Monday, June 11, 2018

Browning’s broken arcs

Am I the only English major on the planet who never really examined the work of Robert Browning? I mean, yes, sure, sure, everyone knows about his flaming love for Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the romantic trauma that shook Victorian England when he essentially scooped up this wan, invalid poetess and took her off to Italy where they wrote passionate sonnets to each other, right? But what I didn’t know (and now do, thanks to the CLSC reading list!) is that Robert B was a downright Christian poet! I mean, really and truly—much of his poetic outpourings center around his deep, thoughtful, exultant faith in Christ and how he can live it out in this world. Who knew?

Browning views his world with the slightly foggy gaze of the true poet and he never met a lonely dandelion or a city-dweller he didn’t want to immortalize. He’s known for his lengthy poetic portraits of folks like a Syrian, Bible-era traveling salesman, the fishmonger on the street or his pale-but-beautiful beloved. In this “greatest hits” volume, I keep stumbling across poetic snippets I’ve read in other books, like the romances of Christian author Grace Livingston Hill. One of her heroes will start spouting “All that I know of a certain star is, it can throw (like the angled spar) now a dart of red, now a dart of blue…” and the well-read heroine will rapturously finish with the remainder of the stanza. Who knew that was Browning? And “the first fine careless rapture”—(Lord Peter Whimsey fans will recognize that..). And “Oh, to be in England, now that April’s there..” Yep, all Browning. If you haven’t come across a Browning poem since your English teacher tried to pound “How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix” into your junior high noggin, you might want to give him a go.

Our burly poet often goes off in raptures about single phenomena, like a lunar rainbow, dragging out the metaphor for ages, belaboring it to the point where the editor of this slim volume is finally forced to cut out chunks, give us the missing gist in italics, and then throw us into the maelstrom again in stanza IIX. Because Browning is such a towering figure in English poetry, there’s nothing original I could possible say to praise or pan him. I can add this—I like him.

Browning takes his status as a poet very, very seriously (now, remember, this was the era when the quality and tenor of poetry was argued at parties, critiqued in the newspaper, and used as maiden-bait by mustachioed-and-mutton-chopped chaps). Poetically defending his oeuvre and his life-choices, Browning occasionally has his lyrical dukes up when critics knock his latest ballad. This compilation’s editor pegs Browning aright when he quotes Browning protests that he’s not TRYING to be difficult (something he apparently had to do a lot because of his oddball word choices and blunt rhymes) “Nor do I apprehend any more charges of being willfully obscure, unconscientiously careless or perversely harsh.” (Browning).

Our the editor gently suggests: “The true explanation of it (Browning’s obscurity) seems to be…that he does not think of his audience as he writes, his only care being to express the thought in the way that comes most natural to him….the reader is brought face to face with some soul; the poet has stepped aside…” (pg ii, iii).  

The book’s final poem (Christmas Eve and Easter Day) addresses modern German criticism (a frequent topic in Isabella Alden’s time—German higher criticism claimed that the Scriptures were not Truth, but contained truth and that the Bible was basically out-of-date and can’t be looked at as historically reliable, etc. Our generation’s weekly mainline denomination church closing are part of that harvest.). Listen to Browning dismiss higher criticism with a poetic glove-slapping: “Say rather, such truths looked false to your eyes, with his provings and parallels twisted and twined, till how could you know them, grown double their size in the natural fog of the good man’s mind…” (Christmas Eve, IV).

Browning’s faith speaks with elegance and passion, as when he extols a forgotten musician, Abt Vogler, citing that the music Abt makes is only a necessarily weaker earthly version of the divine music of the spheres. In Browning’s lyrical celebration of these ethereal echoes, is he also making a few claims for his poems?

