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Wonderland, Neverland or Oz?

It was with great trepidation that I first entered the blogging world some 4 years ago. I know what a risk it is to publish your work, to put your thoughts naked before the crowd on the blogosphere. The readers are usually either in a very distracted or very critical frame of mind. Knowing this, I wrote with fear and trembling on a subject about which I had the greatest confidence: the nature of fantasy. Namely, I compared the fantasy worlds of Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia and Twilight.

Having grown in greater confidence, I now wish to try a similar experiment. I am in the middle of reading Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass, and it has lead to me wonder about Wonderland, Neverland, Oz and the like. To be honest, I have always enjoyed Peter Pan the most of all. Maybe it is because Oz and Wonderland are lacking a boyish hero. And pirates. And flying ships. And Indians. I do know that, as a child, I was never truly frightened of Captain Hook. I was, however, put out by both the Wicked Witch of the West and the Queen of Hearts. Perhaps there could be some Freudian explanation for the thing: that I had a strange aversion/attraction to loud and intimidating women while I felt psychologically neutral toward handicap males. Maybe its just that queens and witches are often disagreeable, whereas pirates always are, which is what makes them more reliable. As Capt. Jack Sparrow so eloquently put it; “Me! I’m dishonest, and you can always count on a dishonest man to be dishonest.” An evil male character is consistently ruthless. An evil female is fickle. You can form a consistent strategy against the male, whereas with the Wicked Witch and the Red Queen, you have to constantly be thinking on your feet.

Back to the experiment: I am curious about which of these fantasy world’s appealed to you most. Before taking your vote, however, I wish to remind my audience of the control, the dependant and the independent variables. First off, these three stories share these similarities: they were written by Victorian-era English-speaking intellectuals of the highest capabilities in order to entertain children born into that most progressive, stuffy and dingy era. In other words, their common trait is that all three tales seem encourage a young listener to rebel and escape against an overly constricting environment using a mixture of classical wisdom and modern imagination. The differences, as far as I can tell, are as follows:

1) In Wonderland, a child’s common sense and imagination prevail over nonsense and authoritarianism.

2) In Neverland, a child’s faithfulness and sense of adventure defeat lawless discipline (symbolized by the oxymoronic Pirate Captain).

3) In Oz, a child’s maturity into the classical virtues of Temperance (Tin Man) Wisdom (Scarecrow) and Courage (Lion) overcomes the tyranny of both the Witch and the Wizard.

So which story do you relate to most? Feel free to post your answer. If you don’t, however, do not fret. The purpose of this experiment, much like the purpose of the three books above, is to awaken your imagination. Getting you to respond isn’t nearly as important as getting you to ponder.

