The Ten Weeks: Week Six (17-23 January): Learning About French Kissing From the French

The setting of the novel The Ten Weeks was exactly forty years ago. This is one of a series of excerpts from the novel, one for each week (except for Weeks Two and Three, which were combined).

Click here for more information on the book, including the new e-book version.

Madeleine was decidedly nervous about returning to Bell’s Political Science class Wednesday morning, but return she did. She eased into her seat as Bell began to pontificate.

Towards the end of class, Bell got off the subject of the basic structure of the legislature and started talking about the nationalisation of health care in the Republic. He was obviously happy it took place, and added the comment, “And, of course, with socialised medicine, we don’t have to rely on miracle workers— such as we have here in class—of meeting our public health needs.”

Denise and Vannie giggled a bit; Madeleine began to squirm in her seat. Then Jack raised his hand.

“Yes, Mr. Arnold,” Bell said.

“I don’t get what the big deal is,” Jack said. “The little girl’s better off. Doctors never could fix the problem. Besides, man, it just saves the government a lot of money having to take care of her.”

Bell’s anger welled up very quickly; the veins around his temple bulged. “Get out!” he barked at Jack, pointing his finger at him and then sweeping it to the door. “I won’t have such a serious matter made light of!” He turned to Madeleine. “You get out too—you started all this!” making the same gesture to her as he did to Jack. Both of them got up and make their way to the door. It was all Denise and Vannie—and a few others—could do to keep from rolling in the floor laughing.

Jack made it to the door first, holding it as Madeleine went through. They both made it out to the hallway.

“I’m sorry I got you into trouble,” Jack said.

“It is not your fault,” she replied. “It is mine. I started all of this.”

“Everybody is sure making a big deal out of this.” They looked at each other for a second. “Can I ask you a question?” he finally came out with.


“You’re from France, right?”

“That’s correct.”

“Do you really know how to French kiss?”

She looked at him with a combination of astonishment and amusement. “It took you two and a half years to ask me this?”

“I’m kinda shy. . .” he replied, looking sheepish.

“How well did Denise ‘French kiss,’ as you say?”

“Oh, she was great, she had a lot of cool moves. . .oh, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be talking to you like this.”

“It seems that Denise has many advantages over the both of us,” Madeleine finally stated.

“Looks that way. . .” Jack wasn’t the type to be at a loss for words when talking to a girl, but this time was exceptional.

“That was very kind, the way you held the door for me,” she said. “I see this up in Hallett when I visit Carla, but not here.”

“I guess we’re kinda rude. I’m glad you liked it. Maybe I should walk you to your next class.”

“Our next class?”

“Yeah. . .our next class.”

“Then let’s go.” They walked together down the hall.

Painting Ourselves Into a Corner on the Constitution

With the Eastern blizzards moving out and the fracas over the tragic shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords fading somewhat, our Congress gets back to its duty of legislating.  High on its agenda is the repeal of Obama’s health care law, which will doubtless be unsuccessful, as it will stall in the Senate and would suffer a Presidential veto even if the world’s greatest deliberative body (well, it was) passed it.  Then we move on to kill the program with a thousand cuts and put our Republic further in the hole with raising the debt ceiling.  It isn’t a very inspiring agenda, really.

My book review on the USS Essex summarised an interesting look at the early days of our Republic.  We have the same Constitution then as now, an amazing feat in many ways, and we didn’t have people running around saying that the document (or the Founders’ intent) is impossible to understand, because the Founders were still pretty much at the helm and could speak for themselves.  The USS Essex was launched when John Adams was President, and sailed under the Stars and Stripes during the administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.  All of these and many others involved in the affairs around the Essex had put everything on the line to set this country on its course, both with the Declaration of Independence and both of the Constitutions this country has had.  And, as we saw in that book, many of the problems our country faced then–foreign trade, relations with Islamic and European states, and military expenditures–are still very much on our plate.

On the other hand, this country–and certainly the people who live there–are very different from the group who emerged from the Revolutionary War.  Yet we have the same controlling legal document, with some amendments.  The House and Senate still meet as they did in the Essex’s day; House members all stand for election every two years, and Senators every six (now, of course, we have direct election of the latter.)  The President has a four year term with pretty much the same enumerated powers as then, and Federal judges (including SCOTUS) are still lifetime appointments.

Mentioning the Presidency, however, brings up a key issue.  Conservatives are increasingly “constitutionalists,” which means that they think that what the President and government do should not exceed that enumeration.  Liberals, unable to place themselves in the Founder’s shoes, think that our Constitution is a “living document,” to be bent to whatever concept is their idea.  So who’s right?

Obviously a credible legal system should be operated within the confines of its constitution and statutes; if these are unsatisfactory, they should be changed either by legislation or constitutional amendment.  Any other way of doing it makes a sham of the rule of law, but that’s what we’ve been treated too all too often in these United States.  And a transparent and consistent rule of law is one of the hallmarks–and advantages–that these United States have had.  But liberals, unable to convince a sufficiently large mass of the body politic that they are right, rely on the cabal of the privileged to achieve their idea.

Sometimes conservatives can be silly about the subject of the Constitution, too.  The most egregious example of this I’ve seen was during a debate of the Republican house candidates here in TN-03.  One candidate staked his claim as The Constitutionalist, carrying the document just about 24/7.   One member of the audience asked him why we couldn’t have term limits on Federal judges.  His reply was that it would upset the balance of powers; the Constitution shouldn’t be changed.  I couldn’t bring myself to point out that the 22nd Amendment did just that on the Presidency (next month is the 60th anniversary of its ratification,) that somehow the Republic has survived it, and that this amendment was just as much a part of the Constitution as the rest of it!

