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Loss & Mystery (And Why We Care About MH370)

“There’s a plane missing in the Indian Ocean,” says the guy in front of me in class. He then pulls up a website with all the data, information and stats, a website exclusively devoted to the search for Flight MH370. It was 12 days ago and I had my mind on so many other things. I have watched countless documentaries on the history channel about plane crashes and objects lost mysteriously at sea. I was late for class, overwhelmed with homework and not particularly keen on hearing yet another “unsolved mystery.” I blew off his obvious enthusiasm and moved on with my day.

A week later, I had become intrigued. Apparently, this was no ordinary plane crash story. Vague clues and details were coming in by the hour. The transponder had been deliberately turned off. The plane had taken a radical turn to the west. It had flown well above it’s ceiling, then dropped to only a few thousand feet when flying over land. It had disappeared off of radar with hours of fuel onboard…yet still had not appeared on any other radar. The last satellite “ping” placed it either in the middle of Asia’s most formidable desert or in the southern Indian ocean, far away from Antarctica and Australia alike. Finally, and most perplexingly, not a single one of the over 200 people on board had made any attempt to text or call loved ones while the plane remained in flight. How on earth could all these details fit together given the motives of the human heart? Why change course? Why no ground contact? Why fly a plane into the middle of nowhere?

It was the personal motives that intrigued me. The only thing that all authorities seemed to agree on was that someone who knew what they were doing (the pilot? the co-pilot? a member of the crew or hijacker?) had deliberately turned off the transponder, tuned out of the radio communications and drastically diverted the plane’s course. Why? No one seemed to know, yet no one seemed reluctant to guess. CNN set up 24 hour coverage which was quickly criticized. The governments of the over-25 countries involved held a string of press conferences, sometimes verifying and sometimes contradicting the official facts. Family members cried hysterically for definitive answers in the midst of so much blind speculation. The mystery of MH370 had gone from a strange news piece scrolling at the bottom of the screen to a full-fledged mystery. What pushed it beyond the boundaries of normal news was when it went from being a missing plane to being about missing people.

A missing plane is problematic. Missing people are a mystery.
Mystery involves the seen and unseen. It involves motives, clues and signs that point to things greater than themselves. A plane that crashes in the sea might make the evening news. A plane that vanishes can cause much speculation. But a human being who deliberately steers a plane off its course for unknown motives and reasons is a mystery proper. It is the personal aspect of the problem that allows it to transcend the worries of aviation experts and close family members, touching the hearts of all humans who hear about MH370’s plight. Where mere mechanics are at stake, people can understand the tragedy but not the complexity of the situation. However, when human motives are the essential factor, the story becomes much more complex than a jet engine and far more universal.

Mystery must be personal, or else it is merely problematic. That, at least, is an amateur theologian’s takeaway from the story of MH370.

Deconstructing “Montana” (Or, Miley Cyrus Naked on a Wrecking Ball)

When my students first told me about Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” (which together with her twerking has made her an Enemy of the State with concerned parents everywhere), I dismissed it as a fad. I saw a clip of the video, could tell why adults were upset and teens aroused, and left it at that. After of weeks of trending, however, it seems that Miley’s nude demolition has not itself been demolished. Parents are still distraught. My students are still distracted. Even Hollywood and the recording industry are discussing it (and, surprisingly, often on the side of the distraught).

I finally watched the whole thing this morning. It is disturbing, but I do not think that it’s visuals are primarily to blame. Yes, there is Hannah Montana, stripped of all her Disney accessorizing, twerking in slow-mo on wrecking ball. Having never heard the song, though, I tried to pay as much attention as possible to the lyrics. Believe it or not, I found the message of the music most distressing. The story she sings is one I have heard many times over during my decade-plus in youth ministry: girl meets boy, thinks she can ‘save’ him, throws her self at him like a wrecking ball…and ends up broken herself. Thus, the image of a naked 20something hanging on to half-a-ton of forged steel. There are many who would say that the image is pornagraphic, but within the context of the song it is something far worse: it is suicidal.

So, here and now, I would plead with anyone reading this to stop criticizing Miley for her risque behavior. She is not so much Madonna as she is Lindsey Lohan. It is not self degradation, but self destruction, that lies at the heart of all this. From a cultural standpoint, I can understand why parents are upset at the nudity, but from an artistic standpoint, they should be more concerned about the wrecking ball. After all, when a naked person of any age, sex or background rides a wrecking ball, the concern should not be for their modesty but for their safety. And Miley’s music is much closer to the edge than her video.

