Sunday, April 29, 2007

Vehige: Want to read some Robert Heinlein?

In The Science of Science-Fiction Writing, James Gunn, a noted SF author and critic, claims that Robert A. Heinlein's best decade of writing occurred between 1948 and 1958. Here are his novels from this period:

Between Planets
Citizen of the Galaxy
Double Star***
Farmer in the Sky
Have Space Suit -- Will Travel
Red Planet
Starman Jones
The Door into Summer***
The Puppet Masters***
The Rolling Stones
The Star Beast
Time for the Stars
Tunnel in the Sky

Those with a (***) are his adult novels; the rest are for young readers. Looking at the ratio between Heinlein's adult novels and young-adult novels . . . what does that say about science fiction in general and Heinlein in particular? Is SF really a 12-yr.-old boy's genre?

While I'm at it, I'll have to include my all-time favorite Heinlein novel: Starship Troopers, which was published in 1960.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Vehige: The Catholic Writer and Speculative Fiction

First, let me say that this post should be seen as a compliment to Keith Strohm's "Why I Hate Christian SF." I don't agree with everything he says: for example, I don't think there should be art directed toward the Christian community. The only legitimate kind of religious art is liturgical art — that which is created as an aid for worship. All other art is art, pure and simple; and if a work of art contains Christian themes, it is because the artist is a Christian. If this is not true, if Christian art is a genre that's defined by its target audience, or by its plot, or any other external criteria, then anyone can make Christian art — believer or infidel. Michelangelo did not give us the Pieta because he was trying to create Christian art; he gave us the Pieta because he was a great artist who allowed his Christianity to penetrate and inform his art.

But that's a minor quibble. Overall, I agree with Keith . . . and from a certain point of view, he yanked the rug out from under me, for I was thinking about writing a similar post. Yet I mentioned that Keith didn't say everything that needs to be said, and so I'm left to take that burden upon myself.

Here, I want to sketch what it means to be a Catholic writer, why Catholic writers should be engaged in writing serious Speculative Fiction — that is, science fiction, fantasy fiction, and horror fiction — and, finally, I'm going to outline a program Catholics who want to write SF should follow.

What is a Catholic Writer?

As I've already implied, a Catholic writer (or artist of any kind) is a person who allows his Catholic faith to penetrate his fiction. This does not mean that the Catholic writer must write about saints, or Marian apparitions, or a band of rosary-praying friends, or the end of the world according to a Catholic interpretation of Revelation. Let me be blunt: neither the novels of Bud MacFarlane nor Michael O'Brien are the paragons of good Catholic fiction. They're not even the paragons of mediocre Catholic fiction.

In short, a Catholic writer doesn't have to write about anything Catholic. J. R. R. Tolkien didn't, and as far as I know, Flannery O'Connor, the matriarch of Catholic writers, included Catholics in only one of her stories — "The Temple of the Holy Ghost."

If a Catholic writer doesn't write about Catholics, what makes his fiction Catholic?

The way he understands his material does. One of the first lessons a Catholic writer must learn is the lesson that distinguishes the apparent immorality within a work of fiction and what makes a story truly immoral. Both Anna Karenina and The Bridges of Madison County have as their major plot engine adultery; but Leo Tolstoy and Robert James Waller have very different understandings of adultery. Whereas one novel is moral, the other is immoral. It's on this deeper level that the Catholic writer must allow his Catholic conscious to bear witness. So let the Catholic SF writer write about cloning and in-vetro fertilization, because if he does it right his fiction, regardless of the apparent immorality, will be both moral and Catholic.

How does the Catholic writer do this? First, by being devoted to the Church, and second by being devoted to his craft. Since the writer is a person first, he is unified within himself; there should be no distinction between his faith life and his artistic life. If he is devoted to the Church, if he is devoted to his craft, and if he does not intentionally separate these devotions, he cannot help but write Catholic fiction — even if his fiction doesn't include one overt reference to the Church.

The Catholic Writer and "Speculative" Fiction

For non-Speculative Fiction fans — or for those readers who may not know the term (which was proffered as a substitute to "science fiction" by Robert Heinlein) — Speculative Fiction, includes what is commonly called science fiction, fantasy fiction, and horror fiction. I prefer the all-encompassing term "Speculative Fiction" because despite the way they're marketed, the hearts of these three genres beat in unison — they all thrive on a what-if-reality-were-like-this speculation. What if we could colonize Mars? What if dragons really existed? What if vampires did?

