Saturday, March 31, 2007

Paul Johnson: Examining Art

It is therefore essential that society defend itself against cultural breakdown. The best way it can do this is by grasping the importance of art to the well-being of mankind: as many people as possible making it their business to examine art constantly, inform themselves about it and develop their faculties of understanding and loving it. For the love of art is a subjective phenomenon, which comes to us through our sympathetic eye, and no expert should be allowed to mediate. In the end, our own eyes are the key to making art our guide and solace, our delight and comfort, our clarifier and mentor -- in short, the God-given staff of life in this vale of tears. We should use our own eyes, train them, and trust them.

-- Paul Johnson, Art: A New History

Friday, March 30, 2007

Woodward: "What God Looks Like"

Sherry W at Intentional Disciples has a thought-provoking post on a subject that has interested me for a long time – Hispanic religious art, especially folk art.

Christianity, of course, is the quintessentially incarnational religion. We worship a God who was born of a woman, who was circumcised, who got hungry and thirsty and so ate and drank, who knelt down and washed his friends' feet, who bled and died. Mexican crucifixes portray this very tangible, very human God more strikingly, perhaps, than any other religious art I can think of. They can be unsettling. In fact, they can be downright disgusting. And that is a good thing. Long before Mel Gibson shocked the world by reminding it that crucifixions were quite an unpleasant business, Spanish and indigenous artists were doing the same thing for Catholics of the newly colonized Americas – people whose daily lives made them far more familiar with the reality of physical violence and pain than most of us will ever be. And that is a truth worth reminding ourselves of from time to time. Christ suffered not just by our anesthetized 21st-century standards, but by any standards. His Passion, as depicted in the rough, graphic style of Spanish colonialism, could provoke tears of compassion not only from missionary priests, but also from conquistadors, many of whom had seen men killed; and from their Indian converts, many of whom were suffering terribly themselves.

In Values in a Time of Upheaval, Pope Benedict says: “The face of Jesus is the face of God. That is what God looks like. Jesus, who suffered for us and forgave his enemies while dying on the cross, shows us how God is.” I try to think in those terms every time I see a crucifix -- “That is what God looks like.” In her post, Sherry W imagines the worshippers in those little colonial churches of New Spain hundreds of years ago, and she asks an intriguing, unanswerable question: Did they -- poor and uncatechized and absorbed as they were with questions of simple survival -- did they know that God loved them? Looking at their crucifixes, I think they did.

* * * * *

As long as we're on the subject of Hispanic religious folk art, let me show off one of my prized possessions. Sherry W likes ex-votos and so do I. Here's one that hangs in my den. It recounts the miraculous healing, following prayers to the Virgin of Juquila, of a merchant who became gravely ill after he sat on a scorpion. Faith doesn't get any more real-life than that.

Memorare, O piissima Virgo Maria....

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Vehige: A Rumor of Angels and Evangelization

I have some things to say about Woodward's previous posts (here and here) but now I want to talk about something Berger brings up in Chapter One of the Rumor of Angels.

For Berger, the line in the sand is clear and unambiguous. On the one side, you have the secular mindset, and on the other, the religious mindset. The secular mindset does not believe in the supernatural (used in the broadest possible sense) and the religious mindset does. For now, let's not make any distinction between religions.

Berger believes that the secular mindset is in the majority. Whether or not this was the case when Rumor of Angels was written (1970) or is the case now -- well, that's a question for another time. But what is true is that the religious mindset is almost constantly besieged by the secular mindset through the mass media, in all of its forms.

Because this is so, the religious mindset is in the minority. This is essential to understand Berger's point.

And what is that point?

Simple: If the religious mindset is in the minority, it can relate to the secular mindset in only one of three ways.

(1) It can adopt a ghetto mentality. This means that the religious man bunkers down and does his best to completely ignore the modern world. He steeps himself in tradition, and only in tradition, and writes off all modern views as both damnable and damning.

(2) It can adopt a liberal mentality. Not political liberalism, but theological liberalism. The kind of liberalism that says that the resurrection of Christ is an experience of spiritual liberation felt by Christ's disciples. The kind of liberalism that tells us Jesus was a great religious thinker, but certainly not God made man. The kind of liberalism that tells us the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes is really a miracle of Woodstock -- that Jesus got everyone the bread and fish they were hiding in their cloaks (perhaps under their armpits). It's the kind of liberalism that affirms the divinity of the human spirit, the divinity of the world, but doubts that there is a Divine One who is Wholly Other from His creation.

(3) Or it can take the attitude of open-dialogue with the secular mind.

It's quite easy to adopt the ghetto mentality, the we vs. us mentality. There is much in the New Testament to suggest this kind of black-white, us-they dualism within the human family. Further, its quite comforting. We are going to heaven. They are going to hell. What can be more emotionally satisfying than the salvation of your own soul and the damnation of your enemy's?

Now, as a home schooler, I see a certain logic to the ghetto mentality. There's a false notion today that children should be exposed to the marketplace of ideas. That's nonsense. Children lack the intellectual maturity to think theologically and philosophically, and therefore they have not the means of thinking through the difference between Christianity and Hinduism.

But the ghetto mentality won't do for adult Christians. The ghetto lacks the power to evangelize the world. If we cannot take the claims of the secular mindset seriously, why should we expect them to take our claims seriously? In the marketplace of ideas, the only currency that's valid is intellectual respect and honesty.

The great risk is that the Christian will soon face the ultimate question: "How do I know Christianity is right?" And that's a question the ghetto mentality refuses to ask.

If the thesis is the ghetto theology, the antithesis is liberal theology. Liberal theology simply says that Christianity isn't correct. That it's wrong. The Jesus of history was a great moral teacher, but the Christ of faith is a fiction. It strips Christianity of everything Christian. And therein lies the problem. Once you strip Christianity of everything Christian, you are left with nothing distinctive and original. If Christ isn't God, if Christ didn't perform miracles, if Christ didn't rise from the dead, if Christ didn't offer us salvation through his blood, then what are we left with?

Ethical teaching without metaphysical grounding. Or, simply, if Jesus isn't God then how could he teach with authority?

The synthesis between these two extremes is that of aggiornamento, i.e., an open consideration of the secular, modern mindset. This attitude rejects the isolationism of the ghetto; it realizes that Christianity, if it is to be effect, cannot exist in a hermetically sealed community. The modern world is asking questions. If Christianity is the truth, then it should be able to answer those questions. If it cannot . . . then do we not have a bigger problem at our door?

But the ghetto mentality has a legitimate concern, namely, that aggiornamento can lead to liberalism. What, exactly, is meant by an open consideration of the secular, modern mindset? Of what do these considerations consist? Is there a line between consideration and concession? Where is that line? If the Christian engaged in this open discussion with the modern world is not careful, they will soon loose everything distinctively Christian. They will be left with nothing.

