Back when I was in high school, I was in a rock band call The Jack Butler Band. I played guitar, a guy named Nathan was the vocalist, Paul played bass, Dave was on the drums.
Hey . . . where's Jack Butler? Here:
Though you don't get his name in this clip, the devil's guitarist, played by Steve Vai, is called Jack Butler. That's right, we got the name from a devil's guitarist! Don't you love it when Vai/Butler gets irritated that the kid is keeping up with him and takes off his jacket so he can get down to business. Was Crossroads really one of my favorite movies?
Interesting that the final duel between a rock guitarist and a blues guitarist takes place in hell. Guess all those preachers were right.
Thursday, May 31, 2007
Back when I was in high school, I was in a rock band call The Jack Butler Band. I played guitar, a guy named Nathan was the vocalist, Paul played bass, Dave was on the drums.
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
This is a question Orson Scott Card tries to answer in the second half of this week's Uncle Orson Reviews Everything. Here's a snippet:
Some might argue that an English professor's job is to teach students to appreciate rarefied literature.
I don't think so. I think that when English professors prescribe what fiction ought to be, they are the enemies of art and should be devoutly ignored by writers. Literature does not take place at the university -- it takes place in the constant interaction between writers and readers.
Literature professors (and other critics) are observers and commentators; the moment they begin to prescribe what should be written and declare vast reaches of literature not to be literature at all, they have actually admitted themselves to be irrelevant to the real literature of their age.
It's like the snooty people in Shakespeare's day who thought that only poetry was real literature, and epic poetry was the highest form. The result was Faerie Queen, which is wonderful but not very influential on later writers -- not a seminal work, but rather a derivative dead end.
The most vital literature of the age was being written for the groundlings in the playhouses and for the people who paid tiny amounts for one-sheet printed sonnets and songs. It is Shakespeare, along with Jonson, Marlowe, and other playwrights and sonneteers whom we remember now as the greatest writers of their age.
I know there's at least one person who reads this blog who has quite a bit experience with this subject, so I'm looking forward to reading Woodward's comments -- either as a full-fledged post or in the comment box. (Yes, that's a gentle nudge.)
But I'm also interested in hearing what other literature professors -- or professors of any academic discipline -- have to say.
Me? I think he has a point . . . but I'm not sure having students read John Grisham's Rainmaker should be part of the answer. But that just might be my overwhelming bias against Grisham's writing (yes, I've read two of his novels -- never again!).
I suppose my problem is that Card seems to make a false dichotomy. Who is going to compare/contrast Don DeLillo and Stephen King? But perhaps the dichotomy between "academic fiction" and "popular fiction" is part of American society today.
And if it is, then isn't neglecting the so-called academic fiction for the sake of popular fiction just as bad as neglecting popular fiction for academic fiction?
And is not part of a college education the exposure to books and ideas one would not normally encounter outside of the university?
PS -- As a Stephen King fan, I can't argue with Card's choice of The Dead Zone, though I do think The Stand is King's best work, as well as the work that gets to the heart of contemporary American culture.
Tuesday, May 29, 2007
We're about to begin reading Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI. Our goal is to take a chapter or sub-chapter a week. Woodward will post his thoughts on the book either Saturday, Sunday, or Monday, and I'll post mine either Wednesday, Thursday or Friday.
So I'll be kicking this thing off in a day or two.
At that rate, it will take us several months to work our way through Jesus of Nazareth. But what does that matter? It's a book that deserves to be savored.
Labels: Benedict XVI: Jesus of Nazareth
Friday, May 25, 2007
Once again, I'm getting this from Book Reviews and More:
1. How many books do you own?
I have no clue, but if I had to guess, I'd say 1,000 -- evenly divided between nonfiction (mostly theology) and fiction (mostly SF). But if you ask my wife, she'd say, "Too damn many that haven't been read."
2. Books I'm Reading Now?
Paul Johnson's Art: A New History (at least it's on my reading shelf)
John Gribbin: Science A History (excellent!)
Harlan Ellison, ed., Dangerous Visions (1960s SF anthology)
Gardner Dozois, ed., Year's Best Science Fiction, 23rd Annual Collection
Vernor Vinge, A Fire Upon the Deep (another SF novel)
Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth (ever heard of it?)
3. Books I've Read Recently
Peter Berger, A Rumor of Angels
Robert Sawyer, Calculating God
Joe Haldeman, Camouflage
Frederik Pohl, Gateway
4. Five Books That Mean A Lot to Me
John Irving, The World According to Garp
Josef Pieper, Leisure, the Basis of Culture
Fyodor Dostovesky, Crime and Punishment
Josef Pieper, In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Thursday, May 24, 2007
(NOTE: Here's a slightly modified piece I put up at my blog, The Catholic Witness. I'm posting here because of some of the traffic we've received via the exchange between Julie and me on the subject of spiritual reading, and in particular to help clarify what I consider to be a serious misunderstanding about the nature of spiritual reading, a misunderstanding articulated in a comment made by one of her readers: "Spiritual reading is good but doesn't take the place of prayer or meditation naturally.")
Let's begin by making a distinction between "meditative reading" and "spiritual reading." Let's call the kind of reading that is an aid to mental prayer “meditative reading," and let's call the kind of reading one does for the sake of spiritual-intellectual edification “spiritual reading.” And I’m using the strange “spiritual-intellectual” phrase simply as a way to indicate that we are speaking about something more than intellectual edification; Paul Johnson’s History of Art certainly edifies the intellect, but wouldn’t be a very good book for spiritual reading. Unfortunately we have to make what seems to be an obvious clarification because of some of the nonsense that is being proffered nowadays as what constitutes legitimate spiritual reading.
Here, you are using a book as an aid to mental prayer.Mental prayer has two parts to it: the considerations and the affections. These are fancy words, which you need to know if you want to read books on the spiritual life, that simply mean reflection and prayer. This is how it works. You start with a consideration (or reflection) of some topic—the angels, say. You might reflect on the fall of the angels, the role of the good angels, why God allows the evil angels to tempts us, and even on the great gift of our guardian angel. At some point you will abandon these reflections and start making affections — i.e., formal acts of prayer. “Lord, help me have devotion to my guardian angel.” “Lord, help me recognize the temptations of the evil spirit.” “Guardian angel, be by guide.” And so forth.
