Friday, June 29, 2018

On Discovering That My Room Divider Was Unhooked

I have one of those beaded bamboo curtains
hanging in the doorless doorway
to my small study.
“Hanging,” I say, except that , for months, I’ve had it
hooked back on each side
so as not to make that click-clack every time I come in.
Just now I approached to find it
unhooked, vertical, hanging—swaying
with an almost imperceptible motion.
It was the vertical—and that slight, breeze-like sway—
that caused me to pause
before walking through it.

“Violet’s been here,” I thought.
It’s as though she had discovered the door
to Lewis’ Wardrobe
and might be somewhere inside.
I pushed through the beads. CLICK-CLACK,
Click-Clack, click clack.

Isn’t that why I installed it in the first place?
To keep the world outside,
And to let Violet, and me, into Narnia?

Saturday, March 3, 2018


A while back I heard a beautiful overture by the British Composer Edward Elgar, played on the classical music station of Minnesota Public Radio. At the conclusion of the piece, the announcer mentioned that the work had its premiere at “an English country fair” in 1890. That simple announcement got me to pondering: For the great majority of those who heard Elgar’s overture that day at the fair, this was the one and only opportunity they would have to do so. It’s not impossible that a very few were able to hear it again, perhaps in a London concert a few months or years later, but only a very few, if any. And none would have had access to the precursor of the radio I was listening to; the first tenuous radio broadcast was fifteen years in the future. If a music lover at that English country fair that day found the piece to be yearningly beautiful, that’s all she was left with: yearning.

I heard the Elgar piece because I can listen to classical music any hour of the day or night. If I find a piece to be yearningly beautiful, I click on iTunes or Amazon and order it as a CD or MP3, so it is then available whenever I desire. I wouldn’t trade places with the country fair-goer, but it is not unreasonable to wonder which of us had the deeper aesthetic experience. As Orson Welles said, “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.”

The Chained Library at Hereford Cathedral
A few years ago, Caryl and I worshiped at Hereford Cathedral in England. After church, we toured the “Chained Library.” The Cathedral has had a working theological library since the twelfth century; the literal chaining of the books was simply a medieval security system. (Especially before—and even after—the invention of the printing press, a purloined book would be impossible to replace.) I love arranging and rearranging the volumes in my little library—and adding books with a frequency that requires some creative shelving. As with my musical “library,” I have hundreds of books within easy reach even here in my 12’ x 15’ study, and any title I want is available at my wonderful local bookstore or its online site. (Amazon as a last resort!) But I wish I had the imagination to inhabit the
A corner of what I like to call "My Library."
mind of a medieval cleric as he pulls a single leather-bound book out of the stacks--
backwards, so that the chain doesn’t twist--and the book lands open in his hands. (And I think I’m a book-lover?!)

I am of the generation that, in childhood, had to get out of the chair and walk across the room to change the TV dial to one of three channels, depending on whether we wanted to watch Maverick or Sky King or Disneyland or Captain 11. I am not nostalgic about this. (Well, maybe a little.) I mention it because we recently “cut the cable” for the opposite reason: We were paying for 800 channels and watching only three (okay, seven) of them. Now, with Roku and Spectrum and Netflix and Amazon and Broadway HD, we are unchained from the 800, and free to choose among the really good programs on the streaming channels. Really, really good. Our new complaint/mantra is “Too much good TV!” If we add the PBS programming that Caryl and I have watched every Sunday night (and now Friday and Saturday) for forty-eight years--and the programs of other networks included in these packages--to the offerings on our new streaming services, here is a partial, random, list of really, really good TV that we are watching now, or can get to on TiVo, or find with the juggling of two remotes: Masterpiece (currently, Victoria), Sherlock, Father Brown, The Amazing Mrs. Meisel, Stranger Things, The Queen, Call the Midwife(!), Crashing, This Old House, 800 Words, Vera, Last Tango In Halifax(!), Monarch of the Glen, Nashville, Grantchester, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Hollow Crown(!), Colbert, Conan, Highway Through Hell (my one guilty secret reality show!), Nature, Nova, Frontline, American Experience, the new Broadway musical adaptations of Wind in the Willows and From Here to Eternity, many HBO offerings, and more. (Let the judging of our TV tastes begin—certainly l’ve left off your favorite program.)

TV test pattern used for sign-off at midnight.
Good luck trying to binge-watch Stranger Things!

Speaking of HBO, Caryl and I nodded in agreement when we first heard, “HBO is the new Hollywood.” (HBO’s “Deadwood,” described by my demure wife as “Shakespeare with the F word,” is still the best thing ever shown on TV.) HBO was followed by Netflix Productions and Amazon Originals and Hulu… Now they’re all New Hollywood, and, mostly, excellent. Not to mention the regular “old Hollywood “ flicks that are included in their offerings. The memory of standing in a line that ran around the corner—to see Spartacus at the Elks Theater in Rapid City in 1962—fades as I pick up the remote to watch it again on Netflix.

