Friday, March 30, 2012

Postless Lenten Fridays--and a prayer request

(Giotto, "Palm Sunday.")

Prayer request: My dad is having a medical test done today, and I know he'd appreciate your prayers, as would I. I'll leave comments open on this one.

UPDATE: Dad passed his medical test with flying colors--everything looks fine! Thanks, all!

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Left behind after the three days of darkness rapture the late great planet...

Rod Dreher has an interesting post up today about small-a "apocalypses," prophesies relating to these, and the temptation to follow them:
This makes me reflect on a short but intense period of my own life — I was 12 — when the monster-selling 1970s Christian apocalyptic book “The Late, Great Planet Earth” fell into my hands. I was a kid who read the newspaper constantly, and brooded over what I saw there. The year was 1979. Iranian militants held American hostages. Inflation ripped through the US economy. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Always, talk of nuclear war with the USSR. I well remember on Saturday morning driving back across a field with my dad, coming home from the hunting camp, looking up at the sky and thinking, “A Soviet ICBM could explode right up there 19 minutes from now, and we would all be dead.” It shook me up. [...]

I burned brightly with that stuff for about a year and a half, then burned out, and was done with religion for what turned out to have been years. The prophecies “Late, Great” made turned out to be false, mostly, but over the years, I’ve come to judge myself less harshly for falling under its sway. I think that’s because I have more sympathy for human weakness in emotional crisis, and the desperate need to discover (or to impose) meaning on chaos. But at the same time, reflecting on that experience has made me more aware, and skeptical, of my own susceptibility to apocalyptic themes in public discourse. The thing is, there really are apocalypses! Not big-A Apocalypses — though as a Christian, I believe that history will culminate one day in an End, though it may be thousands of years from now; nobody knows the date — but small ones. The Apocalypse is the end of the world; small-a apocalypses are the end of a world. The end of the Roman Empire in the West was an apocalypse. The Fall of Constantinople was another. Bolshevism and Nazism were both apocalyptic political cults that brought about real apocalypses for their victims and their victims’ cultures. If I were a pious Arab Muslim living in the Middle East at this time in history, I could well imagine that I would look to apocalyptic prophecies and figures (e.g., the Dajjal) from my own tradition to explain the losses and traumas wracking my culture and civilization, and to give consolation that All Will Be Well in God’s Good Time.

As Kermode, Gray, and others point out, apocalypticism (and utopianism, it’s sister) is by no means only a religious phenomenon. As I said, Bolshevism and Nazism were secular political forms. Today, you will find few more apocalyptic secularists than those whose minds are seized by the prospect of a global warming apocalypse. (But, remember: just because they’re terrified of it in ways many of us don’t understand doesn’t mean it’s not real; perhaps they see something the rest of us don’t).

Some critics of apocalypse enthusiasts accuse them of taking pleasure in the prospect of the damnation of unbelievers. Many no doubt do, but I think this idea is misleading. When I was part of that Late, Great mindset and culture, I didn’t know anybody who relished the thought of sinners falling into the hands of the Antichrist, and suffering horribly. Surely some did, but not as many as you may think. To reiterate, the consolation offered by the Late, Great vision was rather this: 1) it offered an explanation for hard-to-understand, scary events in the world; 2) it assured you that none of this was random, that as chaotic as things seemed, God was actually in control, and things were unfolding according to His plan; and 3) as awful as things were getting, God was going to rapture His people off the planet before the worst happened.

Catholics have a tendency to look askance at small-a "apocalyptic" prophecies, particularly those from other traditions. Sure, you can meet a Catholic who has gotten caught up in the "Left Behind" and Rapture notions, or who has read something like The Late, Great Planet Earth, just as you can meet Catholics silly enough to take The DaVinci Code seriously. But before we Catholics get all superior about people who think that one day half of our neighbors will just disappear and the rest of us will have to muddle through the End Times (or the Nearly End Times, etc.) we should remember that Catholics have plenty of small-a "apocalyptic" stuff of our own to contend with.

Take, for example, the Three Days of Darkness.

This prophecy, which all of its adherents insist comes straight from the visions of reputable saints and blesseds, supposedly warns of a coming trial during which darkness will fall over the whole earth, and the only light will come from blessed beeswax candles (but they must be 100% pure beeswax, possibly from some approved source, or else they won't work when the Darkness comes). The power of Hell will be unleashed upon the world, and all humans except for the chosen with their candles will die in unspeakable torment as demons roam free to torture and destroy. The ordinary rules of Christian love apparently get suspended as the faithful are warned not to open a door or even a window, not even if they hear their own parents or children screaming for mercy and salvation outside, because either they're really hearing demons, or else they're being tested--for if their parents and children are outside, then God has chosen to smite them, and opening a door or window to let them come in will result in the immediate deaths of all the saintly and holy gathered in the home.

Mark Shea mentions such prophecies here and here, among his various writings. I find his take quite sane and sensible. To me, it's entirely possible that saints and mystics have had various disturbing visions of the End Times, but when those visions are somehow twisted into becoming specific survivalist instructions for a tiny handful of Catholics that include God's secret commands to purchase and store particular kinds of blessed candles and to be prepared to resign one's nearest and dearest to the unleashed powers of Hell in order to save themselves so that they can be among the ruling class of some new age of perfection which will last until the real End Times, the prophecy has gone from being something of possible spiritual benefit to being something that encourages people in the worst sorts of prideful faults and errors.

Interestingly enough, the Three Days of Darkness prophecy now has a sedevacantist twist: some of the words of the mystics who have had visions of darkness and a chastisement for the Earth include a mystical "reordering" of the Church, when St. Peter (and possibly also St. Paul) will come down from Heaven and personally select the new Pope for the tiny fragment of humanity that had their blessed candles ready and were in the state of grace, thus surviving the terrible trials. Some sedevacantist groups appear to see this part of the prophecy or message as a vindication of their present belief that there hasn't been a true pope for decades now, and that God will first plunge the world into terrible torment, killing off at least two-thirds of humanity, and then select a new pope who will condemn Vatican II and everything that came from that council, praising only the faithful remnant who managed to keep the True Faith intact without a pope since the death of the last true pope (Pius XII for some, but various "secret pope" contenders for others).

So why do people fall for this stuff? I asked that question at Rod's blog, and a poster countered by asking the same question about Christianity in general. But there's a big difference, to me, between believing that Jesus Christ is Who He says He is, and further that He founded a particular Church to safeguard His teachings (since He knows quite well how prone human beings are either to putting words in God's mouth on the one hand or to turning God's free and open revelations into gnostic or esoteric knowledge meant only to benefit a handful of "insiders" on the other) and believing that every vision every mystic, saint, or (in some cases) charlatan has had amounts to some sort of special insight, some literal truth into how to survive when God smites the Earth one of these days. In fact, if we really believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, it's easy to test these prophetic words and secret visions, because Jesus Christ would not instruct us to forget charity, or store up candles in secret without telling our neighbors, or keep our doors firmly shut in the faces of loved ones--or even strangers, for that matter--if the world were truly being smashed with all the power of Hell.

If our faith is in Him, we need not chase after the Rapture, or pine for the Three Days of Darkness, or secretly hope to survive the Tribulation. All we need to do is take up our cross and follow Him if we would be saved.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

How the mighty have fallen

It's hard to read any of the drivel produced by a Kennedy these days without thinking about how the mighty have fallen.

Consider this bit of utter nonsense penned by Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in The Atlantic, with the absurdly silly title The Case for Gay Acceptance in the Catholic Church. Um, newsflash, Ms. Townsend, but people who commit homosexual sins are just as accepted in the Catholic Church as people who commit heterosexual sins, who lie, who are lazy or unkind, who steal, who download Internet porn, or who commit vote fraud in national elections: we're just, all of us, supposed to repent of our sins and work toward giving them up entirely as we strive to take up our crosses and follow Jesus Christ in living the Gospel and working for the Kingdom. If Townsend were arguing for Catholics to present a kinder welcome to our same-sex attracted brothers and sisters and a loving, supportive environment in which they could embrace the radical chastity they are called to by Jesus Christ without facing scorn or derision for the times they failed to live up to that call, then neither I nor any Catholic would have the least problem with her essay (except for the clunky and misleading title). Alas, that's not at all what she's calling for:
On St. Patrick's Day I had the pleasure of speaking to about 350 Catholics who gathered together to attend a conference put on by New Ways Ministry, which is an effort to support the LGBT community in the Catholic Church. The women and men I spoke to included nuns and priests, children who had come out and parents who wanted to be supportive. Two female priests gave me special blessing and I left the meeting inspired by the devotion of those who attended. [...]

