Archive for November, 2012

T minus a fortnight . . .

November 30, 2012

. . . although I probably will not be seeing The Hobbit until sometime in January.

I had thought that in the days before Peter Jackson got hold of them, hobbits were generally considered the special preserve of “nerds” and such, but I don’t see any evidence of that here:

Family Advent traditions

November 29, 2012

Advent begins this Sunday, and my thoughts turn to how we might observe the season in our home this year. Our daughter is old enough now to understand that Christmas is near, and probably old enough to appreciate simple activities whereby we “get ready”.

A couple of years ago we did the Jesse Tree devotions, and I am thinking of trying that again. If we had a tree (which we don’t, yet) and some ornaments we could perhaps hang an ornament each day after the prescribed Scripture reading.

I know many families put out their nativity set, sans the baby Jesus, and have the wise men with their camels travel through the house during Advent, arriving finally at Christmas (or at Epiphany). This would be great, if we had a nativity set.

We have an Advent calendar, but it is one of those “Christmas is Santa and skating” affairs with chocolate treats behind the flaps. We’ll use it — our daughter, who is very keen on chocolate, asks every day if it is Advent-time (‘Ahwentyme’) yet — but this is not exactly what I am wanting.

We’ll have an Advent wreath, but the candles will probably only be lit for a brief interval on Sundays; open flames are perilous with these youngsters.


I am wondering what other families do to observe the season. If you have any suggestions for things you do, or things you’ve heard of, I would love to hear about them.

Esolen on Fox: Homo ludens meets TV

November 27, 2012

Anthony Esolen appeared earlier this week on a Fox News program called “Fox & Friends” to talk about his wonderful book Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He took a risk, adopting for the interview the Screwtape-inspired perspective from which the book is written: up is down, black is white, left is right, the Left is right, etc. Evidently this proved too much for the hosts:

The befuddled looks and hasty retreat make his point for him. It’s a missed opportunity to promote an excellent book, and I am sure he was not pleased with the outcome — and, in fairness, he did stumble a little out of the gate — but I hope he laughed on his way home anyway.


Obviously this curtailed interview didn’t allow time for Esolen to say much of anything. Happily his pen has been busy:

  • At Crisis Magazine, he has launched a projected series on Catholic social teaching:

    I’m sick of it.  I’m sick of hearing that Catholic teaching regarding sex and marriage is one thing, in that old-fashioned trinket box over there, while Catholic teaching regarding stewardship and our duties to the poor is another thing, on that marble pedestal over here.  I’m sick of hearing that Catholic teaching regarding the Church and her authority is one thing, the embarrassing Latinate red-edged tome tucked away in that closet, while Catholic teaching regarding the laity is another, and pass that bread this way!  No, it is all of a piece.

  • Also at Crisis, a piece on cultivating a culture of courtship and romance within the Church:

    It is irresponsible in us, then, to let our youth muddle and meander; to suppose that marriage will eventually “happen.”  For my whole life, the ecclesially minded have asked, “What can we do to keep our youth in the Church?”  And their attempts haven’t worked, because they have viewed young people as consumers of a churchly product, rather than as boys and girls, young men and young women, with obvious natures and needs.So then—I call upon every parish in the United States to do the sweet and simple and ordinary things.

  • And at Front Porch Republic he has been writing a provocative series on education called “Life under Compulsion”:

    Why do people invariably enjoy visiting old one-room schoolhouses?  They are human places, on a human scale, for the education of little human beings.  It isn’t just that one knows, without having to think about it consciously, that the planks and joists where pegged together by the hands of the same people whose children would go to school there.  It’s that the whole idea of the school is founded upon their natural desires and intentions.

But I doubt Fox will have him back to talk about those things.

Christmas isn’t Christmas, and other surprises

November 23, 2012

Finding silliness in religion-related journalism is almost as easy as finding silliness in science-related journalism, but, even so, this half-baked article from The Telegraph qualifies as an unusually egregious example. The article is occasioned by the publication of Pope Benedict XVI’s third volume on the life of Christ, which is devoted to the infancy narratives in the Gospels.

The Telegraph is aghast at the scandalous revelations that have dripped from the pen of the pontiff! To wit:

“The calculation of the beginning of our calendar – based on the birth of Jesus – was made by Dionysius Exiguus, who made a mistake in his calculations by several years,” the Pope writes in the book, which went on sale around the world with an initial print run of a million copies.

