fragments of an attempted writing.

Tremens factus sum ego.

But how does reality, that "holy and manifest mystery", give itself, and indeed so intensely that Goethe would have us reach out and grasp it "without delay"?  Reality always gives itself as something more than can be grasped, as an inexhaustible "light that can never be drunk up".  As I experience a loving "thou" that gives itself to me, I learn that this "more" - which is the very freedom of the other as he opens himself up to me - cannot be grasped, although at the same time I must also say that it truly does give itself to me and does not withdraw from me.
Pieper's knowledge of the history of philosophy is universal; although he never "shows off", he can when necessary hit the nail on the head with the perfect quotation from a relevant philosophical period, thus clarifying and supporting his meaning.  But he is very far from letting things go at half-truths.  On occasion he can reply with a sharply resounding "no!" and thus brand himself as one of the Untimely Inopportunes.  This, he does, for instance, when responding to Descartes' and Bacon's concept of philosophy.  Pieper clearly says no to these thinkers' view that philosophy ought to "make us into lords and possessors of nature" and that philosophical theory should be measured by the praxis that produces it.  Pieper obviously does not mean that man should not create but that he should create only once he has received.  Otherwise man consistently ends up in the atheism that results from his putting himself in the place of the Creator God.  This, too, if the reason that Pieper must say no to the supposed high point of modern philosophy, the much-celebrated Hegel, when Hegel makes it his endeavor to have philosophy "approach the goal of shedding its name as 'love of knowledge' in order to become real knowledge": and here "real knowledge" means absolute knowledge that causes the mystery of Being to vanish into the dialectical method controlled by reason.  And what has become of this demonic reaching for divine knowledge in the case of our contemporary post-Hegelians?  Either the empty rattling of word play [Logistik], or a hermetic whispering about hermeneutics, or what ultimately becomes the bourgeois subjugation of knowledge under the state (Hegel), under the people (Hitler), or under society and the economy (Marx, Stalin, and Americanism).  
When we have reached a situation in which nothing "gives" itself any longer or "opens up" to us from within, a situation in which nothing "hands itself over" on its own initiative and in which, therefore, thought is no longer devoted to the deepest interior source of a thing: in such a situation no opening of horizons toward the future remains possible.  Only when philosophy is a love-filled longing for the ever-greater mystery of Being, an unconditional longing that propels man down his questing path - only then do we have a reliable basis for that opening up of the future Peiper is always calling for: a reliable basis, in other words, for hope.  

- Hans Urs von Balthasar, from the Foreward to Josef Pieper: An Anthology

In recent years, especially, a great deal of what I have written on my blogs has been "the empty rattling of word play."  This is no doubt related to a long period of despair that lasted several years.  The "intellectual project" (a farcical exaggeration if ever there were one) of this blog is now over.  I have exhausted my hostilities to hope.

I will delete this blog at some point in the near future.  I may continue my series on my bookstore days, but if so that will be on my private blog.

 Any future public blogging I do will be a return to incognito.

Peace to you, dear reader.

Postcard (from the 40s) of the tomb in El Golea (El Menea), Algeria of Bl. Charles de Foucauld, who died this day in 1916.

The above photo is a more recent photo of the tomb.  

It's come down to this.

Heck, my mom, as ardent a freechurch Prot as you will ever encounter, after telling me that selling real estate isn't the time for religious scruples, picked one up from a Catholic bookstore and buried the little plastic statue in the yard of their former house, and sure enough the house sold faster than they thought it would.  Here's to praying that such graces continue.  
Three versions of my favorite Christmas hymn.

Queen Victoria = Sauron, sort of.

Fascinating. The place where Hobbiton is filmed in New Zealand was once the idyllic home (read the description in the post - quite fetching) of the native Māori peoples, who were decimated by the Sauronic forces of the British Army:

But there is an important difference between the dramas of nineteenth century New Zealand and the dramas of Middle Earth. Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit offer audiences an unambiguous battle between the loveable hobbits of the Shire and the alien, almost abstract evil of Sauron. Pakeha readers and viewers can identify easily with Frodo Baggins and his friends, and despise Sauron and his Orcs.
To learn the story of the Waikato War and Peria is, though, a much less comfortable experience. In the story of the Waikato War, the army doing the pillaging and burning is made up not of mindless monsters, but of men acting in the name of the New Zealand state. The place of Sauron is taken by the business and political establishment of Pakeha New Zealand. For politicians, tourism operators, and Pakeha film and book audiences, it is much easier to think about New Zealand as Middle Earth than as a society founded on and consolidated by war.

Out of curiosity, I was looking into the religion of the Māori and prior to this attack the Māori seemed to have been mostly Church of England and Catholic (according to Wiki both the CofE and RCC are still "highly influential" in Māori society today).  There was a church in the village of Peria, but I don't know if it was Anglican or Catholic.  In any event the British soldiers "who drank, burnt, and looted enthusiastically" were doing such to other Christian peoples, not that it matters in terms of the depravity of their actions, but, well, there is no "violent, child sacrificing natives" line of argument to grasp at as a pseudo-defense of bad actions here.  From the 1880s through early 1900s the Presbyterians and Mormons made significant gains among the Māori, though since the 1990s the Māori have been dropping out of the LDS at a rate which has alarmed the LDS. 
I generally try to avoid identity politics quarrels, with the exception of my being quite sympathetic to what we might call 2nd and 1/2 wave feminism, or something like that, and as an old leftist I consider race matters as existing prior to new leftist identity politics trajectories, even if the new left has royally messed up racial politics like it has so many other things [screw victim-hood and its cults - the old left was about fighting back and coherent organizational struggles, not perpetual whining and constant appeals to white guilt and the psychologicalization of the oppressed into quasi-divine impotent victims].

But for a split second I almost thought about getting a subscription to Touchstone again after reading this complete rubbish.  Petit-bourgeois liberalism and its decadent petty "liberations" - sigh, so astoundingly worthless.  Middle class white straight males might veer a bit away from gender normativity in parental roles by being exposed to subcultures wherein gay male parents are present.  Great.  What does that amount to exactly?  Dad changes one more diaper a week and washes dishes once more a week?  Talk about first world problems.  Cuz, like, I mean, totally, like, my mother told me when I was ten years old that I would have to do those thing if I got married.  Wait, not my mother, parent #1, or at least I assume the mother is parent #1, as I met her before I met my father.  And this idea that middle class gay families are going to facilitate the transformation of middle class straight families, such that they will now have an "understanding of sexuality as gift from God" and then de-instrumentalize their own sexualities (because, as we all know, when you think "middle class gay cultures" you naturally think "avoidance of the instumentalization of sex" - first thing that comes to mind, of course), all in the context of the American middle comfort class - identity as commodity - my life the movie in which my sexuality is a tool the Church needs, because everything I do, even with my penis, is, like, meta-narrative in importance.  Uh, yeah.  

Ratzingerian Marxists

"The manipulation of life, originating in the developments of technology and of the violence inherent in the processes of globalization in the absence of a new international order, puts us in the presence of an unprecedented anthropological emergency. This appears to us to be the most serious manifestation and at the same time the deepest root of the crisis of democracy. It sprouts challenges that demand a new alliance between men and women, believers and nonbelievers, religions and politics."

