Devotees of Fr. Cherubim (Jones) the Half-Converted Demand His Immediate Canonization and Full Recognition as "Equal to the Heirophants"

Satire / Humor Warning:

As the author, I have been told I have a very subtle sense of humor.

This page is a work of satire, inspired by the likes of The Onion and early incarnations of The Onion Dome.

It is not real news.

Cover for The Seraphinians: "Blessed Seraphim Rose" and His Axe-Wielding Western Converts

Adamant devotees of Fr. Cherubim (Jones) the Half-Converted demand immediate canonization and full recognition as "Equal to the Heirophants". They have stepped beside their usual tactics of demanding canonization whether or not Fr. Cherubim the Half-Converted should be canonized, and demanding that any problems be swept under the carpet, to insist that he be called, "Equal to the Heirophants."

Much of the work in his wake was consolidated in the book, Christ the Eternal Doubt. Our devotee explained, "Blessed Cherubim Jones saw more than anything the spiritual toxicity of postmodernism. And he sensed, perhaps even more than he realized, that the proper rebuttal to postmodernism is to reconstruct modernism: indeed, there are powerful modernist currents in his thought even when he seems to condemn all Western trends. The great grandfather of modernism was René DesCartes, and Blessed Cherubim Jones uncovered layer after layer of this philosopher whose very name means 'Born Again' and whose Meditations put doubt on a pedestal and said, in essence, 'Doubt what you can; what remains after doubt is unshakable.' And Λογος or Logos is interchangeable, one might almost say homoousios, with logic and with doubt." And to quench the ills of the postmodern world, Fr. Cherubim the Half-Converted mined a vein that would come together in the classic Christ the Eternal Doubt.

Fr. Cherubim the Half-Converted has left a considerable wake; the tip of the iceberg is in his contribution to a wave of committed Evangelicals deciding that being Orthodox is an indispensible aid to pursuing their cottage industry of reconstructing the ancient Church. The sycophant excitedly commented, "Yes; there was an article on this phenomenon in The Onion Dome. It was a bit like that article in The Onion, um, what was it... there was a woman, a strong woman, who overcame years of childhood abuse to become a successful porn star. And this is nothing next to what happened when he was the only fashionable Orthodoxy the communist East could listen to."

Fr. Cherubim the Half-Converted was indeed very concerned that his version of the Fathers be adhered to. He pointed out that many Church Fathers, in giving the theology of the created world, absolutely denied that matter was made from atoms and molecules, but insisted that science properly interpreted proves that matter was made from the four elements: "earth, air, fire, and water." And he drew a line in the sand here, and most of his devotees are extraordinarily suspicious about whether you can be Orthodox and believe anything like modern atheistic chemistry.

There is some slight controversy surrounding Fr. Cherubim the Half-Converted's teaching on the phantom tollbooth. His position, as carried forth by others, is that practically every major element of The Phantom Tollbooth is already in the Fathers and is attested in quite ancient liturgy. Consequently, many argue, the book The Phantom Tollbooth is no mere imaginative children's tale, but an entirely literal factual account describing life beyond the mundane.

Read more of The Seraphinians: "Blessed Seraphim Rose" and His Axe-Wielding Western Converts on Amazon!

QUICK! What Is Your Opinion About Chemistry?

Cover for The Seraphinians: "Blessed Seraphim Rose" and His Axe-Wielding Western Converts

QUICK! What Is Your Opinion About Chemistry?
A Christmas tree built using chemistry's instruments.

Readers who also read the popular usability author Jakob Nielsen may have read him give a popularized version of "the query effect," which is essentially that even if people don't have an opinion on something before you ask, if you ask their opinion they will very quickly come to an opinion, share the newly formed with you, and walk away thoroughly convinced of the opinion they just shared.

I haven't actually done this, but if I were to waste people's time and perhaps get in trouble with clergy by taking a survey at church and ask them what their opinion of chemistry was, I would expect some hesitation and befuddlement, people being perhaps a bit uncertain about where the question was coming from or my motives for asking, but given a bit of time to answer, something like the following might be expected:

Read it on Kindle: part of the collection, The Seraphinians: "Blessed Seraphim Rose" and his Axe-Wielding Western Converts

  • It's hard.
  • It's boring.
  • It's fascinating.
  • I think it's really cool that a chemist can take two beakers full of clear liquid and pour them together and have it turn colors.
  • Our lives are so much better for things that need chemistry for us to be able to manufacture them.
  • Chemistry is foundational to how we as a society have raped the environment.
  • What difference chemistry makes depends on how you make use of it.
  • Chemistry came from alchemy—I'm a bit more curious about alchemy!
  • ...

Now what about an answer of "There are not hundreds of elements, e.g. hydrogen, helium, lithium, etc., but the original four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. Chemistry is intrinsically atheistic, and no Orthodox should believe it."?

Most readers may be even further confused as to where I may be going this, and suspect that the source of the opinion is occult, or deranged, or on drugs, or some combination of the above. But in fact that is the position of Church Fathers, although I will only investigate one of the Three Holy Heirarchs. In St. Basil's Hexaëmeron (Homily 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9), in which we read:

Others imagined that atoms, and indivisible bodies, molecules and [bonds], form, by their union, the nature of the visible world. Atoms reuniting or separating, produce births and deaths and the most durable bodies only owe their consistency to the strength of their mutual adhesion: a true spider's web woven by these writers who give to heaven, to earth, and to sea so weak an origin and so little consistency! It is because they knew not how to say "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth." Deceived by their inherent atheism it appeared to them that nothing governed or ruled the universe, and that was all was given up to chance.

Now a chemist who communicated well would be hard pressed to summarize chemistry (not alchemy) better in so few words as the opponents' position as summarized by St. Basil. Even if modern chemistry is developed in a great deal more detail and scientific accuracy than St. Basil's opponents. Compare the words of Nobel Prize laureate Richard Feynman, in the Feynman Lectures which are considered exemplars of excellent communication in teaching the sciences, in words that might as well have come from a chemist trying to explain chemistry in a single sentence:

If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that all things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.

Feynman and St. Basil's summary of his opponents are saying the same thing, and almost with the same economy. St. Basil's description could be used as a pretty effective surrogate if Feynman's words here were lost.

If that is the case, what should we make of it? Well, let me mention one thing I hope doesn't happen: I don't want to see even one pharmacist (or as is said in the U.K., "chemist"), weeping, make the confession of a lifetime, stop using chemistry to ease the sick and the suffering, after the sobbing confession, "I thought I was an Orthodox Christian, but it turns out I was really an atheist all along!"

A sane reading of the Fathers would take a deep breath—or simply not need to take a deep breath—and recognize that something other than legalism is the wisest course for dealing with occasional passages in the Fathers that condemn chemistry, just like with the passages that claim a young earth.

Just like the passages that claim a young earth?

People in the U.S. who are not connected with Hispanic culture will often wonder that Mexicans, either in Mexico or the U.S., do not really celebrate Cinco de Mayo, and probably make less of a hubbub of what is assumed to be the the Mexican holiday. But, as my brother pointed out, "Cinco de Mayo legitimately is a Mexican holiday, but it's not on par with the U.S.'s Independence Day; it's on par with [the U.S.'s] Casamir Pulaski Day."

It is helpful in dealing with passages from the Fathers to recognize what are genuinely Independence Day topics and what are only Casamir Pulaski Day topics. Independence Day topics include repentance, theosis, Grace, hesychasm, and there tend to be numerous treatises devoted to them. Casamir Pulaski Day topics like rejection of chemistry as atheistic, or insisting on a young earth, may be agreed on, but I have not read or heard in thousands of pages of patristic writing where either topic is front and center. So far I have only found brief passages, generally among other passages condemning various opinions in ways that, when they touch scientific subjects, are a bit scattershot—much as when one is proceeding the wrong way—as regards contributing to any useful and coherent way of evaluating modern science.

I'm not going to condemn believing in a young earth as it is a very easy conclusion to reach and it is shared among many saints. But I will suggest that even the conceptual framework of having an origins position is strange and not helpful, as it is spiritually really not that helpful to weigh in on whether chemistry makes you an atheist. We're making a really big deal of a Mexican Casamir Pulaski Day, much to the confusion of those connected with Méjico!

Mainstream origins positions

Let me briefly comment on the mainstream origins positions held by Orthodox. Some things are non-negotiable; among them being that God created the world and that the human race is created in the image of God. Atheism, naturalism or materialism is not acceptable, with or without connection to evolution. The Ancient Near East and pagan Greek philosophy hold to various opinions which are not to be accepted: among these are that a hero or god fought a dragon or demon and ripped her body in half, making half into the sky and half into the earth; that the universe was created by divine sexual activity in a fashion that need not be described to Orthodox Christians; that the world has always existed and is as uncreated as God; and that the world is an emanation from God (divine by nature in a diluted form), in classical pantheistic fashion. All of these are to be rejected, but I am not aware of a camp among today's Orthodox, nor have I encountered a single Orthodox follower, for these kinds of positions. And none of these seem to really overlap any mainstream position.

Among mainstream positions, let me enumerate the following. This excludes being completely not sure, finding the whole question messy and hesitating between two or more basic options (where I am now), and a few others. As far as I know, this list covers all encounters where I have seen a definite position taken by Orthodox. (Some or all of these positions may admit varieties and clarification.)

1: The saints believed in a young earth and that's how I read Genesis.
If you believe this, and don't go further or mix it with anything non-Orthodox, this is fine.
2: I believe in an old earth where God miraculously intervened by creating new life forms over time.
This position is now backed by intelligent design movement texts, such as Philip Johnson's Darwin on Trial. The downside, at least as explained to me by two very hostile Orthodox theistic evolutionists who shut me down before I could make my point instead of letting me make my point and then refuting it, is that the new intelligent design movement was concocted by the Protestant creationist Discovery Institute to attract people not attracted by young earth creationism's handling of science. Like the position that follows, most of its followers don't jackhammer people who disagree.
3: I'm not a scientist, but I believe God could have done it through evolution.
This option, theistic evolution, is perfectly permissible, but I wince as it usually means "I'm coming to terms with the science of a hundred years ago."

One hundred years ago, evolution was a live option in the academy. Now people still use the term, but its meaning has been gutted and any belief that life forms slowly evolve into different life forms has been dead so long that it has long since stopped even smelling bad. The evidence (the "evolutionary" term being "punctuated equilibrium" or "punk eek") is that the fossil record shows long periods of great stability without real change in what kind of organisms there, abruptly interrupted by geological eyeblinks and the sudden appearance and disappearance of life forms. Or as my "University Biology" teacher at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy said, "Evolution is like baseball. There are long periods of boredom interrupted by brief moments of intense excitement."

This option registers to me as a genuinely comfortable assent to science, but without awareness that the science in question has changed profoundly in the past hundred years.

But I wish to underscore: theistic evolution is (usually) an "I won't drop the hammer on you" signal, and that is an excellent kind of signal.

4: I am a scientist, and I believe God probably worked through evolution.
My experience with this has not been the most pleasant; in one case behind the open hostility and efforts to shut me down from arguing (and rudely stop me before I could make my point at all instead of letting me make my point and then explain its flaws) may have lurked an uneasiness that I represented enough authority that I was intrinsically a threat to their certitude that scientific evidence pointed to "evolution" (as the term has been redefined in the sciences of today).

With that stated, I have known several Orthodox physicians, and I expect some of them after extensive evolution-laden biology classes would lean towards theistic evolution. However, I'm not sure as they generally seemed more interested in knowing, for instance, if I was having a nice day, than convincing me of their views about origins.

(I don't remember any clergy or heirarch who was above me bringing up origins questions, although they have been willing to offer their thoughts if requested; "I'm not a scientist, but I believe God could have done it through evolution" is the most frequent opinion I've seen even among conservative clergy. Priests seem to be focused on bigger questions, like "What hast thou to confess?")

All four opinions above are at least tolerable, but there is one additional common opinion that takes "problematic" to a whole new level:

5: God created a young earth and we know because Creation Science proves it.
I am perhaps biased by my frustrating experience with this crowd. I've had people offer to straighten out my backwards understanding of science whose understanding of science was so limited that I could not lead them to see when I was making a scientific argument, as opposed to just arbitrarily playing around with words. I have an advanced degree from a leading institution and a lot of awards. I am not aware of any of the people who sought to do me the favor of straightening out my backwards views on science as having a community college learner's permit associate's degree in any of the sciences.

The assertion is made that Creation Science is just science (after all, how could it not, if it has "Science" in its name?). A slightly more astute reader might listen to artificial intelligence critic John Searle's rule of thumb that anything with the word "science" in its name is probably not a science: "military science," "food science," "Creation Science", "cognitive science." My best response to people who think Creation "Science" is science in the usual sense of the term, is to say that "Creation Science is real, legitimate science" is wrong, in the same way, for the same reason, as saying "Pro-choice Catholics are real, legitimate Catholics". Pro-choice "Catholics" do not understand, appreciate, respect, or accept what it means to be a Catholic; Creation "scientists" do not understand, appreciate, respect, or accept what it means to be a scientist. Not only do Scientists and Catholics not accept the obnoxious intrusion, but arguing is pointless and brings to mind Confucious's warning, "It is useless to take counsel with those who follow a different Way."

The problem with Creation Science is not that it is not science. It is painfully obvious to those outside of the movement that it is a feature of the Protestant landscape, perhaps a Protestantism of yesteryear rather than Protestantism today: Wheaton College, which is quite arguably the Evangelical Vatican, has something like three young earth creationists on its faculty, and I have never heard the one I know even mention Creation Science—he only claims to accept a young earth from reading and trusting the Bible), and the origin and nature of Creation Science are well described by a leading Evangelical scholar of Evangelicalism, Mark Noll in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.

Kiddies, if you're going to take one feature of Protestantism and incorporate it into Orthodoxy, take Bible studies, or My Utmost for His Highest, or some other genuine treasure that tradition has produced. It would be better to do neither, of course, but those are better choices. Taking Creation Science from Evangelicalism is like robbing Evangelicalism in a blind alley, and all you take away is its pocket lint!

More than one person who have held this last position have called into question whether I should be calling myself an Orthodox Christian at all because I didn't believe in a young earth. And I really think that's a bit extreme. In twelve years of being Orthodox, I have on numerous occasions been told I was wrong by people who were often right. I have been told I was wrong many times by my spiritual father, by other priests, and by laity who usually have had a little bit more experience, and I suspect that future growth will fueled partly by further instances of people pointing where I am wrong. However, when I was newly illumined and my spiritual father said that what I had just said sounded very Protestant, he did not thereby call into question whether I should be calling myself an Orthodox Christian. The only context in the entirety of my dozen years of being Orthodox that anybody has responded to my words, faith, belief, practice, etc. by directly challenging whether I should be calling myself an Orthodox Christian at all, was Seraphinians who were exceedingly and sorely displeased to learn I did not share their certain belief in a young earth. This seems to say little about my weaknesses (besides that I am the chief of sinners), and a great deal more about an unnatural idol that has blown out of all proportions. The Casamir Pulaski day represented by the theologoumenon of a young earth has completely eclipsed every Independence Day question on which I've been wrong, from my early ecumenism (ecumenism has been anathematized as a heresy), to a more-inappropriate-than-usual practice of the Protestant cottage industry of archaeologically restoring the early Church. In both cases my error was serious, and I am glad clergy out-stubborned me as I did not give in quickly. But they refrained from casting doubt on whether I should be calling myself an Orthodox Christian; they seem to have seen me as both a nascent Orthodox and wrong about several things they would expect from my background. Really, we do need Church discipline, but isn't dropping that sledgehammer on people who don't believe a young earth a bit extreme?

I'll not return the insult of casting doubt on whether they're Orthodox; I don't see that this option is acceptable, but I believe it is coherent to talk about someone who is both Orthodox and wrong about something major or minor. I believe that Creation Science is a thoroughly Protestant practice (that it is not science is beside the point), and militantly embracing Creation Science is one of the ways that the Seraphinians continue a wrong turn.

The position of Creation "Science" in relation to genuine science is the same as the relation between a non-canonical jurisdiction and the Orthodox Church. Even (or especially) if they have the word "Genuine" written right into their name!

But quite apart from that, the question of origins as I have outlined it is itself a heritage from Protestantism. Evangelicals once were fine with an old earth, before Evangelicals created today's young earth creationism; the article Why young earthers aren't completely crazy talks with some sympathy about the Evangelical "line in the sand;" Noll tells how it came to be drawn. The fact that it can be a relatively routine social question to ask someone, "What is your opinion about origins?" signals a problem if this Protestant way of framing things is available in Orthodoxy. It's not just that the Seraphinian answer is wrong: the question itself is wrong, or at least not Orthodox as we know it now. Maybe the question "Did God create the entire universe from nothing, or did he merely shape a world that has always existed and is equally uncreated with him?" is an Independence Day question, or something approaching one. The questions of "Young or old earth?" and "Miraculous creation of new species or theistic evolution?" are Casamir Pulaski Day questions, and it is not helpful to celebrate them on par with Independence Day.

One friend and African national talked about how in her home cultural setting, you don't ask a teacher "What is your philosophy of education?" as is routinely done in the U.S. for teacher seeking hire who may or may not have taken a single philosophy class. In her culture, that question does not fit the list of possibles et pensables, what is possible and what is even thinkable in that setting. (This whole article has been made to introduce a concept not readily available in the possibles et pensables of our own cultural setting, that having a modern style of "origins popsition" at all is not particularly Orthodox; and that some positions, even or especially among conservatives, are even more problematic. A transposition to chemistry helps highlight just how strange and un-Orthodox certain positions really are.) And let us take a look at Orthodox spiritual fathers. As advised in the Philokalia and innumerable other sources, if you are seeking a spiritual father, in or out of monasticism, you should make every investigation before entering the bond of obedience; after you have entered it, the bond is inviolable. I don't know exactly how Orthodox have tried spiritual fathers, but I have difficulty imagining asking a monastic elder, "What is your personal philosophy of spiritual direction?" Quite possibly there is none.Even thinking about it feels uncomfortably presumptuous, and while theological opinion does exist and have a place, defining yourself by your opinions is not Orthodox.

If I were to ask someone in the U.S. "What are your family traditions for celebrating Casamir Pulaski Day?" the best response I could get would be, "Cas-Cashmere WHO?"

And now I will show you a more excellent way

I feel I may be sending a very mixed message by the amount I have written in relation to origins questions given that my more recent postings keep downplaying origins debates. Much of what I have written has been because I don't just think certain answers have flaws; the questions themselves have been ill-framed.

But that isn't really the point.

These pieces are all intended to move beyond Casamir Pulaski Day and pull out all of the stops and celebrate Independence Day with bells on. They may be seen as an answer to the question, "Do you have anything else to discuss besides origins?" If you read one work, Doxology is my most-reshared.

1. Doxology
How shall I praise thee, O Lord?
For naught that I might say,
Nor aught that I may do,
Compareth to thy worth.
Thou art the Father for whom every fatherhood in Heaven and on earth is named,
The Glory for whom all glory is named,
2. A Pilgrimage from Narnia
Wardrobe of fur coats and fir trees:
Sword and armor, castle and throne,
Talking beast and Cair Paravel:
From there began a journey,
From thence began a trek,
Further up and further in!
3. God the Spiritual Father

I believe in one God, the Father, Almighty...

