John 6.51-58

I was asked to put a recent sermon I preached online. As I have written about sermons before here on The Marginal Virtues, I decided to post it here.

As I generally follow the guidelines for writing sermons set out by Wilson in The Four Pages of the Sermon (about which I wrote a series of posts), you may be able to notice when I change 'pages', although I don't think that this sermon features distinct theme sentences for each 'page'.

The occasion of the sermon was a service of Holy Eucharist in the basement of St Paul's Eastern United Church, in Ottawa, on Sunday, August 19. The parish at which I am presently serving as a pastoral intern, St Albans, has been undergoing renovations for quite some time, and we were not allowed to hold our service there because an inspector from the city determined that we do not have two accessible exits - which is true. St Paul's Eastern graciously hosted us.

The text on which I preached that day was from the gospel of John; namely, John 6.51-58. It is the gospel for the day according to the lectionary - the propers for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost.


Gollum's Personal Hell

The Lord of the Rings has many great passages, one of which, early on, concerns Gollum. Gandalf paints a dark portrait of the tormented Halfling (FRI, p. 68):
'All the "great secrets" under the mountains had turned out to be just empty night: there was nothing more to find out, nothing worth doing, only nasty furtive eating and resentful remembering. He was altogether wretched. He hated the dark, and he hated light more: he hated everything, and the Ring most of all.'
In Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon, Rosebury somewhere writes (in effect) that, when it comes to evil characters, Tolkien is adept at creating 'states of personality, or unpersonality, that no sane reader would envy.' Put another way, Tolkien's devils (so to speak) are actually diabolical. No one would want to be like them, whereas even a greater author than he, Milton, made his Satan a more attractive, if pridefully rebellious, figure than God, although C. S. Lewis's A Preface to Paradise Lost helps us see through the glamour given Satan by Romantic critics such as William Blake, who famously wrote that Milton was of Satan's party without knowing it. (Rosebury mentions Milton, and gives another example, that of the wicked Count Fosco in The Woman in White, who is genial, wealthy, and amusing, in contrast with the bland and unsympathetic would-be heroes of the work.)
Gollum's motives are not much different than those of Milton's Satan. Pride and greed are the source of his downfall, as they are with Milton's Satan, although he is, of course, an altogether meaner creature. As the chilling description of his life by Gandalf shows, Gollum's lust for uncovering secrets led to the realisation that no such 'great secrets' are there to be found: Gollum forsook joy, and light, and life, and the mystery inherent in community and companionship, for nothing more than 'empty night' and for 'nasty furtive eating and resentful remembering.' This has the taste of hellishness to it.

Job 39.25

In The Guns of August, a book for which I am writing a marginal commentary, Barbara Tuchman, in true Biblical style, conflates Job 39.25, ant. loc., in order to describe Winston Churchill, then not quite forty years old and First Lord of the Admiralty. She writes (on p. 111):
When he smelled battle afar off, Winston Churchill resembled the war horse in Job who turned not back from the sword but "paweth in the valley and saith among the trumpets, Ha, ha."
This sentence is a dense conflation of bits from Job 39, vv. 21, 22, & 25. As the verbal forms demonstrate, she has in mind, and in part directly quotes, the Authorised (or King James) Version.

This allusion, it should be noted, would not work at all with other English translations: if taken from the text of the NRSV the part written only as a direct quotation would read, 'paws violently and when the trumpet sounds, says, "Aha!" ' If taken from the Revised English Bible, it would read, 'shows his mettle as he paws and prances and at the trumpet-call he cries "Aha!"'; if from the NIV, 'paws fiercely and at the blast of the trumpet snorts, "Aha!"'; if from the Jerusalem Bible, 'paws the soil of the valley and at each trumpet blast shouts "Hurrah!"'.

The which just goes to show that the Authorised Version is certainly the fertile source of much literary allusion and creativity. It also shows that you never know where you're going to find a Biblical allusion.


