Psalm 91: Encouraging, Yet Confusing

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High

will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.

I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress,

my God, in whom I trust.”

Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare

and from the deadly pestilence.

He will cover you with His feathers,

and under His wings you will find refuge;

His faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.

You will not fear the terror of the night,

nor the arrow that flies by day,

nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,

nor the plague that destroys at midday.

A thousand may fall at your side,

ten thousand at your right hand,

but it will not come near you.

You will only observe with your eyes

and see the punishment of the wicked.

If you make the Most High your dwelling

— even the LORD, who is my refuge —

then no harm will befall you,

no disaster will come near your tent.

For He will command His angels concerning you

to guard you in all your ways;

they will lift you up in their hands,

so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.

You will tread upon the lion and the cobra;

you will trample the great lion and the serpent.

“Because he loves me,” says the LORD,

“I will rescue him;

I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name.

He will call upon me and I will answer him;

I will be with him in trouble,

I will deliver him and honor him.

With long life will I satisfy him

and show him my salvation.”

Ps. 91:1 – 16

So many things to notice about this psalm. For one thing, it’s one of the better-known psalms. The hymn “Under His Wings” is taken from it. And it’s worth noting that this poem portrays God as … a chicken. This is not the only place in the Bible where God is portrayed as a mother hen protecting her chicks under her wings. (Or, given the mention of the “fowler’s snare,” maybe in this poem a wild game bird is in view.) This is one example of how, though He is called He, the Old Testament God is also shown to be maternal.

Another thing that stands out to me is how the ancient Israelites felt just as helpless as we do in the face of violence, “disaster,” and the “deadly pestilence.”

One of my most vivid memories about this psalm came during an orientation activity when I had just arrived in Asia. A seasoned missionary read the entire thing to us, and then went on to tell a bunch of stories about times when he and people he knew had not been protected from various kinds of disaster.

Jesus knew this as well. Satan actually quotes this psalm to Him, “He will command His angels concerning you …” in Luke 4, to get Him to jump from the pinnacle of the Temple. Jesus does not jump.

This is a poem. It is strangely heartening to read.

Yet it doesn’t always happen this way.

Yet it is the word of God.

I don’t understand it either.

Introverts in Church

Pastor to congregation: Now let’s confess our sins before the Lord.

Introvert: [starts to pray silently]

Pastor: Quietly, in our hearts.

Introvert: [starts to pray silently]

Pastor: Perhaps it’s something you have [makes a suggestion]. Or perhaps [makes another suggestion].

Introvert: [starts to pray silently]

Pastor: Or perhaps it’s simply [makes a third, rather lengthy, suggestion].

Introvert: [starts to pray silently]

Pastor: Amen.

Introvert: [confesses sin of wanting to throttle pastor]

And Now, a Warning from Eighty Years Ago

We should not think that because we are less brutal, less violent, less inhuman than those we are confronting, we will prevail. Brutality, violence, and inhumanity have immense prestige. The contrary virtues, so as to have an equivalent prestige, must be exercised in a constant and effective manner. Whoever is only incapable of being as brutal, violent, and inhuman as the adversary, yet without exercising the opposite virtues, is inferior to this adversary in both inner strength and prestige; and he will not hold his own against him.

Simone Weil, on the eve of WWII

Video: the Author of Ender’s Game Dispenses Writer’s Wisdom

Ben Shapiro interviews an eclectic grab bag of people each week on his Sunday Special. (Their main common factor is that they were willing to come on and be interviewed by him.) The interview embedded below is my favorite of all the ones he’s done so far. It’s super long, but if you are interested in the fiction industry or the writing process or the sci-fi and fantasy genres or identity politics or religion, then it will be worth your while.

Orson Scott Card is the author of the super popular sci-fi novel Ender’s Game. I tried to read this novel when I was way too young and I did not get all the way through it. It was hard for me to keep in mind that Ender and his co-trainees were kids when in some ways they acted like geniuses.

Card is also a Mormon, or LDS (Latter-Day Saint) as many of them prefer to be called. This gives him a unique perspective on religion, specifically on what it’s like to be misunderstood as a religious person.

Highlights:

AT 4:18, Card clears up what exactly counts as sci-fi versus fantasy: “The usual is that science fiction is stuff that has not happened but is possible, and fantasy is stuff that doesn’t happen and isn’t actually possible but we can imagine it. And that almost works except for the fact that it’s considered science fiction if you do things like faster-than-light travel or time travel. And those can’t happen. Time travel especially, because the string of causality is unbreakable. … So it’s arguable. But I learned the practical definition right away. The covers of fantasy books have trees. The covers of science fiction books have sheet metal with rivets. So it’s rivets versus trees. If your story is illustratable with rivets then it’s sci-fi, and if it needs trees to be effective, then it’s fantasy.” (N.b.: This is why my books are fantasy even though they feature no wizards.)

11:35 On the fact that fantasy magic systems have rules too: “You can’t just throw magic on the page and make it fantasy. You have to make it fantasy that would pass muster with a science fiction writer, because that’s who’s writing fantasy now.”

