Archive for May 2008
. . . yawning, even though I’ve had two naps today.
. . . processing the David Brooks book I’ve been reading about what it means to be American.
. . . wondering what it means for me to work a job that doesn’t fit with my life goals.
. . . pondering what it means to have a vision of personal improvement, a set of goals, a set of tasks, that I have in my mind to always be improving upon. Is that Christian? American? Me?
. . . griping about the bass I can hear over the Moby I’m listening to.
. . . wishing I hadn’t watched two episodes of McGyver and had cooked instead.
. . . deciding if have anything else to say.
Last night I finished A World Lit Only by Fire which proved a captivating read. The sub-subtitle is “A Portrait of an Age” and that’s a pretty accurate description.
The author, William Manchester, sketches broad political, economic and religious movements of the age and fills in the details with short sketches of major historical players, their mindsets, and the carnivals that surround there lives. Popes, kings, protestants, and explorers all feature in the story. Each plays a role in moving or resisting the movement from the staid, blind surety of the middle ages to the questioning of the church and its universal claims of political, religious, or scientific authority that came with the Reformation and the explorers.
It’s a pretty crazy journey through the fourteen and fifteen hundreds. Manchester does a great job setting you down inside the head of someone from that age, seeing what they saw and understanding just how unthinkable it would have been to think differently.
The differences between the world today and the world of those year are stunning in terms of basic world-view, the realities of daily life, and of brutality.*
Manchester doesn’t dwell too heavily on these horrors but they regularly appear all on their own beside the tales of splendor of the Roman popes. He displays the darker sides of the church, both Catholic and Protestant. He presents a dark and brutal way of life with multiple kinds of brutal deaths handed down by both varieties of church and the state. The intellectual changes that were afoot changing the very way the world was conceived to exist blended with these many horrors to be the portrait of the age.
Over the course of the time period Manchester’s story evolves from one of the limited, phantom filled, authority-bound medieval mind to the beginning of the modern mind which pictured the world as round and having the church as a political authority subservient to nation states. When the book ends with Magellan circumnavigating the world, thereby confirming the world spun on it’s own axis the birth of the modern world with science, industrialization and secular nations seems just to be coming over the horizon.
It is a fascinating age to read about but no description of the world past made me pine for an age other than this 21st century. I’m pretty thankful to live in the relative safety, tolerance, justice, and health of these United States.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
*Medieval life lost much of its romance for me when Charity and I toured half-ruined castle. At one point our guide book instructed us to walk through a broad hole in the wall and look around the room inside. Above us was a trap door, on the sides were holes where beams used to span the walls. It was a dungeon and when the walls were still complete it was berift of light or air. Men were lowered into that vast vat and kept a foot above their own excrement until they died. It was a sentence often measured in years.
Almost two years ago I blogged about a radio interview with Thomas Ricks about his book Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq. During a recent trip to the public library I picked it up and last week I finished it . . . whew. It’s an in-depth, well documented, history of the lead up to the war and the first year of the war. It was quite the read.
It’s strange to read about an occupation that has affected the lives of so many Americans and Iraqis and that I know so little about.
The book first and foremost a history of the war. His research is extensive and his work is respected in both the military and the media. Fiasco describes the decisions, strategies and tactics of the American military and their civilian masters during this two year period. If you’re interested in learning about this period I highly recommend it.
I like Ricks. In an age where every media article hems and haws by quoting experts on both sides Hicks is a journalist who isn’t afraid to call a spade a spade: not with the Congress, not with the military leadership, not with the media. He’s critical of specific people, of their leadership styles and of their specific decisions.
In Fiasco he’s ruthless in his critiques of leadership decisions that spectacularly failed to plan for the occupation phase of the military operation, of a heavy-handed military occupation that failed to see the Iraqi people as the prize to be won and instead saw the militants as the ones to be destroyed (if that alienates the civilians oh well), and of a leadership that was slow to realize what kind of battle it was engaged in and put soldiers at risk through their lack of understanding.
I hope he writes another history that updates what’s happened since 2005. The course of the war has tremendous consequence for us in dollars, lives, and the future of how the world will be functioning through this century.
So for a little fun reading when I have a few minutes I’ve picked up A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance by William Manchester. I don’t know squat about medieval history and I thought a book by Manchester would be a nice place to start. Manchester is the author of the fabulous Last Lion series of biographies about Winston Churchill which I loved.
I thought I’d blog this passage as it’s a pretty mind bending point of view about what life was like for medievil peasants.
In the medieval mind there was also no awareness of time, which is even more difficult to grasp.
Inhabitants of the twentieth century are instinctively aware of past, present, and future. At any given moment most can quickly identify where they are on this temporal scale – the year, usually the date or day of the week, and frequently, by glancing at their wrists, the time of day.
Medieval men were rarely aware of which century they were living in. There was no reason they should have been. There are great differences between every day life in 1791 and 1991, but there were very few between 791 and 991. Life then revolved around passing of the seasons and such cyclical events as religious holidays, harvest time, and local fetes.
In all of Christendom there was no such thing as a watch, a clock, or apart from a copy of the Easter tables in the nearest church or monastery, anything resembling a calendar.
Generations succeeded one another in a meaningless, timeless blur. In the whole of Europe, which was the world as they knew it, very little happened. Popes, emperors, and kings died and were succeeded by new popes, emperors, and kings; wars were fought, spoils divided; communities suffered, then recovered from, natural disasters. But the impact on the masses was negligible.
This lockstep continued for a period of time roughly corresponding in length to the time between the Norman conquest of England, in 1066, an the end of the twentieth century
I’m sorting through boxes of school files tonight searching for my notes on welfare state retrenchment and expansion. I’ve happened along a lot of random pieces of paper that I’ve stored up over the four years of graduate school.
Among them is this prayer on an old torn piece of paper that was once a bulletin. It’s so old and beat up it almost qualifies as an artifact, and in a way it is: it’s all the way back from my year in Chicago which seems so far away, so other worldly and other me-ly, that it’s strange to hold an object from that testifies to me that I did live there.
Anyway, I’ll probably keep the piece of paper but just in case didn’t want to lose the prayer so it’s typed out below.
Lord Jesus, help me to understand the weight You carried on that long road to Jerusalem. How much destruction did You see beyond the rubble of the Jerusalem temple? How many nations did You see beating their plows into swords and their pruning hooks into spears? How many Stalins and Hitlers did You see gathering darkly on the political horizon?
How many genocides did You witness because there was no peace between nations? How many homicides, because there was no peace between neighbors? How many suicides, because there was no peace in the human heart? How much hatred did You see through Your tears? Help me to see that Your tear were not just for Jerusalem but also for Rome, for Gettysburg, for Treblinka, for Hiroshima.
I pray for our world which Your Father cradles so closely to His heart. A world that is on the brink of breaking apart, war-torn and weary. A world that knows so little of the peace You offer.
Help me to know that Peace, O Lord, especially in my suffering.
Help me to understand the dark secret of love, the secret that only suffering can reveal: that if I love long enough and deeply enough, someday my heart will be broken. As Yours was broken.
Isaiah prophesied You would live among us as a broken-hearted Man, a Man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. Help me to realize there are things, like the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, that can only come to pass through suffering. Like character and compassion.
Help me to understand that there is a communion with You that can only be shared through the sacrament of tears.
Ken Gire, “Moments with the Savior”