Thursday, May 31, 2007

Hollywood Musicals and the Reversal of Deconstructionism

Could Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse be the key towards saving Western Civilization?

Charisse and Astaire, in The Bandwagon

That's meant sort of tongue-in-cheek, but never let it be said that I'm one of those bloggers who believes he has more to teach than to learn, or that I learn more by writing than I do by reading other people. In fact, I can be swayed or educated on a lot of things. Like Socrates, all I know is that I know nothing. For example, for over a year now the young blogosphere radtrads have been writing with breathless anticipation like kids before Christmas about the supposedly impending Motu Proprio on the Tridentine Rite. I had problems with this for various reasons, but now I increasingly find myself thinking, hey, why the heck not? Why not take a shot at bringing back some transcendence, beauty, and formality if we can? What have we got to lose? We've tried everything else, haven't we?

I love Don Henley's song The Heart of the Matter. There's a stanza in it where he sings:
These times are so uncertain
Theres a yearning undefined
And people filled with rage
We all need a little tenderness
How can love survive in such a graceless age?
That's a searing way to describe our times, "such a graceless age". Here's another story from our recent time on the road... While we were in our hotel room in Sandusky last week, I was flipping around the channels and I happened to come across an old film starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, The Bandwagon, which was made in 1953. I was mesmerized by its beauty, feeling an incredibly intense nostalgia for things I never even really knew. It didn't look like a graceless age to me.. Anne and the kids could barely pull me away to drag me down to breakfast.

This wasn't considered highbrow entertainment in 1953. It was popular entertainment.

In a lively discussion we had once on this blog, Mike McG once asked William about what sorts of things can be used today to ward off hopelessness. William cited his wife, friends and family, and interestingly, artists from a bygone era like Fred Astaire and Lester Young.

I think I know what William means. Well, maybe not exactly, but maybe it means something similar for me that it does for him. Now, I'm not one of these people who normally sees the world as irredeemably evil and going to hell in a handbasket. At least not on a good day. I can be a pessimist in the short run, but I'm generally an optimist for the long haul. In God's great plan, I trust that all will turn out well in the end. Even I have to admit, however, that our culture has undergone a sort of radical and rapid deconstruction over the last few decades which should give anyone a sense of pause. Look at the state of our popular culture and its coarseness. How did we get from Fred Astaire to Eminem? From Duke Ellington to Sir Mix-A-Lot? From Ingrid Bergman to Paris Hilton? From West Side Story to Boyz 'n the Hood? From Sugar Ray Robinson to the Ultimate Fighting Championship? Striving for simplicity can be a wonderful thing, but it doesn't necessarily have to lead to primitivism, does it? Has Occam's Razor cut us too deep? I think most everyone is familiar with the Scott Adams cartoon Casual Day Has Gone Too Far and can relate to it somewhat.

This video shows Astaire and Charisse "Dancing in the Dark" in the film The Bandwagon, a musical about making a musical. The number opens up with a scene of nicely dressed couples dancing in Central Park in NYC. I know it's a musical and all, but it's not ridiculous. My parents grew up doing this sort of thing. Not everyone of course, was in this "class", but it's what most everyone admired and aspired to. Maybe you could only afford one nice suit, but man, you sure took care of and treasured that one suit.

Just an aside for a moment regarding the movie itself... My wife Anne told me that she'd heard that Astaire hated working with Charisse - that she was just as much a difficult ballet prima donna in real life as the part she played in the film. I don't know if that's true or not. Most people prefer Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers together, but in my untrained opinion, Rogers moved like a ton of bricks compared to Charisse. When you watch Astaire & Rogers, you've really got your eyes on Astaire, she's almost like a prop, but when you watch Astaire & Charisse you can't help but watch them both. Then again, I'm partial to brunettes over blondes anyway (which apparently means I'm no gentleman), and quite frankly, Charisse was a real babe... A quote I saw about her once summed it up perfectly, "She has legs that start all the way down there, and then they go, well, they go all the way up there." I suppose it's good to make note of the fact, then, that even though this might seem pretty tame by today's standards, pairing Astaire with Charisse back then might have been considered quite sexually provocative.

Anyway, what have we lost and what have we gained since that era? Do we sorely miss the formality, elegance, courtesy, glamour, graciousness, tenderness, restraint, intellectualism and dignity of those times? Or, by the same token, is there an element of honesty about our more casual approach towards life today that is preferable? For all of those things we may feel nostalgic for, aren't we also glad to be rid of a sometimes superficial emphasis on outward appearances over substance, certain intolerances and bigotries, cocktail society, ubiquitous cigarettes, blandness, repression, intense pressure to conform, and sexual hypocrisy?

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Tekakwitha - "She who bumps into things"

Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha (1656-1680)
Lily of the Mohawks

Lower left panel of the main door, St. Patrick's Cathedral
Photo by Eric Etheridge

On our way out to Ohio last week, as we were passing through the Mohawk Valley in upstate New York, we made a stop at the National Shrine of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha in the town of Fonda.

