Confessions of St. Augustine – Chapters 1-2

“Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” -Psalm 51:5

The Innocence of Infants

Augustine starts his biography with his time as a baby (he actually goes even earlier, wondering if he had an existence before he was even conceived). Though he doesn’t remember this directly, he is able to deduce what he must have been like from his observations of other babies. The inherent sinfulness of man is a repeated theme in the first two chapters, and Augustine finds sin even in babies. He describes the selfishness he observes in them, and concludes that babies aren’t innocent, so much as they are weak. They struggle hard to hurt those who care for them whenever they don’t get what they want, but lack the strength to inflict any damage.

Was it a good thing for me to try, by struggling as hard as I could, to harm them for not obeying me, even when it would have done me harm to have been obeyed? Thus, the infant’s innocence lies in the weakness of his body and not in the infant mind. I have myself observed a baby to be jealous, though it could not speak; it was livid as it watched another infant at the breast. … Yet we look leniently on such things, not because they are not faults, or even small faults, but because they will vanish as the years pass. For, although we allow for such things in an infant, the same things could not be tolerated patiently in an adult.

Education before virtue

Though Monica is now regarded as a saint, she was far from perfect. We get the impression that she only awakened slowly to the importance of raising her son up with a solid Christian foundation, and she of course had no help from her non-Christian husband:

My Father had no concern as to how I grew towards you, or how chaste I was, as long as I was skillful in speech, however fruitless I might have been your cultivation of my heart, which is your field, O God. Although my mother had no fled out of the “center of Babylon,” she still went more slowly in the skirts of it. She advised me to be chaste, but paid no heed to what her husband had told her about me, so as to restrain within the bounds of married love what she felt to be presently destructive and dangerous for the future. She did not heed this, for she feared that a wife might prove a clog an hindrance to my hopes -not the hopes of the world to come, which my mother had in you, but the hopes of education, which both my parents were too anxious for me to acquire- my father because he had little or no thought of you and only vain thoughts for me, and my mother because she thought that the usual courses of learning would not only be no drawback, but even of some help towards my attaining you. And my iniquity grew enormous.

Don’t we do the same thing when prioritize sending our kids through college over getting them married?

The Great Pear Heist

Pears
Augustine’s view of himself doesn’t improve as he ages. As he describes his early years, he focuses particularly on an incident where he and a group of his friends steal some pears.

There was a pear tree close to our own vineyard, heavily laden with fruit, which was not tempting either for its color or for its flavor. Late one night — having prolonged our games in the streets until then, as our bad habit was — a group of young scoundrels, and I among them, went to shake and rob this tree. We carried off a huge load of pears, not to eat ourselves, but to dump out to the hogs, after barely tasting some of them ourselves. Doing this pleased us all the more because it was forbidden.

Those pears were truly pleasant to the sight, but it was not for them that my miserable soul lusted, for I had an abundance of better pears. I stole those simply that I might steal, for, having stolen them, I threw them away. My sole gratification in them was my own sin, which I was pleased to enjoy; for, if any one of these pears entered my mouth, the only good flavor it had was my sin in eating it.

The incident is notable to him because he can come up with no justification for the theft. He wasn’t hungry, and he had better pears at home. Apparently, the only reason he stole was to do something wrong. Each of us have also done the same thing (for example, any time you’ve intentionally annoyed somebody simply to get a reaction out of them). He uses this as a starting point to explore both the nature of sin, especially how it usually consists in (poorly) imitating some aspect of God, and his own sinful nature. The entire section is well worth reading.

Augustine notes other ways in which his sense of morality was deficient as well. He liked to cheat at games, but then get very indignant when he caught somebody else cheating. Since he was just as prone to cheat, he really had no basis to complain when the same was done to him. We are all prone to being far more forgiving of our own sins than those of others.

Assignment

Read Book 3 to about halfway through Book 4. He begins to stray. Look out for the following:

  • Augustine develops a love of the theater, something he now regrets. What do you think of his view of fiction?
  • Augustine investigates astrology, but finds it lacking.
  • Augustine’s mother, who has grown fearful for his salvation, has a vision.
  • Augustine’s best friend died young. How does this affect him?

Confessions of St Augustine – Introduction

Augustine“The Reformation, inwardly considered, was just the ultimate triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the Church.” -Benjamin Warfield, Calvin and Augustine

Welcome, brave readers! For the next two months, we’re going to plunge into one of the oldest and most significant Christian writings, written by and about one of the most significant Christians: The Confessions of St. Augustine. Read along at home, and then show up to the class where we’ll discuss it in depth (or read along at home and telecommute to class when I post my notes online).