Therefore to whom turn I but to Thee, the ineffable Name?
Builder and maker, thou, of houses not made with hands!
What, have fear of change from thee who art ever the same?
Doubt that they power can fill the heart that thy power expands? 
There shall never be one lost good! What was, shall live as before: 
The evil is null, is nought, is silence implying sounds;
What was good, shall be good, with, for evil, so much good more;
On the earth the broken arcs; in the heaven, a perfect round.
(Abt Vogler, stanza IX)

And BTW, what’s with the pomegranates in the book’s title? They’re a fruit that’s famously difficult to eat—you’ve got to patiently score, section and segment the leathery peel to obtain the sweet, succulent, tartly delicious seeds. Like Browning’s poetry; you’ve got to do some digging, but oh, the luscious rewards. 
“My heart is overflowing with a good theme; I recite my composition concerning the King;
My tongue is the pen of a ready writer.” Psalm 45:1

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Recess at the school of calamity

“Nothing now remains to mark the spot but some acres of confused and unintelligible ruins…”

I’m not sure if anyone else out there wonders about Bible stories like me, but when I read that King David fled Jerusalem when he heard his vain, traitorous son Absalom was heading to town with a huge army, I thought “what a coward!” It’s only after I read The Histories of Cyrus the Great and Alexander the Great by Jacob Abbot (1881) as part of my CLSC year that I understood David’s actions weren’t cowardice but a shepherd-king’s heart for his people.

It took this 19th century book to instruct me in the art of war by way of two of history’s most renowned conquerors. Their temperaments differed, but both shared what Abbott calls “a mysterious and almost unbounded ascendency over all within their influence.”

Abbott has a remarkable facility for making grand statements like this—he clearly adores both his subjects; Cyrus and Alexander have reached through what I’m sure he would call “the mists of time” to touch his imagination and supply his pen with flourishes and fire.

The key to their flaming successes, Abbott says, is that the character of these men required them to act as they did: “He (Alexander) lived, in fact, in an age when great personal and mental powers had scarcely any other field for their exercise then this...” (“this” being world conquest, of course) "He entered upon his career with great ardor and the position in which he was placed gave him the opportunity to act in it with prodigious effect.” (pg 14, Alexander the Great).

(Aside: When was the last time you encountered the word “prodigious?” In fact, when was the last time you read a sentence that didn’t start with “so” or end with “right?”?) There are REAMS of similarly dense, delightful writing to wade through in this book: I never dreamed this “dusty history” would be a page-turner.

So, (see what I mean?) to return to David’s seemingly chicken-hearted abandonment of Jerusalem, pgs. 69-70 in the Alexander portion of this chubby tome inform us of the horrors of sacking a city, detailed with so much delicacy that the author’s literary aversion to spelling it out makes it somehow even worse:

“While the besieged do thus surrender (immediately), they save themselves a vast amount of suffering, for the carrying of a city by assault is perhaps the most horrible scene which the passions and crimes of men ever offer to the view of heaven. It is horrible, because the soldiers, exasperated to fury by the resistance which they meet with and by the awful malignity of the passions always excited in the hour of battle…Soldiers, under such circumstances, can not be restrained, and no imagination can conceive the horrors of the sacking of a city, carried by assault, after a protracted siege. Tigers do not spring upon their prey with greater ferocity than man springs, under such circumstances, to the perpetration of every possible cruelty upon his fellow man. …the maddened and victorious assaulters suddenly burst into the sacred scenes of domestic peace, and seclusion, and love—the very worst of men, filled with the worst of passion, stimulated by the resistance they have encountered and licensed by their victory to give all their passions the fullest and most unrestricted gratification. To plunder, burn, destroy and kill are the lighter and more harmless of the crimes they perpetrate.”

Therefore, I have learned to admire David’s wisdom in taking Absalom’s “target” (himself) out of the city and not arousing the pent-up fury of his betrayer's men. Sorry for the inadvertent character assassination, David!  

Alexander seems to be Abbott’s favorite—Cyrus had a great start as a perfectly charming, smart little fellow in the Persian court, but he earned Abbott’s disgust by becoming a heartless dictator in the “Oriental style” –lavish, luxurious, and cruel: “From being an artless and generous-minded child, he had become a calculating, ambitious and aspiring man, and he was preparing to take his part in the great public contests and struggles of the day with the same eagerness for self-aggrandizement and the same unconcern for the welfare and happiness of others, which always characterizes the spirit of ambition and love of power.” (pg 124—Cyrus).

