Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Confessions of a Confirmation Catechist: MrsDarwin Agonistes

There are little gifts that God gives you, touches of humility that remind you that only his grace suffices. One of these, for me, is being the sole adult in charge of ~40 eighth-graders at Confirmation class. If I had six, or ten, or fifteen students, I might deceive myself that the level of engagement or any spiritual growth in my class was due to my words or the sheer force of my personality. But with such a large group, in the infelicitous setting of the school cafeteria (in which even a not insignificant carrying voice can be eaten by the space), the only effective operator is going to be the Holy Spirit. This, for a teacher, is a veritable Litany of Humility, because it sure would be nice to feel like I, myself, was engaging the class and enlightening the mind.

The other side of that coin is being content to put the off days on the Holy Spirit as well, but I haven’t hit that point either.

With Confirmation being only two months out, I planned to talk about the gifts and the fruits of the Holy Spirit. I found a tree graphic that I could hand out, on which the kids could write the gifts at the roots and the fruits in the branches. I I flipped through Matthew and wrote down a large selection of passages that we could examine to see how Jesus embodied the gifts of the Spirit, counting on having students look them up themselves. I wrote up a note to send home for next week’s service project. I borrowed my kids’ joke books for a halftime dad joke competition.

I did this and I did that, and I started my class and realized, partway in, that it was going to be one of those days.

Maybe not on the student end. It was a class ‘most like any other class, in which MrsDarwin talks a lot and busts that one guy who thinks he’s funny and tells someone to put away his phone and asks the girls to please direct their attention up here. But I could tell I was floundering. I didn’t have a whiteboard I was counting on. There was only one crate of twelve Bibles for the entire class. I could not get many people to allow that their confirmation saint had used the gifts of the Spirit. I gauged the mood and decided to pass on Biblical examples. One thing the kids seem to enjoy less than talking in class is looking up anything in the Bible.

“Do you even know anyone, here, now, in this town, that has any of the gifts of the Spirit?”

Hands stayed resolutely down.

“Good thing you’re being Confirmed!” I said. “Clearly, your high school is going to need people who have these gifts.” 

We moved on to my ace up my sleeve, the dad joke competition. You’ve seen the YouTube videos. Two people face off, armed with a list of groan-inducing jokes (all clean — that’s part of the dad joke ethos). The first one to crack up loses. It’s good clean fun.

I could only field about ten volunteers. Everybody else was content to spectate. We had some skillful straight faces, but the kids weren’t reading their jokes loudly enough to reach the back row. The activity I’d counted on for a good fifteen minutes of cheerful engagement was running out of steam, and even pulling up a couple of guys from the peanut gallery wasn’t doing it. In retrospect, I figure that I should have just made everyone take a turn, but I know that some kids feel very sensitive about being in the spotlight, and I do try to respect that.

We discussed next week’s service project: a toilet paper drive for the local free store. We’ll wrap individual rolls in plastic bags so that the free store can distribute them conveniently. 

“Imagine,” I said, “not even being able to afford toilet paper.”

No, that was the wrong thing for a group of 13-year-olds to imagine. 

With half an hour left, I was actively watching the clock. I was able to buy some time by answering questions about service hours and forms and turning in envelopes — procedural matters that have nothing to do with the core of the sacrament of Confirmation.

“Look, guys,” I said, “my kids don’t go to school.” Heads raised at this. (I heard a muttered, “We know”.) “That means,” I forged on, “that I don’t like busy work. So if we can fill the next fifteen minutes, I’ll dismiss you early.” Bargaining with students is admitting weakness, but a feeling of desperation was settling upon me. “So I’m going to ask you about a service project you’ve done, and I want you to tell me what gift of the spirit you drew on, and what fruit you saw from it.”

There are about five people in my class able to speak loudly enough to fill the space, so I ended up going from table to table, sitting with each group of 5-8 kids. It had the potential to be a fruitful small group, with one minor problem. Small group discussion is best facilitated with a chaperone for each group, keeping the conversation alive and on track. As I talked with each group, I could feel the rest of the room slipping away. Kids were getting up, pulling out phones, goofing around, throwing paper airplanes — that really happens! It’s not just in the movies! Just as I felt I was making some progress with one group, I’d need to put my foot down in another part of the room or send someone off to sit away from friends.

We made it through to 5:00, and most of the kids even listened when I asked them to push in their chairs and take their papers home. As I say, a normal class — nothing bad or unusual. But I was drained and unhappy and ended up at home stress-eating chips and salsa and drinking a gin and tonic to clear the lump growing in my throat. It’s too early in the year to have a crack-up. But Holy Spirit, send me a sign that any of this is taking root.

Later in the evening, I saw this meditation from Brandon Watson:
At His Baptism, the Father acknowledges His Beloved Son, in whom He is well pleased. At the Transfiguration, the Father also acknowledges His Son. But on the Cross no acknowledgement comes, and the Son cries out in the anguish of it.
That’s exactly it. Even more so than the acknowledgment of the students, we long for acknowledgment from God, some sign that he is well pleased. How easy everything would be if at every moment we had the consolation of knowing that our work was prospering, or had prospered, or was going to prosper! It is, of course, a mercy to not be literally crucified at the instant of crying out for acknowledgment, and some comfort to remember that the Holy Spirit works as he wills, not as I will, but there’s no satisfaction of victory, of a job well done.

It’s an act of faith to start in again preparing for next week, this time with more crowd control built in. Eight more classes until we get a needed infusion of grace.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

No True Fallacy

A note on the "No True Scotsman" fallacy:

This fallacy consists of making an assertion about a group such as "No Scotsman would cheat at cards" and then defending the truth of the statement by reverse applying the claim to membership on the group. Thus:

"No Scotsman would cheat at cards!"
"On the contrary, Angus is a Scotsman and he was caught cheating at cards."
"In that case, Angus is No True Scotsman, for no true Scotsman would cheat at cards!"

It's important to realize that this is only a fallacious line of reasoning _if_ there is not logical between the original group and the claim made about it. For instance, there is no logical connection between being a Scotsman and refraining from cheating at cards.

However, if there is a logical connection between the group and the characteristic applied to it, no fallacy is incurred. For instance, "No good parents lock their child in a room and starve him for days." The phrase "good parent" does not identify some random demographic group, which might contain both some people who do imprison and starve their children and some who don't. Rather, 'good parent' is a group which definitionally would not contain such parents. If you imprison and starve your children, then you aren't a good parent.

Of course, at times the terms themselves will be in dispute. For instance, you'll often see the following exchange played out in the political realm:

"No devout Catholic can support abortion."

"But I'm a devout Catholic, and I support abortion!"

In a case such as this, what is at issue is the definition of "devout Catholic". It's not that the first person is indulging in the 'No True Scotsman' fallacy, but rather that the two people have different definitions of the term "devout Catholic". One person means "identifies as Catholic and feels strongly about it in some sense" while the other means "believe all the things that the Catholic Church teaches".

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Sex and Truth

We wrote previously about NFP and Church Authority and also about NFP and Truth. In this final post in the series, we'd like to talk about sex: what it is and what it isn't.

There is some problematic thinking about sex which is common among a certain stripe of Catholic today, thinking which is in some ways a reaction to an equal and opposite set of errors that were common perhaps fifty years ago. What I mean by this is perhaps best summed up by a class on the Theology of the Body which MrsDarwin and I attended perhaps ten years ago. The speaker was an unmarried young woman who worked for the diocesan office of evangelization, and as she began the class she said: "There's no greater happiness that we'll ever experience, no greater love, than when we're united with God in heaven. And you know what thing on earth is the closest that we'll ever get to that perfect unity with God's love in heaven? When a husband and wife have sex. In fact, really, those of you who are married, I don't even know why you're here right now. You could be home having sex right now and experiencing God much more directly than you will here listening to me."

Let's give the young thing credit and assume that she knew not of what she spoke. MrsDarwin and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes.

I'm glad that there has been good theological thinking and writing done over the last few decades looking at how the act of spouses having sex is not merely an expression of controlled lust or a way to have children, but a means of husband and wife physically expressing their love for each other and openness to the children who may come to them. John Paul II's book Love & Responsibility is particularly good and readable in this regard. The Wednesday Audiences collected under the title Theology of the Body proceed to incorporate this thinking in a wider understanding of the human person and it place within salvation history, but if you strictly wanting to read about how spouses deal with each other and with sex virtuous, I think that Love & Responsibility is more focused and readable.

