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April 2011

The Beatification of John Paul II

I'm curious as to what others think about it. Although I was (am) a huge admirer and in a more-than-formal sense a follower of the late Pope, and think "Pope Saint John Paul II the Great" is a justifiable title, I'm still a little bothered by the speed of these proceedings. For that matter I was a little bothered by the general speeding-up of the canonization process which he instituted. I guess I was always slightly uneasy about the rock-star adulation he received, and this seems partially a continuation of that. Though if it tempted him to pride in the earlier days of his pontificate, his last years of very public weakness and decline surely would have corrected that.

"Everybody says it sounds like a train"

Checking the headlines this morning, I see that the loss of life from yesterday's tornadoes has been far greater than I thought last night. Far greater: I can't recall anything even approaching this in the past. I lived in Tuscaloosa, where most of the deaths seem to have taken place, for over 10 years (that's where the University of Alabama is). I knew, when I saw news stories that said a tornado had come up McFarland Boulevard, that the physical damage would be great. But for some reason I didn't expect so many casualties. 

If you want to see just how devastating these storms can be, look through some of the photos here

In the mid-70s, when I was living in Tuscaloosa, there was a period of several years that produced a lot of tornadoes in north Alabama. I heard one once. I had the radio on, and heard a warning that one had been sighted near Moundville, a dozen miles or so southwest of Tuscaloosa. Within a minute or two I heard it. Everybody's right: it does sound like a train--but a huge train, a train with a locomotive fifty feet tall. It was passing perhaps half a mile (less than a kilometer) or so from where I was, and fortunately did a relatively small amount of damage. I remember that sound, though.

In case you've heard about the tornadoes in Alabama and are wondering: they're nowhere near me--they're 200 miles/320km or more away.

Trump for President?

When I started seeing headlines about this a few weeks ago, I thought we would all have a good laugh and then the apparition would fade away. But it hasn't, and I'm beginning to be worried.

A Dream of Death

Sunday Night Journal — April 24, 2011: Easter Sunday

I’ve had what can best be described as a very serene Triduum. And I am contributing further to that serenity by allowing myself a day of something more akin to leisure than is generally the case for me on Sunday. Rather than writing something new for the Sunday Night Journal, I’m re-publishing part of an old one, from Halloween of 2004 (which it seems I have not yet transferred here from my pre-blog web site), the first year of the journal. I remember thinking at the time I wrote it that I had not really captured the desperate terror of the dream, but it would probably be impossible do that, and perhaps a simple description is enough, to anyone able or willing to imagine it. I called it a dream of death but it would be more precise to call it a dream of hell. If you find it disturbing and perhaps rather dark for Easter Sunday, well, let it serve to make the light of the Resurrection shine more brightly for you, as it did for me.


October 31, 2004

I had an especially vivid and disturbing dream of death a few nights ago which has left the subject very much on my mind. I can’t describe the dream in detail, but I remember very clearly the emotion it provoked, which was something close to panic. It was not a dream about the pain and fear of the process of dying, but about the state of death itself. In the dream this state was one of disorientation, helplessness, and disconnection. I could not think or perceive clearly and could not act at all. I was aware of other souls around me but could not in any way commune with them. I think it was very much like the state which C.S. Lewis somewhere describes as possibly being what it might be like to be a ghost. And it made me think of the scene in Perelandra where the hell-bound spirit of Weston returns briefly to his body and begs Ransom to help him: what Weston describes is somewhat similar to what I dreamed, and he is in pure panic to escape it.

Somehow in my dream I did pull (or was pulled) away from this state, but only to find myself in a state of dread similar to Weston’s and feeling that it must be possible somehow to escape the inevitability of re-entering what I had just left. I felt the full horror of that inevitability and the hopelessness of escape. I saw the world as a sort of ever-narrowing tunnel through which all the human race must proceed, and as it narrowed we would lose more and more of life—our bodies, our memories, our ability to think clearly and to use language—but never lose everything, that is, never entirely cease to exist or to have some kind of broken and fragmentary consciousness—a sort of permanent burial alive.

I awoke feeling certain of the inevitability of death and simultaneously that the certainty was perfectly intolerable. Most especially, I couldn’t bear the fact that we don’t really know what death will bring. I can face the idea of extinction well enough, but not the idea of permanent living death. I felt a need to know what would happen after death with an intensity that I can only compare to the need for air one feels after holding one’s breath for thirty seconds or more. How, I thought—I was still half asleep and in the grip of the dream—could it be possible that we must all face such a thing without knowing what will happen? How can it be that no one has ever returned to tell us?

