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April 2017

52 Albums, Week 17: Nena (Nena)

Unlike Mac, I tend to regard the pop music of the 1980s as something of a nadir, but that is not to say that there was no gold amongst the dross. Back in January I sang the praises of The Pogues. At the time I said that what most interested me in songs was the lyric, and this is undoubtedly true, so it is strange that one of the albums that gave me the greatest joy as a teenager was one which, at the time, I could hardly understand a word of. This was Nena, the debut album of the band Nena, which was fronted by a singer whose stage name was also Nena. Somebody has put the whole album on YouTube.

I’ve never forgotten my mother, whose tolerance for pop music seemed to be restricted to The Beatles, complaining at my father “always listening to screechy women” when driving. Kate Bush or Stevie Nicks would have been the immediate culprit, but he also listened to operatic sopranos a lot, especially Kiri Te Kanawa. Just a few weeks ago, to my astonishment, my elder daughter said almost exactly the same thing of me, when I was listening to Jean Ritchie. I will never understand the appeal of Kate Bush, but the appeal of Nena was her far-from-screechy voice. As a result, assertions that German is an ugly language have always struck me as bizarre, although like any language it can no doubt be spoken in ugly ways. The band was quite a spare formation of guitar, bass guitar, drums and keyboard, producing a fairly typical German New Wave sound (not otherwise my favourite), supporting the singer’s voice and very much subordinate to it.

They are really only known in the UK for “99 Red Balloons” – originally “99 Luftballons” – one of the singles from the album.

By the time the album came out, though, I was living on the Continent. The track that most spoke to my twelve-year-old imagination was “Indianer”, which I now can’t help thinking must have been inspired by Karl May: 

But by the age of 14 or 15 my sympathy was with the Reggae-influenced “Ich bleib’ im Bett”: 

The most characteristic in terms of upbeat, boppy energy, however, might be the band’s breakthrough single in Germany, “Nur geträumt” (also on the album), or perhaps the opening track, “Kino”, about a late-night trip to the cinema: 

Nena, the singer, is the only entertainer I can recollect ever having anything like a crush on (contemporaries salivating over Madonna or Kylie Minogue I could only regard as dolts), but for decades the album Nena was all I knew her for. She has apparently had a steady career in Germany ever since 1983, but was a one-hit wonder elsewhere until a (pretty negligible) single recorded with Kim Wilde in 2002 (by no means an improvement on Nena’s original). Somehow the fact filtered through to me that she had recorded part of the soundtrack to a German comedy of modern manners, Vollidiot, in 2007. And just last year she released a new album, Oldschool, which has a couple of nice numbers on it. The best is certainly Genau jetzt

What really brought her back to my attention, though, was the highly entertaining Cold War spy series Deutschland 83, broadcast here last year, the soundtrack for which features quite a lot of German New Wave pop.

—Paul has been reading the blog since 2008, when Janet drew his attention to a discussion about Brideshead Revisited. He currently trains translators in Brussels.

Sunday Night Journal, April 23, 2017

For some months now I've noticed that I take great satisfaction in reciting the creed. Or, I should say, one of the creeds: at Mass of course it's the Nicene, but in my personal prayers it's the Apostles'. It's a reaction to the times. The spirit of the age is attacking the faith from many directions now, and the notion prevails in many minds that such things as specific religious beliefs are "antiquated" and obviously not just false but ridiculous, and not just ridiculous but dangerous. This has begun to bring out in me a spirit of defiance which is energized by the increasingly stupid and wicked things the spirit of the age demands that we believe. And the more it insists, and the more power it gets, the more I will, with the help of God, resist, and keep the promises I made when I became a Catholic thirty-six years ago. When I say the creed(s) now it is with a little of the feeling that I imagine a soldier might have when he digs in to defend to the death a piece of ground and says to the enemy Do your worst and be damned--I'll never back down

I was in Washington DC over the Easter weekend and attended the Easter Vigil at St. Peter parish there. It was an impressive liturgy, with lots of good music including the assistance of a small orchestra. There was of course a group of people being baptized and/or confirmed, and so the creed was said in the question-and-answer cathechetical mode. It's a fairly large church and it was nearly full.

"Do you believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible?" says the priest.

"I do!" roars back the entire congregation.

It was wonderful to hear, and to be a part of.


I first learned the Apostles' Creed in my early teens as a Methodist. As a Catholic I've never felt that I had to repudiate the most important things I was taught as a Protestant: the things that have to do with the nature of the Church and of sacraments, yes, but apart from a different understanding of "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church," nothing in the creed. I'm happy that in recent decades many theologically "conservative" (you know what I mean) Protestants have given up their fierce anti-Catholicism, and vice-versa. This has been done in part by focusing on what we share rather than on what divides us. The brighter people on both sides realize that this only goes so far, and that differences remain which are not likely to go away anytime soon. Still, we are willing to count the others as fellow Christians.