September Selections and Update

Beginning in September I am starting a second unit of clinical pastoral education (CPE) at the Ottawa Hospital - Civic campus.

Between this programme, work, and my other commitments, greater limits shall be set upon my time to read and write for The Marginal Virtues.

For the next three months, then, I will be choosing only one book from the 'back burner' to read and write a marginal commentary for. In December I'll choose two more books from the 'back burner', and, starting in the new year, shall once again ask for new recommendations.

So, without further ado, here is the selection for September!

Dune, by Frank Herbert.

Congratulations to Matt for his recommendation having been selected. I'm looking forward to reading Dune, which is widely regarded as a classic of the science-fiction genre.



I am reading Quicksilver, by Neal Stephenson, for a marginal commentary, and I have to share what is perhaps the funniest example of typical English understatement in the work (p. 464).

It comes at the end of a series of strange adventures and mishaps that befall one of the protagonists, a ne'er-do-well by the name of Jack Shaftoe, and no summary can do them justice: you will have to read the chapter (pp. 450-64) for yourself.

The passage goes:
"We've missed you Jack," [Eliza] said, "where've you been?"
"Running an errand—meeting some locals—partaking of their rich traditions," Jack said. "Can we get out of Germany now, please?"


Update: Change in Format

Based on feedback from one of my readers, I am going to be revising the format of my marginal commentaries.

The new look will be established upon the posting of my next marginal commentary. It should make the marginal commentaries easier to read.

The changes will be retroactively applied to my older posts as time allows.


The Dark Valley

A favourite book of mine, that I have re-read many times, is The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s, by historian Piers Brendon. My copy is an edition published in 2002 by Vintage Books; it was originally published by Jonathan Cape (London) and Alfred A. Knopf (New York), in 2000.

As the name and subtitle of the book suggest, it is not a cheery work. It is a panoramic view of one of the darkest periods of human history, the 'dirty thirties', the decade of Depression and of the apogee of the great dictatorships.

This is not to say that it does not sparkle with imagination and wit. In addition to being an accomplished stylist himself, Brendon frequently quotes brilliant, or lapidary, or epigrammatic quips.

One of the best passages, for example, consists of a series of quotes that Brendon strings together about Chamberlain's Cabinet:
Chamberlain drew around himself an inner circle of subservient mediocrities, most of them knights remote from the practice of chivalry. Sir John Simon, a serpentine lawyer described as a snake in snake's clothing, was singularly lacking in resolution at the Treasury: he had sat on the fence so long, Lloyd George famously remarked, that the iron had entered into his soul. Sir Samuel Hoare, now at the Home Office, had learned no lessons from the dictators: he was later said to have "passed from experience to experience, like Boccaccio's virgin, without discernible effect upon his condition." Sir Thomas Inskip, Minister for Coordination of Defence, had little ability, less power, and no perceptiveness: "He could look with frank and fearless gaze at any prospect, however appalling—and fail to see it." Other acolytes, such as Sir Horace Wilson, with his "temporising, 'play for safety,' formula-evolving mind," and Sir Kingsley Wood, who on the outbreak of war opposed the bombing of munition works in Germany because they were private property, were equally unable or unwilling to stand up to Chamberlain. [p. 611]
Another example serves to introduce what I would like to comment upon: writing about the whole book would be impossible, of course, but focussing on one aspect will help give a sense of the whole.

In his chapter on the Soviet Purges (pp. 465-93), Brendon looks at the terrific (in the sense of 'having the quality of inspiring terror') paradox that the Great Purge, and the means by which it was at once concealed and revealed, begat a kind of double mind in people. It certainly begat one of the vastest networks of snitches in history [p. 490]:
According to one (probably exaggerated) estimate, every fifth citizen was an NKVD nark. Russians joked about the man looking at himself in the mirror who says, "One of us must be an informer."
The unreality of the Great Purge and the corrupting effect that this unreality had on the hapless citizens of the Soviet Union, then, is what I wish to look at in greater detail.