Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Commentary: Preface to Isaiah

"The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz concerning Judah and Jerusalem, which he saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jtham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, the kings of Judah."

Isaiah is ranked alongside lEzekial and Jeremiah as the "major prophets" of the Old Testament, and indeed his book of prophecy is one of the larger books in the Bible. I'm also coming to this commentary after an extended look at the book of Romans, which is generally both concise and content-rich. I will be writing a commentary on Isaiah, digesting several chapters with each published note.

In light of the differences both in length and intensity, however, my approach to this Commentary is going to be significantly more scatter-shot than previous commentaries. Obviously, the best way to understand Scripture is the direct route: read Scripture itself. My commentaries are designed to offer notes on particularly noteworthy elements of the reading. In this case, most of the content that I would present or discuss is presented and discussed in the text itself, making additional commentary superfluous. There remain, however a number of particularly important passages, as well intriguing side-notes and tangential thoughts. It is there that I will find the subject for this next series of note.

When I first encountered the prophets, they all struck me as alike. As I've grown more familiar with them, so the flavors of each have become more clearly defined. I still struggle, but it gets easier. It's hard to convey the subtle distinctions, however, so I will more or less restrain myself to speak of the words, verses, and chapters themselves.

Enjoy the commentaries!

Monday, August 1, 2011

Commentary on Scripture: Romans 16

I commend to you our sister Phoebe... that you receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and that you help her in whatever matter she may have need of you.

Romans 16:1-15 ~~ Paul offers greetings to various individuals known to him personally. Most of the names are unfamiliar to us, though some of them are referenced elsewhere. Also note the number of female names in the list.

Romans 16:3-4 ~~ Prisca and Aquila are referenced in Acts 18, worked with Paul as tent-makers, and apparently risked their own necks to save Paul's life.

Romans 16:5 ~~ "Epaenetus... who is the first convert to Christ from Asia." Whoa. Nice credentials.

Romans 16:6 ~~ "Mary, who has worked hard for you." There are six other people known by that name in the New Testament; nothing is known about this Mary beside this one cryptic reference.

Romans 16:17 ~~ Paul exhorts the Romans to be wary against those who teach against the apostolic teaching and would lead them astray.

Romans 16:18 ~~ Paul is specifically addressing the heretics in Rome that were slaves to their appetites and who deceived themselves and others with smooth rhetoric.

Romans 16:19 ~~ Rome was apparently famed for their obedience to the apostolic tradition.

Romans 16:20 ~~ Here again, Paul concludes the letter. See also 15:33, 16:24 and 16:27.

Romans 16:21-22 ~~ Paul sends greetings from his companions, including a personal salutation from his scribe Tertius.

Romans 16:25-27 ~~ Here at last Paul offers a brief and impromptu doxology. "To Him... be the glory forever." Paul is awesome, and here ends his epistle to the Romans.

Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past but now is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets according to the commandment of the eternal God has been made known to all the nations, leading to obedience of faith; to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, be the glory forever. Amen.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Commentary on Scripture: Romans 15

Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength, and not just please ourselves.

Romans 15:1 ~~ Those who are strong are to be self-denying out of consideration for the weak.

Romans 15:2-3 ~~ "Each is to please his neighbor for his good, to his edification." Paul draws an immediate comparison to Christ: God, being stronger than us, takes our weakness upon Himself and acts for our edification and not solely for His own glory.

Romans 15:4 ~~ "For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction that through perseverance and the encouragement of Scriptures we might have hope." Interesting transition from "even Christ did not please Himself" to this thought, on the value of Scripture.

Romans 15:5-6 ~~ "Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement" [that is, the God who gave the Scriptures] "grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus, so that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." God is Truth, Truth is one, and He intends for us to be of one mind. The unity and catholicity of the Church is absolutely essential.

Romans 15:7 ~~ "Therefore accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God." See also the section of the Lord's Prayer: "And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us."

Romans 15:8-9 ~~ "Christ has become a servant to the circumcision" (that is, the Jews) "on behalf of the truth of God to confirm the promises given to the fathers, and [a servant] for the Gentiles to glorify God for His mercy." Here's another element in the distinctions between Jews and Gentiles: God is faithful to the Jews for the sake of His truth, and to the Gentiles for the sake of His mercy.

Romans 15:9-12 ~~ Paul presents four passages on God's desire and outreach to the Gentiles, from Deuteronomy 32:43, Psalms 18:49 and 117:1, and Isaiah 11:10.

Romans 15:13 ~~ Paul launches a brief impromptu blessing as the epistle winds down. Lots of good and meaningful words here. I'm rather struck by the multiple endings that Romans contains: see also 15:33, 16:20, 16:24, and 16:27.

Romans 15:14 ~~ Paul speaks of three traits he saw in the Roman Church: that they were full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, and (thus?) able to admonish one another. I think this is a particularly interesting formulation: in order to admonish (to correct and to teach), we must be filled with both a profound desire for the good and a profound wisdom, or understanding of the good.

Romans 15:15-16 ~~ Paul speaks of "the grace that was given me from God, to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles, ministering as a priest the gospel of God, so that my offering of the Gentiles may become acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit." This strikes me as a pretty direct statement treating the ordination of priests as a legitimate sacrament (sacrament being a vessel of special grace from God).

Romans 15:17-19 ~~ Paul has reason to boast: what God had accomplished through Him among the Gentiles, and the obedience he inspired among them by word and deed, in the power of signs and wonders, in the power of the Spirit.

Romans 15:20-21 ~~ Paul intended to preach specifically where the name and gospel of Christ had not yet been heard.

Romans 15:22-25 ~~ Other obligations intervened, but Paul had long intended to take a trip to Spain and had hoped to stay in Rome during the trip.

Romans 15:25-28 ~~ Paul was sent to Jerusalem with an offering from Macedonia and Achaia. The Gentiles were indebted to the Jews to minister to them in materials things as they shared in spiritual things.

Romans 15:30-32 ~~ Paul asks the Romans to strive with him in prayer for (1) his rescue from "the disobedient," which we presume to be the unsaved Jews, and (2) his acceptance among the saints in the church at Jerusalem.

Romans 15:33 ~~ Paul offers an impromptu blessing to end the letter... again. He promptly continues with the personal greetings to actually conclude the letter.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Commentary on Scripture: Romans 14

Now, accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions.

Romans 14:1 ~~ This is a fantastic summary both of the chapter and of the principle "in non-essentials, liberty."

Romans 14:2 ~~ "One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only." We might reference Acts 10:15, in which Peter receives a vision confirming the cleanliness of foods previously considered unclean. In this case, "weakness" refers to doctrinal confusion and a lack of understanding, specifically regarding the doctrine of freedom (cf. Romans 6, Galatians 5).

Romans 14:3 ~~ "The one who eats" (that is, the one with knowledge and with liberty) "is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat"(without knowledge but with a clear conscience) "is not to judge the one who eats." The danger for those who act with liberty is that they might look upon others as more legalistic and therefore less grace-filled than they are; the danger for those who act with conscience is that they might look upon the practices of others as almost pagan and therefore less Christian than they are. The one feels contempt, the other judgment, yet "God has accepted" them both.

Romans 14:4 ~~ "Who are you to judge the servants of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand for the Lord is able to make him stand." We are judged and accepted by God. If we judge others, we make ourselves out to be Lords over one another, and arrogate the dignity of His judgment seat.

Roman 14:5 ~~ "One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind." Paul certainly has an opinion on many of these subjects, but he is pressing the more important point: when it's not essential, do not judge or view others with contempt. Also note "each person must be fully convinced" -- intention plays a critical role in moral responsibility.

Romans 14:6-8 ~~ In life and death, so long as we remain in God, we belong to God and are saved by Him.

Romans 14:7-9 ~~ We live or die in Christ. Christ lived and died for precisely this reason, that He might be the Lord of the living and the dead (cf. 6:3-11).

Romans 14:10-12 ~~ Why judge or regard with contempt? (Cf. verse 3, above). Each is judged before God (cf. 2:14-16).

Romans 14:13 ~~ "Therefore, let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this--not to put an obstacle or stumbling block in a brother's way!" Fantastic verse.

Romans 14:14 ~~ "I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself" (that is, no thing is intrinsically evil -- the physical world is intrinsically good); "but to him who thinks anything is unclean, to him it is unclean." Uncleanliness is defined as something that it would be sinful or defiling to partake in. By the conviction that a thing would be sinful to do, the act of doing it would be a deliberation rebellion against one's own conscience and therefore against God. It is in our convictions and our intentions that cleanliness or uncleanliness is found.

Romans 14:15 ~~ "For if by food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love." Do not act on your own Christian liberty is that would hurt or hamper others, for love trumps liberty.

Romans 14:16 ~~ It's ironic that this verse begins "therefore," even though it seems to qualify or mitigate the impact of previous verses. "Therefore, do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil." This is a big deal for Paul. God made the world and called it good, and to speak of this good Creation as though it were something evil is akin to blasphemy.

Romans 14:16-17 ~~ If others are convinced that partaking of certain foods is wrong, then we should not partake of those foods. But, in the same instant and with the same breath, we ought to defend our liberty to partake and, more importantly, defend the goodness of the food itself. We should not act in a way that hurts others, but it is necessary to defend (with our words) what we cannot enjoy (with our deeds). Above all, act in love, in a knowing and cognizant love so the kingdom of God might enjoy peace.

