Friday, July 31, 2015
It is difficult to overstate the influence of G.K. Chesterton. Apart from the numerous converts who have come to Christianity, at least in part, because of an encounter with his writings, two of the bestselling books of all time were written, at least in part, under Chesterton’s benign patronage. The Lord of the Rings and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, both of which are in the top ten bestselling books of all time, were written by authors who cited Chesterton as a major influence.
J.R.R. Tolkien grew up, as a young and devout Catholic in Edwardian England, in the shadow of the wings of Chesterton’s flights of fancy. In his celebrated essay “On Fairy Stories,” Tolkien cites “Chestertonian Fantasy” as a powerful “means of recovery,” which he defined as a “return and renewal of health” and as a “regaining of a clear view” of reality, of “seeing things as we are…meant to see them.”
C.S. Lewis had first read Chesterton in a field hospital in France during World War One and was surprised by the joy that Chesterton exuded in his essays. In spite of the fact that Lewis was an atheist at the time, he couldn’t help liking Chesterton’s jollity, his sense of humour, and his rumbustious joie de vivre. Chesterton had more common sense than all the moderns put together, the young atheist believed, except of course for his Christianity. A few years later, after reading Chesterton’s classic work, The Everlasting Man, Lewis perceived the whole Christian outline of history laid out before him for the first time in a way that made sense. This revelation proved to be a significant pointer on Lewis’s own path to conversion.
Although it is evident that Tolkien and Lewis were well-versed in Chesterton’s work, the essay of his which was probably most influential on the philosophy of myth that underpinned their own approach to story-telling was “The Ethics of Elfland,” which formed the fourth chapter of Chesterton’s book, Orthodoxy.
For many people, this essay, or chapter, is best remembered for the perceptive and surprising connection that Chesterton makes between tradition and democracy:
I have never been able to understand where people got the idea that democracy was in some way opposed to tradition. It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time….Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death….I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea.
For Chesterton, the traditions of the past, extended through time by the continuum that we call civilization, constitute a powerful voice or presence in the present which ensures their being handed on in trust to future generations. Tradition is, therefore, truly, as Chesterton insists, “an extension of the franchise;” it is an extension of democracy through time, the proxy of the dead and the enfranchisement of the unborn. Such an understanding of tradition as a shared inheritance across the generations is clearly a potent and palpable presence in Middle-earth and Narnia. It has a gravitas that does not weigh heavily on one, like an oppressive force from above, but grants security and therefore freedom from the winds of change by securing one with a healthy rootedness in the soil and soul of the culture which has nurtured and nourished one. It is the freedom that comes with a sense of belonging.
Another facet of Chesterton’s “Ethics of Elfland” which would prove inspirational to Tolkien and Lewis was Chesterton’s insistence that myths and fairy stories were not unbelievable, in the sense that they conveyed untruths, but were the most believable things in the world because they conveyed truths and taught lessons that the world needed to know and learn:
The things I believed most then, the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales. They seem to me to be the entirely reasonable things….Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense. It is not earth that judges heaven, but heaven that judges earth; so for me at least it was not earth that criticised elfland, but elfland that criticised the earth.
In this brief passage, Chesterton reminds us that we should always judge sin from the perspective of virtue, even if, especially if, sin is more common than virtue. The shouldjudges the is. This is the sense in which Tolkien, in his essay “On Fairy Stories,” states that one of the functions of fairy stories was to hold up the mirror of scorn and pity to man. They show us ourselves and are most powerful when they show us what is wrong with ourselves.
This ability of fairy stories to show us ourselves is dependent on our ability to see ourselves in the mirror that they hold up to us. Whereas the sin of pride blinds us so that we cannot see our image in the mirror, humility opens our eyes. Only when our eyes are opened by humility to the sense of wonder in the goodness, truth and beauty of the cosmos can we attain the gratitude at the heart of all true joy:
The test of all happiness is gratitude; and I felt grateful, though I hardly knew to whom. Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys and sweets. Could I not be grateful to Santa Claus when he put in my stockings the gift of two miraculous legs? We thank people for birthday presents of cigars and slippers. Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth?
In stark contrast to this sense of wonder that opens and widens the cosmos, the philosophy of materialism seeks to imprison the senses within the confines of mere physical space. The materialist, wrote Chesterton, “like the madman, is in prison” and, what was worse, he was seemingly consoled by the fact that the prison, i.e. the material universe, was very large:
It was like telling the prisoner in Reading gaol that he would be glad to hear that the gaol now covered half the county. The warder would have nothing to show the man except more and more long corridors of stone lit by ghastly lights and empty of all that is human. So these expanders of the universe had nothing to show us except more and more infinite corridors of space lit by ghastly suns and empty of all that is divine.