The Nicene Creed

All of us do the will of God. The question is not whether we do God's will or not, but whether we do God's will as instruments, as Satan and Judas did, or as sons, as Peter and John did. In the end Satan may be nothing more than a hammer in the hand of God.

C.S. Lewis, paraphrased

4: Akathist to St. Philaret the Merciful
To thee, O camel who passed through the eye of the needle, we offer thanks and praise: for thou gavest of thy wealth to the poor, as an offering to Christ. Christ God received thy gift as a loan, repaying thee exorbitantly, in this transient life and in Heaven. Rejoice, O flowing fountain of Heaven's treasures! (Repeated thrice.)
5: A Pet Owner's Rules
God is a pet owner who has two rules, and only two rules. They are:

  1. I am your owner. Enjoy freely the food and water which I have provided for your good!
  2. Don't drink out of the toilet.
6: The Orthodox Martial Art Is Living the Sermon on the Mount

A look at India in relation to my own roots and formation

My live story up until now would be immeasurably impoverished if the various ways in which India had entered my life would simply be subtracted. I appreciate Indian food, even if I eat it in a non-Indian (Paleo) fashion. And that is not trivial, but there are deeper ways I've been enriched by that great nation. One of these relates to pacifism, where one of India's giants, one certain Gandhi, is perhaps the best-known person in history as I know it for the strength of pacifism.

7: Silence: Organic Food for the Soul
We are concerned today about our food,
and that is good:
sweet fruit and honey are truly good and better than raw sugar,
raw sugar not as bad as refined sugar,
refined sugar less wrong than corn syrup,
and corn syrup less vile than Splenda.
But whatever may be said for eating the right foods,
this is nothing compared to the diet we give our soul.
8: Repentance, Heaven's Best-Kept Secret
I would like to talk about repentance, which has rewards not just in the future but here and now. Repentance, often, or perhaps always for all I know, bears a hidden reward, but a reward that is invisible before it is given. Repentance lets go of something we think is essential to how we are to be—men hold on to sin because they think it adorns them, as the Philokalia well knows. There may be final rewards, rewards in the next life, and it matters a great deal that we go to confession and unburden ourselves of sins, and walk away with "no further cares for the sins which you have confessed." But there is another reward that appears in the here and now...
9: Why This Waste?
"Why This Waste?" quoth the Thief,
Missing a pageant unfold before his very eyes,
One who sinned much, forgiven, for her great love,
Brake open a priceless heirloom,
An alabaster vessel of costly perfume,
Costly chrism beyond all price anointing the Christ,
Anointing the Christ unto life-giving death,
Anointed unto life-giving death,
A story ever told,
In memory of her:
10: The Transcendent God Who Approaches Us Through Our Neighbor

The temperature of Heaven can be rather accurately computed from available data. Our authority is the Bible: Isaiah 30:26 reads, Moreover the light of the Moon shall be as the light of the Sun and the light of the Sun shall be sevenfold, as the light of seven days. Thus Heaven receives from the Moon as much radiation as we do from the Sun and in addition seven times seven (forty-nine) times as much as the Earth does from the Sun, or fifty times in all.

11: Open
How shall I be open to thee,
O Lord who is forever open to me?
Incessantly I seek to clench with tight fist,
Such joy as thou gavest mine open hand.
12: The Angelic Letters
My dearly beloved son Eukairos;

I am writing to you concerning the inestimable responsibility and priceless charge who has been entrusted to you. You have been appointed guardian angel to one Mark.

Who is Mark, whose patron is St. Mark of Ephesus? A man. What then is man? Microcosm and mediator, the midpoint of Creation, and the fulcrum for its sanctification. Created in the image of God; created to be prophet, priest, and king. It is toxic for man to know too much of his beauty at once, but it is also toxic for man to know too much of his sin at once. For he is mired in sin and passion, and in prayer and deed offer what help you can for the snares all about him. Keep a watchful eye out for his physical situation, urge great persistence in the liturgical and the sacramental life of the Church that he gives such godly participation, and watch for his ascesis with every eye you have. Rightly, when we understand what injures a man, nothing can injure the man who does not injure himself: but it is treacherously easy for a man to injure himself. Do watch over him and offer what help you can.

With Eternal Light and Love,
Your Fellow-Servant and Angel

Happy Independence Day! Enjoy the fireworks display.

Read more of The Seraphinians: "Blessed Seraphim Rose" and His Axe-Wielding Western Converts on Amazon!

Profoundly Gifted Magazine: An Interview with Maximos Planos

Cover for Profoundly Gifted Survival Guide

Profoundly Gifted: You did some amazing things and some impressive actions when you were a child prodigy; have you been up to anything since then?

Maximos: Quite a lot, really; I've settled into work as a usability / user interface / user experience professional with a humble boss. And I've gotten married; my wife Mary and I have seven daughters, all of them with the middle name of Abigail, or "Father's Joy."

Profoundly Gifted: That's it? You haven't studied languages, for instance?

Maximos: Much water will not be able to quench love, and rivers shall not drown it; that is the important one, but yes; other languages are a bit like Scotch. One is just getting started; two is just about perfect; three is not nearly half enough.

Profoundly Gifted: So you're not just a husband and father: you're also a philologist—how many languages do you know?

Maximos: You are paying attention to trivialities if you gloss over my fatherhood to ask a question about my love of languages that I really can't answer.

Profoundly Gifted:What can't you answer about how many languages your love of languages includes?

Maximos: You aren't a philologist when you speak two languages, or four, or twelve, or eight. You're a philologist when someone asks you how many languages you know, and you have no idea how to answer.

Profoundly Gifted: Then what is it? What should I make of it?

Maximos: If I may shanghai an opportunity to follow the words, "If there is an elephant in the room, introduce him..."?

Profoundly Gifted: Yes?

Maximos: Asperger's Syndrome.

Profoundly Gifted: It's kind of like profound giftedness, no?

Maximos: Let me quietly count to ten... Ok...

I read David Pollock's Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds, and I said, "That's me!" Then I read Edward Hallowell's Driven to Distraction and it made sense. Then I read, on a medical practitioner's advice, Tony Attwood's The Complete Guide to Asperger's Syndrome, and my response was some more polite form of "Dude... pass me a toke of whatever it is that you're smoking!"

The root problem, which I will get to in a minute, is that when people who are happy to have an Asperger's diagnosis and happy to offer half the people they know an Asperger's diagnosis, there are superficial similarities between profound giftedness and Asperger's traits, things that a competent diagnostician should see far past.

Early in the title, Attwood says that when he diagnoses someone with Asperger's, he says, "Congratulations! You have Asperger's!" But then it goes downhill. Atwood argues that the obvious social impairments one would associate with Asperger's are guilty as charged; Asperger's people don't know (without counseling and / or training) how to hold an appropriate social conversation. However, the strengths one would associate with Asperger's are all but eviscerated. Asperger's children may have a monologue that sounds like a competent adult discussing the matter, but this "knowledge" is a hollow shell, without much of anything of the deeper competency one would associate with an adult capable of such monologue. The common stereotype of Asperger's patients portrays a slightly odd combination of strengths and weaknesses; Attwood's book is less generous and really only ascribes real weaknesses.

The standard symptoms of Asperger's have a perhaps 50% overlap with standard symptoms of profound giftedness; while it is certainly possible to be a member of both demographics, the profoundly gifted characteristics resemble Asperger's characters for quite unrelated reasons. The similarity may be compared to the common cold, on the one hand, in which there is an immune response to a harmful invader, and environmental allergies on the other hand, in which there is a harmful response to something otherwise harmless. Or for those who prefer an example from Charles Baudelaire, there is an image of two females, one an infant too young to have teeth or hair, and the other a woman too old to have teeth or hair. (The coincidence of features is close to being due to diametrically opposed reasons.)

Profoundly Gifted: Is the question "Asperger's or profound giftedness?" the sort of question you'd rather un-ask than answer?

Maximos: It is indeed. Or at least I'm drawing a blank to see what a three-cornered discussion of normalcy, Asperger's, and profound giftedness has to add to the older discussion of normalcy and profound giftedness. If we can overcome our chronological snobbishness says that only now could we say something worthwhile about XYZ and giftedness, Leta Hollingsworth decided as a counterbalance to a study of mental retardation a study of some who turned out to have an IQ of somewhere around 180 or higher. She wrote an insightful and descriptive, Children Above 180 IQ Stanford-Binet, much more insightful than the treatment of profoundly gifted scoring "Termites."

Furthermore, and here I am less concerned with the relationship between profound giftedness and Asperger's than improperly read research, there is a consistent finding that IQ-normal, autism-normal children do markedly better at what are unfortunately lumped together as "theory of other minds."

A much better interpretation of Attwood's data might come from splitting the theory of other minds into a separate theory of like minds, and also a theory of alien minds. A theory of like minds works with one's homeys or peeps; hence someone IQ-normal and autism-normal surrounded by IQ-normal and autism-normal classmates will coast on a theory of like minds. But, except in how it may be refined by practice, a theory of like minds that comes virtually free to everyone isn't in particular reserved to a majority of people (not) affected by XYZ condition. With some true exceptions like Tay-Sachs, everybody gets along with their peeps. Gifted and profoundly gifted click with their fellows; Asperger's people click with their fellows; to pick a few many demographics, various geek subcultures, codependents, addicts, and various strains of queer should click just as well. Everybody gets a theory of like minds virtually free; the breadth of usefulness depends on how rarely or commonly one encounters like minds, and this heavily loads the dice for Attwood's approach.

The comparison Attwood makes in interaction with autism-normal people loads the dice in a way that is totally unfair. The comparison is autism-normals' theory of like minds to Asperger's theory of alien minds; he never, ever tests autism-normals on their ability to relate to alien minds, nor does he ever test Asperger's patients on their ability to relate to like minds. And while being unsure about how far this applies to IQ-normal Asperger's patients, Asperger's patients often make herculean and lifelong efforts to develop "theory of alien minds" aptitude, and the result is not just that they connect, perhaps clumsily, with people of the same age and socioeconomic status; they make very close connections across age, race, and gender, and for that matter animals who may start off by being afraid of them. The theory of alien minds is finely honed, even if it is not a valid substitute for a theory of like minds, and once it is honed, this theory of alien minds reaches much, much further than autism-normals resting on a theory of like minds.

Profoundly Gifted: So your parents' policy of non-interference and the Law of the Jungle was too romantic to teach you to be safe?

Maximos: More romantic than real life, perhaps, and putting me into a regular kindergarten, sink or swim, is neither more nor less realistic as putting a rabbit in the midst of coyotes, sink or swim. There was a real solution, but it was more romantic, and I fear being misunderstood. I certainly found it by accident.

Profoundly Gifted: What is it?

Maximos: A woman has kept a goldfish for years longer than goldfish usually live, in a fishbowl, just by talking to it in Mommy-to-baby love. Years back, hospitals which were ever concerned with sanitation witnessed a dramatic drop in infant mortality when they took the "unsanitary" step of having old women cuddle them.

Profoundly Gifted: And how does this relate to bullying?

Maximos: Let me raise and address another question first. We raise and send constant signals which are often met with escalation. When we are angry with someone, or wish for a way out of our job, or anything else, we war against others in our thoughts. That warfare is powerful. Often it comes back amplified; we can feed a corrective to the loop by responding meekly and with meek thoughts to a blast of anger. Some martial artists have talked about how few people really want to fight; such people are much less common than people who want to be the unchallenged tough guy. It does happen that there are some people want to do wrong; however, much more common are people who are disarmed when all three claims in Anger slays even wise men; yet a submissive answer turns away wrath: but a grievous word stirs up anger. The submissive answer to domineering anger is difficult, but it is possible, and it is a route that a quest for life by the Law of the Jungle will never find.

And bullying isn't just for in the classroom. It's also in professional life. The top quality I search for in a boss is humility. There is something aggravating about high talent. It is common practice to have sent multiple C&D letters, or equivalent, when harassment has continued after being repeatedly told, "No." This is unfortunate, but it is a non-negotiable feature of the landscape.

And, like other things that are never the victim's fault, harassment is never the victim's fault; no matter how good or bad a person's social skills many be, it is never justified to continue harassment until the person being harassed says, "CEASE AND DESIST."

It is possible, in good faith, to do one's best work as the privilege of the inferior before the superior to be praised, in the purest thoughts of respect, and instead be met with anger and retaliation to a perceived challenge. But if this is a live danger if we meet our bosses with thoughts of peacefulness, what on earth is to be done when we throw down work with warfare in our thoughts?

Profoundly Gifted: But don't we all do best to avoid needlessly stepping on other people's feet, especially our bosses'?

Maximos: Yes and NO.

Profoundly Gifted: Yes and NO?

Maximos: Have you ever spent a winter in the Midwest, perhaps Illinois? And drove after a heavy snowfall, three to four inches of packing snow?

Profoundly Gifted: Yes; it was a bit harrowing, but I made a bit of extra effort and was overall pretty safe.

Maximos: What made you safe?

Profoundly Gifted: I drove slowly, left plenty of space, and made allowances for skidding. That was enough to have me relatively safe.

Maximos: Ever driven in that kind of snowstorm in Georgia and the US South? The same three or four inches?

Profoundly Gifted: Not really; it never snowed like that when I was there.

Maximos: Years back, Georgia responded to a snowstorm three or four inches deep, and decided, "We will not be caught off guard like this again." And then the next snowstorm the slowplows were rusted to the point of being unusuable, and you would have been sharing the road with people who don't have even an Illinois familiarity with driving under heavy snow. Would you consider yourself safe all the same, because you need to drive in snow?

Profoundly Gifted: Aah.

Maximos: Get used to driving in a blizzard with other people not used to driving in any snow, if you want to be profoundly gifted. The approach that is usually safe sharing the road with drivers who can handle snow, more or less, does not even compare to trying to be safe hanling a road with people who just don't know how to drive heavy snow.

And it feels awfully good to be told more than once, "You are the most brilliant person I've ever met," but suppose you are so bright that the average Oxford PhD has never met someone as talented as you? You may be trying to drive safely yourself at least, but you're sharing the road with people who are driving on a complete snow-packed terra incognita to them.

Profoundly Gifted: This sounds like a lonely and sad life.

Maximos: That was not my point at all, but what life is sad and lonely when one is searching for humility?

But let me give another detail.

You know, probably ad nauseum, about Leta Hollingsworth's conception of "socially optimum intelligence". The top end of the range varies somewhat depending on who you ask, but it runs something like 120 to 150. At that point you have powers to speak of, but you're still running on the same chassis. And people who are properly above the range are rare, enough to really be exotic or a purple squirrel or something else few people have seen. The powers that come seem almost magical, but the price tag is hefty; the real advantage and the real privilege is at the heart of the gifted range, not the upper extreme.

I found James Webb's Guiding the Gifted Child to be a treasure chest and a gold mine. One part of it says that children with an IQ above 170 don't have peeps; the way that the book says this is that "children with an IQ above 170 tend to feel like they don't fit in anywhere..."

...But there is another shoe to drop. There is another level, exact IQ unknown, where people are able to make peeps out of anyone. They develop a theory of alien minds so far that the distinction between the theory of like minds and the theory of alien minds no longer matters so much...

...And that is how I have found employment as the local usability and user experience guru. One of the first things people are taught for usability research is "You are not a user," meaning that however much theory-of-like-minds knowledge you have of how software is meant to be used, you need to grasp a theory-of-alien-minds understanding of how everybody but the software developers understands it...

...Maybe you think I should be doing something more exalted in academia, and maybe I should be, but a humble and gentle boss is a treasure worth gold, and turf wars are just a little less than with academic bullies. Right now I have my wife and our seven daughters, and a steady job, and godliness with contentment is great gain.

Profoundly Gifted: Well, that about says it.

Maximus: Or not.

Profoundly Gifted: Or not?

Maximos: Or not.

Sweet lord, I have played thee false.

You don't know how I was at a rich kids' school, and the one and only chapel message I heard on theology of play was students who had gone through internships in third world nations, and theology of joy and play was writ large: a girl asked how you talk about germ theory to a runny-nosed little girl who offered you a lick of her lollipop. And really, how can you to people who are poor enough to be happy?

You do not know the time when I was deathly ill and was healed You do not know when I met every earthly betrayal and dishonor, and none to my own credit knew Heavenly honor next to which the summit of earthly honor is but pale and shadow. You do not know the sound of men weeping when the sleeper awakes, and the dreams are gone: the apprenticeship is finished and the godhead begins. You know I have felt sorrows above anything mentioned here, but they are not worth comparing with the glory to come, or even for the glory that exists here now in the the vast, vast open freedom of forgiveness, the utter nakedness of standing open before God, and the priceless vale of humility that is so low that no man can fall from it.

We, like social Gospel and the liberal left, believe in life before death. Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which here now God worketh in hidden transcendent glory for those who love him.

Read more of Profoundly Gifted Survival Guide on Amazon!

Jonathan's Canon

Own C.J.S. Hayward's complete works in paper!

Below is the corpus of writings that I have read so far and would most quickly recommend to others, on a basis of theological or philosophical merit and personal impact. The books, series, etc. are alphabetized by title (not author), and exclude two areas: first the Bible, because that Canon is prior to and infinitely greater than my canon, and second, my own writings, which I believe others should be the judges of. The boundaries are hazy — I'm sure that your favorite book not on the list is better than your favorite book on the list. All entries should be assumed to be books unless stated otherwise.

Looking for a good book, for me, is a quest a little like a detective's searching for clues: anything that can be anticipated is not it. It is like a good surprise birthday present: you know it when you see it, but anything you can anticipate is not it. (In that regard, it is like a foretaste of Heaven: eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor any mind conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.) The list should grow longer as time progresses.

I told a friend once that I thought that some things would be a lot better if theologians would do all the apologetics, and apologists would do all of the theology. I'm not sure how to explain that remark (beyond asking people to think about it and let it sink in), but I often get more out of lesser works than greater. I am not including Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologiae on the list, for instance, because I got less out of reading it (in abridgment) than out of reading Chesterton's Orthodoxy, and less out of reading parts of Dante's Divina Commedia than C.S. Lewis's The Great Divorce. Maybe when I have matured more I will be ready to read some of the greater works, but now I usually learn best at the hands of the lesser masters. My judgment has certainly bothered people; the aforementioned friend was quite surprised when I gave high acclaim to Titanic, and he eventually said, after seeing what I saw in it, that my reading was so beautiful of a reading that he almost hesitated to attribute it to Kirk Cameron. Many of these works are lesser classics; I am aware of the greater classics, but have not learned much from most of them. Readers who enjoy this list may also like to see my favorite haunts on the web.

The Abolition of Man, by C.S. Lewis
An excellent and concise description of what Western culture is trying to do, and what will come of it.

Abortion: A Failure to Communicate.
On Saturday Night Live, the announcer said, "Kenny G came out with his new Christmas album. [pause] Happy birthday, Jesus. I hope you like crap!"

