Thursday, April 30, 2015

Rod Dreher’s “How Dante Can Save Your Life”

You’re standing in the poetry section of a Barnes & Noble bookstore. You don’t usually read poetry, or fiction either, for that matter. But a book caught your eye; you pull it from the shelf, open it and begin to read.

Without realizing it, a random act of browsing in a bookstore leads to you changing your life.

The “you’ in question here was writer Rod Dreher, author of The Little Way of Ruthie Leming and Crunchy Cons and a writer for The American Conservative. The Barnes & Noble was in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. And the book was Dante’s The Divine Comedy.

And what a story it is.

What a fascinating story it is. If you love poetry, and even if you don’t, this is a remarkable book.

It’s a story about how Dreher worked through serious physical illness brought on by his family, himself, his and his family’s history, and the sense of place. He tells it so well that the reader beings to see in Dante what Dreher found, and more – the reader begins to recognize himself in the journey.

Of all the things I expected from this book, that turned out to be the most surprising, although in retrospect, it shouldn’t have been. That’s what good writing does. And it says something about both Dante and Dreher, and Dreher’s candor, openness and vulnerability in telling a story that is often painful.

With Dreher and reader for the journey is Dante, himself guided by the Roman poet Virgil.

Dreher takes the scenes and lines that connected most with himself and the situation he was trying, and largely failing, to deal with. Along with his Orthodox priest and his therapist, he works his way through his own personal Inferno and Purgatorio. He doesn’t necessarily reach Paradiso (Dante does, however), but he does find healing.

How Dante Can Save Your Life is a much larger story than one man’s journey. Dante is one of those writers not studied much any more – a dead, white, European male. While he often criticizes the church and the popes, he is very much in the Roman Catholic tradition. The Divine Comedy is a profoundly religious book – and that alone might be sufficient eliminate it from the curriculum.

Rod Dreher
That is criminal. It’s one of the great works of Western literature. It will still be read and treasured long after the more contemporary and trendy stuff is forgotten. What Dreher does in his book is to explain how meaningful and important Dante is for many of the same things that bedeviled us in late medieval and early Renaissance times that still bedevil us today. For that is the genius of Dante and The Divine Comedy – the poet and his great work still speak to the human condition.

The Divine Comedy has been translated by numerous authors and writers over the years, including Dorothy Sayers, Clive James, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and many others (and that’s just a few of the English translations; there are many others in other languages). Dreher prefers the translations by Robert and Jean Hollander and Mark Musa; the only translation I’ve read myself is by John Ciardi.

Read How Dante Can Save Your Life, and you will read of how a great work literature helped guide one man on what was at times a harrowing, life-threatening journey.

Painting: Dante Illuminating Florence with His Poem, fresco by Domenico de Michelino; circa 1465.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Joy Happens – Unplanned

I’ve been reading Margaret Feinberg’s Fight Back With Joy: Celebrate More. Regret Less. Stare Down Your Greatest Fears, and I find this:

“Joy flows out of unsuspecting, and often daunting, places,” she writes. “It’s illogical, irrational, downright crazypants to think that great adversity could possibly lead to a fuller life. Yet that’s what I’ve discovered over many months of being poisoned, burned, injected, sliced, and diced.”

I pay attention to what Feinberg says, because she is writing as a breast cancer patient and survivor. She has been through the “cure is worse than the disease” treatment, and she pointedly says she does not consider cancer to be a gift.

But she finds joy, sometimes in the very belly of the cancer beast. Like when she handed out red balloons to other cancer patients and their families.

Joy is a word that we Christians often associate with their faith. Both we as children sang and with our own children sing “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart / Where? / down in my heart / down in my heart.”

The fact is that joy is something that we can’t plan for. It’s something that happens as a result, often the unintended result, of something else.

Standing in silence Canterbury Cathedral in 2013 for the 3 p.m. prayer time, I was nearly overwhelmed with joy by saying the Lord’s Prayer with 27 Japanese tourists.