However, like any useful and exciting line of thinking, people quickly began to take it too far. This isn't a fault of John Paul II's thought, and I don't want this post to be seen as a wholesale rejection of theology of the body. However, treating any good as the greatest good is wrong even if the good itself is genuine, and this is what I think we begin to see when people attempt to give sex a significance and power beyond its nature.

This becomes an issue when people then face the possibility that even as a married couple they may need to voluntarily abstain for a time from sex in order to avoid having having for children for a time. I've heard it argued, by people who believe that Catholic couples should be given permission to use artificial contraception in such circumstances, that it's wrong to ask a married couple to abstain from sex for a time because sex is the highest expression of married love. The analogy put forth in this case was that asking a married couple to abstain from sex for a time would be like asking a priest to abstain from saying mass.

So let's take a honest look at sex. Under the title of "having sex" fall acts which are (or in some cases simulate in sensation) the human reproductive act. Biologically sex has an inherently reproductive character. (If it didn't, we wouldn't be having these angst-ridden conversations stemming from people are worried about getting pregnant but still want to have sex.) However, it is also an intensely pleasurable experience and it provides a feeling of closeness between the couple. Looking at the place of sex in the natural world, this also fits with the reproductive nature of sex, in that young humans take a long time to rear and so closeness between the parents (not just at the time of conception but for many years afterwards) if of great importance to all involved.

In Catholic terms, these two aspects of sex are called its procreative and unitive dimensions. And these two aspects, the unitive and procreative, are what make sex such a powerful metaphor. This is, after all, the somewhat amazing thing from a religious perspective, that the thing we as a couple want to do in order to express our love for each other, can in the process of the physical expression of that love result in the creation of a new and unique human being. Our love can, metaphorically, be given human form as a person capable of acting and loving and being united one day with God in heaven as befits a creature made in the image of God.

And yet, for all that this makes sex a great metaphor for God's creative love that generates the world and all of us, let's also have a little realism about what sex is actually like. For starters, men and women in general, and individual spouses in particular, do not usually advance towards climax at the same speed or in the same way. Indeed, one of the ways in which both spouses need to show some generosity and love for each other in the way that they have sex is by taking into account that the other is often not going to be advancing simultaneously.

This need to think of the other and have consideration for them is in fact often talked about enthusiastically by theology of the body popularizers. It's pointed to as a way in which spouses being virtuous (and thus generous to each other) in their approach to the act of having sex itself results in better sex. This is true, in the basic sense that the couple will often have more fulfilling sex if each is conscious of looking after the other's needs. And yet, this is often simplified optimistically to something approaching a magazine headline in the checkout aisle" "more virtuous sex is more amazing sex!". True to a point, but one must also keep in mind our all-too-imperfect human bodies.  The fact is, no matter how determined you are to to be generous to your spouse, you cannot make your spouse come by sheer force of will. There will be times when you are quite simply, physically, out of sync: where one of you is much more easily aroused than the other, when you're not in the same mood, when things aren't just working. This isn't because you lack generosity or virtue, it's because our bodies are imperfect and they don't always do what we want them to do.

Add to this that while sex absolutely has a strong unitive dimension, the experience of it (like any extremely strong bodily sensation) has an isolating aspect as well. Sex at and near its climax is so bodily that one's awareness of the other is heavily filtered through one's own sensation. The end result of having had sex is usually a sense of profound unity, but only after passing through stages in which the sensations of one's own body far outweigh the awareness of the other. After all, it is because the most intense aspects of sex are experienced oneself that sins such as pornography, masturbation, and prostitution have such a draw. While they may not offer the full experience of being united with another in passion, they do easily provide enough of the individual enjoyment of sex to be sought after.

What does this have to do with anything? My aim here is not to run sex down or suggest that it's not an important part of marriage. Indeed, the Church considers sex to be an important enough part of marriage that you cannot validly contract a Catholic marriage if you are physically incapable of having sex.

However, I do think it's important to have some realism about sex in order to develop a proper understanding of what it does and does not mean for a couple to have to be moderate at times in their sexuality. Sex is not the only way that a married couple can show love to each other. Indeed, at some times it is not even the best way to show love for each other. And while only a married couple can morally have sex, that does not mean that they must or can have unlimited sex without consideration for any other factor once they are married.

When we marry, we promise to be faithful in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. That promise will almost certainly mean periods during which sex is not good, healthy, or perhaps even possible. People should keep this in mind before making arguments like, "NFP is an occasion of sin for some couples. Sometimes they just have to use contraception because otherwise the husband is going to end up using porn or being unfaithful." I was appalled some years ago when I read a piece about marital infidelity in which the author said a common time for a man to become unfaithful was right after his wife had had a baby. How could anyone do that? And yet that is a period during which the wife physically needs to heal for several weeks before being ready to have sex again, and at the same time has much of her attention taken up by an engaging little creature who is not her husband.

Virtue is a habit to the good. If a couple finds it impossible to abstain from sex for periods of time without falling into all sorts of vices in order to give release to their 'needs', it quite honestly sounds like their attachment to sex has become un-virtuous. This doesn't mean that it's a problem to like sex, or that it's sinful in and of itself to miss it and feel a certain frustration when you have to abstain for a time. But something which drives you to serious sin when you lack it is something you are enslaved to. And no matter how good a thing is, we are not meant to be enslaved to our pleasures. If we are at any risk at all of developing that sort of vicious attachment to sex, which should be an expression of love rather than of addiction, some conscious schooling in self denial and detachment is very much needed.

And this is where we see the problem with taking sex as symbol of God's creative love too literally. Is there symbolism? Yes. It is an act of love which is fruitful and brings for new life. But when we're enjoying sex, particularly in the way which leads people to say that it's impossible for them to abstain for a time when they desire not to conceive, we're not enjoying it as a reflection of God's love. We're enjoying it as a very intense bodily sensation. We're enjoying it for what it does for us.

None of our pleasures should own us. Although sex is absolutely a good for a married couple, it must not be allowed to become a god, and to avoid that we must treat it with the moderation with which we would treat all other goods.

MrsDarwin: The first commandment says, "I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before me." Only God is God. Only he fulfills every desire of the human heart. No creation can do this. Sex cannot do this, no matter how virtuous the marriage and admirable the spouses. A spouse cannot do this, no matter how holy and generous and wise. At some point in every marriage, the spouses, whether fertile or infertile, providentialist or abstinent, no matter their temperament or character or suitability, must accept that the other cannot meet their every need. Our hearts are such that only God can fill them.

Sex is an essentially marital way of showing love -- not that marriage consists of sex, but that sex is only licit within marriage. But the sacrament is more than sex. Sex is procreative, yet not every instance of sex will result in procreation -- due in part to the cyclical nature of a woman's fertility. Sex is unitive, but many instances of sex provoke disunity. A couple desperate to conceive can find that the burden of sex makes the act divisive and unsatisfactory. A couple out of physical sync, or with differing levels of stamina and health, can end up in two radically different states, a deeper divide than the mutual longing of abstinence. This is not necessarily because of sin -- in fact, a couple trying to avoid the stimulating effects of pornography or fantasy can end up, in the short term, less satisfied than those who resort to those aids.

