. . . to go on speaking – like Al Davis.

The mentor Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy wrote a little book of great ideas not long before he died, The Fruit of Lips, or Why Four Gospels.  In the chapter called “The Cross of Grammar” he wrote:

A word may be true as to content; it may be true enough to be verified in its own author’s actions; finally, it may be so true that it compels the next speaker to respond and to go on speaking.

These words came to mind as I read the good words in the Marshall News Messenger about a friend to many and civic servant from Marshall, Al Davis.  Al was a longtime attorney and former assistant district attorney, and husband to Jane Ogden, our university colleague in psychology, now retired.  A faithful churchman and choir member at the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Al died of a heart attack this past Saturday.  We shall all miss him.

Rosenstock-Huessy (R-H) wrote of the Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – that “They are sound as wells of speech.”  He meant that they are all authentic responses to the message of the life of Jesus in relationship to his disciples, Father God, and the World, and that each Gospel contributes uniquely to the same story.  The Gospel writers complemented each other.   R-H writes,

What is the end and the beginning of speech?  The beginning of a human breath discloses the time and place of this particular act of the spirit.  End and beginning bring an inspiration down to earth.  End and beginning of any book declare whether it is true or not.  But this truth is a threefold truth.  A word may be true as to content . . . .

And so it is, and was, and shall be, relating to the life of Al Davis among us.  Our newspaper carries the eulogies – the good words – of Al’s colleagues, coworkers in the community, his friends, and many he helped.  If a man’s life is a book, and his words are text for his life, then Al Davis finished well – he completed a good, admirable book.  We know this because so many already have been inspired to speak further good about him, and in the days to come others will speak in a similar way.

The life and, to us, untimely, death of Al Davis bereaves us but also inspires us.  His life, actions and words should remind us that in each of us, in our communities, we have the resources to overcome the wrong, to organize our efforts so that our intentions and plans succeed, to speak encouraging words to each other so that each person is inspired to contribute his or her own words and book in the time available, to make our relationships, community and society more what they can and should be, and to bring more music and joy into everything we do.  I believe Al Davis would like that!  After all, that was so much what he was about while he lived and served among us.

Now, what about us?  One more word from E-H – a word for pondering:

The Gospels were true enough to compel the next speaker to go on speaking above and beyond the last word of the last speaker.  Each one had to step in where the last speaker left off.  They were imparting the concrete time and scene of their speech so vividly to each other that they touched each other off, to the next move.  They sing, over forty years perhaps, one Gospel, each in his own key, on his specific wave-length, according to his lights, in handing the joyful and arduous task over to the better man, one after another.  In this act, then, the “Four Gospels” became a continuation of Jesus’ life through the minds which were made over by their office of Evangelists.  They were created into the Lips of the Word.

Let’s all be like Al Davis, “the better man.”


References all from pages 81-82, The Fruit of Lips.



Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence — Christmas at CBC Marshall, Texas

Our Central Baptist Church choir includes this hymn in our 2014 Christmas program, a traditional use for it, though it comes from a eucharistic liturgy about sixteen centuries old.  Tradition names St James the Less, Bishop of Jerusalem, as its author who infused its lines with imagery from Habakkuk 2:20, Zechariah 2:1-3, Revelation 19:16, Luke 22:19-20, Matthew 16:27, and Isaiah 6:2-3.  So, the hymn is rich in biblical imagery.  It has a Syrian origin, and that may be consistent with a role for James the Less.

Let All Mortal Flesh was a priest’s chant, drawing attention to the great mystery and wonder of “Christ our God” present among his people, God among us as Man.  The Supper of the Lord (or Eucharist, or Communion, later depending on one’s church tradition) was a picture and enactment of Christ’s sacrifice for the people in obedience to the Father.   The priest chanted as the Bread and the Wine were brought to the Table, while the standing congregation looked on in amazement.

The Eucharist could be much more, certainly not mere symbol, but participation by the congregation of the people in Christ’s sacrifice and the redemption He accomplished through His sufferings and death, burial and resurrection.  This was a hymn for the “little-c” catholic church found in the Levant, including Syria, during the early Byzantine period, and long before other Christian communions had spread beyond Rome in the West.  Certainly, this differed from a modern, Protestant memorial.

The tune for the  Prayer and the Cherubic Hymn of the Liturgy of St James was first published in 1860.  ‘Picardy’ is the traditional French tune.  The arrangement familiar to us is the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose 1906 work was published in The English Hymnal.  The Anglican pastor and chaplain Gerard Moultrie (1829-1885), translated the lyric from Greek to English in 1864.  He produced many hymn translations and composed many original hymns, publishing them in hymnals during his career.