At 15:00, he addresses Pantsing versus Plotting: “I try to think ahead. Mostly milieu development. Then I’ll think of obligatory scenes, things that have to happen. And I’ll have to then set up those scenes so that they mean something. So there’s some planning that goes into it. I know writers who think like screenwriters, and their thought is all on the [outline]. I can’t do that, because anything I wrote for anything after chapter two is going to be discarded as soon as I find out what’s going on in chapter one. The process is pretty flexible, because by the time I’m nearing the end of any novel, the outline is now a relic … And I’ve seen, for example, an early novel by Dean Koontz, where it was obvious to me that after developing an amazing cast of characters that readers cared about, he caught up with the point in the outline where they all go into an alien spaceship together, and at that point he was just following the outline and it didn’t matter who any of the characters were.” (N.b.: Card’s method is plantsing, and it is the method I use as well. )

At 37:00, he starts talking about religions in fiction: “If you are going to create a character that has an existing religion, you have a responsibility to make it plausible. In America, we have two generic religions. If you need a hierarchical religion, you use Catholic. If you need a congregational religion, you use generic-Protestant-but-really-Baptist. Those religions are available and we all have some experience with them by watching movies. Jewish, not so much. I would feel a great deal of trepidation making a character of mine Jewish, especially orthodox, because I’ve known enough orthodox Jews to know how rigorous the demands are, what has to be kept in your head all the time. And I do that as a Mormon. I know all of our rules by heart, I don’t even have to think about them any more. But whenever I watch somebody’s fictional treatment of Mormonism, no one ever gets it right. No one even comes close. Getting somebody else’s religion wrong is a terrible faux pas.”

41:56: “That’s one of my minor messages: people have religion, and the fiction writer who retreats from that is cheating himself and his readers.”

43:51: “There are smart people in Hollywood. There are good people in Hollywood. They just don’t have the power to greenlight a film.”

At 52:00, he starts talking about the move towards identity politics in sci-fi: “And many of them, whom I know, are people who are simply writing their conscience. But their conscience is ill-informed.”

55:20 and following, on race: “When every white person in America knows that they are labelled as racist, that means why keep trying? Because no matter what you do, you are going to be labelled as white privileged and as racist. … But I know that now, all white people are getting more and more nervous that no matter what they say, it’s going to be turned on them and used to call them the ugly name racist. And that is pretty much the ugliest name that we have in our vocabulary right now. If you’re looking for your Tourette’s list of words that you should not speak, words which will wound, the f-word is way way low on the list. We are used to the f-word, we hear it all the time. Compared to racist. Wow! That’s serious. That’s savage.”

Heartening Quote of the Week

Photo by Ray Bilcliff on Pexels.com

Because sometimes we have enough misanthropy.

“I live in a high and holy place,

but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit,

to revive the spirit of the lowly

and to revive the heart of the contrite.

I will not accuse forever,

nor will I always be angry,

for then the spirit of man would grow faint before me —

the breath of man that I have created.

I have seen his ways, but I will heal him;

I will guide him and restore comfort to him,

creating praise on the lips of the mourners in Israel.

Peace, peace to those far and near,”

says the LORD. “And I will heal them.”

But the wicked are like the tossing sea,

which cannot rest,

whose waves cast up mire and mud.

“There is no peace,” says my God,

“for the wicked.”

Isaiah 57:15b – 16, 18 – 21

This Harrowing Holocaust Novel Perfectly Prepared Me for Good Friday

The 6th Lamentation, by William Brodrick, Viking, 2003

Agnes is a bad mother. She seems emotionally distant. She often goes into fugue states where she will stand, staring at nothing. It is hard for her to be fully present with her two children.

What they don’t know is that they aren’t actually her children. They were entrusted to her by their dying mother in a concentration camp.

They also don’t know that Agnes had a child of her own, a baby boy, who was lost in the Holocaust.

Freddie, Agnes’ son, has given up on his mother, her issues and her drama, her apparent inability to be there for him emotionally. It’s not until his own daughter, Lucy, is grown, and Agnes develops a degenerative disease that Freddie will belatedly get to know the history of a warm-hearted woman who was permanently broken by the Nazi occupation of France.

Meanwhile, as Agnes loses her ability to walk, and then to speak, a recently outed Nazi war criminal takes refuge in an English monastary. He is the man who sent Agnes and her baby to the camps.

This beautifully written book was really traumatic to read, and not because there is any graphic violence.  

Brodrick does an amazing job of showing how the Nazi occupation of France put everyone in a position where, almost no matter what they did, they ended up failing or betraying someone. He shows how even a moment of weakness or cowardice could have fatal consequences for a person’s friends. That was the thing that really got me. Reading this, you can’t help asking yourself how you would do in the same situation, and coming up with an unsatisfactory answer. I say it prepared me well for Good Friday because it made me feel guilty as hell.

And these little failures of character, which might not have a huge impact in ordinary times, during the Holocaust would change and cripple people forever. Brodrick shows how a mythology grew up around the young people in the French resistance, such that three generations later, having had a hero in your family could bestow benefits, and being associated with a Nazi or a collaborator became a deep dark family secret.  He shows how even the children who were smuggled out of France grew up with “shame,” because, as avenging angel Salomon Lachaise puts it, “you cannot escape the sensation that you have taken someone else’s place.”

One of the most affecting lines in the book, for me, was after the Frenchman has just been blackmailed by the Nazi guard. He hears the guard throwing up in the adjacent room.

Nevertheless, there is a redemptive thread to this book. It really makes you feel genuinely sorry for every single character (both the war generation and the later generations), and makes you realize how badly these poor people, in the midst of this great evil, needed a supernatural savior.

As do we all.

All that Should Be Remembered

They stepped outside, back into the churchyard. Salomon Lachaise said, “When I was a boy, my mother used to say that hell was the painless place where everything has been forgotten.”

“That doesn’t sound so bad.”

“It couldn’t be worse.”

“Why?”

“Because there’s no love. That’s why there is no pain.”

They walked beneath a milky sky shot with patches of insistent blue. Anselm looked up and asked, “Then what’s heaven?”

“An inferno where you burn, remembering all that should be remembered.”

The 6th Lamentation, by William Brodrick, page 182