Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Blogging the West ... and some wine

We don't always have to be extremely serious, although the times seem to require it most of the time.

I find that I like my wines these days to be as light as possible -- for their type, that is; I am not asking for flawed or exhausted productions, just subtle ones. McKinley Springs 2010 Washington state cabernet sauvignon is just so. It pours in the glass as clear as jelly, and goes on to impress not with fruit basket metaphors but with a refreshingness all its own. "It's just wine." Retail, about $20.

The same is true for Valpolicella. Choose your producer. This one was Buglioni. Retail, about $15.

Now, back to blogging the West's sources.

Matthew, chapters 3 and 4. Very weird. In chapter 3, which is all of three paragraphs, John the Baptist appears out of nowhere, immersing throngs of people in the Jordan River "as they acknowledged their sins." He rebukes the authority figures of his day, the familiar can't-have-one-without-the-other duo of Pharisees and Sadducees, warning them that mere baptism without good deeds is useless. And he predicts the coming of one "who will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire," whose sandals he, John, is not worthy to carry. Jesus then comes to him -- also practically out of nowhere, for chapter 2 ended with his toddlerhood -- asks to be and is baptized like the crowds, despite John's reservation that "I need to be baptized by you, and yet you come to me."

Chapter 4 is weirder still. Jesus goes out to the desert, fasts for forty days, and then is tempted by the devil three times. We might say he had three confrontations with him or three visions of him, but Matthew describes simple, daylight activities with simple verbs: the devil "took him," "showed him." "tempted him." The two quote scripture at one another, which sounds irreverent but that is what they do, and when Jesus refuses all "the tempter's" blandishments, the tempter goes away. Next, reality obtrudes. "When he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee." Whatever pause this gave him, he got over it. Quickly Matthew tells us that he began to preach in John's own words -- 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand' -- to call disciples, and to travel, teach, and above all cure the sick. "His fame spread to all of Syria ... and great crowds followed him."

Who arrested John? What is going on in this land such that hordes of people rove about, following mystics and stepping right up for new religious rituals -- baptism -- that, like the mystics, seem to have emerged from out of nowhere? What is the kingdom of heaven, and why don't the crowds ask what it is? Who is in charge here?                                                                                                                                                                                        

Friday, December 25, 2015

Blogging the West's sources: Matthew 1 and 2

A few weeks ago, my fatheads will remember, we decided to start a project called "blogging the source of Western civilization." No kidding. To get started we accepted the premise that the West is in free fall, that for a variety of reasons it resembles -- once again to mix up images and invent new ones -- a (wealthy) car crash victim whose unconscious (not yet dead) body is being fought over by two entirely malicious and predatory witnesses, namely Islam and the progressive, jackbooted, nanny-state left. What these two would do to each other should the crash victim really die, and all his wealth monetary and otherwise die with him, is a different question.

(We know full well that the jackbooted, nanny-state left is itself a Western phenomenon. But we think it's fair to say, that the phenomenon has come so far from its putative origins in utopian compassion and outrage at injustice, has become so drunk with power and yet so smug with complacency, that it belongs to the West in the same way cancer belongs to the human body. As I write I am listening to a Christmas concert whose conductors introduced it by purring about "Christmas themes" of peace in the face of "gun violence," and of being "at peace with the earth.")

So we wanted to explore the roots of the West's achievements and liberties. How it got to that car on that road. We decided that this means tracing the achievements and liberties back to "natural law" and the Bible, and ultimately especially to the Gospels. This is because we're struck by Charles Murray's contention that it has largely been Christian exaltation of the individual that has stoked Western advancement, and because the Gospels must be almost the only bedrock Western text still working in many people's lives. I think more people are still going to church than are reading Plato or Shakespeare. If the West is hanging by a thread, it seems to be this one. Let us see what the thread is made of, and what a tugging and a pulling on it seem to prompt people attached to it to do.