So the answer to the right question is simple: the conservatives are, but…as long as same cabal of the privileged continue to get their number constitutionally nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate, we’re going to get the same living document types of results we’ve been getting up to now.  (Whether the judiciary sees daylight on forcing people to buy insurance rather than being honest and taxing them for a benefit is still a very open question.)

And therein lies the problem.  If liberals can effectively control the government, either via the bureaucracy (empowered by broad and poorly written legislation enacted by Congress) or the judiciary, the conservatives’ options are limited.  And our system, with its checks and balances and diffuse Federal and state powers, is a hard system to turn in any direction.  If liberals can continue to use “the system” to their advantage, the conservatives’ obsession with the Constitution actually works in their favour!  If the Constitution is “the deal” and there’s no constitutional way to derail those in seats of power, what “Plan B” is there?

Here is the key point: any form of constitutionalism automatically legitimises the existing government.  Conservatives who want to delegitimise government have backed the wrong horse with constitutionalism.  It’s that simple.  In doing it this way, conservatives have painted themselves into an intellectual corner, one they’re going to find it hard to get out of when the occasion calls for it.

A clearer shot across the bow (I know everyone hates military analogies these days, but I do come from a long line of old salts) would have been for the new Congress to read the Declaration of Independence.  It is our real foundational document, it would have been a quicker read, and it would have sent the left a message that the Bill Ayers types could not have honestly argued with or ignored:

…it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

And there’s one other thing that we all need to think about: if our government at last loses control of its fiscal situation, it may not be the People’s choice to alter, abolish or establish much of anything.

Our Founders understood that the quality of the people was more important than the operating documents.  That’s the core of our problem today.  But that’s just me.  After all, I read subversive books.

Battery, the Characteristic Crime of Polo People

Not this again:

John Wash, president of club operations at the International Polo Club Palm Beach in Wellington, was arrested shortly before midnight Wednesday and charged with battery, according to Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office records.

The 51-year-old Wellington resident was taken to jail and released Thursday on his own recognizance.

According to the sheriff’s office report, a woman said he had thrown wine in her face.

I say “again” because of this incident, from my post Blast From the Past: A Punch in the Face for Capitalism (Sarbanes-Oxley):

Long ago, I attended a prep school in South Florida. Our Junior English class was in the corner of the building, with nice windows giving a view of the wraparound sidewalk and whoever strolled it. One day, we were listening to our teacher go on about something (he’s since gone on to his reward as a Provost of a small college on the West Coast) when we noticed the Assistant Headmaster and one of our fellow students at a standoff on the sidewalk.

It just wasn’t any student: it was a scion of the Oxley family, the clan who started out with a fortune made in oil and ended up as the leading family of polo (complete with Ralph Kramden’s poloponies) in South Florida. (They only recently sold the polo practice field near the school for a development.) My experience with the Assistant Headmaster was that he wasn’t one to take a lot of guff from a student, and Oxley, having shown up to school an hour or two late, wasn’t getting very far. So Oxley, in public school fashion, took a swing at the Assistant Headmaster.

We suddenly realised we literally had ringside seats to the fight. But our cheering Oxley on was to no avail: that was Oxley’s last day at our school, and things settled down after that until someone else was caught with pot, or worse.

Must be in the mallets…

Book Review: The USS Essex and the Birth of the American Navy

Ever since World War II, most Americans have taken for granted that we should have a strong military establishment befitting a world power.  That wasn’t always the case; in fact, it took some serious reality checks to convince a critical mass of the American body politic that any substantial military establishment was even necessary.  In spite of the fact that the Republic was born with a long coastline (and one that got longer with territorial acquisitions,) this was particularly true with the Navy.  The process by which that perception changed is the backdrop for Frances Diane Robotti and James Vescovi’s The USS Essex and the Birth of the American Navy.  Through the events of one ship and those who commanded it, the story is told of the U.S.’ earliest forays into both foreign relations and world commerce.

The need for a substantial standing military force wasn’t obvious in the early years of our Republic; in fact, the general consensus was that the whole point of the founding of the U.S. was to get away from large, impressed (drafted) military forces.  (The New York draft riots during the Civil War demonstrate that this opinion persisted for a long time.)  Unfortunately, the French Revolution which began in 1789 and the European conflicts which followed that caught the U.S. between competing powers.  That squeeze was manifested most clearly in the effect it had on U.S. shipping.  In spite of what looks to us now as primitive technology of shipping and communications, international commerce was vital to the welfare of the Republic.  Shorn by independence of the Royal Navy’s protection, American shipping fell victim to interceptions of all kinds.

The trading “establishment” was the first to realise the gravity of the situation.  Salem, Massachusetts, is best known today for witches, but it was in age of sail an important port for international commerce.  As was the case with other leading American ports, the merchants of Salem put up a “subscription,” i.e., contributions, to build a 32-gun frigate, which would be then outfitted by the U.S. Navy.  Built in Salem, the USS Essex was launched on 30 September 1799.  Its shakedown cruise, under the command of Edward Preble, was to what is now Djakarta, Indonesia and back, not an inconsiderable voyage then or now.  In doing so it became the first U.S. Naval vessel to round the Cape of Good Hope.