With that in mind, I would like to offer a short philosophical perspective on what this is really about. Miley grew up with Hannah Montana. Hannah told Miley (along with all the pre-teens that watched the show) that love is as simple as throwing your attractive-teenage self into life. If you can dream it, you can do it. If you meet some boy who has walls, give it all you got and you’ll watch those walls fall like Jericho. Only, Billy-Ray’s casual Bible references totally missed the mark. It wasn’t the Israelite’s good intentions and sweet-sounding music that felled the walls: it was their faith in God. Without that faith, the walls won’t collapse: we will. Miley hurled herself naked on a wrecking ball of self-confidence, hoping to heal achy-breaky hearts. Instead, she got her own heart broken by a world of teen-gossip, tabloids and tediously-low ratings. Therefore, she sings sincerely about being broken by the wrecking ball. That is precisely what has happened in her own real life.

That is the story we see in the music video. When the critics are right it is always for the wrong reasons: they are right to say that it is hedonism, but its not the sexuality that makes it so. It is the hopeless, whiny tragedy of it that makes it hedonistic. They say that Miley has gone of the deep end, and they are right, but they are wrong when they associate it strictly with the fact that she has taken off her cloths. Miley is merely expressing a disillusionment with candy-coated-middleclass-materialistic sort of love. It is a disillusionment that her fans share: its just that Miley is their sacrificial victim.

(Perhaps that seems too strong an ending, but, upon second glance, I’ve kept it because it expresses my thesis: Miley is to be pitied, not prodded, just as her fan base is to be pitied.)

OMG! St. Paul Endorsed Slavery! (Or, Why Hasty Political Exegesis Shouldn’t Alarm Us)

Recently, many highly public Christians have endorsed gay marriage by citing the concept of the ‘development’ of Christian theology since the time of Scripture’s authorship. Kevin Rudd, an Australian politician, gave the most recent example when asked by a pastor why he didn’t believe the words of Scripture on this topic; “Well mate, if I was going to have that view, the Bible also says that slavery is a natural condition…because St. Paul said in the New Testament, slaves should be obedient to (their) masters. And therefore we should have all fought for the Confederacy in the US Civil War.” (BBC News, Sept 3, 2013). I cannot in so small a place do justice to so wide a topic as the Christian theology on human sexuality. However, since there is some precedence for blogs being used for Bible Study, I can quickly address the strange ignorance of Scriptural theology that the above statement represents.

To do justice to Mr. Rudd’s position (a position he shares with our very own Barack Obama and Chris Christie), the logic seems to follow this path: St. Paul, as a man of his day, presented Christianity in a world where both slavery and homosexuality fell into certain social categories, the former acceptable and the latter unacceptable. In order to present the Gospel in such a way so as to be palatable to the people of his time (and perhaps to be presentable to his own conscience), St. Paul merely presumed upon the necessity of these social mores and neglected to fully challenge their legitimacy in the light of the gospel. Therefore, it has taken millennia for the Christian people to ‘progress’ beyond the original inhibitions of St. Paul and the Apostles in order to fully realize their gospel of love. With the aid of contemporary psychological science and liberal democracy, we are now able to overcome these prejudices of the first Christians.

First off, this bland version of ‘progressive theology’ hardly does justice to the story of Scripture itself. Did St. Paul, as a devout Jew, look approvingly on the social institution of slavery? Most certainly not! The whole story of the Jewish faith is of a God who saves the Children of Israel from the “cruel slavery” of Egypt.(Ex 1:13, 6:5, 20:2; Dt 6:12, 7:8) The Jewish law, whom Paul was an expert in, is composed in light of a mercy toward slaves “for you were once slaves in the land of Egypt.” (See Lv 25:39-42, Dt 5:15; 15:15, 23:16, 24:18-22) And while it is true that the Old Testament fails to challenge slavery as a social institution, it would be incorrect to assume that it thusly taught to embrace slavery as such. St Paul knew that the the Old Testament theology, speaking “in partial and varied ways,” (Hb 1:1) could not in-and-of-itself end all injustices. Remember: it is not until the New Testament that God’s people are ordered to spread the morality of Monotheism beyond the borders of Israel. Until the coming of Christ, the assumption was the Polytheists experience “conflicting thoughts in their hearts” yet failed to repent were to be judged accordingly. (See Rm 14-16) Therefore, if St. Paul did indeed endorse a “theology of slavery,” then, Scripturally speaking, it indicated that a retrogression and NOT a progression had occurred from Old to New Testament!