I've gotten so used to this that it surprises me when I encounter Protestants who deny that Catholics and Orthodox (if they are even aware of the existence of the latter) are Christian at all. Apparently there are still more of these types than I think. Some of them run a web site called Pulpit and Pen. And when a prominent Protestant named Hank Hanegraaff, who apparently had a radio program called The Bible Answer Man (I assume he was that man), converted to Orthodoxy, he was denounced by Pulpit and Pen, and I'm sure others, as being no longer a Christian. 

Well, so it goes, right? Like I said, it is a bit of shock to me when I encounter this attitude, but I know it's out there. I would not be remarking on this incident except that a guy from Pulpit and Pen named Jeff Maples took it upon himself to attend the Easter Vigil (not the right term, I know) at Hanegraaff's new church, and produced a weird little screed denouncing it. 

Should we laugh at him? I'm reluctant to do that, being all ecumenical and stuff. But I think yes, we should. Pride and willful ignorance deserve mockery, and those are the two most striking qualities of the w.l.s. His denunciation is both ridiculous and malicious. Here is point 9 of his 9-point critique:

The Greek and Eastern Orthodox church is clearly a lifeless church. There was absolutely no gospel in this service. A lost person could not walk into this church and walk out a changed man. It was literally a Pagan practice. Like a seance. Pure witchcraft was going on in this place. In this religion, salvation doesn’t come through Christ’s imputed righteousness and substitutionary atonement on the cross, it comes through these dead rituals that they believe ontologically changes them into divine beings. It was truly one of the most wicked experiences I’ve ever seen.

He is of course comparing Orthodoxy to his concept of bible-only Christianity, and I'm struck more now than I once was by the pridefulness of that view as it is manifested in people like this, as dogmatically as this. When someone claims the Bible as his only authority and then uses theological terminology like "imputed righteousness and substitionary atonement," he clearly is bringing a whole lot of extra-biblical thinking to his supposedly pure straightforward reading of the text.

There are many Protestants, including some Evangelicals, who understand that the 1500-year legacy of thought and worship on the part of the Church before Protestantism has a great deal to say and must be given serious attention even by those who think it went wrong in ways that Protestantism corrected. But the folks at Pulpit and Pen don't need any of that. In their view the Bible requires no interpretive authority, and they are it. 

They seem in fact to regard themselves as the hammer of heretics in the old style, as their web site is full of denunciations of other Christians, at least as many of them Protestant as Catholic or Orthodox. Mother Teresa, they inform us, is damned. And a few days after the appearance of this piece, they published an "apology" to the Eastern Orthodox community in which they said they were sorry they hadn't denounced "the grave and damnable heresies" of Orthodoxy sooner and more vigorously, along with any Protestants who have anything good to say about them. I wonder where such people think they get the authority to declare anyone a heretic, or--and this is really pretty funny--a schismatic.

Apart from the religious questions, Maples comes across as a clod. He enters an Orthodox church for the holiest celebration of the year with the intention of "confront[ing] Hanegraaff in person." (Fortunately he bailed out after two and a half hours, which made me chuckle--the Easter Vigil I attended lasted a full three.) In a liturgy and a physical building that were probably at least moderately pleasing aesthetically, he sees nothing good. The incense and bells are a "noxious combination." The chant is "eerie." The icons (which he amusingly calls graven images) "looked like lifeless figures just floating around in space."

Somewhere along the line a Catholic theologian came up with the nice phrase "invincible ignorance" to describe, and to some degree excuse, those who are by reason of ignorance, prejudice, and so forth truly unable to see the Catholic faith for what it is. I think it's roughly the equivalent of "Bless their hearts, they don't know any better." I don't think that's applicable here. This is willful ignorance, and, worse, a hard ugly pride. 

The usual thing, and it's basically a good thing, is to close a criticism like this with "I'll pray for them." That often sounds insincere to me, as if said through gritted teeth. I guess we've all heard Christians say "I'll pray for you" in a tone that suggests that what they really mean is closer to "I hope you burn in hell." I suppose that's better than not praying at all. But in any case I don't feel up to it. Shaking the dust from my feet is more like it. But I can muster this bit of charity: I do hope that they'll change their minds. Jeff Maples mentions that he was married in a Catholic church (and the fact that he doesn't say it was "witchcraft" etc. may not be to the credit of that particular church) . I don't know if that means he's an ex-Catholic, or went through the motions because he wanted to marry a Catholic (which would be pretty strange for anyone who thinks the pope is the Antichrist etc. etc.),  or what, but maybe he has a Catholic wife praying for him. 


