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July 2008

The New Brideshead Movie

Both Deal Hudson and self-proclaimed Rightwing Film Geek Victor Morton say it’s actually not too bad. I think I said, in reaction to the trailer, that unless the people who made the trailer were deliberately trying to make the movie look bad, it was going to be pretty terrible. I still don’t think it sounds very good, and I don’t have any interest in seeing it.

I am almost certain Charles and Julia do not meet in Venice, much less start their fire burning. I don’t remember Julia even being there. Janet?

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Beatrix Potter’s Birthday

As you may have noticed if you’ve used Google today, it’s Beatrix Potter’s birthday. Which reminds me that I saw the movie based on her life, Miss Potter, a few months ago and thought it was excellent.

And let us remember that the fact that a gentleman is civil and handsome does not mean that he has a duck’s best interests at heart.

I think Jemima Puddleduck is my favorite Potter story. Most of us are about as bright as she is when it comes to knowing what’s good for us. (You can read the whole story here, sort of—you have to switch back and forth between the text and the pictures.)

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Sunday Night Journal — July 27, 2008

Three Epiphanies Concerning Religion – Three

This last epiphany came retroactively, as an illumination of something I had done more than twenty years earlier. The act it illuminated was my decision to become a Catholic, and it crystallized for me an essential difference between the Catholic and Protestant ways of looking at the sources of authority in Christianity.

I suppose it must be ten years or so now since the conversation. My wife and I are friends with a Mennonite couple, who unfortunately have since moved away from this area, and I used to have lunch occasionally with the husband, who is a Mennonite minister. Our conversations often touched on the Catholic-Protestant division. And as we had both come (or come back to) Christianity by winding roads, we sometimes talked about those journeys. In describing his own arrival in the Mennonite church after a certain amount of church-hopping, he put it something like this: “I asked myself which church’s teachings were closest to what I believe, and the answer was the Mennonites.”

“I guess I did it the other way around,” I said. “I asked myself which church had the authority to tell me what to believe.”

I had not thought of it in those terms at the time; it was only as I said these words, years later, that I realized that they were a succinct description of what I had done. During my fairly brief time in the Episcopal Church I had participated in any number of discussions about various Christian teachings. No conclusions were ever reached, at least none having any more solid foundation than “Well, I think…” I had in the back of my mind that somewhere there must be someone or something—some sort of council, perhaps, or a set of writings, which I pictured vaguely as a heavy tome printed on parchment—which could settle these questions.

It had become clear to me that there were a number of people in the Episcopal Church, including many of the clergy, who did not believe much or most of what Christianity had traditionally taught. In a pattern which soon became familiar to me, they treated the faith as a sort of philosophical poem or novel which provided a certain amount of wisdom and insight into the human conditions, but which had nothing much to do with any reality outside the human mind (apart, that is, from progressive politics).

There were others who did believe the traditional teachings; I had become one, and I wanted to know whether the skeptics or the believers spoke authentically for the church as a body. I heard occasional references to “the teaching of the Church,” and assumed that there must be some authority which could settle these arguments. And the moment when I realized that there was no such authority was the moment I began to leave the Episcopal Church.

My friend and I talked about this for a while. It seemed to me, I said, that in Protestantism the individual is the ultimate authority, whereas in Catholicism the individual must, in the end, submit his own judgment to that of the Church on questions of faith and morals. He replied that Catholicism only pushes that individual responsibility back one level, to the act of choosing the authority: in choosing to accept the authority of the Church I was still exercising a choice as to what to believe. And that’s perfectly true. There’s no escape (if anybody is looking for one) from the need to make that personal decision for or against God, for or against Jesus Christ, for or against a particular approach to Christianity as embodied in the various churches.

