Games of Tag

My good friend Charles Halton likes to play tag, and apparently I’m “it,” or one of a few “its” al least. It’s summertime, so I’ll play along the recent TV personality’s little book meme. Here goes:

1. One book that changed your life.

The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton

2. One book that you have read more than once.

The Cost of Discipleship, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

3. One book you would want on a desert island.

How To Build Seaworthy Vessels With Your Bare Hands (forthcoming)

4. One book that made you laugh.

A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole — without a doubt the funniest book I’ve ever read.

5. One book that made you cry.

John Adams, by David McCullough. I’ll have to admit I teared up a bit there at the end.

6. One book that you wish had been written.

The follow-up that Dostoevsky reportedly had in mind to The Brothers Karamazov.

7. One book that you wish had never been written.

The Communist Manifesto

8. One book you are currently reading.

The Foreign Correspondent, by Alan Furst. There’s no time like the dog days of summer to read good spy novel.

9. One book you’ve been meaning to read.

The Chronicles of Wasted Time: An Autobiography, by Malcolm Muggeridge

10. Tag five other people.

I tagged my wife — she just rolled her eyes. My son ran and hid when I tried to tag him. My neighbors punched me when I tagged them, and the responding officer didn’t take too kindly to being tagged, either. I recommend extreme caution when tagging.

Kill a child, get out of jail free

Yesterday’s not guilty verdict in the Andrea Yates trial underscores a growing cultural trend: if you kill a child, you’re not evil — you’re just not yourself.

The defense argued that Yates could not be held responsible for killing her five children because her mental state left her with the inability to determine right from wrong. We often hear similar arguments from pro-abortion proponents, like the notion that the mental well-being of the mother supersedes the life of the child. It isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that such thinking has influenced a society that could deny justice to five murdered children.

Cultural ignorance of evil also plays a role. A society that knows not evil must search high and low for an explanation for an act of atrocity. As my wife pointed out to me, some people can’t fathom anyone being so evil as to murder their children, so there must be some other explanation.

What Andrea Yates did was little different that the actions of Magda Goebbels when she murdered her own six children. The wife of Hilter’s right-hand man was under considerable stress there in the Berlin bunker, and she wrote to her eldest son:

The world that comes after the Führer and national socialism is not any longer worth living in and therefore I took the children with me, for they are too good for the life that would follow…

I wonder, would the Texas jury that acquitted Andrea Yates extend the same consideration to Magda Goebbels?

Johnny Cash, Flannery O’Connor, and the Fiery Gospel

If, as it is reported in some circles, Elvis is still alive, then it would make sense that Johnny Cash would still be as well. After all, Cash just released a new album on July 4th, three years after his death.

I’ve been listening to Johnny Cash’s American V: A Hundred Highways for about three weeks now, and I can’t make up my mind whether or not Cash is more haunting dead than alive. Producer Rick Rubin reportedly recorded the voice tracks shortly before the Man In Black’s death, and added instrumentation later. The result is a brand-spanking-new album that feels oddly like your granddad’s worn-out leather Bible.

Every song on the album that doesn’t directly speak of death speaks from the vantage point of a man preparing to meet his maker. The songs — written by various musical luminaries, including two penned by Cash — are far from the pop ear candy that is found on top forty lists today. Cashophile–extraordinaire Russell Moore observes:

This isn’t some New Age ode to the “seasons of life.” Nor is it the typical Christian triumphalist jingle about “moving on up” to a heavenly reward. It is instead the songs of a man who recognizes the horror of death, and who is focused on what every man thinks about at such times: judgment. There is something especially powerful in Cash’s warning in the song “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” directed toward a murderous Klansman but applicable to all of us have sinned against an omniscient God:

Well you may throw your rock and hide your hand
Workin’ in the dark against your fellow man
But as sure as God made black and white
What’s down in the dark will be brought to the light
You can run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Sooner or later God’ll cut you down…

The Johnny Cash of his latter years is like a character you might find in a Flannery O’Connor story (see here for a good intro to O’Connor). Songs which one might expect to be an old man crooning take a turn to the grotesque. There’s a certain rough, violent edge to the songs that startles the listener to life.

Like in O’Connor’s work, the Gospel is present in Cash’s songs, but it’s there in a hellfire-and-brimstone sort of way that 21st-century Reformed evangelicals like me typically cast aside as tent-revival carnival fare. It calls to mind that kind of emotional hack-preaching that often consists of more theatrics than substance.

Emotional manipulation should always be avoided, but we must remember that the Bible is certainly not devoid of emotion. Proclamation could, and can, assume a rather fiery nature. Take, for example, the prophet Jeremiah:

For whenever I speak, I cry out,
I shout, “Violence and destruction!”
For the word of the Lord has become for me
a reproach and derision all day long.
If I say, “I will not mention him,
or speak any more in his name,”
there is in my heart as it were a burning fire
shut up in my bones,
and I am weary with holding it in,
and I cannot.
[Jeremiah 20:8-9]

The Gospel is, after all, a gospel of grace. The problem is that we don’t often enough address exactly what it is that we are saved from. God indeed does love us, but he also will indeed “cut us down.” It’s that fiery wrath of God which gives his grace its power. Without God standing in violent opposition to the sinner, the grace found in Christ is reduced from a powerful, transformative force to something more along the lines of niceness.

