All posts by HRJakes

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Borders

“‘The world has enough borders. I don’t want [them] any more,’ Malamine said.” I quote here from a recent article that appeared on the CNN website.[1] The sentiment is clear enough; the idea is that borders are essentially bad and in any case unnecessary. People should be allowed to move around at will, no one should be prevented from any movement at any time. The old American expression about freedom of speech, “I can say whatever I want; it’s a free country”—should be applicable to the world thus: “I can go wherever I want; it’s a free world.” Indeed, thus it has been argued in an important 2015 publication.[2]

The only problem with this modification of the dictum is that it is not a free world. Maybe it should be, but it is not. Just recently, according to the reliable news source, Reuters, “a Turkish prosecutor asked for NBA’s New York Knicks star Enes Kanter to be jailed for … insulting Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan….”[3] Now if it were a free world, Mr. Kanter would be allowed to criticize whom he wanted, as many other NBA stars, even the NBA’s current brightest shining star, have done with regard to the American president.[4] He might have even have been allowed to say, “Tayyip, dude, that’s a funny first name.” But it is not a free world and, as a rule of thumb, one should never tease a dictator about his first name.

So I think we have established, thanks to Mr. Erdogan’s interesting first name, that it is most certainly not a free world, and that’s why, as unpopular as it might sound, we need borders. And are borders, anyhow, actually bad? If they were, why would anyone name a bookstore after them?  But seriously, let’s think about this for a moment. Without borders there would be no patriotism. Now is patriotism bad? A debate website (dubiously, perhaps) debates it,[5] and well-known Irish-Californian Christian preacher Philip De Courcy points up the dangers of unqualified nationalism using the example of the prophet Jonah in his very fine sermon series “Jonah: Man on the Run.”[6]

Yet even if, for the sake of argument, we were to grant that patriotism is somehow objectionable, that does not make borders “bad.” In the case of marriage, for example, most people would say, borders are good, as most marriages are not open marriages. Most marriages, therefore, have implicit, even explicit borders. And for all their openness and presumed easy-goingness, 92% of open marriages would seem to end up in divorce.[7] Now someone might argue that marriage is an outdated idea anyway. And that is fine, but caveat uxor: why even be married if you’re going to have an “open marriage”?

Well, I’ve rambled along far enough, probably transgressing a few borders, without which there would be no “South of the Border” restaurant, as there would be nothing to be “south of”.  Which brings me to my closing thought: the notion of transgression. The very idea of “trespassing” or “transgressing” or even robbing someone’s house or taking their property is owed, in some way, to the notion that there are borders or limits that should not be transgressed. And with that, I have reached my own limit, a border I shall not transgress by rambling on further, for perhaps the most rarified form of human happiness, anyhow, is found at home, with family—yes, within one’s own borders.









Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Reading for Friends (or, “How to Get Smarter”)

The wickedly exciting combination of being overbold and enjoying even limited philological training will allow you to do something quite special: read for friends. Now I don’t mean the kind of “fun reading” that one does on the living room couch or at the beach. That kind of reading of, say, a good novel is almost a holy act—it is purifying for the soul, for it provides the soul with something more than just fun; it gives it pause, a different kind of pause, too, than simply being still and reflecting. Yes, that kind of reading is as good for you as the alarmingly named Grape Nuts (probably) are. Grape Nuts taste healthy, at the very least, even though their name remains one of the most unsolvable mysteries of modern food science, as they are made of neither grapes nor nuts in the same way that the drink known as an “egg cream” includes neither eggs nor cream.

egg cream

But I wander too far afield. Rather I prefer to speak about reading for friends or rather for one friend at a time, for that is all one can do. One reads one’s friend’s book or article as it comes off the pen, and one gives feedback. I can recall doing this for a friend of mine who taught at Rutgers years ago—he wrote a book on the Martini and, indeed, I have never met anyone who knew more about that particular drink than the famous Lowell Edmunds. And I have been doing it today for another friend who is writing on the topic of reading and writing in antiquity. Exhilarating—and, no, I’m not being facetious!

And if one reads for one’s friends, one learns a lot. One learns about topics ranging from Renaissance Latin to Columella’s poem entitled, in English, “On the Rustic Thing.” One of Columella’s more famous quotes is, of course, “Thus far the tillage of the land.” And one can learn about Hellenistic poetry, Medieval art, the history of troop movements at the Battle of the Bulge, statue busts—you name it. You can learn a lot by reading your friends drafts.

And one or two of you are right now thinking, “Great! But how can I ever get the chance to do so? I know so few scholars personally. Well, the answer to that good question is pretty simple: go to your local college’s espresso bar, if you are lucky enough to have one—by “one” here I mean a college or university, of course—and intentionally eavesdrop (scholars rarely notice eavesdroppers), and then introduce yourself. After you get to know the scholar, whose résumé you might well have checked out online in advance for this very purpose, you can say, “So, what are you working on these days,” even though you know already the answer is “The Three Bar Sigma and Re-dating of Important Greek Inscriptions” or “Secondary Characters in Beowulf” or “The Use of the Subjunctive in Cervantes.”