“The actual date of Jesus’s birth was several years before.”


“Christ’s birth date is not the only controversy raised by the Pope in his new book – he also said that contrary to the traditional Nativity scene, there were no oxen, donkeys or other animals at Jesus’s birth.”


“The idea that Christ was born on Dec 25 also has no basis in historical fact.”

To an audience ignorant of Christian history I can see that this might be somewhat surprising, but that any of it has the authentic whiff of scandal is ridiculous. The folks at Get Religion have written a good commentary, which I recommend.

The same Telegraph article repeats the old story about the date of Christmas being related to pagan festivals. As I always do when this comes up, I will recommend a good article by William Tighe that was published a few years ago in Touchstone; it deserves wide exposure. (I notice the Get Religion commentary also links to it, which is great.)


Apparently not picking up on the absurdity of the Telegraph article, our very own National Post has piled on with an opinion column (by Kelly McParland) proposing that the Pope’s book provides the Church with an “excuse” to move her celebration of Christmas from December 25 to some other date when it won’t interfere with everyone else’s celebration of … something or other.

If this is a good idea, then I have another: we should move the date of New Years out of deference to those who do not observe the Western calendar but who love to stay up late singing “Auld Lang Syne” ten days or so after the winter solstice.

Summerscale: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher

November 21, 2012

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher
Kate Summerscale
(Raincoast, 2008)
384 p.

The scene was Road Hill House, an old country manor in Wiltshire. The year was 1860. On the night of June 29 the family and its servants, twelve people in all, went to bed in a house that was locked up tight. The next morning a child, the youngest member of the family, was found dead — brutally murdered — on the grounds. The case caused a sensation throughout England, not only for its shocking nature but also because of the puzzling facts of the case and the difficulty the authorities encountered in their investigation. In response, Scotland Yard sent one of their finest, Mr. Jonathan Whicher, to solve the crime.

This book is an account of this crime and the subsequent investigation, as you would expect, but it is also more. Kate Summerscale is interested in a character who was just emerging at the time of this murder: the detective. It had not been long since London had established a permanent, dedicated police force, and the decision had been controversial. People were suspicious of these civil servants with extraordinary powers of search and seizure, arrest, and surveillance. The detective inherited all of that mistrust, along with a bad reputation for prying. Victorians valued their privacy, and anyone who poked around in people’s private affairs was regarded as something of a public menace, and distinctly lower-class. (For example, in the Road Hill murder investigation the local authorities searched the possessions and examined the clothing of the servants, but not the family members. This reticence was one of the reasons that the initial investigation was inconclusive.) A satirical article about Jonathan Whicher referred to him as ‘Mr. Watcher’ of the ‘Defective Police’.

On the other hand, a certain mystique, worthy of admiration, attached to the detective. He was a dispassionate and close observer who could illuminate concealed crimes using forensic evidence and shrewd reasoning. This was a few decades before Sherlock Holmes first appeared, but already something of his character was attributed to the best of the London detectives. Writers felt the allure of detection, and it was at this time that the first detective stories began to appear. In fact, both Wilkie Collins, in The Moonstone, and Charles Dickens, in Edwin Drood, incorporated elements of the Road Hill murder into their tales. It was the birth of a genre that was to make a triumphant progress.

Lest I spoil the suspense for prospective readers, I am not going to reveal the conclusions of the Road Hill murder investigation. Mr. Whicher had his suspicions, and they were vindicated when, at last, someone confessed to the crime. Kate Summerscale argues, however, that the confession as it stands does not satisfactorily account for the facts of the case and was probably partly intended to conceal the involvement of another party. If you want to know more than that, you’ll have to read the book.

(It is a good book, by the way. It won the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction in Britain.)

The word ‘clue’ derives from ‘clew’, meaning a ball of thread or yarn. It had come to mean ‘that which points the way’ because of the Greek myth in which Theseus uses a ball of yarn, given to him by Ariadne, to find his way out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth. The writers of the mid-nineteenth century still had this image in mind when they used the word. ‘There is always a pleasure in unravelling a mystery, in catching at the gossamer clue which will guide to certainty,’ observed Elizabeth Gaskell in 1848. ‘I thought I saw the end of a good clew,’ said the narrator of Andrew Forrester’s The Female Detective (1864). William Wills, Dickens’ deputy, paid tribute in 1850 to Whicher’s brilliance by observing that the detective found the way even when ‘every clue seems cut off’. ‘I thought I had my hand on the clue,’ declared the narrator of The Woman in White in an installment published in June 1860. ‘How little I knew, then, of the windings of the labyrinth which were still to mislead me!’ A plot was a knot, and a story ended in ‘denouement’, an unknotting.

