Monthly Archives: July 2010

walter scott and the blind beggar

With a hefty gift certificate from my wife in hand, on Saturday I went to one of my favorite bookstores in town, Elder’s.  I came away with a number of books in hand (more on those soon).  One of my most valuable finds, though, was a first edition, in very good condition, of William Baxter’s Life of Elder Walter Scott (1874), published by Bosworth, Chase and Hall of Cincinnati, Ohio.

I began reading over the weekend and came across this delightfully told story in the first chapter:

While attending the University an incident took place which is specially note-worthy from the fact that it was eminently characteristic of the man in all his after life–small in itself, yet one of those key-notes to the whole life and conduct ever to be found in the lives of the great and good. Among the Scotch great importance is attached to the individual who first crosses the threshold after the clock has struck twelve at midnight on the 31st of December, or who, as they phrase it, is the “first foot” in a house after the new year has begun. The first visitor or “first foot” stamps the “luck” of the house–the good or evil fortune of its inmates for the year. Hence, every house at that season has its company passing the evening in a pleasant way, enlivened by song or story, and among one class by what they misname good liquor. As soon as the hour of twelve has struck all present rise, shake hands, and wish one another a happy New Year, and not a few drink the health of each other, with some such sentiment as “May the year that’s awa’ be the warst o’ our lives.” But whether there be the drinking or the more temperate greeting and good wishes, in all companies is heard the question, “I wonder who will be our first foot,” or, as we would say, our first caller in the New Year. In consequence of this custom the streets at midnight on the last night of the year are as densely crowded as they usually are at midday, the throng, too, a happy one, each one intent on being “first foot” in the house of some friend, each one hoping to bear with him good luck. On one of these nights Walter, then about sixteen years of age, in company with his brother James, went over the old Edinburgh bridge to put “first foot” in the house of some friend. Having accomplished their object, they went forth on the still crowded streets, and after recrossing the bridge Walter was suddenly missed by his brother, who, supposing that something had for a moment attracted his attention among the crowds they had been constantly meeting, hastened home, expecting to meet him there. Walter, however, had not come, and, after waiting until his fears began to arise, he went to the bridge where he had missed him. Here he found quite a crowd assembled, and from the midst of it came the sound of the clear sweet voice of his brother, singing one of the sweetest of Old Scotia’s songs. Wondering what could have so suddenly converted his youthful and somewhat bashful brother into a street minstrel at midnight, he pressed his way to the midst of the throng, and found a scene which told its own story. The young singer was standing upon the stone steps of one of the shops near the bridge, and a step or two below him stood a blind beggar holding out his hat to receive the pennies which ever and anon in the intervals between the songs the crowd would bestow. All day long the blind man had sat and begged, and, knowing that the street would be crowded that night even more than it had been during the day, he hoped that night would yield him the charity which he had implored almost in vain through the livelong day. But the crowds were intent on pleasure and friendly greetings, and few responded to the appeal of him to whom day brought no light, and whose night was no darker than his day. Young Walter drew near, and his heart was touched by his mute imploring look, which had taken the place of the almost useless appeal, “Give a penny to the blind man.” He had neither gold nor silver to give, but he stopped and inquired as to his success, and found that few had pitied and relieved his wants. His plan was formed in a moment; he took his place by the beggar’s side and began singing, in a voice shrill and sweet, a strain which few Scotchmen could hear unmoved. The steps of nearly all who passed that way were arrested; soon a crowd gathered, and when the song ended he made an appeal for pennies, which brought a shower of them, mingled now and then with silver, such as never had fallen into the blind man’s hat before. Another and another song was called for, and at the close of each the finger of the singer pointed significantly, and not in vain, to the blind man’s hat; and thus he sang far into the night; and when he ceased, the blind beggar implored heaven’s richest blessings on the head of the youthful singer, and bore home with him the means of support and comfort for many a coming day.

We do not remind ourselves of these sorts of stories very often — mostly because we have such a weak grasp on our history to begin with.  They are good, I think, for our edification and for the building up of one another.  Baxter seems to have thought so.