Interestingly (at least to me!) is the author’s Cyrus tale onramp. Abbott avers that everything we know about Cyrus comes from two sources, both of whom are somewhat suspect—one wrote entertainment for ancient Grecian theater-goers a court and the other was a military historian, known for adding a bit of hyperbolic flair to his works from time to time. Abbott states: “It is now far more important for us to know what the story is which has for eighteen-hundred years been read and listened to by every generation of men, than what the actual events were in which the tale thus told had its origin.” (pg 35).  How post-modern is that?

Remember King Croesus, the richest king alive? He became a pet captive of Cyrus at some point; honored for his kingdom even though sidelined by history. We’ll give him the final word from the perspective of the conquered: “I ought to apologize,” said he, “for presuming to offer any counsel, captive as I am; but I have derived, in the school of calamity and misfortune in which I have been taught, some advantages for leaning wisdom which you have never enjoyed.” (pg 277). In Abbott’s book, we’re treated to a balanced view of the pros and cons of world domination and we see that there are some things you just can’t learn from the back of a charging warhorse.

Abbott’s lively biographies of two ancient dominating rulers has the distinct whisper of Christian ethics throughout—that the conquered have a dignity and worth never respected or acknowledged by any but his readers, perhaps. We can admire Alexander and Cyrus, as Abbott clearly does, but we see they are as much a part of the past as any other man on earth; only kept alive by those who read their exploits.

Cue Shelley’s Ozymandias:
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever.” I Peter 1:24

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The enervating grasp of vulgarity

“If I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you” seems to be the underlying principle of the doorstop-weight tome 1881 A Short History of Art by Julie B. De Forest. Ms. De Forest’s credentials are actually never introduced, but her terse judgements (and dismissals) of several schools and regional species of art are delivered with a crisp, no-nonsense tone that leaves no room for discussion. I kind of like it and it’s pretty interesting to see just how far we’ve come as a culture from this sort of super-authoritative approach to teaching.

I could fill pages (she certainly did!) with her epigrammatic condemnations—here are a few characteristic pronouncements:

“Indeed, we may detect even in sculpture the incipient signs of a decaying empire, which in less than fifty years crumbles to pieces.” (p 34)

“Whether art in Asia Minor would have developed any originality of not, it is difficult to say; for, when Greek colonies established themselves there, Greek ideas extinguished whatever life there may have been in the indigenous art of the country.” (p44)

“Above all, Greek architecture was an organic whole, and not an amalgamation of borrowed elements. All its forms were simple and easily understood, and appealed, therefor, not only to the man born and bred a Greek in the days of Pericles, but to all nations and all time.” (p 61)

“The oriental love of splendor and of symbolism was clearly shown and fully gratified by intricate ceremonies, gorgeous vestments, and beautiful decorative details.” (p121)

“We have treated Byzantine art as a whole, because there is so little variety about it, that it is not worth while to return to it.” (p128)

“The barbarism of the North, from the earliest dawn of history, form a ‘dim background to the warmth and light of the Mediterranean coast.’ It was on this far-off horizon that the mist gathered, and the clouds thickened, unperceived. The Romans sank deeper and deeper into the enervating grasp of luxury, and when the storm burst over their heads they were helpless before it.” (p135)

Oh, and let’s not forget this one: “If we fail today to see the innermost hidden meaning in every detail (of Gothic Architecture), we are unconsciously impressed by the faithful and lavish completeness of the whole, as we can never be impressed by the wise economy of later productions of ecclesiastical architecture.” (p159)

There are gems like this on every page and what it tells me of the 19th century is that experts believed in the totality of their judgments and that there must have been an awful lot of journalistic spats conducted over these Jovian statements, particularly as they came from a woman.

Art here is reduced to a science, as were so many other academic disciples in this era—formulae and detailed examination of cause-and-effect are de riguer and there’s a deep distrust and dislike for emotionalism. The author’s curled lip and the rolled eye surface when reviewing florid forms and over-emoting sculptures (she’s not a fan of Michelangelo AT ALL…too much DRAMA). “Human nature,” she declares, “cannot long endure that finer air which blows on the summits of idealism, and soon longs again for the thicker atmosphere of earthly lowlands.” (p200) This to explain the fall of the high renaissance in Italy, of all things.