And then, of course, coming fully awake, I realized that someone has done so, or claims to have, and moreover claims to be able to tell us what we must do in order to escape a condition which is perhaps something like what I had dreamed. And I remembered that his claim is not merely his own but one well attested by eye-witnesses. Why should we not believe it? I have been a Christian for many years but I think this was the first time I experienced viscerally the intense relief and joy and release from dread with which many pagans have received the Gospel.

O Death, where is thy victory?

Holy Saturday

I sort of wanted to post something about Holy Saturday, but haven't had time, so I'll link to this, from Sally Thomas, instead.

The thought I had, that I wanted to elaborate on, but which, now that I think about it, perhaps needs no elaboration, is this: in a sense most of our lives, at least the rest of our lives after we really learn the meaning of pain, is spent in Holy Saturday: the suspended time between death and the possibility of some kind of resurrection. I don't think that hope is entirely absent even in those who don't believe. It has a way of not being dead even when you think it is.

Barber: Hermit Songs, V. The Crucifixion

At the cry of the first bird
They began to crucify Thee, 0 Swan!
Never shall lament cease because of that.
It was like the parting of day from night.
Ah, sore was the suffering borne
By the body of Mary's Son,
But sorer still to Him was the grief
Which for His sake
Came upon His Mother.


(Thanks to this site for the text.)

Cat People and Curse of the Cat People

I know this is not exactly appropriate for Wednesday of Holy Week, but I'm going to go ahead and write about these while they're still fresh on my mind, having watched the second of them last night. My wife and I watch a lot of movies together, but she's not necessarily interested in some of the same stuff I am, so I've been using Tuesday nights, when she's "attending" an online class, as a convenient time to watch some of those. 

Cat People is considered a "horror" classic of the '40s. I put that in quotes because there isn't any actual violence, blood, and gore in it--"supernatural suspense" would be a better description. I thought it might be fun in a campy or so-bad-it's-good sort of way, but it's considerably better than I expected. I wouldn't recommend it strongly unless you just like this sort of thing, but it does create an atmosphere very successfully, and the story has substance. It has an interesting philosophical dimension: the cat woman (of course it's a woman) is descended from Serbian witches who turn into panthers under the influence of strong emotion, especially negative emotion. She deeply wishes for this not to happen, but nobody takes her seriously, and she's treated as having a psychological problem. And her efforts to avoid the transformation have the unintended effect of helping to bring it on. The psychiatrist who attempts to treat her is a Man of Science who thinks he can explain everything in material terms, and I don't think I'll be giving away too much if I say that effort doesn't end well.

 So, that was last Tuesday. And I had no reason to think that the other movie on the DVD, Curse of the Cat People, would be anything but a silly sequel intended to capitalize on the success of the first (which was a huge hit, apparently) by repeating more or less the same story. So I intended to send the DVD back to Netflix without watching the second movie, but for some reason I kept thinking well, maybe I'll just check out the first ten minutes or so, and putting off sending it back, and pretty soon it was Tuesday night again and I decided to give it a try.

I'm really glad I did. This must be the most misleadingly named movie of all time. It has nothing to do with cat people per se, except that the character who was the cat woman in the first movie is involved, and it has nothing to do with a curse--if "cat people" had to be in the title, Blessing of the Cat People would have been more accurate. It is a sequel of sorts to the first movie, but is very, very different. It's not remotely a horror movie, even by 1940s standards, but rather, a sort of ghost story, a lovely and lyrical ghost story about a lonely little girl. It actually gave me more chills than Cat People, but those were produced by very skillful direction, not by anything sensationalistic. It's about loneliness and misunderstanding and love and redemption, and I do recommend it. My only reservation is that it ends a bit abruptly, not wrapping up a couple of things that I thought were important. (Well, and much of the acting in both is less than great, but it's ok.) You really would need to watch the first one first, though, as there are some things in the second that wouldn't entirely make sense without it.


Watch this...

...and see if it doesn't make you feel like crying out in gratitude that you live in such a beautiful world. I recommend making it full-screen (click on the four outward-pointing arrows). There is background music but you might prefer to watch in silence.

