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September 2010

Mid-Week Miscellany

Toby D'Anna sent me this interview with Don and Karen Peris of The Innocence Mission. They sound just like the nice somewhat shy people you would expect them to be.


The American Library Association is having its annual "Banned Books Week." I prefer to call it "Librarians Hate It When You Question Their Judgment Week."


A question of perennial interest to American Catholics is "Why was the apparently strong and stable pre-Vatican-II Church so weak and unable to resist the destructive trends of the 1960s?"  A brief book review by Mike Potemra gives an interesting possible answer: an overly authoritarian structure was commandeered by revolutionaries and turned against itself. I think there's something to this, although no single simple explanation ever accounts for big historical shifts like this. Perhaps even more intriguing is Potemra's prediction that a golden age of Catholicism is yet to come: "when the bold Vatican II stances on ecumenism, interreligious dialogue, and religious liberty — and the general openness to the insights of Protestantism and other elements of modernity — will be integrated with a Wojtylan/Ratzingerian love of 'the religion of the heart' (traditional liturgy and devotions, accompanied by a vibrant sense of Catholic esprit de corps)." I think that's entirely possible. Entirely. 


Today is the feast of the Archangels. I've recently begun praying the prayer to St. Michael--I had to re-memorize it because it had been so long since I'd used it. And I didn't know until fairly recently that Raphael is considered the angel of happy meetings. I rather like that: "...lead us toward those we are waiting for, those who are waiting for us." I just spent ten minutes or so looking around for some appealing images of the angels, and couldn't find any that I really liked, either in the classical or modern vein. I'm sure that says more about me or about the art. And I'm not sure what I think an angel should look like; I just know it's not what I usually see.

The Difference

Sunday Night Journal — September 26,2010

We now have a Catholic radio station here: Archangel Radio, AM1410. It’s the creation in part of my fellow St. Lawrence (Fairhope, Alabama) parishioner Joe Roszkowski and broadcasts from an office in the parish center. Joe is a partner in one of the more successful restaurants in the area, the Original Oyster House. (That’s not the original Original Oyster House; the original Original Oyster House was mostly destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, and the new one is a mile or so away from the old site, and on very high pilings.)

The station went on the air just last week. I don’t listen to the radio very much, and when I do it’s usually not AM, but I tuned in Friday afternoon. I was almost home, so I only had a few minutes to listen. It was some sort of call-in question-and-answer program, and when I tuned in the host (a priest, I think) was discussing with the caller the last days of St. Therese of Lisieux: the terrible agonies she suffered from the tuberculosis which killed her, and her effort to accept that suffering and offer it willingly to God.

There are a lot of small Christian radio stations in this area, and Archangel Radio was first intended to occupy this building: WLVV

It had previously housed another station which had also been badly damaged by Hurricane Katrina (like the Oyster House, it’s located on the Mobile Bay Causeway, which frequently gets flooded by hurricanes). But something went wrong with that deal, and the building went to another station. I pass the building most days on my way to or from work, and I had noticed recently that it now bore new call letters: WMOB, AM1360.

The Archangel program was winding up, and I thought of this other station. Since it was only a few clicks away, I tuned it in. I caught just a minute or so of the speaker making a concluding point having something to do with the Book of Life described in Revelation, and then his signoff: “This is Roland Dart, and you are born to win.”

What a contrast: agony, blood, sputum, suffocation on the Catholic side; on the other side, winning. I almost said “the American side,” which actually would be appropriate; I shouldn’t say “the Protestant side,” because the broadcast I was hearing was a very American form of Protestantism which is by no means approved by all Protestants.

There is a lot to admire in American evangelicalism, but this tendency to picture worldly success as a natural consequence of embracing the Gospel is not one of them. I had not heard of Roland Dart before that moment, and I don’t want to misjudge him, and perhaps his slogan is not meant to refer to worldly success. If he is any kind of Christian at all, he doesn’t mean only that. But at a minimum, it indicates a questionable emphasis. (Here is his web site, if you want to judge for yourself.)

One may hear, in evangelical circles, suffering viewed as a necessary trial and as something which makes one stronger, but I can’t recall encountering in any form of Protestantism the idea that suffering has a positive meaning in itself. That seems to me a mostly Catholic thing (I have to plead ignorance on Orthodox views).

Catholic emphasis on suffering can become morbid, and I can’t deny that a good bit of what I’ve seen in that respect—some of the art of the Renaissance, for instance—has struck me as excessive. But it’s an excess of something (paradoxically) healthy. Viewed simply as a matter of psychology, it’s a great benefit. We will all have pain in our lives, and the Catholic way of looking at it turns it into something we can give, a personal sacrifice that actually has an effect.