Yes, you more or less stalked him or her so you could say, “Wow, that’s right up my alley—I have just been refreshing my Don Quixote, my study of Greek epigraphy,” or the like.

And then he or she will say, “Smashing! Perhaps you would like to read an article I am preparing on ML 84” (where ML is short for Meiggs and Lewis, i.e. a standard epigraphical collection; the eighty fourth entry lays out various payments from the treasury of Athena and is dated to 410/09 B.C.).

And when you read this person’s article you will definitely get smarter. And that is a good thing, even if it is not the same as the “holy time” you might have enjoyed reading a novel at the beach. And, yes, I do recommend both; but the summer is still a long way off, so perhaps you should head to that local college’s espresso bar now and learn about the three bar sigma, which is not at all, as it sounds, a fraternity drinking game but rather just a fancy Greek “S”.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Problem with Great Danes

One has a number of problems when one has a Great Dane. I know; I have one.

The obvious one is the constant question, “Are these dogs really Danish?” But that is the least of your problems, even when someone gets more specific and asks, “Why are they called ‘Danes’”?

It’s a good question. Like crêpes, which are essentially just thin, eggy pancakes, it all started with the French. As tension rose between Germany and France in the eighteenth century, the French wisely decided to change the name of the dog from (in archaic and modern English) “German Dogge” or “German Mastiff” to Grand Danois.[1] The idea was, of course, something like, “Well, Holland is near Germany, but Dutch Dogge sounds like Deutsche Dogge, so that won’t work; how about Belgium? No, too far away from Germany. What about Swedish Dogge? No, too far north. What about Denmark? Oui, parfait!”

And so it happened that the Great Dane became Danish. But that is not their problem. Their problem is their size and the lies it causes us to tell. First, people come to you house and they say, “My goodness! Your dog is large!”

Of course you had noticed this. Now all you can do is to reply, “Yes, but he’s nice” or “He’s a gentle giant.” Or you can lie and say, “When I got him from the pound, he was so small and cute. Who knew he would grow so abundantly?” I’ve tried that one, but I was technically lying, because I knew he would grow. His feet were huge.

Another lie you can tell only works sometimes. You can tell the person, “Yes, he’s large, but he’s a teacup Dane.” That usually slows down even the savviest interlocutor.

“A teacup Dane?” he or she will invariably reply.” Really, I had no idea they bred such animals.”

But then that person will take a second look at your dog and add, “It’s awfully large for a teacup Dane.”

To which, on the one hand, you might be forced to respond, if you’re honest, “Well, he’s on the small side for a Dane—and I was only kidding about the ‘teacup’ bit.”

On the other hand, you might be less than honest and simply say, “Well, they weren’t very successful in breeding them small.”

To which, your visitor will respond, “I’ll say they were not. He’s huge.”

The third problem and occasionally worse problem with Danes, of course, is their tail.   It is at precisely the wrong level. Your dog can easily hit your visiting nephew in the eye or face—of course by accident and merely out of exuberance.

The tail also can strike hard objects and bleed; and when it is bleeding it can fling drops of blood everywhere and/or smear blood all over your brand new and expensive wallpaper. Yes, they do that.

Worse yet, the tail can strike your male visitors in the private area and double them over in pain. Yes, that has happened, and in fact happens pretty frequently. It is embarrassing and, if it happens to happen to your boss, it can cost you your annual raise.

Profanity!” the visiting pastor will say who has come over to visit your ailing parent or has shown up for your child’s baptism or confirmation. “Surprising profanity!” Yes, even more than once, because the tail can swing to the same spot twice in rapid succession, even dropping your pastor to one knee in pain. You can yell at the dog all you want but, one must recall, he has the excuse of being Danish and speaking no English, and in any case he did not do it on purpose. It was an accident, just as your red-spot-bespeckled and bestreaked wallpaper was an accident, as your nephew now blind in one eye was an accident. No good yelling at the dog; he speaks no English.

And that is the problem with Great Danes. Their tails and the tales the cause you to tell. And now you know to be wary of both.

[1] Frederick Becker, The Great Dane – Embodying a Full Exposition of the History, Breeding Principles, Education, and Present State of the Breed (2005).


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The “New” S-Word

So I am at a dinner party and one of the guests talks about raising her children. Of course, at this point, three of the single people drift away but a couple stays, as do I, of course. I always find myself interested in what is important to people when they raise children: how to say ‘no.’ sometimes, while other times, ‘yes.’ Tricky business, as I see it, childrearing today.