The fact that marriage is a sacrament means that grace is essential to it. It shouldn't be surprising, then, that there are times in marriage in which only grace will suffice, even for the happiest marriage. Casti Connubi states
61. ...There is no possible circumstance in which husband and wife cannot, strengthened by the grace of God, fulfill faithfully their duties and preserve in wedlock their chastity unspotted. This truth of Christian Faith is expressed by the teaching of the Council of Trent. "Let no one be so rash as to assert that which the Fathers of the Council have placed under anathema, namely, that there are precepts of God impossible for the just to observe. God does not ask the impossible, but by His commands, instructs you to do what you are able, to pray for what you are not able that He may help you."[48] [emphasis added]

62. This same doctrine was again solemnly repeated and confirmed by the Church in the condemnation of the Jansenist heresy which dared to utter this blasphemy against the goodness of God: "Some precepts of God are, when one considers the powers which man possesses, impossible of fulfillment even to the just who wish to keep the law and strive to do so; grace is lacking whereby these laws could be fulfilled."
As anyone who has lived a millisecond of the Christian life can attest, grace does not mean that living virtuously automatically becomes easy. It simply becomes possible, regardless of our feelings about it. Fertility does not cease be a blessing even when it becomes a burden; it does not cease to be a burden simply because it is a blessing. Acknowledging the procreative nature of sex, whether through trying to conceive or by abstaining in a fertile period, does not necessarily feel less daunting because it is an exercise in honesty. God's grace has a way of revealing to us the parts of ourselves that we'd rather hide: a desire for gratification, the need to cling to illusions of control, the emptiness we try to fill with the admiration or desire of the other. The physical stripping down of sex is also a metaphor for the spiritual stripping down of marriage, in which you are not enough for me and I am not enough for me, but only his grace is enough for me.

Since as humans we do not actually have any control, no matter the means used, over whether a particular act of sex will result in conception, all we can do is to be faithful to God in the moment. Sometimes that moment calls for abstinence when sex would be more satisfying. Sometimes that moment calls for openness when isolation would be more comfortable. Sometimes there's a glorious joy when all things work together for the good for those who love him, and every touch seems inspired, and God's good will is the only desired consequence. What we must not do is decide that the insufficiencies of his grace can somehow be overcome by a condom. If we fail, we fail; the sacrament of Confession is for us sinners. But claiming that rendering sex sterile is not a sin, not in this case, not in my circumstances, if only you knew, is a spiritual setback to sub-Eden levels. Adam and Eve at least wanted to be like God and know good from evil; how embryonic our spiritual state to want to have the control of God and yet not want to know good from evil? 

Monday, January 15, 2018

History in our Library

In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a piece from the archives about how our house links us with the Freedom Riders.

The previous owner of our house was the former dean of the local Methodist seminary, a man who was active in the civil rights movement and rode with the Freedom Riders. Tonight, going through some of the books that had been left in the house, I saw a folded paper peeking out of a tome entitled Pillar of Fire : America in the King Years 1963-65and opened it to find a facsimile of a letter. 
Delaware, OH
September 20, 1963


We the students and faculty of the the Methodist Theological School in Ohio are among your many brothers in Christ who were deeply shocked and appalled by the brutal bombing of your church and killing of your children this past Sunday.

Our shock has been mixed with guilt, for we are part of a large body of professing Christians who have been slow to rise to the call of our faith and cry out against injustice, inhumanity, and oppression. We know ourselves to be among the many whose silence has led to your suffering. We therefore ask your forgiveness as we pray for God's.

Knowing of some of your immediate needs we have collected gifts of money which we are sending to the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, whom we were privileged to have among us for a short time a few months ago and to whom we confidently entrust the employing of these funds where he sees the need as greatest.

We would not, however, salve our consciences by sending such gifts. While we were already active in the struggle for freedom and justice for all, we have, since last Sunday's tragedy, rededicated ourselves to this task and redoubled our efforts to break through every wall of silence and separation, of fear and hatred, of apathy and unconcern. For we are determined -- praying that God may hold us to and guide us in our resolve -- that your children shall not have died in vain.

Walter R. Dickhaut, Jr., President
Student Association

Van Bogard Dunn, Dean
The Methodist Theological School in Ohio
On a hunch, I flipped to the index of the book, and as I suspected, there was an entry for Dunn, Van Bogart, on page 271. 
On March 29 (1964), seven white theology professors and two Mississippi Negroes approached Capitol Street Methodist Church of Jackson for the Ester morning service. "That's far enough -- no end runs," announced the spokesman for a line of ushers interposed on the front steps. A standoff ensued. "I guess you'll have to arrest us," concluded Rev. Van Bogard Dunn, dean of Methodist Theological School in Ohio. While being led away toward a sentence of six months' jail and a $500 fine, Dunn got the commanding officer to say that police would have taken no action without the explicit request of the church ushers. The reply was legal grist for Jack Pratt of the National Council of Churches, who planned to argue on appeal from paragraph 2026 of the Methodist Church Discipline that no Methodist church could ban interracial worship on legitimate religious grounds.
Many of the books left here (and there were many left) contain notes tucked inside or a review of the work clipped from the newspaper, or cards marking the book as a gift. The Dunns were great readers and inscribers, and many of the books were dated on their receipt. I had been gathering up a number of volumes that were of no personal interest to Darwins, but now I see I'm going to have to flip through each book, which means I'll be sucked into reading most of them, and the library shelves aren't going to get lighter any time soon. 

(You may remember one of our previous finds from the library, which involved a minie ball of ill repute.) 

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Listening Well

When we read today's gospel about Jesus healing the leper and asking him not to tell anyone about it, the kids and I discussed how Jesus has a reason for everything he asks, no matter how odd it seems. Shouldn't it be a good thing to go and tell everyone how Jesus cured you of leprosy? But as a result, Jesus couldn't enter towns openly anymore, and those who could not go out to him in a deserted place were deprived of his presence.

Then we went to read our meditation on the readings, this one penned by my dad, and discovered that he'd said the same thing, but dug into the scripture more deeply.

"The man went off and began to proclaim the whole matter freely, making the story public. As a result of this, it was no longer possible for Jesus to enter a town openly." —Mark 1:45
The leper was an outcast because of his contagious disease. By the law of Moses, the leper was required to live outside the town, keep his distance from others, and cry out "Unclean, unclean" if anyone approached (Lv 13:45). It is likely that people of the nearby towns recognized the leper by the sound of his voice. 
Jesus, in His great mercy, granted the leper's request. He healed the leper by His touch and His word of command. Jesus again invoked the law of Moses, which required the leper to show himself to the priests and be made clean (see Lv 14:2ff). We don't know from the text of the Scripture whether the leper actually showed himself to the priests. We do know, however, that the leper showed himself to the townspeople. It's possible, and even understandable, that the leper wanted to "clear his image" with the townspeople so that they would allow him to join their company, so they would accept the sound of his voice rather than recoil at it. Possibly the leper wanted to complete his own healing socially. Yet Jesus never heals halfway. By ordering the leper to show himself to the priest, the social healing of the leper would have occurred more gradually, but would ultimately have been more complete and widespread, as well as "legal." But the leper took a shortcut, and Jesus paid the price. Now the leper could enter towns openly, but Jesus could not (Mk 1:45). 
What does your voice sound like to those near you? Does it sound like someone wanting to make himself look good? Or does it sound like that of someone who will do whatever Jesus says? (Jn 2:5)

Saturday, January 06, 2018

Work, Capital, and Value

There's a piece in the Washington Post by Elizabeth Bruenig arguing against the idea of increasing work requirements for federal welfare programs. On the merits, she may well have a decent point. It's a bad idea to have federal programs that give benefits to people who would be perfectly capable of working to provide those benefits to themselves, but we already had moderately stiff work requirements, and like a lot of current GOP thinking this seems to be an example of "it was a policy priority in the '90s, so why adjust to the circumstances now!"

However, an argument that Bruenig deploys is wrong-headed in a way that is interesting if only because it is so spectacularly so, and it's an argument which apparently some people think is pretty convincing, as I've Bruenig and also her husband, progressive writer Matt Bruenig, use it on a number of occasions. Here's the key passage:
But what about that small number of people who could work but, for whatever reason, don’t? Shouldn’t they have to? Well, before deciding whether it’s morally right for them to receive income without working, consider a far larger group that takes in far more money without toil: the idle rich. They soak up plenty of unearned money from the economy, in the form of rent, dividends and capital income. Salaries and wages — that is, money paid for work — only make up about 15 percent of the income of Americans making $10 million per year or more; the rest is capital income from simply owning assets.
In other words, the well-to-do already do what workfare advocates seem so nervous about: rake in money they haven’t earned through market labor....
There's a surface level cleverness to this gambit. "Do you object to giving money to people who haven't earned it through working?" "Yes, I do." "Really? Great! Then you think it's wrong for people to make money via investing capital!" However, it should be fairly obvious to all concerned that the person owning the capital is not getting money for nothing. Think, for a moment, of a transaction that might go on within a friendly neighborhood street.

