Sunday, September 30, 2007

Woodward: My First Catholic Churches

Vehige's trip down Memory Lane got me feeling a bit nostalgic myself. And since I'm older than Vehige, when I start down Memory Lane I need to pack a lunch.

Anyway, I was prompted by that charming picture of St. Theodore's in Vehige's post to see whether I could find any pictures of my first Catholic parish. I entered the Church while I was in graduate school in Philadelphia. I was baptised and attended Mass at St. James Catholic Church on Chestnut Street (now St. Agatha-St. James, in this era of inner-city parish consolidation). To my pleasant surprise, the old church has undergone a respectful and intelligent restoration and looks positively resplendent. That's it above. And the website offers a very well-done virtual tour.

After my conversion, when I would go home to Louisville for the summers, I attended a Dominican church, St. Louis Bertrand. It is there that I still go to Mass with my wife and children when we visit my Kentucky relatives, as we will next month. (Picture on the right.)

Two very pretty churches that sheltered me during my years as an "infant Catholic" though not a Catholic infant. Living now in suburban Dallas, where ecclesiastical architecture alternates between "concrete bunker" and "brick warehouse," I suppose I should take heart in the fact that I don't miss Gothic elegance any more than I do. Proof, perhaps, that I know the Church is more than a building.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Vehige: Pictures of Home

It's quite amazing that pictures of my home town -- Flint Hill, Missouri -- are actually up on someone's blog. But, then, it's a blog about the Dioceses of St. Louis, and the pictures are of St. Theodore's Catholic Church. Here is the link to "Rome of the West."

We moved from Flint Hill to Apple Valley, California, when I was 7, so I don't remember too much of St. Theodore's. I went to first grade at St. Theodore's Elementary (the last picture). My teacher, Sister Barbara Rose, was also the principle -- not a good thing.

I'd have to agree whole-heartedly with the first comment: The banners have got to go. They ruin an otherwise beautiful church.

Vehige: Problems with Catechesis

From the General Directory of Catechesis, no. 30:

It is necessary, however, to examine with particular attention some problems so as to identify their solutions:

– the first concerns the conception of catechesis as a school of faith, an initiation and apprenticeship in the entire Christian life of which catechists do not yet have a full understanding.

– with regard to the fundamental direction of catechesis, catechetical activity is still usually impregnated with the idea of 'Revelation': however, the conciliar concept of 'Tradition' is much less influential as an inspiration for catechesis: in much catechesis, indeed, reference to Sacred Scripture is virtually exclusive and unaccompanied by sufficient reference to the Church's long experience and reflection, acquired in the course of her two-thousand-year history. The ecclesial nature of catechesis, in this case, appears less clearly; the inter-relation of Sacred Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium, each according to "its proper mode" does not yet harmoniously enrich a catechetical transmission of the faith;

– Concerning the object of catechesis, which always seeks to promote communion with Jesus Christ, it is necessary to arrive at a more balanced presentation of the entire truth of the mystery of Christ. Often, emphasis is given only to his humanity without any explicit reference to his divinity; at other times, less frequently today, emphasis is so exclusively placed on his divinity that the reality of the mystery of the Incarnate Word is no longer evident;

– Various problems exist with regard to the content of catechesis: there are certain doctrinal lacunae concerning the truth about God and man; about sin and grace and about eschatology; there is a need for a more solid moral formation; presentations of the history of the Church are inadequate; and too little importance is given to her social teaching; in some regions there has been a proliferation of catechisms and texts, the products of particular initiatives whose selective tendencies and emphases are so differing as to damage that convergence necessary for the unity of the faith;

– "Catechesis is intrinsically bound to every liturgical and sacramental action." Frequently however, the practice of catechetics testifies to a weak and fragmentary link with the liturgy: limited attention to liturgical symbols and rites, scant use of the liturgical fonts, catechetical courses with little or no connection with the liturgical year; the marginalization of liturgical celebrations in catechetical programs;

– Concerning pedagogy, after a period in which excessive insistence on the value of method and techniques was promoted by some, sufficient attention is still not given to the demands and to the originality of that pedagogy which is proper to the faith. It remains easy to fall into a 'content-method' dualism, with resultant reductionism to one or other extreme; with regard to the pedagogical dimension the requisite theological discernment has not always been exercised;

– Regarding differences between cultures in the service of the faith, it is difficult to know how to transmit the Gospel within the cultural horizons of the peoples to whom it is proclaimed, in such a way that it can be really perceived as Good News for the lives of people and of society;

– Formation for the apostolate and for mission is one of the fundamental tasks of catechesis. Nevertheless while there is a new sensitivity to the formation of the laity for Christian witness, for inter religious dialogue, and for their secular obligations, education for missionary activity "ad gentes" still seems weak and inadequate. Fr
equently, ordinary catechesis gives only marginal and inconsistent attention to the missions.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Vehige: The Church and the Youth

Here's a good essay from one of the campus ministers at my alma mater, the University of Dallas, about what must be done to get young people interested in the Church. I agree with everything he says (of course), but I particularly like the way he explains how the Church's so-called "social teaching" should be presented to the youth.

