Commonplace Book #144

We do have a language for the human magnificence we witness in the wake of devastation; we do have a language that expresses our longings both for a sense of the world’s magnitude and for fleshly access to transcendence. Our best hope for an imaginative and political antithesis to capitalist enchantment resides in the lineage of Romantic, sacramental radicalism. It understands calamity, injustice, and degradation as predicaments of human divinity, hardships can reveal our suppressed or perverted but nonetheless godlike nature. It views that material universe as a cosmic theater of divine  vitality, charged with the grandeur of God. Beginning with the squatters on St. George’s Hill, the pedigree of Romantic modernity maintained that we already live in paradise, and that our blindness to the heaven all around us is the source of our descent into the hell of property, rank, and dominion. The capacity to apprehend paradise had several names–“imagination,” “wonder,” “passionate vision,” “sacramental consciousness”–but it has always been a way of seeing, a perception of some truth  and goodness and beauty intrinsic to the material world, a view that embraces without nullfiying the knowledge obtainable through the sciences.

Eugene McCarraher, The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity, 674-675.


Commonplace Book #143

For every story that makes the news headlines, there are a million others. Again and again Jesus’s followers find that when they are weak, then they are strong; that the monsters that loom so large and that can indeed do serious damage from time to time are hollow inside. The idolatry and sin that gave them their energy and puffed them up with pride has been cut off at the root with the forgiveness of sins. As became apparent with the fall of Eastern European Communism, many societies had been in the grip of what had seemed massive, powerful, invincible forces. But once their bluff was called, the collapsed like a bunch of pricked balloons. There is, no doubt, a certain pragmatic wisdom in the advice that one should not ‘poke the dragon.’ But in the Bible the dragons have already been conquered, and even though they may lash their tails angrily, they are in fact a defeated, mangy old bunch.

Believing this and living on this basis can be exhilarating as well as dangerous. Part of the skill lies in discernment, in knowing which dragons to challenge, when, and on what grounds. But when there are forces at work in  our world dealing in death and destruction, propagating dangerous ideologies without regard for those in the way, or forces that squash the poor to the ground and allow a tiny number to heap up wealth and power, we know we are dealing with Pharaoh once more. Idols are being worshipped, and they are demanding human sacrifices. But we know that on the cross the ultimate Pharaoh was defeated. And so we go to our work, not indeed with some kind of slogan-driven social agenda to keep the chattering classes happy, nor with the arrogance that expects to “build the kingdom” by our own efforts, but in prayer and faith, with the sacramental ministry and prayer of the church around and behind us and with the knowledge that the victory won on the cross will one day have its full effect. We expect to suffer, but we know already that we are victorious.

N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began, 377-378.


Commonplace Book #142

The historian is never in a position to do what Pythagoras did: not content with drawing more and more right-angled triangles and demonstrating that the square on the hypotenuse always does in fact equal the sum of the squares on the other two sides, he constructed a theorem to prove that this must always be the case. With history it is not like that. Almost nothing is ever ruled out absolutely; history, after all, is mostly the study of the unusual and unrepeatable. What we are after is high probability; and this is to be attained by examining all the possibilities, all the suggestions, and asking how well they explain the phenomena. It is always possible that in discussing the resurrection someone will come up with the sceptical critic’s dream: an explanation which provides a sufficient condition for the rise of early Christian faith but which, by fitting into post-Enlightenment epistemological and ontological categories, or even simply mainstream pagan ones, causes no fluttering in the critical dovecotes. It is worthy of note that, despite the somewhat desperate attempts of many scholars over the last two hundred years (not to mention critics since at least Celsus), no such explanation has been found. The early Christians did not invent the empty tomb and the “meetings” or “sightings” of the risen Jesus in order to explain a faith they already had. They developed that faith because of the occurrence, and convergence, of these two phenomena. Nobody was expecting this kind of thing; no kind of conversion-experience would have generated such ideas; nobody would have invented it, no matter how guilty (or how forgiven) they felt, no matter how many hours they pored over the scriptures. To suggest otherwise is to stop doing history and enter into a fantasy world of our own, a new cognitive dissonance in which the relentless modernist, desperately worried that the post-Enlightenment worldview seems in imminent danger of collapse, devises strategies for shoring it up nevertheless. In terms of the kind of proof which historians normally accept, the case we have presented, that the tomb-plus-appearances combination is what generated early Christian belief, is as watertight as one is likely to find.

N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 706-707.

