No Extra Points for Length, Martin.

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted 95 arguments he had concerning teachings and people in the church. He attached the list to the door of a church in Wittenburg, Saxony, because that’s what university faculty did in those days. Sort of like all the different concert, lecture, and debate listings plastered all over campi today.

Except this turned out to be more controversial than usual, and Luther was stubborn as all get out. And so was the Pope, and politics got folded in, and today we have, well, more flavors of Western Christianity than Carter has liver pills. The Eastern Orthodox consider all of us sadly misguided, some more than others. The Jews look at all Christians and shrug.

The Western Church had gone through periods of reform in the past. Gregory the Great pushed missions and pulled charitable works back into the center of Church business – bishops and others were getting away from the ordinary believer, and it was causing problems. Francis of Assisi likewise – “Folks, the believers are down here, we need to be talking to them, not over or at them.” The early 1300s were not great for the Church as an institution. Individual bishops, priests, nuns did a lot of work for a lot of people, but the organization . . . didn’t handle the Black Death and the social trauma from that very well. (I’m not sure any large institution could have, to be honest.) And then you had a trio of popes who wouldn’t take “we think you need to retire” as a viable suggestion, and a lot of people were thinking about changes. Many of those people stayed inside the Church, now called Roman Catholic Church, and worked for change and improvement. Others broke away, and thus we got the Reformation.

The performance below is the 500th anniversary, in the Trinity Reformed Church in Speyer. And yes, those are Catholic nuns (and a few Lutheran nuns as well. It’s complicated.) A good hymn knows no denomination.

Book Review: The Complete Gentleman

Miner, Brad. The Complete Gentleman: The Modern Man’s Guide to Chivalry. 3rd Revised Edition (Washington D. C., Regnery Gateway, 2021)

The reviews on this book were mixed, with several complaining because it was not a guide to manners and behavior – that is, it doesn’t give a clear “do this, don’t do that.” Instead the author discusses the history of the idea of chivalry and who was chivalrous, the Victorian concept of gentleman, and possible large ways to shift behavior and thinking in order to be a better, more chivalrous, gentleman.

Brad Miner points to the movie Titanic and the behavior of some young men while watching it, specifically their mocking the actions of some of the upper-class male passengers. That got Miner to thinking about chivalry, the standards men held themselves to, and where it all began. Thus the book goes back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, notably the Stoic philosophers and Aristotle, the medieval ideals of knighthood and chivalry, the Victorian reinterpretation of those ideals, good examples and horrible warnings, and so on.

Miner breaks the gentleman into three main aspects – warrior, lover, and monk. He looks at each in turn, and how these three aspects blend together in a medieval or Victorian man. Then he casts his gaze at the present day and the younger generation. How can you be reticent and restrained in the age of social media and “post your feeeeeeelings!”? Miner points to Castiglione’s The Courtier, and the idea that became sprezzatura, the appearance of effortless grace (which applies to men and women, just in different ways.)

There’s a lot to chew on here, especially if you are the parent of a boy, or a young man trying to be better. Being a gentleman is about aspiring to better. We can’t be perfect. But we can be better, we can raise the bar for ourselves, be it in conduct, physical skill, dress, faith . . . The book is a lot of “what is a gentleman” instead of “how to be a gentleman.” Miner implies that if you work on the mind-set, the how-to will follow. I’d add that having a few carefully chosen guides and role-models will help a lot, for man or woman. Because women need to understand the origins of the idea of gentleman, in order to encourage more of them, and to raise them.

The book reads well. It is somewhat breezy, a bit pop-history at times, but his sources check out, and that’s probably the best tone to take. People don’t like reading hundreds of pages of Polonius, or Lord Chesterfield. Many of the sources are Christian, which fits the culture, but Miner points out that you don’t have to be a Christian to aspire to certain virtues. He tends to keep politics out of the work, although there are a few “don’t do this” moments. Alas, vice knows no time nor country. Miner might have given more time to the critics of masculinity, if only to show some of the flaws in their thinking, but that’s not his goal.

I’d recommend it for young men and women, parents of young men and women, anyone curious about where the ideas of “gentleman” came from, and people interested in popular understandings of European medieval culture.

FTC Notice: I purchased this book for my own use and was given no remuneration by either the author or the publisher.

Prometheus or Lucifer?

My mind went roaming.Yes, it came home safely, thank you. {glares at the wallaby on the back row}

What got my mind meandering was the song “Lucifer” from Avantasia’s album Ghostlights. The song was playing as I drove to the gym the other morning. Within the past few weeks, Sarah Hoyt had a post about Prometheus, and how he taught mankind to cheat the gods – or to keep unjust gods from getting what wasn’t theirs to begin with, take your pick – and got chained to a rock and tormented by an eagle every day. In the German Romantic literary canon, Prometheus was a hero, and got all the good lines. Sort of like Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, except . . . Satan is glorious, amazing, and evil. Prometheus is defiant and a symbol of the independent man standing up to the unjust Powers That Be.