Yet, St. Paul (and St. Peter, for that matter) happily and repeatedly called himself a “slave of Christ Jesus.” (Rm 1:1, Gal 1:10, Phil 1:7; Titus 1:1) This would be a radical thing for a Jew to say, and not the least because 1st century Pharisees were fond of pointing out that they had “never been enslaved to anyone.”(See John 8:33). Even a cursory glance at St. Paul’s writing reveals his strange affinity for the state of slavery. Beyond begging slaves to be “subject to their masters” (Eph 6:5; the phrase ‘subject to’ is difficult to translate from the Greek. It seems to indicate “a loving acceptance of” or a “filial obedience to”), St. Paul also asks for children and wives to act the same way towards the head of the family (Eph 5:22, 6:1; Col 3:20), for Christians to be “subject to one another out of reverence for Christ”(Eph 5:21) while always remaining respectful of the presbyters, bishops and leaders. (See Rm 13:7; 1 Thess 5:12; 1 Tim 5:19 Heb 13:17[not written by St. Paul, but in his tradition]) In fact, it seems that, according to this reading, St. Paul wanted everybody to be slaves to everybody else!

One could argue, however, that the above examples simply represent St. Paul’s pastoral zeal. Accordingly, he didn’t envision the Church entering into an official state of mutual slavery so much as a Christian love that takes the form of interdependent servitude. Such a pastoral exhortation only reveals that Paul, like Christ, was willing to use profane metaphors to make spiritual points. (See Matt 12:29, Luke 14:31) That line of thought may be true. However, the most glaring exception to that rule would be the short but terribly important letter to Philemon, in which Paul explicitly sends Onesimus, an escaped slave, back to his master. Both Onesimus and Philemon are Christians, and therefore equal in the eyes of the Church. Nonetheless, St. Paul orders Onesimus to return to his master rather than asking for his release. This must be taken as, in the very least, a passive acceptance of the social institution of slavery itself. However, when we look beyond the action itself and read the words of St. Paul, something strange appears. St. Paul begs for mercy from Philemon, seeming to place the blame on himself as a “prisoner of Jesus Christ.” (Phm 1:8-10) Next, he states that his ‘usefulness’ is now characterized by the relationship of love in Christ (v 11) and that Onesimus is Paul’s very heart (v. 12). Finally in verse 17, St. Paul entirely self-identifies with Onesimus, asking Philemon to accept him not as a slave but as a ‘partner’ in Christ. One could call this the first example of a theology of ‘solidarity,’ a very progressive stance indeed!

So is St. Paul’s theology ‘progressive’ or ‘traditional?’ Was it open to further development? And as it regards ‘social ethics,’ does it represent the final word of Christian theology?

Such questions, though popular, hardly seem as important in the light of the questions we could now raise: What is mutual subjection? What is ‘slavery in Christ?’ How am I to live so as to be ‘the heart’ of my fellow Christians? Such speculation represents a very brief look at St. Paul’s theological perspective on slavery. It is by no mean exhaustive, but it should at least be unsettling. I leave you with no direct answers, but only with a warning: it is a terrible mistake to assume that the ancient Christian Saints knew less about love than we do. To try to read Scripture in light of contemporary morals and cultural change is to become guilty of the very thing you accuse the Scriptural author of being: namely, a close-minded child of the current age. In contrast, wouldn’t it be better for a Christian to assent to the truth our teaching on human rights has remained solidly on the side of charity since the time of St. Paul? From that perspective, we take his words and actions as an example. We are called to ‘self-identify’ with all people without ever using political or social powers as a means to override the Gospel.

One final word on St. Paul’s theology. Far from being a personal reflection of a learned Christian, it is an essential part of the Deposit of Faith and, along with the words of Peter, John, James and Jude, represents an inexhaustible treasure of Christian truth. To dismiss or defend it with mere soundbites is to do an injustice to Divine Revelation, and to Jesus Christ himself. If this blog represents the briefest of reflections that can occur in good conscience, we should neither be inspired or upset about the off hand comments of an upset politician. Their ‘theology’ is as nothing compared to the vast Revelation that is offered us in the Gospel of Christ. It would be wise to look to Him before looking anywhere else.