From time to time we need a reminder from a Johnny Cash or a Flannery O’Connor or a prophet Jeremiah that sometimes the Gospel is decidedly not nice, breaking in upon us at the most inconvenient moments. In these times, the Gospel may not be nice, but it is gracious all the same.

Kudos to President Bush

One of the quintessential questions of our time is this: What does it mean to be human? It is a hotly debated question, especially with regard to issues such as abortion and embryonic stem cell research.

President Bush knows the answer, and is not afraid to act accordingly — despite potential political fallout. With his veto yesterday of the embryonic stem cell research bill, the president held fast to his consistent belief that life begins at conception. For this he is to be roundly commended.

Less could be said for the members of both houses of Congress who passed the bill — especially the ones who claim to the pro-life mantle. These have not only betrayed the pro-life voters who put them in office, they have betrayed the fact that they might not really believe that life begins at conception. Why else would they vote in favor of a measure that seeks to devalue the lives of human embryos in favor of more utilitarian efforts?

These members of Congress who have trouble remembering the logical conclusions of a pro-life view run the very real risk that pro-life voters will remind them of their folly at the polls.

[See also Russell Moore]

In My Own Backyard:
The Kentucky Cremation Society

This post will introduce a new occasional series called “In My Own Backyard,” in which I will explore the odd, quirky places in the areas in which I’ve lived. You never know what you’ll find in your own backyard…

I had driven past it countless times, but had never really noticed just what the place was. Aside from the sign, it was just another nondescript house whose location on a busy road warranted its transformation into a place of business. The eastern part of Louisville boasts hundreds of such places, usually occupied by a law firm or a doctor’s office.

One day, I happened to be stopped in traffic next to the building, and I did a double-take when I saw that the sign read “Cremation Society of Kentucky.” The fact that there are entire societies devoted to the incineration of corpses was enough to throw me for a loop.

I imagined a “society” member about to go out for a meeting:

“Honey,” he would say to his wife, “I’m gonna be out a little late tonight — I’ve got a meeting.”

“Are you going to be out playing poker with the boys again,” his wife would reply, “how many times have I told you…”

“No, no, no,” he would interject, “I’ve got a Cremation Society meeting. Tonight we’re discussing the topic ‘How hot is too hot?’ and I really want to go.”

As if the place couldn’t get any more odd, on a recent drive by the building I saw smoke rising. I know what you’re thinking. I was thinking the same thing. It turned out, however, that the source of the smoke was a tiny charcoal grill.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at the photos I recently snapped:

Just across the street from Burger KingJust down the street from Wal Mart and Papa John’s

Just across the street from Burger KingWait a minute! What’s that there in the corner?

Just across the street from Burger KingJust what are they flame-broiling here?

A charcoal grill. On the grounds of the Cremation Society. That’s one barbeque I’d have to pass on, free food or not.

Penalty Kick Blues

I’m happy that Italy won the 2006 World Cup. Well, not really happy, just happier than if the Gauls would have taken the prize. C’est la vie, mes amis.

It is sad, however, that a World Cup final had to end in a penalty kick shootout. I’ve never liked the shootout as a resolution to a tie. It’s almost as if everyone decides that since they can’t resolve the match playing soccer, why not just end it by playing a different game?

My apologies to the players, but I think the game would be best served with a baseball-like finally. Just keep playing overtimes until one team either drops from exhaustion or scores. True, it gives the term “sudden death” a bit of double-entendre, but at least they end by playing the same game they began.

President Carter can’t keep secrets

Former President Jimmy Carter has penned an op-ed in the Washington Post in which he laments the preponderance of secrecy within the U.S. government. Writes Carter:

The events in our nation today — war, civil rights violations, spiraling energy costs, campaign finance and lobbyist scandals — dictate the growing need and citizens’ desire for access to public documents. A poll conducted last year found that 70 percent of Americans are either somewhat or very concerned about government secrecy. This is understandable when the U.S. government uses at least 50 designations to restrict unclassified information and created 81 percent more “secrets” in 2005 than in 2000, according to the watchdog coalition

Count me as one of the 70 percent of Americans who is either somewhat or very concerned about government secrecy. In fact, I lean more toward the “very concerned” end of the scale. Where I differ with the former peanut planter from Plains is that I think we need more government secrecy — especially in the military realm. In an age where media such as the New York Times publish details of secret ongoing military defense operations, we need more responsible citizens who realize that the “general public” often includes the enemy.

The reason that there are 81 percent more secrets in 2005 than there were in 2000 is that we weren’t at war in 2000. President Carter seemingly wishes to throw his hat in the ring with the ever-present cornucopia of conspiracy theorists who think the government is out to get us more than the enemy. Secrets save lives, President Carter. Loose lips sink ships.


Some internet tools I’ve been using lately:

  • LibraryThing: I know it’s been out a liitle while, but I’ve finally begun playing around with LibraryThing, the online tool for cataloging your books. You get to list up to 200 titles for free, so I started adding some volumes from my fiction collection.

    It’s rather addictive, and I’ll probably be adding to the list in the future. In the meantime, check out the fiction selection from my shelves.

  • Google Notebook: helpful for making notes, drafts, or lists, Google Notebook is pretty handy, especially if you use multilple computers. It features Gmail’s rich text editor, and is easily organized.
  • Google Calendar: Outlook no more. Again, this program is indespensible for those who use more than one computer. It’s pretty powerful too, with sharing and subscription options for each calendar you make. I’ve used this for about two months and am hooked.