Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Vehige: Is a Personal Interpretation of Scripture a Valid Interpretation?

Woodward wrote a very interesting piece on the Dr. Seuss book, Horton Hears a Who, which, in turn, prompted the following anonymous comment:

This is a nice perspective when it comes to all books but one. Unfortunately, too many practice their faith in this manner, but that isn't the point of your post, and I am a bit off topic. I like your writing style.

It seems to me that the book to which the writer refers is the Bible. Woodward also understood this to be the case, as he writes in his response:

I agree with you, assuming that the book we're talking about is the Bible, that we are not entitled to our own individual interpretations of it, no matter how reasonable and responsibly thought out those interpretations might be. To belabor my analogy one step further -- the Bible does not come with a "What This Book Means" instruction sheet, but it was entrusted to a divinely established institution that DOES have the authority to say "what this book means" -- the Catholic Church.

So your distinction is an important one. Literary analysis and biblical exegesis are fundamentally different processes.

Thanks for the kind words, by the way.


Now I certainly understand the apprehension we Catholics have (and I'm assuming our anonymous reader is a Catholic) about a personal interpretation of Scripture, but it seems to me that Woodward has more than slightly overstated that apprehension when he writes: "we are not entitled to our own individual interpretations of it, no matter how reasonable and responsibly thought out those interpretations might be."

As I understand the history of biblical interpretation, the rupture between a "personal" interpretation and an "ecclesial" interpretation (i.e., what the Church says the Bible means) occurred with the Reformation. It was then that line was drawn in the sand. The Reformers insisted on a personal interpretation of Scripture, which resulted in over 300 denominations within the first 80 years of the Reformation; and the Church insisted on an ecclesial interpretation, which resulted in five centuries of Catholics having a deep anxiety about reading the Bibles for themselves.

(This anxiety, by the way, is a post-Reformation one, not a medieval one. Too many anti-Catholics try to prove that the Church did not want the faithful to read the Bible by pointing out that in the Middle Ages the Scriptures were chained to church pulpits. Bibles were expensive back then, and they were chained to pulpits so they wouldn't be stolen.)

So the bifurcation between a personal interpretation and an ecclesial interpretation of Scripture was unknown to the early Church Fathers and their medieval disciples. Why is this? Because of their understanding of the Holy Spirit . . . which, by the way, is also our understanding.

The Holy Spirit is the one who inspired the biblical writers. The Holy Spirit is the one who guides the Church to the fullness of understanding. And the Holy Spirit is the one given to us at Baptism, Whose gifts are strengthened in us at Confirmation. Thus, the Holy Spirit is the transcendent principle that unites the Word of God with the mind of the Church and the mind of the disciple.

Yet, there is still a danger, as any early Church Father and medieval theologian would have known—namely, the danger of interpreting Scripture in a way that contradicts the teaching of the Church. This is why a theologian as great as St. Thomas Aquinas said before his death that he submitted all of his work to the judgment of the Church.

But even within this framework, there was still much freedom regarding personal interpretation. We must remember that the ancient and medieval method of interpretation was rooted in what is called the four senses of Scripture. The literal sense provides us with the literal/historical meaning of the text. From this literal sense, three spiritual senses can be derived: the allegorical sense, which shows us how Christ is, the moral sense, which teaches us what to do, and the anagogical sense, which reveals to us life after death.

Many ancient and medieval commentaries—I am thinking of the commentaries of St. Bernard of Clairvaux—used the literal sense only as a means to expound the spiritual meaning of Scripture. And almost every interpretation rooted in the spiritual sense of the Bible was highly personal, rooted in the interpreter's own mystical experience.

(Here we'd have to make a distinction between monastic exegesis and scholastic exegesis—a topic for another post, to be sure.)

It seems to me that Vatican II seeks to regain the Patristic and medieval understanding when it says in Dei Verbum, no. 21:

For in the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them; and the force and power in the word of God is so great that it stands as the support and energy of the Church, the strength of faith for her sons, the food of the soul, the pure and everlasting source of spiritual life.

It would be difficult to see the Father coming to meet us through the Scriptures if we could not understand the Scriptures in a personal way.

In her autobiography, St. Therese of Lisieux tells the story of how she came to understand her role within the Church. After reading 1 Corinthians 12, which sketches the various gifts within the Church, and not recognizing any of those gifts within herself, she went on to read 1 Corinthians 13; and reading that the greatest gift was love, she decided that she would be the heart of the Church and live a life devoted to the love of God.

Another saint—Francis of Assisi—had a similar experience with Scripture. Not understanding what God was calling him to do, he opened the Gospel three times, in honor of the three persons of the Trinity, and each time he read of Christ's commission to the disciples. They were to go out and preach, but without money, without food, without walking stick or belt. And that's what Francis did. And it caused a great scandal in the Church, for a time, as well as great reform.

Which leads us back to Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformation, and the split between personal and ecclesial interpretation. Where did Luther go wrong and Francis go right?

Luther's error was that his personal interpretation was rooted in his misunderstanding of the theology of sin, both original and actual, as well as a misunderstanding of indulgences and purgatory. He changed the Bible, taking books out of the Old Testament as well as the New, as well as proffering his own interpretation, in order to find spiritual peace. That's not the path to solid exegesis.

Francis, on the other hand, sought not his own good, but, rather, God's will. "What does God want from me? What does God want me to do?" Francis wanted to love God by doing God's will. And he was so humble that at first he misunderstood what God wanted. He thought God wanted him to become poor in order to minister to the poor—not to teach the entire Church to become poor in spirit by his own physical poverty.

Luther's personal interpretation was inspired by self-centeredness, whereas St. Francis' was inspired by love.