Romans 14:18 ~~ "For he who in this way [honoring each other with Christian liberty] serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men."

Romans 14:20 ~~ Here is the corollary to Romans 14:14. "Nothing is unclean in itself" (v. 14), "all things indeed are clean" (v. 20), "but to him who thinks anything is unclean, to him it is unclean" (v. 14) and also "they are evil for the man who eats and gives offense" (v. 20). We must be pure not only before our own conscience, but in light of the consciences and judgments of others. No pressure.

Romans 14:22-23 ~~ Here is an effective summary statement. "The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves." If we eat without faith, or doubt in our Christian liberty, we are condemned. But that does not deny the fact of our Christian liberty: we are slaves to sin no longer, but free to partake of God's goodness.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Commentary on Scripture: Romans 13

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God and those which exist are established by God.

Romans 13:1-6 ~~ Now this is a problematic section. Just as submission to each other is treated as a necessity of our faith and mutual love in Ephesians 5:21-31, so these verses treat our subjection to the government as mandatory. However, this apparently unequivocal command is couched in language that gives some leeway for later philosophers and statesmen. Yet it remains incredibly problematic, even given my own political predilections.

Romans 13:1 ~~ Two points. First, note that the exhortation is "to be in subjection" to the governing authorities. This will be expanded in v. 7, but I think it's important to point out that this "subjection" is distinct from total and unwavering obedience. Second, note that the initial exhortation is grounded in the next part of the verse: "for there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained by God" (KJV). The rulers and authorities are defined explicitly in the context of God's justice.

Romans 13:2 ~~ "Therefore, whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God...." Here again, rulers stand as the agents of God's own authority.

Romans 13:3-4 ~~ "For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good." Here again, rulers appear almost in persona Dei, just as priests speak in persona Christi. The governing authorities exist as "a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil." But there is the crux of the matter: how should we respond when rulers fail to act in light of Christ? What is they fail to uphold justice? What if they defy it, and become "a cause of fear for good behavior"?

Romans 13:5-6 ~~ "Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience' sake." The wrath refers the judgment we would incur by defying God's chosen agents of justice; the conscience refers to the duty and love we bear to God, and therefore the fidelity we owe to His ministers. Indeed it is for conscience' sake that we pay taxes: it is the duty we owe them, to support their labors.

Romans 13:7 ~~ "Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due, custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor." As I pointed out above, it should be noted that obedience is conspicuously absent from this list. "Subjection" in Romans 13:1 is distinct from "submission" in Ephesians 5. At the same time, I have to point out what an excellent general exhortation this verse is. "Render to all what is due them." It's also an effective transition into the next series of exhortations.

Romans 13:8-9 ~~ "Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves the other fulfills the law." Good verse, with very interesting phrasing. After "render to all what is due them," Paul seems to encourage his fellow Christians to owe little that must be rendered. Indeed, since the only exception is "to love one another" and love is by nature a grace, Paul seems to be encouraging Christians to owe nothing to one another, that nothing must be rendered as a duty.

Romans 13:10 ~~ "Love works no evil to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law." I honestly don't know what to make of this verse. The previous verses serve as antecedents to the same conclusion, but this verse seems to be framed as a syllogism on its own. Technically, this verse is an enthymeme, with an omitted major premise: "if X works no evil to a neighbor, X is the fulfillment of the law." That's what disconcerts me: I don't know where Paul derived this major premise, and I'm not sure how well it fits with the rest of his (or my own) theology.

Romans 13:11-13 ~~ In addition to God's wrath and our own conscience, eschatology is the third reason for acting rightly: for we know that our salvation approaches daily.

Romans 13:14 ~~ "Put on the Lord Jesus Christ," and make no provision for sin. That sounds easy, right?

Romans 13 is one of a few extended passages in the New Testament that speaks of the relationship between the Church and the state or "governing authorities" (1 Peter 2:13-14 is another). It is problematic for the same reason it is so easily set aside: Paul treats authority almost as a Platonic Form, a perfect and uncorrupted manifestation of the divine Ideal of justice. I imagine we are all cynical enough to laugh at this image, and wonder where Paul got the idea that such untainted perfection was ever the case. But I hope we are historically minded enough to not laugh too long, and I suspect we won't if we remember that Paul was born and raised a Jew. He was a low-class citizen in a lower-class region, and the Romans were not terribly fond of the early Christians. Paul was beaten many times, imprisoned many times, yet he still manages to speak of the authorities as though they acted for the cause of justice. What do we do with that information, I wonder? How do we cope with the knowledge that Paul spoke (and indeed, spoke infallibly, for this is Scripture) in exhorting his fellow Christians to be in subjection to the governing authorities, even though those very authorities were persecuting the people of God?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Job as Myth

In a recent Facebook conversation on how to read the Bible, I argued that Scriptures must be interpreted in light of the literary genre of any given text. These genres span everything from the highly historical records (such as genealogies) that recur throughout the Old Testament, to the highly symbolic "apocalypse" genre that characterizes the book of Revelation.

As part of this argument, I noted that "the book of Job is an extended parable, wrestling with the problem of evil and offering possible resolutions." I asserted that it should be considered mythic in the literary sense, and that its nature was essentially fictional.  I was asked about this assertion, and here was my explanation and defense.

First, the setting is introduced in a cursory (nearly non-existent) manner. All we know of Job is that he was "of the land of Uz" and "one of the richest men in the east." This strikes me as fairly typical of Ancient Near Eastern story-telling technique, in which a place name would be cited to give the myth a faux-realistic edge. "One Thousand and One Nights" (the famous tales of Scheherazade) offers many instances of this technique in action. The dearth of detail in grounding the narrative in a concrete setting can be contrasted with the contextual riches of more historical works like 1 Samuel, which introduces nearly every character with geographic, cultural, and even genealogical information.

Second, the plot is pretty evidently mythic in nature. The prologue sets up Job as a good man blessed with all manner of riches and untroubled by fickle Fortune. The cut-scene to a heavenly courtroom, and the dialogue between Satan and God, introduces a tension or conflict that does not arise organically from the prologue. We get the impression of a deus ex machina, a plot contrivance to interrupt Job's happy life and set up the remainder of the book.

Third, the intent of the book is not history, but theodicy. This is reflected in the style. The vast majority of the book is a theological discussion, punctuated by events that are described solely in order to introduce the next cycle of monologues. Indeed, the narrative pretty consistently violates the dictum "show, don't tell." In sharp contrast with the historical books, the book of Job is primarily invested in neither the events nor the characters, but rather the ideas under discussion.

Fifth, even the characters sound like archetypes. Job's three friends are not introduced as historical figures, nor even given the dignity of being literary characters with some degree of personality. They appear in isolation, only identified by a name (
Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar) and a place (respectively, Teman, Shuah, and Naamah). They are not characters so much as plot devices: each 'individual' advances a particular understanding of theodicy, a particular argument for the goodness of God in the face of an evil world. Only Job, being the main character, is given any depth of characterization or any human pathos. The only other character with some semblance of personality would be Elihu the Buzite. Elihu, a young man who appears near the end of the book, serves in a sort of semi-prophetic capacity, resolving the earlier dispute to the best of human wisdom, and prefacing the appearance of God Himself coming in a cloud.

Sixth and finally, the literary style and structure of Job speaks to it being a creative piece, not a work of historiography. It begins and ends with a prose prologue and epilogue, while the main text is in the form of a didactic poem. Thus I conclude it is wisdom literature, not history.

There are no doubt more arguments to be raised, and (no doubt) many possible counterarguments I'm not considering. Do you have any thoughts or responses?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Commentary on Scripture: Romans 12:9-21

Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good.

Romas 12:9-21 ~~ The verses that follow and conclude Romans 12 are a series of largely miscellaneous exhortations by Paul to the congregation at Rome regarding Christian behavior and belief.

Romans 12:9a ~~ "Let love be without hypocrisy." We are called to live with a spirit of Christian charity (caritas, the highest form of love) that is genuine and without deceit. Hypocrisy in its original Greek sense referred to play-acting, specifically the masks or personas worn by actors on stage.

Romans 12:9b ~~ "Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good." This is a largely unextraordinary verse, except for the realization that it is prescribing specific emotional reactions to moral questions. We sometimes find it easy to distinguish between "the true," "the good," and "the beautiful." This ought not be. Paul exhorts us to abhor evil, and cling (a word connoting unyielding fidelity, perhaps even a sort of desperation) to the good. In other words, he exhorts us to make a habit of responding to questions of good and evil with the same kind of aesthetic judgment that we normally associate with beauty: that is, pleasure or disgust.

Romans 12:10 ~~ "Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor." This exhortation reminds me of nothing quite so much as the passage beginning with Ephesians 5:21 -- "be subject to one another in the fear of Christ." The rest of that passage is concerned with the implications of that general (catholic in the sense of universal) command: how we truly are to rank ourselves beneath others, and become eager and diligent servants working for each others' good.

Romans 12:11-13 ~~ In the next three verses, Paul's grammar switches from imperative (giving direct commands in the previous verses) to a participle (denoting an ongoing present action). I honestly couldn't say why there's a change, though (unless it is merely the caprice of the translators) I'm sure there's some meaning to it.

