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Year in review: top posts of 2012

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Here are the top posts for 2012. Each title links back to the full post, and a pull quote is added on each. I didn’t count them this year, but they are presented more or less in chronological order from January-December, with about two posts from each month.

***

Inner strength: Review of Jean Edward Smith’s ‘Grant’

The presidency changed neither Ulysses S. Grant’s approach to leadership, nor his character. In the White House, Grant exhibited the same even-tempered ability to guide the nation through eight years of tensions after the Civil War as he did in his most important victories on the battlefield at Fort Donelson, Vicksburg and Appomattox. …

Biblical deconstruction VIII: the covenant

The entire biblical narrative hinges on a promise, that is, the promise from Yahweh to Abram that God would give him and his descendants the land of Canaan “forever,” as quoted in Gen. 13:14-15.

God did not live up to this promise. The lands in and around “Canaan” were in those early epochs and still are contested territories, as evidenced by the constant strife in the Middle East between Israel and Palestine. Of course, “Canaan” encompassed more than just Israel and the West Bank to include parts of modern-day Jordan and Syria and other areas, so God is still far from living up to his long-past promise to Abram and the tribes of Israel. Christians here will say that in Christ, a new Covenant was formed by which Christ will reconcile Jews and Gentiles and allow everyone who believes to be saved through Jesus. …

Debate with a theist

Please read here for some interesting correspondence between myself and a fellow blogger named, David Smart, aka, Ryft, who challenged a comment I made on one of his posts. I invite you to read his original post(too long to quote here), and what follows is my initial comment to it, which was chided for its brevity (didn’t know that was a bad thing). Here is the paragraph to which I responded: …

The argument from beauty

I listened to most of Bach’s Brandenburg concertos this afternoon and got to thinking again about the argument for beauty.

This fellow blogger raises a concern that the argument, which is articulated this way

  1. Beethoven’s quartets, Shakespeare’s sonnets, etc., are beautiful.
  2. If there were no God, then there would be no beauty (and thus no beautiful things).
  3. Therefore, there is a God.

may not be a legitimate argument for the existence of God in the first place and that Richard Dawkins’ only reference to the argument in “The God Delusion” is anecdotal. The writer also claims that Dawkins dismisses the argument for beauty by committing the begging the question fallacy because he asserts “without argument, that beauty doesn’t depend on God.” …

Free will an illusion?

The following video has been making the rounds in various freethinking circles lately to varying degrees of praise and criticism. In this lecture, author and neuroscientist Sam Harris delivers a lecture arguing against the notion of free will based on his book of the same name. …

Here, Harris puts forth a deterministic view of the human experience in which we are obviously not free to choose our genes, our backgrounds, our places of birth or control other factors that will eventually lead to our fully developed, adult selves. While some, through any number of variables, become “good” people and generally strive to improve the lives of the people around them, others, due to different and more malignant factors, are decidedly unlucky and become sociopaths and/or killers. …

Revelation revisited

Here is an intriguing look at the Book of Revelation that claims that the writer of the book, emphatically not John the Apostle, wasn’t writing about the end of the world, but rather about the collapse of the Roman empire, with Nero as the one stamped with the numerals 666.

I don’t know what John Milton’s personal interpretation of the Revelation might have been other than what he wrote in Paradise Lost, but it seems at least plausible to me that Milton, as ever, was onto something revolutionary. …

Punctilious punctuation 2

… Writers (and readers, I guess) apparently don’t have the attention span to follow the sentence throughout its entire construction, so they sometimes forget where previously placed commas occurred. This is easy to track in your head as you reread or edit a story, but problems such as this crop up time and time again. And for people who care about the language, it’s a distraction. As a colleague has often said, “Journalists are the keepers of the language.” That’s not to suggest that I won’t have typos myself, but the will for perfection is there. This is apparently not the case with many who haphazardly throw in or leave out commas seemingly at random. …

O, Lost

If the word has not already been coined, I’ll do the honors.

This year, I unequivocally became a Lostophile, that is, a person with a deep affinity for the philosophical nuisances of the television series, “Lost.” Granted, the TV show went off the air in 2010, but I only came toThe Island, so to speak, this past fall (October 2011) when I began watching the series from start to finish on Netflix.

OK, that’s not quite accurate. My initial engagement with the show was so intense that I watched the first three seasons, started right back at Season One and then watched the whole way through. I recently finished Season Six a couple weeks ago. …

Sullivan in denial on Christ

Christians arguing with other Christians about the “true” nature of Jesus and the church always makes for entertaining reading, but even more so when it comes from an openly gay Catholic whose own intellectualism should undercut his own faith in the first place.

In his new essay for Newsweek, “Christianity in Crisis,” Andrew Sullivan says that we should eschew the influence of politics and power that has crept into religion and get back to the “radical ideas” that spring from what Jesus did and said, including loving both our neighbors and enemies, turning the other cheek, giving away all material possessions and loving God the Father, whom Sullivan calls “the Being behind all things.” …

Bible ‘ho-hum’ on homosexuality. Really?

… So, if the people commit acts such as sleeping with their relatives or with people of the same sex, the earth will regurgitate them. In what “historical contexts” are we supposed to read these passages? I can maybe grant his point about Sodom — those guys were clearly out of line wanting to have sex with the angel-men! — but his blanket statement about homosexuality in the Bible is patently false. The passages above sound like pretty firm prohibitions to me, and not just of the acts themselves, but of the ideas of homosexuality, bestiality and incest, all of which are lumped together in two separate chapters.

 Satan and/or God’s wrath behind [insert tragedy here]

Another tragedy, more crazy talk to boot. Former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee recently said America’s “sin problem” was behind the Aurora movie theater shooting, while Rep. Louie Gohmert has said the nation was no longer under God’s “protective hand.” …

Book review: “Madison and Jefferson”

The above passage seems to summarize the general error of history that Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg address in their colossal, that is to say, towering work on a friendship between James Madison and Thomas Jefferson that endured for half a century.

Madison, as history has recorded, has been judged as the mostly quiet and stoic political thinker and constitutionalist, while Jefferson is widely thought of as the passionate, if not hyperbolic, consummate republican, always heralding the interests of the Virginian farmer against a potentially overbearing federal government that is always in danger of overextending itself. …

Biblical deconstruction X: God tests Abraham

Here we deal with one of the most well known, and by that I mean notorious, verses in the whole Old Testament.