Now, to help with the considerations (or reflections), books can be used. The Scriptures are always good. So is the Imitation of Christ, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the writings of the saints, and even some books of theology. As the Catechism points out regarding meditation: “We are usually helped by books, and Christians do not want for them” (CCC, no. 2705).
But if you use a book to help with mental prayer, at some point you must put the book down and begin to actually pray. If your reading doesn’t lead to prayer, then you have not engaged in meditative reading. This would be what I am calling spiritual reading.
Fr. Eugene Boylan, in This Tremendous Lover, said that in today’s world daily spiritual reading is almost necessary for one’s salvation. We are bombarded on all sides with anti-Christian and anti-Catholic ideas, and every day we need to recall the great truths of the faith in order not to be duped by some worldly idea. In another book by Fr. Boylan — Difficulties in Mental Prayer — he says that unless a Christian engage in spiritual reading for at least three hours a week, the Christian has little hope to make real progress in prayer and is in danger of being swept away by “truths falsely so-called.” Three hours a week translates into about 20 to 30 minutes a day.What is the difference between meditative reading and spiritual reading? Whereas meditative reading must lead to prayer, one can engage in spiritual reading without it leading to prayer. Yes, one should pray before one engages in spiritual reading, and one should pray when the time for spiritual reading has ended, but during the time spent reading, one does not have to change from considerations to affections, from thoughtful reflection to prayer itself.
But neither is spiritual reading pure study. What must be avoided when engaging in spiritual reading is getting caught up with what we are reading that we forget the purpose of our reading. Fr. John Hardon, in his Catholic Prayer Book with Meditations, quotes a writer named “Rodriguez” (no first name given), who tells us: “For this spiritual reading to be profitable, it must not be done hastily, or at a gallop, as when one reads stories, but very leisurely and attentively; for an impetuous flow of water [or] a heavy shower does not penetrate or fertilize the earth, but small, gentle rain; so for reading to enter and be drunk in by the heart, the reading must be done with pausing and pondering.”
With pausing and pondering. Now we see why spiritual reading is connected with mental prayer, for the pausing and pondering of spiritual reading is nothing less than the considerations/reflections which make up the first part of mental prayer. Thus it must be remembered that we are making this distinction for the sake of clarity.Why is this distinction necessary? Well, because in the literature of Catholic spirituality, you’ll see authors exhorting you to engage in both mental prayer and spiritual reading, and these same authors will have you use books during mental prayer. And so we need to understand what exactly is being said.And what is being said is this: Basic Catholic spirituality requires both activities—mental prayer and spiritual reading. If you use a book as an aid to mental prayer, then use another book and keep up the practice of spiritual reading.
One last point, and a practical one at that. What kind of time are we talking about?
Well, for his Marian Catechists, Fr. John Hardon wanted them to engage in 10 minutes of mental prayer and 10 minutes of spiritual reading every day; then, after a few months, he wanted them to increase both exercises to 15 minutes a day.
Notice how Prof. Pagels manages to write 1800 words (by my computer's count) without once mentioning the date of composition of the Gospel of Judas or its chronological place among "authentic early Christian documents," as she puts it. She mentions Mark as the first-written Gospel (an increasingly challengeable bit of conventional wisdom itself) but then lumps everything else together as writings from "the decades after [Jesus'] death."
Well, in the case of the Gospel of Judas, that would be at least fifteen decades after Jesus' death -- and longer even than that, according to some scholars, depending on whether you think Pagels' Gospel of Judas is the one Irenaeus wrote about. But then, details of this sort can get pretty complicated. And they don't make it any easier to sell books.
Through my new blog -- A Science Fiction Odyssey (yes, shameful self-promotion) -- I met a fellow Catholic SF fan, writer, and editor -- Scott Danielson. About a month ago, Scott started an online forum dedicated to discussing Catholic science fiction and Catholic SF writers. Through an email exchange, I learned that Scott's agree with my own views about what constitutes good Catholic SF -- which means of course that he's highly intelligent and extremely perspicacious! So if you have any interest in this topic, the Catholic Science Fiction Forum is the place for you.
Also, Scott and I are engaged in similar reading projects. I'm reading through the Hugo and/or Nebula novel winners (79 in all), Scott is reading through all the Hugo and/or Nebula novella, novelette, and short story winners -- 300 in all! I'll let you decide who's crazier. Here's the link to his reading blog -- SFFreader.
Wednesday, May 23, 2007
It surprised me that Julie of Happy Catholic didn't consider spiritual reading to be a religious devotion. But looking at it from a different angle, I suppose it is a bit strange to speak of an exercise that is a bit abstract as a religious devotion. Note that I did not say reading Scripture, or the Imitation of Christ, but, rather, spiritual reading in general.
Here's how I approach it.
I have a kitchen timer (no, I'm not kidding) that I set for 10 minutes. The timer cuts both ways. On the one hand, it ensures that I actually read for 10 minutes; this is particularly helpful when I don't feel like reading. On the other hand, it forces me away from a book; this is important so I don't end up making the devotion a purely intellectual exercise, for it's easy for me to get caught up in a book.
I want to avoid getting caught up in a book because the purpose of spiritual reading isn't to finish a book or to learn something, but, rather, union with God. The book is only a means to that end. So the timer cuts me off and reminds me that the book is merely a path to God.
This is also why I limit it to 10 minutes. 10 minutes in a good book should give me plenty to talk to our Lord about. If it doesn't, then either I'm reading the wrong book or I'm not reading very carefully.
Finally, what kinds of books do I use during spiritual reading? Well, I limit it to Scripture, the early Church Fathers, or books on spirituality, such as the book I'm reading now -- The Basic Book of Catholic Prayer: How to Pray and Why by Lawrence Lovasik (it's very good, by the way).
But that book, even though I'm not finished with it, is going on the shelf tonight. It's being replaced with this one:
Labels: Reading Habits
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
I saw this at Steven McEvoy's other blog, McEvoy's Musings . . . and No. 20 compelled me to play along.