H/T: Running River Latin School

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Vehige: Priestless Parishes

I live in a very populated area, so if my own parish were to suddenly become priestless, there are many other parishes close to me; hence, I don't have to worry about waking up on a Sunday morning and worrying about getting to Mass. Or about being inconvenienced.

But that's not true for all Catholics. Scott Danielson, for example, lives in the Idahoan outback, and does not have a priest at his parish. He has recently written a post about some of the possibilities he and his fellow Catholics have.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Woodward: Politics, Language, Art

Wow. I ask a question; I get some really interesting answers. Blogging is fun.

The thoughtful and knowledgeable comments to my previous post about the "degenerate art" controversy offer some helpful background that I didn't go into. You should read them. (Go here and click "Comments" at the bottom.) I agree that any evaluation of Cardinal Meisner's statement about modern religious art certainly must take into account the historical connotations evoked by the term entartete Kunst ("degenerate art"). And there's clear evidence in the news today that Cardinal Meisner himself wishes he had chosen a different word -- although what different word might be available in Germany nowadays to express precisely the Cardinal's quite legitimate opinion is a puzzling question in and of itself.

In response to the comments, I'll toss out a few additional observations.

I can think of three legitimate (as opposed to ideologically opportunistic) reasons for objecting to what Cardinal Meisner said specifically on the basis of the language he used:

(1) A particular sensitivity to the way in which the term degenerate is associated with one particularly dark episode of world history and a conviction that, for the sake of civility in discourse, it would be better if we all – or at least all Germans?-- simply agreed not to use it.

(2) A belief or suspicion that His Eminence actually harbors crypto-Nazi ideas himself and is signalling those ideas in his conscious choice of coded language.

(3) A belief that His Eminence's use of what has become an ideologically charged term, while probably inadvertent, nonetheless is capable of stirring up dark emotions and perhaps dark political impulses -- that the word entartete is literally inflammatory, at least within the borders of Germany.

My guess is that most Germans come closest to entertaining objection (1). The rationally proportionate reaction dictated by such a view is probably a wince, and then a shrug, in the certain knowledge that the Cardinal's verbal ineptitude will be brought to his full attention – as indeed it has been. Cardinal Meisner's own statement in reaction to the controversy shows clearly that he belongs in category (1) himself.

No one whose comments I have read has publicly taken position (2), although I predict that before this whole thing blows over some pundit will craftily link together insinuations about the Cardinal's nationality, Pope Pius XII's alleged inaction (or, alternatively, complicity) in the face of German persecution of the Jews, and (for good measure) Pope Benedict's boyhood membership in Hitler Youth. You know -- scratch a German, or a Catholic, or especially a German Catholic, and you'll find a brown shirt.

I believe that a lot of people honestly fear the possibilities suggested by position (3). But don't such fears themselves help foster a form of ethnic bigotry -- the belief that Germans in particular are inherently at risk of "going all Nazi on us" and that we had best avoid using certain words so as not to "set them off"? Of what other nationality would you ever hear someone say, regarding remarks like Cardinal Meisner's, "He misuses language as a taboo-breaker. If that sets an example, we should not be surprised if Nazi beliefs become respectable again." Western civilization prides itself on having shaken off its innumerable taboos as so many vestiges of a pre-rational past, yet there seems to be a consensus among the most progressive elements of that civilization that some taboos may still be a good idea in Germany.

The biggest danger here, it seems to me, is that pointing the finger at someone else in this way makes it all the easier for the rest of us to pat ourselves on the back at the same time. It's very comforting to imagine that the Nazi poison of totalitarianism and race hatred is somehow a specifically German weakness -- that "it can't happen here," but it easily could happen in Germany again if people are allowed to express themselves freely. It might well be that Americans' half-amused tolerance of our own home-grown racial supremacist groups, and Germans' paranoid fear of being even remotely and accidentally tied to any idea or any word that has Nazi associations, are – from opposite ends of the spectrum -- about equally disproportionate reactions to the same evil.

That leaves us with one more basis on which people are objecting very publicly to the Cardinal's remarks, one that I hinted at in my “bonus question” from the previous post. Such objections express in many instances the impending clash between an authentically Catholic and a secular view of culture. Some on the secular side of this clash seem quite willing to pre-empt any real discussion of the issue by tossing out the word “Nazi” -- the ultimate conversation-stopper -- before the conversation has even begun. Remember that the central tenet of Cardinal Meisner's address, now buried beneath the avalanche of press clippings it has provoked, was this:

“Let us not forget that there is an indisputable connection between culture and religion. Where culture is uncoupled from the worship of God, religion becomes moribund in rituals and culture degenerates.”

