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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Wine is always a miracle



Image by Stefan Krause
"God creates the vine and teaches it to draw up water by its roots and, with the aid of the sun, to turn that water into a juice that will ferment and take on certain qualities. Thus every year, from Noah's time til ours, God turns water into wine. That, men fail to see. Either like the Pagans they refer the process to some finite spirit, Bacchus or Dionysus: or else, like the moderns, they attribute real and ultimate causality to the chemical and other material phenomena which are all that our senses can discover in it. But when Christ at Cana makes water into wine, the mask is off. The miracle has only half its effect if it only convinces us that Christ is God: it will have its full effect if whenever we see a vineyard or drink a glass of wine we remember that here works He who sat at the wedding party in Cana."


-- C. S. Lewis, "Miracles," God in the Dock, (W. B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids: 1970) 29.




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Sunday, December 18, 2011

Banana-pants dad


He's clearly a dad.
Why? He's got a banana
In his pants-pocket.

Banana-pants dad,
Whose virtues will go unsung,
Your banana won't.



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Saturday, December 17, 2011

Gay "marriage", the theological dimension of civil law, and the legitimacy of government

From a recent discussion with a friend on the topics of gay "marriage", the theological dimension of civil law, and the legitimacy of government:
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Dear Robert,
This image has hardly anything to do with the topic. But it's great.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me. Yes, I am the author of that particular piece, and "pseudepigrapha" in the comments. Some friends of mine and I kept that blog up for awhile, but no one has posted in over a year. Still, we had some good conversations there that I like to revisit from time to time. I'm glad you found what I wrote helpful; however, I want to make sure that you didn't misunderstand me. Did you read the linked piece by Christopher Oleson? You should. It will help set the context for my thinking on this issue. In a way, I was reiterating his basic point in the paragraph in which I wrote that "there is no purely civil libertarian argument against gay 'marriage.'" However, to say this is not to say that there is no argument at all against gay marriage. There most certainly is, and there needs to be.

I do not agree with your liberal friend, whose point you summarized thusly:

Her point was that someone who is gay is sinning against God, but isn't hurting anyone, and that laws against gay marriage wouldn't change the hearts of those professing to be gay. It would only make them angry, and they would go right on living together. However, she is in favor of laws against abortion because she thinks it is important to protect the life of the unborn child.
The argument that one leading a homosexual lifestyle "isn't hurting anyone" is just not true. It's a very libertarian argument: as long as you're not "hurting" someone, you're fine. In truth, though, there are more, and worse, ways of "hurting someone" than merely taking that person's life. The propagation of lies regarding something so fundamental to human nature as sexuality is a slow poison which spreads throughout the body politic, killing as it spreads. I do not hold out much hope for slowing the spread of this poison in any lasting or widespread way, but that does not mean that we should capitulate or be complicit in the Lie.

What is marriage? In sociological terms, it is the means by which individuals are joined together to form families, which are the building block of society and the means of its perpetuation. Over the years, I have become convinced that if a country's laws do not reflect the natural ends of human sexuality, that country's "unwritten constitution" will be steadily dissolved. Think of a drop of acid on a piece of parchment: a hole is burnt from that point which dilates and expands outwards. The metaphor is insufficient, however, because human sexuality is not just any old point on the parchment: it is fundamental (I am convinced) to all morality because it concerns that which makes us human, i.e., our likeness to God.

In theological terms, then, the integrity of marriage is about so much more than just the formation of society. It is a holy, angelic vocation. At the beginning of all things God tells Adam and Eve to "be fruitful and multiply," and in so doing, issues a sacred call, a sacred vocation, for man to participate in the awesome task of bringing new souls into being. God made man and woman subcreators with Himself, co-participants who share in his Divine procreativity. Martin Luther wrote of the calling in this way:

For this word which God speaks, 'Be fruitful and multiply,' is not a command. It is more than a command, namely, a divine ordinance which it is not our prerogative to hinder or ignore. Rather, it is just as necessary as the fact that I am a man, and more necessary than sleeping and waking, eating and drinking, and emptying the bowels and bladder. It is a nature and disposition just as innate as the organs involved in it. Therefore, just as God does not command anyone to be a man or a woman but created them the way they have to be, so he does not command them to multiply but creates them so that they have to multiply. And wherever men try to resist this, it remains irresistible nonetheless and goes its way through fornication, adultery, and secret sins, for this is a matter of nature and not of choice.
I first encountered the foregoing in the comment feed of this piece, written by Rev. Fr. Richard D. Stuckwisch. The conversation in the comments is fascinating, by the way, if you have the time to read them. His latest post is comprised of quotations by Luther on the topic of celibacy and marriage. Good stuff.

The broader and more important point to be made here is this: civil law exists for the maintenance of justice and good order in the City of Man. It does not -- nor can it -- make people holy. Theologians speak of the Law as having three uses: curb, mirror, and guide. Civil law is primarily a curb. Laws against murder and theft are not intended to change people's hearts. They exist as a curb on man's sinful nature. They embody what St. Paul describes as the primary vocation of "the magistrate" in society: "he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil." The civil law doesn't need to change men's hearts -- at the end of the day, I don't think it is even capable of doing so. It is simply a curb erected against man's sinful nature. In this sense, all civil law must "extend into enforcing morality." Indeed, it can do nothing else! People often say that government shouldn't legislate morality, but that is a completely self-defeating statement: morality is the only thing you can legislate! You cannot change people's hearts with the Law, but you can control their behavior. As a teacher I have seen this very clearly on a microcosmic level: obviously, I am seeking to inculcate good habits in my students when I hold them accountable to rules, exhort them to good behavior, and punish bad behavior. But, barring that, they are going to do what I say, even if grudgingly, or suffer the consequences, because the rules are nonnegotiable and exist not just for them, but for the sake of the other students who are members of the same academic community. And for the sake of their poor teacher who must put up with them. Let's not forget him. "Manners are more important than laws," Edmund Burke once said. Yes, but be that as it may, I will take grudgingly good behavior in my classroom, even if it doesn't come "from the heart"; though it is a lesser good, it at least tends towards the maintenance of good order. Who among us consistently does the right thing for the right reason, anyway? No one.