And as Augustine once noted, love is the measure of authentic interpretation:

Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought. (De Doctrina Christiana II, 36,40)

So we should not fear a personal interpretation of Scripture, so long as we understand that they are just that—personal. Not everyone is called to be a St. Francis or a St. Therese. And so long as we understand that the Word of God comes to us through both Scripture and Tradition as understood by the Church—and so long as we strive to understand the teaching of the Church—we shouldn't be afraid to pick up our Bibles and read them as if our heavenly Father were coming to speak to us.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Woodward: Horton and the Gospel of Life, or Words I Never Thought I Would Use Together in a Single Phrase

After my last post, in which I commented on the implicit anti-abortion theme of Dr. Seuss's Horton Hears a Who, a friend reminded me of something I think I knew but had forgotten. Neither Theodore Geisel (“Dr. Seuss”) himself nor his widow after his death approved of the efforts of anti-abortion groups to enlist the book, or its famous catch-phrase – “A person's a person, no matter how small” – in the service of their cause. Apparently, there have even been lawsuits and threats of lawsuits. (Life is sometimes almost unbearably rich in irony, isn't it?)

Now I am a staunch believer in copyright and its prerogatives, which means that I sympathize altogether with Audrey Geisel's unwillingness to see a work to which she holds the copyright being used commercially in a way she disapproves of. We are, in other words, unlikely anytime soon to see Horton Hears a Who included in a “pro-life anthology” of the kind that Jody Bottum envisions. Mrs. Geisel is apparently a major contributor to Planned Parenthood, an organization for which the statement “A person's a person, no matter how small” obviously has a meaning quite different from the meaning it has for anyone who opposes the killing of babies in their mothers' wombs.

But that's the very point – the question of meaning – that I would like to examine here. What does a literary text mean? What does it even mean to say that a literary text means something? If Vehige and I are going to go on talking about the books we read and the movies we see, we probably ought to settle that question right off the bat.

When I first read Horton Hears a Who as a bedtime story to my children, I immediately assumed that it had allegorical significance. It was almost impossible to believe that the book was only about an elephant and a hitherto unrecorded race of microscopic anthropoids inhabiting a speck of dust “in the jungle of Nool.” The idea of very small people alive and endangered in a separate world of their own – people whose humanity could initially be only a matter of intellectual conviction, not empirical observation – was immediately suggestive to me. It was suggestive of all those human beings whose lives are more or less invisible to the rest of us, and who suffer because of that invisibility. The poor, the homeless, the alien, the mentally or physically handicapped, the friendless, the lonely, the chronically or terminally ill, the radically unlovable, the threateningly unconventional, all my fellow human beings from whom I have successfully insulated myself, whom I have succeeded in making invisible and inaudible – and, conversely, all the people who have successfully insulated themselves from me (because I'm no prize either). Don't I need to be reminded continually that all these people are human beings too – all human beings whom I must regard (since I am a Christian) as the very people for whom Jesus was willing to die?

Does anyone really not want the discretion to apply Dr. Seuss's story – or any story – to their own view of the world in this way? And if you're willing to grant me that much discretion, then don't you have to grant me as well the right to number among those invisible and inaudible human beings whom I recognize as “Whos” one additional class of persons – persons who exist but are not yet born and are in danger of never being born?

You can challenge my theology (if you like) or my political opinions (if you think you know what they are), but I honestly don't see how you can challenge the coherence of my interpretation of the story. Who are the Whos? Racial and ethnic minorities? Of course. The homeless? Of course. Illegal immigrants? Of course. Homosexuals? Of course. My obnoxious co-worker whom I avoid as much as possible? Of course. Pregnant women who don't see how they can bring a baby into the world? Of course. The babies those women are carrying? Of course.

That list may omit some group of societally invisible and inaudible persons that you particularly care about. In fact, I'm virtually certain that it does, which is the point – they are invisible and inaudible to me, and I need my vision and hearing corrected. So does everybody else.

Which means that I am no more capable of a perfect interpretation of any book Vehige and I read, or any movie Vehige and I watch, than anybody else is. And that goes for the authors of the books and the writers and directors of the movies themselves. Books don't come packaged with a pamphlet from the author entitled “What This Book Means.” And if they did, such a pamphlet would be more or less worthless anyway. Who cares what writers intended to do or thought they were doing? Let's talk here about what we think they did.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Woodward: Pro-Life Fiction

Since I am not myself a "speculative fiction" fan, I don't have much to contribute on this topic. I hear Tim Powers talked about a lot, and one of his stories -- "The Way Down the Hill" -- is frequently cited as having an anti-abortion message. (Powers himself is a Catholic.) If anybody has read it, I'd be interested in what they think.

Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants," of course, is quite a powerful exploration of the subject. In particular, it vividly portrays two truths about abortion that are not often enough commented on: (1) the extent to which men -- the fathers of the babies -- are themselves the agents of abortion; and (2) the necessity of euphemism in making abortion a tolerable choice. ("The man," as he is referred to in the story, is a master of the pretty misrepresentation. Pay attention to the way he talks about "the operation, not really an operation at all," in which "they just let the air in and then it's all perfectly natural." You get the sense that, given a little more time, he might actually have come up with the standard euphemisms of our own day -- "pregnancy termination," "reproductive health," the word "choice" itself, soothingly cut free from any mention of the thing being chosen.

In the early 1970s -- the years immediately before Roe v Wade -- I was teaching an introductory fiction course at an Ivy League university, to college freshmen who certainly ranked among the most sophisticated 18-year-olds in America. I taught "Hills Like White Elephants," and almost none of my students could figure out what the story was about. Simpler times.

One last suggestion that maybe we should send along to Jody Bottum. I have long thought that Horton Hears a Who may be the most eloquent pro-life story of our day. "A person's a person, no matter how small."

Vehige: Pro-Life Fiction

FIRST THINGS: On the Square » Blog Archive » Searching for Pro-Life Fiction

Joseph Bottum forgot Harlan Ellison's story "Croatoan," which you can find in Strange Wine. It's a story more about responsibility than it is about pro-life, but, still, it's effective -- especially when the man meets some of his children in the tunnels under the city.

What's particularly interesting is that Bottum has to turn to genre fiction -- particularly speculative fiction -- to find "pro-life" stories.

Any thoughts on why that is?

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Woodward: 5 Random Things About Us

Vehige, you have fundamentally misrepresented me in item 4 of the 5 random things. I'm not at all embarrassed.

