Why Bork’s appointment should concern conservatives

Last year, Mitt Romney made Robert Bork the co-chair of his justice advisory committee. The appointment offers a window into Romney’s judicial philosophy and suggests that Romney would nominate people with Bork’s constitutional notions to the federal bench, including the Supreme Court.

Most commentary about Bork is the usual red-blue stuff. Conservatives generally like him for the same reasons liberals dislike him: he has conservative views on social issues, and he believes in expanding states’ rights. But can we get past his political beliefs, as important as they are, and look at his constitutional ones, too?

Bork’s constitutional beliefs are no secret. He sets them out in The Tempting of America, a bestselling book he published shortly after his failed Supreme Court nomination during the Reagan Administration.

Read the book: Bork doesn’t believe in inalienable rights. He doesn’t believe in self-evident truths. That should concern all Americans — conservatives, liberals, and moderates alike.

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George Szirtes

Our servants were invisible. They ran about with heavy trunks containing their own lives. When we tipped them they glowed like embers.


Sometimes we wanted rain. We knew the right people. They’d come running with their dry excuses. It was the excuses that we really wanted.

From George Szirtes.

John field notes 13c: Shakespeare’s sop to global warming

The sop as prophecy. Matthew, Mark, and Luke use the sop at the Last Supper to show how a disciple’s betrayal fulfills Scriptural prophecy. And John has Jesus use the same sop as a means of prophesying that Judas will be that betrayer.

Shakespeare foresaw the melting of the polar ice caps:

. . . the bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores
And make a sop of all this solid globe

(From Act 1, Scene 3 of Troilus and Cressida.)

Interesting, though, that like the gospel writers, Shakespeare prophesies with a sop.

John field notes 13b: Seder place tags

Every Seder table I’ve sat down to since childhood has had place tags. Matthew’s, Mark’s, and Luke’s don’t, though. In the Synoptic Gospels’ Last Suppers, everyone hears everything said by anyone. But John restores my place tags.

John brings his layers of proximity to the Last Supper, which for John also means layers of intimacy and understanding. Just as John assigns the master of the feast, the servants, the reader, and Mary to different circles when Jesus turns the water into wine, he assigns the disciples to different positions at the Seder table, and therefore to different levels of relationship and intimacy.

John places his own personae (always “the disciple whom Jesus loved”) next to Jesus. John even uses the Seder tradition of reclining at table — the perogative of a free man, thanks to the exodus from Egypt — to suggest John’s inner-circle status. The Revised English Bible has John “reclining close beside Jesus,” but the King James declares that John was “leaning on Jesus’ bosom.” Peter, who is not next to Jesus or John, has to signal John to have him ask Jesus a question. Judas is within arm’s length of Jesus, presumably: Jesus gives him a sop after he dips it in the wine.

John’s Seder is more like a real Seder or like any meal with a dozen or more people present. Not everyone hears everything. The volume goes up and down. Conversations happen simultaneously at times. John’s Last Supper is therefore more like modern theater than the Synoptic Gospels’ Last Supper, but it’s still John’s theater. The stage directions, the intimacy, even the dramatic conversations itself point to layers of relationship and understanding.

John’s drama centers on the sop. The Synoptic Gospels use the sop as a generalization, a means of turning a specific question into an indication that Scripture is being fulfilled. Here’s Mark’s version:

They began to be grieved and to say to Him one by one, “Surely not I?”  And He said to them, “It is one of the twelve, one who dips with Me in the bowl. (Mark 14:19-20)

The New American Standard notes suggest that “one” may also be read “the one.” This ambiguity is as close as the three gospels come to using the sop as the means of identifying Jesus’ betrayer. Jesus doesn’t answer the disciples’ question directly in the Synoptic Gospels; that is, he doesn’t make the sop a means of identifying Judas. He simply paraphrases Psalms, making the verse prophetic of their last meal together. Here’s the verse Jesus alludes to:

Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted up his heel against me. (Psalm 41:9, NNAS)

But John transforms the sop into the means of identifying the betrayer. How? Here’s the King James Version of the text:

When Jesus had thus said, he was troubled in spirit, and testified, and said, Verily, verily, I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me. Then the disciples looked one on another, doubting of whom he spake.  Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved.  Simon Peter therefore beckoned to him, that he should ask who it should be of whom he spake.  He then lying on Jesus’ breast saith unto him, Lord, who is it?  Jesus answered, He it is, to whom I shall give a sop, when I have dipped it. And when he had dipped the sop, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon.  And after the sop Satan entered into him. Then said Jesus unto him, That thou doest, do quickly. Now no man at the table knew for what intent he spake this unto him.  For some of them thought, because Judas had the bag, that Jesus had said unto him, Buy those things that we have need of against the feast; or, that he should give something to the poor.  He then having received the sop went immediately out: and it was night. (John 13:21-30, KJV)

First, Jesus here doesn’t use the sop as an allusion to Scripture. It simply is a means of designating to one of his closest disciples who is betrayer is: “He it is, to whom I shall give a sop, when I have dipped it.”