A few years ago, I read the Bible from Genesis to Revelations, and to me the biggest revelation was how misogynistic it was. That made me realize that the Catholic Church was on to something when it allowed only educated priests to read the Bible. My mother's generation was prohibited from reading the Bible, and when I told my grandmother that my father used to read the Bible to us, she was shocked, "Catholics don't read the Bible," she said. The Church figured that people could take passages out of context and come to unwarranted conclusions. This changed after Vatican II and now Catholic parishes offer Bible study classes. [..]

Happily, that has now changed. Women have entered schools of theology and can now show that Jesus was one of the first great feminists. Mary Magdalene is no longer thought of as a prostitute but as the "apostle to the apostles." Gays, though, are still excluded.

Progressive Christian and Jewish believers have accepted gay rights. Theologians now argue that verses in Leviticus that call for the killing of men who sleep with men apply only to a particular historical moment. The death penalty no longer applies to people who divorce, curse their parents, or sleep with women during their period -- rules that are also in Leviticus. [...]

Contrary to conservative propaganda, though, the Vatican is not immovable. It has a long history of changing position to follow new understandings of society and morality. Usury is no longer a sin. Women are no longer considered "the devil's gateway." Railroads are no longer cursed as the work of the devil, and teaching that there is such a doctrine as "freedom of conscience" does not merit censure, as it did for John Courtney Murray in the 1950s: In fact, Vatican II now recognizes "freedom of conscience." Pope John Paul II apologized for the Church's treatment of women and its persecution of Galileo. Sex between husband and a wife is no longer just for procreation but has value in itself.

Ah, yes. You see, you poor pew-sitting Catholic dolt, the Church used to teach that women were the devil's gateway, that railroads were evil, that cursing your parents or sleeping with a menstruating woman were crimes punishable by death; but now, in these enlightened days, the Church no longer teaches any of that, so she can clearly change her teaching that fornication, sodomy, masturbation (whether solo or mutual), and other homosexual sex acts are gravely morally evil, because the only reason the Church teaches any of that is to keep the gays down the way that women were once kept down by the misogynistic Bible, and to keep the macho men who fill the Church's pews every Sunday appeased in their knee-jerk homophobia.

The Kennedys: poster children for What Went Terribly, Tragically Wrong with Catholic Catechesis in the Twentieth Century.

Contrary to Ms. Townsend's singularly ignorant and uneducated rant (which is also oddly written, badly organized, and showcases her family's talent for saying a whole lot of nothing at great length), the Catholic Church has never promulgated as a matter of official Church teaching the idea that women are the devil's gateway. She has never taught that railroads and their employees are anathema, and Christ Himself fulfilled the old law such that Christians never killed people for criticizing their mothers-in-law. Usury is still a sin, though those who through no fault of their own must borrow money at interest to, say, buy a house are not the guilty parties. And the Church has never decided that any of the Ten Commandments are now optional, or that any serious sin, especially those against the Sixth Commandment, is now just fine and dandy.

But what else can we expect from a woman who thinks there are female priests and that Catholics who risk Hell to use artificial birth control are being noble messengers of the Holy Spirit instead of--well, sinners, like the rest of us? I'm not sure that Ms. Townsend knows anything at all about Church teaching, especially in the area of moral theology; certainly her misinformed and unfortunate essay reads like something a high school aged Catholic might write for Confirmation class, having been absent from the Church since his First Communion. It's really hard to overstate the sheer depth of the shallowness of this piece.

Then again, though, it's pretty obvious that Townsend didn't write it to impress her fellow Catholics, especially the ones who attend Mass regularly and actually know a thing or two about Church teaching. Essays like this one are written for one reason: to give political cover to the Democrats when they go forward with the massive national push for legalizing gay "marriage" which I am quite certain is in the works. Townsend is participating, preemptively perhaps, in the narrative of the Right Sort of Catholic, in which the Right Sort agrees with whatever the secular State wants, and the Wrong Sort follow the actual teachings of the Catholic Church. On gay "marriage," the Right Sort of Catholic will burble out streams of absurd drivel like what Townsend wrote, insisting that it's perfectly possible to be Catholic while celebrating gay "marriages" in which two people pledge to commit serious and even mortal sins for the duration of their relationship. Meanwhile, the Right Sort will label the rest of us "The Wrong Sort of Catholic" for believing what the Church teaches, for striving to live faithfully according to these teachings, for rejecting sin in our own lives and speaking against its acceptance, and for rejecting the evil lie that is gay "marriage." Because for people like Townsend, it's much more important to pay homage to the spirit of the age than the Holy Spirit, and much more important to approve of sin than to be labeled a bigot for rejecting sin.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Total effect and The Hunger Games

To begin with, I should explain that this isn't really a post about The Hunger Games. I haven't read the trilogy, and don't have a huge amount of interest in doing so, because the story line doesn't appeal all that much to me. Dystopian fiction has its place, and has an honorable literary pedigree; but if you read/watch too much dystopian fiction I think you run the risk either of becoming desensitized to the violence and suffering envisioned or of finding what is supposed to be shocking and thought-provoking merely melodramatic and trite. At present, my dystopian fiction slot is being filled by The Walking Dead (though we'll see how the next season progresses), and I doubt it would be wise to mix a dystopian world in which zombies are destroying everything while the main characters struggle to survive and hope eventually to overcome the evil without and within with a dystopian world in which teenagers must kill each other in gladiatorial combat before overthrowing the evil people and saving the world; if nothing else, the risk of nightmares in which zombies and teenagers fight each other in the Roman Coliseum against a backdrop of mocking TV broadcasts hosted by Bill Maher or somebody is too great a risk to run.

But given the huge popularity of The Hunger Games and the new movie based on the first book, some parents are again facing the tough questions: do I allow my teen to read these books/see this movie? Is there a different answer for a thirteen-year-old than a fifteen-year-old, or is the child's sensitivity level and maturity and type of imagination more important than physical age? If my child is suddenly interested in this series, how do I know if he or she is merely being caught up in the movie hype or being influenced by peer pressure instead of truly being ready to read/watch a story with a certain level of graphic and violent elements? Is there, in fact, anything particularly redeeming about these novels (and/or the movie) that would make a journey of exploration and discussion with both a parent and the child participating worthwhile, or are these books ultimately more exploitative than redeeming?

These are questions that can only be answered by individual parents and individual children. When my oldest girl became interested in The Hunger Games recently, I shared my concerns about this type of fiction generally, and offered to get a copy of the first book, read it myself, and then let her read it if she was interested. She did a little research online, read some plot summaries and some reviews, and decided that in fact she really wasn't interested enough to read the books. The movie had looked intriguing, but after she read what the books were about she decided on her own that given her lifelong dislike of stories featuring war, violence, gore, and so on, these books were probably not a good fit for her, at least not right now.

How did she know that? I'll answer by referring once again to one of my favorite essays by Flannery O'Connor, titled Total Effect and the Eighth Grade. In this essay, O'Connor is arguing against the practice of rushing to present modern or contemporary fiction to young adults, not because of anything inherently wrong about that fiction as a class of fiction, but because young adults may not yet be prepared for it. I've quoted this passage before, but it's worth repeating:
I would like to put forward the proposition, repugnant to most English teachers, that fiction, if it is going to be taught in the high schools, should be taught as a subject and as a subject with a history. The total effect of a novel depends not only on its innate impact, but upon the experience, literary and otherwise, with which it is approached. No child needs to be assigned Hersey or Steinbeck until he is familiar with a certain amount of the best work of Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, the early James, and Crane, and he does not need to be assigned these until he has been introduced to some of the better English novelists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The fact that these works do not present him with the realities of his own time is all to the good. He is surrounded by the realities of his own time, and he has no perspective whatever from which to view them. Like the college student who wrote in her paper on Lincoln that he went to the movies and got shot, many students go to college unaware that the world was not made yesterday; their studies began with the present and dipped backward occasionally when it seemed necessary or unavoidable. (Flannery O'Connor, Total Effect and the Eighth Grade)

My oldest daughter decided not to read The Hunger Games at this time because she's still reading the literature of the past, and because thus far the more violent or gory books or plays (such as Macbeth) have been more difficult for her to get through than, say, Barchester Towers, which she recently raced through. Knowing her own relatively small capacity for literature with dark, angsty, violent themes and plots helped her make a smart decision about whether her interest in all the movie hype was enough to make the books worth reading, or whether their scenes and themes of gladiatorial combat and teens killing other teens was going to detract from any good lessons or values in the stories.