How this principle works out in practice is a more difficult matter. I would fully support anti-sodomy laws of the sort that were struck down in 2003 with the infamous Lawrence v. Texas Supreme Court case. Such do not exist anymore, at least not to my knowledge. I really have no interest in a federal Defense of Marriage-type act -- if things have gotten to that point, the more important battle has already been lost, and it's just a matter of time before a majoritarian sea-change redefines marriage again. If we're asking "should deviant sexual practices be given state sanction," something has already gone terribly wrong. When I say that there is no civil libertarian argument against gay marriage, what I am saying is that the only argument against homosexuality marriage that holds water -- the teleological argument from natural law -- is not being used. Why? Because this argument indicts heterosexual deviancy -- perhaps most notably, contraception -- just as much. For this reason, ostensibly conservative types attempt arguments from natural revulsion. The only problem is that this is no argument at all, but simple bigotry. A bigot and I may both object to something, but that doesn't mean that what we both espouse is bigotry. There are innumerable ways to disagree with any given false proposition, but some of those ways are as disagreeable to the truth as the original false proposition. A is contra B; C is contra B; but A is not necessarily pro C. Again, see Oleson's piece. It's fantastic.

When I said that no government is perfectly legitimate, I was saying that the various proofs and criteria that political philosophers have come up with over millenia are everywhere at war with one another. I am bound to obey the U.S. government, regardless of the fact that the American Revolution was a rebellion against the God-ordained rule of George III. Why? Because the authority of the state as outlined in Romans 13 is what has been ordained by God, not one or another particular governing power. Among other things, this means that we do not get to pick and choose which governments are legitimate -- for example, America, from her exalted point of view, does not simply get to unseat a sitting sovereign power in another country -- say, Iraq -- simply because that power wasn't democratically-elected. Nor is there any "right to revolution." Sorry, Declaration of Independence. What I take away from this is that Christians are not to foment or even participate in violent overthrow of the government. Ever. That just shouldn't be our concern. On the other hand -- and this is something I have been thinking about a lot recently -- all government is bound to become enamored of its own idiosyncratic claims of legitimacy, arrogating to itself an authority greater both in degree and kind than that which God has given it to wield. This bit from C.S. Lewis's essay "Is Progress Possible? Willing Slaves of the Welfare State" sums it up quite nicely:

I do not like the pretensions of Government – the grounds on which it demands my obedience – to be pitched too high. I don’t like the medicine-man’s magical pretensions nor the Bourbon’s Divine Right. This is not solely because I disbelieve in magic and in Bossuet’s Politique. I believe in God, but I detest theocracy. For every Government consists of mere men and is, strictly viewed, a makeshift; if it adds to its commands ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ it lies, and lies dangerously.
Even though the government's power to administer the Law and enforce morality is God-ordained, it has no power to add to the Law or invent a new morality. When governments play God and demand the kind of allegiance that should be rendered unto God alone, they become corrupt and must be disobeyed. There are situations in which the commands of God and the commands of men are at odds; in such a scenario "we must obey God rather than men." But one can civilly disobey the government without overthrowing it or rebelling against it. Even evil governments are used by God for the maintenance of earthly order and peace.


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Fear God. Honor the King.

I find that I write better in correspondence than I do when I simply try to generate thoughts. That having been said, I'm posting a few bits and pieces from an email exchange I've recently been having with my friend Robert. In the following missive I attempt to explain my discomfort with the triumphalist narrative of American history which tries to vindicate and justify every aspect of our national past via a sort of apologia Americanae.

I'd much rather sing, "America! America! / God mend thine ev'ry flaw, / Confirm thy soul in self-control / Thy liberty in law."

God mend thine every what?! Everyone knows that God's job is blessing America whenever the president tells Him to. What is this "flaw" nonsense and this "self-control" rubbish? Sheesh. The nerve of some people...


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Dear Robert,

It's difficult, isn't it? That's all I'm trying to say: it isn't so simple and so clear a matter as any of us would like to think. Were injustices perpetrated against the colonists? Yes. Did these warrant redress? Certainly. But a right to revolution? That is an invention of eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophy, specifically drawn from the thought of John Locke. I have a hard time reconciling the vast majority of Lockean thought with Christianity; he is, in fact, the "bad guy" par excellence when it comes to dismantling community, tradition, and duty for the sake of "individual rights."

I just don't really believe that it ever became necessary "in the course of human events." That is a huge assumption, known in formal logic as a tautology, or "begging the question." "When in the Course of human events," the Declaration begins,


it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

In place of that statement, I would posit that a question was in order -- indeed, is always in order: "When in the Course of human events is it ever necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another?" And how about, "Do the Laws of Nature (whatever they may be) really entitle a people to a station that is separate from and equal to their governing authority?" Just think about the implications of this statement. This is to stand the entire notion of government on its head! Take it to its logical extension, and you have anarchy. Again, the premises that we are working with here are deeply flawed assumptions about the human condition lifted straight out of the pages of John Locke's Second Treatise of Civil Government.

"Transport me back to their day, and I may have been a 'patriot' rather than a 'loyalist.' I suppose that would make me a sinner. But I think it would have been choosing the lesser of two evils. There is a war. I will choose to side with the men opposing the tyranny rather than enforcing it."