There is much more to this.  We have many arrangements of Let All Mortal Flesh as hymn or anthem.  In most (hopefully all) cases, I expect it is beautiful, moving, and resilient by virtue of overwhelming tune and  lyrics.  We will enjoy singing it in our program, even as we do in rehearsal.


Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence, French Carol; Sandra T. Ford

Review by: Richard Stanislaw
The Choral Journal, Vol. 41, No. 2 (SEPTEMBER 2000), p. 94
Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/23553597.  Accessed 1 October 2014.
Hymnary.org.  http://www.hymnary.org/text/let_all_mortal_flesh_keep_silence.  Accessed 1 October 2014.

“Interpretation” for my students, re G. Steiner

In his book, Real Presences, George Steiner asserts a “wager on transcendence.”  He is referring to

“the wager on the meaning of meaning, on the potential of insight and response when one human voice addresses another, when we come face to face with the text and work of art or music, which is to say when we encounter the other in its condition of freedom, is a wager on transcendence.” (4)

He argues for that which is real or substantiated when people use language or create forms, when in making meaning they arrive at “meaningfulness.”  Now, all that is possible, Steiner argues, because God is present and is the transcendent reality that makes it possible for us to truly create art and to communicate.

We are talking about interpretation or hermeneutics in class.  Steiner writes that hermeneutics defines “the enactment of answerable understanding, of active apprehension.”  We may have to unpack that a bit in class . . . .

He also mentions three “principal senses” of interpretation:

An interpreter is:

  • a decipherer and communicator of meanings;
  • a translator between languages, between cultures and between performative conventions;
  • in essence, an executant, one who “acts out” the material before him so as to give it intelligible life.
An actor interprets Agamemnon or Ophelia.  A dancer interprets Balanchine’s choreography.  A violinist a Bach partita.  In each of these instances, interpretation is understanding in action; it is the immediacy of translation. (8)
Another quote from Steiner–and though he refers to music, theatre, art and poetry, he also refers to “non-dramatic literature,” which of course can mean for us the more “typical” primary source texts in history, whatever they would be–dealing with the moral aspect of interpretation and the question is “the reviewer, the critic, the academic expert accountable?”
Interpretive response under pressure of enactment I shall, using a dated word, call answerability.  The authentic experience of understanding, when we are spoken to by another human being or by a poem, is one of responding responsibly.  We are answerable to the text, to the work of art, to the musical offering, in a very specific sense, at once moral, spiritual and psychological.  (8)
Steiner has much more to say, but for our purposes right now, these points may help us to reflect on how we examine and analyse historical source documents or other primary source artifacts in our study of history.  This means that as historians we are not just examining evidence from the past.  We are serving as interpreters, translators in an important sense.  This kind of study requires us to be fully engaged and surprisingly deeply committed to what it is we think is important about the past.  In this kind of study we actually become historians in much more personal, intellectual and spiritual ways.  We gain new understanding about our own moral sensibilities and responsibilities.  So, we are involved in an exciting, holistic, human pursuit.
Sooner or later we all experience the challenge or delight of “interpretive response under pressure of enactment.”  Actually, in a sense, we face this each day; there is no day when we are not required to be answerable or responsible, even in the “everyday” or mundane things.  To propose a point to ponder:  was not Jesus the Christ, the incarnate God, the ultimate enactor-responder-artist of humanity, the model not just of a fully-realized humanity but of the immanence of God–God’s very presence in human person and community?  And even in his earthly, human life, did he not show us the extraordinary dimensions of wholeness as well as holiness?  And why should we not strive to realize, to find him “made real” in every part of our individual and social lives?  Even in a history class?  Let’s think about it and try it out.
Hebrews 9:1–10:25
Quotations from George Steiner, Real Presences, University of Chicago Press, 1989.


Forty-five years ago I sat to learn and read German under Mark Walton, the son of a Hungarian Jewess and Austrian Catholic.  An Anschluss refugee to the United States, Herr Walton got teaching certification at USC, translated for the Army and the German prisoners-of-war in the Northwest, and afterward gave generations of Californians a solid grounding in German, French and Latin.  He even dated Ida Lupino’s sister once or twice.  Through all that he remained an exotic, European immigrant-come-citizen, with Austrian accent beneficial for modeling Hochdeutsch – “high German” and mannerisms deeply traditional to his homeland.  He remains among many dozens perhaps the best teacher I ever had; how many of the others gave me so thoroughly another language, another culture?