Again, these questions can't be answered except by individual parents and individual teens; there's not, as far as I've heard, some overwhelming reason for Catholic parents to be wary of The Hunger Games as there was with, say, Philip Pullman's works, which means that these books will be liked and appreciated by some but rejected by others. Which is, of course, absolutely fine. But I think the best way for a parent to know whether The Hunger Games is something their own teenager should read and/or see is for the parent to know their child, and especially to know what other books the child has read and enjoyed. It would seem that this would be a fairly easy question to answer, and yet I realize that some parents have little knowledge of what books, plays, and poems among the treasures of the literary past have so far been presented to their children--or, worse, that parents are simply assuming that their children are being exposed to a wide selection of classic works of fiction when the reality is that their children have been reading a lot of books published in the last ten or twenty years, and not much from before that. English teachers as a group may have changed a great deal from Flannery O'Connor's day--but are they thus more likely or less likely to assign works from what some educators refer to rather dismissively as "dead white males?" A teen can easily read The Hunger Games if he or she has read works like A Red Badge of Courage, All Quiet on the Western Front, Macbeth (or King Lear or Othello or even Romeo and Juliet), Oliver Twist or Nicholas Nickleby, To Kill a Mockingbird, Crime and Punishment, and much earlier works like The Iliad or The Odyssey, or Beowulf, or The Aeneid, Oedipus Rex or Antigone, The Divine Comedy--I could be writing this list all night, but I'll stop here.

The point is that if a teen chooses to read The Hunger Games against the backdrop of some of the best fiction of Western Christendom he or she will easily be able to asses its value or worth, discuss its plot and themes, and even offer informed and intelligent criticism of the series. But if the teen reads little or nothing other than a handful of wildly popular (and sometimes pandering or exploitative) works of teen fiction, his or her ability to experience what O'Connor calls the total effect of the novel may be lacking. He or she would be in roughly the same position as an adult who watches something like The Walking Dead without having first read works like The Castle of Otranto and Frankenstein, or at the very least, Dracula or Northanger Abbey.

This moderated comment thing... really well.

For instance, I was just able to spare my readers a truly charming example of illiterate and degenerate idiocy at work. Note to would-be harassers: when you send me comments full of obscenities and personal insults, I laugh, then I think about how sad, sorry, and pathetic your life must be for you to fling verbal excrement at people you don't know, and then I pray for you, which probably annoys you more than my laughter and my pity. Seriously: go buy some flower seeds and plant a garden or something. You'll feel better for it.

(Oh, and I've recorded your ISP address. Just so you know.)

Monday, March 26, 2012

Look what we can do...

I don't have to apologize for posting so late on a Monday again, do I? I think you all know me by now. :)

Toward the end of last week, I saw a lot of my favorite bloggers linking to a video and calling it amazing, epic, creative, inspiring, and so on. I generally ignore viral videos, but when enough people are talking in exuberantly positive terms about one, I tend to pay attention. So eventually I gave in and went and watched this:

At the risk of blogging heresy, I have to say: I didn't like it.

Sure, from the musical engineering perspective, I suppose that arranging for all of that noise to occur when it was supposed to was difficult and time-consuming. I'm sure the whole thing took a lot of hard work--those poor old upright pianos didn't put themselves into the correct position to be smashed into to create one last burst of sound, for instance, and the sheer number of bottles and rods and other things boggles the mind. But when I'd finished viewing the video all I could think about was how seemingly destructive it all was: smashing and clinking and battering into things, some of them built into metal cages in the middle of a barren and dead landscape and arranged on purpose to be bashed into by the various appendages attached to the car.

Now, maybe this is one of those male vs. female things, where most men will look at the video and think about how cool it all is, while most women will look at the same video and wonder who's going to clean that giant mess up. But I'm not sure that that's the only reason I found the video to be disturbing.

Videos like these seem to be demonstrating a simple artistic concept along these lines: look what we can do. And it's certainly true that modern Western culture is good at showing off our ability to intrude into nature and create a giant, noisy, jarring and colorful mess. We're good at that, and at least some of our art, if it's being honest and true, is going to reflect that.

But what about other cultures? What about the culture that produced this video? Sure, it's a commercial instead of a music video, but for some reason it was the first think I thought of when I watched the OK Go video:

The musical instrument, a huge marimbo made by Kenjiro Matsuo, fits harmoniously into the beautiful surrounding natural environment. The music, Bach's Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, does not blare out or sound like discrete crashes and noises, but is subdued and lovely. According to the commercial's creative director the only enhancement made to the video was done to bring out the natural sounds. Instead of intruding into nature, the music in this film works with it and respects it.

Granted, in some ways this is an "apples and oranges" comparison; the two videos were made for different audiences and for different purposes, and even the two styles of music do not compare easily. But it isn't unfair for me to say that I dislike the first and like the second, or even that I find the level of noise and destruction in the first distasteful. Is it, however, unfair to draw conclusions about our culture based on that first video? In America, is it the case that the statement, "Look what we can do!" is often a statement that precedes destruction, wasteful consumption, a using of both man-made and natural resources that implies a profound contempt for them and for the natural world (and perhaps even for its Creator)? Should there be more humility, more harmony, and less consumption in our view of what we can, and should, do?

And, on the other hand, is the second video somewhat ironic given that it is an advertisement for something that could be a symbol of wasteful consumption: the cell phone? Back in 2007, Gizmodo estimated that 426,000 cell phones were decommissioned every day just in the United States; most of those end up being thrown away. So while a Japanese cell phone commercial may seem to be portraying a different sort of culture than the culture of wasteful consumption, is it the case that the commercial is, in fact, less "honest" in an artistic sense than the first video?

What do you think?

Friday, March 23, 2012

Postless Lenten Fridays

Michelangelo's Pieta.

Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee!
'Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee;
I crucified thee.
(From this beautiful hymn.)

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Internet advertising/marketing data collection service

More and more, I've been glad I dumped Facebook when I did. The only negative for me is that I didn't go ahead and request total account deletion when I dropped out, meaning that if I ever log back in again my account will still be waiting. I figured it would be okay for me to leave an "empty" account hanging instead of going through Facebook's torturous account deletion process, but when I read things like this, I'm not so sure:

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- A Facebook privacy policy revision intended to make the site's methods more transparent is instead kicking up a fresh firestorm.

Facebook posted a draft version of its revised terms on March 15 and gave the site's users a one-week comment period to weigh in with questions and suggestions. The changes include many semantic tweaks, like stripping the word "privacy" out of Facebook's "privacy policy," which is now called a "data use policy."[...]

Facebook's current policy says: "When you use an application, your content and information is shared with the application." Its proposed revision amends that line to: "When you or others who can see your content and information use an application, your content and information is shared with the application."

The idea that apps your friends install can access your information disturbed many of Facebook's commenters. As one put it: "Strongly disagree -- why should I be dragged into apps my friends are involved with?"

You already are. Facebook's current terms allow apps to tap into all of the information that the app's users have access to, Facebook spokesman Andrew Noyes told CNNMoney. [Links in original--E.M.]

Honest question: if Facebook's name more accurately reflected the kind of business it really is--if it had been called something like "Internet Advertising/Marketing Data Collection Service" or something along those lines, would any of us have ever signed up in the first place?

I'm sure that some people still would have done so because they or their families and friends find the quick "information dump" style of Facebook communication convenient and time-saving in their busy lifestyles. Other people would still have signed up for the fun and games, the quick and easy connections with the people they haven't seen since high school, and so on. But I think that many of us would have stayed away, and many more would have joined only hesitantly and with careful control over the friends they accepted, the types of apps they used, and the level and kind of personal, shopping, and lifestyle information they shared not only with their friends and families but with third-party advertisers who pay Facebook a ton of money to have the kind of targeted consumer access that previous generations of advertisers could only have dreamed about.

Instead, many people are only really realizing long after the fact that social networks such as Facebook exist to sell them: their information, their habits, their shopping choices, their lifestyles, and anything else that can be turned over for a profit, that is, to the highest bidders.

Maybe in this age in which that kind of data is ubiquitous and easily collected by people lots scarier than mere advertisers, it's a bit silly to worry about overexposure on Facebook. But then again, maybe it's still a good idea to step back and decide, from time to time, whether the social networks we use are taking much, much more than they are giving, and whether our use of them is still a good thing. And maybe it's time for me to get around to requesting that account deletion...