Commonplace Book #141

Out of all its vocations the church prophesies: its administration, its charity, its music, its art, its theology, its politics, its religious ecstasy, its preaching. Prophecy is the archetypical charism, the paradigm of all the others. The church prophesies to the world, discovering the situation of the world and passing judgment on it. But the individual prophet, like all who exercise a charism, does not address the world immediately, but the church, and, by contributing to the church’s prophetic identity, addresses the world through the church. There is no private Christian counsel to be delivered to the principalities and powers, bypassing their need to confront the social reality of the church. A theologian, for example, who invited to participate in an exercise of secular deliberation about matters of social concern, has no independent standing to give advice. Such a one either speaks for and out of the church (not its hierarchy or synods, of course, but for its faith and tradition) or is a false prophet. Yet this does not imply that the church‘s concern is wholly with its integrity and not with the redemption of the world. It is true that the church addresses the world with its being and not only with its talking. But the very essence of the church’s claim on the powers of the Kingdom is speech, and God’s speech, as the psalmist knew, runs into all lands and his words unto the ends of the world.

Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology, 188.

Commonplace Book #140

The communities that sprang up under the lordship of this strange figure called Jesus were themselves the living evidence of a God at work in the public domain, generating a new kind of justice, of rationality, of spirituality, of beauty, of relationship, of freedom. The life which these communities exemplified created a head-on challenge to actual regimes, which was why the church was so viciously persecuted for nearly three centuries. They also provided an alternative society, to which people were drawn in increasing numbers, so that the church went on growing despite the persecution. This explains why standard Enlightenment discourse includes a list of the church’s obvious failings–crusades, inquisitions and the like–and a strange silence about its massive achievements in health, education, the arts, and many other spheres.

N.T. Wright, God in Public: How the Bible Speaks Truth to Power Today, 88-89.

Commonplace Book #139

As for power, when people say (as they often do), “Why doesn’t God do something”?, they always seem to assume that if God was really in control he’d send in the tanks and stop the bullies and the unscrupulous getting away with it. But according to the Sermon on the Mount (and it was the Sermon on the Mount’s agenda which Jesus was fulfilling when he went to his death, going the second mile carrying his Roman cross, turning the other cheek to his mockers, and ending up on a hill where he could not be hidden), when God wants to change the world he doesn’t send in the tanks…He sends in the meek, the mourners, the merciful, the hungry-for-justice people, the peacemakers, the incorruptibly pure in heart.

N.T. Wright, God in Public: How the Bible Speaks Truth to Power Today

Commonplace Book #138

And what about the “self”, that great bastion of modernity and object of postmodern deconstruction? Out of that muddle has come a great and often unhealthy obsession, once more, not only with  “self” but also with “identity”, leading to much misunderstanding. Often people suppose that the point of the Christian message is to “affirm” our “identities” of whatever sort. That comes from Gnosticism, not from the gospel. Jesus spoke of losing one’s self in order to find it. The gospels are written in such a way that they draw us into that losing-and-finding dynamic, where nothing remains the same except the Father’s love.

–N.T. Wright, God in Public: How the Bible Speaks Truth to Power Today

Commonplace Book #137

The church has a task which modern Western democracies have attempted to replicate in other ways.  We have tried to produce, without our systems, some semblance of “accountability”. If  the voters don’t like someone, they don’t have to vote for him or her next time round. We all know that this is a very blunt instrument. Accountability isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In the UK, most of the seats are “safe”, and most of the candidates are professional party hacks  with little experience of real outside life.

So those who follow Jesus have the task, front and centre within their vocation, of being the real “opposition”. This doesn’t mean that they must actually “oppose” everything that the government tries to do. They must weigh it, sift it, hold it to account, affirm what can be affirmed, point out things that are lacking or not quite in focus, critique what needs critiquing, and denounce, on occasion, what needs denouncing…Each generation, and each local church, needs to figure out wise and appropriate ways of speaking the truth to power….

We in the modern West have trained ourselves to think of political legitimacy simply in terms of the method or mode of appointment: once people have voted, that confers “legitimacy”. The ancient Jews and early Christians, by contrast, were not particularly interested in how rulers had become rulers. They were far more interested in holding rulers responsible in terms of what they were actually doing once in power.

–NT Wright, God in Public: How the Bible Speaks Truth to Power, 163, 164, 165.

Commonplace Book #136

History, I therefore suggest, requires humility, patience, penitence and love.  Just because we want to think clearly, that doesn’t mean we can escape the methodological demands of Christian virtue. To cash these out: it requires humility, to understand the thoughts of the people who thought differently from ourselves; patience, to go on working with the data and resist premature conclusions; penitence, to acknowledge that our traditions may have distorted original meanings and that we have preferred the distortions to the originals; and love, in that genuine history, like all genuine knowledge, involves the delighted affirmation of realities and events outside ourselves, and thoughts different from our own.

N.T. Wright, History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology, 77.