Scruton the Anglican

November 9, 2012

Today’s confirmation of a new Archbishop of Canterbury has reminded me that Roger Scruton has a forthcoming book entitled Our Church: A Personal History of the Church of England. Knowing what I know of Scruton I’d be surprised to find him going to bat for even one of the Thirty-Nine Articles, and this interview seems to bear that expectation out. Scruton is a convert to Anglicanism, but he is also a Kantian, and so he believes that his attitude toward noumenal claims, including most religious claims, must be agnostic. His intention in the book is apparently instead to defend the historic place of the Anglican Church in English culture, to praise the beauty of its rituals and the quiet persistence of its wisdom, and to argue that nothing is likely to replace it.

It would be easy to satirize this kind of thing: stuffy Englishman likes his organ music and his beautiful churches, but doesn’t linger over all that business about sin and salvation. Such criticism has a place — though given that the aim of the criticism ought to be to encourage deeper engagement with the substantive claims of the faith, I doubt that satire is the most effective means. I will admit that I am myself sometimes tempted to cast a withering look upon this “cultural Christianity”, yet if I succomb to this temptation I lack charity. Why should I object when someone, especially someone as thoughtful as Scruton, though unable to assent to the Church’s doctrines nonetheless seeks shelter under her wings? Doctrine is important, unquestionably, but sometimes people connect with the faith through the chest rather than through the head.

It seems to me that Pope Benedict, by promoting certain liturgical traditions within the Church — I am thinking here of the special provisions he has made for the (so-called) Tridentine liturgy and the Anglican liturgy — is acknowledging that, quite apart from doctrinal questions, aesthetics carry real and legitimate weight, and that love for a particular liturgical tradition deserves respect, for it is largely by means of liturgy that we encounter the faith, and through the faith God. And so a man like Scruton, who loves to play the organ for his congregation, and who appreciates the eloquence of the Book of Common Prayer, and who seeks out, week after week, the restful poise of the Anglican liturgy, may in fact be more than a mere dabbler. In charity we should welcome him warmly, as good hosts.

At the end of the interview, when asked to play a favourite hymn on the organ, he chooses “Come Down, O Love Divine”, which I recall is someone else’s favourite hymn too. Let’s hear it again:

Great moments in opera: Love for Three Oranges

November 6, 2012

Sergei Prokofiev’s reputation rests principally on his orchestral and piano music, and until recently I had not felt any particular desire to explore his operas. In any case, The Love for Three Oranges sounded to me like a surrealist work, for which I’ve little patience. While reading Richard Taruskin’s History of Western Music, however, I found that he dwelt at considerable length on this opera, and so I decided to take a look.

It’s not as bad as I’d feared, but not as good as might be hoped. The story is actually quite a lot of fun: it is ultimately derived from a seventeeth-century commedia dell’arte, and retains some of the zaniness of its original. A young prince who has not laughed for years finally gets the giggles when he sees a witch slip and fall. In return, she places a curse on him: he will fall in love with three oranges, and will seek them to the ends of the earth. This he does, and when he finds them, and peels them open, he discovers a beautiful princess inside each one. Unfortunately the princesses are very thirsty, and he hasn’t any water, so two of the three die immediately. The third is saved by a quaint device — which I’ll get to in a moment — and the prince and princess are married.

It is a surrealist opera, in the sense that beautiful princesses clambering out of oranges to sing opera are surreal, but, as Taruskin convincingly argues, it is primarily an ironic — even post-modern — opera, and thus a spiritual progenitor of much that followed. In addition to the characters in the fairy tale, Prokofiev has several groups of observers who wander on and off the stage, commenting on the proceedings, arguing with one another, and even interacting with the conductor and the audience. Thus there is a recurrent breaking of the “fourth wall” dramatic convention. We, as viewers, are continually reminded that we are viewers, and that the actors are actors, and that we’re sitting in a theatre, and that the whole set-up is one great artifice. Perhaps this kind of thing was edgy in 1921, when the opera had its premiere (and Taruskin notes that Prokofiev’s opera actually predated Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, which is usually credited with bringing this kind of self-awareness and ironic commentary to the stage), but it has grown stale in the interim.