Why Augustine?

The modern church is woefully ignorant of its history and roots. To most of us, Christian history consists of the following: Jesus came, died, and rose again. Then Acts happened. Then Catholicism messed things up and the Reformation happened. And then our church was formed.

It is necessary to study those who came before us, both to understand who we are, and to get grounding for our beliefs. Augustine is a good starting point for a number of reasons. He is the first major Christian thinker after Paul (in fact, he is probably also the most important Christian thinker after Paul). Also importantly, he predates the major controversies which still split the church today, so nearly every denomination from Protestants to Catholics are happy to claim him. If you find an idea in Augustine, it may well be wrong, but it’s probably not heretical.

Augustine’s influence stretches throughout history; some even credit him with laying thr groundwork for the Reformation. Martin Luther was himself an Augustinian monk, and both he and Calvin quoted Augustine more than any other theologian. In turn, during the Counter-Reformation, St Teresa of Avila was inspired by her reading of Augustine’s Confessions to become a Carmelite nun, an order which she then undertook to reform. The theology he laid out still shapes our thinking today, and we can all stand to gain from reading his insights first-hand.

What to expect

We will be using a modern English, abridged version, and reading through the equivalent of 2 chapters each week. If you’re bold, feel free to get the full version, but try to stick with a modern English translation; many of the ones out there are essentially King James versions and can be very difficult to trudge through. The text is also available online in many places (even in the original Latin). If reading isn’t your thing, you can listen to it instead.

The first 9 chapters (they are usually referred to as “books”) of the Confessions are Augustine’s autobiography. The last 3 delve into philosophical issues, such as the nature of time, memory, and the creation of the world. Each chapter begins with a prayer to God, which may seem a little unusual to our modern sensibilities. In fact, the whole book is really a prayer to God (hence the title; Augustine is confessing to God and we’re just listening in).

Background

Augustine lived from 354-430AD. He was born less than 50 years after Emperor Constantine proclaimed religious tolerance, ending the extremely vicious persecution that had been prosecuted against Christians before then. (For comparison, if you were born in the 1980s, about the same length of time separates you and the Holocaust). He was born in Africa, in what is now Algeria, back when it was still part of the Roman empire, and was of Berber descent. His mother was a Christian; his father was a non-observant pagan (although he converted shortly before his death). The family was middle class, with enough money to give Augustine a good education (he later went on to become a teacher).

Though he was ostensibly raised as a Christian, it didn’t take, and as a youth he left it for Manichaeism. Manichaeism, then about 150 years old, was one of the more influential of the Gnostic religions that were cropping up at the time. In answer to the problem of evil, it posited a dualistic world, with both a Good God and an Evil God. The Good God was identified with light and the spiritual realm; the physical world was the domain of the Evil God. Humans had a soul made by the Good God, but it was trapped inside the evil body that belonged to the Bad God.

Manichean followers were divided into two groups: the hearers and the elect. The elect had to follow a life of extreme asceticism: they were completely celibate, could eat no meat, or even kill plants for food. They were entirely dependent on the hearers to cook and provide for them. When taking a meal, the elect would ritualistically deny all responsibility for having killed the wheat to make it. This would then allow them to ascend to the spiritual realm upon their death, while the hearer who had made the meal would have to do penance in the form of being reincarnated as a vegetable themselves in their next life.

The rules for hearers were much less stringent, and it was this group that Augustine belonged to. Not only were they allowed to marry; Augustine himself lived with a woman without marrying her for over a decade, and even had a son with her, without raising any eyebrows. He stayed with the sect for 8 years, but eventually became disillusioned with their hypocrisy and false claims of knowledge. He converted to Christianity and eventually became a bishop, and played a pivotal role in the Pelagian Controversy, dealing with Donatism, and picking up the pieces from the sack of Rome.

Assignment

For next week, read up to page 30, which corresponds to the first 2 chapters, and covers Augustine’s childhood. Keep an eye out for the following:

  • Though he doesn’t remember his own time as a baby, Augustine uses his observations of other children to determine what he must have been like. Note Augustine’s view of a baby’s “innocence.” He takes a dim view of human nature even from birth, which is a significant part of Christian theology.
  • Augustine recounts a very famous incident where he stole pears from a neighbor’s tree. This was significant to him because he stole them not because he was hungry or they were especially good pears; he stole them solely because it was wrong to steal them. This also informs his views on the fallenness of human nature.

Resources

You can't spell "Stupak" without almost spelling "Tupac." Coincidence?