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The same thing as hate

I really enjoyed Msgr. Pope's recent blog post about how redefining marriage could have some pretty ridiculous consequences. After sharing a pretty silly story about a woman who decided to hold a wedding ceremony in which she "married" herself, Msgr. Pope made some interesting points:

Let’s overlook the logical fallacy and abuse of the English language in the phrase “solo relationship” for the absurdity is evident enough; and it you don’t see it, I have a square circle to sell you. Let’s also overlook the bizarre non-sequitur that single “marriages” would somehow result in a lower “divorce” rate. For as absurd as the notion of self-”marriage” is, the notion of divorcing one’s own self is even more absurd. Where would one go from oneself?

But absurd is the word for the whole strange redefinition of marriage movement. The secular world, having sown in the wind, now reaps the whirlwind. If something as outlandish as two men together can be called “marriage,” who is to say that any other part of the definition cannot be tampered with? Why should marriage be between only two? Here come the polygamists. And apparently too, here come the soloists like Ms (Mrs?) Schweigert. And while we’re at it, who is to say marriage has to be between two humans? Bring on the bestiality advocates as well as those who would like to effect marriages between their pets.

Absurd? Sure! But so is two men getting “married.” And I would wonder how advocates of homosexual “marriage” would be able to answer Ms. (Mrs?) Schweigert’s (s’ ??) salvo, as well as the silly conclusions of the reporter? Are they not hoisted on the petard of their own “logic?” For if something as basic as sexual identity can be removed from the definition of marriage, who is to say that duality, and even humanity, cannot be removed? Can the homosexual community and advocates of homosexual “marriage” really say such things as polygamy and bestiality are a bridge too far? Why? On what basis?

And if you think the bestiality example goes too far, you can consider the recent story of the woman who "married" a building:

Just when you think there’s nothing new under the sun, Occupy Seattle protestor Babylonia Aivaz, a Duke University graduate, married an abandoned warehouse at 10th and Union Street in Seattle.

Yes: I said “married.” The bride, radiant in a white wedding gown, posed beside a bulldozer as fellow occupiers swayed to the strains of Bill Withers’ 1972 hit “Lean On Me” strummed by a ukelele.

The wedding, Aivaz’ friends report, was a lesbian wedding because the warehouse, like Aivaz, is “female.”

Granted, the wedding of the "solo bride" and the "warehouse wedding" aren't valid marriages according to civil law, which, for now, still requires (even in states that permit gay "marriage") that there be two human parties to a marriage contract.

For now.

Here's the question, though: why?

If marriage has nothing to do with children or reproduction, if marriage is not the union of one man and one woman, if marriage is all about someone's idea of romantic love, why should marriage require two human participants--and also require that the two aren't related to each other?

If all of our old marriage laws and customs were based on religious ideas which should no longer have anything to do with how people conduct themselves in our modern society, why should marriage forbid the union of close family members? Why can't a father marry his son or daughter, or a mother her son or daughter? Why can't two brothers or two sisters or a brother and a sister get married? Are you some kind of a hater, that you would look at their deep love for each other and tell them that for some vague reason having to do with the stability of society or the integrity of the family they should be forbidden to marry?

And why shouldn't bigger groups be allowed to marry, too? We know that people are actively practicing polygamy in this country; they just can't legally get married to each other. Isn't that bigoted and hateful, and bad for the children of their multiple unions?

And who are we to tell Babylonia Aivaz she can't have a lesbian marriage to her favorite warehouse? Sure, in our anthropomorphic biases we think a warehouse (like animals) can't consent, but isn't that just the residue of our speciesism acting like there's something special about human beings that inanimate objects can't possibly have? If Aviaz says she loves the warehouse and believes the warehouse loves her, is it hurting anyone to go with it, and to let her celebrate that love, and collect tax breaks and benefits just like any married couple?

Consent's not even an issue with Nadine Schweigert, who clearly consented to marry herself, exchanging a ring with her "inner groom." Who says marriage must involve two of anyone or anything? Can't a woman love herself enough to want to spend the rest of her life with herself? She can even have and raise children alone (though she already has a son from a previous relationship). Shouldn't the happy Ms.--Mrs?--Schweigert get the same exact tax breaks, privileges, and benefits as any two married people--or are we just haters who can't stand to recognize single people and rejoice in their solo happiness?

Once we start redefining marriage, where do we stop? It should be obvious that if we think that two men can be "married" or two women "married," there's nothing really special about marriage that would limit it to two people; in fact, in plenty of ages past polygamy was openly and proudly practiced, so if anything, that ought to be next on the agenda. If rendering the very word "marriage" a meaningless joke and destroying the family, the culture, and society is the end-game of the pro-gay "marriage" advocates, I'd say we're well on our way. After all, what reason--other than bigoted hatred--can be given to stop marriage from meaning whatever anyone wants it to mean, even people like Schweigert and Aviaz?

No. Either you embrace the polygamous group, the incestuous "marriage," the solo "marriage," and the warehouse "marriage," or you're just a hater. Because if the gay rights group has taught us anything, it has taught us that refusing to accept someone else's totally twisted views of reality is the same thing as hate.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Combox Cold Shoulder

I had an entirely different blog post planned for today, but I've been pondering something else, and the pondering has reached that point (re: the Mason Cooley quote on my sidebar) where I have to write about it and open it up for discussion here so as to quit it with the pondering already.

Last week, when I wasn't feeling well, I spent a bit more time casually clicking around and reading blogs that I tend to read less often than my "A-list" blogs. Let's just get it clear up front that when I use the term "my 'A-list' blogs" I do not mean that these blogs are somehow intrinsically superior to all other blogs, or anything; it's just that, like most people with limited blog-reading time, I have some blogs I read daily or at least weekly and others that I read at best weekly and at most sporadically. This is nothing but personal taste, and I'm pretty sure that some blogs that would be "B-list" or even "C-list" for me are somebody else's "A-list," and that conversely some of my daily-must reads are on other people's "once in a great while" pile of blogs. It's good that we're all different, with different reading preferences, right?

Anyway, to get back to the point, I noticed something disturbing about the blogs I read less often. Maybe it's also true of the blogs I read more often, but my familiarity with them has kept me from noticing it; or maybe the blogs I like most don't tend to suffer from this problem. The problem can be summed up in one phrase: I call it the Combox Cold Shoulder.

What is it? Well, as any regular reader of blogs knows, comment box dynamics can be weird, strange, unusual things to analyze. Some blogs have truly poisonous comment boxes that are, except for the handful of trolls and their prey, best left alone; other blogs have truly thoughtful and dynamic comment boxes, where people from all points on the spectrum of ideas and from many walks of life exchange viewpoints, interact with each other, and maintain interesting and enlightening conversations. Many blogs will fall somewhere between these extremes, or vary depending on the blog host's mood and choice of topics and the level of passion the issues being discussed inspire among the readers.

But on a few of the blogs I read less often I noticed a quite different dynamic, which played out as follows:
  1. The blogger would write his or her post.
  2. Commenters would begin to comment, perhaps praising the blogger, or sharing their own experiences or ideas, etc.
  3. Some commenters would begin to engage other commenters in conversation. So far, all normal.
  4. Some commenters would post witty or thoughtful or interesting or--let's face it--mundane things, or ask direct questions...and be totally ignored.
  5. The conversing commenters would continue to converse, occasionally welcoming new, clearly "regular" commenters, into the discussion.
  6. The ignored commenters might try again, directly addressing one of the other participants or the blog host/hostess.
  7. The conversing commenters would continue to ignore these commenters, most of whom would give up at this point.
  8. If an "ignored commenter" tried a third time, either a: he or she was still ignored, or b: someone rudely or dismissively told him or her that his or her point had already been addressed, or that it was off-topic (never mind how much of the previous conversation had been) or that his/her question revealed a hidden agenda (which they discerned by some mysterious power) or something similarly quelling. The Comment Box Clique then turned back to their apparently private conversation.

The sad thing to me is that I noticed this particularly occurring in some regions of the Catholic blogosphere, this apparent shunning of the non-elect commenter. It didn't seem to come up much in secular blogs I read, though, as I said, perhaps I simply haven't noticed it before.

Now, I know that not every comment can be responded to, and that especially if someone's merely agreeing with the blogger and/or making a simple statement, the comment may not receive further notice. But this was something different: people who were clearly trying to join a conversation in progress were being treated like interlopers who didn't "belong" and who therefore were being rude to attempt to join in this private clique of wise Catholics who don't have time to be bothered with the less-privileged, average, everyday sort of readers who comment less frequently and thus haven't established their bona fides.