In any case the conversation was about the “bad words” that should not be used in family situations. Colleen, the mother says something rather startling (in a wonderful way). In her family, the “S-word” is “Shut up!” That’s the word the children are not to say to one another or to their parents, teachers, or grandparents, etc. “How wonderful!“ I blurted out before anyone else could respond. The others who had not drifted off concurred, whether voluntarily or under the duress of my leading the jury, as it were, we shall never know.

After a pause, mother Colleen added, “Well, it seems like nobody allows anyone to talk anymore; no one wants to hear anyone else’s point of view.

To which I blurted out again, “Exactly!” And then I realize I had done it twice now—not allowing the others in the circle to respond before me. Perhaps it is because I was drinking wine, I don’t know, but I think it was, anyhow, only my first glass, so I doubt as much. I think, rather, I was simply too exuberant regarding this particular topic.

Thus I shat up again, allowing the others to respond, which of course they did. “Yes,” the other woman standing there said, “I find it positively distressing when I hear someone say ‘Shut up!’”

“It happens all the time,” said the man who appeared to be her husband. “Terrible.”

This time I waited before I said anything, trying to get my banter-timing a bit better than I had stared out. “You know,” I said, “I read that Don Lemon, a CNN commentator, on his show had actually quashed one or two of his interlocutors who were speaking to him about a topic with which Mr. Lemon rather did not agree. ‘Shut up’ he said, just before putting down any possible word of opposition.”

What he actually said was “…Not the time to talk about guns or whatever? yes it is! Shut up, I don’t want to hear it.” ] Now, ironically, I am probably on the side of Don Lemon on this issue, or at least very sympathetic to what he had to say but I was focusing on the “Shut up!” bit of his remark.[1]

“Yes,” a third person in the conversation added, “I saw that and also saw that a commentator named Laura Ingarham said that LeBron James should keep his political views to himself and ‘Shut up and Dribble.’”[2]


A number agreed. And they didn’t like it, especially because one or two were basketball fans.

In the end, as I look back on it, I think that’s why Colleen’s advice, nay rather, rule for her children seemed so timely to me. Because people on the left and the right are just telling those who oppose them to “shut up.” But can that really help. I think when one shuts down dialogue, it only really promotes a nasty kind of overreaction, even rebellion.

Ingrid Bergman once said, “I was the shyest human ever invented, but I had a lion inside me that wouldn’t shut up!”[3] I imagine that is why she was such a great actress. But truth, beauty, and especially freedom always seem to manage to work their way up to the surface. You can’t keep them buried for too long. LeBron’s voice was louder than ever after Mr. Ingharahm’s attempt to repress him. And however right Mr. Lemon may be on the issue of the day, it seems to me that he would be better off letting the opposition speak and oppose it on principled and well-reasoned grounds, than merely shouting it down.

So here’s to Colleen’s good choice, when it comes to her banning the “s-word.” Maybe her children will be at the vanguard of a more civil society. And if you don’t agree with me, well you can just—no not shut up. Rather, just write me an email and tell me that you disagree. Way cooler.

Pax et bonum, et licet loqui.

[1] On “CNN Tonight with Don Lemon.”



Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Primary and Secondary Motives

I imagine you’re thinking that this blog has a strange title. It sounds rather serious. “It would be nice to have a funny blog once in a while,” someone said to me in the hallway the other day. “Why don’t you tell a story about Poobar Meyers, your high school teammate, or the time you went into the woman’s restroom, then called the Ladies’ Room, when you were a lecturer visiting Rutgers University?”

Maybe a funny story can help us with both the serious title and serious idea of not imputing motives to people. In fact, I think the second of the two stories mentioned above may just fit the bill nicely. It happened when I was at the beginning of my writing career—I was writing under a different name than my family name, H.R. Jakes, in those days, but I leave that aside, as I won’t bore you with the details and you wouldn’t want to read what I was writing in those days anyway, so early in my career was it.

It was an overcast day, so I was wearing a raincoat, what in the New Jersey area was then called and may still be called a trench coat—like Colombo or Chief Inspector Jacques Clouseau—and the university kindly allowed me to use their gym. Accordingly, I had shorts on under the trench coat. En route to the gym, I wanted to stop off in the library to check a reference for my talk later on that day, so in I went, locating the book I needed (in the NDs, I think, an art book). Yet when I entered the library I knew, too, that I needed to visit the men’s room.

“It’s down this way, at the end of the stacks,” said a kind librarian, by no means circumambulating when it came to such practical instructions that provided me relief as I became increasingly desperate to find latrinal liberation. And thus it was that a fool rushed in where an angel would have feared to tread, for I bounded down the hall of stacks passing P and PA, with their suggestive Library of Congress numbers only urging my desire as might the sound of babbling brook. Indeed a man slurping from the water fountain performed that very task.