My friend, every man at that time was a sinner, but not simply because he was loyal to the crown or fought against it with the colonists. That wouldn't have been what made you a sinner, had you been living in that time. Who of us knows what we "would have done"? It's impossible to say. And by what criteria can we say that to fight against the crown was clearly the lesser of two evils? Having studied the Founding period at great length while at Hillsdale (the American Founding was my emphasis) and since graduating, I really don't think I can even say that George III was a tyrant. But what if he had been a tyrant -- really, truly, and demonstrably so? Even then, what basis does the Christian have for overthrowing tyrants? Why is it that St. Paul, writing to the Church at Rome, exhorts the believers there not to overthrow but to submit to one of the most infamous tyrants in history, that deranged persecutor of Christians, the emperor Nero? A radical position, indeed!

And what of the loyalists? Are we really to fault them for remaining loyal to the crown? Are we to say that they were not patriots? Are we to say that they were evil, on the "wrong side of history"? Un-Christian? See, this is one of the myriad problems with the myth of American exceptionalism: it asks us to judge men by an invented ethical standard that has nothing to do with God's Law. And what does God's Law, preached here by St. Peter, have to say?

Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men— as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God. Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king (I Peter ii, 13-17).
Fear God. Honor the king. Powerful injunctions, these.

I will not disparage the courage of the men who fought for their homes, their families, and their English rights against the British soldiers. But neither will I reserve the term "patriot" for them alone. I can only surmise that it was on account of a holy fear of God and a pious sense of honor for their king, George III, that the Tories, the so-called "loyalists", did not condone their fellow colonists' rebellion. George III was by no means exceptionally bad as a king. I mean, he was sort of bad. He had his faults. But anyone who has studied English history knows that he was not really that far out of the main. People say, "He wasn't even British! He was German!" That's a lame criticism -- even the British aren't British! They were (and are) a polyglot of Celtic, Mediterranean, Scandinavian, Germanic, and French from the very beginning! You want to know who the closest people are to "real British"? The Irish and the Welsh. Count how many Irish or Welsh monarchs the British have had. I can count them on, uh...no hands.

But I digress...

Many, many men of the founding generation inveighed against the injustices perpetrated by the crown even to the point of taking up arms against the king's soldiers, but for a redress of grievances, not for independence. At the time of the revolution, about a third of the colonists were squarely in favor of independence, about a third were loyal, and about a third were torn or ambivalent. (John Dickinson refused to vote for independence or sign the Declaration; however, he fought for it, nonetheless.) Musters of armed men protesting on behalf of their ancestral rights and privileges against their barons and lords were utterly common throughout English history, up until and even after the rebellion of the colonies. It was an English tradition! (It's also one that the still-very-British Americans kept up after their vaunted independence was achieved -- can you say "Whiskey Rebellion"? But by then there was a new central power holding sway, albeit not a king; suffice it to say, though, that this later populist uprising didn't fare very well, even though their grievances were practically identical to those of the colonists in 1776. And then there's the small matter of the War of Northern Agression four-score years later...)

Armed and boisterous protesting was one thing. But rebellion and declared independence by the dubious fiat of British subjects, on behalf of their "inalienable rights" of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"? My friend, we only glory in it because we won. History is a tale written by victors, with the victors' principles of selection and arrangement deciding what story is traditioned to posterity.

The problem with settling on one or another particular event in history and calling it "providential" is that it suggests that other historical moments were not providential, or were less providential. If that's the case, what are the criteria for deciding? How can we know these criteria? America's history is not coterminous with the sacred historical narratives of the Old and New Testaments, whose sacredness is known, and, well...documented in the Scriptures! We have no reason to suggest or believe that America has been the recipient of God's special providence more than any other country. Can't we just love our country as she is? Or can we only love her if she's categorically better, truer, and more beautiful than everyone else?

Hmmmm. Well, last I checked, it was the Church which had been clothed with Christ's righteousness, sanctified, and set apart as His Bride and Beloved, and it was the Church which was and is God's Israel. Not Rome in all of its glory. Not the British Empire in all of its pomp. Not the state of Israel born in 1948 in all of its...Zionism. Not the United States of America in all of its Yankee ingenuity and rugged individualism. Not any nation or state.

So what do we do? Do we go back to Britain? Well, no. Obviously not. As I mentioned above, Britain's government is no more legitimate. No government is perfectly legitimate. If we all just "went back," it would start an infinite regression all the way back to the Garden of Eden. But the fact that we cannot "go back" to some pristine state in no way means that we must instead delude ourselves with a romanticized narrative which seeks to justify America in toto -- or any nation, for that matter -- at every step along the way of her tumultuous history. We dare not look to any secular history for surety, for a tale of righteousness and virtue to which we can lay claim to as some kind of national birthright.

Where, then, do we look?

"If then you have been raised with Christ," St. Paul says, "seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God" (Colossians iii, 1-3). It's not hidden in America, as great as America is. It's hidden with Christ in God. It's at right angles to this earthly plane, farther up, farther in, where the Holy Spirit calls us by the Gospel, enlightens us with His gifts, sanctifies and keeps us in the one true faith. It is the communion with God Himself which we have been caught up into already here on earth through the Incarnation, Passion, death and Resurrection of Christ and the ministry of his mystical body, the Church. Though this life may be lived out in America, with all of this land's blessings, it may just as blessedly be lived out somewhere else.

I'm going to stop now, because I feel like I'm getting on a bit of a soapbox, and I don't want you to feel like you're on the business-end of a tirade. This just happens to be something that I have a lot of opinions on, which is probably all the more reason for me to keep a lid on it. Once again, I would love to hear what you think.


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An echo from "A Conversation on Christendom"



I wrote the following post back in June of 2010 when I was contributing to a blog started by my friend Matthew entitled A Conversation on Christendom (does one italicize the titles of blogs, or is that pretentious? Oh well. "The moving finger writes," etc., etc.). No one has posted there since December of last year, and I'm not sure if it's a shame or not. I liked the conversation while it went on, but I'll be the first to admit that some of us got kind of pissy and disputatious. I think I probably fomented most of that, actually. Anyway, I've recently been revisiting the blog, as the whole topic of the Two Kingdoms has recently been rolling around in my head again. Indeed, it's never not rolling around in there, but lately it's just been making more noise...