Although the warring European powers were a serious problem, Essex’s first combat missions would take place in the country’s first round of wars with the Barbary States.  It’s easy to forget this war now, but it was our country’s first foreign war, and it was our first serious contact with the Islamic world.  The lessons learned in that conflict would have been useful in what we have gone through in the last decade, but learning from history—ours and others’—isn’t an American strong suit.

The Barbary States—which are today occupied by Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya—had made a reasonable living for themselves and their rulers by piracy against ships sailing through the Mediterranean.  (The Somalis today have attempted the same thing in the Horn of Africa, albeit without the strong supervision of their government.)  They frequently captured the ships, seized the cargos and enslaved the crews.  The usual European response to this was to pay tribute to these states, and the U.S. followed suit.  In 1800 William Bainbridge, later to command the Essex, had the distasteful mission of delivering tribute to the Dey of Algiers.  Having done this, he was forced to deliver the Dey’s own tribute to the Ottoman Sultan in Constantinople, along with the Dey’s new ambassador and his retinue.  He made the most of the voyage.  For example, he tacked the ship (put it on a zig-zag course) so that the Muslims were never sure which way they were supposed to orient themselves at prayer time.  When he reached Constantinople, he made a better impression on the Sultan than the Dey’s envoy; the Stars and Stripes had never flown in the Ottoman Empire before.

Unfortunately the Algerian Dey’s success made the neighbours envious, especially the Bashaw of Tripoli.  In 1797 the U.S. had signed a treaty with Tripoli which exchanged tribute for safe passage for American vessels and persons.  This is the treaty that contains the following clause, beloved by American secularists:

As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

This Masonic flourish (and it needs to be understood in that context) was in response to the Bashaw’s claim that his pirates were conducting what amounted to a holy war in their activity (including the straight shot to paradise if they were killed in battle.)  It should also be compared to George W. Bush’s protestations that the “war against terror” wasn’t a war against Islam.

All of these niceties, however, didn’t stop the Bashaw from declaring war on the United States on 19 May 1801, with the idea that the U.S. would up its tribute.  Unfortunately the next day a squadron of Navy ships (including the Essex, under Bainbridge’s command) sailed for the Mediterranean.  When they arrived they, and the Bashaw, realised they had a fight on their hands.

The war against Tripoli was, in many ways, a desultory affair.  To begin with the rules of engagement laid down by President Jefferson were too restrictive (a mistake the Americans would repeat in Iraq and Afghanistan.)  In spite of this Essex managed to execute its merchant marine escort duties successfully, although the squadron in general was unable to bring the Bashaw to heel.  It came back to the U.S. from its first tour and was put “in ordinary” (mothballed, using the modern terminology.)

The U.S. sent another squadron under Preble’s command, with broader rules of engagement.  Bainbridge, commanding the Philadelphia, managed to run it aground off of Tripoli; he, his ship and his crew were captured.  The Bashaw began reconditioning the ship for his own fleet, but on 16 February 1804, in a daring raid under Stephen Decatur, the Philadelphia was burned.  While in prison, Bainbridge was also witness to a “suicide bombing,” but the bombers were in this case Americans: thirteen were killed when the ketch Intrepid, filled with explosives and floated in under the command of Richard Somers, blew up in Tripoli harbour.  (The original plan was to light the fuses and escape in small boats, but the escape plan went awry when the Tripolitanian harbour guns opened fire.)

The Americans’ third squadron, under the command of Commodore Samuel Barron, included the Essex.  The Americans got down to business in good Middle Eastern style, including recruiting the Bashaw’s brother as a power challenger.   This last squadron managed to make a sufficient impression on the Bashaw that he sued for peace.  On 27 May 1805 the Essex, near “the shores of Tripoli” immortalised by the Marines, raised a flag of truce and fired off two shots, answered from the shore.  The following month an agreement was struck between the U.S. and the Bashaw and this phase of the war was over.  (There was one more round of hostilities with the Barbary States after the War of 1812.)

Much of the book is spent chronicling the Essex’s performance during the War of 1812, under the command of David Porter.  The U.S. entered this conflict with a navy that was literally dwarfed by the Royal Navy.  She had no first rate ships of the line and was badly outnumbered.  Nevertheless the U.S. Navy, a volunteer force that was better trained and had higher morale than the Royal Navy (much of which was impressed) scored some significant victories against the world’s greatest navy.  Porter, bending his orders a bit, rounded Cape Horn (another U.S. Naval first) and entered the Pacific.  He wrought havoc amongst the British whaling ships; in the days before petroleum, whale oil was a vital fuel and lubricant for an emerging industrial Britain.  He captured so many and had such a large number in his “fleet” that he was forced to do another U.S. Navy first: place his chaplain in command of one of the captured ships! He attempted to claim the Marquesas Islands for the U.S., a claim that did not stick, and he helped to inspire the Chileans, engaged in their own revolution against Spanish rule.

Although Porter’s damage to British interests was significant, it was spoiled by another good American trait: impetuosity and the desire for a good fight.  He had the option of sailing west to the East Indies and continuing to damage British commercial interests.  A century later, Karl von Müller did just that with the Emden in the age of steam, and Porter didn’t have the radio communications that Müller had to contend with.  But Porter was no von Müller; he wanted a one-on-one sea battle, and got it (sort of) on 28 March 1814, when near Valparaiso, Chile, he took on the HMS Phoebe, under the command of James Hillyar.