Sensuum Defectui (Or, the Diet Coke Adventure)

“The most incredible thing about miracles is that they happen.”-GKC

Twice today I had experiences of the surreal nature of reality that can only be called miraculous. Every once in a while, the true colors of our Divinely created universe shift into focus and blind us with their intensity. Science, when taken as merely a form of study, often numbs us to these colors, yet reason itself confirms that numbness is a sign of a distortion from reality. A numbed mind, like a numb finger or blurry eye-sight, may indeed come in contact with reality, but because it fails to connect with reality in its full spectrum, rendering our experience false before it can even try to be true. And perhaps no one knows this truth better than the person who’s numbness is taken away from them to be replaced by a sudden and vivid sensitivity. Such was my experience today.

It is dreadfully hot in New Orleans. Cruising from one side of the river to the other, my mind began to fall into that perilous lethargy that Southerners associate with the month of August. I was leaving the school where I hold classes to pay a bill at another school where I take classes. I walked through the cool halls on my way to the financial office, walked through the door, and was shocked into a state of consciousness beyond hot or cold. When I had come to this office three years ago, I could distinctly remember a diet coke sitting on the desk next to the computer. Certainly there was a new financial aid person behind the desk. It was clear from the boxes and bags littering the office that she had recently moved in. There was a new computer, new decorations, new paint, but the same diet coke sat in the same place I remembered it being before. After all, one does not forget the petty details of so oppressive a place as an financial aid office. Rarely does a student find themselves in such a place without fear. On my visit three years prior, I had sat nervously trying to finalize my information before the semester deadline. In the midst of my turmoil, I remember contemplating the cool perspiration on the diet coke. And here it was again, gloating like the face of fate. I could see the fresh carbonation rising from its sneering mouth, laughing at me.

And my mind, awoken with a strange suddenness to the vexing twists of reality, grappled to make sense of it all. Had, for three years, the world spun dizzily around this one can of coke? Did paint dry, people pack, papers fly, all the while this coke remaining unmoved? Was this round metal the true axis of the universe, on which we all spun. I imagined a time-lapse in which the desk was emptied, the room cleaned, furniture replaced, and all the time this on can of diet coke remained fixed in the center of it all. If the desk rotted into ruin, I wondered, would the coke remain hovering in midair?

I am not a superstitious man. Some might argue the point, however, when they read what I did next: I ran to the chapel. Once inside the stillness of that room, I approached the Tabernacle, but once more awoke with a new horror. This was the same Tabernacle I had seen early today when on the other side of the river! Inside was the same host, the same True Presence, that I had felt early today but in a totally different location. Now two uncanny thoughts swirled in my mind: that of an ever-fixed can of coke that waited for me in the other room and of an ever-loving God who relentlessly chased me across rivers and bridges.

I said I am not a superstitious man, but for a moment I felt on the verge of becoming one. Lightheaded, I prayed to God, then saw these mysteries in their true light. Superstition, a wise man once told me, is not when man thinks too much of God’s place in universe (a logical impossibility) but when he thinks too little of his own place here. The superstitious man forgets in whose image he is made and thus lets the trivialities of nature make sport of him. Made in the image of God, it is totally possible, nay even likely, that two totally different people might take different can’s of coke and place them in the same place. Human beings like regularity and order. We make all cans of coke the same for the same reason that God makes all trees different: creative efficiency. Taking into account the fact that we willfully choose to drink coke at our desks, it would only make sense that I might see two such objects in the same place. Coffee stalls at airports, benches on street corners, Walmarts at Interstate Exits: these things indicate not a mythic quality in the universe but the material mysticism of man. Man, whether praying or building, always likes to be regular.

God made us so. The image of His order and goodness haunts even our sin. Therefore, when He became man (and then became bread) that we might be saved, he left us evidence of His own will by placing himself in all the places we might want to be with Him. Yet He knew that we could not handle the strange solidity of idol worship. Had he become a statue, His Presence would have haunted us like the Immovable Can of Diet Coke, perched ominously in a single Temple like the pagans of old had envisioned. Yet, had he merely given us a symbolic representation of Himself, then how could our hearts recover from the bitingly real enigmas and separations of the material world? That is to say, lovers are never satisfied with representation. We like regularity.We need to be close. We like our coke in the afternoon on the middle of our desk. We like our spouses in our arms at night. A simple “symbol” of His love would never “do the trick.” Only a True Presence would satisfy us. To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, if the Eucharist is only a True Symbol, then to Hell with it.