The Mountain from Terje Sorgjerd on Vimeo.


WMOB and The One Thing Needful

Sunday Night Journal — April 17, 2011

I spend a lot of time in the car every day, well over an hour, with a 40-45 minute commute each way. When I give up music for Lent, I usually try to maintain complete silence during those drives, but after a couple of weeks I begin to compromise by listening to something that’s not music. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing: one year I listened to C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy, or as much of it as would fit into six weeks of commuting, and that was a very rich and beneficial experience. But then sometimes it has in fact been a bad thing, like the year when I maintained my morning abstinence pretty well, but slipped into listening to the terrible Paul Finebaum sports talk show on my way home. I call it “terrible” not because it’s incompetently done but because 80% of the conversation revolves around the Alabama-Auburn rivalry, which is as hateful as the liberal-conservative rivalry: imagine a political talk show that gives more or less equal time to the most hostile on each side. No matter which side you’re on, or none, it’s not exactly what you need to assist your spiritual progress; at best you’re likely to start thinking “Lord, I thank you that I am not as these...” Fortunately, that bad habit was broken some years ago when the local station stopped carrying it for a while. And after I had been away from it during one football season, when the rivalry is at its most intense, I wondered why I had ever wasted my time with it, and haven’t listened to it again, though it’s back on the air again (I think).

Anyway...when that urge to listen to something began to take hold in earnest this year, I set my AM radio tuner to a local Christian station, WMOB, and left it there, which is easy to do because my car stereo has the most non-intuitive, user-unfriendly radio controls I’ve ever seen: it’s impossible to set a pre-set without having the manual in hand, and it’s not obvious how to use them once they’re set, so I tend to leave it on one station in each band (NPR on FM, a talk radio station on AM). And for several days I listened for 15 minutes or so on both my morning and evening commutes.

And I was the better for it. I will never repudiate the conservative Protestantism of my roots, and listening to this station occasionally reinforces that conviction. The preachers are a diverse lot: old, young, black, white, male, female. The one I heard often in the morning and took to be a young man with a somewhat high-pitched voice turned out to be a woman, Joyce Meyer, and one morning she left me with a thought that is wise by any Christian standard, Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox: “You can’t tell if your face is clean except by looking in the mirror. You can’t tell if your soul is clean except by looking in the Word of God.” She meant the Bible, of course, and that works; those of us who know the Real Presence know that there are other means of facing oneself in the light of the Word.

I heard an old man, who had been in a Christian marriage for many years, speak very wisely to husbands and wives. I heard a different old man echo Aquinas in saying that “After more than forty years of ministry, I sometimes feel like I know less about God than when I started.” He spoke not in frustration but in humility and wonder. Some time back, on the same station, I heard a black man encourage us to look to the real source of trouble in this world, in words I’ll never forget: “You got to remember, folks is not yo’ enemy! The devil is yo’ enemy!”

There was only one broadcast I turned off: the speaker, a young man who sounded cocky and full of himself, was attempting to prove that St. Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was not an illness or temptation of his own, but the obstinate resistance he encountered to his preaching. I have no opinion as to the worth of this theory, but his approach to proving it reminded me of how claustrophobically narrow fundamentalism can feel: one small mind, with little to no knowledge of the original languages, isolated from the main currents of Christian (to say nothing of Jewish) tradition, alone with a huge and complex book which grew slowly over many centuries in an alien culture, desperately trying to encompass it all. The preacher’s confidence in his own ability to sort these things out seemed at once arrogant and desperate.

Yes, there are plenty of things wrong in this branch of Christianity: it’s often superficial, often show-biz-y in a gratingly inappropriate way, rarely well or deeply read outside the Bible itself and a narrow range of commentary. And of course much that is of critical importance is simply missing, beginning with sacraments, the Church as a visible body, and any serious acquaintance with tradition. Several weeks into Lent I started listening to an excellent series of talks by Fr. Emmerich Vogt, O.P., which Janet Cupo sent me on cd. In many ways they seemed of a different world, starting with the fact that Fr. Vogt is from Connecticut, not the South. His approach is calm, coherent, nuanced (I’ve grown wary of that last word, because it sometimes seems to mean “vague and evasive,” but it has its place), and thoroughly grounded in scripture, tradition, serious theology, and that essential thing that we call the mind of the Church.