There’s a fine mist of withering, barely disguised scorn for artistic emotional outbursts whether in marble, paint or timber; they’re pegged “exaggerated sentiment, violent action, and mannerism…they (Da Vinci wannabees) sought to create ideals, but only succeeded in producing far-fetched effects. They had no thoughts to express; and their soulless forms are mere mannerisms, that are neither attractive nor interesting.” (p213) "Soulless" is her highest insult, reserved for artists who fail to rise to her often-baffling criteria.

Her overt disgust for these talentless hacks is balanced by a delicate but distinct fawning rapture over the perplexing dignity of religious figures in famed works. Our author breathes a dainty sigh of relief when noting how Saint Sebastian, bristling with arrows, meekly lifts his curly head without a grimace or furrow to mar his beauty in one Renaissance depiction. Restraint, she indicates repeatedly, is the hallmark of a truly cultured artistic expression. Our author finds the freedom that our modern culture lionizes crude, disturbing, and vulgar.

The coolest thing I found in these pages (which are jam-packed with etched copies of many of the works she covers as such a violent clip) was a snipped chart from an 1880 Chautauquan newspaper. This tattered scrap details the Chautauqua Literary and Science Circle Class of 1882 Third Year Studies, and on it the previous owner of this book penciled faint Xs on those books he/she’d already tackled: Church History by Dr. Hurst; The Tongue of Fire by Arthur; Cyrus to Alexander by Jacob Abbott (stay tuned for a review of that one on this blog…I’ve got it, too!). This weary piece of paper, obviously carried about in a pocket or purse, tells me the reader was serious about walking under the golden arches up to the Hall in the Grove on Commencement Day.  Seeing this much-creased, faithful witness to the unknown student’s fervor inspires me to be as faithful to my self-imposed discipline.  

“Be not weary in well-doing.” Galatians 6:9

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Jesus at work: reflections on workplace drama

So, I’ve been doing a lot of praying about how I can embrace my cross here at work. If I can’t create work that’s up to my standards, thanks to politics and/or egos, and must be content with committee-built blandness, how can I display God’s glory? How can I look on this and say “This is good” as God said, surveying His work? I’m realizing, more and more, that my day job work has less to do with “quality output” and everything to do with being a force for positive good and God’s love to my co-workers.
My attitude—now that much, I’m in “charge” of. That I can control, to the degree I listen to His ongoing word to deny myself. How awesomely easy is it to deny yourself, when your “self” isn’t respected anyway by the corporate machine? So, as I consider this in the light of Scripture, the very things that are driving me nuts here can, if I allow them, drive me to the cross. They’re actually my friends (as James declares), the very things making it easy to see where I need to deny myself and how I can, very practically, pick up my own cross and follow Him.
The nails that pin me to my workday cross are the annoying coworker—can I cover his transgressions and by this show that I am “seeking love” (Prov 12:9)? If I let the everyday, stress-related, obnoxious behavior flow past me, without demanding my rights—isn’t that another denial of self? If I’m insisting on expressing my gifts, by definition, I’m not denying myself—and Jesus tells me to die to self, express HIM, and lose my life in order to find it.
What if I never write a sentence I’m proud of again? What if I never produce something I’d be willing to have my name attached to? What if I never “shine” at my workplace? Daniel 12:3 tells me that “…those who are wise shall shine as brightly as the firmament, and those who bring many to righteousness will shine like the sun, forever and ever” Okay, Lord. Let that be my shining and glory, to bring glory to You.
Several recent workplace issues have brought me to a place of humbling; they’re showing me THIS is why I’m here. Not to write brilliant copy that sells cheap wine, but to help my coworkers get through their stressful days without adding to their load with attitude. To find little ways to be an encourager. To offer to pray when hard times hit their families. To surprise a heavy-laden team member with some ‘non-union’ help—even if that means collating papers (paper cuts!!), schlepping product to the parking lot, organizing files, etc. All stuff ‘beneath my paygrade’—but if Jesus can wash dirty disciple feet, I can certainly do all things to His glory.
Who am I looking to promote in my job, after all? Jesus or me? When I gave my life and heart to Him, I signed up to be His servant and it’s His prerogative to do with my life what He knows is best—what He knows will conform me to the image of His Son. This was the Bible verse on today’s Daily Light (the Anne Graham Lotz devotional) segment.. “ Who is the man that fears the Lord? Him shall He teach in the way He chooses.” (emphasis mine) Psalm 25:12
Coincidence? I think not.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Fallow ground (a personal reflection)

