Thursday, September 18, 2014

On an untimely death (classic essay, reprinted)

Dear Hannah,

One of the most strange and backward things a person could say is that another person’s death was untimely.  Of course, there's really only one timely time for a person to die, and that is when he does.  All other times are incredibly out of place.

But words don't always mean what they appear to mean, and if phrases may be symbols for other things which we actually mean, it seems more reasonable to translate untimely with we were not expecting him to die at this time, something which is still strange to say.  And it's strange because it insists that what we expect of reality is that it curbs to our expectations, which is really the opposite of the truth: our very survival teaches us that our expectations must curb to meet reality, or we will end up dying.

Of course, the reality of the matter is that we may die at any time, and that living life without a healthy and sober view of death is something someone should only do if he considers his life unimportant: in other words, it's the mindset he should embrace if he wants to live his life without any care or concern for his soul, or without any urgency in love and selflessness.  To live as though we have time has nothing to do with whether we do; it has to do with pretending something other than that we don’t.

The Christian knows there's a better way to think about this whole scenario, and that a sensible position on the matter contains multiple axioms.  The first is that God has put eternity in man’s heart, as the Preacher says, which means (in a roundabout way) that we are inclined toward thinking about living as though we can live forever.  The second is that God has appointed a time for us to die, and that we have nothing to do with averting His will (Matthew 10:29).  And if these two statements may be taken in combination, the Christian can only come to to conclusion that man’s most natural tendency is to delude himself about a death which is inevitable, so that he can do things which should be considered avoidable.  And if we are to live Christian lives, and enter into our Father’s presence hearing that well done, thou good and faithful servant, we must teach ourselves and one another, with a healthy dose of history and Scripture, that however long we think we will live, that we are going to die — and that it is likely sooner than we think.

Your father,
-J

Monday, September 8, 2014

On menstruation

Dear Hannah,

I'm absolutely certain that it was my anthropology professor who told me that in certain bushman cultures, a menstruating woman is put into a hut until she stops menstruating.  What I'm not certain about is whether quarantining a menstruating woman is a good idea.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

What kind of men are we?


One of the strangest periods of Roman history was the period right before the republic collapsed and became an empire.  The Romans weren't known for losing, but during this period, they lost nearly everything they put their hands to.  Catiline nearly overthrew the republic by rallying profligates, whoremongers, and drunken hipsters under the flag of rapacity.  A Numidian king named Jugurtha practically walked into the Senate, bribed a bunch of senators, and caused them to overlook his hostile foreign policy -- which cost a friendly kingdom its ruin; and pirates practically owned the seas, so that all sea trade had practically stopped.  Nothing was fought for, everything was bought.  Money, and not honor, was the currency; safety was lost for safety's sake. Jugurtha was told by the Romans themselves that everything was for sale in Rome, and he proved them right.  Rome itself was plunder until Pompey arrived and in a moment of manliness and decision cleared the seas of pirates; the republic was lost to Catiline until Cicero shouted like an angry patriot and placed his own life in danger to save it.  Rome was bought until Metellus and Marius arrived, denying the bribes of Jugurtha, and actually decided to stand by their friends. 

Friday, August 29, 2014

Against the Christian sourpuss (or, in partial defense of the Osteens)

Dear Hannah,

I just realized, this morning, that the reason I've been having a difficult time wanting to be a Christian isn't because of Christianity, but because of other Christians.  To give a single example, Victoria Osteen recently made a silly speech about how Christianity and church and religion in general is about us being happy, which seems perfectly reasonable to me.  The problem is, the most "serious" Christians were quick to respond that Christianity isn't about our happiness.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

On sin and sin nature

Dear Hannah,

As I've been watching you these past few weeks, I've noticed we have a lot in common.  Neither of us likes to be slighted, or to be ignored; neither of us likes to be laughed at, or to have to share.  Each of us enjoys doing the things we want to do, and neither of us likes doing the things that we don't; and we both enjoy asserting our own authority -- rules be damned.  And what I've realized from watching you for so long isn't that you're a horrible person for wanting to do things your own way: I've simply come to the realization that I'm a baby who's learned how to reason.  Twenty-nine years ago I wanted nearly the same things I want today; I simply learned how to reason to get them, and to do it in the most social way possible.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Why papa drinks

Dear Hannah,

It's strange to think that people drink because they want to feel things they wouldn't otherwise.  It isn't just the numbness of a buzz that attracts us to drinking; it's that drinking makes us like things we wouldn't otherwise like, enjoy conversations we might not otherwise have had, ignore fears we might otherwise have felt, celebrate people around whom we'd otherwise be bored.  It makes us care about things we wouldn't normally care about, and give things away that we might have never given.  Some people even drink to be more comfortable with an aspect of themselves that they hate (although I would argue that this is a bad reason for drinking).  In a certain sense, intoxication does make us more charitable, whatever fun I made of the Rastafarians earlier.  It adds a certain humanity (at least to some of us) that we'd been missing all along.  A negative person might say that drinking allows us to live a life we wouldn't otherwise have lived; a more sensible person might say that drinking allows us to enjoy the life we already have. 