Evidently inspired by this metaphor of materialism as a prison, Tolkien resurrected it in his own essay “On Fairy Stories” in which he spoke of “Escape” as “one of the main function of fairy-stories”: “Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”
We desire something beyond the prison of time and space because our true home is to be found beyond the prison walls, and the reason that the greatest truths are told in stories is because history itself is a story told by the greatest of all Story-Tellers. History is His Story. As Chesterton put it, “this world of ours has some purpose; and if there is a purpose, there is a person. I had always felt life first as a story: and if there is a story there is a story-teller….I felt in my bones; first, that this world does not explain itself….Second, I came to feel as if magic must have a meaning, and meaning must have some one to mean it. There was something personal in the world, as in a work of art….”
Such a view of the world as being a work of art evokes images of God’s Grandeur as exclaimed by the great Gerard Manley Hopkins:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oilCrushed.
It will also remind lovers of Tolkien and Lewis of the Great Music of God’s Creation in The Silmarillion and of Aslan’s singing of Narnia into being. And as for Chesterton’s proclamation that “this world of ours has some purpose” and that “magic must have a meaning, and meaning must have some one to mean it,” it leads us into the words of Gandalf, whose words of encouragement to Frodo will serve as appropriately encouraging words with which to conclude our musings on the magic of Elfland:
[T]here was something else at work, beyond any design of the Ring-maker. I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
Thursday, July 30, 2015
By George Will — July 29, 2015
President Barack Obama answers questions about the Iran nuclear deal during a news conference July 15th in the East Room of the White House. (/)
It came two days after the announcement of the nuclear agreement with Iran, yet little mention was made on July 16 of the 70th anniversary of the first nuclear explosion, near Alamogordo, New Mexico. The anniversary underscored that the agreement attempts to thwart proliferation of technology seven decades old.
Nuclear-weapons technology has become markedly more sophisticated since 1945. But not so sophisticated that nations with sufficient money and determination cannot master or acquire it. Iran’s determination is probably related to America’s demonstration, in Iraq and Libya, of the perils of not having nuclear weapons.
Critics who think more severe sanctions are achievable and would break Iran’s determination must answer this: When have sanctions caused a large nation to surrender what it considers a vital national-security interest? Critics have, however, amply demonstrated two things:
First, the agreement comprehensively abandons President Obama’s original goal of dismantling the infrastructure of its nuclear-weapons program. Second, as the administration became more yielding with Iran, it became more dishonest with Americans. For example, John Kerry says we never sought “anywhere, anytime” inspections. But on April 6, Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national-security adviser, said the agreement would include “anywhere, anytime” inspections. Kerry’s co-negotiator, Wendy Sherman, breezily dismissed “anywhere, anytime” as “something that became popular rhetoric.” It “became”? This is disgraceful.
Verification depends on U.S. intelligence capabilities, which failed in 2003 (Iraq’s supposed possession of WMD), in 1968 (North Vietnam’s Tet offensive) and in 1941 (Pearl Harbor). As Reuel Marc Gerecht says in “How Will We Know? The coming Iran intelligence failure” (The Weekly Standard, July 27), “The CIA has a nearly flawless record of failing to predict foreign countries’ going nuclear (Great Britain and France don’t count).”
During the 1960 campaign, John Kennedy cited “indications” that by 1964 there would be “ten, 15, or 20” nuclear powers. As president, he said that by 1975 there might be 15 or 20. Nonproliferation efforts have succeeded but cannot completely succeed forever.
It is a law of arms control: Agreements are impossible until they are unimportant. The U.S.–Soviet strategic arms-control “process” was an arena of maneuvering for military advantage, until the Soviet Union died of anemia. Might the agreement with Iran buy sufficient time for Iran to undergo regime modification? Although Kerry speaks of the agreement “guaranteeing” that Iran will not become a nuclear power, it will. But what will Iran be like 15 years hence?
Since 1972, U.S. policy toward China has been a worthy but disappointing two-part wager. One part is that involving China in world trade will temper its unruly international ambitions. The second is that economic growth, generated by the moral and institutional infrastructure of markets, will weaken the sinews of authoritarianism.
The Obama administration’s comparable wager is that the Iranian regime will be subverted by domestic restiveness. The median age in Iran is 29.5 (in the United States, 37.7; in the European Union, 42.2). More than 60 percent of Iran’s university students, and approximately 70 percent of medical students, are women. Ferment is real.
In 1951, Hannah Arendt, a refugee from Hitler’s Germany, argued bleakly (in The Origins of Totalitarianism) that tyrannies wielding modern instruments of social control (bureaucracies, mass communications) could achieve permanence by conscripting the citizenry’s consciousness, thereby suffocating social change. The 1956 Hungarian Revolution changed her mind: No government can control human nature or “all channels of communication.”