The passage in Genesis 22 begins with God deciding, for whatever capricious reason God decides to do anything, to test Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his son as a burnt offering to him: …

Biblical deconstruction IX: Sodom and Gomorrah

Continuing with this series, we now turn to Genesis 18-19, in which Abraham and Sarah in the first part of Chapter 18 learn from God that she, now at an old age, will bear a son. The passage begins with the Lord appearing to Abraham under some trees, as well as three “men,” presumably angels. …

Why progressivism?

I took a long drive today — specifically eight hours round trip from Tennessee to South Carolina and back — and had some time to think about exactly why I can’t, under any circumstances, morally or intellectually, understand or support the conservative program of the last, well, 32 years since I’ve been old enough to be cognizant of it.

I concluded that it is this: while progressives, Green Party members, some Democrats and others, have been champions of people — you know, human beings with pulses and feelings and a pitiable capacity for suffering under immense physical, emotional or financial stress — Republicans more or less have mostly been concerned with A) protecting the rights of inanimate religion in all its forms, squashing gay rights, squashing all abortion, sometimes even in cases of rape or incest, and protecting the right of prayer in the public square, and B) protecting the rights of inanimate state governments and inanimate corporations. …

On Atheism+ and humanism

Jen McCreight over at Free Thought Blogs has created quite a stir in the atheist/freethinking community with a post titled, How I Unwittingly Infiltrated the Boy’s Club & Why It’s Time for a New Wave of Atheism, which has garnered in the neighborhood of 500 responses thus far.

In the post, McCreight laments her experiences with some of the more brutish individuals within the movement and said she was “welcomed with open arms” into the atheist and skeptic community until she started discussing feminism. Perhaps her first mistake was to create “Boobquake,” which was a day (April 26, 2010) for feminist supporters to protest Hojatoleslam Kazem Seddiqi‘s odious comment that women who dressed immodestly were the cause of earthquakes. …

On trial: ‘The Case for Christ,’ part 2

Welcome to the second part of this 16-part series on Lee’s Strobel’s “The Case for Christ.” If you missed it,here is Part I.

Strobel now gets to the meat of the book designed to investigate the trustworthiness of the New Testament authors and their accounts of the life of Jesus.

In Chapter 1, Strobel interviews Christian apologist Craig Blomberg and asks him how we know that the Matthew, Mark and Luke are the actual authors of the first three gospels. Blomberg then points, not to two sources outside of the church who can vouch for the authorship or the validity of the claims, but to two early church bishops, Papias (70 to about 155 A.D.) and Irenaeus (130-202 A.D.). …

On Atheism+ and humanism: part 2

At the expense of repeating myself, I’ll take some time here to explore some of the other components, criticisms and responses to Atheism+ that were not covered in this post. I have wanted to write a follow up post on this for quite a few days, but it has taken awhile to gather my thoughts.

Here I will show in fuller detail why Atheism+ is not only redundant but why it’s actually corrosive to the legacies of atheists and freethinkers who have done important social work under the old banners and who did so bravely and under conditions that were far from friendly or accepting. …

The omnipotence paradox

In a video series YouTube user Mike Winger calls, “Things Atheists Should Never Say,” he claims that nonbelievers should never ask this question to believers: “Can God make a rock so big He can’t lift it?”

I believe the typical phraseology goes like this: “Can God create a rock so heavy that even he cannot lift it,”with the common perception being that if God is all-powerful, he could, in theory, create an object bigger than his omnipotence will allow him to lift, thus hurling his supposed nature into logical entropy. This is called theomnipotence paradox.

Now, I’m not going to write a long essay defending this question. I and fellow nonbelievers don’t need this question, as it were, to tear holes through Christianity and religion in general, but I will add a few words in reference to some comments made over in Mike’s comments section on YouTube. …

Response to ‘Atheism’s growing pains’

As a number of folks on Tweeter had posted a link to the Salon.com article, “Atheism’s growing pains,” particularly because it referenced Atheism+, I thought I would have a look. I skimmed half of it because it just summarized the rise of atheism (I won’t call it a “movement”) and later, the prominence (or notoriousness) ofJen McCreight and her ill-named “Boobquake.” I wrote about Boobquake briefly here, but Adam Lee’s statement here is too good to bypass:

At first it seemed like lighthearted fun in support of a good point, but she (McCreight) wrote that it had encouraged some men in the atheist community to view her as a sex object, rather than a person with ideas worth taking seriously …

Again, I ask: ya think? …

Death of Reaganomics, rise of middle-out economics

Michael Tomasky with The Daily Beastargues that supply-side economics, as well as its ugly stepsister,Reaganomics, died on Election Day when Americans largely rejected the general economic platform of Mitt Romney in favor of a “middle-out” philosophy trumpeted by Barack Obama.

Tomasky makes a good case, but I would suggest that Americans began pulling the curtain on Reaganomics earlier in 2008. …

Why I write about religion

… I enjoy exploring questions in religion and philosophy because it’s intellectually stimulating. As a churchgoer, I used to compose whole essays about certain passages in theBible and how modern believers could find relevance from them and come away with some kind of moral lesson. I could still do this if I so desired.

Nowadays, I find that a better use of my time is to expound, not only on the many logical inconsistencies with the Judeo-Christian belief structure, but on the dangers of belief itself. And these are not just the intellectual perils. Religion has plenty of that to go around. No, I mean physical danger: parents who believe so much in prayer that they fail to take their sick children to the doctor when illness strikes, and when the kid inevitably succumbs to the illness, the words, “God‘s perfect plan,” shamefully spills from their lips; young men who fly planes into buildings for Allah and the promise of a reward in some long-hoped for paradise; Catholic priests who use the shroud of religion to coax small boys into back rooms of a sanctuary, strip away their innocence and then threaten them with more villainy if they say a word. And all of this just in modern times. This speaks nothing of the hundreds of years of oppression, violence, slavery and misery that religion has heaped on mankind, a misery that is flippantly and ludicrously explained away by the notion of original sin. …

Bad poetry: ‘Twas’ 11 days before Christmas’

This sinister and silly little poem has been making its rounds around Facebook and the interwebs after the shooting in Newtown, Conn. Here’s the text:

Twas’ 11 days before Christmas, around 9:38
when 20 beautiful children stormed through heaven’s gate.
their smiles were contagious, their laughter filled the air. …

Bad poetry redux

Since my responses were becoming a little long, I decided to make a new post to address a few of the comments I received on my criticism of “Twas’ 11 days before Christmas.” …

The Neofeminists (and The Neofeminists, ctd)

How to describe this “new wave” of hypersensitive, reactionary, dogmatic and witch-hunt brand of feminismthat has surfaced in the last year, with Ophelia Benson, Jen McCreight, Rebecca Watson and others carrying the banner?  As I’ve said before, I think the term neofeminism is about right. …

Purpose driven pastor

Here is an interesting profile of Saddleback Church pastor, Rick Warren, and author of the best selling book, “The Purpose Driven Life.”