In Defense of Womanizers

For Sarah, who heard this first many years ago…
There is a conversation that I have too often to leave it hanging alone in the air without putting it down on paper. Or computer screen. Or webpage. Or whatever. It involves the question of womanizers & their honesty. It is a subject that women have often asked me about because they assume that 1) I am not a womanizer 2) as a theologian, I should be somewhat an expert on morality. Now, in actuality, I do not speak in either capacity. It is true that I am not a womanizer and that I am also a theologian. But my chastity and intelligence have nothing to do with the answer that follows. The fact of the matter is that the women in question have always accused womanizers of the same charge: of insincerity. Now, from all the womanizing characters I’ve read about in literature and among all the womanizing characters that I know in real life, I can honestly say that they are honest. That is to say, womanizers tend to be the most sincere of men. When a womanizer tells Kelly that she is the most beautiful girl in the world on Monday, he means it most honestly. On Tuesday, when he proclaims that Courtney is the love of his life, he couldn’t be more sincere in that moment. And when on Wednesday he texts Michelle to tell her she is too gorgeous for words, he means exactly what he says. Womanizers are, in a certain sense, the most sincere of men. They possess the virtue of sincerity in its pure state, free from the complications of fidelity, courage, wisdom or patience.
One of the best examples of what I mean can be seen the characters of Tolstoy, especially Vronsky in Anna Karenina and Prince Anatol in War and Peace. Though very different men in career and personality, both find themselves in entirely sincere illicit relationships. Anatol, the far more incorrigible of the two, even has a whole monologue in which he justifies his ill-intentioned elopement with Natasha out of the sincere sport of the thing. He reasons that his aesthetic passions are honest enough. He truly likes Natasha as a flirtatious toy. He can’t help thinking about how much she truly arouses him sexually and emotionally. It is precisely because she has this effect on him that he feels justified planning to elope with her one day and then abandon her at the next convenient opportunity. After all, such a simple and delicate beauty demands to be ravishingly enjoyed…and then discarded. And while Vronsky isn’t nearly as pre-meditated in his estrangement from Anna, he knows full well, going into his affair with her, that their union is a tentative one at best. Still, he feels that he can do this in all sincerity because Anna is so very enticing.
Now, I use these two literary examples to prove a point. These men were not written as the shallow mustache twirling villains used to fill soap operas. They are complex characters created by the master of the romantic epic. Tolstoy made these men as true-to-life as possible. Women be forewarned: how Anatol and Vronsky think is how womanizers actually think. Tolstoy’s psychology is impeccable. A man who wishes to take advantage of a woman truly believes in her beauty. He cares little for her feelings. He thinks little for her honor or for the promises she has made to herself and others. But he knows that she is beautiful and he is fully confident in his ability to sincerely express these feelings of attraction.
His fault lies not in a lack of honesty or sincerity. It lies in a lack of courage and commitment. It is easy for a guy to buy a beautiful girl dinner, a drink or a flower on a single evening. The real test comes when he must decide whether or not to be there for every dinner, to buy her every drink, and to buy her a whole garden full of flowers by way of the house they will share. In short, only an act of commitment, true and faithful commitment, can reveal a man’s value. He might profess to recognize a woman’s value right away. He is probably telling the truth. But when it comes time to put his money where his mouth is, to commit in the flesh to what his words have professed, that is when you discover if he is the man to reveal your beauty to you day after day for the rest of your life.

Why Ray Bradbury Was Right – The Loss of the Culture of the Book

We have another guest post from friends and fellow blogger, Luke Arredondo, from Quiet, Dignity, and Grace. He reflects on a classic of the Twentieth Century, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. I must speak honestly; I’ve never read the book. However, after this post, it has become a necessary read (after the Hunger Games trilogy, of course).

Re-Visiting a Classic

Ray Bradbury passed away last week at the age 91. I decided to re-read his classic work, Fahrenheit 451 when I heard the news and read his obituary. I tried to rationalize that I didn’t have the time, as there are far too many other books I haven’t even read once. Why read this one twice? Well, after a few days I picked the book off the shelf and started over again. I’m very glad I did. It has proved extremely rewarding and proved to me that one never reads the same book twice, because you will be a different person the second time you read it.

The edition of Fahrenheit 451 that I have features a post-script and an interview with Bradbury done in the past ten years, commenting on some general features of his writing, with some particular questions about Fahrenheit 451. He wrote the rough draft of the book in a library, renting typewriters for a dime per half hour. He spent nine days furiously typing and the total cost of renting the typewriters was $9.80. One of his comments is that he wrote his books in huge bursts of passion, reacting to whatever was important in his life at the time. Obviously as a writer, he had a love of books, and he saw TV as possibly posing a threat to books, or at least some major competition in the future. It’s scary just how close his vision has matched up with reality in the 60 years since his writing the rough draft.

Prophetic Themes in Fahrenheit 451

A. The Existence of a Media-Driven Culture

In Fahrenheit, the popular culture and the “average” household revolves around non-stop entertainment. Homes are centered on their super-advanced televisions, which are no longer single screens. Those who can afford them have three or four screen models, ideally covering each wall in an entire room. But they’re pricey, at $2,000 apiece. Furthermore, the broadcast programs have been cut down significantly in time. An entire series can be viewed in an exhilarating ten minutes.