Everything that could go wrong for Porter did.  First his main topmast was lost in his attempt to escape into open water.  The “one-on-one” battle didn’t quite materialise because Hillyar also had under his command the HMS Cherub.  Porter’s biggest problem, however, was that, when last under repairs, the Essex was fitted out (over Porter’s strenuous objections) with carronades, cannons with larger bores and ammunition than usual but shorter ranges.  If an enemy ship was in range, the carronades could turn an opposing ship into splinters in short order.  If, on the other hand, the opposing ship had longer range guns, the carronades were useless.  Hillyar was able to force Porter to strike his colours by staying out of the Essex’s carronades’ range, and with that Porter’s dream of victory at sea was at an end.

Porter and the remainder of his crew (including his stepson, David Glasgow Farragut, of Civil War fame) were paroled to return to the U.S.  The British took the Essex back to the UK, where it was turned into a prison ship and eventually scrapped.  With the French defeated, the British could have probably done in the U.S., but decided that discretion was the better part of valour and signed the Treaty of Ghent.

In spite of Porter’s loss at Valparaiso, he was regarded as something of a hero.  He literally opened up new vistas both for his country and the navy, vistas that would continue to expand (especially when the U.S. acquired a Pacific coast) during the next two centuries.  And the U.S. would finally commit to a consistent development of its Navy, which would bear fruit in every war it has fought from then onward.  (The book also outlines the difficulties the Navy had had in obtaining funding from a Federal government that was struggling to pay off its Revolutionary War debts.)

The book is a straightforward read, with good explanations of the age of “iron men and wooden ships.”  It’s amazing how many expressions from the age of sail have survived in our vocabulary, including “first rate” (and second, and third…) and “loose cannon.”  I also saw some expressions I heard growing up in a family of “old salts,” such as “stem to stern” and “powder monkey.”  The book also does a good job illustrating the state of admiralty law in those days and how it affected the conduct of war and merchant ships alike.

Our country is in need of a refresher course in the early history of this Republic if we are ever to understand its purpose. The USS Essex and the Birth of the American Navy is an excellent and easy to read narrative of one important aspect of that history, one that is too often neglected.

Note: the illustrations are obviously not of the Essex, but depict ships in the age of sail.  They were drawn by William H. Warrington; more of his drawings are here.

Spinning the End of the World

This, from the Egyptians, the Middle East’s stand-up comedians:

Hosni Mubarak, Barack Obama, and Vladimir Putin are at a meeting together when suddenly God appears before them.

“I have come to tell you that the end of the world will be in two days,” God says. “Tell your people.”

So each leader goes back to his capital and prepares a television address.

In Washington, Obama says, “My fellow Americans, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that I can confirm that God exists. The bad news is that he told me the world would end in two days.”

In Moscow, Putin says, “People of Russia, I regret that I have to inform you of two pieces of bad news. First, God exists, which means everything our country has believed in for most of the last century was false. Second, the world is ending in two days.”

In Cairo, Mubarak says, “O Egyptians, I come to you today with two pieces of excellent news! First, God and I have just held an important summit. Second, he told me I would be your president until the end of time.”

The Art of William H. Warrington

This post is something of a departure, in that it features the pencil sketch art of my great uncle, William H. Warrington (right, from his carte de visite.) But first some background is in order.

William H. Warrington was born 17 September 1846, grew up in Chicago, Illinois. He became the manager of the Vulcan Iron Works, the family business. Although he was very prosperous in business, he had an artistic side to him, and here we’ll present some of his pencil sketches. As is frequently the case in my family, I don’t have much “backstory” narrative for these, but what I do know I will share.

As best I can tell, most of these date from the 1860’s, when he was in his late teens. Some have an English or Scottish settings, and this may be from travels in the British Isles. His father Henry was an immigrant from Manchester, England, and his mother Isabella McArthur Warrington came from Scotland. Both made return trips to their native land; Henry in fact did not become a U.S. citizen until 1870, almost thirty years after he first came to the U.S.

Signature card for the seniors of the Chicago High School, 1864. William H.’s is at the lower right.

Above and right: Two studies of young women.

Below: large house plans, 1860’s style. The various rooms of the house are as follows:

  1. Kitchen
  2. Scullery
  3. Store Room
  4. Breakfast Room
  5. Stairs
  6. Lobby
  7. Hall
  8. Dining Room
  9. Library
  10. Drawing Room

Alloway Kirk, Scotland.

Winter Quarters. A reminder of the great Civil War that was going on to the south. William H.’s father was busy producing cannons and cannon balls for the Union, while his uncle, Union general John McArthur, was leading the “boys in blue” at places like Shiloh and Vicksburg. His nephew Chet married the daughter and granddaughter of Confederate veterans, who had an entirely different view of Mr. Warrington’s products and relatives!

Sketch from Nature? An odd title, but it’s a nice view of the plank sidewalks that were current in his day.

Rowing has come a long way from this bucolic view.

Although it’s tempting at first to place this in Europe, the American flag gives away which side of the Atlantic it’s on.

Looks to me like something out of Lord of the Rings, but being nostalgic about English country life (and, indirectly, that over here) was one of the reasons J.R.R. Tolkien wrote his masterpiece.

Another rural house scene.

The house where William H. actually grew up, in Chicago. (A later photo is here.) Note in the lower right hand corner the unusual way the artist “signs” his work.