From one point of view, Speculative Fiction (=SF) will never attain the literary value of a Homer, Tolstoy, Melville, Dostoevsky, or Faulkner. The reason for this is that SF thrives on a "what if" question which often overwhelms the story to the detriment of character development. Faulkner is correct: the essence of fiction is the human heart in conflict with itself. When a writer begins to have fun with reality, as all SF writers do, there's little time to explore the human heart in conflict with itself.

But from another point of view, this is precisely the power of SF. Faulkner's definition of fiction is twofold — it does indeed examine the conflict of the human heart within itself . . . and it also deals with the eternal verities. It's my contention that SF has a unique power to explore these truths because the speculative reality offered by the SF writer usually has metaphorical value. If it doesn't, then at least the speculative reality allows the writer to speak of moral issues in a disarming way. One of the greatest examples of this is Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. The world of Middle Earth allows Tolkien to write about friendship and nobility, sacrifice and honor, good and evil, in a way that doesn't sound like moralizing or preaching.

Back to SF and the eternal verities.

One of the top SF writers today — Robert J. Sawyer — had recently announced that science fiction should be renamed "philosophical fiction" because it's the only genre that's able to handle the Big Questions in philosophical ways. And when asked if there are "any social issues of the day that you think speculative fiction writers should be willing to take on?" he said:

You've got it exactly backwards! There are no social issues of the day that speculative fiction writers should not be willing to take on. In my own books, I've dealt with abortion issue, capital punishment, racism, sexism, affirmative action, gay rights, recovered memories of childhood abuse, corruption within the church, the politics of war, 9/11, creation vs. evolution, government funding for culture, and many others. Science fiction is a way of looking at our society through a distorting lens that lets us see truths that otherwise might remain hidden. Despite what people think they know about science fiction from watching Star Wars -- which is really fantasy, not SF, and unambitious fantasy at that -- good science fiction, starting right with H.G. Wells, has always been about social comment.

Granted, not all of these social concerns would constitute the "eternal verities" of human life, but each one can be a springboard for asking the major philosophical questions. Why are we here? Does God exist? What does it mean to live in society? Is truth relative? And so forth.

I'm not going to suggest that SF is uniquely qualified to handle these social concerns or to tackle these issues. But it does, and it's been doing so its entire history. There is no reason, then, for a Catholic writer who wants to write SF from a Catholic viewpoint to limit himself to missionaries evangelizing alien societies, Marian apparitions on Mars, priests trying to prove God existence, or what the Second Coming might look like if humanity had colonized other planets.

How to Become A Catholic SF Writer

If a Catholic writer wants to write SF, then he must focus on being a good Catholic, on understanding the Church's social teaching and philosophical tradition, and, of course, on learning to write solid SF. That's easy to say. But for those who want a more definite plan, here's some recommendations.

1. Cut your aesthetical teeth on Jacques Maritain's Art and Scholasticism to understand not only what art is, but what it means in the abstract to be a Catholic artist. I'd also recommend John Gardner's trilogy (On Becoming a Novelist, The Art of Fiction, and On Moral Fiction) to understand both the craft fiction and its aesthetical aspects.

2. Read Flannery O'Connor's The Habit of Being to see Maritain's Art and Scholasticism in action.

3. Read all the great Catholic writers of the past and present: Leon Bloy, Georges Bernanos, Francois Mauriac, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Flannery O'Connor, J. F. Powers, Edwin O'Connor, Walker Percy, Jon Hassler, Tobias Wolff, Ron Hansen, Andre Dubus, and others.

4. Since you want to write from a Catholic perspective, you'll need to immerse yourself Catholic thought, so read all the major encyclicals written by every Pope since Leo XIII — especially the social encyclicals. Read Vatican II. Immerse yourself in Thomistic philosophy by reading as much Jacques Maritain, Etienne Gilson, and Josef Pieper as you can handle. It wouldn't be a bad idea, either, to read a lot of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Hans Urs von Balthasar.

5. Read as much modern philosophy as you can, particularly Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Camus, Sartre, Foucault, etc., to know what the other side is thinking.

