state, and did not expect to see her when I did.

Life for me was filled with little traumas like that. It was especially difficult when our children were young and I spent a lot of time volunteering in their activities: whether it was a church choir or a school group, people expected me to be able to recognize my students, and I often could not. That's tough when you're a field trip chaperon trying not to lose anyone!

Just last night at church I "passed the peace" to one person twice, not realizing that we had already greeted one another.

We prosopagnosics develop all sorts of compensatory tricks. My voice-recognition is particularly strong. When we're watching a movie, Porter amazes me with his ability to recognize actors who have played in other movies or shows—and he's still amazed that I can't. But let me hear the actor's voice, and I usually make the connection before he does. I have one friend I run into every year or two at the grocery store. Fortunately, she's a talkative person, either on her phone or conversing with a fellow shopper; hearing her voice before she spots me has saved me great embarrassment.

Other strategies involve recognizing people's hair, glasses, way of walking—anything but the face. That works well ... most of the time.

This past Maundy Thursday, our rector, who had for months sported a fairly long hairstyle with loose curls, walked into church having been shorn like a sheep. I truly had no idea who he was. This was before the service, and he was working up in the altar area. I thought maybe he was a new altar server, or perhaps a member of the Vestry whom I didn't know.

Then he spoke.

It still blows my mind that other people get the same instantaneous recognition from a face as I do from a voice.

I really hope I never have to give testimony as a witness to a crime. But if you plan to do something stupid, be sure to change your appearance, and don't talk. You'll be safe with me.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, May 10, 2019 at 7:25 pm | Edit
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Almond butter. I should have asked this question before I bought it: Does anyone here use almond butter? Tell me about it.

I like almonds and really, really like marzipan. Almond paste is an ingredient I like to keep in pantry, even though it's not inexpensive. It's essential for making almond raisin bread, one of my favorites.

Thus the idea of almond butter intrigued me. I was envisioning something that looked like peanut butter but tasted like almond paste. Sort of like Biscoff (Speculoos), perhaps, but with a marzipan flavor. That would have been awesome.

I'd been put off by the price of almond butter, so when Publix offered this on a buy-one-get-one-free sale, I jumped at the chance. Now I'm stuck with two jars of something that tastes rather like bad peanut butter. Don't get me wrong; I like peanut butter. But when one is expecting almond, peanut doesn't cut it—especially not at an almond price.

The ingredients don't seem unreasonable: dry roasted almonds, organic evaporated cane sugar, palm oil, sea salt. I'm going to try it in some recopies to see if it tastes better than by the spoonful, but I'm not particularly hopeful.

My take? If you're allergic to peanuts (but not almonds), and really want a substitute for peanut butter, this would work well. Otherwise, forget it.

What's your experience? Did I get a bad jar? A bad brand? Or just make a bad assumption about what almond butter should taste like?

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, May 7, 2019 at 6:10 am | Edit
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altaltThe Armchair Economist: Economics and Everyday Life by Steven E. Landsburg (Free Press, 2012)
More Sex Is Safer Sex: The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics by Steven E. Landsburg (Free Press, 2007)

Steve Landsburg was a classmate of mine at the University of Rochester who, like my friend and roommate Kathy, went on to graduate school at the University of Chicago. He always was bright, and what I remember most about him is his ability to think outside the box. Kathy graduated after four years with simultaneous bachelor's and master's degrees in mathematics; Steve did essentially the same thing, but took the master's degree alone, thus avoiding the foreign language and physical education classes that were at that time required for an undergraduate degree.

Eventually, he returned to his roots and became a professor of economics at the same University of Rochester, perhaps because economics gives him so many opportunities to demonstrate (1) how economically illiterate most ordinary people, media commentators, and political leaders are, and (2) how often careful economic analysis leads to results that are unexpected and contrary to what we might like to believe.

Both of these books are filled with examples. They are illuminating, witty, and fun to read. They are also proof that no one in his right mind would make decisions solely on economic principles. At the same time, those economic principles, even when applied in grossly simplified situations, shed invaluable light and provide ways of thinking about problems that are otherwise hopelessly fuzzy.

I enjoyed The Armchair Economist so much I immediately bought a copy for our 15-year-old grandson. I enjoyed More Sex Is Safer Sex as well, but (1) the former is more basic and has been more recently updated; although the principles of the latter are still sound, the technological examples from only 12 years ago positively creak with age; and (2) I have to answer to his parents. He can get it (and/or others of Mr. Landsburg's books) out of the library if he wants more.


The Armchair Economist

Table of Contents

I. What Life Is All About

  • The Power of Incentives: How Seat Belts Kill
  • Rational Riddles: Why U2 Concerts Sell Out
  • Truth or Consequences: How to Split a Check or Choose a Movie
  • The Indifference Principle: Who Cares If the Air Is Clean?
  • The Computer Game of Life: Learning What It’s All About

II. Good and Evil

  • Telling Right from Wrong: The Pitfalls of Democracy
  • Why Taxes Are Bad: The Logic of Efficiency
  • Why Prices Are Good: Smith versus Darwin
  • Of Medicine and Candy, Trains and Sparks: Economics in the Courtroom