Today’s technologies make nations, including Iran, porous to outside influences; intellectual autarky is impossible. The best that can be said for the Iran agreement is that by somewhat protracting Iran’s path to a weapon it buys time for constructive churning in Iran. Although this is a thin reed on which to lean hopes, the reed is as real as Iran’s nuclear ambitions are apparently nonnegotiable.
The best reason for rejecting the agreement is to rebuke Obama’s long record of aggressive disdain for Congress — recess appointments when the Senate was not in recess, rewriting and circumventing statutes, etc. Obama’s intellectual pedigree runs to Woodrow Wilson, the first presidential disparager of the separation of powers. Like Wilson, Obama ignores the constitutional etiquette of respecting even rivalrous institutions.
The Iran agreement should be a treaty; it should not have been submitted first to the U.N. as a studied insult to Congress. Wilson said that rejecting the Versailles Treaty would “break the heart of the world.” The Senate, no member of which had been invited to accompany Wilson to the Paris Peace Conference, proceeded to break his heart. Obama deserves a lesson in the cost of Wilsonian arrogance. Knowing little history, Obama makes bad history.
— George Will is a Pulitzer Prize–winning syndicated columnist. © 2015 The Washington Post
By Leslie Doran
Special to The Denver Post
Special to The Denver Post
July 26, 20115
Wyoming author C.J. Box takes readers for a frigid walk on the wild side in his newest novel, Badlands. The booming oil town of Grimstad, N.D., provides the backdrop for the action in this story of a town and populace stretched to the breaking point thanks to the recent discovery of the second largest oil deposit in the United States.
Box is a master of using issues between the old and the new west as themes in his novels. In Badlands, Box takes a small town just east of the border of Montana and chillingly depicts how the current oil boom parallels the gold rush days of the 1800s. The burgeoning population has brought thousands of strangers, violence, drugs, housing shortages, "working girls," motorcycle gangs and even drug cartels into the former mostly agricultural community, where everybody knew each other.
Cassie Dewell, a single mother to 6-year-old Ben, arrives in town as the new lead investigator for the sheriff's department. Cassie was introduced in Box's book from 2013, "The Highway," and brings her keen observation skills and detecting abilities to help Sheriff Jon Kirkbride return order to his beloved but troubled community. Even as Cassie is committed to learning her way around this new, frigid landscape, she remains obsessed with catching the serial killer who slipped away from the law in "The Highway." In Grimstad, Cassie finds only one other female who works in the sheriff's department. This reflects the new state of the local population, where men outnumber women 20 to one.
Box introduces Kyle Westergaard, a 12-year-old boy with fetal alcohol syndrome. The story is told through Cassie and Kyle's different viewpoints. How Kyle is seen by the outside world, with his unusual facial features and limited ability to speak, is different from what readers are allowed to share by seeing inside his head. This perspective on Kyle's unusual and unpredictable thinking add to the novel's suspense.
Kyle's life is made even more difficult since his mother and her boyfriend don't provide him with a stable home life or with many necessities, so he takes a paper route. One morning while delivering the paper, Kyle observes a puzzling accident. Afterward, he discovers a bag and takes it home, thereby setting into motion a series of deadly events as rival elements conduct a frantic search for the bag and its contents.
Meanwhile Cassie and the sheriff pursue leads to solve a horrific crime. The investigation and the actions of some of the other deputies only add to the mystery. The body count rises and Cassie and Sheriff Kirkbride must race against the clock to find and protect a witness.
Box has aptly portrayed North Dakota's stark landscape and sub-zero weather, making it a character in the action.
The characters in "Badlands" are finely drawn and display interesting layers to their personalities. Even the bad guys doing ruthless and horrible things are made fascinating, and there are several characters that beg to be brought back for the next adventure.
FICTION: CRIME THRILLER
by C.J. Box (Minotaur Books)
Tuesday, July 28, 2015
Alienated from the commercial country scene, 2015 has seen a group of more soulful artists find success on their own terms, and without the help of radio
Jason Isbell: incisive in his disenchantment. Photograph: Dan Hallman/Invision/AP
By Grady Smith
28 July 2015
This week singer-songwriter Jason Isbell, the Alabama native whose breakout album Southeastern landed him on the top of many critics’ year-end lists in 2013 (this one included), debuted in first place on Billboard’s country chart with his latest set Something More Than Free. Despite being unknown to the vast majority of modern country music fans, Isbell’s wildly acclaimed album sold about 46,000 copies, just a few hundred more than Alan Jackson’s Angels and Alcohol, which wound up in second place.