Warren seems to be attempting to make a resurgence by taking advantage of the 10-year anniversary of the work’s publication, which outlines the five “purposes” that people, specifically Christians, have in life. He is releasing a new edition of the book with a couple new chapters and well as some accompanying links to extra audio and video content, no doubt hoping to add more millions of dollars to the surge of book sales (and related instructional material) that he got from the first publication. …

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Revelation revisited

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Illustration for John Milton’s “Paradise Lost“ by Gustave Doré, 1866.

Here is an intriguing look at the Book of Revelation that claims that the writer of the book, emphatically not John the Apostle, wasn’t writing about the end of the world, but rather about the collapse of the Roman empire, with Nero as the one stamped with the numerals 666.

I don’t know what John Milton’s personal interpretation of the Revelation might have been other than what he wrote in Paradise Lost, but it seems at least plausible to me that Milton, as ever, was onto something revolutionary.

In Paradise Lost, Satan, of course, is actually the Satan of religious lore, but Milton also established his character to symbolically represent Charles I, the king of England, and hell as the British monarch and empire at large. Students of British history well know, of course, that Milton was in favor of dethroning Charles I and supported republicanism, free speech and freedom of the press. In other words, he was well ahead of his time.

Again, I don’t know if a study has ever been undertaken, but what are the implications here if Milton, some 360 years ago, interpreted the Book of Revelation in the more modern sense, with the “end” coming not to the world, but to what was perceived as an evil, oppressive empire?

4 big myths of Book of Revelation – CNN Belief Blog – CNN.com Blogs.

[Image credit: Illustration for John Milton’s “Paradise Lost“ by Gustave Doré, 1866.]

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John Milton wrote pulp poetry? Not likely

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I know my next topic probably has very limited appeal, but since John Milton is the behind the name of this blog, “Our Daily Train,” it seems like any new news about Milton deserves a brief airing.

Credit: Getty Images; Milton was known for his political and religious poems.

According to this BBC story, a rather seedy poem was discovered recently by scholars at Oxford University that was, at least by some, initially attributed to Milton. The eight-line poem dates from the mid-17th century, when Milton was writing, and has since been attributed to a scant few others authors, namely John Dryden, Sir John Suckling and John Wilmot. I know you can’t wait to read its (Miltonic?) devilishness, so here it is:

An Extempore upon a Faggot

Have you not in a Chimney seen
A Faggot which is moist and green
How coyly it receives the Heat
And at both ends do’s weep and sweat?
So fares it with a tender Maid
When first upon her Back she’s laid
But like dry Wood th’ experienced Dame
Cracks and rejoices in the Flame.

Here’s a brief summation of the poem from The Guardian:

The coarse, and frankly misogynistic verse likens a young woman to a faggot, a bunch of damp sticks, which, when cast upon the fire, produces moisture “at both ends”, like (according to the poem) a weeping virgin when sexually aroused. By contrast, the more sexually experienced woman is more like dry wood, which becomes joyfully enflamed when put on the fire.

Jennifer Batt, an English literature academic at Oxford apparently came across the poem while sifting through the Harding Collection located in the Bodleian Library. According to Batt,

To see the name of John Milton, the great religious and political polemicist, attached to such a bawdy epigram is extremely surprising to say the least. The poem is so out of tune with the rest of his work that if the attribution is correct it would prompt a major revision of our ideas about Milton.

It is likely that Milton’s name was used as an attribution to bring scandal upon the poet, perhaps by a jealous contemporary.

This is a pretty likely theory, since Milton didn’t make too many friends in his day. First, through his poetry, he constantly claimed and channeled divine inspiration for many of his works, inside the works themselves, as in the introduction to “Paradise Lost,” where Milton summons the Holy Spirit to guide him in writing the epic poem:

And chiefly thou O Spirit … Instruct me … what in me is dark / Illumine, what is low raise and support; / That to the height of this great argument / I may assert eternal providence, / And justify the ways of God to men.

Milton’s writing about his calling as a great poet is flush with examples throughout his poetic and prose works.

Second, he was against the rule of a monarch and seemed to set up an analogy between the king and Satan in “Paradise Lost” and advocated the execution of Charles I. He also wrote a tract called “Areopagitica” that served as an early call for freedom of speech in the wake of the government attempting to quell anti-government tracts from being published. After the king was restored following the English Revolution, Milton found himself in jail for a brief period because of his stance against the monarchy.

And on top of all that, he barely wrote about anything other than religion, politics or himself! While Milton was by no means a conformist on any level, topics like love and lust would have probably seemed beside the point for him, a man consumed with his own future celebrity, the fate of his home country and religion.

That said, John Wilmot, a writer known for his bawdiness, may indeed be a more likely culprit.

***

As a side note, a full reading of “Paradise Lost” is highly recommended, and the work approaches something like a transcendent experience. The poem itself is just, or more, sublime than the gods, angels and demons of which Milton chose for his subjects. I am currently watching a video lecture series on Milton at academicearth.org and may have more Milton-inspired musings as I go along.

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‘… Thy daily Train’

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I also touched on this here, but for those who may be interested or curious, here is the passage from which the “Our Daily Train” portion of my blog gets its name. It is the portion in John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” in which Satan is tempting Eve in the garden. In this passage, Satan, the serpent, has “glozed,” or flattered Eve in his temptation of her.