III. How to Read the News

  • Choosing Sides in the Drug War: How the Atlantic Monthly Got It Wrong
  • The Mythology of Deficits
  • Unsound and Furious: Spurious Wisdom from the Media
  • How Statistics Lie: Unemployment Can Be Good for You
  • The Policy Vice: Do We Need More Illiterates?
  • Some Modest Proposals: The End of Bipartisanship

IV. How Markets Work

  • Why Popcorn Costs More at the Movies: And Why the Obvious Answer Is Wrong
  • Courtship and Collusion: The Mating Game
  • Cursed Winners and Glum Losers: Why Life Is Full of Disappointments
  • Random Walks and Stock Market Prices: A Primer for Investors
  • Ideas of Interest: Armchair Forecasting
  • The Iowa Car Crop

V. The Pitfalls of Science

  • Was Einstein Credible? The Economics of the Scientific Method
  • New Improved Football: How Economists Go Wrong

VI. The Pitfalls of Religion

  • Why I Am Not an Environmentalist: The Science of Economics versus the Religion of Ecology

From "The Power of Incentives"

Occasionally people are tempted to respond that nothing ... is worth any risk of death. Economists find this objection particularly frustrating, because neither those who raise it nor anybody else actually believes it. All people risk death every day for relatively trivial rewards. Driving to Starbucks for a Mocha Frappuccino involves a clear risk that could be avoided by staying home, but people still drive to Starbucks. We need not ask whether small pleasures are worth any risk; the answer is obviously yes. The right question is how much risk those small pleasures are worth.

From "Truth of Consequences"

Smoking habits are a quick and easy indicator of general health consciousness. They reveal your type in a publicly observable way. Insurance companies use that information by offering lower premiums to nonsmokers. If you take advantage of such an offer, your discount reflects more than just the health benefits of not smoking. It reflects also that, as a nonsmoker, you are more likely than average to be watching your cholesterol.

Insurance companies know that people cheat, and they account for that when they set the nonsmoking premiums. If you are truly a nonsmoker, you pay a little more because some "nonsmokers" are sneaking cigarettes where the insurance company can't see them. But do not jump to the conclusion that if cigarettes were banned, your insurance rates would fall. As a voluntary nonsmoker, you implicitly notify you insurance company that you are probably cautious in a lot of ways they can't observe. As a nonsmoker in a world without cigarettes, you might be indistinguishable from everybody else, and be charged accordingly.

From "The Indifference Principle"

Call it the Indifference Principle: Unless you're unusual in some way, nothing can ever make you happier than the next best alternative. You might prefer cheddar cheese to provolone, but if all your neighbors share your preference, then the price of cheddar cheese must rise to the point where you're just as happy to buy the provolone. Fortunately most of us are unusual in a great variety of ways, which is what allows us to benefit from choosing one activity over another. The Indifference Principle calls our attention to the fact that the greatest gains in life come in the areas where we're most unusual. [my emphasis]

From "Telling Right from Wrong"

During his years in the White House, President George Bush occasionally wished out loud for lower interest rates to ease the burden on young home buyers. For heaven's sake, everybody already knows that lower interest rates ease the burden on home buyers. Everybody also knows that lower interest rates can devastate people who are saving for their retirement. To call attention to one side of the cost-benefit ledger while ignoring the other is plain dishonest. If a politician wants to argue legitimately for lower interest rates, he needs to explain not why it is good to help borrowers, but why it is good to simultaneously help borrowers and hurt lenders.

From "Choosing Sides in the Drug War"

Our insistence on counting all individuals equally has some striking implications. One implication is that a change in price is never either good or bad. Whatever buyers gain, sellers lose. Price changes often result from changes in technology or in the legal environment, which can simultaneously affect production costs or consumption levels in ways that can be good or bad. But a price change in and of itself is neither a good nor a bad thing.

From "How Statistics Lie"

In a world of many prices that fluctuate independently, there is no way to construct a single meaningful index that is not biased in one way or another. The U. S. government actually reports several different measure of inflation, each with its own built-in biases, and economists try to be careful about selecting the right index for the right purpose. Particularly in times of high inflation, the media tend to focus on the [Consumer Price Index], perhaps because it serves their purpose of making things look bleak. Journalism is the dismal art. [My emphasis. This is a play on economics frequently being referred to as "the dismal science."]

For three decades in the United States of America, the income gap between the rich and the poor appears to have been widening. If you looked just at a snapshot of the numbers, you might be forced to conclude that while the rich have gotten richer, the poor have done nothing but stagnate. But there are several reasons to take those numbers with a grain of salt.

Landsburg goes on to explain that in detail; I'll include just two of his reasons—because I'm getting tired of typing.

Second, income tax rates were cut dramatically in the 1980s and again in the 2000s under Presidents Reagan and Bush. Those tax cuts had important real effects, but they had important illusory effects also. When tax rates fall, people devote less effort to hiding their incomes. For that reason alone, reported incomes go up, especially at the high end. ... Any tax cut tends to create an exaggerated appearance of a growing income gap.

Third, family breakups create statistical illusions of falling income. When a household has two $50,000 wage earners, it gets counted as one $100,000 household. When the family breaks up, suddenly there are two $50,000 households, even though no individual's income has changed.

This matters a lot. For example, between the years 1996 and 2005, according to U. S. census data, the median household income (after adjusting for inflation) rose only 5.3 percent. But if you correct for changing household sizes, the increase was a far more substantial 24.4 percent.