It just so happened that the folks working at the gym had put on a hip-hop station, and the lyrics being chanted were about a guy who thought he was a demi-god come down to earth and becoming a mere man in order to rule the place. That approach to the world explains why so many “aspiring young rappers” (as the Canadian news service seems to always describe them) get done in when their egos make demands that society vehemently disagrees with. “You will be like unto G-d,” promises the serpent in the garden. Except not bulletproof, or knife-proof, or free from the consequences of your actions.

There’s some suggestion that Prometheus was a later addition to the Greek mythological canon than some of the other gods. I have not tried to track that down. But I wonder if he’s the Trickster, and goes back a ways in popular belief before he became official. Lots of polytheistic religions have some sort of ambiguous Trickster, be it Prometheus, or Loki, or Anansi, or Coyote, or Raven, or some of the Australian Aboriginal figures. Except Prometheus doesn’t have an obvious “dark” side, if the surviving mythology tells true, unless it is not warning man about the risks of irking the other gods. He teaches men how to cheat the gods, and steals fire for mankind in order to help people thrive as well as just survive. Or he helps people trick the gods and keep the best of the sacrifice for themselves. Who gets hurt there? Only the Olympian deities. Prometheus had already switched sides in the war of the Titans vs. the Olympian gods, because the Titans wouldn’t take his advice, according to Hesiod. So he had a shady reputation to start with, as far as Zeus and Co. were concerned, and then he helps trick them. Instead of promptly blasting the people for listening to Prometheus, the gods blast Prometheus. Then they unleash Pandora and her box on humanity as revenge for mere mortals daring to think we could “cheat” the gods.

Lucifer/Satan refused to accept the role of servant and disobeyed the Most High. For this he and his followers were cast out of Heaven. He is associated with the Serpent in the Garden of Eden, and with tempting Jesus to sin. In Revelation Lucifer/Satan appears as the enemy of G-d, one half of the war in Heaven where St. Michael is mentioned as leading the forces of good. The book of Isiah has a section called the “Five ‘I Will’s’ of Satan,” where a figure proclaims his determination to be like the Most High, to be a deity. The entire section is a promise and a curse, and one of those chapters that generally seem to escape being preached upon, save for verses 13-14. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Isaiah+14&version=KJV

Goethe, in one of the key poems of the “Sturm und Drang” side of Romantic writing, has Prometheus railing against Zeus. Prometheus, the narrator, proclaims that he greater than the god of storms and sky, because Zeus cannot touch what Prometheus has created. The speaker’s heart is the source of all, and the gods envy that. Envy is what leads to Prometheus’ downfall, not justice, and the titan remains defiant. Prometheus uses the familiar “du” to address the chief of the Olympian gods, familiarity and contempt. Very Romantic, very much “storm and stress,” wild passion and defiance of the conventional order by one who knows that he is in the right, no matter what life brings. Sound familiar?

It’s probably best to avoid both Lucifer and Prometheus, at least as they are preserved in mythology and culture. Tricksters can be very helpful . . . or not.

Kipling and . . . Dante?

The textbook I use to teach history has a picture of Dante in the section about the Renaissance. This year (September 14 to be exact) is the 700th anniversary of his demise. He is most famous for a series of three epic poems detailing a soul’s journey through Hell and Purgatory into Paradise, and then back to the world.

The third chapter (Canto) of The Inferno describes souls and angels who are tormented, but are not in either Hell or Heaven, because the angels would not choose between G-d and Satan, and the people were neither good nor evil. They can’t go up because they lack virtue, but they will be lorded-over by the truly damned in Hell, which isn’t just (and would reward some of the damned, so that’s not acceptable, either.)

For some reason, this year I was skimming over bits of the Inferno to use in a lesson about education and the Renaissance, and thought of someone who was neither good enough for heaven or bad enough for the infernal realm.

Now Tomlinson gave up the ghost in his house in Berkeley Square,
And a Spirit came to his bedside and gripped him by the hair —
A Spirit gripped him by the hair and carried him far away,
Till he heard as the roar of a rain-fed ford the roar of the Milky Way:
Till he heard the roar of the Milky Way die down and drone and cease,
And they came to the Gate within the Wall where Peter holds the keys.
“Stand up, stand up now, Tomlinson, and answer loud and high
The good that ye did for the sake of men or ever ye came to die —
The good that ye did for the sake of men in little earth so lone!”
And the naked soul of Tomlinson grew white as a rain-washed bone.

