Some Perspective


‘In terms of body count, those two mass slaughters added up to more than three Virginia Techs; and, on each of those days, countless other Iraqis died, including, on the January date, at least 13 in a blast involving a motorcycle-bomb and then a suicide car-bomber at a used motorcycle market in the Iraqi capital. Needless to say, these stories passed in a flash on our TV news and, in our newspapers, were generally simply incorporated into run-of-bad-news-and-destruction summary pieces from Iraq the following day. No rites, no ceremonies, no special presidential statements, no Mustansiriya T-shirts. No attempt to psychoanalyze the probably young Sunni jihadists who carried out these mad acts, mainly against young Shi’ite students. No healing ceremonies, no offers to fly in psychological counselors for the traumatized students of Mustansiriya University or the daily traumatized inhabitants of Baghdad – those who haven’t died or fled.’

The Blacksburg Massacre in Global Context

How It Works

If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and righteousness, do not be amazed at the matter, for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them. But this is gain for a land in every way: a king committed to cultivated fields.

Ecclesiastes 5:8-9

A Passion for Excellence and Order

Several years ago I argued with a friend of mine that we might make money by marketing some inferior lambs. My friend thought for a minute and the he said, “I’m in the business of producing good lambs, and I’m not going to sell any other kind.” He also said that he kept the weeds out of his crops for the same reason that he washed his face. The human race has survived by that attitude. It can survive only by that attitude- though the farmers who have it have no been much acknowledged or much rewarded.

Such an attitude does not come from technique or technology. It does not come from education; in more than two decades in universities I have rarely seen it. It does not come even from principle. It comes from a passion that is culturally prepared- a passion for excellence and order that is handed down to young people by older people whom they respect and love. When we destroy the possibility of that succession, we will have gone far toward destroying ourselves.

Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture

Reading Berry’s words here immediately brought to my mind one older person who probably did more than anyone to instill that “passion for excellence and order” in me, Mr. Jones Woods. A master woodcarver, originally from rural North Carolina, he taught me woodcarving for several years during my boyhood in Tennessee (granted, not that terribly long ago, all things considered), instructing me in the very basics of knife strokes, how to read the grain, how to manipulate a chisel, and so on. I can’t say that I ever became a master woodcarver, though through his oversight I worked out a few decent pieces. More importantly, while learning under him I saw his love of good craftsmanship, of hard, patient, steady work, and the resulting excellence. He invested continually in my life- I would often stay after my lessons were up to listen to his stories, watch him work on one of his ongoing pieces, watch him tie flies, or just talk about life.

He was precisely the sort of person I wanted to be around- not because he always “affirmed” me in my work or ideas, but rather, even in his criticism he was genuinely constructive, and terribly patient (he also kept bandaids in stock for the times- more than once- in which his repeated urges to “slow down” were ignored and the knife took off more than basswood). In everything he conveyed the sorts of cultural values that are so neccessary for living a truly “good life” that embrace more than instant gratification and mockingly artificial and surface pleasures and goods, a world of pre-packaged everything. And in everything Mr. Jones’s Christianity was evident: he lived and breathed his faith, whether in his love for his wife, in his craftsmanship, or his solid churchmanship- and in so doing he made manifest a Christianity that revelled in the goodness of the natural world offered back up to God in thanksgiving. He knew and loved beauty, in a rich strong masculine way, and found beauty in hard work and honest commitment. To sum up, he taught me far more than the art of turning a block of basswood into art: the intersection of his life and abiding passion for excellence and goodness with my life instilled in me all manner of virtues. I genuinely loved and respected him, and still do, though I haven’t gotten to see Mr. Woods in several years now, as he and his wife moved off to Michigan to be closer to their children. It is very much people like Mr. Jones that hold culture together. Wendell Berry is right on- internet and iPods and fancier universities will not do the job. It is real, genuinely real, people, themselves rich in passion for virtuous living, that preserve and encourage real, healthy culture.

Thoughts on the Value of History

“But falsehood, in general, passes current among the multitude because they are ignorant of history and believe all that they have heard from childhood in choirs and tragedies.”

Pausanias, A Description of Greece

“For human reason is not autonomous at all. It is always living in one historical context or another. Any historical context, as we see, distorts the vision of reason; that is why reason needs the help of history in order to overcome these historical limitations.”