So what is a modern Christian, who is interested in evangelization, to do? The best answer I can give is this: Study your faith. Do not study apologetics, because that won't help you much. Why? Because your study is based on your interlocutor's questions, not on the whole of Catholic theology. If you want to evangelize, then you need to know what the Church teaches, not how to win a debate.

Read the New Testament. Read the Church Fathers. Read St. Thomas. Read the writings of the Popes. Read the writings of contemporary Catholic thinkers like Henri de Lubac, Josef Pieper, Etienne Gilson, Jacques Maritain, Joseph Ratzinger, Romano Guardini.

Then when you come into contact with a non-Catholic view, regardless of whichever perspective it takes (secular, anti-Catholic, Protestant), you will be able to both defend the Church as well as evangelize the person. Why? Because this kind of in-depth study teaches you that when it comes to truth, one cannot debate, one can only talk.

I've been in many conversations with people who want to debate, and they usually regret it ten minutes into it. Not because I'm an intellectual bully, but because I'm interested in a conversation -- I'm interested in knowing what they believe.

(There's also the fact that I'm completely unflappable when I'm talking about theology, but that's because I don't care about winning an argument. In fact, I'll often help someone formulate objections against the Church. This really upsets them, of course. Once, when talking about the authority of the priesthood, I actually offended a Protestant by bringing up the priest sex abuse scandals. Strange, huh?)

If you're trying to figure out the point of this post, well, I'm not sure I have one. It's more of a ramble, but, then, that's the beauty of blogs.

But I'll leave you with this.

There's only one way to evangelize the world, and that's through knowing your faith.

And there's only one way to know your faith, and that's through real study. Popular teachers like Frank Sheed, Scott Hahn, and Peter Kreeft are good in the beginning, but there comes a point when you must sit at the feet of your intellectual superiors if you're going to really learn anything worthwhile.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

St. John Fisher: The Two Parts of Penance

There are two things, therefore, which are the true cause that we turn ourselves to almighty God: one is when we call to mind his fearful and grievous punishment; the other is the sorrow in our heart when we remember the multitude of our sins by which our best and most meek Lord God is greatly displeased with us. The fear of God's punishment causes sorrow for sin, and whoever is in the calamity of this great fear and sorrow undoubtedly turns himself to almighty God. And this moving of the soul caused first by fear and afterward by a sorrow referred to God is called contrition, the first part of penance. The second part of penance follows, which is confession; it is not enough for a penitent to be contrite for his sins, he must also reveal them all to a priest, his spiritual father, when he finds the fitting time and space to do so. For as we said before, if we ourselves hide and cover our sins, almighty God shall uncover them, and if on the contrary we make them open and reveal them, he shall hide and put them out of knowledge.

--Exposition of the Seven Penitential Psalms, 1508

Friday, March 23, 2007

Woodward: The USCCB and Prof. Maguire

BLOGGER'S NOTE: I resolved, when this blog first started, that I would refrain as far as it was in my power from participating in the Catholic culture wars that currently agitate the Church. I'm suspending that resolution for this one post.

There's an old joke about a man and his young son who are attending the consecration of a Catholic bishop. As the bishop-elect kneels before the celebrant for the laying on of hands, the father leans over to the boy and whispers, “Now watch, son, this is where they remove his spine.”

Well, a majority of the U.S. Catholic bishops seem to have escaped that particular rubric and have recently exhibited considerable spine. As a body, they have pronounced certain opinions of Prof. Daniel Maguire of Marquette University to be “false teaching.” Yes, that is an exact quotation from the bishops' statement, believe it or not. Read the statement here. And read a report (free registration required) of Prof. Maguire's response here, including his assertion that “there’s a large school of thought that agrees with everything I’ve said in these pamphlets.”

No doubt there is.

Woodward: Go Tell the Spartans

Vehige has already made most of the worthwhile points about 300. (I need to start posting earlier.)

I pretty much second everything he says, although I think he was perhaps a bit rough on the “intellectual elites.” If he's applying that binomial nomenclature to the movie reviewers of the New York Times and the Washington Post, I would suggest that he's wrong on at least the first count, and arguably on the second as well. (Besides, Vehige, why don't we just declare ourselves to be the intellectual elite and have done with it? I think that's what the Times and the Post did, and it worked for them.)

What hit home with me in watching 300, aside from what Vehige has already commented on, was something I noticed at the very beginning and the very end of the movie.

Item One. In the opening sequence, we see the young (maybe ten-year-old?) Leonidas being trained in hand-to-hand combat by his father (King Anaxandridas – I had to look it up). It's an unequal contest to begin with, and it ends with the beefy, muscle-bound father delivering a backhand blow to his young son that sends the boy flying across the courtyard, his face smeared with blood. This is child abuse, by any standard applicable anywhere in Western civilization today. Yet the father obviously loves his son. He is teaching him the very skills – and virtues – that, thirty years later, will enable Leonidas to turn the course of history and ensure the survival of that same Western civilization which now rejects the Spartan values of physical courage, self-denial, and sacrifice for the common good. Ironic, no?

Item Two. Toward the end of the movie, when Leonidas realizes that the Spartans' mission is doomed and that he and all his comrades will soon be dead, he chooses one of his best fighters – a man also skilled in speech – to go back to Sparta and carry the account of how the battle went. (It is, in fact, this man's account that frames the entire movie.) Leonidas is concerned about his reputation, about history, about teaching to another generation the lesson his own father taught him in that unequal contest thirty years earlier in the palace courtyard. These considerations, these motives are in fact the beginnings of literature – narratives of the exploits of brave and noble men (and women – don't give me a hard time) that are meant to instruct and inspire those who read/hear/watch them. The reason there can be anti-heroes today is that there once, long ago, were heroes.

The qualities celebrated in 300 are what we once called the “civic virtues.” Love of country. Love of family. Love of civilization – although relatively few human beings in the history of the world have found themselves caught up, as Leonidas was, in a true contest of civilizations. We don't really think in those terms any more. All the virtues publicly celebrated in our own time are virtues linked to individual freedom – the virtues of personal expression, the supreme virtue of being ourselves. If we are exhorted to any “civic virtues” nowadays, they are virtues that would have seemed quite alien, and quite trivial, to the 300 Spartans: avoiding “offensive speech”; minimizing our “carbon footprint” (or paying someone to do it for us); voting higher taxes so that the government can “take care of” all those inconvenient people that we would rather not have to worry about as individual human beings.

I walked out of the theater last night feeling rather ashamed.

Vehige: 300 Revisited

I first became aware of the existence of the movie 300 when I saw Apocalypto back in December. I knew nothing of the Frank Miller's graphic novel. It was easy for me to assume it was little more than a Lord of the Rings rip-off.