6. Read as much SF as you can to understand the breadth of the genre. The quickest way to understand the field, I think, is to take Orson Scott Card's recommendation in How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy seriously and read every story in the following anthologies: The Science Fiction Hall of Fame 1 edited by Robert Silverberg, The Science Fiction Hall of Fame 2 volumes edited by Ben Bova, The Best of the Nebulas which is also edited by Ben Bova, Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions, as well as every story in Gardner Dozois' The Best of the Best: 20 Years of the Year's Best Science Fiction (which is not in Card's plan).

7. When you've finished that, read every novel that won the Hugo Award and/or Nebula Award and/or the World Fantasy Award.

Why so much? It's obvious, isn't it?

If you want to write good fiction, you need to understand the art and craft of fiction on a sophisticated level. Thus, Number 1.

If you want to write good Catholic fiction, you need to know how the great Catholic writers of past and present — all of whom have been esteemed by the literary community as great writers — successfully merged their faith with their art. Thus, Numbers 2 and 3.

Since you want to imbue your art with a Catholic worldview, you need to have that worldview yourself. You don't get that through reading popular theology. You must immerse yourself in serious Catholic thought. The teachers of the popular theologians must become your teachers. Thus, Number 4.

But you have to know what the other half is thinking. Every character can't be a Catholic philosopher. Our culture is saturated with contemporary nihilistic thought. How so? Because it's been disseminated though pop artists. More people learned their Nietzsche through Jim Morrison, the lead singer of The Doors, than from any Introduction to Philosophy class. To see how this works, get a hold of the Firefly DVD set and listen to Joss Whedon's commentary for Episode 14. If that doesn't convince you of the need to read serious philosophy, both Catholic and secular, nothing will. Thus, Number 5.

Finally, if you want to write SF fiction, you need to understand the genre because the fans do. Thus, Numbers 6-7.

But this will take years! you cry.

Yes, it will. That was a mistake I made when I was trying to write — thinking that writing fiction should come quickly, with ease. But stories do not spring forth complete and perfect from the mind of the artist the way Athena sprung forth from the mind of Zeus. The writer does not put a story on paper in order to relieve himself of a headache. On the contrary, once you decide to put your stories on paper, that's precisely when the headache begins.

Vehige: Saints and Almost Saints Meme

Unlike Woodward, I think memes are fun. For a guy who's so absorbed by our ranking on the TTLB Ecosystem, I just don't understand his dislike for memes. The more memes we do, the more hits we get, and the quicker we advance up the evolutionary ladder. (By the way, Woodward, the Slithering Reptile his nine rungs higher than an Insignificant Microbe -- but you probably already knew that).

And since he complained and called me a mean name last time I tagged him, I'm gonna tag him again. Here's to you, Mr. Strohm. I also tag the folks over at Cosmos~Liturgy~Sex.

Now to the meme at hand . . . .

Four Favorite Saints

Well, in terms of personal influence, the two saints that I've really come to rely upon are St. Joseph and the Blessed Mother. Being a stay-at-home dad who home schools his children is a hidden like with thankless responsibilities — and it's very, very, very, encouraging to know that the two greatest saints also lived hidden lives with thankless responsibilities.

I'm also very fond of St. Teresa of Avila and St. Ignatius of Loyola. Teresa taught that the the key to sanctity is accept all the trials that come your way as crosses from God. And Ignatius taught me that living a Christian life isn't so much about doing great things for God, but, rather, is about having the correct disposition so that what you're doing becomes great.

Two Favorite Blesseds

Here, I fall short. I couldn't think of any blesseds until I saw Woodward's list. Since I like popes, I'll say that my two favorite blesseds are Pius IX for calling Vatican I and John XXIII for calling Vatican II -- two of my favorite Ecumenical Councils.

No, seriously.

(O.K. everyone, all together now ... Vehige is a nerd!).

One Person I Think Should Have Been a Saint

Like Steven at Book Reviews and More, and Woodward before me, I'm not sure how to take this question.

Two people I think should be saints—Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa—will be canonized by the end of the decade. I'd like to see both Archbishop Fulton Sheen and Father John Hardon canonized, preferably on the same day, and these two men probably will be canonized, too, but not by the end of the decade.

So my pick is Flannery O'Connor (who will never be canonized) for the simple reason that she was a tough soul who accepted her lot in life with humor and charity -- two virtues I could use more of.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Woodward: Success...Of Sorts

Hey, Vehige – we're no longer an Insignificant Microbe in the TTLB Ecosystem. We're now a Slithering Reptile. One more rung up the evolutionary ladder and I'll be flirting with the sin of pride.

