Monday, January 15, 2018

Ames, Williams, Whitefield, and Others

Sydney E. Ahlstrom's A Religious History of the American People is worth reading for anyone with an interest in American history and for anyone who has an interest in the history and sociology of religion and has heard of this boisterous place called America.  However, it does take some time to read the book, which a bit more than 1100 pages--it is not a book to to carry through airports, or read without a bookmark. Ahlstrom first published the work in 1972, concluding it with reflections on the 1960s: in 2004, David D. Hall  contributed about 25 pages that bring the history forward into the 21st Century.

The broad outlines of the history will be familiar to most Americans, at least those who haven't entirely forgotten high school history classes: the Puritans, the Great Awakening, Methodism, Mormonism, etc. Few of us, though, will know any of the history to anything like the level of detail that Ahlstrom gives. How and where did the camp meeting tradition come about? How did there arise an Arminian synod of Presbyterianism, and when did it reunite with those that had exscinded it? How did so much of the New England church, originally Congregationalist, defect to Unitarianism or Anglicanism? And there are the details for the German pietistic sects, the varying strains of Lutheranism, the different immigrant waves of the Catholics, and so on.

The book is organized in sixty-four chapters in nine parts. Most chapters are a dozen or fifteen pages long, so there are plenty of stopping points. The bibliography runs to about forty pages, out of which, time allowing, I may someday pick out two or three books to read. The index is here and there a delight for the names that American, and not only Americans, will give to their offspring.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Michelangelo at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

We went to New York Monday and Tuesday, in part to be able to see the exhibition Michelangelo:Divine Draftsman & Designer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It did not disappoint.

With 133 drawings, three sculptures, a painting, and a wooden model of a vault by Michelangelo, plus related works by other artists, it is overwhelming. Perhaps the expert eye could make one pass and sift the work: I cannot. Were I in or close to New York, I'd aim to see the exhibition several times: once for a notion of the whole, however confused, subsequently to reinforce my impressions of the high points. There has been some sharp commentary about the amount of work on view. Yet I suspect that the artist and the critic could find something worth seeing on the nth view of the smallest drawing.

One sees that paper was scarcer then. Many pieces of paper have several drawings, some include bits of poetry or other jottings.

The ceiling of one of the rooms has a quarter-scale photographic reproduction of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Around the room are stands with Michelangelo's sketches of this or that figure. Also on each stand is a picture of the figure as painted, and a schematic showing where to find it. In that room or another is a page with his sonnet humorously describing the effects of the work on him.

Though the exhibition has been open for two months, it was crowded. Eventually I lost self-consciousness about leaning over or around other visitors, or nudging others with the coat under my arm. In the Sistine Chapel room, what looked to be a third grade class came in, not tall enough to have a good look at the sketches, but able to look up to the ceiling with the rest of us.

The exhibition is open through February 12. If you can't make it to the museum, and if your coffee table and the floor under it are up to the weight, you can get the exhibition catalogue.


Saturday, December 30, 2017

An Old Acquaintance Not Forgotten

In The Enemy in the Blanket, second in Anthony Burgess's "Malayan trilogy" The Long Day Wanes, the failing solicitor Rupert Hardman regards the missionary priest Father Laforgue:
His office was displayed frankly in a long white tropical soutane that spoke of the clinic more than the altar, and the sweeping aseptic dress made sense for Hardman out of the words of Finnegans Wake: 'They do not believe in our doctrine of Real Absence, neither miracle wheat nor soul-surgery of P.P. Quemby.' Sooner or later everything in Finnegans Wake made sense: it was just a question of waiting.
I never made it far into Finnegans Wake, but concede Burgess's right to have a solicitor, a sometime RAF pilot, well acquainted with it.

Just now, in reading Chapter 29, "The Golden Age of  Democratic Evangelism" in Sidney E. Ahlstrom's A Religious History of the American People, I found
Phineas P. Quimby of Portland, Maine, who tried in his way to evolve a scientific view of mental healing, did not stress these affinities, but Warren F. Evans, a former Methodist minister in that city, became an ardent Swedenborgian after being healed by Quimby. Evans published his views on healing well before Mary Baker published Science and Health, and with other disciples of Quimby he founded the New Thought Movement.
A question of waiting, indeed: for the fictional Hardman call it a dozen years between university and his encounter with the Father Laforgue; for me, thirty-five years between first reading The Long Day Wanes and encountering P.P. Quimby.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Rooms and Telescopes

Schopenhauer writes that
Thus we shall find that author profitable the occasional use of whose mind when we think affords us sensible relief, and by whom we feel ourself borne wither we could not attain alone. Goethe once said to me that, when he read a page of Kant, he felt as if he were entering a lighted room.
Certainly there are authors who produce that effect for me, though I would more likely name historians than philosophers. But Schopenhauer continues
Inferior minds are not such merely by their being distorted and so judging falsely, but above all through the indistinctness of their whole thinking. This can be compared to seeing through a bad telescope, in which all the outlines appear indistinct and as if obliterated, and the different objects run into one another.
Many translations of German philosophy are bad telescopes. I have put aside a copy of Kant's  Critique of Judgement because the effort of discovering the thought through the English is wearying when not maddening. Kant's philosophy is in itself difficult enough without the obstacle of a bad translation. I hope to find a better one soon.

(The quotations are from Book II, Chapter XV of The World as Will and Representation.)