Commonplace Book #135

If we keep in mind the fact that the liberals in America are primarily intellectuals by profession and training, one cannot help wondering whether the preoccupation of intellectuals with political questions is not a pathological reaction to the peculiar cultural conditions existing in America.  In no country of the world is there such a tremendous gap between the values recognized by intellectuals and the values that actually govern political and economic realities.  And yet in no country is the intellectual so preoccupied with affecting the course of politics to the exclusion of intellectual interests.  The less the power he has of determining conditions, the more passionate, it would seem, is his will-o’-the-wisp quest of political influence.

It is here that the philosophy of pragmatism is most revealing.  Pragmatism has been wrongly called the philosophy of the practical man.  It represents rather the anti-intellectualism of the American intellectual, who is overawed by the practical sweep of American life.

–Benjamin Ginzburg, “Science Under Communism,” New Republic, January 6, 1932, cited in Christopher Lasch, The New Radicalism in America, 1889-1963, 294-295.

Commonplace Book #134

“I don’t care what they think” has become public currency with us; saying it, we always mean to imply that we are persons solemnly devoted to high principle–rugged individuals in the somewhat fictional sense Americans usually give to that term.  In fact, this ready defiance of the opinions of others is a rhetorical fossil from our frontier experience.  Once it meant that if our neighbors’ opinions were repugnant to us, we were prepared either to kill our neighbors or to move west.  Now it doesn’t mean anything; it is adolescent bluster.  For when there is no frontier to retreat to, the demands of one’s community will be felt, and ways must be found to deal with them.

Wendell Berry, “Discipline and Hope,” in A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural, 153.

Commonplace Book #133

… a good teacher is the trustee of a vital and delicate organism: the life of the mind in his community.  The ultimate and defining standards of his discipline is his community’s health and intelligence and coherence and endurance.  This is a high calling, deserving of a life’s work.  We have allowed it to degenerate into careerism and specialization….Education is coming to be, not a long-term investment in young minds and in the life of the community, but a short-term investment in the economy.  We want to be able to tell how many dollars an education is worth and how soon it will begin to pay.  

To accommodate these frivolous desires, education becomes training and specialization, which is to say,  it institutionalizes and justified ignorance and intellectual irresponsibility….The careerist teacher judges himself, and is judged by his colleagues, not by the influence he is having upon his students or the community, but by the size of his salary and the status of the place to which his career has taken him thus far.  And, typically, he is where he is only temporarily; he is on his way to a more lucrative and prestigious place.  Because so few stay around to be aware of the effects of their work, teachers are not judged by their teaching, but by the short-term incidentals of publication and “service.”  That teaching is a long-term service, that a teacher’s best work may be published in the children or grandchildren of his students cannot be considered, for the modern educator, like his “practical” brethren in business and industry, will honor nothing that he cannot see.

Wendell Berry, “Discipline and Hope,” in A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural (1970), 135-137.

Commonplace Book #132

…we have also come to attribute to ends a moral importance that far outweighs that which we attribute to means.  As thought we have arrived in our minds at a new age of fantasy or magic, we expect ends not only to justify means, but to rectify them as well.  Once we have reached the desired end, we think, we will turn back to purify and consecrate the means.  Once the war that we are fighting for the sake of peace is won, then the generals will become saints, the burned children will proclaim in heaven that their suffering is well repaid, the poisoned forests and fields will turn green again.  Once we have peace, we say, o abundance or justice or truth or comfort, everything will be all right.  It is an old dream.

It is a vicious illusion.  For the discipline of ends is no discipline at all. The end is preserved in the means; a desirable end may perish forever in the wrong means. Hope lives in the means, not the end. Art does not survive in its revelations, or agriculture in its products, or craftsmanship in its artifacts, or civilization in its monuments, or faith in its relics.

Wendell Berry, “Discipline and Hope,” in A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural  (1970), p. 130-131.

Commonplace Book #131

Training is a process of conditioning, an orderly and highly efficient procedure by which a man learns a prescribed pattern of facts and functions.  Education, on the other hand, is an obscure process by which a person’s experience is brought into contact with his place and his history.  A college can train a person in four years; it can barely begin his education in that time.  A person’s education begins before his birth in the making of the disciplines, traditions, and attitudes of mind that he will inherit, and it continues until his death under the slow, expensive, uneasy tutelage of his experience.  The process that produces astronauts may produce soldiers and factory workers and clerks; it will never produce good farmers or good artists or good citizens or good parents.

Wendell Berry, “Discipline and Hope,” in A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural (1970), 103.

Commonplace Book #130

The extremes of public conviction are always based upon rhetorical extremes, which is to say that their words–and their actions–have departed from facts, causes, and arguments, and have begun to follow the false logic of a feud in which nobody remembers the cause but only what was last said or done by the other side.  Language and behavior become purely negative in function.  The opponents no longer speak in support of their vision or their arguments or their purposes, but only in opposition to each other. Language ceases to bind heart to heart, action to principle, and becomes a weapon in a contention deadly as war, shallow as a game.