Woodward: “A Smoothly Functioning Band of Robbers”

Those are the words of Pope Benedict, paraphrasing St. Augustine's description of a state that is ruled by arbitrary power devoid of justice. (In the little book on St. Augustine he wrote a few years ago, Garry Wills updated the famous image from “band of robbers” to “organized crime.” Given the scale on which modern governments operate and regulate the lives of their citizens -- as compared to the kind of government Augustine knew -- Wills's darker translation seems powerfully in tune with the spirit of the original.) And although the Pope frequently expresses a moderate admiration for democracy throughout Values in a Time of Upheaval, he gives no indication of doubt that democratically elected rulers can function as robbers just as smoothly as autocrats can.

Government, Pope Benedict argues, must look outside itself for the moral guidance that will prevent it from descending into legal lawlessness. And rationalistic philosophy alone cannot be that guide. Why? Benedict's answer is startling in its directness:


The real problem that confronts us today is reason's blindness to the entire nonmaterial dimension of reality.


My guess is that His Holiness lost (or at least shocked) a substantial number of readers right there. After all, isn't the modern world's commitment to the ideal of secular, democratic government rooted in a conviction that good political decisions can be made without regard to the “nonmaterial dimension of reality”? Isn't that what a politician means when he explains, ever so reasonably, that he cannot implement policies that would impose his own religious beliefs on others?

Aside from the theoretical fallacies of such a position, there is some pretty obvious empirical evidence against it, and the Pope lays out this evidence persuasively: at no time in the history of the world has a society ever been governed – or governed itself – without recourse to “the nonmaterial dimension of reality.” As Benedict puts it:


All states have recognized and applied moral reason on the basis of antecedent religious traditions, which also provided moral education...Indeed, one may say that the great institutions of religion and the state display a fundamental consensus about important elements of what is morally good and that this consensus points to a shared rationality.


I wonder how many American Catholic voters, when they nod approvingly at some candidate's high-minded unwillingness to take a position precisely because it is rooted in Christian moral teaching, are aware of the point the Pope is making here. How many realize what a radical break with history – not just American history but the whole history of Western civilization -- is represented by the “personally-opposed-but” school of Catholic politics? For readers who are not aware of it, the Pope's exposition of a historical church-state consensus on “what is morally good” may be timely food for thought.

The fourth essay of Values in a Time of Upheaval, which I have summarized here, ends the first section of the book, the section devoted to a discussion of “Politics and Morality.” In the following section, His Holiness will apply the foundational principles of this first section to a specific political issue – peace. The next few essays may be rough going for politicians who are personally in favor of peace but....

Vehige: 5 Random Things About Us

This blog is too new to be tagged for a meme . . . which means I have to engage in some blatant self-promotion. But, then, Thomas over at American Papist offered an open invitation.

Now, the correct title of this meme is "5 Random Things About Me," but since Thursday Night Gumbo is a team blog, I'll offer 5 random things about us.

1. We both have the same first name -- Jeff -- which is why we go by our last names.

2. We both like baseball.

3. We both like strong, black coffee.

4. We're both a little embarrassed that we like asinine, slap-stick humor, such as Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story and Happy Gilmore.

5. There is a 25-year age difference between us; I'll leave it up to you to figure out which one of us is older. (Hint: pay careful attention to movie selections.)

I tag the folks over at Cosmos-Liturgy-Sex and Steve McEvoy over at Book Reviews and More as a thanks for blogrolling us.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Vehige: One last point on Apocalypto

From the Introduction to Lord of the Elves and Eldils: Fantasy and Philosophy in C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien by Richard Purtill:

Now Lewis and Tolkien do not in the main write strict allegory or even loose allegory, nor do they write illustrative fantasy. By their own statements, they aim at writing largely appreciative fantasy. Legolas the Elf or Tumnus the Faun have no signficatio, illustrate no possible or plausible reaction of human nature, no views of what life is like. Tolkien writes about Legolas, Lewis about Tumnus, because they enjoy contemplating elves and fauns. They like to think about them and write about them. If such tastes were to disqualify them as "significant" writers, they would be undisturbed. They would rather write about Faërie than about "modern problems". And why not, if they and others enjoy it?

This statement may seem somewhat surprising. Surely both Tolkien and Lewis illustrate all kinds of religious values--and even, in Tolkien, Catholic values. But we must distinguish between the intent of the authors and its effect on their readers. Neither Tolkien nor Lewis set out to write books that were Christian or Catholic "propaganda". They wrote the kind of stories that they enjoyed reading. Being the kind of men they were, the kind of stories they wrote were very Christian. This was not, however, the purpose for which they wrote the stories: they wrote them to enjoy them.

Yes, I know, Apocalypto isn't a fantasy movie, but I still think it applies here. I suppose my fundamental problem with Apocalypto is that I can't get over the sense that Gibson chose an ancient Mayan culture to tell his story because of the allegorical significance of it. I seriously that Gibson "enjoys contemplating" ancient Mayan culture and history. And that is what makes this movie stiff and artificial.

(Hat tip to Happy Catholic on the reference to Purtill's book.)

Friday, January 26, 2007

Vehige: Apocalypto

My reply to Woodward's response to my criticism of Mel Gibson's Apocalypto....

Woodward sees in the Mayan setting a symbolic parallel to our own culture. I can't argue with that; I think he's right. But that's my problem with the story—all of its meaning is found in everything but the story of Jaguar Paw.

My own aesthetical sensibilities (if you can call them that) tell me that in good fiction the meaning of the story is found in the character—either in his own growth and transformation, or in his own steadfastness to what he believes to be true. Ben Hur is a great movie because Judah ben Hur undergoes a profound character transformation, and A Man for All Seasons is a great movie because Thomas More remains true to his principles.

Now you can argue—the way Woodward did last night—that Jaguar Paw's story is akin to Thomas More's. Both men must somehow survive within a society that has become morally rotten.

But the fundamental difference between Jaguar Paw and Thomas More is this: Jaguar Paw's story is simply one of physical survival. He does not stand up against this society. He does not put forth his own principles.

Thomas More's story is the story of a man who did stand up against society. He was within it, a man of rank and respect, and chose—willfully chose—to suffer for his beliefs. He was betrayed by a friend, denied by another, lost his family, and eventually his life to stand up for what he believed.