Sitting in a church in Erfurt, Germany, interviewing a young pastor in 2002, joy flooded me, the pastor and the video cameraman to the point of tears.

At a church service at London’s Westminster Chapel, the time of “silent prayer” was replaced by speaking individual prayers out loud at the same time, and the church felt washed by joy as the voices rose and fused upward.

Or the first time I heard my first grandchild say something that sounded remotely like “Grandpa.”

Or during a particularly dark time, receiving an unexpected note that said simply, “I’m praying for you.”

Joy comes unexpected and unplanned, often sneaking in and upending you.

I can remember years ago, sitting next to my young wife and mother of my five-month-old son while she awakened from surgery to remover a possibly cancerous thyroid. When she awoke, her first words were, “Am I OK?” And the joy I experienced telling her YES! was a wonder, for both of us.

Feinberg is right. We find joy in often daunting places. It arrives unplanned. It brings with it the ability to bear often great hardship.

It is a gift.

Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been reading Fight Back with Joy. To see more posts on this chapter, “Where I Never Expected to Find Joy,” please visit Sarah at Living Between the Lines.

Photograph: Westminster Chapel in London, where the spoken aloud prayers went up and the joy came down. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Faith at the Firing Line

At the end of this week, I’ll be retiring from my day job, and I’ve been looking back at some thirty-seven years in corporate communications.
Most of my work has centered in the oil, chemical, and agriculture industries; none of them lack controversy or crisis. My career has largely been spent on the firing line.
At times, it felt like the firing squad.
Government and regulatory issues. Environmental problems. Product crises. Transportation accidents. Public protests. “He said/she said” litigation. Even the short time I worked in a non-corporate environment for the St. Louis Public Schools, it was much the same. There, I dealt with restructurings, school closings, layoffs, protests at school board meetings, and teacher sick-outs.

To continue reading, please see my post today at The High Calling.

Photograph by Any Bay via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Poetic Voices: Karen Paul Holmes and Claire Trevien

When is a marriage like a knot? And those bumps under the carpet in the living room – could they be whales, like the ones who live under your shipwrecked house?

Karen Paul Holmes is the author of Untying the Knot: Poems, a collection of 49 poems published in 2014 addressing a range of relationships but focused on the crumbling and dissolution of a marriage. These poems speak to deep pain, the emotional anguish that strikes at one’s very being when what one accepted as the given in one’s life becomes the taken away. The title poem, placed about halfway in the collection, talks of recriminations and the personal guilt that the victim in a failed marriage can experience.

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Against the Flow: Athens and/or Jerusalem

When I was working on a Masters at Washington University in St. Louis, I took a seminar entitled “Athens and Jerusalem.” It was taught by a member of the faculty of the Classics Department, Dr. George Pepe, who is still teaching some 30 years after I took the course.  Pepe is a specialist in Greek and Roman philosophy and Latin prose, and he took the name of the course from a quotation: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem, or the Academy with the Church?”

The quotation is from the early Church father Tertullian (circa 155 to 240 A.D.), one of the first to write in Latin as opposed to Greek. He was an apologist for the Christian faith, writing work after work making logical mincemeat of the arguments of the pagan writers and the official policies of the Roman Empire. (One of his best known observations, still quoted today, is “The blood of the martyrs is seed.”)

In our seminar, we had a number of assigned readings in Tertullian. Since this was pre-Amazon and few if any bookstores carried the writings of the early Church fathers, the assignments meant I spent a lot of time in the Washington University library, in a study carrel tucked among rows of very dusty old books. Few students were enrolled in Classics courses, but the books on the shelves didn’t seem to mind my intrusions.

Reading Tertullian was a revelation. Even in English translation and some 1800 years after his death, the passion and the mind of the man were clear. In his arguments against the pagans, Tertullian took no prisoners. He pointed out all of the inconsistencies and contradictions of classical beliefs and practices, including all of the less-than-admirable traits and personal histories of the Greek and Roman gods. Yet he was more than an apologist; he was also one of the first theologians to tackle the question of the Trinity. Eighty-five years after his death, his works influenced the Council of Nicea and St. Augustine even later.