The funny thing about sola scriptura is that it isn't found in scripture. I think there are some reasonable arguments to be made for it: if you don't accept the idea of a visible Church possessing apostolic authority, it's not unreasonable to argue that only the written word is secure from the vagaries of human sin and weakness. But you can't prove it from scripture itself. Pulpit and Pen has a Statement of Faith which offers some proof texts intended to support it, but it's a pretty lame effort. I'm always a little amused by the attempt to make 2 Timothy 3: 16-17 do that work: 

All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.

True, of course. But getting from that to "The Scriptures are the only guide and rule of faith and conduct for the believer" (their words) is a pretty big leap of...interpretation. And made on what authority? 


On a more pleasant subject: today is Divine Mercy Sunday. A few months ago I made a complaint about the Divine Mercy prayers:

The thing is...I don't want to submit myself with great confidence to God's holy will, which is Love and Mercy itself. I want him to fix the problem I'm asking him to fix. 

At the time I had begun to pray that litany daily, with emphasis on a specific family problem. I'd been doing it for some little time then (not sure how much) and am still doing it, and expect to continue indefinitely. The problem has not only not been fixed but is worse and by any human measure seems to be permanent. But I have actually become much more able to submit myself with at least some confidence to what God is permitting, and which must therefore be in some sense his will. 


Sometimes the line between darkness and light is clear.

52 Albums, Week 16: Car Wheels On a Gravel Road (Lucinda Williams)

I don’t think it would matter what language Lucinda Williams was singing in, I think her voice would have the same effect on me regardless. I’ve never heard anything like it. It is hard to say with certainty because as I have been listening to this disc over and over again and I keep changing my mind, but I think that “Lake Charles” at least right now and at this moment, is my favorite song on the album.

I love the way she sings:

He was born in Nacogdoches
That’s in East Texas
Not far from the border
But he liked to tell everybody
He was from Lake Charles

She draws out the town name Nacogdoches to at least two more syllables than are really there, and simply sings the rest of this little verse with a yearning that doesn’t seem necessary considering the mundane aspect of the lyrics presented. Lucinda was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana herself (not Nacogdoches, Texas) and is the daughter of a poet.

Something about her music changed with this album. I had heard Lucinda before, and may even have owned the previous album (Sweet Old World), but when Car Wheels on a Gravel Road came out it was pretty amazing. She was singing on the Today show, she had a single on the charts; everybody seemed to know who she was for a brief period of time in 1998-99. I was riding to work this morning listening to the CD yet again. The production values are so good, the musicians playing the instruments are absolutely perfect, and something is different with Lucinda’s voice. She had that voice before, but it seemed muted and restrained compared to what she did on this album and going forward. There are the previous four albums, then Car Wheels (the high point), then all of her others which are not as good as this one, but better than the first four.

There is one other CD I own which astonishes me with how good it sounds when I put it in my home stereo, Rumours by Fleetwood Mac.

As you might imagine I was somehow able to see Lucinda in concert the year this album was released. It was in a little place called the Carefree Theatre in West Palm Beach, Florida. Despite all of the hype going on about Car Wheels at the time, the show was pretty lightly attended. Lucinda mentioned the small crowd between songs and a lady in the audience went “Ahhhhh”, to which Williams then replied, “Don’t feel sorry for us, we’ve been playing to some very large audiences on this tour!” Not to mention the Today show. South Floridians are fickle.

On the song “I Lost It”, Lucinda sings:

Gimme some love to fill me up
Gimme some time, gimme some stuff
Gimme a sign, gimme some kind of reason
Are you heavy enough to make me stay?
I feel like I might blow away
I thought I was in Heaven, but I was only dreaming

In this case, the urgency in her voice matches the lyrics sung.

The album is a travelogue of Southern cities and places. Among those mentioned, are:

Louisiana – Algiers, Opelousas, Slidell, Lake Charles, Lafayette, Baton Rouge, Lake Pontchartrain (which is a lake, not a city)

Mississippi – Jackson, Vicksburg, Rosedale

Georgia – Macon

Arkansas – West Memphis

South Carolina – Greenville

Texas – Nacogdoches

She missed the chance to mention Natchitoches, Louisiana too, but it is not pronounced phonetically like the similarly spelled city in Texas. I’m not sure why I mention this geography, other than that since I live in the South and have been to most of these cities it is fun to hear them in song, overwhelming really for just one album. You do think “Louisiana” when you listen to this album; the voice, the instruments used, the way they go together to make the sound. There is a Cajun-y, Zydeco sort of thing going on in the background of many songs.

