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First They Came

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 5:58 AM

Niemöller's famous words are always haunting and powerful.

THEY CAME FIRST for the Communists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.

THEN THEY CAME for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.

THEN THEY CAME for the Jews,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.

and by that time no one was left to speak up.

We were discussing Galatians tonight in a Bible Study I am in. We were talking about Paul's willingness to speak up against wrongs being committed (in Galatia's case, the division being created by the legalistic “Judaizers”). Given Paul's status as an elite Jew, he could have overlooked and even benefitted from the division, but the Gospel called him to a higher standard.

More apropos to the poem, the Confessing Church members in Germany also spoke up and rejected the evil of the Third Reich and what it was doing to Jews and other minorities. They could have towed the party line and lived comfortably while others suffered, but they too were called to integrity to the Gospel.

The truth always calls us to that sort of higher standard. The Gospel is not just about heaven, it is about the restoration of all things through Christ. How often as the Church do we earnestly seek to be on the front line loving justice and showing mercy? How often do we accept that the troubles of those around us are burdens that concern us?

If “they” came again today, would we do any better than the person in the poem?


By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 6:53 AM

A full comment on the Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis's production of Hamlet will have to wait, but if you live in the region, it will suffice to say that you should go catch it at Forest Park before Sunday. How often can you find a professional production of Shakespeare's greatest play that is free?

Go. You won't regret it.

Fire and Ice

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 6:24 AM

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

-Robert Frost

Deceptively simple.

Books Versus Texts

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 6:21 AM

The New York Times has an interesting commentary on the problem with e-books.

When it comes to digital editions, the assumption seems to be that all books are created equal. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the mass migration from print to digital, we’re seeing a profusion of digital books — many of them out of copyright — that look new and even “HD,” but which may well have been supplanted by more accurate editions and better translations. We need a digital readers’ guide — a place readers can find out whether the book they’re about to download is the best available edition.

Interestingly, for all of their foibles, the major newspapers “get” this far more than book publishers and the e-book merchants. The iPad apps for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Financial Times reproduce much of the character that makes print more enjoyable for reading than a screen. They are a pleasure to read, much as a printed newspaper is.

On the other hand, the aesthetic problem with e-books is demonstrated by the issue of the free Project Gutenburg books available in iBooks. In my own browsing, I noticed that the critically acclaimed translation of Dante's Comedy was marked down on there because some thought it was foolish not to use the free Gutenburg text. Never mind the superior translation, superior typesetting is also important — too many public domain e-books are atrociously “typeset,” apparently forgetting that the layout — a book's “interface” — is a critical part of an enjoyable reading experience.

O, Let Us Yet Be Merciful

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 5:29 AM

And thus thy fall hath left a kind of blot,
To mark the full-fraught man and best indued
With some suspicion. I will weep for thee;
For this revolt of thine, methinks, is like
Another fall of man.

-King Henry V (Henry V, Act 2.2)

I've mulled this powerful passage from the play for a few days in preparation for class tonight. These words ring true in discussing when a trusted person betrays that trust. It is interesting in that Henry's response to Lord Scroop, the betrayer whom he most closely trusted, is threefold: first, realizing the danger of the three men's plot, all they must be stopped. Second, given that such a dear friend was actually willing to harm Harry for selfish gain, he recognizes the attempted betrayal is like “another fall of man” that will lead him to view even the “best” of people “with some suspicion.” They have robbed him of his ability to fully trust anyone going forward. Shakespeare clearly understands the pain of such a situation.

Most touchingly, even as Henry condemns the traitors, he notes to his fallen friend Lord Scroop that he will “weep for thee.” Henry shows a Biblical sense of justice in that even as he administers necessary justice, love rules it. He takes no pleasure in condemning the men he once held dear; and despite their attempts to harm him, he will mourn their loss. The crime must be dealt with, but he still wishes for them God's mercy.