William H. Warrington died 11 August 1921.

The Ten Weeks: Week Five (10-16 January): A Baby Dedication, and Strange Visitors, at the Baptist Church

The setting of the novel The Ten Weeks was exactly forty years ago. This is one of a series of excerpts from the novel, one for each week (except for Weeks Two and Three, which were combined).

Click here for more information on the book, including the new e-book version.

The First Baptist Church of Hallett was actually located in North Hallett, moved there after a major hurricane in the 1920’s destroyed the seaside original. It wasn’t the oldest Baptist church on the Island—that honour went to FBC Collina—nor the largest—FBC Uranus—but it was an important piece in the Baptist collection. It was the premiere Baptist church for the northern part of Uranus, an area where churches like this were more important than elsewhere on the Island. A concrete block stucco building with a steep sanctuary roof, small steeple and ordinary looking annex for Sunday School, it was more in keeping with the Island’s architectural and climactic demands than the large, Colonial style structures Island Baptists were awed with when they visited the mainland.

There was little time to admire the architecture as the Stanleys and their guest pulled up in the gravel parking lot. Sunday School time had arrived, and the family split up into their places: Pete into the men’s class (which he taught,) Alice in the women’s (which she also taught,) and Carla into the Upper Division II class.

Now it was Madeleine’s turn for a shock. Instead of the hushed tones of coming to Mass and not saying anything to anyone, Madeleine’s thoughts were blurred by being introduced to everyone they encountered, adult, teenager and child alike. Madeleine’s appearance and that fact that she was from off the Island—there were Vidameran members of the church, so they had a touch of internationalism—made her quite an attraction; she could feel the eyes falling on her, both in the hallways and in the class.

More eyes fell when Madeleine had to endure the mandatory introduction in class. Carla was worried as she could see her shy friend become nervous over the unanticipated attention she was getting. The youth, however, did help to put her at ease with more of a friendly curiosity. It was no secret at church that Carla had been spending a lot of time with Madeleine and that her tennis game had improved as a result. In a region which suffered from an image of being “the sticks with the hicks,” Carla’s success was welcome, and Madeleine’s contribution to this was noted, especially by Carla.

Class ending, they rejoined the rest of their family in the sanctuary. Again the hushed tones in church were the thing of another world; Madeleine was surprised as she could hear the sanctuary filled with laughter, conversation and people looking genuinely happy to be with each other. She didn’t have much time to contemplate things from afar off, for there were more introductions to do, especially with their pastor, D.L. Corbett.

“It is a real pleasure to meet you,” Corbett said to Madeleine. “Welcome to First Baptist Hallett.” He looked at Madeleine from head to toe. “I see you have friends who know how to dress properly,” he told Carla.

“Yes, I do,” Carla replied. Corbett turned away to head up to the platform.

“What is he talking about?” Madeleine whispered to her friend.

“He gets after us about our short skirts,” Carla replied. “But he doesn’t know everything about you.”

“No, he doesn’t,” Madeleine agreed.

The Stanleys went on to the front of the church. They joined Carla’s brother Nathan, his wife Sally and their two children, son Paul and the newborn girl which Sally held in her arms. Both Pete’s mother and Alice’s father were there too, with some other relatives. They were barely seated when the choir began the call to worship and the service began.

They went through the opening devotional and welcome, hymns and into the announcements and prayer time. Carla helped Madeleine navigate through the hymn book and her Bible. After the announcements, however, Corbett got up to the pulpit.

“We have an item of late business to take care of,” he began. “Brother Nathan and Sister Sally had a beautiful daughter last October, and we would have dedicated her then, but they were hoping that Junior Stanley would come from the mainland for Christmas, so we delayed it. Unfortunately, they could not make it, so we decided to go ahead before little Julia left the nursery.” There were a few laughs as this. “Would the family of Julia Lynn Stanley come forward.”

It seemed that a good chunk of the congregation—including everyone surrounding Madeleine—came and stood in front of the pulpit. Corbett came down, gave his usual speech about the Bible episode of Hannah lending her son Samuel to the Lord, and urged her parents to lead her to a saving knowledge of God at the first opportunity. Then he took Julia in her arms and, as she continued her half-sleep there, he dedicated her to the Lord, and after that they all sat down.

“Sorry I forgot to tell you about this and left you,” Carla whispered.

“It is fine,” Madeleine replied. “I am glad they were looking at someone other than me.”

Her joy was short lived, as Corbett returned to the pulpit and resumed. “We have one special guest this morning,” he began. He looked at Madeleine. “I hope I pronounce your name right—it’s Madeleine des Cieux?”

“You are correct.”

“Would you please stand?” he asked. Madeleine dutifully complied. “She is the daughter of the man who keeps us rolling—many of you came her on the tyres her father sells.” Once again she felt the eyes of the church upon her, although this time she felt like charging her father’s company for being their new mascot. “Welcome to our church. She is the guest of Carla Stanley and her family.” Madeleine needed no prompting to sit down.

“I’m sorry,” Carla whispered.

“It’s okay—I think,” Madeleine answered. After this came the offering, special music and Corbett’s sermon. Corbett’s style fell somewhere between the studied phrases of the doctors of ministry now at the helm of the First churches on the mainland and the rough-hewn, high-volume style of smaller places. But, true to Baptist practice, he did not fail to give an invitation for salvation, one that, on this particular Sunday, went unanswered.