Then I started hearing things about it. Good things. Even great things. A fantasy version of Herodotus. The intellectual elite across the globe hated it. Violence. Nudity. Violence. Sex. More violence. It sounded like a movie I'd love.

It did not disappoint.

(I already have a reputation with one of Woodward's kids for having an unhealthy appetite for very violent movies. In fact, while Woodward was writing a post Apocalypto during our debate, she asked him if he liked it.

"Yes, I did."

"Did Mr. Vehige like it?"

"No, not very much."

"Hmm . . . that's surprising.

My unabashed love for 300 will not help me in any way.)

Yes, that's right, I loved 300. And not because it was loaded with violence (though that helped) but because it's a great story about nobility and sacrifice.

I don't want to talk about the political implications of the film. I don't think there are any. Regardless of your opinion of the war in Iraq, if you're a thinking person you must admit that freedom, whether it's political freedom or spiritual freedom, costs the price of blood. This is an eternal truth—the kind necessary for good fiction, according to Faulkner.

And I don't want to talk about the lack of historical truth. Who cares? As Chesterton said, legend is far more interesting that fact. Besides, as Victor David Hanson points out, Ancient Greek drama brought a fantastical dimension to their own story telling. Was there one Ancient Greek who really believed the gods acted in the way Homer describes? Perhaps—but he certain didn't believe the gods acted like that in his day.

Did any medieval person sitting around the campfire hearing the story of Beowulf really believe that Grendel or the great dragon existed? I doubt it. In our post-Enlightenment day, we like to think of the ancients and medievals as a bunch of dim-witted idiots. Sure, they were more willing to believe in the supernatural than we are, but they'd certainly know the difference between the supernatual and the fictional.

Only those who think the realistic school of fiction is the most artistic and intellectually satisfying school will think that a movie like 300 is worthless. They forget that it was Tolstoy in the mid-1800's who ushered in the realistic school. Before that, can anyone name one non-fantastic, non-romantic story? They simply don't exist. Even those writers who seem to write only about everyday life, such as Dickens, don't. Sure, there's nothing fantastic in Great Expectations,but criminals simply don't become the benefactors to poor blacksmith boys. That's not real life. That's as strange and fantastic as the elephants in 300.

But what really drives modern critics mad isn't that 300 is a fantasy, but, rather, that it rubs too hard against their nihilism. The deep meaning of a story like 300 is that death and sacrifice are meaningful. Death and sacrifice can bring change. Death and sacrifice can change the course of history. As Horace said, "It's a noble thing to die for one's country." (That's not quite it, but it's close enough.) So when a movie like 300 says life is meaningful, the intellectual elites can't wrap their puny nihilistic ideas around that concept. It's too big for them. It has too many ramifications. It rocks their world.

One last point: I found the movie to be absolutely beautiful. There are very few movies that I just like to look at. The Lord of the Rings is one. Barry Lyndon is another. 300 ranks right up there. It's a stunning film, visually. The three main colors—a burning gold, red, and black—are the three colors used by the ancient Greeks in their pottery, and the makers of 300 use those colors in dazzling ways.

I'm looking forward to seeing it again when it hits the dollar shows. I might even buy it when it comes out on DVD.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Vehige: 300

Well, we're off to see 300 tonight. Technically, it should be Woodward's pick. But every once in a while we'll switch things around so we can see new releases in the theater -- especially those that should be seen on the big screen, like 300.

Ironically, once we started this blog, we haven't watched a movie that has really seemed blog-worthy. It seems like we watched a bunch of really intriguing films last year. Part of it has to do with our watching Firefly; it's hard sometimes to have anything to say about a 40-minute T.V. episode. Our last mutual pick, Touch of Evil, was rather bland. And though I really enjoyed Woodward's pick of Fear Strikes Out, it's not the kind of movie you end up talking about.

Given how much ink has been spilled on 300 (is that still an appropriate metaphor in the on-line age?), I'm going to assume we'll have something to say about it.

Vehige: Reading and Life

Well, I think it's finally time to admit to myself that trying to read multiple books at once just doesn't work anymore.

The problem is that I have kids, and I home school them, and my oldest is involved in two sports, and my wife is working longer hours after a promotion, and a lot of other things I don't want to bore anyone with. All of this means that I simply don't have the time or the energy to plow through three or four books at once.

So I'm officially declaring myself a one-book-at-a-time reader.

Thus I'd like to make a formal apology to Woodward for my lack of posts on Berger's Rumor of Angels. I'm about 50 pages behind you (since we have the same editions of Berger, I'll let you figure out where I am; it's pretty sad), but I'll be catching up soon, once I finish the John D. MacDonald novel I'm reading -- The Deep Blue Good-by. This is the first Travis McGee novel, and the first McGee novel I've read, and I have to say that it's really, really good. So good, in fact, that I'm going to read all 21 in the series.

But I'll finish Berger before I start on that project. I promise.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Woodward: Moral Chimpanzees

I was going to ignore this. (The New York Times online requires free registration.) But then John Derbyshire, National Review's resident secularist, wrote a vaguely appreciative post about it, which suggests that it has a wider appeal than I would have thought. Derbyshire knows some of the science behind the "news" story, so perhaps the hypothesis is more respectable than it seems on the basis of this article, which strikes me as...well, let's just say I find it intellectually flawed. That certainly may be Nicholas Wade's fault rather than Frans de Waal's, but then a lot more people are going to read Wade than will ever get around to reading de Waal.

I usually consider fisking to be a rather lazy method of debate, but sometimes it's all there's time for. My comments are in red bold.

“If morality grew out of behavioral rules shaped by evolution, it is for biologists, not philosophers or theologians, to say what these rules are.”

I agree -- if morality grew out of behavioral rules shaped by evolution.

"Marc Hauser, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard, proposed in his book Moral Minds that the brain has a genetically shaped mechanism for acquiring moral rules, a universal moral grammar similar to the neural machinery for learning language."

Nothing is more tiresome than someone constantly insisting that we define our terms, but isn't the basis of any controversy that could arise from Hauser's proposition the meaning of the term “moral”?

"Though human morality may end in notions of rights and justice and fine ethical distinctions, it begins, Dr. de Waal says, in concern for others and the understanding of social rules as to how they should be treated. At this lower level, primatologists have shown, there is what they consider to be a sizable overlap between the behavior of people and other social primates."

Note the jumble of undifferentiated terms here that denote, on the one hand, empirical observation; and, on the other, anthropomorphized attributions of conscious intent. The word “notions,” to begin with. “Concern.” “Understanding.” “Should.” Have I missed a whole body of biological research demonstrating that non-human animals can have “notions” or “concerns” or “understanding”? Or that a non-human animal has any concept (oops, now I'm doing it myself!) that it “should” do something?