Romans 12:11 ~~ "Not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord." Having established the conduct (to serve one another) as an expression of Christ's command (to love one another; love your neighbor as yourself), Paul moves on to speak of the Great Commandment: "You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind" (Luke 10:27). In this case, there's particular emphasis on being a servant of God, with all the attendant virtues of diligence and fervor in that service.

Romans 12:12-13 ~~ "Rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality." There's an interesting dichotomy in these two verses that is also present in the chapter as a whole. Paul begins with internals -- directing how one ought to respond to times of hope or tribulation -- but moves on to externals -- how one ought to express Christian charity to fellow believers or to strangers.

Romans 12:14-21 ~~ "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse." Paul resumes writing in the imperative tense, and the rest of the letter emphasizes conduct-oriented externals (with the possible exception of verse 16).

Romans 12:15 ~~ "Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep." We are directed to empathize totally with others, to identify ourselves so entirely in others that we can become their brother or sister regardless of the moods of the moment.

Romans 12:16 ~~ "Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation." Considering the first and last parts are concerned with the conduct of one's mind, the middle part of this verse seems distinctly out of place. Why is "associate with the lowly" sandwiched between intellectually oriented exhortations? The answer may be found in the alternate text, found in some manuscripts: "Do not be haughty in mind, but accommodate yourself to lowly things." This strikes me as a truer and much more intriguing statement, especially as it sheds light on the next part of the verse: "Do not be wise in your own estimation." We are to consider the "lowly things" (does Paul mean material things, or menial things, or perhaps even things we might consider boring?) in part as an antidote to our own haughtiness of mind and our tendency for self-satisfied reflection.

Romans 12:17 ~~ "Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Take thought for what is right in the sight of men." What a phenomenal verse. Our emotional reactions to evil are to abhor it (v. 9), but we are not to allow that emotion to direct our behavior in response. We are to "take thought for what is right," and conduct ourselves in accordance with that reasoned moral path. Also, note that we look for "what is right in the sight of men": the moral standards of other humans is to be our guide, though we are probably to rely more on collective conscience than on culture.

Romans 12:18 ~~ "If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men." Another great verse. It doesn't set unrealistic expectations, in the sense of demanding peace with all men regardless of what "all men" may have to say in response. But the exhortation is to do your darnedest to ensure that peace. We are expected to contribute to moral outcomes and judged by those outcomes, but that judgment is solely to the degree that we were responsible for them.

Romans 12:19 ~~ "Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God." Interesting addition of "beloved" in the middle of that statement. It almost comes across in a patronizing or condescending way, as though this were a regular reminder by an apostolic parent to the wayward child-church. Check out the next verse, though, which quotes Proverbs 25:21-22.

Romans 12:20 ~~ "But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head." (Proverbs 25:22 concludes, "and the Lord will reward you"). I'm pretty sure this verse should disturb us in a number of ways. The editorial notes in my study Bible takes a more charitable approach: "doing good to one's enemies... may bring about his [sic] repentance." But the actual text of the verse operates in a rather less charitable vein. For one, it points to the simple truth that revenge (paying back evil for evil) is not nearly as satisfying on an emotional level as the moral one-upsmanship of repaying evil with good. To know in your heart "in this moment I am a better and bigger man than he" is almost infinitely more satisfying than a thrill of instant gratification that is tainted by a loss of your moral self-respect. Moreover, the verse indicates that a charitable response is in itself a judgment against the evildoer: for if judgment is in accordance with the good done unto us, then we are in reality heaping "burning coals on his head." The very charity of our response, if it doesn't inspire repentance, serves as a divine receipt that our enemy is truly and royally screwed. Lastly, the very verse that Paul quotes from Proverbs indicates that a moral response will not only guarantee our ultimate triumph over our enemies, but will also be a cause for our reward. Our ability to overcome our grievances -- to forgive and serve those who hate and hurt us -- will be a source of our eternal reward.

Romans 12:21 ~~ "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." This is a delightful verse, readily accessible for devout kids to memorize at AWANA camps. Speaking for myself, whenever I see this verse I think of the Newsboys song "Elle G" -- a haunting dirge ("elegy") about a girl who commits suicide in despair for her inability to overcome evil with good. Returning to the verse, however I wonder if there might not be a more direct meaning than we suspect. In light of the previous verse exhorting us to "heap burning coals on his head," the statement "overcome evil with good" starts to seem rather disconcertingly literal.

Take a deep breath. After the last three verses in Romans 12, that's a distinct necessity. In light of our moral intuitions, I think it's only natural (and certainly forgivable) that we find those last few verses either dismaying or outright disturbing. There is a grotesque directness to the appeal, as though the promise of judgment or wrath were a sort of heavenly bribe. God seems to be bribing us to act morally: He flavors the exhortation "never pay back evil for evil" (v. 17) with the promise that "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay" (v. 19). He diverts the flow of our wrath, keeping us from wreaking our own revenge by guaranteeing His own. But God is an unscrupulous fellow, and a master chessman. He doesn't shy away from using any and all means of persuasion to bring us around and into His Presence. This is evident in Isaiah, where the Lord says: "Come now, and let us reason together.... If you consent and obey, you will eat the best of the land but if you refuse and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword. Truly, the mouth of the Lord has spoken" (Isaiah 1:18-20). Can we fathom the Divine Humility that would accept us on such terms, that would permit us to enter His Kingdom even if we are solely motivated by self-preservation. We are such base creatures that in many cases we can only be enticed into eternal paradise with such offers, offers to keep our lives in order and our pride intact.
Blessed is the Name of the Lord.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Quantitative Quiddity

In my first post on this theme, I spoke of simple dualism as the dominant moral metaphor of modern times. In my second post, I suggested a metaphor taken from Lewis of "bent"-ness. In my latest post writing Of Morals and Metaphors, I advanced a third metaphor, retaining the same associations with "distortion" but relying on wormhole imagery taken from modern physics and science-fiction.

These are obviously not the only moral metaphors on which we rely. One common image association is to social status: as C.S. Lewis noted in Studies in Words, this is how "nobility" came to mean good and "villainy" became bad. To take another example, we inherit from Latin an image association between evil and the left hand (sinister).

More pointedly, our language also preserves such phrases as "stout-hearted," which analogize between goodness and body mass. The word "great" carries a similar history: before it became a synonym for 'cool' and 'groovy,' it meant 'big,' 'thick,' and 'massive.'

It is lucky I don't put stock in my own originality, or I should be very disappointed. This is precisely the metaphor I propose. To be good is to be substantial or solid. To be bad is to be translucent or ephemeral. Evil is as an abscess in the skin; immorality, a hollow in the heart.

It was this image I first encountered in C.S. Lewis' The Abolition of Man, towards the end of a chapter on moral education.
We were told it all long ago by Plato. As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the 'spirited element.' The head rules the belly through the chest--the seat, as Alanus tells of us Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest-Magnanimity-Sentiment--these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and viseral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal. The operation of The Green Book and its kind [of moral education] is to produce what may be called Men without Chests [emphasis added].

Good God! I love that quote, especially the line "Men without Chests." If I lived in an earlier age, I'd probably wax rhapsodic of felicitous expression and many-splendored meanings. As it stands, I got nothing save perhaps an appreciative mumble.

In The Great Divorce, Lewis presents a whole slew of similar metaphors. As the bus ascends from hell to heaven, it rises from a deep valley over the edge of a cliff, until finally resting on a grassy meadow. We are later informed that the bus was "moving" only in terms of size: hell might fit into the merest grain of sand in the heavenly beaches. Likewise, as the 'tourists' exit the bus to walk over the plain, they soon learn that the world is more real than themselves. They are like wan apparitions, ghosts haunting a landscape, unable to bend nature to their will or even walk on blades of grass without searing pain. Heaven is simply more real -- more substantial -- than hell.

I've begun to utilize a rather idiosyncratic term for this sort of metaphoric imagery. I call it quantitative quiddity. Let's parse!

"Quantitative" should be obvious: it means something measurable, whether by volume or weight or dimension. "Quiddity" is far more peculiar. It's actually a term from medieval scholastic philosophy, derived from the Latin word quid (meaning "what"). Quiddity means, literally, the "what-ness" of a thing, the essence or substance of it. The medieval School-men contrasted it with haeccity, the "this-ness" of a thing, that which makes it unique or individual.

'Quantitative quiddity' is a deliberately oxymoronic phrase. An essence is non-physical and therefore, by definition, immeasurable. But, relying on this association of morality to mass, we might perceive goodness as a sort of solid substance that can be 'measured' by moral intuition and judgment.

I didn't realize it at first, but over time this imagery has become second nature for me. I first noticed it after my then-girlfriend pointed out how often I used the word "solid" as a term of approval or praise. I started using it in the ordinary sense of reliable or dependable, but over time it took a much deeper meaning. Solid meant substantial, and substantially human.

This raises a possible objection: namely, the danger in how this imagery might move us to treat immoral individuals. The temptation under this framework would be to treat evildoers in a condescending manner, as though they were less than human. At the same time, similar dangers surround every moral metaphor: dualism might lead to antagonistic behavior, treating evildoers as enemies, while the "bent" imagery might lead to patronizing behavior, treating them as though they were lumps of inert matter, as machines broken and in need of fixing.

To be sure, this idea has shaped and affected my moral judgments and intuitions. To be immoral is to lack the 'stuff' or substance of our common humanity. Therefore, when I look upon human evil, or even apathy to evil, I see something less than fully human. My instinctual or emotional response is a sort of pity, mixed with contempt. But this response is first and foremost directed towards the act, not the person.