Quite a trenchant observation, really, touching as it does on the multi-dimensional relationships among art, faith, liturgy, and culture. It might have been productive to discuss and debate that observation, rather than what we have ended up discussing and debating instead. But I'm beginning to wonder whether such a discussion is possible at all any more. Take a look at these reactions, none of which have much substantively to do with Cardinal Meisner's use of the word "degenerate," but all of which are more than happy to use it to score rhetorical points in a dispute that is really about something else entirely. Or consider the reaction of Theodor Lemper, a German politician and member of the ruling Christian Democrat party, who agrees that His Eminence has violated the “degeneracy” taboo, but who then goes on to say:

“Culture does not grow only out of the worship of God. The absolutism preached by Cardinal Meisner is false and inappropriate.”

To call an idea "false and inappropriate" is really quite a striking claim, at least in a free society. “False”? Fine. Let's debate its falsity or truth. But "inappropriate”? What does that mean? Are all false opinions ipso facto inappropriate for Theodor Lemper? Are there, by contrast, ideas that are true but inappropriate nonetheless? Would it be okay to prevent the expression of inappropriate ideas? Perhaps such ideas are also “taboo” in Germany nowadays? It's a curious and potentially frightening statement, especially when it comes from a politician. The Associated Press identifies Theodor Lemper as the man “responsible for culture in Cologne.” He talks as if that actually were true.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Woodward: A Question

According to news reports out of Cologne, "a German cardinal has sparked outrage by warning that modern culture is at risk of descending into 'degeneracy,' a term which is taboo [in Germany, apparently] due to its close connection to the Nazis."

Well, I would agree that the term degeneracy does indeed have a close connection to the Nazis -- Nazism itself being a form of ideological degeneracy. But to make a perfectly useful word -- and with it the idea that it uniquely expresses -- "taboo"? (Would I be in trouble in Germany for saying what I just did about Nazism?) Doesn't the very idea of "taboo" words in 21st-century Western civilization raise some important and troubling questions?

Apparently not in the mind of one Michael Vesper, "former minister of culture" for North Rhine-Westphalia, who is quoted in dramatically high dudgeon as saying, "I am shocked that the term 'degenerate' is still used, I thought that was history in Germany." Herr Vesper goes on to assure anyone who might be listening to him that "art is free." In Germany these days, that's apparently how you can tell the difference between art and speech.

Anyway, here's my question. What quality in a society might prompt it to outlaw the word "degenerate"?

Oh, and here's a bonus question. Would the level of outrage sparked by this "incident" be the same if, instead of a Catholic prelate talking about secular culture, the word degenerate (entartete) had been used by a secularist to describe the Catholic Church?

Friday, September 14, 2007

Vehige: The Deserted Island Series, Part 3 – Novels I've Read

How can one possibly decide which novels he’d take with him to a deserted island? On the one hand, there’s all the great novels I’ve read that I want to reread. On the other hand, there’s all the great novels (or so someone has told me they’re great) that I have yet to read. What’s a guy to do?

Yes, that’s right – make two lists.

But first, let me say one thing. When choosing novels, the criteria is fundamentally different from when you’re choosing nonfiction. With nonfiction, I was looking for those books that would never cease to engage me intellectually. Sure, I’d much rather be reading Chesterton than Plato, but Chesterton would get old. Fast. Plato would only get better.

With fiction, however, I’m not sure the requirement is primarily intellectual. Rather, it’s joy. Which stories have given me the most delight, the most fun, the most joy? This is the requirement for fiction, I think, because a novel or story that works for me won’t work for Woodward, and vice versa. That’s the nature of art. I’m not sure that’s the nature of nonfiction. Whereas not everyone will delight in The Lord of the Rings, everyone -- even the hardest unbeliever -- can profit from reading The Confessions.

That being said, here’s my first list: The novels I’ve read that I’d take with me to a deserted island.

1. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien. In fact, I’m rereading it right now. The stories that bring be the most joy are stories that are plot driven, filled with eccentric characters, and rich in world building (a sf term for setting). Tolkien has all three – in abundance.

2. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. So far, this is the best novel I’ve ever read. Tolstoy has the ability to make you feel as if you are there, watching first hand. But what’s best about him is his ability to make you care so deeply for his characters.

3. The Iliad by Homer. What amazes me about Homer is his ability to tell a man’s life-story in twenty lines of poetry. That’s how he transforms a few days of battle into a sprawling epic – by focusing on the human element. And of course there’s also his ability to create some of the most iconic and beautiful scenes in all of literature – such as when Hektor meets his wife and son before going out to what would end up being his last battle.

4. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. This is my all-time favorite novel. What more do I have to say?

5. The First 49 Stories by Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway may be my all-time favorite writer, and because I think his short stories are better than his novels, I’m taking this collection with me.

6. Maps in the Mirror by Orson Scott Card. OSC is one of my all-time favorite sf writers. His novels are very good, but I think his short stories are even better, and this collection contains almost all of them.

7. The Dragonlance Chronicles by Wise and Hickman. The first of three (sets of) novels that I take great pleasure in despite the fact that they have little or no literary value whatsoever. I read Dragonlance as a kid, and I can reread them with great joy despite all their flaws. In fact, I'm in the process of rereading them now (taking a break between Volume 1 and Volume 2).

8. Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn by Tad Williams. An epic, 3,600-page fantasy story in the tradition of Tolkien. On every level its better than The Dragonlance Chronicles, but it’s not as good as Tolkien, and of the three fantasy trilogies I’m taking, this is my least favorite. But I’m still taking it because I love it.

9. Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling. Yeah, it’s seven books, but it is one long story. I read all seven books over a two week period and had a blast doing so. Rowling hasn’t a clue about solid fictional technique (it's quite agonizing how often she interrupts her fictional dream by now knowing how to assemble a coherent scene), but she tells a compelling story.

10. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. A life that hasn’t read and enjoyed Dickens is a life I don’t care to live. Too bad so many high-school kids will have him forced down their throat. One needs emotional and intellectual maturity to enjoy Dickens. No one should read him until he's over 30.

So those are the ten novels I’d take with me that I’ve already read. What about the novels I haven’t read?

I’ll save that list for another day.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Vehige: In Conversation with God

Because of this post by Julie over at Happy Catholic, I decided to try out Francis Fernandez's In Conversation with God. No, I didn't buy the complete set, just one volume for now. Coincidentally, this Sunday, September 16, is the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time -- which is the exact Sunday Volume 5 begins. So I have a full book to test the waters.

I really hope In Conversation with God does it for me. Last year I went overboard (like I usually do) and bought The Liturgy of Hours. I prayed it faithfully for several months, but then the monotony of the prayers set it, as well as the ordinary grind of everyday life, and it lost its charm. But In Conversation with God doesn't seem too burdensome in terms of time. I am a layman, after all, with secular duties. It looks like there's three meditations for each day; if the books are as good as I've heard, I should be able to find fodder for reflection and prayer.

Unless, of course, this is the beginning of the dark night of the soul for me, in which I get no pleasure from spiritual reading. If that's the case, then no thank you. Gimme the milk, please; solid food is not to my liking.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Woodward: Dying for Nothing

I believe that it's possible -- though not easy -- to predicate a system of morality on atheism. Such an undertaking requires, first, a re-semanticizing of the word morality, which for most people implies considerations of ultimate value, but obviously cannot do so for an atheist. And it calibrates its value system relatively low in comparison to that of Christianity, although I suppose that a good atheist would respond that there is no real comparison to be made between hard facts and a fairy tale. Still, it remains true that the good to be sought in an atheist's moral act cannot be much more than the preservation or maximization of physical, intellectual, or emotional pleasure -- on the pragmatic basis that most people throughout human history seem to have preferred pleasure to pain.

The practical problems faced by the atheist who wants to develop a system of morality along these lines are chiefly two: (1) The moral vision it offers the human race is not particularly inspiring, and thus presents some "marketing" challenges for its proponents. And (2) Atheists themselves don't really seem to be comfortable living by it themselves.

The Washington Post's "On Faith" feature has invited its panelists to draft a message to "religious extremists," and Richard Dawkins has obliged by informing those who would "kill for their God" that there is no God. (One wishes that Prof. Dawkins had spoken up earlier. The world might have been spared a considerable amount of suffering.)

Consider for a moment the "money quote" from Prof. Dawkins's response to the Post's invitation:

"If you kill for your God, you will have killed for nothing. Your life will have been wasted, and so will the lives of those you murder. You will not go to Paradise. You will rot, along with your victims, and the world will be well rid of you, though not of them."

There's a curious (not to say bizarre) stream-of-consciousness tone to this statement. It makes one wonder whether Prof. Dawkins is even aware that he might not be the ideal person to explain the wrongness of killing in the name of religion, or the wrongness of any other act for that matter.

"If you kill for your God, you will not go to Paradise." True, perhaps. But Prof. Dawkins only believes this himself because he doesn't believe that anybody is going to Paradise anyway. In his mouth, the stern moral warning becomes a sort of linguistic trick.