Monday, August 18, 2014

On Saints

Dear Hannah,

You're perfectly welcome to read books about the attributes of God.  I personally think they wouldn't do you any harm, although I would also argue that they're unlikely to do you much good.  The unfortunate truth about these kinds of books is that we're humans, and they ramble on about all kinds of things that are so far beyond our nature that we can't make any sense of them.  In a way, reading "attributes" books about how God is just and merciful and omnipotent and eternal is almost like reading fairy tales.  Virtues, after all, are the things we've seen with our own eyes and touched with our own hands; which is why the Gospels are essential to our religion, and why speculative theology books are almost entirely nonsense.

Friday, August 8, 2014

A crisis averted

Dear Hannah,

You might be interested in knowing that had you been a boy, you probably would have been named Saul.  In retrospect it would have been a terrible idea, made during a period of religious fervor -- or maybe it was a period of fanaticism.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

On spirituality

Dear Hannah,

As the popular tendency is to try and force you into one of two camps, especially in the world of politics, you might have considered by this point whether you're more spiritual or religious.  If you want to know what these terms were originally intended to mean, people are supposed to be asking whether you follow your own heart and your senses (which is supposed to be a compliment), or whether you follow other people's rules (which is supposed to be an insult); but what it really concerns nowadays is whether you're liberal or conservative.  Since this is what people usually mean, I would argue that we're more a religious than a spiritual people; and maybe then, even more a political people.  We rarely check to see whether people are thinking, seeking, studying, or even whether they can explain the things they say they believe: we care more about whether they agree with a certain ideology, and then we call them spiritual.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The problem with the Song of Solomon

Dear Hannah,

If anyone really wants to know what the most interesting thing about the Song of Solomon is, I wouldn't tell him, like our dear, late friend Mr. Caldecott, that it's interesting because of its physical position in the Bible.  It may be true that it's halfway through the Bible; it may be true that God's passionate love for us is central to the meaning of the Bible, and that the Song of Solomon is a powerful allegory about God's desire.  But if anyone was to ask me why it's really interesting, I would tell them it's because Solomon was already married when he pursued the Shulamite.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

To catch a prince: a treatise on male sexuality

Dear Hannah,

I want to apologize in advance for this essay: it's certainly not anything a girl wants to hear from anyone, much less from her father; but I figure that if there's anything worse than an honest letter about male sexuality, it's a woman never being told how men think, and then finding out from experience.  One of the greatest cruelties of human existence is showing a girl lots of romantic Disney films and never acquainting her with Solomon -- or in other words, giving her an ideal picture of the beginnings of romance, and never telling her that men are sexually insatiable.  They say Solomon loved his wives, and this much may be true.  But it's very easy to love a beautiful woman and treat her well for a moment when you get to share the rest of your week with as many as a thousand other beautiful women.  For the rest of us who deal with one exclusively, loving your wife is an entirely more laborious task.  Solomon's love, however admirable, is really a matter of timing.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

A case of accidental glorification

Dear Hannah,

This morning I happened to find an article on Rachel Maddow's Facebook page about a new voting law in North Carolina.  Now, it's easy to guess what her position was on the matter, because nearly every leftist says the same thing: she believed that the voting law was aimed at preventing minorities from voting, and the article was addressed particularly to the black community.  The truth about the law was, of course, that the law was aimed at illegal immigrants in the Hispanic community -- which is a perfectly reasonable law to pass when foreign nationals are threatening to upset an election.  But the most interesting thing about the complaints was, they had nothing to do with language tests or anything other than having a valid ID and being prepared to vote.

Friday, July 4, 2014

For the glory of God

Dear Hannah,

That's very nice that you or the gymnast or the football player did it all for the glory of God; but what does it mean, to do it all for the glory of God?  So you jumped a hurdle, wrote a poem, built a business, scored a touchdown -- for the glory of God?  Maybe someone could argue that parents are honored or embarrassed by their children; still I would say that the child is glorified more than the parent.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

On passion

Dear Hannah,

Ask yourself whether a man who loses sleep over a woman, who can't eat, who gives her everything he has, thinks about her day and night, places himself in danger, vows to love her forever, and commits suicide because of her has a problem, or whether he's Romeo.  The answer is obvious: he's a Romeo if the target of his affections loves him back, and a psychotic if she doesn't.  He has exactly the same disease either way; our perspective on the disease's usefulness determines whether we give him praise and a play, or censure and a straitjacket.