“Tomlinson” by Rudyard Kipling.

The poem is much longer than the excerpt above, but Tomlinson, the newly dead, can’t get into heaven or you-know-where because he never did anything. Now, [spoiler] since Old Scratch is a lawyer at heart, he finds “the roots of sin” in the unhappy Tomlinson and sends him back to go, you know, actually commit a sin and earn his place among the damned.

Both Dante and Kipling are riffing off of Revelation 3: 14-22, the letter to the church in Laodicea. Because the Laodiceans were neither hot nor cold, they are rejected. “Go do something!” Preferably good, of course, but anything is better than nothing. Dante finds himself in trouble at the beginning of the Inferno because he is guilty of acedia (sloth). He knows what is good, what he ought to do, and . . . can’t be bothered. He’s spiritually lazy. He doesn’t do any good (” . . . those things which we have done and those which we have left undone,” as one confession puts it.) That’s Tomlinson’s sin as well. Acedia, “sloth,” not doing what should be done. In Tomlinson’s case, he hadn’t bothered to do anything but read about other people’s activities. Dante . . . spent a wee bit too much time on politics, but he claims sloth/acedia.

I’m sure that Kipling had read Dante. Everyone did, in those days. I know Kipling knew the Biblical reference. And he probably had met more than one Tomlinson, people who lived only in books, and never thought for themselves. “This I thought that another man thought of a Karl in Norway,” Tomlinson claims. But he, himself, never did.

Be either hot or cold, a saint or a sinner, choose G-d or Satan. But don’t just sit there!

Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, begins at sundown today. For people of the Jewish faith, it is a day of very solemn contemplation and prayer, for fasting and sorrow. It is a day to consider one’s failures, and to bewail them, acknowledging where one went wrong, and how one failed to do his or her duty to the Most High and to his fellow men. It was the day of the scapegoat, the animal that bore the sins of the people into the wilderness. It is still for apology to G-d and remembering errors.

“Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa,” to mix liturgical languages.

There is also a sense of being close to the presence of the Most High through worship and prayer. Yom Kippur truly is the holiest of the High Holy Days.

To my Jewish readers, may you have an easy fast, and may you find that your name was inscribed in the Book of Life.

https://torahportions.ffoz.org/portions-library/images/as-shofar-tallit-man.jpg

Image from: https://torahportions.ffoz.org/portions-library/weekly-torah/head-of-the-year.html

Green Beer Day

OK, not really. For some this is a day to honor one’s Irish ancestry and heritage, and to eat corned beef and cabbage and potatoes, drink good beer (Guinness, Harp, et al), listen to Irish music, and honor the efforts of an early Christian missionary who is associated with Ireland although he is a Briton. If you are a politician in Boston or New York City, you’d better be seen at an Irish event, or your absence Will Be Noted.

Yes, this is an Orthodox icon of an Irish saint from Britain. Next question?

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Tree of Life

It’s an image found in many cultures – a tree with religious, ahem, roots, a symbol or a character in legend and faith. Trees are impressive wherever one finds them, and it is easy to see why certain individual trees, or trees in odd places, or certain types of tree, inspired veneration. Eventually, trees became elements of imagery in animist and later religions.

OK, maybe not these trees.

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Epiphany and Christmas

Because I think we could do with a bit of musical humor to wrap up the Feast of Christmas (Western calendar) and celebrate Christmas (Eastern calendar).

Alas, they left out the verse most often associated with the bass.

“Myrrh is mine/Its bitter perfume/Breathes a life of gathering gloom. Sorrowing, Sighting, Bleeding, Dying/ Sealed in a stone cold tomb.”

No One Was Surprised . . .

when a soft hum/chant arose from the choir loft during the reading of the Advent-candle text. Isaiah 9: 6-7. “For unto us a Child is born, and unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulders, and he shall be called . . .”

I know that lat least two of you are singing along. 🙂 So were we, mostly without realizing it. The organist gave us a Stern Look, then rolled his eyes, because he was doing it too.

I never, ever did the runs that cleanly. *SIGH*

Have a very, very, blessed and Merry Christmas to those who observe western Christmas, and a peaceful and happy day to all my readers!

That’s an Interesting Translation

This time of year, many Protestant churches that customarily incline toward more modern translations (and interpretations) of the Bible go back to the Authorized Version (King James) or Revised Standard Version for the gospel and Old Testament readings, because of the language. The slightly archaic words seem to fit what a lot of people think of as Christmas. While newer translations can be more easily understandable, the beauty of language can get lost. Continue reading