The Day the Religious Left died

Note: I wrote this about a year ago and then never hit publish. It seems just as apropos today.

You may have heard that the Democrats have a religion problem. If that gives you a sense of deja vu, no wonder. There was a whole rash of articles with that same theme in the wake of the 2004 defeat. And the Democratic Party did in fact retool its message and engage in outreach to people of faith. 4 years later, they gained the White House, the House, and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

Now? Now their speech writers delete the phrase “the least of these” thinking it must be a typo. How did we get from there to here? I’m here to tell you.

Wounds from a friend can be trusted (that’s from Proverbs, for the speech-writers among you), but only if those wounds are from an actual friend. You can withstand a thousand attacks from the enemy, blocking their arrows and parrying their blows. A false friend, on the other hand, can sidle up right next to you, quietly slide a shiv into your lung, and that’s pretty much the end for you.

In the wake of the Obama landslide, there were a lot of questions about how this new political coalition would shake out. Winning so many swing states meant having a lot of moderate Democrats in the coalition, a group that became known as Blue Dog Democrats. A lot of those Blue Dogs were religious. Some even had heterodox views on matters like abortion. How would the party chart a course that kept these people together?

All of this came to a head in the fight to pass Obamacare. The Senate had passed a preliminary version of the bill; the House had passed another one. The Senate version broke with the normal rule of prohibiting federal funds from paying for abortions; the House version followed precedent. Every vote was needed to pass these things, and there were enough pro-life Democrats to prevent passage if they so chose.

So now the Religious Left had a choice. Which was more important to them: “Religious” or “Left”? They had to choose between the two. If they stuck with their faith, and the Party would attack them for disloyalty. But if they stuck with the Party, who had chosen to package abortion in with everything else and put them in this quandary, then in what sense was their faith even relevant?

This was a big deal at the time, as the political world wondered just what this group, led by Representative Bart Stupak. In their hands, they held the fate of Obama’s signature achievement. What would they do? What concessions would they extract in return for their votes? Would they just kill the whole thing?

Well, you already know what happened: they caved. The photograph you see here is of the signing ceremony for Executive Order 13535. This was billed as a compromise addressing pro-life concerns, but was roundly condemned by every pro-life group, both because it was unenforceable and because it didn’t address the actual worrisome provisions even if it had been enforceable. It was a lie and everybody knew it.

And I do mean everybody. This picture shows you the exact moment the Religious Left died. Before this point, the political world was abuzz with talk of the Religious Left. After this point, nobody thought the topic worth discussing. It was clear to everyone that the religious left was a paper tiger, a spent force. It would provide no unique political perspective; just an echo of the party line. No future attempts were made to court their votes, and soon the Democratic coalition forgot they existed (indeed, most of them were voted out of office shortly afterward). Stupak, after 18 years in Congress, didn’t even bother to run in the next cycle.

The bill they signed on for? That was used to sue Hobby Lobby because they didn’t want to buy abortion pills. It was used to sue actual nuns because they thought they didn’t need contraception. Not even the scary nuns you see in Catholic schools, but rather nuns who were dedicated to taking care of old ladies. Such was the contempt that the Religious Left’s allies held them, that by the time of Obama’s second inauguration, they declared that any Christian speaker would be unacceptable.

Even today, look at those few stalwart people in your Facebook feeds you might consider religious left. Did they speak up when the Supreme Court reminded us again that we are not allowed to vote on the sacred issue of abortion? Can you predict with ease what else they won’t speak up on? Do they offer you any perspective that you can’t get from the Areligious Left, or are they just an echo?

I told you that story so I can tell you this one:

We on the right face this same danger. Nothing will kill us so quickly as becoming a mere echo of the Republican party.

I’m not saying we have to denounce Trump at every opportunity as our leftward brothers demand. But don’t jump to baptize everything he does either. God has used nastier tools than Trump. Be wise as serpents.

Elites

Ripped from the comments:

My objection to neoliberalism is, primarily, that capitalist globalism has bred either its own demise or will turn into tyranny of some form or another. I know people who are basically aspiring to be part of the international ruling class: future politicians, future political hacks, business types, think tankers, etc. I went to college with them, and I’m friends with some of them. They are leading us all to ruin.