Kateri Tekakwitha's story as written by Joey Caruso in the literature handed out at the shrine:

Kateri Tekakwitha was a young Mohawk woman who lived in the 17th century. The story of her conversion to Christianity, her courage in the face of suffering and her extraordinary holiness is an inspiration to all Christians. Follow us as we share with you the life of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, who soon will become the first Native American Saint in the United States of America.

Many private miracles have already centered around Blessed Kateri, known as the Lily of the Mohawks and the holy grounds at the National Shrine of Blessed Tekakwitha located in Fonda, New York. The Shrine was founded in honor of Kateri, for it was here that she was baptized on Easter Sunday April 5, 1676, and lived her teenage years.

Kateri was born in 1656 here in upstate New York. Her father was a chief of the Mohawks. When she was only 4 years old her parents and brother died of smallpox. Kateri survived the disease, but it left her face badly scarred and her eyesight impaired. Because of her poor vision Kateri was named "Tekakwitha", which means "she who bumps into things". Kateri was taken in by her uncle who was bitterly opposed to Christianity. When she was 8 years old Kateri's foster family in accordance with Iroquois custom paired her with a young boy whom they expected she would marry. However, Kateri wanted to dedicate her life to God. Her uncle distrusted the settlers because of the way they treat­ed the Indians and who were responsible for introducing smallpox and other deadly diseases into the Indian community. When Kateri was 18 years of age, she began instructions in the Catholic Faith in secret. Her uncle finally relented and gave his consent for Kateri to become a Christian, provided that she did not try to leave the Indian village.

For joining the Catholic Church, Kateri was ridiculed and scorned by the villagers. She was subjected to unfair accusations and her life was threatened. Nearly two years after her baptism at the Kateri Shrine in Fonda she escaped to the Mission of St. Francis Xavier, a settlement of Christian Indians in Canada. On Christmas Day 1677 Kateri made her first holy communion and on the Feast of the Annunciation in 1679 made a vow of perpetual virginity. She also offered herself to the Blessed Mother Mary to accept her as a daughter.

During her time in Canada Kateri taught prayers to children and worked with the elderly and sick. She would often go to Mass both dawn and sunset. She was known for her great devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and to the Cross of Christ. During the last year of her life Kateri endured great suffering from a serious illness. She died on April 17th, 1680, shortly before her 24th birthday.

Kateri's final words were 'Jesus-Mary-I love you'

Witnesses reported that within a few minutes of her death the pock marks from smallpox completely vanished and her face shone with radiant loveliness. Before her death Kateri promised her friends that she would continue to love and pray for them in heaven. Both Native Americans and settlers began praying at the Shrine here in Fonda. Several people, including a priest who attended Kateri during her last illness, reported that Kateri appeared to them and many healing miracles were attributed to her intercession. Fifty years after Kateri's death the first convent for Indian nuns was established in Mexico and they pray daily for Sainthood for Blessed Kateri.

I was thinking this over for a while, and what really struck me was the pivotal role I believe the threat of forced marriage played in this story. I considered Kateri's situation... The daughter of a deceased chief. Her mother and brother both gone as well. Protectors gone and possible jealousies and resentments abounding. What were the prospects in such a society for a woman half-blind and scarred in an arranged marriage? Perhaps a life of beatings and endless infidelities? If so, small wonder that she begged Father de Lamberville, S.J. to allow her to become a Christian.

There seems to be quite a bit of evidence to suggest that the early spread of Christianity was especially driven by women who would have been duty-bound to enter into forced marriages in Roman Society. Living consecrated lives presented them with a freedom of sorts.

Elaine Pagels is surely a controversial author, but this review of her book Adam, Eve, and The Serpent points out something that is generally recognized by historians:

Central to her book is the contention that in their opposition to the totalitarian Roman state, "Christians forged the basis for what would become, centuries later, the western ideas of freedom and of the infinite value of each human life." Pagels grants that many Christians were themselves slave owners, yet says others went among the Roman Empire’s wretched outcasts with the message of radical equality -- that class, education and gender "made no difference."

On the basis on her frankly Jeffersonian reading of the early church, she concludes, "Our secularized western idea of democratic society owes much to that early Christian vision of a new society -- a society no longer formed by the natural bonds of family, tribe, or nation, but by the voluntary choice of its members."

While Pagels argues that the phenomenon of pre-Augustinian Christian celibacy was an expression of this early Christian impulse toward freedom (rather than of a hatred of nature or the body) , she thinks Augustine’s defense of celibacy is the very antithesis of freedom. Pagels points out how promiscuity and immorality in the late Roman Empire resulted in widespread infanticide and abortion, as well as a slave trade in child prostitutes who were treated, in Justin’s phrase, "like herds of oxen, goats, or sheep." Sexual exploitation of the unborn, the new born and youth of both sexes, together with the fact that even free men and women were expected to marry (usually arranged) and bear and rear children as a duty to empire and family, meant for many Christians that the only route to personal liberty led through the "freedom" of celibacy. "Christian renunciation, of which celibacy is the paradigm, offered freedom -- freedom, in particular, from entanglement in Roman society."