Being aloof from popular artists, it took me a while to realize that Kenny G is not a Christian artist. Most of what goes by the name of Christian is intellectually and artistically worthless, in a sense a blasphemy against the Creator who lovingly and lavishly created no two blades of grass alike. In looking through Christian this and Christian that on the web, it was a very refreshing pearl amidst a desert of sand. This was the first good Christian article I found in a long while.

Addicted to Mediocrity: 20th Century Christians and the Arts, by Franky Schaeffer
This book provides an excellent analysis of bad philosophy as it leads to an impoverished culture — dealing with how utilitarianism (leaving the obvious critique related to pursuing only means and never ends) has nearly killed one aspect of the imago dei in our culture. A good and accessible read to anyone concerned with philosophy, art, or culture.

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Show Business, by Neil Postman
After I read this book (a quick read, in contradistinction to Jerry Mander's weightier and slower Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television), I've never looked at a TV the same way again. This would be a good candidate for the first book on this list to read, because once you've read this one you'll find it easier to break away from television's accursed spell and read other books and otherwise experience life.

There's something that must be said for television. It must be said, because it cannot be printed.

All Men are Brothers: Autobiographical Reflections, by Gandhi
This book, and in particular the chapter entitled, "Ahimse or the way of nonviolence," provided a large part of my real beginning in understanding peacemaking, and the loose prototype for Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Real Peace through Real Strength. It's largely a collection of excellent quotes, and well worth reading to anyone asking the questions concerning violence and peace.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, by Barbara Robinson
C.S. Lewis said that children's books should be good enough for adults, and that childrens' books which aren't good enough for adults won't be any good for children, either. All of the best children's literature is good for adults, and this book in particular is interesting, funny, and truly profound. (Something similar, incidentally, might be said for Dr. Seuss's How the Grinch Stole Christmas.)

The Book of Heroic Failures, by Stephen Pile
This book I debated putting in, but I decided for: first, because when I read it I laughed so hard I cried and could barely talk, and second, because it does help to come to terms with a side of being human that most of us find a smidgen embarrassing.

Changeling: the Dreaming
Reading about this game (which I could not play in good conscience, incidentally), was one of the things I did that most pierced me with a glimpse of Heaven, as did Pilgrim's Regress and other places. To quote from the web site:

We are changelings, the forgotten ones, neither fully fae nor wholly mortal. The last of our kind on Earth, we have built ourselves an invisible kingdom. We are everywhere, yet you have never seen us. We hide, not behind some fragile Masquerade, but in plain sight, with the power of our Glamour. We exist within a real world of make-believe where "imaginary" things can kill, and "pretend" monsters are real.

This is an exquisitely beautiful description of the spilled religion that is Romanticism, and someone who drinks those drops may well imbibe deeper from the Chalice than someone who is careful to have his lips touch the chalice, but makes no effort to take in the Drink inside. We are indeed members of an invisible kingdom, hidden in plain sight by the power of grace and prayer, and believe many things that the Kingdom of Darkness now calls imaginary. Reading this inspired a part of one of my writings:

On the web, I found a place set up by a woman who believed she was a fairy. At first, it weirded me out — but, the more and more I think about, the less it strikes me as strange. I don't mean that it's not wrong — I mean rather that it is far less wrong than many beliefs about which we've become blase'. The essential idea of a person who is really a fairy, and a world of wonder, a nature of beauty, and of magic, is in some ways very close to the truth of imago dei, of God's magnificent creation, and of prayer. It has its definite errors and omissions, but it is far closer to true than the idea of a person as only a material body, of nature as only a particular configuration of subatomic particles, of the supernatural as only a figment of human imagination and superstition. The beliefs around fairies would make the basis for an excellent parable, of which a crude rendition is as follows:

Once upon a time, there was a village of men, that was on the border of fairy-land. And some people saw faries, but some lived lives that were dull and dreary.

And the god of nature, who was the prince of the gods, entered this village and began to take men and women into his arms, embracing them and kissing them. And when he kissed them, he made them into fairies. And he took them, and taught them to dance, a wild, merry, pagan dance with the trees and stars and rivers and lakes and flowers.

And the god cut through what was dull and mundane, and the leaders whose interests were in all that was dull and mundane were enraged and killed him. And yet all of their rage and unbelief and violence, even death itself, could not keep him. Before he was killed, he gave the fairies to eat his flesh and drink his blood, that he might live in them and they in him, and after he was killed, he rose in a surge of the indestructible life that was within him.

And now, he has left that he might be everywhere — in men, in the stars, in the trees, and enchant them with his magic, that they might dance also, and he abides and is found inside each fairy, and empowers them to kiss others with his kiss and draw them into the circle of life, that they also might become fairies, living the life of the nature god, weaving his magic by which the entire universe pulses with life, carried about by song and wonder, and dancing the great dance.

And he has designs yet unveiled — to bring an even greater perfection to the nature, the fairies, the magic, the dance, the embrace.

And the story is unfolding even now.

Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World, by Dorothy Sayers
An excellent collection of essays, beginning with a beautiful satire entitled, "The Pantheon Papers"

The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis
These seven books are excellent children's literature, and storytelling that tells the most beautiful story through fantasy. I have always been drawn to fantasy, because it draws out the wondrous and beautiful truths about our world — "The better you know another world, the better you know your own," (George MacDonald, Lilith) — and because good fantasy is a reflection of our world.

Code Complete: A Practical Handbook of Software Construction, by Steve C. McConnell
All of the really good books, in any field, are books of philosophy. This book is a book of philosophy in computer programming, but it is widely applicable outside of that field. Its central point is that computer programming is an activity done by humans instead of just an activity using computer, and as such it is not enough to know the computer's strengths and weaknesses, but also to know your own strengths and weaknesses. Some of its immediate content — how to choose variable names and lay out procedures so that you're less likely to run into certain bugs resulting from your short-term memory failure in designing the program — is only relevant to programmers, but macroscopically it would be valuable to anyone. A must-read for software engineers, and a should-read for everyone else.

The Cost of Discipleship, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
This is an excellent book; it is a good competitor to Experiencing God for the place of #1 recommendation, or more appropriately a good companion volume. This book shows what sola fide really means in terms of works, and the monumental importance of good works in a context of faith. Bonhoeffer repeats, as a refrain, "Only those who believe can obey, and only those who obey can believe." Works are like a sacrament — not human means of making ourselves worthy, but physical conduits of God's blessing. Show Bonhoeffer your faith without works, and this martyr and mensch will show you his faith through his works.

Darwin on Trial, by Phillip Johnson
Shortly after reading Abortion: A Failure to Communicate, I earnestly read all kinds of articles at Leadership University, happy to find high-quality Christian articles... and my estimation of the site dropped several notches when I saw articles with titles like "Darwin on Trial." It seemed that here, after a lot of mature thought, was a kneejerk conservative backsliding into fighting to restore six-day creationism and otherwise fight what good science said. One day, I actually read one of these articles I detested, and it blew me away.What followed after that was a crisis, followed by a loss of faith — not in God, but rather in academia. I came to believe something I had long resisted — that Darwinism was established dogma, not because of its support in the evidence (existing scientific evidence being extremely hostile to any form of Darwinism that is both recognizably connected with Darwin's theory, and within spitting distance of being called a scientific theory), but because it provides an excuse for an explanation of how life could come to be without a Creator.

Darwin's Black Box, by Michael Behe
Darwin on Trial gives a broad overview of scientific evidence concerning Darwinism. Darwin's Black Box provides a focused and in-depth look at one very specific biochemical mechanism. I didn't find it quite as fascinating as the former, but it's definitely worth reading for people who like intricate clockwork and complexity. An engineer should like it.

The Devil's Dictionary, by Ambrose Bierce
This classic of satire contains a number of extremely funny definitions (my personal favorite defined rum to be "generically, fiery liquors which produce madness in total abstainers"), and is poignantly insightful as to the shortfallings of American Christianity. It was the basis, and provided the model, for Hayward's Unabridged Dictionary. Its cynicism is something to be wary of, but beyond that it is a classic of wit and refreshingly blunt honesty.

The Disappearance of Childhood, by Neil Postman
I plan on re-reading this book if and when I get married, have kids, and my eldest child reaches the age of three. It deals with the themes of other books, plus a harmful blurring of the line that separates children from adults. If you care about children having a real childhood, you should probably read this.
The Empty Self: Gnostic Foundations of Modern Identity, by Dr. Jeffrey Burke Satinover
Gnosticism is the most ancient of heresies, and one of the deadly poisons infesting the Church. (I am using 'heresy' in its ancient sense of "a fatally flawed idea that is as damaging to the believer as is a belief that arsenic is healthy food", not in the modern sense of "an excellent idea which narrow-minded society benightedly condemns.") This provides an excellent introduction by which to know and avoid it.

Experiencing God: How to Live the Full Adventure of Knowing and Doing the Will of God, by Henry T. Blackaby and Claude V. King
This book articulate deep lessons about listening to God and obeying him. It comes highly reccommended.

Fairy Tales: At The Back of the North Wind, The Complete Fairy Tales, The Day Boy and the Night Girl, The Golden Key, The Light Princess, The Lost Princess, The Princess and the Goblin, The Princess and Curdie, by George MacDonald.
C.S. Lewis said that he fancies he never wrote a story that did not in some way borrow from MacDonald, and it was MacDonald who served as his mentor in The Great Divorce. These different fairy tales are profound, moving, and some of the deepest literature I know. They are rare gems equally appropriate to children and adults.

Father Arseny, 1893-1973: Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father : Being the Narratives Compiled by the Servant of God Alexander Concerning His Spiritual Father
This book shows how the light of Heaven shines in the darkest situations. Father Arseny was a survivor of the brutal "special sector" death camps of the Stalinist regime, and is the kind of person who can light a candle in the darkest corner of Hell. One comes away from this book feeling, not the atrocity inside and outside of the brutal Stalinist death camps, but a good that could shine even in those circumstances. I highly reccommend it.

Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, by Paul Brand and Phillip Yancey.
This book, written by a doctor, explores the beauty and power of the human body, and by analogy the body of Christ. Chapters 15 through 18 awakened me to the goodness of touch — hugging me used to be like hugging a board, but I now have a very present and powerful touch. It was because of them that I wrote A Treatise on Touch. A very beautiful and thoughtful book.

First Things: A Journal of Religion and Public Life
This journal is about putting first things first, as described in the opening editorial. It has substantial and intellectually mature treatments of many of the issues of our day. If you like it, you might consider subscribing.

Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, by Jerry Mander
Neil Postman presents one good argument as to why television is not the bestthing since sliced bread. Mander presents four, developped at greater length. There is less of a lively pace, and the argument gets weird some of the time, but it still produces thought-provoking and serious arguments as to why television should be eliminated. Among the excellent comments may be found, "The programming is the packaging; the advertising is the content." If you watch more than an hour of TV a week, take half an hour of your regular TV time and devote it to reading this book.

45 Effective Ways of Hiring Smart! How to Predict Winners and Losers in the Incredibly Expensive People-Reading Game, by Pierre Mornell, et al. (Author has also written another excellent title, for job hunters: Games Companies Play)
Written for people who hire others, this is a book on how to read people. It seems to me to do a good job of living up to its rather large title.

Foundations of Cognitive Science, ed. Michael A. Posner
This is my favorite textbook; it presents an interdisciplinary field, cognitive science, and is fascinating reading.

Galileo, Science, and the Church, by Jerome J. Langford
I make it a personal rule not to reccommend a book I haven't read, and this book justifies breaking that rule.

I, and I suspect you, have heard in science classes a moral fable about a heroic natural philosopher named Galileo who was martyred by the evil, oppressive, and censorious Church. It is a beautiful story — showing, as well as any morality play, that being a scientist is good, and the Church and its concept of orthodoxy are demonspawn (sentiments that are echoed in, for example, the Oxford Companion to Philosophy having an entry for persecution of philosophers, but no reference to persecution by philosophers — not the faintest reference to the bloodbath that culminated the siecle des lumieres with cleaning ladies and eight year old children guillotined as much as clergy and statesmen, with patriots standing at the foot of the guillotine to be sprayed by the blood of the unfortunates and then eat their still living flesh; nor any reference to the hundred million lives lost, and the blood that has flowed like a river every single time people have taken Marx's philosophy as a good basis for a political order). But the Galileo fable has no connection with fact.

Among other points may be mentioned that Galileo scientifically produced garbage — no experimental data and no particularly good interpretation of those results — that Galileo was friends of the Pope but alienated him and made a number of enemies by being a jerk, and that Galileo was preceded in his heliocentrism by nearly half a century, and that by a cardinal. The only reason the story is told is as part of the process of brainwashing people to worship science and despise the Church.

The Game (movie)
Q: What do the following three things have in common?

  • A joke.
  • A Zen koan.
  • The book of Job.

A: They all share something with The Game, and the effect in that movie is stunning.

Gather (hymnal)
This is a lively, modern hymnal of the sort that achieves several dishonorable mentions in Why Catholics Can't Sing. That stated, it has a number of songs that I cherish and that were new to me, including "Canticle of the Sun," "Gather us in," and "The City of God."

This is the songbook used by Koinonia at the Newman Foundation at the University of Illinois, and for that reason I cherish it — I purchased a copy when I had almost no money, just to be able to have those songs. I used a few of its songs to improvise on in my second recorded tape.

Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, by Roger Fisher et al.
This is, as far as I know, the best book for dealing with conflicts where another party and you can't yet agree on something. I don't think that this is the substance of life, but conflicts are bound to happen, and knowing this book will be immeasurably helpful in dealing with some conflicts.

Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, by Douglas E. Hofstadter.
This book is one of the most stunning displays of intellectual fireworks I have read. It relates art, music, stories, and mathematics, along with wit, witticism, and clever dialogues. It started out as a little pamphlet, and Hofstadter soon realized he was writing more than just a pamphlet explanation of Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem.

The Great Divorce, by C.S. Lewis
This is just a great book, useful for nurturing the reader in Christian wisdom — and one of the most beautiful I've ever read. I got a lot more out of this than out of the parts of La Divina Commedia that I've read.

Guiding the Gifted Child: A Practical Source for Parents and Teachers, by James T. Webb et al.
Being very smart does not just mean more of the same kind of intelligence most people possess; it means possessing a different kind of mind. When I first read this book, it seemed to me to be part of the cult of giftedness; my estimation has since changed to recognizing a special needs population, with its strengths and weaknesses, and providing insight into things such as an unusual sense of humor and special moral concerns.

Heaven: The Heart's Deepest Longing, by Peter Kreeft
Hebrews catalogues what a few giants of faith did, and then says (11:13-16, RSV):

These all died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.

Christians have historically placed a major emphasis on Heaven and the hope that is there, and today Orthodox believers give a high place to bringing Heaven down to earth. For beauty's sake, I wish to quote another passage, one that is very close to my heart (Rev. 22:1-5):

Then he showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. There shall no more be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and his servants shall worship him; they shall see his face, and his name shall be on their foreheads. And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign for ever and ever.

Kreeft's book could as well be entitled, "Heaven: The Heart's True Home." I consider it to probably be the most profound and one of the most beautiful books on this list, and would deeply recommend it. It both speaks of Heaven — the sort of reason why, on a young adult retreat where a getting-to-know-you question was "If you could visit one place, where would it be?", I answered in perfect seriousness, "Heaven," giving not a physical 'where', but an infinitely greater spiritual 'where'. It also tells how to listen with your heart — something very, very important in life.

Heretics, by G.K. Chesterton
A part of being in a culture means a kind of blindness, a "How else could anyone think of it?" Heretics unmasks the blindness.

How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture, by Francis Schaeffer.
This book is on par with The Abolition of Man, providing a much more culturally in-depth treatment of how Western thought is falling. It is a deep and extensive writing, as well as a fascinating read. It deals with the interior schism between head and heart, something well worth escaping.

How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie
The title sounds positively Machiavellian, doesn't it? Don't let that deceive you. I prefer to talk with people who are trying to follow the principles in this book. It tells a lot about how to be a person others will genuinely enjoy being with.

I Saw Gooley Fly, by Joseph Bayly
This book is a collection of short stories; the first one, from which the book takes its title, is about a college freshman who is a complete klutz, gets into all kinds of accidents, and can fly. Not fly an airplane or hang glider or kite, mind you; he can jump out of his third-storey window and sail over to the dining hall.

I read that story after my best friend Robin, who is quite busy, took the effort to type it up and posted the whole printout to a forum wall. It struck a deep enough chord that I poked around until I purchased one of two available copies from a suggested book dealers' network, by a friend who works at a used and rare bookstore. I recently read it, and am glad to have gone to the trouble to find it.

What's so impressive about this book? In a word, creativity. The stories are as creative as Dorothy Sayers' "Pantheon Papers", but it's not just one work like that in a book of essays (which are insightful and quite often creative, but do not fill the same literary niche). Someone who likes the creativity shown in my different writings may find I Saw Gooley Fly to be a rare treat.

Best odds for getting a copy? Probably inter-library loan.

Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus, by Dinesh D'Souza
This book helped me make sense of some of my own experiences, and offers an alternative analysis of racial tensions besides, "Continue with what we're doing, only more of it and faster!"

In Celebration of Discipline, by Richard Foster
This book was given to me when I was baptized in Malaysia, and I am glad to have read it. It guides the reader on a spiritual journey inward, upward, and outward, in four disciplines each:

Part I: Meditation, Prayer, Fasting, Study
Part II: Simplicity, Solitude, Submission, Service
Part III: Confession, Worship, Guidance, Celebration

The note on the first page reads:

Presented to MR. JONATHAN HAYWARD on the occasion of his baptism on 13 JUNE 1993, by the Petaling Jaya Gospel Hall.

—Ephesians 3:16-19—
 

Ephesians 3:16-19 RSV reads:

...that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fulness of God.

Introduction to Eugenics, booklet
This booklet, which struck me as too weird to be true until I actually did some research, is something I haven't been able to find online, but I believe there are probably some good books on. Nutshell is that the eugenics movement is alive and well, appearing under various masks such as Planned Parenthood: Margaret Sanger, the organization's founder, being openly and actively interested in reducing the number of black babies born — though her successors are much better than that, and instead work on having abortion clinics situated well to take on charity abortions ('situated well' meaning 'in minority neighborhoods'). The belief in a population explosion (which is a bit absurd, if you think about it: why should population growth in third world countries suddenly meet such astronomical growth after being more or less stable for millenia, and why is apocalyptic overpopulation still approaching despite repeated and careful predictions for the doomsday which have come and gone) is listed as a major eugenic success.

The Joy of Mathematics, by Theoni Pappas
When I tell people that I'm a mathematician, the reaction is usually some mixture of one or more of awe, fear, and pity. They've had a couple of bad math classes, and therefore they figure that a math major experiences a concentrated form of such torture. Nothing could be farther from the truth, and this book explains to a non-mathematician what joy and beauty lie in such a profession.

Kevin Trudeau's Mega Memory, by Kevin Trudeau
Long ago and far away, people had memories that were prodigious by our standards; in Somalia, a large minority of educated men have memorized the Koran—without knowing Arabic. There is a proficiency in using memory that is mostly neglected here, and it can be useful. As I write, I'm using the basic technique to keep with me about twenty distinct points in an hour-long speech.