"You will rot." Unquestionably true. But we're all going to rot, and the Richard Dawkinses of the world believe that that fact is the final truth to be spoken about all of our destinies -- St. Francis of Assisi's and Adolf Hitler's, Mahatma Gandhi's and Charles Manson's. He seems in the next moment to be aware that he's not really making the point he wants to make, so he adds (rather feebly, it seems to me): "...along with your victims, and the world will be well rid of you, though not of them." I'm glad that Prof. Dawkins found it possible to toss in those last four words, afterthought-ish though they may sound.

Every philosophical system has its weak link, the point at which it can be most easily or most effectively attacked by its ideological opponents. For atheism, the weak link is morality. If we're all going to rot anyway, why shouldn't I do whatever I want before that happens? For Christianity, I believe the weak link is theodicy -- explaining how there can be innocent suffering in a world created by a loving and omnipotent God. That's why Christians must go out of their way not to appear cavalier or intellectually shallow (as far as they can help it) when talking about the problem of evil. Atheists should be equally on their guard when lecturing people about why something is "wrong." I'm afraid Richard Dawkins hasn't passed the test here.

Vehige: Weird Al Strikes Again

As far as I know, Weird Al broke in when I was a kid with his song, "Eat It." Can't say I've followed his career, but this video is hysterical.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Vehige: The Deserted Island Series, Part 2: Nonfiction

The book is packed away, but if I recall correctly, in How to Read a Book Mortimer Adler suggested that if one were to take seriously the exercise of deciding which books one would take to a deserted island, one would discover which books were most important to them. So at the risk of sounding complete pretentious, I give you my list.

1. Plato: Complete Works.

2. The Basic Works of Aristotle.

3. The Confessions by Saint Augustine of Hippo.

4. The City of God by Saint Augustine of Hippo.

5. Summa Contra Gentiles by Saint Thomas Aquinas.

6. Summa Theologiae by Saint Thomas Aquinas.

7. The History of the English Speaking Peoples by Winston Churchill.

8. Art: A New History by Paul Johnson

9. Science: A History by John Gribbin.

10. Asimov's New Guide to Science by Isaac Asimov.

Why these?

It's simple, really. The first six -- from Plato to St. Thomas -- cover, in my opinion, all of the worldly and divine wisdom, the whole of philosophy and theology, that one could ever wish to know. The next three -- the Churchill, Johnson, and Gribbin -- are works of history, and they're vast enough that one could reread them with profit many times over. The last one is the most comprehensive book of science that I know of. It's a bit outdated in places, true, but still very useful for a general reader.

In a nutshell, my goal was to cover all the branches of knowledge I could. The only thing missing is a math book.

But what about the Bible?

Ah, good question. I know a little bit about the Texas prison system (no, I was not an inmate), and it's my understanding that inmates are allowed five reading materials at a time. The Bible does not count as one of these five.

Thus, a Bible comes with my deserted island.

So, how seriously do you take this exercise? Which books of nonfiction would you take along?

Monday, September 10, 2007

Woodward: My Desert Island Movies

Okay, I'll join in the list-making, as long as we all understand that no one is going to learn anything about life from the movies on this list.

Ben Hur. My favorite movie. An example of how Jesus teaches us what life means, even if – especially if – we think we have already figured that out on our own.

Captains Courageous. We become the person we're going to be much earlier in life than a lot of people think. And knowing someone kind and good and brave and decent when that time comes can make a big difference. A movie every parent should watch.

Shane. Same comment as for Captains Courageous. Anyone who says that Shane is not a great movie is “a low-down Yankee liar.” (If you've seen the movie, you know what I mean.)

Gone With the Wind. I'm sorry – it's just good.

Dr. Strangelove. The funniest movie ever made. If there were an Academy Award for the “Best Performance of All Time,” George C. Scott might well deserve it.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame. And if George C. Scott doesn't win that award, then Charles Laughton should. One movie that's better than the (disgusting) book it's based on.

The Incredibles. Ever since I saw it, I have been saying that I think this is the greatest children's movie of all time. And I liked saying that because I thought it was a slightly quirky, offbeat opinion. But darned if it isn't becoming mainstream. (Vehige and Keith Rickert both put it on their lists.) That's always been my problem. I'm ahead of my time.

North by Northwest. A Hitchcock movie has to be on any list of this kind. And this is the greatest Hitchcock movie, regardless of what Vehige thinks.

The Return of Martin Guerre. What is truth, and why shouldn't we be able to make up our own truth? Central questions, dealt with poetically in this beautiful, beautiful movie.

Casablanca. You want to know what's so great about this movie? Look at Humphrey Bogart's face when he says, “Nobody ever loved me that much.”