I also found it interesting that a convent of women in Mexico is praying for the cause of sainthood for Kateri. I saw a television commercial the other day raising awareness on the plight of battered women in Mexico (I believe the statistic was one out of every five women being the victim of domestic abuse). Here is a recent BBC article on it: Domestic violence stalks Mexican women.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Off to Cedar Point...

Roller Coaster Capital of the World...

Just a note to say we'll be away for a few days. We're off to Sandusky, Ohio, to visit Great Wolf Lodge and Cedar Point. My oldest daughter is an amusement park and roller coaster fanatic. She insists that I go on one of the tallest and fastest coasters in the world with her, The Top Thrill Dragster... Jeepers...

Three Book Meme

Cover photo for Benjamin Barber's Jihad vs. McWorld

Our friend Paula has very kindly tagged me for a Three Book Meme... Three non-fiction books everybody should read, three fiction books everybody should read, three authors everybody should read, and three books nobody should read.

The "everybody" and "nobody" categories makes this somewhat challenging. If it was a list made specifically for Americans, Catholics, Christians, religious, non-religious, etc... it might be somewhat easier, but here's my take on it after a bit of thought...

Non-fiction books everybody should read

Aristotle's Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages, by Richard E. Rubinstein.

This is really a book about how the Catholic Church absorbed Aristotle into its scholastic theology, and secondarily, how the triumph of reason, the observation of nature, and the development of the scientific method set the stage for the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. It tells the tale of how church authorities in Spain rediscovered the long-lost Aristotle with the help of Jewish and Islamic translators and the commentaries of Avicenna and Averroes. The book is fast-paced and highly readable for people like me who are novices with regard to philosophy. It covers in a lively way personalities such as Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Augustine, Boethius, Anselm, Peter Abelard, Bernard of Clairvaux, Roger Bacon, Duns Scotus, Bonaventure, Albertus Magnus, William of Occam, and ultimately, Thomas Aquinas. What I found particularly interesting was the role of the Albigensian heresy and surrounding controversy in the final victory of scholasticism in the church. The acceptance of the aristotelian method was not initially widespread. There was a lot of opposition to it, and the future prospects for it looked dicey. What was discovered during this period, however, was that in the debates between the Cathars and the Catholics, the Augustinian arguments about theodicy (of evil merely being the privation of good) weren't cutting it against the Cathar apologists, who were using aristotelian dialectic in their arguments to great advantage. Dominic de Guzman and the church authorities knew they had to learn Aristotle and learn him fast in order to best the Cathars at their own game. In the end, however, it did come down to force, but scholasticism stayed regardless...

Jihad vs. McWorld, by Benjamin R. Barber

Never mind the globalization-cheerleading books by Thomas Friedman. If you want the straight story about the effects of globalization, read Barber's book instead. The world right now is in a state of great tension and flux. Due to the explosion of technological and medical advances, we are faced with new challenges we could have never even dreamed of before. With the unanticipated collapse of Communism, laissez-faire capitalism is sweeping the world, driven by "infotainment marketing". Globalization of the world’s economy is causing tremendous upheavals. The nation–state is weakening, and people are adrift and powerless in the face of huge forces outside of their control and are looking for new ways to define community. Half of the world is looking to draw itself further into post-modern, globally-integrated consumerism and the other half is heading towards tribalism and fundamentalism in order to find an anchor in an uncertain and threatening world. The tribalists, however, readily use the tools of McWorld for their purposes. From the Publisher's Weekly description: "Noting that McWorld can serve Jihad, Barber sketches the rise of nationalism in European democracies, in central Europe's emerging democracies, in Islam and, intriguingly, in the American Christian right. McWorld, he writes, threatens democracy by deadening debate and accepting inequalities, while Jihad threatens democracy by sacrificing tolerance and deliberation. 'They both make war on the sovereign nation-state and thus undermine the nation-state's democratic institutions.' Barber believes each culture must build its own institutions of civil society."

Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser

Following up on the subject of "McWorld"... Not only does this book uncover the dark side of the whole fast-food industry, it is a searing indictment of the meat-processing industry as well. Before hitting hard and heavy on those topics, an interesting description is provided of how collusion within and between the oil industries and the auto industries killed the railroad industry in America in the late forties and early fifties. That is why we have the car-driven culture and landscape that we have today, which not only characterizes North America, but increasingly much of the world as well. Schlosser provides some illuminating insight on the management philosophy and strategies of the fast food giants - using assembly-line methods to break every skill into its smallest possible components and documenting and standardizing everything to the most simplistic degree so that any darned fool can do the job... which means, naturally, that you don't have to pay anyone anything significant to do it, and high turnover is expected and dealt with painlessly (for the employer). This, of course, is being rolled out to every other industry as well, as far as it is possible to do so. At any rate, after reading this, you probably won't want to ever eat fast food again... or at least not for a really long time.

