Daily thoughts on aesthetics and theology, and the entire world in between.

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A culture of commentary versus ... a handful of quietness

There is only one Apostle Paul; but there are endless commentators on what he wrote. Endless.

You can't count all the commentators. Not only those who
write about his epistles (which, indeed, comprise about 50% of the New Testament).

But also those who every Sunday preach on passages he wrote -- from Ephesians, for instance, or Galatians, or Philippians, and so on and on. Let's listen in:

"Ah ... Our text this morning is Ephesians 2.10 ... Last Sunday we spoke on such and so ... and today I want to further elaborate on
just what Paul meant when he said that we are the workmanship of God. You see, this word for workmanship is poeema. What a wonderful thought ... we are God's poetry!!!"

And he's off to the races... with all the good people in the pews taking notes ... because there's going to be a midweek discussion group on the passage ...

I don't mean to demean any earnest commentator or preacher, or Bible discussion groups. Of course not.

But I am suggesting that a
culture of commentary substitutes -- actually inhibits -- genuine ability to live out the truth of the Word of God.

In a culture of commentary, everybody is reading the Word not so much to humbly receive from it, so as to humbly submit to it, so as to quietly live out the truth of it, in daily life, minute by minute.

I'll say it again:

In a culture of commentary, everybody is reading the Word not so much to humbly receive from it, so as to humbly submit to it, so as to quietly live out the truth of it, in daily life, minute by minute.

NO. None of that. I've got a Bible Study to lead on Ephesians chapter 2, and I've got to
PREP for it. Oh my goodness, it's tomorrow and I've got nothing to say ... Well, lemme check these commentaries ...

I wonder how much of American evangelical culture is more a culture of commentary than a culture of quiet submission:

The radio programs; the piles and piles of study guides; the endless conferences and retreats; and so on and on.

It fosters ambitions and aspirations to comment; to be an expert commentator. (Maybe someday I'll be a conference speaker ...!).

But when you quietly submit, nobody notices you. Or at least very, very few will. But it may be at the heart of godly living.

And then there are those who
blog about this problem ...


Ecclesiastes 4.6 Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind.

Augustine on political gangs

I found this segment from Augustine's City of God striking enough to cite it here with no additional elaboration:

Remove justice, and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale? What are criminal gangs but petty kingdoms? A gang is a group of men under the command of a leader, bound by a compact of association, in which the plunder is divided according to an agreed convention.

If this villainy wins so many recruits from the ranks of the demoralized that it acquires territory, establishes a base, captures cities and subdues peoples, it then openly arrogates itself the title of kingdom, which is conferred on it in the eyes of the world, not by the renouncing of aggression but by the attainment of impunity.

For it was a witty and truthful rejoinder which was given by a captured pirate of Alexander the Great. The king asked the fellow, 'What is your idea, in infesting the sea?' And the pirate answered, with uninhibited insolence, 'The same as yours, in infesting the earth! But because I do it with a tiny craft, I'm called a pirate; because you have a mighty navy, you're called an emperor."


Augustine, City of God, Book IV, Chapter 4, trans. Henry Bettenson (Penguin, 1984), 139.

Universal nature

Here is a chart for "universal nature" from the 11th century. It was devised by a English monk named Byrhtferth. Note how it makes connections between natural phenomena and personal temperaments.

Well before the 11th century, ancient models of how things were put together all assumed that the behavior of nature and the behavior of humans answered to a single underlying structure.

From the mists of time in ancient China, for example, we have the five element theory: Water, Wood, Fire, Earth and Metal. These elements comprised universal nature -- which incorporated human moral conduct: Fire is inquisitive; Water is insecure, etc.

The ancient Greeks posited a
four element theory: Air, Water, Earth, Fire. The early thinker Hippocrates (of the Hippocratic Oath) assigned these elements also to personality factors.

It wasn't until the Enlightenment -- let's say this began in the 17th century; it's hard to pinpoint exactly when "enlightenment" came to the West -- it wasn't until the Enlightenment that the behavior of natural elements (air, water, etc) and the grounds for human moral conduct were divorced from each other.

If you dealt in "science," then you weren't dealing in "morality," and vice versa. This was one of the innovations of the Enlightenment.

In the process was lost any sense that a single system cohered together both natural and moral phenomena.

Sure, we now have such "master theories" as evolution. But the tendency here is to celebrate randomness and the unpredictable workings of impersonal forces rather than the workings of an orderly system conforming to higher, even if mysterious, powers.

This is somehow less comforting than earlier models of universal nature.

I am not promoting a return to ancient Chinese or Greek theories of universal nature; nor am I persuaded by Byrhtferth's 11th century model. I am merely bemoaning the loss of a phenomenological awareness in our culture for any organic and orderly universal nature at all.

A loss of wonder at the mystery of how all of this got here, and works beautifully, rather than there being nothing at all.