I'm at a disadvantage using these skills; they work best for a concrete mind rather than a very abstract one like mine. You may well find it easier to use the techniques than I do, and I still find them useful. Kevin Trudeau's book is one of several practical how-to books, and knowing even some of it is useful.

Labyrinth (movie—out of print, check an older rental store)
This fantasy movie is visually exquisite, and has the penultimate scene in M.C. Escher's "House of Stairs". Morally, it is the only movie I can recall seeing whose villain really tempts someone instead of shooting at him; the story goes on and has more and more things fall apart; the heroine keeps saying, "That's not fair!" — and finally says in her heart, "It's not fair, but I'm going to give it my determination and my elbow grease. I can identify with that; I have met difficulties I would not have imagined possible, and yet still I follow God — all the more powerfully, if anything. The term 'eye of the tiger' refers to a soldier who has been wounded and then returns to battle; there is no warrior so fierce as the eye of the tiger. I am in spiritual warfare the eye of the tiger, and this movie means a lot to me.

Leadership Is an Art, by Max DePree
I was calling random recruiters to send a resume... one of them was AC Recruiters, and (having seen many meaningless acronyms) did not guess that the AC stood for 'air conditioning', and was meant to place air conditioning repairmen etc. So I called, and had a pleasantly relaxed conversation, and he happened to know one guy in Homewood, "the best boss you'll ever have." He passed on my resume, and Lou (the head of the company) wanted to meet me. I asked him, "What's the title of that book he's so enthusiastic about?", and when he told me "Leadership Is an Art", checked out a copy to be able to read it and be prepared for the interview... and checked it out, and found that it was solid gold. It is the most humane and moral — not to mention effective — form of capitalism I have yet seen, and I would like to work under it. Lou, acting out the principles in this book, had a sign at the front door saying, "Welcome Jonathan Hayward", and we talked for over an hour.

This little book could be summarized as the Sermon on the Mount applied to business.

Leadership University
This site is an anthology of a lot of the best stuff on the web; it is worth at least a week of reading. It was where I found Abortion: A Failure to Communicate, and other gems.

The Lefthander Syndrome, by Stanley Coren
Apart from trying to make left-handers into another angry minority (a cure which is worse than the disease), this is a fascinating book about left-handedness.

Listening, A Practical Approach, by James J. Floyd
The art of communicating well consists far more in being a good listener than in being a good speaker. Few people want someone to talk to them; many people want someone to listen, and then share a something afterwards. A short and valuable read.

Love is Stronger Than Death, by Peter Kreeft
This book looks at love first as a stranger, then as an enemy, then as a friend, then as a mother, then as a lover: each mask worn must be looked into and embraced until it dissolves and shows the next mask. The last mask to come off reveals the face of God. This is an excellent companion to Heaven: The Heart's Deepest Longing; we live in a pain-killing culture that is terrified of facing death, and this book provides a mature and thoughtful invitation to come, and see what death is. I found it to be very moving.

My Utmost for His Highest, by Oswald Chambers
A classic.

Never Alone: A Personal Way to God, by Joseph Girzone
This is a gentle book, that may introduces spirituality to people who cannot see God because of pain caused by perversions of religion.

An Orthodox Prayer Book
I wish I could put the print version of a prayer book like this. Alas, this book is hard to find in print.

The Orthodox Way, by Kallistos Ware
This describes the Christian faith with fingerprints on it. It has the kind of beauty of a very personal touch, not only because of the mystical author, but much more because the author brings in the fingerprints of his tradition.

Orthodoxy: The Romance of Faith, by G.K. Chesterton
After Chesterton wrote Heretics, someone asked him, "If that is what we shouldn't believe, what should we believe?"

After a moment, he said, "I am going to write a book about that." So he wrote Orthodoxy

Out of the Silent Planet, by C.S. Lewis
This is an enjoyable read about a fantastic journey to another world.

Participant Observation: Step by Step, by James P. Spradley
This is an anthropology text, but some of its concepts have broader application.

Pensées, by Blaise Pascal

Qu'est-ce donc que nous crie cette avidite et cette impuissance, sinon qu'il y a eu autrefois en l'homme un veritable bonheur dont il ne lui reste maintenant que la marque et la trace toute vide, qu'il essaye inutilement de remplir de tout ce qui l'environne, en cherchant dans les choses absentes le secoures qu'il n'obtient pas des presentes, et que les unes et les autres sont incapables de lui donner, parce que ce gouffre infini ne peut etre rempli que par un objet infini et immuable?

What then does this avidity and powerlessness cry out to us, if not that there was once in man a true happiness of which nothing remains save the quite empty mark and trace, which he futilely tries to fill with everything around him, looking in what he does not have for what he does not find in those he does have, and which either one is incapable of giving him, because this infinite void can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object?

Pascal knew a haunting romance as well. Food for thought.

Perelandra, by C.S. Lewis
The sequel to Out of the Silent Planet, this describes the main character brought to a sinless world to be his representative as the sinless Eve was being tempted.

Phantastes, by George MacDonald
This is a faerie romance for adults. It was my favorite book for a time, and reading it let me know that I could write A Dream of Light.

The Pilgrim's Regress, by C.S. Lewis
This allegorical defense of Christianity, Reason, and Romanticism was Lewis's first writing after his conversion: a little rough around the edges, but a good writing. Lewis knew romance's haunting as well.

Please Understand Me II: Temperament, Character, Intelligence, by David Kiersey
I have read both Please Understand Me and Please Understand Me II on the suggestion of a reader, and thought considerably about whether one of these texts should be included. The case for inclusion is that they offer an invaluable enrichment to interpersonal understanding, and for reasons I explain below, one beyond the benefit offered by standard descriptions of the sixteen Meyers-Briggs personality types. The case against it is that it is woven through and through with a very destructive philosophical error, one that appears humane and reasonable on the surface and at the core is a far worse poison than racism. If I knew an alternative, a book that would offer the same insight without mingling it with poison, I would include that; not knowing of any such alternative, I think I will reccommend it with a warning.

The idea of the sixteen personality types based on four personality dimensions is one of the best things to come out of Jungian psychology — the only one, for that matter, that I have encountered which is separable from Jung's Gnosticism — and Meyers and Briggs created a tool that allowed most people to get a good quick-and-dirty result that would help them to understand themselves better. The good thing about a book about the sixteen personality types is that it allows people to read about their own types, and quite probably come to understand themselves better. The bad thing about such a book is that it provides too much information to be assimilated or navigated by the casual, nonspecialist reader. The reader's type, read with interest, is quite probably the one personality type that will be remembered. Maybe one more for spouse, if the reader is married — but not sixteen. Sixteen are too many to keep track of.

Enter Please Understand Me. This book provides a road map, connecting Meyers-Briggs personality types with the four classical temperaments. Each temperament is a cluster of four similar personality types, and the four temperaments provide a much more manageable learning feat. I at least walked away from both books with a clear understanding of all four temperaments, not just my own. The books do treat all sixteen personality types, but within the context of a coherent and manageable framework. The reader is likely to walk away from either book with a far better picture of human variation than from any straight description of the sixteen personality types.

That's the good news. What's the bad news?

Errors often come in diametrically opposed pairs — such as legalism and libertinism. C.S. Lewis said that the Devil always sends us errors in pairs — he wants our extra hate for one to pull us into the other. The pair of errors I am concerned with here is as follows:

 

There are no legitimate personal variations. Every difference is a matter of right or wrong. Everybody should strive to adhere to every standard I want to adhere to. There are no matters of right or wrong. Every difference is a legitimate personal variation. No person should apply any of his standards to anybody else.

I am not going to tell you which of these errors is worse; I am not going to say which is the real error to be aware of. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, that's exactly what the Devil wants. He wants us to be so focused on how bad one of those errors is that our extra hate for it will suck us into the opposite — like the pickpocket duo where one member urgently warns you about a spilling cup of coffee so that you won't notice that the other has stolen your wallet. Like extreme heat and extreme cold, they are quite different from each other, but both extremes produce the same undesirable result: they make you quite thoroughly dead.

I am not going to tell you which of these errors is worse, but Kiersey is. He succumbs to the temptation. Kiersey bewails one error and uses its awfulness to lure the reader into the other. From a theologian's perspective — or from a demon's, for that matter — it doesn't particularly matter which is which. In this case Kiersey bewails the error on the left, luring the reader to embrace the error on the right. He makes no distinction between preferences in matters keeping to a schedule vs. open-ended playing by ear, or keeping a neat vs. creatively disorganized house, and choices in matters such as embracing faith vs. delving into the occult, or chastity vs. lust.

The treatment of sexual practices in Please Understand Me II deserves particular note. I was going to say that the text makes no distinction between sexual purity and promiscuity — but then I realized that that is not quite correct. It is certainly true that one temperament's tendency towards sexual promiscuity is described in respectful, nonjudgmental terms — and that two other temperaments' tendency to do what they choose whether or not contemporary society approves (that is, whether or not it violates the concensus of the Natural Law shared by innumerable times and places — save that the choice of loaded language leads the reader to regard these standards as arbitrary and parochial). When, however, one temperament at least tries to be abstinent before the wedding and faithful after, it is described in language that appears to be neutral, nonjudgmental and "just the facts, Ma'am" — and somehow manages to describe this purity in what I consider to be the most degrading language in the text. It calls to mind the maxim, "Where orthodoxy is optional, it will sooner or later be proscribed." Chastity isn't exactly proscribed, but it is a mark of talent to be able to appear to be impartially and nonjudgmentally reporting the facts and still paint a picture that's that unflattering. There is no hint in the text — in the chapter on mating or anywhere else — of the freedom and joy of sexual union between a husband and wife who offer each other their virginities on their wedding night and choose to be faithful thereafter.

I would like to elaborate a little more about what I said about this being a worse poison than racism. I wasn't just making a poetic exaggeration, like someone who comes in during the summer and says, "It's hotter than Hell out there!" I was making a literal statement. I am a white male — and if racism is not defined as "the prejudice of whites against blacks and other minorities", then my tenure as an American in a non-Western nation at a time when anti-American sentiment was running strong, my experience of (for example) having a careful and respectful question met with an angry rant, and other experiences of getting only the dregs left after those in power had considered how to meet the needs of those types whom they considered worth caring for, gives me at least a limited basis to know, by experience, that racism is nasty. Even after this, I do not believe that racism is the one unpardonable sin, the sin against the Holy Ghost, that it is presently made out to be. It is as if a person may be dishonest, may be coldhearted, may be arrogant and lazy, and he is like everyone else an imperfect person — but establish that he is really, genuinely, and truly racist, and then he embraces the unacceptable. You think I exaggerate? For the next week, as you go about your life, count the number of times you encounter a communication from some group working "against racism," and the number of times you encounter a communication from some group working "against coldheartedness." I will be surprised if the 'working against coldheartedness' tally totals to a tenth as many as the 'working against racism' tally. For that matter, I will be surprised if the 'working against coldheartedness' tally is not zero.

It makes sense to say that a person is a smoker and is relatively healthy. Cigarettes do damage to any person's lungs, but it is possible to regard a person as being overall healthy despite the very real damage caused by smoking. In the same sense, it makes sense to say that a society is openly racist and relatively healthy. Not by any means that the racism is harmless — it causes real and significant harm. But that harm can coexist with other areas of health. A society can be openly racist, can nurse grudges against other ethnicities, be they minorities or the denizens of other nations — and live on for centuries, alive and kicking. It is poison, but not all poison, not even all strong poison, is lethal. The same cannot be said for poison found in Please Understand Me. As a member of the host of ideas Lewis analyzes in The Abolition of Man, no society can long embrace such ideas without destroying itself. Societies have taken such "progressive" views before — and then fallen apart. In addition, this idea appears a reasonable and enlightened idea, one that a person should be respected for holding — to say that you are for racism, on the other hand, is to instantly forfeit all claim to be taken seriously. Poison that appears to be food will harm far more people than poison in a bottle clearly labelled, "Poison". For these reasons, I mean quite literally that one of the fundamental ideas woven throughout the text is worse than racism.

Having made this critique, I wish to say that Please Understand Me is a book worth reading, even with such a massive flaw — and I believe that the danger is lessened to a reader who has been forewarned. That I would list anything I believe to justify such a warning is meant as a reccommendation.

There are two editions of the book: Please Understand Me, published in the 1970s, and Please Understand Me II, published in the 1990s. The second book is about twice as long, and talks about differences in kind of intelligence found in temperaments and personality types; the first book gives a very good feel for what people are like — experience of the world and actions. I am not exactly going to reccommend one book over the other, so much as provide a helpful question: "Do you specifically want to know about mental competencies enough to read twice the length of material, or would you prefer a shorter piece that gives the same insight into most aspects of personhood but does not significantly treat intelligence?"

(Side note: I would not endorse Please Understand Me II as a resource for understanding multiple intelligence theory. It does not ask the question of "What are the basic kinds of human intelligence?" so much as "What are the temperaments and personality types, and what kind of intelligence may be associated with each of them?" It's kind of like a book on academic departments asking, "What are the academic departments in a university, and what kinds of intelligence may be associated with each of them?" That would be a good resource on academic departments, but it's the wrong place to look if your goal is to understand multiple intelligence theory.)

Prayer, by Richard Foster
An in-depth treatment of one of the most foundational areas of the Christian life. Giants of faith have said things like, "I am so busy that I cannot get on with less than two hours of prayer a day." This book is worth reading and following.

The Recorded Sayings of Zen Master Joshu, by Shih Chao-Chou
This provides a collection of profound koans (illustrative stories), not concerned primarily with moral cleanliness, but with something that will sharpen and challenge almost any mind. It was after reading them that I wrote Christian Koans.

Reason in the Balance: The Case Against Naturalism in Law, Science, and the University, by Phillip Johnson
Darwinism is the cutting dullness of the sword being wielded against Christianity; the sword is named 'naturalism'. Johnson here provides a good and broad view that is well worth reading, especially for Christians in an academic context.

Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements, Thomas Oden
About how modern theology has gone sour; interesting and quite honest. A must-read for anyone going to seminary.

Saint Francis of Assisi, by G.K. Chesterton
This book is full of "magic from another real world;" it does a good job of telling the story of one of the most colorful saints in history.

The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, by Mark Noll
"The scandal of the Evangelical mind," Noll writes, "is that there's not much of an Evangelical mind."

This deals with the tragic story of how many people who really love the Lord and yet who are very far from loving God with all of their minds. An Evangelical equivalent to Why Catholics Can't Sing.

Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey
This is a practical and popular book, and it is practical and popular precisely because it does something deep.

Sources of the Self, by Charles Taylor
This book provides a good history of the philosophers whose work has shaped our modern sense of identity. It's ponderous reading; I thought I hadn't gotten anything out of wading through it until I found myself referring to its concepts in a conversation.

Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein
Heinlein was a sex-crazed libertine, anti-Christian, and deliberately wrote to be offensive. Stranger is the most monumentally flawed book I have read which I would even consider reccommending to another person — and I have. This book is a deeply interesting book. I identify a lot with Michael Valentine Smith, and Charles Wallace in A Wind in the Door.

Tales of a Magic Monastery, by Theophane the Monk
I've given away a couple of copies of this book. Its stories are short, simple, and profound.

Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu
Written millenia ago in China, this book is a collection of 81 poems (and the inspiration for me to write The Way of the Way). There are a number of insights about slowing down and growing still, relying on God's grace, and other things...

Technopoly, by Neil Postman
This book could be summarized in a single question: "Was technology made for man, or man for technology?" It has a number of valuable insights, and I would like to see a new edition published with an appendix about the Web. His insights about the detrimental side effects of technology, and the sorceror's bargain involved in each. I wish Postman would write a book entitled, The Luddite's Guide to Technology, which would analyze different technologies and the advantages and disadvantages of using each, to help people decide when and where to buy what technological items — and suffer from the sorceror's bargain as little as possible.

That Hideous Strength, by C.S. Lewis
The conclusion of Lewis's space trilogy, and a good fairy tale for adults.

Three Philosophies of Life, by Peter Kreeft
This book explores three philosophies of life: life as empty vanity, as developed in Ecclesiastes, then life as redemptive suffering, as developed in Job, then life as love and joy, as developed in the Song of Songs. It is a fascinating book, and the onethat (after being lent to me) motivated me to check out other Kreeft books.

Truth is Symphonic, by Han Urs von Balthasar
A fascinating theological read about the beauty of diversity in the created order.

Two-Way Prayer, by Priscilla Brandt
Reading this book helped me desire a prayer that is listening as well as speaking. People who like Experiencing God might like it.

What Color Is Your Parachute?, by Richard Bolles
This book is practical by remembering what people forget when they try to be practical. There's something shining that often dies in people; Bolles has helped me pursue work where that something shining is alive.

Why Catholics Can't Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste, by Thomas Day
A Catholic equivalent to The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. This deals with truly awful Catholic music, and is of relevance to a whole lot more people than just Catholics.

Why Go to Mass?
A short article dealing with why consumer-oriented services are not a substitute for services designed ad maior Dei gloriam.

A Wind in the Door, by Madeleine l'Engle
This book is special to me, both because of its imagination, beauty, storytelling, depth, imagery, description of kything, etc., and because I identify with Charles Wallace — in needing to adapt while remaining wholly myself, and in other things.

Die Wolkenreise, a picture book by Sis Koch, with illustrations by Sigrod Heuck
This children's book was given to me by a very good friend after her trip to Germany, and it is one of the most beautifully tragic books I have read. Here is the rough paraphrase translation she gave me (as best I can reconstruct it from memory, the pictures, and a very rough knowledge of German — the pictures are exquisite, and the reason I am reccommending the book):

Once the wind said to a cloud, "Come with me, let me blow you about, and show you the world!

"I will show you woods, hills and fields, and plains with wild horses and fields, cities, and even deserts, seas and mountain islands. I'll show you desert islands, coral reefs, and even more, all around the world."

The cloud said to the wind, "I can't do that. I have to go and make it rain."

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine l'Engle
The book introducing the characters in A Wind in the Door.

An Orthodox Looks at a Calvinist Looking at Orthodoxy

Buy The Best of Jonathan's Corner on Amazon.

Jack Kinneer, an Orthodox Presbyterian minister and a D.Min. graduate of an Eastern Orthodox seminary, wrote a series of dense responses to his time at that seminary. The responses are generally concise, clear, and make the kind of observations that I like to make. My suspicion is that if Dr. Kineer is looking at things this way, there are a lot of other people who are looking at things the same way—but may not be able to put their finger on it. And he may have given voice to some things that Orthodox may wish to respond to.

Orthodoxy is difficult to understand, and I wrote a list of responses to some (not all) of the points he raises. I asked New Horizons, which printed his article, and they offered gracious permission to post with attribution, which is much appreciated. I believe that Dr. Kinneer's words open a good conversation, and I am trying to worthily follow up on his lead.

A Calvinist Looks at Orthodoxy

Jack D. Kinneer


During my studies at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, I was often asked by students, "Are you Orthodox?" It always felt awkward to be asked such a question. I thought of myself as doctrinally orthodox. I was a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. So I thought I could claim the word orthodox.