Vehige: New Blog

Just wanted to direct everyone's attention to a new blog -- Random Thoughts on Faith and Reason. It looks like Keith Rickert, Jr., is going to provide us with some interesting reflexions. I'll have to say right now that I love the picture in his sidebar of Cardinal Ratzinger slugging down huge glass of beer. It reminds me of the scene in The Fellowship of the Ring when the hobbits arrived in Bree. Merry sits down with this huge goblet of beer, and Pippin's eyes grow wide as he exclaims, "It comes in pints?"

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Vehige: The Deserted Island Series, Part 1: Movies

It’s the big question, isn’t it—“What’s the ten ________ you’d take with you to a deserted island?” Out of sheer boredom, and the fact that this blog desperately needs an update, I’ve decided to make this list four times over: movies, novels, nonfiction, and music. I’ll start with movies.

1. The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Like the books, this is one big movie, and I absolutely love it. If it’s not my all-time favorite movie, it’s in the top two, the other one being . . .

2. A Man for All Seasons. I have to say, this was the first “great” movie I ever saw—at least the first one that I saw that I recognized as such. I was in my early 20’s and living in a monastery when I saw it. It enthralled me like no other movie had except for . . .

3. Braveheart. This was probably the first great movie I saw, but I didn’t recognize it as such when I did see it. I think it came out the summer after my first year in college. I went with a friend (his name was Jeff, too), and I remember not being able to sleep after seeing it. It still gives me the same buzz.

4. Firefly/Serenity. Some may feel like I’m cheating on this one, but like The Lord of the Rings, this is really one long movie. The characters did it for me, particularly Jayne. Can’t get enough of the Hero of Canton.

5. Ben Hur. This is a rare movie that elicits almost every emotion on the spectrum from the viewer. The only one I think it lacks is romance. That’s all right, because there’s other movies for that, such as . . .

6. Ever After. Drew Barrymore is maybe a year or two older than I am, so I grew up having a “thing” for her—even when she was drugged out in her early teens. Also, I’ve never seen any of the great romantic films (are there any?), and all contemporary romantic films seem to be utter trash. This is the only one I like—and I like it very much.

7. Indiana Jones and . . . ? I can’t decide. I love both Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade. Crusade has the one element that I think is missing from Raiders—a sense of humor. But Raiders doesn’t have some of the cutesiness that Crusade has. So it’s a toss up.

8. 61*. This is the best baseball movie ever made, but what I love most about this movie is the friendship of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. I love the scene when they’re watching the news and the sports anchor says that the M&M Boys (as they were called) were feuding. “We’re feuding?” Mantle asks. “I guess we are,” Maris responds. “Well, then,” Mantle says, “f**k you.” Classic.

9. Psycho. My all-time favorite Hitchcock film. What more do I need to say?

10. Jesus of Nazareth. I know there are some people (like the dude who also writes on this blog) who don’t care for Robert Powell’s portrayal of Jesus. And there is that part when Jesus is speaking to Ernest Hemingway . . . I mean Barabbas (Stacy Keach portrayed Hemingway, too). From my point of view, Powell’s shows us the divinity of Christ, the Johannine Jesus, the Eternal Word who became flesh.

So there are my 10. If I had to do the list over again tomorrow, it’d probably be different. But that’s the way things go. So, which movies would you take?

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Vehige: Movies and Philosophy

Once again Woodward and I find ourselves at odds with each other -- though this time it's on a subject we've actually talked about. Though it's only been a few days, which in cyberspace is almost an eon, let me catch you up to speed.

Following Rod Dreher's suggestion, I made a list of 9 movies I thought young adults should see in order to learn something about the values that make for an authentic human life. Woodward followed up with a post of his own decrying the whole notion that movies might actually teach us something.

Obviously I disagree with Woodward. If I didn't, I wouldn't have made the list at all.

Now, I don't disagree with what I think Woodward is saying -- namely, that movies cannot teach us philosophical truths by way of proposition. In other words, we don't look to movies -- or any kind of art -- for an argument of why certain moral behaviors are acceptable or not. No work of art is going to "prove" the necessity of intellectual and spiritual integrity. We turn to philosophy and theology for that.

However, I do think that art can give a pre-reflexive experience of a moral truth that allows to to engage in honest debate, either with others or within ourselves, over the validity of the moral truth in question. For example, suppose I don't believe in intellectual and spiritual integrity at all costs. I believe these are good things, yes, but, depending on the circumstances, if my life depended on it I would indeed compromise my beliefs for my life. Then I happen to watch A Man for All Seasons and see a man go to his death for something that most would probably consider quite trivial. In the grand scheme of things, what does it matter if Henry VIII divorces his wife in order to marry Anne Boleyn? I watch the movie. I think it's a good movie. I find Sir Thomas More to be an admirable man. I think what he did was foolish. Yet, because of the experience of watching the movie, I find myself beginning to question my own moral stance. Then, after seeing the movie, I find myself in a situation where, in order to get out of a problem, I lie. The deed now done, I feel guilty because of it. This is new, this has never happened before, and I find myself thinking of A Man for All Seasons. But Thomas More was a fool, wasn't he? And as the days and weeks roll by, as I think about the movie, I begin to question my own deeds, and I enter into this debate within -- and perhaps even talk to friends about it. And on it goes until one day . . . .

