Midsummer update

Gee, things have been quiet around here, haven’t they?

I have no real excuse except that work, family, a little bit of travel, and sundry other activities have pushed blogging down the scale of priorities considerably.

Not that there hasn’t been stuff going on in the world: we had some major Supreme Court cases come down; the horrific shootings in Charleston, South Carolina; the Greece situation; and most recently the nuclear deal with Iran.

But then again, I’m not particularly qualified to comment intelligently on most of these topics and have generally limited myself to the occasional quip on Twitter.

The other major topic of this blog, at least historically, has been theology. But to be honest, I’ve gotten pretty burned out on that. I’ve all but stopped reading theology books, and I’m increasingly uninterested in the debates that rage among Christians on the Internet. I don’t know if I’m in some sort of spiritual-religious funk, but let’s just say theology and I are “on a break.”

I’ve also tried to resist the urge to have “takes” on everything little thing that happens. This, admittedly, is not a recipe for prolific blogging, but it is more conducive, I think, to my mental health.

On the positive side, I’ve been reading more in other areas I’m interested in: among other things, I’ve finished a history of the French Revolution, Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest, and a fascinating treatise on aesthetics and culture. Right now I’m making my way through Akhil Amar’s big book on the U.S. Constitution and the first volume of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Mauritian series.

I may pop in now and then as the mood strikes me, but I think it’s safe to say that this (already sporadic) blog will be pretty quiet for the rest of the summer.

Overdue blog retirement party

I’ve been blogging for over ten years(!), but it’s become apparent to me–and quite likely to you, dear readers–that this blog has been running on fumes for quite some time. The truth is, at this point in my life I have neither the time nor much of an inclination to update this blog on a regular basis. I’m happy with a lot of what I’ve published here, but I increasingly don’t have much new to say on most of the topics I generally cover.

I’ve had some very enjoyable and intellectually stimulating interactions with commenters and other bloggers over the years, but for better or worse the free-wheeling atmosphere of the early blogosophere seems to have largely dissipated. The various blogging communities I’ve been a part of have drifted apart, as people moved on to other projects or just stopped blogging altogether. Anyway, these communities seem to happen more on Twitter or other platforms nowadays, and I’ll still be actively tweeting for the foreseeable future.

There’s a good chance I’ll find myself with the itch to blog again at some point, but if I do, I’ll probably do it somewhere else and with a different focus. In the meantime, thanks to everyone who has read or commented over the years. I’m both honored and humbled to think that people have found it worth their time to read this blog.

Confessions of a backslidden vegetarian

Adam Kotsko posted today about why he’s not a vegetarian, even though he seems like the sort of person who should be one. I was a vegetarian, of increasing strictness, for almost 10 years. I found philosophical arguments for vegetarianism convincing (though I never accepted animal rights arguments in their strongest forms). I read lots of books about it. And I posted about it quite a bit on this blog. So why did I stop? Did I discover a previously unnoticed hole in arguments I had once accepted? Or did I just find living without meat unbearable?

Nothing as exciting as that, I’m afraid. Basically, it had to do with pragmatism and a desire to maintain family harmony. My wife and I have two small children (ages 4 and almost 2), and as many people with kids will tell you, getting them to eat can be a challenge. Early on we agreed that we weren’t going to try to enforce a particular diet on them. We would try to make sure they ate a variety of more-or-less healthy foods, but we weren’t going to exclude meat, if that’s what they were willing to eat. (My wife had never been as strict about not eating meat as I had.)

We never intended to eat meat at every, or even most, meals. But eventually it became clear that it would be burdensome for my wife, who does the majority of the cooking in our house, to provide a “vegetarian option” at every meal. So we agreed that I’d eat meat–generally poultry or fish–once or twice a week, along with the rest of the family. This would only be at dinner, since, at least during the work week, we eat breakfast and lunch separately. If I wanted to keep eating veggie at those meals, that would be up to me.

And this arrangement has worked out well for us. The majority of my meals are still vegetarian, but I eat meat with the rest of my family at supper a couple times a week. I’ve generally stuck to poultry and fish, but have occasionally eaten beef too. (For some reason, I still can’t bring myself to start eating pork again.)

I don’t really have a good intellectual rationalization for this, except that figuring out what works best for my family is more important to me than avoiding meat because of my personal scruples. I still think that factory farming is a moral scandal and that we as a society should probably eat a lot less meat. But the difference between me personally eating all vegetarian and just eating mostly vegetarian, as far as its contribution to the sum total of good in the world goes, doesn’t seem worth fussing over at this point in my life. Maybe this will change as my kids get older, but for now call me a demi-vegetarian or a flexitarian. Or maybe just a sellout.