But I did not belong to the communion of churches often called Eastern Orthodox, but more properly called simply Orthodox. I was not Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, or Antiochian Orthodox. As far as the Orthodox at St. Vladimir's were concerned, I was not Orthodox, regardless of my agreement with them on various doctrines.

My studies at St. Vladimir's allowed me to become acquainted with Orthodoxy and to become friends with a number of Orthodox professors, priests, and seminarians. My diploma was even signed by Metropolitan Theodosius, the head of the Orthodox Church in America. From the Metropolitan to the seminarians, I was received kindly and treated with respect and friendliness.

I am not the only Calvinist to have become acquainted with Orthodoxy in recent years. Sadly, a number have not only made the acquaintance, but also left the Reformed faith for Orthodoxy. What is Orthodoxy and what is its appeal to some in the Reformed churches?

The Appeal of Orthodoxy

Since the days of the apostles, there have been Christian communities in such ancient cities as Alexandria in Egypt, Antioch in Syria, and Corinth in Greece. In such places, the Christian church grew, endured the tribulation of Roman persecution, and ultimately prevailed when the Roman Empire was officially converted to Christianity. But, unlike Christians in the western half of the Roman Empire, the eastern Christians did not submit to the claims of the bishop of Rome to be the earthly head of the entire church. And why should they have done so? The centers of Orthodox Christianity were as old as, or even older than, the church in Rome. All the great ecumenical councils took place in the East and were attended overwhelmingly by Christian leaders from the East, with only a smattering of representatives from the West. Indeed, most of the great theologians and writers of the ancient church (commonly called the Church Fathers) were Greek-speaking Christians in the East.

The Orthodox churches have descended in an unbroken succession of generations from these ancient roots. As the Orthodox see it, the Western church followed the bishop of Rome into schism (in part by adding a phrase to the Nicene Creed). So, from their perspective, we Protestants are the product of a schism off a schism. The Orthodox believe that they have continued unbroken the churches founded by the apostles. They allow that we Reformed may be Christians, but our churches are not part of the true church, our ordinations are not valid, and our sacraments are no sacraments at all.

The apparently apostolic roots of Orthodoxy provide much of its appeal for some evangelical Protestants. Furthermore, it is not burdened with such later Roman Catholic developments as the Papacy, purgatory, indulgences, the immaculate conception of Mary, and her assumption into heaven. Orthodoxy is ancient; it is unified in a way that Protestantism is not; it lacks most of the medieval doctrines and practices that gave rise to the Reformation. This gives it for many a fascinating appeal.

Part of that appeal is the rich liturgical heritage of Orthodoxy, with its elaborate liturgies, its glorious garbing of the clergy, and its gestures, symbols, and icons. If it is true that the distinctive mark of Reformed worship is simplicity, then even more so is glory the distinctive mark of Orthodox worship. Another appealing aspect of Orthodox worship is its otherness. It is mysterious, sensual, and, as the Orthodox see it, heavenly. Orthodox worship at its best makes you feel like you have been transported into one of the worship scenes in the book of Revelation. Of course, if the priest chants off-key or the choir sings poorly, it is not quite so wonderful.

There are many other things that could be mentioned, but I've mentioned the things that have particularly struck me. These are also the things that converts from Protestantism say attracted them.

The Shortcomings of Orthodoxy

So then, is this Orthodox Presbyterian about to drop the "Presbyterian" and become simply Orthodox? No! In my estimation, the shortcomings of Orthodoxy outweigh its many fascinations. A comparison of the Reformed faith with the Orthodox faith would be a massive undertaking, made all the more difficult because Orthodoxy has no doctrinal statement comparable to the Westminster Confession of Faith. Orthodoxy is the consensus of faith arising from the ancient Fathers and the ecumenical councils. This includes the forty-nine volumes of the Ante- and Post-Nicene Fathers, plus the writings of the hermits and monastics known collectively as the Desert Fathers! It would take an entire issue of New Horizons just to outline the topics to be covered in a comparison of Orthodoxy and Reformed Christianity. So the following comments are selective rather than systematic.

First, in my experience, the Orthodox do not understand justification by faith. Some reject it. Others tolerate it, but no one I met or read seemed to really understand it. Just as Protestants can make justification the whole (rather than the beginning) of the gospel, so the Orthodox tend to make sanctification (which they call "theosis" or deification) the whole gospel. In my estimation, this is a serious defect. It weakens the Orthodox understanding of the nature of saving faith.

Orthodoxy also has a real problem with nominal members. Many Orthodox Christians have a very inadequate understanding of the gospel as Orthodoxy understands it. Their religion is often so intertwined with their ethnicity that being Russian or Greek becomes almost synonymous with being Orthodox. This is, by the way, a critique I heard from the lips of Orthodox leaders themselves. This is not nearly as serious a problem in Reformed churches because our preaching continually stresses the necessity for a personal, intimate trusting, receiving, and resting upon Jesus Christ alone for salvation. Such an emphasis is blurred among the Orthodox.

Second, the Orthodox have a very inadequate understanding of sovereign grace. It is not fair to say that they are Pelagians. (Pelagius was a Western Christian who denied original sin and taught that man's will is free to choose good.) But they are definitely not Augustinians (Calvinists) on sin and grace. In a conversation with professors and doctoral students about the nature of salvation, I quoted Ezekiel 36:26-27 as showing that there is a grace of God that precedes faith and enables that human response. One professor said in response, "I never thought of that verse in that way before." The Orthodox have not thought a lot about sin, regeneration, election, and so forth. Their view of original sin (a term which they avoid) falls far short of the teaching of Paul. Correspondingly, their understanding of Christ's atonement and God's calling is weak as well. Their views could best be described as undeveloped. If you want to see this for yourself, read Chrysostom on John 6:44-45, and then read Calvin on the same passage.

Third, the Orthodox are passionately committed to the use of icons (flat images of Christ, Mary, or a saint) in worship. Indeed, the annual Feast of Orthodoxy celebrates the restoration of icons to the churches at the end of the Iconoclast controversy (in a.d. 843). For the Orthodox, the making and venerating of icons is the mark of Orthodoxy—showing that one really believes that God the Son, who is consubstantial with the Father, became also truly human. Since I did not venerate icons, I was repeatedly asked whether or not I really believed in the Incarnation. The Orthodox are deeply offended at the suggestion that their veneration of icons is a violation of the second commandment. But after listening patiently to their justifications, I am convinced that whatever their intentions may be, their practice is not biblical. However, our dialogue on the subject sent me back to the Bible to study the issue in a way that I had not done before. The critique I would offer now is considerably different than the traditional Reformed critique of the practice.

Finally, many of the Orthodox tend to have a lower view of the Bible than the ancient Fathers had. At least at St. Vladimir's, Orthodox scholars have been significantly influenced by higher-critical views of Scripture, especially as such views have developed in contemporary Roman Catholic scholarship. This is, however, a point of controversy among the Orthodox, just as it is among Catholics and Protestants. Orthodoxy also has its divisions between liberals and conservatives. But even those who are untainted by higher-critical views rarely accord to Scripture the authority that it claims for itself or which was accorded to it by the Fathers. The voice of Scripture is largely limited to the interpretations of Scripture found in the Fathers.

There is much else to be said. Orthodoxy is passionately committed to monasticism. Its liturgy includes prayers to Mary. And the Divine Liturgy, for all its antiquity, is the product of a long historical process. If you want to follow the "liturgy" that is unquestionably apostolic, then partake of the Lord's Supper, pray the Lord's Prayer, sing "psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs," and say "amen," "hallelujah," and "maranatha." Almost everything else in any liturgy is a later adaptation and development.

A Concluding Assessment

But these criticisms do not mean that we have nothing to learn from Orthodoxy. Just as the Orthodox have not thought a lot about matters that have consumed us (such as justification, the nature of Scripture, sovereign grace, and Christ's work on the cross), so we have not thought a lot about what have been their consuming passions: the Incarnation, the meaning of worship, the soul's perfection in the communicable attributes of God (which they call the energies of God), and the disciplines by which we grow in grace. Let us have the maturity to keep the faith as we know it, and to learn from others where we need to learn.

Orthodoxy in many ways fascinates me, but it does not claim my heart nor stir my soul as does the Reformed faith. My firsthand exposure to Orthodoxy has left me all the more convinced that on the essential matters of human sin, divine forgiveness, and Christ's atoning sacrifice, the Reformed faith is the biblical faith. I would love to see my Orthodox friends embrace a more biblical understanding of these matters. And I am grieved when Reformed friends sacrifice this greater good for the considerable but lesser goods of Orthodox liturgy and piety.


Dr. Kinneer is the director of Echo Hill Christian Study Center in Indian Head, Pa.

Reprinted from New Horizons of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, as posted at http://www.opc.org/new_horizons/calvinist_on_orthodoxy.html. Used with permission.


I wrote the following reply:

Dear Dr. Kinneer;

First, on an Orthodox mailing list, I saw a copy of your "A Calvinist Looks at Orthodoxy." I would like to write a somewhat measured response that you might find of interest; please quote me if you like, preferably with attribution and a link to my website (CJSHayward.com). I am a convert Orthodox and a graduate of Calvin College, for which I have fond memories, although I was never a Calvinist, merely a non-Calvinist Evangelical welcomed in the warm embrace of the community. I am presently a Ph.D. student in theology and went to church for some time at St. Vladimir's Seminary and have friends there. I hope that you may find something of interest in my comments here.

Second, you talk about discussion of being Eastern Orthodox versus being orthodox. I would take this as a linguistically confusing matter of the English language, where even in spoken English the context clarifies whether (o)rthodox or (O)rthodox is the meaning intended by the speaker.

Third, I will be focusing mostly on matters I where I would at least suggest some further nuance, but your summary headed "The Appeal of Orthodoxy," among other things in the article, is a good sort of thing and the sort of thing I might find convenient to quote.

Fourth, the Orthodox consensus of faith is not a much longer and less manageable collection of texts than the Ante-Nicene Fathers and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, combined with the even more massive Patrologia Graecae, and other patristic sources. I have said elsewhere that Western and particularly Protestant and Evangelical culture are at their core written cultures, and Orthodoxy is at its core an oral culture that makes use of writing—I could suggest that it was precisely the Reformation that is at the root of what we now know as literate culture. This means that Orthodoxy does not have, as its closest equivalent to the Westminster Confession, a backbreaking load of books that even patristics scholars can't read cover to cover; it means that the closest Orthodox equivalent to Westminster Confession is not anything printed but something alive in the life and culture of the community. (At very least this is true if you exclude the Nicene Creed, which is often considered "what Orthodox are supposed to believe.")

Fifth, regarding the words, "First, in my experience, the Orthodox do not understand justification by faith:" are you contending that former Evangelicals, who had an Evangelical understanding of justification by faith, were probably fairly devout Evangelicals, and are well-represented at St. Vladimir's Seminary, do not understand justification by faith?

There seems to be something going on here that is a mirror image of what you say below about icons: there, you complain about people assuming that if you don't hold the Orthodox position on icons, you don't understand the Christian doctrine of the incarnation; here, you seem in a mirror image to assume that if people don't have a Reformation-compatible understanding of justification by faith, you don't understand the Biblical teaching.

I wrote, for a novella I'm working on, The Sign of the Grail, a passage where the main character, an Evangelical, goes to an Orthodox liturgy, hears amidst the mysterious-sounding phrases a reading including "The just shall walk by faith," before the homily:

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

One of the surprises in the Divine Comedy—to a few people at least—is that the Pope is in Hell. Or at least it's a surprise to people who know Dante was a devoted Catholic but don't recognize how good Patriarch John Paul and Patriarch Benedict have been; there have been some moments Catholics aren't proud of, and while Luther doesn't speak for Catholics today, he did put his finger on a lot of things that bothered people then. Now I remember an exasperated Catholic friend asking, "Don't some Protestants know anything else about the Catholic Church besides the problems we had in the sixteenth century?" And when Luther made a centerpiece out of what the Bible said about "The righteous shall walk by faith," which was in the Bible's readings today, he changed it, chiefly by using it as a battle axe to attack his opponents and even things he didn't like in Scripture.

It's a little hard to see how Luther changed Paul, since in Paul the words are also a battle axe against legalistic opponents. Or at least it's hard to see directly. Paul, too, is quoting, and I'd like to say exactly what Paul is quoting.

In one of the minor prophets, Habakkuk, the prophet calls out to the Lord and decries the wickedness of those who should be worshiping the Lord. The Lord's response is to say that he's sending in the Babylonians to conquer, and if you want to see some really gruesome archaeological findings, look up what it meant for the Babylonians or Chaldeans to conquer a people. I'm not saying what they did to the people they conquered because I don't want to leave people here trying to get disturbing images out of people's minds, but this was a terrible doomsday prophecy.

The prophet answered the Lord in anguish and asked how a God whose eyes were too pure to look on evil could possibly punish his wicked people by the much more wicked Babylonians. And the Lord's response is very mysterious: "The righteous shall walk by faith."

Let me ask you a question: How is this an answer to what the prophet asked the Lord? Answer: It isn't. It's a refusal to answer. The same thing could have been said by saying, "I AM the Lord, and my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways. I AM WHO I AM and I will do what I will do, and I am sovereign in this. I choose not to tell you how, in my righteousness, I choose to let my wicked children be punished by the gruesomely wicked Babylonians. Only know this: even in these conditions, the righteous shall walk by faith."

The words "The righteous shall walk by faith" are an enigma, a shroud, and a protecting veil. To use them as Paul did is a legitimate use of authority, an authority that can only be understood from the inside, but these words remain a protecting veil even as they take on a more active role in the New Testament. The New Testament assumes the Old Testament even as the New Testament unlocks the Old Testament.

Paul does not say, "The righteous will walk by sight," even as he invokes the words, "The righteous shall walk by faith."

Here's something to ponder: The righteous shall walk by faith even in their understanding of the words, "The righteous shall walk by faith."

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

When I showed this to one Reformation scholar to check my treatment of the Reformation, he said that I didn't explain what "The righteous shall walk by faith," but my entire point was to show what the Old Testament quotation could mean besides a shibboleth that one is sanctified in entirety in response to faith without one iota being earned by good works. The Reformation teaching, as I understand it, reflects a subtle adaptation of the Pauline usage—and here I might underscore that Paul and Luther had different opponents—and a profound adaptation of the Old Testament usage. And it may be possible to properly understand the Biblical text without interpreting it along Reformation lines.

Sixth, you write that Orthodox tend to have a poor understanding of sovereign grace. I remember how offended my spiritual Father was when I shared that a self-proclaimed non-ordained Reformed minister—the one person who harassed me when I became Orthodox—said that Orthodox didn't believe in grace. He wasn't offended at me, but I cannot ever recall seeing him be more offended. (Note: that harassment was a bitter experience, but I'd really like to think I'm not bitter towards Calvinists; I have a lot of fond memories from my time at Calvin and some excellent memories of friends who tended to be born and bred Calvinists.)

I would suggest that if you can say that Orthodox do not understand sovereign grace shortly after talking about a heavy emphasis on theosis, you are thinking about Orthodox doctrine through a Western grid and are missing partly some details and partly the big picture of how things fit together.

Seventh, I am slightly surprised that you describe original sin as simply being in the Bible and something Orthodox do not teach. Rom 5:12 as translated in the Vulgate ("...in quo omnes peccaverunt") has a Greek ambiguity translated out, so that a Greek text that could quite justifiably be rendered that death came into the world "because all sinned" (NIV) is unambiguously rendered as saying about Adam, "in whom all have sinned," which in turn fed into Augustine's shaping of the Western doctrine of original sin. It's a little surprising to me that you present this reading of an ambiguity as simply being what the Bible says, so that the Orthodox are deficiently presenting the Bible by not sharing the reading.

Eighth, I too was puzzled by the belief that the Incarnation immediately justifies icons, and I find it less puzzling to hold a more nuanced understanding of the Orthodox teaching that if you understand the Incarnation on patristic terms—instead of by a Reformation definition—its inner logic flows out to the point of an embrace of creation that has room for icons. I won't develop proof-texts here; what I will say is that the kind of logical inference that is made is similar to a kind of logical inference I see in your report, i.e. that "The righteous shall walk by faith" means the Reformation doctrine that we are justified by faith alone and not by works.

I believe that this kind of reasoning is neither automatically right nor automatically wrong, but something that needs to be judged in each case.

Ninth, you write, "Finally, many of the Orthodox tend to have a lower view of the Bible than the ancient Fathers had." When I was about to be received into the Orthodox Church, I told my father that I had been devoted in my reading of the Bible and I would switch to being devoted in my reading of the Fathers. My spiritual father, who is a graduate of St. Vladimir's Seminary, emphatically asked me to back up a bit, saying that the Bible was the core text and the Fathers were a commentary. He's said that he would consider himself very fortunate if his parishioners would spend half an hour a day reading the Bible. On an Orthodox mailing list, one cradle Orthodox believer among mostly converts quoted as emphatic an Orthodox clergyman saying, "If you don't read your Bible each day, you're not a Christian." Which I would take as exaggeration, perhaps, but exaggeration as a means of emphasizing something important.

Tenth, regarding higher-critical views at St. Vladimir's Seminary: I agree that it is a problem, but I would remind you of how St. Vladimir's Seminary and St. Tikhon's Seminary compare. St. Vladimir's Seminary is more liberal, and it is an excellent academic environment that gives degrees including an Orthodox M.Min. St. Tikhon's Seminary is academically much looser but it is considered an excellent preparation for ministry. If you saw some degree of liberal academic theology at St. Vladimir's, you are seeing the fruits of your (legitimate) selection. Not that St. Vladimir's Seminary is the only Orthodox seminary which is not completely perfect, but if you want to see preparation for pastoral ministry placed ahead of academic study at an Orthodox institution, St. Tikhon's might interest you.

Eleventh, after I was at Calvin, I remembered one friend, tongue-in-cheek, talking about "the person who led me to Calvin." I also remember that when I was at Calvin, I heard more talk about being "disciples of John Calvin" than being "disciples of Jesus Christ," and talk more about bearing the name of "Calvinist" than "Christian," although this time it wasn't tongue-in-cheek. I notice that you speak of how, "sadly," people "left the Reformed faith for Orthodoxy." One response might be one that Reformers like Calvin might share: "Was John Calvin crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of John Calvin?" (Cf I Cor. 1:13)

I left this out at first because it's not as "nice" as some of the others, but I would like to invite you to perhaps leave the "faith" (as you call it) that aims for John Calvin, and embrace the faith that Calvin was trying to re-create in response to abuses in the Western Church. It's still alive, and we still have an open door for you.

When I studied early modern era Orthodox Patriarch Cyril Lucaris, I compared the Eucharistic teaching in his profession of faith to the Eucharistic teaching in Calvin's Institutes...

...and concluded that Calvin was more Orthodox. Calvin, among other things, concerned himself with the question of what John Chrysostom taught.

I really don't think I was trying to be a pest. But what I did not develop is that Calvin tried to understand what the Greek Fathers taught, always as an answer to Protestant questions about what, in metaphysical terms, happens to the Holy Gifts. The Orthodox question is less about the transformation of the Holy Gifts than the transformation of those who receive it, and Calvin essentially let the Fathers say whatever they wanted... as long as they answered a question on terms set by the Reformation.