The "Ratzingerian Marxists" charge the left in Italy and the West with having given in to "falsely libertarian cultures, for which there exists no right other than the right of the individual."


Read more here.  I wish the writings of these Ratzingerian Marxists was available in English.

Thanks Daniel Nichols for bringing this to my attention.


I'm going to briefly interrupt my sabbatical today to note the passing of one of America's better poets.  Jack Gilbert died today.

One of my favorites of his poems is this one:

The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart

How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say,
God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words
get it all wrong. We say bread and it means according
to which nation. French has no word for home,
and we have no word for strict pleasure. A people
in northern India is dying out because their ancient
tongue has no words for endearment. I dream of lost
vocabularies that might express some of what
we no longer can. Maybe the Etruscan texts would
finally explain why the couples on their tombs
are smiling. And maybe not. When the thousands
of mysterious Sumerian tablets were translated,
they seemed to be business records. But what if they
are poems or psalms? My joy is the same as twelve
Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.
O Lord, thou art slabs of salt and ingots of copper,
as grand as ripe barley lithe under the wind's labor.
Her breasts are six white oxen loaded with bolts
of long-fibered Egyptian cotton. My love is a hundred
pitchers of honey. Shiploads of thuya are what
my body wants to say to your body. Giraffes are this
desire in the dark. Perhaps the spiral Minoan script
is not laguage but a map. What we feel most has
no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses, and birds.

My friend James Raines had a fine brief summary of the man:

At 87 years old, the poet Jack Gilbert died today. He often wrote about what it was like to grow up in a working class neighborhood in Pittsburgh. Many of his poems express a sense of alienation from the lives of others, even those he desperately loved. He sang his songs for a time, tonight the room is silent.

And the Gilbert poem perhaps most poignant on the day of his death:

Refusing Heaven

The old women in black at early Mass in winter
are a problem for him. 

He could tell by their eyes
they have seen Christ. They make the kernel
of his being and the clarity around it
seem meager, as though he needs girders
to hold up his unusable soul. But he chooses
against the Lord. He will not abandon his life.
Not his childhood, not the ninety-two bridges
across the two rivers of his youth. Nor the mills
along the banks where he became a young man
as he worked. The mills are eaten away, and eaten
again by the sun and its rusting. He needs them
even though they are gone, to measure against.
The silver is worn down to the brass underneath
and is the better for it. He will gauge
by the smell of concrete sidewalks after night rain.
He is like an old ferry dragged on to the shore,
a home in its smashed grandeur, with the giant beams
and joists. Like a wooden ocean out of control.
A beached heart. A cauldron of cooling melt.


May his refusing heart find a place at Abraham's table.  

Because of another writing project, I am taking at least a month off of blogging at this blog.  I'll be back around Thanksgiving, or not.

I've reverted to draft all of the prior posts on this blog.  In December of this year, perhaps, I'll be restructuring my new media work here and elsewhere and don't want to have to think about that for the time being, nor do I want to have to manage comments on old material.  Thank you for your patience.  Until we meet again in pixels, or not.

I love shrimp tacos.  This image might have inspired a trip to Taqueria Guadalupana today.

“With oleographs?” you say. “Oh, what a pity!”

I've read this poem through several times since sancrucensis put it up, and each time I read it I like it more.  It is a perfect expression of its subject.  In it is a perfect rebuke of certain converty aesthetic puritanisms.

The poem is right there in the Collected Poems, but somehow I missed it when reading through Betjeman some years ago.  

It's been a long while since I've read any ethnomusicology, and I'm too lazy to look it up, but I sometimes wonder if there has been a study comparing Welsh and Russian male choral traditions.  Because to the untrained ear they sure seem to have some (superficial?) affinities.

Pew it stinks out there.

A lot is being made of the new Pew numbers out, showing continued declines for churches and the now one in five Americans who don't affiliate with religion.  One thing I see a lot coming from traditionally oriented Christians is the taking of the opportunity to yet again mock the fish in the barrel that are "spiritual but not religious" persons.

Every day when I go to work I get in the car, pass the JW Kingdom Hall on the corner of my street, then pass an Islamic center, then pass two decidedly health and wealth (you can tell from the messages on the signs out front) black pentecostal churches, and that is within a mile or so from my house.  I probably pass 30 or so churches on the way to work (12 miles - Memphis does have the highest number of churches per capita of any city in the country).  Sometimes I take an alternative route which runs me by 15 different churches than the usual route.  So let's call the total number of churches 45.  From what I know of these churches via things heard about them or their signage or their folks coming to my house and leaving literature and/or talking to me, I would rather my kids grow up to be "spiritual but not religious" than attend any these churches, with the possible exception of one of them.

In my adult life, I have visited many hundreds of parishes - Mainline Prot, Evangelical, Catholic, Orthodox, Quaker, Unitarian, etc.  I suppose I'd rather my kids grow up to be "spiritual but not religious" than attend approximately half of the parishes I have visited in my adult life, and that includes some particularly disordered Catholic and Orthodox ones.

Of all the bosses I've had in my life, the worst have been the practicing Christians, with the possible exception of one who was a mix of incredibly benevolent and patient and incredibly condescending and dysfunctional.  The best boss I've ever had is my current one - a philandering agnostic who brags about the number of abortions he paid for when he was in the local rich kid Evangelical high school.  The "spiritual but not religious" bosses I've had have generally been level headed and competent and fair.  My wife's best boss ever is a liberal Catholic - one of those most trad and conservative Catholics I know would rather not be in the RCC and one who sounds, when she talks about faith matters, like she is "spiritual and not religious"  -- she likes to "thank the universe" for things and send out "positive energy" and so forth.    Every Prot Christian my wife has ever worked for has been a royal pain in the ass.  So was the one Orthodox boss she briefly had (though that doesn't really count because he was a convert and his "boss style" was decidedly conservative Evangelical - he was also a monkabee who espoused the most overt antinomianism I've ever heard from an Orthodox in person, but when it came to running his business, whew - then he was all scruples and rigidity and micromanagement and dotting every i and crossing every t and yelling at you if you put too much mustard on the sandwich, and let me tell you, if my wife thinks you pay too much attention to detail and are anal about it when doing a job, you are one seriously fucked up freak).  My wife told me once that she plans on only working for liberal Catholics from here on out.  They drink a lot, they throw good parties, and they are generous.

We've shared this with my mother, and with a number of friends of ours, and sure enough, a sizable chunk of my friends seem to agree with my mother that "Christians make the worst bosses" (usually they mean by that Evangelicals, fundies, and other conservative Prots).

In every school setting I have ever found myself in, the "spiritual but not religious" folks were the sort that were more likely than the overtly hostile-to-spiritual-things or overtly religious to be reliable without being annoying.  Those that made a point of letting you know that they were practicing Christians were, 7 times out of 10, not the sort of people most of us would want to spend much time with, whereas most of the folks I have known outside of more alternative-ish (wannabe hippy - hippies younger than the age of 50 tend to be irritating as all get out) circles who self-identify as "spiritual but not religious" have been fairly easy to work with and get along with and benign enough in their spouting interpretations of life and the world, etc.