And it’s also true that Protestantism, at least in its more traditional forms, does in principle recognize an authority beyond the individual, namely the Bible. The difference is that once one accepts the authority of the Church one has agreed to submit in matters where one’s own reasoning might lead to a different conclusion. It could be said that the Protestant is in the same position with respect to the Bible, but the Bible is mute when a dispute arises, and if one finds in it what one wishes to find there is no source of correction. Since there is no authority in Protestantism which can resolve disputes about what the Bible means, there is a natural, continual, and inevitable process of division as people part company with each other when they can’t agree.

The conclusion I came to was that in order for the essential teachings of Christ to remain known over the centuries there must be a living authority; I mean living in flesh and blood, able to consider and adapt to historical changes but yet not be swept away by them. That authority was what I sought, and no Protestant denomination can credibly claim it; only a body which can trace itself and its doctrine back to the very beginning can do so. Which is not to say that the Bible doesn’t matter; a book has the advantage of not changing; the book and the living authority balance each other.

The Orthodox churches, of course, are a different thing altogether, being clearly connected to apostolic tradition. The Catholic-Protestant division is a calamity, but the Catholic-Orthodox division is almost a fatal wound to the whole concept of apostolic authority. Almost.

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What I just said to my wife

“Hallelujah—I have finished that damned book.”

One or two people may remember that I mentioned a month or so ago that I was reading a very long novel but didn’t want to name it until I had finished it. It was Atlas Shrugged. I’ve been wanting for some time to read it because it’s apparently very influential, and I wanted to know why. The fact that my daughter had been assigned to read it for an economics class brought a copy into the house conveniently. I can now report that it’s awful, really awful, but that I’m still not sure why it’s so influential. That sucker is almost 1200 pages long—1200 fairly well-packed pages, around 645,000 words according to a couple of references turned up by Google—and most of it is astonishingly tiresome. I can’t believe that a large number of people have liked it enough to plow through till the end.

I’ll have more, lots more, to say about it later, probably not till next Sunday.

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Music of the Week: Beethoven - Symphony #5

The 5th is to classical music as the Mona Lisa is to painting: a work so often seen, popularized, parodied, used in advertising, and in general made to serve as a representative or stereotype of its entire art form that it’s difficult to see it for itself anymore. It helps, then, in such a case not to look at it for a while, perhaps for a few decades. I didn’t set out to do that with the 5th, but I really can’t remember when I had last heard it before this weekend. I’m pretty certain that it must have been at least twenty years, and possibly thirty or more.

What I find, coming back to it with fresh ears and an open mind, is pure musical gold. This may well prove, in the end, my favorite of the symphonies, despite my earlier statements that the 4th and 7th were the ones I remember liking best. It seemed to me, as I listened to this one a little while ago, that there is no human emotion which is not expressed here. I don’t feel able at the moment to sort that out any further, to describe what seems to be the shape and meaning of those emotions. But to give one example: there is a beautiful moment in the second movement where a loud and dissonant chord which lands in the mind as a sudden outburst of dismay or fear produces a sort of mental pivot by becoming the opening of a joyful song. This, I think is the sort of thing that makes people feel a love for the man behind the music; anyone who can put this much of life into music seems like someone we want to know, or at least someone for whom we have a respect that goes beyond admiration for his art.

I’m sometimes a bit impatient with Beethoven’s repeated climaxes and near-endings, but here they seem to work perfectly. I don’t know if it’s technically a coda or what, but near the end of the last movement there’s a point where it seems that the symphony is about to end, and you think no, not yet, that’s not good enough. Then it comes back with another minute or two of intensity, ending with a sequence of—I’m sorry, I don’t have the technical vocabulary for this—what I can only call power chords that really do end it with the assurance and emphasis that everything previous seems to have led us to expect. It’s embarrassing to admit this, but to illustrate how carried away I was: I applauded at the end, though I was sitting in a room alone.

The recording I listened to was this one, Christoph von Dohnányi with the Cleveland Orchestra. I’ve been getting this set from eMusic over a period of several months with the idea that it should be a good choice for both convenience and quality, but for some reason I have not, so far, been very excited about it. It seems vaguely mechanical somehow. That’s probably just me; everyone who’s reviewed it at Amazon.com says it’s great.