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on institutions

What is wrong with institutions? Nothing in general. Also, it depends on what ideal the institution seeks to embody or propagate. “Institutionalization” can be, however, very problematic. Institutions tend to “flatten” all variations and localisms that do not totally conform to the defined ideal of the institution. That ideal is many times determined by the hegemonic dominance of one variation of an idea or polemic against positions deemed to be outside the ideal. When such ideals are then applied to local or individual circumstances, they tend to subvert or even do violence to local manifestations of culture, life, and thought.

What do you mean by “organic”? “Organic” manifestations of culture, thought, and life are ones that have emerged almost unconsciously over the course of millennia. Following Mircea Eliade, Carl Jung, Neoplatonism, and other sources, such patterns are really the primordial archetypes at the heart of human consciousness: manifestations of the divine vestiges in the soul itself. While these patterns are often corrupted with the passage of time and what in Christian thought is known as “original sin”, they are nevertheless the foundation of all philosophical thought, religious thought, the arts, and the hard sciences.

How is modernity “inorganic”? Modernity becomes “inorganic” when it seeks institutionalization as a goal in all aspects of life. Modern cosmological thinking can be best defined as the creation of a grid that can encompass and measure all things through the use of discursive reason. The purpose of this grid is to create information that can be manipulated to bring about ever more practical improvements in the material conditions of society. In this process, if a societal practice, belief, or symbol is deemed to be irrational or inefficient, it must be disposed of, no matter how old or venerable it has been in the history of a particular society. Such a process inevitably takes a “top-down” and not a “bottom-up” methodology in terms of organizing society. Gone are the sage and the elder, to be replaced by the expert and the technocrat.

….Why is this so bad? Inevitably, such a process uproots many aspects of ancient religiosity that have been past down to us as our patrimony. This is often done with the excuse that in order for the “essential” to be followed, the “accidental” elements must be de-emphasized, or disposed of altogether. In my opinion, there is nothing in this process that prevents religion from becoming a tool of totalitarian discourse. When the ideal becomes absolute, it has nothing by which it is judged. Any sort of novelty can be imposed, and where there is only novelty, there is no truth. That is because humans are traditional creatures, and tradition is the fountain of wisdom, since tradition is the life of God Himself.

What is to be done? Traditions and localisms must be preserved. No longer should we obsess over institutionalized or generalized forms of thought and action. By all means, they should be studied, but they should not be imposed as the absolute norm by which to judge local traditions. It is not so much an issue of complete resistance, but a re-establishment of balance. And we must realize again that the success of a given culture or society must not be judged strictly according to the rules of material gain. While human beings should always seek to improve themselves materially, they must also see that religious, cultural, and artistic creation is the true goal of human existence. This is the living and tangible manifestation of the contemplation of the absolute, who is God.

From here (H/T: Ochlophobist)

Institutionalization is not a new phenomenon.  It has been around for a long time (long before John T. Lewis memorably referred to it as “the bane of the Church”) and has worked its magic in many other contexts outside of the churches of Christ (the blogger who penned the words above is Roman Catholic).  The concern of the piece quoted above — that institutionalization tends to “flatten” all variations and localisms and that leads to the absolutizing of the ideal that it is being advanced in the name of — is one that has not been considered very much (as such) in discussions of institutionalism in the churches of Christ.  But it has important implications nonetheless.  We tend to think of institutionalism at work in the development of the “sponsoring church” arrangement or in the formation of the Herald of Truth.  The definition given above would also help us to see how it was at work, for example, in the change that occurred in how we conceived of the eldership in the mid-20th century (from spiritual leader and teacher to CEO and member of a board of directors).  We might also see it at work in doctrinal developments that we have tended to think of apart from the institutional question: the suppression of pacifism and opposition to Christian participation in human governments in “mainline” churches of Christ or the move away from the use of the female head covering in worship.  Both of these — for the modernizers in the churches in the period from, say, 1930-1960 — were unbearable forms of particularism that had to be gotten rid of in order for the churches to enter the 20th century and to capitalize on the religious boom in postwar America.  As Arturo puts it, “such a process [i.e. institutionalization] uproots many aspects of ancient religiosity that have been past down to us as our patrimony.”  In light of this tendency, it worse than naive to believe that the churches could have come through this process unscathed doctrinally.

There’s more that could be said — and what I’ve said above could probably be stated more clearly.  Have at it in the comment thread.