As Madeleine sat through the sermon, she looked around and saw a young man with long hair on the other side of the church. He didn’t have a Bible with him—that marked both him and Madeleine—but he was taking notes during the sermon. Carla noticed him as well, but neither said anything to each other. As the service closed, Carla turned to Madeleine.

“Let’s try to meet this guy over there,” she said. Madeleine attempted to follow silently, but in the hubbub of goodbyes and the slowness of just getting through the crowd of Carla’s own relatives, combined with the speed of his slipping away, made such an encounter impossible.

The church eventually thinned out enough for the Stanleys to make their way to the car. Madeleine was very quiet—she looked drained from the experience—as they made their way down the road and back to their homestead in Hallett proper.

Julia’s dedication brought a big family banquet at the house, but Carla was more worried about Madeleine. As the rest of the family made its way into the house, Carla took advantage of Madeleine’s slowness to speak with her in front of the carport.

“I hope we haven’t been too much for you,” Carla said. “I’m worried.”

“It is a new experience for me,” Madeleine said. “And, I am very tired from my condition.” She looked out down the long driveway. “I am fearful for her.”

“For who?”

“Julia. You have a very happy world here. I am afraid that it is about to be invaded. Her life will not be the same as yours.”

“I’m afraid you’re right. . .do you know who that guy was in church this morning?”

“I think so. . .he lives down the street from me. He goes to Verecunda Comprehensive. I see him from time to time. I think he is active in the CPL.”

Carla assumed a very worried look at that statement, then suddenly wiped her concern off of her face. “Don’t bring it up with Daddy, he’ll get mad. Well, I guess it’s time to eat.”

Celebrating the Boar's/Bore's Head at Bethesda-by-the-Sea

Disclaimer: in posting this, I feel like Sarah Hey at StandFirm did when she posted this gem: “I’m sorry.  I was unable to resist.”

So with that out of the way we come to this, from the Shiny Sheet:

The 33rd annual Boar’s Head will have two performances at 2:30 and 4:30 p.m. Sunday at The Episcopal Church of Bethesda by-the-Sea, 141 S. County Road. The public is invited and a donation of $15 will be collected at the door.

The centuries-old pageant symbolizes the triumph of good over evil.

I always think of the homonym for the “Boar’s Head,” and that just leapt at me when I read this:

The late Rev. Hunsdon Cary, rector of Bethesda from 1968-81, introduced the festival to the church in 1978. The pageant has run every year since, except in 2000, when the church was having a new organ installed.

Dr. Cary was rector most of the time I was at Bethesda.  Long before he started this festive occasion, the “Bore’s Head” was celebrated most Sundays.

And, sad to say, Bethesda wasn’t the last church where I celebrated the Bore’s Head on a regular basis…

P.S. The Church Mouse resale shop, today an institution in Palm Beach, was also started during Dr. Cary’s time at Bethesda, although his initial support was, to say the least, less than enthusiastic.

Book Review: Dante's Divine Comedy (Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso)

One of the points that the late scholar Allan Bloom used to make is that Americans are no longer impacted by great books. Music, other cultural influences, yes, but books? I would have to confess that, much of the time, that was the case for me, too. But in the spring of my junior year in prep school, a dormmate’s textbook contained something that made an immediate impact, one that literally altered the course of my life at a time when an alteration was certainly in order.

That “something” was an abridged version of Dorothy Sayers’ translation of Dante’s Inferno, the first third of what has come to be known as the Divine Comedy. Dante himself only referred to it as a Comedy; the “Divine” characterisation was added later. What I read whetted my appetite for more, but Sayers’ translation is archaising and difficult. So when the time came to acquire the entire work, I turned to the American poet John Ciardi’s translation, still widely regarded as the best.

The Divine Comedy is a long poem whose narrative describes what amounts to the poet’s tour of the afterlife. Set around Easter 1300, it is divided into three parts: the Inferno (Hell,) which he visits first with his guide, the Roman poet Virgil. Readers of the Aeneid will quickly recognise that one of Dante’s objectives is to pick up where Virgil left off in Aeneas’ visit to the underworld, an objective he succeeds in handily. The second part is the Purgatorio (Purgatory,) where Virgil continues to accompany Dante through the places where souls do penance after death until they reach the Terrestrial Paradise, at which point the poet is handed off to Beatrice, an acquaintance from his youth who leads him into the third and last part of the poem/journey, the Paradiso (Paradise.) The poem ends with his vision of God.

Beyond the tripartite division the poem is divided into 100 cantos; the Inferno has 34, the other two parts 33. If the Inferno‘s Canto I can be considered an introduction, then each part has the same number of cantos. Each canto is written in a form referred to as terza rima, where every three lines rhymes. Getting that rhyming scheme from Italian into English has been one of the major challenges of every translator of the work. Ciardi’s solution was to only rhyme the first and last lines, which works reasonably well.

That brief overview of the poem brings up what is probably the poem’s greatest asset: it is structured with an attention to detail. That structure to some extent overwhelms the fact that Dante moves in a Ptolemaic universe and a Scholastic intellectual framework. Dante uses not only what he says to make his point, but the location of the speech or action as well. Dante also displays acute powers of observation, up to and including detailed description of how his senses work. His abilities in this regard make his visualisation of that which was either beyond the technology of his time (which required flight, for example) or beyond physical representation (much of what he saw in Paradise) credible.