None of this is a proof of anything, of course, or an argument, or meant to sway anyone's opinion about anything.  It's just anecdotal ephemera from my life.  And it probably has something to do with why, when I hear the Pew numbers, I think, "well, of course."

Some post-Pussy Riot brand reconstruction.  I remember this Orthodox blogger who used to bitch and moan all the time about how this was the direction Orthodoxy was headed.  Maybe he was right.

the political economy of bullshit.

Not bad overall, but the first few minutes is a fine start for a talk of this nature.

words, antiquities, water, looking back.

It's National Poetry Day in the UK.  For such, I repost an old post from an old blog, with a couple of poems in it, a post that was mentioned in the comments here recently.  Here it is:

on Marah, the salt of the earth.


And the just man trailed God's shining agent,
over a black mountain, in his giant track,
while a restless voice kept harrying his woman:
"It's not too late, you can still look back
at the red towers of your native Sodom,
the square where once you sang, the spinning-shed,
at the empty windows set in the tall house
where sons and daughters blessed your marriage-bed."
A single glance: a sudden dart of pain
stitching her eyes before she made a sound…
Her body flaked into transparent salt,
and her swift legs rooted to the ground.

Who will grieve for this woman? Does she not seem
too insignificant for our concern?
Yet in my heart I never will deny her,
who suffered death because she chose to turn.

- Anna Akhmatova

- from this excellent post by Margaret, which offers her conversion story, of sorts.

The Turning of Lot's Wife
As the sun rose upon the earth and Lot entered Zoar, the Lord rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah sulfurous fire from the Lord out of heaven. He annihilated those cities and the entire Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities and the vegetation of the ground. Lot's wife looked back, and she thereupon turned into a pillar of salt.
- Genesis 19:23-26

First of all, she had a name, and she had a history. She was Marah, and long before the breath of death's angel turned her to bitter dust, she had slipped from her mother's womb with remarkable ease, had moved in due time from infancy to womanhood with a manner of grace that came to be the sole blessing of her aging parents. She was beloved.

And like most daughters who are beloved by a mother and a father, Marah moved about her city with unflinching compassion, tending to the dispossessed as if they were her own. And they became her own. In a city given to all species of excess, there wer
e a great many in agony - abandoned men, abandoned women, abandoned children. Upon these she poured out her substance and her care.

Her first taste of despair was at the directive of the messengers, who announced without apparent sentiment what was to come, and what was to be done. With surprising banality, they stood and spoke. One coughed dryly into his fist and would not meet her eyes. And one took a sip from the cup she offered before he handed it back and the two disappeared into the night.

Unlike her husband - coward and sycophant - the woman remained faithful unto death. For even as the man fled the horrors of a city's conflagration, outrunning Marah and both girls as they all rushed into the desert, the woman stopped. She looked ahead briefly to the flat expanse, seeing her tall daughters, whose strong legs and churning arms were taking them safely to the hills; she saw, farther ahead, the old man whom she had served and comforted for twenty years. In the impossible interval where she stood, Marah saw that she could not turn her back on even one doomed child of the city, but must turn her back instead upon the saved.

- Scott Cairns, from Recovered Body.

Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men. - Matthew 5:13

Reading the Akhmatova on Margaret's site reminded me of the Cairns poem, and while I have read both poems before I don't know that I have ever considered them in light of the red words Ye are the salt of the earth. What of these poems? What of this notion that Marah was the holy one, looking back upon the damned, a feminine image of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem, Lot having the night before offered those daughters to men looking for a different kind of action?

One of the things I love about these poems is the intuition they give that the image of salvation in the Scriptures so often eludes us, and is replete with nuances. When a modern adopts a christocentric hermeneutic, our prior fixed hermeneutic points are often revealed as impoverished, even childish approaches to the text. Rote narrative didacticism is sometimes used in the NT reading of the OT, but often enough this is not the case. In the fathers you can find a host of different approaches to reading the scriptures.

When I first began to attend Holy Trinity Orthodox Church (OCA) in St. Paul, not my first Orthodox church by any means, but the first where I found very good Orthodox preaching, I was simply astounded by what I heard, and, as I have related before, I felt a bit cheated that I had never heard this sort of biblical interpretation before, having devoted a fair amount of time in my life to the study of the Bible. I have done my best to reconstruct a sermon Fr. Jonathan gave many years ago, a sermon given on theophany a number of years ago, not long after the death of Fr. Jonathan's daughter, and I offer it again here as an example of what I mean:

Father Jonathan asked us to consider Jesus' baptism. Consider who Jesus is. We know that He is fully God. We know that He is rightly called prophet, priest, and king. We know that He not only represents, but in a certain sense is the true and holy Israel of God. It should not be lost on us that God's people are now called "the Body of Christ." This Man who is God walks up to the River Jordan. And what happens? What should we expect to happen? Well, a man who is versed in the Old Testament and who also knows Who this Jesus is might have a very reasonable expectation. In the Old Testament when the people of God, the Israel of God, come up to the waters while running from pharaoh, the waters part. In the OT when the prophet of God comes up to the river Jordan, the waters part. In the OT when the ark of the covenant, which was God present to His people, came to the river Jordan, the waters part. This man well versed in the OT, when seeing Jesus come to the waters should have every expectation that they too will part. Jesus is the fullness of the presence of God, He is the fulfillment of all prophecy, He is the true Israel of God, all people of God are in Him. But the waters do not part. Instead, God enters into the chaos and death of the water, and He is covered. With Christ, all bets are off, the rules of the game have changed. God is now not seeking a people for whom to part waters. He is seeking a community of the drowned.

When you enter through baptism and chrismation the Orthodox faith, and are therefore baptized into Christ, do not think that God is in the business of going about separating waters for you. No, this is not the path you have chosen. You have chosen to hold fast to the One for whom the waters do not part. You die with Him, in Him, through Him, as Him, for Him. Orthodox Christianity is the exact opposite of "health and wealth" spiritual economics, which infects not just Pentecostalism, but much of American Christianity. God will heal whom He will, God will allow the deaths of those whom He will, but in a real and certain sense, friends of God, as those who are the dead in Christ, you have given up any right to claim that God must part waters for you. As Bonhoeffer said, "when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." A dead man can claim nothing as his own.

The mystery takes us further. That day not only does Jesus come up to the water and the waters stay still to swallow Him up, but it is this very day that for the first time God reveals Himself in His fullness: Father, Son, Holy Spirit to humankind. The threefold nature of the Godhead is revealed to us at the moment in which God reveals Himself as the God for Whom the waters do not part. In the feast of Theophany we learn that God reveals Himself formally and most clearly in the very midst of human suffering. Indeed, we may even speak with St. Cyril of this mystery of the suffering of the impassible God.