The gross domestic product, or GDP, is the most frequently reported measure of general economic well-being. As such, it has some obvious deficiencies. It counts the value of all goods and services produced in the economy, but not the value of time spent relaxing on the beach.

It also has some less obvious deficiencies. First, it really doesn't count the value of all goods and services produced in the economy. Many goods and services are produced within the household. Whether you wash your own dishes or pay a maid to wash them, the net benefit is a cabinet full of clean dishes. If you pay the maid, the GDP reflects this benefit; if you wash them yourself, it doesn't. ...

This observation is particularly important when GDP is compared across countries. In less developed countries there is usually more household production and consequently a greater discrepancy between reported GDP and actual output. When you read that per capita GDP in the United States is over 100 times as great as it is in Liberia, remember that people in Liberia grow their own food and make their own clothes and get no credit for it in the national income accounts. They are much poorer than we are but not as much poorer as the statistics seem to indicate.

Another deficiency is that increased output of goods and services can be either a good or a bad thing. A construction boom that creates thousands of desirable new houses is a good thing; a construction boom that replaces thousands of old houses destroyed by a hurricane consists of running as fast as possible just to stay in one place. The GDP counts them equally.

From "Cursed Winners and Glum Losers"

It is a fair assumption that people who run auctions for a living know what they are doing, and that if there is some discrepancy between their behavior and the prescriptions of the economic theorist, then it is the theorist who is missing something. Our job as economists is not to tell auctioneers how to run their business. It is to assume that they know how to run their business and to figure out why their strategies are the right ones. [emphasis mine]

Amen! I'd say that applies to more professions than auctioneering, and more experts than economists. Think teachers/educational theorists, or parents/child psychologists, for example.


More Sex Is Safer Sex

Table of Contents

Preface: Unconventional Wisdom

PART I: The Communal Stream

  • More Sex Is Safer Sex
  • Be Fruitful and Multiply
  • What I Like about Scrooge
  • Who's the Fairest of Them All?
  • Children at Work

PART II: How to Fix Everything

  • How to Fix Politics
  • How to Fix the Justice System
  • How to Fix Everything Else
    How to Fight Fires
    How to Fight Crime
    How to Prevent Accidents
    How to Fight Pollution
    How to Solve the Kidney Shortage
    How to Fight Grade Inflation
    How to Shorten Waiting Lines

PART III: Everyday Economics

  • Go Figure
  • Oh No! It's a Girl!
  • The High Price of Motherhood

PART IV: The Big Questions

  • Giving Your All
    A Defense of Pure Reason
  • The Central Banker of the Soul
  • How to Read the News
    Racial Profiling
    Disaster Relief
    The Sack of Baghdad
    Global Warming, Local Crowding
    An Outsourcing Fable
    The New Racism
  • Matters of Life and Death
  • Things That Make Me Squirm


From "Be Fruitful and Multiply"

For many of the comforts we enjoy today, we can be grateful to the inventors of cable television, video recorders, and the personal computer—and to the stroke of good fortune that prevented their parents from joining Zero Population Growth.

The engine of prosperity is technological progress, and the engine of technological progress is people. The more people, the more ideas. The more ideas, the more we prosper.

Some families prefer to have wealthy descendants; others prefer to have lots of descendants. But as long as our choices don't impinge on each other, that's not a policy issue; it's an opportunity to celebrate diversity.

In the 1930s, we had a Great Depression, when income levels fell back to where they’d been about twenty years earlier. For a few years, people had to live the way their parents had always lived—and they considered it almost intolerable. The underlying expectation—that the present is supposed to be better than the past—is a new phenomenon in history. ...

Not only are we richer than ever before, we also work less and have better-quality products. One hundred years ago, the average American workweek was over sixty hours, today it’s thirty-five. One hundred years ago, only 6 percent of manufacturing workers took vacation; today it’s 90 percent. One hundred years ago, men entered the full-time labor-force in the early teens; today labor-force participation by young teenagers is essentially zero. One hundred years ago, only 26 percent of male workers retired by age 65; today over 80 percent of 65-year-old males have retired. One hundred years ago, the average housekeeper spent twelve hours a day on laundry, cooking, cleaning, and sewing; today it’s about three hours. ...

Today in the United States of America among the very poorest of the poor—those with household incomes under $15,000 a year—99 percent have refrigerators (83 percent of them frost-free); 64 percent have air-conditioning; 97 percent have color TVs and over two-thirds have cable; 60 percent have washers and dryers. ...

The probability that a 20-year-old has a living grandmother today is higher than the probability that a 20-year-old had a living mother a hundred years ago.

The moral is that increases in measured income—even the phenomenal increases of the past two centuries—don't accurately reflect improvements in our economic condition. The average middle-class American might have a smaller measured income than the European monarchs of the Middle Ages, but that does not prevent the American from leading a more luxurious life. I suspect that Henry VIII would have traded half his kingdom for modern plumbing, a lifetime supply of penicillin, and access to the Internet. 

From "Children at Work"

Dr. David Livingstone, the African explorer, medical missionary, and hero of the Victorian Age, began his career at age ten, working 84-hour weeks at the local cotton mill. In other words, his was a rather typical upbringing for a British child in the 1820s.

Dr. Livingstone, we may presume, would have been rather bemused by modern American college students, with PDAs in their pockets, iPods on their hips, and $20,000-a-year educations [feel free to substitute your own updated examples] on their résumés, gathered on campus to share a keg, toss a few Frisbees, and raise their voices in the annual spring ritual of protest against third-world child labor.