Fiction books everybody should read

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

I know that just about everyone is familar with the story, or has seen a film adaptation. It is better to read it, because Dickens goes into brilliant illuminitive detail in the book. A timeless story, not only about the true meaning of Christmas, but a warning about the necessity of examining one's own life as well. Where did I come from? What affect have I had one the lives of others? What affect have the lives of others had on me? Where am I going? What is my life about? What will others say about me when I'm dead? Dickens was a genius. Read his other stuff too. It's all good...

The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote de La Mancha, by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

A seminal book, Don Quixote is perhaps the first novel with worldwide influence and appeal. I wouldn't know, but they say that the original Castilian is a thing of brilliance. Starting out funny and then turning increasingly serious, the chivalry-obsessed Alonso Quixano and his faithful companion Sancho Panza set out on the adventures of a deluded knight errant. Great stuff, including a set of aphorisms and moral exhortations evocative of the Siglo Oro. I haven't read it in a long, long time, I should pick it up again.

Thing Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe

This African novel is about as short as Don Quixote is long. Set in an Ibo village in what is known today as Nigeria, Okonkwo is the big man in town. Self-made, serious, respected, somewhat dangerous, and a force to be reckoned with. When colonialism hits the village, the village must struggle to change and adapt in order to survive. They cannot really survive as they'd like, and Okonkwo, suddenly made weak in this reversal of fortune, cannot cope. Beautifully written, it can be read in an evening ot two.

Authors everybody should read

St. Teresa of Avila

Paul Fussell

Ernest Hemingway

Books nobody should read

Stay away from Ayn Rand, Thomas Friedman, and anything written by a CEO. For more specifics on my likes and dislikes, see my 10 Book Meme.

Let all readers feel tagged if they wish.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Miscellaneous Odds and Ends...

The Ascension of Christ
-- Hans Suess von Kulmbach (early 1500s)

I think we all forgot to mention Ascension Thursday this past week. That day, I attended the funeral of the wife of a former co-worker, and the confluence of days was comforting. She was 47.

Winnipeg B has been posting quite bit about presidential candidate Ron Paul over on Reform Catholic lately. In addition, William, who confesses to libertarian leanings, also made note of the fact that Ron Paul had made a strong impression in the first Republican debate. The big news in the second debate of course, happened to circle around that dustup he had with Giuliani over 9/11 and the "blowback" remarks. Sober analysis in the aftermath seems to indicate that he may have been on more solid ground than many initially thought.

Just for the record, I have always hated the libertarian political philosophy with every fiber of my being, but this guy Paul is a little bit interesting to me, especially in light of the fact that not one of the Democratic candidates had anything but negative things to say about the Supreme Court decision upholding the Partial Birth Abortion Ban (not even Dennis Kucinich), and not one of them shows any inclination towards ever getting behind the Democratic-sponsored 95-10 Initiative.

Ron Paul has been creating some buzz in Catholic circles lately for being the only candidate who seems to support the Consistent Life Ethic. Steven Hand posts about Paul's support of the "Seamless Garment" here on TCRNews Musings. Apart from that and the war, I don't know if I care much for his other stands on the issues much. He's a free-trader rather than a fair-trader, but at least he opposes those deals like NAFTA and GATT, which is a good start.

Finally, Joseph O'Leary, who teaches in the Faculty of Letters at Sophia University in Tokyo, has posted a great in-depth review of the Pope's new book on Jesus in his blog Spirit of Vatican II. I'd noticed because he made reference to our remarks in the Kingdom Of God thread.

Every Day of Our Lives Is Witnessing. Every Day...

On the importance of authenticity. If we talk the talk, we must walk the walk. The world is not as small as we may think.

Doubting Thomas, by Caravaggio 1597

Ultimately, each one of us is reponsible for our own faith journey and for our own attentiveness and faithfulness to God, but there is also a collective and communal aspect we must be aware of. Salvation is meant and spoken of by Christ and St. Paul in corporate terms... Of peoples... We are not alone, but of One Body. There are many opportunities in our lives where we can help to awaken, enrich, enliven, unleash and support the faith of others. By the same token, we may also be the instruments that blunt, stifle, or even damage someone else's faith as well.

Our late pastor always used to remind us that the more visible you were with your faith, the more you proclaimed it and wore it on your sleeve, the more important it was to be authentic. He would always caution us about not being the the religious "actor". Such a person can leave utter destruction in his or her wake, even more so than the most ardent atheist.

It's important to realize the damage that pro forma, perfunctory religion can do. Our Protestant brothers and sisters remind us of the necessity of being "Born Again", and it is no less true for us. Being brought up in one particular tradition or another and going through the motions avails us nothing. An affirmative decision and commitment needs to be made at some point. An authentic "Confirmation". Sometimes you need to do it more than once. As Prodigal Sons, God doesn't limit our chances. My faith has always been an essential component of my life, but as is the case with many lives, I know there have been times when I could have been a better witness to my faith than I have been. I have at times been as caught up in worldliness as anyone else.