When I read Isabella Alden's 19th century novels about the "Chautauqua Girls," one in the series absorbs me in a special way. "Ruth Erskine's Crosses" features one of the four young girls whose visits to Chautauqua set in motion lives lived for Christ. Heroine Ruth struggles with the reality of a sanctified life, mostly due to her refusal to heed the gentle, warning voice of the Lord. Now, "Pansy" (Alden's pen name) has a way of digging around in the reader's heart and asking uncomfortable questions that linger long after the book closes. That's probably why about a week ago, as I reading about Ruth's dilemma, I felt the Lord whispering that verse about anyone who puts his hand to the plow and looks back isn’t worthy of Him. I filed it under “Wuh?” and asked Him to enlighten me. Yesterday, an old Chas Stanley message came to me about how God won’t give you any further direction until you act on the last one He told you—and that “hand to the plow” phrase echoed. I was willing to listen but confused. Was there something I was looking back on, hanging onto and making myself unworthy of Him? I started asking Him to show me what He was talking about…and this morning, He did.

Gently but firmly, the Holy Spirit pointed out what I was looking back on, what I was holding on to that made it awkward (if not impossible) to put my hand fully to the plow—my ultra-fulfilling past as a Christian wife and mother. This past week would have been my 40th wedding anniversary; I still mourn the wrenching death of my marriage and wish I could re-enter that season I always refer to (usually with tears in my eyes) as the happiest time of my life. I know now He’s telling me I must let go of that in order to take hold of His plow and start putting down some serious furrows in my corner of His field. And stop looking back.

I got that “air sucked out of the room” feeling that presages His presence in a very distinct way. Again I heard, “Put your hand to the plow, daughter, and don’t look back…” A slideshow of images started flipping through my mind’s eye and His choice of object lessons was interesting: Lot’s wife, the prophet Samuel, and Dicken’s Miss Havisham.

Mrs. Lot: a wife being mercifully led to a new place of peace and safety who couldn’t help looking back towards her former “beautiful” life. Her longing backwards glance transformed her into a pillar of salt—bitter, immobile, useless except as a warning about the dangers of not moving on, not yearning for a past that’s busily being consumed by God.

Samuel: God rebuked Samuel when the old prophet kept weeping over King Saul’s dethroning. “Now the LORD said to Samuel, ‘You have mourned long enough for Saul. I have rejected him as king of Israel, so fill your flask with olive oil and go to Bethlehem.’” God told me my apron-clad married life had become my Saul. Saul, God's chosen king, was rejected because of his disobedience and Samuel, who had a vested interest in him because he had anointed him, kept clinging to that glorious moment. Because of my ex-husband’s disobedience, my happy Christian lady married-with-kids life is no more. Like Samuel, hanging onto my dead hopes and memories is threatening to destroy my present joy in Him and my future harvest in His field. Trying to return to a place God has departed is dangerous and foolish, just as surely as Saul’s murderous javelins threatened David’s life when the shepherd boy kept trying to sing peace within that disgraced palace. It’s over. Leave already. And shut the door behind you. God’s got something else for you to do.

Charles Dicken’s Miss Havisham: This pathetic character from Great Expectations unexpectedly loomed up, entombed in her wedding finery, cobwebbed and crippled by her reaction to betrayal, unable to do anything but sink deeper into herself and mourn for what could never be and, in actuality, never was. Another vivid object lesson.
So, I’m filing my flask with oil and going to Bethlehem to discover what God has anointed for me. From His birth, Jesus took no thought of His former “happy life” in Heaven, but put His hand to the plow of humility and discomfort, suffering all kinds of indignities and trials in order to bring me to God. “Take My yoke upon you and learn of Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart and you will find rest for your soul. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light,” He says. I’m asking Him to help me drop what’s in my hand, grab the plow, stop looking back, and work in whatever field He’s laid out for me.  