Their cluelessness, lack of self-awareness, and lack of empathy for people they consider below them is absolutely breathtaking. “Let them eat cake” level stuff. They can’t understand that their high IQs are not earned, and that intellect is not a moral quality (as an aside, I think this is part of the appeal of blank-slatism to intelligent people: if they ignore that IQ is probably about 50% inherited, and most environmental factors are out of their control, they can pretend that their university degrees and so on simply show their high quality as individuals, instead of showing that they rolled well for INT at character creation). They can’t understand why all those factory workers who want to keep their jobs, or want the jobs to come back to town, instead of learning to code and moving to the Bay, or getting a business degree and moving to London or NYC, or getting a law degree and… etc. Their mastery of skills that allow them to pick up and move pretty much anywhere and earn well doing it mean that they have little consideration, respect, or loyalty for their countrymen who cannot. The people from all over the world working in finance in London feel loyalty to each other – after all, they are the best, are they not? – far more than they do to the peons from wherever they come from.

Their response to stuff like Brexit and Trump’s election is eye-opening. Absolute contempt for the great unwashed. I’m exempting visible minorities, Muslims, LGBT people, etc from this – because they actually stand to suffer from right-wing populism, real suffering, not in the pocketbook – but the fact is that the most spite I have seen has tended to come from straight white cis people. Their hatred and contempt for Brexiters and Trump voters is palpable, especially when it’s hilariously hypocritical – I have heard condemnation of Trump voters as racists … at parties that are overhwhelmingly white; I have heard more than one white guy use “white guy” as a term of abuse … and they throw parties that are 100% white. They don’t even recognize their hate and contempt as hate and contempt, they just project it onto those they despise. They do not recognize their own racial biases (I remember a wealthy young man explaining to me, to paraphrase, “it’s not racist to be afraid of black people, because they’re poor, and poor people are more likely to be criminals”) but instead project them onto those they despise (he now posts Facebook statuses excoriating straight white cis men, a group from which he apparently exempts himself, despite being 4/4 for those qualities).

Either this will lead to the demise of neoliberal globalism – because even if the Brexiters and the Trump voters are dumb, they’re not so dumb as to not notice the contempt, and will vote to put a thumb in the eye of the elites who despise them. Or, it will lead to tyranny of one kind or another, as the elites decide that, really, those rednecks in coal country and those losers in North England shouldn’t be allowed to vote.

Bullets

Elevated from the comments elsewhere:

Eich was basically punished for being on the losing side of a partisan dispute, and having confidential records leaked.

We have an ordered system for resolving partisan disputes. Maybe it’s not a good system, but eich was playing by the rules of the game. A game which led to his loss. At this stage he accepted the ruling of the agreed on mediating process, and did not seek extrajudicial means to promote his cause or punish his opponents. He now lives in a land with that many more laws he disagreed with.

The people who went after him won, but they weren’t happy with that. They went after him for daring to oppose them. (This is literally terrorism).

That’s a hell of a bullet.

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It’s also a betrayal of the good faith people who were sceptical about gay marriage or worried about a slippery slope, but held their noses or extended some trust and voted in favour for the sake of equality under the law. 100% guaranteed, there are people who voted in favour, who would not have, if they thought they were handing out a license for people on the tide of history to purge their political opponents.

Good luck getting them to vote in your favour next time. (Maybe they’ll even vote against you to spite you, seemingly irrationally. Welcome to trump.)

It’s also a betrayal of those good faith liberals who assured people that there was no slippery slope on the books. The kind of eminently good and decent people who can change sceptical minds, and get things done politically. Well done making them into liars, and good luck mobilising them with the same enthusiasm next time. Welcome to trump.

In contrast, thiel took targeted revenge against a supposedly progressive organisation for outing him as a homosexual as, you guessed it, a punishment for sitting on the opposite side of a political divide.

That’s not part of the formal provisions for resolving differences, like donating is. There’s no symmetry there. Liberals were donating against eich. Thiel was not outing liberals.

Welcome to.. people thinking twice before they out someone.

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So Thiel took 1. carefully targeted revenge, against someone for 2. unilaterally attacking him, and 3. going out of bounds to do so. 4. in a normal, precedented manner. 5. not in contravention of any interpartisan Geneva convention. 6. in a direction for the better rather than the worse: We don’t want people attacking their political opponents just because they are their political opponents. We do want people to think twice before exposing people’s personal lives to hurt them.

The people who ousted eich took 1. indiscriminate revenge (this is huge, the main ) against someone for 2. participating in the normal political process, symmetrically, just like their allies. 3. They had not been attacked or harmed by eich, -in fact they had won. With 4. an innovative new way to strike at enemies outside accepted bounds 5. in contravention of the necessary civility and acceptance of the other side’s right to peacefully campaign that is the cornerstone of a peaceful democratic process, and if it comes to it, basic order and stability.