When I read Francis Schaeffer's How Should We Then Live?, my immediate reaction was that I wished the book had been "expanded to six times its present length." I have some reservations about the fruitfulness of presuppositional apologetics now. What I do not have reservations about is saying that there is a valid insight in Schaeffer's approach, and more specifically there is distortion introduced by letting Orthodoxy say whatever it wants... as an answer to Calvinist questions.

To assert, without perceived need for justification, that the Orthodox have very little understanding of sovereign grace and follow this claim by saying that there is a preoccupation with divinization comes across to Orthodox much like saying, "_______ have very little concept of 'medicine' or 'health' and are always frequenting doctor's offices, pharmacies, and exercise clubs." It's a sign that Orthodox are allowed to fill in the details of sin, incarnation, justification, or (in this case) grace, but on condition that they are filling out the Reformation's unquestioned framework.

But the way to understand this is less analysis than worship.

Read more of The Best of Jonathan's Corner: An Anthology of Orthodox Christian Mystical Theology on Amazon!

An Orthodox Bookshelf

Buy Orthodox Theology: Odds and Ends, Curiosities and Creative Works on Amazon.

The Greatest Treasures

These are some of the greatest treasures around to read, and there's a lifetime worth of reading in them. I may be critical in some of my reviews, but I only list books I think are worth reading, and the pieces I criticize are probably worthy of a more charitable spirit.

The Orthodox* Study Bible (Kindle)
In this Orthodox bookshelf, a decisive pride of place goes to The Orthodox* Study Bible. I have felt more comfort in reading it than any other Bible, and it gives a real sense of reading the Bible, not privately, but in community with the saints across the ages. The footnotes are decisively better than the Bible de Jérusalem / New Jerusalem Bible, and those responsible for The Orthodox* Study Bible decisively understand that the proper use of footnotes in a text is not to speculate about how a text came together across the ages, but to illumine the Bible as the ultimate work of practical, spiritual, and mystical theology, with footnotes oriented towards practical, spiritual, and mystical theology.

Then why have I put an asterisk in The Orthodox* Study Bible?

The Orthodox* Study Bible shows signs of a group of converts who have described as trying to do too much, too fast. Their selection of saints for commentary is limited to the first millenium (have no nineteenth century saints already stood the test of time?), and the introduction harps on the ancient Church.

If harping on the antiquity of the Church doesn't seem strange, think about how we are all the continuation of the royal, ancient bloodline of His Majesty King ADAM and Her Majesty Queen EVE. Poetry and meaning are alike profound when, to quote a Protestant author, C.S. Lewis has Aslan proclaim "Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve." Such a thing may be poetic to note, and quaint, but it would be a strange thing to harp on and say that you respect other people primarily as carriers of an ancient bloodline. Most of the respect we have, or should have, for other people is not for the antiquity of our bloodline, but because they are fully human, however we may understand being human, because they are made in the image of God and can be transformed into the likeness of Christ. It may be a useful thing to remember that a beggar or a person we can't stand is ultimately family to us, but very little of the language of respect for the human person, whether Orthodox, other religious, or secular, states that we are the fullness of the ancient bloodline of our first parents. And, notwithstanding that eagerness to re-create the ancient Church was foundational to the Reformation and can still be found in Protestant influences, the basis of respect for Orthodoxy is not that it is Ancient Orthodoxy, but that it is Holy Orthodoxy.

Though The Orthodox* Study Bible introduces its material by talking about the authentic continuity of the Orthodox Church (without so much as a brief passing mention of our antiquity as the authentic continuity of the bloodline of Lord Adam and Lady Eve), I have never heard such harping on the ancient Church among cradle Orthodox. Admittedly the Orthodox Church is the same living organism as the ancient Church, but in the altar at my parish, most of the books are ancient in character (service books, Gospel books, a Greek New Testament), not one of them is labelled as ancient: no service book touts "the ancient Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom." 'Ancient' is not the point.

And there are other things like that are written to "smooth things over" at the expense of truth in The Orthodox* Study Bible. For one instance, the note on Creation on page 2 says like a politico, "Regarding scientific questions about the scientific accuracy of the Genesis account of creation, and about various viewpoints concerning evolution, the Orthodox Church has not dogmatized any particular view." This is misleading disinformation; origins questions may well be among the many areas "not dogmatized", but there is a near-universal consensus among the Church Fathers, including the Church Fathers of the first millenium that The Orthodox* Study Bible returns to, that the earth was created in six days about six thousand years ago. This may be inconvenient to point out, and it might be easier to help people get along if we say that several views are legitimate, but this is twisting facts for the sake of convenience. (And for the recdord, I believe in a billions of years old earth and legitimate disagreement over how God created the world), although the world was created 3:00 PM, March 25, 28 AD.)

With all that stated, The Orthodox* Study Bible has a number of helpful and edifying notes in an overall tenor that provides guidance in reading the Bible, and nothing better has come to fill its place.

Perhaps another work will come along that is not trying to do "too much, too fast," but The Orthodox* Study Bible has left behind a pretty big pair of boots to fill, and there is much profit in it whether you know the Bible well or are just beginning to dive into it.

The Philokalia (Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3, Volume 4), (Kindle)

The Philokalia is a library of practical theology, and there is nothing else like it. It is a collection about the science of spiritual struggle, and though entries can vary substantially from each other, they are very edifying and can orient us to what is truly important in life.

The Philokalia is best viewed, not as a book, but as a library of classics, and the intent is that people would read specific works as selected by a clergy member. I can attest that simply reading it cover to cover is a second-best solution.

Many Orthodox give The Philokalia first place outside of the Bible.

The Ladder of Divine Ascent
The Ladder of Divine Ascent is a work addressed to monastics, and is read each Lent in monasteries. However this is far from being a treasure only useful to monastics. It is a jewel of the Orthodox Church as a whole, and all kinds of people have read The Ladder of Divine Ascent to great spiritual profit.

The Prologue of Ochrid (Volume 1, Volume 2 (Daily selections online; Old Calendar)
The Orthodox Church has a great tradition of biography as theology: one grasps holiness by reading the lives of the saints. A rich sampling of these lives is found in the daily readings of the Prologue, which tells of all the saints commemorated on a particular day.

The Jordanville Prayer Book
Praying the prayers of the Church is a great help along the way, and The Jordanville Prayer Book (or any other good prayer book) is like the script to a play: it is not primarily meant to be read silently while sitting in a chair, but spoken aloud, brought to life, preferably from a standing position.

Prayers, with fasting, are an area to work out with one's priest or spiritual father. They come alive when they are practiced as part of the life of the Church.

Akathists (links to many good Akathists; note that the website, Orthodox Wiki, should be taken with a little grain of salt).
St. Romanos the Melodist is said to have miraculously received the prayer of the Akathist to the Mother of God. Since then there is a tradition of Akathist prayers; the term "akathist" means "not seated," i.e. standing to deliver the prayer. The first Akathist, and many of the ones that follow, are beautiful and powerful prayers.

The Ante-Nicene Fathers and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Series 1, Series 2) collections (Read online)

The Ante-Nicene and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers provide the standard reference translations to a great many Church Fathers. This collection receives its own asterisk because while the texts are Orthodox they were translated by Anglicans grinding a massive axe against Rome. Hence a condemnation of contraception, abortion, and infanticide by St. John Chrysostom is turned into a condemnation of abortion and infanticide alone; Augustine may be allowed to condemn Natural Family Planning, but there is an axe that is ground in the texts and is even more explicit in the accompanying notes and introductions.

Still, this does not stop a great deal of glory from the Fathers; read, for instance, St. John Chrysostom's Treatise to Prove that No One Can Injure the Man Who Does Not Harm Himself. The collection, for all its deficiencies, is still a great treasure.

St. John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith (Kindle), Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, etc.
I have picked these two examples of works that it is work to read. I read them, not because I have grown enough that they seem easy and natural to read, but because they stretch me and challenge me to enter into a larger space. Fr. John Behr said, "The only thing worse than not reading the Fathers and reading them systematically;" in a similar fashion, the Fathers are of the most value to us, not when we find an endorsement of what we have always believed, but when we are challenged and invited to grow. I am challenged by these works, and I pick out these two as representative examples of innumerable works that challenge me to grow bigger and unpleasantly challenge me to enter a larger world.

Lesser Classics

This is a collection of lesser greats, limited in number by the limitations of what I am familiar with. Note that this does not include a lot of popular authors, such as Fr. Seraphim (Rose), or Met. John (Zizioulas); in the latter case, I answered the question, "Is John Zizioulas an existentialist in disguise?" by asking, "Where's the disguise?" However, there is some good work produced recently, and I've even read a little of it.

The Orthodox Way
The standard print introduction to Orthodoxy is His Eminence Metropolitan Kallistos's The Orthodox Church, but what captivated my attention was not that more systematic work but the less systematic and more mystical The Orthodox Way. It is an excellent introduction to Holy Orthodoxy.

The Way of the Pilgrim (Kindle)
The Way of the Pilgrim is a glimpse of one pilgrim for whom the Philokalia unlocked the treasures of the Gospel. The author, whose name is lost, would today be considered a vagrant; that was the form taken by his pilgrimage. Along the way the Jesus Prayerunfolds in his heart. The book is a lesser classic, but it is a classic.

External Influences

One queer postmodern theologian speaking in class spoke of how the Fathers used "the best philosophical resources of their day," the implication being that we should use the postmodern resources fashionable today. To that I might reply: the best philosophical resources available to the Fathers were neo-Platonism, and the best philosophical resources available today are neo-Platonism. That may sound harsh, but the Church that said "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" used philosophical resources without limiting themselves to them as captives. Neo-Platonism was at once the air the Fathers breathed and the opponent they struggled against; in today's terms, slightly clumsy to apply to them, they strove for a critical reception of neo-Platonism, or developed (or rather preserved) a counterculture.

These books are not exhaustive; but they serve to point to an area that is worth reading. But perhaps this section of this Orthodox bookshelf is less important than one might think.

Note here that there is one category I have deliberately excluded: Gnostic and other heretical writings. Gnostic writing is spiritual pornography and I regret I have ever set eyes on it. I thought it would provide perspective to help me understand Orthodoxy. It did not, and I would rather have read any Orthodox resource than that form of spiritual poison.

Plotinus: The Enneads (Kindle)
A central work of neo-Platonism, and possibly the best single resource in philosophy from outside the Church into what the Fathers drew from when they drew from pagan philosophy, in the image of one Church Father, "like a bee that goes straight to the sweetest nectar and ignores all else."

Plato: The Republic (Kindle)
A seminal work that was the first domino that would build to neo-Platonism. There are parts of the work that seem strange today; Derrida called it "the world's oldest, longest, and least funny political joke". I would amend that to "the world's oldest, longest, least funny, and least intentional political joke." The treatment of sexuality reads like something plagiarized from Monty Python today, but viewed in relation to historical context (in books I shouldn't have read), it does not seem nearly so provocative a stance against currents of its own day as in currents of our own day. It sets forth one of the oldest radical political ideologies, but for all that it is a seed of many important things, many good things, and I lightly adapted its most famous passage in Plato: The Allegory of the...Flickering Screen?.

Almost last, and certainly least,

I would at least like to mention my own offerings, not because there is any conclusion that they are classics, but because I cherish them and they are what I have to offer. They are in:

The theology section at Jonathan's Corner.

I invite you to visit my collection of theology Kindle eBooks!

The "Big Room"

Programmer slang uses "the Big Room" for outside, the "room" one is in when one is not hunched over a computer indoors. And there is something profound to looking beyond books and learning from life.

Monasticism has a maxim, "Your cell will teach you everything you need to know." And the precept holds whether or not one is a monk; staying in one's place and learning things is powerful. Most monks have been illiterate and not owned books; the maxim is not simply "Your bookshelf will teach you everything you need to know," but "Your cell will teach you everything you need to know." The here and now that God has put you in, that you are tempted to escape by real or virtual means, will teach you everything you need to know.

Read more of Odds and Ends, Curiosities and Creative Works on Amazon!

The Blacksmith's Forge: An Extension of Euclidean Geometric Construction as a Model of Computation

Own C.J.S. Hayward's complete works in paper!

Models of Computation: The Church-Turing Thesis and Geometric Construction

The Church-Turing Thesis posits that the equivalence class that includes the Turing machine, and is also the basis for modern digital computing, is the most powerful model of computation. And it hasn't been proven, but when people have checked out other models of computation, every one has turned out to either be equivalent to the Turing machine, or become lesser.

Quite probably it may be impossible to construct some useful computer by this model; quite possibly for that matter its greatest usefulness may come through simulations by digital computer, in which case its simulations will automatically not exceed Turing machines or digital computer by its power. However, even if is a failure at scaling some of the highest peaks, it seems an interesting and provoking possibility to explore.

Standard Euclidean geometric construction is a model of computation. It is not usually presented as such, but you start with a diagram and all that may be inferred from it, and you have two tools, a compass and straightedge, as well as a pen or other implement to draw with. And the solution to a construction is to come back with an algorithm that will go through computational steps that start with its initial state represented in a diagram, and use your three tools to create the desired end result.

Both models figure into the model of computation discussed here, but the model of computation is different.

The model of computation described here is like a blacksmith's forge. I have read that one of the first things a blacksmith makes, is a pair of real tongs. And a blacksmith is not just turning out nails and other things for other people, but tools used in the forge. The core insight here is that a blacksmith can create tools, much as a computer programmer may make customized tools for their own work. This is at its core a geometric model of computation, with a more obvious debt to geometry, although the tools should be sufficient to implement a Turing machine. One person made the interesting suggestion that it is applying recursion to geometric construction.

The blacksmith's forge

The main tools the blacksmith's forge works with are as follows; the first three are taken from geometric computation:

  1. A compass, that can be used to draw circles.
  2. A straightedge.
  3. A marking implement.
  4. A jigsaw. The geometric plane is conceived not to be one point thin, but a uniform distance thick. When the blacksmith's forge has constructed the closed outline of the shape, the shape can be cut out.
  5. Pins, equal in length to two or more (whole) times the thickness of the plane. If one pin goes between two shapes one on top of the other, and the shapes are not otherwise constrained, they will be able to pivot around the pin with respect to each other. If two or more pins go through, then the two positions will be rigid in how they are joined.
  6. Pieces cut out with the jigsaw, possibly joined by pins.

Idealized Physics in the Blacksmith's Forge

The blacksmith's forge has an idealized physics. The pin and jigsaw are parts of this idealized physics, but another part of the physics is that pieces do not tip over: any number of stackings that would immediately fall over in the real world are assumed to simply stand upright, the pieces resting on top of any other piece immediately beneath them for some positive areas. There is friction, and pieces pushed to where one entity crosses another, for instance, will immediately stop moving if they are no longer being pushed. Items touching each other can be pushed past each other, but only so far as they are pushed. This does not exhaust the physics, but if you think of the physics of ordinary geometric construction, you should be close to the mark.

Three Classic Problems

Trisecting an Angle

Consider the following diagram:

That is half of it. Take another one, rotate it by one notch and pin it to the bottom one, and you have forced equality for the angles between adjacent arms:

Take this constructed device, rotate it so point A is at an angle's vertex, B is in the angle's clockwise side, and expand or contract the accordion-like device so that C is at the angle's other side. Angle DAB is now one-third of the (trisected) original angle.

Doubling the Cube

Consider the following modification of the previous diagram:

Take a circle, and draw a concentric circle at twice the radius. Then place the constructive device so point A is at the center, and expand out or collapse in so that B is on the initial circle. Then collapse or expand the device so that it is on the the new "double radius" circle. Point E will have a distance to the center equal to the original radius times the cube root of two.

Squaring the Circle

Cut out two circles, and a tall, thin rectangle. Put the circles snugly and squarely so that the line between them and the rectangles is perpendicular to the rectangles' long dimension. Put pegs through the circles' centers through the perpendicular rectangle, and mark (A) both the first circle and the rectangle where they meet. While holding the first circle squarely, push on the outer circle until it wraps the long rectangle around the first circle, and mark on the tall rectangle where it touched the circle's mark.

You now have a distance marked out on the tall rectangle that is 2π times the radius of your circle. Getting the square root of π is not terribly difficult; you can draw two subsegments of a line segment, one equal to the original circle's diameter in length and one equal to circle's circumference, and then draw a long line segment perpendicular to the first segment starting where the two meet. Take one of the corner-like squares above, place it so that it touches both endpoints of the line segment, and while continuing to hold it tight to the ends of the segment, move it so its inner corner lies on the perpendicular line segment. The distance from that point along the line segment to the center is equal to the square root of π times the length of the original circle's diameter:

(And though this would be laborious, I see no reason why such calculations could not emulate a Turing Machine.)

Foul!
You're Using Extra Privilege!

I am indeed using extra privilege, but may I point something out?

There is a bit of a historical difference between now and ancient Greece. We now have a number of branches of mathematics, and though there may be likes and dislikes, it is something of an outsider's question to ask, "Which is right: real analysis or modern algebra?" There is a general sense that as with board games, if you want to play chess you play by the rules of chess and if you want to play go you play by the rules of go.

The three questions neatly and easily answered are the standard three famous problems which it was subsequently proven to be impossible to construct with Euclidean geometry. And these were not simply mathematical chess problems; I don't know the stories for all of them, but legend has it that there was a plague killing many people and an oracle stated that the plague would be stopped if a cubic altar were built that was twice the volume of an original cubic altar. This was not one where people only used Euclidean construction because they decided they could only play by the rules of Euclidean geometry. This was a "by any means necessary" matter, and it should be understood as much. The attitude of "This is the set of rules for this particular game" is anachronous; people would be very glad to have an extension to Euclidean construction that would allow solution of at least one of these problems.

And it is not clear to me whether this is any sense of useful model of computation. (I personally think, out of my second master's thesis, that the human brain can do things no Turing-approximant style of computers can do. Some people have said, "A year spent in artificial vision is enough to make one believe in God," and there are some basic things, like making sense of an I can read book, that most humans do well but are so far insurmountable to computers; one writer wrote of an embodied AI robot "Cog," "The weakness of Cog at present seems to be that it cannot actually do very much. Even its insect-like computer forebears do not seem to have had the intelligence of insects, and Cog is clearly nowhere near having human intelligence."

But I think this model of computation is interesting, whether or not it proves useful.

The Wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab

Buy Profoundly Gifted Survival Guide on Amazon.

Before I get further, I'd like to say a few words about what I drive.

I drive an Oldsmobile F-85 station wagon. What's the color? When people are being nice, they talk about a classic, subdued camouflage color. Sometimes the more candid remarks end up saying something like, "The Seventies called. They want their paint job back," although my station wagon is a 1965 model. All in all, I think I had the worst car of anyone I knew. Or at least that's what I used to think.

Then I changed my mind. Or maybe it would be better to say that I had my mind changed for me.

I was sitting at the cafeteria, when I saw someone looking for a place to sit. He was new, and I motioned for him to come over. He sat down, quietly, and ate in silence. There was a pretty loud conversation at the table, and when people started talking about cars, his eyes seemed to widen. I asked him what kind of car he drove.