There is still the music to consider. After watching one DVD production and listening to one CD recording, I can hardly be said to have adequately absorbed the music of the opera, but I can say this: it’s alright. There is nothing that particularly flatters the ear, nor remains long in the memory, but neither is there anything unusually agonizing about it. It is a rough-hewn music, with a good deal of rhythmic verve, but not much in the way of melody.

We won’t, therefore, belabour the search for “great moments”. I have one: this is, it is fair to say, the climactic scene of the opera, in which the third princess emerges from her orange. She complains of thirst, and the Prince is distressed, for they are in a desert and have no water. But then a miracle happens: someone watching the singers from the wings notices that he has a bottle of water, and brings it on-stage for the princess. She drinks, is revived, and turns lovingly to the Prince, setting the stage for a moving love scene, which is, however, interrupted by another group of disgruntled commentators who really wanted to see a tragedy. This clip, though a bit long, illustrates most of what is interesting about the opera, its irony and its self-consciousness, both for better and for worse. This clip is taken from the DVD I watched; the Netherlands Opera is under the direction of Stéphane Denève, and I think that is Sandrine Piau singing the part of the princess:

The most famous music from this opera is actually drawn from the orchestral interludes, which Prokofiev excerpted and arranged into a suite, and the most famous part of the suite is the March. It’s not opera, but it’s pretty good nonetheless:

“They opened a book to see what was inside”

November 2, 2012

Is it possible that raising one’s children to be avid readers is becoming an mark of antiquarianism? Such is the thesis of this recent op-ed, “Literature is the New Latin”. Michael Reist writes:

No one would argue that literacy is not an essential life skill — one needs to be able to decode the prompts on an ATM, to be able to recognize the titles of YouTube videos — but the sustained reading of many pages of text is quickly becoming obsolete, like Latin.


Literature has a boring format. Even if I transfer the book to the cool platform of my iPad, I still have to decipher pages and pages of black squiggles on a white background. Novels have no pictures, sound or choice. After reading page one, I have to go to page two — and there are hundreds of these pages. To the mind raised in cyberspace, what could be more boring?

This puts me in mind of a poem by Chesterton, which reads (in part):

Our fathers to creed and tradition were tied,
They opened a book to see what was inside,
And of various methods they deemed not the worst
Was to find the first chapter and look at it first.
And so from the first to the second they passed,
Till in servile routine they arrived at the last.
But a literate age, unbenighted by creed,
Can find on two boards all it wishes to read;
For the front of the cover shows somebody shot
And the back of the cover will tell you the plot.

Now that was satire, once upon a time, but perhaps no longer? Are such ideas really as far to the fringe as they ought to be? It is not the first time I have heard the claim that the multi-media options available today render reading far less attractive, or that we are moving from a literate to a visual culture in which reading will be far less prevalent. (As I write I am sitting in front of a new version of MS Word in which the former text-based menus have been replaced by panels of little visual icons, few of which have any meaning to me.) Perhaps we are all due for another look at McLuhan.

Mr Reist’s students apparently take it for granted that we go to school for job training, so anything that won’t help on the job might as well be jettisoned. This itself points to a major failing of our education system, for we should think of education as a training of the mind, an enrichment of the soul, and a preparation for a lifelong engagement with our long cultural and intellectual tradition.

I take two lessons away. First, it is important to put limits on the use of electronic media in our home if we, as parents, want to encourage reading in our family. Second, to the extent that in our classrooms “literature is being replaced by “literacy activities” that are interactive and online to “engage today’s student””, we should think twice about sending our children to school.

Note: I have edited the original version of this post, after having been encouraged to re-read the newspaper article more charitably.  I also would like to note that Mr. Reist has published several books on education, and I am told that they are good and instructive reads.

Celebrating All Saints

November 1, 2012

Our local paper, The Toronto Star, has a nice slideshow of All Saints Day festivities from around the world. Some of these I’d have thought more appropriate for All Souls Day, but apparently not. It is fascinating to see how different cultures have found so many different ways of marking the day.

As for me and my house, we’ve managed little more than a rousing chorus of “For All the Saints” over our breakfast cereal. Let’s hear it again:

(This is the best online version I can find. Happily, it includes some — though not all — of the military stanzas that are usually purged from modern hymnals. There’s a wonderful descant on the final stanza too.)

Happy Feast of All Saints!