“Sow to yourselves in righteousness, reap in mercy; break up your fallow ground: for it is time to seek the LORD, till he come and rain righteousness upon you.” Hosea 10:12

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Thus far, but no farther

If you really want to start a bench-clearer, gather a Victorian scientist and a Victorian theologian in a room—or wait, what’s this? They’re working together?!? Despite the popular (Hollywood-fueled) understanding of the 19th century, there was a strange rapport between these natural enemies. Chautauqua, the 19th century think tank, Sunday School campground, and cultural watering hole, welcomed free-thinkers of all stamps and promoted lively discussions under the main tent. W.W. Kinsley’s compact-but-chewy 1893 discourse on the uh-duh compatibility of science and religion, Science and Prayer, combines the era’s high-flown, flourishing prose with microscopic research and mind-over-matter theories.

Like many of his contemporaries, Kinsley relies heavily on the ponderous logic of the time—establishing one argument in a chain he’s sure will lead the reader inextricably to the correct conclusion—his, of course. He sets up his case in the first chapter—his five-fold goal: 1) to convince us “that phenomena and the producing forces with their laws or modes of working, brought to light by scientific investigations in the fields of physics and of metaphysics, harmonize perfectly with the Scriptures view of payer, and abound in suggestions of how God can interfere in nature without destroying any force or abrogating a single law.” (see what I mean about the prose? Whew!) 2) that, as a fact, he has thus actually interfered again and again. 3) that it is not only not presumptuous, but most natural and reasonable, for us to expect that he will interfere for us, insignificant though we may seem to be. 4) that he will interfere because we ask him, doing for us what otherwise he would not have done. 5) And, lastly, that he will not in a single instance withhold any real blessing which is asked for in the right spirit, and the bestowal of which lies within the compass of his power.” (pg 10)

And by golly, he does it! His swaggering scholarship is breathtaking, if flawed. It’s clear there’s not the slightest doubt in his mind that any rational, reasonable person will be convinced by his bulletproof responses. A juggernaut of iron-clad arguments accompanies each of his points, culminating with a literary “ta dah!” after each.

It’s the scarcity of his Scriptural references that surprised me most. Waxing eloquent for ages (and pages), Kinsley nestles gingerbread-embellished quotes from contemporary sages and pulls proofs from many disciples of science with magician-like flourishes, but, when it comes to laying out arguments based on Scripture, he oddly falls back on “common sense.” My CLSC reading list teems with authors who do the same in an attempt to pacify leery, “modern” readers. I figure they assume Bible verses immediately nullify their arguments and their books should be banned with other moth-eaten credos to the boneyard of traditional faith.

His main argument--that God isn’t QUITE as omniscient as many credit Him to be and ergo, doesn’t see some of our free will-based decisions coming--must have stirred up a lot of dust in his world. But he sticks to his guns on the basis of rational reasoning, with nary a Bible verse in sight. (Personally, I could think of about twenty verses that countered his argument, but to what end? He went to his grave secure in his belief and many who wrestled with him are no doubt also shaking hands in Heaven now.)  

In lieu of Bible verses, Kinsley unleashes beautifully penned, Tennyson-like flights of fancy—a sort of literary smoke-and-mirrors, perhaps. Speaking of atoms, for example, he writes: “Over the nature of their being, as well as over the cradle of their birth, there has been thrown a veil of mystery through whose closely woven meshes there comes no ray of revealing light to the anxiously peering eyes of science, and whose hiding folds no hand on earth has power to lift, except the reverent hand of faith.” (p 30) These “angel-winged expectancies” presage the point where his lively imagination steps back. After such verbal flourishes and in the face of truly impenetrable mysteries, he usually cries “uncle” and retreats, heeding the voice of God who instructs “thus far, but no farther…”.

Like many of his contemporaries, Kinsley glories in the century itself, despite its trademark cynicism bred from its passion for all things scientific. He celebrates: “A reaction from this paralyzing skepticism has already set in. A faith fervent as that felt before science had birth, seems destined again to prevail, and to be the outcome of this very spirit of inquiry…Reappearing this time as the ripe result of this nineteenth century’s tireless and fearless research into time’s deepest mysteries, I cannot see how ever again it can lose its hold on the hearts of men.” (pg 111)

Wouldn’t he be surprised?