There is an element of sacrifice in every gift: in even the smallest, one has given up something of one’s own, a bit of time or money or effort, with the intent and hope of making someone else happy, at least for a moment. And in general a greater sacrifice is a greater gift (setting aside various forms of manipulation, which are not really gifts at all but attempts to control, or to purchase affection and gratitude). To be in physical or mental pain, and to offer that pain to God, as a gift and a prayer for not just the brief, but the eternal, happiness of those one loves...well, if there is another way of looking at suffering that could give it more meaning (for it is suffering that seems to be meaningless that is hardest to bear) and more assistance in bearing it, I can’t think of it. (I’ve written about this before; it’s something I often think about.)

As far as I know this idea is not found in Protestant thought generally, and that’s unfortunate. Perhaps it’s being rediscovered, as seems to be happening with some other Catholic ways of looking at the faith. It seems to me a very striking and significant difference. I don’t know that it necessarily involves in itself a serious doctrinal disagreement, but it certainly illustrates the way doctrinal differences can produce very different cultures of faith. Probably 80% or so of what Roland Dart believes is not seriously at odds with the teachings of the Catholic Church, but that 20% can make a pretty big difference.


Weekend Music

With ABBA we get not just a married couple, but two married couples. Sad to say, both divorced later. I picked "SOS" because I think it was the first ABBA song I ever heard--either it, or "Waterloo." Those and several other ABBA singles were a breath of fresh air on mainstream radio in the '70s. 


Mid-Week Miscellany

Our hot water has been off since sometime Saturday evening, because the outlet line split open and started spewing water everywhere. The plumbing company we use couldn't send anyone to fix it until Wednesday morning, so I've been taking cold showers, on the theory that overall it's less hassle to take a quick cold shower than to heat water etc. to avoid it.  I don't do physical penance very well at all; the least bit of fasting is a trial for me.  But it's difficult to get clean while simultaneously trying to avoid contact with the water. 


So much of ordinary life consists of just putting up with things that aren't really hardships but that you really would rather not put up with. And putting up with people you would rather not put up with. I liked this comment by Jeff Woodward (made in the context of  this post, which had a long to a commentary on P.G. Wodehouse):

The world of Wooster and Jeeves is a world, above all, of order; and order is what it takes maturing human beings a depressingly long time to recognize and assimilate into their own Weltanschauung (a word that Bertie Wooster would have relished using and at which Jeeves would have winced).

There comes a moment in the intellectual and moral development of every human being in which he realizes that rules of conduct are not an annoyance devised for the express purpose of making his own life more miserable but rather a system under which other people (assuming they submit to the system) will be rendered less of an annoyance to him. That moment is the foundation of civilization.


Here is a most unwelcome announcement from TypePad, the company that hosts this blog. Translated from cheery marketing talk, there is more than a suggestion here that in the long run TypePad is not going to be a very hospitable place for a small-time blogger like me. This is discouraging, because I haven't even managed to get all my stuff from the old site over here. And I really like TypePad.

Don't you hate the word "monetize?" If a civilization can be judged partly on the richness and beauty of its language, we don't rate very high. American language is lively and inventive, but more and more characterized less by vivid folk developments ("if it ain't broke, don't fix it") than by ugly coinages like "monetize" that seem products not of imagination but of hyperactive impatient commercialism.


On the way home this evening I came up behind a car with a license plate that read "HOWL." It didn't look like the sort of car that an Allen Ginsberg fan would drive: a relatively new Civic with some accessories of a slightly tacky nature (e.g. flashy wheel covers). I passed it and tried to see what the driver looked like, but it was twilight and the car had tinted windoes, so all I could see was that he or she was talking on the phone. I'll be keeping an eye out for that car, but I'm wondering if "HOWL" isn't now a reference to something other than the famous beat poem.

I heard Ginsberg speak once, in 1969 or '70. It was in Birmingham (Alabama), and all I remember is that he compared the steel mills to the fires of Moloch. The steel mills are gone now, and so is Ginsberg. Sometime in the next thirty or forty years the last person who remembers both will be gone.


But Moloch stays around, in different guises. Without further comment from me, I offer you this paragraph from a review of Sex and the City 2:

"Sex and the City 2" is more than harmless escapism. It's an accidental candid snapshot of the sick, dying heart of America, a film so pleased with its vacuous, trashy, art-free extravagance that its poster should be taped to the dingy walls of terrorist sleeper agents worldwide. More depressing and alarming than the movies themselves is the notion that a certain culture, a certain mindset, birthed it, without a pang of remorse or even apparent self-awareness, much less self-criticism. Ladies and gentlemen, this is why they hate us.

 You can read the whole review here, but that's the essence of it.

Resurrection Means Bodies

Sunday Night Journal — September 19, 2010

I finished reading N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope some weeks ago, and have been wanting to write about it, but having difficulty finding the time to do so. To let it be the subject of this week’s Sunday Night Journal seemed a way out of the impasse. But now that I have a few hours available, and the book in my hand, I find the task almost overwhelming. There’s so much in the book that is valuable that any review longer than “It’s good; you should read it,” seems misguided: an attempt to do too much, ending in doing too little. But I’ll give it a try.