Before me lay two doors, one ivory-colored, the other horn-colored. From the horn-colored door, on the right, a woman emerged from the clearly marked Ladies’ Room, so I chose the ivory door on the left. Scooching in quickly, I walked into what seemed to be a lounge of some kind, taking a hard right toward the bathroom stalls. Alas, I could find no urinals, but I remembered that the campus I was visiting, Douglass College in New Brunswick, had been a few years earlier an all-women’s school. Indeed, it technically was still so, though now, as a part of Rutgers University main campus, it was merely one of several colleges that made up an essentially co-educational university. All students, male and female, take classes on all campuses. And that is why, I quickly reasoned, there were no urinals.

I went into a stall, kicked up the seat with one foot and took care of my mild emergency, standing and, as I was in a cheery enough mood, whistling a familiar song, “Jimmy Crack Corn …,”,arguably a song of indifference or social justice. (Interpretations of the song abound; I think I was just whistling out of sheer joy at having found a toilet.)[1]

And that’s when it happened: there was a very nervous rumbling of toilet paper coming from the next stall. “Oh,” I thought, “I probably disrupted the fellow’s newspaper reading.” I half thought to apologize, but I decided that it would be too strange for me to say anything. Instead, I re-girded my athletic attire and went out to wash my hands, only to notice to my left what I assumed to be a condom dispenser. “Well,” I figured, “I suppose that’s par for the course these days on a college campus” (it was the 1990s). But upon closer inspection, as I toweled off my wet hands, I saw that it was a feminine napkin dispenser.

“Well that’s weird,” I thought. “You’d think by now they would have removed these from the men’s rooms.” And that is when, of course, it donned on me: this was no vain dream, but the gates of ivory and horn both led to the same place: I had been all along in the woman’s room. The nervous toilet papering person was a woman. My attire—seemingly nothing but socks and sneakers covered by a trench coat—must have seemed quite strange to her as she peered out through the small slit between bathroom stall doors.

So I decided to leave forthwith (of course!). But as I left from the ivory-colored door in came another woman, who looked at me dumbfounded. “Inspecting,” I said as authoritatively as I could, hoping she would not notice my legs bare save socks and shoes.

“Oh,” was all she said, and she then left.

Now my motives were pure—as pure as flowing water. But it must have appeared, of course, rather bad. Woman number one likely thought I was a pervert; woman number two knew I was a liar. Not good!

But the motives, primary and/or secondary? That’s where not judging comes in. Woman number one knew that at least one of my motives was to use the bathroom. But she might have thought that my primary, or at least secondary, motive was to be perverse, to use the woman’s room for whatever reason, probably an opprobrious one. The other woman, if she saw my unclad calves protruding from the bottom of my trench coat, probably figured on about the same thing. I never found out what woman number one looked like, so I don’t know if she came to my lecture that afternoon. Woman number two, I am glad to report, did not.

[1] Cf. John Kroes (2012):

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Chicago Statement

It’s amazing to me that Kathleen Parker’s piece in the Chicago Tribune is now already nearly three years old for it is still highly relevant. It starts with the striking line, “Trigger warning: This column will include discussion of ideas that may conflict with your own.”[1] In it Parker calls attention to the fact that on many college campuses nowadays the mores of group identity trumps, you’ll pardon the triggering expression, freedom of thought, or at least qualifies it (which de facto trumps it).

What I mean by “the mores of group identity” can be redacted actually quite fairly, I think, to a groupthink mentality. I shall never forget, when I, a mere novelist and blogger, happened quite by accident (at the invitation of my philologist friend) to be in attendance at a major research university when a newly elected provost, i.e. chief academic officer, was giving his inaugural address to great applause and raucous approbation. In his speech he called for a more tolerant, more politically correct atmosphere than had occurred under his predecessor, one where there was “more groupthink” (sic!) and thus fewer ideas coming from individuals. He bandied about the word transparency. He used the word new several times, often in front of words like “initiatives,” and then, just for good measure I imagine, added words or phrases like transdisciplinarity or polymorphous vantage points. I wasn’t quite sure about the former term, and was (and remain) completely lost on the latter.

Of course this was many years ago now, and maybe he really used different words than these, but whatever he really said, it was more or less in such a vein, at least as far as I can recall all these years later. I am pretty sure of one thing, though: he advocated, more than just obliquely, for the community standards to usurp any possibly offensive ideas—ideas that did not conform to the community’s notions of what was acceptable. I don’t know for sure what he meant by that, but from the tone of the rest of the meeting, which was really more of a political rally, I imagine that he meant that such an offensive idea might be expected to come from someone on the “far right.”

Now before I go on, let me say that the far right, like the far left, often expresses some ideas that are to my mind unbecoming. If fascists, Nazis and racists represent the far right, then I am as disgusted as the next man (or, rather, as Prime Minister Trudeau would say, the next people[-kind]).[2] And nobody likes hearing Nazis talk, especially when they are running for congress in Illinois in 2018.[3] Wow. But to say they haven’t the right to have their bad opinions or to express them—well, that’s a “wow,” too. In fact, one could cogently make the case that simply removing bad ideas doesn’t make them go away. It could make them worse. Al-Qaeda was more destructive when it was bunkered in caves than when it was out in the open where it could get shot. Simply suppressing bad ideas doesn’t allow you to construct positive alternatives to them, to address their underlying concerns constructively and with a view to the common good.