Opening the Gospels means opening a book I have not looked at it twenty-five years, so as I said at the outset of the project, despite some deep messing about with religion and folkways in the past, I will be approaching it practically as an ignoramus. Perhaps that's whom it was meant for.


The Gospel of Matthew. We'll approach this as an exercise in note-taking.

Chapters 1 and 2 --

Does the opening genealogy, "fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the Babylonian exile," etc., indicate that Matthew regards Jesus as already so well known that, of course, people will want to know his place in world history? And, look how vital Matthew expects the Babylonian exile to be in people's, in the Jews', historical sense. It was as far removed from them in time as Joan of Arc is from us. On the other hand, we are aware of her ....

I seem to remember being taught that the genealogy was also intended to show Jesus as of royal descent. But if so, doesn't it rather defeat the purpose to trace this genealogy down to the Messiah's foster father?

I don't like my translation's clumsy "became the father of" to replace the good old King James Version's begat. In fact I read the two side by side, a paper copy of the New American Bible on the table, and an internet tab open to the King James, so that the seventeenth century edition may possibly correct the twentieth-century one. I feel sure the progressive, jackbooted left has long since infiltrated Bible translation, with an intent to administer and shape response to a dangerous book carefully in their image, as determinedly as the King James translators, in a much more Christian age, ever desired to get the word of God accurate from a Hebrew or Greek book into English for salvation's sake. Regarding especially the good old feminist complaints about all the man talk in the Bible, Father and sons and brotherhood and brethren and so forth, and how exclusionary and unkind to women it all is, the New American's translators say "the primary concern in this revision is fidelity to what the text says." Good. Also,
Discriminatory language should be eliminated insofar as possible whenever it is unfaithful to the meaning of the New Testament, but the text should not be altered in order to adjust it to contemporary concerns. 
Good. But if that has been so then why the need to avow it? Those kinds of vows lead to questions about curious discrepancies, when it turns out that the older version from a benighted, unfeminist age seems to be more inclusive in its language. For example today's translation of Matthew 2:16 says, of the Massacre of the Infants/Innocents, that upon being duped of his chance to kill the newborn Jesus, Herod ordered all the boys in Bethlehem slaughtered. The King James translation says he ordered all the children killed. There is a difference in English between boys and children. Did Herod kill the girls too? Dramatically it makes sense -- terrified mothers might have tried to pretend their babies were all girls and Herod might have foreseen that. And what of the difference between infant and innocent? Any animal species breeds infants. 'Innocent' carries additional connotations. What is the Greek word? I trust the Jacobeans to tell me, more than I trust moderns.      

Now. What of all the dreams? I count five. Four came to Joseph to instruct him what to do concerning marrying Mary, taking the family to Egypt to escape Herod, returning to the land of Israel after the monster's death, and then settling specifically in Galilee, outside the jurisdiction of Herod's son Archelaus. The fifth dream came to the Magi, warning them not to report to Herod on the newborn Jesus' location. That sounds like silly spy game stuff, but it is what the book says. "They returned to their country by another way" (Matthew 2:12). I always liked the fairy-tale simplicity of that.

And one more thing about the Massacre of the Innocents. Right away, in the next chapter, we will leap into Jesus' adult life and the beginning of, well, everything. Was Jesus aware of this holocaust in his toddlerhood, and will he ever mention it?      

Monday, December 21, 2015

Who invented the "Blue M----f----er"? You're a poltroon, too

Things have come to a pretty pass since my grandmother's day. I am talking of moral matters, but not perhaps what you think: she was surprisingly blase about the facts of life. She is the one who gave me the excellent bit of wisdom, "You know what they say -- when a couple get married, the first baby can come anytime -- after that it always takes nine months." That's a saw whose humorous decency only makes sense in a culture where people get and stay married. Who cares when babies come now, of if they do at all? Her little saying reminds me of the the Jewish proverb, I think from the Talmud, that since the parting of the Red Sea, God has done nothing else but arrange marriages. In other words, the difficulty of doing that successfully, for all mankind for all time, is as stupendous a miracle as the one by which the children of Israel walked between walls of water to freedom. Again, the proverb, the reflection, only has meaning in a culture of marriage. Try telling it to a group of children in a Sunday school class in an era of divorce, and you will get gales of laughter because God is so stupid.