Woodward: Saints and Almost Saints

I don't really like memes, for reasons I've gone into before. But this one – which Vehige and I got tagged for by Steven at Book Reviews and More – is at least thought-provoking and provides a chance to celebrate the lives of some exemplary Christians.

Four Favorite Saints

St. Augustine
St. Thomas Aquinas
St. Teresa of Avila
St. Joseph of Cupertino. (If you're not familiar with him, his story is worth a look. He's a good example of the way saints are likely to be treated by the world – and occasionally even by the Church.)

Two Favorite Blesseds

Bl. Margaret of Castello. (Patroness of the unwanted, which will pretty much make her the patroness of each and every one of us at some time or other.)
Bl. Pius IX. (A great man. A great pope.)

One Person I Think Should Have Been a Saint

I share Steven's confusion about the criteria for this one. Is it supposed to be someone whose holiness is largely unknown by the world and the Church and who is unlikely ever to be canonized? If so, I would pick Fr. John J. Lynch of Philadelphia, the priest who baptized me and brought me into the Church and gave me the best chance I'm ever likely to have to see up close what a truly Christ-like life looks like.

Or is someone already on the way to canonization eligible? If so, I would pick Dorothy Day. I can't endorse every one of her political opinions, but there is simply no denying that she lived a life of heroic Christian virtue.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Woodward: Liturgy Wars

Much of the Catholic blogosphere seems transfixed in anticipation of His Holiness' motu proprio that will reportedly broaden the prerogative of individual priests to celebrate the Tridentine Mass. I am determined to be the very last Catholic blogger left who has not predicted the date on which the motu proprio will be released. (I may already have won.)

In any event, Vehige and I have had a couple of Thursday night discussions of the “old” and the “new” Masses, the various reasons why individual Catholics may have an allegiance to or a preference for one or the other, and we will probably put some of those discussions into print at the appropriate time. Meanwhile, I had some thoughts on liturgy -- and why people feel so strongly about it -- as I sat through Mass at my parish church last Sunday.

Our pastor was away, saying Mass at a retreat center for the parish teenagers who are preparing themselves to receive the sacrament of Confirmation next month. The visiting priest was a Redemptorist, a very congenial man of 77 (I know because he told us), who quickly made it plain that he realized the necessity of putting his own personal imprint on the liturgy through a variety of ad libs. For example, it was not through God's “goodness” that we had the gifts of bread and wine to offer, but rather through His “wonderful generosity.” (Much better, no?) When he washed his hands, he prayed that God would not only cleanse him from his sins, but cleanse all of us present from all of our sins as well. He launched Eucharistic Prayer II with a declaration that “Yes, you certainly are holy, Lord. In fact, you are the source and origin of all that is holy.” We were invited to proclaim “what St. Paul calls the mystery of our faith.” After the Agnus Dei, the priest held aloft the broken Host and told us that “This is really Jesus, who died and rose for us and has made us an Alleluia People. Happy are all of us who are invited to gather around his Eucharistic table.” This proved extemporaneous enough to confuse the congregation momentarily, and so the priest was forced to give us our next line. “Lord!” he shouted, “I am not...” and then we knew where we were again.

None of this was malicious, or disrespectful, or theologically subversive. But it was an assertion of ego, the liturgical “stylings” of a man who has come over the years to regard the celebration of Mass as a performance, and who believes that the Ordo Missae cum Populo can be made into a truly meaningful experience only if he is allowed to make a few judicious changes. I'm more inclined to tolerate this sort of thing in a spirit of Christian charity than I used to be – partly, perhaps, because I'm getting older, but even more because the priests who typically engage in this sort of one-man-showmanship are really getting older. They are all of the same generation as our visiting Redemptorist, priests who came into their full maturity in the first years after the liturgical reforms of Vatican II, and the liturgical abuses of the Spirit of Vatican II. And they won't be around much longer.

But one of the visiting priest's “improvements” of the Mass texts really caught my attention. It was a more substantial departure from the prescribed words of the Missal and it exemplifies the kind of theological silliness that most priests are likely to fall into sooner or later once they decide to throw away the script and improvise. “In your mercy,” the priest prayed, “keep us free from sin and protect us from needless anxiety as we wait....”