But sometimes it’s good for me to hear the lively straightforward good sense of these radio preachers at their best. It’s partly a cultural affinity: these are familiar voices for me, literally so in their mostly Southern speech. But it’s also the fact that their preaching, though deficient in many respects, is generally solid on the most basic and essential doctrines.

I think I’ve told this story before, but I’ve been producing this site for a full seven years now and have written enough that I can’t remember all of it. So I’ll tell it anyway. In the late ‘70s, when I was in the process of returning to Christianity, I had a couple of friends who were making the same journey. We had been political and cultural leftists, antagonistic to the established order, or what we took to be the established order, though it was in the process of shifting dramatically. I remember one of these friends railing against a preacher he had heard on the radio: half-literate, belligerent, ranting, intolerant. “I have nothing in common with that guy,” said my friend. “Nothing.” And I sympathized with him. But in a flash I saw that I had to accept that I had a great deal in common with that guy. We both believed the essential core of the Christian faith: that God created us, that we are fallen, that Jesus Christ, true God and true man, is the only savior of the world in general and ourselves in particular. And I understood that whether I liked it or not, the preacher and I were on the same side in the great cosmic war. And that he and many others like him were now my brothers in arms, whether we liked it or not. And that we were linked in a way that we could not be linked with someone who did not believe, no matter how much more temperamentally and intellectually compatible they might be.

And in spite of all that is missing from their conception of the faith, and whatever eccentric doctrines they may sometimes wander into, these preachers, most of them, know the one thing that is needful (Luke 10:42) and they aren’t about to let go of it, which is more than can be said of a great many more sophisticated Christians.

Three Items of Interest

From Janet: David Bentley Hart's comment on the new Atlas Shrugged movie. I've seen several other reviews, and they were all pretty negative. Even the one by someone who's not hostile to Rand was at best lukewarm.

From Rob G: Bill Kaufman on the return of black novelist Ernest K. Gaines to his Louisiana roots. I'd like to say more about this, but time doesn't permit; suffice for the moment to say that I've never read anything by Gaines, but I certainly intend to.

From Godescalc, one of the contributors to a group blog called There Are Real Things ("the home of theIncarnationist International"): a sketch accompanied by (or accompanying?) a quote from one of my poems, "Jonah." The blog looks great--I love the banner drawing--though I haven't had time this weekend to spend much time reading it, I plan to. And of course I'm extremely pleased that someone thought one of my poems worth quoting. The name of the blog, by the way, is a quote from Chesterton.

Something to Keep in Mind

I'm breaking my no-non-work-related-Internet rule long enough to post this, before I have a chance to forget it:

There is no child of God on this earth from whom you have nothing to learn.

(from the homily at the noon Mass I just returned from)

Love of the World

Saving the world does not mean making it happy; it means showing the world the meaning of its suffering and giving it a joy that 'nothing can take away.' ...

Christ does not provide his followers with a set of wings to flee into heaven, but with a weight to drag them into the deepest corners of the earth...

Despite any apparent contradiction, we diminish and falsify our love for Christ and the Church wherever we diminish that which draws us to the world and enables us to plunge ourselves into it. This is what the love of the world means, a love that is not an identification with the world, but a gift to it.

—Servant of God Madeleine Delbrêl (from Magnificat)

I Confess

According to the fellow who introduced it on Turner Classic Movies, this 1953 Alfred Hitchcock film was not well thought of by Hitchcock. I'm not a great Hitchcock fan--I enjoy his classics (not including Psycho, which was really too much for me) , but haven't understood why some consider him a great artist.  So I'm probably not the right person to evaluate this in comparison with his more famous work. But I thought it was very good. 

It's about a young Catholic priest who hears a murderer's confession, and then becomes a suspect in the same murder, and cannot clear himself without violating the seal of the confessional. Montgomery Clift plays the priest, looking a bit too much like a movie star to be quite believable, and there's a romantic angle that isn't totally convincing, but overall it's very well done, and portrays the characters, not only the priest but the others, as having a kind of maturity and dignity that's too often lacking in contemporary movies. Karl Malden is very good as the detective who is convinced that the priest is the killer. The Catholic aspects of the story are handled very respectfully, not used to score cheap points (again in contrast to current habits). Definitely worth watching if you like movies from this period.