The birds and the bees, Nana knew and accepted. "Why, 'a man had only to put his shoes under my bed and I got pregnant,' " she also quoted, not in reference to herself I don't think. Just another saw, a humorously decent reaction to life. It was wanton profanity that offended her. Luckily she heard little of it. She never went to the movies post-George Raft, and of course she never lived among foul-mouthed people. The one time she heard the word "s---" in public, she was speechless with outrage.

When I say therefore that things have come to a pretty pass since her day, I am thinking of how she might have reacted to a customer I faced yesterday. Or rather I am thinking, enviously, she would not have had to react at all, because she would not have faced that customer. In a more civilized era he would not have existed.

A man approached me and asked where we keep the mix needed to make the new cocktail, the Blue M ---- f----er. Just like that. He pronounced the whole word. Not "blue." The other one. He felt absolutely no compunction about speaking this word in public, to a fellow human being, still less to a woman -- ah, for the quaint days when men guarded their language around the gentle sex! -- and in a retail setting too, where we are all more or less helpless to defend ourselves in the face of the glorious Customer. I suppose I can count myself lucky that I had at least heard of this new drink a few days before. My son also works retail liquor. He told me someone had asked him the same question. Better to have known what the customer was asking about, than to have had to presume he was simply mad, or being offensive. To Nana, he would have seemed both. Small comfort.

So, as I ask in my title, "Who invented the Blue M---- f----er?" In truth, I don't care. Whoever you are, master Mixologist, you're a poltroon, too. I regret that our society has bred you while my grandmother's did not. But that's no excuse. Even in the midst of decays both major and minor, any human being can still judge very basic right from wrong, dignity from indignity. Judaism's seven Noahide laws pronounced so, and antiquity's "natural law," bequeathed to Christianity through the church fathers, also said so. You, mixologist, human being made in the image of God, you should have had the minor decency not to name your new cocktail that. All you are doing is sending people into retail stores speaking the word, and so ladling another unthinking drop of vulgarity into everyone's day and world. Even my grandmother's little proverbs about sex were clean and decently humorous.

Besides, the drink sounds ghastly. It cannot be other than a potent sugar bomb, combining as it does all the Long Island Iced Tea ingredients, namely gin, vodka, rum, and tequila, plus sweet and sour mix plus blue Curacao plus Seven Up. Our cocktail master, Charles Schumann, refuses even to make the Long Island Iced Tea for a start, because that recipe alone shows such disrespect to the distiller's art in hashing together the four spirits called for, especially gin. It follows, then, how absurd this freak offspring of the hash must be.

We choose to obey Schumann. He -- rather like the ancients, rather like Thomas Aquinas, talking of natural law -- has standards and has thought things through. In his minor sphere, he is civilized. And in this age of moral collapse, we grab onto any civilizational decency we can.

A footnote: twenty English words: Webster's says poltroon comes to us from French, Italian, and Latin words having to do with young animals (poltro, colt, pullus, chick, "see POULTRY") and means "a thorough coward, craven." That is not what I mean by poltroon. I thought the sound of it somehow conveyed, cowardice perhaps, but more importantly utter, boorish ignorance, unmanliness, and juvenility. If we turn back to another master, Dr. Johnson, we find he attests it does just so. In his Dictionary a poltro'n is "a coward," he says, "a nidget, a scoundrel; base, vile, contemptible (Hammond)." We love that "nidget" -- it seems to describe someone who is a a moral midget, but even less so, because he gets an 'n' and not an 'm.' Only why did Webster's truncate Johnson's more full definition? And who was Hammond?