1. Male or Female: Male.
2. Married or Single or Religious: Married since 1/9/99.
3. Dream vacation: Personal -- Rome and Israel. Family -- the beaches of Destin, Florida.
4. Birthplace: Outside of St. Louis, Missouri.
5. Area I live in currently: Texas.
6. Someone you wish you could meet: Alive -- Orson Scott Card. Dead -- Pope John Paul II and Teddy Roosevelt.
7. Biggest "pet-peeve": People who don't say "thank you" when you hold the door open for them.
8. Favorite Religious devotion: Spiritual Reading.
9. Favorite Saint (besides the Blessed Mother): St. Joseph and St. Teresa of Avila.
10. Favorite sport that you play: You've got to be joking!
11. Favorite food: Pizza.
12. Tridentine or Novus Ordo: Novus Ordo.
13. Would you (or are you) home schooling or public school: home schooling.
14. How many kids do you have: 3, ages 6, 4, 2.
15. Ever been in an auto accident: Yes, maybe a half-dozen times. I've been sideswiped once and rear-ended several times (once on the highway -- it made my back feel great for about three weeks!).
16. Ever seen a Pope in person: No.
17. Languages that you know fluently: English.
18. Last movie you saw in theaters: 300, and I loved it..
19. Favorite Blog: Besides the Woodward half of Thursday Night Gumbo? It would probably be Julie's Happy Catholic blog because it's a blog I could never do.
20. Your thoughts on Barney, the Easter bunny, and Santa Claus: Barney is the purple anti-Christ who, regardless of how hard parents try, always seems able to penetrate into one's home. The Easter Bunny is the stupidest tradition I know of, and if it weren't for my parents and in-laws, my kids wouldn't know about it. I like Santa Clause. If a person doesn't like Santa Clause, then there must be something seriously wrong with him.
Though I doubt he'll play . . . I tag Woodward. I would love to see how he answers No. 20.
I normally don't highlight posts I add to the blogroll. The reason for this because we have a New to the Blogroll section on our sidebar, and so it doesn't seem necessary to highlight them here, in the posts.
But I'm going to do that now because this blogger is a Catholic, a stay-at-home dad, and a writer. (Could he be a home schooler as well?)
Does that sound like someone you know?
Anyway, here's a special post highlight Scott Lyons' blog: The Glory of Everything.
Labels: Catholic Blogs
"An astonishing science fiction phenomenon." -- The Washington Post
"Powerful, convincing, and most ingenious." -- Robert A. Heinlein
"One of the monuments of modern science fiction." -- Chicago Tribune
"I know nothing comparable to it except Lord of the Rings." -- Arthur C. Clarke.
And atop my copy of Dune: "Science Fiction's Supreme Masterpiece."
Who was it that said, "Don't believe the hype"? Whoever said it, I wish I had taken his words to heart before setting out to read Dune. Perhaps if my expectations hadn't been so high the letdown wouldn't have been so severe.
So the lesson is learned (once again): Don't believe the hype.
My own reading rule is to give a novel either 50 pages or 10% -- whichever is longer -- before setting it aside. That means I give a novel sufficient time to rivet my imagination and stimulate my intellect before giving up. This is generous on my part; I know someone who gives a novel only three pages -- three pages, man -- before tossing it. That's just not fair.
But because of the declaration that Dune is "science fictions supreme masterpiece," I kept plodding along after 50 pages (which is also 10% of my edition of the novel), and after 60 pages, and 70, and 80, but not after 90. That's when I closed up shop on it, supreme masterpiece or not. Life is too short, and there are too many good books out there, to read the ones you don't like.
So the question remains: "Why didn't I like it?"
To be honest, I wish I knew. Maybe I do know but lack the ability to articulate it. At any rate, since my motivation for reading the Hugo and/or Nebula novels is to learn how to write good SF -- and since I believe some of the best lessons you can learn is from books that didn't work for you -- I'll list (in no particular order) those lessons I did learn.
1. If you're going to write in the omniscient viewpoint, you must be careful not to loose your reader as you move from inside one character to inside another character.
2. If you're going to use the omniscient viewpoint, then it's very important to establish some kind of authoritative narrative voice -- either the formal voice of a Tolstoy, or that of a storyteller, something the late John Gardner would use.
3. Sometimes it's better just to tell the reader what is going on rather than try to fully immerse him or her into a science-fictional world, which, unfortunately, forces him to either sink or swim.
4. If you're going to use the full immersion technique, then it seems to me you must use the limited 3-person viewpoint and give your reader all the knowledge your character has as it would naturally occur to him.
5. Political intrigue cannot replace the personal story.
6. Be very aware of the questions you are raising in your readers' minds, because if you offer an answer to a question they haven't asked, they'll either gloss over it or become confused.
Obviously, I wrote these in the abstract. Here's how they relate to Dune.
1. I found Herbert's use of the omniscient viewpoint extremely disruptive to the fictional dream. The only reason I can attribute to this is that his transitions between characters were never smooth; rather, they were jarring.
2. The problem with Herbert's use of the omniscient viewpoint was that he never established an authoritative narrative voice. Rather, he writes as if he's writing from the third-person-limited viewpoint, then suddenly switches.
3. 90 pages into the novel, I never understood fully the importance of the spice, the relationships between the principle groups, or why exactly the Atreides family went to the desert planet Arrakis. Yes, I'm sure these questions were answered in the first 90 pages, but they were too obscure for me.
4. I think I'm repeating myself, but here's my point. On the one hand, Herbert uses the omniscient viewpoint -- a viewpoint that implies there is an omniscient narrator who knows everything. On the other hand, he writes using full immersion, never really telling the reader what is going on. This seems like a contradiction of technique to me. So if you're going to use the full immersion, then you must use the a third-person limited viewpoint. Orson Scott Card has mastered this technique.
5. Dune is a story of politics. I can live with that. Though it wasn't his best effort, I read Orson Scott Card's The Shadow of the Hegemon last month; it's filled with politics, but at its heart, it's about people. Never did I get the impression that Dune was about Paul or Jessica or Leto. Or perhaps it is, and if that's the case, then Herbert didn't succeed in making me care about them.
6. 20% into a novel, a reader should understand what's at stake. The way this is done is by setting up the right dramatic questions at the right time -- that is to say, to pose them early enough so the reader is curious about the, but not so early the reader forgets. In the final analysis, I closed Dune because I just didn't understand what was going on or why I should care. I'm sure other readers have had, and will continue to have, a different experience of this novel.
If you've had a different experience, please let me know. There's always the possibility that Dune will work for me sometime in the future.
