Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Outed



Most of you know this already, but I am a Chesterton nerd. I've tried to be reserved in my mania, and have stifled my obsession to some degree for the sake of wider discussions. But I've been outed. Not only did I take it to another level by asking for a subscription to Gilbert! for Christmas, but when my first issue came I could hide no longer, for there on page 16 I found my own picture. (As part of a review of the panel I took part in at a conference in Niagara Falls last November).

So, the denial is over. I'm a nerd. But I am not a trekkie-nerd, just a hobbyist. The difference, or so I like to tell myself, is huge. I may actually try to become something of a sholarly speicalist. But one does this by reading one's subject within the grand scope of scholarship, not by only reading one's subject. And in the process one must be able to look critically at one's subject. This I can do.

But this is not the place to defend myself. This is the place of confession: I am a nerd.

Sure, I made this known already when I attended the conference of the American Chesterton Society in Minneapolis a couple years back. But even then I went and I laid low. Didn't make much of it. Tried to feel like the coolest guy in the room.

And then I took it to another level when I wrote my Master's thesis on Chesterton's Thursday, and my school flew out the president of the American Chesterton Society to hear my defense. But even then, I was able to introduce him at his public lecture (as is Chestertonian tradition) by poking fun at him and calling him the biggest Chesterton nerd in the room.

But let's face it. I've joined those ranks. And there is no sense in being ashamed. So let's go the whole way with it. Thus, full disclosure:

On our trip to England last spring, my wife and I stopped at Beaconsfield and Oxford and visited Chesterton's former home, looked in vain for the cemetary where he is buried, went to his former church, and perused much of his memorabilia. What follows are some of the pictures.
At Oxford we met Stratford Caldecott, who is setting up a museum of sorts there. And we got to see Chesterton's glasses . . .

. . . and his briefcase . . .

. . . and the typewriter on which he wrote The Everlasting Man.

At Beaconsfield we found his first tombstone hanging on the side of his former church, St. Terese's. (His grave has been given a fresh tombstone, but we couldn't find it).

This is me inside the Catholic church where Chesterton worshipped.

Here I am outside of Chesterton's house in Beaconsfield: "Top Meadow".

Instead of street numbers, all the houses on this streat have names. We looked up and down the street for awhile until realizing that the name was a clue: The house stood at the top of the meadow.

And just to leave no room for doubt, here is the most incriminating and potentially embarassing shot of all: Me wearing Chesterton's hat. For me this experience was very surreal, believe it or not.

Anyway, I fully intend to explore Chesterton more in my life, and there is plenty more to the adventure I'm sure, both as a hobby and a scholarly pursuit. I will continue to try not to narrow myself or become uncritical, and to keep from being a "trekkie". But at the same time, hey, you gotta own it.

To conclude, then, let me leave you with a couple quotes found from within the pages of my first Gilbert! magazine:

In the Illustrated London News of 1925, Chesterton wrote: "If I say I am quite sure a man is wrong to be a Christian Scientist, I am simply a believer---a believer in my own beliefs. But if I say I cannot conceive how a man can become a Christian Scientist, I am a bigot."

In 1917 in the same paper he wrote: "If we are to make any attempt to tolerate all men, we must give up all attempts to tolerate all opinions."

And, more comically, from the cover of this, the "food" issue: "Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese."

So, there you have it. Laugh away. Just don't make the mistake of failing to take Chesterton seriously.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Conrad's Heart of Darkness

"His was an impenetrable darkness. I looked at him as you peer down at a man who is lying at the bottom of a precipice where the sun never shines."

Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness is the monologue of a man reflecting on his journey from the safety of home to the unexplored shores of a distant land and in through the arteries and rivers on a steam-ship. It is a uniquely told story which cuts to the soul of World-War era humanity.

The story is set in the early 20th century and the heart of colonialism. The Congo is considered uncivilized; its inhabitants prehistoric savages; its ivory and land for the taking. The explorer considers himself the frontrunner of human progress; the bringer of civilization.

As the title suggests, the journey is like a plunging into the heart of darkness. For the most part the reader is allowed to assume what the explorers do---that the Congo and its inhabitants are the darkness, and those on the steamship the brave salvation. But as the pilgrimage goes it becomes clearer that the inverse may be true.

After all, from early on Conrad has hinted that "your strength is just an accident rising from the weakness of others." In fact, he writes in the first pages, "the conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much."

So it is that on arrival in the heart of Congo the most awe-inspiring and yet most frightening person met is the acclaimed conqueror and ivory-trader, the German intruder, Kurtz. He is awe-inspiring for the power and influence he has garnered and the wealth he has collected. He is frightening for what this has made him.

By the end the pilgrims see the "savages", for all their strange ways, as human, but at the reaches of human progress they see Kurtz, who plays their "god", as humanity gone insane.