While we investigate, let's try a better cocktail. A colleague of mine told me recently of a drink that a colleague of his either invented, or merely knows. It has no name and I haven't yet tried it, but it sounds intriguing. Bursting with citrus juices plus a dash of pink grapefruit bitters, we can't call it so manly a thing as the George Raft. The Pretty Pass, maybe. Proportions are guesswork, based on long study under our master.

The Pretty Pass

About an ounce (half a jigger) each of --
fresh orange juice
fresh lemon juice
fresh lime juice
Carpano Antica sweet vermouth
1 and 1/2 ounces (a jigger) bourbon
dash pink grapefruit bitters

Combine all ingredients in a shaker with ice, shake and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with any small subtle fruit that will pair nicely with whisky, citrus, and high-end red wine vermouth ... pear?

Image from Pinterest

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

"Estate grown," you poltroon

I had a customer today who very kindly said to me, after we had wagged chins for a few minutes, "I won't argue with you," with that smiling, disbelieving leer that people sometimes take on when they think they have met total ignorance -- and a professional, too! -- but must show patience.

He had picked a bottle of St. Supery Estate Grown cabernet, $29.99, and had asked me whether we sold any other bottles of Estate Grown wines.

I was puzzled. Read the labels, I would have said, but of course in retail one can't say that.

"Well, I -- "

Then he explained what Estate Grown means. "You know what it means, don't you," he said. "It means the winemaker has grown his own grapes, made the wine, and bottled it all on his estate. It means he's proud of it. Like I'm a business owner, and I'm proud of my business."

"Naturally," I said, refusing already to ask him what his business was, or to look at the logo on his hat, which probably announced his business' name.

"So do you have any wines that are Estate Grown besides this one?"

"Well, off the top of my head, I'm not sure. I would think you may have to just read the labels. I would think also, that at a certain price point, the wines are of such quality that it's understood the wine maker is growing his own grapes."

This is when I first got the disbelieving leer. "No ... no, they can only say it if it's true. The label has to say 'Estate Grown,' like this one does." He clutched his $29.99 bottle.

I picked up and turned over a few other bottles in the $50 and $60 price range. On the back labels, in fine print, they said "produced and bottled by."

"See?" The customer said. "Not 'Estate Grown.' So they're not growing their own grapes and they're not proud enough of their wine to put that on the label."

"Not every word on a wine label has any meaning," I began to say, thinking of terms like winemaker's reserve or proprietary, which legally mean nil. His smiling, disbelieving leer grew worse, and clearly shouted 'I can't believe this -- now you're making stuff up because you're embarrassed I've caught you.'

"And," I soldiered on as wine-encyclopedia memories resurfaced, "some vineyards are so well regarded that wine makers are proud to tell you that they have sourced their grapes from them." I was thinking of San Giacomo just for a start, but forebore to mention it. There are others, elsewhere. Montrachet, you know. I can be as kind to the ignorant as anyone alive.

"Oh. But," -- the kindly, protective leer returned -- "about wines in upper price ranges not telling you whether they're Estate Grown, I don't understand what you're saying."

Seven hours into a nine-hour workday, I was in no condition to discuss with a poltroon that there may be more to the world of wine than $29.99 and the phrase 'estate grown' might allow. This is approximately where he said "I won't argue with you," breathlessly stunned and smiling, because of course I'm so ignorant and the subject is too complex for him to explain, and I'm supposed to be the professional and so this is all tragic. And he owns his own business and all. He clutched his St. Supery, which is perfectly fine, and after one last story about how he and his wife had hosted a wine tasting featuring this Supery plus some $200 cabernets that were not Estate Grown, and guess which one won? -- "That one?" I laughed deliciously -- "Yes" -- he departed. "Thank you so much." "You're quite welcome."