PS -- Though I didn't enjoy the novel, I'd like to see the movies. Which one should I watch?
I've been away for a couple of weeks, trying to be a reasonably diligent husband, father, and employee, but now I'm back, just in time to catch Vehige's announcement that he has started a new science fiction blog. (I was relieved to see that he wasn't talking about Thursday Night Gumbo.)
During my brief sabbatical I managed to finish the book that Vehige and I have been slowly plugging away at reading – A Rumor of Angels, by Peter Berger. This post will finish off my comments on Berger's sociological/anthropological/theological analysis of the secularization of American society and his program for combatting that process.
Berger believes that, in a culture that has lost any sense of – or belief in – the supernatural, religious thought must become inductive. It must begin not with revelation or the precepts of a religious tradition, but with individual experience. Human beings can no longer maintain belief in a supernatural reality (like God) simply on the strength of some authoritative teacher telling them that God exists or what God is like. We must find God nowadays in our own knowledge of ourselves and of the world we live in. If we want to be religious in the modern world, Berger says in effect, we will have to start from scratch.
That assumption – those ground rules – will obviously be more congenial to the development of certain modes of religious thought than to others. It will not interfere at all, for example, with mystical, contemplative forms of “spirituality” such as those that have grown like weeds in the 38 years since Berger wrote his book. If you were to plop a group of people down on the proverbial desert island and watch to see what sort of religious faith developed in that experimental community, the result would probably resemble one of the Eastern religions or ethical systems – Buddhism, Confucianism, transcendental meditation – or perhaps a variant of nature worship like Wicca. In the absence of authority and revelation, faith would have to be of the inductive sort that Berger says modern man must begin again to develop.
Our desert island religion, obviously, would not be any form of Christianity. Least of all will it have any chance of resembling Catholicism, a belief system that is particularly weighed down by the two burdens – revelation and tradition – that Berger thinks we must shed if we are to devise a faith that will work in the modern world. And yet Berger proposes – or at least proposed in 1969, a point that we should keep in mind for fairness' sake – that the one form of Christianity with a real chance of surviving in our own time is...liberal Protestantism. Admittedly still dependent to some extent on revelation (i.e., the Bible), Berger's brand of Protestantism nevertheless is free to define itself in terms that modern man, approaching the Religious Question inductively, can accept and in which a modern understanding of the supernatural can be achieved. Protestantism, says Berger, was "the first religious tradition that found the courage to turn the sharp instruments of empirical inquiry back upon itself, and has good reason to be proud of this spirit."
I won't describe what this modern inductive Christianity would look like in as much detail as Berger does in the final chapter of A Rumor of Angels. But I will give you one sample. Here is Berger's model for a “new” Christology:
I see Christ as historically manifested in Jesus but not historically given (as the splendidly defiant particularity of the creedal phrase “under Pontius Pilate” or the all too precise specificity of the dating of events surrounding the birth of Jesus in Luke 3:1-2 suggest). In other words, the redeeming presence of God in the world is manifested in history, but it is not given once and for all in the particular historical events reported on in the New Testament. I am then constrained to disregard the insistence of the New Testament authors that redemption lies only “in this name” of Jesus Christ (that is, the name that links the historical figure with the cosmic scope of God's redeeming presence). This leads on to the affirmation that while Christ can be and has been “named,” He is not identical with any name – an affirmation close to those Christian heresies that de-emphasized the historical Jesus as against the cosmic Christ, redeemer of all possible worlds.
And so on and so on. It's easy to smile at this prescription for solving Christianity's problems – whether we're considering the problems it faced in 1969, when Berger wrote the words quoted above; or the problems it faces today, when there are still plenty of helpful modernist theologians ready and willing to explain why we must embrace the “cosmic Christ” without getting him all mixed up with that Jesus guy. One smiles because the Protestant denominations that have most closely adhered to Berger's theological model are, to all appearances, now in their death throes; while the expressions of Christianity farthest from that model – Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism – are flourishing to a degree that might have surprised an observer in 1969. Of course that fact doesn't constitute evidence that Berger's theology is wrong (although I think it is) or that Catholicism is right (although I think it is). But it does suggest that sociology, including the sociology of religion, lacks at least one of the characteristics of a true science – the capacity for predicting what will happen based on an observation of what has already happened. Whatever forces are at work robbing modern man of his sense of the supernatural, they are not exactly what Peter Berger says they are in A Rumor of Angels. And whatever program might be capable of restoring a sense of the supernatural to modern life, it is not going to come from sociology.
As you can see from the sidebar, Vehige and I have decided to read next, and post on, His Holiness' new book Jesus of Nazareth. We hope a lot of you will be reading it with us.
Friday, May 18, 2007
What did you just say?
Yes, that's right, I have a new blog, one devoted to science fiction -- A Science Fiction Odyssey. Come by for a visit.
No, this was not Woodward's idea. (He hasn't been around lately, but he's been watching.) This was my idea. Here's how it happened.
After talking with a friend, I decided to register my own domain name: jeffvehige.com. Once it was registered, I couldn't just let it sit there, could I? Of course not. So I started thinking of how I could use it. This happened about the same time I decided to read the Hugo and Nebula novels. If you're a regular reader, then you know I started a reading list on Blogger as a fun way to keep track of this goal. Then it occurred to me that if I was serious about learning the ins-and-outs of science fiction it would behoove me to think seriously about these books, and the only way I know of to assure clear thinking is the act of writing. Now if I'm going to read all these novels and write "reviews" of them, why not published the reviews? That seemed like a good enough idea to start a blog devoted to the project. So I used my newly minted domain name, downloaded WordPress (which, unlike Blogger, allows you the options of pages, thus making it more like a website than a mere blog), and spent the last few days sorting through the nearly 3,000 templates (yes, you heard me correctly) and getting things up and running.
But what about Thursday Night Gumbo? Isn't this a blog about everything?
Well, yes it is, and many of those reviews will be featured here as well, but not all of them. Reviews of more important novels (such as Dune) and authors (such as Isaac Asimov) will be featured here, as well as reviews of novels with religious themes (such as Calculating God), and of course those novels I find especially good. But for the lesser novels -- those that would be of interest to only sf fans -- I won't bore the loyal readers of Thursday Night Gumbo readers with those novels.
