Paul Emile Lecomte (France, 1877-1950) Boats in the harbour (n.d.) oil on canvas 24.5 x 33 cm

Paul Emile Lecomte (France, 1877-1950)
Boats in the harbour

(via Lawrence Lee Magnuson)

The more firmly accommodationist Christianity defined itself by taking sides in this give-and-take, the more it came to be seen as just another faction, just another interest group, with nothing particularly transcendent to offer anyone.

And transcendence, it turned out, was still what people wanted from religion. Here, too, the early accommodationists went astray. They mistakenly associated sexual liberation, theological relativism, and growing prosperity with straightforward secularization, and assumed that what post-1960s America wanted from religion was something rational, nonmystical, antisupernatural. But it turned out that while a single twentysomething might have no time for Christianity’s sexual taboos, and a prosperous suburbanite might not want to ponder its critique of wealth and acquisition, they were both still interested— more interested than ever, perhaps— in a religion that promised encounters with the mysterious and numinous, one that promised to make the universe responsive to their prayers and rituals and spiritual gestures. Thus the irony that James Hitchcock noted in the early 1970s:

Progressive clergy shed their vestments on the sacristy floor, threw their incense in the trash, and sold their golden vessels to antique dealers, only to discover that somehow the puritanical young men and women who had marched with them on the picket line had got hold of all these discards and more besides— tarot cards, Ouija boards, Tibetan prayer wheels, and temple gongs. The Latin had been eliminated from the Mass so that the young could comprehend it, but they preferred instead to chant in Sanskrit. Campus chaplains had ceased trying to sell prayer and were selling social action instead, but their former constituents were hunting up Hindu gurus and undertaking systematic regimens of meditation and fasting.

— Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics

People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy…. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic. The Church in its early days went fierce and fast with any warhorse; yet it is utterly unhistoric to say that she merely went mad along one idea, like a vulgar fanaticism. She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles…. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom— that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.

–G.K. Chesterton (as quoted in Bad Religion)

Impossible to describe in words

Unlike the visual or literary arts, music seems to be impossible to describe in words — we’re forced to choose between the senselessly subjective and the incomprehensibly technical. Rutgers philosopher Peter Kivy cataloged four common types of music criticism:

  • Biographical: a description of the composer rather than his music. “We are allowed to gaze upon a deeply agitated life, that seeks, with strong endeavour, to support itself at the high level of the day.”
  • Autobiographical: a description of the critic’s impressions rather than the music. “I closed my eyes, and whilst listening to the divine gavotte … I seemed to be surrounded on all sides by enfolding arms, adorable, intertwining feet, floating hair, shining eyes, and intoxicating smiles.”
  • Emotive: a subjective description of emotions in composers or listeners. “The first episode is a regular trio in the major mode, beginning in consolation and twice bursting into triumph.”
  • Technical: the coldly clinical: “The joint between the second movement and the third can hang on the progression D-B♭-B♮, which is parallel to F-D♭-D♮ between the first and second.”

There just doesn’t seem to be an adequate way to convey the experience of hearing a piece of music without actually playing it for someone. “Description of music is in a way unique,” Kivy writes. “When it is understandable to the nonmusician, it is cried down as nonsense by the contemporary musician. And when the musician or musical scholar turn their hands to it these days, likely as not the non-musician finds it as mysterious as the Cabala, and about as interesting as a treatise on sewage disposal.”

Futility Closet

Has our enslavement to dopamine — to the instant hits of validation that come with a well-crafted tweet or Snapchat streak — made us happier? I suspect it has simply made us less unhappy, or rather less aware of our unhappiness, and that our phones are merely new and powerful antidepressants of a non-pharmaceutical variety.

— Andrew Sullivan, My Distraction Sickness–And Yours

For I can hardly help regarding it as one of God’s jokes that a passion so soaring, so apparently transcendent, as Eros, should thus be linked in incongruous symbiosis with a bodily appetite which, like any other appetite, tactlessly reveals its connections with such mundane factors as weather, health, diet, circulation, and digestion. In Eros at times we seem to be flying; Venus gives us the sudden twitch that reminds us we are really captive balloons. It is a continual demonstration of the truth that we are composite creatures, rational animals, akin on one side to the angels, on the other to tom-cats. It is a bad thing not to be able to take a joke. Worse, not to take a divine joke; made, I grant you, at our expense, but also (who doubts it?) for our endless benefit.

— C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves 

A Poem for Autumn by Eric Ortlund

The trees are now engulfed in autumn’s fires:
Orange and amber-red stand burning in the last of summer green.
Others will soon catch, and,
Generous and gentle,
Send falling leaves to forest floor.
How can cold call forth such color?

It calls to mind another’s death and his renewal.
Many wait in weary winter for his sharper spring.
They will soon catch, and, called forth,
Burn and sing in a summer grown great beyond imagining.