Maybe I just happened to hit a few blogs on a few bad days; maybe the blogs in question are usually more welcoming than they seemed to be. I certainly hope so. Because deciding ahead of time that some readers don't belong in the exclusive little blog-admiration club and rejecting their words, giving them the Combox Cold Shoulder so that they'll feel discouraged and perhaps stop reading or participating at all, isn't really the sort of behavior that makes us Catholics look very Christian.

And if I've ever been guilty of that sort of behavior myself, I heartily apologize. Perhaps I don't always have time to respond to comments, but I can work a bit harder on making time, especially to answer direct questions or comments where the person commenting clearly wishes to engage me in discussion.

Monday, March 19, 2012

No-fault divorce: an unmitigated disaster

One of the arguments often made by supporters of gay marriage goes something like this: heterosexuals have made it clear for some time now that marriage is not 'till death do us part, that it's not about what's best for children, and that it's really nothing more than a sort of business agreement dressed up in romantic language and celebrated with a huge and expensive party. So why insist that it has to involve just one man and one woman in a lifelong union with reproduction as an important aspect, when clearly even heterosexuals don't act like they believe that anymore?

While I disagree with the argument, I do recognize that in the last century or so, heterosexuals have indeed made such a mockery of the committment of marriage that it's not such a big stretch to see it as a tax-break and benefit contract which one then celebrates with a big party (and then to argue that it should be extended to include same sex pairs, groups of more than two, and perhaps even humans and those animals intelligent enough to express consent to the relationship in some inter-species-love-friendly future). Divorce is so rampant that the tongue-in-cheek term "serial monogamy" has come to be used of those people whose idea of the sanctity of marriage is that so long as they are only married to one person at a time they are protecting that sanctity, instead of spitting on it; children clearly suffer from the effects of divorce; and the notion that a promise to wed is a promise to be together until death is considered a quaintly romantic thought to be expressed just before the happy engaged couple signs the pre-nup which spells out in detail who will get what when the inevitable divorce happens.

Some Christian supporters of the traditional notion of marriage have addressed this question, calling their faith communities to account for failing to consider divorce and remarriage an evil to be avoided, and making various proposals that would be designed to strengthen marriage and to make divorce much more difficult. They, and others who are discussing the problem of modern marriage, have identified one of the most corrosive influences on the state of matrimony: the creation of the no-fault divorce.

The first no-fault divorce law in America went into effect in California in 1970 (signed, alas, by then-Governor Ronald Reagan); women's groups had been pushing for such laws for at least twenty years prior to that time, on the grounds that it was degrading for women to have to go into court and commit perjury by swearing that they'd caught their husbands in adultery or that their husbands were guilty of cruelty to them in order to get divorced. It was assumed by such groups that the effects of no-fault divorce laws would be overwhelmingly positive for women; unfortunately, that did not turn out to be the case--so much so that when New York passed a no-fault divorce law in 2010 (becoming the last state in America to do so) the National Organization for Women joined the Catholic Church in protesting the law! The forty years since the passage of the first no-fault divorce law in America had proved what the Church warned all along, which was that no-fault divorce harms women, children, and the integrity of the family as well as society as a whole.

Why is that? As the innocent parties in these divorce laws can attest, no-fault divorce laws make it possible for one spouse to dissolve the marriage for any reason at all--and the other spouse often has little or no say in the matter, can't stop the proceedings, and, if children are involved, must often avoid becoming "adversarial" in order not to end up on the losing side of any custody arrangements. The advent of no-fault divorce laws changed the dynamic of marriage in imperceptible ways; married couples once knew that they had to put some effort into working out problems or unhappiness, but today an unhappy spouse can, in effect, hold the marriage hostage to his or her whims, and can still insist on ending the marriage even if his or her demands are fully met.

And simple unhappiness may be the cause of more no-fault divorces than people think, as this piece from Mercatornet points out:

Among those who support the traditional concept of marriage there has been plenty of rhetoric in defence of the concept, but little has been done to come up with practical measures to shore up the institution. Now one organisation – the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada – is trying to change that with the report “Finding fault with no-fault divorce”. The report seeks not only to analyse the damage done by easy divorce, but to make concrete proposals to help rescue marriage.

On easy divorce, it says:

The shift from “fault” to “no-fault” divorce ultimately created a dynamic whereby one unhappy spouse who wanted out - for any reason or no reason at all - could unilaterally do so simply by moving out, be it two months or two years in. The end result is that we speak idealistic words (“till death do us part”) on our wedding days, knowing full well that when the going gets tough, we can - and do - get going.

In most countries that have adopted no-fault divorce, marriages have been failing at a disturbing rate. In Canada, for instance, it is estimated that around 40 percent of marriages that took place in the year 2008 will have ended in divorce by 2035. In Australia the rate is around one in three. But there is a glimmer of hope for the newly wed. The IMFC report highlights the fact that in most failing marriages, at least one of the partners will be in favour of trying to salvage the marriage. It also points out that around 85 to 90 per cent of divorces are in the category of “low-conflict divorce” and that among these, two out of three “unhappily married adults” who manage to avoid divorce or separation end up describing themselves as “happily married” five years later.

Given these facts, the report argues that taking steps to save marriages should be considered as “at least as viable an option” as proceeding with divorce. This view is supported by the Institute for American Values, which argues that “unhappy marriages are less common than unhappy spouses”. This is because its own research indicates that three out of four “unhappily married adults” are married to someone who is happy with the marriage. The IMFC concludes: “If divorce is pushed by one unhappy spouse, whose partner is happy - which, in a low conflict marriage means they have just as great a chance of being happily married five years later – then unilateral divorce simply makes it easy for the one unhappy partner to leave without explanation or negotiation.”

The Mercatornet piece goes on to discuss some strategies for cutting down on the number of no-fault divorces; I think, though, that it might not be a bad idea to take a new look at the idea of covenant marriage laws, which permit people to decide up front whether or not to enter a marriage in which divorce will be an easy out. Ultimately, however, I would be in favor of ending no-fault divorce completely, both because of my religious beliefs about what marriage ought to be and because as a woman I can't fail to recognize that no-fault divorce has been an unmitigated disaster for women and children. Temporary unhappiness as a reason to end what was supposed to be a lifelong commitment of love and fidelity makes no sense; and yet for that reason many marriages end, many homes break apart, and many children are irrevocably hurt in a way that will have repercussions for them throughout their lives. It's time to end the insanity of the no-fault divorce laws; if we're serious about wanting to preserve the sanctity of marriage, that's the place where we need to start.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Postless Lenten Fridays

Jesus, my Lord, my God, my all!
How can I love Thee as I ought?
And how revere this wondrous gift,
So far surpassing hope or thought?

Sweet Sacrament, we Thee adore!
Oh, make us love Thee more and more.
Oh, make us love Thee more and more.

(The rest of the hymn is here.)

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Go ahead

Discussion about the Father Guarnizo situation continues.

Here is Ed Peters' latest.

Here it is again, on Deacon Greg Kandra's site, which I include because Dr. Peters does not allow comments.

Here is commentary from Mark Shea.

The Curt Jester weighs in here.

My final (I hope) thoughts on this matter are as follows: gay and lesbian activists, pro-abortion politicians, those baptized Catholics who now hate the Church and everything she stands for, unmarried couples shacking up whose status isn't already publicly known to the whole parish, divorced and remarried Catholics with invalid marriages outside the Church who are not known to the priest, and anyone else who feels entitled to the Eucharist: go ahead. Line up for Communion secure in the knowledge that no priest will ever dare to withhold the Blessed Sacrament from you again.

Never mind any notion that priests in charity ought not to help people to eat and drink condemnation upon themselves; that notion, a pious thought, is not covered by Canon 915. So unless you are clearly, indisputably, indubitably obstinately persisting in manifest grave sin, go ahead.

And even if you are obstinately persisting in manifest grave sin, go ahead. By the time the Church's authorities and legal minds finish arguing about what "obstinate," "persisting," "manifest," "grave," and "sin" mean, you'll be long deceased, as will we all.

Go ahead. Advance your agendas, commit your sacrileges, and don't be afraid that anyone will dare to embarrass you or hurt your feelings. It won't happen. Not anymore.