Aside from his passion, what struck me most about Tertullian was how contemporary his arguments sounded. Substitute “science and technology” for “Classical thought” or “The Academy,” and you have a very similar debate, a similar clash of worldviews. And in the 30 years that I’ve read, that debate has come only more to the fore.

The debate between worldviews is older than Tertullian, of course. Eight-hundred years before him, the prophet Daniel and his three friends Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego faced a very similar clash but in more severe circumstances. The church in Tertullian’s time faced on-again, off-again persecution; Daniel and his friends existed solely at the sufferance of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Despite what they faced in their day-to-day life in a sometimes viciously polytheistic culture, the four remained faithful.

In Against the Flow: The Inspiration of Daniel in an Age of Relativism, John Lennox describes that faithfulness. And he draws a parallel to contemporary society.

“Babylon’s philosophy,” Lennox says, “resonates with the scientism to today that encourages us to look for both meaning and salvation in science and technology. But scientific analysis and explanation does not yield to us the meaning for which we as persons long. Babylon will leave you empty.” This was the argument against classical culture that Tertullian made as well.

Tertullian, despite his influence, was never canonized. It’s believed he became associated with the Montanists, considered heretical by the Church for their emphasis upon the continuing influence of the Holy Spirit (some scholars suggest that the Montanists have a spiritual descendant in pentacostalism).

But what he argued for is as important today as it was in his own time. Our culture, too, has embraced gods with clay feet, gods who cannot answer the truly important human questions or needs. “Athens or Jerusalem?” remains a vital question for all of us.

For the past several weeks, I’ve been discussing John Lennox’s Against the Flow. It is so packed with insight that I can only highlight a few things in each post, but it is well worth reading and re-reading.

Illustration: A 16th century representation of Tertullian. We really don’t know what he looked like.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

A promise met by laughter

After Romans 4:16-25

A promise met by laughter,
disbelief becomes scoffing;
a fool to make such a promise,
a fool to believe it

a promise in spite of
a promise despite
a promise in the face of

I walk with Abraham
and know his heart
and know his doubt
and know his faith

he is too old to be
too old for anything
too old except to sit
and sleep and tell
stories to strangers

I walk with Abraham
and listen as he succumbs
to the laugh, overcomes
the laugh

I walk with Abraham
I create what is not
I create what cannot be

Photograph by Peter Griffin via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Choosing the Greater of Two Evils

You make a mistake. You get yourself in over your head. You want the problem to just go away. But it doesn’t. It festers. And then one day the problem erupts. Instead of doing the right thing and coming clean, you make it worse. Far worse.
John the Baptist was no shy wallflower. He preached repentance from sin. He baptized. He lived what he preached. He called people out. He called leaders out for bad behavior. And that was a problem for Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee and Perea. John was rather outspoken and didn’t mince words when he condemned Herod’s divorce from his first wife and then marriage to his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias. Divorce was not popular among the people Herod ruled.
To continue reading, please see my Daily Reflection today at The High Calling.

Painting: The Executioner Presents the Head of St. John the Baptist to King Herod; Giambattista Langetti (1625/35 – 1676), private collection / The Bridgeman Art Library.

Saturday Good Reads

My friend and The High Calling colleague David Rupert went to Jordan for 10 days, and sent back a steady stream of photos and blog posts, including an interesting story about tour guides. Seth Haines explored writing as a spiritual discipline. Mark Movsevian at First Things explored how Thomas More is portrayed in the PBS series Wolf Hall. And my wife found on the internet some of the oldest video footage of London, displayed in a “then and now” format.

And more good stuff, too.


When You Are Weary in Battle – Deidra Riggs at Jumping Tandem.

My Mother, My Daughter, Myself – Caroline Langston at Image Journal.

Tour Guides for Faith – David Rupert at Red-Letter Believers.