OK, I'm going to stop mixing my metaphors now, make like a tree, and get...on with my point, which is as sharp as a dagger.

Yes, I've been thinking about the Two Kingdoms again, about the City of God and the City of Man, about the sacred, the profane, and the mundane, about this world and how we are to live in it. Pursuant to this, I've been tracking down things I've written on the topic in the past, because I'm lazy, and I don't like wasting my time rephrasing things that I've already phrased passably well before. I realize that this begs the question: did I, in fact, phrase them passably well in the first place, and do they merit reiteration?

Well, who knows? I suppose you must decide for yourself, dear reader. I've certainly had the experience of rereading with a commixture of horror and embarrassment any number of different things I've written not that long ago -- for example, papers I wrote as a freshman in college. (With that said, a good friend of mine -- I shall call her Monica, since her name is Monica -- wisely cautioned against judging one's "past self" with derision and disbelief, for to do so foolishly sets up one's "present self" as the paragon of truth and right; we ought rather to humbly realize that we all learn and grow, quite often in ways that are only realized in retrospect.) I wasn't quite as horrified, however, upon rereading the thoughts from A Conversation on Christendom which I am reposting below as I have been in other instances. This is, I think, not a bad thing.

The original title of the post was "Too much history." It's still up, riddled with typos which I do not care to correct, here.

Below is an only-slightly revised and streamlined version.

What do you think about Christendom, etc.?

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What is the unique office of the Church of Christ? What makes Christianity unique? Nothing less and nothing more (not that there needs to be or could be more) than the scandal presented by the Cross of Christ, Christ the incarnate Lord, crucified, risen and ascended, "foolishness to Greeks and a stumbling block to Jews." Atonement. The great cosmic paradox. This is the Gospel.

This, then – the Gospel – is the unique purview of the Church, of Christianity. It is the Gospel which makes Christianity distinct from every other religion, every other philosophy under the sun, which makes it about so much more than simply “living in harmony with the Divine Order.” The truth is that we are, each one of us, born in disharmony with that Divine Order, out of tune with the Music of the Spheres. We can’t follow the Law. We need the Gospel, or we will all perish. Without the God who justifies sinners in His flesh, we are lost.

What of the Law, then?

The Law tells us how we ought to live while simultaneously showing us how we are not living. The Law condemns and kills the old Adam in us. And there are myriad ways in which the Law comes to us, not just Holy Writ: all of Nature testifies to this Law. The wise men and scholars of every age – Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Cynic, Cartesian, Newtonian, etc. etc. – have born witness to it. C.S. Lewis called it “the Tao,” attesting its culturally transcendent nature. It is written on man’s heart. As Lewis wrote in the Abolition of Man, there is not really any such thing as a "Christian" morality: there is morality, and there is immorality; the Law which is written on the hearts of even the most recalcitrant and unregenerate man has gone out to all the earth from before the foundations of the world so that men are without excuse. One need not be a Christian to know the difference between right and wrong; that is why it is just that the heathen are damned.

With that said, we Christians do not go to Church simply to hear the Law. We go for the Gospel, which is Christ Jesus, the power of God for salvation to all who believe. This is a power that the Law does not possess, "for by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified in His sight." No, we go to the assembly of believers on the Lord's Day to receive the gracious and life-giving Word of God, in the preaching of the forgiveness of sins by pastors and in the distribution of this same Word in the Eucharist. This is the unique office of the Church of Christ. This is her charge until Christ, her Bridegroom and her Lord, comes again. And the gates of Hell shall not prevail against her, for she is Christ's Body, and His Body has already endured the flames once and for all, and risen triumphant. She awaits the consummation of this victory, which is hers by faith – already, but not yet. Kingdoms rise and fall; empires wax and wane. The grass withers and the flowers fall, sed verbum Domini manet in aeturnum.

The state, however, does not exist for such a blessed vocation, for such a blessed end. Still, this is not to say that its vocation is profane. It is, however, secular. It is mundane. I no more care that the leaders of state who pilot the bodies politic of the world are Christian than I do that my plumber is a Christian. If a man is a Christian and a statesman, then thanks be to God. He may for this reason (emphasis on may) have a more sedate perspective on the limited nature of his office and be more circumspect on that account; that would be a blessing, indeed. But that would in no way change the nature of his office, which Holy Writ speaks of in the following fashion:

 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed (St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, 13.1-7).


The state can, through negative prohibition and positive injunction, move men to moral action, perhaps even at times creating a penumbra of moral culture. But this cultivated thing is not the Church, for an amalgam of moral men is not the Church. Two or three gathered together in God's name (Father, Son and + Holy Ghost) are more the Church (indeed, truly are the Church) than an alliance of Christian states, an alliance of do-gooders.

What is to be gained from such an alliance? Perhaps this is the wrong question. What more needs to be gained? Certainly no sacred thing can be gained. Whatever can be gained by an alliance of Christian states is the same secular good that can be gained by an alliance of any states, period. To call such an alliance "Christendom," however, would be a sad misnomer. Moreover, I deny the very possibility of a Christian state. I do not think that the adjective "Christian" can properly be attached to anything, really, be it corporate or singular, that is not the Church of Christ. (The Christian per se is not singular, not individual, but is a member of the Church, i.e., a person. For a fuller explication of this concept, see “Personhood and Being,” by John Zizioulas, which is Chapter 1 of his larger work, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church.)  A state cannot be incorporated into the Church, however, for the state is concerned with earthly order and peace, not salvation. The state wields the Law in order to compel, to punish, to order aright. The moral dimension of the Law, that which concerns men's outward behavior, is very much its business. It is the custodian of a lesser good, a mundane good. While obedience to the Law merits nothing in the way of salvation, it does conduce to peace and good order here on earth.