I have broken leg and I need to make it to a doctor appointment across town because I can't drive with the cast on my leg. I ask my three neighbors Jack, Bob, and Rudolf if they would be willing to help. Jack says he'd be happy to help me but he doesn't have a car. Bob offers the use of his car but says he can't leave his house becsause he's watching his kids. Rudolf has a car and time but he's busy binge watching Stranger Things and says he doesn't want to help. So the result is that Jack drives me to my appointment using Bob's car. Because I'm grateful for my neighbors' help, I give Jack and Bob each a sixpack of good beer.

Now, would it not be odd if someone were to say to me, "Why did you give Bob beer? He didn't do any work to help you. You might as well give Rudolf beer as well."

It's true that Bob didn't do work. Indeed, Bob as "idle" while lending out his capital: a vehicle. However, Bob clearly provided me with value.

Ah, but wait. Perhaps you point out that Bob's car is actually kind of labor because he must have had to work to earn the money which he used to buy the car. Not necessarily, though. Perhaps he inherited the car from his father who died last year. Honestly, where he got the car doesn't really change its value to me. If he owns the car, and he provides access to it to me, then he's providing me with something of value to me whether he bought that car with wage labor or not. In this sense, if I return him something as an acknowledgement of the value which he gave me, I'm compensating him for a benefit that he gave me, I'm not giving him something "free".

Now of course, there's no moral stricture that we only give people money in compensation for something of value we get from them. There is a positive good to providing for the needs of people who cannot sufficiently provide for their own needs, and sometimes that's achieved by providing those people with money. That this money is not "earned" does not make it bad in some way.

However, it's disingenuous to argue that rent, dividends and capital income are money that is not earned. It's not earned by direct labor but it is earned in the sense that a return is earned for providing value to another. Labor is one thing that is valued. If Tom comes over and helps me tile my bathroom, I pay Tom for his labor because he's provided labor that's of value to me and so I owe him some compensation for the value he's given me. If I rent a week at a vacation lodge from Fred, he is giving me something of value (access to his vacation lodge for a week) and I compensate him in return. While in the one case the thing of value given me is labor and in the other case it's access to a capital asset, in both cases I pay the person who provided me value and the payment which I give is earned in that it's compensation for the value I received.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Mild He Lays His Glory By

It was a short Advent this year, only 22 days, but Christmas didn't seem to come too soon. I was ready for Christmas, joyful and expectant (not literally), and as the days passed and each door of the Advent calendar was opened, I realized that a part of my joy was a sense of relief that it was going to be Christmas and not Easter. With Christmas, you slip right from Advent into Christmas, easily -- like light through glass, almost. But before you get to Easter, you have to go through the Triduum -- three days focused on unbearable suffering. I was glad I didn't have to brace myself for Good Friday.

But Christmas involves suffering too. A baby is born, and you don't get a baby without labor. And yet, rightly, we don't have the Feast of Mary's Labor preceding the Christmas festivities. There's no commemoration of Mary's labor to mirror the commemoration of the Passion, because we are not redeemed through Mary's efforts. It is Jesus who saves. 

In a sense, Christmas can be seen as the feast of Christ fully man. He enters into the common denominator of all humans -- birth. He comes into the world without distinction or dignity, pushed out covered in blood and muck like every schmo, like us in every way but sin. Easter, by contrast, is about Christ fully God. He enters the world entirely unlike any human, striding up from death in obedience to no word but himself. Gracious legions of angels light the sky to herald his birth, because a baby is small, hidden, unable to proclaim himself to anyone beyond earshot. Easter gets two angels who hang out by the tombstone and, as is the wont of every human/angel interaction in scripture except the Annunciation, seem to imply that humans are idiots. (As we are.) 

Easter is magnificent, suffering and death and life on a grander scale than anyone could imagine. But it's nice at Christmastime to have a homelier celebration, a quieter feast in which God snoozes all day wrapped up snugly in some old blankets. Let us follow his perfect example.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Last Jedi and the Drama of Failure

Emily Snyder has an interesting post up dealing with the ways in which characters in The Last Jedi face failure. (The linked post contains spoilers.)

I won't quote Emily's post, so that this post won't contain spoilers, but I'd strongly encourage reading it. While I thought there were arguably some structural issues with the length and timing of some of the sub plots, one thing that I did think was really interesting about those sub plots was the way that characters did fail in key ways and were forced to move on to the next step after those failures. By comparison, most Sci-Fi adventure movies do not allow their heroes to suffer any but the most temporary setbacks.

Though this post doesn't contain spoilers, comments are allowed to, so don't click through to the comments unless you're ready for anything!

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Truth and Lies in Historical Fiction

Peggy Noonan has an interesting piece in the WSJ this week discussing truth and falsehood in historical fiction. This was of double interest to me, in that the ethics of historical fiction are something that I've often thought of and also because one of the key pieces she discusses is the Netflix series The Crown which a number of friends have been watching and talking about over the holidays.

There’s dramatic license, which is necessary or nothing’s fun, and historical truth, which is necessary or nothing’s understood. Ideally in any work they more or less coexist, however imperfectly. But in “The Crown” and “The Post” the balance is far off. A cheap historical mindlessness marks much of the first, and there’s a lie at the heart of the second.

I couldn’t help like “The Crown”: it was so beautiful to me. The acting, the stillness, all the money and thought that went into making the rooms look right, the period clothing, right down to the cuff links—in these matters the creators are deeply faithful to reality. In its treatment of history, however, there’s a deep, clueless carelessness.

Example: The treatment of future Prime Minister Harold Macmillan is churlish and unknowing. He was not a sallow, furtive weasel of a man, which is how he is portrayed; he was a politician whose humanity, courage and wit even his adversaries acknowledged. He did not deviously scheme, during the Suez crisis, to unseat Prime Minister Anthony Eden, who did not throw a pen at him and call him a liar in a cabinet meeting.

As prime minister his weekly meetings with the queen were not testy, marked by condescension on his side and strained patience on hers. He respected and admired her; she became his confidante. In his diaries he called her “a great support because she is the one person you can talk to.” He would not have taunted her with the glamour and intelligence of her supposed rival, Jackie Kennedy. He would not have taunted her at all.
More absurd is the series’ treatment of President and Mrs. Kennedy. JFK was not, as “The Crown” asserts, enraged with his wife for dazzling Paris on their first state trip to Europe. He was thrilled at her success; it elevated him on the world stage. Suddenly he saw her as what she was, a political asset to be deployed. She transfixed Charles de Gaulle, that stern and starchy old man who was always mad at America, often with good reason. Biographer Richard Reeves quotes JFK to his wife: “ ‘Well,’ he told her, ‘I’m dazzled.’ ”

There is nothing—literally nothing—to support the assertion in “The Crown” that after the trip JFK, in a rage at being upstaged by his wife, drank, threw things and lunged at her. There is no historical evidence that he ever got rapey with his wife.

Also he didn’t smoke cigarettes.

[Note: Apparently JFK smoked cigars often but almost never cigarettes.]

Of course, many would say, everyone knows a show like that is just fiction. Yes, but fiction is a powerful tool which can make us feel like we know the characters we meet. When we portray real people or events in fiction, and do our job well, it's hard for people not to think about people and events through the lens of that portrayal. And as such, I think there is a fiction writers ethics which requires that we not give a consciously false portrayal. When not all facts are known, we might choose to fill in the blanks in a way that leans things one direction or another. There are also many ways in which an author might simplify or combine events while remaining true to their basic spirit. But to knowingly portray someone as something other than they are in important ways seems to me to a great disservice.

The most egregious examples of this sort of thing I'm sure most people would agree with. Holocaust denial, for instance, would not be excused on the theory that "it's just a movie, so everyone knows it's fictional." Portraying a real person as having committed some major crime they did not commit (say if a TV series portrayed Bobby Kennedy as plotting the assassination of his brother JFK) would also be widely rejected.

Those examples sound silly and obviously offensive, but here's one which is so well done that it's hard to dislike: Both Peter Shaffer's original play "Amadeus" and the movie based on it and bearing the same title deviate flagrantly and knowingly from the actual characters and events in the lives of Mozart and Salieri. They're good art, but they're terrible history. In some sense, that almost makes it worse. I know that Shaffer's Mozart bears little resemblance to the real composer, and yet the false Mozart is just so compelling as fiction that it's hard not to think of him when listening to the real Mozart's music. Shaffer wrote really well, he wrote compelling characters and a conveyed a compelling set of ideas. The problem is that he exercised those writing talents in intentionally misrepresenting real people.