Setting Sail and …Not forgotten – Doug Spurling at Spurling Silver.

The Pain is Not the End of the Story – Chris Peek at Trail Reflections.

Faith in the system, or faith in Jesus? – Chaplain Mike at Internet Monk.


The Accidental Benedict Option – Rod Dreher at American Conservative.

Thou Mayest – and Why It Matters – Dr. Steven Garber at Reintegrate.

Thomas More, Villain – Mark Movsevian at First Things.


At some point along the way – John Blase at The Beautiful Due.

Halfling Paean to Summer – Brendan MacOdrum at Oran’s Well.

Anne Porter – D.S. Martin at Kingdom Poets.

Until the End of Heaven – Maureen Doallas at Writing Without Paper.

Read, write, breathe poetry – Mary Harwell Sayler at The Poetry Editor (great list of links).

Iconography - poem by Samuel Dickison at @curatormagazine


The Soul of the Law – A.G. Harmon at Image Journal.

Photography And Video

Spring Ephemerals – Timothy Good at Photography by Tiwago.

The Deep Green Silence of Love – Diane Walker at Contemplative Photography.

Video: Oldest Footage of London Ever – Londontopia (Hat Tip: Janet Young).

Painting: Chinois by Georges Rouault, oil on paper mounted on canvas (1939); St. Louis Art Museum. The painting is part of the museum’s European Provenance Disclosure Project, which “identifies and provides up-to-date information on all European paintings in the Museum's collection that may have been purchased, sold, or created during the Nazi era.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Fred Chappell’s “River”

It was in the 1980s that a colleague at work who loved Southern writing introduced me to writer and poet Fred Chappell (born in 1936). She recommended, and I read, one of his novels, I Am One of You Forever. I went on to read two of his other novels, Brighten the Corner Where You Are and Look Back All the Green Valley, and one of his collections of short stories, Farewell I’m Bound to Leave You. 

What I had not read was his poetry, and Chappell first established his literary reputation as a poet. He was an English professor at the University of North Carolina – Greensboro for 40 years, retiring in 2004. In 1997, he was appointed North Carolina’s first poet laureate. 

I love Chappell’s stories. They are Southern, yes, but they are about family and history and all the things that used to define Southern culture. When I read his stories, I read my own family history – the characters and places seem real because they are real. 

I stumbled over a copy of one of his poetry collections, River: A Poem, first published in 1975. My copy is a reprint by LSU Press in 2000; I bought it used and it’s certainly been read many times.  

It’s subtitled “A Poem,” and it should be – River is actually one poem with 11 divisions. It is about family, and specifically his grandparents. It was first published when Chappell was 39, so it is something of a middle-aged memory from the 1940s and early 1950s. 

To write these memories down is important; it helps your own children and grandchildren understand where you and they came from, and how those who came before were as much a part of that river as you and they are now. 

The individual poems that form River are too long to cite in full here, but here is an excerpt of one, entitled “My Grandmother Washes Her Feet,” recounting a conversation between Chappell and his grandmother as she was doing exactly that: 

I see her still, unsteadily riding the edge
Of the clawfoot tub, mumbling to her feet,
Musing bloodrust water about her ankles.
Cotton skirt pulled up, displaying bony
Bruised patchy calves that would make you weep. 

Rinds of her soles had darkened, crust-colored—
Not yellow now—like the tough outer belly
Of an adder/ In fourteen hours the most refreshment
She’d given herself was dabbling her feet in the water. 

“You mightn’t’ve liked John-Giles. Everybody knew
He was a mean one, galloping whiskey and bad women
All night. Tried to testify dead drunk
In church one time. That was a ruckus. Later
Came back a War Hero, and all the young men
Took to doing the things he did. And failed.
Finally one of his women’s men shot him.”

“What for?” 

        “Stealing milk through fences…That part
Of Family nobody wants to speak of.
They’d rather talk about fine men, brick houses,
Money. Maybe you ought to know, teach you

       “What do they talk about?” 