We have all heard the maxim (coined by Augustine, loosely paraphrased by Gandhi) to "love the sinner but hate the sin." By distinguishing so sharply between what is the "true" person (the good) and what is not, I find it is quite possibly to live out that dictum.

Sins in the soul are like pockmarks on a face: we notice them, but it's good manners not to stare or point. There may be holes and tiny gaps where your humanity should be, but so long as they're not too egregious we'll treat you no differently. Indeed I understand this was once a sign of good breeding, or even true nobility of the soul. Like the dear old Don (Quixote), we treat the lowly-born Aldonza as though she were a princess Dulcinea. We cast others in the best light, and implicitly look for the best behavior even where we would expect the basest.

Indeed, this moral metaphor should not point us to contempt so much as profound hope. Contra the Calvinists, man is not totally depraved. Moral conduct is always within our grasp. Goodness is not foreign to us, but is the fulfillment and perfection of our nature.

There really is no convenient point at which to draw this note to a close: there are so many implications of this moral metaphor, the extent of which I'm only now beginning to grasp. But I think one final reflection might satisfy the desire for resolution.

From this metaphor, we see that moral conduct is intrinsically ennobling. Our good deeds create habits, patterns of moral behavior that fill in the gaps in our own humanity. The phrase "fake it until you make it" contains surprising insight. We don't have to be good in order to behave well; we become good by behaving like it. This lifts a tremendous burden from our shoulders.

Perfect holiness, heroic virtue, and salvation itself -- these are the outcomes of a well-lived life, not the prerequisites for it.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

What Is, Is Good

In my last two posts writing Of Morals and Metaphors, I dealt with the two common metaphors we use for morality: a straight line dividing good from evil, and and evil as a bent or corrupted image of the good.

My issue with the second metaphor boils down to Christian theology, specifically the problem of evil. In my experience, most Christians (with the exception of hard-boiled five-point Calvinists) tend to address this issue by citing free will. They are within their rights to do so, but this leaves a deeper question unanswered. By the doctrine of omnipresence, God is both Creator and Sustainer of all reality. How could God sustain evil within His very Presence, His very Self?

St. Augustine converted to Christianity after a brief fling with Manichaeism in his youth. He wrestled with this issue during his conversion, and provided what is (in my opinion) the definitive answer to the paradox: quite simply, evil doesn't exist. God doesn't sustain evil within His Presence because there is no "it" for God to sustain.

Just as darkness is the absence of light, evil is purely the negation of the good. The previous metaphors, treating evil as the equal or even the refracted image of the good, fail for precisely this reason. Evil is no equal opposite, nor some kind of "bent" existence. Only the good exists in reality; the evil lies solely in the bend.

What is, is good.

How to envision morality on this basis? We can take a variety of approaches. If we want to keep the same vocabulary from before-- the vocabulary of distortion and "bent-ness," we can always plagiarize from Einstein.

The classic Newtonian model of physics treated gravity as something comparable to magnetism, with physical objects impelled towards one another, drawn by some attraction between them. It was action at a distance, without an explained mechanism but with the brute regularity of a natural law.

Einstein took this model, threw it in a blender, and made a cocktail he liked to call "general relativity." He bestowed to the scientific community an entirely new model of physics, one of 'gravity wells' comparable to whirlpools. Einstein introduced to modern cosmology this concept of 'space-time' that defines the physical universe. Physical objects -- anything with mass -- warp and distort the "fabric" of space-time, like bowling balls in a blanket (or so the metaphor goes). We perceive that distortion as gravity. The larger the mass, the greater the distortion. Too large a mass, and the fabric might even rip. This is the science, in very simplified form, behind black holes and so-called "wormholes."

All that was fairly technical, but I hope you caught the metaphor. Mass distorts and even tears the fabric of space-time. Might we say, just as evil distorts and even negates the reality of goodness?

What is good, is present. What is evil, is like a vacuum. Evil is the wormhole of science-fiction, the ocean vortex in Moby Dick, or that sinkhole in Guatemala.

Yeah, this sinkhole. See also: Hell, service entrance to.

To be continued.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Commentary on Scripture: Romans 12:1-8

Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.

Romans 12:1 ~~Romans 12 is rapidly becoming one of my favorite chapters in the Bible, and this verse illustrates why. Look at how much content is condensed into this verse! Paul's readers are urged to worship in light of the mercies of God, referenced in Romans 11. Their "spiritual service of worship" consists of presenting their bodies to the Lord, implying that ours is a corporeal (or Incarnate) faith and our worship ought to involve all of us. More than that, we are called to present our bodies as living and holy sacrifices acceptable to God, which pretty directly points us to the fact that our bodies can be pleasing to God, contra the gnostic or Manichean heresies. That's not even to mention the other point, which is that the goal of worship is to make an offering "acceptable to God." This is not a legal or juridical notion of imputed righteousness, in which God constructs a legal fiction for our salvation, but a true or ontological status-change of infused righteousness, in which we become members of the Body of Christ. And that's just one verse!

Romans 12:2 ~~ "Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed...." Thus far 12:2 is a perfectly standard Pauline remark against the world as a source of sin, and the necessity of a counter-cultural faith. But he doesn't end there. "...transformed by the renewing of your mind...." What, wait? We assume we are transformed by grace through faith, but it seems that the mechanism of that transformation (the efficient, not the final, cause) is by the effects of those on our minds (presumably including our reason and our will). But the sentence doesn't end there. "...so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect." By renewing our minds, both rationally and morally, we become so virtuous that we are able to prove (perhaps in the archaic sense of 'test the soundness of,' or the modern sense of a logical demonstration) what the goodness of God consists of. By our holiness, we point others to the holiness of God. We become epistemic shortcuts to others who are seeking to know God's will.

Romans 12:3 ~~ "For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you...." Paul is both able and authorized to speak, according to the apostolic and pastoral grace given to him. By this authority he exhorts humility, especially in our self-evaluation. "Think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith." The latter part of the sentence is interesting in its own right: faith is a gift of God, and that it may be allotted to individuals in different amounts. But look to the former part of the sentence: because God has allotted faith to each (and presumably, because we do not know what or how much we have received), we are to cultivate our intellects so as to have sound judgment. This sounds like an exhortation for the four cardinal virtues (justice, temperance, courage, and prudence), that we may be able to overcome (by those virtues) any apparent deficiency in the three spiritual virtues (faith, hope, and love) with which we may wrestle.

Romans 12:4-5 ~~ This is one of the more famous analogies in Scripture: "For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one Body in Christ, and individually members one of another."

Romans 12:6-8 ~~ Because our individual gifts differ amongst ourselves, in proportion to the grace given, we are to exercise them in this light: each gift utilized in proportion to the relevant grace. Paul then lists a number of individual gifts and graces. Many of these seem somewhat redundant: "service, in his service; or he who teaches, in his teaching; or he who exhorts, in his exhortation." But others are more apparently disconnected and therefore more noteworthy: "prophecy according to the proportion of his faith... he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness."

As I said above, Romans 12 is quickly becoming one of my favorite chapters in the Bible. It's remarkable to me how much content there is, even in the first half (first third, even) of the chapter. I'll finish the rest of the chapter in next week's installment: Romans 12:9-21.

Friday, July 1, 2011

What Do I Ask?

As the year began I discovered, much to my own surprise, that even though I was Protestant a full half of my theology was wholly and unreservedly Catholic.

This led me to investigate Catholicism in much greater depth, and within a few months each of my objections had fallen away.

By the middle of Lent I realized I was becoming Catholic, and had spoken to the priest, parochial vicar, and head catechist about joining the Church.

After the Easter Vigil, I began participating in the Inquiry meetings, in preparation for joining the RCIA program: that is, the "Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults."

I will officially enter RCIA on July 10th during the "Rite of Welcome" conducted at my parish's morning Mass.

As part of the Rite of Welcome, I will be asked two questions by the presiding priest or deacon. These questions are:
1) "What do you ask of God's Church?" and
2) "How can this faith community help you?"

How shall I answer? I ask for your advice and feedback, my friends and fellow Christians.

The second question strikes me as more personal, speaking to myself as an individual and my parish as a community. But even this I hardly know how to answer. I have some idea of my own needs, but how can I ask to receive unless I know what others can willingly give? I should be ashamed to request a mite only to be receive it from the hands of the widow. What can I ask for?

With regards to the first, I find there is a more pressing question: what should I ask of God's Church?

For I believe that the Church is the one holy and spotless Bride of Christ, mystically united in the Body of Christ, and bearing apostolic witness to the Life of Christ, the words and deeds of God. Next to that, I got nothing.

I would hardly present St. Peter with a list of demands as I passed through the Pearly Gates. It would hardly do to enter into the visible Church with a similar gesture. What can I request, knowing I receive all things (even my life) through the very grace of God?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Of Morals and Metaphors: #2

In my last note, I spoke of the dominant moral metaphor of modern times: a straight line, spanning good and evil. I also noted several points of weakness in that metaphor, and asked how else we might visualize questions of morality.

In this post I want to offer the first of two alternate metaphors, both of which originated (for me) in the writings of C.S. Lewis.