The student protesters' message to African children on the edge of starvation comes down to this: kick back, relax, and take life a little easier. That, after all, is the content of the protesters' call for trade agreements that "protect" third-world children by limiting the number of hours they can work and the environmental conditions they can work in. David Livingstone, whose childhood labor financed his medical education, and who genuinely cared about the welfare of Africans, might have advised them differently. ...

People in the third world are poor; they're about as poor as the English and Americans of the mid-nineteenth century. Being poor means making hard choices, such as whether to work more or to eat less. Neither alternative is terribly palatable, but it requires more than a bit of hubris to suggest that middle-class American and European demonstrators can choose more wisely than the African and Asian families who have to live with the consequences. ...

The question, then, is whether third-world parents really do have their children's best interests at heart. The answer seems to be yes. Multiple studies have shown that in developing countries, most parents take their children out of the labor force as soon as they can afford to. ... When decisions are made by people—in this case loving parents—who have to endure the consequences, there's rarely any basis to override them. This is particularly so when those who would override have exactly zero experience with similarly dire conditions. [my emphasis]

From "How to Fix Everything"

When were you last bumped from an overbooked airplane? It used to happen all the time—until an economist named Julian Simon came up with the crazy idea of bribing passengers to give up their seats. Gone are the days when you relied on the luck of the draw to make it to your daughter's wedding.

In those same bad old days, African elephants were hunted almost to extinction. Hunting bans never had much effect against determined poachers—until Zimbabwean officials came up with the crazy idea of giving the elephants to rural villagers. Unlike the poachers, who would poach and then move on, the villagers know that the elephants they preserve today will still be theirs tomorrow. So unlike the poachers, the villagers harvest at a sustainable rate—and make it their business to drive the poachers away. The result? Villagers have prospered and the elephant population has soared.

 From "Giving Your All"

American corporations are essentially immune to charitable impulses. This is for the good and sufficient reason that stockholders don't want corporate executives to choose their charities for them. You hire a tailor to make your clothes, you hire a carpenter to fix your roof, and, if you're a stockholder, you hire executives to run your company. Your tailor, your carpenter, and your executives might be very good at what they do, but it doesn't follow that they'd also be good at figuring out how to give away your money.

So, for the most part, corporations eschew charity completely. Instead, they truckle to the public-relations circus known as the United Way.

Nothing could be less charitable than giving to the United Way. Among the several dozen agencies that receive United Way handouts, surely you can identify—with essentially zero effort—at least one that, according to your own beliefs and values, will make better than average use of an extra dollar. ... Allowing the United Way to split your contribution among thousands of less-worthy causes is the very opposite of charity. Your employer's public-relations department might love you for it, but you purchase that esteem by diverting resources away from the worthiest recipients, a complete perversion of what charity is supposed to be about.

From "Things that Make Me Squirm"

Most of the time, we're not forced to choose between prosperity and economic freedom, because the two go hand in hand. Canada's Fraser Institute, in cooperation with several dozen think tanks around the world, assigns each country an economic freedom rating from 1 to 10. High ratings go to countries with limited government, low taxes, well-enforced property rights, functioning markets, and free trade. Currently, Hong Kong ranks first, followed by Singapore, and then we have a three-way tie among New Zealand, Switzerland, and the United States. Myanmar brings up the rear. ...

The general upward trend [of a scatter plot of economic freedom versus per capita income, with each dot representing a country] is obvious. Of course, that doesn't prove anything about causation, but it's awfully suggestive—and we have plenty of theory to support that suggestion.

Incidentally, if you carry out the same experiment with political freedom—including scheduled elections, robust opposition parties, freedom of speech and religion, and so forth—on the horizontal axis, the dots look almost completely random. Political freedom is, in my opinion, a good thing, but unlike economic freedom it seems to have almost no link to prosperity.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, May 4, 2019 at 10:28 am | Edit
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A friend posted this exchange with her son, and it's too beautiful not to share. I've edited it a bit, and left out all the identifying details, but it's her own true story.

The little boy, having already experienced a busy and exciting Easter even before the church service began, was weary, and rested in his mother's arms. His attention wandered to one of the Stations of the Cross pictures on the nearby wall.

"What's that picture? Is that Jesus? Who's holding him?"

"That's Mary, his mama. She held him after he died on the cross."

"Mamas always hold their little boys."

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, May 1, 2019 at 4:13 pm | Edit
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Holy Week began with Palm Sunday, about which I've already written. I am so grateful that we live less then 10 minutes from church: much as we loved our previous church, the 45-minute drive each way meant that we rarely attended mid-week services. I didn't realize what we were missing.

Since our new rector arrived, we've regularly had a Mass on Monday nights. This was not much different. The congregation is never large for this service, but is a nice mix of people who attend different services on Sundays and thus don't normally interact much. We're getting to know new people, and I'm getting my Prayer Book Rite I fix. (It's Rite II at the Sunday service where the choir sings; I like both forms of the service, but I've been missing Rite I.) The sermons are different, too: more on the intellectual side, and very interesting—I'm getting a bit of an education in church history.