In the third and fourth years we read Goethe, Schiller, Fichte and others; I still possess a slim novel by Adalbert Stifter, a gift of my teacher. This much I carried away from Goethe then as we read  Faust and learned one could not possess the world except to one’s own peril.  I did not know then that our reading method meant “thinking translation” that emphasized connotative, intuitive comprehension as much as accuracy to the meanings of words and idioms.  That training has paid dividends over the years in master’s and doctoral studies, and I enjoy employing it all I can in looking at Rosenzweig, Rosenstock-Huessy, and now again Goethe [try a light, guttural “Grrr-tuh’].

Here, I encounter Wilhelm Meister and his lifelong education while I read Matthew del Nevo about pentecostalism in relation to Rosenzweig’s Johannine Third Age, marvel at the new syntheses that appear among those who grapple with “the new thinking” (which is Bible-old, I tell you), and see how it connects with such varied truth conduits as Newman, Bonhoeffer and Soloveitchik.  I am compelled to reexamine, perhaps genuinely to understand, Goethe for the first time in ways not possible forty-five years ago.  I think Herr Walton knew that; I regret not to have looked more deeply than I did over the years, though I am grateful for the seeds planted at that time.


Enter into My Joy – John Stott

The news today of John Stott’s death at 90 saddened me for a moment, but only that long, for I knew he had entered the full joy of the Lord having done all the Lord’s bidding.  The Christianity Today obituary is moving and evokes good memory.  His life example is a good instance of what I was saying in my last posting about paganism compared to genuine faith.

Though as a Baptist I and my wife have enjoyed our wonderful visits to Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church in London and the New Road Baptist Church in Oxford during a sabbatical stay, All Souls Langham Place also attracted us.  But too late in his ministry, or off schedule, to hear John Stott, we nonetheless heard inspiring evangelical preaching by other staff pastors and enjoyed worshiping with a truly international congregation.  More recently the ministry of the Langham Partners International made a strong impression on me; I thought how positive, resolute and effective their mission sounded!

On at least two occasions my ETBU travel study students accompanied me to worship there at All Souls, once in March 2003, another in May 2006; that last time, on a Sunday morning, we walked the half mile or so from our hotel on Gower Street and entered that church just next to the BBC buildings. There the worshipers clearly recognized their congregation’s place in its own domestic society but displayed numerous, lively, and colorful connections with Christians around the world–and there were many visitors–the Africans dressed brightly, impressively for worship!  We enjoyed the tea and biscuits afterwards in the fellowship center, too, the opportunity to make new acquaintances, and to look at the books and tapes they offered.  It was a privilege to share just briefly in the vibrant experience of that missions and ministry-oriented urban church.  I am grateful to the Lord for all that, and for John Stott.

Blackbird Artistry

To Laura, age 5 1/2:

I saw a wonderful thing this morning! Just as the sun came up, I was walking on the meadow path by the creek. It is down the hill from my and Mimi’s house. A hundred blackbirds ate their breakfast in the meadow grass. As I walked toward them, the birds closer to me flew up and settled on the other side of the flock. They did so continuously. They were a rising and falling wave of black birds against the green-brown field.

At once they decided—all together, as if they had the same mind—to fly to a tree. They rose in a wavery but true sphere of black bodies and wings toward a tree. It is winter, still, and the tree has bare branches. The tree has a teardrop shape, rounder at bottom, narrower toward the top that ends in a point. How marvelous!

As the ball of birds flew upward it took the shape of the tree, but larger at first, and then shrank to the size of the actual tree as the birds lighted on its branches. It was wonderful to watch this happen with the grey sky in the background. The tree seemed to have black leaves, too, but just for a minute.

So, blackbirds are artists in a flock! This morning they also reminded me that God is an artist. He makes art together with his creatures. Now, how wonderful is that? What a beautiful thing I saw this morning! I thought of my granddaughters, right then and there. I wanted you to know about it too. — Papa

Update, May 25, 2011.

David Lyle Jeffrey remarks on the poetry of Richard Wilbur in the June/July 2011 issue of First Things and mentions a poem on the birds.  Of course Wilbur’s observation recalled what I saw and reported to Laura.  He wrote,

As if a cast of grain leapt back to the hand,

A landscapeful of small black birds, intent

On the far south, convene at some command

At once in the middle of the air, at once are gone

With headlong and unanimous consent

From the pale trees and fields they settled on.

After a paragraph or two of Jeffrey’s comment, another stanza from Wilbur reads,

Delighted with myself and with the birds,

I set them down and give them leave to be.

It is by words and the defeat of words,

Down sudden vistas of the vain attempt,

That for a flying moment one may see

By what cross-purposes the world is dreamt.