Both these albums are excellent. Isbell’s songwriting thrives because of his honest reflections about southern identity and working-class life that are rarely glamorous, but always incisive in their disenchantment. “You thought God was an architect,” he sings on standout track 24 Frames. “Now you know He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow.” Dave Cobb – who has become one of Nashville’s most sought-after producers after delivering lauded LPs from Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton and Lindi Ortega, not to mention Isbell’s Southeastern – once again masterfully captures Isbell’s ragged tone with simple and potent arrangements that ask you to lean into the sound rather than bop along with it. Though it’s got clear roots in southern music, the album isn’t exactly a straightforward country album. Tellingly, it was also listed as the No 1 album on the rock and folk chart this week too.
Jackson’s disc is more upbeat, a little twangier and much more in line with what many listeners know as traditional country music. The veteran star, whose biggest career hits include Chattahoochee, Don’t Rock the Jukebox and Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning, keeps things straightforward on Angels and Alcohol, and what a delight that he does. There is no Auto-Tune here, no drum machines or handclaps, no repeated “Hey!” shouts over the chorus, and no other concessions made to the embarrassing trends of modern country radio. Jackson just plays his songs (he wrote seven of the 10 tracks on his own), and the prominent steel guitars and fiddles augment his naturally jovial voice. Winsome songs like You Can Always Come Home and When God Paints don’t feel at all out of place beside playful tracks like Jim and Jack and Hank. The collection is utterly charming.
That both albums are selling so well continues the trend that has already defined 2015 in country music discourse: quality country artists are thriving without the support of country radio. Jackson hasn’t climbed higher than No 50 on the country airplay chart during this album cycle, and Isbell hasn’t charted on it at all. And yet here they are with the top two albums in the format. Former Sony Nashville CEO Gary Overton couldn’t have chosen a more ironic year to utter his now-infamous statement “If you’re not on country radio, you don’t exist.” This year has seen Kacey Musgraves’s Pageant Material, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard’s Django and Jimmie, Aaron Watson’s The Underdog and Blackberry Smoke’s Holding all the Roses reach the pole position on the albums chart without having songs that cracked the Top 40 at country radio. Chris Stapleton’s ultra-buzzy Traveler opened in second place without a radio hit, and Ashley Monroe’s The Blade, after topping the iTunes chart over the weekend, appears poised for a strong debut as well.
It’s exciting to watch quality musicians achieve major commercial recognition for their hard work. Good music is good music, and it’s always nice when people actually hear it. But amid all the blogosphere chatter about how the success of artists like Isbell and Jackson is great for country music, I have to wonder whether that’s really the case. On the one hand, these acts succeeding without the support of country radio seem like obvious evidence about where country music should be headed. Country fans are finding their music on their own already, so it’s easy to dream about how well an artist like Stapleton or Sturgill Simpson would fare with the Nashville promotional machine fully behind them.
On the other hand, the success of these acts reveals a glaring dichotomy that has gradually developed in country music – namely, that the genre is splitting in two.Country radio isn’t backing down from its data-driven quest to make country sound as broadly consumable to as many people as possible anytime soon. All the pop choruses, programmed drum beats, fast tempos, electric guitars, hip-hop cadences and other trends that have thrived in the business of mass-market country radio aren’t going away. They’ve been good for the short-term bottom line, and even if they’re hurting the long-term brand of country music, the immediate dollar signs are all that business folks can understand.
Jason Isbell wouldn’t sound at home on country radio stations now, and it’s almost inevitable he won’t in the years to come – especially as stations are increasingly owned by only a handful of major corporations. In recent months, many country acts seem to be putting down their pitchforks and retreating from the battle about state of the genre. Trying to take back the soul of “country”, which has become a massive marketing moniker that bears little to no resemblance to the country lifestyle, is feeling more and more like a fruitless battle.
Kacey Musgraves’ label, Mercury Nashville, recently commissioned an indie radio promoter to take her music to Americana radio stations. They’re still pursuing country airplay with her new single Dime Store Cowgirl, but it’s notable that she’s currently sitting at No 5 on the Americana radio chart – along with Jason Isbell, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, Chris Stapleton, Dwight Yoakam, Kasey Chambers and Will Hoge, too – and excitedly tweeting about her success there. Country stars have long resisted artistic identities outside the country market, so as to not water down their stock with country radio programmers. But lately, those acts who have either gotten too old or who have been shunned by country radio altogether are beginning to seek greener pastures under various genres like the burgeoning umbrella genre Americana, which also encompasses folk, blues and rock. The countriest country stars working today are getting increasingly uninterested in being known as “country”. And so, it appears the schism of country music has officially begun. Let’s see where it goes from here.