After he was gone, to soothe my chattering rage, I turned over more wine bottles in the $50 and up range, and quickly found quite a few which may say "grown, produced, and bottled by" on the back label -- Hess, Inglenook -- but which do not conveniently shout Estate Grown, for our purist in the hat, on the front label. I found even more which shout neither Estate nor Grown By nor anything else, just a humble "produced and bottled by," but which I know are filled with wondrous red liquids. They calmly purr names like Caravan (second label to Darioush). I guess they know which Walmarts around Fresno sell the best grapes.  

Isn't it always the way? Don't you always start turning over wine bottles and inspecting labels, don't you always think of the right thing to say, after everybody's gone? Who is to say the winemaker with his precious Estate Grown wine doesn't own a crappy vineyard? All I was left with was a fading mental image of the man's face, and his grin, and his hat, and the hope that his customers know him full well for what he is, and that tonight his wife has reason to make him sleep on the couch. I'm sure he'll wonder why.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Aaand good morning to you

From the corner of my eye I noticed a fluffy, shadowy thing in the tree outside, a thing which seemed fluffier and darker than any usual bird.

Stay right there, young man, I thought. I'll get my camera.

I assumed there was no way he would stay.

He did. He had brought his breakfast.

Time to relax afterward. He is, I think, a red tailed hawk. Juvenile, perhaps, with all the spots on his chest? Female? Or a sharp-shinned hawk? Or even a Cooper's? "Experts have a hard time telling these last two apart," the bird guide says. "Best to just write down 'accipiter species' in your notebook." Okay.

Whatever he was, the sparrows certainly understood when it was safe to come back. 

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Ritme, rhythm, juxtaposed things

Brief notes:  70 % carinyena (carignan), 30% garnaxta (garnacha); brightly fruity with a dense but still plush core. From the Priorat region of northeast Spain, an area known for fine red wines particularly since the 1990s. Very delicious. Retail, about $25. 

Ritme means rhythm. The [English] word always reminds me of the time my school friend Nancy got herself out of a sixth-grade spelling bee by deliberately misspelling "rhythm." She glanced nervously at our other little school friend Kara, who had just done the same thing with some other word. They sat down together in the audience, flushed and finished. By age 13, they were too cool for spelling bees. I stayed in ....

So we think of rhythm, of mismatched things going together in a pleasing way. I know rhythm has a technical musical definition but I could never understand what it was, nor how it differed from beat. Those were the only two questions I got wrong on tests in a college Music Appreciation class. I was fine with specifics on the names of medieval musical notes, on the other hand.

Anyway rhythm in the sense of mismatched things going together in a pleasing way -- note the art on the label, above -- makes me think of a movie I watched again recently, a favorite. Do you remember Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette (2006)? I gather the French press at Cannes hated it at the time, and I don't recall it being a box-office smash, but I have always liked it. For one thing, the photography is gorgeous, beginning with the scenes of a carriage journey through sumptuous gray-mist and amber-brown woods, just touched with red leaves and green moss on the trees, and going on to Versailles, which, to be sure, it would be difficult to make look bad. I especially like the occasional long overhead camera shots of one or two women in their gowns ascending immense staircases on the palace grounds. I don't suppose many people have had reason to climb those stairs in those clothes since the events in question, unless it were to make movies about them. So shots like that seem to me a snippet, almost, of time travel. Figures in a landscape. Here is how tiny they would have looked.

Once at Versailles, the film's juxtaposition of an eighteenth-century story with modern pop music and all those "jump cut" scenes of shoes and candy, again, gorgeous, might seem artistically a cacophony and a disaster. Not rhythmic. Add the hiring of healthy, toothy young American and Anglo actors and actresses to play characters whose minds we cannot possibly reconstruct -- and the mind shows through in the body, in posture and gestures, don't you think? -- and you have awkward scenes. Young modern men dressed in tricornered hats and breeches goof around in the woods. Young women in gowns and fichus apparently ad-lib their admiration of the chickens at the Petit Trianon's little fake farm, the "Hameau." The cameras follow them.