I prefer to avoid learning anything much about the life and personality of an author when I first encounter him or her, because I don’t want to be prejudiced by such knowledge. Accordingly, I’ve resisted the temptation to look around on the net for any information about N.T. Wright beyond what I already knew: that he is the Anglican bishop of Durham, that he is a well-regarded biblical scholar and theologian, and that his work has had positive responses from Catholics such as Amy Welborn (I believe it was her review of this book that made me want to read it). On the basis of the book itself, I would add that he seems to have an Evangelical perspective, but with the Anglican inclusion of emphasis on sacraments. He seems to have a typically Evangelical definition of the word “church,” which is to say, a pretty broad one, of the “mere Christianity” sort. But apart from that, and apart from what strikes me as an over-hasty dismissal of the idea of purgatory, I don’t think there’s much here that is incompatible with Catholic teaching.

It’s important to establish that at the beginning, because Wright’s purpose in this book is to dismantle what he believes to be some seriously erroneous views about the ultimate destiny promised by Christianity. And I think he’s right. Like C.S. Lewis, whose influence on this book is clear from the title down through many details, his over-arching doctrinal views are derived from sources and directed toward conclusions which are held in common by most reasonably orthodox Christians.

What is it that Christians hope for? “To go to heaven when we die” would be the obvious immediate answer. And what or where is heaven? The answer to that is less ready to hand, because our notions of it are too vague. And that, says Wright, is because we have unconsciously adopted a too-spiritual view of it, and have lost our sense of the real meaning of resurrection and have begun to think in terms that are not specifically Christian at all, but rather are quite ordinary and widespread.

Most people in the ancient world, Wright says, would have found it not at all unsurprising to hear the followers of Jesus say that he continued to live in a spiritual form in a spiritual world. What was astonishing and in some sense offensive was the claim that he had come back to life in a physical body, albeit one with powers and qualities unknown to us. It is not the claim of “life after death” that scandalizes, but the claim of life renewed in a human body, in this world.

We are not to think of the next life as an escape from this one, of our souls escaping from the physical into the spiritual. The Christian hope is not that we will depart this world and that it will be discarded as being of no further use, having served its purpose in testing people so that they can be judged worthy of heaven or hell. Our hope is for the transformation of this world, and ourselves, into what they were always intended by God to be. As Wright says:

When St. Paul says, “We are citizens of heaven,” he doesn’t at all mean that when we’re done with this life we’ll be going off to live in heaven. What he means is that the savior, the Lord, Jesus the King…will come from heaven to earth, to change the present situation and state of his people. The key word here is transform…Jesus will not declare that present physicality is redundant and can be scrapped…. In a great act of power—the same power that accomplished Jesus’s own resurrection…he will change the present body into one that corresponds in kind to his own…this will take place within the context of God’s victorious transformation of the whole cosmos. (that last emphasis is mine).

Speaking of the passage in Revelation, Wright says …the image is that of marriage. the New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven like a bride adorned for her husband….This is the ultimate rejection of…every worldview that sees the final goal as the separation of the world from God, of the physical from the spiritual, of earth from heaven. It is the final answer to the Lord’s Prayer, that God’s kingdom will come and his will be done on earth as in heaven.

Heaven and earth, it seems, are not after all poles apart, needing to be separated forever when all the children of heaven have been rescued from this wicked earth…they are different, radically different, but they are made for each other in the same way…as male and female.

What, then, is “heaven,” exactly?

…when the Bible speaks of heaven and earth it is not talking about two localities related to each other within the same space-time continuum or about a nonphysical world contrasted with a physical one but about two different kinds of what we call space, two different kinds of what we call time…. God’s space and ours—heaven and earth, in other words—are, though very different, not far away from one another….God’s space and ours interlock and intersect in a whole variety of ways even while they remain, for the moment at least, their separate and distinct identities and roles. One day…they will be joined in a quite new way, open and visible to one another, married together forever.

…This world [heaven] is different from ours (earth) but intersects with it in countless ways, not least in the inner lives of Christians themselves...

To fail to understand the difference between this cosmic resurrection and the conventional bland idea of “going to heaven when we die” is to fail to understand what Christian hope is all about, and therefore to get the message wrong in significant ways. Surprised by Hope is not, in general, impressive for its prose style, but there are some striking passages, one of which makes this point:

…if God’s good creation—of the world, of life as we know it, of our glorious and remarkable bodies, brains, and bloodstreams—really is good, and if God wants to reaffirm that goodness in a wonderful act of new creation at the last, then to see the death of the body and the escape of the soul as salvation is not simply slightly off course, in need of a few subtle alterations and modifications. It is totally and utterly wrong. It is colluding with death. It is conniving at death’s destruction of God’s good, image-bearing human creatures while consoling ourselves with the (essentially non-Christian and non-Jewish) thought that the really important bit of ourselves is saved from this wicked, nasty body and this sad, dark world of space, time, and matter! As we have seen, the whole of the Bible, form Genesis to Revelation, speaks out against such nonsense.