Well, you get my point. A Man for All Seasons didn't teach me anything, but it did allow me to see life and morality from a different perspective. Not agree with it, no; but just to see it. And it's that new sight that opens the door for new dialogue which may result in a changed mind and a new course of action. (By the way, the above scenario did not happen to me; I've never told a lie to get out of a sticky situation.)

I don't think a movie is going to convince us of anything. If that does happen, it means we were in an place where we wanted to be convinced. And I'm certainly not saying that if anyone were to watch the nine movies I listed they would see the same moral truths in them that I see -- or that if they did see them, those truths would impact them as they impacted me. All I'm saying is that those nine movies may prepare a young adult to think about and eventually embrace virtues and perspectives I deem necessary to live a fully human life.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Woodward: Latin-Centered Curriculum

Now that our oldest daughter is in the ninth grade, I will be taking on more home-school duties than I have had in the past (to my wife's considerable relief). We're using a modified form of Andrew Campbell's Latin-Centered Curriculum, which is going to give me a chance to reacquaint myself with elements of the Western canon that I either have not read in a long time, or else never read at all and have only been bluffing about. (I will not say here -- let alone confess to my daughter -- which are which.) Suffice it to say that, as the school year progresses, some odd titles may be cropping up in my bookshelf on the sidebar. (No comments needed from those of you who think it's never been anything but odd titles.)

The first work we'll take up in English Studies is Beowulf, in the revelatory Heaney translation. I read it when it was first published and am looking forward to the re-read.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Vehige: My New Blog

What—another one?!?!

Well . . . yes and no. Let me take a moment and catch everyone up to speed.

Last time I talked about a new blog, it was a blog devoted to science fiction novels. Around the same time, it came up that I had another blog—one devoted to Catholic catechesis. Both of those blogs are gone.

I discovered that even though I like science fiction, I don’t like it enough to maintain a science-fiction blog, so I yanked it. And though I do like catechesis, that’s what I do at my parish, and I could never find the energy to transform my talks into posts. And after several months of posting nothing, I yanked it.

So, what’s the new blog about?

Simply, it’s about St. Thomas Aquinas. When I was headed off for Ph.D. work in theology, I decided to make Thomas’s thought the center of my academic work. When I decided not to pursue a Ph.D., I suddenly found it very difficult to read theology. Graduate school had robbed me of my love of theology; whenever I engaged in it, it was for a seminar, a paper, a test, a career. It’s taken me a long to love and enjoy theology with that same love and enjoyment I had when I chose it as my major as an undergraduate (and to be honest, I’m not sure it’ll ever be that pure again).

What I’ve decided to do—and this decision wasn’t a spur of the moment one—is to resurrect an old academic goal of mine and systematically study the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. So if you like St. Thomas, you might like this blog; and if you don’t like St. Thomas . . . well, may God have mercy on your soul.

Oh yeah, you probably need a link; here it is: Thomistic Disciple.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Woodward: (Mistaking) Movies for Life

At Rod Dreher's invitation, Vehige has made a list of movies “whose lessons offer crucial insight into what it means to live a fully human life.” I wish I could suggest a movie that would teach the current generation of Americans one lesson about life that it seems to be in urgent need of learning – the lesson that you can't learn any lessons about life from the movies.

It's not that I have anything against the movies. If I didn't like movies, this blog wouldn't even have a name. I don't consider movies to be evil or even necessarily frivolous. I just don't look to them – or to any art form – to teach me “what it means to live a fully human life.” And you know why? (I'll go slow here.) Because MOVIES ... AREN'T ... REAL ... LIFE.

Flippancy aside (for the most part), there is an important aesthetic principle at stake here. No movie, no book, no play, no poem – no art of any kind – can teach us any truth about life. At best – and sometimes that best is very good indeed – fiction can reinforce for us some truth we already know, by portraying it vividly or stating it eloquently; or remind us of some truth we have forgotten or have decided for various reasons to ignore. Either way, though, the only truth that art can convey to us is a truth we recognize because we have already learned it where all truth must be learned – in our own lived experience.