But I think these are exactly the things Ms. Coppola got oddly right. Those characters did wear those clothes in the woods in 1770. Duchesses invited to the Hameau may have had to enthuse weakly over the livestock. Overall I think she got right the understanding that here were some bored young people, living a life beyond mere wealth, who had very little to do all day. They followed palace etiquette, they milled around. The young men hunted. There were clothes and food. There was gambling. After forty-five minutes or so of this, plus shoes and candy, to be sure the movie-goer wants to say "all right, step up the pace, let's have something happen." But this is what their lives were like ... the slow passage of days and amusements, like pictures in a book. Eight years to consummate a marriage would seem an eternity.

The languid pace makes the final scenes, of disaster, also emotionally sensible because they come on as nearly inexplicably and violently as they must have done in real life. When we see the king and queen eat dinner in public as usual, but in a strangely dark room, we know something horrible has changed. The roar of the angry crowd penetrates from outside. Later, on her balcony, Marie Antoinette bows to the thousands in her courtyard, nothing heard but the thrum of the wind blowing the flames of the torches. The people's farm tools look beyond wicked. In bright silent daylight the next day, we see the shattered gorgeous bedroom.

The movie's real weaknesses may stem from Sofia Coppola's director's hand being languid and light in every respect. Not only do the performers seem often at a loss, but the IMDb movie site lists dozens of continuity and historical flaws in Marie Antoinette. Does that point to sheer laziness? Is that what the French at Cannes resented? The gorgeous carriage ride must be flaw number one. The woods look autumnal, but Madame la dauphine made her journey in May. Then there are the jet contrails above the palace. I never noticed. It might be a glancing, forgivable error except the camera was pointed deliberately up for that scene. I noticed later. Why didn't the cameraman see? Or the director? Four-tined forks and Pekingese dogs were both unknown in that era, IMDb also tells us, although that seems farfetched. Perhaps some diary or bill of sale will be unearthed someday, to attest that they were. On my first viewing of the gorgeousness I was more distracted by sheerly ignorant things. His Majesty's calling out "bravo" to his wife after a performance at her theater, for example. Her Majesty's inability to handle a tea cup and saucer.

Talking of distractions and flaws, maybe it's no one's fault but is simply today's beautiful, sophisticated cameras that are part of the trouble when it comes to telling a story set convincingly in the past. Hollywood no longer films period-piece stage plays, whose sets and costumes are already part of the creative structure and so help us along in suspending our disbelief. Recently I watched on YouTube Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra, starring those two legends, Claude Rains and Vivien Leigh. Act One's rocky escarpment, Sphinx, and moonlight looked perfectly ridiculous, but they were at least professionally undistracting. This was theater. "We are in ancient Egypt." The beautiful modern camera, not focused on a stage but recording actors acting on a spot in our own world, records everything so perfectly that you cannot help seeing that is today's sunshine, lighting the silver-blonde curls of the little French girl playing Madame Royale, the queen's daughter. (I love French honorifics.) The tot is truly absorbed in "la petite abeille," the little bee, in the garden. And there are the jet contrails. Who was on that flight? Rip Torn, the actor, costumed, steps carefully over tree roots and underbrush to go and greet his new granddaughter-in-law, Kirsten Dunst/Marie Antoinette. If our Ms. Coppola ever ventures into stage work, I think she will have a hard time understanding the concept of the fourth wall.

In spite of all the foregoing, I find Marie Antoinette repays fresh viewings. If only for the sumptuous photography, perhaps. Juxtaposing it with Norma Shearer's Marie Antoinette (1938) can make the latter film seem actually heavyweight. Shearer and Robert Morley, as Louis, had emotions.