The first metaphor shows up in his "Space Trilogy," particularly Out of the Silent Planet. The hero, Ransom, is a rather gawky linguist who finds himself unceremoniously deposited on the alien planet of Malacandra. He quickly learns the language, but is surprised to find the natives have no word for "badness" or "evil." This actually reflects the medieval mythopoeia in which Lewis was grounded, a cosmology in which the Fall of Man affected the earth alone and left the heavens unblemished.

Ransom is forced to improvise, to invent a new vocabulary for moral negatives. In order to warn the natives about his enemy, the imperious Dr. Weston, Ransom lands on the term "bent."

As a metaphor, "bent" lacks the simple elegance of a linear black-white spectrum or gray-scale. But through a single modification -- a slight angle in place of a straight line -- it has access to a far richer pool of image associations.

Humans live in a notoriously intractable world. Cars break down in the middle of nowhere, household appliances have to be replaced with alarming frequency, and rain will inevitably fall on the first day of a week-long camping trip. In my family, we call that "God's sense of humor."

This world is profoundly non-cooperative. Even at the most basic level of existence, Nature sometimes seems to rear and buck, itching to rid herself of her riders. Take our bodies, for instance. As Lewis notes in The Four Loves, St. Francis of Assisi was in the habit of calling his body "Brother Ass." Is this not the  perfect and quintessential expression to encapsulates the feelings of bemusement and occasional frustration that every man and woman feels at some point in their lives towards to the very bodies by which they live?

So we see the metaphor is indeed a potent one. Through it we may unconsciously associate evil with the malfunctioning machine, a pipe warped out of alignment, a plumb-line or ruler that do not give a straight line, or in some cases a decidedly hostile force of nature.

As stated before, every sin is at root a corrupted or distorted image of virtue. This mental link conveys that crucial information with efficiency and concision.

But in the last analysis, this too fails. The metaphors withstands most critique, far more than the linear model. Indeed, it may be said it withstands all critique but one: darkness is the absence of light.

Evil is purely the negation of the good. We may treat sin as "bent" or corrupted virtue, and this is true in many senses. But the evil lies solely in the bend, in the corruption. Evil consists in what a thing is not, or what it was but is no longer. It never lies in the thing itself. The thing itself is purely good, for only the good can exist in reality.

This is a theological point, but one we will expand on in the next post. In the interim, once again we face the same question. What other ways might we rely upon, to visualize good and evil? What metaphors might incorporate this latest insight, and how might it also incorporate the content-rich imagery of these previous metaphors?

Stay tuned. It's quite a treat.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Of Morals and Metaphors: #1

My previous posts on metaphors and persuasion were mostly by way of introducing this next topic. For the sake of brevity, I'm splitting up my thoughts into multiple installments. For the sake of readership, I'll try to end each post with a thrilling cliff-hanger of a question. For the sake of my own self-respect I probably won't try too hard.

We've already established that our rational minds rely on images and metaphors to an impressive and often unconscious degree. This is particularly true when it comes to questions of of morality.

How do we visualize good and evil?

The moral imagination of the modern age is dominated to a startling degree by an ancient Gnostic heresy called Manichaeism. According to the Manichees, good and evil were equal and opposite forces. Good was associated with God and a spiritual "Kingdom of Light;" evil with Satan and a physical "Kingdom of Darkness."

In other words, the Manichees asserted a basically dualistic moral universe. Sound familiar?

The key metaphor in our modern understanding of good and evil is a straight line: good on one end, evil on the other, and a morally gray no-man's land in between. This metaphor is robust, and with good reason: its  strength is its simplicity. But it has one fatal flaw: namely, it just ain't so.

Good and evil are not equal opposites. Every vice is, at root, the corrupted or distorted image of a corresponding virtue. But the reverse is not true: virtue is not at heart merely glorified vice. Likewise, the most successful lie is a half-truth, a fiction spliced with just enough fact to make it persuasive. On the contrary, the most successful truths are judged, not according to persuasiveness, but by fidelity to the real world.

Right and wrong don't even compete in the same weight class.

Thus the question remains: how else might we visualize good and evil? Tune in tomorrow for the answer.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Commentary on Scripture: Romans 11

I say then, God has not rejected his people, has He? May it never be! For I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin.

Romans 11:1 ~~ Continuing from the previous chapter, Paul asks: if hearing leads to faith (cf. 10:17), and Israel has heard yet has no evident faith, does that mean God has rejected Israel?

Romans 11:1-5 ~~ God has not forsaken the people of the covenant, the children of Israel whom he foreknew. Rather, despite their disobedience to the gospel, God has preserved a remnant of their number.

Romans 11:5-6 ~~ The remnant of Israel is preserved no longer on the basis of works, but by grace.

Romans 11:7-10 ~~ "What Israel is seeking, it has not obtained, but those who were chosen obtained it, and the rest were hardened." This initially seems to point to a strict predestination along the lines of Calvinism. On the other hand, the verses quotes immediately thereafter refer to God giving them "a spirit of stupor" (from Isaiah 29:10) and "eyes to see not and ears to hear not, down to this very day" (from Deuteronomy 29:4). The next quote, pulled from Psalms 69:22-23, speaks of the "table" becoming "a snare and a trap." This seems to be a reference to Paul's earlier reference to Israel's pursuit of righteousness by works (Romans 9:31-33). Thus it seems clear that God's involvement in their "stupor" and blindness was in providing an opportunity for their disability to be demonstrated (see my Commentary on Romans 7, in particular 7:7-13). The commandments of the law became their snare, and their over-reliance on works became their stupor.

Romans 11:11-15 ~~ Israel's rejection of the Messiah (which resulted in His Passion and Death) produced riches for the world and specifically for the Gentiles. Paul asks, as if to himself, what greater grace would come when the Jews (the chosen people of God, according to the covenant) accept the Messiah? "If their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?" How much greater blessings will come by their faithfulness, when so much good was wrought by their infidelity? In a sense these verses are paralleled by the ending of C.S. Lewis' science-fiction novel Perelandra, which depicts a counter-historical Garden of Eden in which the woman Eve does not succumb to temptation. Even though we speak of the "blessed fault" (for the entry of sin into this world led to the mystery of the Incarnation), we cannot know what greater blessings would have come had our Parents remained faithful to God.

Romans 11:16-18 ~~ Paul warns that the Gentiles who are grafted like branches onto the root (which is Christ) ought not take pride their new station and elevation over the unbelieving Jews.

Romans 11:19-24 ~~ For all his protestations of "neither Jew nor Greek" (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11, Romans 3:29), Paul writes at length about the subtle distinctions between Jews and Gentiles, or between the "natural" and the "wild" branches of the vine.

Romans 11:25 ~~ "I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery -- so that you will not be wise in your own estimation." This verse reminds me of that famous (and probably apocryphal) quote by Socrates, when he was told by the Delphic Oracle that he was the wisest man in Athens: "I cannot be the wisest, for I know nothing!" Yet he soon realized that was precisely why he was wise: he recognized his own ignorance.

Romans 11:25-27 ~~ Paul speaks of a partial hardening of the Jews "until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in," at which point there will be a full conversion of Israel as prophesied.

Romans 11:28~~ "From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake" -- that is, in practical terms, they persecute you and are your enemies. However, "from the standpoint of God's choice, they are beloved for the sake of the fathers" -- that is, in objective and ontological terms, they are the children of the covenant.

Romans 11:29 ~~ Great verse: "For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable."

Romans 11:30-32 ~~ This passage is pretty involved and rather confusing. 1) "You once were disobedient" but "shown mercy because of their disobedience." 2) "These also now have been disobedient" that they might share in the mercy granted to you! The second part is particularly complicated, as the referent for "these" is unclear and the later syntax doesn't seem to clarify the statement's meaning.

Romans 11:33-36 ~~ Paul rocks. This is another impromptu doxology, this time focused on the mysteries and mysterious ways of God, who abounds in mercy even in our disobedience and rebellion.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Little Old Ladies of God

As I've transitioned from an evangelical Protestant background to the Roman Catholic Church, I've kept my eyes open for similarities and commonalities. There are, of course, the core beliefs that all Christians accept -- what C.S. Lewis once dubbed 'mere Christianity.' But I've noticed something else.

No matter the church, no matter the denomination or the beliefs, there is a single unfailing constant that you can expect to see in any Christian community. There will always be little old ladies, who sit in the back pews of the church and pray constantly. They don't attract a lot of attention, but they're there. I've known quite a few of them, and they are generally as idiosyncratic as the rest of us. But, in addition to being human, they are spiritual giants and living saints, always ready to offer prayers for others in the Church.

There are two reason I'm bringing this up. First, I bring it up because I think these ladies deserve some credit. I wouldn't wonder if the Church isn't as stable and vibrant as it is because of their prayers constantly strengthening the foundation.

The other reason I bring it up is because of the Virgin Mary. It turns out this was a really easy way for me as a Protestant to understand Mary's role in the Catholic Church.

Mary is the ultimate Little Old Lady of God. She's the mother of our Lord, mother to the Church, and she has seen it all.  She's always ready with an encouraging word when we come to her in need. She tends to avoid the spotlight or the pulpit, and doesn't seek out attention for herself. When we ask for guidance she invariably points us God-ward. But there she sits, waiting patiently in the back pew, listening and praying. She's kind of awesome that way.