What did Jaguar Paw willing risk? Passive characters don't make good fiction. Now Jaguar Paw isn't exactly a passive character, but he is a victim not of his own choosing. And he's not a very inspiring character, either: He doesn't do anything that any one of us would not do if we were in his position. We would try to escape and, having escaped, we would try to defend, and possibly die for, the few people most dear to us.

But would we choose the path Thomas More took? Would we be willing to sacrifice wealth, reputation, honor, station, friends, freedom, and our very life for a principle?

This is what I mean when I say the story itself must have meaning. When you have to look outside the story itself to find meaning in a piece of fiction—as Woodward does, when he examines the milieu in which the story is set—then that piece of fiction is flawed.

And lest anyone think I'm a Mel Gibson hater, I'm not. Three of my all-time favorite movies are Gibson flicks: Braveheart, We Were Soldiers, and The Passion of the Christ.

Finally, there is nothing in what Woodward says that I disagree with. If I disagree with anything, it must be his aesthetical sensibilities (if you can call them that).

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Vehige: What happened at Thursday Night Gumbo

Tonight Woodward came over for dinner and a movie.

I made gumbo (what did you think I'd make?) in order to celebrate the launching of Thursday Night Gumbo. Over dinner Woodward discussed The Hardy Boys with my six-year-old son, who had just seen The Mystery of the Applegate Treasure, and we also talked about the virtues of cheap wine.

After dinner Woodward and I discussed the direction we want to take Thursday Night Gumbo. Good news! We have no direction -- the only real way to run a blog, I think.

Then we talked about Apocalypto. As I told Woodward, I don't disagree with anything he says in his response to my critique of the movie. In fact, he only proves my point of why the movie isn't a good movie. But more on that tomorrow.

We watched the second and third episodes of Firefly. (I'll write more that later.) Much like when I was when I first started watching it, Woodward seemed to have some reservations about it. (He also had reservations when I had him watch a New Nightmare; but he did enjoy Wes Craven's endeavor into meta-horror-fiction.) It's always a scary prospect of sitting down and watching cowboys in space, and a doubly scary prospect when you know that the guy who created Buffy the Vampire Slayer has developed the movie (in this case, the T.V. show) you're about to watch. But somehow Joss Whedon pulls it off. I'm trying to figure out just how he did it; maybe Woodward will be able to shed some light on this.

Woodward: Apocalypto

I think I can address all of Vehige's criticisms of Apocalypto in the course of addressing the last one he makes – that the movie's ending is incomprehensible. (“Stinks” is actually the technical term that Vehige uses, but what he means is “incomprehensible.”)

The “surprise” ending has generated a great deal of speculation – more than it might have if the movie had not been written and directed by such a famously Catholic director as Mel Gibson. Let's imagine, for example, that Apocalypto were the work of someone from whom we would not automatically expect a “Catholic” movie – Oliver Stone, let's say, or Pedro Almodovar. There would then be little mystery or ambiguity about the meaning of the Spaniards' arrival at the movie's end. Having just seen Jaguar Paw brutalized by one decadent and oppressive civilization, we would assume that he is now in danger of falling victim to yet another one. The tone would pretty clearly be one of cruel irony – out of the frying pan with our hero, and into the fire. Sure, he didn't get his heart cut out, but he and his family will now have to live through an onslaught of Western patriarchy, colonialism, and theocracy.

But knowing Mel Gibson (or thinking we do), we might not be so quick to assume that he is using the Old World's discovery of the New simply for the purpose of invoking the modern, secular, conventional-wisdom view of that event. As the camera zooms in on the Spaniards' boat approaching the shore, the priest's cross is more prominent than the conquistador's sword. And because it's Mel Gibson who is directing our attention to it, we are not at liberty to assume that the tone of the scene is ironic. The shot looks like an illustration from a 1950s history textbook. Might it not actually be communicating a 1950s textbook understanding of what the arrival of Christian Europe did to and for the indigenous peoples of North America? As the movie ends, that Franciscan missionary has not yet saved any souls, but he has unquestionably saved four lives. Not a bad afternoon's work. (And isn't there something strangely suggestive about the reaction of Jaguar Paw's pursuers when they stop short on the beach to gaze out at the strangest sight they will ever see? They don't turn and run in terror. Instead, they forget all about wanting to kill Jaguar Paw and walk slowly toward the Spaniards as if they are being drawn by some force they are not even aware of, let alone understand. It is, I would argue, an almost impossibly romanticized dramatization of the Spanish “Conquest.” The conquerors are being unapologetically presented as saviors and civilizers. You can argue, if you want, with the historical and moral accuracy of such a depiction, but I think it's hard to dispute that that is what Gibson is doing.)

If the Spaniards really are the movie's straightforwardly happy ending – the good guys – then why does Jaguar Paw turn from them and lead his family back “into the jungle”? His wife seems inclined to give the newcomers a chance, if only because she senses that they can't possibly be worse than the Mayans. But Jaguar Paw has had enough of progress, Old World or New. The juxtaposition of the two civilizations at the end of the movie is not so much a choice being offered to Jaguar Paw, but to us. We are, after all, still part of the same civilization that those arriving Spaniards represent (although, as Pope Benedict has observed, just barely so). Why would Mel Gibson invite a comparison between us and a moribund civilization sustaining itself on slavery and human sacrifice? I'll leave it to you, Vehige, and any other readers we may have, to work out the correspondences. It shouldn't take very long.

Is Gibson saying, then, that we are as bad as the Mayans in the movie? No, I don't think so. But once a few of the movie's uncomfortable parallels start to sink in – the crowd's blasé acceptance of slaughter on an assembly-line scale, the manipulative priest-ruler shouting out his empty assurances of social health and self-esteem, the open-air charnel house through which the hero must claw his way to salvation – the shock of recognition from these scenes ought to make it just a bit more difficult for us to regard ourselves still as the good guys. Jaguar Paw and his wife both see their options at the end of the movie with remarkable clarity. There is, as the wife seems to understand, a moral difference between “us” and “them.” But there is also, as Jaguar Paw has learned (even if he wouldn't put it this way), no necessary or permanent connection between a society's material achievements and its goodness. The arrival of Christendom means that Mayan civilization's chance to make that connection is over. Christendom itself, or what remains of it at the core of Western civilization, still has a chance, even if Jaguar Paw was not willing to bet on it. That seems to me to be the message, and warning, of the movie's ending.