Tuesday was a "Contemplative Eucharist," with music from the Taizé Community. It is interesting that while I dislike the simplistic repetitiveness of much of the so-called "praise and worship" musical style, I find the Taizé songs, which are also simple and repetitive, deeply moving. The fact that they are gently-paced, hushed, and meditative makes a good deal of the difference.

I forgot to save the Wednesday bulletin, but it was a Tennebrae service, with many readings and prayers, and the gradual extinguishing of candles and lights, ending in darkness. It finished just in time for us to make our way across campus for choir rehearsal.

Maundy Thursday was the first service since Sunday that involved the choir. It was a multi-part service, with much singing, Scripture, and prayer, the traditional Footwashing, Communion, and the Stripping of the Altar. The hymns were: O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded; There Is a Green Hill Far Away; Humbly I Adore Thee; Alone Thou Goest Forth; and My Song Is Love Unknown. The choir sang two anthems: Ave Verum (Mozart), and Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring (Bach). Note that we sang the Mozart in the original Latin, but my German-speaking readers may be disappointed that we sang an English version of the Bach.

On Good Friday we skipped the noon service, which I regret a little since it also included the Stations of the Cross and I was curious as to how that might be different with our new rector. Maybe next year. Instead, we went to the evening service, with solemn readings, Communion, and just one hymn, Were You There?, sung without accompaniment.

Saturday evening was the Great Vigil of Easter, which might be my favorite church service of the year. There is so much to it! We began outside the church with the "lighting of the new fire" and the lighting of the Paschal Candle—and a lot of smaller candles in the hands of the congregation. We processed together into the church, which was very dark and lit only by our candles for the entire "vigil" part of the service. This was highly effective, but the solemnity was not without its amusing moments. As Episcopalians, we're pretty good at juggling hymnals and prayer books, but to do it all one-handed, with a lighted and wax-dripping candle in the other, was more than usually challenging. You'll be happy to know we did not burn down the church, nor even singe anyone's hair—that I know of. 

We finally extinguished and set down our candles as the lights went up for the Great Alleluia of Easter—a good thing, for at that point we needed to pick up our bells to follow the instruction, All ring bells with great fervor!

The choir did not sing for this service, but there was plenty of music, including the Exsultet. I liked it better when the whole choir sang it, instead of just the priest—but I'll take what I can get. Hymns: Through the Red Sea Brought at Last; The Day of Resurrection!; Alleluia, Alleluia, Give Thanks; I Am the Bread of Life; Jesus Christ Is Risen Today. Duet: Sound the Trumpet (Handel). And at least one more beautiful solo or duet, but memory is failing me on the details.

Easter Sunday: Christ is Risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

To those who would ask why one would attend two Easter services (the Vigil and the Sunday service), I can only ask, why have cake and ice cream? I suppose the same logic could be applied to the 7 a.m. sunrise service—which I'm told was very beautiful—but not for us, not now. I'm an early morning person, but not for getting out of the house. We barely made it to the 8:00 potluck breakfast as it was. I contributed my customary devilled eggs. This photo is from our 2007 Easter in France, where I learned the trick of dying the whites. The eggs were similar this time, though the colors were darker due to my efforts to use up some old food dye. There were many other wonderful foods on this obviously post-Lenten spread: as the rector remarked, "What else says 'Christ is risen' like sugar-laden carbohydrates?"

The service at which the choir sang was one of those high festivals that include incense, but to my surprise and pleasure, this year it was pleasant and did not choke the choir. I like incense—at least if it's in church and not used for covering up the smell of marijuana smoke, as it was in my college days—but in my previous experience the smoke makes it difficult if not impossible to sing. I don't know if this was a different formulation for the incense, or simply a better distribution, but the choir was grateful.

If you can access Facebook, you should be able to watch the whole service if you so choose.

We had a brass quintet for the occasion (two trumpets, French horn, trombone, and tuba), and that was spectacular. Of course there was much singing, I mean lots and lots of singing: hymns, service music, anthems, clergy, congregation, choir, solo, duet. Also many readings, Baptism and Renewal of Baptismal vows, and of course Communion.

Hymns: Jesus Christ Is Risen Today (of course!); The Strife Is O'er; We Know That Christ Is Raised and Dies No More; The Day of Resurrection. Yes, I missed Hail Thee, Festival Day! but was well-consoled, knowing we will sing it the second Sunday of Easter. Twelve days of Christmas, fifty days of Easter—it's not just wine for Communion and at our parties that shows we know how to celebrate.

Anthems: Sound the Trumpet (duet); Alleluia from Mozart's "Exultate Jubilate" (solo); Ave Maria (with the Children's Choir); Vivaldi's Gloria In Excelsis Deo.

And the postlude? Choir and congregation (plus the clergy, I'm certain) singing Handel's Hallelujah Chorus for a glorious finish!

A few of us from the choir customarily go out to lunch after church, and on Easter our ranks are swelled to party-sized. This year we went to Caffe Positano, not my favorite place, but acceptable—they were able to fit us in, and we were there for the good company anyway. It was after 3 p.m. by the time we were home and partook of one more Easter Sunday tradition: collapsing, and taking the rest of the day off.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, April 28, 2019 at 7:52 am | Edit
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For anyone who has not already acquired the Kindle version of S. D. Smith's The Green Ember: it is being offered for free until Monday.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, April 25, 2019 at 11:20 am | Edit
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Of all the Seven Deadly Sins, Pride fittingly takes pride of place as the one considered the worst by most Christians, though Lust seems to get the most publicity. Today, Envy is making the headlines. It seems that the fire at the Cathedral of Notre Dame touched many hearts and opened many wallets, including those of some very wealthy people and corporations.