So go ahead.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Fr. Guarizno's statement

The situation involving Fr. Guarnizo continues to unfold. Here is a part of Father Guarnizo's recent statement about the matter, as reported by Catholic News Service (hat tip: Matthew Archbold):

A few minutes before the Mass began, Ms. Johnson came into the sacristy with another woman whom she announced as her “lover." Her revelation was completely unsolicited. As I attempted to follow Ms. Johnson, her lover stood in our narrow sacristy physically blocking my pathway to the door. I politely asked her to move and she refused.

I understand and agree it is the policy of the archdiocese to assume good faith when a Catholic presents himself for communion; like most priests I am not at all eager to withhold communion. But the ideal cannot always be achieved in life.

In the past ten days, many Catholics have referenced Canon 915 in regard to this specific circumstance. There are other reasons for denying communion which neither meet the threshold of Canon 915 or have any explicit connection to the discipline stated in that canon.

If a Quaker, a Lutheran or a Buddhist, desiring communion had introduced himself as such, before Mass, a priest would be obligated to withhold communion. If someone had shown up in my sacristy drunk, or high on drugs, no communion would have been possible either. If a Catholic, divorced and remarried (without an annulment) would make that known in my sacristy, they too according to Catholic doctrine, would be impeded from receiving communion. This has nothing to do with Canon 915. Ms. Johnson’s circumstances are precisely one of those relations which impede her access to communion according to Catholic teaching. Ms. Johnson was a guest in our parish, not the arbitrer of how sacraments are dispensed in the Catholic Church.

During the two eulogies (nearly 25 minutes long), I quietly slipped for some minutes into the sacristy lavatory to recover from the migraine that was coming on. I never walked out on Mrs. Loetta Johnson’s funeral and the liturgy was carried out with the same reverence and care that I celebrate every Mass. I finished the Mass and accompanied the body of the deceased in formal procession to the hearse, which was headed to the cemetery. I am subject to occasional severe migraines, and because the pain at that point was becoming disabling, I communicated to our funeral director that I was incapacitated and he arranged one of my brother priests to be present at the cemetery to preside over the rite of burial.
Read the rest here.

Interesting, no?

I will say just two things: first, if Father Guarnizo is indeed subject to debilitating migraines then I have complete sympathy for his inability to accompany the family to the grave site (especially just having had two days' worth of that pain). As my fellow migraine sufferers know, stress can be a trigger, so it's even entirely possible that the stress of the situation re: Barbara Johnson's untimely revelation was a contributing factor to the onset of the pain.

Second, Father seems to think that there are reasons other than 915 why a person may not be admitted to Holy Communion. If he is misinformed or badly educated, I'm sure that his superiors will make sure that he understands that he does, indeed, have to act henceforth as if everyone who approaches him for Communion is a baptized Catholic in good standing, regardless of whether he has been informed otherwise (even by the person himself), unless the person in question is obstinately persisting in manifest grave sin.

UPDATE: Ed Peters says yes, Father is misinformed (badly educated?) and so are all of his would-be defenders. I suppose that if a heterosexual male were to introduce a priest right before Mass to his female lover (using that word) the priest would be likewise required to assume that the couple is chaste and platonic, right? And to give them Communion? Because 915 has not been met?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Very small prayer request

Sorry for not blogging today--my Monday migraine has turned into a (so far) two-day battle. Ugh.

Luckily for me, these are rare. Most of my migraines are manageable and respond well to simple remedies, but once every couple of years I'll get one like this. They're usually linked to sinus stuff and considering that we've had some high pollen counts lately I'm sure that's what's going on here.

If you feel so inclined, could you send a little prayer my way? I hope to be functioning again tomorrow, good Lord willing.


Monday, March 12, 2012

Calling all canon lawyers...

This post will be brief today, not the least because I'm battling another stupid Monday migraine.

But in the wake of the news that the priest who withheld Holy Communion from the Buddhist lesbian activist has been placed on administrative leave, and in light of the many discussions swirling around the blogosphere about this, I have a question for any canon lawyers out there who would like to weigh in.

In his blog (and I'm not singling him out, here; he's just posted a lot about this) Dr. Ed Peters writes the following:
There is not, and never has been, the slightest doubt but that a Catholic woman living a lesbian lifestyle should not approach for holy Communion, per Canon 916. One so approaching risks receiving the Eucharist to her own condemnation. 1 Corinthians XI: 27. But, once any Catholic approaches for the public reception of holy Communion, a different norm controls the situation, namely, Canon 915. The only question in this case is, and has always been, whether the centuries-old criteria for withholding holy Communion from a member of the faithful were satisfied at the time this woman approached this minister. Unless all of those criteria were satisfied at that time, then, no matter what moral offense the woman might have committed by approaching for the Sacrament in her state (for which action she would be accountable before God), the minister of holy Communion acted illicitly. Period. End of paragraph.
So my question, which I formulated as I was replying to a commenter under an earlier post, is this:

Let's suppose that a baptized Catholic has left the practice of the faith and become an atheist. He is not a "live and let live" atheist who respects religion, but is instead someone like P.Z. Myers. Let's further suppose that this atheist announces on a public website his intention to get hold of the Blessed Sacrament in order to desecrate It as Myers did (perhaps daring God to smite him, to the amusement of his readers).

Now, let's further suppose that this atheist shows up twenty minutes before Mass, informs the priest who is to be the celebrant that he intends to steal the Blessed Sacrament in order to perform this act of desecration and tells him about the website boast (but doesn't show him the website or "prove" any of this in any way). According to what I've been reading, is it the case that even in this instance the priest has absolutely no power to refuse to give this person Holy Communion when he presents himself in the communion line, or to stop him from leaving the church with the Blessed Sacrament on his way to perform the act of desecration he has boasted that he will do, because the strict and narrow conditions of Canon 915 (that is, that the priest has no proof that this person is obstinately persisting in manifest grave sin) have not been met?

It seems to me that if this is so, and there is no canonical provision that would permit a priest from stopping a planned and announced act of desecration of the Blessed Sacrament unless the conditions of Canon 915 have been satisfied, then there is a serious deficiency in canon law that must be remedied as soon as possible. If, however, there is some provision that would permit a priest from stopping a planned and announced act of desecration, it would seem imperative to identify that provision and to show how the same provision could not be used by the priest to stop a planned and announced act of sacrilege--if it is indeed the case that sacrilege must be permitted but desecration may be stopped.

If there are canon lawyers out there reading this, I would very much appreciate any commentary you can offer so that I can understand this matter better. As it seems right now, there is a huge difference between Catholics and our Orthodox Christian brothers and sisters when it comes to protecting the integrity of the Blessed Sacrament, and frankly, I find that disturbing.

UPDATE 3/14: Honest, serious question: if the gay activist who disrupted the Mass in the UK to protest against the reading of the bishop's letter against gay marriage had returned to the church in time for Holy Communion and had gotten in line, could he have been barred from receiving under Canon 915 or not?

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Here there be meh

I'm having a "meh" sort of day. The sky is gray and cloudy and has been spitting chilly rain; the temperatures have fallen as if they think that March in Texas is still winter; I've been struggling with a stupid formatting issue that's delaying the first step in getting my book ready to self-publish (an evil word processing program is responsible, but I won't say which, because frankly a billionaire whose hobbies apparently include encouraging third-world people to stop reproducing isn't somebody I want to tick off), and I'd really like to curl up with a good book/movie/TV show/whatever and a big bowl of ice cream, except it's Lent, which means that the book etc. might be possible but the ice cream certainly isn't.

Which put me in the perfect mindset to read these two things: first, this excellent piece by Emily Stimpson on the failure of certain types of "Catholic" or "Christian" art:

For many Catholics — notably those responsible for backing the film financially and promoting it in Catholic circles — the failure of “There Be Dragons” was particularly disappointing.

Their intentions, after all, had been noble: to make a first-rate film about Opus Dei founder St. Josemaría Escrivá. They’d also gone out of their way to hire a respected director, Roland Joffé, and a professional cast and crew. Once the film was made, they promoted it widely among Catholics, screening pre-release versions at Catholic conferences throughout 2010, and calling in the Catholic public relations firm, The Maximus Group, to pack theaters on opening night.

But it wasn’t enough. Not for Hollywood, which barely noticed the film’s release. And not for Catholics: Few saw it and fewer liked it.

The reason it wasn’t enough? Because the film didn’t tell a good story. As reviewers described it, the production value was high but the script was convoluted and the directing heavy-handed. It didn’t matter how true or Catholic the content was. The way the content was conveyed was less than compelling, so the content was as well. [...]