And what will this renewed and transformed creation, this earth-heaven, be like? Well, Wright doesn’t indulge in too much speculation on that score, and of course he’s right not to.

It is of course only through imagery, through metaphor and symbol, that we can imagine the new world that God intends to make. That is right and proper. All our language about the future…is like a set of signposts pointing into a bright mist. The signpost doesn’t provide a photograph of what we will find when we arrive but offers instead a true indication of the direction we should be travelling in...

The last third or so of the book deals with the implications of this proper understanding of hope. It points, says Wright, to a serious responsibility for attempting to improve the conditions of life here and now, for everyone, as a sign and a first manifestation of the kingdom. He cautions, of course, against the idea that we can create the kingdom ourselves, but also against the opposite error, of believing that the world is so hopelessly corrupt, and is anyway doomed to the garbage dump, that we can only endure it and can’t expect to do much to improve it. This part of the book is really quite clearly aligned with Catholic social teaching, and while it’s perfectly good it isn’t as noteworthy as the earlier parts.


Personally, I want to speculate about the new creation, and cling desperately to the hope of it. By nature I’m gloomy enough to find myself sometimes thinking that it would be better if the creation had never happened, because the pain in it sometimes seems so very much greater than the joy or hope. I very much need to believe that the pain has a meaning and that we are on a difficult path that leads to what we most desire. So speculating about what it will actually be like serves a good purpose for me, as long as I keep in mind that it’s almost certainly wrong or at best a little bit right, because the new condition will be something I can’t really imagine now.

I think, for instance, about romantic love, about sex in both its narrow and broad meanings. If this new creation has anything at all to do with the existing one, it seems inconceivable that we will not still be men and women. What will that mean? I long to find out. And I know that the best way for us to find out it is to try to be good men and women here and now. I don’t mean only morally good in the sense of following the rules, although that’s necessary: I mean good in the sense that a great work of art is good, or that a flourishing healthy tree is good: being what their creators intended them to be.

By the way, the title of this piece is from the book, though I can’t locate it now.

Windy and Carl

Weekend Music

Windy and Carl are a husband-and-wife duo who make guitar-based ambient-drone music. There are two videos here because I like the music in the first one, but the visual is just a photo of the album cover, while the combination of video and music in the second one is very appealing.



Mid-Week Miscellany

This might become a regular feature. Or it might not.


First: Marianne posted, in a comment, a link to this story about two young American Muslims on a road trip visiting 30 mosques in 30 days (second link is to their blog, if you want to read more). It's a very refreshing counterbalance to the ugliness that's been going on for the past few weeks now from both sides of the Cordoba Initiative controversy.


Speaking of Muslims, I meant to mention, in that same comment thread, the first conversation (and one of the few) with a Muslim I ever had. It was in the late '70s or early '80s, at a party, but I've remembered it because it struck me. The Muslim was a young man, probably an engineer or something of that sort, as this was in Huntsville, Alabama, which is full of techies. He was engaged in a friendly debate with an atheist, and doing a great job of it: earnest without being aggressive or hostile, and very perceptive in his delineation of the difference between a world with God and one without it. Any Christian would have been very much on his side in the debate, as I was.


Here is physicist Stephen Barr taking on Stephen Hawking's recent unfortunate venture into theology.


Related, Amy Welborn reports on a debate between Christopher Hitchens and the strange and interesting David Berlinksi. I think she sums up Hitchens pretty well:

My basic impression of Hitchens in regard to religion is that for whatever reason, even though he debates and debates and scribbles, in the end, he refuses to seriously engage theism.  He has his points, mostly historical and social, to which he returns again and again, but he doesn’t address the origins or persistence of the spiritual impulse in humanity, he doesn’t address the question of meaning or transcendence. From what I have read and now heard, what Hitchens has to say about religion is not that much different from one of my 16-year old smart aleck high school students, but with a lot more historical references thrown in.


One more from Amy Welborn: why the introvert remains just slightly on edge as long as there is anyone else at all in the house. Well, not why exactly—just an excellent description of the phenomenon: "the lurking fear of distraction." This is a partial explanation of why I haven't written any more than I have over the past 40 years or so--only partial, mind you. Some people can shut out everything around them when they're working--Walker Percy apparently could. Some can't.


Kevin McCarthy, RIP. I didn't recognize the name, but he was the lead in the original Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, which is my favorite of all the old '50s sci-fi/horror movies. There must be strangers in town. No kidding.