“The incredible thing about miracles is that they happen.” In a universe where the food and drinks we desire appear with such regularity, shouldn’t our miraculous God be willing to appear with an even more regularity. The Almighty could not have His show stolen by cans of coke! So, in ways never foreseen and never guessed at, He made His Presence among us known in flesh and blood and bread and wine. According to Aquinas, the power by which He did this was greater than any of the mysteries of creation. Still, the greater mystery is why His love would go through such trouble, why He would bother to leap over a river and mount a cross, just to be with you and me.

Why I Am a “Duck Dynasty” Fan


“Why are people standing in line to see me!? I thought Clint Eastwood was cool in all the western movies, but I’m not gonna stand in line to see him…The only person I’d stand in line for is God Almighty. ‘You made the Universe? All right, I’ll get in line.'” -Jase Robertson

I love my home state more than words can say. For all her problems, Louisiana is one of the greatest places in the world to grow up. And the reason I am a “Duck Dynasty” fan is because it has communicated to the rest of this nation precisely why Louisiana is so great.

The main reason I like the Duckmen is not the praying before meals every episode. Nor is it the “family values” that the show portrays. Both of these additions are important to the overall message of the show, but from both a spiritual and cultural angle, they are not the main points I would like to praise. No, the main contribution the Robertsons seem to bring to the world of television is a basic sense of humility.

The fact of the matter is that I do not own a TV. It has been years since I bothered to follow a TV show. “Downton Abbey” is the only program that I have shown the slightest interest in since graduating from college (I watch episodes on my laptop). The reason why I avoid the American palantir is because of the amount of pride I am subjected to when I enter its glow. Much like the televisions or palantirs of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, ours are controlled by those who have the strongest ego, the most vivacious will, and, therefore, those who are most arrogant and prideful…but who are also the best at disguising it. After all, no one on television appears egotistical. Everyone presents themselves as polite, reasonable, even tempered, and even ethical.

At this risk of sounding moralistic, it is this hypocrisy that makes TV so disgusting to me. Whether its a news program full of “talking-heads,” a talk show laiden with “gurus,” a sitcom full of “relevance,” or a crime drama full of “investigators,” I can’t help but feel that behind the smiling faces of all these TV personalities lies hidden the career-driven face of ego. I accuse no particular individual of this, but it seems beyond a shadow of a doubt that the raw success of television is due more to ambition than any other factor. When I watch the antics of the Robertsons, however, I see no such evidence of hypocrisy. The Duck Commander can be commanding, even arrogant, at times, but it is never disguised by politeness or pithy truisms. Whether its sucking honey out of a beehive with a shop vac, trying to catch a lizard by covering the warehouse in saw-dust or suffering from donut-indigestion after an eating contest, these boys are the kind of wise-fools that can be found in any part of our great state.

I once defended Louisiana to a British woman by saying, “Whatever we are, we are sincere. You may bring many charges against Louisiana, charges of crassness or ignorance, but duplicity could never be one of them.” Down here, everyone plays the character called “myself.” Our politicians are corrupt, but we re-elect them anyway, because we prefer honest corruption to the sorts of nonsense the people of California and New York are having to deal with right now. We like Jazz Bands that play old instruments because at least its real music they’re playing: not electronic noises recorded by lab techs and regurgitated by a “DJ” at his computer. We like cooking food we’ve grown or killed ourselves. We like slacking off at work and not making excuses for it. We like dressing weird and growing beards and looking like we haven’t showered in a week…cause maybe we haven’t. We like the Robertsons because we are like the Robertsons: we lead lives free of subterfuge.

So what if Louisiana comes out 49th out of the 50 states in most every survey, poll, study and census. Our citizens might not have the “best quality of life” according to the standards yuppie bureaucrats set, but we lead happy, happy, happy lives. It has a lot to do with our family. It has more to do with our faith. We are proud to be a place where our TV stars sit around the table at the end of the day and praise the providence of God. There is little else for us to be proud of and we know it. God is God. We are but foolish men. And all is right with the world. Welcome to Louisiana.

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.

Getting Priorities Straight

This Easter morning, I awoke after the intensity and beauty of the Easter Vigil to a strange set of headlines. On the top of the paper, in 72 point bold all-caps, was the phrase “Governor’s Tax Plan Offends Both Sides of the Aisle.” Next to it, in 56 point bold, was an article entitled “Escaped Convict found in California.” Finally, under all of these, in 56 point plain, was a picture of a stained glass window captioned “Resurrection.” It made me want to spill my coffee, fall on the ground laughing & otherwise upset the breakfast table.