A couple of short tales about big-hearted young women who were once close friends of mine many years ago... Beautiful souls... That's not to say that we would no longer be on friendly terms, but our contact has largely fallen away. Marriages, families, moving away, busy schedules, you know how all that goes...

One very dear friend, a fabulous singer, left her Armenian Church years ago and is now a fairly well-known Christian Gospel singer/songwriter after a life-transforming experience she writes about a little bit here.

I found out in a telephone conversation the other day that another old friend was running a Christian Coffeehouse - Common Ground. She wrote a little about her life transformation when her coffeehouse came under a bit of criticism on this blog. I wonder if the first friend I mentioned ever sings there...

I am very happy for these friends, and I love the fact that they are in a good place, God Bless them, but in my own selfish way I suppose I feel a bit of sadness, because the faith that is and was so important to me apparently never came across in a positive-enough sense to consciences and hearts that were obviously seeking. Caught up in the ethos of the times and my own agenda, I know I could have been a much better witness than I was. I don't have the conceit or hubris to think that I'm responsible for the conversion of others, God works as He wills, but I can't help taking it as food for thought and reflection either. I know how I was.

I'm also feeling a bit wistful in knowing that certain friendships I had in the past can never be quite the same. I've always had a difficult time staying close friends with Born-Again Christians, because even if the attitude I receive is open and charitable, I am all too familiar with how the Catholic Church and its theology is perceived and regarded in those circles, and that is just too difficult for me. That's a personal issue I need to work on.

In any event, it reminds me to be authentic. If we claim to believe, believe. If we talk the talk, we need to walk the walk. Let the Holy Spirit sanctify.

Monday, May 14, 2007

"I Got Mine, You Get Yours"

Is the Trolley Coming Off The Tracks?

Peggy Noonan

I was filling up my Honda Element the other day, which only has about a 16-gallon tank, and I noticed that it was costing about $10 more than it was just a couple of weeks ago. Last year, before the elections, we were looking at $3.00 per gallon and everyone was in an uproar over Exxon's record profits, and everyone wanted investigations about price gouging, etc.... but then the prices dropped somewhat in advance of the elections, and the furor died down. Now they're up again. We've apparently been inoculated against $3.00 per gallon, and some people say we'll be looking at $4.00 sometime this Summer. I'm hearing that in some parts of California they are already seeing $3.79 per gallon of premium.

Life is full of surprises. One never knows what to expect, at least at my level of wisdom. I thought I knew what to expect before I got married, but as it turned out, a lot of the things that I thought were going to be easy turned out to be quite challenging, and a lot of things I thought were going to be difficult actually turned out to be quite easy and natural. It has been somewhat similar raising children. In terms of raising kids to be respectful, helpful, and responsible, in terms of being sexually modest and restrained in their speech, style of dress, the kinds of movies they watch, and the music they listen to, in terms of being aware of the dangers of cigarettes, alcohol, and drug abuse, etc.. it has actually been quite easy. Easier than many commentators would expect you to believe. What we have found more challenging, however, has been to instill a sense in them that puts the affects of money and affluence in their proper perspective. We live in a highly-sought-after metrowest suburb of Boston. My father-in-law has a cottage on Nantucket. Although I'd describe our lives as solidly middle-class, our kids have constantly been surrounded and bombarded by the trappings and status of wealth. Our kids laugh it off cynically if not a little bit hollowly at those who need "bling", yet the affects can be insidious on all of us. I think there are good reasons why Jesus spoke much more about the pitfalls of wealth than he did about sexuality. It wouldn't be so difficult except for the fact that many of their friends can have absolutely anything they want. Money is no obstacle, and self-control and self-denial are seldom seen in the repertoire of behaviors modelled by their peers. I'm not talking about bad kids in any way, just kids who have been sheltered and kept far away from certain realities about the world.

Last Saturday morning, I was driving one of my sons to his baseball game at a school in a particular tony section of town. I was a little bit awestruck to be confronted by the occasional sight of 3,000 square foot houses that were being levelled in order to put up 4,000 and 4,500 square foot houses, and it seemed that every 50 yards or so was a landscaping truck parked at the side of the road next to a hard-working crew of Central Americans who were either chasing large lawnmowers around or shovelling hundreds of yards of bark mulch under the blooming azaleas and rhododendrons. It couldn't help but occur to me that when the Iraq War started, oil was at around $22.00 per barrel, now it is up over $60.00. We hear much these days about global warming, the eventual tapping out of oil reserves, tensions around oil that lead to war, and a huge crisis of illegal immigration. Patriotic young men, largely the product of red state, Toby Keith America, are fighting, sweating and bleeding in Iraq... and I'm looking around this neighborhood and I'm thinking, what is going on? I mean, really, what the hell is going on?