Naturally, this generosity has caused a nasty backlash.

As I wrote a couple of years ago, I never have understood why people hate the rich. I'll admit I don't seek them out, as a class, even though our summer vacations often throw us into the midst of people who are very wealthy indeed, because we seem to have very little in common. (Who am I kidding? The real reason I don't seek out our wealthy neighbors is the same reason I don't seek out our poor neighbors: I'm an introvert and very happy filling my time with the family and friends I already have. But the other sounds better.) I have observed, however, that most people with wealth work incredibly hard, put many, many more hours into their work than I ever wanted to, and often accomplish more for the general good than I can dream of. That's hard to hate. But maybe the real reason there's no temptation for me to hate the rich is that I do not envy them their lifestyles.

I suspect Envy has an awful lot to do with the backlash, even if it's couched in seemingly compassionate terms. How else to explain this comment, from an article in The Guardian?

We should also be asking ... why those generous donors are so averse to giving their money to democratically chosen priorities, which is what taxes represent. If the ultra-rich can chuck in so many millions of euros for a building, then what stops them ending hunger and poverty?

Why? I can think of a couple of really obvious answers.

Why would the rich rather support a cherished cause directly rather than pay more taxes? For the same reason anyone would. Instead of me giving to Charity A, you tell me you will take my money, keep some of it for yourself, then give the rest to Charities B, C, D, and E—and you expect me to be happy about it? I don't think so. There are good reasons for paying taxes, but this is not one of them.

What stops the super-rich from ending hunger and poverty? Perhaps because money is one of the least reliable means of doing so. When you give money to rebuild a cathedral, in a few years the cathedral is rebuilt and stands there till the next disaster. It's a simple, satisfying equation. Take that same money and give it to an organization trying to end hunger and poverty, and you may make a little progress, or you may not. Ask Bill Gates. You may even end up doing more harm than good. It's a much more complicated equation, and you may never see the results of your contribution, because anything that isn't a band-aid approach (feed a chronically hungry person today and he's hungry again tomorrow) is difficult to do right and takes a long time to show sustainable results. There are good reasons to make wise donations to organizations of proven reliability that have shown some success in lifting communities out of poverty, but if you take all their money from all the billionaires in the world you won't solve the problem—and then where will you get your next billions?

There is only one question worth asking when it comes to giving money, and it's not, "Why don't others use their money the way I think they should?" It's "Am I being both generous and wise with the money that has been entrusted to me?"

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, April 24, 2019 at 9:25 am | Edit
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It's Easter, and I'm writing about a different holiday.

Why? Simply and solely because the Easter post I want to write would be far too much work for the remainder of a day of rest after an exhilarating but exhausting week. I will celebrate Easter by not writing about it—yet.  Besides, Easter is not one day, but a 50-day season, so I have some time.

On March 25 of this year, our church celebrated the Annunciation. To the best of my recollection, that's the first time, in all of our many and varied churches, that we have done so.

That celebration set off an interesting train of thought.

It's usually around Christmastime that my thoughts turn especially to the Incarnation. As I've said before, for years I unthinkingly accepted the idea that Easter should be more important to Christians than Christmas. After all, the resurrection of Christ is the one spectacular event on which Christianity stands or falls.

Or is it? If it is unique and astonishing that a man so clearly dead should in three days be so clearly alive, and alive in such a new way that he has a physical body (that can be touched, and fed) and yet comes and goes through space in a manner more befitting science fiction—is it any less unique and astonishing that God, the creator of all that is, seen and unseen, should enter his world as a human being, not in the shape-shifting ways of the Greek gods, but through physical birth, with human limitations? I finally concluded that debating which holiday is more significant for a Christian is like asking whether my left or my right leg is more important for running.

But now comes a new holiday into the mix: Annunciation. Obviously the birth of Jesus is still an important and awesome (in the literal sense) holiday. But if we're celebrating the Incarnation, aren't we about nine months too late? Figuring Jesus was conceived about the time of the Annunciation—ít's no coincidence that the feast day is celebrated nine months before Christmas—if we're celebrating the Incarnation, this would be it. So why is this holiday almost unheard of in most Protestant circles?

Thus I have some questions for other Christians:

  • If your church believes, as I do, that conception is the defining moment in the creation of a unique human being, but does not celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation, why not?
  • If your church believes that the defining moment in the creation of a unique human being is at some point other than conception, what is that point, and how does it affect your view of the Incarnation?

In over 66 years on this planet, more than two-thirds of them as a professing Christian, I have never asked myself these questions. I am astounded at my ignorance. To be fair to myself, I've never heard anyone else ask them either.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, April 21, 2019 at 7:04 pm | Edit
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altC. S. Lewis on Scripture: His Thoughts on the Nature of Biblical Inspiration, the Role of Revelation and the Question of Inerrancey by Michael J. Christensen (Abingdon Press, 1979)

When this book was written, there was a lot of fur flying in the Christian world over the nature of Biblical inspiration. Christensen's book is an attempt to ferret out what C. S. Lewis thought about the matter, though it's perfectly clear that if Lewis had still been alive during that time, he would have determinedly steered clear of the controversy. With the imprimatur of a forward by Owen Barfield and an introduction by Clyde S. Kilby, however, I suspect this book hits pretty close to the mark.

