Monthly Archives: November 2015

Me: Let’s use the potato ricer!
Dad: What’s a potato racer?


Narrator: On the track, Spud finds himself confronted with the mysterious Racer P. Unbeknown to him, Racer P is actually the heir to the lost throne of the Incas!

Trixie: Spud, speed up!

Narrator: The sudden acceleration rips Spud’s racing garments from his body!



Narrator: Distracted, Spud does not see the multicar pileup ahead!


The title of the last post comes from a witticism heard among the chattering classes in Paris in March of 1815:

“The monster has broken out of his den; the brigand has landed at Cannes; the general has reached Lyon; Napoleon passed the night at Orleans; the Emperor is expected hourly at the Tuileries; His Imperial Majesty will address his loyal subjects to-morrow.”

Except from a different version of the joke (one with the word ‘monster’ in it) than I first learned, in David Johnson’s The French Cavalry 1792-1815.

At 17, “current events” were something to be studied so I could answer Scholars for Dollars questions. At 42, “current events” are like bullets snapped into a magazine that I hope will be discharged in a direction other than mine.

This morning the greeter at church said “We’re singing ‘Oh God, We Yearn for Safety’ again. I wish we didn’t have to sing that one so much.”

And we did. But we also sang:

God of grace and God of glory,
On Thy people pour Thy power.
Crown Thine ancient church’s story,
Bring her bud to glorious flower.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
For the facing of this hour,
For the facing of this hour.

Harry Emerson Fosdick was one of the major pioneering voices in Christian liberal thought. He staked his soul and his career on the ideas that Scripture should not be taken literally and that the Church must change with the times. After years of constant friction with the Presbyterian Church, John D. Rockfeller, a big fan, suggested that Fosdick should have his own pulpit, beholden to no one. The result was Riverside Church, an enormous Gothic edifice overlooking the Hudson in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights. It was intended to be a cathedral church for Christian liberalism.

Lo! the hosts of evil ’round us,
Scorn Thy Christ, assail His ways.
From the fears that long have bound us,
Free our hearts to faith and praise.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
For the living of these days,
For the living of these days.

But something changed between Riverside’s conception in 1927 and its completion in 1930. The years from the Crash to Roosevelt’s inauguration were one of the most terrifying periods in American history. The economy imploded and society itself seemed about to unravel. Suddenly the mission of Riverside became not so much over whether Adam & Eve actually existed or whether the Resurrection was a physical fact, and more about how to preach hope in a time that had no promise of tomorrow.

Under this shadow, Fosdick sat down to write a hymn for the church’s dedication service. What he produced was “God of Grace and God of Glory.”

Cure Thy children’s warring madness,
Bend our pride to Thy control.
Shame our wanton selfish gladness,
Rich in things and poor in soul.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
Lest we miss Thy kingdom’s goal,
Lest we miss Thy kingdom’s goal.

The first fifteen years of Riverside’s existence saw the spark lit by the Depression burn down the fuse of the Thirties and finally explode in the cataclysm of World War II, the single worst event in human history. The people of Riverside Church kept singing the hymn Fosdick gave them. The Cold War, the Sixties, crisis after crisis, and yet that song was still there. The church was still there. They were still there. The hope they had been promised turned out to be as valid as the fear it had answered. And while the darkness never went away, the light shone yet, and the darkness could not extinguish it.

Save us from weak resignation,
To the evils we deplore.
Let the search for Thy salvation,
Be our glory evermore.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
Serving Thee Whom we adore,
Serving Thee Whom we adore.

It is the promise of the Christian faith that the Resurrection of Jesus Christ (literal or not!) means that “life, not death, is the final word.” This fallen world is soaked in evil; it always has been. Through the swampy depths of that evil, the power of human good can and does shine forth. Perhaps Fosdick doubted, when he wrote the hymn, whether there’d be anyone to sing eight decades later. There is. We sang it this morning. We will keep singing it.

If we now see movement in the West toward actual constructive action in Syria, it will be a glass-case illustration of something I have long believed:

Moderates are the only people who actually get anything done in this world. But moderates require radicals because to get traction moderates need to be able to point to radicals and say “If you don’t deal with us, you’ll end up dealing with them. And those guys are crazy.”

Last night, watching the news come in from Paris, I once again experienced what I have come to call “That 9/11 Feeling.” This allowed me to spend some time dissecting the sensation.

The two principal spiritual aspects (or psychological, depending on how one likes to describe these things) are:

-a sense of distant horror. It’s akin to standing on a beach, watching a boat sink offshore, hearing the hands screaming and being unable to do anything. However, there is a difference in that one is witnessing human evil. It’s different from receiving news of a great natural disaster. There’s the pervasive awareness that this abomination is being performed voluntarily, by one’s fellow humans.

-a sense of foreboding history. Dave Barry once wrote of the Kennedy assassination: “we were getting our first strong dose of the craziness, the sense of events whirling out of control, that was going to be with us, stronger and stronger, through the rest of the Sixties.” When these events happen, it is both a shock and completely expected. The political and social forces that we know slide unseen beneath the crust of society burst forth, like a volcanic eruption. Rage coalesces into blood. And we can’t know where it’s going, but it doesn’t seem anywhere good. The pistons have exploded out of the engine; the plane is spiraling down.

Physically, the “9/11 feeling” creates a dry, empty sensation at the back of throat, similar to what I’ve felt when my children are very sick. It’s accompanied by a need to move around, but a difficulty in doing so, and an urge to talk, whether in person or online, to say anything, even gibberish.

Three occasions so far, I have felt this: on 9/11 itself, during the Boston Marathon Bombing, and now. I do not look forward to further opportunities to explore the feeling.

Sometimes I wonder if we live in another 1930s, a runup to global war, with events spiraling out of control.

But today, rereading the post-WWI diaries of Count Henry Kessler (which I recommend to everyone), I noticed something. In his slow, ground-level account of that decade, there was a constant note of instability. That no one was sure what was going on with the Great Powers, what direction they would take, from Germany to the United States.

Whatever you want to say about the Great Powers of our age, they’re not unstable. I don’t know if it’s demographics or what, but all of the powers of our age have, as Tom Wolfe said, the same center of gravity as a deluxe sofa. There may be exceptions yet revealed–Russia and Saudi Arabia seem candidates–but for now, we know exactly what everyone will do.

That gives us one up on the Thirties. So far.