As it turns out, I came to love the eloquent writing and utter weightiness of Milton’s epic poem while at Clemson University as part of Lee Morrissey’s flock of enrapt literature students. He has subsequently become the chair of the department at the university, and good for him. Here is the excerpt, but I would encourage one to at least read Book IX, or if one prefers, and more enriching, the entire poem (The final portion of the passage demanded my attention so much that I highlighted those three words in my copy of “John Milton: A Critical Edition of the Major Works” [See picture]):

His fraudulent temptation thus began.

Wonder not, sovran Mistress, if perhaps
Thou canst, who art sole Wonder, much less arm
Thy looks, the Heav’n of mildness, with disdain,
Displeas’d that I approach thee thus, and gaze [ 535 ]
Insatiate, I thus single, nor have feard
Thy awful brow, more awful thus retir’d.
Fairest resemblance of thy Maker faire,
Thee all things living gaze on, all things thine
By gift, and thy Celestial Beautie adore [ 540 ]
With ravishment beheld, there best beheld
Where universally admir’d; but here
In this enclosure wild, these Beasts among,
Beholders rude, and shallow to discerne
Half what in thee is fair, one man except, [ 545 ]
Who sees thee? (and what is one?) who shouldst be seen
A Goddess among Gods, ador’d and serv’d
By Angels numberless, thy daily Train.

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Written by Jeremy

April 17th, 2010 at 11:55 pm

A year-plus in the books

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Welp, folks, I just renewed the registration on this domain for another year. I had a free credit somehow or another, so it didn’t cost anything, and as an added bonus, you get to see me babble for another year! I know you couldn’t be happier.

I was watching a Christopher Hitchens interview today from 2002 (I know, I apologize. I keep harping on this crass Englishman, but I’m fascinated with the guy.) Anyway, he was saying that at some point in his life, he came to realize that he was a born writer and that he really couldn’t imagine doing anything else. That the career of writing was really decided for him, not by him. And that struck me as something I could relate to.

To present a brief sketch of my background, I began college at Lander University in South Carolina with no clue at all what I wanted to do. At first, I believe I was a music major, when I realized that if I continued on down this path, I would grow up penniless. So, I moved to a more lucrative endeavor: computer programming. I could handle Pascal, the language, not his wager, fairly well. I performed decently in the introductory Pascal class, as I remember. But as I transferred to Clemson University, I came in contact with this fast-speaking, fast-moving, coffee-overdosed programming professor blathering something about the Java language (who obviously took the title of the language too seriously), objects and functions and infinite loops, and it was all quite frustrating. Today, I understand some of JavaScript, a Web programming language, but at the time, my anti-math mind was not grasping this fellow’s speedily-rehearsed lectures at all. So computer programming was out.

English was the last gasp. I did not know what I would do with an English major, even after graduating college. I just took the wise words of a professor of mine. He told me to just study what you enjoy. And I did enjoy that, at least. I was inspired by John Milton, Shelley, Keats, Emily Dickson, Bronte, and others, and later, Thomas Wolfe, Jack Miles, Stanley Fish, Kurt Vonnegut, John Steinbeck and others. I had early aspirations of going on to becoming an English professor. This would, of course, require graduate school somewhere other than Clemson. And in order to stay closer to my family and friends, I declined that option and started working at a retail store in Clemson to make ends meet. But we’re getting bogged down. To make it short, a journalism instructor at Clemson University (S.C.) saw something in me, I suppose, and gave me a favorable recommendation, thus allowing me to get an interview with a local newspaper in Clayton, Ga.

My future aspirations would lead further than this blog and my current position. I would like to do some writing for a major magazine on the topic of either politics or religion or history … or perhaps, a well-read online publication, by way of a weekly or monthly column, if the opportunity ever presented itself.

But back to writing as a career. I think at some point in the latter part of 2007-08, I came to the realization that a writer is what I am, like Hitchens and others. I think before then, I was just trying to scratch by, have fun and the like. Although, I was attempting to write some (bad) poetry and fiction in high school, so the interest was there early on.

Today, I take a certain pleasure when I am in the company of fellow writers, like the editor at the paper for which I work. And I don’t mean pulp fiction writers who crank out 10 novels a day. Those folks aren’t writers; they are entertainers. I mean people who appreciate the language and have something meaingful to say through it, like Milton, Wolfe, Paine, Locke, Vonnegut and others.

At the expense of this getting too long and to catalog the renewal of the domain name and this site for another year, here are 15  of my favorite posts from the last year and four months, beginning in May 2008. Thanks for reading!

On Dobson’s ‘dissection’ of Obama’s June 2006 speech 

Why I assume a god (I ironic to the core, since more than one year later, I would make an opposite case.) 

2012 Olympics go intergalactic?

Comments on the presidential debate

 Zimbabwe: House of cards 

Debunking reincarnation

On Cruise, thetans, Hubbard and Xenu

Limbaugh, unhappiest, most miserable person alive? Perhaps

The newspaper crisis as I see it

 Unrevolutionary tea

On ‘Milk’ and homosexuality (Revised)

Glimmer of hope in Zimbabwe

Our forward-thinking Founders

Hare brains defeat reason in Iran

The God question: My testimony

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The God question: My testimony

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The debate on the god question has come up recently on Facebook between a couple friends of mine, and I thought it might be interesting if I laid out and clarified a few points about my own experiences regarding this matter to attempt to come around to an overall theory. Some family, friends, former church members of mine have probably noticed peculiar postings of mine regarding religion and God, and I thought an explanation was in order. This post took me a couple weeks to write (Thus the reason for no other recent posts), so bear with me. I’m not saying my conclusion won’t or can’t change, but my thoughts right now as they stand are recorded in this post. To borrow a religious term, here is my “testimony:”

First, as I have stated to a couple people in the last year, I set about in Oct. 2008 or so to the task of trying to figure out precisely why I believed what I proclaimed to believe. I will say here that I was raised in the Christian tradition, as most people in the southeastern United States are, and spent many years performing musically and otherwise toward that end. I sang with my grandfather, whom I miss to this day, in more than one Southern gospel group. I played acoustic and electric guitar for seven or more years in a contemporary-style church in Upstate, South Carolina. Until I reached college, I knew little of teachings other than what was in the Bible. Despite taking and passing a philosophy class and many English classes which served to, at least, introduce certain issues that would later challenge my faith, I maintained my core beliefs through college and even through numerous years after college.

