The 355th Reason to Recommend H. L. Mencken

He had a keen sense of pretense, that is, when people were trying to be something more important than they really wore. Mencken was especially astute at detecting pretense in politics. Would World War I make the world safe for democracy or be the war to end wars? Seriously? Would a given federal program or policy eliminate crime or poverty? What kind of gullibility do you need to believe that?

When it came to spotting where inspiration left reason behind in political speeches, Mencken was relentless. Consider his take down of Warren G. Harding:

On the question of the logical content of Dr. Harding’s harangue of last Friday I do not presume to have views. The matter has been debated at great length by the editorial writers of the Republic, all of them experts in logic; moreover, I confess to being prejudiced. When a man arises publicly to argue that the United States entered the late war because of a “concern for preserved civilization,” I can only snicker in a superior way and wonder why he isn’t holding down the chair of history in some American university. When he says that the United States has “never sought territorial aggrandizement through force,” the snicker arises to the virulence of a chuckle, and I turn to the first volume of General Grant’s memoirs. And when, gaining momentum, he gravely informs the boobery that “ours is a constitutional freedom where the popular will is supreme, and minorities are sacredly protected,” then I abandon myself to a mirth that transcends, perhaps, the seemly, and send picture postcards of A. Mitchell Palmer and the Atlanta Penitentiary to all of my enemies who happen to be Socialists.

But when it comes to the style of a great man’s discourse, I can speak with a great deal less prejudice, and maybe with somewhat more competence, for I have earned most of my livelihood for twenty years past by translating the bad English of a multitude of authors into measurably better English. Thus qualified professionally, I rise to pay my small tribute to Dr. Harding. Setting aside a college professor or two and half a dozen dipsomaniacal newspaper reporters, he takes the first place in my Valhalla of literati. That is to say, he writes the worst English I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean-soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm (I was about to write abscess!) of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.

The Bible tells believers not to put trust in princes. So does Mencken. Christians should appreciate his help.

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Drunk on Postmillennialism

Peter Leithart thinks Pentecost has lots of relevance for social order:

The Bible does not permit us to confine the work of the Spirit to the inner man or to private experience. Through Isaiah (44:3), the Lord promised to pour out water on the land of Israel and his Spirit upon Israel’s seed. When the Spirit is poured out like water, he turns desolate places to fruitfulness, transforms the dry land into a grove, transfigures the withered leaf into a green (Isa. 32:15; Ezek. 39:29; Joel 2:29; Zech. 12:10; Acts 2:17¯18, 33; 10:45). Restoration of nature symbolizes cultural flourishing. When the Spirit is poured out on Israel, the Lord promises, the nation will be renewed.

At the first Christian Pentecost, the apostles filled with the Spirit proclaimed the gospel in multiple languages, and by the end of the day a community of believers had been established, drawn from “every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5). The miracle of languages that took place at Pentecost reversed the curse on languages at Babel; the divided nations are reunited by the Spirit. For the Bible, international peace is a Pentecostal reality.

That’s one way of reading the Bible. But what does Leithart do with these?

scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. 4 They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” 5 For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, 6 and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. 7 But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.

8 But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. 9 The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you,a not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. (2 Peter 3)

Or?

For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. 6 And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. 7 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.

9“Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. 10 And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. 11 And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. 12 And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. 13 But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24)

Or?

2 For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. 4 But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. 5 For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. 6 So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. (I Thessalonians 5)

I get it if you want to avoid dispensational premillennialism’s bleak (never mind the flannel graphs) picture of human history, though I hear Leithart has a Lutheran past. But if you are going to try to turn Pentecost into a banner for socio-economic progress and world peace, don’t you need to keep an eye on other parts of the biblical narrative? How about postmillennialism meets nuclear winter? After millennia of human flourishing, suffering takes over the world and runs things until Jesus returns.