Throughout Christian history so many faithful have been led to seek some sort of magic help potion from God or his agents, or at the very least thought that God would give them a statistical advantage, as if they were a bit more likely to have things go well if God were in their corner. Both are lies. Of course we pray that God bless us, and we have faith that he will. But we may seek blessing in a different spirit when the waters have already passed over our heads. Most Holy Theotokos, joy of all who sorrow, pray for us.

I had never heard anything like this before.

In another homily Fr. Jonathan was dealing with the Gospel reading concerning the healing of the lame man by Jesus at the Pool of Siloam in John chapter 5. Fr. Jonathan spoke of recent archeological evidence which suggested that the Pool of Siloam is the very place where there was an ancient water shaft - perhaps the water shaft used by David and his men when they took Jerusalem from the Jebusites. The Jebusites had mocked David saying that their defenses were such that even the lame and blind could defend the city against him, and when David entered the city through the water shaft he killed the lame and the blind. In those very waters (perhaps) Jesus, Himself in John 5 having just entered Jerusalem, heals a lame man. Again, with Christ, all bets are off, the rules of the game have changed. Fr. Jonathan does not espouse a Marcionism here, he simply asserts that when the veil comes off we see things very differently. Whether or not the archaeology supports the precise connection is somewhat irrelevant - we see that when Jesus and David come into Jerusalem there are salvations of different sorts brought about by way of water, and quite different signs of the Kingdom vis-à-vis the lame and the blind. With David, the lame and blind are the first to be killed, with Christ, the lame and the blind are the first to be saved.
In another homily of Fr. Jonathan's, sent to me on cassette (these cassettes are among my most prized possessions) by Benjamin, Fr. Jonathan, preaching on the widow of Nain (Luke 7), compares the widow of Nain to the Church in the world, seen by those outside her as in desperate, pathetic shape because of a (in the case of the Church, presumed to be) dead son. If we are honest, we spend much of our lives walking through this life as if in a dirge, with nothing long-lasting to claim for ourselves, with little hope, with a legacy of fear and trepidation. “Do not weep.” The Church is robust in its demand of a hope in the midst of spiritual and material realism - hope when despair seems the most sensible position. Our construct "Christianity" is diminished when it plays spiritual games and seeks to present the widow to the world as something she is not - the warrior or the businessman or the philosopher, etc. Actual little Christedness is hope wearing the form of sorrow. What an audacity in such a context - “Do not weep.”

In another homily which some of us have heard Fr. Jonathan give time and again over the years, on the Publican and the Pharisee, Fr. Jonathan defends the Pharisee in his sermon. It is done in the manner in which a priest might defend someone who has given their confession before the icon of Christ - the priest standing before God and pleading to God that God remember the limitedness of our lives, that we often must go with what we've got, that we have tried with the resources available to us, and as the sermon progresses the magic of it, more than any other sermon I have heard on the topic, is that the hearer is made so fully aware that he is the Pharisee (many sermons on this topic assert as much, but I have never encountered another sermon on this topic which induces an intuition of as much, and as I have talked to a number of others about this sermon, I am convinced my experience with it is not unique). When I think of that sermon I am reminded that the Marco's of this world will walk away from God justified, while I am busy scraping for another angle by which to posture myself.

It is with these sermons in mind that I consider these poems on Marah. In Christ, I do not think it is always so simple as a turning away from God which results in what seems a rather petty wrath. Could her image not be what is suggested here by Akhmatova and Cairns? The image of a woman whose concern and love becomes a sign of a small mercy - one small spot on the plain where her salt preserves the soil from the mechanisms of violence and the self-destruction that almost always reigns in human affairs? Could she not be a feminine counterpoint to the wandering patriarchs that wandered with and sometimes against God? One who looks back, who faithfully and lovingly keeps her heart centered in her place even when that place is brutal? Could it be that the salt of the earth are those who sometimes turn in love even toward that which is not supposed to be loved, at least according to our various rote theological and moral constructs? Is Marah an icon which stands against petty triumphalisms and easy appeals to wrath and justice? Could it be that Marah's pillar of salt, when read as hidden with Christ in God, is no less an image of salvation than Jacob limping out of Peniel?

I'm not sure. But I know I have heard these sorts of thoughts before. There is an Orthodox posture with regard to Scripture which can often be loosely talmudicish, so to speak. Instead of formal Tannaic and Amoraic positions we have this tension with the texts that paradoxically knows what to do with them because of Christ, and in a sense doesn't know what to do with them because of Christ - the image of Christ crucified, died, and risen is such a complete image, is such an end of all hermeneutic structures save itself, that meaning is often left grasping and rambling. What seems clear is that the rules of the game have changed, and in Christ the thing you used to think was your damnation is the very thing that saves you. By Marah's prayers, perhaps.

* -- icon, Lot Forefather, written by Lasha Kintsurashvili. This icon depicts Righteous Lot watering the tree which he planted, which according to church tradition, was the tree the Cross was made from. There is a Georgian Monastery in Jerusalem dedicated to the Holy Cross on the site of this ancient tree.

The last one a sculpture in front of his basilica in Assisi, which depicts that point in his life when he was in a very depressed state, having left the crusades because of a vision in which Christ tells him to leave the army and go home to await another vision.

The top photo reminds me of my father, who is a lover of birds.

burn baby burn.

Who knows who created this thing?  It could just have easily been an Obomber supporter.

I sometimes wonder if there is or has been any other modern nation whose people have found so many different ways to hate each other.  Why can't people be more like me and just hate the rich, and theology grad students (other than you, of course, dear reader), and people who play video games (other than Kyle H and Teena's family), and those jackasses who put Chimay in the fridge, and monkabee clerics (which is very distinct from monks, mind you), and the folks responsible for canceling the show Arrested Development?   Focus people, focus.
I don't feel like writing.

---because, after all, the center of the universe is Georgia.  I'm not entirely kidding.  Once, when in my high school library reading National Geographic because they had nothing worth reading which I hadn't already read, I read a long article on Georgia which convinced me that I was born in the wrong nation.  It impressed me enough that I have a daughter with that name (OK, I had a grandmother named Georgia too; whatever).

On that note, there are no religious images in this world which haunt me more than this one:

Righteous Lot.

spa Mass

I've seen this going around amongst Orthodox (first in blogdom, then on FB) who seem pleased at this example of Rome getting its act together.  The archbishop here is the man about to take over the helm of the San Fran RC diocese (its got him a bit stressed out).  He is a conservative, and the diocese is not, and this has created some spectacle.  Anyway, this video has folks moderately excited for some reason.  I'm not sure why.  The musical performance is so so, and the liturgy is spotty with a fair amount of awkward moments when the players don't seem to know exactly what they are supposed to be doing.  But it ain't a clown Mass I guess.  Though a spa setting seems pretty clownish..

I find it somewhere between fitting and ironic that this is being presented as an indicator of a healthier Rome.  This Mass took place at a Napa Valley resort spa.  The Meritage Resort and Spa to be exact.  According to the Napa Institute registration page, to attend the Thursday through Sunday conference of conservative American Catholics preaching to their choir, you had to pay $1500 to the Institute, in addition to accommodations and travel costs.  There was a group discount for conference attendees (probably 10-15% off), but the normal July rates at that spa are $322 - $702 a night for a room, so you have another grand a night to drop on a room, not to mention meals, drinks, and and so forth.  Do we even have to ask the question anymore - who is conservative ("neo-Cath") American Catholicism for?   Make fun of SSPX and other trad groups all you want.  Their conferences cost like $45 plus Super 8 accommodations.  I'd love to hear Mark and Louise Zwicks' take on this.