The main character, Guy Montag, has provided well for his wife, and she has a three wall set-up. She paid extra so that the announcers and actors address her by name. The extra money paid for a device that even makes the announcer’s lips mouth her name. She is completely sucked into this world of entertainment, and is begging her husband to add a fourth screen as soon as possible. Even though the cost of the screen is a huge portion of Guy’s salary, she insists on how important this purchase would be.

When she finally goes to their bedroom, where they have their own beds, Guy’s wife pops in her microscopic ear piece and lets the news and radio drift her of into a sleep that is often drug-induced. Even when her husband is not feeling good, she refuses to turn off the screens, or even turn the volume down. She refers to the announcers as her “relatives.” When she socializes with friends, the entire focus is on programs being broadcast on air or which will soon be broadcast.

B. Books: Banished from Society, by Society

Guy Montag is a fireman. But in the future envisioned by Bradbury, firemen don’t put fires out; they start them. Guy works at the fire house only in the evenings, and inevitably this is the only time they ever receive any alerts. Alerts are placed when anyone suspects that their friend or neighbor has been harboring books. The firemen wheel up to the house, douse the books in kerosine, and set them on fire. The fires always draw a crowd; it’s a good show. Furthermore, the burning of books didn’t happen by a government mandate. People in the culture started destroying them on their own, and this only later was codified into law.

C. The Disappearance of Leisure and Reflection

Throughout the course of the book, Guy meets a young girl who begins to talk to him about things nobody else has talked about for years. The weather, nature, how fast the world is. She mentions that billboards on the highway used to be only a few feet long, but since people drive so fast, they had to make billboards 200 feet long, otherwise nobody would be able to read them. She notes that most people think that grass looks like a green blur which they see outside of their window. Everything in the popular culture is driven by fast-paced sensual satisfaction.

This girl, Clarisse, says her family sits around and talks. They used to talk on porches but houses no longer have porches, so they sit inside and talk. She leads Guy to begin thinking about things differently. He gets curious about why fires are started and not put out any more. Eventually the temptation gets to him, and he wants to find out what all the fuss is about these books. Perhaps even more curiously, he wants to know why he never talks to anybody. He never thinks about anything. He just reacts, and as far as he can tell, everyone around him has given up thinking. They just do whatever their televisions say. Entertainment abounds, but nobody really relaxes anymore. Nobody really has fun, there is no actual happiness, despite all the methods of entertainment that seem to fill everyone’s day.

D. A Way Out

In due time, Guy is of course caught and an alarm set out against him. I won’t spoil the entire book, but this is the essence of the book: Guy finds someone who still remembers the olden times of literary discussion, argument, and in general, the liberal arts tradition. They represent a minority, and even still speak of things like the Bible. But they maintain the connection to the past by never forgetting the great books of the world. They won’t win the world over by sheer numbers, but they are confident that, eventually, people will want to know what they’ve been trying so hard to forget. And when the time is right, they’ll be ready with the answers. The answers will be Shakespeare, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Voltaire, Plato, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, Kant, Schweitzer, Milton, Poe, etc.

What Bradbury Got Right

Bradbury saw a future where people would no longer think for themselves. They were bombarded with images and sounds, colors, music, words. From their morning rise to their last moments of consciousness each night, they are “plugged in.”

He hit on such a prophetic streak with this book! Look around at our world today. TVs may only be single screens, but the other screens are already in the room: cell phone screens, computer screens, tablets, and who knows what else coming down the pipe. Just like the futuristic world Bradbury envisioned, books seem to be vanishing from society. Even more quickly disappearing is real discussion about ideas. People spend abnormal amounts of time discussing the latest gossip, sports, and other forms of diversion and entertainment. But how often do we have discussions (or even real arguments!) about things that matter. Things like justice, faith, peace, freedom, joy, beauty, God, goodness, art, etc.

Surely in this scary vision of the future, Bradbury was right. We’re looking more and more like that frightening world every day. And there don’t seem to be a lot of signs that we’re slowing down or changing directions any time soon.

However, just as he saw the problem correctly, I believe he sees the solution correctly. The way out is for those who have the time, for those who have the energy, to do something. We need to tell people about books. We need to show how important ideas are. We need to bring up books in discussions with people, and remind them about their existence. A great way to do this is to just start reading!