Second, Jesus’ remark about the sop isn’t spoken to everyone at table but only to John. Peter’s need to signal John suggests that not everyone can hear everything. Peter’s signaling also suggests that, if Peter has his way, only he and John will know who the betrayer is. We know that no one but John hears the sop remark since “no man at the table knew” why Jesus says, “That thou doest, do quickly.” The sop remark would have made the meaning of Jesus’ remark to Judas evident. It’s not clear if Peter learns the significance of Jesus’ remark to Judas, but I like to think John makes it clear to him after supper.

Peter and John have a special role with respect to the Seder in Mark’s and Luke’s gospels, too. Mark says that Jesus sent “two of his disciples” to secure a room for the Seder (Mark 14:13). Luke makes clear that the two disciples sent are Peter and John (Luke 22:8). Mark and Luke therefore designate Peter and John as intimates by what they do. Consistent with the rest of his gospel, however, John designates Peter and John as intimates by what they know.

[I’m reading John’s gospel. My reactions here vacillate between notes — a list of impressions — and something less sketchy. A note on nomenclature: the note number in my post’s title indicates the chapter of John’s material I’m reacting to. A title’s letter, though, differentiates the post from earlier posts about that chapter. “John field note 2c,” then, is my third post concerning John’s second chapter. N.B.: 12a may precede 3d: I skip around.]

Smoke alarm clock radio

We searched for the perfect smoke alarm, one that played a song to remind us of our love. We liked two. But we swam to separate ends of the aviary to hear as many models as possible: who knew how long our dream would last? Alone, I found one dusty and yellowed. It sang a simple song, but as I pressed a candle to it again and again, it grew on me. I awoke just now with the song’s last bars as strong in me as if they were playing on my clock radio, their line a sweet refrain clipped and left to repeat itself at the end. I told Victoria with tears (she had not returned but is with me now) that the song was penned by one of my weaker ninth grade boys, one who always leaves and returns from lunch alone.


From The English Patient (again):

There was a time when mapmakers named the places they travelled through with the names of lovers rather than their own. Someone seen bathing in a desert caravan, holding up muslin with one arm in front of her. Some old Arab poet’s woman, whose white-dove shoulders made him describe an oasis with her name. The skin bucket spreads water over her, she wraps herself in the cloth, and the old scribe turns from her to describe Zerzura.

No commentary to make me feel better about quoting it. I’m not up to it.

I just finished Crime and Punishment (second read). I’m really enjoying All The King’s Men (first read) and, yeah, John’s gospel. And, very slowly — sometimes backwards — The English Patient.

Easter tweets retrospective

Sam Heard, the author of one of my favorite Twitter feeds, very kindly put my Easter tweets into one blog post. You can read it here on his blog, praxymetry.

I published the original tweets over an eighty-hour stretch — one tweet an hour on the hour. Read in paragraphs now, the tweets show little deference to one another, each tweet too forceful to simply refine a previous sentence’s thought or to simply set up the next sentence’s idea. Some repeat a word or phrase as a means of refocusing the reader even though the word or phrase is now the subject of the previous sentence.

In other words, the tweets are not used to not competing in a marketplace of hundreds of such tweets, and they’re not ready to let their guard down.

But that’s the fun of reading the tweets in paragraph form, I think. How does reading tweets differ from reading paragraphs, all things (such as content) being equal?

I have been trying, though not online, to work my emerging political philosophy into some accessible whole, and this past weekend I tried Twitter. I’m not satisfied with how it turned out, but I enjoyed the process.

box elder

Just as Tom was about to go out and check the post today, we have external mailboxes here, of course, though ours is only a step from the house, and our regular posties tend to wait for us to come out and hand the mail over, there was an enormous thump on the window which made us nearly jump out of our skins.  It was not one but two squabbling cock chaffinches, so absorbed in their quarrel they forgot to look where they were going.  One of them landed, punch drunk, on the fence post outside the window.  At first, he was very wonky, his sides heaving, so knowing that having time to recover from shocks like this can make the difference between life and death for small birds, we waited for him to fly off at his leisure, before going out for the post.