A predictable conclusion to these musings would be to look back in the spirit of what we English majors call ubi sunt (“Where are they now—the old simplicities of yesterday?...”), to plead for the return of the three-channel Crosley Television Set in the living room, to look back in longing at that English country fair—to be sitting under a tree with a picnic basket, a Victorian orchestra serenading the scene. But that is not the conclusion I draw from these observations of history and progress. It is rather to raise again the question that accompanies all progress: “What have we gained, and what have we lost?” I make no attempt at a complete answer to this question, but the question itself helps us to temper our excitement with the new by setting it in the context of another question: “What makes for a good life?” It might sound wishy-washy to say that the good life must be found somewhere along a spectrum which includes a solitary country symphony concert on the one end and an iPhone with a thousand MP3s on the other. This is undoubtedly too mathematical a scale to judge matters of art and the heart, but it invites us to consider and apply an idea that has accompanied and tempered all progress: The Golden Mean. The answer to the good life question is neither “the olden days,” nor “anything new!” but a learning-from-the-old, and an adaptation of the new to a standard set by common sense, a balanced personal life, and supportive relationships. I don’t need to give up my iPhone and all its apps, but I also need to remember, as Sherry Turkle reports, that an iPhone at the dinner table—even turned off and upside-down—is an intrusion into the flow (and feel) of conversation and the connections of the lives around that table. The Golden Mean.

So now that we have nothing but quality TV and a home collection of classical music, perhaps we are not (in the words of Neil Postman’s cogent title) “amusing ourselves to death.” (“Hey, I’m watching Shakespeare here! I’m listening to that Elgar overture again!”), but could it be that we are enlightening ourselves to death? The quantity of high-quality television shows—of which my list, above, is a small percentage—reminds me of that truism about visiting the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.: If a visitor spends a minute at each display, he will not make it through the museum in his lifetime. 

This essay was sparked by that TV program list, which I started for a personal project of cutting down on some of this excellent TV-watching—limiting it for the sake of a balanced life and recovered time. If I cut some of it out, I’ll have a better answer to Caryl’s question, as she steps into my little library: “Are you ever going to read all of these books?”

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Wm. Tyndale: The Fatal Scandal of Putting the Scripture in the Hands of a Ploughboy

October 6, Commemoration of 

The story of the Bible in English is a long and involved and even exciting one. Many names and deeds are associated with putting the Bible in the hands of ordinary English-speaking people, among these are John Wycliffe, Miles Coverdale, and even Martin Luther in a roundabout way. Most in this saga were at least arrested and persecuted, and many were tortured, and some executed for heresy. What was the heresy? The heresy was that they were trying to put the word of God into the hands of ordinary people. (At this time only bishops and scholars could read the Bible—in Latin. Even many priests were biblically illiterate.)

The fact that this was considered heretical and even a capital offense is part of one of the darkest periods of the history of the Christian Church—a period in which, in England alone, 288 people were burned at the stake in four years for the crime of being protestant.

One reason that the hierarchy of the Church in the middle ages did not want the Bible in the language of the people is that the people would then discover the true nature of the Christian faith: That it was a matter of following a humble peasant who came to love and save them by dying on a cross. They would discover that forgivenss is a free gift and does not cost either money or effort. They would discover that the word of God comes to them directly and need not be protected by bishops and priests. And they would discover, in the words of one author, that “It doesn’t say anything in here about popes and bishops living in palaces!”

Many names are connected with this project, but it is no exaggeration to say that William Tyndale gave us our English Bible. Tyndale, a quiet and humble scholar, was influenced by Martin Luther’s theology, and by Luther’s ground-breaking (and dangerous) translation of the scriptures into the German language—the language of the people. Tyndale’s goal was neither academic accomplishment nor personal recognition, but to get the Word of God into the world. (Along the way, he contributed much to our language: The words “elevated,” “high,” “donation” “gift,” and dozens of others come to us by way of Tyndale’s translation.) Perhaps the most important contribution and symbol of Tyndale’s Bible is his rendering of the Lord’s Prayer. What we have come to call the “traditional” Lord’s Prayer is William Tyndale’s translation. Perhaps those of us for whom that prayer is any part of our lives can bow the head a bit more deeply next time we pray it—as we contemplate the fact that Tyndale died for those words.

Because…  for the crime of producing a good, readable Bible in English, William Tyndale was hunted for decades, and then executed—by a church aligned with the state, by a state aligned with the church. His dying words were, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!” Within a year of Tyndale’s death, the King decided and decreed that there would, after all, be a Bible in English. The result is what we now call “The King James Version.” Much of it is Tyndale.

I will cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scriptures than thou doest
(William Tyndale, to a priest who opposed his translation project.)

Very good and very readable books on Tyndale and the development of the English Bible:
  • William Tyndale, by David Daniell
  • Wide as the Waters, by Benson Bobrick (on Tyndale's predecessor in English translation, John Wycliffe, who died a natural death, but whose body was dug up and burned by the Church for good measure!)
  • God’s Secretaries, by Adam Nicolson (On how the sublimely beautiful King Jame's Version of the Bible was put together by a committee!)