But more on this later, when I return to my current post series, and recollect the days when I met Tom Monaghan and his crew that has done so much to remake white American Catholicism.


Eric Hobsbawm.  Guardian obit, Jacobin obit, [update: another Jacobin],with other (a few among the many) notices here and here and here.
This video captures something of the life of South Memphis.  My shop is on the train tracks that literally divide Orange Mound (South Memphis hood) from Midtown, and a lot of my coworkers live in Orange Mound.   The narrator is now attending Lane College, which is the HBCU in Jackson, TN where both of my parents worked (dad as a career counselor, mom as librarian) for a couple of years before they moved to Memphis.

Memphis has, to paint with a broad brush, two large swaths of "bad" ghetto (there are pockets of such across Memphis, and there are not so "bad" areas within each, so this isn't really accurate, but for the sake of simplification...) Orange Mound in the south, and Frayser in the north.  My brother was a cop in the South Memphis police precinct (Raines Road Precinct) for a good while, so I've heard stories both from the perspective of a cop and from the perspective of my coworkers who live there.  I live on the Raleigh/Bartlett border in the north, and have taken classes at the community college extension campus and spent a lot of time with coworkers in Frayser, so I know the North side better.  Plus my mom was librarian at the "worst" public elementary school in Frayser (and in the whole city, so it was said, they have since shut it down) for years.  Both Orange Mound and Frayser can be quite beautiful, especially in the spring when the flowers are in bloom, and later in the summer when the crape myrtles bloom.  Memphis is an interesting city in that there is flora everywhere, and as seen in the video there are pockets of "woods" throughout the city.  It's not all concrete.  There is something about the rolling hills in Frayser, and the large number of pine trees there, that I find quite peaceful.  The food (especially soul food and BBQ) in both north and south sides of the city is often sublime.  I'm attending a community BBQ some friends of mine in Frayser are putting on in a couple of weeks at a COGIC church there, and my mouth is already watering at the thought of it.

There is a heaviness in the aesthetic of Memphis that is hard to describe (and by "Memphis" I mean real Memphis, not East Memphis, which is Disneyland Memphis for rich white people).  Part of it is the anatomy of summer here, the visible weight of the humidity - that great oppressor.  Part of it is the goddamn brokenness of everything here- govt, roads, schools, neighborhoods, businesses, churches - anything you need to work for you doesn't here.  There is that hauntedness and a woundedness seen in many of the souls who grow up in or next to the sorts of hells noted in the video.  There is that completely disarming mix of hopelessness and mirth seen.  There is the always lingering possibility of violence (that is everywhere in this city - I never, a dozen years ago, would have thought if possible that I, former Catholic Worker, would become someone who didn't leave home without gun and knife).   But, despite and because of that heaviness, there is the singing shown at the end of the video, there is a palpable joy to be found in South and North Memphis that you notice if you stick around long enough, longer than the ghetto tourism of white Christians from East Memphis (or its satellites in trendy Midtown neighborhoods and Mud Island) or eastern suburbs churches doing pat-themselves-on-the-back projects on the occasional afternoon.  It is a joy that makes no sense, and it certainly isn't a joy that makes everything OK or worth it.  It is a completely useless, gratuitous joy, the existence of which makes one wonder at the absurdity and beauty of human beings.  
This resonates.

I think the article may somewhat overemphasize the change in locale (though my old ethnography prof would tell me never to underestimate that) and de-emphasize the easily dangerous effects of breathing and meditation techniques.

I especially noted this part:

These meditation techniques are "designed to completely psychologically rearrange you," says Paul Hackett, a lecturer in classical Tibetan at Columbia University. In a foreign setting, that kind of experience can be even more traumatizing, especially when you take into account the way some Westerners in India tend to snack at the country's spiritual smorgasbord—a little Ashtanga yoga here, some Vipassana meditation there. "People are mixing and matching religious systems like Legos," Hackett says. "It is no surprise that people go insane."
Indeed.  I think this strikes at what I was trying to get at years ago when talking about the WASP girl with the last name Smith who just got home from the latest Sex and the City movie, having listened to K-LOVE on the drive home, with prayer rope on her wrist, and books by some Athonite elder and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Kahlil Gibran next to her bed.  Not that some absolutist hegemony of interests and entertainments is desirable (or healthy), but that the spiritual smorgasbord you can get in America is also (grant it to a lesser degree than what we read of in the linked to article) going to pull a person in a number of different directions, and this can really, to put it in the language of kids these days, fuck you up.  But of course the real analogy is with those spiritual addicts we've all met who, with furious urgency, go from one spiritual experience to another, spiritually high as a kite initially at each one.  I've seen more than a few monkabees with the same look in their eyes as seen in that photo of Jonathan Spollen "3 months ago."  It strikes me that one indicator of "sanity" in a religious institution is not having many gurus who lead these poor souls on, and trying to make impotent the gurus that they inevitably have.  [Where you have clergy in any number, you will have people who think and/or intuit themselves to be gurus.]

Gurus are always a bad idea, worse is the desire to become one.  Or, if I might borrow the language of Arturo and Delegado Cero, there is no spiritual vanguard either.

Just learned that Eugene Genovese died.  I met him once (and his wife on another occasion).  And I spoke with the man a number of times when I was at Loome's and once thereafter, and found both he and his wife to be interesting people, if a bit too well bred for my blood (yes, Eugene had been raised working class Italian-American, but he married well, and conveyed an appreciation for having arrived).  His Marxism has always been something of an enigma to me - clear as day in most of the texts (until the early 90s or so anyway), but in personal relationships he began distancing himself from other Marxists fairly early on.  There is an uncanny simultaneity in Eugene Genovese of speaking clearly (and I think accurately) about pathologies within the master classes of the antebellum South and admiring them, sometimes for reasons quite related to those pathologies.  I haven't made it through all of the later Genovese work yet (I own and have read most of but haven't completely finished Mind of the Master Class), and I still don't quite know what to make of the man.  As some of you may recall my long post years ago on the Southern Agrarians, my studies of those men led to a perplexity as to why so many traditional conservatives find so much promise and substance in them, and Genovese's later devotion to them strikes me as not just odd, but downright bizarre given much of his analysis of the American South.  I can generically appreciate lifelong Genovese's anticapitalism (he never dropped that, and in certain respects seems to have made his anticapitalism a more personal matter after embracing a Catholic anticapitalism) and disdain for liberalism, but it has never been clear to me where he thinks his turn to a Southern inspired traditionalist conservatism got him (in terms of a workable political philosophy and a useful lens via which to "deal with" late modern America).  That said, his work on slavery and, in particular, white intellectuals in the American South, is required reading and has been formative in my own coming to (generally acrimonious, at least when it comes to whites with money) terms with the South.  I just can't find the sympathy for paternalism that Genovese did.  In any event, the man was a class act, could be remarkable funny with his dry wit, and spoke to a 20 year old nobody at quirky old bookstore in Minnesota as if that nobody's opinions mattered.  Requiem æternam dona ei, Domine.  Et lux perpetua luceat ei. Requiescat in pace. Amen. [Sorry, per the thread below I learned that Genovese worked with Doug Wilson and plugged Wilson's work later in Genovese's life.  No prayers for Genovese then, as he is obviously in hell.]