"Dr. de Waal believes that these actions are undertaken for the greater good of the community, as distinct from person-to-person relationships."

Here again, I have to question the implied attribution to chimpanzees not only of intent but of abstract thought, in the statement that an action is “undertaken for the greater good of the community.” Perhaps that only means that the chimpanzees' behavior – whatever causes it – has as one of its end results the good of the community. It's not impossible to imagine an evolutionary nexus out of which such instinctive behaviors might be genetically preserved. (It's also not impossible to question rationally, as David Stove did, how altruistic animal behavior could ever be "selected for" under a Darwinian understanding of evolutionary processes, but we'll let that go for now.) But how on earth could anyone ever know, let alone demonstrate, that a chimpanzee is doing something because it understands that doing it will serve “the greater good of the community.” Use of the phrase “greater good” alone should alert any self-reflective biologist that he has started practicing philosophy without a license. Oh, and then there is that truly unsettling use of the phrase “person-to-person.” Aren't we talking about chimpanzees here??

"Psychologists objected to attributing any emotional state to animals. Dr. de Waal convinced his colleagues over many years that the ban on inferring emotional states was an unreasonable restriction, given the expected evolutionary continuity between humans and other primates."

Notice what's going on here. We are considering the question whether morality is a product of evolution. The evidence being offered for that hypothesis is a certain type of observed animal behavior which, if it is prompted by anthropomorphically understood emotions, would indeed suggest that the rudiments of a “moral sense” can be found in lower primates and offer an explanation of how human beings developed their own more sophisticated moral sense. But the reason for believing that these anthropomorphically understood emotions exist in animals is “the expected evolutionary continuity between humans and other primates.” If that's the case, then why go to all the trouble of spending one's life watching chimpanzees? If we are required to accept the “expected evolutionary continuity of humans and other primates” as a way of understanding whatever we observe, mightn't we just skip the empirical field work and simply sign an affidavit to the effect that “Darwin has explained everything”?

"Many philosophers believe that conscious reasoning plays a large part in governing human ethical behavior."

Good to know. (One can learn so much from reading the New York Times.) Still, it's a bit disconcerting to see this startling assertion of a connection between reason and ethics being defended by...Peter Singer. The longer I live, the more often I find myself embarrassed by the people with whom I find myself on the same side of various arguments.

“'Human behavior derives above all from fast, automated, emotional judgments, and only secondarily from slower conscious processes,' Dr. de Waal writes."

Would he, I wonder, accept that as an explanation of how he derived his own theories?

"Philosophers have another reason biologists cannot, in their view, reach to the heart of morality, and that is that biological analyses cannot cross the gap between 'is' and 'ought,' between the description of some behavior and the issue of why it is right or wrong."

Wait a minute. I thought “the issue of why [some behavior] is right or wrong” was what we meant by morality. (See why I made that comment earlier about defining our terms?) So it turns out that philosophers and biologists -- far from being locked in mortal combat over the origins of morality -- aren't even in the same room on this one. Scientists haven't "found the beginnings of morality in primate behavior." They've simply found some primate behavior and decided to call it the beginnings of morality.

I could have been watching
American Idol all this time.

Vehige: If you want to have a peacefull sleep . . .

. . . don't decide at 10:00 at night to sit down to relax with the Disk One of any season of 24 and watch the first episode, because you'll inevitably watch the second episode, then the third, then the fourth, and then be so riled up that you'll toss and turn until two in the morning, wake up at 3:00, then again at 3:45, then sometime around 4:30, before you're so tired that you more-or-less pass out, and then when you finally do crawl out of bed you seriously contemplate driving to Target to buy the damn thing so you can have some resolution to your life.

I don't know whether or not I think 24 is any good, but I have finish the first season soon or else I'LL GO MAD!

Needless to say, this is my first experience with the show. My wife got it through Netflix, and is planning to watch it in the mornings while she rides the stationary bike. This show is so high-energy that she'll loose at least 20 pounds watching Disk One alone.

How anyone can watch this show on a week-to-week basis is confounding!

Monday, March 19, 2007

Woodward: What's in a Name?

After 13 years, Dallas-Fort Worth baseball fans will no longer have to watch their team play in a stadium with no name ("The Ballpark in Arlington") or in a 49,000-seat paid commercial announcement ("Ameriquest Field"). Come Opening Day, the Texas Rangers will be playing their home games in...Rangers Ballpark.

Now that wasn't so hard, was it?

How Much is Thursday Night Gumbo Worth?

My blog is worth $20,887.98.
How much is your blog worth?

I didn't know an Insignificant Microbe could be worth so much!

Woodward: More Sociology of Religion

I am halfway through Peter Berger's A Rumor of Angels and no longer afraid that I'll have to give up before I get to the end. (There are only 50 pages left.) But I am still having problems with it.

Berger views religious belief, so far as I can tell, as a completely subjective cognitive activity, whether it is the incommunicable experience of a mystic or the socially comfortable creed of a liberal Protestant. He views organized religion, again so far as I can tell, as a purely man-made construct laid on top of these subjective religious experiences as a way of supporting and perpetuating them. In the sociological jargon that Berger both uses and half-ridicules, it might be said that he believes in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic “plausibility structure.” In case you don't know what a plausibility structure is, here is Berger's explanation:

The supportive community (in this instance, the institutional church) provides specific practices, rituals, and legitimations that maintain the faith over and beyond its basic maintenance by a Catholic social milieu. This, of course, includes the whole body of pious practices, from the formal sacraments to the private reassurance rites (such as prayer) recommended to the individual. It also includes the body of knowledge (in the Catholic case, vast in volume and of immense sophistication) that provides explanation and justification for each detail of religious life and belief.

If you have a hard time recognizing in that description any organized religion with which you're familiar, well, I have the same difficulty. The problem is that Berger hardly seems to know what a revealed religion is. He seems to think that religions – and here he shows no inclination to distinguish a religion like Christianity from a religion like Buddhism or even Confucianism – all begin with a group of like-minded people somehow coming together and devising a way of keeping the “club” going. The notion that the content of religious belief could have its very origin in a “plausibility structure,” rather than merely using the structure to safeguard or advance a set of common but subjective convictions, does not enter into Berger's formulation at all. Here is the inconvenient truth that undercuts Berger's sociological view of organized religion: One comes to a knowledge of – and hence a belief in – Jesus only through His Church. (A Protestant would say, I suppose, that one comes to faith in Jesus through the Bible, but the Bible itself comes to us through the Church. I know, I know. We can leave that debate for another time.) The fact remains that the plausibility of the Christian revelation and the plausibility of the Christian Church are one and the same. In the case of Christianity, at least, the plausibility structure is not concocted to sustain belief. It is the genesis of belief.