Batman in all things

No enemies to the right

If you keep an eye on the deeper, darker reaches of the political blogosphere, you will have noticed a certain phrase making the rounds: No enemies to the right. Indeed, I would put the single unifying belief of the many groups called “alt-right” as the following: self-policing and following the old political norms will only lead to defeat; the left will never follow the same rules, so it’s time to treat them the same way they treat us.

Looking over recent election results, it’s hard to argue. Trump did a thousand things that all the conventional wisdom thought disqualifying. He still won. And those deep, dark reaches I just mentioned are the only ones who saw it coming.

But consider the other side of all this: the complete collapse of the Democratic party. If Hillary had not thought herself so above the law that she completely ignored basic security rules, if her inner circle had not also included a man who feels compelled to send weiner pictures to anything over the age of 15, if Hillary’s staff had at least been self-disciplined enough to keep aforementioned classified information off of aforementioned Weiner’s computer such that both investigations didn’t intersect and bring themselves back up right before the election, if the Democratic party itself had been willing to let their voters pick the nominee instead of conspiring to sink Sanders, if the press had not conspired with them, if, failing all that, Podesta had the wherewithal not to fall for the same phishing emails all of us get regularly and subsequently expose the entire charade, if Hillary did not have a history of covering for her husband’s harassment of women (a history that includes credible accusations of rape!) which hamstrung her when attacking Trump’s boorishness, if the policies pushed by Democrats when they held all branches had actually worked as promised, if any Democratic politician with a snowball’s chance (sorry, that was never Bernie) had the courage (or even just ambition!) to throw their hat into the ring instead of meekly standing aside for Hillary, if any of those pieces had not fallen into place, we might well be talking about how it is impossible for Republicans to ever again win at the national level.

Those are the fruits of “no enemies to the left”: a party so riddled with corruption and incompetence that, when presented with a task of “don’t do the wrong thing at every single turn,” they failed.

They’re still digging, too. After losing in just about every race, the remaining Democratic Representative chose to reelect exactly the same leadership which had overseen their reduction from a historic majority to a historic minority. The average age of the House Democratic leadership is 76 (for comparison House Republican leadership ranges from 41-51). Reform will come not from within, but simply once the current leadership dies of old age. Virtue, once lost, is difficult to regain.

If we follow the same path of having no standards we will hold ourselves to, we will end up in the same place. Tread carefully.

How could this happen?

Been kicking around several possible narratives for the Trump win. Not sure which is most likely, and it’s not like I correctly predicted it, so I’m interested in feedback, and maybe fleshing them out later.

1. You meddle and you haven’t the right.

Democrats have been pushing a lot of unpopular policies. Pushing a massive, and massively unpopular, thing like Obamacare through on a strict party-line vote (and using shady procedures at that) broke the system, and mobilized the opposition like nothing else could have. Without that, you don’t get the Tea Party, and you don’t get the subsequent Republican sweeps. When Obamacare didn’t work, the stimulus didn’t work, and the promised hope and change and transparency didn’t materialize, Democrats turned to SJ to prove to themselves that they were the good guys. This meant pushing gay marriage on everybody, picking fights with people over their bathrooms, generally lecturing everyone to their right, and showing absolute disdain for the working class. This was unpopular. Voters vote against unpopular things.

2. SJW’s did it.

They changed the rule of politics so that it was not safe to be on the losing side. Heck, Proposition 8 and Eich showed that it wasn’t even safe to be on the winning side, because the left would simply declare the vote null and void and then fire you. Evangelicals felt very uneasy about Trump for a number of reasons, and could have been split from him or convinced to stay home if it hadn’t been made very clear to them that if they didn’t hang together they would surely hang apart.

3. Put your points into Charisma instead of Corruption next time.

Hillary was basically the worst possible candidate that could have been chosen, corrupt in just about every way you could come up with. For every Trump scandal, she had something equivalent or worse; she couldn’t even hit him on treatment of women without looking like a hypocrite. She is unlikable. She has never managed to win a contested race. Anybody else would have won this.

4. Trump was actually a really good candidate

Celebrities are masters of all the skills involved in winning an election. We’re just lucky that it’s much better to be a celebrity than a politician, so most of them don’t make the jump. This idea was mooted at Marginal Revolution about a year ago. See all Scott Adams’ (yes, the Dilbert guy) Master Persuader theory.

5. Nobody cares about all that. It’s the economy, stupid.

That economy has been crappy, and Hillary was promising more of the same. Plus (and I suspect this is extra important) Obamacare hit a whole lot of people with huge rate increases (up to 80%!) a week or two before the election. Everybody had to know exactly who was responsible for that, and it had to be fresh in their minds when they entered the voting booth.

