Feb 3. In The Brothers Karamazov Smerdyakov says that it would not be a sin to renounce Christ if you were forced to do so. He would step on Christ’s face and apostatize, asking God’s forgiveness afterwards. It’s sort of the perverse flip side of a saying found in most of Dostoevsky’s major novels: “all are guilty, but all will be forgiven.” Apostasy of just the type Smerdyakov mentions is a major part of Shusaku Endo’s Silence (1966). It’s a problem that goes back much further in history, obviously. While listening to apodcast on Augustine of Hippo, I was reminded of its connection to the Donatist controversy. How could those who were forced to apostatize then later administer the sacraments? How could they be vessels of God’s miraculous power, transforming the mundane into the sacred? Candace and I watched Scorsese’s movie adaption of Silence recently, and whatever else one might say about it, I think it aptly evoked the general sense of bewilderment about how to come to terms with such religious/ethical conundrums. Even if, as the last scene seems to suggest, there is something mischievously admirable in the power of Jesuit casuistry (something a few of Dostoevsky’s characters reluctantly admit too).
Feb 6. I finished Law of the Desert Born (1983) the other day. It’s the only book by L’Amour that I have definitive evidence that my dad read. I have a photograph of papa reading it sometime in the early 2000s. Given that L’Amour’s stories here are set in the American west at a vague point in time, they are filled almost solely with the white men of rugged individualism. There are bad guys, usually stealing cattle (i.e. rustlers) or trying to corner the market in land; and there are good guys, usually with a mean streak or inclination to (righteous) violence, who discover some local beauty, single or widowed, and who then decide to stick their neck out for a good cause. Everyone else helps set the mood, provide the context. In most of these tales the good guys eventually fight the bad guys, with the good guys always being just a little smarter with their tactics, just a little faster with their guns. The good guys inevitably win. This is highly conventional fiction, after all. You don’t read Agatha Christie for her literariness. Still, I wouldn’t recommend reading these stories back to back. On their own, in a magazine, they may have been fine, entertaining as you sit and wait for your dentist appointment. But if you read them together, over a couple of days, they become more than a little obvious, often downright cheesy. I think at one point I told Candace that I would have enjoyed them much more when I was a teenager.
Feb 8. Last night I finished watching a documentary called “They’ll Love me When I’m Dead.” It’s about one of the films that Orson Welles left unfinished when he died—“The Other Side of the Wind.” (A rendition of which was completed and is up on Netflix.) Toward the very end of the documentary there’s a scene in which Welles, now old and fat, but clearly enjoying himself, is shown laughing heartily. Like those interviewed in the film, I found it touching. But I think that’s because I’ve be working on a kind of memoir about my dad and books. Welles’ rolling laughter reminded me of papa. Apparently Welles died not that long after that particular clip, and for some people it was evidently moving—they thought it showed a human side of Welles unknown to many, puncturing the myth that he became an aloof, crazed shut-in, unable to get along well with others. There are these little thumbnail pictures through which we sometimes remember people, particularly those who’ve been important to us. Papa could be possessed by laughter. Usually after telling a joke he enjoyed, or after someone rattled off a clever pun, his whole body would start to shake; his laughter would go from a chuckle to an almost painful wheezing, and he would barely be able to keep his composure. At the time it could be embarrassing, but in retrospect I’m happy to think of him that way.
Feb 9. It’s harder to make friends as an adult. Or that’s what I find myself telling others these days. I think part of it stems from the fact that many of us straddle multiple worlds. At least I feel as if I did for many years. I lived in two spheres that felt relatively distinct. In one, churchworld, I went to service regularly, met other people my age at organized activities, and made a few lasting friends whom I would meet outside of church functions. In another, schoolworld, I went to class, spent time with my colleagues at lunch or over beers, and, again, made a few lifelong friends. But it was only occasionally that these two domains overlapped. I could talk critically with my academic friends about almost anything, including politics, and I very much enjoy talking about those things; yet I couldn’t ever really speak “religiously” there. I could obviously talk openly about faith with my religious friends, but there were often attitudes and norms in evangelical life which felt like hindrances, buffers, limits. It was only by fortuitous circumstances—I don’t find myself using the word providence much—that when I finished graduate school I connected with religious people who were academics; they were also people I could be friends with. Being part of two different cultural worlds while not feeling totally at home in either is not a new or terribly noteworthy phenomenon. But, looking back, when I didn’t have friends who were both religious and academic—a period that lasted for most of by 20s—it was more than a little isolating. Now, as an older adult where even more factors seem to be in play—time, energy, interests, personalities—finding the kind of people with whom you share enough to be close, but differ enough to find each other interesting, seems to happen less and less.
Feb 11. I was watching “The Good Place” on Netflix when I think I caught a “mistake.” In the episode we were watching Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) is trying to learn how to be good by taking classes by Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper), a philosopher. The premise of the show is that the “good place” is heaven and in heaven they’ve given you an idyllic life with your soul mate. Chidi figures out that Eleanor is not his soul mate. She’s not even a good person and should really be in hell, the “bad place.” But he agrees to try and help her become good and thus deserving to stay. So, here, in this episode, he’s instructing her on what various great thinkers have said about morals. In one scene, he holds out a copy of David Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature. I recognized the cover (green and gold colours). It’s the edition from the Oxford Philosophical Text series. Except for some reason it appears they didn’t get the real book. The cover is right, but the size is not. I pulled my copy off the shelf and showed Candace. The Treatise in its entirety is a hefty book (it was originally published in two volumes in 1739-40). The copy that Chidi holds up is far too slim to be the actual OPT version. And as far as I’m aware there are no abridged editions in that series. Hume would no doubt have been amused at this little discrepancy between perceptual reality and truth. We might even be inclined to find the Humean response amusing too. He would tell us not to get bogged down in “abstruse” skeptical philosophy, encouraging us to return to the pleasures of bourgeois life—in his case that meant playing backgammon with your friends, in ours it probably means letting the next episode cue up and play.