The farther Berger strays from his sociological moorings, the more perceptive he becomes. For example: Because the globalization of human culture assails us with such a multiplicity of religious forms to choose among, faith has become relativized in the modern world. One set of beliefs has more or less the same claim on our attention -- and our credulity -- as another. Where, Berger asks, does this leave theology? To answer his own question, he uses mathematics as an analogy for the function that he believes theology may still be able to carve out for itself in a secularized world. Although mathematics is, in Berger's phrase, “a pure projection of human consciousness” – that is, an intellectual process that can exist completely independent of material reality – it nonetheless turns out to have all sorts of correspondences to the physical sciences and their analysis of material reality. The reason for these correspondences (again in Berger's words) is “a fundamental affinity between the structures of [human] consciousness and the structures of the empirical world.” Berger is echoing here the Thomistic definition of truth – an ontological correspondence between the mind and things. Adequatio intellectus et rei. Why might there not exist a similar set of correspondences, Berger asks, between a world of supernatural realities and “the projections of man's religious imagination”? Why may we not suppose that the human mind is the proper instrument for apprehending not just biological or chemical truths but truths about God as well?

The classical Christian answer is that we may suppose so. But no “projection of human consciousness” by itself can take anyone all the way from philosophical abstraction to the Nicene Creed. Only revelation can do that, and revelation is not accounted for in Berger's sociology – at least not in the first half of the book.

“If the religious projections of man correspond to a reality that is superhuman and supernatural, then it seems logical to look for traces of this reality in the projector himself.” Fair enough. On the basis of that statement, I think Peter Berger and St. Paul might get along very well. But St. Paul knew that those traces of a supernatural reality within man are a preparation for the Gospel, not the Gospel itself. To recognize this is not necessarily to fall back on the distinction – which Berger dismisses as "ingenious" – between “profane history” and “salvation history,” or to claim a unique status for Christianity that history itself does not substantiate. It is simply a fact that the Christian Church has given us the Christian faith, not the other way around. (Am I na├»ve in believing that even a non-Christian would agree with that?) All of this does not necessarily make Christianity immune from sociological analysis (if that is what one wants to do), but it will require a different set of sociological tools from those that Peter Berger has described in the first two chapters of A Rumor of Angels.

I'm still keeping an open mind, Vehige.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Woodward: March 19, Solemnity of St. Joseph

One of my favorite prayers, very elegant in Latin. It captures in just a few words both the divine grandeur and the human intimacy of the task to which St. Joseph was called.

O felicem virum, beatum Ioseph, cui datum est Deum, quem multi reges voluerunt videre et non viderunt, audire et non audierunt, non solum videre et audire, sed portare, deosculari, vestire et custodire.
V. Ora pro nobis, beate Ioseph.
R. Ut digni efficiamur promissionibus Christi.

O happy man, blessed Joseph, to whom it was granted not only to see and to hear that God Whom many kings longed to see and saw not, longed to hear and heard not; but also to carry Him, to kiss Him, to clothe Him, and to guard Him.
V. Pray for us, blessed Joseph.
R. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Woodward: Religion and the New York Times

Having already gotten the subject of “religion and the Washington Post” out of my system, I find myself with a few comments to make about the other great left-wing East Coast newspaper and its coverage of Catholic affairs. My comments are inspired by some pretty widespread criticism of the way in which the secular media have reported on Pope Benedict's apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis. You can find the criticism, either explicit or implied, at influential blogs like Open Book and GetReligion. And the gist of the criticism is this – that news stories about Sacramentum Caritatis have focused almost exclusively on the Pope's tangential remarks concerning divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, and priestly celibacy, rather than on the central theme of the exhortation – the ways in which Catholic liturgy supports and illuminates Eucharistic theology and spirituality.

Ian Fisher's article for the New York Times, which both of the blogs mentioned above link to in making their point, is fairly representative of the mainstream media's treatment of the story. And you know what? I don't really see anything wrong with the Times' coverage. Catholic teaching that affects the way Catholics go about living their lives in American society may sometimes be news. Catholic theology, spirituality, and liturgical practice are virtually never news. (Liturgy wasn't really all that newsworthy, by itself, even when it did become “news” in the late 1960s upon the introduction of Mass in the vernacular languages. I'll explain why in a second.)

As Catholics, we should have a lively interest in lex orandi as lex credendi. We may even have strong opinions on such relatively minor issues (that may get me some comments) as the placement of the tabernacle, the timing of the sign of peace, or the language in which the Mass is celebrated. But we cannot reasonably expect the non-Catholic world to have any particular interest in such things. So if the New York Times, reporting to that non-Catholic world on what we as Catholics do, finds the Pope's teaching on the moral obligations of Catholic politicians more important than his views on the excellence of Gregorian chant, I am not inclined to say that the Times is reporting the wrong story. If Catholics want access to (or analysis of) what the Church teaches on matters of faith, morals, or liturgy, we have better sources than the New York Times. There are plenty of subjects on which I would not trust the Times any farther than I could throw a bundle of 20 Sunday editions. But I do trust it – and concede its right – to decide which aspects of Catholicism are of interest to its own readers.

Now, I would hate to end any post to this blog with a complimentary or even conciliatory comment about the mainstream media and their attitude toward the Catholic Church. So let me add one more point. Have you ever noticed how, every time a major newspaper or TV network reports that the Pope – any Pope – has reaffirmed some central tenet of Catholic doctrine, it does so with a note of surprise, disappointment, almost betrayal, as if the Church has missed yet another opportunity to correct some long-standing and embarrassing mistake? Ever since the days of the Second Vatican Council, when a few very visible changes in Catholic practice whetted modernity's appetite for more, the secular media have maintained a vigil for sweeping change as the underlying narrative that shapes all their reporting on Catholicism. Will this (they ask) be the year, will this be the pontificate, in which the Church finally drops all the hocus-pocus and becomes respectable in the eyes of the world? The answer is consistently no, of course, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. And to a secular sensibility, that “no news” is “bad news.”

“Pope Reaffirms View Opposing Gay Marriage and Abortion,” the headline says. What the headline means is something closer to: “Yes, of course, that's the Pope's current 'view,' or at worst the 'view' of the current Pope, but sooner or later even the Catholic Church will have to come to its senses and start listening to the New York Times. Until then, the Catholic news will continue to be that there is no news.”

“Sun Rises in East...Again! When Will the Madness Stop?”

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Vehige: Incarnational Love

From Flannery O'Connor's The Habit of Being:

God became not only a man, but Man. This is the mystery of the Redemption and our salvation is worked out on earth according as we love one another, see Christ in one another, etc., by works. This is one reason I am chary of using the word, love, loosely. I prefer to use it in its practical forms, such as prayer, almsgiving, visiting the sick and burying the dead and so forth.