All this talk of Christendom has me thinking of the account of the Transfiguration in the Gospels of St. Matthew (ch. 17) and St. Luke (ch. 9). Peter, James and John accompany Jesus to the top of the mountain and are granted a foretaste of the beatific vision in a theophany. Moses and Elijah join them, and talk with Christ (What about? No one knows!) Peter, overcome as any would be in his situation, desperately tries to make the moment last forever; his words are apposite to our discussion:

“Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.


Peter wants to make a more permanent dwelling there on the mountain. He wants the “mountaintop experience” to continue. So he proposes to build tabernacles, wherein Christ and the patriarchs might dwell. But poor Peter—great among the apostles if only on account of his great folly, the penitence he models, and the great forgiveness he receives—did not yet know that “the Most High does not dwell in temples made with hands” (cf. Acts of the Apostles 7.48); he seeks to build a kind of Christendom there on the mountain, through his own efforts. But before he is even done with his proposal, the very voice of God the Father knocks them flat:

While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!”


This reads almost as a rebuke to Peter: the Incarnate Word and the words which He preaches are sufficient for you! Do not desire anything more!

Yes, the ecstatic experience atop the mountain is a free and spontaneous blessing -- who, like Ransom on Perelandra, would not want to taste the fruit again? -- but life is not lived on the mountaintop. It is lived in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, which we traverse as pilgrims. We have no Abiding City in this Valley, yet traverse it we must. That is why the disciples go back down. It has not been granted to them to stay. They must live by faith, not by sight. On top of the mountain, they did indeed say “it is good to dwell here.” But such was not within their power.

“[T]here is a preliminary taste of this fulfillment that occurs within history,” Mr. Taylor wrote in the first post, “when Christians of good faith and character live together in peace and justice. You might have felt yourself close to heaven in the home of a beautiful family, or in communal worship during a Sunday service.”

Yes, I think we all have. But it was an unexpected blessing, and the blessing was not the feeling, but rather the reality. The objective truth of God’s grace may not always evoke the same feeling. We may not always feel like we’re on the set of The Fellowship of the Ring, replete with a soundtrack and lembas. But it is Truth, for God’s Word is Truth. And the blessing is not because we good Christians are living together in peace and justice in our meager tabernacles. The blessing is that Christ, out of His great love and mercy, deigns to be among us when we gather together in the Name of God (Father, Son and + Holy Ghost) to hear His Word and receive His Sacraments.

The Church is Christendom enough for me. In it God’s Kingdom comes every moment, at right angles to this earthly plane, farther up, farther in. It’s always now, already, but not yet. We don’t need a five point plan to make it happen. No political schema will make it more what it already is. The Church lacks nothing, for she is bedecked in the robes of Christ’s righteousness. Even though she has been an unfaithful bride, Christ the Bridegroom is ever faithful, daily and richly forgiving her of her many sins, her covetousness, even her murders and adulteries, which have been many. All of these He has assumed as His own:

In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it (St. Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians 2.11-15).


Isn’t that enough? What do we think we are going to achieve or accomplish with “Christendom”? Another tower of Babel, and a worse one that at, for it will be self-righteous one.


+ VDMA

Saturday, December 10, 2011

"Thy Will be Done" -- C.S. Lewis on the Third Petition


The following excerpt from C.S. Lewis's Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer needs nothing in the way of introduction from me, really. With that said, I will be brief with my prefacing remarks.

This particular excerpt comes from Lewis's description of his "festoonings" of the Lord's Prayer -- "the private overtones I give to certain petitions," as he calls them -- which he elaborates for his fictitious interlocutor, Malcolm, in the fifth chapter -- or "letter" -- of the book

I first discovered Lewis in a serious way when I was a senior in high school. Letters to Malcolm in particular -- and even more particularly, the following excerpt -- has remained one of my very favorite essays on Christian spirituality; moreover, it is simply one of the most profoundly helpful things I've ever read. May God use it in such a way for you, as well.


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for Samantha, who teaches me this...



        Thy will be done. My festoons on this have been added gradually, At first I took it exclusively as an act of submission, attempting to do with it what Our Lord did in Gethsemane. I thought of God's will purely as something that would come upon me, something of which I should be the patient. And I also thought of it as a will which would be embodied in pains and disappointments. Not, to be sure, that I supposed God's will for me to consist entirely of disagreeables. But I thought it was only the disagreeables that called for the preliminary submission -- the agreeables could look after themselves for the present. When they turned up, one could give thanks.
        This interpretation is, I expect, the commonest. And so it must be. And such are the miseries of human life that it must often fill our whole mind. But at other times other meanings can be added. So I added one more.
        The peg for it is, I admit, much more obvious in the English versions than in the Greek or Latin. No matter: this is where the liberty of festooning comes in. "They will be done." But a great deal of it is to be done by God's creatures; including me. The petition, then, is not merely that I may patiently suffer God's will but also that I may vigorously do it. I must be an agent as well as a patient. I am asking that I may be enabled to do it. In the long run I am asking to be given "the same mind which was also in Christ."
        Taken this way, I find the words have a more regular daily application. For there isn't always -- or we don't always have reason to suspect that there is -- some great affliction looming in the near future, but there are always duties to be done; usually, for me, neglected duties to be caught up with. "Thy will be done -- by me -- now" brings one back to brass tacks.