War in the Closed World 24

Sunday Night Journal — September 12, 2010

It won’t surprise anyone who’s read much of this series, or of my blog, to hear that I’ve never been one to entertain nostalgic visions of a golden age of childhood and youth. I was always inclined to be melancholy and anxiety-ridden, and that doesn’t make for entirely happy memories. Some years ago I saw a cartoon by Gahan Wilson (famous for grotesque and macabre cartoons) which made me laugh out loud because it summed up one aspect of my personality: a little boy is walking down the sidewalk past two women, one of whom is saying “There goes that little Wilson boy, all alone as usual.” But the little Wilson boy is stark-eyed with fear of monsters that only he can see hovering all around him.

That was far from the whole story, though, and really there’s some ingratitude even in mentioning it, because I’m sure my anxieties were disproportionate to anything in my life that might have provoked them. If I don’t look back toward a golden age, I certainly have at least my share of golden moments. I think of my early teens, the years from roughly twelve to fifteen, as a happy time, a time when I had the good fortune to be a boy with two good friends, and miles of countryside to run around in. I was thinking about this the other day, as I read something about the suburban kids whose lives are entirely organized and closed in: they’re always at school, or in some organized activity, or in their rooms watching tv or playing video games or wandering around on the web or talking on the phone. The thought is almost suffocating to me.

My friends were named Johnny and Lynn, and they both lived in Belle Mina, which meant that I went to see them more often than they to see me. And anyway, there was more to do in Belle Mina, tiny village though it was. Johnny lived in the same top floor of the same old house that I had lived in as an infant. His father farmed, and was a bit rough—not mean, but strict, and accustomed to using language that wasn’t allowed in my family, apart from the occasional outburst by my father. His mother had what I recognized even then as a somewhat faded prettiness, and radiated kindness and warmth. And that impression is not just a product of the youthful tendency to think everyone else’s family is nicer than one’s own: I think it was a universally held opinion, and when I saw her again after a lapse of many years, when I was in my thirties, it still struck me.

Lynn’s father ran a service station, the old kind that you don’t see much anymore, that sold gasoline and did repairs, major and minor. He must have had some hired help, but I don’t recall anyone except Lynn and his older brother being there consistently. He was a small, intense, strong man, whom I remember as always wearing a coverall grimy from the shop, and generally smiling if he had no particular reason to do otherwise. Lynn’s mother was jovial and friendly; I cannot summon an image of her in which she is not smiling. (It is women like these, by the way, that I think of when I see the pre-liberation 1950s and 1960s portrayed as unrelentingly oppressive.)

My memories are always an imprecise jumble; I can’t pin down exactly when or how often I spent time in Belle Mina; I only know that it was in the period when we were old enough to roam around on our own, but still young enough to be in school together at Mooresville-Belle Mina (which is how I arrived at the roughly-twelve-to-fifteen estimate).

What did we do? None of it sounds like much, but we had a great deal of fun. A railroad line ran through Belle Mina, and there was even a little train station there. I’m not sure whether it was still in use at this time or not, but it seemed to be empty most of the time. There was a platform surrounding an office. The platform had a long ramp, and we used to ride bicycles up it and then fly back down. Lynn’s house was no more than a hundred feet or so from the tracks, and I remember being startled awake by trains when I spent the night there (which is a little odd, since a few miles east the same track ran behind my house, though maybe three times as far away—enough to make a difference in the sound, obviously).

Half a mile or so east of Belle Mina is Limestone Creek. In some places it would be called a river; I was surprised once, on a trip out west, at the small size of some of the bodies of water that were called rivers there. The creek was slow, green, and muddy, thirty or forty feet across, maybe fifty at its widest. We swam there, having walked or ridden bicycles through the fields that lay between the town and the creek. There was a wide shallow spot where there was a raft, a platform of boards built over oil drums, which was moored in the middle of the creek specifically for kids to jump off of.

Now and then we went camping along the creek, hiking off through the fields, laden with a ridiculous set of gear and food that we could not possibly have hiked very far with—but then we didn’t need to hike very far: canned goods, and a cast iron skillet for heating things like chili. I don’t recall that I’d ever eaten chili before, and it instantly became one of my favorite foods; only in recent years has Hormel reduced their chili to something I no longer find very palatable (or was it always this bad, and is it only I that have changed?). We slept in the open the first few times; later on Lynn got a pup tent which we used once or twice.

The first time we did this, we shared our no doubt very limited store of scary stories with each other—not ghost stories, exactly, just brief, frightening sketches, urban (or in this case more or less rural) legends, like the one about the man with the hook. We went to sleep uneasily, and not long afterward were wakened by a lot of crashing and stomping in the brush, and had a few moments of real terror before we realized that we were being disturbed by some farmer’s mule coming down to drink from the creek.