Where I am I going with all this? To Chicago, I think. Not the Chicago Tribune, with which this piece began, but to the “Chicago Statement,” which seems to me the most sensible statement since that of President Everett Piper of the Oklahoma Wesleyan University who said to a student who was complaining being victimized, “This is not a daycare. It’s a university.”[4]

All coddling aside, here is the Chicago Statement, written by Geoffrey R. Stone, Professor and former Provost, taken directly from the University of Chicago’s website:[5]

Eighty years ago, a student organization at the University of Chicago invited William Z. Foster, the Communist Party’s candidate for President, to lecture on campus. This triggered a storm of protest from critics both on and off campus. To those who condemned the University for allowing the event, University President Robert M. Hutchins responded that “our students . . . should have freedom to discuss any problem that presents itself.” He insisted that the “cure” for ideas we oppose “lies through open discussion rather than through inhibition.” On a later occasion, Hutchins added that “free inquiry is indispensable to the good life, that universities exist for the sake of such inquiry, [and] that without it they cease to be universities.”

This incident captures both the spirit and the promise of the University of Chicago. Because the University is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn. Except insofar as limitations on that freedom are necessary to the functioning of the University, the University of Chicago fully respects and supports the freedom of all students, faculty and staff “to discuss any problem that presents itself,” free of interference.

This is not to say that this freedom is absolute. In narrowly-defined circumstances, the University may properly restrict expression, for example, that violates the law, is threatening, harassing, or defamatory, or invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests. Moreover, the University may reasonably regulate the time, place and manner of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the University.

Fundamentally, however, the University is committed to the principle that it may not restrict debate or deliberation because the ideas put forth are thought to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the members of the University community to make those judgments for themselves.

As a corollary to this commitment, members of the University community must also act in conformity with this principle. Although faculty, students and staff are free to criticize, contest and condemn the views expressed on campus, they may not obstruct, disrupt, or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe.

For members of the University community, as for the University itself, the proper response to ideas they find offensive, unwarranted and dangerous is not interference, obstruction, or suppression. It is, instead, to engage in robust counter-speech that challenges the merits of those ideas and exposes them for what they are. To this end, the University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.

As Robert M. Hutchins observed, without a vibrant commitment to free and open inquiry, a university ceases to be a university. The University of Chicago’s long-standing commitment to this principle lies at the very core of the University’s greatness.

In these politically correct, trigger-warning-ready, safe-space-provided, coddling times in which we live, the Chicago Statement seems to me to be a good kind of wow.

[1] Kathleen Parker, “The ‘Swaddled Generation’ and the Suppression of Ideas,” 21 May 2015:

[2] “The questioner ended by asking Trudeau to look at laws surrounding the charitable status of religious organisations, saying: ‘Maternal love is the love that’s going to change the future of mankind.’ To which Trudeau replied ‘We like to say ‘peoplekind’, not necessarily ‘mankind’, because it’s more inclusive.’” Quote taken from the article of 7 February 2018 in The Guardian:




Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Interest in the Boring

The title of this blog is anything but titillating. I chose it for that reason. It is meant to challenge us to ask a fundamental question: Why would anyone do anything boring? Life is tragically short. Given that fact, I think it is perfectly legitimate to ask why anyone would choose to do something boring.

I have a friend who is a philologist, and you can imagine even from the career description encapsulated in his professional title that he has what most people would deem to be a boring job. Perhaps an aversion to such boring jobs provides the very rationale, to the extent that there is a rationale beyond “ratings” or “advertising dollars,” for “extreme” television shows, or even reality television shows, which seem to me far from real. To take but one example, this week, when I had a bad headache, I turned on the television. We haven’t cable television, but as I occasionally like to watch sporting events, we decided to purchase an antenna that would allow us to get local channels. Now that everything is digital, we actually only sort-of get the local channels, as they often barely come in on time; there are all kinds of data transfer delays so that you often just see blocks of pictures popping up, especially, it seems at critical moments in a sporting event. But no matter—such is the digital age in which we live, like it or not.

But back to the headache. As I convalesced for a few minutes I did what I rarely do—turned on the television for a non-sporting event, only to find a telling example of reality television. Reality? It was a dating program where the same man kissed many women and then got to pick which one he would send home from his harem, presumably because she didn’t kiss well enough. What a message, I thought for young people: for young women, that they need to “compete” to get a boyfriend, in this case a creepy one and, for young men, that they should think of women as commodities, like automobiles, to be test driven and then chosen. Such a sad world we live in now. I’m afraid the show just made my headache worse.