Feb 14. I can’t really say why, but I think I’ve always found squirrels and chipmunks amusing creatures. No matter how many there are—and there are a lot of them living in downtown Montréal—I don’t seem to lose interest. Some friends and family find them repulsive (they’re rodents!). As with birds, I can watch and watch and I don’t get bored. There’s always something a little comical about a squirrel’s frantic skittering. It’s not always clear why they’re doing what they’re doing and often that seems mildly funny. At a nearby park the squirrels know that people will feed them. So even if you just stop for a moment to look at them, they’ll basically come right up to you, hoping for a snack. I’ve seen people feeding them while the squirrels sit right at their feet, reaching up for the next morsel. Lately there has been a squirrel living somewhere near the top of our building, where our apartment is located. Every few days I’ll hear its “barking.” It appears to be quite young, and for some reason it has lost the fur on the top half of its body, making it look emaciated. I feel quite sorry for it. Over the past few weeks Montréal has had a lot of snow and sometimes the temperature has dipped down into the -20 range. The squirrel doesn’t seem too bothered by the snow, burrowing through it happily enough. But I wonder if it knows that it’s missing some fur. Is it uncomfortable? Yesterday I saw the little creature and it had managed to grow a thin new coat over its bald patches. It was soaking up the sun as it was pouring into the courtyard and exterior stairwell, sliding along the handrail and slurping the melted snow.
Feb 16. Watched “Won’t you be my Neighbour” last night. It was a somewhat sentimental reminder of how life-changing the basic Jewish teaching of “love God, love others” can be (the Decalogue, the Shema, and Jesus’ summary of these [Shema + Lev. 19:18]). While’s it’s clear Fred Rogers was willing to breach some rather stiff social barriers in the name of such love, particularly as it related to childhood development, I did wonder afterwards just how far he was willing to go. I don’t mean that to be overly damning. But given the era through which he lived, and that there were people who did challenge the then-prevalent norms of white middle class America in the name of (often Christian) love and justice, the question remained. The documentary left it both unasked and unaswered.
Feb 17. What would it have been like to be among those who heard Jesus deliver the beatitudes? It was communion Sunday today and the beatitudes were part of our text. Many of the people listening to Jesus would have been poor peasants and belonged to an overwhelmingly agrarian, highly unequal society. They were also subject peoples, i.e. under imperial Roman rule. At least as a literary figure of historical memory, Jesus was an itinerant teacher who proclaimed “good news.” Surely it would not have made sense for him to have spoken of good news—to a people whose scriptures and traditions speak repeatedly of captivity, exile, return, and liberation—without being alert to the political reality of the day? I grew up being taught that the Jewish people were awaiting a Messiah to liberate them from political captivity, but that Jesus came to liberate their souls. That was why they were unable to see Jesus correctly. I now find that way of putting it deeply unsatisfying, in part for some of the very reasons my Sunday school teachers taught me—to my mind it doesn’t really make sense of the texts we have or the world of the New Testament.
Feb 18. Candace asked me to head to the grocery store to pick up a few things, since I was going in that direction anyways. I grabbed the cream, the buttermilk, the raspberries, the green onions. Then I waited in line. While I was walking around picking these items up I had noticed two men, clearly labourers of some kind, talking loudly. I was listening to a podcast as I shopped but I could still overhear what they were saying. Later, when I went up to the till to pay, those same two men were in front of me. One of them had his eyes fixed on a woman standing across from us. Afterwards the woman happened to walk in the same direction as me as we left the store, towards the exit of a large office complex. Perhaps she worked there. She was dressed “business casual”—boots with heels, form-fitting pants, collared top; her hair was up, and she was slim yet muscular. At the till the one guy had nudged the other, telling him to take a look. He did. The woman working the cash register was evidently uncomfortable and, it would seem, disgusted. A few different objectified exchanges—not unrelated to one another—happening at once.
Feb 20. However it was that I came across The Baffler a few years ago, I’m glad I did. It’s cantankerous, contrarian, and often crackerjack. Last week I noticed happily that the Renauld-Bray bookstore down the street carries hard copies. I read “The 4 hour Fascist” today, which was pretty good and typical.
Feb 21. Someone told me a few months ago they were reading and trying to follow the Spiritual Exercises by Ignatius of Loyola. It now strikes me that there’s something typically modern and Protestant about taking a text so deeply rooted in a conception of community, authority, obedience, and discipline, so profoundly different from our own, and using it, unproblematically, as a manual for personal spiritual devotion.
Feb 22. After something like a two-year hiatus, a few of us met for “beer and theology” again. We decided to read Talal Asad’s Genealogies of Religion (1993).
Feb 24. Came down with a fairly powerful sinus cold for the second time in two months. I can’t remember another time as an adult when that’s happened. Usually I don’t catch the seasonal colds that go around, but this time I guess I wasn’t so lucky. It’s amazing how easily and quickly I forget my dependence on my body as on so much else.