The Three Conversions of the Spiritual Life is a short masterpiece. In about 100 pages, Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange outlines the traditional journey the soul makes as it advances toward God. These are sometimes called the “three ways” or the “three stages” of the spiritual life. They’ve been around at least since the time of Origen (the 250’s) and have been the hallmark of Catholic spirituality.
We may speak of the three ways as the way of purgation, the way of illumination, and the way of union.
Or we may speak of them in terms of the beginner, the proficient, or the perfect.
Or, as Garrigou-Lagrange does, we may speak of the first conversion, the second conversion, and the third conversion -- i.e., the pivotal transformations of the soul one must undergo to advance in the spiritual life.
The first conversion is necessary to reach the stage of the beginner, or the way of purification. On the interior level, this is a conversion from a state of sin to a state of grace. On the exterior level, it is a response to Christ’s call to follow him. Simply, it means repenting of your sins and seeking to life a life worthy of God. Thus the beginner in the spiritual life sets out on the way of purgation; that is, the purification of one’s life from sin and the things that lead to sin.
But at some point, the soul must undergo a second conversion. Garrigou-Lagrange compares this second conversion to the trial the apostles underwent during our Lord's crucifixion. They had become attached to the humanity of Jesus and, thus, still attached to the things of the world. Just as the crucifixion severed this attachment, this second conversion severs our attachment to worldly things.
How can one be too attached to the humanity of Christ? According to Garrigou-Lagrange, we are too attached to Christ's humanity when we love God for what God gives us -- for the spiritual pleasure we receive in prayer -- more than we love God for God's sake. We love being with Jesus in a superficial way, and the second conversion is the spiritual darkness and dryness we must experience in order to purge ourselves of this superficial and childish love.
If we successfully endure the second conversion, we enter the stage of the proficient. We have a new, deeper sense of Christ’s presence -- just as the apostles had a new, deeper experience of the crucified and risen Lord. This way is marked out by a deep desire to grow in virtue and holiness.
Nevertheless, a third conversion is needed, for the soul, though advanced, is still attached to superficial things -- not the superficial things of the world, but a kind of spiritual superficiality. These souls may desire to be saints -- a noble desire, to be sure -- but they also desire a kind of ecclesiastical glory.
The apostles also experienced this same kind of desire for spiritual superficiality. Before Christ ascended into heaven, they asked him if he was not going to restore the kingdom of Israel (Acts 1.6). They were still thinking in terms of earthly glory. Thus, they had to undergo a third conversion.
This third conversion is called the dark night of the soul. Whereas the dark night of the senses severed our attachment to worldly things, the dark night of the soul severs our attachment to spiritual things so that we can love God alone.
If we successfully pass through this third conversion, we enter what is called the way of unity -- the stage of the perfect. All the great saints achieved this level of holiness and many, many unknown souls as well. At this level, one love God alone and desires only to do God’s will -- regardless of personal cost.
Thus, a basic outline of The Three Conversions of the Spiritual Life. It's a great book for someone who has a good grasp of the basics of the spiritual life (daily prayer, spiritual reading, mortification, and so forth) and wants to go deeper into their relationship with God.
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
There are many Catholics who'd like to know their faith better, but don't know where to begin. Perhaps you are one of them. Well, I can't tell you where to begin, but perhaps I can make some sense of what it means to have a general theological education.
Theology, as it's done today, is divided into four areas: biblical, historical, dogmatic/systematic, and moral. Each of these areas are divided into small, more specialized areas. And up in the ivory tower, these sub-areas are divided further, into sub-sub areas, and then into sub-atomic-sub-sub areas, until it becomes almost pointless.
At any rate, if you understand how the four basic areas are divided, you should be able to see which areas you know something about and which areas that need a little help.
Biblical theology is the easiest because the Bible itself provides the divisions. First, you have the OT and the NT. (Perhaps I didn't need to say that, but one never knows.) The OT is divided into four basic sections: the Pentateuch, the historical books, the wisdom literature, and the prophets.
The NT is divided into x areas: the Synoptic Gospels (Matt, Mk, Lk), Pauline literature, and Johannine literature. In the NT, we can also speak of the Lk-Acts duology, the so-called Catholic epistles (those not written by Paul or John), and the Book of Revelation.
Historical theology is also a rather easy to divide. There's Patristic theology, from around A.D.96, with the Didache to about 750, with St. John Damascene.
In the West, there's a lull between 800 and 1050, when St. Anselm began writing, which is when medieval/scholastic theology more or less began. This statement itself can be challenged if one posits the beginning of the Middle Ages around 500; but we're talking about intellectual history here, not social or political history. The fact is that the intellectual climate was solidly Patristic until at least 800. With Anselm, scholastic theology had begun.
One could say that Scholastic theology, insofar it's the theology of the universities, has yet to end, but let's put that quibble aside. The Reformation brought a new wave into theology -- namely, apologetics . . . at least apologetics as we understand them.
After the Reformation, there's another lull in Catholic theology until the 1800's when theologians such as John Henry Newman and Matthais Scheeben began writing. Then in the 1930's and 40's we saw another new wave of theology come into being with the work of Henri de Lubac, Jean Danielou, Yves Congar, Karl Rahner, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Romano Guardini.
Thus, the four ares are: Patristic, Medieval, Reformation, and Contemporary. Someone might quibble with this, but what difference does that make? The purpose isn't to perfectly divide the Catholic intellectual tradition, but, rather, to give us a way to get into it.
In terms of Church history, which is also connected to historical theology, the easiest way to approach it is in 500-year blocks: 1-500 is the Early Church and Patrstic age. 500-1000 are the Early Middle Ages. 1000-1500 are the High and Late Middle Ages. And 1500 to 2000 is the Modern Age. The reason this division works is because we see shifts every 500 years. In 500, the ancient world has more or less ended with the invasion of the barbarians. Around 1000, the East and West split in the Great Schism. And in 1500, the Reformation happened. Again, it's not perfect, but it's a nice grid to get you going in Church history.
I've been writing a lot about science fiction lately. It occurred to me that one of our three readers might actually have never read a sf story or novel. If that's the case, and if you're interested in not only reading some good stories but also learning something about the genre, I cannot recommend Robert Silverberg's Science Fiction 101 too highly.
There's not one bad story in this book. But what really makes it special is Silverberg's 50-page "Introduction" as well as his "Afterwards" to every story, explaining what makes each one good science fiction.