In any case, as far as I can tell from the Lewis books I've read, it seems a fair explanation. Moreover, I learned a lot here and respect Lewis's views even more—though I don't pretend to understand all the ins and outs of the philosophy and the literary criticism.

Many colleges, and sometimes even high schools, offer a course called "The Bible as Literature." I've never taken one, the very title sounding to me like a course in "what you can get out of the Bible if you don't actually believe a word of it." C. S. Lewis on Scripture makes me realize that such a course taught by Lewis would be a totally different experience altogether.

I won't attempt to summarize his ideas, nor even to summarize this summary of his ideas. But in a nutshell, Lewis believed that we cannot properly interpret Scripture without approaching it through both rational thought and imagination. Leave one out, and you miss the point. Thus he will not be put into a box when it comes to his views on the inspiration of the Bible. In short, to no surprise, he is very ... Anglican.

C. S. Lewis on Scripture is worth reading, though not as valuable as reading Lewis himself.

Partial Table of Contents

    Are there errors in the Bible?
    What does the Bible say about itself?
    Revelation: Personal Encounter or Propositional Truth?
    Where does Lewis stand?
    Religious tolerance: we are not to judge
    Heaven and hell: the choice is ours
    Purgatory: our souls demand it
    The Eucharist: the very life and grace of God
    Theistic Evolution: animal raised to higher life
    Immortality of animals: a heaven for mosquitoes
    Christ's Atonement: fact and theories
    Is the Bible historically true?
    Biblical criticism: friend or foe?
    Modern theology: Christianity-and-water
    Lewis: Liberal, Conservative, or Fascinating Mixture?
    Good literature compels good reading
    Good poetry is artistic imitation of reality
    A "baptized imagination"—the key to ultimate reality
    Human language falls short of the reality it seeks to describe
    The human predicament
    We see through a glass darkly
    Myth converys the inexpressible
    Wishful thinking or the truly real?
    God's revelation assumes different forms
    Scripture as inspired literature
    What did the early church believe?
    What did the medieval church believe?
    What did the reformers assert about Scripture?
    What happened after the Reformation?
    With the Age of Reason came the liberal position
    Neoorthodoxy: return to orthodoxy or religious cop-out?
    Evangelicalism: A house divided
  7. How should the Bible be read?
    The problem of authority: we are not content
    Conclusion: a treasure chest of truth


From the Preface

Most evangelicals believe in the inerrancy of Scripture. C. S. Lewis, who said "most of my books are evangelistic," did not. The Bible for him was human literature, divinely inspired and authoritative, but not verbally inspired or without error.

Should evangelicals simply dismiss Lewis as too "liberal" or "naive" because he failed to affirm a particular notion of inerrancy? Or, should they give him a fair hearing and withhold judgment until they have thoroughly considered his literary understanding of the nature of Scripture? In light of Lewis's firm evangelical commitment and acknowledged orthodoxy, I support the latter.

From Chapter 2: Lewis: Liberal or Conservative?

A self-confessed romantic converted to Christianity halfway through life, he is neither theologically liberal nor conservative; he defies classification.

From Chapter 4: Myth, Revelation and Scripture

The notion of progressive revelation suggests that God discloses himself to man in a way that is best suited to man's particular stage of religious development. For pagan culture, divine revelation took the form of mythology. For the Hebrew culture, God spoke through the Law and the prophets. Christianity is the grand culmination of progressive revelation and religious maturity in both cultures.

How are Christians to understand the obvious similarities between pagan myths and Christianity? Either pagan mythology is essentially demonic and functions as counterfeit revelation for the purpose of confusing mankind, or else it is the dim foreshadowing of God's supreme revelation in Christ. Lewis identifies with the latter view.

It can be concluded at this point that Scripture for Lewis functions as myth, as well as historic fact. It has most of the qualities of imaginative literature and all the characteristics of myth, requiring an imaginative embrace to perceive meaning.

Myth, it must be remembered, does not mean lie, error, illusion or misunderstood history. The term has little to do with fact or history but transcends both. Properly understood, myth is a medium of divine revelation bringing a level of understanding superseding that which can be known through facts and history. To regard a portion of Scripture as myth, far from being less than true, is to acknowledge a higher truth and a deeper reality than could otherwise be expressed.

From Chapter 6: A Treasure in Earthen Vessels

This divine message, Lewis would have us remember, is not confined to the medium of Scripture. God, the Source of all truth, in the process of "reconciling the world unto himself," has used many means to call his sheep back into the fold: He has inspired great myths and literature throughout history, created in us immortal longings, spoken to us through conscience and religious experience, and given us Holy Scripture to convey his message. And finally, he has revealed himself in human form, died, and risen again so that we might die and live with him.

Because of God's initiative in revelation, we possess a treasure chest of truth that is of eternal value. God's Word is the "treasure" revealed through "earthen vessels," as 2 Corinthians 4:7 implies: "But we have this treasure in earthen vessels to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us." Let us not mistake the vessels for the treasure nor fail to find the treasure in the vessels.