Noonan points out that this is doubly problematic in an age where many viewers of these dramas don't know that they're peddling inaccurate portrayals.

Why does all this matter? Because we are losing history. It is not the fault of Hollywood, as they used to call it, but Hollywood is a contributor to it.

When people care enough about history to study and read it, it’s a small sin to lie and mislead in dramas. But when people get their history through entertainment, when they absorb the story of their times only through screens, then the tendency to fabricate is more damaging.

Those who make movies and television dramas should start caring about this.

It is wrong in an age of lies to add to their sum total. It’s not right. It will do harm.

This strikes me in particular when you have shows which put huge amounts of work into historically accurate production design, but which then get historical characters or event glaringly wrong. If it's a matter of ignorance, then it's odd to have a production in which it's worth researching cars and costumes and tableware but not people. If it's intentional misrepresentation... Well, as I said, I think that at a certain level that simply become wrong. If we're going to use the names of real people and events, we should strive to do them justice with our fiction.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Great War, Vol 2, Chapter 4-2

The second Jozef installment, and the next hopefully very soon to follow.

Prerau, Moravia. June 12th, 1915. “There are two ways to go about the task,” Major von Brenner said, leaning so close to Jozef that he could smell the pomade with which the older officer’s mustache was styled into stiff upward curls. “Either look at the horse, or look at the owner. If you have a trained eye for horse flesh, you may do well enough with the former. But often enough you’ll miss some detail -- the older horse with unusually good teeth or the young firebrand that’s just a touch lame. Watch the owner, and you’ll never fail. You’ll never get a good horse off a farmer or a carter. They’ll have the big, slow beasts who eat more feed than they can carry, very good for pulling a plow but no use to the cavalry. For cart horses, look to the man of quality who has a set of good carriage horses. But for a riding horse, you need a young man, someone who invests in a racer or a hunter. And the richer the owner, the better the horse. Jews are the most reliable, of course. Always take a Jew’s horse. They have an unerring instinct for value.”

Jozef reflected on this advice as the horse requisition fair formally began. The officers all sat in a line. As the junior officer from the 7th Uhlans, Jozef was seated to the right of Rittmeister Hofer. On Jozef’s other side sat Rittmeister Korzeniowski, the lone representative of the Polish Legion wearing their distinctive square czapka hat embellished with a silver Polish eagle. The Pole was the second to last in the line of officers, the only one placed after him being a leutnant from the supply service there to requisition draft horses.

The non-commissioned officers under von Brenner’s command martialed the civilians and their horses at the other end of the enclosure, then sent them across one at a time leading their animals so that the officers could see the horses move. If they like the look of a horse, they called out, and the horse was numbered, the unit of the officer who had spoken for it noted down, and the horse was led into a holding pen. If no officer spoke up, the owner was issued a paper stating that his horse did not have military value and exempting it from requisition during the next twelve months.

It was indeed mostly the horses led across by well dressed men or uniformed servants that were called for. The shaggy plow horses led through by peasants were let pass, and their owners left the fairgrounds gratefully clutching their certificates of exemption. A few carters or shopkeepers had wagon horses that were well suited for draft work. And matched sets of carriage horses led by their drivers were quickly snapped up.

As the last in line, Jozef and Rittmeister Hofer did not at first get the best picks, but as the officers at the front of the line began to near their quotas they let more and more good animals pass. A black hunter that stepped impatiently behind a liveried groom caught Jozef’s eye in particular, and when it somehow escaped the notice of other officers Jozef spoke for it. The groom scowled to get so close to escape and then see the horse requisitioned, but he led it to the pen where a korporal put a number on its haunch in white paint and noted down the owner’s information.

Jozef was not among the officers rich enough to purchase his own horses privately, but perhaps having helped to pick out good horses for the regiment he would be able to take this one for his use. Jozef watched as the korporal took the halter off the horse which already he already thought of as his and handed it back to the groom. Then the black horse dashed off into the enclosure, tossing his head, until he slowed and approached another horse, nostrils whiffling in greeting.

[Continue reading]

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Five Links of Christmas

My dear friends, over the past few days I've been given the best Christmas gift ever: the gift of energy. Whence this drive to get things done, and then the follow-through? Whence this desire to leave the house and go to the store? Whence this purpose? I dunno, but I'm taking it as a gift from God, and running with it.

Alas, this has been a "getting stuff done" energy, and not a writing drive.  And so although I've bought all my Christmas presents and taken all the kids on errands and finished up several projects I started and kept the house basically clean, I haven't written anything here for a week. And tomorrow we're having people over and it gets busy until Christmas...

Anyway, here's some edifying and educational linkage for you.

 The PNC Christmas Price Index. Those among who must educate younguns or who just enjoy coloring will like the printable coloring pages for each of the twelve gifts from the song.

Culinary Arts
Gingerbread Cuneiform Tablets. I've already made the dough, and today we're going to roll it out and impress upon it some Mesopotamian graffiti.

LATER: Hey it turned out well! I didn't put the crushed red pepper flakes in; instead, I substituted a couple good shakes of cayenne. They look ancient, but they taste fresh.


Will Smith in a cop movie, set in an LA with Orcs and Elves as minorities? Yes, I think so.

About the great locust swarm of 1875 that devastated Laura Ingalls Wilder's family.

The Ingallses had no way of knowing it, but the locust swarm descending upon them was the largest in recorded human history. It would become known as “Albert’s swarm”: in Nebraska, a meteorologist named Albert Child measured its flight for ten days in June, telegraphing for further information from east and west, noting wind speed and carefully calculating the extent of the cloud of insects. He startled himself with his conclusions: the swarm appeared to be 110 miles wide, 1,800 miles long, and a quarter to a half mile in depth. The wind was blowing at 10 miles an hour, but the locusts were moving even faster, at 15. They covered 198,000 square miles, Child concluded, an area equal to the states of Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont combined. “This is utterly incredible,” he wrote, “yet how can we put it aside?” The cloud consisted of some 3.5 trillion insects.

The swarms swept from Saskatchewan to Texas, devouring everything in their path. The grasshoppers savored the sweat-stained handles of farm implements, chewed the wool off sheep, ate the leaves off trees. After flying, settling, consuming, and laying eggs, they began marching across the country, millions massing to form pontoons across creeks and rivers. Hoppers were said to “eat everything but the mortgage.” Terrified, people reached for comparisons, likening the insectile clouds to other natural disasters: snow storms, hail storms, tornadoes, even wildfires. “The noise their myriad jaws make when engaged in their work of destruction can be realized by any one who has ‘fought’ a prairie fire . . . the low crackling and rasping,” read a report from the US Entomological Commission, created by Congress to address the crisis. Even modern scientists stretch for language to convey the swarm’s ferocity, calling it a “metabolic wildfire.” It consumed roughly a quarter of the country.

Excerpted from Prairie Fires: The American Life of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Sacred Music
O Magnum Mysterium.

Tomorrow we're having a sing at our house, and I hope this will be one of the pieces we work on.

Merry Christmas to you all!

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Moral Fiction in the Imperfect Tense, Part II

Moral Fiction in the Imperfect Tense, Part I 

In his new book To Light A Fire On The Earth, written with John Allen, Bishop Robert Barron talks several times about "the great Catholic novelist Flannery O'Connor", and describes her as one of Catholicism's Pivotal Players: "A twentieth-century Catholic writer who radically changed our idea of what religious fiction could be."

Q: Which Catholic publishers published the novels of "the great Catholic novelist Flannery O'Connor"?
A: Harcourt, Brace & Company, and Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Q: Okay, but what about notable Catholic author Walker Percy?
A: Alfred A. Knopf; Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Q: ...J.F. Powers?
A: Doubleday; Alfred A. Knopf

Doubleday may at least be a step toward Catholic publishing, since the Image imprint was formerly Doubleday Religion. Although some of the explicitly religious novels of Louis de Wohl were published by J.B. Lippincott Co., 1960's The Restless Heart (about St. Augustine) and 1962's The Quiet Light (about Thomas Aquinas) were published by Image. Image also published Maria Chapdelaine, the acclaimed Canadian novel by Louis Hémon, in 1956.