Did they not realize that Christ’s Resurrection offended both sides of the Temple, the Jewish and the Roman!? Does a convict escaping from death play second fiddle to a convict who escaped from a Louisiana penitentiary!? I understand that the Resurrection of the Christ is old news, but by God, it is greater news than that!

This one front page headline, without meaning to of course, typified precisely what is wrong with Christianity in this country. In the very least, it revealed particularly what is wrong with religious commentators in the media: it is not that they misunderstand our Faith. It is that they misunderstand their humanity. Ask an ancient Pagan what is more sensational, a new tax law or a person rising from the dead, and I can guarantee they will pick the latter. Yet our sensationalized media picks the tax plan. Oh certainly, they talk about the resurrection. They’ll even include a pretty, un-offensive picture, perhaps claiming that it says a thousand words. But the 10,000 words left unsaid is what is so terribly amusing about the whole thing.

Yes, it is amusing. There are some Christian bloggers that would argue-with or editorialize-about this strange juxtaposition of death, Resurrection & taxes, but I would rather laugh at it! What great fun! Here are their priorities: “GOVERNOR CUTS TAXES”, “Escaped Convict Found”, “Human Rises from the Dead.” Again, its not just that contemporary journalist remains uncatechized. Of course they are uncatechized! But what is more appalling is that the are desensitized  To the plight of starving children in Haiti they respond, “Oh, that’s sad,” and get back to sipping their lattes. To the Resurrection of Christ they respond, “Oh, how nice,” and turn the page to peruse the celebrity gossip. My goodness! I can’t make up comedy this good.

Don’t you see: there would be no joke if they were simply Pagans or atheists. If they opened the paper and scoffed at the Resurrection, then they might not be saved but at least they would be sensible. As it stands, many of our contemporaries have access to neither grace nor sense. At least, such seems the case with the editors of the newspaper.

Now, it is a sin to end a story on a critical note. Worse still, it is an offense to end a joke with mere criticism. There is something deeper I would have you see, like the Resurrected Christ telling the Apostles to put down their nets one last time. If we are to dialogue with this secularized Christian culture, then we must be the ones to set the tone of the conversation. In the old days (you know, thousands of years ago), the ancients were sensible enough to argue about Resurrection. Now we argue about fiscal policy. They contested about whether or not a real man could really rise from the dead. We argue about economic systems and paper money, credit and debt which is really unreal. They might have been overly superstitious  we most certainly are. They might have worshiped silver and gold idols: we worship paper that the government tells us is worth silver and gold! Let us, for the sake of Christianity and Pagan sensibility alike, reframe the conversation. Christ is Risen! Believe it, talk about it, celebrate it! Spend this Octave in a leisurely detachment from politics, economics and business! Rid your pockets of that paper money in a spirit of celebration and generosity  Buy candy for poor children! Buy some red wine for your family! But, by the Resurrected God above, don’t waste my time with the Governor’s tax plan!

At the Middle of Lent & the Beginning of a Conclave

All the towering materialism which dominates the modern mind rests ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumption. It is supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork. People feel that if the universe was personal it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance. This is a fallacy even in relation to known fact. For the variation in human affairs is generally brought into them, not by life, but by death; by the dying down or breaking off of their strength or desire… The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately,but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.” GK Chesterton, Orthodoxy

 

Is it really power and complexity that heaven values? Is potentia what delights Divinity? Do the angels find power their greatest pleasure? From all I know of God, of Scripture, of communio and of sanctity, I dare say not! While I do not think monotony as we know it is what thrills them, I think that even our earthly monotony is far closer to the celestial joy than any amount of earthly power. Perhaps I am being childish and romantic, but I do not think that I am wrong (or even alone) in asserting that a child’s smile or a true love’s kiss delights the angels far more than all of our epics and entertainment. A summertime picnic glows with more celestial radiance than the presidential election or Superbowl. Speaking only from my own limited perspective, I can affirm that the times I feel closest to the heavenly shores are moments characterized by the simple joy of existing. Alone in my lover’s arms. Full and satisfied after Christmas dinner. A warm fire on a cold winter’s night. A cool swim on a hot summer’s day. A best friend’s intense hug. Smooth wine and warm bread. I feel the full joy of existing, of just being alive, at moments like this. Certainly moments of exultation and excitement are important.