From Appendix A: Two Letters from C. S. Lewis

[Quoting from a page of Lewis's notes] That the over-all operation of Scripture is to convey God's Word to the reader (he also needs his inspiration) who reads it in the right spirit, I fully believe. That it also gives true answers to all the questions (often religiously irrelevant) which he might ask, I don't. The very kind of truth we are often demanding was, in my opinion, not even envisaged by the ancients.

From Appendix B: Lewis: the Rational Romantic

As a rationalist, Lewis approached the message of the Bible as a truth to be believed. As a romantic, he approached the message of the Bible as a reality to be received. Lewis's literary view of inspiration encompassed both his rational faculty for understanding and his romantic intuition to find meaning.

Reason and imagination for Lewis are the complementary human faculties for knowing. In the realm of facts, empirical evidence, sense objects, particulars, and so on, truth is known through reason. But transcendent Reality—knowledge of universals in the eternal realm—if it is to be known at all, must be grasped by imagination.

Such is Lewis's rational-romantic synthesis of truth and meaning, reason and imagination. Reason alone cannot lead us to truth. But neither can truth be understood apart from reason. Both reason and imagination, seemingly at odds with one another, are necessary for truth to be meaningful.

The appendix ends with this poem, from Lewis's novel, Till We Have Faces.

O who will reconcile in me both maid and mother,
Who make in me a concord of the depth and height?
Who make imagination's dim exploring touch
Ever report the same as intellectual sight?
Then could I truly say, and not deceive,
Then wholly say, that I BELIEVE.
Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, April 18, 2019 at 6:51 am | Edit
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I read it in the Orlando Sentinel, on page 10 of the front section of today's paper, part of an article entitled, "Will census show Latino boom?"

And people wonder why I don't trust the mainstream media. Part of me still retains a small hope that professional news organizations—like our local newspaper—have more of a chance of getting the news right than the average Internet source, but they keep taxing my credulity. Here's the latest.

[E]xperts say the typical hurdles for an accurate census have been aggravated by a controversial question proposed by the Trump administration—"Is this person a citizen of the United States?"—that some fear will dissuade non-citizens from participating.

"The biggest barrier is one that the Trump administration has created," [attorney Tom] Wolf said. "This would mark the first time in American history that the census would try to ascertain the citizenship status of the entire country."

The emphasis is mine. Tom Wolf is "an attorney who specializes in the census and redistricting at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York." Specializes in the census? I suppose I could give him the benefit of the doubt and allow that perhaps he was wildly misquoted—but I'm skeptical.

From my genealogical work, I knew he was wrong: citizenship questions had been asked before. What I didn't know until I looked it up again was just how wrong he was. Check out the following census years:


  • Is the person a male citizen of the United States of 21 years or upwards?


  • Is the person naturalized?
  • Has the person taken naturalization papers out?


  • What year did the person immigrate to the United States?
  • How many years has the person been in the United States?
  • Is the person naturalized?


  • Year of immigration to the United States
  • Is the person naturalized or an alien?


  • Year of immigration to the United States
  • Is the person naturalized or alien?
  • If naturalized, what was the year of naturalization?


  • Year of immigration into the United States
  • Is the person naturalized or an alien?


  • If foreign born, is the person a citizen?


  • If foreign born, is the person naturalized?


From 1970 on, the census stopped asking all the questions of everyone—only a small percentage of households received the long form with the interesting questions. Speaking as a genealogist, that was a very big mistake.

  • For persons born in a foreign country—Is the person naturalized?
  • When did the person come to the United States to stay?


  • Is this person a naturalized citizen of the United States?
  • When did this person come the United States to stay?


  • Is this person a citizen of the United States?
  • If this person was not born in the United States, when did this person come to the United States to stay?


  • Is this person a citizen of the United States?


In 2010 the short census form had a mere 10 questions, and the long form was replaced by the annual American Community Survey. The ACS asked questions about citizenship.

So, Mr. Wolf is correct if he only considers the censuses taken from 1960 onward. But he ignores eight censuses in which the country did, indeed, "try to ascertain the citizenship status of the entire country." The proposed question is hardly something new.

The U. S. Federal Census has often asked nosy and sometimes peculiar questions, such as

  • Is the person deaf and dumb, blind, insane, or idiotic?
  • Can the person read?
  • Was, on the day of the enumerator's visit, the person sick or disabled so as to be unable to attend to ordinary business or duties? If so, what was the sickness or disability?
  • For mothers, how many children has the person had? and How many of those children are living?
  • Is the person's home owned or rented? If it is owned, is the person's home owned free or mortgaged?
  • Is the person a survivor of the Union or Confederate Army or Navy?
  • Person's father's mother tongue
  • Is the person an employer, a salary or wage worker, or working on his own account?
  • Does the household own a radio?
  • Number of weeks worked in the year
  • What is the highest grade this person has attended in school?
  • How did this person get to work last week?

There was a time in my life when I was disgusted with the census for asking such personal questions. But now I see them as an invaluable glimpse into the world of my ancestors—and our country's history. I grieve that the names of all household members don't show up until 1850, and that most of the country has been excluded from the interesting questions since 1970.

I don't see how the Sentinel has a leg to stand on with its statement that the census has never before asked the citizenship of all the country's inhabitants. Why I continue to believe so much of what I read boggles my mind.  Maybe for the same reason I agree to all those End User License Agreements.

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, April 15, 2019 at 12:14 pm | Edit
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