One may not think the message is delivered with much grace. I would call Apocalypto an efficient rather than a graceful piece of story-telling. One may be reluctant to take moral instruction at the hands of Mel Gibson. So be it. (I know that's not one of your problems with the movie, Vehige, but it seems to be many people's problem. As for myself, sorting out the moral credentials of Hollywood personalities is more work than I am willing to do just in order to see a few movies a year.) One may (as you do, Vehige) consider what Apocalypto has to say "unoriginal" and "unimportant." But if I'm right about what the movie is saying, then it certainly is not unimportant. And if Apocalypto is as much a Culture-of-Life movie as I found it to be, then judged by Hollywood standards, it's not just original – it's downright eccentric.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Vehige: Reason and Religion

Woodward wrote:

The West is not going to turn (return) to a Christian world view just for old times' sake. Benedict sees instead the urgent need for a new evangelization, just as his predecessor did. If Christianity is to reclaim the European civilization it created, it will now pretty much have to start from scratch. It will have to win the contest as one contender among many, and without any of the competitive advantages it enjoyed in the past.
This is really the answer to the question I had after reading the second and third essays in Values in a Time of Upheaval.

Cardinal Ratzinger does a good job at painting a somber picture of the global community. The great question of today is the question posed by multiculturalism -- namely, how one culture can claim a correct view of the God, the world, and existence?

This criticism is applied to religion. The standard complaint against religion in general, Christianity in particular, and especially the Catholic Church, is how any one religion can claim that it alone possesses the fullness of religious truth. But religion also has the additional problem of extreme fundamentalism that takes shape in the form of terrorism. Islamic terrorism has obviously taken center stage, but we cannot forget the extreme Christian fundamentalism that has resulted in bombing abortion clinics and holding up signs such as "GOD HATES FAGS!"

More surprisingly, I think, is that Ratzinger carries this critique over to reason. How can we say the Western philosophical and scientific tradition is the only valid way to approach nature, ethics, and metaphysics? Although Western rationality (like Christianity) claims to be universal, that does not mean that the great cultures of the world -- Islamic culture, the cultural spheres of Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as the tribal cultures of African and South America -- have accepted Western rationality; in fact, they have even challenged the claim to universality. Western rationality also has a second problem, for it was Western science that gave the world the atomic bomb, and it is Western science that allows us to create human being in a petri dish. And as Woodward highlighted, it was Western rationality that gave us the great authoritarian regimes of the 20th century -- Nazi German and the Soviet Union -- and it is Western rationality that is giving the world a radical form of libertarianism in which the goal is one's personal well-being, however one defines that.

This is where the world stands. It's a bleak picture, particularly if one's desire is to know and live the truth, and to pass that truth on to others.

You're absolutely, right, Woodward: Cardinal Ratzinger understands that Catholic Christianity is just one idea among many without any particular advantage. In fact, I'd add that Catholic Christianity is at a serious disadvantage nowadays. Sure, the sexual abuse scandal has injured the Church in a grave way. But let us not forget that the Church, at least in the West, has a disadvantage because of its (absolutely infallible) teachings on abortion, homosexuality, contraception, and euthanasia. And then there's Fulton Sheen's observation: Not more than 100 people hate the Church for what she really teaches, but thousands hate her for what they think she teaches. In my experience, it is almost impossible to correct someone's false idea about the Church. When you're part of the cult, they expect you to defend it.

The great crisis the Catholic Church faces nowadays is that she isn't just another possibility in the intellectual and spiritual market place. To non-Catholics, and possibly even to lukewarm Catholics, she has the stench of rotten eggs.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Vehige: Apocalypto

Now that Woodward has published his grades for the movies we watched in 2006, it seems that we disagreed only about one movie -- Mel Gibson's Apocalypto. I gave it a D (I didn't like it) and he gave it a B (he really liked it).

Why didn't I like it?

If I didn't know Mel Gibson had made the movie, I would have guessed that it was the product of a young, inexperience writer who was still learning how to integrate story, setting, and theme.

Before I continue, let me say that I completely agree with Chesterton that legend is better than history. I know enough about medieval society and culture to know that Braveheart is not entirely accurate. But you want to know something -- I don't care. I don't care that no medieval person would have had a modern understanding of freedom. I don't care that William Wallace never had an heir on the throne of England -- an heir conceived by a French princess at that!

Those things don't bother me. I don't see or read historical fiction to learn history. If I want to do that, I read history.

So any quibble I have with Apocalypto has nothing to do with any historical aberrations in the story.

I find the story itself to be rather bland and unmoving. Oh, it's exciting, to be sure; the two hours went in a blink of an eye. But it's little more than a James Bond movie set in a primitive culture. And I don't like James Bond movies. Now there is nothing wrong with chase movies . . . when they aspire to be nothing more than chase movies. I don't like chase movies in the same way I don't like black olives; I have nothing against them -- they just don't do anything for me. But Gibson has loftier goals in mind, and this movie fails because Gibson never achieves those goals

Problem Number 1: At no point in time does the story necessitate an ancient Mayan setting. Gibson simply doesn't integrate the story with the setting -- not in any meaningful way. It's as if he fell in love with ancient Mayan culture, wanted to make a movie about it, and started writing before he had finished researching.

The litmus test for this sort of thing is the following question: If to take a story from it's setting, do you still have a story? The answer in this case is, Yes, you do. You can substitute almost any primitive setting (or fantastic setting, for that matter) and have the same movie. And that raises the question: Why a Mayan setting?

If there's an answer to this, I haven't figured it out yet. In choosing it, Gibson obviously wanted to say something. But what? Enlighten me, Woodward.

Problem Number 2: At almost every turning point in the movie, we can say ....and the theme thickens. This may be my biggest problem with the movie. The hallmark of amateur writing is putting symbols and themes into a story rather than extracting them from the story. This is why writers write several drafts -- to understand the themes and symbols that are already present in their story. Good writers don't dress up their fiction with themes and symbols.