And the damn Civil War, and marriages.
Things you brag about in the front of Bibles…” 

Fred Chapell
Should I say that I have the family Bible from the 19th century. And there’s this family stuff in the font of it, the “kind of stuff you like to brag about,” and I have a photograph of my great-grandparents, which has a Civil War story behind it? 

The other scenes from River include the poet as a child being lowered down the well by his grandfather, to give it its periodic scrubbing; what it’s like for that young boy to discover one day he’s a grandfather himself; and his grandfather’s river baptism (a Methodist getting baptized like a Baptist, for goodness sakes), among others. 

Reading River is wading and then swimming in that river of family and memory that each of us flows from, becoming and being that river ourselves. 

Photograph of the French Broad River in western North Carolina courtesy of the Visit North Carolina.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Anthony Horowitz’s “Moriarity”

In 1893, the British public was outraged. Arthur Conan Doyle had just done the unspeakable – in a titanic struggle at the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland, Sherlock Holmes and his arch-enemy Professor Moriarty had struggled and fallen to the rocks below, presumably to their deaths. Sherlock Holmes would no longer grace his way in the minds of the reading public.

It would take eight years, and considerable sullen outrage, but Holmes would finally return, in Doyle’s 1901 novel The Hound of the Baskervilles.

We know what happened to Holmes, but what happened to Moriarty?

Numerous authors have tried answering that question in novel form since Doyle’s death in 1930. Now Anthony Horowitz has now taken a shot at it, with Moriarty.

In short, the novel is enthralling, convincing – and devilish.

Frederick Chase is a detective with the Pinkerton Detective Agency in America. He’s sent to Europe, and specifically to Switzerland, to find clues to the whereabouts of an arch-criminal in America, one Clarence Devereux. He is reportedly in Europe, to step into the place of Moriarity.

In Switzerland, Chase meets Scotland yard detective Athelney Jones, sent by the Yard to verify Moriarty’s death. There is a body; together Jones and Chase examine it. And they find a note, in code, addressed to Moriarty and likely from Devereux. Then it’s on to London; the game is indeed afoot.

With each page, the story becomes more than a mystery. It quickly centers on the growing friendship of the two detectives, one American and one British, one a private agent and the other representing the greatest investigating authority of the time. The developments begin to come one after another, quickening the pace toward what looks to be a horrific conclusion. (In fact, the story is almost as fast-paced as the television series Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch.)

Anthony Horowitz
Slowly the reader begins to be ask – was that Moriarty’s body they saw in Switzerland, or was it someone else? And if someone else, then where is Moriarty?

Horowitz has written numerous novels and one previous Sherlock Holmes story, The House of Silk in 2011. He is perhaps best known as the creator of two television programs popular in both Great Britain and the United States, Midsomer Murders and Foyle’s War.

What a story Moriarty is, full of twists and turns, keeping the reader on edge and guessing in every chapter. It is mystery writing at its historical best.

Illustration: Professor Moriarty and Sherlock Holmes in their struggle at Reichenbach Falls.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Sting of Silence

Some years back, actually a lot of years back, I got caught up in a community controversy. Some surprising things were going on, some officials turned deaf ears to community concerns, and then two people I truly respected asked me to become spokesperson for a group to challenge the officials.

I did, and it was a wild time for a few months. It was also tense, and difficult, and we experienced the inevitable blowback. The attacks became bitter, and personal. At one point, the spokesperson was essentially abandoned. I felt deserted and left to dangle in the wind. It was a dark time, lightened only by a single voice of unexpected support – an elderly lady whom I had never met wrote a letter to our local newspaper.

Margaret Feinberg knows the sting of silence in far more personal terms than I do. She is standing in front of a mirror, staring at the scars left by a double mastectomy, and virtually no friend has called, written, left a note, said anything, provided support, held her. The group that had surrounded her and her husband seemed to have vanished.

She tells the story in Fight Back With Joy: Celebrate More. Regret Less. Stare Down Your Greatest Fears. The heart scars, she says, those scars of abandonment, hurt worse than the physical scars she was staring at.