Of course, there are many other reasons why Catholics respect and venerate Mary. But this strikes me as a pretty solid beginning. The Church is built on the prayers of those little old ladies who sit in the back, that  inconspicuous legion of unassuming saints. And Mary is first among them.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Metaphors as Persuasion

I've already written about how metaphors are the fuel of the mind, and how we would be unable to think without them. This can make it quite difficult to displace a set of poor metaphors in our mind, since we must replace them almost instantly.

However, there are occasions when such a paradigm shift becomes feasible, when we are able to consciously identify and sort through our mental metaphors, determining which to preserve or permit and which we wish to discard. In some cases this may be an easy process, especially when the metaphors relate to a subject or idea to which we have not given much thought. If an idea arose without undergoing strict scrutiny at the beginning, and has not given rise to any other ideas, then it is so isolated that it might be easily uprooted and removed.

But when the life of the mind is active, such cases are vanishingly rare. In any other cases, the process of sorting and shifting paradigms can take considerable time and effort. It may even require emotional endurance, when opinions run high on an issue or when there is personal history involved. In any event, persuasion can be quite difficult, even when you are yourself both the agent and the object of such persuasion.

Yet in many cases we are not the primary agent of our own persuasion. Often we find ourselves receiving new metaphor-sets en masse from others.

This is the power of fiction. By presenting a coherent world, or a narrative within that world, in which a different set of images and metaphors is tacitly accepted, fiction enables us to envision a world in which we might ourselves accept such images or metaphors. Alternately, by offering up such images and metaphors within the story itself, fiction may provide the fuel for our mental fires, and may serve as a catalyst for our rational imaginations.

This is also the power of rhetoric.

Why do we imagine that good rhetoricians and persuasive public speakers are so apt to use emotive or metaphoric language. Surely they would tire from it if it were merely decorative. Thus, the imagery they use is not meant to merely beautify their main argument. Rather, the imagery carries the argument within itself.

There are three essential elements of classical rhetoric: the ethos, or the credibility of the speaker; the logos, or the rational content of a speech; and the pathos, or the emotional content of the speech. Many classic texts on rhetoric tend to minimize the importance of pathos. They treat it as the ugly stepsister of the family, or (more accurately) as the gorgeous blonde sister who looks the part but has nothing going on upstairs. Pathos may beautify a speech or add emotional resonance to a message, but without logos, without true and substantial content for a message, rhetoric becomes an endeavor in futility.

This simple formulation ignores the vital role that pathos and emotions generally play in the persuasion process. Adding emotional resonance to a speech is good for more than grabbing and holding the attention of an audience. Emotional resonance is necessary to changes minds in the first place.

Good rhetoric doesn't merely feed a listener a stream of statements in propositional logic form. Good rhetoric must also feed the listener a stream of images.

We think in terms of images. If all we hear are propositional statements of logic, the only way we will be persuaded is if we construct the images for ourselves. But if we receive them along with the logical content, we are able to take a shortcut and find ourselves at home with the speaker's position much more easily.

The function of pathos, the emotional content of a speech, is not limited to mere decoration. Pathos is not inert; it is not moribund. The non-rational content provided by images is both the spoonful of sugar and the medicine itself. If persuasion is a specialty car, metaphors serve as both the custom paint job and the engine.

Metaphors are the essential vehicles of persuasion. The pun was regrettable, but the point is not. Metaphors are, quite simply, the means by which we are moved.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Michael Flynn: Eifelheim

If any of my readers are considering a career as an Internet troll, they should first familiarize themselves with the rules and regulations. That's right: as in any respectable profession, there are standards and practices to trolling through forums and comment threads. The first rule of trolling is this: if at any moment you find yourself sparring with a man called "Ye Olde Statistician," run. Flee the scene and burn your bridges. You are profoundly outmatched.

Imagine if Bruce Wayne's alter-ego (for those of you who sprang from the womb as fully grown adults, that would be Batman) had an alter-ego of its own, even more shadowy and lethal. Meet Michael Flynn: statistician by day, well-regarded science-fiction author by night, and veteran troll-hunter in the twilight hours. I first encountered "Ye Olde Statistician" deploying his arsenal of historical, scientific, and philosophical knowledge against a horde of angry trolls on a theology blog. I decided to look for more of his posts online, and that's when I discovered he was a published author.

"Eifelheim" was first published in 1987 as a novella, focusing on a pair of scientists who discover the startling truth about the medieval German village called Eifelheim, which had mysteriously disappeared at some point in the late fourteenth century. From this beginning came the novel, published in 2006. In addition to the original scenes set in the present day, Flynn wrote a parallel narrative set in medieval Eifelheim itself. It is in these sections that we find the meat of the story, and Flynn's masterful command of medieval history.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Commentary on Scripture: Romans 10

Brethren, my heart's desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation. For I testify about them that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge.

Romans 10:1-2 ~~ Paul desires salvation for his fellow Jews. This desire seems oriented around something not yet attained, though perhaps in light of their (albeit misguided) zeal for God, something in the process of being attained. This all relates back to the relationship between knowledge and salvation that is discussed at length in Romans 2.

Romans 10:3 ~~ The failure to be subject to God -- is born both out of ignorance of God's righteousness, and by the desire to established themselves as arbiters of righteousness.

Romans 10:4 ~~ Christ is the end (telos: goal, purpose) of the Law for the faithful.

Romans 10:5 ~~ According to Moses (Lev. 18:5), if you practice the righteousness based on the law, you will live by that righteousness.

Romans 10:6-7 ~~ But the righteousness of faith does not speak of anything in our own power, that we might bring Christ into the world or draw Him out of death (the Incarnation and Resurrection are informally referenced as bi-modal peaks of Christ's life and ministry).

Romans 10:8 ~~ Righteousness based on faith proclaims the nearness of the Word in our mouth and heart, that being "the word of faith which we are preaching" (the gospel transmitted by the Apostles).

Romans 10: 9-10 ~~ Verse 9 is the more famous of the two: "If you confess with you mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that Christ raised Him from the dead, you will be saved." But verse 10 is the essential filter and gloss of that previous verse: namely, that the belief in our hearts results in righteousness, while the confession of our lips results in salvation. That's something to ponder.

Romans 10: 11-13 ~~ Paul speaks in these verses of the universal and perpetual accessibility of God's grace, and thus the universal possibility of our salvation.

Romans 10:14-15 ~~ "How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom that have no heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?" Paul speaks of the necessity of the evangelical Church, and the necessary connection between an evangelical mission and the Apostolic commission. We are sent because we have heard, and we heard it from the Apostles, from those who bore witness to Christ.

Romans 10:16-22 ~~ Faith is enabled by hearing... but Israel has heard without belief. Why then has it no faith?

Romans 10 is an odd chapter, full of brief tangents that fill the void between Romans 9 and Romans 11, both of which cover the theme "Jew and Gentile" in a great deal of depth. Romans 10 seems more oriented on the "how" than the "why": how did we come to belief, and how did Israel come to lack it? This leads Paul to discuss the role of the Law and the law of righteousness, the centrality of a Credo for salvation and of public evangelism for the Church.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Reflection on Metaphors

We think, we breathe, through images.

Often, when we try to convey or communicate ideas, we rely on propositional logic: for instance, "if A, then B." But this mode is not how we process ideas internally. Our minds operate on images, associations, and pattern recognition.

In other words, metaphors are the fuel of the mind.

Such metaphors wield immense power over our ability to reason, and their influence is almost entirely unconscious. We do not recognize the extent of the images and mental associations that are inspired by almost everything we perceive. Indeed, I would say we cannot. Our conscious minds are simply not robust enough to account for everything that needs to be accounted for.

Even when we recognize metaphors consciously, we may find ourselves unable to consciously reject them.

This could be for any number of reasons. Reason is a faculty by nature, but a habit by use. If we are not accustomed to using the muscle of our mind, we will find such intellectual heavy-lifting strenuous or perhaps even impossible. Like stalagmites rising from the floor of a cave, thoughts and paradigms may grow organically though they quickly become calcified. This is one of the reasons pure or 'objective' rationality is effectively impossible

Another reason why we may be unable to consciously dispose of mental metaphors is the lack of any ready alternatives. For images are not something we can simply 'do without.' If metaphors are the fuel for our minds, then we cannot consciously reject one set of metaphors without immediately replacing it with another. Yet this is a process that often requires a good deal of prior reflection and consideration.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Judged (Afterword)

Read the Preface.
Read Part 1.
Read Part 2.
Read Part 3.

As you no doubt figured out by the end of Part 3, Judged is an adaptation of the story of Samson as a crime drama in a setting similar to 1920's gangland Chicago.

The three parts released thus far only comprise the first chapter. I've done some outlining for the rest, and at this point it looks like the whole story will work as a five-act drama or a five-chapter mini-novel.

The setting is the fictional city of Illini, a Native American word that originally applied to the general region south of Lake Michigan. I considered using "Assati" or "Azza" (or some other derivation of Gaza, the city of the Philistines), but the name would have been too Aramaic to fit a middle-America gangland setting. The period is late 1920s -- Dom drives a prototype Model A Ford, which was released in 1927.

The Philistines in this case are the crime family of Dom Basilio. His daughter is Dalia, a Latinized "Delilah." She's kind of important. After some fence-sitting, I kept Samson's original name for narrative impact, but changed his father's name from "Manoah" to "Noah" (retaining the same root, meaning "rest").