One of Fahrenheit’s characters comments that what’s so great about books, as opposed to tv, is that if you disagree with a book’s main point, you can put it down. You can argue with it. You can write a book to counter it. TV shows and movies don’t really give us the same chance. They keep on rolling along, producing more episodes, more shows, more movies, more of the same. And reasoning or arguing with it? Doesn’t work very well. It’s almost impossible to convince, for example, the average teenage girl that a show like Pretty Little Liars is dangerous to her. But with books, you get that chance.

Personally, I’ve long desired to embark upon a reading of the Great Books of the Western World. Considering some of the work I do now and some preparation I’m currently working on for an adult catechesis program aimed at helping parents conquer the big dragon that is the modern media, and after re-reading this prophetic vision of the world we’re living in now, I am more than ever inspired to pursue that goal. True, I may have a full-time job, a one year-old baby and a new addition expected in January. I am also working on a masters degree in my “spare” time which will soon require me to learn Greek without the benefit of a classroom in which to do so or a teacher to guide me. Even still, I am making a commitment today, to save the money for a new book shelf and a set of the Great Books. I have to do what little I can to stem the tide, and to be there with some of the “answers” for others in the coming generations, first and foremost for my own children.



Top Ten Books Read in 2011, #1

Finally, what everyone has been waiting for, the number 1 book read in 2011 is …

Leisure the Basis of CultureLeisure the Basis of Culture by Josef Pieper

There are books. There are great books that you will always remember. And then, there are books that change the way you view the world. Josef Pieper’s philosophic classic did that for me. You would have been a follower for this blog for over year to remember my postings on this book in late 2010 (there are too many to link). I finished the book in January of 2011, and it set the tone for my whole year.

Pieper’s basic concept is that we misunderstand what leisure is. We think of leisure as vacation, time away from work, time doing things we want to do. Leisure isn’t time. It isn’t a suit. It’s a way of living. It’s a way of looking at the world. Simply put leisure is the reception of truth, good, and beauty. It is philosophic contemplation.
(Deacon Kyle your losing me)
I think I just lost myself. Sorry.
To be in leisure is not be bound by work and dominated by work, enslaved by work. Work is not what defines the human person (although his work is dignified). The human person, first and foremost, is created in the image and likeness of God. He is both body and soul. Leisure is reception of the divine in ordinary circumstances. It’s celebrating at the beauty of a child running in joy at the return of her father from business trip. It’s seeing and contemplating the revelation of the divine in the mundane activities of the day.

Work, if divinized, blinds one from seeing the divine in washing dishes or sitting smoking a pipe in the nice cool air on a fall day. Divinized work has one end, productivity. Productivity without the final end in mind, i.e. celebration in the full presence of the divine in heaven, destroys a proper understanding of the human person. He/she becomes a means to an end, when God says, love as I love, without condition, without the need for response, without ulterior motives, just cuz.

No matter your background. No matter your reading level. No matter how much you read. If you read any book in 2012, it should be this book. End of story. End of list. Can’t wait to find out what good reads I will encounter this year.

Top Ten Books I Read in 2011, #7

Number 7 is …

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, narrated by Elijah Wood

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, narrated by Elijah Wood

One reader, I know at this point your asking yourself, this self-proclaimed bibliophile has not read this American classic? Can he even make that self-proclamation?

No I didn’t read Twain’s classic in high school, Harry Potter was summer reading (indeed a breakdown in the literature program). Yes, that also means I’m young enough to have been in high school when Potter was published, although to little credit the movies didn’t come till my seminary years.

Now that the awkwardness is out the way … I loved the book. I listened to as an audiobook narrated by the hobbit himself,  Elijah Wood. I was impressed with his skills. He did a great job narrating it. The southern accent was much better than his attempt at an English one in the aforementioned film.

As for the book itself, ’twas great. Twain’s use of colloquial allowed for a certain endearment to Huck and Jim.  The story dealt with the difficulties in the south without being self-righteous or offensive.

For anyone who is like me and uncultured in classic American fiction needs to pick this up in one of its forms.