There are some interesting articles on Genovese's legacy in radical thought here.

I also enjoyed reading this reflection by Paul Gottfried that remembers Genovese and Christopher Lasch and is well worth reading.

Kirkian thematics, probably part I.

For various reasons I haven't been able to get back to my current series on my old bookselling haunts.  That sort of writing (not that it is of great quality, but that it is very personal) requires more of me than other word scatterings.  Perhaps later in the week.

I have been tempted to write something on Kirk's 6 Canons of Conservatism, elsewhere called his 10 Principles of Conservatism, which came up in a recent discussion, maybe later on that.

For now Dreher on Brooks.

Kirkian conservatism is a political thematic, if you will.  I'm not sure that it is an actual political philosophy.  In any event, whatever it is, I can't find where Kirkian conservatism comes down on actual policy matters, and let me let you in on a little secret, most discerning reader, politics ultimately comes down to policy, and law, and, you know, concrete stuff.  Get it?  [Modestinus points at some of these realities in this post, which every distributist should read - and which Moddy should turn into a book.]

So Kirk sometimes espoused support for environmental regulations.  But as a commenter on the Dreher thread accurately notes, Kirk also "spoke frequently about voluntary community vs. coerced community." And as you know Kirk was very much on the side of voluntary community.

So what does a Kirkian conservatism do with actual environmental policy?  Let's get more specific - what does it do with Monsanto and its GMOs and intellectual property claims?  Lay it out for me.  As I know more than a fair share of conservatives who refer to themselves as being inspired by Kirk or even as Kirkian and/or Burkean (via Kirk) conservatives, I can tell you than Kirkian conservatism seems to have little to no bearing on the actual policy positions of those who like to bear his name.  And let's be forthright - it's actual policy that makes the difference between whether or not our great grandchildren are all sterile because of GMO corn (if that fevered fear of certain leftists I know turns out to be true), and not our rhetorical preferences or our sentiments.

As I see it, a self-proclaimed Kirkian conservatism is usually, but certainly not always, akin to Crunchy Conservatism, which means that we want a conservative rhetoric which makes us feel like we are not the assholes that Dubya/Rove/Cheney/McCain/and-in-a-pinch-Romney diehard supporters are, but we're still going to vote for movement conservatives Huckabee and then Santorum when given the chance and we're going to actually, when pressed, support movement conservative positions (especially domestic ones) well more than half of the time.   We want a kinder, gentler version Paul Ryan, if you will, though one deemed just as sexy.

But neither life nor politics works that way.

Dreher wants to return to a "traditionalist conservatism."  He uses the turn your TV off trope in his call to intellectual and traditional conservative arms.  But what does he really want more than a changed rhetoric?  What does he really want more than a slight dressing down of some of the more pushing-the-envelope elements of movement conservative domestic fiscal policy and military policy?  What does he want to do with Social Security?  What does he want to do with Medicare?  How does he want them funded and budgeted?  How does he want them administratively organized?  What does he want to do with environmental regulation?  What, exactly, is he going to do about the Koch Bros plant not all that far from me or him in Crossett, Arkansas, and how, exactly, is his policy decision informed by a Kirkian conservatism?  Wouldn't it be great if the Kochs voluntarily cleaned up that plant?  My daughters would like pink worker fairies (we don't do princess fairies in our household) with magical powers to clean up their rooms.  Some shit doesn't happen.

I don't mean to suggest there there should be a policy opinion hegemony among those toting around Kirk, Nisbet, and Weaver.  As you probably know, I belong to a couple of radical leftist groups, and have friends in many others, and I can assure you that those who tote the name of Marx around have varied opinions on policy.  But they all are (often enough) able to argue why a given policy position is in line with a Marxist political/economic orientation.  And most of the time their defenses of their policy positions along Marxist lines are plausible, or plausible enough anyway.  It is hard for me to imagine a Kirkian approach to the Koch plant in Crossett that is such that I read/hear it and think "yeah, that is definitely Kirkian."  Hence my position that Kirkian conservatism is thematic, and doesn't really orient one to specific ways of handling policy decision making or even general trajectories of approaching policy position making.

This isn't to say Kirk is bad for this reason or that his words are useless. Far from it.  I much prefer Kirk to most other American conservative thinkers.  Themes can be helpful.  Then again, we live in the age of 
überlifestylization, in which we hold to very little that goes deeper than the thematic, so perhaps turning to the thematic too often approaches the danger of offering an easy catharsis to commodity fetished souls.  I don't know.  But I do think that if you are going to call for a return to a traditionalist, Kirkian conservatism, and you can't tell me with some precision what this means in terms of policy positions and how those policy position decisions are integrally related to Kirk's thought, you are posturing, and intellectually masturbating.  Not that I would ever accuse Dreher of that though, of course.....  

By David Popiashvili.  See more here.  My kids love his paintings.  HT: Teena.

Summer storm at harvest time in Strohgaeu Baden-Wuerttemberg, Germany, 

Image Credit : Franz Schumacher

spatiamentum, and other fragments, in slight payment of an old debt. Part II.

 There were maybe 6 or 7 employees at Loome's when I started.  Tom Loome was the owner.  I had never met a man like him, and haven't since, but more on him later.  Mary was made a consecrated virgin by the local RCC bishop shortly after I arrived.  Henry and Chris were decent chaps with families, they were the managers and the only bookbuyers there other than Tom when I arrived.  Danny was just a couple years older than me and was, more than any other person, the man who taught me to drink and smoke properly.  Chris, Henry, Danny and I would all become close friends.

A word on the business:  Tom Loome left teaching theology at Catholic institutions in the early 80s after having bought and sold enough books (barely) to start a bookstore.  He was not keen on academic Catholic theology in Catholic colleges in America in the early 80s, despite having written the book on Catholic modernism.  In the 70s and 80s Catholic institutions were throwing away old books left and right, and Tom began the habit of getting his hands on them (and all sorts of other religious ephemera).  He bought books, he   took books that were going to be thrown away, he even dumpster dived from time to time pulling gorgeous leather Leonine editions of the Summa out of the rubbish.  I don't mean to suggest that Tom only bought old Catholic books, his interests were ubiquarian, but because so many Catholic institutions were hell bent on ditching their intellectual patrimony during that time (often with newer librarians having no idea what they were throwing away or selling), Tom was able to rather quickly and easily amass the largest collection of Catholic secondhand and antiquarian books in North America.  By the time I came along in the '90s, his was the game in the continent.