Religion and Politics, Politics as Religion

Sunday Night Journal – April 10, 2011

Not too long ago I heard someone say that the greatest problem facing the country is the intrusion of religion into politics. He was quoting Jimmy Carter, who is generally wrong about both those things, and I thought it was pretty far off the mark to say that this is our greatest problem. He did have a point, but his point was most accurate in a sense other than he intended it.

I took the complaint as being aimed at the religious right, and conservatives in general, and it has some merit in that context. There are those evangelical Christians who speak of the United States as the New Israel, a nation whose foundation was directed by God and whose wealth and power are attributable to God’s continuing favor, which will be (is being) withdrawn as we descend further into squalor. As to the first assertion of God’s purported action, you don’t have to know very much history to see that it doesn’t stand up to a close inspection. As to the second, it is an easily observable truth of nature that a people who cultivate beliefs and behavior hostile to liberty and prosperity are not likely to remain free and prosperous. It is not necessary for God to trouble himself with casting down the mighty from their thrones if the mighty would rather be in Las Vegas anyway.

At the fringes of evangelicalism there are indeed those who would, if they could, institute an Islamic-style theocracy. And there are a few Catholic traditionalists who seem to be similarly minded. But in general this charge against politically conservative Christians is greatly exaggerated, and a somewhat insincere tactic for declaring their political activism illegitimate only because it is unwelcome, when it would be (and has been) applauded in the service of liberal views.

But religion has a major role on the left as well, though a more obscure one. I don’t mean that relatively small number of people who describe themselves as the religious left, Christians and believing Jews who hold liberal political views. I mean those of no particular religion, but whose political views have the weight of religion in their lives. If the religious right can be justly charged with combining religion and politics (not that they can or should be completely separated), the left is full of people for whom politics has become religion.

I first became aware that something like this was going on many years ago. A co-worker was discussing a new employee, saying that he wasn’t sure whether he liked him or not: “His politics are ok, but...” I remember this because it was so astonishing to me. Never in my life would I have put someone’s politics at the forefront of my view of him at first or brief acquaintance (unless the acquaintance had begun with him haranguing me), and it certainly wouldn’t have been the grounds on which I liked or disliked him. Since then I’ve recognized that the attitude is not uncommon in some circles. But I was nevertheless similarly astonished a few years ago by a story in the local paper about a bookstore (somewhere in Mississippi, perhaps Oxford), which apparently is something of a literary and politically liberal institution, known as an oasis of enlightenment in the ever-dark South. One of the owners, by way of explaining her ability to be happy in such a place, mentioned that she lived “on a street where everybody is a Democrat.” Once again I was unable to imagine myself thinking that way. Until I read that piece, I had never even wondered about the political views of my neighbors. Chances are that the majority of them are Republicans, because I live in an area which is predominantly Republican. But I didn’t know or care.

And then I tried to formulate that sentence in terms that would matter to me: “A street where everybody is a reasonably faithful Catholic.” Yes, that’s something I would care about, although I would have cared a lot more when we had young children. (Of course I have to qualify “Catholic,” because we all know many Catholics-in-name-only whose beliefs and behavior are no different from the secular norm.) What one wants in one’s community, aside from basic decent behavior, is agreement on the most fundamental principles. For me, that agreement is reached in the Catholic faith; for the bookstore owner, in the Democratic party. I don’t want to wrangle over whether it is proper or useful to refer to one’s unassailable axiomatic principles as constituting, in effect, one’s religion, whether or not the principles are specifically religious. But it is surely fair to say that being a Democrat occupied the same place in the bookstore owner’s consciousness as being a Catholic does in mine

It’s not surprising that it should be difficult to maintain a friendship across such a divide. These are important matters, on which disagreement is likely to produce hostility, especially if both people have strong convictions which they are not shy in expressing.

You can see this in that Salon piece on which I commented a few days ago. The liberal who is shocked and disturbed by her friendship with a Republican speaks of her friend as one would expect her to speak of a citizen from a country with which her own had been at war. And that of course is where Jimmy Carter does have a point, and where the Salon liberal is not totally mistaken. I am certainly not the only one to see in our present divisions, in the thing we call the culture war, the psychological material of an actual war. Calls for civility are not sufficient to defuse the situation, because the political differences do often—not always, but often—originate in a deep disagreement about fundamental principles.