After hesitating, he mumbled something hard to understand, and looked like he was getting smaller. Someone said, "Maybe he doesn't drive a car at all," and whatever he mumbled was forgotten in raucous laughter.

I caught him in the hallway later, and he asked if I could help him move several large boxes that were not in the city. When we made the trip, he again seemed to be looking around with round eyes, almost enchanted by my rustbucket.

I began to feel sorry for the chap, and I gave him rides. Even if I didn't understand.

He still managed to dodge any concrete hint of whatever it was that got him around—and I had a hunch that he hadn't just walked. My other friends may have given me some ribbing about my bucket of bolts, but really it was just ribbing. I tried to impress on him that he would be welcome even if he just got around on a derelict moped—but still not a single peep.

By the time it was becoming old to joke about whatever he drove, I accepted a dare and shadowed him as he walked along a couple of abandoned streets, got to the nearest airstrip...

and got into an SR-71 Blackbird. The man took off in an SR-71 Blackbird. An SR-71 Blackbird! Words failed me. Polite ones, at any rate. The SR-71 Blackbird may be the coolest looking reconnaissance plane ever; as far as looks go, it beats the pants off the spacecraft in a few science fiction movies. But the engineers weren't really trying to look cool; that was a side effect of trying to make an aircraft that was cool. It has those sleek lines because it's a bit of a stealth aircraft; it can be detected by radar, but it's somewhat harder. And suppose you're in an SR-71 Blackbird and you are picked up by radar, and enemy soldiers launch a surface-to-air missle at you—or two, or ten? Just speed up and you'll outrun it; the SR-71 Blackbird is the fastest aircraft ever built. Some SR-71 Blackbirds have been shot at. Ain't never got one shot down. One of the better surface-to-air rockets has about the same odds of hitting an SR-71 Blackbird doing Mach 3.2 as a turtle trying to catch up with a cheetah and ram it. An SR-71 Blackbird is a different kind of rare. It's not just that it's not a common electronic device that you can pick up at any decent department store; it isn't even like something very expensive and rare that has a waiting list is almost never on store shelves. The SR-71 Blackbird is more like, if anything, an invention that the inventor can't sell—perhaps, some years back, one of the first, handmade electric light bulbs—because it is so far from how people think and do things that they can't see anyone would want to use them. The SR-71 Blackbird is rare enough that few pilots have even seen it. And I saw, or thought I saw, my friend get into one.

and got into an SR-71 Blackbird. The man took off in an SR-71 Blackbird. An SR-71 Blackbird! Words failed me. Polite ones, at any rate. And probably the impolite ones, too. The SR-71 Blackbird may be the coolest looking reconnaissance plane ever; as far as looks go, it beats the pants off the spacecraft in a few science fiction movies. But the engineers weren't really trying to look cool; that was a side effect of trying to make an aircraft that was cool. It has those sleek lines because it's a bit of a stealth aircraft; it can be detected by radar, but it's somewhat harder. And suppose you're in an SR-71 Blackbird and you are picked up by radar, and enemy soldiers launch a surface-to-air missle at you—or two, or ten? Just speed up and you'll outrun it; the SR-71 Blackbird is the fastest aircraft ever built. Some SR-71 Blackbirds have been shot at. Ain't never got one shot down. One of the better surface-to-air rockets has about the same odds of hitting an SR-71 Blackbird doing Mach 3.2 as a turtle trying to catch up with a cheetah and ram it. An SR-71 Blackbird is a different kind of rare. It's not just that it's not a common electronic device that you can pick up at any decent department store; it isn't even like something very expensive and rare that has a waiting list is almost never on store shelves. The SR-71 Blackbird is more like, if anything, an invention that the inventor can't sell—perhaps, some years back, one of the first, handmade electric light bulbs—because it is so far from how people think and do things that they can't see anyone would want to use them. The SR-71 Blackbird is rare enough that few pilots have even seen it. And I saw, or thought I saw, my friend get into one.

I walked back in a daze, sat down, decided not to take any drinks just then, and cornered the joker, who couldn't keep his mouth shut. I told him to fess up about whatever he slipped me, but he was clueless—and when I couldn't keep my mouth shut and blabbed why, he didn't believe me. (Not that I blame him; I didn't believe it myself.)

I ate by myself, later, and followed him. The third time, I caught him in the act.

I was red with anger, and almost saw red.

He blanched whiter than at the wisecrack about him maybe not driving a car.

What I would have said then, if I were calmer, was, "Do you think it's right for a billionaire, to go around begging? You have things that none of us even dream of, and you—?"

After I had yelled at him, he looked at me and said, "How can I fuel up?"

I glared at him. "I don't know, but it's got to be much cooler than waiting in line at a gas station."

"Maybe it is cooler, but I don't think so, and that's not what I asked. Suppose I want to fly in my airplane. What do I do to be fueled up?"

"Um, a fuel truck drives out and fills you up?"

"And then I'm good to go because I have a full tank, just like you?"

"I don't see what you're getting at."

"Ok, let me ask you. What do you do if you want to make a long trip? Can you fill your tank, maybe a day or two before your trip, and leave?"

"Yes. And that would be true if you had a moped, or a motorcycle, or a luxury car, or even something exotic like an ATV or a hovercraft."

"But not an SR-71 Blackbird."

"What do you mean, not an SR-71 Blackbird? Did you get a good deal because your aircraft is broken?"

"Um, just because you can assume something in a good car, or even a bad car, doesn't mean that it's true across the board. When it's sitting on the ground, my aircraft leaks fuel."

"It leaks fuel? Why are you flying an aircraft that's not broken?"

"There's a difference between designing a passenger car and what I deal with. With a passenger car, if the manufacturers are any good, the car can sit with little to no fuel leak even if it's badly maintained."

"But this does not apply to what the rest of us can only dream of?"

"No."

"Why not?"

"A passenger car heats up a little, at top speeds, due to air friction. One and the same part works for the fuel line when it's been in the garage for an hour, and when it's driving as fast as you've driven it. Not so with my aircraft. The SR-71 Blackbird is exposed to one set of temperatures in the hangar, and then there is air friction for moving at Mach 3.2, and there's a basic principle of physics that says that what gets hotter, gets bigger."

"What's your point?"

"The parts that make up an SR-71 Blackbird are one size in the hangar and other sizes when the aircraft is flying at high speeds. The engineers could have sized the parts so that you could keep an aircraft in the hangar without losing any fuel... or they could make an airplane that leaks fuel on the ground, but it works when it was flying. But they could not make an airplane that would work at Mach 3.2 and have a sealed fuel line in the hangar... and that means that, when I go anywhere worth mentioning in my hot, exciting airplane, even I get fueled up on the ground, and I lose quite a lot of fuel getting airborne and more or less need an immediate air-to-air refueling... This is besides the obvious fact that I can't run on any fuel an ordinary gas station would carry. For that matter, the JP-7, a strange beast of a 'fuel' that must also serve as hydraulic fluid and engine coolant, is about as exotic compared to most jet fuel as it is compared to the 'boring' gasoline which you take for granted—you can't get fuel for an SR-71 Blackbird at a regular airport any more than you can buy 'ordinary' jet fuel at a regular gas station... and you think me strange when I get excited about the fact that you can drive up to any normal gas station and fill-er-up!"

I hesitated, and then asked, "But besides one or two details like—"

He cut me off. "It's not 'one or two details,' any more than—than filling out paperwork and dealing with bureaucracy amounts to 'one or two details' of a police officer's life. Sure, on television, something exciting happens to police officers every hour, but a real police officer's life is extremely different from police shows. It's not just paperwork. Perhaps there is lots of paperwork—a police officer deals with at least as much paperwork and bureaucracy as an employee who's a cog in a big office—but there are other things. Police officers get in firefights all the time on TV. But this is another area where TV's image is not the reality. I've known police officers who wouldn't trade their work for anything in the world. Doesn't mean that their work is like a cop show. When police officers aren't being filmed on those videos that make dramatic shows, and they aren't training, the average police officer starts firing maybe once every three or four years. There are many, many seasoned veterans who have never fired a gun on the street. And having an SR-71 Blackbird is no more what you'd imagine it was like to have a cool, neat, super-duper reconnaissance plane instead of your unsatisfying, meagre, second-rate, dull car than... than... than being a police officer has all the excitement of surviving a shootout every day, but only having to fill paperwork once every three or four years if at all!"

"Um, what else is there?"

"Um, what's a typical trip for you? I mean, with your car?"

"My wife's family is at the other side of the state, and—"

"So that's an example of a common trip? More common than shopping or driving to meet someone?"

"Ok; often I'm just running some errands."

"Such a boring thing to do with a station wagon. If you want things to get interesting, try something I wouldn't brave."

"What?"

"Go for the gusto. Borrow my vehicle! First, you can fuel up at home, as any fuel that had been in your tank is now a slippery puddle underneath the vehicle you wish you had. Then start the vehicle. You'll have something to deal with later, after the hot exhaust sets your trees on fire. And maybe a building or two. Then lurch around, and try to taxi along the streets. (Let's assume you don't set any trees on fire, which is not likely.) Now you're used to be able to see most of the things on the road, at least the ones you don't want to hit? And—"

"Ok, ok, I get the idea! The SR-71 Blackbird is the worst, most pitiable—"

"Perhaps I have misspoken. Or at least wasn't clear enough. I wasn't trying to say that it's simple torture flying an SR-71 Blackbird. There are few things as joyful as flying. And do you know what kind of possibilities exist (in everything from friendship to work to hobbies) when the list of things you can easily make a day trip to the other side of the globe? When—"

"Then why the big deal you just made before?"

"An SR-71 Blackbird is many things, but it is not what you imagine if you fantasize about everything you imagine my vehicle to be, and assume almost everything you take for granted in yours. There are a great many nice things that go without saying in your vehicle, that aren't part of mine. You know, a boring old station wagon with its dull room for a driver plus a few passengers and some cargo, that runs on the most mundane petroleum-based fuel you can get, and of course is familiar to most mechanics and can be maintained by almost any real automotive shop, and—if this is even worth mentioning—can be driven safely across a major network of roads, and—of course this can be taken for granted in any real vehicle—has a frame that gives you a fighting chance of surviving a full-speed collision with—"

"Ok, ok, I get the picture. But wouldn't it have helped matters if you would tell people these things up front? You know, maybe something about avoiding these confrontations, or maybe something about 'Honesty is the best policy'?"

He said, "Ok. So when I meet people, I should say, 'Hi. My vehicle leaves Formula One racecars in the dust. It also flies, can slip through radar, and does several things you can't even imagine. But don't worry, I haven't let any of this go to my head. I'm not full of myself. I promise I won't look down on you or whatever car you drive. And you can promise not to feel the least bit envious, inferior, or intimated. Deal?' It seems to come across that way no matter how I try to make that point. And really, why shouldn't it?"

I paused. "Do our vehicles have anything in common at all?"

"Yes—more than either of us can understand."

"But what on earth, if we're so different? My vehicle is a 1965 model; your vehicle sounds so new you'd need a time machine to get one—"

"My vehicle is a 1965 model too."

"If you want to lie and make me feel better, you could have told me that your vehicle was years older than mine."

"I meant it. There is something about our vehicles that is cut from the same cloth."

"How can you say that? I mean, without stretching? Is what they have in common that they're both in the same universe? Or that they're both bigger than an atom but smaller than a galaxy? Or some other way of really stretching?"

"If you want to dig deeper, have you read, 'I, Pencil'? Where an economist speaks on behalf of a common, humble pencil?"

"A speech from a pencil? What does that have to do with our vehicles? Are you going to compare our vehicles to a pencil?"

"Yes."

"So you're stretching."

"No."

"In I, Pencil, a cheap wooden pencil explains what it took to make it. It talks about how a diamond in the rough—I mean, graphite in the rough—crosses land and sea and is combined with clay, and a bit of this and that to make the exquisite slender shaft we call pencil 'lead'. The wood comes from the majestic cedar—do you know what it takes to make a successful logging operation—and then a mind-boggling number of steps transform a hundred feet of tree into something that's a little hard to explain, but machined to very precise specifications, and snapped together before six coats of laquer—oh, I forgot, before the cedar wraps around the slender graphite wand, it's also adorned by being tinted a darker color, 'for the same reason women put rouge on their faces' or something like that. Its parts come through a transportation network from all over the world, and the rubber eraser—which wouldn't erase at all well if were just rubber; it needs to be a cocktail of ingredients that perform at least three major tasks if it will work as an eraser. Try erasing pencil with a rubber ball sometime; it will erase terribly if it erases at all. Your erases is not mere rubber, but a rubber alloy, the way airplanes are made, not with mere aluminum, but with an aluminum alloy, and—"

"So the parts of a pencil have an interesting story?"

"Yes. And the quite impressive way they are put together—pencils don't assemble themselves, and a good machine—for some steps—costs a king's ransom. And the way they're distributed, and any number of things necessary for business to run the whole process, and—"

"Then should I start offering my daughter's pencils to a museum?"

"I wouldn't exactly offer one of her pencils to a museum. Museums do not have room for every wonder this world has. But I will say this. The next pencil you forget somewhere wouldn't have been yours to lose without more work, talent, skill, knowledge, venture capital, and a thousand other things than it took to make a wonder like the Rosetta Stone or the Mona Lisa."


As usual, she was dressed to kill. Her outfit was modest—I can almost say, ostentatiously modest—but, somehow, demurely made the point that she might be a supermodel.

I had a bad feeling about something. During our conversation on the way over, I said, "You have an issue with Saab drivers." He replied, "No. Or yes, but it's beside the point. Saab drivers tend to have issues with me." I was caught off-guard: "That sounds as arrogant as anything I've—"

He asked me to forget what he had said. For the rest of the conversation, he seemed to be trying to change the subject.

She greeted us, shook his hand warmly, and turned back. "—absolutely brilliant. Not, in any way, like the British Comet, which never should have been flown in the first place, and was part of why jumbo jetliners were dangerous in the public's eye. The training for people who were going to be in that jumbo jetliner—the Comet—included being in a vacuum so that soldiers would know what to do if they were flying in a sparse layer of the atmosphere and the airplane simply disintegrated around them and left them in what might as well have been a vacuum. This sort of thing happened with enough jumbo jetliners that the public was very leery of them. For good reason, they were considered a disaster looking for a place to happen.

"And so, when Boeing effectively bet the company on the Boeing 707—like they did with every new airplane; it wasn't just one product among others that could be a flop without killing the company—they gave the test pilot very careful instructions about what to do when he demonstrated their new jumbo jetliner.

"At the airshow, he was flying along, and after a little while, people began to notice that one of the airplane's wings was lower, and the other was higher...

"The Boeing 707 test pilot was doing a barrel roll, which is extremely rough on an airplane. It's like... something like, instead of saying that a computer is tough, throwing it across the room. This stunt was a surprise to the other people at Boeing, almost as much as to the other, and it wasn't long before Boeing got on the radio and asked the pilot, 'What the [Bleep] do you think you're doing?' The pilot's reply was short, and to the point:

"'Why, selling airplanes, sir.'

"He told a reporter afterwards, 'And when I got done with that barrel roll, I realized that the people weren't going to believe what they just saw... so I turned around and I did another one!'"

A moment later, someone else said, "What does 'Saab' mean again? You've told me, but—"

She smiled. "It took me a while to remember, too. 'SAAB' stands for 'Svenska aeroplan Aktiebolaget,' literally 'Swedish Aeroplane Limited.' It's a European aerospace company that decided that besides making fighter jets and military aircraft, they would run a side business of selling cars, or at least the kind of car you get when you combine a muscle car, a luxury vehicle, and more than a touch of a military jet. It's like an airplane in big and small ways—everything from, if you unbuckle your seatbelt, a 'Fasten seatbelts' light just like an airliners', to the rush of power you feel when you hit the gas and might as well be lifting off... I'm not sure how you would describe it... It's almost what Lockheed-Martin would sell if they were Scandinavian and wanted to sell something you could drive on the street."

He said, "It sounds like a delight to drive."

She said, "It is. Would you two like me to take you out for a spin? I'd be delighted to show it to you. What kind of car do you drive?"

He paused for a split second and said, "I needed to get a ride with him; I have nothing that I could use to get over here."

I told her, "He's being modest."

She looked at me quizzically. "How?"

"He flies an SR-71 Blackbird... um... sorry, I shouldn't have said that just as you were taking a drink."

He seemed suddenly silent. For that matter, the room suddenly seemed a whole lot quieter.

She said, "You're joking, right?"

No one said a word.

Then she said, "Wow. It is a privilege and an honor. I have never met someone who..."

He said, "I really don't understand... maybe... um... I'm not really better, or—"

She said, "Stop being modest. I'd love to hear more about your fighter. Have you shot anything down?"

He looked as if he was thinking very hurriedly, and not finding the thought that he wanted.

"The SR-71 Blackbird would be pretty useless in a dogfight. It is neither designed or equipped to fight even with a very obsolete enemy aircraft; it's just designed to snoop around and gather information."

She said, "Um, so they get shot down all the time? Wouldn't you tend to get a lot of missiles fired by enemy fighters who aren't worried about you shooting back? What do you do when you run out of countermeasure flares?"

He paused for a moment, saying, "The SR-71 Blackbird doesn't have anything you'd expect. Flares are a great way to decoy a heat-seeking missile, but the SR-71 Blackbird doesn't have them, either."

I turned to him and said, "You're being almost disturbingly modest." Then I turned to her and said, "An SR-71 Blackbird can go over three times the speed of sound. The standard evasive to a surface-to-air rocket is simply to accelerate until you've left the rocket in the dust. I'm not aware of one of them being shot down."

Her eyes were as big as dinner plates.

She said, "I am stunned. I have talked with a few pilots, but I have never met anyone close to an SR-71 Blackbird pilot. I hope we can be friends." She stood close to him and offered her hand.

The three of us ran into each other a number of times in the following days. She seemed to want to know everything about his aircraft, and seemed very respectful, or at least seemed to be working hard to convey how impressed she was.


It was a dark and stormy night. He and I were both on our way out the door, when she asked, "What are you doing?"

He said, "I want to try some challenges. I plan on going out over the ocean and manoeuvering in the storm system."

She turned to him and said, very slowly, "No, you're not."

He turned to me and said, "C'mon, let's go."

She said, "Are you crazy? A storm like that has done what enemy rockets have failed to do: take down your kind of craft. I've grown quite fond of you, and I'd hate to see you get killed because you were being stupid. Think about 61-7969 / 2020."

He said, "May I ask why you know about that?"

"I have been doing some reading because I want to understand you. And I understand people well enough, and care about you enough, to tell when you are acting against your best interests."

He grabbed my arm and forced me out the door. Once in the car, he said, "I'm sorry... I needed to get out before saying something I would regret."

"Like what?"

"'So you know just the perfect way to straighten me out, and you don't even need to ask me questions. Walk a mile in my shoes, to a place you can reach in a car but not my aircraft, and then we might be able to talk.'"

I watched him take off, and I came back to pick him up, after waiting an hour. I could tell something that seemed not quite perfect about his flying, but I do not regret that I kept my mouth shut about that.