Several years ago, I was travelling with a friend to some remote beach in the Florida panhandle and we were playing another Lucinda Williams disc in the car. He informed me that he does not like male singers, only enjoys listening to female voices. This has nothing to do with anything, except that Lucinda was singing when the comment was made to me. It is a curious statement.

I put the CD in my car when I decided I should write on it, and have probably listened to it seven or eight times in the past few weeks. It does not get old. The songs are powerful, and just when I think there might be one or two weak ones, the next listen through something invariably strikes me about one of those songs. Silly lyrics can be fueled by fantastic musicianship, or even just her very powerful voice. Emmylou Harris sings the song “Greenville” with her, and there is no female singer working who can better sing harmony.

I recommend this album to everyone, without reservation. To paraphrase Nick Hornby (from his book, Songbook) it is one of those albums that you love, recommend to everyone, and become grumpy if they do not love it as much as you do!

—Stu Moore is a friend of the proprietor of this blog, and is just trying to do the best he can. What else can he do?

Sunday Night Journal, April 16, 2017

A happy, peaceful, and blessed Easter to all who are celebrating it today. As John Donne says in his sonnet "Resurrection," "Salute the last and everlasting day."

Moist with one drop of Thy blood, my dry soul
Shall—though she now be in extreme degree
Too stony hard, and yet too fleshly—be
Freed by that drop, from being starved, hard or foul,
And life by this death abled shall control
Death, whom Thy death slew; nor shall to me
Fear of first or last death bring misery,
If in Thy life-book 1 my name thou enroll.
Flesh in that long sleep is not putrified,
But made that there, of which, and for which it was;
Nor can by other means be glorified.
May then sin’s sleep and death soon from me pass,
That waked from both, I again risen may
Salute the last and everlasting day.

The first and last lines are italicized because this is one of a sequence of seven sonnets called "La Corona," and the last line of each is the first of the next. (You can read the whole sequence, which is well worth your time, at



Not the normal Easter flower--oleander, which doesn't even bloom now. But I like the picture.

52 Albums, Week 15: Kanon Pokajanen (Arvo Pärt, composer; Estonian Philarmonic Chamber Choir)

(I hope this will be as close as we come to missing a week of this series. I don't have time to write anything much this week, and there's nothing else in the hopper, so this is going to consist in large part of quotes from reviewers.)

If you like classical music at all, you know Arvo Pärt's name. Chances are fairly good that you like his work, as it's a lot more accessible than the stereotypical "modern" classical music. I put "modern" in quotes because it's been over a hundred years now since we started applying that word to music that sounds really weird. No one would mistake Pärt for Bach, but no one would mistake him for Schoenberg, either (at least not in his better-known works--I've read that his earliest work was serial).

Pärt is in fact so well-known and popular and, for want of a better word, easy, that in my contrary way I've wondered if he might be over-rated. But I don't think so, really. I think his best work will last, and that the Kanon Pokajanen will be considered one his best, though it is quite austere.The title means "Canon of Repentance," and it is an a capella setting of an Orthodox text written in Old Slavonic. It was commissioned for the 750th anniversary of the cathedral of Cologne and premiered in 1998. The first recording, and the one I'm talking about here, is ECM New Series 1654/55, performed by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir under the direction of Tõnu Kaljuste. The work is dedicated to them. 


Uncharacteristically austere packaging for ECM. Doesn't look very promising.


From the CD booklet, which includes the texts, a note from the composer, and several photos similar to this one, some variant of which would have made a nice cover. They are of the interior of the Niguliste Church in Tallin, Estonia, where the recording was made. (Pärt is Estonian.)

This is not casual listening at all, although I suppose you could play it softly as ambient music of a distinctly religious cast. What you need to do is sit quietly with the text (included with the CD) and follow it carefully. The effect can be profound. Here are excerpts from some reviews, the first two of the ECM CD and the third of a performance.