What are the disputed principles? Well, like all serious religious disagreements, this one is fundamentally about the meaning of human life. The March/April issue of Touchstone contains an article about utilitarianism from which I took this excellent summary:

The impulse to utilitarianism derives its force from the assumption that our lives lack any purpose but the purpose we give them. This depressing thesis, combined with the optimistic belief that human beings can work together to create a better (read: more pleasant) world, amounts to the principle of utility.

(from “The Utilitarian Prince: Tolstoy’s Stepan Oblonsky & the Pleasure Principle That Doesn’t Work” by Daniel Propson)

Speaking very, very broadly, and with due allowance for secularists on the right and religious people on the left, the conflict is between the belief described in the preceding paragraph and the belief that life has an intrinsic and transcendent meaning. When a Christian opposes certain features of the “better world” as advanced by liberalism, he is not just wrong, but an infidel, a wilful enemy of the truth. And his error is not merely abstract: his belief that comfort and pleasure in this world must often be limited and sometimes sacrificed for the sake of what is eternally good, true, and beautiful makes him also an enemy of society, as the utilitarian sees it.

The better world of the utilitarian is most often a socialist one, more or less—if you could capture all the yearning sighs provoked by John Lennon’s atheist manifesto, “Imagine,” you could probably use them to produce a few kilowatt-hours of electricity from a windmill. But right-wing utilitarians who look to capitalism rather than socialism to bring us the better world are no less enemies of the transcendent; their disagreement with the left is about means, not ends.

Cat and Dog Become Friends

Or maybe it should be mongoose and cobra: here's a liberal who can't believe her best friend is a Republican. It's a somewhat encouraging story, but what strikes me as most significant about it is that this should be considered a big deal. Not that I'm surprised that it is; the comments on the piece are mostly the usual venom and obscenity, at least as far as I read, and dispelled any hopeful illusion that might have been forming in my mind.   I could say a lot more about this, but I think I'll wait till Sunday.

Let the Right One In

I just finished watching this strange and powerful Swedish vampire movie, which was recommended to me some time ago by Rob G (at least I think that's who it was). I thought I vaguely remembered him, or someone, suggesting that there were Christian resonances to be found in it. And maybe there are a few, but I'm having a lot of trouble convincing myself that it isn't, in the end, pretty sick. 

This is definitely not your average vampire movie. The phenomenon of vampirism is not treated as alluring or glamorous at all. And yet in the end the evil is accepted, if not actually embraced, and there are grounds for thinking that the story that unfolds after the movie ends is not going to be at all pretty. It's essentially a sort of love story between a 12 year old boy and the vampire, a 12 year old girl (well, maybe) who has been 12 for some very long period of time. And that aspect of it--the love story--is moving. But, without giving too much away, it seems to me that in the end the love is destined to become satanic.

I am not recommending it to anyone who doesn't like horror films. I don't, and probably wouldn't have watched this one if I'd known how gruesome it was going to be. But I'm not sorry I did. It'll stay with me for a while, and not in a bad way. I think Rob may have said it's like a vampire movie done by Bergman. That's a good description.

If anybody has seen it and wants to have a spoilers-allowed discussion, I'd love to hear what you thought.

A Liturgical Storm Coming?

Red Cardigan (Erin Manning) has an interesting post about the implementation, coming in Advent of this year, of the new liturgical translations: Liturgy Wars: the coming storm. I reworded the title as a question, because I'm not at all sure there is going to be a storm in my parish, and perhaps not very much of one in my diocese at all: here, for instance, is an example of what our archbishop is saying.

But RC has some reasons for expecting trouble at her parish. And Damien Thompson reports that some of the Irish bishops are unhappy. And you needn't have been paying very close attention (as I haven't been) to the controversy to know that at least one American bishop (Trautman of Erie, PA) was (presumably still is) really upset about it. 

I have, in recent years, tended to believe that the diehard proponents of what RC refers to as "the hermeneutics of rupture" regarding Vatican II are in retreat and won't be in a position to do more than grumble. But I certainly could be wrong. No doubt it will vary widely around the Anglosphere. There are a lot of "older" (i.e., old) people in my parish and maybe some of them are still living in the 1970s. I must say it gives me a little amusement to see the innovations which were once said to be the inevitable triumph of youth and the future suffering the fate which inevitably befalls the fashionable thing, if it lacks a solid foundation, which many liturgical trends of the past forty years or so certainly do.