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Boards and a Book

In The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection, Robert Farrar Capon writes
Let me go further, therefore, and suggest that your cutting boards be numerous: a chopping block, if you can manage it, then a bread board, a fish board, and an onion board. Except for the chopping block, these can succeed each other in a kind of hierarchy. A new board is always a bread board; a retired bread board becomes a fish board (for filleting and skinning); and a retired fish board becomes and onion board. the principle is simple: At any given period in its life, a board will come into contact with nothing stronger than that for which it is named. A retired onion board, accordingly, becomes firewood.
I remembered the passage this morning while I was chopping onions on the board we use for all foods, and have for years. No doubt the rectory kitchens of Long Island, some of them anyway, had more room than our kitchen does. And certainly Capon had a more sensitive nose than I do--nearly everyone does, and he writes about his ability to smell peanut butter on the breath at ten paces or tobacco at twice that.

The Supper of the Lamb reminds me in some ways of Laurie Colwin's columns on cooking. I would be hard put to find a recipe that I followed or technique that I learned from it, yet the tone of common sense and the explanations of why one does this or that are encouraging. One reads, and may decide to try something new.

Capon was a priest of the Episcopal Church, and taught in one of its seminaries as well:
You have arrived at the point where you will have to trust me. I am a teacher. Every time I start a class in elementary Greek, I tell the members that I can teach Greek to anyone, provided he will do exactly what I tell him and nothing else. The ones who believe me go fast; the others give themselves a hard time. I say the same thing to you about pastry.
 Elsewhere he mentions teaching dogmatic theology. His professions and convictions inform the book. In the introduction to the 1989 second edition, accounting for the book's success, he writes
Which brings me to the major reason I think this improbably combination has proved successful. There is a habit that plagues may so-called spiritual minds: they imagine that matter and spirit are somehow at odds with each other and that the right course for human life is to escape from the world of matter into some finer and purer (and undoubtedly duller) realm. To me that is a crashing mistake--and it is, above all, a theological mistake. Because, in fact, it was God who invented dirt, onions and turnip greens; God who invented human beings, with their strange compulsion to cook their food; Gog who, at the end of each day of creation, pronounced a resounding "Good!" over his own concoctions. And it is God's unrelenting love of the stuff of this world that keeps it in being at every moment. So if we are fascinated, even intoxicated, by matter, it is no surprise: we are made in the image of the Ultimate Materialist.
It is tempting to go on quoting, but the book remains in print. It is not expensive, and you can see for yourself.

Capon died in 2013, and you can find an obituary from the New York Times, a brief biography in Wikipedia, and various other notices on line.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Reading Pelikan, Again

The fourth volume of Jaroslav Pelikan's The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine is Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300-1700). It makes appropriate reading for the 500th anniversary year, by some counts, of the Reformation The book resembles its predecessors in the series in being clearly written, well organized for reading by the non-specialist, and having a scholarly apparatus that I imagine must serve the specialist well.

The book has seven chapters of three or four sections each. Each section runs to about a dozen pages. These pages are printed with the text occupying the the right two thirds of the page, the left being reserved for the references. A typical section, then, has the equivalent of eight full pages of text, meaning that the attentive reader can finish it in an evening. As for the references, the first paragraph of "The One True Faith", the last section of the first chapter, "Doctrinal Pluralism in the Late Middle Ages", has twenty-one of them, to the works of fifteen authors.

After two chapters taking the still mostly unified church through the end of the 14th Century, Pelikan gives the next four to the main streams of the Reformation: Lutheran, Reformed, Catholic Counter-Reformation, and Radical (Anabaptist, Socinian, other). The final chapter shows the three larger groups consolidating their doctrines: the Lutherans in their christological thought; Calvinists thinking through covenant theology; and Roman Catholics clarifying what their teaching on grace should be

It is a relatively drier read than Diarmaid MacCulloch's The Reformation, for it is doctrinal history, not cultural and political history. You will not read of Swiss printers announcing their adherence to the Reformation by consuming sausages in Lent, of Ulrich Zwingli falling in battle, or of the lively manner in which the early Jesuits held their missions. For that matter, you will not read how Archbishop Laud brought the Church of England some distance back from the Reformed tradition to something nearer Lutheranism and Catholicism. But you will, if attentive, come away with a sound understanding of what all the parties thought, and how they adjusted and clarified their thinking in opposition to one another.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

A Bookshelf Riddle

The essay "Extra Shelves" in Clive James's Latest Readings begins
When is a bookshelf not really an extra bookshelf? When you don't have to build it.
The extra shelves he first mentions are kitchen counters, and the tops of kitchen bookshelves. As it happens, we have no room above the one bookshelf in our kitchen, and only a foot or so of books one counter. But there are stacks of books on two tables in the living room, and before the doors of a china cabinet in the dining room. I suppose that we could with more discipline thin the shelves to make room for the four or so feet stacked on tables. But how long would that last us?

We do not measure on a Jamesian scale, though. In looking through Latest Readings, I was constantly reminded that the man who reads an hour or two per day will never catch up with the man who reads six or eight hours per day. At twenty or twenty-five this reflection might have made me want to rearrange my life to manage that six or eight hours. Now I shrug: I have accumulated more compelling causes of regret.

I wonder about some of James's judgments in the book and have no way of evaluating others. I do agree with him on Ford Madox Ford and Parade's End:
Tietjens, as a character, is the merest wish fulfillment, the  self indulgence of a mendacious, chaotic, casually womanizing author who would like to project himself as a pillar of integrity and self-sacrifice, the honest master of his feelings.
 Yet he immediately follows this with
(In this respect, Tietjens is a prototype for Waugh's Guy Crouchback, the author's daydream about what he would like to have been, instead of a portrayal of who he was.)
Probably Waugh would have liked to have come from old Catholic gentry.  But in other respects it is hard to see how Crouchback could represent Waugh's wish fulfillment.