When Philadelphia Wins, It’s Not a Theology of Glory

Anyone want to think back to the Phillies’ starting line up in 2008 when they won the World Series? The starting pitchers were be Cole Hamels, Brett Myers, Jamie Moyer, and Joe Blanton. Yes, they won with that rotation. They did not yet have Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, or Roy Oswalt, everyone’s dream rotation from the 2011 season when the Fightin’s lost to the Cardinals in the first round of playoffs (and have been looking in from the outside ever since).

So now what happens when the Eagles finally break through to championship status in the much hyped Super Bowl era? Did their franchise quarterback, the fittingly praised and highly regarded, Carson Wentz, shepherd them to the promised land? No, it was Nick Foles, the Joe Blanton of NFL quarterbacks. (Mind you, I was pulling hard for Foles if only because he is as dull as his opponents have been relentless in pointing it out.)

This means that Philadelphia general managers should not try to stack their rosters with the best and most gifted. It means they need to roll the dice, say their prayers, hope for good karma. In Philadelphia, talent does not win. Lighting in a bottle — Ben Franklin might be proud — does.

And just to add to this Calvinistically dark take on Philadelphia sports — what if last night was the closest that Carson Wentz comes to a Super Bowl victory? In Philadelphia, going to championship games is hardly automatic. Wentz could have a wonderful career and take the Eagles to the playoffs many years. But winning in the big game could always elude him as it did Donovan McNabb and his coach, Andy Reid.

If that’s the case, then the best quarterback the Eagles will ever have is no. 9, Nick Foles. Wentz may go to the Hall of Fame and McNabb and Randall Cunnhingham may have more impressive careers. But Foles is the guy who won the big game for the Birds.

That is poignant.

Not So Messy

The folks at Witness have abandoned a theological system (Reformed) to rally around a racial (black) identity. Jemar Tisby explained:

Christianity is not some otherworldly religion that is only concerned with our spiritual lives. True faith acknowledges that our souls inhabit bodies and we experience the world in a physical and material way. So Christianity is also concerned with our reality as a people who have been marginalized due to the racial caste system in America.

We are a “black Christian collective” because we are made in the image of God and part of that image includes our melanated skin along with the culture and experiences that go along with it….

As a “black Christian collective,” The Witness has returned to its original mission to serve black people. The move from “African American” to “black” acknowledges this endeavor is international scope. The Witness is for the entire African diaspora. We are also a collective in the sense that a variety of black Christians from different denominations, ages, regions, and experiences all contribute their perspectives. The Witness is not the voice of black Christians; it is the microphone that amplifies those who have often gone unheard.

I was curious, in light of these changes, what The Witness’ perspective or counsel on the shootings in Texas might be. After all, the congregation is white and the shooter was white. So how would black Christians speak to or about Sutherland Springs?

It turns out, they sound like any other U.S. evangelical (white or person of color):

Tragedies like this provoke many discussions and debates around issues such as domestic violence, gun control, and church security protocols. We absolutely need to address these issues and seek concrete solutions, but that is not the focus of this post. Honestly, I don’t feel like I have the proper words at this point. I am tired saints. I have been to war and back and I am tired of violence.

Will you join me in praying that those in Sutherland Springs would be comforted by the God of all comfort? Is it alright if we include Charleston, Las Vegas, Orlando, San Bernardino, Blacksburg, Aurora, and all of those who have been struck by this plague of gun violence?

Let us pray.

Father God, we cry out to you. We thank you that we can approach your throne of grace boldly through the person and work of Jesus Christ. We thank you that you have caused us to be born again by the power of your Spirit who now indwells us and testifies with our spirits that we are the sons and daughters of God.

Father, you are able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think. We come to you now and we ask that your kingdom would come and that your will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. Lord God, bring healing to the families and communities impacted by these tragedies. We ask that you invade every place of darkness with your glorious light. Let grace abound.

I do wonder about the use of the word “darkness,” but otherwise, kudos to The Witness for showing solidarity with white Baptists.