        But now, more than that, I am at this moment contemplating a new festoon. Tell me if you think it a vain subtlety. I am beginning to feel that we need a preliminary act of submission not only towards possible future afflictions but also towards possible future blessings. I know it sounds fantastic; but think it over. It seems to me that we often, almost sulkily, reject the good that God offers us because, at that moment, we expected some other good. Do you know what I mean? On every level of our life -- in our religious experience, in our gastronomic, erotic, aesthetic, and social experience -- we are always harking back to some occasion which seemed to us to reach perfection, setting that up as a norm, and depreciating all others by comparison. But these other occasions, I now suspect, are often full of their own new blessing, if only we would lay ourselves open to it. God shows us a new facet of glory, and we refuse to look at it because we're still looking for the old one. And of course we don't get that. You can't, at the twentieth reading, get again the experience of reading Lycidas for the first time. But what you do get can be in its own way as good.
        This applies especially to the devotional life. Many religious people lament that the first fervours of their conversion have died away. They think -- sometimes rightly, but not, I believe, always -- that their sins account for this. They may even try by pitiful efforts of will to revive what now seem to have been the golden days. But were those fervours -- the operative word is those -- ever intended to last?
        It would be rash to say that there is any prayer which God never grants. But the strongest candidate is the prayer we might express in the single word encore. And how should the Infinite repeat Himself? All space and time are too little for Him to utter Himself in them once.
        And the joke, or tragedy, of it all is that these golden moments in the past, which are so tormenting if we erect them into a norm, are entirely nourishing, wholesome, and enchanting if we are content to accept them for what they are, for memories. Properly bedded down in a past which we do not miserably try to conjure back, they will send up exquisite growths. Leave the bulbs alone, and the new flowers will come up. Grub them up and hope, by fondling and sniffing, to get last year's blooms, and you will get nothing. "Unless a seed die…"

[All emphases original.]


+ VDMA

Saturday, December 3, 2011

How babies are made

Found this over at Wimp.com, which is one of the best (and most distracting) RSS feeds imaginable:



I think it's rather ingenious, frankly. Very cute. Can I say that? I just did.


+ VDMA

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Quality Food People

Giant in Langlet Park, MD (not mine)

Yellow stripes litter the wine-dark asphalt
Like the broken ribs of wrecked ships,
Telling car-boats where to moor.
Here, amid the pilings in the port
Of this petite Giant, a carswain maiden
Stands sentinel, leans against
The bed of her bobbing truck.
She signals ashore to me via Morse Code
from a cigarette's burning cherry;
I send a message back, but do not think
Carefully of all that I may be saying
Through haphazard inspirations, expirations,
And the semaphore of hand-to-mouth.

What if it had been an honest S.O.S.
Which she just blinked to me?
I must now ponder more carefully
All that I still would not have said.


+ VDMA

The Plymouth Sundance

for Jon's car.
Metallurgic horse,
You did your duty duly.
Jon sure sold you quick.


+ VDMA

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

pseudepifacelifted!

I decided to give my blog a facelift.


I needed something easier on the eyes, frankly. The new template accomplishes this, I think.


What do you think?


Also, you'll notice that my "Recommended Reading" gadget is gone, having been replaced by a lovely septuplet of Mimetic Desire Fish. This is because the Google will no longer allow me to handily share things with you via Reader. I have to share everything to Google + instead. I'm not crazy about this change to Reader's platform, but I'm mostly over making comments to that effect in a high dudgeon. The fish are better, though -- admit it. Anyway, if you want to add me to your circles on Plus, go ahead.


Anyway, that's all. Happy reading what I write (I hope).




+ VDMA

The Gospel and its discontents


Image by Marco Dheim Orciuoli



That sinners are accounted just before a righteous God solely on account of Christ’s perfect obedience in life, in suffering, and in death, and liberated from sin and death by His resurrection is simultaneously the easiest and most difficult thing to believe. But it is the Gospel, which only poor, miserable sinners righteously exposed, crushed and broken by the Law and regenerated by the Holy Spirit can and will believe, those who have despaired in their own works, and by faith trust in the works of Another.



Roman Catholics love to say that this is a “cheap and easy Gospel” which lets man off the hook and foments spiritual laziness and antinomianism.

Really? Not so, I say.

Clinging to this promise in faith over and against the ridicule of the world and walking in good works that cannot merit anything for us is probably the most difficult thing imaginable. It is a small gate; few find it. It is the 
“one thing needful,” the faith which makes one well, makes one rise, and walk.

It is not in the pomp of Rome (though it is not my place to judge individuals), nor is it in the enthusiasm of an unmitigated, perpetually-Protestantizing Protestantism. This narrow gate is the Gospel. And it is the Gospel which, I believe, the churches of the Augsburg Confession have faithfully, albeit imperfectly, preserved since the Lutheran fathers reformed the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century. Rome owns the historical narrative still, as well as the term “Catholic,” but what Rome teaches is not the catholic faith once passed down to the saints. Rather, it is an amalgam of Aristotelian moral philosophy and Christian pietism. Much has been retained by Rome which is good, but more has been dispensed with, lamentably. It comes as no surprise, then, that evangelicals whose churches have never preached Justification or Christology correctly and who have always felt the need to work strenuously for their salvation take the surprisingly easy, increasingly predictable sideways step to Rome: same treadmill, but with sacraments and (an aura of vaunted) authority, gravitas, etc. Kids at my alma mater often made what I like to call the “Lord of the Rings” conversion: they fell in love with Rome because the impression they got of it while in college was that it was traditional (whatever that means), reverent, and mythopoeic: you can feel like you’re part of something big, mystical, and exciting — the adventure of your salvation! Then they end up at some Novus Ordo parish with a clown-celebrant and a rock-a-billy banjo-liturgy with a square dance procession of the gifts. Poetic justice, says I.

Yes, the risk of the pure Gospel is antinomianism. But there is a clear difference between the worth of something and the risks of something. The risk of walking the Narrow Path is falling off of it (think of Scylla and Charybdis in the Odyssey); the risk of walking through the door to the sheep-pen is missing it and running into the fence (which is electric, and barbed-wire — it’s called the Law); the risk of getting married is getting divorced, etc. There is also a significantly higher risk to Roman theology — that of never hearing the Gospel. Put another way, the risk of the partial/obscured/perverted Gospel is, well, nomianism. Thankfully, even in the Roman church much of the liturgy still preaches the Gospel, even if the homily (catechism, etc.) does not.