Monday, June 16, 2014

A great injustice

Dear Hannah,

I want you to take a good look at these pictures: really take a moment and study them. The one on the left is a portrait of Jonathan Edwards, quite possibly the greatest theologian who ever lived; a man who spurred an important religious revival and left behind him generations of doctors, lawyers, pastors and statesmen.  The portrait on the right is Jean-Jacques Rousseau, quite possibly the greatest and most dangerous author of the French Enlightenment; a man who spurred the massacres of the French Revolution, and left behind him scores of bastard children.

















Ignoring their accomplishments and just looking at the two of them, who  would you rather be like?  Who would you rather be around? The frumpy sourpuss on the left, or the kind-eyed and handsome man on the right?

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Kill a child, save the planet

Dear Hannah,

I've heard strangers say perhaps a dozen times, that if the Native Americans had only kept control of the Americas, that the environment would be in much better shape -- but I think this is only half a truth.  It isn't so much that Native Americans were very good at taking care of the environment; it's more that they were very bad at taking care of their children. 

Saturday, June 14, 2014

On Pharisees

Dear Hannah,

By now, if you've spent any amount of time with Christians, you've heard them toss the term Pharisee around.  Also by now, if you've spent any time thinking, you've realized that the term Pharisee is used by Christians as frequently and unfairly as the term Hitler is used by political activists.  In essence, everyone who is doing better than us, who's asking us to take things more seriously, or who's asking us to do things differently than we're currently doing them, is a Pharisee.  We would do much better to recognize that the people most like the Pharisees -- or, in other words, the people most resembling their prejudices, their follies, and their theological imbecility -- are the orthodox and ultra-orthodox Jews.  But then I suppose we would be in danger of being called Hitler.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Fabius and Minucius

Dear Hannah,

As I'm thinking about the many different angles I could approach the topic of repentance, none seems more useful to me than an old story about a Roman general named Fabius Maximus.  Now, Fabius was an old and experienced man when Hannibal invaded Italy, and the Romans spent a lot of time deriding him because he refused to engage Hannibal's army.  Fabius knew that Hannibal's army was too experienced and too powerful to be defeated by the Romans -- he knew, almost by instinct, that the best way to beat Hannibal would be to avoid an engagement, and let the invading army starve itself to death, even though it meant letting Hannibal ravage the country.  But the rest of the Romans disagreed, thinking it was too cowardly to hide in the mountains like Fabius wanted, and they decided it would be better to risk an open engagement.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Against charity monsters

Dear Hannah,

The other day I saw a video of some men being shot in the back of the head.  They were all lined up by some Syrian Islamists, for whatever reason I wasn't sure; but whether they committed crimes against humanity or simply "offenses" against fanatics, there they were, brains all out on the floor, and nobody around to do anything about it. 

Friday, June 6, 2014

On free will

Dear Hannah,

I know I just recently wrote you an essay about how people who discuss concepts like the freedom of the will are wasting their time; but my advice, as all general advice, is not always as simple as it seems.  The fact that there are some things we can't entirely understand doesn't mean that we shouldn't think about them; it simply means we should be careful we don't base our entire lives upon the speculative when there's a very high likelihood it can be proven false by what's demonstrative.

Our lives are really a mixture between speculation and common sense: our senses tell us all the causes and effects of the world around us, which become knowledge; our minds remember what we've seen and predict the future, and when they do so correctly, it's known as wisdom.  But when our minds apply these patterns to other things we haven't entirely experienced, and then we begin to think about things we haven't ever really seen, this is known as speculation.  You rely on either of these extremes too heavily, and you're a dolt.  Too much common sense means no dreaming; too much speculation means no wisdom.  Too much of the former means we never improve what we know, too much of the latter means we never maintain what we have.   Maybe Farmer Joe will never fall for an egalitarian ponzi scheme or become a practically retarded theologian, but I have a hard time believing he could have ever written The Federalist.  And maybe Einstein will invent all kinds of new things, but I have a hard time believing how this could be a real benefit to him when he let his family go to ruin.  The truth is that we need both kinds of men; but we should never try to be them -- although if I had to be one of the two, I would rather be (and be surrounded by) the simpleton with common sense. 

Monday, June 2, 2014

The problem with theologians

Dear Hannah,

The more I think about the phrase common sense, the more convinced I am that the people who have least to do with it are theologians.  Common sense is, of course, an allusion to our hearing and sight, and an implication that if we're seeing and hearing things, then we must be coming to some kind of an obvious understanding about what they mean.  The theologian has nothing to do with any of this.  He spends his time arguing about things he's never really seen from Someone he's never really heard.  Even Job was honest enough to say, when he finally met his Creator, that all the while he'd been talking about someone he'd never really met (Job 42:5-6).  The theologian in this sense is slightly less honest: the more seriously he takes his profession, the more you'd think he got his creeds from God in person.