Buyer’s remorse, reader’s guilt

When I was young–particularly when I was in college and grad school–I had a lot of time to read. Hours upon hours if I wanted to. What I didn’t have was a lot of money to buy books. And these were the pre-Amazon days when it wasn’t easy to come by any book they didn’t carry at the bookstore in the local mall. Just going to Barnes & Noble in those days was like a religious pilgrimage.

Now things are different. I have a lot more money than I did as a student, but time is now a much scarcer commodity. With two small kids at home, my discretionary time is probably at an all-time minimum. If I’m lucky I might have an hour to myself after everyone else in my house has gone to bed.

And yet, like a once-starving man who can’t help but gorge himself when presented with a limitless supply of food, I can’t stop acquiring books. I get them from Amazon (often used from third-party sellers), from yard sales, from boxes people leave on the sidewalk, from library book sales–you name it. I have a very hard time passing up a book that I think I might conceivably, some day want to read–especially if it’s cheap, or free.

And the results look like this:

On my dining room table, staring at me reproachfully.
On my dining room table, staring at me reproachfully.

Yep, that’s a pile of books–most of them good I’m sure–that I acquired months, or in some cases years, ago but just haven’t gotten around to reading. (Well, that and a stegosaurus.) And these are just non-fiction; they don’t even include the novels. Not to mention e-books–I have a bunch of Kindle books languishing in electronic purgatory too.

I’m now at the point where I can acquire books much more quickly and effortlessly than I can read them. Which isn’t to say I don’t still read–I’m reading Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness right now, and I recently finished a hefty biography of F.D.R.  Despite my (imagined?) lack of free time, I still managed to read a couple dozen books last year, at least if my Goodreads account is to be trusted.

But I’m not sure how I can keep justifying the never-ending acquisition of more and more books. When exactly do I think I’m going to read them? Once my kids go to college? Am I still going to be interested in reading Sexism and God-Talk or The Divine Relativity  fifteen years from now? Maybe. But there’s going to come some point when the number of books I own outstrips the number I can reasonably expect to read during my remaining decades on earth.

I also worry that I get distracted by books that catch some fleeting interest while neglecting “classic” works. After all, few of the books in the pile above probably rank as stone-cold classics. My choice of reading has usually been a result of serendipity as much as anything else, but that was back when I could afford to be promiscuous with my time. But now I wonder when I’m going to get around to reading War and Peace? Or this? Or this?

I’m not sure there’s a good solution to this (admittedly, “first-world”) problem. Probably I just need to be more disciplined and intentional in what I choose to read (or buy). Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a title I saw on Amazon earlier that I wanted to check out a little more closely. . .

The Rosary as contemplative prayer for everybody

In his book The Word Is Very Near You: A Guide to Praying with Scripture, Martin L. Smith, a spiritual director and formerly the superior of the (Episcopal) Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, Mass., considers various ways of using the Bible in prayer. These include Ignatian-style meditation, where we imaginatively place ourselves in a biblical story, such as one from the gospels; lectio divina, where we mediate on a word or phrase from scripture; and what he calls “gazing,” or simply contemplating and resting in one of the great biblical images.

Smith says that this third, contemplative type of prayer is more common than people may think:

Many people are praying contemplatively though they do not know it. For example, in the widespread devotion of the rosary people meditate on a series of key events in the life of Mary and Jesus, allowing their attention to focus on each “mystery” in turn while repeating the Hail Mary, the Gloria and the Lord’s Prayer in a set pattern regulated by the sequence of the beads. The repeated prayers are intended to occupy the mind and keep distractions away so that we can be free to soak ourselves in the grace and meaning with which the great images are saturated. Far from being the technique or a privilege of the spiritually advanced, simple forms of contemplative prayer are the ‘bread and butter’ of the spiritual lives of millions.

Similarly, Anglican theologian Austin Farrer referred to the rosary as a “heaven-sent aid” for meditation on the great truths of the faith. In his short book Lord I Believe, which is on using the creed in prayer, Farrer writes:

If I had been asked two dozen years ago for an example of what Christ forbade when he said ’Use not vain repetitions,’ I should very likely have referred to the fingering of beads. But now if I wished to name a special sort of private devotion most likely to be of general profit, prayer on the beads is what I should name. Since my previous opinion was based on ignorance and my present opinion is based on experience, I am not ashamed of changing my mind.

I am no great pray-er, but speaking personally, the rosary is the most meaningful way I’ve come across to mediate in prayer on the major events in the life of Christ (the “mysteries” as they’re called). Before I began using it, I wondered how one was supposed to recite the prayers while simultaneously meditating on the mysteries. But in my experience at least, the prayers do seem to work as advertised–to provide a kind of background noise that helps one to stay focused on the mysteries. Sometimes there is a sort of oscillation of the attention between the words of the prayers and the images of the mysteries–but I find that they often infuse each other with additional meaning and associations as one proceeds through the decades of the rosary.