And I was wrong about rhythm meaning "mismatched things going together in a pleasing way." Maybe that is harmony? Rhythm means "a flow or movement characterized by recurring elements or features." From the Greek rhythmos, measure; base of rhein, to flow. "See STREAM."

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Blogging the ... source of Western civilization?

All right. If the yelling pundits and scholars, activists and chin-pullers are correct and Western civilization is in free-fall collapse, attacked (pardon the mixed metaphor) on one side by its own exhausted moral relativism, its shoving away of Christianity and its guilt at what it did to itself and other people in the 20th century; and attacked on the other side by rampant and grinning and violent Islam, then -- all right -- what will we find if we return to the West's sources? Will we rediscover exactly what was so "civilizing" about it all? Can it be put to use again, in the individual's life? Was it really so attractive, so different, so wondrous?

Since we seem pressed for time and since I think it would be useful to grab on to what little of "the West" is at all present in a lot of people's lives, I decided to open the Gospels. No one but scholars are reading other Western things, ancient Greek plays or Roman law arguments, no one but the incredibly devout -- or orthodox Jews, probably -- are reading the more obscure books of the Bible, Isaiah or Psalms for example. No one but scholars are reading Enlightenment science or Voltaire. Also, Charles Murray in his great book Human Accomplishment credits Christianity for much of the West's roster of superb achievement: Christianity, he says, taught individual man that he is of infinite value, and that when he explores his rational and artistic questions, he honors the truth and beauty of creation, and therefore pleases God. (Judaism launched this, but then held group survival, understandably, higher than individual meandering you might call it and so, on the whole, produced less. Islam valued nothing of the kind, stressing only submission and the violent expansion of submission throughout all the world. The Eastern faiths also valued nothing of the kind, stressing mostly tranquility until the gift of death.) If Murray is right, then the Gospels are our fount.

In addition, a writer at Chronicles worries that our collapsing civilization is "coasting on the fumes of natural law." This sounds alarming. (It's amazing how you can read just one thing and find yourself blinking.) What is "natural law"? It is the idea not only that God created an orderly, comprehensible universe, but that man has "a nature and a moral purpose defined by" his creation, also intended by God. In other words, there is stuff we should be doing and thinking, or else we are wasting the gift of life. If you google "natural law" you quickly find the most prominent name mentioned about it, after Aristotle, seems to be St. Thomas Aquinas. His summary of it can be simple: "good is to be done, and evil avoided," always remembering our God-given nature and moral purpose. A lot of the pundits' yelling and chin-pulling seems also to translate to this, that coasting on the fumes of natural law means Westerners are still nice to each other, Western men are nice to women for example, in a way non-Westerners are not, -- but we no longer understand why. It's all fumes and no fuel. For us "doing good" has degenerated into tolerance and compassion for whatever. This now includes tolerance and compassion, for example, for Muslim men who are cruel to women. And yes, Islam rejects natural law.

So, in randomly reading essays that make me blink, in wondering about Western uniqueness and unearthing this large matter of natural law, the Christian roots of science, St. Thomas Aquinas, etc., -- it seems we must unearth, again, the fount of the Gospels. Since churches still stand and one-third of the American population are evangelical Christians no less (not to mention other types), I think I am justified in grabbing on to these four short books, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and  John, as constituting "what little of 'the West' is at all present in a lot of people's lives." If it is present there, how does it make them operate? And if it has vanished elsewhere but was once a good, can it be revived? It's like an anthropology experiment. Before you travel to the island to observe the tribe, you read the classically accepted fount of their folkways. You hope not to repeat Dr. Johnson's experience in the Hebrides: "We came too late to see what we expected."

I have done my share, my fatheads, of exploring religious folkways, but I haven't opened the Gospels in about twenty-five years. Thereat in approaching Matthew, who comes first, I will be in the position almost of an ignoramus.

Their faces move

It pleases me to imagine that, in a very small way, I understand the experience of St. Paul in the agora -- that is, in the public square, b...