The next day she surprised us by meeting us first thing in the morning.

She gave us a stack of paper. "I care about you quite a lot, and I don't want to be invited to your funeral in the next year. Here are detailed aviation regulations and international laws which are intended for your safety. I could not get an exact count of the number of crimes you committed, either for last night or for your reckless day-to-day flying around. I am sure that there are many responsible ways a vehicle like yours can be used, and I have inquired about whether there are any people who can offer some guidance and free you to..."

He turned around, took my elbow, and began walking out to the parking lot. We got in my car, and she raced for hers.

I saw her go to the mouth of the parking lot and then stop. The one Rolls-Royce in town had broken down, of all places there, and the owner and chauffer were both outside. I had thought that the person who was chauffered in a Rolls-Royce was a peaceful sort of man, but he was yelling then, and before she got over the owner positively erupted at the chauffeur and waved his arms. She had gotten out and wanted to talk with them, but you can't get a word in edgewise at a time like that.

Now I'd like to clarify something about my car. I've only seen a vehicle like mine in a demolition derby once, but I was surprised. I wasn't surprised, in particular, that the wagon was the last vehicle moving. What I was surprised at was that over a third of the derby had passed before the ugly wagon started to crumple at all.

And one other thing: one April Fools' Day, a friend who drives a sleek, sporty little 1989 Chrysler LeBaron gave me a bumper sticker that said, "Zero to sixty in fifteen minutes," and then acted surprised when I challenged him to a short race. When the race had finished, he seemed extraordinarily surprised, and I told him, "There is a question on your face. Let me answer it." Then I opened the hood on my ugly, uncool station wagon and said, "Your sleek little number can get by on a 2.2 liter engine. Do you know what that is?" He said, "Um, the engine?" And I said, "That is a 6.6 liter V8. Any questions?"

Ok, enough clarification. I looked around, turned in the opposite direction, and floored my car, blasting through the hedges and getting heavy scrapes on the bottom of my car. I got shortly on the road, and had a straight shot at the airport. She did eventually catch up to me, but not until there was nothing left to see but some hot exhaust and the fuel that had leaked when he tried to take off. (I still get the occasional note from him.)

Besides worrying about him, I was also much less worried about my car: tough as it is, cars don't like getting their undersides scraped on gravel, and I decided to take my car to the garage and have the mechanic take a look at it and tell me if I broke anything.

I was surprised—though maybe I shouldn't have been—to see the Rolls-Royce in the garage when I pulled in. I intended to explain that I might have scraped the bottom up, and after I did so, my curiosity got the better of me. I asked something about Rolls-Royces breaking down.

The mechanic gave me the oddest look.

I asked him, "Why the funny look?"

He opened the hood, and said, "Rolls-Royces do break down easily... and it's even easier to break down if you open the hood, jam a screwdriver right there, and rev it as hard as you can."

Read more of Profoundly Gifted Survival Guide on Amazon!

The Best Things in Life are Free

Buy Happiness in an Age of Crisis on Amazon.

  1. The Best Things in Life are Free.
  2. The Best Things in Life are Free. But what does this mean?
  3. The Best Things in Life are Free. But we do not understand the truth of these words if we think they are filled out by hugs and friendship, or even love: If a man offered for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned.
  4. A better lens comes from the condemnation of the Pharisees: Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of extortion and rapacity. You blind Pharisee! first cleanse the inside of the cup and of the plate, that the outside also may be clean.
  5. It appears in Orthodoxy that the outside of the chalice is all feasts and beautiful liturgies, even during Lent: but on the inside is all repentance, deprivation and hardship, and being blindsided by rebukes. All of this falls under "The Best Things in Life are Free," the one as much as the other.
  6. Well enough it may be said that sin is the forerunner of sorrow: The wages of sin is death, and that death's sorrow begins here and now. Sin ultimately kills pleasure: It takes humility to enjoy even pride. It takes sobriety to enjoy even drunkenness. It takes chastity to enjoy even lust.
  7. But this is not all. The outside of the cup is beautiful and its beauty is true and real. But the real treasure is inside. Repentance is a spiritual awakening; it terrifies because it seems that when we repent we will lose a shining part of ourselves forever, but when we repent we suddenly realize, "I was holding on to a piece of Hell!" and are free to flee the stench. What feast compares to the grandeur of real repentance?
  8. The Great High Priest said, I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. The Best Things in Life are Free, and this pruning is a very big free gift.
  9. It is when we are cleansed inside the cup that the outside is clean. Let Christ cleanse us inside the cup, and then inside and outside will both bear proper fruit.
  10. The things in life that are free are persecutions, and we have on the highest authority: Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.
  11. St. Paul goes so far to say, But we see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for every one. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering.
  12. We may approach the outside of the chalice first, but it is a loss to stop there. We need the joyful sorrow of compunction and all that is within the chalice, and then what is on the outside of the chalice will be clean, and what is more, will reach its proper stature.
  13. Every day take a little less, and pare down a little more. The Fathers do warn, "Do not engage in warfare beyond your strength," and the praxis is to crawl before we try to walk. But The Way of the Ascetic pares down, little by little, in humor, in luxury, in eating for a purpose other than nourishment, and aims to have none of it left.
  14. By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. And by faith we wean ourselves even from a life centered on innocent pleasures, knowing that they do not hold a candle to the spiritual pleasure that is inside the chalice.
  15. The cutting of of one's own will is free. And it is the experience of monasticism that this is one of the best things in life: a monk's will is cut off, not for the primary benefit of his brother monks, but for his own benefit. And the voluntary and involuntary cutting off of one's will extends far outside the monastery. It is one of the best things in life, whether we accept it as a blessing or resent it because we do not wish to grow up in the spiritual life.
  16. Do you wish that this chalice be taken from you? Christ prayed the same, but he also prayed, "Nevertheless, not my will, but thine be done." For some prayers are impossible.
  17. There are two answers to prayer: "Yes," and "No, please ask for something better." St. James writes, You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. Passions are sinful habits that warp us, and when we ask for something to satisfy our passions, God only ever says "No" because he wants better for us.
  18. Those things that are obviously good are nothing compared to the terrible goods: the gilded artwork outside the chalice is beautiful enough, but it is nothing next to what is inside the chalice.
  19. The Maximum Christ wishes the maximum for our lives, and that comes through repentance and the royal road of affliction.
  20. Rejoice and dance for joy when men slander you and revile you and curse you for Christ's sake. This is a sign you are on the royal road; this is now the world heralds prophets and sons of God. This earthly dishonor is the seal of Heavenly honor.
  21. No one can harm the man who does not injure himself. Nor can any circumstance. So therefore let us not be governed by circumstances, or think the less of our God when he allows us rougher circumstances.
  22. We do not live in the best of all possible worlds, but there is another shoe to drop. We live in a world governed by the best of all possible Gods, and that is a greater good.
  23. Perhaps we are entering a time of struggle. (Entering?) Perhaps we are seeing the end of exceptionally prosperous and easy days we have no right reason to expect. The same truths apply. The same God who reigns in easy times, reigns in hard times.
  24. "Give us this day our daily bread:" it is normal not to know where your next meal is from.
  25. The arm of the Lord is more visible, not less, in hard times. God's providence is stronger when you know you need it.
  26. The chalice offered us indeed looks easy on the outside but is full of pain within. But the sufferings are part of the treasure. And the best things in life reach deeper than the golden ornaments that belong on the outside, but extend to the joyful sadnesses within. Those who shed at least some entertainment and seek repentance and compunction for their sins find repentance an awakening and compunction to be joyful and cleansing. And that is not all. Everything inside the cup runs deep. And everything inside the cup is free.
  27. The divine sovereignty is never purchased at the expense of human freedom. Human freedom is limited, but this is not where divine sovereignty comes from. The divine sovereignty has the last word after every creaturely choice has been made, and the divine sovereignty shapes joy after every draught of the inexhaustible cup.
  28. The joy of the best things in life is not purchased at the expense of the chalice of suffering. Suffering is limited, but this is not something the divine sovereignty is purchased from. The divine sovereignty has the last word after every creaturely suffering has been entered, and the divine sovereignty leaves people in a better place than had they not met their sufferings.
  29. The divine life is now. The divine energies are now. Not later, once some difficulties are resolved, but now.
  30. In ancient times the holiday of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection were celebrated together; even now there is not a separation between them, and we speak of a three-day Pascha. There is no real separation between bearing a cross and being crowned with a crown, even if it takes time to gain the eyes of faith to see such things.
  31. Orthodox are iconodules, but God is both iconodule and iconoclast: he takes things in our life and makes them icons of himself, and he also keeps on destroying and removing things to make us more free to breathe. Heaven and Hell are both inside us, and God seeks to inhabit Heaven inside of us and uproot Hell.
  32. God the Father is the maker of all things visible and invisible. God is spirit, and even among created things the first excellence belongs to the invisible. Who can buy or sell invisible things? This is one reason the best things in life are free.
  33. In the Incarnation, Heaven kissed earth and the visible now has a share in the excellence of the invisible. But still if a man offered for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned: the sale of relics is forbidden.
  34. Do you believe the best things in life are free? Excellent, but the demons believe—and shudder. Do you live as if the best things in life are free?
  35. It is more blessed to give than receive. What do you have to give?
  36. If you covet something and you gain it, it will bring misery once the pleasure melts away, and the greater the covetousness, the greater the misery. Covetousness is the inverse of what is inside the cup.
  37. We want to have things our way. But the Lord has other plans. And what we will find if we yield is that he has other plans for us that are not what we would have chosen, but are far better. This is at once an easy and a hard thing to do.
  38. In the Bible a chalice is both a cup of suffering to drink and a cup which fills with excellent joy. The suffering is as bad as we fear—no, worse— but if we drink of it we will be drinking of the very best things in life. The divine life in the chalice immeasurably eclipses the gilt ornament outside of it. Rememberance of death, compunction, and repentance dig deeper than the music of liturgy.
  39. The best things in life are not just an ornament for when our material needs are well taken care of. It is true ten times more that they are lifeblood in hard times and harder times. And the chalice is inexhaustible.
  40. The Best Things in Life are Free.

Read more of Where Is God in Suffering and Hard Times? on Amazon!

The Damned Backswing

Buy The Best of Jonathan's Corner on Amazon.

Kaine: What do you mean and what is the "damned backswing"?

Vetus: Where to start? Are you familiar with category theory?

Kaine: I have heard the term; explain.

Vetus: Category theory is the name of a branch of mathematics, but on a meta level, so to speak. Algebraists study the things of algebra, and number theorists study the things of number theory—an arrangement that holds almost completely. But category theory studies common patterns in other branches of mathematics, and it is the atypical, rare branch of mathematics that studies all branches of mathematics. And, though this is not to my point exactly, it is abstract and difficult: one list of insults to give to pet languages is that you must understand category theory to write even the simplest of all programs.

The achievements of category theory should ideally be juxtaposed with Bourbaki, the pseudonym of a mathematician or group of mathematicians who tried to systamatize all of mathematics. What came out of their efforts is that trying to systematize mathematics is like trying to step on a water balloon and pin it down; mathematicians consider their discipline perhaps the most systematic of disciplines in academia, but the discipline itself cannot be systematized.

But the fact that Bourbaki's work engendered a realization that you cannot completely systematize even the most systematic of disciplines does not mean that there are patterns and trends that one can observe, and the basic insight in category theory is that patterns recur and these patterns are not limited to any one branch of mathematics. Even if it does not represent a total success of doing what Bourbaki tried and failed to do, it is far from a total loss: category theory legitimately observes patterns and trends that transcend the confines of individual subdisciplines in mathematics.

Kaine: So the "damned backswing" is like something from category theory, cutting across disciplines?

Vetus: Yes.

Kaine: And why did you choose the term of a damned backswing?

Vetus: Let me comment on something first. C.S. Lewis, in a footnote in Mere Christianity, says that some people complained about his light swearing in referring to certain ideas as "damned nonsense." And he explained that he did not intend to lightly swear at all; he meant that the ideas were incoherent and nonsense, and they and anyone who believed in them were damned or accursed. And I do not intend to swear lightly either; I intend to use the term "damned" in its proper sense. Instead there is a recurring trend, where some seemingly good things have quite the nasty backswing.

Kaine: And what would an example be?

Vetus: In the U.S., starting in the 1950's there was an incredibly high standard of living; everything seemed to be getting better all the time. And now we are being cut by the backswing: the former great economic prosperity, and the present great and increasing economic meltdown, are cut from the same cloth; they are connected. There was a time of bait, and we sprung for it and are now experiencing the damned backswing.

Kaine: So the damned backswing begins with bait of sorts, and ends in misery? In the loss of much more than the former gain? Do you also mean like addiction to alcohol or street drugs?

Vetus: Yes, indeed; for a while drinking all the time seems an effective way to solve problems. But that is not the last word. The same goes from rationalism to any number of things.

Kaine: Do you see postmodern trends as the backswing of modern rationalism?

Vetus: All that and less.

Kaine: What do you mean by "and less"?

Vetus: The damned backswing did not start with Derrida. The understanding of "reason" that was held before the Enlightenment was a multifaceted thing that meant much more than logic; even as Reason was enthroned (or an actress/prostitute), Reason was pared down to a hollowed-out husk of what reason encompassed in the West before then. It would be like celebrating "cars", but making it clear that when the rubber hits the road, the truly essential part of "a set of wheels" is the wheel—and enthroning the wheel while quietly, deftly stripping away the rest of the car, including not just the frame but engine, and seats. The Damned Backswing of rationalism was already at work in the Enlightenment stripping and enthroning reason. And the damned backswing was already at work in economic boom times in the West, saying that yes, indeed, man can live by bread alone.

And perhaps the strongest and most visible facet of the damned backswing occurs in technology. There are other areas: a country erected on freedoms moves towards despotism, just as Plato said in his list of governments, moving from the best to the worst. But in technology, we seem to be able to be so much more, but the matrix of technology we live in is, among other things, a surveillance system, and something we are dependent on, so that we are vulnerable if someone decides to shut things off. Man does not live by bread alone, but it is better for a man to try to live by bread alone than live by SecondWife alone, or any or all the array of techologies and gadgetry. The new reality man has created does not compare to the God-given reality we have spurned to embrace the new, and some have said that the end will come when we no longer make paths to our neighbors because we are entirely engrossed in technology and gadgetry.

Kaine: And are there other areas?

Vetus: There are other areas; but I would rather not belabor the point. Does this make sense?

Kaine: Yes, but may I say something strange?

Vetus: Yes.

Kaine: I believe in the damned backswing, and in full.

Vetus: You're not telling me something.

Kaine: I believe in the damned backswing, but I do not believe that the fathers eat sour grapes and the children's teeth are set on edge.

Vetus: What? Do you mean that you partly believe in the damned backswing, and partly not? Do you believe in the damned backswing "is true, from a certain point of view"?

Kaine: I understand your concern but I reject the practice of agreeing with everyone to make them feel better. If I believed in the damned backswing up to a point, I would call it such.

Vetus: How do you believe it, if you reject that the fathers eat sour grapes and the children's teeth are set on edge?

Kaine: Let me ask: do Calvinists believe in the Sovereignty of God?

Vetus: Is the Pope Catholic? (I mean besides John XXIII.)

Kaine: Let me suggest that the Reformed view of Divine Sovereignty could go further than it actually does.

Vetus: How? They are the most adamant advocates of Divine Sovereignty, and write books like No Place for Sovereignty: What's Wrong with Freewill Theism.

Kaine: There's an awfully strong clue in the title.

Vetus: That the author believes so strongly in the Divine Sovereignty that he cannot countenance creaturely freedom?

Kaine: Not quite.

Vetus: Then what is the clue? I don't want to guess.

Kaine: The clue is that the author believes in the Divine Sovereignty so weakly that he cannot countenance creaturely freedom, and that if there is one iota of creaturely freedom, there is not one iota of Divine Sovereignty.

His is a fragile Divine Sovereignty, when in actual fact God's Sovereignty is absolute, with the last word after every exercise of creaturely freedom. There is no exercise of freedom you can make that will impede the exercise of the Divine Sovereignty.

Vetus: I could sin. In fact, I do sin, and I keep on sinning.

Kaine: Yes, but God is still Sovereign and can have the last world where there is sin. To get back to Lewis for a second, "All of us, either willingly or unwillingly, do the will of God: Satan and Judas as tools or instruments, John and Peter as sons." The Divine Sovereignty is the Alpha and the Omega, the Founder of the beginning, and works in and through all: "even Gollum may have something yet to do."

Vetus: But what?

Kaine: "But what?", you ask?

For starters, there is Christmas. Good slips in unnoticed. God slips in unnoticed. True, it will become one of the most celebrated holidays in the Western world, and true, the Western world will undertake the nonsensical task of keeping a warm, fuzzy Christmas without Christ or Christmas mentioned once. But us lay aside both Christian bloggers speaking in defense of a secularized Christmas, and bloggers telling retailers, "You need Christmas, but Christmas doesn't need you." You speak of the damned backswing coming from an unexpected place; this is nothing next to God slipping in unnoticed.

There will be a time when God will be noticed by all. At the first Christmas, angel hosts announced good news to a few shepherds. When Christ returns, he will be seen by all, riding on the clouds with rank upon rank of angels. At the first Christmas, a lone star heralded it to the Magi. When he returns, the sky will recede as a vanishing scroll. At the first Christmas, a few knees bowed. When he returns, every knee will bow. And the seed for this victory is planted in Christmas.

And the same seeds of glory are quietly planted in our lives. You are not wrong to see the damned backswing and see that it is real: but one would be wrong to see it and think it is most real. Open one eye, and you may see the damned backswing at work. Open both eyes wide, and you may see God at work, changing the game.

And God will work a new thing in you. Not, perhaps, by taking you out of your sufferings or other things that you may pray for; that is at his good pleasure. But you have heard the saying, "We want God to change our circumstances. God wants to use our circumstances to change us." Whole worlds open up with forgiveness, or repentance, or any virtue. If you are moulded as clay in the potter's hands, unsought goods come along the way. The Best Things in Life are Free, and what is hard to understand is that this is not just a friend's smile, but suffering persecution for the sake of Christ. It was spiritual eyes wide open that left the apostles rejoicing that they had been counted worthy to suffer shame [and violence] for Christ's name. And he who sat upon the throne said, "Behold, I make all things new." Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true." This newness begins here and now, and it comes when in circumstances we would not choose God works to give us a larger share in the real world. We enter a larger world, or rather we become larger ourselves and more able to take in God's reality. And all of this is like the first Christmas, a new thing and unexpected. We are summoned and do not dare disobey: Sing unto the Lord a new song; sing unto the Lord all the earth. And it is this whole world with angels, butterflies, the Church, dandylions, energetic work, friends, family, and forgiveness, the Gospel, holiness, the I that God has made, jewels, kairos, love, mothers, newborn babes, ostriches, preaching, repentance from sins, singing, technology, unquestioning obedience, variety, wit and wisdom, xylophones, youth and age, and zebras.

The damned backswing is only a weak parody of the power of God the Gamechanger.

Read more of The Best of Jonathan's Corner: An Anthology of Orthodox Christian Mystical Theology on Amazon!