From box elder


A woman once stopped me in the street and, holding her eyelids apart, asked me to remove the log in her eye. Wary of religious folklore –and of the sharp, crystal edges of the talc that clung to her clothes- I shook my head.

“No, no,” the woman said. “Look harder.”

I saw a piece of eyelash nestled on the orange inside of her eyelid.

From Soulfool.


Billy, my stepfather-in-law, died last month after a nine-month battle with cancer. During our subsequent four-day visit to Nashville and Columbia, Tennessee, Betty asked me to preach at the funeral, something I haven’t done before. Here’s what I said.

Who can sum up a man’s life?  The finest eulogies diminish the dead. I can’t say what Billy meant to you, either.  I can talk a little bit about what he meant to me, and maybe it’ll add to your own reflections about Billy.

And even though we can’t sum up one another, we can all draw lessons from one another. We’re that close to one another.

At a funeral it’s customary to hear what someone accomplished.  And Billy accomplished things.  He and his first wife raised Joe and Tina. Those are amazing accomplishments! And marrying Betty would have made anyone proud. Billy had great taste in women – he married the mother, I married the daughter – and he was an accomplished mechanic, too.

But his accomplishments, many as they were, weren’t the main message of Billy’s life, to me. They’re not what I learned from him.

When I thought about what to say today, I thought I ought to run it in my mind by Billy. That didn’t take long.  I could hear Billy say, “I don’t care; whatever you think is all right with me!”

Billy was low maintenance. He didn’t ask things from life that life wasn’t about to give him. In an age when we’re all trying to reduce our footprint – our carbon footprint, our demands on our planet’s resources – Billy was ahead of us. Billy has always had a small footprint in this life. He worked, he came home. When he was retired, he walked in the house, and he walked outside. He had his truck, his transistor radio, and his poker machine.

But most of all, he had Betty. Betty dressed him, and he looked sharp. Betty fed him, and he was happy.

Billy was loved.

One of my favorite Bible characters is Benjamin, the youngest son of Israel. What did Benjamin accomplish?  I’ve searched the scriptures: as important as he was, Benjamin accomplished nothing, or at least nothing important enough for the Bible to mention.  But he was always on the minds of his father Jacob and his brother Joseph.  Before Jacob learned that his son Joseph ruled Egypt, Jacob and Joseph got into a tug of war, and Benjamin was the rope. Joseph gave Benjamin more than he gave his other brothers, and Jacob, keeping him in Canaan despite the famine, protected him more than his own life.

Benjamin was loved.  That’s all.  And how much history he made by just being loved!

We had a seven-hour visitation yesterday, and we about needed it all, too.  Billy was loved. His wonderful brothers and sisters – J.C., Charlie, Ruby, Ada, Bob, and Barbara — loved him, and he loved them.

And there’s a part of me, the older brother – part of all of us, I guess – that needs to be like Benjamin, too. That’s what I learned most from Billy.

Just before Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin, she named him Benoni, “Son of my sorrow.”  But his father renamed him Benjamin, “Son of my right hand.” Benjamin was born with a second chance! And Billy knew how to appreciate a second chance, too.

Billy appreciated everything.

I met Billy about the time he bought his truck. The truck is now nineteen years old, and I hear you have to know a few secrets to start it. But the truck didn’t have to move for Billy to enjoy it. The sun still came in warm through the windows.  You could still see through the windshield.

The Bible says we see through a glass, darkly. What Billy taught me was, that’s okay. Or, as Billy would say, “I’m fine with that.” You don’t have to have it all figured out to enjoy it.  You don’t have to earn love.  You just have to take care of your own business, work the program, and let God come to you.  Sometimes, it’s not about coming to God.  Sometimes, it’s about God coming to you.

One day, Billy found himself living next door to Betty.  The girl next door when you’re forty-four – they ought to write a country-western song about that.

And Betty, I’m sure God is singing over you this morning.

We see through a glass darkly.  But Billy now sees him face to face.  And if Billy were to speak himself this morning, I bet he’d say, “That’s okay, too.” And he’d smile that winning smile, and chuckle a little.

Be comforted when comfort’s offered. God bless you all in your grief.