Send the Confederate Monuments to Canada

After all, as Wilfred Laurier asserted, where else does a nation honor both the victors and the defeated?

Where is the Canadian who, comparing his country with even the freest countries, would not feel proud of the institutions which protect him? Where is the Canadian who, passing through the streets of this old city and reaching the monument raised a few steps from here to the memory of the two brave men who died on the same field of battle while contending for empire in Canada, would not feel proud of his country? In what other country under the sun can you find a similar monument reared to the memory of the conquered as well as of the conqueror? In what other country under the sun will you find the names of the conquered and the conqueror equally honored and occupying the same place in the respect of the population? (The Benefits of British Institutions, 1877)

Laurier, Canada’s first francophone Prime Minister (1896-1911), was referring to the Wolfe-Montcalm Monument that memorialized the two generals who fought on opposite sides and died in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, a decisive battle in 1759 during the Seven Years War when the British rolled back French colonial presence in North America.

Canada’s capacity to honor both anglophones and francophones in one monument may give provide reasons for thinking of the nation up north as exceptional.

The Small Town and Its Defenders

The missus and I were glad to be in Jackson, Michigan, at the Grand River Brewery, for a set of presentations sponsored by The American Conservative. We heard Bill Kauffman, who is arguably conservatism’s funniest voice. Here’s an excerpt:

My hometown, Batavia, New York, population 15,500, has had plenty of Bill Baileys and Hughie Cannons over the years. I don’t mean by that shiftless drunks, daydreaming musicians, guys who stay out all night—they’re okay by me—but rather people who leave town, or who refuse to make a home in the place where they live. They reject Booker T. Washington’s wise injunction to cast down your bucket where you are.

In 2003 I published a book called Dispatches From the Muckdog Gazette, which is, megalomaniacally, a memoir about my repatriation to Batavia, but it’s also about the way that Batavia—and by extension all the Batavias from sea to dimming sea—has struggled to maintain a distinct identity, a character, rather than becoming just another formless wattle on the continental blob.

To the world, Batavia is merely Exit 48 on the New York State Thruway, that hideous gray scar across our green and lovely state, that drab version of the Erie Canal dedicated to that drab man Thomas E. Dewey, who fled his fine little hometown of Owosso, Michigan, which was too small to contain a man of his talent, or ego.

I don’t know how much anyone here knows of Batavia—I’m afraid we keep our little light well hidden under the bushel—but I will skip lightly over the first 160 or so years of our history and say only that it is rich, mythopoeic, beguilingly strange, as befits the cradle of the Anti-Masons, the first third party in American history.

Batavia was a prosperous little city, manufactory of combines and tractors and shotguns. English and Scots and Germans were the early settlers, coexisting uneasily with the late 19th-century polyglot influx of Italians and Poles. I’m a mongrel, a mixture of several of these streams—though my beloved late Italian grandmother insisted that we were “northern Italian—almost Swiss.” So in my book I gave myself license to write freely, even raucously, of the ethnic conflicts that once cleaved Batavia—but also gave it a good deal of its spice.

In some ways we were a typical small American city but in other ways we were “Batavia”—our own place. We did not yet bow down before the new American royalty: Burger King and Dairy Queen.

Then, as Joseph Heller would say, something happened. Urban renewal. My old boss Senator Pat Moynihan once said, when driving through Auburn, New York, which was decimated rather as Batavia was—I would do my Moynihan impression but I’m afraid I teetotaled at the reception—“in the 1950s, with a progressive government and newspaper, you got into urban renewal and destroyed everything of value in your town. If you’d had a reactionary newspaper and a grumpy mayor, you might still have it.” (Try to imagine any U.S. senator today saying something one ten-thousandth as perceptive.)

Red Ribbon

Just removing the cake from the Bundt pan was victory enough for we theologians of the cross. But when the cake entered at the The Most Popular Fair on Earth won second place in the Bundt cake division, the red ribbon was icing on the cake.