"His soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad. I had—for my sins, I suppose—to go through the ordeal of looking into it myself. No eloquence could have been so withering to one’s belief in mankind as his final burst of sincerity. He struggled with himself, too. I saw it—I heard it. I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself."

It would be a stretch to say that this book is an enjoyable read, but it is most certainly a trip. One can easily see why it is a classic of modern fiction, and why the guy reading it on the ship in King Kong was petrified. Those who begin the trek thinking that the "heart of darkness" is found in the place and people of this prehistoric land find it in the power and pride of their conquerors. The heart of darkness is what we find when we let our glorious humanity go to our head.

Friday, February 20, 2009

March is About the Music



Though their last album may have been their worst, their previous album may have been their best. So who is to say what to expect from "No Line on the Horizon", coming out March 3rd?

Regardless, by my count this is U2's 11th full-length album, and in my books every release is an event of its own.

I know you can hear some of the tracks being pre-released, but I will relish sitting down and hearing this thing from start to finish for the first time as an album in its entirety. So I'll wait.

Apparently U2 is the musical guest on Letterman the entire week of March 2nd-6th, too, so that will be worth checking out.



Joel Plaskett is a Canadian treasure. Whether it is with his band The Emergency or on his own, his albums are awesome. On March 24th his new three-disc solo album comes out and on May 14th he will be in my neck of the woods. Dates definitely worth circling on the calendar.



On March 27th my wife and I will join some friends to see another good Canadian group, the Great Lake Swimmers, in concert. They have a new album coming out as well, which I'll probably hear for the first time live.

Clearly, March is about the Music. Which is nice because I feel like its been a while. So, in anticipation of these events, how 'bout another round of favourites? I'll put my answers in the comments. Answer whatever you want.

What is your favourite U2 song of all time?
How would you rank the U2 albums?
What is your favourite Joel Plaskett song and album?

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Sick of Sick

Some snippets of dialogue from yesterday at my house, where, after a month in which it seems we've been to the doctor countless times for each of us, half the household was now throwing up:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Boy (exasperated, in the fleeting seconds between flash-pukes): Dad, pray for me!

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Boy (later, looking around at the room strewn with bodies flaked out on couches): Dad, the prayer doesn't seem to be working.

Dad (after a pause): Maybe God just wants you to get some rest.

Boy (exasperated again): But we've been resting like this for a long time.

Dad (who had just been muttering the same sentiment to God under his breath): I know.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

As a pastor 90% of the prayers people ask me to pray are for their health. I never know what to say. I can't stand it when I'm pressured to pray for someone's health on stage. I resist it as much as possible. Anyone relate? What do you say? What should I have prayed with my son?

I don't really beat him over the head with the need to pray, so it sure was interesting to have that instinct rise out of him in a moment of suffering.

I do thank God there is more health in our house today. But at the same time, prayer is not a get-out-of-trouble-free card.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Bring It On!

Yesterday saw me instigate
a snowball fight with the neighbour kids.


They say you only live once but if you want
you can live millions of times.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Water-Blogged

I just spent the morning posting comments on blogs here there and everywhere. I enjoy it and have dipped my toes in many dialogues in many different places. I am intensely interested in all of them. I also enjoy keeping my blog up. I also am in a place of life with not many friends around and not much time to hang out, so the convenience of blogs is perfect for me to have some interaction with people from the comfort (or discomfort) of my own (crappy) desk chair.

But sometimes you can love something a bit too much. I would not have had time to have spent this morning blogging if I wasn't home sick from work today. And even then it was only because the stars (or more accurately the baby-naps) aligned just right to give me this time out. Even then, I've kind of overstayed my welcome at this desk chair (and did I mention it is crappy?).

Point I'm getting to is something I've been thinking about for awhile. I might cut back on my blogging a bit. I think I need to. Not in the sense that I won't be here, but I might have to be a bit more of a "lurker" than I've tried to be lately.

Now, I've read people who come to decisions like this and try to back it up with some sort of slam against blogging or some diminishment of the importance of time spent here, but I don't want to say that. I enjoy the conversations and friends (and enemies) I have here, and will still be looking on, and jumping in here and there.

But I am in the middle of a few months of life here where I can't keep up the pace, and so will be trying to cut back.

So, I'll be posting, and reading, but maybe not "mind-dumping" so much. At least that's my intent, today, feeling worn out and sick as a dog. We'll see whether I can live up to it. I find it pretty hard to avoid jumping in on a good conversation. Maybe I'll look at these next couple months as a practice in listening.

Anyway, I'm not explaining all of this because I think it is front-page news, but if you check in on my blog you are probably a conversation-partner of some kind and so I'm telling what's up.

