January 27, 2020

Quick Takes

Yuval Levin’s A Time to Build is a really counter-cultural statement, certainly counter to my interior culture, as it talks about the need to build institutions and to see them as building us. It feels like the key that unlocks the prison doors of our current moment:
“An institution is a durable form of our common life. They are the frameworks and structures of what we do together...A institution is a form...for instance the shape of a candle (institution) is different from the raw wax (people) of which it is made.

We pour ourselves into our family, our community, our church, our work or our school, and in so doing we begin to take the institution’s shape. This shape then enables us to be more effective. It both protects us and empowers us to interact with others. We aren’t just loose individuals bumping into each other. We fill roles, we play parts of larger wholes...It moves us to ask how we ought to think and behave with reference to a world beyond ourselves: ‘Given my role here, how should I act?’
That’s foreign to my reflexive view of institutions. Platforms of blogging and Twitter come more easily than institution-building. I’m awfully Gen-X, having that ironic outsider sensibility of early David Letterman. Levin says:
“We rarely think of the necessity of such formation itself, even when we bemoan the social breakdown we confront.

What does stand out about our time, though, is not the strength of the pressures we are under [globalization or automation or polarization or populism] but the weakness of our institutions - from the family on up through the national government, with much in between. That weakness leaves us less able to hold together against the pressures we do face."
Another excerpt:
"The notion that we are formed by institutions runs against the grain of how we think about personal freedom, justice, choice, and many other things we care about. It amounts to a practical argument against a lot of liberal theories of man and society. Institutions play a role that we would rather believe is unnecessary. They form us by mediating between each of us and all of us, so our need for them suggests we need formation and mediation—and we would prefer to think we don’t.

SUCH RESISTANCE IS NOTHING NEW, ESPECIALLY IN AMERICA. IT HELPS explain why we have always tended to be blind to institutions or to resist them. Our popular culture has its roots in a dissenting Protestantism that sought a direct connection to the divine and rejected as inauthentic or illegitimate most forms of institutional mediation. That culture has therefore always appealed to an implicitly individualistic conception of the human person as complete and whole, in need of liberation more than formation.

At the other end of the spectrum are many of the genuinely novel institutions of the twenty-first century: most notably the virtual institutions of social media, which are inherently intended as platforms and not molds. They are ways for us to shine and be seen, not ways for us to be transformed by an ethic shared with others. It would be strange to trust a platform, and we don’t."

Sometimes I wake up with an old song running through my head and, thanks to the Internet, I can look it up and hear it anew. Usually I haven’t heard it in decades, and that’s true for today’s offering: “All I Need is the Air That I Breathe” by the Hollies, a top 10 hit in 1974 when I was 10 turning 11.

Songs seem like they can be access points to the past, what I was feeling, even maybe what I was like at a given age. It feels like the era of mystery and innocence ended around ’73 or ’74. In ’73, when I was nine turning ten, all was fresh and ethereal. Some of the '74 hits and all the ’75 hits there was more a feeling of my modern consciousness. Up till age 10 feels like my “prehistory” and from 11 on feels like recorded history. It’s funny it hinges on a round, double digit number like that ten.

Of the Billboard Top 10 per year, all hits from years 1964 on are mostly familiar, surely because the radio play of these huge hits were played every year after (such as the Beatles’ songs). But the year I was born there were old style songs, Bobby Vinton and such, that aren’t played today. So in a sense modern pop music began in late ’63 or early ’64 - basically when the Sixties as we know it started. it’s odd that though we’re only about a year apart, my sister wasn’t born before “modern” music started.

On the morning on commute, finding the radio tedious given our news readers' obsession with impeachment, I enjoyed a Great Books podcast on Moby Dick. The Christian focus (Hillsdale College) left the homosexual undertones out, which was a mercy. And was even ginger on the theme of God as the white whale, but ultimately sees it not only as a metaphor for God but as a metaphor for anything one can’t control. The line in Job, which Moby Dick has some resonances with, is God saying, “who places the hook in the leviathan?” And Melville has Ahab do that in the story, though it doesn’t end well for Ahab.