Well, I thought to myself, what is the alternative? Is the alternative to embrace the “boring”? Church, by comparison, must seem very boring. Helping at the local recycling center must seem very boring. Volunteering at a shelter for the poor must seem very boring, too, by comparison with reality televisions shows like that one.


But that’s when I thought of why in fact the reality television show is actually the boring thing—indeed I did find it very boring, as I could stomach it only for a few minutes while I sharpened my thoughts in my throbbing head about it. The reality is that going to a shelter to help the poor is anything but boring. You actually meet really interesting people there—real people with real problems—and you get to speak with them about your life, perhaps even what God has done in your life, if you’re volunteering through a religiously based organization. And God is not boring because he is not the God of “and”—for the man had this woman and that woman and then would send one of them home and next week start all over again and choose the next loser and send her home and then refine his harem and then pick another loser and so on. That’s the world of and, and, and. Advertisers thrive on it: you need this thing and this thing, oh, and by the way, that one, too. And then comes the next commercial. And, and, and …


But God is the God of buts. He says your life is a mess, but I am here to help you. You think you need this and this and that, but you really just need me. To the women in that television show, he says the world turns you into a commodity, but I say you are a human being. To the male star of that television show (and perhaps to any man watching it), he says you want woman upon woman but you won’t be satisfied until you let go of your hedonism and listen to the buts of the Ten Commandments and the buts of the whole story of the Bible. Moses was a murderer, but he was called to lead the people of God. Jacob was a trickster, but he would bear the name of Israel. Joseph was in jail, but he came to rule over Pharaoh’s kingdom. His brothers threw him into a pit, but he forgave them. Peter was a fisherman, but he was called to follow. Paul was persecuting Christians, but he became one. Lazarus was in the tomb and there was a bad odor, Mary said, after all the time he was in there, but Christ called him out. Jesus was dead—but he arose.[1]

But all that is boring churchy stuff—religion, hocus pocus in the age of scientific reality. Yet if reality television is any indication of the alternative, of the reality of this psychologically needy and spiritually defunct age, maybe, just maybe the boring might start to look, if not exciting by comparison, at the very least more palatable, for if it claims miracles—a good, highly educated friend of mine only came to believe in miracles when he saw them occur repeatedly in his own life—it still offers something that the stark world of reality doesn’t quite offer: hope. Hope is what we really need because hope says what God says: but. I’m in a mess now, but there’s hope.

Here I will end, I think, my discourse on the boring, as I have invited a friend to church tomorrow not with a promise of anything but that it may seem boring. We will sing, we will pray, we will listen. That sounds, I imagine, pretty boring. Boring, yes, but for a small word—but.

[1] I owe the refining of my thoughts about the word “but” to a sermon by Rev. Philip DeCourcy (“Jonah, Man on the Run,” 4th part in the series) who cites a similar observation by the late Rev. James Montgomery Boyce of Tenth Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Coincidence and Morality

Coincidentally, I was in a hotel shuttle with a couple who hail from Oskarshamn, Sweden. “What a small world,” I said. “One of my favorite authors, Axel Munthe, comes from there.”

“Oh, yes,” they said, “we love Axel Munthe.” They were on their way to Disneyland, but I on quite another errand of consulting for a Californian liberal arts college.

“It’s a small world after all,” I said, not being able to resist, once I had discovered where they were heading. Chuckles all round.

But the essence of today’s blog is yet another coincidence. Not that seeing my old friend from high school was coincidental, for it was not. Indeed, a few weeks before we had planned the rendez-vous at a restaurant on the San Clemente pier; and what spectacular views of the Pacific coast can be seen from that pier! And the conversation was loaded with coincidences, too, if you believe in that sort of thing, for it takes a certain kind of faith to believe in coincidence. I haven’t that faith; I rather invest mine in Providence.


A quick synopsis of the conversation with John: life, family—kids in particular—jobs. And that is when it got interesting—how he had gotten his current position through a labyrinth of coincidences. And mine, too, I said. How I had come to be writing what I am writing now—no, I shan’t tell you, my reader, as that must remain between me and John until it is completed—and so much more. My work in California, and the potential for more where that came from, and on and on. All of which was loaded with coincidences, coincidences that can, in my view, best be explained by Providence, as it seemed that some of them were so coincidental as to suggest the evidence of the intervention of a divine hand, a divine plan.

“As you know, I am a moral agnostic,” John said, and then he added with a wry smile, “Probably the only happy agnostic I know.” I agreed that he is one of the few truly content moral agnostics that I know. And I agreed that he is moral, for he is. He lives by a moral code. And in spite of his clearly moral posture, a friend had, he shared with me, given him a copy of Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ. I told John about an old friend of mine, a doctor also named John, who had read that book and become a Christian.

