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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.