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I posted the foregoing in a comment-feed of a piece over at Internet Monk, the main author/webmaster of which site has decided to become Lutheran. I haven't been writing much on my own site, so I thought I would paste a slightly touched-up version of my comment for the perusal of anyone who...reads this blog and cares.

Do you read this blog and care? Thank you.


+ VDMA

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Who says?


So I'm posting other random fragments of posts I started this summer but never got around to finishing. Here's another one:

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Originally composed June 2011

“These things are written that you may believe, and that by believing you may have life in His name.”

There seems to be a fundamental difference in theology that we’re overlooking here, and that is this: we Lutherans have no problem whatsoever admitting that there is no authoritative fiat made vicarius Dei which gives force and credibility to Scripture. Scripture itself supplies this. Rather, Scripture is this. But we cannot by our own reason or strength believe in the truth that it reveals, i.e., the Lordship of Christ. We cannot confess Him as Lord, but the Holy Spirit calls us by the Gospel, enlightens us with His gifts, sanctifies and keeps us in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens and Sanctifies the whole Church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. The Holy Spirit works through the Word—read, preached, and proclaimed—to accomplish this good purpose. Christian belief, then, is not traceable back to the various affirmations of the Bishops of Rome, but to the work of the Holy Spirit in and through the Word. Not by power, not by might, not by all the pomp and opulence of Rome, but by His Spirit will it be accomplished.

Now, Rome, too, believes in the working of the Holy Spirit. But Rome teaches (indeed, their entire sacerdotal system is premised upon the notion) that the Holy Spirit works through the Roman popes as the authoritative interpreters of the content of the Scriptures. The plain sense of Scripture, then, must bow to their word. The Word is beholden to the word of the pope, who construes the authority of his office to be one of making meaning. “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved” does not necessarily mean what it seems to say; its meaning is instead contingent upon what they say it says. It necessarily means what the pope says it means. If this is taken to its logical conclusion, it obviates any need for a canon of Scripture, or Scripture at all. It should then come as no surprise that Rome has fared so well in its enterprise without Scriptural support for its doctrines.

Related post: On Private Judgment


+ VDMA

Even children know bad art when they see it


I wrote the following post this past summer but never got around to publishing it, for some reason or another. In any event, the thoughts of June Trent Demarest seemed to withstand the November Trent Demarest's scrutiny (that's me, in case you were wondering) with little reworking, so I'm just posting them as-is, rather than changing verb tenses, etc.

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Originally composed June 2011

When working with children you really have to be on your toes. You must be vigilant not only on behalf of their safety, but also on account of those sanguine truths which can only be elucidated by their native precocity and naivete. If you’re not careful, you’ll miss them. I know that parents will corroborate this, and know it better than I. Still, my job this summer consists of taking care of the children attending Immanuel Lutheran School’s summer day-camp, and for the nine months preceding consisted of educating them, so I know something of what these little creatures are like. Yesterday’s venture to Old Town Alexandria with the children was no exception, as our trip to the Torpedo Factory Art Gallery provided an unexpected opportunity for reflection on the nature of art. I’m excited to report that I have culled a single sentence from my mental meanderings that adequately summarizes the experience:

Even children know bad art when they see it.

I’m aware that sounds far too neat, too absolute, and too inductive: Trent, after spending time with subset “Immanuel children,” infers from his observations that set “children” are good judges of the relative merits and demerits of art. Inductive leap! Converse accident! Hasty generalization!

Maybe so. Perhaps I should modify my statement so that it reads, “Certain children seem to agree with me with respect to what counts as ugly.” That much is indisputable. Just how much of a subjectivist measure this is, we shall have to see.

As you’ve doubtless discovered for yourself if you’ve clicked the above link, the Torpedo Factory Gallery is something of a mixed bag of different schools of art (there is a little flash gallery on the linked page which displays various artists’ work). To be sure, there are definitely artists whose work is more or less classical, i.e., they seek to discern and express the perfections of nature in their work, imposing order upon experience and at least attempting to harmonize their particular projects with various and sundry of the aesthetic norms found in nature. And, to be equally sure, there are others who are far more modern, i.e., they see it as their job as artists to provide ever novel, often radically unique, perspectives.

Perspectives? On...? Towards...? Don’t these prepositions need an object?

Well, I happen to think so. But it seems that even saying “perspectives on nature,” or “perspectives on reality,” or some suchlike, begs too many epistemological questions these days. Much of the art we looked at today was unrecognizable, not only in its form but in its intention, too. And the children smelled a rat. They may have smelled several rats, actually.

(Thank God for idioms, or that would be a huge non-sequitur. In my brief editing digression I just learnt [ha!] that “smelled” and “smelt” are not synonymous. So, had I not edited, I would have departed out of the safe haven of metaphor and told you that the children extracted metals out of superheated rodents, which they did not do. Oh, English...)

Per my discretion, we did not stop into each and every booth we walked past, but that did not stop the children from looking in the windows. It wasn’t necessarily on account of obscenity that I chose not to visit some of the shops (though there was at least one artiste peddling some weird fetishistic stuff that I had to steer some six-year-olds away from); no, some of the art was just ugly. Unrecognizable. It was like the “Emperor’s New Clothes” all over again.

“What is that? I can’t even tell what that is!”
“I could do that!”
“Ewww! That’s gross! What’s it even supposed to be anyway?”

While I was quick to hush such comments (so as not to bruise the ego of a nearby gift-to-unenlightened-humanity), I sometimes had to smirk to myself and think, “Yeah, no kidding.”