But I wouldn't want to revel in the defeat of those who will suffer from this. I know several aging progressives whose ideas about the Church I deplore but who are very good and well-meaning people. I hope they will be treated better than some of their compatriots treated those whose hearts were broken by the "reforms."

Difficulties of Multiculturalism

Sunday Night Journal — April 3, 2011

As sometimes happens, I’ve chosen a topic and launched into it only to find, when it’s too late to turn back, that I can’t hope to do justice to it in the time available. I’ve tried to hit what I consider the main points, but I’m very conscious that there is much more to be said.

I’ve been thinking about some remarks on multiculturalism from Fr. Samir’s book on Islam. This is a lengthy quote, but a worthwhile one, I think.

There is the very human desire that aspires to the new, to the novel and fresh, which is indicative of a thirst for knowledge of reality in all of its multiplicity. Unfortunately this can easily degenerate into cheap exoticism, into the admiration of everything that is different and new. This tendency is growing increasingly pronounced in the West.

There also exists a relativistic attitude that derives from the crisis of the ideological and religious uncertainties characterizing the contemporary age and leading to a tendency to blame whatever is "traditional."

Finally, there is a guilt complex (which I prefer to call "mea-culpism") that is very widespread in the West regarding the colonial experiences of the Third World nations. This complex goes so far as to justify the acceptance of any cultural "import" in the name of relativism or simply because "in their country this is the way they behave." Promoters of this position claim that extra-European cultures, which were subjugated in the past, must not be discriminated against today. Neither should Europeans oppose those people who want to transplant their cultures to the West today...

...these premises penalize the Christian host the name of multiculturalism Muslims and those students of other faiths are also prevented from knowing fundamental elements of Western history and civilization...These forms of self-censorship are harmful and nourish conflicts instead of controlling them and indicate very real identity problems in those who promote them. [My emphasis.]

It is that last observation that I want to pursue. I think multiculturalism begins with a generous impulse—as Fr. Samir says, there is the impulse to learn. And it’s accompanied by the impulse to appreciate, to seek out and acknowledge what is good in cultures other than one’s own. Often there is an explicit intention to disarm hostility, which is obviously a good thing, because there is nothing that comes more naturally and powerfully to mankind than suspicion of those outside one’s own community, whether the community is a nation or a tribe or the fans of a sports team. Just a few days ago, a man wearing the insignia of the San Francisco Giants was beaten almost to death by a couple of fans of the Los Angeles Dodgers, apparently for no other reason than that he was at a Dodgers game in, so to speak, an enemy uniform. I have never heard of anything quite that bad between Alabama and Auburn fans, though I would not be greatly surprised to hear of one, and I’m sure less destructive fights happen frequently. I have read that what we treat as the names of tribal societies often mean simply “the people.” The problem is not confined to primitive, uneducated, or stupid people—we certainly have a vast amount of merely tribal hostility between liberals and conservatives in this country, to say nothing of ethnic and racial divisions, and intellectuals seem every bit as capable of hating as anyone else.

We like to think that fear and hatred of “the Other” (as academics like to say) is an aberration, a pathology generally characteristic of some group we don’t like (thereby manifesting the same pathology ourselves). That Western civilization is uniquely or especially wicked in this respect is an idea that has been actively promoted from within the society itself for many years now. It did not begin in the 1960s, but, like a number of other bad ideas, it flowered then. As a reaction to blind chauvinism, it was healthy, but it often became, and remains, a perverse bigotry against one’s own culture, in which the other is always right, and one’s own heritage mainly a series of atrocities to be condemned, the act of condemnation serving to lessen the hereditary guilt of the one issuing it. Sometimes this begins as part of the youthful awakening to the fact that the world is full of bad things and that one’s family and culture have their share in the blame. Maturity ought to lead to a more balanced perspective, but manifestly it doesn’t always. As a young left-winger I was generally inclined to credit other cultures with all sorts of virtues in which my own was deficient, and I remember how astonished I was to hear a Japanese student express the crudest sort of bigotry toward Koreans. Such incidents were useful in teaching me that racism, and group hostilities in general, were not particularly American vices, but human ones.

There’s nothing wrong with holding one’s own culture to a higher standard. But when alienation from the culture becomes a sense of almost total separation, the result can be a cultural masochism which takes a positive pleasure in thinking the worst of one’s own, and even, to all appearances, a cultural death wish: a belief that the culture does not deserve to survive.