As I noted a few weeks ago, I'm trying something different this Lent. Instead of giving up such-and-such a pleasure and reading such-and-such book, I decided to focus on performing my duties with single-minded attention and to the best of my abilities.

What has surprised me is how "spiritual" this experience has been. I've been experiencing a deep sense of peace -- a peace that surpasses understanding. And I don't say that lightly, either. There has been a sense of contentment, such as I've never experienced before.

It occurred to me before reading the O'Connor passage that a fundamental mistake I've made in my spiritual life has been, well, to be spiritual. I was a Gnostic, in a sense. I loved God with my mind, I suppose, since I studied theology and philosophy, but not with my heart, my body, or my strength, or my will. In other words, there was study and prayer (more study than prayer), and that's where I found God -- or believed that God could be found there. The pots and pans, the dirty laundry, the taking my kids to soccer and t-ball practices or on play dates, the spending time with my extended family -- that was all a burden one must endure.

But once Lent started -- once I decided to accept fully the responsibilities of my state in life, the responsibilities God has given me -- things suddenly changed. Without going theological on you, I'll say that things began to "feel right." I knew I was doing what I was "supposed to do." These duties became a "school of prayer," and "school of charity," because I wasn't doing them for myself, but for my wife and kids. The peace granted me for my own abandonment to Divine Providence flowed over to them. And for the first time in my life I see that I have yet to really live as a Christian should live -- to really be the light of the world, the salt of the earth, the leaven of society.

Then last night I read the above passage in O'Connor's The Habit of Being, and I realized that I was on the right path. God loved us by becoming man, and the only way we can love God is by being men, and by loving men.

God loved us through the Incarnation, and the only way we can love God is through incarnational love.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Woodward: Reading Benedict XVI

For one brief ecstatic moment, Vehige, I looked at this and thought that His Holiness was now posting his apostolic exhortations directly on Thursday Night Gumbo. (That would be even better than getting blogrolled by Amy Welborn.) Then I realized it was just you.

I wish I could say that I too will be commenting on Sacramentum Caritatis. But I haven't even read Deus Caritas Est yet. I do solemnly resolve, however, to get through both of them by May 15, so that I can start on this.

Vehige: Orson Scott Card on Global Warming

Here's a link to Orson Scott Card's essay on global warming. OSC, if you don't know, is one of the most popular science fiction writers working today. He's not a scientist himself (which is why he writes such good science fiction), but he is very knowledgeable about science (which is why he writes such good science fiction).

I don't think it would be too far to say that Card believes that the dire warnings of the global warming club may be the best science fiction composed this century -- and the most insidious. As he notes:

"After all, there are now governments all over the world basing their decisions on Mann's false report. Crucial decisions are being made. Schoolchildren are being terrorized with dire projections of what will happen if Mann's report is not believed and acted upon. Vast sums of money are being spent. People are treating Mann's cause as a crusade -- and his fake results are the chief weapon they use to prove their case."

Not knowing enough science to say whether or not I agree with Card, I simply stand here and say, "Here's a good article about a pressing issue you should read."

Let me know what you think.

Pope Benedict XVI: Sacramentum Caritatis

Here it is, if you're interested. I'll be reading it over the next couple of days. I hope to write a post or two.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Woodward: Home Schooling

Since you've asked me some straightforward questions, Vehige, I'll respond – at the risk of turning this, if only temporarily, into a Catholic home school blog, of which there are already plenty.

“Socialization” – the stick with which anti-home-schooling partisans customarily attack home schoolers – is, as you observe, a two-edged sword. There is, admittedly, a danger in sheltering home-schooled children too much from the culture at large, and it's true that the impulse driving some parents to choose home schooling is an almost pathological fear of the secular world and a desire to keep their children from acquiring any knowledge of it whatsoever. I have met some home schooling families like that, and I try to stay away from them.

But it's also important to consider for a moment the “society” into which public-school students are going to be “socialized.” That society is a radically artificial one, consisting of a single adult and 20 or so children, a society quite unlike any that has ever existed naturally in the history of civilization. In such a society, the influence of a student's 20 same-age peers is going to outweigh many times over the influence of the lone adult, even assuming that the adult's influence is an edifying one (not always a safe assumption). It is an unusual 10-year-old, and an even more unusual 16-year-old, who wants to be like his 40-year-old English or math teacher rather than his 10- or 16-year-old friends. I don't know many 16-year-olds whose “philosophy of education” I would want my own sons and daughters to adopt as their own.

My wife and I hope and believe that we are passing along to our home-schooled children a body of knowledge that will equip them to live as responsible and intellectually sophisticated adults. But more than that, we are confident that we are educating them in an environment where everyone they come in contact with values learning for its own sake, and that the attitude cultivated in such an environment will shape their desire to continue learning for the rest of their lives.

This is too big a topic to discuss in short blog posts like this one. And I'm not sure I want to devote the requisite time or space to a discussion that will do the topic justice. Other bloggers are already doing a fine job of explaining why home schoolers do what they do. Nor am I, frankly, much of an evangelist for home schooling. I understand that there are many parents who are not in a position – for any number of reasons – to educate their children themselves. If someone has made a conscious, deliberate decision not to home school, then that is in all probability the right decision. But if your question, Vehige, is whether I think home schooling must be, to some degree, a counter-cultural enterprise carried on by a “cognitive minority” (in Peter Berger's phrase), then my answer is yes. And it's not just the integration of a Catholic world view into the study of every academic discipline that makes our home schooling counter-cultural – although that would be a good enough reason in itself. Just as importantly, it is the very attitude toward learning that permeates the atmosphere in which I want my children to be educated.

Vehige: Home Schooling

From Peter Berger's A Rumor of Angels:

The status of a cognitive minority is thus invariably an uncomfortable one—not necessarily because the majority is repressive or intolerant, but simply because it refuses to accept the minority's definitions of reality as "knowledge." At best, a minority viewpoint is forced to be defensive. At worst, it ceases to be plausible to anyone.

Okay, Woodward, I'm a little behind in my reading of Berger, but I wanted to say something about this passage. My comments have nothing to do with religion. Instead, I want to talk about home schooling.

It t seems to me that this passage is a great rationale for home schooling.

Sure, we home school our children for religious reasons. We both want our kids to grow up to be believing, practicing Catholics. And we both know that to be a believing, practicing Catholic is a "cognitive minority" in the public school systems . . . or anywhere else, for that matter. Our fear is that Berger's worst will become an actuality—that the Catholic faith will cease to be plausible to our children.