If you noticed that some of the names (Basilio, Antonio, Lindoro) sounded familiar, that probably means you're either a fan of classical opera or French theater. The names are taken from characters in "The Barber of Seville" and "The Marriage of Figaro," plays written by Pierre de Beaumarchais and later converted into operas by Rossini and Mozart, respectively.

The first break came by re-imagining the "gates of Gaza" (Judges 16:1-3) as local syndicates of a broader criminal enterprise. Once that was understood, it also became clear that the temple of Dagon (Judges 16:24) was the center of this empire, the headquarters for the Basilio 'estate,' and thus the necessary site for the initial confrontation and reveal of Samson.

This was an almost startlingly easy project to write. These eight pages took about five hours of writing, and another two hours for editing, spaced over several days. This is especially rapid in contrast with the glacial pace of my novel project. But, to borrow a quote from a not-quite historical Mozart, I suppose when's it's already written in one's head, the rest is just dictation.

I've already continued writing the second chapter of the story. At the same time, I don't anticipate posting additional parts from this storyline for some time, for a variety of reasons. Now we return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Judged (#3)

Read the Preface.
Read Part 1.
Read Part 2.

Before Dom could respond, however, the door burst open behind him. It was his son, an overeager pup of a man, a boy with no sense and no control of his senses. He was Donnelly, after his mother's godfather. She had insisted on the name. The runt of the litter, he was constantly rushing into ill-considered brawls.

The men of the Temple were instructed to call him "Don" and never "Donnie." But among themselves they knew him by another name, an even more insulting diminutive. They called him Donnicello.

Donnie had been in the East Gate when he had learned of the destruction of the West Gate, and then the return of his father’s car to the Temple at the hands of a stranger. Putting two and a number not necessarily two together in that instant, he had rushed home, wielding the only blunt instrument he could find: a hand-crank he took from the Model T he had driven there.

The discovery that his father was both alive and, more distressingly, in the same room made him pause. But this lasted only a moment. His energy was consumed in fueling a deeper rage toward the stranger, who was clearly responsible for the destruction of the West Gate and the murder of his father. His loathing was not diminished by his father's evident survival, but was rather exacerbated by the kind and potentially puppyish look his sister was giving the stranger.

Donnie advanced, a menacing gleam in his eye and an inarticulate war-cry on his lips.

Basilio was exasperated by the interruption, but he was not in the habit of restraining his son from the verge of every new insanity. At any rate, he shared his son's suspicions, and was eager to see how the confrontation might be resolved. He saw Dalia pale visibly, but that meant nothing. It was the weakness of a woman, or perhaps girlish anxiety for a potential beau. Dom was more interested in the youth.

The young man held his ground, his eyes tracking Donnie as he approached. Basilio noticed that his hands were flexing slightly, and his feet and legs had tensed. Something approaching alarm began to dawn in his mind, but Dom did not yet realize it. After all, his son held the crank.

Donnie approached and swung the crank. It was a low arc, aimed at the body. His father nodded approvingly: the pain would incapacitate without death. But the young man had other plans. He had launched himself against Donnie, into the path of the crank. It shuddered to a stop within an inch of his flesh. The youth had pinioned Donnie's arm, forcing him to drop the crank and retreat from the pressure. The youth snatched the crank with his other hand as it fell, placing it on the nearby table. Then, mere seconds after it had begun, a break in the action.

Dom Basilio was astonished. Only now did the thought finally occur to him to caution his son against this fight. But it was already too late.

Donnie, enraged at being so easily disarmed, had thrown his full weight into a punch aimed at the young man's nose. The young man turned slightly, and his jaw caught the blow. The punch landed with a crunch of bones and a cry of pain. Basilio did not understand: surely so quick a man would sidestep the blow? Then he realized that the crunch and the cry had not come from the young man. They had come from Donnie. His hand had broken on the young man's jaw, and the jaw was none the worse for wear.

Dom glanced, incredulous, between his son and the young man who had disabled him. Now, even in his own Temple, he was terrified of those eyes that spoke of so much wildness.

The young man spoke, and his words had a cold authority. “You made an enemy of me this day. This man abused me in your own house, and you lifted not a finger." His eyes flared. "You have led him and your people to the slaughter." He glanced to Dalia, the fire reduced to embers. "Dalia, dear, you are always welcome to my presence. But not as one who bears my enemy's name."

The young man looked down to the whimpering Donnie, who was only now getting to his knees. He grasped the hand-crank from the table, overshadowed by an aura of unimaginable restraint. "You provide the weapon. I wield it." He struck twice, brutally: the first just below Donnie's knees, knocking the breath out of him, the second against the legs as Donnie began to collapse. They struck with a sickening sound of bone, muscle, and ligament. Dom Basilio knew without a doubt that his son would never walk again. He raged inwardly, but was so far from his wits he hardly knew to move.

The young man looked at the bloodied cudgel and spoke over it:

“With the hand-crank of a T, I have laid him in a heap.
With the hand-crank of a T, I shall fell a thousand men.”

In his fear Basilio managed to ask a single question, though weakly:“Who are you?”

The young man replied: “My father is Noah, and our family is Dan. We walked this land for many years, and now we are home." He gathered himself and walked out, turning to speak in Dom's ear as he passed: "Their cause is mine. I will deliver them from your hands."

At last Basilio found his power return in a wave, rage pouring through his every vein and pore. He did not ask but howled his demand after the retreating figure. “Your name!”

The young man didn't look back as he walked out onto the street. But his words rang through the Temple.

“My name is Samson.”

Read the Afterword.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Judged (#2)

Read the Preface.
Read Part 1.

The three men returned to the car, only to find a surprise waiting for them: namely, the car was not waiting for them. Basilio’s new Model A, the best car in Illini, was missing.

The two guards quickly dashed off in either direction to look, while Basilio cupped his face in his hands in disbelief. He was soon startled from his reverie by one of the guards.

He came running. “You see it?” The guard who had called shook his head. He was about to speak when the other interrupted: he had spotted tire treads of the car on the road back to Illini. Basilio might have kissed him on the cheek in instant gratitude, but an impatient grimace from the first guard made him attentive again. “Why did you halloo us, then?”

The guard pointed a short ways ahead:  “Look!” Sure enough, not twenty yards away, was the West Gate garage, kept apart from the main building and evidently immune to the house’s ill-fortune.

Within minutes they were driving back to the city, this time in much older Model T. The road was slow going, but at last they found themselves back in the city.

Basilio almost blushed at the ignominy of returning in a T. The car still ran, thank the gods, but Dom would have never thought he’d ever be found in a T again, not after he was given a Model A, still in prototype, as a sign of ‘friendship’ with Mr. Ford and more importantly Mr. Ford's financiers. He smiled at the memory: the family business had been good.

But now the estate was threatened, and the threat must be dealt with. The car slowed to a stop outside the Temple, and Basilio flung himself out and up the stairs. Just before he passed through the doors, he stopped, turned, and gaped again. The car, his car, his stolen Model A, was parked outside the house, parked where it had been parked every day since he had received it.

He shook his head with disbelief, then anxiously waved his guards to follow. Whoever had stolen the car may yet be inside, and whoever had stolen the car might have information on the person who had destroyed the West Gate.

They entered, and the other Temple guards quickly gathered around him. One of the men soon admitted that the car had been returned by a young man who had entered the house, claiming the car was abandoned and he was returning it to its rightful owner. This young man was at the moment in the sitting room with the Basilio’s daughter, Dalia.

At that, Basilio waved the others to return to their posts. They fanned out, while his two trusted ‘goons’ followed him to the inner rooms. He would have words with this young man.

He almost knocked over the doors in his haste to enter. The young man quickly stood up. He had been sitting beside Dalia, leaning over to whisper in her ear, but he did not look self-conscious now that he was standing. Dalia, on the other hand, was still fighting a smile. Dom never had to fight a smile. His face was a vassal to his mind, and any wayward smiles had long since been routed. He glared at the youth.

Dom couldn’t read this kid. His eyes were almost dancing, a riot of green, but his expression was calm and confident. Basilio waited, hoping that silence would subordinate the young man, and looked closer. Truth be told, there was almost a hungry wildness in his posture. It was like looking at an animal. Unconsciously his brow furrowed; consciously he maintained a steady glare.

After some time, though still without the expected fear and trembling, the young man stepped forward. “Forgive me, sir, for intruding on your hearth and home. I trust your man at the door told you my reason for attending upon you?”

Interesting, he thought: An animal and a wordsmith. Aloud, he spoke in monosyllables. “Yes.”

“Good! I’m glad that you are well returned, and glad to be of service in returning your car.”


Basilio expected this gruff reply would give the young man some pause. It didn’t.

“Indeed? Pity. Well, I was just telling your lovely daughter Dalia my sad little story. Forgive me, young lady” (her eyes danced with his) “but it seems I am not welcome here.”


It was only the ambiguity of this reply that made the young man stop. “Pardon?”

“You may stay.”

Another pause. “Is that so…?”

“If" Dom paused "you tell me who you are and how you came to find that car in the first place."

"Oh!" His face lifted. "I saw smoke and thought I might help. It was visible all morning. But the place was deserted, and the only thing I saw was the car. It looked to be yours, so I figured the one who took it from you was the one who had burnt the house. So I took it on myself to return it."

Dom pressed him. "But how did you find yourself in the middle of nowhere? No one lives near that house for miles."