Gramophone had this to say:

Viewed with hindsight, Kanon pokajanen recalls the tintinnabulation of Part’s recent creative past, but on a grand scale: here the repeated segments are larger, more widely spaced, more subtly varied. The text is crucial, and the process of following it in translation essential for a full appreciation of how Part feels and experiences the Kanon’s meaning. Of course, one also has the ‘soft option’ of letting Kanon pokajanen waft thoughtlessly into the ether (the glorious singing of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir suggests ethereal weightlessness), but I wouldn’t recommend it. Part’s profound marriage of word, music and spirit sits at the very apex of the current religio-musical revival, and deserves some measure of our attention in payment for the two years it took to complete. The recording is faultless. (full review here)


Arvo Part's Kanon Pokajanen is a work of starkly radiant beauty, a deeply felt plea for forgiveness so resonant it seems to bear its own expiatory power.... This is music to soak in, music to meditate to. Music of searing intensity that finds that part of the soul, so often neglected in today's fast-paced lifestyle, that is starved for reverence, fear, and awe, longing to say "Come out to seek me; lead me up to Thy pasturage and number me among the sheep of Thy chosen flock. Nourish me with them on the grass of Thy Holy Mysteries." (full review here)

Orthodox Arts Journal: insists that the listener slow down his perception of time. If you’re waiting for the piece to be over (something common in our impatient age), or if you’re waiting to be carried away by some dramatic change in the music, the piece will seem tedious, if not excruciating. For me, the experience was something akin to jumping into water that’s slightly too cold. At first, I was uncomfortable, and I floundered around for something familiar to hold on to. Then, slowly, I began to adjust to my new environment, and I soon found that by using my mental muscles in a different way—that is, by slowing down my thoughts and allowing them to move in the rhythm that the piece was dictating, like a swimmer adjusting to the temperature and increased resistance of water—I was able to occupy the space of the piece, and to understand something of what it was conveying. The result of this slowing down was that the text, those deeply penitential words, started coming alive in a totally unexpected way. I began to dwell on the words, not simply reading them for sense meaning as I normally would (as you’re probably reading this article right now), but really pondering them and allowing the meaning of each word to penetrate. The experience was not at all tedious, but dynamic and exciting, and profoundly moving. After the reverberations of the final heart-wrenching “Amens” had died away—a piercingly high and thick D-major chord resolving upwards even higher to G-minor, and then, in a lower register, from G-minor back to D-major—the audience sat in rapt silence for a pregnant ten seconds before erupting in thunderous applause. (full article here)

 Here is a Wikipedia article giving some background on the work. There is of course also an article on the composer

And here is a sample. The bulk of the piece is in sections called "odes." 


--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

Sunday Night Journal, April 9, 2017

One of the books I've been reading as background for the book I'm writing is Theodore Roszak's The Making of a Counter-culture. Roszak may have been the one who coined that term. If he didn't, he certainly contributed to its widespread use. The book came out in 1969 and I recall reading it at the time and thinking it was pretty good, but I also was a bit dismissive or patronizing toward it, as the work of a liberal who didn't really understand the radicals he was analyzing. And when I started re-reading it a week or two ago I didn't expect much: platitudes, maybe, or naively optimistic and idealized impressions.

Well, I seem to have been wrong. It is a really fine book, and still very much worth reading in spite of the fact that much of it is specific to its time. I got about halfway through it earlier this week, then various other things got in the way and have prevented me from finishing it. I'm writing about it now because the coming week, being Holy Week, is going to be even busier, and I don't want to wait for two weeks because the book is really exciting.

Roszak is erudite, very intelligent, and very perceptive, or at least he was in this book. It's not just that he does in fact have a pretty good idea of what was going on with the hippie-radical youth culture of the '60s, but that he scoped out, correctly, that it was in essence a religious movement. 

He is, unfortunately, wrong about the potential of the movement he describes to bring about the spiritual renewal which he very astutely sees as the fundamental problem of modern technocratic civilization. The movement proved to be just a sort of sect within what we broadly and clumsily call progressivism, secular humanism, and the like. I expect I'll have more to say about it in a couple of weeks.


I've also been reading a book called Turning the Tide by Earl H. Tilford. It's a history of the political changes at the University of Alabama during the 1950s and 1960s. Much of it is about the response of the university to the civil rights movement, and it's quite an interesting picture, revealing that the university administration was mostly on the side of desegregation, but had to navigate very carefully the sentiment of the state at large and Governor George Wallace in particular. I'm reading it because the last few chapters concern the student leftist movement of the late '60s and I wanted to refresh my memory about the events of 1969-70. There are some  photos of student demonstrations. As far as I can tell I'm not in any of them, but I remember a couple of the occasions. In one photo, students hold signs proclaiming the imminence of fascism. Almost fifty years on, and student radicals, and many of those who were student radicals in my day, keep telling us it's coming, indeed here. It never arrives, and meanwhile many of the ideas they espouse, especially those having to do with sex, drive more and more of the machinery of society. Don't think for a moment that Donald Trump's weird presidency means the reversal of that trend.


I'm amused every time I hear an anti-Trump demonstrator say something along the lines of "We won't let him divide us." Way too late for that. Way too late.