But we also home school our kids for educational reasons. Without picking on the public schools, it seems to me that one socialization skill kids pick up at school is that of anti-education. It's not cool to read, to study, to be interested in history or science or math. Oh, you can be good at math; you'll be envied for that. But to admit that you enjoy math . . . that's a different story altogether.

One of the kinds of "knowledge" (and I use the quotation marks because I'm using Berger's definition here, namely, as an idea that is accepted by the majority as true) I want to give to my kids is that it's good to know things—to know a lot of things. That one should enjoy learning, enjoy reading, and should strive to be interested in all kinds of things, from Polish history, to the moons of Jupiter, to ancient Egyptian mythology.

Several years ago, I caught up with my old high-school psychological teacher. He asked if I were considering home schooling my kids. My oldest was still an only child at the time, no older than two, but I told him that I was indeed considering it. He thought it was a great idea for one sole reason: That home schooling preserved the natural love of learning that was too often destroyed by the third or forth grade.

You're oldest is twice as old as mine, so maybe you're in a better position to say whether or not home schooling preserves the natural love of learning.

Of course, what 14-year-old finds anything interesting other than his navel?

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Woodward: Ordinatio Sacerdotalis

Mark Shea links to an article about theologian Sr. Sara Butler (left, with Pope Benedict), once an advocate for the ordination of women to the Catholic priesthood but more recently the author of a book defending the Church's traditional teaching. I think we could use such a book. (Wanna give it a quick read, Vehige? Cardinal George apparently likes it.)

I still think the best brief explanation of the theological basis for a male priesthood was offered by C. S. Lewis in his 1948 essay "Priestesses in the Church." It is included in God in the Dock and can also be read online. (Lewis somehow gets Mary's presence at Pentecost wrong, but he is right about virtually everything else.) Here is a sample:

One of the ends for which sex was created was to symbolize to us the hidden things of God. One of the functions of human marriage is to express the nature of the union between Christ and the Church. We have no authority to take the living and semitive figures which God has painted on the canvas of our nature and shift them about as if they were mere geometrical figures.

There is a poignancy to the realization that Lewis, in this essay, was cautioning his own communion, the Church of England, on the subject of ordaining women to the priesthood, and those cautions went unheeded. It is certainly not too late, though, for the Catholic Church to profit from his insights, and Sr. Sara Butler's.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Woodward: Sociology and Religion

I took my one and only sociology course – it happened to be sociology of religion – in the very year (1969) that Peter Berger published A Rumor of Angels, the book that Vehige and I are going to be discussing in our next several posts. And when Berger says, in the book's first essay, that conservative Catholics view sociology as “one of the more nefarious devilries of modern intellect,” he has my own opinion of his profession pretty well pegged.

Sociology is a discipline – psychology would be another – that claims to make human behavior the subject of scientific analysis. In the process, both disciplines almost invariably descend (in my opinion) into a reductionist and mechanistic view of human nature that ultimately falsifies the whole undertaking. One can observe the operation of planets, or molecules, or light waves, or fruit flies, extrapolate from those observations, and predict with some success the future operation of the observed subjects. But to convince oneself that the same can be done with human behavior, it becomes methodologically necessary sooner or later to believe that there is not much difference – at least not much difference in any way that counts for a sociologist – between human beings and molecules, or fruit flies.

That is the problem I am going to have with Berger, so I might as well acknowledge it at the beginning. Having said that, I must also admit that many of his observations about religion in modern society – particularly in the late 1960s, when my own Church was undergoing such profound challenges – are extremely acute and insightful. He's right, for example, in explaining why Protestantism fell victim to anti-supernaturalist tendencies (the phenomenon that is the primary subject of his book) before Catholicism did. It's because Protestantism (in Berger's words) “has always been particularly open to the spirit of modernity,” while the Catholic Church “has viewed the modern world with much more suspicion” and typically confronts the spirit of the age with “a magnificent defiance.” That last observation would be truer of Catholicism in the 1860s than the 1960s, but as a way of distinguishing Catholic and Protestant attitudes toward each tradition's relationship to history, I believe it is useful.

The theme of Berger's study – or at least one of its themes – is going to be the way in which individual religious faith is shaped by the religious attitudes of the society in which that faith must be lived out. When the beliefs of the individual and those of the culture come into opposition, the individual undergoes what Berger calls “cognitive exile.” It is very difficult, in Berger's view, to maintain one's faith while experiencing such an exile. He illustrates his thesis with the example of someone who accepts the validity of astrology but finds himself in a modern rationalistic culture where horoscopes are regarded as crude superstition:

Unless he can insulate himself against this massive challenge to his previously taken-for-granted reality (which would presuppose an available group of fellow astrologers to take refuge with), he will soon begin to doubt his challenged “knowledge”...The predictable conclusion of the unequal struggle is...the progressive disintegration of the plausibility of the challenged “knowledge” in the consciousness of the one holding it.

In other words, it is a human tendency to abandon or modify one's own beliefs in the face of social hostility to those beliefs, and ultimately to adopt the religious sensibilities of the social group with which one identifies. I assume that, at some point in his book, Berger will address history's most obvious exception to that principle – the triumph of the Christian religion in the Roman world after hundreds of years of intense persecution.

What struck me about this first essay was that Berger makes no distinction among various kinds and degrees of belief. It seems to me that religious opinions that are passively absorbed from the culture in which one lives, rather than firmly and committedly assented to as matters of real belief, would be the ones most likely to collapse in the face of social disapproval. To take Catholicism as an example – since it's the one most familiar to me – it would not be surprising to find “cultural Catholics,” those whose religious identity is defined by family or ethnic associations rather than deeply held religious beliefs, turning out to be the ones who most readily fall away from the practice of their religion in a society where Catholicism becomes an alienated minority. But does the same thing typically happen to the religious faith of people whose beliefs are genuinely the formative influence on their world view and manner of living?

Now it may well be that many more people fall into the first group (those who profess religious faith merely as a means of social conformity; those whose beliefs are, in Berger's words, "taken for granted") than into the second (those who are truly devout). If so, that might help explain how such large-scale shifts in religious opinions as the ones Berger believes he has identified can take place within a society. I recall a comment that Barbara Tuchman makes in A Distant Mirror, her very readable history of the 14th century, the fabled “age of faith.” She estimates that the Christian population of Europe at that time probably consisted of about ten percent of people who firmly and actively held to the tenets of Christianity; about ten percent who had no particular religious faith at all; and about eighty percent who would have professed to believe what they thought most people believed, more or less because they thought most people believed it. Tuchman goes on to speculate that those same percentages have very likely held more or less steady throughout history.