Life-defining moments like graduations and weddings and funerals and retirement are great and all. But our small human hearts can’t comprehend all the joy and sorrow of moments like these. On the other hand, the small moments contain just enough of the joy and love-of-being-alive that we can see it all at once. Like Chesterton said above, we are not yet strong enough to exult in the monotony of life. We merely plug along through monotony, when the very idea of Eternity indicates a joyous and exultant monotony. What makes us think that we are ready for the sheer joy and incessant pleasure of heaven? We have sinned and grown old. We, as a race, are all too easily bored with both the simplicity of earth and of heaven. For God renounced all the whims of power when he first created the heavens and the earth. Rather than rule vengefully according to fancy, changing the course of the seas and sky everyday, re-writing the laws of physics so as to trip up sinful man, God has chosen to love as with an inspired monotony. As the omnipotent Creator, he could have made creation a place of constant flux, but He delighted in simplicity instead. God saw a value in simple constancy that our greatest rulers and thinkers alike have a tendency to overlook or undermine.

The value of things, both earthly things and heavenly things, is, in the final estimate, based on their fidelity to the goodness of their being. According to the philosophers, God’s Goodness is directly related to His Act of Existence, His Perfect State-of-Being. If that be the case, the smallest hydrogen atom has more in common with God than even the greatest of the fallen angels. Satan dwells in a land of shadows and nothingness. One isolated proton acting as hydrogen in its being is more real and good than he. To be created powerful is of little consequence. To continue in existence, in the simple joy of being: that is what God values. We would do well at this mid-point in Lent and on the Eve of a Papal Election to keep that in mind. Hell is the place for those that seek power. The new heavens and earth will belong to those who are poor enough to accept the raw goodness of just being:

On Fear of Losing Our Voice.

There has hung over US Catholics a sense of dread and despair for the last decade or so. At least, as long as I have been conscious of the Catholic-blog-o-sphere, it has seemed to be conscious of looming trials and coming sufferings. Now, whether this be true or not I cannot say (though, for the sake of transparency, I admit that our situation does appear a drastic one). On issues of human identity and sexuality, we are hemmed in on every side. Many people in our culture argue with us. Most just ignore us, even as they admit that the cultural definition of life and sex is inadequate. Almost all disagree with us. And when it comes to one of the most interesting Papal Elections in centuries, the AP and Reuters seems more concerned with the ‘scandals’ in the Vatican than with the Pope in the Vatican. In short, in a society where dialogue is supposed to be a supreme virtue, our voice is overlooked, undermined and out-right ignored.

I do not think the important thing now, though, is to pay attention to our own sufferings. The Church in the United States of America is suffering. It is suffering from political, social and cultural attacks the likes of which our grandparents (or, for that matter, even our parents) could never have foreseen  I feel inadequate to comment on politics or society, but I can say something of our culture. Culturally, Catholicism is already being given a tragic halo, as if it were one of the long-dead pagan cultures. Living Catholics are seen as the last remnant of some out-moded lifestyle. We are thought to be walking museum pieces, quaint like the Quakers and as amusing as the Amish. Those more sympathetic to our well-being like to give us advice. They kindly tell us that the world is moving on without our old-fashioned way of looking at things. Wouldn’t it be best, they suggest, to simply abandon some of our more stringent beliefs in favor of fitting in.

I will mention only in passing that their argument is not a new one. A century ago, the Romantics were telling us the same thing, as they gave lip service to our penances and criticized our virtue. The Jacobins said the same sorts of things 100 years prior to them, exulting in the Church’s devotion but forgetting that we are founded on Faith. And the Reformers some 200 years prior to that made the same sorts of errors, thinking that devotion to Mary was a distraction from Evangelization. As GKC was fond of pointing out, the Church seems always to be dying in the eyes of the world, and it is! That is, because it is always resurrecting.

The main point of this short essay is not an observation but a rebuke. I do not wish to join the chorus of those other noble voices in our Church, warning us of impending doom. The doom is not impending. It has fallen and it continues to fall everyday. The world has ever been hostile to the Church. Therefore, on the grounds of charity and hope I rebuke any pessimism or fatalism that infects our cultural dialogue. In the name of the hope of the cross, I stand against anyone that would have us be dissuaded from carrying our own. Good heavens: we are the light of the world! When we are dimmed, it is not us that suffers but the world. When we grow slack in spirit, we still may be saved. It is those to whom we are called that suffer the violence.