The young man seemed abashed for a moment – or perhaps merely confused – but soon took a second wind. “It was a lady, you see.” Dalia looked crestfallen – simple girl! The youth hastened to reassure her. "No, no. It was" (he paused for half a beat) "my sister." His face brightened with hers, and Dom found himself almost buying this performance. "She had lately fallen on trying times and more trying suitors, and I was assisting her with both.” He smiled lopsidedly.

Dom stood in silence for a few moments. The boy’s tale was convincing, even if his face was not. And while Dalia still waited expectantly for his approval – or whatever she wanted for him – he was still troubled by the raw wildness that he saw beneath.

Part 3 will be posted tomorrow.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Commentary on Scripture: Romans 9

I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart.

Romans 9:1 ~~ A triple repetition for effect, a common convention in Hellenic rhetoric. In this case Paul uses it with subtle distinctions between "I tell the truth in Christ" (possibly taking an oath 'by Christ'), "I am not lying" (pledging himself and his honor), and "my consciences testifies with me in the Holy Spirit" (invoking his conscience and the Holy Spirit as his witnesses).

Romans 9:2 ~~ An abrupt transition from the Providential security of Romans 8:31-39 to Paul's own great sorrow and sense of desolation, inspired by the sudden remembrance that Israel had lost its security and salvation.

Romans 9:3 ~~ Paul yearns for the salvation of Israel, his fallen brethren.

Romans 9:4-5 ~~ "What benefit has the Jew?" Paul had asked in Romans 3:1. Here he answers: they were adopted as sons, they received the glory, the covenants (of Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and David), the giving of the Law, the Temple and temple services, and the promises (of the prophets, the hope of the Messiah). This passages concludes with a brief and evidently spontaneous doxology.

Romans 9:6 ~~ Israel may have been displaced, but their non-assurance of salvation does not demonstrate the failure of the Word or the Love of God.

Romans 9:6-8 ~~ Children of Israel defined not according to the flesh (physical descent, or circumcision under the law) but according to the promise (the covenant with Abraham). "Through Isaac your descendants will be named" -- Isaac, historically one of the lesser patriarchs, is in this light the center of the story of Israel. He defines the covenant.

Romans 9:10-14 ~~ God's preference for Jacob is by principle (and by time) prior to any work, yet His preference is not therefore unjust. This theme continues....

Romans 9:15-18 ~~ God's providence (predestination) is not dependent on the man but on the will of God.

Romans 9:19-22 ~~ God's justice consists in having the right to dispose as He sees fit, even to demonstrate His wrath. Yet He exercises this rule sparingly and with great restraint, for our benefit.

Romans 9:22 ~~ Awesome verse. "God [is] willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known," yet He withholds or defers His judgment over us. He "endures with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction": temporal punishment (the natural consequence of sin) is allotted in place of destruction and wrath, the eternal punishment (the spiritual consequences of sin).

Romans 9:23 ~~ Patience predestination and deferred punishment are to "make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy which He prepared beforehand for glory."

Romans 9:25-29 ~~ Paul cites passages from Hosea and Isaiah to prove the universal scope of salvation even under the Abrahamic covenant.

Romans 9:30-33 ~~ Paul summarizes: Gentiles who did not seek righteousness (who do not even have the law, cf. Romans 2:14) attained righteousness by faith (by doing the law, they showed themselves to be a "law to themselves," cf. Romans 2:15). Yet the Jews, who knew the law and pursued the law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. "Why? Because not by faith, but as out of works." Please note that in these verses, the "law" is identified with "faith" and explicitly contrasted with "works." It should be clear that Paul is using "law" in a broader sense than the Torah, and using "works" in a narrower sense than "deeds."

Saturday, June 11, 2011

"In the white-hot furnace of essential speech."

There came an instant at which both men braced themselves. Ransom gripped the side of his sofa; Merlin grasped his own knees and set his teeth. A rod of coloured light, whose colour no man can name or picture, darted between them; no more to see than that, but seeing was the least part of their experience. Quick agitation seized them: a kind of boiling and bubbling in mind and heart which shook their bodies also. It went to a rhythm of such fierce speed that they feared their sanity must be shaken into a thousand fragments. And then it seemed that this had actually happened.

But it didn't matter: for all the fragments - needle-pointed desires, brisk merriments, lynx-eyed thoughts - went rolling to and fro like glittering drops and reunited themselves. It was well that both men had some knowledge of poetry. The doubling, splitting and recombining of thoughts which now went on in them would have been unendurable for one whom that art had not already instructed in the counterpoint of the mind, the mastery of doubled and trebled vision.

For Ransom, whose study had been for many years in the realm of words, it was heavenly pleasure. He found himself sitting within the very heart of language, in the white-hot furnace of essential speech. All fact was broken, splashed into cataracts, caught, turned inside out, kneaded, slain, and reborn as meaning. For the lord of Meaning himself, the herald, the messenger, the slayer of Argus, was with them: the angel that spins nearest the sun. Viritrilbia, whom men call Mercury and Thoth.

~ C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, 1954. Chapter XV: "The Descent of the Gods."

Friday, June 10, 2011

Judged (#1)

Read the Preface.

Dom exhaled deeply through pursed lips. It sounded more like a gasp than a whistle.

Dom Basilio stood on a plot of unremarkable but undisturbed plain, far removed from the bustle of the road and chaos of nearby Illini. But placid beauty had been savagely marred. Only an hour had passed since he had learned the house was in ruins. Smoke crested the trees. Eden was at war.

With his two guards – he had half-jokingly called them his ‘goons’ once – he walked from his parked car to get a better view of the house. But just as they cleared the patch of trees that blocked the house from passers-by, the three men came to an abrupt halt.

A single profanity pierced the silence. None of the men knew which of them had voiced it.

Basilio gaped. It was worse than he could have imagined. The house was like the wreckage of a downed monoplane, like a carcass on which vultures would feed. Debris littered the ground. The roof had caved, the walls buckled outward. Was it some sort of explosion?

He squinted in disbelief. Between the house and the field, just beyond the collapsed porch, he saw a dull streak of gray. He moved closer. His eyes did not lie. Somehow the damage was even worse than it had first appeared.

The house had burst at the seams, but the house had also moved. The whole structure had been torn from its foundations and dragged at least three feet. The scratches on the exposed cinderblocks proved as much. But what explosion – what force – could move a house and blow it apart?

The side door had fallen away, so he motioned for the men to search inside. They were good at their job, good enough to fear for their lives and not push against anything while inside.

It took a few minutes before the men returned from the silent suspense of their work. They brought him nothing but a pair of unlocked handcuffs.

Basilio looked incredulous. “What’s this?” But he was compelled to look again by the grim looks on his men. The handcuffs were not unlocked after all. They had been torn to pieces.

“The hell? Who did this?” Then his mind returned to the previous evening. Basilio had received a call late that night about a man who had been caught sneaking around this very house. “Lawful stiff?” He had asked.

“Well, ‘e don’t work for us, so looks it.” Antonio, the house manager, had replied.

“Beat it out of him, would you.”

“Shor’ thing, Dom. If he weren’t stiff before, ‘e will be after we’re done with ‘im.”

A prisoner held in the West Gate: a bit odd, but nothing too unusual for a man in Dom’s business. Such vigilante types were always poking into the Basilio family estate.

The Basilio estate had been passed from grandfather to father to son for a hundred years. His great-grandfather, the first Dom, had won the estate from its previous occupants, the Lindoro clan. That Dom had sent the Lindorosi sprawling towards the Oregon Territory many decades ago, and they had not heard news of that family since. The estate was secure.

Not that anyone could implicate Basilio in the business. Sure, everyone was wise to the fact that he ran it, but they were wise enough to forget when lawmen came asking. Dom lived quite comfortable out of a mansion at the center of Illini, near city hall. Men called it the Temple. All family business was conducted far away from town, divided between four houses: the “Gates” of Illini. Only the four local managers could ever contact Dom directly, at least on their own initiative.

But this was unprecedented. The four Gates had existed at least as long as the estate itself, and the Western Gate was the oldest of them. How could it now collapse? How could it collapse like this, with a plume of soot and unanswered questions?

Shaking his head in disbelief, he listened as the guards told him about what they’d seen inside the house: corpses piled against walls, bloodied heads and broken bones, and a single chair resting innocently in the middle of the floor. “That’s where we found the cuffs, Dom. On the chair. Wrapped around the back. I think someone was being held there.”

The guard paused, at once eager and ashamed to say it.


“But there weren’t any blood on the chair.” The guards exchanged a quick knowing glance. If a stranger had been inside the Gate, it certainly wasn’t for pleasantries.

“No blood on the chair? But.” Basilio stopped himself. He didn’t say, ‘But I told Antonio to beat it out of him.’ He didn’t say anything. If the stranger had been spared, to sweat out his fear overnight, that was Antonio’s prerogative. Certainly no one would expect the same man to break out of chain handcuffs, let alone to devastate the entire building as he had done. Besides, Antonio’s men had been armed.

That reminded him. “Did you find any spears or darts?” Dom had never understood how the slang had come about, but they were so common people hardly used the proper words for ‘rifle’ and ‘pistol.’

“Not one, Dom. Some holes in the wall, and some casings on the floor, but nothing else.”

Basilio grunted. Worse and worse. The West Gate was down, and the cache was missing. The estate was under siege. It was time to return to the Temple and let the managers work their magic.

Part 2 will be posted next week.