Wendell Berry, “Discipline and Hope” in A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural (1970), p.89

Commonplace Book #129

Though he remained an invalid for the rest of his life, [Emanuel] Carnevali continued writing in English, taking backward glances at his American experience.  One of his poems, written as he approached his native land, bespeaks his ambivalent feelings and those of many another immigrant toward both Italy and America.  “In America,” he wrote,

. . . everything

Is bigger, but less majestic. . .

Italy is a little family:

America is an orphan

Independent and arrogant, 

Crazy and sublime,

Without tradition to guide her,

Rushing headlong in a mad run which she calls


American cities, he continues, are mechanical; “in their hurry, people forget to love and be kind.  Immigrants are hungry not only for bread but for people, but America you gather the hungry people/And give them new hungers for the old ones.”

Jerry Mangione and Ben Morreale, La Storia: Five Centures of the Italian American Experience, 361-362.


Commonplace Book #128

Although the Irish were more advanced economically and socially than any of the other new immigrants, many were still unskilled laborers who found themselves competing with Italian laborers willing to work for substandard wages.  The two people seem to be irreconcilable, especially in the great disparity in their concept and practice of Catholicism.  While both groups considered themselves Roman Catholic, the Irish adhered strictly to the Church’s official liturgy and doctrine and revered their clergy, whereas the southern Italians showed little respect for the clergy and practiced a folk religion that had changed little since the birth of Christ.

The southern Italian religion was based on awe, fear, and reverence for the supernatural, ‘a fusion of Christian and pre-Christian elements of animism, polytheism and sorcery along with the sacraments prescribed by the Church.”  These Italians believed in the power of the evil eye and in spells cast by witches that could kill a person or destroy a crop.  To protect themselves against malevolent forces, a peasant family might employ an exorcist when prayers to the local patron saint, the central figure in any southern village, went unheeded.

Jerry Mangione and Ben Morreale, La Storia: Five Centures of the Italian American Experience, 326-327.


Commonplace Book #127

The wide gulf between the Old World and the New went beyond custom and moral values.  At the center was a basic difference in philosophy.  Ingrained in the Southern Italian’s peasant soul by centuries of poverty and oppression were strong elements of fatalism, which some of them referred to as Destinu.  This fatalism contradicted the philosophy that their children brought home from school, where repeatedly their teachers talked of freedom, free enterprise, and free well, constantly stressing the individual capacity’s to change and improve his or her situation.  For the second generation that grew up in the 1920s and 1930s, the message of freedom was further accentuated by images of flappers, Rudolph Valentino, the gospel of free love, and the sermons of Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger–images that conflicted with the old ways of their parents.  Inevitably, these sons and daughters became aware of the basic differences between their parents and other Americans, which heightened  their dissatisfaction at being obliged to lead a double life, a state of mind that often generated serious identity problems as they approached adulthood.  An erosion of self-esteem was not uncommon for those who ventured into the American mainstream.

Jerre Mangione and Ben Morreale, La Storia:  Five Centures of the Italian American Experience, 218.

Commonplace Book #126

…Others, however, were invigorated by New York.  Arriving in the city at the age of fifteen, Pascal D’Angelo was startled, then entranced, by the spectacle of an elevated train dashing around a curve.  “To my surprise not even on car fell.  Nor did the people walking beneath scurry away as it approached.'” Minutes late, while riding a trolley, he was distracted by the sight of a father and son moving their mouths in continuous motion ‘like cows chewing on cud.’  Never having known of chewing gum, he assumed, ‘with compassion, that father and son were both afflicted with some nervous disease.’  Later, just before he and his immigrant companions reached their destination, he was surprised to note signs at street with “Ave., Ave., Ave.’ printed on them.  “How religious a place this must be that expressed its devotion at every crossing,” he mused, though he could not understand why the word was not followed by “Maria.”

Gerre Mangione and Ben Morreale, La Storia: Five Centures of the Italian American Experience, 125.

Commonplace Book #125

Several decades before the exodus began, while the southern Italians, as subjects of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, were still firmly in the grip of Bourbon rule, the dream of America was thriving as a quasi-religious vision of a paradise on earth–a comfort for the miseria (misery) of their lot.  First inspired by the travels of Columbus, the dream grew into a myth fueled by other travelers: the occasional returning immigrant who gave it substance and shape through stories that became increasingly elaborate and vivid with each retelling.  As more Italians returned from the United States, the myth became so Americanized as to incorporate the Statue of Liberty as the Madonna of Liberation, and the American dollar bill as a sacred object to be pinned to the garments of their most cherished religious statues.  Adding to the weight of the myth were the legendary deeds of Garibaldi, the apotheosis of Italian heroes, who himself had been an immigrants both in South America and the United States.

Jerry Mangione and Ben Morreale, La Storia: Five Centures of the Italian American Experience, 45.