Legacy with Legs — A McFarlin Story

The comments below are “borrowed” without permission, but it is on a semipublic blog at CaringBridge and is worth sharing.  Randy McFarlin last week was released from ICU (from November 28 and the car crash) and is in onsite rehab at East Texas Medical Center, Tyler, Texas.  He is a career teacher and presently head football coach at Whitehouse High School.  Our daughter-in-law, Crystal, recently posted this observation about her father:

Lesson #4 from ICU: Legacies with Legs

Wherever a football coach goes, he leaves a papertrail: wins and losses, offers or championships, the numbers tell the story of a season.  Sometimes the paper trail makes him a hero, and sometimes it runs him out of town.  When others measure the quality of a football coach, his wins and losses lead the way. 

Over the past 6 weeks, we have had the privilege of seeing not the paper trail, but the people trail that my dad has left behind in 30 years of coaching.  Men and women that he has known and cared for at every stage of his career have called, visited, and left messages for my dad.  This is not the legacy that will be printed in the paper.  This is not the legacy that prompts a promotion.  But this is the only legacy that reaches beyond his lifetime.  This is the legacy that lasts.

Now don’t get me wrong, when the final buzzer sounds, my dad wants to win the game.  But the way he plays, he already has.

His legacies have legs.


Bear Frost at Austin

AND, yesterday morning, frost on the rooftops in my town.

Yesterday, October 30, the Baylor Bears frosted Texas on Texas’ home turf — 30-22.

Happy All Saints’ Eve, Baylor family!

F.R. & E. R-H.

I’ve been reading a lot by and on Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) and am becoming more impressed not only with his thought but that of his Christian friend Eugen Rosenstock Huessy (1888-1977).  R-H prompted so much responsive thought and personal review in FR; what a conversation they had, but what if they had been given more decades to correspond?  R-H was only one of FR’s correspondents, but perhaps the most important. More on them later.

Horrible Sermons & Cogency at Risk

Really, the title refers to two seemingly unrelated, provocative quotations this morning, from one of James V. Schall’s books. I recommend all of his books to you.  The first quote from a chapter called “On Spiritual and Intellectual Life” simply is striking, I think it holds its power even out of context:

On August 22, 1957, Flannery O’Connor wrote a letter about her cousin’s husband, a man who taught at Auburn University. The professor finally had come into the Church. Flannery O’Connor explained his conversion as follows: ‘We asked how he got interested and his answer was that the sermons were so horrible (when he had gone to Mass with his wife), he knew there must be something else there to make people come.’ The mystery of conversion remains not merely a question of successful rhetoric.

The second quotation follows a Chesterton comment on Thomas Aquinas, “It was his special spiritual thesis that there really are things; and not only the Thing; that the Many existed as well as the One.” (i.e., he was a realist who told others to “get real” in their thinking and believing).  So, then:

Not everybody needs to be an intellectual. Not everybody is a saint. Yet we must acknowledge that it is dangerous for ourselves, for the public order, when there are no philosophers. We suspect it is even more perilous for there to be no saints. When we wonder why, the answer returns to “receptivity”, to the realization that the highest things, which we rightfully seek because of what they are, are not for us to “make” or concoct. Aquinas wrote:

Nature is a prelude to grace. It is the abuse of science and philosophy which provokes statements against faith. These mistakes can be confuted by showing how impossible or unconvincing they are. Remember this, that as the truths of faith cannot be demonstratively proved, so the denial of them sometimes cannot be demonstratively disproved, though any lack of cogency can be exposed (Exposition, de Trinitate, 2, 3).

It is well to make note that Aquinas was referring to proof on the mystery of the Trinity, just for context’s sake. Schall has much else to say, about the compatibility of the spiritual life with that of the philosopher (contrary to the presuppositions of many a twentieth-century philosopher), the “liberty of the sons of God” in seeing that “what is is larger than what we are,” (contrary to the modern era’s rejection of “a God larger than itself.”) He writes that “This openness we possess to all being is our grace and our blessing, what we have accepted because we receive, not make, our own being. When wonder is addressed by grace, we are. This is the spiritual life given to intelligent beings.”

We receive, not make, our own being. I wonder at, and like, that statement. The truth of it is strength for me today. I hope it is for you also.

Schall quote from Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being, p. 347, in James V. Schall, “On Spiritual and Intellectual Life,” in Another Sort of Learning–Selected Contrary Essays on How to Finally Acquire an Education While Still in College or Anywhere Else: Containing Some Belated Advice about How to Employ Your Leisure Time When Ultimate Questions Remain Perplexing in Spite of Your Highest Earned Academic Degree, Together with Sundry Book Lists Nowhere Else in Captivity to Be Found (Ignatius Press, 1988), pp. 260-1; on Chesterton and Aquinas, pp. 267-8.