Furthermore, good writers don't belabor their points. They don't say, "See, here is a symbol," or, "See, here is a theme." Gibson puts in symbols and themes as if he were an M.F.A. student who had just discovered Joyce, Hemingway, and Faulkner. Okay, Mel, I get the point -- you are telling us that the heart is being ripped out of ancient Mayan culture. Okay, Mel, I get it, you are interested in rebirth. (Though I have to say that the theme of rebirth was the impetus of one of the best scenes in the movie -- when Jaguar Paw climbs out of the mud -- and one of the stupidest -- when his wife gives birth underwater.)

Problem Number 3: The ending stinks. I don't expect for movies to spoon feed me their ideas, but after a certain number of days thinking about a movie, I expect to be able to understand what the writer was tyring to say. I still haven't a clue as to what Gibson was trying to do with the sudden appearance of the Conquistadors

Is our hero, Jaguar Paw, so blessed that he's saved deus ex machina two-times over -- once by the "pagan gods" who've suddenly had their fill of blood at the moment he is to be sacrificed, and then by the Christian God who saves him by the appearance of His missionaries? It just doesn't make any sense.

And that is the biggest problem with this movie. Flannery O'Connor once said that the purpose of fiction is to enjoy the story, not try to figure it out. But Gibson obviously wants to say something with this movie, and therefore he invites the view to "figure it out." But there's nothing to figure out because nothing is being said. Not anything original or important, at any rate.

I think I might have to change my grade from a "D" to an F."

Monday, January 22, 2007

Woodward: Law and Morality

Now that I’ve read the second and third essays in Pope Benedict XVI’s recent collection, Values in a Time of Upheaval, I’m beginning to see the shape of the question His Holiness is attempting to answer: How does a society foster and preserve those commonly-held moral precepts that are necessary to humanize a rule of law based exclusively on reason?

Given its head (so to speak), reason alone tends to produce one of two opposite, if equally undesirable, political models: (1) pure libertarianism, under which each citizen is left free to do whatever he wants, short of impinging on another citizen’s corresponding freedom; or (2) authoritarianism. It may seem strange to think of the two defining authoritarian regimes of the twentieth century – fascism and communism – as having had a basis in reason, but Benedict proposes exactly that, and he uses those regimes as illustrations of what reason untempered by a socially based morality will inevitably result in. Mussolini’s trains, after all, did famously run on time. But some of them were headed for the concentration camps.

With Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union as recent object lessons in the inhumanity that authoritarian rationalism can produce, Benedict believes that the greater danger now faced by the human race in the twenty-first century is the alternative model mentioned above – a purely libertarian rationalism. This would not be the intellectualized libertarianism of a John Stuart Mill, a society of philosopher-citizens each free to pursue the good in an unfettered marketplace of ideas. It is more nearly the “utopia of banality” envisioned by Richard Rorty, in which “the only goal worth striving for” is “a sense of well-being.” And that doesn’t mean spiritual well-being, as the Pope sees very clearly:

“Moral sensibility has been trampled on for decades, and this must inevitably turn into a moral nihilism as soon as none of the previous goals counts any longer. All that remained was freedom – but this was understood as the possibility of doing anything and everything that could supply a momentary excitement and interest to a life that had become empty.”

For many people, life has indeed become empty in this most affluent age of human history. And the response of politicians seeking to remedy (or exploit) this emptiness is to promise us either (1) more things, or (2) more freedom. Authoritarianism has typically offered number (1), usually at the cost of number (2). Libertarianism of various stripes now offers number (2), purportedly at no cost whatsoever.

Pope Benedict seems inclined to reject both these offers, because they originate in a rationalist politics that is no longer “purified” or “healed” by a shared moral tradition. Benedict does not exactly blame democracy for this state of affairs. In fact, he comes as close as I have ever seen any responsible Catholic come to “baptizing” democracy, which he calls “the most appropriate of all political models.” [Hey, Vehige – that doesn’t qualify as an ex cathedra pronouncement, does it?]

But Benedict also seems to suggest that a politics devoid of moral absolutes may be the defining flaw of democracy:

“It is hard to see how democracy, which is based on the majority principle, can accord validity to moral values that are not sustained by the conviction of the majority unless it imports a dogmatism that is alien to its own nature.”

What happens, in other words, when a majority of the citizens in any society do not recognize – or no longer recognize -- the first principles of morality that should shape public policy and law on a given issue?

In previous periods of Western history, an array of moral values were “sustained by the conviction of the majority,” and that majority was held together by the Christian patrimony of Europe. Pope Benedict has no illusions that that patrimony is any longer a cohesive force in European public life, but he is convinced that it must somehow be recovered, or reestablished. His warning about the loss of any moral grounding for Europe's social and political thought is clearly stated at the end of the third essay: “A culture and a nation that cuts itself off from the great ethical and religious forces of its own history commits suicide.” [In this connection, Vehige, I don't think the Pope is really offering natural law as a solution. For one thing, he believes that it has become too identified with Catholic theology and is therefore "tainted" in the eyes of the secular world. And I think he's right. Remember how shocked -- SHOCKED -- the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee were when they found out that Clarence Thomas actually believes in natural law? He might just as well have told them that he was a practicing alchemist.]

At this point in history, Europe is hardly likely to “import a dogmatism that is alien to its own nature.” (It already indulges plenty of dogmas perfectly suited to its own nature.) The West is not going to turn (return) to a Christian world view just for old times' sake. Benedict sees instead the urgent need for a new evangelization, just as his predecessor did. If Christianity is to reclaim the European civilization it created, it will now pretty much have to start from scratch. It will have to win the contest as one contender among many, and without any of the competitive advantages it enjoyed in the past. His Holiness calls the troops to action with a passage from Origen, a passage that Benedict believes “has not received the attention it deserves.” [In my opinion, that could almost be said about everything Origen wrote. Vehige, you know what I mean.] Origen cautioned the would-be evangelist that “Christ does not win victory over anyone who does not wish it. He conquers only by convincing, for he is the Word of God.”

The next essay in the collection is entitled “What Is Truth?” That would seem to be a good place to stop and take a breath.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Vehige: Demytholgizing, Martyrdom, and the Natural Law

Three things intrigued me in this first article from Cardinal Ratzinger's Values in a Time of Upheaval -- "To Change or to Preserve?"