If there's a drawback to the anthology, it's that every story is pre-1966. Silverberg, who was born in 1935, used the stories for this anthology that helped shape his own understanding of science fiction both when he was an apprentice and when he was just breaking into the field. Considering that some of the best sf was written between 1950 and 1966, that's not much of shortcoming.
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
As I noted a few days ago, I've decided to read the sf novels that won the Hugo and/or Nebula Awards. Since I'm doing this with an eye to writing sf myself, I cleared the table: I'm reading every novel, even those I've already read. The exception to this rule is Joe Haldeman's Camouflage (a so-so novel, I thought) because I'd read it for the first time only a few weeks ago. But other than that, I'm starting from scratch.
I decided to begin this project with Arthur C. Clarke's Rendezvous With Rama -- a novel I'd read before, and one that I didn't much care for. If I didn't like it the first time, why did I start with it?
It's simple, really: I know more about sf today than I did when I first read Rama several years ago. I have a better understanding of the difference between hard sf and soft sf -- what their conventions are, and what readers expect from them. Rama is hard sf, and when I first read it I hadn't had that much experience with the genre. Since Clarke (along with Asimov and Heinlein) is one of the Big Three of sf, and since Rama is one of his masterpieces, and since I'm not only a more experienced hard sf reader but also have come to appreciate what it's trying to do, I decided that it was as good of place to start as any.
Unfortunately, I still don't like the novel. This is regrettable because I want to like Clarke. I enjoy his short fiction, and Childhood's End is one of my favorite sf novels. The problem is Rama's lack of characterization. I like fiction in which the characters are the most interesting part of the story, not the world. Both Rama and The Lord of the Rings rely heavily upon their speculative worlds, but 100 pages in the Ring's trilogy every character has made at least one serious moral choice, whereas 100 pages into Clarke's story the characters haven't faced one small moral problem. Eventually, I need a character and his choices to rivet my attention, not an alien spacecraft.
Since life's too short to read a book you don't like, I'm setting Rendezvous with Rama aside and picking up a novel that won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, a novel I've never read -- Frank Herbert's Dune.
You have my permission to officially write me off as a SF fan. I have no good excuse for not having read Dune; I've always wanted to read it, but never actually got around to doing so. Why? I don't know. All I can say is that there are many books I want to read that I've never read -- some of which I'd be embarrassed to admit not having read -- and, on both counts, Dune is one of those books.
I'm starting it tonight; I hope it does not disappoint.
Monday, May 14, 2007
In alphabetical order . . .
1. Biblical illiteracy -- Not only for the sake of defending the faith against Protestant fundamentalism, but for the sake of spiritual health, for the Bible teaches us something that nothing else does: that though we may not be the center of the physical universe, we are the center of the spiritual universe . . . and that's all that matters.
2. Birth control -- Sooner or later, Catholics will realize that they do not have a choice when it comes to contraception, and they'll have to face the fact that contraception is the handmaiden of abortion and the culture of death.
3. Catechetical illiteracy -- We're never going to have a mature Church that can stand up and respond to modern ideas until we have an educated one.
4. Ecclesial indifferentism -- Perhaps the worst of all ten, because it makes people forget why they're Catholic, and why they should be thankful they are Catholic.
5. Education of the youth -- How should the Church meet the needs of young people today, particularly when their Protestant friends have such fun on Wednesday and Sunday nights. Is Life Teen really the answer? I think not.
6. The Laity -- Just what is the role of the laity? So long as it's defined by volunteering to be lectors, Eucharistic ministers, ushers, and parking lot attendants, there's a serious problem.
7. Liturgical reform -- The Mass is what the Church says the Mass is, and I don't see how permission to celebrate the old Latin Mass is going to help matters any; but, then, I'm not the Pope . . . and let's all say a word of thanks for that.
8. Married priests -- We'll see an increase in the clamoring for a married clergy so long as the priesthood is advertised as a job and not a vocation.
9. Parish administration -- Should the Church start requiring their priests to get an M.B.A. instead of an M.T.S.? When are priests going to be pastors again? There's an easy solution to this: hire and train retired businessmen to run the parish, and let the pastors be pastors.
10. Pop-psychology vs. authentic spirituality -- I've heard enough talks that claim that birth order, family of origin, the four humors, journaling, etc. are legitimate means of spirituality that if I have to hear another one I'm going to superglue my ears shut. Whatever happened to prayer, almsgiving, fasting, self-denial, and advancement in the virtues?
Lest anyone think I don't take my own advice, I'm reading (and rereading) all of the novels that won the Hugo Awards and/or the Nebula Awards. To keep me on track, I've set up a new blog (of sorts) called Vehige's Hugo and Nebula Novel Project, in which I've listed all 80 or so novels that have won these awards.
I've read several of them, but I'm going to make it a comprehensive project, starting from scratch -- which is all right, because there was only one I really hated: Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land. Also, I'm making it a point to read the novels that won both awards first.
Why exactly am I doing this? Well, I'll leave it for you to figure out.
Sunday, May 13, 2007
Now come on, just why shouldn't entertainers be listened to when speaking on matters of politics, religion, and/or science? They're people, too; they have a right to say what they think.
Yes, yes, yes . . . but don't you think we should outlaw this kind of stupidity?
Rock singer Sheryl Crow has joined the global-warming nags, touring the U.S. on a biodiesel-powered bus with environmental activist Laurie David to spread the good word on college campuses. What suggestions does Miss Crow have for our nation’s students? How might they, to use her own words, “become a part of the solution to global warming”? Well, they might be more sparing in their use of toilet paper. In fact, Crow seems to think that legislative action is called for in this area: “I propose a limitation be put on how many squares of toilet paper can be used in any one sitting.” She suggests using only one square per visit. Goodness! We know, of course, that the Nanny State is advancing on all fronts, but we did not think it would advance on all rears, too — taking over one of Nanny’s more disagreeable tasks. And only one square? Even British army recruits were traditionally allowed three: “One up, one down, and one to put a shine on it.”
From "The Week . . ." in The National Review, May 14, 2007.
Yikes! What has Steven McEvoy done to me? Now I feel insurmountable pressure to be interesting. Well, here it goes, my answers to another book meme.
It's just too hard to limit myself to three, so I'm going to name six in each category -- three fiction, and three non-fiction.