Yesterday afternoon I spent a couple of hours watching two of my grandsons, ages 5 and almost 7,  play on the bay shore with two little girls of their same age, daughters of a friend of their mother. It was a beautiful day, bright but not hot. The water is still too chilly for me to want to get in, but after a little hesitation the children went in and apparently got used to it. It was an almost idyllic afternoon, unmarred by any of the quarrels that often break out among children. 

Their relatively innocent happiness is always beautiful to see, but it seems so fragile and vulnerable that, gloomy soul that I am, I can't help seeing a shadow from their future over them. I say relatively innocent because of course only someone who has never been around children can believe that they are not sometimes brutally selfish, dishonest, etc.--sinful, in short, often in ways so simple and transparent that they seem funny to adults better schooled in wickedness. This afternoon my wife and I were playing a game with the boys that involved putting a number of small items on a tray covered with a towel, taking away the towel and giving everybody a thirty-second look at the things, then covering them again and having everyone write down as many as they could remember. The younger boy looked under the towel before he was supposed to.

"Lucas, you're not supposed to see what's under there yet," I said.

"I didn't."

"Right. You just lifted the towel and looked under it, but you didn't see anything?"


They may live fairly happy lives--I certainly hope and pray that they will--but even at best they are most likely going to suffer blows that they can't even imagine right now. I want desperately to protect them, but of course I can't. I found myself wondering, as I sometimes do, why God allows the world to go on and on with every child coming into the world bound, one way or another, to suffer a fair amount of pain, and in many cases an enormous amount of it. Is the sweetness of days like this worth it--whatever "worth it" might mean: how could we ever make that calculation? I found myself thinking of Ecclesiastes:

So I returned, and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun: and behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power; but they had no comforter.

Wherefore I praised the dead which are already dead more than the living which are yet alive.

Yea, better is he than both they, which hath not yet been, who hath not seen the evil work that is done under the sun.

But that is a form of weakness. Either God (assuming he exists) is the cruel deity some make him out to be, or he is both more tender and more strong than we can imagine, and is teaching us strength, among many other things--to be like him in that way as in others. So while the children ran back and forth across the beach, in and out of the water, I prayed the Divine Mercy litany, counting the prayers on my fingers since I didn't have my rosary in my pocket, as I generally do. I had left it at the house because I figured I would end up in the water at some point, which I did, wading out with the littlest girl, who wanted to go in but was afraid to without a grown-up hand to hold.

It is worth it. I suppose I've had about the average amount of pain in my life, and I certainly would not want not to have lived. 


I couldn't remember exactly where that sentiment from Ecclesiastes was found, so I Googled "better not to have been born." Among other things I found a book called Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence. It's apparently a quite serious case for the minimization of harm as a rationale for the human race to voluntarily cease existing. 

David Benatar argues that coming into existence is always a serious harm. Although the good things in one's life make one's life go better than it otherwise would have gone, one could not have been deprived by their absence if one had not existed. Those who never exist cannot be deprived. However, by coming into existence one does suffer quite serious harms that could not have befallen one had one not come into existence.... The author then argues for the 'anti-natal' view---that it is always wrong to have children---and he shows that combining the anti-natal view with common pro-choice views about foetal moral status yield a "pro-death" view about abortion (at the earlier stages of gestation). Anti-natalism also implies that it would be better if humanity became extinct. Although counter-intuitive for many, that implication is defended, not least by showing that it solves many conundrums of moral theory about population.

Nothing like that sort of thing to snap me out of my morose thinking. There are some ideas that should just be rejected on contact, spat out as soon as tasted, or rejected without being tasted because they stink. David Benatar is "currently Senior Lecturer in the Philosophy Department at the University of Cape Town, South Africa," according to the book's entry on Amazon. 


Amid all the talk of the "Benedict Option," it occurs to me that even more fundamentally what many, even many Christians, require right now is the Puddleglum Option. You remember Puddleglum, the gloomy but faithful marsh-dweller in C.S. Lewis's The Silver Chair? In order to keep himself, Eustace, and Lucy from falling completely under the spell of the Queen of Underland who is convincing them that the outside world does not exist, Puddleglum stamps on her enchanted fire with his bare foot, and the pain helps to break the spell. It is becoming an act of deliberate resistance in our culture to insist on certain fundamental realities. 


Cath stat

I always like--well, maybe like is the wrong word--I always find very meaningful the reading of the Passion narratives on Palm Sunday and Good Friday, because the congregation is usually assigned the words of the crowd. None of us can be sure that we would not have been among those crying "Crucify him!"