But it wasn't just Catholic stuff.  When I first became of customer of Loome's I was there buying up Schleiermacher, and Feuerbach, and Bultmann, and Tillich, and Barth and such, of which they had more primary and secondary materials in all European languages than I had ever seen before, or even imagined possible in one place.  And it wasn't just theology.  There was shelf after shelf of books just by and about Kant.  I would bet at that time they carried, for example, at least 100 separate titles in various languages on Roman architecture, and another 100 on Armenian history, not Arminian, there would have been even more titles related to that, Armenian.

I knew that Loome's was special as a customer, but after I began working there I learned just how special.  That Christoph Schönborn turned to Tom when building the largest Catholic library in Vienna.  That the Vatican library, and Bodleian, and archivists at just about every major North American collection dealing with theology, or Christian history, or medieval studies, did regular business with Loome's.  In the book searching world just before the internet changed everything, scholars from all over the world would call asking for this or that hard to find text - many of them bearing names I knew from my own studies.   

As the only Protestant who worked there, it wasn't long before I was out of the mailing room and was given the obvious task of taking care of the biblical studies and Protestant Americana sections.  

The bibilical studies section started up in the balcony at the top of the staircase and went along the shelves on the wall as you went down the staircase, and then took up a rather incoherent arrangement of shelves below a portion of the large balcony.  The main area of "the church" (which is what we called the church turned bookshop), where perhaps 2/3rds of the store's books were located, wasn't heated, and this is in Minnesota.  So attending to books in that area for many hours a day meant coping with the cold.  This was done via appropriate attire, taking breaks in the warm area in the back of the store, and keeping a flask handy.

My wife has often commented about my uncanny knack for finding employment in places wherein drinking on the job is the norm.  Loome's was something of ChesterBelloc meets Mad Men, at least from a conviviality perspective.  On a typical day we would really get things going after my coworker Danny and I had finished our breakfast, which might be somewhere around 9:30/9:45 or so, even though work officially started at 9.  Then usually Danny or I would go to "downtown" Stillwater (four blocks down the hill) to get (more) coffee for everyone. We would work a little bit whilst drinking coffee, which was often enough fortified with spirits, and then, of course, we would need a smoke break.
Smoking was done in our little spot outside and to the back of the church, which was accessed via a door from the medieval studies section in the back of the store.  There was a small concrete bit of space there, and a statue of St. Joseph blessing us from a slightly raised tiny garden.  After the first smoke of the day we would work until lunch, which often enough involved beer.   After lunch we would work until 5, when the drinking really began.  But that was a typical day.  On a special occasion, which there seemed to be a lot of, Chris, one of the managers, would give me $40 and send me to the liquor store (when it opened at 10, or not long thereafter) to get a decent bottle of scotch or Irish or bourbon, and we'd milk that throughout the day.  In my first couple of years there every month or so all of this drinking would culminate into an evening trip to the venerable 
Gasthaus Bavarian Hunter, where we would drink German beer, in liter mugs, until finishing the night off with the shots of Jägermeister brought out on a wooden paddle by the always appropriately figured barmaid whose plump bosoms were pouring out of her dirndl's bodice.  I am quite sure that if I were to try to relive one of those days today that it would kill me.

The environment was very heady.  Academics and other intellectuals were often in the store, and discussions broke out frequently.  People in the "theology world" who came to the Twin Cities to give a lecture often ended up at Loome's, so you never knew when an N.T. Wright or a Stanley Hauerwas or a Richard John Neuhaus or
Rosemary Radford Ruether or a Fr. Ian Ker or a Charles Kannengiesser or a Russel Kirk (Kirk had died before I started at Loome's, but his visit to the shop was still often talked about when I was there) was going to walk into the store.  Further, Herr Loome made a point of bringing a lot of intellectuals into Stillwater to give talks, and he had his old European connections, so that brought more opportunities to meet and interact with prominent thinkers.  Tom had been the first Catholic layperson to be granted a doctorate from the Catholic faculty at Tübingen, and he lived in Germany and then in the UK for quite a few years.  Alexander Dru (translator of Kierkegaard, expert on Peguy, etc.), one of Europe's last great aristocratic non-professional wandering scholars, had been Tom's mentor.  Tom drove a very elderly Emil Brunner around during Brunner's last years. He took courses from Ratzinger.  Among Tom's closest friends were some of the children of G.E.M. Anscombe and Peter Geach; two of Geach's grandaughters from the UK worked at the store during the time I was there.  Plus the faculty from the Catholic Studies Department at St. Thomas would come over fairly frequently, as did faculty and students from every seminary and theology department in the upper midwest, of which there are many.  

So this gives a kid in his 20s a chance to ask Robert Louis Wilken why his buddy Jaroslav Pelikan converted to Orthodoxy and not Catholicism, and to ask frequent customer Avery Cardinal Dulles about a book recommendation, and to ask Robert Jensen about a passage in Barth that wasn't understood.   Or you could ask then bishop of La Crosse (WI) Raymond Burke which his favorite La Crosse brewery was.  

In addition, Herr Loome took me under his wing.  He started giving me his read copies of the TLS marking in red ink the essays that I ought to "give special attention."  I would ask him questions and often enough be given a pile of books with instructions of what order they should be read in and what I should be looking for from each.  For years this often involved discussions in the mornings about the previous night's reading assignments.  Theology certainly wasn't the only arena worked over.  Tom's area of academic specialty was Catholic modernism, but he had an encyclopedic knowledge of modernism across the boards.  He tutored me from Modigliani to Albin Moroder to Max Scheler to Montaigne.  On more popular fronts he loves Graham Greene and John LaCarre novels.  He would describe Handel's Chandros Anthems ("unequivocally the best psalm settings of the period") to me as if they somehow held the key to the meaning of life -- in that manner of fervent analysis via which Tom's mind operates when he loves something.  He was once so distressed (and embarrassed, I think, of the lack in one of his bookmen) that I did not know who Heinrich Biber was that he at first, upon learning of my ignorance, walked away from me, then came back and sent me to his house immediately with the task of sitting down to listen to his Biber vinyl recording of the Rosary Sonatas, shaking his head and muttering to himself as I departed on his order, "Bach gets all the glory."  

After a year or so of being there it became apparent that I was on the track of becoming a book buyer.  Loome's book buyers traveled around North America, and occasionally Europe, on week long book buying trips to a given locale - at my peak I would eventually travel one week out of every 6 to 8.  The job of the book buyer is, in essence, to know everything.  There are the business aspects of the trade, there is the requisite bibliographic knowledge, but then there is that gnosis which can only come from being one of those generalists-on-steroids who is interested in everything and has a passable knowledge of most areas of academic and scholarly inquiry.  One of the benefits of a job which requires knowing everything is that no one is much bothered, if, when tidying up a section of books, you spend a fair amount of time reading books in the stacks.  There were "hard" aspects to the job.  When we bought libraries and archival collections and the like we would have to unload semis with hundred of boxes of books that had to be carried and then gone through.  We underwent a move from our "downtown" Stillwater store which involved a hell of a lot of carrying boxes of books, but for the most part I was paid to read, to drink, to smoke, to be able to speak with intelligent customers who had very particular requests, and to buy books.  Not a bad gig.  On top of it I was paid well and had excellent benefits.  