The list of reasons why Catholic media rarely measures up goes on. There’s the reticence on the part of responsible Christians to make the risky investments that art requires. There’s the shortage of first rate film and communications programs at Catholic universities, the decades of Catholic internecine squabbling which has kept much of the Church’s energies directed inward rather than outward, the distrust of Hollywood and tools of social media, as well as what Vogt and Gan characterize as “false humility” on the part of Catholics.

“It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the Christian message is powerful and compelling enough to stand on its own, that we don’t have to worry about how we present it,” Vogt said.

“The beauty and power of what we have to say can blind us to the importance of the medium,” seconded Gan.

While I was still nodding vigorously (heck, while I was still shouting "Amen!") at that one, I found this piece by Simcha Fisher discussing Stimpson's essay. Simcha talks about the movie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and the character Dobbs, and says:

That’s the kind of guy he is: he keeps coming back and coming back. He can’t let go. Contrast this foreshadowing of his fatal flaw with the final scene, in which Dobbs and Curtain laugh hysterically as tens of thousands of dollars worth of gold dust go swirling away on the wind, back to the mountain.

This, my friends, is what we call “detachment”—a fine Christian virtue, and one worth instilling. Can’t teach it any better than that—but of course teaching isn’t what John Huston set out to do. He set out to tell a story.

Can you imagine if a typical earnestly gooey Christian producer wanted to send a message about greed and corruption and detachment? I suppose there have been plenty of these types of movies, probably mostly around Christmas time: “. . And now I’ve learned that what I really wanted most of all was right here, all along.

This is sort of what Curtin learns, except that director John Huston made sure someone had to get shot before those peach groves and their faithful mistress became available for Curtin to pursue. Because when someone gets shot, it makes a better story; and when you tell a better story, people listen to what you have to say.

Well, Amen! again.

And that brings me to the point, if I have one on such a "meh" sort of day: if you want to write fiction that is decidedly not "meh," one of the things you have to do is let your characters be as fully developed as possible and then let them drive the story.

An interesting movie-biography of a saint would be one in which the saint's humanity shone forth in all its messiness, all its doubt, all its indecision and pain and anger and even sin. A dull biography (movie, book, or otherwise) of a saint makes it sound as though the saint was truly made of shiny plaster, always good, always serene and confident, never conflicted or troubled--because the writer or creator wants us to think that this is what it is like to be holy. But that sort of person isn't human; he or she is a mere cardboard cutout.

Even the Blessed Virgin Mary questioned the angel and asked her Son to do something about the deplorable lack of wine at the wedding. Even our Lord wept over Lazarus and asked, in prayer at Gethsemane, that the cup pass Him by, because the Spirit was willing but the flesh was weak. If they, the only two fully sinless ones ever to walk this earth, were not one-dimensional sappy caricatures of holiness, how can we justify making any human person so?

As someone who dabbles in children's fiction, I will grant that there are times when the medium itself may limit some artistic choices. In my most recent manuscript, one of the adult characters is a bit of a ne'er-do-well--but I have to keep in mind that my target audience is made up of children (a lot of them, I hope, homeschooled!) who are between the ages of 8 and 13, which means that even if I secretly suspect that this character may have, in his misspent youth, indulged in most of the vices opposed to the Ten Commandments, I can't get too specific about those things in the book itself. The veil of innocence which children have ought, I think, to remain mostly undisturbed until they are ready to move forward into the adult world--and at that point, they'll be ready for books more suited to their maturity than my stories for children (and they may realize themselves that some of my characters may have had a bit of a past that never got discussed). But there is, or I hope there is, a difference between not discussing this character's hidden weaknesses (except for any that become relevant to the story) and pretending that the character doesn't have any--or pretending that his eventual decision to reform means he's automatically, from that point on, a good and trustworthy character in all respects, when it will take time for him to learn to be either.

Whether I actually manage to do a good job of this character's slow reformation or not will remain to be seen, and depends on whether I actually possess the skill to do any of this (which also remains to be seen). But I think there's a contrast between realizing as you start creating a character to enter a story that this character has some significant issues that must be dealt with, and creating a character on purpose to have issues and then dealing with those in some sort of Christian-triumphalist way that is supposed (or so you hope) to show everyone The Way. The first sort of book, even if done badly, may have some redeeming value; the second sort will cause people to toss the book aside and say to themselves, "Here there be...meh."

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Spiritual nags

Gentlemen readers may skip this post if they wish; I'm talking to my fellow Catholic and Christian women about a spiritual problem some women sometimes have.

Not long ago during a conversation Thad and I were having, he paid me an unusual compliment. What it amounted to was this: he was expressing his appreciation that I tend to avoid being a spiritual nag (which was my term, not his, but it's pretty much what he was expressing). At least, I've learned to avoid it...

What is a spiritual nag, and why is it good not to be one?

In order to talk about what a spiritual nag is, we first have to talk about what one is not. And to talk about that, we have to talk about the family as the domestic church, and the husband and father as the ordinary spiritual head of that domestic church. Ordinarily in a Christian family, the husband is the primary leader of the family's spiritual health and well being within the home (just as the pastor or minister is the leader within the church community). This does not mean that the husband and father lords it over his family or directs all of their activities in the spiritual realm with no input, but it does mean that ultimately he has the decision-making abilities.

It's important to note that a wife and mother is not being a spiritual nag if she has by necessity adopted the role of spiritual leader of the domestic church--that is, if she must perform this role because her husband refuses to do so or can't be the spiritual head of the family. This might happen if the husband is not a Christian or no longer practices the faith, or if he simply neglects not only his own prayer life and spiritual development but that of his family as well. In such cases the wife and mother must step in and lead her children in prayer, instruct them in the faith, take them to church, and otherwise direct their spiritual lives.

A wife and mother is also not being a spiritual nag if her husband needs her for some good reason to take charge in this area of family life. Perhaps her religious education is significantly better than his while he is still learning, or perhaps he is temporarily away from the family due to military service or some other important cause; there could be many situations in which a wife must act as the family's spiritual head by her husband's express wish.

Being a spiritual nag is a different sort of thing altogether, and though I may not express it all that well, I think it's worth a shot. A spiritual nag is a woman who insists on treating her husband like a spiritual infant, even if he's quite mature in the faith. She sets the family's prayer schedule, considers it her job to arrange for Mass or worship services as well as any additional church activities, and regularly signs her family up for parish or community service opportunities without even asking her husband whether or not he wants to participate in those opportunities. She is completely in charge of the family's Confession schedule. She decides which devotions the family will adopt and when they will say the prayers relating to those devotions. She unilaterally plans everything from the family's Lenten sacrifices, prayers, and spiritual readings to the family's Advent activities. She often seems to have a "Let's do it all!" mindset which crowds in as many devotional habits, prayers, and practices as possible; she has been known to call her husband at work to remind him to say the Divine Mercy chaplet at 3 p.m. or to let him know that the new course of spiritual DVDs she has ordered from her favorite religious bookstore have arrived and will be started that evening as soon as he's home from work.

And if her husband, or, indeed, any member of the family objects to the frenetic schedule of home-based devotions or parish-centered activities, she is quite likely to be either offended or sad, and to remind the objector that she only wishes to get them all to Heaven...

Now, there is nothing wrong with a wife approaching her husband with Lenten plans or Advent ideas or even a suggestion about the family's general prayer life. The difference with a spiritual nag approach is that the spiritual nag isn't presenting ideas or suggestions; she has already decided that the family will do X, whatever X is, and that they will add it to A through W which they are already doing (and she's considering Y for later...). She is not, in other words, even in her heart, willing to let her husband be the spiritual head of the family; even if he kindly and thoughtfully expresses the notion that getting involved in a new weekly hour-long committment at church may be more than the family can handle at the moment (considering the baby, the toddler, the other children, and the six other hour-long weekly parish activities the family is already signed up for), she is not going to listen, because doing all these things, to her, means taking the faith seriously and trying to be holy. Theoretically she may tell herself that her husband is in charge, but in actual fact, she is afraid that letting him use his "veto" power will mean that the family's total spiritual life will dwindle down to Mass on Sunday and a "Hail Mary" prayed before the children go to bed--and that's nowhere near enough to prove that one is really trying to be holy!