“Yet,” I added, “I think you would enjoy C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity more. It’s really written for moral agnostics.” I then recapitulated a bit about C.S. Lewis’ life and his connection to J.R.R. Tolkien and the other Inklings.

We parted, John generously picked up the tab, and I got in my car and thought of what I should have added, of course, about morality, for I agreed with him that these days our society needs a good dose of morality and its twin sister civility. But what I didn’t state as clearly as I might have is that morality must have a source, an authority outside of ourselves, for if morality just comes from within us, one person’s morality could look very different from that of another’s. One person might justify stealing or lying or coercing or bullying and even casting aspersions on someone as means to a greater end, while another might see lying or the other nasty behaviors just enumerated as wrong under nearly all circumstances, or even all circumstances. In other words, as Lewis shows deftly in Mere Christianity, we are ourselves not the buoys or the stars and we are certainly not the compass or the magnetic poles. We are, rather the ships, or better the pilots of our own ships, and sailing out of line can damage or even sink our neighbor’s ships, too.[1] Without doubt we, as captains, can and sometimes must use dead reckoning to sail, but that would only be on a cloudy day when we can’t see the sky and we have misplaced our compass. So, being moral is great—good ship captains are welcome—but it necessarily derivative. And then the question becomes, derivative of what source? And that source does in fact matter very much. Do we really want it to be textless, ever-shifting cultural groupthink? Are there not founts (maybe Cicero Plato, Aristotle?) or an even higher source (perhaps the Ten Commandments?) that speak to our moral formation better than pop music, reality T.V. shows, Dear Abby or the op ed page?

Alas, I neither got that far in my thinking nor we in our conversation. Why not? I would like to say it was only because I had a plane to catch, but in reality it was because I am not as mentally quick on my feet as I would like to pretend I am. Yet it was a delight to see an old friend, and a joy to think through the need for civil discourse in a world so fallen, so in need of kindness, so lacking in grace and forgiveness. But there I go again, sounding like someone lamenting, “In my day it was much better…” But maybe, just maybe it was, and the only way back to that day or an even brighter and better one is to find, once again, our moral moorings and, most importantly, the Source that gives those moorings its authority. Not that it was all perfectly clear even “in my day,” but maybe just knowing that it is there at all can be our first step toward what Plato calls “the good,” as we navigate in these waters that have of late become choppy in terms of morality and simply civility. But the faith to get through it, to find the moorings, and to act on their teachings—that’s where coincidence ends and Providence begins.

[1] Lewis, Mere Christianity, Ch. 3, passim.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Name Rings a Bell

In his own words, Captain Henry Bell, who served in the court of King James of England, when he was soundly sleeping one night, saw a frightening vision of “an ancient man,” who grasped Captain Bell by his ear. That vision admonished him to translate a book that the captain had cryptically received from a German gentleman named Casparus Van Sparr, a friend of the captain whom he had met in Germany. Thousands of copies of that book, known as the Colloquia Mensalia (in German, Tischreden), had been burned throughout Germany to the delight of Ferdinand II but the chagrin of many German protestants, for it is, of course, the wittiest work of Martin Luther. One copy of that book, however, that captain recounts, had actually been mummified and preserved “deep into the ground, under … [a building’s] old foundation, … lying in a deep obscure hole, being wrapped in a strong linen cloth, which was waxed all over with bees-wax, within and without; whereby the book was preserved fair, without any blemish.”

The captain’s narrative, dated to 3 July 1650, reads as if it were a combination of a detective novel, a moment of poetic inspiration, and a remarkable account of supernatural intervention in a para-biblical narrative. Bell himself comes off at once as a character from ancient epic instructed by a divinity (e.g., Aeneas heeding Hector’s ghost in Aeneid 2 or Mercury’s charge in Aeneid 4); Joseph, jailed but remaining faithful in the midst of a long sentence only to be sprung from prison if not in return for, at least in light of, his faithful obedience; and Boethius, whose consolation was Philosophy (whereas for the captain it is Theology):

“… about six weeks after I had received the said book, it fell out, that I being in bed one night, between twelve and one of the clock, my wife being asleep, by myself yet awake, there appeared unto me an ancient man, standing at my bedside, arrayed all in white, having a long and broad white beard hanging down to his girdle steed, who taking me by my right ear, spake these words following unto me: ‘Sirrah! will not you take time to translate that book which is sent unto you out of Germany? I will shortly provide for you both time and place to do it’; and then he vanished away out of my sight.”

The captain soon goes on to explain the Boethius-like circumstances under which he would render the Tischreden.

“… sitting down to dinner with my wife, two messengers were sent from the whole council-board, with a warrant…. Upon which said warrant I was kept ten whole years close prisoner, where I spent five years thereof about the translating the said book; insomuch as I found the words very true which the old man, in the aforesaid vision, did say unto me –’I will shortly provide for you both place and time to translate it.’”

