Friday, May 27, 2011


King Solomon's issue wasn't wisdom. It was guts. He had the guts to make it so that the woman not willing to rip the baby apart won.

Friday, May 20, 2011

3 pics for a girl

Greta has already invested in her first original paintings. We think they're just perfect for her.


Friday, May 13, 2011

northern renaissance and southern renaissance

In a recent conversation about an earlier post that mentioned artists of the Northern Renaissance versus those of the Southern, a friend asked if there were any more information on this topic, or if I could do some more riffing on it.

There's a glancing reference to it on Wikipedia, but it paints with a broad brush. True, the Southern Renaissance was more influenced by Greco-Roman ideals, but its humanism wasn't as "pagan" as suggested: it was just idealist, so the human body was often depicted in its glorified form, even when depicting an earth-bound existence. Here we are, made in God's image, bound for glory, and to depict that is our duty. So think of Michelangelo, Raphael, Andrea del Sarto, with their gorgeous bodies and faces embodying a vision later carried by Versace and Armani.

As opposed to that, up north they were indeed humanist, but in a way that allowed for (and sometimes lovingly emphasized) human frailty. Here we are, east of Eden, fallen and flawed, and to depict that is our duty. So think of Brueghel, with peeing children and crooked old men, or of Rembrandt, with those lined and blotched faces.

All this is very theologically tied-in as well: Northern Protestantism has always had a reputation for being "stern," although there's plenty of good-natured Brueghelian humor in there too — witness (Scottish Presbyterian!!!) Robert Burns's "To a Louse."

To give it a catchy phrase, we might say that the southerners were more fired-up about redemption and glory, and the northerners were more fired-up about human sin and failure.

I was amused to take a trip from Münster, Germany to Milan, Italy, and to note the differences between the domes that dominate the landscape in the old part of each town.

In Münster, the Dom (which still bears cages where they hung the Anabaptists out to dry) sits down the way from the main street and condemns its crass commercialism and tinsel glamour: "Sinners! Repent from this vanity!"

Meanwhile, in Milan, the mind-blowing Duomo (started in 1350, completed in 1965 [almost! there are still 3 incomplete statues, thus bringing immoderate pleasure to Robert Browning's ghost]) stands down the way from Milan's fashionable district and taunts it: "Mortals! God will outdazzle you any day of the week!"

Thursday, May 12, 2011

godparents' day

Catherine and Greta and I were sitting at one of our favorite tables at the Gristmill, looking over the green riverbanks. It was the day after Mother's Day, when we had our own celebration and gifts. We'd invited Kathy and Sean McMains to join us partway in. They showed up, we exploded into conversation, and then, at a pause, Catherine said, in that tone that makes you think something is coming, "Welllll, we invited you here, partially to enjoy dessert with us, and celebrate Mother's Day, and Barry's birthday, ... and ... we were hoping, celebrate Godparents' Day."

They said yes.

What's fun to me is the dramatic irony of it: they didn't know they'd be asked that day, but we did. From the moment they showed up, I enjoyed watching them. Sean immediately cooed over the girl; Kathy immediately picked her up and started feeding her little bites of applesauce; through the whole meal they showed a concern and care for our girl that confirmed our choice.

So. Now Greta has godparents. I don't know much about the whole tradition, not having ever had any, and not being too aware of godparents in my friends' lives. Some schoolmate might offhandedly mention their godparents: to a Baptist child's mind (at least to mine), the word had a Catholic incense to it, allure and foreignness and near-certain spiritual peril. But that was about it. Catherine's church and social circle had the tradition, though. Her godparents are heartful folks who have supported and prayed for her and been part of her life for its entirety. They've been the adults-who-aren't-your-parents that every kid needs. For me, they've been conversational companions, cigar-sharers, and affirming welcomers to their goddaughter's suitor.