When we were a bit older—at least fourteen, I suppose—many of us got motor bikes. Lynn, if I remember correctly, was the first: he had one of the little red-and-white Honda 50s (Honda’s first presence in the U.S. market, as far as I know), barely fast enough to ride in traffic, but exciting for us. My father had a standing offer to his children that he would match money we earned toward the purchase of something expensive; that’s how my brother and I got our Daisy Golden Eagle BB guns. I’m not sure now how I came up with the hundred and fifty dollars or so that were my half of the cost of the slightly sportier Honda 50, a black and chrome version that looked somewhat more like a motorcycle. We rode those bikes all over the southeast corner of Limestone County, and, amazingly, never had a serious accident. The worst I remember happened before I got my own bike. I sometimes rode an old Cushman scooter that belonged to some relative of Lynn’s, and one day we were playing chase on the dirt roads of the state agricultural experiment farm. I was in the lead, and, having just made a sharp left turn, took advantage of the angle to look back and see where the others were. When I looked again at the road in front of me I saw a barbed-wire gate stretched across it, no more than twenty feet or so away. I remember vividly the instant of hopeless panic; it was far too late to stop, though I suppose I slowed myself a bit, and I went right through the gate. But it must not have been very securely fastened: it gave way and I landed in the dirt with no more than a few scratches and bruises, nor was the scooter much worse for the crash: it had looked pretty beat-up already, and it still worked, so no harm done.

I remember reading Mad magazine at Johnny’s house, and listening to the crazed southern humor of Brother Dave Gardner. I remember—and this was later, after Johnny’s family had moved from Miz Tolley’s house to one of their own—the three of us in Johnny’s room, reading aloud to each other from From Here to Eternity, flipping through it looking for the bad words and the sexually suggestive scenes, laughing hysterically at the former, which we had never seen in print, and being fascinated by the latter. We were still half-innocent, preoccupied just short of obsession with girls and sex, but not being entirely sure how it all worked.

On a few occasions we took the train to Decatur on a Saturday afternoon to see a movie. It was possible for me, in Greenbrier, to flag down a passenger train that would not otherwise have stopped (there was a little platform, and a sign that said “Greenbrier,” and if anyone was standing on it when the train came by it would stop.) Johnny and Lynn would get on at Belle Mina. It was a longish walk to the Princess Theater from the station in Decatur, but that was ok. The only movie I specifically remember seeing on one of these trips was Teenagers from Outer Space, a title which seems a little prophetic now. Sometimes we stopped on the way back to the station and looked at guitars in the music store. Johnny and I were fascinated by guitars, and he had a real Fender electric, and an amplifier, of which I was deeply envious.

Most of this companionship ended when we graduated from Mooresville-Belle Mina at the end of the ninth grade, in 1963. For various reasons specific to each family, the three of us all went to different high schools (one could choose back then): Lynn to Decatur, Johnny to Tanner, which was where most of our classmates went, and I to Athens. It became more difficult and less frequent for us to visit each other. Our lives had begun to diverge permanently.

But Lynn and I were still hanging out together, still riding around on our motorbikes, when the Beatles appeared in 1964 (I would not be 16, and able to drive, until that fall). And when A Hard Day’s Night came out we went to see it in Decatur at the Princess. Afterwards, full of the movie’s whimsical high spirits, we rode our bikes crazily—riding in circles in the street, running up on the sidewalks, getting all the speed we could out of those tiny engines once we got out of town and onto the dark highway, driven by a wild exhilaration that we couldn’t have explained.

Let New York Decide

That was my first reaction to the Cordoba House/Park 51/"ground zero mosque" controversy, and after thinking about it and listening to the arguments on both sides for a week or two, I've come down again pretty strongly on the same position.

Last night I was watching the Alabama-Penn State game (24-3, thank you), but I missed the last 10 minutes or so. With Alabama clearly heading for a win, I started flipping channels during a timeout, and landed on a History Channel program which told the story of the 9/11 attacks purely through an assemblage of video taken at the time, by amateurs and newspeople. I had never seen most of it, and I was really struck by the enormous and traumatic impact it had on the city. That program was followed by a re-enactment of what happened on Flight 11, the first plane to strike, and included excerpts from Mohammad Atta's diary.

If a majority of New Yorkers feel, as they apparently do, that this project does not belong so close to the WTC site, I say their wishes should be heeded. Where is the "sensitivity" that we're all cautioned to display in this sort of situation? Some seem to think that it is only toward worldwide Muslim opinion that sensitivity is obligatory. Imam Rauf seems to display almost none toward the people who were the targets of an attack by men who, whether he likes it or not, are his co-religionists. If he'd exercised somewhat more of it a few months ago, this entire ugly controversy, which its rhetorical excesses on both sides, might never have happened.

Muslims in America

Apropos the conversation with Daniel (on this post) about anti-Muslim feeling in the U.S., I wondered how many mosques there are in the state of Alabama, and I found some interesting stuff. 

Many people in this country would be quick to tell you that white southerners are the most racist xenophobic etc. in the country. But according to this site, there are 20 mosques in Alabama. Muslims in Birmingham do not appear to be in hiding. There's a black Muslim (from Selma!) in the state legislature. There is a Muslim community in rural Mississippi. Etc. 