Also, I never include the Bible in these kinds of lists because it's disingenuous on my part. In my own life, Scripture hasn't impacted me the way other books have. It's because I'm Catholic, I think. I grew up hearing the Scriptures read every Sunday at Mass, so when I finally did start reading the Bible, I had a familiarity with it I didn't know I had, and my first encounter with the Bible was an attempt to put together all the episodes I heard during my years of attend Mass. That being said, if I were off to spend my days on a deserted island, the Bible would be one of the ten books I'd take.
(Am I being interesting yet?)
Name up to 3 books you think everyone should read.
3 Works of Nonfiction
St. Augustine, The Confessions. In my opinion, this is the greatest book ever written. Augustine was a great theologian, a great philosopher, a spiritual master, and one of the greatest prose writers in any language. It's both an intellectual and aesthetical delight to read this book. But what makes the Confessions so good—so important—is it's ability to lead you, the reader, into making your own confession before God: indeed, it's ability to lead you to holiness. Get either Henry Chadwick's or Frank Sheed's translation, and read it.
Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I must admit, I'm a self-help junkie. But of all the self-help books and tapes I've heard, Covey's Seven Habits stands out from the rest, not only for it's practicality, but also for it's wisdom. Part of Bush's "No Child Left Behind" program should be a test on Covey's first three habits, along with the seventh. Our country would be a better place for it.
John Gardner, On Moral Fiction. Nowadays, the most influential theologians are philosophers are our storytellers, which means it's of the utmost importance for readers and movie-goers to understand what makes fiction moral or immoral. There's no better teacher of the subject than John Gardner—who, in one-hundred years, will probably stand out as the greatest novelist of the second half of the 20th century. The problem is that he threw too many of his peers under the bus in On Moral Fiction, and since his death in 1982, they've done their best to expunge his name from the tablets of contemporary American literature.
3 Works of Fiction
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace. What can I say about War and Peace? I think it's the greatest novel ever written, and I'm waiting for the right time to reread it.
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings. I think this is the second greatest novel ever written—and the greatest of the 20th century. What more can I say about it?
John Irving, The World According to Garp. No, I don't think this is the third greatest novel, but I think it's an important novel for people to read because Irving deals with all the Big Issues in Garp and, for the most part, gets them right. Besides, it's absolutely hysterical.
Name up to 3 authors you think everyone should read.
3 Nonfiction Writers
St. Thomas Aquinas. He's the greatest philosopher ever. But even if you don't agree with him, Aquinas will teach you how to think. The Summa theologiae is the mental parallel to Gold's Gym.
Josef Pieper. Though he's touted as a Thomist, I see him as a kind of everyman's philosopher because of his ability to crack open the mystery of everyday life. Particularly important are Leisure, the Basis of Culture and In Tune With the World: A Theory of Festivity.
Paul Johnson. His work may be the panacea to all that's wrong with Western academia.
3 Fiction Writers
Homer. You haven't lived until you've read the Iliad and the Odyssey—the artistic foundations of Western literature. In fact, don't even talk to me about literature until you've read these epic poems.
Ernest Hemingway. My all-time favorite writer. Though not everything about Hemingway's life and stories are worthy of emulation, he lived a man's life, wrote about men's life, and if there's one thing lack in today's society it's men with chests.
Charles Dickens. To quote Woodward: "It's a privilege to read Dickens." If a person doesn't like Dickens, there's something wrong with his soul.
Name up to 3 books no one should read.
3 Works of Nonfiction
Anything by Kant, Hegel, or Karl Rahner because no one should have to read such convoluted prose.
3 Works of Fiction
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov. Because if no one reads it, that means I don't have to explain why I find it almost unreadable.
David Guterson, Snow Falling on Cedars. Anyone who writes a sex scene and says "she felt his scrotum slapping on her skin" should be flayed alive then be forced to listen to Rosie O'Donnell read Stranger in a Strange Land. Besides that, this novel is a complete and total mess. Guterson, like so many contemporary novelists, gets almost everything wrong, from the plot engine to the pacing to the dialogue—but the biggest mistake he makes is to think that anyone would actually care for the people he's writing about.
Tim LeHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, all of the Left Behind books. Far, far more dangerous than The Da Vinci Code because instead of challenging basic tenets of Christianity, they offer a nice, glib interpretation of some very difficult New Testament passages that will deceive many people. There's a reason way the rapture and tribulation theories make such good fiction—because they already are good fiction.
* * * * *
I tag Julie D., Keith Strohm, and D. G. D. Davidson.
Friday, May 11, 2007
I never thought I'd be much of a Books on Tape kind of guy -- it's always seemed to me like a cheesy way to read a book -- but when your time to read is cut short by the never-ending mess in the kitchen, or by the mounds of laundry small children can pile up over the course of a few days, or by scrubbing toilet bowls (which I try to avoid as much as possible), I've found that a good audio book makes these commonplace tasks more than bearable. In fact, since I started listening to them, I found myself wanting to do some cleaning. Perverse, isn't it?
I started with Orson Scott Card's The Elephants of Posnan and Other Stories. The collection of stories here is representative of his work in general and also spans the length of his career. "Ender's Game," the novella which not only inspired the novel, but also earned Card the Campbell Award for best new SF writer, may be the earliest story in the collection, and the title story, "The Elephants of Posnan" is, as far as I know, the most recent. So that's 25 years of stories, and a great introduction to OSC's storytelling virtuosity. (My favorite, by the way, is the ever-so-creepy "Lost Boys," one of the best ghost stories I've ever read . . . I mean, heard.)
Now I'm on to H. G. Wells' The Invisible Man. I've never been able to read Wells. When I was younger I didn't understand him, and now that I'm older I'm too impatient to put up with his dense, ponderous prose. As I recently told my wife, "Life's too short to read books you don't like." But Wells is a major science fiction writer -- the father of modern science fiction, according to some -- and if you're a SF fan as well as a SF writer (see, I take my own advice), it's hard to justify not having read him.
So on my shelf, along with The Invisible Man, is The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, and four of his shorter pieces: "The Cone," "The Diamond Maker," "The Door in the Wall," and "The Country of the Blind." If I like Wells being read to me, I'll have to hunt down the rest of his audio books.