Nothing but petulant envy on my part? Maybe you could say so. It doesn't mean a lot to me, having stuff, but having lived faithfully by the ethos and dicates of my Church, I do wonder sometimes not only how I can ever pay for my children’s college educations, but also how to house all of them without them having to be piled on top of each other all the time. It all seems so out of reach when put together. You could say that perhaps I need to do more working and acquiring rather than blogging. OK, fair enough. I can't help but thinking, however, that something is seriously broken in this society and how we relate to one another, and that we are headed for a hard reckoning. In his latest book God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now (highly recommended), John Dominic Crossan makes reference to an October 27, 2005 editorial by conservative columnist Peggy Noonan called A Separate Peace. America is in trouble--and our elites are merely resigned. A bulk of it makes reference to the task of the presidency being too big for anyone to handle anymore, but it also tackles the topic of whether or not those on the top of the heap have resigned themselves to a country and world that can't be fixed, and have gated their minds as well as their communities. Some excerpts:

It is not so hard and can be a pleasure to tell people what you see. It's harder to speak of what you think you see, what you think is going on and can't prove or defend with data or numbers. That can get tricky. It involves hunches. But here goes.

I think there is an unspoken subtext in our national political culture right now. In fact I think it's a subtext to our society. I think that a lot of people are carrying around in their heads, unarticulated and even in some cases unnoticed, a sense that the wheels are coming off the trolley and the trolley off the tracks. That in some deep and fundamental way things have broken down and can't be fixed, or won't be fixed any time soon. That our pollsters are preoccupied with "right track" and "wrong track" but missing the number of people who think the answer to "How are things going in America?" is "Off the tracks and hurtling forward, toward an unknown destination."

I'm not talking about "Plamegate." As I write no indictments have come up. I'm not talking about "Miers." I mean . . . the whole ball of wax. Everything. Cloning, nuts with nukes, epidemics; the growing knowledge that there's no such thing as homeland security; the fact that we're leaving our kids with a bill no one can pay. A sense of unreality in our courts so deep that they think they can seize grandma's house to build a strip mall; our media institutions imploding--the spectacle of a great American newspaper, the New York Times, hurtling off its own tracks, as did CBS. The fear of parents that their children will wind up disturbed, and their souls actually imperiled, by the popular culture in which we are raising them. Senators who seem owned by someone, actually owned, by an interest group or a financial entity. Great churches that have lost all sense of mission, and all authority. Do you have confidence in the CIA? The FBI? I didn't think so.

But this recounting doesn't quite get me to what I mean. I mean I believe there's a general and amorphous sense that things are broken and tough history is coming...

A few weeks ago I was chatting with friends about the sheer number of things parents now buy for teenage girls--bags and earrings and shoes. When I was young we didn't wear earrings, but if we had, everyone would have had a pair or two. I know a 12-year-old with dozens of pairs. They're thrown all over her desk and bureau. She's not rich, and they're inexpensive, but her parents buy her more when she wants them. Someone said, "It's affluence," and someone else nodded, but I said, "Yeah, but it's also the fear parents have that we're at the end of something, and they want their kids to have good memories. They're buying them good memories, in this case the joy a kid feels right down to her stomach when the earrings are taken out of the case."

This, as you can imagine, stopped the flow of conversation for a moment. Then it resumed, as delightful and free flowing as ever. Human beings are resilient. Or at least my friends are, and have to be...

Do people fear the wheels are coming off the trolley? Is this fear widespread? A few weeks ago I was reading Christopher Lawford's lovely, candid and affectionate remembrance of growing up in a particular time and place with a particular family, the Kennedys, circa roughly 1950-2000. It's called "Symptoms of Withdrawal." At the end he quotes his Uncle Teddy. Christopher, Ted Kennedy and a few family members had gathered one night and were having a drink in Mr. Lawford's mother's apartment in Manhattan. Teddy was expansive. If he hadn't gone into politics he would have been an opera singer, he told them, and visited small Italian villages and had pasta every day for lunch. "Singing at la Scala in front of three thousand people throwing flowers at you. Then going out for dinner and having more pasta." Everyone was laughing. Then, writes Mr. Lawford, Teddy "took a long, slow gulp of his vodka and tonic, thought for a moment, and changed tack. 'I'm glad I'm not going to be around when you guys are my age.' I asked him why, and he said, 'Because when you guys are my age, the whole thing is going to fall apart.' "

Mr. Lawford continued, "The statement hung there, suspended in the realm of 'maybe we shouldn't go there.' Nobody wanted to touch it. After a few moments of heavy silence, my uncle moved on."

Lawford thought his uncle might be referring to their family--that it might "fall apart." But reading, one gets the strong impression Teddy Kennedy was not talking about his family but about . . . the whole ball of wax, the impossible nature of everything, the realities so daunting it seems the very system is off the tracks.

And--forgive me--I thought: If even Teddy knows . . .

I think those who haven't noticed we're living in a troubling time continue to operate each day with classic and constitutional American optimism intact. I think some of those who have a sense we're in trouble are going through the motions, dealing with their own daily challenges.