She writes down names. And then she makes another list – the names of the people she had abandoned in an hour of need. She understands that the failing of her friends is her failing, too. And she understands that the most common reason for this abandonment is that people don’t know what to say, and so they hold back.

Jesus knew what this all-too-human failing of abandonment was like. Feinberg notes that of the 12 disciples who followed Jesus through good times and bad, those steadfast 12, one would betray him and 10 would hide in fear. Only one would be at the foot of the cross, the one who stood with the two Marys. Only one was there when Jesus drew his last breath and said “It is finished.” The rest hid.

We have all failed.

We have all been failed.

We know what abandonment is because it’s happened to us.

And we know what it is because we’ve done it. 

Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been reading Fight Back with Joy. To see more posts on this chapter, “Life is Too Short Not to Do This,” please visit Jason at Connecting to Impact.

Photograph by Julie Gentry via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Poetic Voices: Jessica Goodfellow and Michalle Gould

For the next few weeks, we’re taking a look at recent (and some republished) works by poets perhaps not as well known as some but with unique and interesting voices and deserving of a wider audience. Today we’re considering Jessica Goodfellow and

Goodfellow’s The Insomniac’s Weather Report was first published in 2011 but reissued in 2014 by Isobar Press (in Japan). It’s her middle volume of poetry; A Pilgrim’s Guide to Chaos in the Heartland was published in 2006 and Mendeleev’s Mandela in 2015.

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Contradiction of Absolutes

They are allowed to wander through the city, the largest city in the world. They’re struck by the opulence; the wealth; the buildings devoted to religion, government and commerce. The display of so much of everything makes their own beginnings and roots exceedingly humble in comparison. It’s all designed to impress, and it does. It’s designed to remind the viewer of power and might, and it does.

And as if to punch the message home, they see treasured items from their own temple hundreds of miles away displayed with all of the other treasure taken from conquered nations. They see the wealth of many religions, and many nations, on view to press home the point of superiority.

Given that they were taken from their home and families to be trained to serve Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, it would have been easy to assume that their God was dead, conquered, and tossed aside like all the others. Everything in their own experience argued for it, that everything they had believed was a lie.

But that’s not what Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego did. In spite of triumph and power of Babylon displayed before their very own eyes, they choose to remain faithful.

Think of contemporary Western culture as a 21st century Babylon, except more so.

The wealth, the power, the achievements, the great buildings, the advances in science all sing the same song together and separately. “It’s all relative. It’s all about us. If you want to believe in your little God, fine; just don’t do it in public. Look what we’ve achieved and accomplished without your Christian God. He’s only one of many gods, and who are you to say He’s supreme? There are no absolutes.”

If Daniel and his friends were alive today, you could almost hear the “Been there, done that” response.

I didn’t realize until I read Against the Flow: The Inspiration of Daniel in an Age of Relativism by John Lennox that postmodernism has been around in one form or another for a long time. It was in Babylon; it was in ancient Greece; it was what thinking and cultured Romans embraced even if they had to bow the knee to Caesar (remember Pontius Pilate’s famous question of Jesus: “What is truth?”).

The various philosophies that today we call postmodernism don’t last; they’re largely self-defeating.

“At the heart of postmodernism lies a patent self-contradiction,” Lennox writes. “It expects us to accept, as absolute truth, that there are no absolute truths. We should note this common, fatally flawed characteristic of relativistic thinking: it tries to exclude itself from its own pronouncements. The fact is that no one can live without a concept of absolute truth.”

No one can live without a concept of absolute truth. No one.

Not even postmodernssts.

I’ve been discussing Against the Flow by John Lennox and will continue to do so for the next several weeks on Mondays. It’s a deeply insightful, highly readable book. Lennox is a professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford and a speaker on the interface of science, philosophy and religion. 

Illustration: The Ishtar Gate was one of eight entrances to the city of Babylon during Nebuchadnezzar’s time.