With the children, there was no pretense of enjoyment of the various pieces, whether ugly or beautiful. Some of this was due to the fact that their tastes are not educated. Some, but not all: there is a chasm of difference between a painting whose order is present but not immediately discernible, and random chaotic splatterings of paint on misshapen clay busts. Both may be opaque in some way to the young mind, but the former can be explained, and very often recognized in part even if not fully understood, whereas quite often the latter variety cannot, apart from the airheaded “it means whatever you want it to mean.”

A child’s initial fascination with good art can be cultivated and brought to fruition as various harmonies of shape, color, and perspective are elucidated. And lest we get too heady, let us remember that an explanation of the structural intricacies of a piece of good art often in no way enhances the delight which it cannot help but give often even in one’s first encounter with it, but provides a separate kind of appreciation. Just as the musical technicalities of Beethoven’s 5th need not be explained for one to be delighted by its beauty, so also a beautiful work of visual art need not be rationally grasped, at least not in a self-conscious way.

As we walked through the gallery, the children would brighten and exclaim when they found the exhibits pleasing to the eye. They were wont to linger longer at the booths of artists who seemed intent on offering high delight to their viewers. This was heartening for me to witness, and I was moved to thank more than a few artists for their part in enriching the imaginations of my young charges that day.

I’ll end with the following quotation from C.S. Lewis which – at least to me – epitomizes the problem with most “modernist art,” so called. It needs no further comment from me.


“Until quite recently – until the latter part of the last century – it was taken for granted that the business of the artist was to delight and instruct the public. There were, of course, different publics; the street songs and oratorios were not addressed to the same audience (though I think a good many people liked both). And an artist might lead his public on to appreciate finer things than they had wanted at first; but he could do this by being, from the first, if not merely entertaining, yet entertaining, and if not completely intelligible, yet very largely intelligible. All this has changed. In the highest aesthetic circles one now hears nothing about the artist’s duty to us. It is all about our duty to him. We owe him ‘recognition’ even though he has never paid the slightest attention to our tastes, interests, and habits. If we don’t give it to him, our name is mud. In this shop the customer is always wrong.” Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt, 2002, C.S. Lewis, The World’s Last Night, “Good Work and Good Works.”

+ VDMA

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Ethan Demarest and Shenandoah Davis - On tour, and maybe coming your way...

My brother, Ethan Demarest, and his girlfriend, Seattle-based singer-songwriter Shenandoah Davis, will be playing a show on October 31st at Desperados Burgers and Bar on 1342 U Street Northwest. The show will start at 9 and go until 2 AM; Admission is free. Oh, and you're supposed to wear a costume, since it's Halloween. Anyway, it will be a great show. Good food, good beer, good music. My brother's old band, Husqvarna, has an album you can listen to on Spotify, All Roads Lead To Old Roads.









+ VDMA

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Luther on worldly wisdom

I found this on the blog of a Reformed fellow which I have recently enjoyed reading. Among other reasons, the author of this blog is clever for nabbing the URL "dogmatics.wordpress.com." Nice.


The quotation:

“If it were a matter of harmonizing [faith and reason], then we wouldn’t keep a single article of faith. My dear fellow! If God is almighty, how can one make sense out of the fact that he doesn’t punish evil, but rather lets it happen? Either he mustn’t be able to punish and resist every evil, or he mustn’t want to do it. If he doesn’t want to punish it, then surely he’s a rogue; but if he cannot punish it, then he’s not almighty as God ought to be. And now make sense out of this: the highest Wisdom behaves as if it were ignorance, and the highest Might as if it were impotent. You won’t find even a Turk who could make sense out of that! And this is why wise people…come to the logical conclusion that there is no God at all.”


Martin Luther, Sermon 8 after Trinity; Torgau, 1531; quoted in Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord, volume 1, p. 47.

It isn't for lack of demonstrable proof that men reject the existence of God, nor is it on account of a preponderance of the same that they believe in and confess Christ as Lord.




+ VDMA

Friday, August 19, 2011

Sometimes

One of these days,
We will have to do
This and such.
Sometime,
We will have to go
Thus and so.


But days end, and time runs out.
We don't have an infinite supply
Of sometimes. And it's too bad
That we don't, because I have a
Feeling that I won't want to do
This and such, or go thus and so
Without you.















+ VDMA

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Non-Euclidean Geometry


Euclid Avenue runs
The shortest distance
To the bus-stop
Through a forest of
Ginkgo trees:
A straight line from
Columbia to 16th.

It's a sparse forest.
You see more buildings
Than you do trees.
In fact, most would say
That this is not a forest,
But a neighborhood
In northwest D.C.

But do not be deceived:
It's a forest,
And I'm not doing geometry,
I'm hiking.


+ VDMA

(Untitled 1) -- started in Redondo Beach, CA; finished in Washington, D.C.


Image by Robert Altman.




When you pray, pray like this:
Always as a brother of Our Lord,
Addressing Our Father.
Not in floods of mighty words,
Not mindful of unworthiness,
Of burdens all one's own, but of
Truth concealed behind
An amber glass.
The former things, the worrying --
They all, they all will pass.

So must we all. Remember:
We all flourish for a time,
And in such timebound thriving
Is all Man's transience shown.

So do not fear the once-dying,
And do not flee the elemental
Burning of the mundane tangle:
Across this earthly valley hangs
The loom on which our tapestry
Is stretched, the tapestry of all flesh.

Bent metallic souls we are, we frame
This too too solid cloth whose warp hangs
Lichen-like, unbeautiful,
Pulled by gravity towards
Earth's infernal core.
Our waning tensile strength
Portends collapse; so, too, the
Red hot, singeing shuttle
Whose darting course unknits
Mortal canopies.

Between, among, throughout the motes
Of purgatorial flame and smoke,
Descry the Weaver's hands which ply
Pig-iron souls and tattered strands.
Persist, abide in Job-like faith.
Recall, too, the sometimes-theologian,
Who -- young in name if not in age --
Turned an accidental holy phrase:
"It's better to burn out," he said,
"Than fade away."



+ VDMA