Friday, May 30, 2014

An addict's paradise

Dear Hannah,

There are really only two problems with doing drugs.  The first, and most serious, is that they put you out of your right mind, which means you might do something stupid.  The second, but almost equally obnoxious problem, is that at some point you will have to stop doing them, which means that you will be miserable when you aren't.  The first would almost be tolerable, if it weren't for the second.  There are a lot of things human beings will put up with, so long as they're high; this is why drug addicts have filthy houses and eat disgusting food and have sex with all the worst people -- because they've made up for these losses by being too high to care.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Remember to always shave your mustache

My dear Hannah,

I'm not joking when I say this: I have actually encountered a woman with a very wiry and very thin, but very real goatee.  The damned thing drives me nuts.  It drives me nuts first because it's ugly, and second because I know the power of a razor.  She could shave it in an instant, and within a few seconds be rid of something which is obviously an offense against everything we know to be aesthetic.  Even if it was fashionable for women to grow facial hair, it isn't even a good goatee.

Monday, May 26, 2014

On proof of divinity

Dear Hannah,

If you want me or anyone else to prove that Jesus is the Son of God, I'm afraid you're asking for something that can't be done.  It's been over two-thousand years since Jesus walked the earth, and people had enough trouble believing Him back then.  Thomas had to see the holes in Christ's hands before he even believed what the other Apostles had told him.  I don't see how it could be any easier now.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Thoughts on compulsory romance

Dear Hannah,

One of the strange things about living in America is that one moment you’ll see everyone pretending to cry about 200 kidnapped Nigerian girls, and the next moment Americans will practically try and force you to be one.  I say this because I just finished watching a 7-minute long (and slightly foul) Louis CK monologue, and discovered that I have a moral obligation to romance fat women.  The problem is, I’ve never had a fat girlfriend because I’ve never really wanted one.  Maybe Michelle Obama should be wearing a shirt with my face on it.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Children's Miracle Network

Dear Hannah,

I have nothing against the Children's Miracle Network; everything I've heard of them has led me to believe they're a reputable organization, although I haven't seriously researched anything about them.  But I do think it's funny that they're named the Children's Miracle Network, when they have absolutely nothing to do with miracles.  It seems to me that they have much more to do with doctors.  Maybe if it was a miracle network, it wouldn't require so much funding.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Transcending the politics of black and white

My dear Hannah,

I sincerely doubt that in America -- or anywhere else for that matter -- you'll be able to successfully avoid racial politics, so I'd like to give you a few tips on how to deal with them.  I'm writing this because there are people who think that we have a moral duty to avoid racial politics, and there are people who make their lives of them: the former I believe to be truly naive or stupid people; the latter have become nearly animals.  In different periods of my life, I have been both.  You must be neither.

Friday, March 28, 2014

In defense of fakery

My dear Hannah,

I don't know exactly who's been saying it, but this week a friend of mine confided that people at work have been complaining about me.  There are plenty of reasons to complain about me, of course, whether someone is in the right or in the wrong: the former might complain that I inconsistently practice the teachings of my Savior, and the latter might complain that I take them seriously. Depending on the time of the day, both of them may be right.  If both these complaints are seriously considered, I may be a perfectly annoying person.  I'm also certain there are other reasons to complain.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

On happiness

Dear Hannah,

It's four o'clock on Sunday morning, and I'm sitting down to write you about happiness.  I don't know why, but the UN has decided to have an International Day of Happiness, and I can't sleep because I keep thinking about it.  Maybe having a day about happiness makes them happy; writing about why they shouldn't works much better for me.

Bill Nye

Dear Hannah,

There really isn't any way to keep myself from getting into trouble with this letter, so I'll begin it in the most straightforward manner possible: if anyone tells you we must take the Bible literally, it's important that you question that person's teaching seriously.

On a personal library

Dear Hannah,

As I'm thinking about my library, I have no other thought but that it will belong to you at some point.  I've spent plenty of time thinking about who's going to get it; most of the time has been depressing.  There isn't a single person in the world I could give these to after I die, without thinking my gift was a waste.  Nobody pursues knowledge anymore: nearly everyone thinks he knows everything.  I'm afraid they simply won't be read.  I'm hoping you will be different.

Fame, loneliness, and local music

Dear Hannah,

Before I was a Christian, if anyone was interested in finding the fastest and surest way to misery and isolation, I would have recommended to them casual sex.  Now that I'm a Christian, the most viable alternative would be to take writing seriously.