In 2017 Image carries eight fiction titles: two collections of Christmas stories, three sequels to the 1983 pop parable Joshua by Joseph F. Girzone, and three heartwarming novels by author Katherine Valentine.


Unlike Farrar, Straus & Giroux, that notable publisher of quality novels by Catholic authors, the Catholic presses nowadays carry a very small catalog of fiction, if they publish it at all.

Ignatius: By far the largest catalog, carrying 74 titles, many of which are reprints of older works or study editions of classics. By my count, however, it currently has listed original novels by 13 authors.

Sophia: Eight titles, three of which are reprints.

Loyola: Three fiction titles, two of which are reprints. (Not included in this count is the Loyola Classics line of fiction reprints, which are oddly categorized under Spirituality and Inspiration -- a very strange place to stick In This House of Brede.)

Ave Maria: no fiction.

Looking down the catalogs of these presses, with their strong showing of Catholic historicals or saint bios, I wonder: could O'Connor or Percy or Powers have been published by these presses? The only contender would seem to be Ignatius (to whom all praise must be given for their thoughtful cover design -- the only press to dignify their novels so), but even so it's hard to gauge the quality of many of their novels when their own authors are blurbing each other's books.

But the larger question is: should Catholic presses be publishing fiction at all? Can they provide the right mix of editorial quality and authorial freedom to allow world-class fiction to flourish? And will their core audience read the final product?


Then there's the issue of what constitutes "Catholic fiction". From Bishop Barron's book, here's his "personal list of all-time great Catholic books".

Brideshead Revisited
The Diary of a Country Priest
Divine Comedy
The Idiot
The Brothers Karamazov

(Incidentally, in discussing Brideshead, the book quotes from a 2013 column that Bp. Barron wrote about the role of beauty in Charles Ryder's conversion, citing the "beautiful" chapel as a motivating force. As I wrote at the time, this is mistaken: the chapel is specifically called out as a gaudy mess, and it's despite it's ugliness that Charles returns to pray there in the end. Waugh, like O'Connor, is an standard name to hand around if you want to sound knowledgeable about Catholic Literature. However, as illustrated by a reference I saw recently to "Julia Brideshead"-- "Brideshead" being the house, and the title inherited by the oldest son of the family, and not anyone's given name -- it's a good idea to check the text before using to make an intellectual point.)

On Bp. Barron's list, only The Diary of a Country Priest would qualify as slightly unknown. These are books drawn from the pantheon of Great Books. They're books with explicitly Catholic content. (Bp. Barron makes the point that although Dostoyevsky is writing from an Orthodox viewpoint, he shares in a Catholic sensibility.) But they draw in non-religious readers by the quality of their prose, the beauty of their imagery, the depth of their themes.

They are, in short, moral fiction. As I said in the last post:
fiction set within a framework of objective truth, a world where there is right and wrong, and characters can reach for the good or fall short of it. It's a world where even small choices have weight, and grace breaks through.
If we believe that Catholicism is not just a system or a culture, than Catholic literature must be more than books in which explicitly Catholic characters play out explicitly religious dramas. Catholic literature must be moral fiction, whether or not the characters are Catholic, whether or not it is didactic, whether or not the characters are good.

Indeed, in moral fiction, plenty of bad or ugly things can happen, because in the world people are confronted with moral choices in the midst of bad and ugly situations, and they don't always decide rightly. The weight of the human condition is something that fiction has always grappled with. Flannery O'Connor's works, held up as exemplars of an honest Catholic fiction, are full of the gritty kind of grace that stings and horrifies.

So here's what Catholic presses have to weigh in regards to fiction. Do they play it safe, bestowing a kind of non-magisterial imprimatur, so that a grandmother can pick a title from a fiction catalog with the certainty that it will be edifying and free of inappropriate content for her 12-year-old grandson? Or should they expand to provide a platform for excellent fiction with a Catholic sensibility, even when that fiction is challenging or deals with the darker, less pleasant side of human behavior? Can (or should) Eve Tushnet's Amends, with its plethora of profanity and its characters wrestling with sexual identity without finding neat answers and its essentially Catholic understanding, find a place in Ignatius's catalogue?


Between a fussy infant needing to be held all day, and a fussy toddler coming down complaining of ear pain, I've only been able to write this much by 2am (and this is more than I thought I could get done today). Part III soon.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

La Guadalupana

I watch this every year on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, not so much for the father/son Me-the-can-o pop duo as for humble little Juan Diego staring up at Tepeyac Hill in wonder.

One of the beauties of posting the same thing on the same date every year is that it serves as time capsule. Last year I didn't post; morning sickness. The year before I was just worn out with everything. Another year I remember reading up a lot about the history of the vision before writing up a brief account of the apparition. My grandmother was a great scrapbooker and had rows of albums on the shelves in the attic, chronicling her children's lives and trips she'd taken. And here's my mother of Guadalupe, doing the same for me.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Moral fiction in the Imperfect Tense, Part 1

"She was completely reliable in any Internet-based crisis." 

My mom sent me an Amazon gift card for my birthday, so I bought some books I'd been thinking about for a while. Bishop Barron's To Light a Fire on Earth, The Power of Silence by Cardinal Sarah (I'd been reading this in French on the Kindle, but I forget about Kindle books, and translating the text took up the mental energy I would otherwise have used to meditate on it). Everyman's Library editions of Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility, to round out my set. And Eve Tushnet's novel Amends, which has been on my list for a while.

The Amends of the title is a rehab reality show, where six down-and-out alcoholics of varying cuts are trying to discover if they're capable of change, or if they even want it. Tushnet writes of what she knows -- there's nothing cute or airbrushed about her collection of drunks (or their epic hangovers), only sharply observed scenes with an eye for the telling detail. The prose sparks like a high tension wire, and the sparks leave scars. You can make some interesting comparisons here to the writing of Florence King, though I'd say that King was more unrelentingly savage. Tushnet likes her characters a lot more than King liked any of hers, and so is able to allow even the most outré actors in her story the possibility of redemption.

The novel isn't flawless. Several characters are underutilized or underexplained, and others are perhaps too eloquent for their state in life. (I questioned whether an 18-year-old hockey jock would have conjured up a snowclone from an H.P. Lovecraft quote, even as I nodded at the reference.) I would have liked a two-part structure to give equal weight to events after the end of the reality show, as chapter stacked on chapter gave the impression of a lot of falling action.

But this is nitpicking, because the book itself is a fine example of moral fiction: fiction set within a framework of objective truth, a world where there is right and wrong, and characters can reach for the good or fall short of it. It's a world where even small choices have weight, and grace breaks through. It is a Catholic world if you believe that the Church isn't just making up strictures but describing what is true about reality.

This leads to an interesting point. Amends is a novel with a Catholic sensibility, but it wasn't published by a Catholic press. It wasn't published by a press at all -- it's self-published. In a sense, I don't know how it could have been otherwise: the Catholic sensibility, particularly in sexual matters, is too pronounced to make it likely that a mainstream press would publish it, and the particular profane foibles, flaws, and inclinations of these characters make it almost inconceivable that a Catholic press, even one that had a fiction imprint, would touch it. (There's no sex in the book, if you're keeping tabs at home, and yet the characters have profane, messy lives that don't fit neatly into easy categories.)

I'm giving myself permission to write several short posts based around this idea, instead of putting off writing one long one, so tomorrow I want to reflect about Catholic publishing and fiction.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Have We Reached the Limits of the Classical Liberalism Bargain?

Jen Fitz had a post up pointing out the interestingly double standards which are used at times in adjudicating questions of religious liberty versus the moral sensibilities of the majority and minority in the country on touchy issues such as gay marriage.

From pp. 98-99 of the transcript:

MS. WAGGONER: . . . I have three brief points in rebuttal: First of all, the bias of the Commission is also evidenced in the unequal treatment of the cake designers, the three other cake designers who were on the squarely opposite sides of this issue. If — if the Court looks at the analysis that was provided by the Colorado court of appeals, line by line they take the opposite approach to Mr. Phillips that they do to those who are unwilling to criticize same-sex marriage

JUSTICE GINSBURG: And they say they wouldn’t — they would say no to anyone who came with that request?