Like so many with physical ailments who have wanted desperately to believe in a god who had the power to, not only save souls, but to physically heal, I tried my best to read the Bible and believe. In the years after college, my life was largely dominated by loneliness and despair over various issues, the most immediate of which would be emphysema.

I had heard stories that many people back home prayed me out of certain death when I was a baby hospitalized for 3 1/2 years in New York City, apparently saving me from dying from a critical immune system disorder. I don’t want to discredit or marginalize family members’ and friends’ efforts or concerns back home. They were doing what they thought was best.

So, poof, after much research and after three years of testing and poking and prodding at me, doctors came up with a way to give me an unprecedented unmatched bone marrow transplant to set my immune system on the right course. In the early 1980s, this was no small thing.

Now, I’m wise enough to recognize that science and research saved me in my infancy. I’m wise enough to know that, had I been lying in a crib inside my home in South Carolina, with the same prayers but without the same science and medical treatment, I would be a memory, and would probably not have even made it past my first year. So, at 4 1/2 years old, with medical research providing and setting my path toward adulthood, I set out on a vast world that I had never known cramped inside my little, sterile hospital-world.

And, of course, my parents not only gave me life … but a second life. I was a dead man, but they packed up their things in their early 20s at the time (I’m now 32 and can’t imagine doing such a thing at their age) and moved 900 miles north to a cockroach-ridden Manhattan apartment with their young daughter … all for me. For all my hard-boiled, emotional determinism, the thought of what they went through to keep me alive still brings a lump to my throat … and I’m thankful beyond words.

Back to religion, I decided a year or so back that it would be the most insincere and dishonest thing that I could imagine if I were to continue to lead the people in church worship without believing myself in the words of the songs I was playing (I think even believers can agree with me on that point.) I surmised that it would also be distasteful to not know full well why I believed in what the folks around me were singing, and not be able to articulate what I believed, and why I believed it. I concluded, even before I began questioning faith, that to believe and live my entire life and then die some day without knowing precisely why I believed such and such, without evidence and without a good explanation for any of it, essentially giving my entire life to something, sheepishly, was a most foolish and tragic thing (In fact, the word “tragic” probably represents an understatement).

Believing simply based on a “feeling” that we get on Sunday morning in the presence of nice music and other believers — which is all it is, since there’s not a stitch of evidence for any of it — was not good enough for me, and this was the realization that hit me between the eyes at some point last year. I can, perhaps, pinpoint the precise time. It may have been during a long car ride to Boston with my wife, when I had a fantastically long time to do a lot of thinking.

To catalog a few of the works I’ve studied thus far that have influenced me one way or the other since and before that particular trip:

  • “Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God” by Jack Miles
  • “God: A Biography” by Jack Miles
  • “Mere Christianity” “Surprised by Joy,” “The Screwtape Letters” by C.S. Lewis
  • “The Case for Christ” and “The Case for Faith” by Lee Strobel
  • “Godless” by Dan Barker
  • “Why I Became An Atheist” by John Loftus
  • “The Age of Reason” by Thomas Paine
  • “The End of Faith” by Sam Harris
  • “The Stranger” and “The Myth of Sisyphus” By Albert Camus
  • “Notes from the Underground” By Fyodor Dostoevsky (To a lesser degree, “The Brothers Karamzov” and “Crime and Punishment”
  • This does not mention, of course, most of the Old and New testaments, numerous Christian commentaries, two decades of Christian teaching from various workshops, sermons and classes, and many of the gospels and texts that did not make it into the “official” King James Bible as pieced together by various church officials centuries ago.

I’m under no illusion that my recent thoughts and studies are crushing to any possibility, or any fraction of a possibility, that I might supernaturally be made better physically some day (For I deny even the possibility of a being capable of such things … nothwithstanding his unwillingness). I dare say no one has called out more to God than I for answers, even for answers about his own existence. No one has pleaded more with God for help. No one has been on their knees more than me. But I’ve heard nothing. Not one thing but my own voice, until eventually I got the impression that my prayers were merely floating to the ceiling and falling back down like stillborn stars. So, I got off my knees and determined, like the human that I am, to find the truth.

Believers will probably question this, saying something like, “Well, you can’t just give up. God is faithful to answer prayer in his time on his watch” or with, “God answers all prayer with either a ‘No,’ ‘Yes,’ or ‘Maybe.’” But those are the only three possible options, aren’t they? We can write off or explain away any unanswered prayer (or perceived answered prayer) by that logic to help God escape an explanation for his own silence.

We have, indeed, for centuries, received nothing at all but silence from the God of the Old Testament, just as we have received no recent word from Jesus or Zeus or Apollo or Allah or Osiris. Thousands of years have passed and not an utterance. Does that not strike anyone else as peculiar? Believers, again, will say the Bible is God’s revealed word or his instruction manual and that he exists in the hearts and minds of those who are filled with the Holy Spirit because they have believed in him. Well, I have believed — I have with all my heart — and other than some hormones jostled around, stimulated by some inspiring tune in the company of believers, have felt or heard nothing but my own voice.

So, I know there will be those to whom these words are very troubling — family, friends, former churchgoers, etc. but please know that I expect none of the same thoughts from any of you and am not trying to convince anyone of anything. I’m merely stating my experiences, and don’t particularly want this to meltdown into a large debate. Again, I did not set out at the start to disprove anything. I set out to find the truth. And these truths we can’t escape: Earth is billions of years old, Earth exists on a spiral arm of our galaxy, an insignificant spot, and not the center of the galaxy as many of our forebearers thought (which, by the way, gave creedance to the argument that we are the special planet, and a special species, in all of creation). The Earth will one day be uninhabited by people once again, not by a rapture, but either by a wayward asteroid or gamma ray burst or by the sun losing power. The truth is the canonical Bible contains many irreparable self-contradictions; condones slavery, mass slaughter, rape, the mutilation or altering of children’s genitalia, among other things; and cannot even get the details straight about the events surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Again, when I set about my studies, I was not seeking hope or spiritualism or miracles or wishful-thinking, I was seeking the truth, which in the 17th century when John Milton was alive, “a wicked race of deceivers … took the virgin Truth (and) hewed her lovely form into a thousand pieces, and scattered them to the four winds.” But they are not at the four winds anymore. Truth is much closer to us in modern America. So, at least at this juncture, I have concluded that the ancient, contradictory books of the Old and New testaments, written in a time of widespread myth and legend, are not good enough to make me, first, believe, and second, to base my entire life on such things contained therein.