Our elites, our educated and successful professionals, are the ones who are supposed to dig us out and lead us. I refer specifically to the elites of journalism and politics, the elites of the Hill and at Foggy Bottom and the agencies, the elites of our state capitals, the rich and accomplished and successful of Washington, and elsewhere. I have a nagging sense, and think I have accurately observed, that many of these people have made a separate peace. That they're living their lives and taking their pleasures and pursuing their agendas; that they're going forward each day with the knowledge, which they hold more securely and with greater reason than nonelites, that the wheels are off the trolley and the trolley's off the tracks, and with a conviction, a certainty, that there is nothing they can do about it.

I suspect that history, including great historical novelists of the future, will look back and see that many of our elites simply decided to enjoy their lives while they waited for the next chapter of trouble. And that they consciously, or unconsciously, took grim comfort in this thought: I got mine. Which is what the separate peace comes down to, "I got mine, you get yours."

You're a lobbyist or a senator or a cabinet chief, you're an editor at a paper or a green-room schmoozer, you're a doctor or lawyer or Indian chief, and you're making your life a little fortress. That's what I think a lot of the elites are up to.

Not all of course. There are a lot of people--I know them and so do you--trying to do work that helps, that will turn it around, that can make it better, that can save lives. They're trying to keep the boat afloat. Or, I should say, get the trolley back on the tracks.

That's what I think is going on with our elites. There are two groups. One has made a separate peace, and one is trying to keep the boat afloat. I suspect those in the latter group privately, in a place so private they don't even express it to themselves, wonder if they'll go down with the ship. Or into bad territory with the trolley.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Bill Cork Bails Out, Frank Beckwith Jumps Back In

Some thoughts on converts and reverts... Do people eventually have a tendency to go home?

Fishing for Souls, by Adriaen Pietersz Van de Venne, 1614

This isn't exactly breaking news. I'm about a week late with it, but I've been very, very busy lately with work, family concerns, a chance to finally enjoy some good weather, and house-hunting (somehow we've got to find a house with enough room for the 8 of us and eventually my aged father-in-law. Pray for us!).

I don't know much about Francis Beckwith, other than reading that he has recently stepped down from the head of the Evangelical Theological Society, due to the fact that he has reverted back to the Catholicism of his youth. I had never heard of him before, so there isn't really much I can say about it. I guess it caused some stir in evangelical circles, perhaps as much as the news that well-known blogger Bill Cork, Director of Young Adult & Campus Ministry for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, was leaving the Catholic Church and going back to the faith of his youth - Seventh Day Adventism.

I always liked Bill Cork. I considered his voice to be one of the most reasonable and sensible within the well-known circle of popular writers to be found in the Catholic blogosphere. In particular, I always appreciated how he would take on the anti-semitism of some of the most extreme elements who could be found on the far-right hand side of the Catholic apologetics spectrum - people who had themselves swum the Tiber, but who had kept on going and had gone on to cross other rivers as well. I even had a link to his blog Built On A Rock for a while, but I removed it for two reasons. The first was that I wanted to restrict the links to people I'd had some kind of personal contacts with. The second was that I was starting to see a number of posts on his blog complaining about liturgical abuse, which I find tiresome and redundant with tons of other blogs. I wasn't looking for someone like Bill Cork to go on with apocalyptic stories about "clown masses" as if he was "Fr. Moderator" on Traditio.

As you can see, the Built On A Rock blog is pretty much just a stub now. Gone with a "click". I think about the hundreds and hundreds of posts he'd taken the time to write, and the hundreds and hundreds of comments that people had taken the time to make in response, and all of it just gone in an instant... I sometimes wonder if people who make these kinds of switches ponder much on the effect that they have on the faiths of those who've invested so much of their time in interacting with them.

I have to admit, the reversion back to Seventh Day Adventism was quite surprising to me. It's about as far away from Rome as you can get, and as far as my understanding goes, it is one of the most stridently anti-Catholic groups out there (a Presbyterian apologist I used to tangle with told me once that he didn't consider SDA a form of Protestantism, and that he was inclined to label it as a cult). Bill Cork wrote an apologia of sorts for his reasons here. I find it a little hard and tedious to follow, and as in most cases, I tend to think that it really comes down to more of the personal level than the intellectual. In this post, Cork describes how the SDA was there for him and his son in a time of need. Blood is thicker than water, and the communities that fostered us in our youth may put bonds around us that are tighter than we think. Do we all have a tendency to want to go "home" at some point? I'm not impugning Cork's motives in any way. This must have been a very painful thing, and I wish him well.

I can be ecumenical, yet at the same time quite partisan in my partiality towards Catholicism, so I'm always gladdened and grateful to hear about someone who comes to the Catholic faith. One thing I've noticed, however, is that many (though not all) converts and reverts seem to embrace a pre-conciliar view of Catholicism rather than a post-conciliar view. For those in particular who are coming out of a Protestant tradition, I see a marked tendency towards strict adherence and acceptance of the Trent decrees, formulas, and anathemas vis-a-vis Protestantism. My guess is that many of the converts are attracted by what they see as uniformity and doctrinal certainty within Catholicism in contrast to the divisions and doctrinal upheaval they may be seeing in their own traditions at a certain point in time. They seem to want that clear distinction and contra-punctual emphasis, because I can only imagine what some people within their own families might be saying to them... Something along the likes of:
“Why in the world would you want to become a Roman Catholic? The Mass is hardly different from a Methodist service, and in addition to that, you’ve got to buy into their doctrines on papal authority, Mary, saints, justification by faith and works, and all that transubstantiation hocus pocus.”