Eventually Captain Bell would be released from prison by an order of the House of Lords, and his Table Talk—for that is the English titled when translated from either the Latin or the German, cited above—or, rather, Martin Luther’s Table Talk, would become well known in the English speaking world, having been duly approved by the House of Commons in February of 1646. And thus, in his recounting of the entire affair, which was obviously quite an ordeal for the captain, he concludes:

“…now bringing them [the Tischreden] again to light, I have done the same according to the plain truth thereof, not doubting but they will prove a notable advantage of God’s glory, and the good and edification of the whole Church, and an unspeakable consolation of every particular member of the same.”

Martin Luther

Now at this moment you just might be wondering why I tell this story in this week’s blog? Well, I will tell you, for there are a couple of good reasons. First, the Captain, however kooky he might seem to you, was obviously a man of some noble character, for he embodies perseverance and grace under fire. Jailed unfairly, like Joseph of the book of Genesis, Captain Bell does not kvetch about it but rather accepts it as a part of his story, a part of the rich beauty of his purpose in life which involved, I think it seems fair to say, the preservation of Martin Luther’s dinnertime remarks. These include moments of amazing insight combined with moments of raucous humor, scathing curses (mostly directed at Erasmus or the pope), and moments of tender reflection on the value of liberal education. And they’re funny, and give us a real glimpse of the personality of Martin Luther and some of his cronies. Second, the good Captain shows, too, the value of knowing another language well, in his case German. And third, the story shows—and this is the amazing bit—how history can sometimes hang by a thread. We can lose a valuable chunk of it all too easily, in the twinkling of an eye. In this case though, we wouldn’t have lost the Table Talk, we would most certainly have lost Captain Bell’s understanding of it. How perilously close we came to that, so close. Yet because the good Captain saw purpose in his life, even in captivity, and because he believed his work was worth something, he persevered in the face of opposition from an at first unfriendly government to find a way for his book, i.e. Luther’s book, to come into the English language.

And there you have it—a story you may not have known and a person of whom I don’t think we even have a single portrait but we do have this story about a brave and patient captain whose knowledge, obedience, and perseverance seem worth noting nearly four centuries now after the fact. We don’t know his face, but maybe now his name at least rings a bell.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: How to Build a Library

Well, this title may be a bit misleading—but I do intend to suggest how to build a library below. But I need to back up a bit, to suggest first why to build a library. Now when I say “build” I don’t mean physically to build a building or anything like that. Rather, I mean to build a library collection. And when I say why, I don’t propose that one size fits all. Some folks are not readers—and that’s okay, it’s not sinful not to be a reader. So if you’re married to one, that’s alright, too. You needn’t file for divorce because your husband or wife happens to prefer watching Game of Thrones to reading Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone, which I have not yet read myself, but I want to.

But you obviously are a reader, for you are reading this. Chances are, therefore, you read books, too. And if you do, you should probably think about building a library. Why? Because outside of character, books are the best legacy you can leave to your children, if you happen to have them. Books inform character. Yes, I just wrote that. Books inform character, and they tell you something about someone’s character. This is pretty obvious if you look at, say, someone’s movie collection. If they have lots of “spicy” titles, even X-rated titles, well, then, I don’t think I have to explain that to you. If they have classic films in their collection, that says something else again. Likewise books—we are what we eat and we are even more what we read, for food shapes the body but books the mind. So be careful of what you put in your mouth and what changes into the cells that make up your body—for bad food makes bad cells, and bad cells are called cancer. But good food and good books—you can do the math.

Building that library, putting good books in your library, will tell your children someday a lot about you, for they will inherit your books. And remember, while you’re off in the kitchen cooking, your dinner guest is sitting in your sitting room doing what? Well, I always find myself looking at peoples’ bookshelves. Why? I’m curious about what they’re like to read, of course. Aren’t you? Don’t you? Aren’t you curious? (Now that sound’s familiar, for it’s the theme of this website and the Curious Autobiography, a book you really should read. Not that I’m trying to make you feel guilty for not having read it by now, especially if it is already in your library. But maybe, then again, I am.

Well, so that’s why to build a library, one rich in good books. But now, how? Well, that’s a bit easier. Amazon Prime? Yes, that works. But better, of course, to go to a bookstore and peruse. Now that bookstores like Barnes and Noble often have coffee bars attached, how can that not be a good idea? And there’s nothing better than smelling a fresh book. Nothing better. Not even smelling delicious coffee. But books and coffee do go together quite well.

Finally, where will you keep all the books? Well, you’ll see from the pictures of my own library here in this blog that there are all kinds of nice storage places, from the tool room to the garage-converted-into-a-library. So, go for it! Read? Yes. Buy? Yes, or at least borrow from your local lending library. And, whatever you do, unless you give a book away, don’t ever get rid of your books. Build yourself a wonderful library, instead, book by book. Tolle, lege! “Pick it up and read it!”