I feel compelled to say that I apologize to certain people (of whom I still hold a great deal of respect) for that statement, whom I know, would want me to conclude differently, but that’s how I feel. The Christian tradition is so embedded in this part of the country (the Southeast), that to say such things, is almost like seceding a second time from the Union. But again, I ask, what’s more important? The truth or wishful thinking? When I set out about this, I resolved to be comfortable with whatever philosophical pathway on which my studies took me down. And that’s what we all must do.

And at some point, all us of have to make a similar choice: Do we want to be complacent in living our lives for a faith that may or may not, in reality, be true, or can we mentally and emotionally handle another possibility: that we are an insignificant dot in a vast, vast universe. As a friend of mine was saying, we need religion. We do indeed. But can’t we be strong enough to move past it and accept our place in the cosmos? As one writer, John Loftus, said that we humans think we are so special that we can’t imagine a fate that would see us go extinct like all the rest of life on Earth. Yet, that is our fate. Our extreme intelligence compels us to think of other worlds or other dimensions like heaven or hell, but our humanity also compels us to surmise that we are on a small planet in an insignificant galaxy, of which, there are millions. It is quite believable to think other species in some undiscovered galaxy thought themselves self-important, like us, and then, saw their own existence come to a crashing hault.

Of course, we may never know 100 percent if there is a god or not and we may never know 100 percent how life began, but I think we can be pretty sure it did not happen as the Bible, with its self-contradictions, recounts. (Note: I do not cite examples of the Bible’s contradictions here because they are well documented and this post is long as is. Search Google for “bible contradictions” and you can view them for yourself.)

For me, the option that we are an insignificant dot in a vast universe, takes much more wherewithall, and frankly, is a quite liberating axiom, to know that we are, at the core, connected and interconnected with the universe, not just Earth, and everything in the universe is quite a beautiful thing, as astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson noted.

Thus, again, I did not seek hope (specifically for my health conditions or otherwise) or karma or spirituality or wishful thinking. I sought the truth. For truth, should we reference the record of science, which says this planet has existed for billions of years and will again be vanquished or a book authored by superstitious people thousands of years ago during a time consumed with myth and legend? I have to side with the former.

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Milton’s matchlessness diluted?

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In Stanley Fish’s most recent New York Times blog post, we read about a new modern, reader-friendly translation of one of, if not the, greatest epic poems of all time.

John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” in all its didactic complexities and hidden poetic treasures, recalls, in extended form, “Of man’s first disobedience, and the Fruit” and how Adam and Eve, once God’s seemingly unblemished creations, fell and eventually, thousands of blank verse lines later, “hand in hand with wandering steps and slow, Through Eden took their solitary way” out of paradise.

The new adaptation, called, “Paradise Lost: Parallel Prose Edition” by Dennis Danielson “unpacks” the poem, as Fish notes, so that it is more coherent to modern readers. During a lengthy analysis, Fish takes several examples from the new translation and attempts to show how the new version changes the meaning from Milton’s original, tightly packed verse.

To take one example:

When Adam decides to join Eve in sin and eat the apple, the poem says that he was “fondly overcome by female charm.” The word that asks you to pause is “fondly,” which means both foolishly and affectionately. The two meanings have different relationships to the action they characterize. If you do something foolishly, you have no excuse, and it’s a bit of a mystery as to why you did; if you do it prompted by affection and love, the wrongness of it may still be asserted, but something like an explanation or an excuse has at least been suggested.

The ambiguity plays into the poem-length concern with the question of just how culpable Adam and Eve are for the fall. (Given their faculties and emotions, were they capable of standing?) “Fondly” doesn’t resolve the question, but keeps it alive and adds to the work the reader must always be doing when negotiating this poem.

Here is Danielson’s translation of the line: “an infatuated fool overcome by a woman’s charms.” “Infatuated” isn’t right because it redoubles the accusation in “fool” rather than softening it. The judgment is sharp and clear, but it is a clearer judgment than Milton intended or provided. Something has been lost (although as Danielson points out, something is always lost in a translation). — Stanley Fish, The New York Times, Nov. 30, 2008

Critics of Milton’s verse have said that the difficulty of the original text, according to Fish, rests in the self-centric nature of the poem. Quoting F.R. Leavis, he said the poetry “calls pervasively for a kind of attention … toward itself.”

Roadblocks, in the form of ambiguities, deliberate obscurities, shifting grammatical paths and recondite allusions, are everywhere and one is expected to stop and try to figure things out, make connections or come to terms with an inability to make connections.

Thus, a different sort of reading is required than the standard gathering of basic plot details. One is forced to, of course, follow the plot, but one is also invited to seek out the hidden complexities of the very words and letters on the page. Well-placed sonnets appear within its framework. Poignant acronyms, spotted by scanning the beginning letter of each line, are darted throughout. A prose-only reading of the text, then, would conceal these findings and, further, would exempt the reader from the possibility of finding them.

Clearly, Danielson’s love for Milton is palpable or else, he would not be a Milton scholar. And as Fish points out, Danielson includes the original verse right alongside his new translation.

I would agree with Fish on most counts. Danielson is providing a fine tool to introduce readers to Milton’s greatness. Fish says of Danielson:

He knows as well as anyone how Milton’s poetry works, but it is his judgment (following [John] Wesley and [Harold] Bloom) that many modern readers will not take their Milton straight and require some unraveling of the knots before embarking on the journey.

I’m not sure he’s right (I’ve found students of all kinds responsive to the poetry once they give it half a chance), but whether he is or not, he has fashioned a powerful pedagogical tool that is a gift to any teacher of Milton whatever the level of instruction.