1. Like you, Woodward, I absolutely love how he turns the notion of "demythologizing" on its head to show that the secular world has created pseudo-religions from ideas it holds as fundamental -- namely, the ideas of progress, science, and freedom. I'm not going to repeat what you already said. The point I do want to make is that underlying Ratzinger's criticism of a secularism that places its hopes in progress, science, and freedom is the fact that human beings cannot avoid faith or religion.

Secularism rejects the divine, and by doing so it leaves a gap in the human condition. We are religious beings -- beings that need something that transcends us. Secularism gives that power to political progress, scientific advancement, and unbridled human freedom; and in giving these things this power, it has made religions out of them.

So at the heart of Ratzinger's argument, I think, is this: it is not the state versus religion, but, rather, religion versus religion. Just as secular theologians have tried to demytholoize Christianity by questioning the veracity of the virgin birth, the miracles of Christ, his resurrection, Ratzinger turns the tables on them by pointing out that the truths held dear by secular thinkers are have just as much, if not more, "mythological" elements to them as Christianity does.

So which "myth" are you going to believe?

That political progress will give us an utopia? That science can cure all our ills? That unbridled freedom will provide true and lasting happiness?

Or, will you believe that the only utopia we can hope for is the eschatological utopia prepared for us by the Word made flesh? That the only science that can cure our ills is the faith and life of the Church? That the only kind of freedom that provides happiness is the freedom that allows us to seek the good and avoid the evil -- even at the cost of our own desire?

2. I thought Ratzinger's treatment of martyrdom was brilliant. Christians are bound to obey the laws of the state, but first they are bound to obey the laws of God. "I am the king's good servant," said St. Thomas More before he was beheaded, "but God's first." Thus, when the state becomes corrupt and makes unjust laws that threaten the rights of the individual, what we must do is not pick up arms and fight (and here I think Ratzinger is alluding to liberation theology), but, rather, be willing to lay down our life for God's truths.

I am reminded of Viktor E. Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, in which he concludes that though another person can take from us all of our natural and political freedom, he cannot take from us our authentic freedom -- the freedom to do what is right and to avoid what is evil; the freedom to determine the meaning of our life.

Martyrdom -- the willingness to die for the true and the good in the face of blatant evil -- then becomes the highest form of political resistance, for martyrdom shows that the state really has no power over us.

As William Wallace in Braveheart said: "They can take our lives, but they cannot take our freedom!" For in the end, we have the freedom to suffer and to die.

This one concept confronts the myths of political progress head first. For only the martyr can truly say, "I can reject your desire for a secular utopia because I know there is an everlasting utopia waiting for me."

3. It didn't surprise me one bit that Ratzinger brought up natural law; it is fundamental to Catholic social thought, after all. But what did surprise me was how uncritical he was of it. He's surly read Alasdair MacIntryre's After Virtue.

MacIntryre makes a pretty good argument that the fundamental problem with the natural law theory today is this: Because we lack a common philosophical outlook and therefore a common philosophical language, we are unable to talk with one another. There is no real conversation about key issues, only a shouting match.

How does the Catholic natural law theorist speak to a society of people who do not share some basic philosophical views with him? He cannot, MacIntryre says.

Though I believe in the natural law -- and though I believe that the natural law should be the foundation for political policy -- I cannot see how it can be used today without it being misinterpreted as religious fundamentalism. I was a little disappointed that Ratzinger offered it as a solution without being a little more critical of it.

Vehige: What We Watched in 2006

Here are the movies we watched from when we started this in November 2005 with Troy, to the last movie we watched together in 2006, Apocalypto.

I penciled in my "grade" of the movies from our mutual picks and from those Woodward picked. Obviously, I liked the movies I picked well enough to pick them.

Here are the meanings of the grades, which I stole from Netflix's rating system:

A = Loved it!
B = Really liked it.
C = Liked it.
D = Didn't like it.
F = Hated it.

Mutual Picks:

1. Troy (Vehige = F) (Woodward = F)
2. Peter Jackson's King Kong (Vehige = A) (Woodward = A)
3. Fight Club (Vehige = C) (Woodward = D)
4. The Exorcism of Emily Rose (Vehige = A) (Woodward = B)
5. Walk the Line (Vehige = A) (Woodward = B)
6. The Omen (2006) (Vehige = D) (Woodward = F)
7. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (Vehige = B) (Woodward = B)
8. Apocalypto (Vehige = D) (Woodward = B)

Vehige’s Picks:

1. We Were Soldiers (Woodward = B)
2. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (Woodward = C)
3. Mystic River (Woodward = D)
4. Groundhog Day (Woodward = A)
5. Rope (Woodward = C)
6. Firefly (Episode 1)

Woodward’s Picks:

1. The Lady Vanishes (Vehige = A)
2. Barry Lyndon (Vehige = B)
3. Captain Courageous (Vehige = B)
4. The Searchers (Vehige = C)
5. Becket (Vehige = B)
6. The Old Man and the Sea (Vehige = D)
7. Come to the Stable (Vehige = A)

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Vehige: What to Read or See in 2007

Woodward, do you see anything interesting here? Anything by Knox you've been meaning to read? I've heard of James Hilton, but have never read anything by him. I wouldn't mind trying Random Harvest.

Woodward: Politics and Religion

Politics and religion are supposedly the two most dangerous subjects to discuss. If that's true, then a discussion of the proper relationship between politics and religion seems like a doubly foolhardy idea. Yet that is the organizing topic of Pope Benedict XVI's recent collection of essays, Values in a Time of Upheaval. (Technically, of course, His Holiness was still Cardinal Ratzinger when he delivered the lectures on which these essays are based. But contrary to the impression you might get from the mainstream media, Cardinal Ratzinger and Pope Benedict are one and the same man.)

I don't like the word "values." It has become a tool with which secularists extract from public policy debates all those inconvenient questions about right and wrong so that they can be dealt with (and disposed of) separately. I, for example, am apparently what the pollsters refer to as a "values voter," which means that I choose not to vote for candidates who I think will implement laws that are immoral. What considerations direct the voting habits of anyone who could be called a "non-values voter" I don't know, and don't want to know. But I do know that the word "values" has become effectively meaningless in modern discourse.