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the Holy is understanding.” Proverbs 9:10

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Game of Thrones

What I knew about the Crusades was limited to Robin Hood movies, Ridley Scott’s rip-roaring Kingdom of Heaven, and a few black-and-white films (notably, Cecil B. DeMille’s historically off-base The Crusades, starring the luminescent Loretta Young). My Hollywood glasses quite effectively obscured actual facts and I’m not the only one suffering from Crusades confusion.

According to author Rodney Stark, there’s been a smear campaign in place for centuries that assigns total blame to the European Crusaders and excuses the beleaguered and besmirched Muslims on the ground of self-defense. This Euro-bashing view has gained wide acceptance, especially recently, as Western Civilization retreats from anything resembling criticism towards the Eastern religions in general and especially Muslims in particular. God’s Battalions: The Case for the Crusades examines infrequently cited yet indisputable historical facts to expose a fresh (and undoubtedly unpopular) perspective, detailing ways pre-Crusade Muslims (led by jihadist, land-grabbing rulers) invaded Europe (seriously, who knew?) and set in motion a deadly rotation of retaliation and revenge.  

I stumbled into this blazing controversy, all unawares, simply looking for a 21st Century perspective on the Crusades. I’d just finished reading the Chautauqua-listed, compulsively fascinating 19th century novel In His Name by Edward Everett Hale. This page-turner was set in medieval Europe, in the days of the final Crusade (see last post here). Hale’s novel focused on those left behind in France; Stark’s book jumps the channel, leaves fiction behind, and takes us to “bridle-high blood” Jerusalem and surrounding holy lands. Although the pace of this book drags at times, hindered by having to pick our way through heaps of corpses and complicated battle plans, the professorial author neatly bundles hundreds of years into simple, non-academic segments.

Stark makes a compellingly solid, if non-PC, case for the Crusades to be more about a heartfelt response to infidels in Jerusalem/Holy Land than a landgrab by disinherited younger sons. Using reams of historic documents (including property transfers, birth records, ship lading invoices, etc), Stark traces the makeup of the Crusades crews—and they were largely nobility (many, many of them intertwined family units) who sold off inherited land, property, and the family jewels and sewed crosses on their tunics for the dubious glory of swathing through Muslim hordes and more than likely, dying in the process. Amazing. Egged on by barefoot prophets and Papal promises of reduced Purgatory time, armor-encrusted royals by the thousands boarded ships and sailed to glory in the Holy Lands. They were joined by indulgence-seeking rabble—these rarely made it to Palestine’s shores, dying of disease, drowning or picked off by Muslim bandits along the way. The ever-intriguing Knights Templar come in for some particular notice—good and bad—as does the famous warrior-king Saladin (turns out he's not exactly the gentleman portrayed in popular fiction).  
As is often the case in these heroic times, superstars emerge. While Hale celebrated mostly fictitious protagonists, Stark turns a lowkey spotlight on bruisers like Norman Crusader Prince Bohemond, named for his massive physique. When Bohemond, with his wickedly strategic mind and audaciousness, strides from dusty history to vibrant life, somehow, you can’t help dashing over to Google and seeing if anyone snapped a selfie with him. Sadly, we’ll have to be content with literary portraits, although today's cartoonists have discovered him (see hilarious cartoon below). Medieval contemporary Anna Konmene, fourteen-year-old Byzantine princess and historian, penned this about him: “For by his nostrils nature had given free passage for the high spirit which bubbled up from his heart. A certain charm hung about this man but was partly marred by a general air of the horrible.” Can a Game of Thrones-style epic starring Chris Hemsworth be far behind?

Atrocities abound in this centuries-long conflict—on both sides—and facts support that no one was innocent and everyone was guilty and the whole thing was truly horrible and a gigantic waste of life.

So, I ask myself—what if I lived then and heard that the places where my precious Lord Jesus walked were overrun with those making it their special task to deface and defile (in some pretty horrendous ways) everything that Christianity held sacred? Would I unload my heritage and leave my homeland to defend these sacred sites? Or would I, by God’s grace, be able to recognize that the more important defense was to keep my heart—and the Name of Christ—from being defiled by hate and bloodletting?

"For 'the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,' just as it is written." Romans 2:24