Needless anxiety?” I said to myself. “Why would I want to be protected only from needless anxiety? I want to be protected from the things that are really worth worrying about – from all anxiety, as the Mass actually says – ab omne perturbatione. I ought to be able to take care of needless anxiety by myself.”

By this time, of course, the priest had moved on to the Sign of Peace, but I had not moved on with him. I was still standing there, wondering why he didn't want me to be protected from life's genuine anxieties. And in my own distraction, I suddenly saw more clearly than I ever had before exactly what's wrong with liturgical abuses – even relatively minor ones. They keep us from joining our own hearts and minds with the heart and mind of the Church. They turn our gaze in one of two wrong directions – either toward the priest and his personality, or toward ourselves and our own personalities (or toward our reaction to the priest's personality, which is perhaps the worst direction of all).

Contrary to what our visiting priest apparently thinks, the sameness of the liturgy – its familiarity and predictability – is not a source of tedium but a source of comfort. I want to know exactly what's coming next, because I'm going to be praying it and I want to be able to make that prayer my own. If I have to worry from moment to moment whether the celebrant's riffs on the Canon of the Mass make any sense – or are even something I believe – well, that becomes for me a cause of "needless anxiety."

Different Catholics, I know, have different reasons for being attracted to the Tridentine Mass, some of which I sympathize with and some of which I don't. The one I think I sympathize with most is this: There mercifully aren't many priests who can ad lib in Latin; and the ones who can probably don't.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Vehige: Orson Scott Card, Public Education, and Homeschooling

In the first part of "Uncle Orson Reviews Everything, School Experts, Poitier, Prions, and Guacamole," Orson Scott Card goes off on another rant against the public school system, and in the middle of it, makes a comment about homeschooling:

Do you know what I find, as a college teacher? That the best writers, the best thinkers, the most broadly educated among my students are the ones who were home-schooled.

Think about that. And then think about this: Most of those home-schooled kids get their schooling in a few hours a day. By noon, most of them are done. Then they have time to live together with their families. To read or play on their own. To have a childhood.

Yep, he's absolutely right. It's one of the reasons why I home school my kids, to let them have a childhood.

Vehige: Christian SF

Keith Strohm has written a very good essay on the role the Catholic writer in the world of speculative fiction. Particularly good is the following paragraph:

Because of this, the world isn’t simply our mission field. Our living in the world is the means through which we, united with Christ, may become holy. The secular isn’t opposed to the sacred. Rather, the secular is a manifestation of the sacred. It refers to those temporal things which God has given to us (men and women) to order and govern. We are called, therefore, to bring the light of Christ into all areas of human endeavor, rendering them more just and more beautiful—i.e., truly and authentically human. In this way, there is no such thing as Christian Politics or Christian Business. There is simply politics or business—areas to which we, as Christians, are called to be salt, and leaven, and light.

I've been thinking about writing a post along these lines. Though Strohm seems to have beaten me to the punch, he didn't say everything that needs to be said about the issue ... so I'll be working on my post over the next day or two.

However, it won't be nearly as long now.

You might want to drop Keith comment and thank him for that.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Vehige: Home Schooling, History and Science

Luckily, this blog is a blog devoted to everything ... so I don't feel so bad talking about home schooling again.

This is what I do; this is what I think about -- not always, but quite a bit -- and so this is what I have to offer. Hope you don't mind.

As I've noted before, my oldest is only six. He's finishing up kindergarten, and we'll be starting first grade in July. July? Yes, July, because I've decided to home school year around. Life is much smoother around the house when there's structure, and I can't imagine having three months of chaos.

Because first grade starts in July, I've been thinking a lot about curriculum. On the one hand, there's not a lot to think about. Reading, spelling, math, handwriting, Latin, religion, history, science -- these are all part of any first-grade program. On the other hand, what exactly do I want to teach them, especially in history and science?

I've decided, like many home schoolers, to teach my kids history in a chronological way over a period of four years. The first two years will be devoted to world history, and the last two years will be focused on American history. This means that next year, my first grader will be immersed in the Ancient World: Egypt, Israel, Greece, and Rome -- the foundations of Western civilization.