Much Ado About Nothing

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 7:23 AM

For my Shakespeare course at Covenant, I read Much Ado About Nothing today. One of the things that makes the Bard so great is that he can write a play about “nothing” and make it terribly interesting. Of course, nothing includes no less than two weddings with plenty of tricks and deceptions thrown in for good measure, but the comedic plot movement is never particularly sweeping. Something comes from nothing.

Compare this to Beckett's Waiting for Godot and one can see the difference between a great poet and a person who merely aspired. Godot says very close to nothing; Much Ado About Nothing says a great deal. Shakespeare drives language to engage the mind; Beckett seemed so obsessed with breaking down communication that precious little is communicated in his plays.


Yesterday marked this blog's eighth year of publication. I meant to observe it then, but now will have to suffice. Thank you for reading!

Ash Wednesday

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 3:26 AM

Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.

T.S. Eliot seems appropriate for the day.

Let Me Be Honest with You

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 5:12 AM

Jason writes,

“… and if you want to know the truth…”

Really? If I want to? What am I going to say?

“No, I’ve had my fill of truth today. Why don’t you spin me a tall tale.”

Beneath the Stars

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 3:40 AM

One of the most beautiful works ever written is Dante Alighieri's la Divina Commedia. As I was plundering bits of the Inferno for a sermon illustration, I soaked up the end of that cantica for the first time in too long. It finds Dante and his poet-guide, Virgil, in the very pit of hell. There, Virgil points Dante to a dark space where there is a hole carved by a little river (the Lethe, which is busy sweeping away all memory of the sins of those in Purgatorio down into the Inferno) and they climb through that hole to again come to the surface.

Dante observes,

He first, I second, without thought of rest
we climbed the dark until we reached the point
where a round opening brought in sight the blest

and beauteous shining of the Heavenly cars.
And we walked out once more beneath the Stars (trans. John Ciardi).

Dante ends each of the canticas with reference to the stars, which remind us of God's glory and hope.

The Comedy is so beautiful that I have for years pondered learning Italian so that I could read the work in Dante's own tongue. One of these day, I just might.

A Great Read Versus Great Literature

By Timothy R Butler | Posted at 10:44 PM

This is a distinction to which I often return. I think most people intuitively can sense the difference between “great literature” and a “great read.” But what is the difference? For example, a book like the Da Vinci Code or — yes, I'll admit to reading it — Twilight is engrossing, with interesting characters. Who doesn't want Robert Langdon to survive as the evil Teacher tries to kill him? Who is unsympathetic to Edward Cullen as he struggles with being a “cold one”?

To the extent that we can empathize with the characters, and their plights can cause catharsis (I think more likely in the case of Cullen than Langdon), they mimic great literature. Much of what makes Hamlet or the Oresteia great revolves around the ability of these works to connect with our core being and make us feel the sorrow and joy the characters feel.

But, I would not group Twilight or the Da Vinci Code in the realm of great literature. Simply the realm of a “great read.” Why is that? What is the essential substance of literature?

Part of it is surely the test of time. Will anyone remember Bella Swan in two millennia as people still remember Agamemnon today? I'm dubious. Part of becoming literature is passing the judgment of cultures and times other than our own.

Yet if we say that literature must stand the test of time, precisely how long of time? Surely we must not say master works such as T.S. Eliot's the Waste Land are still awaiting judgment. When did it become literature or was it always literature?

The best answer, I suspect, is to view time's vote not as the deciding one, but as a natural consequence of another characteristic of literature. This characteristic is that literature frequently defines or alters the framework within which it operates. That is, Shakespeare's plays changed the very essence of drama; Dan Brown has not manipulated the genre of the action/puzzler novel to any great degree. But, agreeing with Eliot's discussion of literature in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” literature must not be purely “change,” literature must also be intelligible. (Hence why I continue to mock Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot — it does change the fabric drama, arguably, but hardly in a way intelligible to drama as drama.)

Intelligible alteration of genre and framework. That is essential to what makes a great read great literature, but it is merely a part, not the whole of that which defines literature as literature.

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