Is it possible that in response to that, they are interested in emphasizing everything in Catholicism that they can find that specifically repudiates Protestantism? Is it possible that in defending their decision, they want to show them a liturgy that is point-by-point radically “other” than how they used to worship?

There's a blogger who went by the name of "Gregg the Obscure" who wrote the following on his blog Vita Bretis a number of years ago, and it stuck with me.
I’ve noticed that a great many integrists are either converts or reverts. Moreover, nearly all of the integrists that post frequently on the web come from a fundamentalist background.

This actually make pretty good sense. Fundamentalism started as a protestant reaction against modernism – a reaction based on highly literal readings of scripture. What distinguished fundamentalism is its stridency and use of proof-texting. Since fundamentalism was a reaction against some serious heresies, it’s not surprising that fundamentalists have a tendency to look for (and find) the worst in everyone. Too often the stridency brings out the worst in those who try to engage them in discussion. Since fundamentalism was a reaction against a new set of ideas, fundamentalists are so suspicious of anything that appears to be new that they often conclude that the world is now more evil than it’s ever been...

I had limited exposure to fundamentalists before my conversion to Catholicism. There were some in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, such as a college prof who taught Old Testament and insisted that anyone who believed that the exodus occurred after 1300 B.C. had endangered his salvation. I remember the 1970s debates in the LCMS in which one side held that anyone who denied or doubted the literality of the story of Jonah was a heretic. That sort of overreaching insistence on strict adherence to notions that are at best peripheral to the message of Jesus, while often ignoring the clear mandates of the King of Kings, drove me from the LCMS and, ultimately, to Catholicism.

Fundamentalism doesn’t deal well with paradoxes and contradictions. Eventually, any bright, honest and dedicated fundamentalist would invariably run into many of the inconsistencies presented by Sola Scriptura. Ultimately he would have to either proclaim some kind of private revelation or look to Rome.

When a fundamentalist becomes Catholic, a new problem arises. Too often the convert’s way of looking at the world doesn’t change that much. The stridency is still there, and now there’s a much larger body of literature to search for proof texts. If the convert had believed that the world is growing more evil every day, there’s little chance that he’ll outgrow that notion. That and an ill-informed focus on the purported immutability of the Church would lead one to recoil in horror from even the slightest alteration to doctrinal pronouncements or liturgical practice. Instant integrism.

I wouldn't have defined the formerly-Catholic Bill Cork as an integrist, but it does seem clear to me that there were issues he was struggling with in terms of doctrine and authority, and his understanding of the way the two were supposed to work together. In a way, the case is similar to the one with Rod Dreher, a conservative convert to Catholicism who had plenty of criticism for Catholic liberals and progressives over the years, but later said as he left Catholicism that when he really studied what went down at Vatican I, he was unable to buy into the doctrine of papal infallibility anymore. In terms of his criticism of progressives, who've studied the same issue and have struggled mightily and faithfully over its meaning and the extent of its application, I find that ironic.

I guess a lot of converts and reverts come aboard and expect to find a monolithic entity in which there is complete unity and harmony among true believers, and that all disputed questions have been settled, or at least have a means of being settled definitively. I'm not eloquent enough to put it into words, but perhaps most cradle Catholics realize that it is much more complicated than that, and that there is always a dynamic tension between authority and the sense of the faithful... I have a hard time describing it... How do you say it to a convert who never had to go to weekly confession when they were a child or an adolescent, or whose parents never struggled with issues of conscience surrounding Humanae Vitae? It's a whole different milieu to have been brought up in. All I can say to converts and reverts is, yes, I believe it is the Truth, but the Fathers were right at Vatican II to identify the Church as a Pilgrim Church making its way through history rather than the "Perfect Society" built along the lines of a pyramid structure. The Tridentine era had left too many people with the impression that the Catholic Church was as completely immutable in its non-essentials and ecclesiastical positive laws as it was in its De Fide dogmas. For all intents and purposes, it indeed had been that immutable for the previous 400 years. I'd say that the proper understanding is that God is immutable, and that the Deposit of Faith is immutable, but the Church is not.

There is great virtue to be found in obedience, and all of us should get to know the mind of the pope and conform as well as our consciences allow us to, but if your faith in Catholicism is contingent upon perfectly synchronizing in your own mind the thought of Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, John Paul II, and Benedict XI; if it is built on striving to harmonize the teaching of Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus with the teaching of the document Nostra Aetate, Unam Sanctum with Dignitatis Humanae, Pascendi with Gaudium et Spes; if it needs to perfectly match the Council of Constance with Vatican I, the Councils of Orange and Trent with Vatican II, there may be difficulties in that, and I urge you to look at the Tradition much more deeply, more nuanced, and more openly in faith.