Babies are dying, and we complain that our voice is not heard!? Who gives a fig for ‘our voice’ when a child is never given the opportunity to use her own? The poor are suffering, and we get upset at greedy politicians. Oh, so has Christ made us the critics of the rich!? Did he come with tirades against Herod or Pilate? What are we, Church? Are we mere activists? Is the gospel about raising awareness? No! If we protest abortion (which we absolutely must do), then we do it in the name of love. We aren’t out to overturn Roe V. Wade as much as we are out to overturn human hearts. We aren’t called to flip-off the rich, but to flip their tables, as Our Lord did in the Temple. We are a people of action, not of criticism. The world is covered in critics like leeches. What it needs is not more critics, but more Christians.

 

This Lent, consider well how you speak. These forty days are meant to be difficult for us, but only so that we may lighten the load of the world. We can expect injustice to be done against us: it is our lot. What we cannot be satisfied with, what we must not stand for, is when injustice is done against others! It is a time to pray for others that they may live, to fast that they may eat, to give alms that they may be nourished. If our faith lacks this positive generosity and charity, I feel that something dire is wrong with it. If our words lack it, then I feel it would be better for us to just shut up.

St. Blaise, bishop and martyr, pray for us.

Moving Downton

Spoiler Alert! Spoiler Alert! Warning! Warning! If you yourself are a regular visitor to the Abbey that is Downton, if you have found yourself caught up in the tension of Lady Mary’s romance with the dashing Matthew Crawley, then I am certain that you were a little more than disappointed Sunday night when the dashing Mr. Crawley became the dead Mr. Crawley. People have often made the connection between Downton Abbey and Jane Austen, so I feel it is not too much of a stretch to say that it would have been like the death of Mr. Darcy or the passing of Colonel Brandon (not to be confused with the Downton character Mr. Tom Branson). In short, it was an utterly inorganic plot twist that has drastically altered the nature of the story. What was a classy, well-shot, sharply acted period drama has gone the way of Days of Our Lives. Or Dallas. Or Deliverance. Death for the sake of drama. Death without substance or meaning or movement. Whatever Downton is, it is no longer Pride & Prejudice or even Tess of the d’Ubervilles.

Now, for the sake of the substantial argument, of what effect this has on the literary meaning, I suggest you visit tomandlorenzo.com (http://www.tomandlorenzo.com/2013/02/downton-abbey-visitors-from-the-south.html) . I do not plan on providing a literary analysis when they have already done a far better job of it. Rather, I wish to reflect momentarily on the death of Downton, a death which happened simultaneous with the death of Mr. Crawley. The reality is that this plot twist was never really a part of plan of the writer, Mr. Julian Fellowes. He had every intention, when he started the series 4 years ago, to provide the audience with a neatly told period drama complete with snappy dialogue, lush sets and classic romance. He produced scenery-based story that evolved into a serial. He certainly didn’t want to become a serial killer. But now that the death toll has been ratcheted up to the point where over half the episodes involve murder, suicide, fatal illness or tragic accident, one does have to wonder where all this is going. And whether it is worth watching. The reason for this is a confluence of two factors: the studio’s pressure to produce hype and the contractual demands of the actors. In short, as Downton has blossomed into the most successful British drama since ‘Macbeth,’ there was great pressure from the studio to keep the drama coming, regardless of the cost. At the same time, there was a great urge from the cast (most recently, Matthew Crawley’s Dan Stevens) to break out of the overly cloistered world of Downton. And lets face it: who can blame these emotions. If you are studio exec, why not ask for ever-increasing tragedy to keep the hype coming? If you are a 20-something actor, do you really want to do period drama for 5 years straight? The result: death and destruction at epic levels. Viewers have seen more death in Downton bedrooms than they did during the wars scenes.

The studio might say that this is the best way to move the plot forward. The actors might say that this is the best way to move their careers along. The question remains: is this the best way to move your audience. Ending the series on Sunday with a happy Mary and Matthew would have been a far better way to tell the story. Leave off that last two minutes of the car wreck, and Downton Abbey would have gone down in history as one of the most poignant, polished and well-told stories in television history. By continuing it (unnecessarily) past its natural story arc, your audience is moved toward jadedness and cynicism. The point is that the writers and producers have sacrificed meaning for the sake of longevity. They have momentum  but it is not positive momentum  They have bought into the ‘Superstition of Progress:’ that a thing moving fast (like a car) must be moving forward unstoppably  It is ironic that the full consequences of this superstition go over the heads of the producers while they have them fall right on the head of Matthew Crawley. It is a pity that it had to fall on the heads of his fans as well.

Oh well: at least the management of Downton is now in the hands of a sensible Irish Catholic (provided, of course, they don’t kill Branson off as well…).