Tuesday, May 8, 2007
It seems that Thursday Night Gumbo is just limping along, and that might be an overstatement.
The decline started at the beginning of April, with Holy Week (yeah, yeah, blame the liturgical calendar for your lack of posting). Then Woodward got sick, then I got sick . . . and then the dog ate our computers. (No, really.)
Then both of us got burned out on the book we're supposed to be reading and writing about -- Peter Berger's A Rumor of Angels -- but for different reasons. Woodward thinks Berger is "useless" (those are his words) and I've completely lost interest in all things theological (more on that in a bit).
Then there's the time factor. Woodward is a good employee and doesn't blog at work, which, with travel time, eliminates about 50 hours a week. Then there's the curse of sleep and the blessing of family -- both of which take time away from blogging. And even though I don't know exactly how many minutes a day Woodward has free to blog, it isn't that much.
Me, I've finally admitted that being a stay-at-home dad also means I'm a "house husband." So along with home schooling and other parental responsibilities, such as taking my son to t-ball and soccer games, the house had to be cleaned, too. That my kids know something about ancient Egypt is as important as keeping the toilet bowls cleaned. Isn't that depressing?
Then there's the additional fact that I'm not very interested in anything theological now, and haven't been since mid-March. Why is this? Well I've mentioned before that I used to try my hand at writing fiction. In March 2003, after declining a full scholarship and teaching assistantship to my first-choice doctorate program in order to keep stability to my family, I decided that I'd focus on my boyhood dream of becoming a writer. So I wrote almost every day from March 2003 to March 2006, when I quit.
I quit for many reasons; maybe I'll write about them later. In the final analysis, I was burned out and needed a break, and so for a year I neither wrote nor read a word of fiction. Then I found out that the old Dungeons & Dragons module The Tomb of Horrors had been made into a novel. It was the perfect novel for me to read (my review is here) because it reminded me just how much I love speculative fiction, and yet it contained some mistakes to make me think that maybe I knew something about writing fiction.
(All novels, by the way, have mistakes -- I'm not trying to pick on Keith Strohm, who gave me a big boost of confidence when he read a first-draft of a story and said that I had talent -- but Tolstoy's screw-ups still make the aspiring writer despair.)
So after a month of writing and prayerful consideration about whether or not this was what God wanted, I decided that it was, and that's usually all I need to put my whole self into what I'm doing -- unless, of course, it's God' will for me to clean the bathrooms.
Does God call someone to write spectulative fiction? It's a good question. I have some thoughts on the subject, and I'll post them tomorrow.
Thus, one of the reasons I haven't been blogging is that I've been busy writing short stories. And when I'm not writing short stories, I've been busy reading science fiction. I thought about starting a third blog devoted to writing and speculative fiction . . . but then remembered that Woodward and I started Thursday Night Gumbo to write about whatever we wanted. So I'm going to write about whatever I want, and right now I want to write about writing and SF.
And since both Woodward and I have more or less put A Rumor of Angels aside, I'd like to suggest that the next book we read be something completely different: Jacques Maritain's Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry.
(Woodward, you can respond via e-mail if you'd like.)
At any rate, that's what been up with us. Starting today, I promise to start posting on a frequent basis.
Labels: Thursday Night Gumbo
Tuesday, May 1, 2007
Robert J. Sawyer is one of the leading hard SF writers working today. Hard SF, if you're not familiar with the genre, is science fiction that has both feet planted firmly in the hard sciences and demands scientific and technical detail and accuracy. The other two kinds of SF are knows as soft SF, which has its roots in the soft sciences, such as psychology and sociology — think 1984 — and science fantasy, which is essentially what Star Wars is, as well as most of the SF of Ray Bradbury. Hard SF can become overburdened with scientific and technological minutia, but in the hands of a good writer, such as Rob Sawyer, it's as readable as the more popular soft SF and science fantasy.
Calculating God was my first Sawyer novel, and I'm certainly going back for seconds. He's a clear writer, working in the tradition of Isaac Asimov as opposed to Ray Bradbury, and like the Good Doctor, he has an abundance of fun with this story. Calculating God starts humorously with an alien name Hollus arriving at the Royal Ontario Museum and saying, "Excuse me. I would like to see a paleontologist." Dr. Thomas Jericho, who is the one telling this story, comes out to meet his interplanetary visitor. Hollus quickly gets to the point: Earth, his own planet, as well as a third alien planet, have all experienced the same five mass extinctions at the exact same time — proof, according to Hollus, for God's existence. Thus begins a novel as intellectually stimulating, though not quiet as serious, as Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.
The rest of the book (335 pages) is mostly a long series of scientific and theological debates between Jericho and Hollus. This itself doesn't sound too promising, but Sawyer injects an abundance of life into the novel by making Jericho and atheist who has terminal cancer (modeled after Carl Sagan, I believe), thus giving the first-person narration a personal and urgent feel. Since the end of Chapter 1 sets up the dramatic question — Will Thomas Jericho learn the answer to the single-most jugular question we can ask, Does God exist? — this question is answered at the end of the book. Sawyer's answer, holding true the hard SF genre, remains solidly scientific; he does not allow his story to flow over into mysticism.
That's all I'm going to say about the ending. It will be sure to anger many readers on both sides of the aisle. This reader, who is a traditional and orthodox Catholic, didn't find it one bit offensive. The way he's stacked the deck, Sawyer was forced to answer the question. But the debate between Jericho and Hollus is far more interesting that the answer, in my mind. Perhaps that's because I'm a philosopher at heart.
The only flaw in the novel comes by way of a minor subplot. Two fundamentalist Christians, who also are biblical creationists and believe in a young earth, decide to destroy the Burgess Shale fossils, which happens to be on display at the Royal Ontario Museum, because these fossils are the "work of the devil" that helps people "believe the lie of evolution," as one of the creationists says. Now, I have a problem with neither of these characters nor with what they attempt. My problem is that Sawyer doesn't give us a dialectic to them: at no time in the novel do we come across a scientifically and intellectually balanced Christian. I haven't read enough Sawyer to speculate why there's this gap in an otherwise terrific novel. But it's a flaw nonetheless.
That being said, Calculating God is a great novel, the best hard SF novel I've read in a long time, and certainly one of the best I've ever read. If you're interested in the relationship between God and science, and if you're interested in any sort of fun speculation on the subject, then this novel's for you.