MS. WAGGONER: No. The Colorado court of appeals said that they could have an offensiveness policy, and they said that those three cake designers were expressing their own message if they had to design that cake. In Mr. Phillips’s case, they said it wasn’t his message. It’s simply compliance with the law. In the other case, they said that the cake designers, because they served Christian customers in other contexts, that that was evidence it was a distinction based on the message, but in Mr. Phillips’s case, they ruled the opposite way.
Colorado found that if a baker who served Christians generally, but then declined to make a cake with a Biblical message because the baker found the message offensive, that baker was not discriminating. In contrast, a Christian baker who serves gay clients generally, but declines to accept an order for a specific event the baker finds offensive, does not receive conscience protection. (And note: The Christian baker in question was willing to sell an off-the-shelf cake to the gay clients.)

The Supreme Court argument she links to is here.

It should go without saying (but it may not in our current climate) that the issue of cake baking in and of itself is fairly trivial. What we're mostly seeing here is the result of opposite sides of culture war trolling each other to establish the limits of the law. However, the difficulties that the case outlines are real, and they point to the increasing difficulty of maintaining the principles of liberal democracy in an increasingly religiously and culturally fractured society.

The great compromise of classical liberalism is that we agree to give error rights. We allow some room for people to disagree with our deeply held beliefs without being punished with the full force of the law, while agreeing to enforce laws that provide all of us with basic common goods. Thus, for instance, we support laws punishing murder and theft, but we don't support laws punishing heresy. Sure, we might see that convincing someone to belong to some hair brained sect is damaging to that person, so there'd be an argument that it would be good for the government to protect its citizens from being the victims of wrong theology. But according to the compromise of liberalism we agree that the evils of stamping out error in some areas can be worse than the evils of allowing the error to exist and trying to use our own individual persuasion and influence to warn people way from error.

This works when there's some basic agreement in society about what's right and what's wrong. For instance, we agree enough that killing innocent people is wrong to ban murder even in cases some societies don't (dueling, honor killing, etc.) and yet we can tolerate dissent on other issues on which we disagree. Of course, even this example starts to show how our societal consensus is falling apart, as even the ban on murder is currently being argued about in cases such as euthanasia, infanticide, etc.

Tolerance of dissent worked so long as the issues dissented on were ones we were willing to leave up to people's individual discretion. What religion you belong to is not from a believer's point of view something trivial. It might be a point on which a person's salvation hinged. But there was at least some level at which we could argue it was something justly left to each person to decide. But as we come to disagree about more and more fundamental issues, the idea that we can leave issues up to individual conscience becomes more difficult to swallow. And as this tolerance according to the principles of classical liberalism becomes less attractive, the alternative will become more attractive: get control of the mean so power and then use that power to disenfranchise your opponents as much as possible so they never get the chance to turn the tables on you.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

I Remember MrsDarwin: The 39 Steps

I thought I'd put up the last of my I Remember MrsDarwin lying liar birthday posts, but lo! Three years later, my pal Steven is back with a false memory, and not just a paragraph, but an entire glorious work of thrilling fiction harkening back to my recent call for casual fiction, only not so micro. In the spirit of the thing, I would just like to say that I totally did not go to college with Steven, nor was he ever a roommate of Darwin, nor did I help set up him and his wife. Nor did we once go on a "date" down to Damon's while Darwin had a night class, where we sat and counted down the minutes until Darwin was out of class. We actually didn't order the Blooming Onion, though; that thing was repulsive.

So here's a "memory" so long and repressed, you'll have to click through to read the whole thing.


 A Caper with Cate
by Steven Kinney

I hate writing the first line.

You have no idea how much pressure there is in writing that first line. How can I possibly compare with some of the great first lines out there: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” - that’s an instant classic right there. Seriously, nobody has read the rest of the book, it stands out as a mainstay of literature just for the first line. On the other hand, I can probably beat “Call me Ishmael”. That’s just lazy writing there.

If you didn’t realize it yet, I’m not a writer. I not all wordy like Hemingway and I don’t have a complex story to weave like Aesop, or a deeply philosophical message like Austen.

My story is simpler than that: I met a girl.

Okay, sorry I’ll be politically correct, ‘I met a woman’. It’s just that doesn’t sound as good as a one liner, you know?

Now, I have to tell you upfront, this isn’t a love story. If you want to read a love story, I recommend looking up S. Morgenstern. As far as I’m concerned, he’s cornered that market. This story is rather more of an adventure than anything else. It’s got fighting, torture, poison, true love, hate, revenge, giants, hunts, bad guys, good guys, beauty, spiders, pain, death (or at least mostly), bravery, cowardice, strength, chases, escapes, lies, truths, passion, miracles. It’s really not too bad. Hopefully it won’t put you to sleep.

No, this isn’t a love story. I want to be very clear about this now, so you aren’t confused as I go on with it. Seriously, people today always assume you can’t just be friends!

It all started before we met.

See, now that would have been a good opening line! I should have used that one.

We met on a park bench outside a cafe.

Even that was a better opening line than what I used! I really need to work on this.

It started off with the usual pleasantries. From there moving into small talk, and eventually migrating into conversation. Before long we had a real, audible connection. As she spoke of her interests in arts and music, great books, even coffee, I’ll admit, I was attracted to her. Not physically, of course. I mean, sure, she’s build with all the right angles and pronouncements. There’s nothing wrong with noticing that, that’s just being observant. Nothing further occurred to me about it. Obviously her brown - gold hair, with just the right amount of curl to keep it interesting was hard to miss, aesthetically, I mean. I did notice the deep green in her eyes. From a genetic point of view, that’s an interesting quirk, that’s all. Yes, I suppose, if pressed into it, I would say that she was pretty. Beautify even. Not that I cared about that at all. I’m just completing the picture for you, that’s all.

Isn’t it funny how, these conversations strike up and you realize you’ve never introduced yourselves properly. I’ll tell you, it isn’t. It’s not funny at all. She got up from that park bench, said goodbye, and I realized that I didn’t even know her name. Don’t look at me that way, I told you that this isn’t a love story. It’s not. Of course I thought she was interesting, and I enjoyed our conversation, but I wasn’t going to go and spend days trying to find her just by listening for her alto voice passionate and earnest. It wasn’t like that.

I mean, I did happen to see her sipping a latte through the window of the cafe. It’s true, I had been by that cafe a couple times a day since we met… but it was close by, so it wasn’t really a big deal anyway. She waved me in to join her. She must have seen me as I walked up, because it wasn’t like I stopped and stared while working up courage or anything. That would be very out of character for me.

No need to be rude, she had invited me in, so in I went.

In point of fact I walked around the corner to the entrance and then back around to where she sat. By the time I arrived she had moved the other side of the table, facing me as I approached. She was comfortable, happy even. A book on the table beside, interrupted and waiting, I was graced with a smile that showed me her entire dental history, a clean and sanitary history, I might add.
I recall, distinctly, that the table wasn’t quite level, and the chair anything but comfortable. As I moved to sit, she introduced herself, “Cate!” as she held out her hand for mine. In fact, I’m quite sure that there was conversation that day. Clearly we must have spoken, but if I’m to be honest, I only recall that one word.

That’s how I met Cate.

* * * * *

You know you have a real friend when that friendship leads you to be the best yourself can be. That’s what real friends do. They learn about each other, and then try to become more of what the other needs in their life. That’s how I take care of Cate. For example, I know that Cate has brilliant things to say and it’s best not to keep them to herself. I encourage and challenge her to speak freely and I listen attentively. More than once I’ve been so entranced by her eloquence that I’ve receded into my mind, in a state of trance, pondering deeply, while my body goes limp.

Cate pushes me too. That’s how I came into this current situation I’m in. Most of the way through successful robbery, stuck waiting for her to rescue me. I’m really just sitting here thinking it all through, this is all backstory and flashback stuff.

Seriously, don’t look at me that way, I told you already this isn’t a love story, it’s an adventure.