As we explore what it is to be godparents to little Micah Yang (an honor bestowed on us a few months ago), we'll be all the more pleased to do it in the best of company.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

take this, strunk

Not all sentences bring delight, but, occasionally, a big Germanic one, with hugecompoundwords and unwieldy phrases, like you might see in massive old novels where the sentences, as my friend, a grammarian whom these topics, arcane as they are, intrigue, says, sprawl, attached, does.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

mother's day

We've been doing a lot of reading on childrearing in the past year or so. The consensus is that kids are resilient: if you provide them with food and shelter and safety, and are non-abusive, they're going to be who they're going to be regardless of what wonderful thing you do or what horrible mistake you make.

That's encouraging. But there's a truth beyond that. Those of us who regard scriptures as significant read words like "train up a child in the way of righteousness, and when he is old he will not depart from it;" and "in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight."

The fact is that you're responsible for your own life. But the other fact is that your are given a script, good or bad, that you have to examine and then rewrite for yourself. How fortunate I am that my parents gave me such a good script. It makes my path straighter. There are mistakes I didn't have to make, good things I didn't have to be convinced of or find the hard way.

I'm grateful to my mother for the million tiny things I'm noticing and remembering about her, puzzle pieces I'm putting together every day as I raise Greta and as I watch Catherine be a mother to her. I'm grateful also for the million tiny things I'll never know about. Because the fact is that there are no tiny things.

So, to my mother and to the mother of my child, happy Mother's Day.

Monday, May 2, 2011

happy birthday kjv

In a flat white box surrounded by acid-free paper, I have a single page from the first edition of the King James Bible. It was a gift from my parents (they know me well). That piece of paper turns 400 years old today.

The 1611 Bible is not just one of the great achievements of the English language; it's one of England's great gifts to the world. Building on the achievements of Wycliffe and Tyndale and Coverdale and the Great Bible, the Bishop's Bible, and the Geneva Bible, but significantly different from them at key points, the KJV still reigns supreme. It shapes our language still. Hundreds upon hundreds of translations later, we still go to King James for the 23rd Psalm and the Lord's Prayer.

It'll be worth your time to find and read Adam Nicolson's engaging book God's Secretaries. Nicolson is one of those historians who has become so familiar with the time he's studying that he can see implied statements and pull out their entire meaning for us who are so removed from Jacobean society.

Here's a passage in which he discusses the various rules by which the translators will operate. Each rule comes under close scrutiny, with miraculously revealing results.

[rule 6:] Noe marginal notes att all to be affixed, but only for ye explanation of ye Hebrew or Greeke Words, which cannot without some circumlocution soe breifly and fitly be expressed in ye Text.

There were to be no marginal notes 'att all', not even those which might conform to the ideology of the established Jacobean church. The text, as all good Protestants might require, was to be presented clean and sufficient of itself, except where the actual words of the original were so opaque that a 'circumlocution' might not explain them within the text. 'Circumlocution' did not mean then quite what it means now. Thomas Wilson in The arte of rhetorique, published in 1553 and in use throughout the sixteenth century, had described circumlocution as 'a large description either to sett forth a thyng more gorgeouslie, or else to hyde it'. The words of this translation, then, could embrace both gorgeousness and ambiguity, did not have to settle into a single doctrinal mode but could embrace different meanings, either within the text itself or in the margins. This is the heart of the new Bible as an irenicon, an organism that absorbed and integrated difference, that included ambiguity and by doing so established peace. It is the central mechanism of the translation, one of immense lexical subtlety, a deliberate carrying of multiple meanings beneath the surface of a single text. This single rule lies behind the feeling which the King James Bible has always given its readers that the words are somehow extraordinarily freighted, with a richness which few other texts have ever equalled. Again and again, the Jacobean Translators chose a word not for its clarified straightforwardness (which had been Tyndale's focus in the 1520s and '30s, and the Geneva Calvinists' in the 1550s) but for its richness, its suggestiveness, its harmonic resonances. That is the heart of the irenicon: divergence held within a singularity, James's Arcadian vision made word.

What an achievement. Today I'll get that piece of paper out, marvel that it's lasted, only slightly discolored and splotched, for four hundred years, and marvel at the mighty words it contains.