Recently I came across an essay by Wendell Berry entitled "Solving for Pattern." Written in 1981, the essay is prescient in its discernment that "big business agriculture" not only degrades the corn and the meat it produces, but also degrades the land, ultimately the society it purports to serve. Here is Berry (the bold is mine):

The real problem of food production occurs within a complex, mutually influential relationship of soil, plants, animals and people. A real solution to that problem will therefore be ecologically, agriculturally, and culturally healthful...

This is one challenge to today's environmentalist movement. It is difficult to be respectful to nature -- which is a moral disposition -- when morality itself is something of an optional, because ungrounded, reality.


Colossians 1.17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

歌 罗 西 书 1.17 他 在 万 有 之 先 , 万 有 也 靠 他 而 立

The image for the 11th century model comes from R. W. Southern, "England in the Twelfth Century Renaissance" in Medieval Humanism and Other Studies (New York: Harper and Row, 1970), 165.

The citation from Berry is actually from Chapter 9 of his book The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural & Agriculture. The chapter can be found here.

Offices versus Creativity

I don't know if this is just me, or if it is common experience:

To get serious work done, I need to be out of my office.

For serious writing or lecture prep, I have to hit the Starbucks, or the Rocket Bakery, or simply go driving somewhere -- in other words, I have to get out of my office before the juices can flow.

Even as I write this a colleague emails me an interesting article. After printing it out, my knee-jerk response was: "I need to go out for lunch so I can read this ..."

And I usually don't go out for lunch.

At home it's the same thing: serious reading takes place on my recliner; serious writing at the dining room table. None of it in my home office.

As for art work, absolutely no artwork is ever done in my office. (Well, once. This was done in my office, drawn on the back of a note card; and it is the most-visited blog I ever posted. So there's always an exception).

But the minute I sit down in any place called "my office," doing anything other than surfing the internet -- or snacking -- is a major stretch.

Or blogging.
That can be done in my office.

Or goofing off: yesterday I had to delete a computer scrabble game off of my home office computer just so it wouldn't be the main attraction. It was a major decision. Because: what else would I do??? I would be faced with the stark whiteness of the WORD document on the screen in front of me, with no escape -- and no ideas what to write.
But I took the plunge anyway.

For me it raises questions about names and roles and creativity; about functions we associate with physical spaces verses what we actually do in those spaces.

We humans are limited creatures, and every culture develops special ways to limit itself. In our culture, "going to the office" is a well-accepted limitation. And like any limitation, it comes with expectations. When you go to the office, that's when you're supposed to "work."

"Work." This is another limitation.

And so there are many businesses that thrive off of the limitations of "office." Like all the clothing stores to help you "dress up for work." But I don't recall the last time I produced anything worthwhile dressed up in my office best.

Like Office Depot. This is where you purchase things for your office; all sorts of things from pencils and pens to computers and hard drives to office furniture.

Office furniture.

Nothing can be more stifling to the creative imagination than having to create surrounded by office furniture.


Mark 2.23-28
One Sabbath he was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees were saying to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”

The point behind the image of God

In the introduction to his translation of Homer's Odyssey, E.V. Rieu said this (the underline is added by me):

He (Homer) does believe in his gods ... but whereas the Christian conception of godhead is based on our creation by God in his image and likeness, with imperfections introduced by Satan, Homer regards his gods, though immortal, as made in the image and likeness of man. Mixed with his deep respect of their almost unlimited powers and his aesthetic appreciation of their beauty, he betrays a very tolerant understanding of their motives and frailties ... These powerful beings, who were so intimately connected with men's passions and desires, were there to administer, not necessarily obey, man's moral code. Christian apologists of a later age made a mistake when they suggested that the pagans had invented the gods and their iniquities as an excuse for themselves. Homer never censures a god nor lets a mortal use a god's misdeeds as a pretext for his own ...

And so this is Rieu's appreciation of Homer's virtuous character. Never would Homer countenance misdeeds among men -- just because the gods he (Homer) admires indulge
their misdeeds and iniquities!

So on the strength of Homer's example, according to Rieu, Christian apologists "make a mistake" when they claim that a weakness in the theory that the gods are created in the image of men is none other than that it provides a license to sin. (e.g.: After all, the gods do it! etc).

No No No, says Rieu. Homer would
never stoop so low!

But I think this misses the point.

The point is this: Where does the very meaning of "iniquity" or "misdeed" come from?

Put another way, Rieu seems to think of iniquities and misdeeds as a moral consideration quite separate from the logical consideration of whether men are created in the image of God (the Christian view) or gods in the image of men (the Greek view).

Thus, in Rieu's thinking, Homer's moral uprightness in the face of his god's misdemeanors is used as a kind of
independent evidence that the Christian critique of the Greek view is wrong.

But this leaves the independent nature of the moral category in question. Where does morality come from? Who regulates it? Rieu uncritically says that, in the Greek view, it is
men who came up with the moral code; that the gods' job was to administer this moral code that men set up, but not necessarily to obey it.