Are scholars beginning to translate Beowulf or Chaucer or Shakespeare? If they are, I’m not aware. Regardless, I, having read the entire poem “straight,” as Fish notes, with no help from study aids or the like, found it quite understandable with the help of a good old dictionary and the simple textual notes provided with most Milton readers. So, while Fish says the edition is a “gift to any teacher of Milton,” I would have to disagree on that count. I don’t think we can allow our greatest writings to be watered down into modern prose, when prose was quite an opposite intention of the writer. Not only is “something” always lost in translation, much is lost in translation.

As early as 1763, John Wesley noted of “Paradise Lost” that “this inimitable work amidst all its beauties is unintelligible to [an] abundance of readers.” Much later, Harold Bloom, with a hint of fatalism for the direction of modern education, noted readers today “require mediation to read ‘Paradise Lost’ with full appreciation.” But reading “Paradise Lost” with mediation is not reading “Paradise Lost.” It’s reading or being fed someone else’s thoughts on the poem. Has Bloom and Danielson simply “given in” and acknowledged that it’s beyond modern readers’ capacity to read complex literature without assistance from other translations, study guides, etc?

If that’s the concession, and even when academia is acknowledging this much, it’s a sad day. I’m thankful that
I had a lit professor who dictated to us exactly what we would do when approaching Milton: Sit down with the original text, read the annotations for clarity if necessary, have a dictionary handy and let the poetry speak for itself. Was it difficult? Yes. But it was worth it. Danielson’s edition, while admirable in its attempt to make Milton more digestible to a new generation of readers misses the point.

“Paradise Lost,” as Fish begins with Danielson’s own reference to Wesley, is inimitable, or matchless. And for that reason, it should retain its luster; anything less is lazy and fatalistic teaching. It is the responsibility of the teacher or professor’s job to make Milton, Shakespeare and the like interesting to students, to make them understand just why it’s matchless, to help students take the text as it was meant to be taken. It’s not inimitable just because it tells a good story. It’s inimitable because it tells a good story in one of the most finely crafted, well-thought out, epic creations of poetry the world will ever see. To see it or study it as anything else is a true loss.

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Negative ads: Why do we put up with them?

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These campaign ads are getting harder and harder to watch. Check out this:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6JoFVoPCMfg]

And then this:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CK3Y1KPzW9k

And read how McCain ads have been debunked time and time again from The Washington Post’s E. J. Dionee:

Does the Truth Matter Anymore?

This is not false naivete: I am genuinely surprised that John McCain and his campaign keep throwing out false charges and making false claims without any qualms. They keep talking about Sarah Palin’s opposition to the Bridge to Nowhere without any embarrassment over the fact that she once supported it. They keep saying that Barack Obama will raise taxes, suggesting he’d raise them on everybody, when Obama’s plan, according to the Tax Policy Institute, would cut taxes for “about 80 percent of households” while “only about 10 percent would owe more.” And as Sebastian Mallaby pointed outin his recent column, Obama would cut taxes for middle-income taxpayers “more aggressively” than McCain would.

And now comes a truly vile McCain adaccusing Obama of supporting legislation to offer “‘comprehensive sex education’ to kindergartners.” The announcer declares: “Learning about sex before learning to read? Barack Obama. Wrong on education. Wrong for your family.”

Margaret Talev of McClatchy newspapers called the ad a “deliberate low blow.” Here’s what she wrote in an excellent fact check: “This is a deliberately misleading accusation. It came hours after the Obama campaign released a TV ad critical of McCain’s votes on public education. As a state senator in Illinois, Obama did vote for but was not a sponsor of legislation dealing with sex ed for grades K-12. But the legislation allowed local school boards to teach ‘age-appropriate’ sex education, not comprehensive lessons to kindergartners, and it gave schools the ability to warn young children about inappropriate touching and sexual predators.”

Is McCain against teaching little kids to beware of sexual predators?

McCain once campaigned on the idea that the war on terrorism is the “transcendent” issue of our time. Now, he’s stooping to cheap advertising that would be condemned as trivial and misleading in a state legislative race. Boy, do I miss the old John McCain and wonder what became of him. And I wonder if the media will really take on this onslaught of half-truths and outright deception.

UPDATE: I wrote this post late Tuesday night. I’m glad to see the story on the front page of today’s Post begin to take up what will be an ongoing imperative in this campaign.

I starkly remember speeches where both McCain and Obama said they wanted to run clean campaign. While Obama attempted to stay above the fray for as long as possible, to keep afloat — because negative ads and character flaws are apparently what the American people respond to the most, truth or no truth — he had to go on the offensive. I contend Obama is still farther away from the perpetual political gutter than McCain, a man whose entire campaign was to be based on honor and uprightness. So, this begs the question: how does McCain continue on without his campaign folding under the shear weight of smeardom? Why do we put up with it? Why do Americans respond to these types of ads? Why do we insist politicians “go negative?” And most puzzling: Why do we reward them for doing so — McCain seems to pick up speed the more negative he goes, while Obama had to go negative to keep up — and punish those who keep to the issues themselves?

The short answer lies somewhere here: in the busyness, laziness, naivete or ignorance of many. Each of these seems to flow from the other. Busyness is really not an excuse for not being informed about an election that will determine who sits at the highest seat in the land, in this election or any other. Laziness is a symptom that’s hard to topple. Many simply watch the ads on TV or see a clip on the news, watch squash-fests like Hannity and Combs and assume they are well-informed.

To be more informed, I suggest taking 15 or 30 minutes per day and search the county’s leading newspaper’s Web sites, to first, not only get the basis of what happened politically that day, but to read opinion columns and the unsigned editorials of the major papers. These would include: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Los Angeles Times and, at this critical time, the Anchorage Daily News. If you have time or inclination, it is best not to just stick to American publications. Read The London Times and others for different perspectives. By all means, steer clear of CNN, FOX News, MSNBC or others. Their TV stations and their Web sites are useless. C-SPAN is the lone exception.

Some time spent doing the above will make one less naive about campaign strategies and techniques. As for the final symptom, ignorance, we must make a distinction between simple ignorance and willful ignorance. The above steps will take care of simple ignorance, but of willful ignorance, I’m afraid I have no cure, and it seems the McCain camp — and Obama’s to a lesser degree — play to this demographic. The symptom here is one that constantly seeks out parallel views, and views to the contrary are tossed out with the trash. Thus, I would argue grossly inaccurate and “vile” McCain ads, as Dionne terms them, work because they affirm to McCain followers how misguided and unfit to lead Obama is and vice versa. The political perceptions of some simply never change or even falter, probably because of familial ties or religion or what have you.