Here is the recipe for Mississippi Mud Cake:

Into a bowl sift together 2 cups flour, 1 teaspoon baking soda, and a pinch of salt.

In the top of a double boiler set over simmering water heat 1-3/4 cups coffee and 1/4 cup bourbon for 5 minutes. Add 5 ounces unsweetened chocolate and 2 sticks (1 cup) butter, all cut into pieces, and heat the mixture, stirring, until the chocolate and butter are melted and the mixture is smooth.

Remove the pan from the heat and stir in 2 cups sugar. Let the mixture cool for 3 minutes and transfer it to the bowl of an.electric mixer.

Add the flour mixture to the chocolate mixture, 1/2 cup at a time, beating at medium speed, and continue to beat the mixture for 1 minute.

Add 2 eggs, lightly beaten, and 1 teaspoon vanilla and beat the batter until it is smooth.

Butter a 9-inch tube pan, 3-1/2 inches deep, and dust it with cocoa. Pour in the batter and bake the cake in a pre- heated very slow oven (275° F.) for 1 hour and 30 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in the cake comes out clean.

Let the cake cool completely in the pan on a rack and turn it out onto a serving plate. Dust the top with powdered sugar or serve with whipped cream.

The recipe comes from a celebrated blue ribbon winner at Wisconsin county fairs who lives in Chicago and has edited and published a couple of my books.

Fine print: the one time I used butter and cocoa on the pan, the results were not great. The better strategy is to use what works best for your Bundt pan.

How History Makes the World a Better Place

Sometimes even boomers know the score. Take Camille Paglia (via Rod Dreher):

Paglia believes there is a causal connection between young Americans’ ignorance of history and their dim view of present conditions. At a conference in Oxford, Paglia stated again, in response to a student who criticized her and others for telling youths not to be so sensitive and snowflaky, “There is much too much focus on the present.”

Or try Rod Dreher:

Imagine that the US was involved in a major overseas war in which over 11,000 American soldiers died in one year alone (1967). For a point of comparison, fewer than 7,000 US troops have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 14 years of combat there.

Imagine that 17,000 US soldiers would die in 1968, and 12,000 in 1969 fighting that war

Imagine that you might be drafted to go fight there.

Imagine what it would be like if you were convinced the war was profoundly immoral, and you had to choose between deserting the country and bearing arms in that war.

Imagine that many college campuses had become hotbeds not of snowflakey sit-ins, but of serious violence.

Imagine that domestic bombings by left-wing radicals had become a routine part of American life (e.g., five per day in an 18-month period in the early 1970s).

Imagine that two of the nation’s most prominent political leaders (MLK and RFK) Bobby were gunned down three months apart.

Imagine that your government and military were lying to Congress and to the American people about the war, and had been for years (as was revealed with the 1972 publication of the Pentagon Papers).

Imagine that major American cities were burning in race riots.

Imagine that cops in a major American city staged what was later called “a police riot” outside a political party’s national convention, and beat the hell out of protesters.

Could it be that Rod Dreher had it rougher than Ta-Nehisi Coates?

The mind reels.

Conversations Fifty Years Ago

You think having them today is rough, consider Wendell Berry’s experience:

While at Stanford, Berry witnessed several outdoor meetings called by black students for the purpose of establishing a Black Studies program on campus. In Berry’s recollection, the meetings were what historian Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn has called a “harangue-flagellation” ritual in which the black students condemned the white students and faculty for their racism and the whites in attendance nodded in agreement mixed with occasional applause.[30] In another situation on campus, Berry found himself in the middle of a civil rights protest. When a student in the protest heard Berry ask his companion a question in his Kentucky drawl what was going on, his accent prompted the response, “You damned well better find out!”