Peace, Jon.

(P.S. Speaking of huge blog-conversations, in the comments to my last post I was asked why I believe in God! If you want to see my (haphazard) answer or post one of your own, feel free. I'll be reading.)

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The Name of the Rose

Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose is a medieval whodunit written in the style of a postmodern Dostoevsky. I call it Dostoevskian because the murder mystery, set almost entirely in the confines of a 13th-century monastery, is propelled along most significantly by thoughtful (even philosophical) dialogue more effectively than anything else. I call it postmodern because the thrust of the philosophical dialogue seems more at home in our era than perhaps the one in which the story occurs (although I am not well-read enough in medieval history to be able to accuse Eco of anachronism).

No doubt, as my friend Colin pointed out, this is reader-response-hermeneutician Umberto Eco's literary magnum opus. As the plot and the sparkling dialogue unravel the reader is led to question not only the solidity of the link between words and meaning but also the link between thinking and reality. As a reader I must admit my surprise at the ending. I was anticipating something more sure and epistemologically optimistic. What I got was almost the opposite. It is probably no coincidence that the day I finished the book was also the day my blog post consisted of five words over and over: "Nothing I want to say."

For those who have a heart for some deeper thought, this book is certainly up there on the list of "must reads" from the last century. Even for those who have less of a penchant for such a thing, it would still be a good read. The murder mystery and the investigation are certainly quite gripping. The riddle of the labyrinthian library is also very enjoyable reading. The only place this book really fell short for me was in the area of setting and characterization. I never really felt all that drawn to any but the two main characters, and thus was not too emotionally invested in the crimes which drove the plot along. I also felt like there was great potential for captivation at the monastery-setting, but never felt like it grabbed me like it might have.

That said, it is no doubt that Eco's driving force was meant to be the investigator's thought processes and the dialogues he initiated, and in that regard with this novel he hit a home run. Thus I give it an 8/10 on the strength of this "postmodern Dostoevskian" brilliance.


Furthermore . . . . For those who have read the book (or want to take a stab at it) I offer the following excerpts for discussion:

I was particularly blown away and admittedly perplexed particularly by the following lines (which readers will recognize from the center and the climax of the book):

"The science Bacon spoke of rests unquestionably on these propositions. You understand, Adso, I must believe that my proposition works, because I learned it by experience; but to believe it I must assume there are universal laws. Yet I cannot speak of them, because the very concept that universal laws and an established order exist would imply that God is their prisoner, whereas God is something absolutely free, so that if He wanted, with a single act of His will He could make the world different. . . . In any case, this tells you why I feel so uncertain of my truth, even if I believe in it" (207).

"'The order that our mind imagines is like a net, or like a ladder, built to attain something. But afterward you must throw the ladder away, because you discover that, even if it was useful, it was meaningless. . . . The only truths that are useful are instruments to be thrown away. . . . It's hard to accept the idea that there cannot be an order in the universe because it would offend the free will of God and His omnipotence. So the freedom of God is our condemnation, or at least the condemnation of our pride.'

I dared, for the first and last time in my life, to express a theological conclusion: 'But how can a necessary being exist totally polluted with the possible? What difference is there, then, between God and primigenial chaos? Isn't affirming God's absolute omnipotence and His absolute freedom with regard to His own choices tantamount to demonstrating that God does not exist?'

William looked at me without betraying any feeling in his features, and he said, 'How could a learned man go on communicating his learning if he answered yes to your question?' I did not understand the meaning of his words. 'Do you mean,' I asked, 'that there would be no possible and communicable learning any more if the very criterion of truth were lacking, or do you mean you could no longer communicate what you know because others would not allow you to?'

At that moment a section of the dormitory roof collapsed . . . . 'There is too much confusion here,' William said. 'Non in commotione, non in commotione Dominus'" (492-493).

Roughly translated I think that means "God is not in the confusion".

I don't know what I make of this conclusion. Former readers: Want to help me out?

Monday, February 02, 2009

Torres! Torres! Torres!

My favourite player: Fernando Torres.

Torres scored a brace in the final minutes to give Liverpool a huge two-nil victory over Chelsea on Sunday.


And here is me dressed as Torres at a recent wedding costume ball (yes, that's what I said). The big bad wolf is a guy from Nottingham I met that day. We were juggling the ball moments later.

Is this what my blog has come to now that I'm a pastor---writing and thinking all day with nothing left for you, my faithful reader?

I guess time will tell . . .

While I'm talking about blogs I might as well mention a significant new one in my ever-lengthening blogroll. My friend Dale has started his own called "terra incognito". He is a good writer and thinker and one of my all time favourite discussion partners. His is a welcome arrival in the blogosphere, and just may reinvigorate my currently sagging mind.