It came as a relief, then, to discover that Pope Benedict is using the word -- or its German equivalent werte -- in a way that actually means something. He begins his meditation on the proper role of government by proposing that governments exist to "create the preconditions for peace at home and abroad and for a rule of law that will permit everyone to 'lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectable in every way' (1 Tim 2:2)." He then argues that it is reason -- up to a point -- that enables human beings to craft governmental structures that can accomplish this purpose. Democracy, for example, is a very rational form of government. It is reasonable that a decision of the majority of affected citizens on any given issue will yield results conducive to "peace" and the "rule of law" and a "quiet and peaceable life." But the rule of the majority, while it may establish order, cannot always be relied upon to establish justice. That is because some solutions to social and political problems, while perfectly rational, are not just. We can all supply our own illustrations of this truth. The fact that our individual examples may not match does not call into question the truthfulness of the observation itself. Everyone senses, sooner or later, that the cold, pragmatic operations of reason in political discourse must be grounded in something more basic and more important. That more basic and more important something, in Pope Benedict's view, is the ethical foundation of the natural law. Natural law, in the Pope's view, is where values come from.

In trotting out natural law and its revealed values as the proper corrective to raw rationalism (and therefore referring to it in the book as "right reason"), His Holiness is under no illusion that he is playing any kind of rhetorical trump card. In fact, he almost sounds as if he expects to be laughed at.

Today, however, this 'right reason' seems to have ceased delivering answers to our questions, and natural law is considered, no longer as accessible to the insight of all persons, but rather as a specifically Catholic doctrine.
There -- in one beautiful but matter-of-fact sentence -- Benedict XVI describes the tragedy of the modern world. (One might also recognize in that sentence a description of the tragedy of modern Catholicism, but that is a topic for another post.)

Having abandoned the Christian world view that shaped it, along with its values, western civilization has been forced to concoct for itself a number of consoling mythologies, and Benedict lists them with clinical precision: (1) the myth of progress; (2) the myth of science; and (3) the myth of freedom.

The myth of progress teaches us that technological advancement necessarily implies moral advancement. It doesn't.

The myth of science teaches us that whatever scientific ingenuity can accomplish is worth accomplishing. It isn't.

The myth of freedom teaches us that whatever we are not constrained from, we are free to do. We aren't.

Well, Vehige, I think this initial essay of Benedict's -- "To Change or To Preserve" -- sets out more than enough material for a book of only 172 pages. If he can sort this all out in that small a space, he must be...infallible...or something.

(In case we have any non-Catholic readers, that was a joke.)

Friday, January 19, 2007

Vehige: Europe and America

Well, I'll get this blog going with a short post on the preface to Ratzinger's Values in a Time of Upheaval.

Cardinal Ratzinger opens with these words: "Europe has once again become one of the great topics in the public debate about our present and future."

The question some people might have is this: How does this concern America?

My answer: Because American is becoming more like Europe every day: secular, relativistic, socialistic (in principle if not in government), amoral.

Reading Josef Pieper, especially his Leisure, the Basis of Culture, showed me this. It's as if he were writing to us Americans, today, his ideas and insights are so relevant. If you take away the obvious references to post-World War II Germany, you'd think it was written yesterday.

More importantly, I think, are the questions Ratzinger sketches in the preface. It's as if he were an American writing to Americans.

What are in fact the foundations on which we live? What supports our societies and holds them together? How do states discern their moral bases and, consequently, also the forces that motivate them to moral conduct—forces without which a state cannot exist? How do we locate ourselves and Europe in the global situation—in the tension between North and South, in the tension between the great cultures of humanity, or in the tension between a technological-secular civilization and those ultimate questions to which it can offer no answer?
Are not these the questions America is facing today? Are not these the questions, at least in abstract form, that will be asked over the next two years, from now until November 2008? Questions about the moral foundations of our society; questions about America's role in the world; questions about American culture and society (whatever that is?) becoming a minority in the next fifty years because of immigration.

I've often said that it's more important for Catholics to be Catholic instead of Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal. The nice thing about reading Cardinal Ratzinger's thoughts on these issues is that he is, in no way, shape, or form, a Republican, Democrat, conservative, or liberal—at least from an American point of view. And because he's not writing to Americans about the American situation, it's easier to hear the truth of the Gospel in his words because we're not so close to it.

What is Thursday Night Gumbo?

It all started with The Iliad.

Having both read Homer's epic a few months before the movie Troy was released, we were interested in seeing how the struggle between Achilles and Hector played out on the big screen.

Never having the chance to see it in the theaters (thankfully), we watched it one Thursday night in November 2005.

In the course of the after-movie discussion (we both despised Troy), the movie We Were Soldiers came up. Vehige had seen it and loved it, but Woodward hadn't. So we decided to get together on another Thursday night and watch it.

Now we had seen a movie neither one of us had seen, then a movie Vehige had seen but Woodward hadn't, so it seemed only logical that Woodward pick a movie for us to watch that he'd seen but Vehige hadn't. He picked Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes, which Vehige loved, and that's how our Thursday night movie watching started.

For the last year, we've stuck to this rotation -- mutual pick, Vehige's pick, Woodward's pick -- and, consequently, we've both seen some very good movies neither one of us would have picked on our own.

So where does the "Gumbo" part fit in?

Well, Vehige learned to make pretty good gumbo when he lived in a monastery with two guys from New Orleans, and during the winter it's something he make for us on a semi-regular basis.

Besides that, gumbo itself is symbolic for these movie nights, for gumbo is a mixture of things, and that's usually how these nights go.

Discussion about the movie often leads to discussions about theology, philosophy, history, baseball, art, popular culture . . . you name it.

Once, we ended up skipping the movie entirely as we talked until 1:00 in the morning about divine providence, creation, human free will, and the possibility of a universal salvation.

Needless to say, our wives are glad that we're friends.

So welcome to our blog. We'll be talking about the movies we watch, of course, as well as the books we read. Look to the sidebar to keep abreast of what we're watching and reading.

And please join in on our conversation if you'd like.