I'm sure many of the Muslims involved in these places and activities have some stories of prejudice and hostility. But they are not being persecuted. They are not subjected to violence, they are not being chased away, they are not in any significant way prevented from practicing their faith. No one is calling for their mosques to be destroyed. (Ok, I'm sure that if you looked you could find some ignoramus advocating that, but there is no one advocating it publicly.) 

All this in spite of the fact, which I had forgotten, that one of the mosques in this area actually produced a violent jihadist. He grew up in Daphne, just up the road from Fairhope where I live. This was, naturally, a pretty big story when it first came to light. But no one is trying to shut down the mosque. As far as I know this young man's poor parents are still living in Daphne.

Here is an amusing story from two young Muslim men who have been trying to visit thirty mosques in thirty days around the country. This episode takes place in Alabama and Mississippi. The roughest treatment they got was from an imam--who was, I think, the father of the jihadist mentioned above, and who apparently didn't want any publicity (not surprisingly). Even the purportedly scary story of being stopped by a cop at night in Mississippi is not much different from times when some of my own children, as teenagers riding around late at night, were pulled over by cops who apparently just wanted to see what they were up to. I assume they were on I-10, which is a big drug-trafficking corridor, and they were speeding, and they got pulled over and questioned. They didn't even get a ticket. Big deal.

All this pretty well establishes, I think, that there is something more than simple anti-Muslim prejudice at work in the opposition to the so-called Ground Zero Mosque.

One thing that strikes me is the role of the media in whipping up a frenzy on a question like this. The professional drum-beaters on all sides start pounding, and people who would not otherwise have given it much thought take positions and dig in their heels, refusing to listen to the other side at all.

And people are complex: someone can answer "yes" to the question "Is Islam a false religion that breeds terrorists?" and still behave with ordinary decency to the Muslim family down the street.

As Hagrid would say...

...I should not have done that. I just read (while web-surfing with sandwich in hand) the description of a scene from the forthcoming final Harry Potter movies, and now I know something important about the movies which one wouldn't exactly know from reading the books. It will be a very moving scene--it was moving just to read about--and that's all I'm saying, and I'm not posting a link, so nobody will blame me if they encounter a spoiler.

My wife and I (and sometimes Clare, who was about the same age as Harry when the first book came out, and so grew up with the series) have been watching the movies recently. I hadn't seen the last two and didn't remember the others that well. They're really quite good. And--at risk of reigniting that controversy--I really think the Christians who object so strongly to them (books and movies) are mistaken. I think they're fundamentally healthy and good. As I think I've said before here, they're fundamentally about sacrificial love, and what can be more healthy and good than that?

"Idiotic on every level"

Yes, that pretty well characterizes the intention of some jerk preacher to burn copies of the Koran. I am in total agreement with Jonah Goldberg on this. Reasonable people can disagree about the Cordoba Center, I think. But not this; it can have no effect but to increase the amount of hatred in the world. And I don't mean only on the part of the Islamists; it is itself an act of hate. 

A Few Miscellaneous Observations

Sunday Night Journal — September 5, 2010

It’s been a busy weekend, and I’ve been having serious computer problems. So I’m going to limit this to a few comments on recent events.

First, the so-called “ground zero mosque” story. Why “so-called”? Well, the use of the term “ground zero” to refer to the still-gaping hole where the World Trade Center used to be has always bothered me a little. The term originated, I think, with the early tests of the atomic bomb; it referred to the point of the explosion. As terrible as the destruction of the WTC was, it was not on the scale of a nuclear weapon (though one could argue that its global consequences have been). And the use of the term seems to give a greater victory to the fanatics who perpetrated the attack than they really deserve.

And what is proposed isn’t just “a mosque,” though it does include a place for Muslims to pray. Maybe this makes it technically a mosque, but the use of the term seems intended to inflame public sentiment, which certainly has been inflamed.

My own view of this, for what it’s worth, is that it needn’t be a national issue at all. Let New York decide, I say. But since it is a national issue, and the lines of the debate have been drawn largely on the familiar left-right divide, one forms an opinion. Unfortunately I can’t agree with my friend Daniel at Caelum et Terra. I think he has an overly benign view of Islam in general, and the meaning of its collision with the West, both ancient and contemporary, and I don’t think the Westboro Baptist analogy really holds. But I don’t agree, either, with those on the right who think the building of this Islamic complex would represent a successful phase one in the conquest of America by Islam. This piece at Inside Catholic is pretty much my view: in the abstract, it would have been okay to build the thing, but since a large percentage of the population in both New York and the country at large—a significant majority, according to some polls—views it as an affront, the imam ought to retreat gracefully, and build it somewhere else. The best analogy, as Rychlak says, is to the Carmelite convent opened near Auschwitz. I thought Jewish opposition to it was misguided and even offensive, but it was real and from their point of view not unreasonable, and to have insisted on keeping the convent there would only have inflamed the ill feeling.