See also this speech by Michael Moore of all people. This election cycle is so weird I am linking positively to Michael Moore.

No, I'm not actually linking this to the prophecy

For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone

When Bush won in 2000, Rove was hailed as a political genius. He had figured out how to build an “Emerging Republican Majority.” The country had realigned against the Democrats. This view was bolstered when Republicans gained seats in the midterms (normally sitting presidents lose some), and then Bush won reelection in the face of much leftists fury. Not only that, but Republicans gained seats in Congress, and control of the Senate. Rove was right. Demographics had doomed Democrats.

But the Iraq War wore on, and the economy went down. Two years later, mid-terms delivered a “thumping” to Congressional Republicans. Democrats gained control of both houses of congress, as well as 6 governorships. Maybe Rove wasn’t right after all.

And then Obama happened, coming from nowhere to win the Presidency, more Representatives, another governorship, and filibuster-proof control of the Senate. Democrats had total power. Rove was wrong. Now people were talking about the Emerging Democratic Majority. Demographics were going to doom the Republican party, which would spend at least a generation in the wilderness.

And then 2 years later Republicans took back the House (63 seats!), 6 governorships (in a redistricting year, letting them set up some nice gerrymandering ), and cut the Democratic margin in the Senate down to nearly nothing.

But then Obama won reelection, so that must have just a been a blip. A week ago, pundits were very seriously discussing how the Republicans had probably painted themselves into a corner on the national scale, and were doomed to become a regional rump party.

What a difference a week makes. Republicans now control all houses of Congress. They hold the presidency, and he will appoint at least 1 judge to the Supreme Court with a friendly Congress to confirm his pick. They hold 34 governorships (which is in many ways more important the Congressional numbers). Republican-controlled state legislatures outnumber Democratic ones by more than 2:1. Days after the conventional wisdom was that the Republican Party was dying, it is now the strongest it has been in 2 generations.

I haven’t seen any talk about Permanent Majorities yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s coming. Don’t believe it. All of this can be wiped away by the next decade. This is both a note of warning to my right-wing friends and comfort to my left-wing friends. If Republicans pursue a lot of unpopular policies (or go all in on corruption) like the left did, they will be tossed out.

Of course, dear leftist friends, if you double down on lecturing people about how terrible they are and how superior you are (like I warned you against a year ago), prepare for that Senate margin to become filibuster-proof. In two years, Republican are defending 8 Senate seats. Democrats are defending 25. Nine of those are in states Trump won.

You have that long to get your house in order and figure out all the issues you ignored while crowing about how the Republicans were in disarray. The rot set in long before the structure collapsed.

He who has eyes, let him see.

Do not disturb my circles!

A Lever Long Enough

You may recall that a little while back, there was some hoopla over refugees. That story was about how much you suck. This story is about network effects and social capital.

It all started simply enough, with an article in the local newspaper saying the Syrians were coming here. There was a lot of interest in our church community in seeing how we could help out, and my wife and I had worked with that refugee agency in the past. It was a pretty clear case of God plunking something in my lap and saying, “do this thing.” So I did.

Anyway, I got back in touch with my contacts at the old agency to tell them help was on the way. And then I posted something on the church’s Facebook page asking for volunteers. And then the flood began. From this point forward, my role was one of trying to direct a current far more powerful than me down the right pathways.

We ended up assigned not to Syrians, but a Somali family of ten. Ten people with nothing but the clothes on their backs need a lot of stuff. Left to my own devices, I could have procured a few pieces of furniture and some food with a significant investment of time and money. But because I was connected to a church, I was able to put the word out to a few hundred people (already preselected to be inclined towards philanthropy), and sit back as the donations poured in. Spread out over so many people, no great sacrifice was required of anybody. One person had some chairs they didn’t need, another an old couch, another a lampstand, and every item was checked off the list in no time (which was good, because we had no time). Because the church had a building, I didn’t need to worry about finding a place to warehouse all of these items; people were able to drop them off at a central location at a time convenient to them.

As this was going on, our group of volunteers grew. The (real-life) social networks of everybody in the church became a recruitment tool. What before would have just been idle talk about how “somebody else should do something” was easily translated into action instead. Anybody in the church or who knew anybody in the church was now only a degree removed from the action. Signing up didn’t require any more than a quick chat with me on Sunday.

So we had a large group. Now what? Here the existence of the building again proved critical. The church had plenty of available classrooms where we could gather, meet with the agency coordinator, and plan our next steps.