(Please don't think I'll be reading The Book of the Dead or The Early History of Rome to my son. That's not how it works. We'll be reading a lot of biographies, children versions of mythology, and doing a lot of projects as well as focusing on the basics of geography. The goal is to cultivate a love of Egypt, Israel, Greece, and Rome than it is to teach him the histories of these great cultures.)

I'm also following a four-year plan for science: biology in first grade, astronomy and earth science in second grade, chemistry in third, and physics in forth. (The same rule applies with science as it does with history: no Darwinism in first grade or Einsteinian physics in forth; just the very basics, with the sole goal to have them fall in love with science.) On a more detailed level, biology will be divided into four subjects: human life, animal life, plant life, and (much to my son's delight) insect life.

Since we're doing school year around, I've decided to spend three months on each subject, both in history and in science.

Now one of the great things about home school your kids -- for me, at least -- is that you get to give yourself the education you never had. Socrates said that true wisdom consists in knowing that you know nothing. I must have gained quite a bit of wisdom over the last year, because for the first time I see just how ignorant I am on so many subjects. So I can't wait to begin learning about Egypt, or about the human body, or ancient Rome, or plant life. In fact, I plan to read adult-level introductions on these subjects, following the same general structure as my kids.

I'm so excited that sometimes I think I'm home schooling my kids as an excuse to engage in self-education. But, then, as my wife points out -- if I'm not excited, neither will my kids be.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Vehige: Meme: Booked by 3 -- In Character

From Book Reviews and More.

Name up to three characters . . .

1) . . . you wish were real so you could meet them.

1. Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)
2. Nick Adams (from a series of short stories by Ernest Hemingway)
3. Ender Wiggin (from the Ender novels by Orson Scott Card

2) . . . you would like to be.

1. Dante (The Divine Comedy by Dante)
2. Sherlock Holmes
3. Gandalf (The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R.Tolkien)

3) . . . who scare you.

1. Annie Wilkes (Misery by Stephen King)
2. Arnold Friend ("Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been" by Joyce Carol Oates)
3. R. M. Renfield (Dracula by Bram Stoker)


Of course I tag Woodward. I also tag Keith Strohm and Julie D.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Vehige: Children's Literature

A year ago, when I started thinking about home schooling my kids, one of my immediate concerns was how I'd know which books were good. I don't necessarily mean those books my kids will read for fun. In fact, I don't particularly care what they read, within reason, so long as they read. I'm talking about the books I'm going to use in their formal school work.

I've come to see this was a needless worry. I've come to see that the litmus test for judging good children's books is relatively simple: How much do you enjoy them?

This epiphany came to me about 30 pages into V. M. Hillyer's A Child's History of the World. I happened upon this book in my seach for a good history spine -- the term home schoolers use for the comprehensive history book that will help you organize your history curriculum.

I had tried to read other children's history books, but without much success. I was beginning to worry that I wouldn't find one at all. They all seemed to dry, trite, and condescending.

Then a friend let me borrow Hillyer's A Child's History of the World. The copy I'm reading was published back in 1927, but the writing is still fresh and energetic, and though Hillyer writes simply, for children, he doesn't write down to them. His style is akin to C. S. Lewis' in The Chronicles of Narnia.

I caught myself saying aloud several times, "This is really good." As I wondered why I though Hillyer was so good, it occurred to me that I'd had the same experience reading Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book. I couldn't believe how much I enjoyed it, and I became eager to share that enjoyment with my kids. And that's when I realized that the only way to judge the quality of a children's book is by how much you enjoy it.

If you don't enjoy it -- if you don't find it stimulating -- then it lacks the depth to stimulate your kids.

I certainly haven't read a history book I've enjoyed as much as I'm enjoying Hillyer. I'd go so far as to say that it's a book that's a privilege to read.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Anonymous: The Lord's descent into the underworld

Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.

He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all”. Christ answered him: “And with your spirit”. He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light."

I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.

For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.

See on my face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed into you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.

I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell. The sword that pierced me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.

Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This may be my all-time favorite reading from the Office of Readings. I first read it over ten years ago, when I spent a year in a monastery, and it has always haunted me -- especially the opening paragraph. Note particularly what we might call the theology of exchange: Christ took our place, suffered our punishment, so that we might be restored and become like God.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Lady Cordelia Flyte: Tenebrae

"They've closed the chapel at Brideshead, Bridey and the Bishop; Mummy's requiem was the last mass said there. After she was buried the priest came in -- I was there alone. I don't think he saw me -- and took out the altar stone and put it in his bag; then he burned the wads of wool with the holy oil on them and threw the ash outside; he emptied the holy water stoup and blew out the lamp in the sanctuary and left the tabernacle open and empty, as though from now on it was always to be Good Friday. I suppose none of this makes any sense to you, Charles, poor agnostic. I stayed there till he was gone, and then, suddenly, there wasn't any chapel there any more, just an oddly decorated room. I can't tell you what it felt like. You've never been to Tenebrae, I suppose?"


"Well, if you had you'd know what the Jews felt about their temple. Quomodo sedet sola's a beautiful chant. You ought to go once, just to hear it."

--from Brideshead Revisited, Book I, chapter 8

BLOGGER'S NOTE: Here is a nice performance of Gesualdo's setting of the Tenebrae responses for Holy Thursday, beginning with the "Quomodo sedet sola."

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Vehige: Sociology, Angels, and Demons

This is my second or third post on Berger's A Rumor of Angels. You can find both mine and Woodward's previous posts here.

Woodward has written two posts. I'll let you read them, but I want to make a comment. I think Woodward has made a fundamental error in his approach to sociology in general and Berger's book in particular. I've known Woodward for a long time, and both he and I share a pet-peeve, namely, we both get very irritated when scientists cross over to theology -- when they use their scientific findings to speculate about the existence of God, the nature of human beings, the possibility of a natural moral law, etc. This is a serious error of thinking. A science is defined by its subject. Biology is the study of life here on earth. Just as the moons of Jupiter fall outside the biologists field, so do the ultimate questions of the existence of God and the meaning and goal of human life. When a biologist speaks about these things, he's no longer doing biology. This is the number one reason why the "theory of intelligent design" does not belong in high school biology classes. It's not biology, it's philosophy.

Now Woodward's error -- and it is an error if I'm reading him correctly -- is that he wants Berger, a sociologist, to be a theologian. All of these comments Woodward makes about Berger not making a distinction between the degrees of faith, or between various religions, indicates to me that Woodward needs to go back and read St. Thomas Aquinas's The Division and Methods of the Sciences.

We cannot expect Berger to change scientific hats in the middle of a book. He would be wrong to do so. If we want to interpret Berger's remarks in light of our own situation as 21st-century Catholics, that's fine -- so long as we remember that that is not Berger's intention.

At least not in the first half of this book.

So, then, what is his intention?

From page one, I think Berger has been working toward what he does toward the end of Chapter 2, when he flips sociology on its head.

The problem with sociology -- or, should I say, sociologists -- is that they often don the philosopher's cap. A sociological study might show that only 30% of Catholics believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The conclusion, then, is that since the majority of Catholics do not believe in the Real Presence, it must no longer be required as an article of faith for Catholics.

In other words, vox populi vox Dei -- the voice of the people is the voice of God. It is believed by the majority, therefore it must be true.

But six billion people can call a dog a cow, and you wanna know something -- it's still a dog!

Berger's point is that sociology can only tell us what society is like at a given time, and that the sociology of religion can only tell us about society's beliefs at a given time. Despite that sociologists would like us to believe that because beliefs change therefore there is no truth, Berger himself reminds us that sociology cannot even answer the question of truth.

As Berger himself says:

When everything has been subsumed under the relativizing categories in question (those of history, of the sociology of knowledge, or what-have-you), the question of truth reasserts itself in almost pristine simplicity. Once we know that all human affirmations are subject to scientifically graspable socio-historical processes, which affirmations are true and which are false? We cannot avoid the question any more than we can return to the innocent of its pre-relaivizing asking . . . .

We may say that contemporary consciousness is such and such; we are left with the question of whether we will assent to it. We may agree, say, that contemporary consciousness is incapable of conceiving of either angels or demons. We are still left with the question of whether, possibly, both angels and demons go on existing despite this incapacity of our contemporaries to conceive of them.

In other words, sociology leads to philosophy and theology.

What exactly we should do with this "relativizing the relativizers," as Berger puts it -- in other words, once sociology is shown to be a science that observes how societies act and think, that sociological findings have no bearing on what is true or good or beautiful -- what exactly we should do with this new understanding, well, I think (and hope) that will be what Berger speaks of in the second half of A Rumor of Angels.

I, for one, am looking forward to it.