For whatever reason, many Protestant forms of prayer strike me as too wordy and intellectualistic. But I also haven’t had much luck with forms of meditation where you’re supposed to “empty” your mind and wordlessly contemplate the divine. The rosary provides a good balance of structure and freedom, or mind and heart. It’s grounded in the great truths of the faith, and so has a certain “given-ness” and objectivity, but it also allows for one’s personal prayers and affections to range freely. Your mileage may vary, of course, but reading Smith’s book has encouraged me to pick up the beads again after a period of neglect.

Another year (almost) over. . .

Since it’s unlikely I’ll do much substantive blogging over the next couple of weeks, I want to wish you, dear readers, a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Also, thanks to everyone who still reads this humble blog! 2013 hasn’t exactly been a banner year for my blogging, productivity-wise (or quality-wise you might add). Like a lot of people, I find myself more active on Twitter these days. But from time to time I still want a place where I can think out loud about things in more than 140 characters. Plus, we’ve had some pretty robust comment threads around here this year. ATR commenters may be few and far between, but they’re almost uniformly high quality.





La Visitacion

Yesterday I took my daughter to the museum at Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown. It’s privately funded and thus was not affected by the (recently concluded) government shutdown.
The museum is small, but it features a wonderful collection from the Byzantine Empire and an impressive exhibit of pre-Columbian American artifacts. It also has, tucked away in the corner of one of the rooms, this marvelous painting by El Greco:


What struck me was that the painting manages to convey great emotion even though both Mary’s and Elizabeth’s faces are almost totally obscured. Well worth the schlep to Georgetown if you live in or are visiting the D.C. area.

Methodism, homosexuality, and me

This NYT article interests me as someone who is about to join the United Methodist Church from an ostensibly more “progressive” denomination, at least with regard to the equality of LGBT persons.

Thomas Ogletree, a UMC minister, is facing disciplinary action after he presided at his son’s (same-sex) wedding. The UMC has continued to maintain that the “practice” of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” As with most mainline denominations, there have been efforts to change this, but, in the UMC’s case, they have met with limited success.

This is partly due to the fact that a significant number of the delegates to the church’s general conference–its supreme legislative body, which meets ever four years–come from outside the U.S.–particularly places where conservative views on homosexuality still prevail. At the conference’s most recent meeting, in 2012, even an “agree to disagree” resolution couldn’t pass. Though it’s unclear how much of an effect acts of “civil disobedience” such as those of Rev. Ogletree may have on the direction of the larger denomination, this seems to be a stance that more “progressives” feel compelled to take.

So as someone who does support full LGBT equality in church and society, why would I consider joining a denomination that seems to be a long way from affirming it?

The main answer is that my family and I have found a home in the local UMC congregation we’ve been attending for about the last two years, and we want to formalize our commitment to it. We left our previous church for a variety of mostly non-theological reasons and were attracted to this one by its growing number of young families, dynamic pastor, flourishing homeless ministry, and combination of theological substance and progressive social vision, among other reasons. I’ve also come to appreciate some of the distinctive emphases of Wesleyan theology–combining at its best a Protestant emphasis on sheer, unmerited grace with a Catholic emphasis on personal and social holiness that I find quite appealing.

Our congregation is a “reconciling” church and so aims to welcome LGBT folks at all levels of parish life, even though this contradicts the denomination’s official teaching. This makes them (us) the loyal opposition, a position that could grow increasingly uncomfortable if, as seems likely, the denomination continues to move at its current glacial pace on this matter.


The “what” and the “how” are awful, and no one seems to know much about the “who” and “why” at this point. Of course, that hasn’t stopped people from speculating. I recommend this post from Jesse Walker at Reason as an antidote to some of that.

I lived in the Boston area (Somerville to be exact) for about a year, and both my work and my church home were in the city. It will always have a special place in my heart. My thoughts and prayers are with everyone affected, and my hope is that, whatever the origin of this event turns out to be, we’ll respond in a sane way.

Favorite music of 2012

I can make no claims to comprehensiveness for my music listening habits–in any given year I hear only a tiny fraction of what gets put out, and only a slightly larger fraction of what taste makers tell me I should like. But for what it’s worth, here are the albums released this year that I found myself enjoying and coming back to most frequently:

Torche, “Harmonicraft”

Of Monsters and Men, “My Head Is an Animal”

Baroness, “Yellow and Green”

Silversun Pickups, “Neck of the Woods”

Shearwater, “Animal Joy”

Dwight Yoakam, “3 Pears”

Gojira, “L’Enfant Sauvage”

Napalm Death, “Utilitarian”

The Walkmen, “Heaven”

The Sword, “Apocryphon”