When it came time to furnish the house, I found myself with the entire youth group at my disposal. Some 40-50 people and half a dozen vehicles descended on the house, cleaning and filling it in a few hours. It would have taken me days to do half as thorough a job on my own.

Our church network began linking into other networks. A local woman who, as near as I can determine, is the effective matriarch of our local Somali community, heard about our church’s involvement, and so drove up to talk to us and see where we might be interested in helping out. A few meetings took place, introductions were made, and soon our networks were enmeshed.

My involvement faded out at this point, but the work carried on without me. Churches regularly get random items donated; many of them are now getting funneled onward. One older couple who moved out of their house even donated its contents to the local refugees, who cleaned it out in short order. When the (largely Muslim) Somalians wanted French Bibles, they knew to turn to us, and we in turn used a connection to the Gideons to help with that. (He was able to provide 3 on short notice. They proceeded to fight over who would get them, so we promised to acquire more.) Last I heard, the aforementioned Matriarch was speaking to our women’s group, which I’m sure will result in even more connections.

I played no part and exerted no energy in any of that. But none of it would have happened if not for me. Because I acted as a group instead of alone, my small effort has been magnified many times beyond my own capabilities.

Reverse Verse

Bible study idea: take a single chapter, and for the next month or two, study it from the perspective of one of the great Christians of the past.

But what chapter would work well for this? I took up a little side project to find out.

To do this, I took a whole bunch (81) of writings off of CCEL, and wrote some code to parse through them for scripture references. Happily, the CCEL staff has a very standardized format, which made this fairly simple.

I’m now working on a good web interface to display and search the resulting information, which I’ll eventually put online. In the meantime, I thought you might be interested in some preliminary results.

Popular books

The most popular chapter, by far, is John 1, with 1,727 references. Next in line are Matt 5 (1,409), Romans 8 (1,369), and 1 Cor 15 (1,223).

Matthew is the most popular Gospel (14,229 references), Mark is the least (2,047) (but then, it’s also the shortest).

The most referenced book is Psalms (14,415). The least referenced is Song of Solomon, with a whopping zero references, the only book outside of the dueterocanon which can claim that.

The most popular Psalms, in descending order are 119 (467), 19 (392), 45 (364), and 2 (323).

Patristic preferences

Athanasius’ favorite book is John (John 1 being his favorite chapter). Psalms is second, but he does reference nearly every book. The same is true of Ambrose and Gregory of Nyssa. Basil references Psalms slightly more than John, and his favorite chapter is Genesis 1. Eusebius likes Acts twice as much as any other book.

James Arminius mines Romans extensively (586 references; next up is John with 305).

Jonathan Edwards mostly preached from the Gospels.

Blaise Pascal liked Isaiah most of all.