Pope Benedict, Truth and Tolerance

Being a history major, and intending to one day make a living of some sort via the discipline of history, the overall value and place of history as a discipline in the broader scheme of things is something I regard with some interest and thought. I came across these two quotations today and was struck by the general convergence of thought in the two quite disparate writers. Pausanias, in one of the occasional interjections of opinion or explanation he offers in his travel guide, illustrates succintly one of the problems we must deal with in considering history (and Pope Benedict brings this out further in a different vein): our notions tend to be pre-formed from often times dubious sources. In the modern age replace “choirs and tragedies” with television and movies- the impact is the same. Our surrounding culture conditions our understanding and perception of history, and it is only by beginning to step back from our era and regard other eras that we can break out, contingently and partially to be sure, from the pre-conditioning of our age.

By considering history in greater depth and detail than what is offered by the mass media organs and popular opinion and knowledge, we are able to begin- again contingently and partially- viewing our own age and its systems of thought, its preconceptions and first principles, from a better perspective. History enables one to move outside of our limited perspective of the now and realize that the now is by no means absolute or unique; many “nows” have existed, with their own preconceptions and certainties, often quite divergent from ours. By recognizing and to as much of an extent as possible understanding this basic fact one is able to regard one’s own preconceptions with greater objectivity- most importantly, to recognize the preconceptions and first principles of one’s own era.

This assumes that one can, as Pope Benedict says, to a certain extent step outside of the immediate limitations of one’s historical context, that speaking and listening across “language games,” to borrow Wittgenstein’s terminology, is entirely possible. I agree, though of course with the caveat that one is always, to a certain extent, conditioned by one’s historical context, but it is not an absolute condition. Nor is it impossible to interact meaningfully with other language games; they are not mutually exclusive and impermeable. The disciple of history indeed rests upon the practice of crossing language games and stepping out of one’s immediate historical context; at the same time the ongoing practice of history more greatly enables one to consider the world more rationally and with fewer blind spots.

Anti-War Baptists and Ale For Freedom

In keeping with Pope Benedict’s Easter message today on peace, here are a couple of quotations from early 19th century British Baptists on war, that offer a valuable counterpoint to the unfortunate support of many contemporary Evangelicals for militarism and imperial adventures:

 “If I had money to purchase a commission for Peter, I could not do so conscientiously. Thinking as I do that War is one of the greatest plagues with which a righteous God scourges a wicked world, and that in perhaps nine instances out of ten, it is unlawful, also that every person who gets a commission in the Army does actually sell himself for the purpose of killing men wheresoever he may be sent for that purpose, and that his will must be wholly under the control of another, from whom he recieves orders, so that he is not in that instance a free agent; I cannot be accessory to Peter’s gaining a commission by my means as purchaser.”

Rev. William Carey, Letter to His Sisters, 1809

“Detesting war, considered as a trade or profession, and conceiving conquerors to be the enemies of the species, it appears to me that nothing is more suitable to the office of a Christian minister, than an attempt, however feeble, to take off the colours from false greatness, and to show the deformity which its delusive splendour too often conceals. This is perhaps one of the best services religion can do to society. Nor is there any more necessary. For, dominion affording a plain and palpable distinction, and every man feeling the effects of power, however incompetent he may be to judge of wisdom and goodness, the character of a hero, there is reason to fear, will always be too dazzling. The sense of his injustice will be too often lost in the admiration of his success.”

Rev. Robert Hall, Sermon On War, 1802

In a related vein, sort of, is the following item: William Wilberforce Freedom Ale, brewed by Westerham Brewery in Britain. They offer this description:

“Traditionally floor-malted Maris Otter pale ale malt, crystal malt and Kentish hops combine with Fairtrade Demerara sugar to produce deep gold ale, characterised by its mellow bitterness and long hoppy finish.

“The beer commemorates the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. On 25th March 1807, the British Parliament voted in favour of the abolition of the slave trade. This act of legislation was one of the most humanitarian pieces of legislation ever enacted in parliament; slaves could no longer be traded in British ships.”

So it’s a little kitschy, but it’s ale, it commemorates William Wilberforce, and part of the profits go to stop human trafficking. The brewers, besides being Evangelicals and including Bible verses on their website and products, also support fair trade and local food economy, which is also pretty nifty. I suspect Rev. Carey would have approved.