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The Living Infinite

The infinite is not an abstraction without living reality; it lives, it thinks, it loves, it is free, it has a great name inscribed upon the portal of all life as the proper name of life itself; it is called God.

—Fr. Henri-Dominique Lacordaire

(Another gem from the daily meditations in Magnificat.) And this is why people cry out God’s name at moments of intensity—“Oh God, that’s beautiful”—when only the evocation of the infinite is enough to express what is felt.

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Sunday Night Journal — July 20, 2008

Three Epiphanies Concerning Religion – Two

(The first is here.)

The second of these epiphanies occurred within a couple of years of the first. I had two friends who had joined the Episcopal Church around the same time that I did. One of them, a very close friend, had in fact been an important influence on my taking this step and would precede me into the Catholic Church. The other, as I soon discovered, had a rather different view of things. I’m not entirely sure what his view was, actually, as it always seemed pretty vague. He later became an Episcopal priest, and while I have no doubt that he is in every personal way an excellent pastor I also have no doubt that we disagree about a great many important things.

It was this second friend who inadvertently gave me a major insight into what my conversion would mean, henceforward, for my sense of where I fit in society. Or, as it turned out, where I didn’t fit, and never would fit.

We were chatting (if I remember correctly) one Sunday morning before church. He had just heard on the radio or seen on tv a preacher of the sort who was very common in the South thirty or more years ago and is in fact still not hard to find if you browse low-power AM stations at night or on Sunday morning: a fire-and-brimstone ranter, long on passion and short on reason, a walking inventory of Bible verses disconnected from context and tradition. He was denouncing sinners and consigning them to hellfire in the most un-nuanced manner imaginable, and screaming that only JAEEE-sus offered them hope of escaping the fate they deserved.

My friend was as outraged by the preacher as the preacher was by sinners, so much so that he seemed to believe that if the preacher was a Christian then he was not, and vice-versa. “I have nothing in common with a man like that, nothing whatsoever” is the comment that sticks in my mind from all those years ago.

I don’t remember what response, if any, I made, but I do remember thinking about the matter. And the conclusion I reached was the opposite of my friend’s: that the preacher and I had in common a conviction about the most important question in life, that of God and our relationship to him. As much as my friend, I had always sneered at fundamentalist Christians, especially those were both uneducated and aggressive in their proselytyzing. But however much I may have disliked the radio preacher’s manner or deplored his ignorance and clumsiness, I was fighting on the same side as he in the spiritual war which defines human life, the battle between God and Satan for the souls of mankind. Whatever I might think of him personally, whatever I might think of his theology, I had in some way bound myself to him. We were now brothers in arms, and brothers in Christ.

This moment brought home forcefully to me that in claiming the title “Christian” for myself I was making myself one with all sorts of people whom I did not much like but with whom I agreed about the one thing needful. I wasn’t especially happy with that conclusion but it seemed unavoidable. As long as he was willing to say “Jesus is Lord” and mean by those words more or less what I meant, which was what the Church had meant for two thousand years, I could never repudiate the hick with the microphone and the Bible, never say that he was too crude and unpleasant to be included in my definition of the word “Christian.” I was not entering a society that I should expect to give me a comfortable home in this world. I should not expect the word “Christian” to imply “someone I like.”

Conversely, I was putting myself on the other side of a very clear line from people with whom I had far more natural sympathy and far more in common. I soon found that this would be not just a possibility but a pattern. More often than not, the people with whom I agree about the most important thing in the world are not the people to whom I feel a strong natural affection and sympathy, or who share my interest in things like literature and music. This can make for a difficult social life; with people of either group there are important aspects of life that are not shared and must be discussed cautiously, if at all.

There was one sort of person that I did, and do, repudiate, though, and consider an enemy: the one who speaks the language of Christian faith but means something else, who empties the faith of its objective content and makes it a literary or psychological artifact. I have no choice but to stand, proudly if not happily, with the redneck preacher and the televangelist against that man or woman.

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