That kind of structure is a large part of the poem’s reputation as complex. But that complexity is on a multi-level basis. It’s one of those things that makes several readings of the poem rewarding. The Divine Comedy is justly described as allegorical, but the symbolic and metaphorical also enter into the picture as well. Dante believes in the objective reality of the places he visits in the poem, but he also believes that the afterlife and this one are two parts of a single continuum. He uses the world of the afterlife to comment on the state of this one, and specifically of the Italy of his own time, a significant and intriguing place whose historical relevance has been obscured by the Renaissance.

Dante’s voyage is in the afterlife, and this brings up the spiritual component of the Divine Comedy. Dante’s whole scheme can be (as usual in his case) in three parts. The Inferno can be seen as the recognition of sin, and he can vividly see both the perpetrators and the consequences of that sin. The Purgatorio is the repentance of that sin, which those who are there are in the process of doing. Finally the Paradiso is the benefit of living in Christ. This process isn’t an exclusively Catholic one, but one which is universal with all types of Christianity. It’s also interesting to note—and it’s something that doubtless gives Evangelical and secularist alike heartburn—that Virgil, representing human reason, manages to get Dante through most of the Comedy until he hands off the author to Beatrice, representing divine revelation. (It’s also interesting to note that Beatrice, who guides Dante to the Empyrean, and Matilda, who takes the role of a priest by essentially baptising Dante in the Lethe, are both female, which gives opponents of women’s ordination heartburn.)

But this adventure isn’t simply otherworldly, as Dante also gives vent to his ideas of secular government and the church. In Dante’s time the Papacy reached its apogee in terms of political power, both in Italy and elsewhere. The Papal States (a problem not completely solved until Mussolini and the Pope made the Lateran Treaty) had secular as well as spiritual objectives, and the popes of Dante’s time weren’t shy about playing politics. Dante believed that the church’s primary mission was spiritual and the state/monarchy’s role was primarily secular order, that the two complemented each other, and that the two should stick to their respective roles. That was revolutionary in Dante’s time; he spends a great deal of time denouncing the corruption in the church that came with the state of affairs of his time.

That leads one to consider Dante’s Roman Catholicism. For me personally, one of the results of reading the Comedy was a serious consideration of the Catholic Church, which I actually joined within a year. I was impressed with Dante’s unified vision of the physical and spiritual worlds, and of the way in which he could view the world in terms that were both intellectually and spiritually satisfying. Dante also tackles many of those basic issues of life and divine justice that concern any thoughtful Christian as they concerned Dante.

Dante integrates both the science and theology of his day, as did most of his contemporaries. That goes for classical paganism too, in a way that goes far beyond what even the Fathers of the Church—who saw it as a competitor—would have done. Dante’s reliance on Scholastic theology, and particularly on St. Thomas Aquinas, keeps him on an even keel. It was not an obvious choice: Aquinas was controversial in his lifetime, and the adulation that Catholics and their church have given him was only beginning when Dante wrote the Comedy. That choice led to spend a lot of time in Aquinas, which had two important benefits: its rigidly logical structure is a good way to learn how to think (something that benefited Dante immensely as he wrote the poem,) and Aquinas’ (and Dante’s) view of God was and is higher than what one encounters in many “full gospel” circles and elsewhere.

Dante is sure that salvation comes through the Church. But in many ways Dante isn’t as “churchy” as those who have come after him. The Church has numerous faults, and Dante isn’t shy about detailing and denouncing them. Moreover Dante’s presentation of the afterlife was in itself a reminder that the Church, for its holding of the keys, wasn’t the final arbiter of who ended up where. In addition to the numerous clerics and popes we meet in the Inferno, the first ledge of the mountain of Purgatory was that of the contumacious, i.e., those who died excommunicated but repented.

Unfortunately the Roman Catholic Church I joined wasn’t up to Dante’s standard in many ways. It was surely shorn of the political power it had in the Middle Ages; that was especially evident in living in the Old Confederacy, where Roman Catholicism is in most places a small minority. What bothered me the most was that Roman Catholicism revels too much in mediocrity, especially in what it expects out of its people. Dante’s integrated vision of life, for all of the criticisms that can be levelled against it, is a statement that we can’t be intellectually honest and compartmentalise our Christianity. But Roman Catholicism, too fearful of the effects of enthusiasm amongst the faithful, is too often content with allowing its people to drift along rather than challenging them. And that, unfortunately, isn’t restricted to Roman Catholicism either.

Ciardi’s translation is up to its reputation, as easy to understand as is possible with one who writes as compactly as Dante does. It has aged more gracefully than many other translations of ancient and mediaeval works of its era, which suffer from archaising tendencies or are too deferential to the sensibilities of the time. The notes are generally good and helpful. Sometimes he misses a Biblical reference and the notes of the Paradiso show signs of what I would call “humanistic crabbiness,” but without the notes most readers would be lost.

It’s one of those supreme ironies of life that a signer of the Humanist Manifesto (which Ciardi was) would translate a work that reinforced at least one of its readers’ theism. My guess is that secularists of our day will not allow such things to happen again, if given the chance. Dante, however, depicts a universe moved by God’s love and shaped by the free will which its Creator endowed us with, and as long as people have enough sense to see that this is an improvement over the alternative, the Divine Comedy will have more that just a place in the “canon” of literature.