Read on, if your faculty of suspension of disbelief is strong enough.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Confessions of Confirmation Catechist: The Examen

I recently read a book about building Confirmation programs, written by a catechist at a large suburban parish with an apparently unlimited fund of volunteers and money. In it, he advocated for a new kind of mentor program, where instead of having dry Confirmation classes, Confirmation prep involves one-on-one relationship-building meetings in cozy, comfortable settings. These meetings stress the personal relationship aspect of building Church membership. Volunteerism and ministry are actively encouraged, and personality profiles help the student understand where his or her gifts are best used. The doctrine can come later. Right now, the students need to learn that Church is people.

Or something like that. I'm simplifying inexcusably because I'm still tired from being the single Confirmation catechist, spending an hour and a half in a big barren school cafeteria each Sunday afternoon with ~40 eighth graders, trying to impart the doctrines of the Catholic church into which they're being confirmed. I want to be liked, I guess. But people come and go. Mentors move up or out, or change jobs, or lose their faith, or disappoint at the human level. The truths of the Church don't change whether or not Mrs. Darwin is someone you admire and think is really cool, or whether she made you put away your phone or switch seats so you'll stop snickering with the guy next to you.

Anyway, since I'm not running a megachurch retention program, this past Sunday we discussed the four marks of the Church: One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic. I didn't have any brilliant insights you can't find anywhere else on the web. Several people remembered that they'd heard the phrase "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church" in the Nicene Creed, and they even remembered that we'd discussed the Nicene Creed a few classes back, which I consider a solid win. We made family trees to illustrate the idea of being able to trace back the apostolic roots of the church. I totally forgot to tie that in with our list of popes we've been memorizing, even though I made a note to bring it up.

But our main activity of the day was to prepare for Advent, and for next week's Confession service, by praying the Examen. I dearly want my students to pray. I want them to remember to turn to God sometimes. The best way to instill this is to pray with them, so that they have a model for prayer.

I wasn't entirely taken with any Examen templates I found online, so, guided by Leah Libresco's discussion of the Examen in her book Arriving at Amen, I put together an outline.


Daily Examen

1. Gratitude
Think about the good things God has given you, both overall and specifically for today. Thank him for the blessings and the opportunities he gives.

2. Grace

Ask God for clarity so that you can see your life not just from your own limited viewpoint, but with as he sees you.

3. Review

Look back. Today, how did I fall short of being who God wants me to be? Did I commit any sins? Did I fail in showing love? Was I absorbed in myself? 

4. Repent

Ask God to give you sorrow for your sins. Tell him you’re sorry, and ask for his forgiveness.

5. Resolve

Look forward. What changes can I make to love God better tomorrow? Think of one change you can practice tomorrow to help you grow closer to God and bring his love to others.

Our Father.


I made the students separate and find a private spot somewhere in the cafeteria, as long as they were within eyeshot of me. I broke up clusters so that people wouldn't be distracted by their friends, or feel too self-conscious to pray. I asked them to close their eyes as they prayed each step, so that they could shut out distractions, and not be a distraction to others.

We started with Gratitude. So many people think that being Catholic is all about feeling guilty, but here we start with giving thanks for the good things we've received, or the good things of the world in general. Every blessing, every gift and talent, all beauty comes from God, and by giving thanks we're able to get out of our own heads for a bit.

"Jean-Paul Sartre says that Hell is other people," I said, "but I think hell is being stuck in your own head."

Several people seemed to agree.

We took a moment of silence to pray. My default in these class moments is the "Come, Holy Spirit" prayer, since only the Holy Spirit can move and work in the souls of anyone, let alone a group of teenagers who don't really want to be in class.

The next step was to ask for the gift of Grace, to be able to see our lives through a divine lens and not just from the narrow perspective of our own viewpoint. How often do we beat ourselves up for failing when any outside observer could point out the challenges we're facing? How often do we think, "Oh, I'm a good person," when others could point out some pretty bad ways we've behaved? We want to see ourselves honestly so we know where we need to change, and for that we need God's grace to shine a light into our souls.

A moment of prayer.

Review. It's time to look back. You don't have to take on the burden of going over your entire life, or the whole school year, or even the week, but just this present day. How have I failed today? Specifically, how have I sinned? How have I separated myself from God? And what haven't I done? There are sins of commission -- things you do that are actively wrong -- and there are sins of omission -- times when you should have acted but didn't. When did I fail to step up and show love?

A moment of prayer.

Repent. All of our examining consciences and dredging up sins won't do us any good if we don't immediately turn those sins over to God and ask for his forgiveness. And that's all we have to do. We don't have to beg or cower or plead for mercy -- God is waiting for us, like the Father with the prodigal son, who didn't even let his son finish his speech before he's calling for the fatted calf and throwing a banquet. But we do need to ask. God doesn't force his grace on us. Grace can shine in through the smallest opening, but we need to take the first, tiny step toward it. If you're not sorry for your sins -- "I told her to go to hell, and I don't really care!" -- ask God to grant you sorrow and contrition. Next week we're going to confession, and that's our opportunity to be fully restored to union with God. In absolution, God forgives and forgets. People may remember your sins and bring them up to you, but God doesn't. They're completely dissolved and obliterated in the ocean of his mercy.

A moment of prayer. By this point I'm watching the clock to see if we can eke out the process long enough so that I can have an early release. Come, Holy Spirit.

Resolve. We're bound by time, so unlike God, who sees everything as the present, we have to look back, and then look forward. This is where the rubber meets the road. Living the Christian life means turning toward God, trying to orient ourselves toward him. You've reviewed your day and identified some things that have kept you from God, some blocks you've put up. Can you think of one concrete change you could make tomorrow to move closer to him? One concrete way to show love? This isn't about making a huge resolution. The world offers us specific times to change -- on Monday morning, at the start of school, at New Year's. As Christians, we don't have to wait to make a New Year's resolution. We can make a new second resolution. "Now is the acceptable time!" says St. Paul in one of his epistles. And one of the last things Jesus says in the book of Revelation is, "Behold, I make all things new." You're not trapped by the past. Every instant offers a opportunity to turn anew toward God. But we also don't have to feel burdened by the weight of our entire future. Pick a change you can make right now, or an action you can do tomorrow, without needing to deal with the entire psychological weight of the rest of your life.

A moment of prayer.

We end with an Our Father -- a prayer that almost repeats the entire process we've just gone through. We thank God for his gifts, we acknowledge how far he is above us -- "who art in heaven", we acknowledge our sins and ask for forgiveness, and talk about how we'll change and forgive others.

Glory be, it's 5:05! A few moments of wrapping up and cleaning up, and I can have them out well before 5:15. Amen.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

The Tax Plan Cometh

I'd seen some people discussing today how the Senate tax plan which was just passed would affect middle class families. The element which seems to cause the most concern is that the plan eliminates the per person exemption which currently allows a married couple with children to take $4,050 for each member of the couple plus for each dependent child off their taxable income. On the more positive side, the new plan also increases the child tax credit from $1,000 per child to $2,000 per child and increases the standard deduction from $12,700 to $24,000. For many families this might mean that the standard deduction is actually a better deal than the itemized deduction and result in a decrease in taxable income. (source on tax plan changes) Another major change not specific to families is that the deduction for property taxes is capped at $10,000 and state and local income taxes would no longer be deductible.

I Wasn't sure exactly how these different factors would balance out. I created a fairly basic model which dealt with just the major deductions and credits in question and applied the new rate table. I then ran three scenarios, families of four making $50k, $100k, and $200k per year. The last of these is the sketchiest as at that income level under the current tax regulations the child tax credits mostly phase out and the alternative minimum tax starts to phase in. According to the new Senate plan, both of those would happen at much higher income levels, so they would cease to be factors for the $200k family.

According to my estimate, the family making $50k would see a slight reduction in the amount of credit they get back, going from -$2,780 in tax to -$1,261.  In other words, they would be worse off by around $1,500 due to the expanded child tax credit not being refundable.

The family making $100k would see a reduction in the amount of tax they would pay, from $3,047 to $739.

The family making $200k would see a decrease in their tax burden from $24,353 to $22,349.

Families that would be most likely to be worse off as a result of the new bill would be families with a number of children who currently get back a net credit rather than paying federal income taxes.

Here are the scenarios:

While I've made a good faith effort here, I'm not a tax expert. If you see errors please point them out and cite sources, and I'll be happy to make corrections.