The big Glenn Beck “Restoring Honor” rally has come and gone. I don’t really know much about Glenn Beck, though what I have seen suggests he is in fact a bit nutty. And I didn’t really get how this event was going to restore honor to the nation. But I think those who see in it, as they see in the Tea Party and other populist outpourings, the spectre of American fascism reveal more about themselves than about their opponents. One of the things they reveal is something I’ve been noticing more and more in recent years: the left in general really does not like middle-class Americans. In fact it often seems to hate them, and it certainly fears them.

Setting aside the attempt to get at the roots and reasons of this hostility, as being too big a topic for this hasty piece, I have to say that it seems a terrible mistake, politically. The people who are attracted to this movement are ordinary hard-working civic-minded Americans who are deeply (and rightly) worried about the future of their country, and are convinced that the left in general and the Obama administration in particular wish to throw out the baby with the bathwater in what they call reform. Obama’s famous promise to “fundamentally transform” the country decidedly does not resonate with them; it sounds more like a threat. They don’t want to fundamentally transform the country, they want to fix it. For the left to work so hard at demonizing them is not only bad for the country, it’s bad for the left; it contributes to the perception that the programs of the left are quite intentionally hostile to tens of millions of ordinary people.


Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos fame is certainly not helping things, with his newly published book which apparently insists, with a straight face, that there is no difference between the Taliban and American conservatives. One cannot hold this view both seriously and reasonably. I don’t know in which of these categories Moulitsas is deficient, but it’s good to see that at least some on the left recognize it.


Similarly, I’m puzzled by the extreme vilification of Sarah Palin, as evidenced by a hit piece in Vanity Fair (described here—I haven’t been able to make myself read the thing itself). I’m not especially a fan of Palin, and I don’t think she’s qualified to be president, and I really hope she doesn’t run. But the repugnance with which she’s regarded by many on the left seems to go far beyond political opposition: they hate not only her views, but her, and—here it is again—the middle-class America she represents. I really don’t think the left likes the common man very much anymore, which sheds a lot of light on the difficulty it has in convincing him that its programs are for his benefit.


Also at Inside Catholic, an interesting appraisal of the appeal of Taylor Swift, by Danielle Bean. I do not know Ms. Swift’s music at all, but this explanation of the reasons for her popularity makes it seem that she’s at least a much healthier presence than, say, Lady Gaga.

But the vast majority of women respond to an instinctual drive to nurture and give of themselves to others by getting married and becoming mothers….Let's see, little girls: Shall we seek personal fulfillment through a sincere gift of self and a life of self-giving love? Or by using sex as a weapon with which we attempt to dominate men? Roll your eyes if you must, but my money's on Swift, sappy love songs...

I hope she’s right, though I fear a little for those girls who do follow this path: those who have done so and been betrayed (not just disappointed—we’re all disappointed in life to some degree—but betrayed), or simply unnoticed and unappreciated, are among the most deeply hurt people I know, and the decline of marriage in our time makes such self-giving all the more risky. But God never lets love go to waste or unanswered; if there is anything about him of which I feel certain, it is this. 


And speaking of women: The Anchoress is away in Rome, and her blog has been full of guest posts from several witty and profound Catholic women bloggers: Sally Thomas, Simcha Fischer, and the aforementioned Danielle Bean. I’m through now—go read them.

Cool! I'm as smart as Stephen Hawking!

Well, at least where the question of the existence of God is concerned. I really don't quite get why so many scientists think this is a matter on which they are any more qualified to speak than I am, to say nothing of those who have actually made philosophy and/or theology their life's work. Their triumphant rejection of a rather crude conception of God is a bit like me announcing that atoms don't exist, because now we know they aren't indivisible.

Yo La Tengo: Sugarcube

Weekend Music

The guitar player and the drummer are married. This is an amusing video, but the song is minimized.

To really hear the music, try this one, but the audio on it is significantly louder, so you might want to turn it down a little first.

Why Are You Doing It?

A few days ago on my way to work I was passed by a car that had several sort of feel-good vaguely left-wing-ish stickers on the rear window--you know, something warm about peace, something warm about the earth, something warm about the Episcopal Church. Then there was one that said "If it doesn't bring you joy, why are you doing it?"

This was obviously meant to make you think about how unhappy you were, and perhaps spur you to dump that stupid job and whatever else is keeping you from finding whatever you imagine "joy" to be. But several answers came to my mind:

Because it's your duty.

Because you gave your word.

Because someone is depending on you.

Because it's right.

I fully believe that doing something for any of those reasons will, in the long run, bring you joy. But it may be the very long run, and you may not feel very joyful while you're doing it. And I don't think that's what the sticker-sticker had in mind. This idea that we are somehow entitled to pursue whatever we think will make us happy right now seems to me one of the most destructive of the vague influences hovering in the cultural air, however much it may be decorated with unicorns and rainbows.