I may have expressed this with a bit of gentle humor (at least, I hope that gentle humor rather than harsh sarcasm is the tone here; tone is just so hard to convey). But the point I'd like to make is that unless our husbands truly are incapable of being the spiritual heads of our families, we're supposed to let them be. Does it mean we never suggest a prayer habit, devotional practice, or church activity? Of course not. Does it mean we listen, though, to their honest thoughts about these things, remembering that each individual person's prayer life is different, and that the challenge as a family is to foster both opportunities for family prayer and spiritual habits and private, individual ones? Does it mean that we respect our husbands' wishes when it comes to family prayer time? I think we should--if we don't want to be spiritual nags. :)

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Friendly silence

Elizabeth Scalia has written an interesting and thought-provoking post about our need for more silence at Mass:
I think what my brother and I are missing is the sense of reverent anticipation that used to precede Sunday mass when, in the spare minutes before the processional, people used to kneel and collect themselves; they gathered their thoughts, remembered an intention, let go of what was frivolous and finally sighed a big, cleansing, quieting breath in preparation for the great prayer of the mass. If people spoke at all, they whispered; they were reverently aware of Christ present in the tabernacle and considerate of their neighbors at prayer.

Perhaps it is different where you worship, but in my parish—and I would count mine as one of the “quieter” and “more reverent” in our area—that sort of preparation is nearly impossible. The choir and musicians are noisily setting up, talking and laughing. The people in the pews—of all ages—are “being community” with such a boisterous disregard for time or place that a priest recently halted his robing to stride out from the sacristy and call, “excuse me! This is not a movie theater; it’s not Grand Central Station. Have a little consideration, please. There might actually be a couple of people here who are, you know . . . praying.”

Before beginning his homily, Father apologized for the intemperate tone, but his point was valid. We used to have a sense of “sacred spaces,” wherein one behaved differently than everywhere else. The lobby or narthex of a church was for chatting; once you entered the nave, you quieted down. You spritzed yourself with holy water, bowed to the altar and then shut the pie-hole to get ready for mass. The closer you sat to the sanctuary (and the tabernacle) the less you tried to speak at all, but if you did, it was in a hushed voice.

Is our lack of decorum connected to the words we use? It is true that we are more reverent before an altar, where something is sacrificed, than we are before a “table” where dinner is served, if we’re lucky enough to still eat as a family. We are inclined to whisper in a church, but not in a “gathering space,” but I don’t think this is a mere question of words and naming. I suspect our rambunctious behavior at church is of a piece with the coarsening, and self-centeredness of our society as a whole. There are no places, anymore, and no occasions, where we are invited—and expected—to behave differently than we do the rest of the time, and we’ve brought our “casual Friday” attitude into church, too.
She goes on to make an interesting comparison to the silence she witnessed at a friend's yoga class; read the whole post here.

Sadly, some of the commenters at Elizabeth's piece have brushed past her thoughtful remarks to engage in the old battle about noisy children at Mass. We've had that one here plenty of times, so I'd like to focus on what Elizabeth is actually talking about. :)

I've been at Mass in many different churches over the course of my life, and I think that my favorite ones are the ones that seem to have an atmosphere of what, for lack of a better word, I will call "friendly silence." What do I mean by that?

When you enter the church, there may be a bit of noise in the vestibule, but it's not chaotic or extreme (at least, as coming from the adults). Once you enter the main church, though, things are more hushed--but there isn't a total dead silence, either. People don't feel the need to tiptoe to avoid having their shoes make any sound; the creaking of a kneeler or even of an aging pew doesn't sound like a gunshot; there are small rustlings of people settling, pages in a missal turning, purses being set down, and other ordinary sounds.

As the church fills, these ambient noises may grow a bit louder, but there's no loud talking or laughing going on; occasionally when someone enters, a swirl of louder noise from those still in the vestibule may wash over the interior, but it's not prolonged. A baby's happy babbling or a child's inexpert attempts to whisper may be heard, but produce smiles, not grim or angry frowns, on the faces of nearby adults. Someone may begin to lead a rosary out loud, and there may be a few more rustles as rosaries are pulled from pockets and purses; after the rosary finishes, the organist may begin to play some music, or the choir may sing briefly for the last few minutes before Mass begins.

It's pretty obvious that this friendly silence is different from the "gathering space" banter, loud conversations, and chaos that pervades many churches prior to Sunday Mass. But it's also different from the kind of unfriendly silence I've occasionally encountered, and which I find just as off-putting, in its own way, as the gathering space gab-fest.

How is the unfriendly silence different? I think it's different in that it's not quite human. In a church where unfriendly silence is the rule, people find themselves tiptoeing into Mass so that the sound of one's Sunday shoes hitting the floor will not cause a wave of dirty looks from the already-gathered worshipers; the unfortunate squeak made by a kneeler or an elderly pew will cause heads to snap in the offender's direction and glares of ire to be sent forth by those so rudely pulled away from their contemplation of Heaven; and Heaven help you if your purse rustles or, the good Lord forbid, clanks when you set it on the floor! There is no permissible rustling at all; if the pages in one's missal stick together one had better just give up, rather than create the slightest noise trying to correct the problem, and if the rosary is led you'd better already have your rosary in hand when you enter the church, or else just use your fingers to count the prayers. A baby with the hiccups will be driven, along with his tearful mother, out of the church building by the angry stares flung their way; there will be no music until the Processional (and possibly not even then, because everyone knows that hymns and singing were an evil invention of Modernists); and if that tragedy of all tragedies, the kneeler slipping from one's hand to bump audibly on the floor when one attempts to set it down at the Canon, happens to one, one might wish to get a list of the parishioners from the parish secretary after Mass so one can write a personal letter of apology to every person in the parish, whether they happened to be at that particular Mass or not.

Like I said above, I prefer the "friendly silence" atmosphere, where people aren't shunned for, say, an errant cough or a dreaded cell-phone mistake (but where no one would dream of purposefully coughing to the point of distraction or actually answering a cell phone either). There are church atmospheres that are too casual, too chatty, too distracting, too centered on the congregation and on making them all feel special every single second of the Mass--but there are also church atmospheres that make the thought of Purgatory seem warm and inviting by comparison. The trick is to avoid either extreme.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Harsh realities

As if having a couple of morally-challenged people sling very public mud at each other these last few days hasn't been enough, now a state senator in Wisconsin wants a bill to say that single parenting is a contributing factor in child abuse:
A Wisconsin lawmaker has proposed legislation that would require the state to officially declare single parenting as child abuse.Republican Senator Glenn Grothman presented Senate Bill 507 which would require the Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Board to emphasize that non-marital parenthood is a contributing factor to child abuse and neglect.The bill would also require educational and public awareness campaigns to emphasize that not being married is abusive and neglectful of children, and to underscore "the role of fathers in the primary prevention of child abuse and neglect."
Rick Ungar, blogging at Forbes, has this to say:

Apparently, no longer content with suggesting that single parents (most of whom were not always single) are only out to bilk the government when deciding to have children, Grothman has decided that these same evil doers are more responsible for child abuse and child neglect than, say, alcoholics, people with mental health issues, married couples who engage in domestic violence, unemployment and the other causes cited as material contributors to child abuse.

I say that Grothman believes single-parenthood to be more responsible because I don’t see him proposing that these other causes be specifically included in his legislation.

To be fair, data reveals that there are more incidents of child abuse in households with only one parent than in households with two parents. But the data does not indicate that this factor is somehow more responsible for child abuse than the other factors listed above so, again, why single this factor out to include in the state’s statutes and not the others? [Emphasis added--E.M.]

You see, even if it's true that single parenthood is a contributing factor to bad outcomes for children, including a greater risk for child abuse (and child sexual abuse, something I've pointed out here before), it's not quite-quite to say so, especially in a government document.

More and more I'm becoming convinced that we really do have a national religion of Sex Without Consequences. That's the only reason I can think of to keep quiet about the fact that in general children do better when they are being raised by a mom and a dad who are in a stable marriage to each other--because it conflicts with the national religion's core belief, which is that people have the right to have sex with any consenting partner, regardless of the consequences.

Sure, there are single parents who are in the situation through no fault of their own: the death of a spouse, a divorce that only one partner wanted, even spousal abandonment. But as the number of never-married parents and children born out of wedlock continues to rise, we may get to the point where we have to face the fact that children in these situations do not do as well as their counterparts in stable families with a mother and a father who are married to each other; or, in the name of political correctness, we can continue to ignore the unpleasant and harsh realities, and blame everything but the cultural breakdown and the decline of marriage for the negative results that impact children.

And part of ignoring the harsh reality is continuing to label as "harsh" the people who point out the reality, something the culture warriors on the left are getting increasingly good at doing.