If Tuchman's speculations are accurate, then that supposes a very large component of any society whose religious beliefs are indeed subject to the influence of peer pressure and herd instinct, just as Berger maintains. I believe, though, that the religious character of any age, and any culture, is shaped much more by Tuchman's ten percent of committed believers (and probably by her ten percent of unbelievers as well) than by the malleable eighty percent in the middle.

I hope that Berger takes up this point – what might be called not the “variety of religious experience” but the “intensity of religious experience” – in working out his sociological theories. I'm going to read the rest of the book with an open mind. (No, really.)

What Happened at Thursday Night Gumbo

A few days late, but here it goes . . . .

Salad, spaghetti and meatballs, bread.

Dessert: Sorbet.

Movie: Touch of Evil (neither one of us liked it too much.)

Conversation Topics: e.e. cummings, Harold Bloom, home schooling, molinism, National Book Award, Pearl Buck, science fiction, Stephen King, Tad Williams, westerns.

Next Thursday Night Gumbo: March 22.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Vehige: ...and then there's juggling

If you read Jimmy Akin's blog, you've probably already seen this. But I couldn't resist putting it here.

Vehige: Stephen King

I read my first Stephen King novel when I was ten or eleven years old. It was Rage, the story of a teenager who takes a gun to high-school—the one novel King has "regretted" publishing. That story never compelled me to take a gun to school. The only thing it compelled me to do was to read as much Stephen King as I could.

And I did.

I read nearly every word he wrote, sometimes more than once, throughout junior high, high school, and my first couple of years in college. Then I got interested in theology and philosophy and didn't read too much of any kind of fiction for about seven years.

Which means that I haven't read most of what King has written since 1994—since Needful Things, in which the devil sets up a collectibles shop in King's fictional Castle Rock. (It was pretty good, if I recall). And of what I have read of his work since then—let's call it, Stephen King: 1994-2007—has been depressing.

Last year I tried to read Cell, King's zombie novel, and couldn't make it past page 75. Before that, I suffered through the abysmal Colorado Kid (a hard-boiled crime novel, or so the cover tells us). I did force myself to read Bag of Bones (a ghost story that is more about child-custody laws than things that go bump in the night) and was quite disappointed. Why on earth I read The Green Mile is beyond me; I hated it more than I hated the movie. In fact, the only thing King has written between 1994 and 2007 that I've enjoyed is his so-called novella, "Low Men in Yellow Coats," which you can find the collection, Hearts in Atlantis.

Thus, I'm actually surprised I made it 450 pages in to Desperation before snapping it shut and hurling it across the room (I didn't, but I sure felt like it). I should have put it down when David, God's eleven-year-old prophet, multiplied Ritz crackers and canned sardines for the small group of survivors hiding from the demon Tak in the Desperation's (the name of the town) old movie theater. Here's a good rule of thumb: Once you begin to roll your eyes, it's time to put whatever you're reading back on the shelf.

I didn't. I suppose I was hoping (against hope) that the magic of the old King—the King who gave us Carrie, 'Salem's Lot, Night Shift, The Stand, and the Dead Zone, the King whose fiction gave us movies such as Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption—would reappear. I'm afraid that that Stephen King is gone for good. Perhaps he was eaten by Tak himself.

One last note. Lest I sound like a Stephen-King hater, I am not. I can reread his earlier work with almost the same pleasure that I experienced the first time I read them. I do think the man deserved the National Book Foundation's award for "distinguished contribution to American letters." Despite what Harold Bloom has said, King has given several generations of kids a reason to read. I can't imagine that I'm the only one in America who became a reader because of Stephen King. This says more about the state of public education than it does about Stephen King, to be sure, but because of King I eventually made my way to Homer, Dickens, Hemingway, Dostovesky, Faulkner, O'Connor, and Tolstoy. If it hadn't been for King, I would have fried my brain playing video games.


My Ten All-Time Favorite Stephen King Novels (in alphabetical order):
  1. Carrie (girl with telekinetic powers)
  2. The Dead Zone (what if you could have killed Hitler?)
  3. Different Seasons (collection of four novellas)
  4. It (a haunted town)
  5. Low Men in Yellow Coats (wonderful story of boyhood)
  6. Misery (author held captive by his No. 1 fan)
  7. Night Shift (earliest short-story collection)
  8. Pet Sematary (King's version of "The Monkey's Paw")
  9. 'Salem's Lot (Dracula comes to town)
  10. The Stand (the end of the world, King size)

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Evelyn Waugh: Interceding for the Dead

Dear Ann,

I am deeply sorry to hear of your sister's distressing death. You must pray for her soul. This is best done by going to a chapel where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved. The most convenient for you is Westminster Cathedral; go up the far left aisle under the screen. Kneel. Dispel from your mind all other considerations. Say, not out loud but in your mind: “I have no right to ask you anything. Please don't consider my merits or my sister's. You made her and me what we are. But you sent Jesus to die for us. Accept his sacrifice. With luck I have a few years left to me to make amends. She hasn't. So please accept anything good I have ever done as a negligible contribution to the immeasurable sacrifice of the Incarnation, and let my sister into heaven.” Easy? Yes, really, particularly for you who have no pride. Try it anyway.

(From The Letters of Evelyn Waugh, edited by Mark Amory [Penguin, 1980], p. 596.)

(H/T: Musings of a Pertinacious Papist)

Vehige: Lenten Reading

It always seems that my Lenten reading plans never quite come to fruition. The last time I can remember actually reading what I intended to read during Lent was at least five years ago, when I read Eugene Boylan's This Tremendous Lover.

The problem is that I'm much more driven by reading moods than by anything else. Once a mood sets in, it's pretty much there for several months. For example, last year around April a "theology mood" set it, and that's all I read from April to December. I didn't read too much in January; I've come to see that these lulls in reading activity are a sign that a transition is happening. What I've been reading isn't of too much interest any longer; it's time to move on to something else.

That something else began with Keith Strohm's The Tomb of Horrors. That book reminded me just how much I love fantasy fiction. That's what led me to read one of Robert Jordan's Conan novels (Conan is the James Bond of sword & sorcery). Now I'm on to one of the few Stephen King novels I haven't read—Desperation. (In fact, I plan to write a post on King when I finish this book.) After that, I have a 4,000-page science-fiction series I want to read—Tad Williams' The Otherland series. (I read Williams' other 4,000-page series, a fantasy trilogy called Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, which I loved, so I'm looking forward to this one.) I suppose my "genre fiction mood" has set it. This will probably last around six months; that's usually how it goes.

I chose my Lenten reading when I was in that transitional stage between my "theology mood" and "genre-fiction mood." So Fr. Lovasik's The Hidden Power of Kindness and Fr. Esper's Saintly Solutions are now on the shelf. But this is Lent, and I can't just confine myself to reading genre fiction, so from here on out I'll be reading the Gospels.

Not a bad exchange, I think.