Bibliography

For the curious, here are the works I searched:
NPNF1-01. The Confessions and Letters of St. Augustine, with a
NPNF1-02. St. Augustine’s City of God and Christian Doctrine
NPNF1-03. On the Holy Trinity; Doctrinal Treatises; Moral
NPNF1-04. Augustine: The Writings Against the Manichaeans and
NPNF1-05. St. Augustine: Anti-Pelagian Writings
NPNF1-06. St. Augustine: Sermon on the Mount; Harmony of the
NPNF1-07. St. Augustine: Homilies on the Gospel of John; Augustine, St.
NPNF1-08. St. Augustine: Exposition on the Book of Psalms Augustine, St.
NPNF1-09. St. Chrysostom: On the Priesthood; Ascetic Treatises;
NPNF1-10. St. Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Chrysostom, Saint
NPNF1-11. Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles
NPNF1-12. Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to
NPNF1-13. Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on Galatians, Ephesians, Chrysostom, St.
NPNF1-14. Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of St. John Chrysostom, St.
NPNF2-01. Eusebius Pamphilius: Church History, Life of Eusebius Pamphilius
NPNF2-02. Socrates and Sozomenus Ecclesiastical Histories Socrates Scholasticus
NPNF2-03. Theodoret, Jerome, Gennadius, & Rufinus: Historical
NPNF2-04. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters Athanasius
NPNF2-05. Gregory of Nyssa: Dogmatic Treatises, Etc. Gregory of Nyssa
NPNF2-06. Jerome: The Principal Works of St. Jerome Jerome, St.
NPNF2-07. Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory Nazianzen
NPNF2-08. Basil: Letters and Select Works
NPNF2-09. Hilary of Poitiers, John of Damascus
NPNF2-10. Ambrose: Selected Works and Letters
NPNF-211. Sulpitius Severus, Vincent of Lerins, John Cassian
NPNF-212. Leo the Great, Gregory the Great
NPNF-213. Gregory the Great (II), Ephraim Syrus, Aphrahat
NPNF2-14. The Seven Ecumenical Councils
Moody’s Anecdotes and Illustrations: Related in his Revival Work Moody, Dwight Lyman (1837-1899)
ANF01. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus Justin Martyr, St. (c.100-165)
ANF02. Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian,
ANF03. Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian Tertullian (c. 160-c. 230)
ANF04. Fathers of the Third Century: Tertullian, Part Fourth;
ANF05. Fathers of the Third Century: Hippolytus, Cyprian, Caius,
ANF06. Fathers of the Third Century: Gregory Thaumaturgus,
ANF07. Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries: Lactantius,
ANF08. The Twelve Patriarchs, Excerpts and Epistles, The
ANF09. The Gospel of Peter, The Diatessaron of Tatian, The
The Works of James Arminius, Vol. 1 Arminius, James (1560-1609)
The Works of James Arminius, Vol. 2 Arminius, James (1560-1609)
The Works of James Arminius, Vol. 3 Arminius, James (1560-1609)
Ascent of Mount Carmel John of the Cross, St. (1542-1591)
Proslogium; Monologium; An Appendix in Behalf of the Fool by Anselm, Saint, Archbishop of Canterbury (1033-1109)
De Servo Arbitrio “On the Enslaved Will” or The Bondage of Will Luther, Martin (1483-1546)
Calvin: Commentaries Calvin, Jean
Harmony of the Law – Volume 1 Calvin, John (1509 – 1564)
Harmony of the Law – Volume 2 Calvin, John (1509-1564)
Harmony of the Law – Volume 3 Calvin, John (1509-1564)
Harmony of the Law – Volume 4 Calvin, John (1509-1564)
On the Christian Life Calvin, John
Dark Night of the Soul John of the Cross, St. (1542-1591)
The Devotions of Saint Anselm Archbishop of Canterbury Anselm, Saint, Archbishop of Canterbury (1033-1109)
Select Sermons Edwards, Jonathan (1703-1758)
The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola Ignatius of Loyola, St (1491-1556)
First Principles of the Reformation or the Ninety-five Theses Luther, Martin (1483-1546)
The Imitation of Christ Thomas, à Kempis, 1380-1471
Revelations of Divine Love Julian, of Norwich, b. 1343
Selections from the Writings of Kierkegaard Kierkegaard, Soren (1813-1855)
The Large Catechism Luther, Martin (1483-1546)
Some Letters of Saint Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux Bernard, of Clairvaux, Saint (1090 or 91-1153)
On Loving God Bernard, of Clairvaux, Saint (1090 or 91-1153)
St. Anselm’s Book of Meditations and Prayers. Anselm, Saint, Archbishop of Canterbury (1033-1109)
The Complete Works of Menno Simon Volume 1 Simons, Menno (1496-1561)
The Complete Works of Menno Simon Volume 2 Simons, Menno (1496-1561)
Mysticism: A Study in Nature and Development of Spiritual Underhill, Evelyn
Pensées Pascal, Blaise (1623-1662)
The Pilgrim’s Progress Bunyan, John (1628-1688)
Preface to the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans Luther, Martin (1483-1546)
A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life Law, William (1686-1761)
Assorted Sermons By Martin Luther Luther, Martin (1483-1546)
Spurgeon’s Sermons Volume 01: 1855 Spurgeon, Charles Haddon (1834-1892)
Spurgeon’s Sermons Volume 02: 1856 Spurgeon, Charles Haddon (1834-1892)
Spurgeon’s Sermons Volume 03: 1857 Spurgeon, Charles Haddon (1834-1892)
Spurgeon’s Sermons Volume 04: 1858 Spurgeon, Charles Haddon (1834-1892)
Spurgeon’s Sermons Volume 05: 1859 Spurgeon, Charles Haddon (1834-1892)
Spurgeon’s Sermons Volume 06: 1860 Spurgeon, Charles Haddon (1834-1892)
Spurgeon’s Sermons Volume 07: 1861 Spurgeon, Charles Haddon (1834-1892)
Spurgeon’s Sermons Volume 08: 1863 Spurgeon, Charles Haddon (1834-1892)
Table Talk Luther, Martin (1483-1546)
The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume One Edwards, Jonathan (1703-1758)
The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume Two Edwards, Jonathan (1703-1758)

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