Knowing him fairly well, I'm absolutely certain that Vehige did not learn “the lesson of intellectual and spiritual integrity” by watching A Man for All Seasons. And although I do not know Rod Dreher at all, I'm pretty sure It's a Wonderful Life did not teach him that “the meaning of a man's life is measured by his willingness to be of service to others.” Vehige likes A Man for All Seasons – a movie that I also like very much – because he sees in it the dramatic representation of a truth he already accepts on other grounds. Same goes, I'm pretty sure, for Rod Dreher and It's a Wonderful Life – which, by the way, is one of the worst movies ever made.

Think for a moment what chaos the imaginative arts would produce if what I'm saying were not so – if, in fact, we all really were constantly “learning lessons” about life from the books we read and the movies we see. We would have “learned” from Gone With the Wind that slaves in the pre-Civil War South were lovable if essentially child-like creatures who enjoyed nothing better than serving their masters and in return were treated like members of the family. We would have learned from JFK that a president of the United States was assassinated in a CIA-FBI-Dallas police conspiracy (or something like that). The fact that there are people who do actually believe both of those things is in no way a counter-argument to what I'm saying. Like everybody else, those people are drawn to movies that seem to offer “evidence” of the validity of their own world view. And the world view was there before they walked into the theater or bought the DVD.

Well, you say, movies may not be the best way of proving facts, but they can be powerfully effective in conveying broader philosophical truths; or in eliciting emotions that can teach us things about ourselves. But why should we assume that we have any better chance of learning the meaning of life from Babette's Feast than we have of learning paleontology from One Million Years B.C.? Fiction can be just as false to the truth as it is to the facts. (That's not, by the way, the case with Babette's Feast, a great movie. But I can say that Babette's Feast is "true" because it dramatizes human nature in a way I already recognize as true -- even if I have not personally seen any examples of that truth as powerful and beautiful as the ones the movie depicts.) When we see Good Night and Good Luck, we're under some obligation to compare George Clooney's “facts” about Edward R. Murrow and the McCarthy era with the actual facts of history (and good luck with that project!). Just as certainly, we have an obligation to compare the “truth” of any movie that purports to teach us about human life with the actual truth about human life. You can't do that if you think you are learning truth from the movies.

Plato is justly ridiculed for his suggestion that poets should be banned from the ideal society because they tell the people lies. Some poets -- and novelists, and dramatists, and screenwriters -- do in fact tell lies. (By the way, Vehige, that might make an interesting list – which major works of literature or cinema present the falsest view of life?) Fiction is not inherently a lie, though, as long as we recognize it as fiction and are mindful of the need to test it against our own experience. Indeed, it is only in such testing – holding art up beside our own perception of the world and seeing what looks familiar in it – that a novel or play or movie acquires any meaning and value. It's far more accurate to say that life teaches us the meaning of art than the other way around.

A famous mayor of New York once observed that “no girl was ever ruined by a book” -- or, I would add, by a movie. That's the good news. But the didactic limitations of art work in both directions. If a book or movie can't ruin you, it can't teach you the meaning of life either.

Vehige: Movies for Life

Over at Crunchy Con, Rod Dreher posted a list of ten movie he called movies for life. Dreher writes: “I was wondering this morning what five to ten movies I would recommend to a young adult to explain to them what life is all about. I'm not talking about the best movies, the most important movies in film history, or even the most morally edifying movies. I'm talking about the movies whose lessons offer crucial insight into what it means to live a fully human life.” And after he lists his ten, he writes: “What about you? OK, you don't have to name 10. But you do have to give a short explanation for why you chose the ones you did.”

I couldn’t think of 10, only 9.

1. A Man for All Seasons. The lesson of intellectual and spiritual integrity is essential. It’s so easy to follow the crowd—particularly when the issue at hand seems so trivial. But all we really have in this life is what we believe to be true; if we can’t live according to that truth, regardless of the cost, where does that leave us?

2. The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. What strikes me most in these films is that the peaceful life is the ideal life. It’s so easy to get caught up in the world’s race, with the world’s stresses and anxieties. Oh yeah, there’s also some lesson about taking responsibility for the time you’ve been given.

3. The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. If you can’t learn what it means to be a friend from Samwise Gamgee, may God have mercy on your soul.

4. 61*. Besides being the greatest baseball movie of all time, there’s the additional lesson of kindness. Plato once said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.” How many people really knew what Roger Maris was going through? How many people were horrible to him?

5. Searching for Bobby Fischer. Two lessons. First, most things aren’t as important as adults make them out to be. Second, when you become a parent, don’t live vicariously through your kids.

6. 300/Braveheart (double feature): Two movies that demonstrate what it means to have civil/social virtues, and what it means to fight for the common good.

7. The Incredibles. When you become part of a family, you no longer have to do it alone. Also, a nice reminder to parents that kids are usually more able than we give them credit for.

8. Minority Report. We do indeed have the freedom to choose our actions.

9. Rocky. Having the chance to prove yourself is often worth far more than being the champion of the world.