Berry thought there was no way for him to speak meaningfully in that context, and so The Hidden Wound is what he would have said had the moment allowed it. He wrote it during the winter break in the Bender Room at Stanford University’s Green Library. The essay was motivated by the feeling that the civil rights milieu at the time was at a stalemate and would stay there if the focus on power eclipsed other possible ends. Though Berry agreed that racism was a moral evil and political problem, he thought the most visible sentiments guiding these events were dangerous. Just as in his writing about agriculture, nature, and land—and in his, “A Statement Against the War in Vietnam,” delivered at the University of Kentucky the winter before—he fought abstractions and the separations that oversimplify: of means and ends, of thought and emotion, intentions and actions.

He wrote that the “speakers and hearers seemed to be in perfect agreement that the whites were absolutely guilty of racism, and that the blacks where absolutely innocent of it. They were thus absolutely divided by their agreement.” In his interview with hooks he said more simply: “I thought guilt and anger were the wrong motives for a conversation about race.” People can be more “dependably motivated by a sense of what would be desirable than by a sense of what has been deplorable.” By arguing that power is a necessary part of the discussion, but no more necessary than love, Berry refused the false dichotomy between structure and personal responsibility. During the demonstrations, in contrast, “one felt the possibility of an agreement of sorts, but nowhere the possibility of the mutual recognition of a common humanity, or the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation, or the possibility of love.”

So why is it that adding Jesus to discussions of racism only heightens a sense of what is deplorable?

Yet, even some activists are willing to listen to Berry:

The Hidden Wound, an extended essay in which Berry traced the grim legacy of slavery and racism in Kentucky, and his family’s role in the perpetuation of these evils, was the result. The book was not widely read on publication in 1970, but it has been granted a second life through republication and the sustained admiration of poet, essayist, and activist bell hooks, another Kentuckian who went to Stanford a decade after Berry and later, partly due to Berry’s influence, returned to Kentucky. Since she returned to Kentucky to teach at Berea College in 2004, hooks has been teaching from The Hidden Wound and wrote a sustained reflection on it in Belonging: A Culture of Place. An interview with Berry follows the reflection.

Labor Day South of the Equator

I used to think (I avoid assuming because of the consequences) that the rest of the world followed the general contour of the seasons in the United States.  Is that a consequence of American greatness and status as leader of the free world?  Perhaps.

But now I am woke.

While still flying solo last night I viewed a documentary about beach resorts in Argentina, Balnearios.  It was pretty good.  It was more orchestrated than some documentaries, but provided a glimpse of Argentinian life that fascinates. I give it three stars.  The cats are still voting.

One aspect that struck me was that summer there is our winter.  Of course, since I spent time in Brazil a couple decades ago during the month of February, I knew that their summer matched our winter.  But since I was teaching at a seminary and classes were in session (which they also seemed to be at the affiliated university), I had assumed that the school year below the equator lined up with ours in North America.

I saw vividly last night what this website confirms (by the way, I checked to see about South Africa and discovered they have four terms that run almost the entire year):

The school year in Argentina runs from March to December and lasts about 200 days. Schools are closed for national holidays, such as Good Friday and Easter, and two weeks in July for vacation. Normally, public elementary schools are in session four and a half hours each weekday. Saturdays are generally reserved for extracurricular school activities. Often, a school will have a morning and afternoon session, allowing pupils and teachers to choose their sessions. Some elementary schools offer evening classes for adults.

Imagine that. Stocking up on notebooks and pencils about the same time you are throwing out Christmas gift wrapping and determining this time really really to lose a few pounds.

What may even be harder to conceive is not having a Christmas recess from classes because the school year just ended.

Talk about American myopia.

Postscript: Ellen Marie Jones and Jay Glenn Hart were married on this day seventy-five years ago at Metropolitan Baptist Church (now Capitol Hill Baptist). Need to mention this here since in heaven, where they are, there’s no marriage and so likely no wedding anniversary celebrations.