52 Albums, Week 14: Vienna (Ultravox)

I don’t understand why so many people seem to think the 1980s were a bad period for music. To my taste it’s as good as any other decade, possibly better than, for instance, the one that followed it. I never did understand all the fuss about grunge.

Ultravox’s Vienna was recorded in February of 1980 (according to Wikipedia), and released in July of that year. So it barely gets into the decade, but I think most fans would say it has an Eighties sort of sound. You could fairly call it synth-pop, but that term suggests, to me anyway, something a little superficial and night-clubby, maybe also somewhat detached and ironic. And that most definitely does not describe Ultravox. At least half of this album is pretty muscular and very passionate rock, and the rest, especially the title song, could just as well be called prog-rock, a term which implies, accurately, some serious musical prowess. These are definitely not musicians who are more adept at programming synths than playing normal instruments. Vocalist and guitarist Midge Ure is top-notch in both capacities, especially the first (Ultravox was not a guitar-based band).

The inhuman tones of the synths are an important part of the atmosphere, but it’s what they’re playing that really does the job. It’s part retro-sci-fi (there’s an instrumental called “Astradyne”), part 1940s black-and-white movies, part cold alienation, part mystery and part romance. The songs are almost all excellent, with lyrics that are mysterious and evocative but not incoherent. The vibe is suggested, at least to my sensibility, by the album cover.


Here’s the title song, which is actually enhanced by the (official) video, which is to say the least not always the case:


Like I said, Midge Ure (the guy with the pencil-thin mustache in the video) is a seriously good singer.

I wanted to limit myself to two videos here, because if you’re not familiar with the album and like these you should at least go listen to the whole thing on Spotify or somewhere and put a fraction of a penny in the band’s pocket. Or better yet, buy the album. Picking two is very hard to do, because almost everything on the album is top-notch. I’ll go with this live performance of the opening track (on the North American release), “Sleepwalk.” It doesn’t sound much different from the studio version, and proves (a) they can play, not just manipulate studio gear; (b) they can rock.


Never mind labels (synth-pop, prog-rock): this is just a great album. A few (=ten!) years back, Stu provoked me into making a list of my top 25 pop albums, and Vienna was on it. (As you’ll see if you click on that link, I went significantly over 25, and also cheated on the concept of "album.").

I think of this as Ultravox’s first album, but it really wasn’t. A group by that name and with some of the same people had released an earlier album or two, but apparently when Midge Ure replaced the previous frontman it changed significantly. This was the first album with the new lineup: Ure, Warren Cann, Chris Cross, Billy Currie. (That’s not the Chris Cross who did “Sailing”.) That group went on to release three more albums that were as good as Vienna, possibly better, depending on your taste. I think Vienna remains my favorite, as none of the others have quite that mysterious atmosphere, but I like them all.

Okay, I can't resist posting one more. You really have to hear “Mr. X.” And somebody called "Are Sounds Electrik?" has done a brilliant job of matching it to clips from an old movie (or movies?).

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

Sunday Night Journal, April 2, 2017

My specifically Lenten reading this year is Frank Sheed's Theology for Beginners. I'm a little embarrassed to admit that, because I know several people who read this blog have advanced degrees in theology or have just in general read a great deal more of it than I have. I've picked up bits and pieces over the years, but never gone about it in any systematic way. This book seems a good place to start for the establishment of some sort of foundation. I suspect it might be aptly titled Aquinas For Dummies--that is, it's the exposition of one approach to theology, not a comprehensive survey. But that's okay. Aquinas is not the last word, and his followers can be tiresome, but his work still seems to be...well, I started to say "the foundation," and maybe that's not accurate, but at any rate a major part of the foundation of Catholic theology.

Anyway, for beginners or not, it does make some demands on the intelligence. I started it once some time ago, maybe fifteen years, and got off onto something else and never finished it. But that bit was useful in that quite early on Sheed talks about the nature of spirit, and I felt at the time that I had gotten a firmer grasp on the idea than I'd ever had before. As it's generally used in our culture today, the word "spirit" is pretty nebulous, and seems to refer to emotion more than to what has been recognized through much or most of human history as a reality separate from matter and not dependent upon it; indeed, the opposite is the case.

I often think this denial of the reality of spirit is at the root of what is wrong with the modern world, that fundamental dislocation which seems to exist everywhere that what we call modernity predominates. It's of a piece with a general impulse to deny and defy reality--or perhaps it's the root.  If you believe that your consciousness, your very self, is just a sort of side effect or by-product of the functioning of your body, but your most immediate possible experience--your experience of yourself--tells you otherwise--that is, it tells you that your self (your soul, your consciousness, the essential you that thinks and knows and loves), is real, and not the same thing as your body--you're starting off confused in your attempt to make sense of yourself and your world.