All of this may sound like it was an academic theology love fest, but the reality was much more complex.  Being around academic theologians and students (particularly in joke programs like M.A.T.S. students) of academic theology wasn't really conducive to developing a love of academic theology or its professionals and aspirants.  Within a year or two of working at Loomes, I came to the point where I despised 99% of theology students, and the discipline as a whole.  Loome's had a "secular" bookstore down the hill in addition to the church, and I met any number of academics and students at both venues.  But there is something about theology students in bookstores which is reminiscent of a politician doing a stump speech - they feel the need to constantly remind you that they have something of value in their craniums.  I found that with no other discipline did the student feel the need to come up and tell you that they were getting a master's degree in x.  But theology students, 99% of them anyway, do this upon entering a bookstore.  Then they tell you who they studied with, whatever "big gun" their program had at the moment.  Of course I had taken phone calls from 4 guys of equal or greater scholarly caliber that morning, and 3 of the 4 were assholes, so I wasn't impressed.  Sometimes, when the moment was right and I couldn't take it anymore, the scenario would work out like this:
Customer (upon handing me books to purchase): I'm a theology grad student.  I study with Ben Witherington.

Owen (completely deadpan without a hint of mirth): Really?  Huh. I just spoke to Luke Timothy Johnson this morning and he was telling me that Witherington's christology is utter shit.

Of course that wasn't true, but there is a horror and offense that can be extracted from theology students that is unique among human persons.  And this is the other thing about theo grad students - most grad students are poor, but nobody is cheaper than theo grad students.  First of all, the books that they typically bought were crap, and if they picked out 4 or 5 books worth $35 they acted as if this was somehow the lifeblood of our store, apparently it didn't occur to them that we couldn't maintain the staff of 7 full-time employees with such purchases, and they never bothered to ask and learn that we made millions of dollars buying and selling serious collections.  Second, if I saw somebody drop a book when they thought no one was looking and then come and ask for a cheaper-than-marked price because it was scuffed up, I knew right then that they were a theology grad student.  Well, OK, I probably already knew because they had announced that when they walked in the door, but on the occasion that I had been out getting coffee when that customer entered the store I would have known they were theo grad students upon seeing that game.

I also had plenty of opportunity to see how completely full of shit most academics are, especially theologians.  All academics tend to be inclined to think that every moment is a moment for them to teach a stupid world some facts, but theology profs tend to be the worst.  For instance, on at least three occasions that I can remember I saw academics, with students or in one case a couple of disciples in tow, come up to our ChesterBelloc section and upon seeing copies of Belloc's Path to Rome exclaim "this is Belloc's conversion story."  It isn't.  It is a travelogue of sorts wherein Belloc describes a literal path to Rome - the one he walked on whilst traveling to Rome.  One of the scholars who made this pronouncement was among the most well known English Catholic academics (it wasn't Aidan Nichols).  The first couple of years at Loomes these occasions of pontificating about things given academics knew nothing about surprised me, but as time went on I developed my very accurate cynicism of the academy and its ubiquitous bullshittery.

We had one local priest, Fr. Kolb, who was a regular customer at Loomes, often spending hours in the shop each week, and often overhearing the intra-staff banter regarding customers.  Kolb had studied under Roland Bainton at Yale, and when that got brought up (not by him) in a conversation with several folks one time, I made a cynical coy "ahhh" remark and Kolb, probably picking up on our usual staff tendency to not really be impressed, retorted sharply - "No. No ahhh. He put his pants on one leg at a time just like you, and his shit stunk just as much as anyone else's."  I didn't ask him how he knew that.

There were all sorts of quirky customers.  One of my favorites, a fellow who spent most of his time in our philosophy and history of philosophy sections was a man who had been voted Minnesota teacher of the year at one point, having constructed the talented and gifted / advanced / whathaveyou classes at a St. Paul high school.  He was a Marxist (I never asked what stripe, and now I wish I had).  He quit teaching in order to homeschool his kids (his wife was a doctor, so this could be done) because, as he put it, the public schools there created pawns for corporations.  Once or twice his kids came with him, a boy and a girl in their early and mid teens, both could read academic German, both very personable and polite.  I remember feeling that it was refreshing to have some homeschooling customers that weren't, to borrow Chris' description, Leave it to Beaver Catholics (we had a small homeschooling section in the store and occasionally homeschooling families came in, and they usually fit the caricature quite well).  

I wrote before of my encounter with one polymath while working at Loome's, and I'll repeat that story here:

I don’t remember if I have told this story before (I offer this story as trivia, not as any proof of anything or as having any grand meaning), but shortly after my friend Mark died in the Fall of 2000, I met a colleague of his who walked into the bookstore I worked at in MN (and would soon leave). Mark had been a neuro-robotic engineer and the youngest tenured professor in the UK when he died of an aneurism. His friend who came to the store (not knowing me from Adam) had 3 doctorates – one in psychology, one in chemistry, and one in philosophy (and the guy was in his 40s). So I had noticed what he was picking up over the course of the day and eventually discerned that I was dealing with a fellow who was very bright. After he’d been there a couple of hours he comes up to me and asks about complications with regard to my birth (breech, post due date, etc.). Every birth related question he asked me about was answered in the affirmative. He said he guessed as much from the way I held a pen in my left hand whilst writing – apparently it’s an odd manner of holding a writing instrument typical of people who were born under the circumstances of complications I was. This man then proceeded to tell me about my life – my personality, many of my quirks and idiosyncrasies, details that simply astounded me. Apparently it has to do with people who would have been left brained becoming right brained because of certain complications in their mother’s pregnancy. The cross over creates very predictable personality and thinking traits. I’ve never in my life, before or since, been so perfectly pegged and described, and this was the first conversation I ever had with the man. He then, after asking if it was OK, proceeded to give me advice – the sorts of jobs I should go for, the sorts of things I should read. He ended by telling me that I needed to read Hegel and keep him close by my side – that Hegelian thought corresponded to how a brain like mine is wired.  

There were other unbelievably bright folks there, with astounding intellects.  The seminary librarian who speaks 11 languages and has the most comprehensive mental bibliography you've ever encountered.  The head of a Catholic university in the Philippines who writes theatre in the French Absurdist style in his spare time.  The portly Benedictine monk who was a quiet genius though you would never guess it when first encountering him.  The reserved philosopher who never says much in the store but always comes out and has a smoke with you, saying he can't pass up a Camel non-filter as this is what he smoked at P.I.M.S., and then telling you quirky stories about Gilson.

We (the staff) definitely had our favorites when it came to customers, and we could be quite, uhm, short, with the legion of other customers whom we for the most part tolerated.

But the reason I started this series of posts is because I learned recently that the old church which houses Loome Theological Booksellers is up for sale, and so I need to turn this remembrance in the direction of that building, and my relationship to it, and what she will always mean to me.

That will have to wait until next week.  In the meantime, my old friend and former colleague Henry has a new catalogue out, so buy some books from him this weekend.

- to be continued.