Melville also has Ahab intentionally choosing his hatred for the whale and his longing for control over returning to his family and taking care of them, despite his being attracted to that option. Shows free will.

Interesting that what this professor got out of it was the character study of two individuals: the monomaniacal singularly focused Ahab (seeing everything selfishly as how it pertained to him) and the other-focused, interested in everything (including whale biology minutiae) narrator Ishmael. And in the end Ishmael’s view won, pervaded, as he lived to tell the tale. Ishmael was also open to other cultures, witness his very openness to other religions and races and nationalities, a quintessentially American tale given the “melting pot”.

Another beautiful homily from priest at the Byzantine church. Very mercy-centric. Zaccheus story tells us why we emphasize repentance and conversion - it’s a reaction to God’s mercy. Zaccheus climbed a tree not just out of small stature (I thought, "why didn't he get there early and get a better spot in front?" and as if in answer the priest said that in part because he wouldn’t mix well with the people there who hated tax collectors, an outsider among his own people. He relented after Jesus called him, not before. Jesus loves him first.)

Using Verbum software on the Beatitudes:
We simply are not capable of willing ourselves free of anger or lust. Jesus does not imply that we are to be free of either anger or lust; that is, he assumes that we are bodily beings. Rather, he offers us membership in a community in which our bodies are formed in service to God and for one another so that our anger and our lust are transformed. Too often technologies of the self, used to free ourselves of anger or lust, make those passions posses an even greater hold over our lives. Jesus, however, is not recommending that we will our way free of lust or anger, but rather he is offering us membership in a people that is so compelling we are not invited to dwell on ourselves or our sinfulness.

Alone we cannot conceive of an alternative to lust, but Jesus offers us participation in a kingdom that is so demanding we discover we have better things to do than to concentrate on our lust. If we are a people committed to peace in a world of war, if we are a people committed to faithfulness in a world of distrust, then we will be consumed by a way to live that offers freedom from being dominated by anger or lust. -Hauerwas, S. (2006). Matthew (p. 69). Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.
In the wake of Kobe Bryant news I turned to Verbum on the famous Beatitude “Blessed are those who mourn” turns out (according to nearly every commentary) to refer to those who mourn for their sins, not for a tragedy like Kobe Bryant’s (albeit sins are admittedly a tragedy): “This includes weeping for sins as well as the grief that comes when the saints are made to suffer for their faith.”

Another puzzle I’ve always wondered was why Jesus said to Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection: “do not cling to me, I am not yet ascended”.

The gist of it seems to be that Mary wanted to touch Him as man when he was God (she called him only “Teacher” rather than “Lord”). It’s also possible that he was wanting her to have faith in His resurrection without the proof of touching that Doubting Thomas required.

St. Augustine:
“So what can touching be, but believing? We touch Christ, you see, by faith, and it is better not to touch him with the hand and to touch him with faith than to feel him with the hand and not touch him with faith. It was not a great matter to touch Christ; the Jews touched him when they seized him, they touched him when they bound him, touched him when they hung him up; they touched him, and by touching him in a bad way, they lost what they touched. Just you touch by faith, O Catholic church; see that you touch by faith. If you have thought of Christ only as a man, you have touched him on earth. If you have believed Christ is Lord, equal to the Father, then you have touched him when he has ascended to the Father.”
Other thoughts:
“Jesus is not so much reproaching her as telling her to look beyond the human to his divinity, which he shares with the Father....When Jesus told Mary of his need to ascend to the Father, he was telling her the good news that the one from whom we were formerly alienated has become our Father and our God (GREGORY OF NYSSA).”

Amy Welborn:
"[Chaplin’s City Lights] is a lovely film, with an ending that will undoubtedly leave you misty. A beautiful, gentle and deeply satisfying moment.

And a moment that’s only made possible because The Tramp had made a sacrifice. That’s where the power is – in the sacrifice. Always."
This reminds me of what Yuval Levin says of our revulsion of institutions. The military is respected because it’s sacrificial which confers legitimacy; Congress is the opposite of self-sacrificing and lacks legit authority or esteem.

It’s less that we want institutions overthrown as we want the people in them to have a sacrificial mindset rather than see it as a platform for their own aggrandizement.

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