In passing, Sheed mentions Augustine's definition of community as "a multitude united by agreement about the things they love." That sheds light on our current political division: we are no longer united in that way, if we ever were. Most Americans I suppose would still say that they love their country, but they no longer agree on what the country is. Those on the left tend to see the actual place, now and historically, as all in all a pretty bad one; the object of their love is an ideal of what they think it ought to be. One's reaction to Barack Obama's rhetoric about "fundamentally transform[ing] the United States" was a sort of test of this: in general the right said "No!" and the left said "Yes!" No husband or wife would be pleased to hear "Darling, I love you, and I want to fundamentally transform you." 

As it happened, the controversy about Mike Pence's self-imposed rules for protecting his marriage burst out on the same day I read that. (I don't know how you could have missed it, but in case you did: it's a rule derived from ones originally set by Billy Graham for himself and ministers working with/for him: no meals with only himself and a woman other than his wife; no events where alcohol is served unless his wife is with him.)

The reactions were as divided as they are about just about everything these days, with one group saying "Good for him" and the other saying "What a religious weirdo" and/or "What a sexist," often adding a caricature of what Pence actually believes and practices. What does Mike Pence love? His wife, obviously, and his marriage; he values them both to a point where he imposes some fairly strict rules on himself, not just not to commit adultery but to avoid putting himself in situations where temptation might arise.

What do his detractors love? Well, in this case the most noticeable thing is not what they love but what they hate, which is people they consider to be religious weirdos. But I suppose the thing they love which is involved here is a principle of absolute equality, which means in this situation asserting an absolute equivalence between men and women. Or men and women of a certain class, anyway: those who object that his rule would cut off women from certain avenues to power are talking about women who already are in positions of considerably more power than the vast majority of either men or women. So we can modify that statement a bit: not absolute equality, which would mean no distinctions at all in rank and power, but equal access for a few women to the machinery of power. And the establishment of this particular kind of equality, the attainment of this power, is more important than possible risks to a participant's marriage.

Anyway, I doubt that this is a situation that arises often enough to be a career problem for all that many women. I've been in the working world for most of the past forty-five years and offhand can only remember one occasion when I had a meal with my boss alone. That was with a newly-hired one who wanted to quiz me about the situation he was coming into. 

Personally I think Spence's rules are prudent and sensible. They are further than I would go, but anyone who asserts that the situations he proscribes for himself are without the danger that he is trying to avoid is deluded.

A few times over the years I've been in those situations. I remember in particular attending a week-long training session with a female co-worker. We traveled together and on most days the evening meal was just the two of us. There was nothing romantic between us--overall we had a great situation, where we liked each other and worked well together, but our working relationship never tipped toward anything else. But I do remember during those meals having a faint sense that there was something just ever so slightly inappropriate about the situation. Not wrong--I'm using "inappropriate" in its appropriate sense here, not as a synonym for "bad." There's a certain intimacy about two people of the opposite sex sitting across the table from each other in a restaurant, especially if it's a quiet dinner. Which is different from a casual lunch. And the whole thing is different for different people. Certainly if there were already any sort of romantic or just physical attraction it would be a bad idea. And all sorts of other factors, such as age, are involved: now in my late sixties I would be less concerned than I would have been at forty or fifty.

But such human nuances are not to be considered when ideology is at work. One writer at Vox says "the practice described by Pence in that 2002 interview is clearly illegal when practiced by a boss in an employment setting." She's a lawyer.


There used to be a stock remark applied to someone who seemed to be over-reacting to something: "You don't have to make a federal case out of it." Increasingly now a lot of people seem to believe that making a federal case out of it is precisely what they want to do and should do. I suppose the old remark would be considered offensive to them, an attempt to invalidate their feelings. This is another aspect of our cultural division, and part of the reason for the hostility on both sides: the more aspects of life that come under the federal government's power, the more each feels that the other must not have control of it.


Late in March of every year, I remember that it's about to be April 1, and think "I don't have time to do it now, but next year I'm going to do something on the blog for April Fool's Day." And then I forget about it until the next March. Maybe I should get started on it now if I really want to do it next year.


Last week I was enthused about new cypress needles. It's also spiderwort season. These wildflowers pop up all over the yard in early spring and I always put off the first mowing because I don't want to cut them down. At this point it's pretty much moot anyway since most of what was once lawn--i.e. deliberately planted, nice-looking grass--has died, partly because there's too much shade, and left a mess of scraggly weeds and bare ground.