I particularly recall, in the aftermath of 9/11, a number of commentators reaching back almost a thousand years, to the Crusaders’ sack of Muslim Jerusalem, by way of demonstrating that Muslim hostility to the West is eminently justified. They seemed to revel in reciting the gruesome details, even including what were no doubt exaggerations of the time, such as accounts of horses up their knees or even to their necks in blood.

Well, all right. There is nothing wrong, and much right, with acknowledging the crimes of the past, though in that context it only seemed likely to further inflame the jihadists and assist them in justifying their own sense of righteousness and grievance. But not once did I hear any of these commentators mention the Muslim sack of Constantinople, or any of the many, many acts of violence by which Islam seized control of the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain. This does indeed seem to deserve to be called cultural masochism; it amounts not only to saying “we deserve it” but to taking some kind of pleasure in announcing the fact. To acknowledge the failings of one’s own culture and religion is noble; to apologize for its existence is not (unless you really consider it thoroughly evil, in which case why do you remain a part of it?).

This unhealthy streak is paradoxical, in that it combines a dislike of one’s own culture with a sense, usually unacknowledged, of personal superiority to all cultures. In that second respect it seems a last decadent stage of the Enlightenment’s flight from abstract and absolute principle. What begins as a sort of humility, a refusal to assert one’s superior grasp of the truth or of value, becomes an unwillingness to make any judgment of pure truth or value at all. One sometimes hears, in reference to some ugly practice among a non-white non-European people, that “it’s their culture.” Yes, it is their culture, but why should we pretend not to find it repulsive? Is it because we don’t believe we have the right to find anything repulsive? But this broad pseudo-tolerance, stops, as politics was once said to do, at the water’s edge, when those who can’t bring themselves to judge another culture often consider Republicans to be hardly human at all.

And in the end the multiculturalist does, after all, believe that he is right, and that the world should operate according to his ideas, with secular liberalism determining what is permissible and what is not. He smuggles this belief in silently, perhaps unconsciously, in unexamined axioms. “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” He sets up a sort of museum or exposition, in which one may browse the colorful dress, the music, the food, of a number of cultures. But it is the multiculturalist who provides the hall, and makes the rules, for the exhibitors.

What happens when one of these refuses to accept his position as one among many, and asserts his right to rule the others, or to have removed those of whom he disapproves, or at least not to be forced to coexist with them as equals? The multiculturalist must either surrender or face an internal crisis: the necessity of declaring absolute principles and justifying them, not only in their specifics but in their absoluteness.

The outcome of that decision depends on whether the masochistic tendency or the stubborn and instinctive human belief in abstract truth and right prevails. If the former wins, it may be the last gasp of the Enlightenment project. But the latter requires a serious consideration of the absolute, a dangerous course for the officially non-dogmatic—dangerous internally, because, in a once-Christian society, it might lead to an unwelcome reconsideration of the roots, dangerous externally because it could lead to the establishment as dogma of some secular ideology, under which Christianity is not likely to fare well. Either way, a stance of principled unprincipledness is unlikely to endure.

The BBC's Little Dorrit

I've been meaning to mention this. My wife and I finished it up (it's a 4-dvd set) last weekend, and I recommend it enthusiastically. I can simply repeat what I said a couple of years ago about the BBC's Bleak House, except that in this case I haven't read the book at all, but my wife has, and she says the dramatization is very faithful:

"The BBC still does this sort of thing beautifully. I read the novel decades ago and really didn’t remember it very well, so I can’t evaluate the film’s representation of the book. But taken on its own terms it’s great: stupendously good acting and general production which certainly convince you (or me, anyway) that this is really what Victorian England was like. And of course since it’s Dickens it’s a great story."

Really, I would be hard put to find anything much to criticize about it--perhaps Andy Serkis's comically stereotyped French villain, Rigaud. I kept thinking that the actress who plays Amy Dorrit looked borderline anorexic, but she gives a very convincing and moving performance. 

There is an older BBC Little Dorrit, from 1988, in which Alec Guinness plays William Dorrit, and which Janet says is also very good, better in some ways.

A Facebook friend mentions there that she has acquired a new dog, a dark-colored retriever sort, and that he is so hyper-active that she thinks he may be a meth lab.