Poet John Milton, writing a good three-plus centuries ago, caught me between the eyes a decade ago in college upon reading his “Areopagitica” tract against government-sponsored censorship. For me, it was an awakening. Here was a Christian poet, perhaps the greatest, saying how it was Ok, and even preferred, to read, not just books that affirm your view, but those of the “enemy.” And for this purpose: to know both good and evil, truth and mistruths, but still choose that which is true and good. I go back to this passage time and time again. It, for me, is the reason Christians, non-Christians, Jews, Muslims, Republicans or  Democrats should not acquiesce into their own deeply entrenched familial or religious worldviews, but to see and know.

I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary. That virtue therefore which is but a youngling in the contemplation of evil, and knows not the utmost that vice promises to her followers, and rejects it, is but a blank virtue, not a pure; her whiteness is but an excremental whiteness. Which was the reason why our sage and serious poet Spenser, whom I dare be known to think a better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas, describing true temperance under the person of Guion, brings him in with his palmer through the cave of Mammon, and the bower of earthly bliss, that he might see and know, and yet abstain. — “Areopagitica,” John Milton, 1644

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On ‘Our daily train’

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After naming my blog “Our daily train,” I thought it appropriate to try and explain myself. The reference is from John Milton’s epic poem “Paradise Lost.” It is taken from the poem’s nineth book, in which Satan tells Eve:

Wonder not, sovran Mistress, if perhaps
Thou canst, who art sole Wonder, much less arm
Thy looks, the Heav’n of mildness, with disdain,
Displeas’d that I approach thee thus, and gaze [ 535 ]
Insatiate, I thus single, nor have feard
Thy awful brow, more awful thus retir’d.
Fairest resemblance of thy Maker faire,
Thee all things living gaze on, all things thine
By gift, and thy Celestial Beautie adore [ 540 ]
With ravishment beheld, there best beheld
Where universally admir’d; but here
In this enclosure wild, these Beasts among,
Beholders rude, and shallow to discerne
Half what in thee is fair, one man except, [ 545 ]
Who sees thee? (and what is one?) who shouldst be seen
A Goddess among Gods, ador’d and serv’d
By Angels numberless, thy daily Train.

I fell in love with the poetry of John Milton in college. I was familiar with him in high school, but at that time, to read and understand Milton was too lofty a goal, although as a teenager, Milton himself already had Greek and Latin under his belt and was writing poetry by age 15. According to his brother, Christopher, John:

When he was young, he studied very hard and sat up very late, commonly till twelve or one o’clock at night.

Samuel Johnson, in his Milton biography, “Life of Milton,” says Milton would often retreat to bed at midnight or so and then get up at 5 a.m. to start his day replete with studying. What if we all had that kind of drive and hunger for knowledge? I mean not just the folks at the forefront of learning (i.e. scientists, philosophers and doctors), but everyone. Where we would we be as a culture and society? But, of course, I am no John Milton, and neither are many of you (though we may desire to be in some ways). I wish I had the motivation to spend every waking hour – other than when I’m working – to study and learn. I try, of course. I read the paper. I watch the news. I read The New York Times. I comb over The Associated Press postings everyday at work. But Milton’s dedication goes beyond picking up the latest headlines of the day. He delved deep into knowledge; so much so that he even personified knowledge in “Paradise Lost” and made it second fiddle only to God himself. To Milton, there was God, raised high and supreme, and just a tick below, sat knowledge. As Milton writes in “Areopagitica: A speech for the liberty of unlicensed printing to the parliament of England:”

The worthy man, loath to give offence, fell into a new debate with himself what was to be thought; when suddenly a vision sent from God (it is his own epistle that so avers it) confirmed him in these words: Read any books whatever come to thy hands, for thou art sufficient both to judge aright and to examine each matter. To this revelation he assented the sooner, as he confesses, because it was answerable to that of the Apostle to the Thessalonians, Prove all things, hold fast that which is good. And he might have added another remarkable saying of the same author: To the pure, all things are pure; not only meats and drinks, but all kind of knowledge whether of good or evil; the knowledge cannot defile, nor consequently the books, if the will and conscience be not defiled.

For books are as meats and viands are; some of good, some of evil substance; and yet God, in that unapocryphal vision, said without exception, Rise, Peter, kill and eat, leaving the choice to each man’s discretion.

And this is the greatness of knowledge, of books, of learning:

Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary. That virtue therefore which is but a youngling in the contemplation of evil, and knows not the utmost that vice promises to her followers, and rejects it, is but a blank virtue, not a pure; her whiteness is but an excremental whiteness. Which was the reason why our sage and serious poet Spenser, whom I dare be known to think a better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas, describing true temperance under the person of Guion, brings him in with his palmer through the cave of Mammon, and the bower of earthly bliss, that he might see and know, and yet abstain.

I am not qualified to surmise what I think Milton may have thought of censorship in our modern era – I certainly know his position in his own time. He was “agin it,” as they say in the north Georgia mountains. Read “Areapagitica” and that becomes apparent. But of our new brand of vileness, he would, I feel, remain unmoved in this statement: “That we might see and know, and yet abstain.” This is not a call to voluntarily view every piece of filfth available to us just so you can “know,” but it is a call to know it exists (and its existence is inevitable in a fallen world) to not be naive about our culture, and yet, choose to think on something better for our eyes, our hearts, our lives.

That was a bit of a sidestep, but at last, I come to “thy daily train.” You can read the passage and decide for yourself, as none of us – ok a few of us (not me) – are experts on 17th-century English, but I think it simply means, “our daily life.” Our routine. Our way of doing things. In essence, this is what a journal is. It’s a record of our lives and how we view it through our own lens, and in so much as possible, we should attempt to view it through others’ lens, to attempt to better understand and love them. For if you live in a bubble, the tendency is toward embroiled misunderstanding.

I hope to convey my thoughts, my relationship with Christ, my hopes, my fears, my haunted retreats, “through certain half-deserted streets,” in “muttering retreats” in these pages. Fail I might, but try I will and take my daily train. Read the rest of this entry »

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