But this is a logical nightmare. If indeed men -- who are frail and inquitous; this is not in question (it is precisely why Homer's virtuous character is viewed by Rieu as so extraordinary) -- if indeed it is men who came up with the moral code, and gods are created in the image of men, and so the gods engage in iniquity (because they are created in the image of men), but Homer rises above it all and does not accept the gods' immoral conduct as a license for such conduct himself, then Homer -- himself a man -- is basing his moral virtue on
neither human nature (which is iniquitous) nor the nature of the gods (which is also iniquitous).

So where does Homer's virtue come from? What is it referencing? This is left unexplained.

If, however, men are created in the image of God, then the seat of moral virtue is in Him. And so this conforms with the logical argument that His image is what we humans reflect: His moral character is what determines good and bad deeds (misdeeds) among men.

The Christian theory is so much more simpler, with no contradictions.

Rieu is actually using Christian measures in his admiration of Homer's virtuous character.


E.V. Rieu, "Introduction" to
Homer: The Odyssey (Penguin, 1971), 15.

Genesis 1.26-27 Then God said, "Let us make man
in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

In praise of fitting things

Daily life often gives us our deepest questions, like this one:

Why don't things fit?

Clothes don't fit. Jobs don't fit. In America one of two marriages end in divorce ... in other words: marriages don't fit.

Here's something that doesn't fit: see the daylight coming through the wood framing at the top corner? The 2x4 wall frames on the greenhouse I'm building don't exactly fit.

Who cares? one might ask. The wall sheathing will cover it, so nobody will know.

Nobody will know.

In the 1990's the influential computer scientist and polymath Herbert Simon coined the term to satisfice, a combination of to suffice and to satisfy:

All any solution has to do is to satisfice. In other words, just get the job done in an okay way; forget about everything fitting perfectly.

In a highly utilitarian / consumerist culture such as ours, satisficing is highly valued. We not only have technologies to fit things together; we have technologies to cover up things that don't.

Studs don't fit? We have sheathing.

You look ugly? Cosmetic surgery.

Can't get along? No fault divorce.

I think one fallout of covering up things that don't fit is the disappearance of praise.

In our culture, we've lost an ability to praise because we've lost an ability to marvel. To marvel at amazing things that do fit -- in fact, that fit so well it is downright unbelievable: Microscopic mitochondria that are veritable factories of life. No covering up there (even though we don't see it).

And I can't even align 2x4s.

I came across an article the other day that reports nature itself -- in the form of bacteria in the water -- is doing her own job at cleaning up the oil spill in the Gulf.

This is not to take away from the magnitude of the disaster.

But come on, as I struggle to align 2x4s, my larger struggle is why I'm not filled with praise at this news.


Psalm 146.1 How good it is to sing praises to our God, how pleasant and fitting to praise him! (NIV)

Note: This word "fitting" is translated in other versions as "comely" (KJV) or "seemly" (RSV) ... or simply beautiful (NKJV)

Herbert Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial, 1996, MIT Press

Dorothy Sayers on the original vision

The original vision for the painting
was this, drawn on the envelope of a bank statement. Compared with the final outcome, there is some likeness, but not much.

In the original impulse, I wanted to abstract the undulating fields of the Palouse into curved lines. The lines would be pronounced, acting somewhat like the cames (the black lines) of stained glass windows. So in the original vision, I saw something sectional; a kind of Mondrian with curves: solid colors each framed within lined boundaries.

The haziness of the outcome was not planned; it is something that the painting itself wanted to be.

But the tension between what I wanted, and what the painting wanted to be, left the work unfinished on my desk for weeks. I was tempted to discard it -- abort it -- and forget about it. It was only resignation (not inspiration) that brought me to finish it.

The process became more cheerful, although still suspenseful, when it occurred to me that it might have a direction of its own.

The whole exercise raises questions about the nature of creativity, about the creator and what is created. Does the artist "see" the thing whole ahead of time, and just bring it into being? For example, tradition tells us that Handel wrote the entire Messiah in 24 days, going almost non-stop, eschewing food. Upon completing the Hallelujah Chorus, it is said that he exclaimed he saw "all of heaven before me, and the great God Himself..."

But conversely we know that Beethoven struggled for years with some of his musical ideas before they took their final form in his compositions.

Here is Dorothy Sayers; she is writing about the literary art:

"The lay public ... rather like to believe this inspirational fancy; but as a rule the element of pure craftsmanship is more important than most of us are willing to admit. Nevertheless the free will of a genuinely created character has a certain reality, which a writer will defy at his peril. It does sometimes happen that the plot requires from its characters certain behavior, which, when it comes to the point, no ingenuity on the author's part can force them into, except at the cost of destroying them ... In such dilemmas, the simplest and worst thing the author can do is to behave like an autocratic deity ..."


Dorothy Sayers, "Free Will and Miracle" in The Mind of the Maker (1941). Harper San Francisco, 1979, 67-68.

Ephesians 2.10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

See this for a traditional account of how Handel wrote the Messiah.