Note: in addition to Ciardi’s translation and notes, the following books were very useful in writing this review:

  • Lamm, R.C., Cross, N.M., and Turk, R.H. The Search for Personal Freedom. Seventh Edition. Dubuque, Iowa: Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 1984. (It was an earlier edition of this work where I first read the Divine Comedy.)
  • Orlandi, E., Dir. Les Géants: Dante Alighieri. Paris: Paris-Match: Pierre-Charron, 1970.

Should Christians Drink?

I’ve been putting off writing and posting this, but Sanctus’ post on the Southern Baptists debating this issue has forced my hand, if you please.  So it’s time for this blog to broach a subject that not so long ago wouldn’t merit discussion in Evangelical circles.

Should Christians drink? (I obviously mean alcoholic beverages.)

In broaching this subject, I start with two important statements of fact.

The first is that there is no way we can say that the Bible has an outright prohibition of the consumption of alcoholic beverages.  Evangelicals will quote at length passages that warn against the dangers of consumption in excess, but there’s no absolute prohibition.  If it were that obvious, then why did it take eighteen centuries to find it?  If you absolutely, positively need a religion that does have one in its scriptures, you need to consider Islam.  (And, with the nature of the Qur’an, there’s some uncertainty about that, too.)

The second is related to the first: they actually had alcoholic beverages in New Testament times.  All of the torturous “proofs” to demonstrate otherwise are just that: torturous.  Evangelicals should use their Bible study time for better pursuits, but in this case they have not.

So that leads us to the obvious dumb question: how did we get to this state where, in Evangelical Christianity at least, drinking is considered right up there in the sinfulness scale with same sex civil marriage?  There are three things to consider, one that antedates the nineteenth century when this first came up in the United States, and the other two factors that started then and continue to the present time.  (And let’s be clear about something else: this is largely an American initiative.)  The one thing that all three have in common is that they are rooted in the Celtic/Scots-Irish culture that has dominated American Evangelical Christianity for so many years.

The first is the development of distilled spirits.  All of the alcoholic beverages that existed in Old and New Testament times were fermented spirits (wine and beer.)  Distilled spirits, first developed in Scotland during the Middle Ages, change the whole dynamic of drinking because their alcohol content is higher.  That’s a fact that non-drinkers never consider, but it’s an important one.  It’s possible to become an alcoholic on wine and beer, but it’s much easier to do so with distilled spirits.  (And the wine beloved of winos has supplemental alcohol which makes it a de facto distilled spirit.)

It’s not an accident that the most famous New Testament verse on the subject, “Do not continue to drink water only, but take a little wine on account of the weakness of your stomach, and your frequent ailments,” (1 Timothy 5:23) doesn’t include an exhortation to Timothy to use gin, vermouth, rum, scotch or—God forbid—vodka for this purpose.  (I had a Russian business associate assure me that this worked for vodka, but the one time he tried this when I was around, it didn’t work.)

The development of distilled spirits leads us to the next consideration—binge drinking on the frontier.  That frontier, in the early days of our Republic, was the Appalachian Mountains, then and now largely populated by the Scots-Irish with a healthy dose of Native American heritage (and they have their own issues with alcohol as well.)  If there’s one thing you can say about the Scots-Irish, it’s that when they do something, they go all out.  Whether it’s drinking, religion, or seceding from the Union, there’s no halfway with these people.  Binge drinking is destructive of self and others, and a form of Christianity which preached against it was doing many people a big favour.

In all fairness, the Scots-Irish don’t have a corner on binge drinking.  To the East we have the Poles and aforementioned Russians whose binge drinking practices put the Celts to shame.  A culture that cultivates binge drinking results in a harvest of alcoholics and the damage that goes with it, and for such cultures abstinence from alcohol is frequently the only effective choice.  It should also be said that damage control from alcohol consumption is easier at higher income levels, which explains in part the division between Southern churches that do permit drinking (Episcopalians, Methodists) and those that don’t (Baptists, Pentecostals.)  (That damage control disparity also applies to drug use and sexual misadventure as well.)

The socio-economic considerations lead us to the next point: another reason to promote abstinence is because drinking, even without the sin taxes we impose, is expensive.  Money that goes into alcohol can be diverted to support the family or the church.  Charles Finney, in Revivals of Religion, specifically brings this up about tobacco and the offering, and the same argument can be made vis-à-vis gambling, another traditional bête noire amongst Evangelicals.

There’s no doubt that a culture where abstinence from alcohol is promoted for an extended period of time will induce changes, and the South certainly has experienced those.  The quest for an alcohol-free church and society has reduced much of the blotto drinking that characterised Celtic culture in the British Isles.  Today Southern states, for all of their shortcomings, boast of some of the lowest drunk driving rates in the country.  And it’s a lot easier to look at college students and tell them they shouldn’t drink or do so in moderation when it’s not sold on campus, as is the case with many Southern state universities.

However, as Sanctus points out, there are dissenting voices, even amongst conservative Evangelicals on this subject.  But most of these new proponents are what used to be called “wine bibbers,” and most of them are college educated.  If wine bibbers were the only drinkers, total abstinence from alcohol would never have become an issue in the first place.  There are good reasons for the current custom, rooted in a culture that is now, for better or worse, the core culture of American Evangelicalism.

As is the case with the tithe, Evangelicals are uncomfortable being dogmatic about an idea that isn’t directly commanded in Scripture, even if the benefits of the idea are demonstrable.  But until such time as the cultural core of Evangelical Christianity shifts away from the sons and daughters of the extremities of Albion, and we can revisit this issue in a different setting, we’re better off keeping the liquor cabinet empty.