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

Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Seven Year Itch

We're hitting that point that every couple hits sometime in their marriage: the realization that almost everything we acquired around the time of our wedding is wearing out and needs to be replaced. Bath towels, kitchen towels, pot holders, utensils, sheets: you name it, we need new ones. We've been married for more than six years, and though bath towels can last longer than that, they end up looking like the towels we inherited from Darwin's grandmother: shrunken and threadbare and so unabsorbent that you wonder why she kept them around even as keep using them because hey! they're there in the cabinet.

At the same time that all our wedding presents are falling apart, the girls need their entire wardrobe flushed and replaced. I went to a kids' consignment store on Friday, and while browsing I meditated on two things:

1) How on earth does anyone keep her children's clothes so clean as to be able to resale?
2) Thank God this store is going out business! What great deals I'm getting!

So now I'm going through the girls' closet and dresser and getting ready to throw away old clothes. I feel a bit strange about this. After all, some things are still wearable, in a way. But what are you going to do with a cute dress that's in perfect shape except for a large suspicious brown stain down near the hem that will not come out no matter what you do, even if you put a little bleach on the spot (but all that does is to bleach the area around the stain, which remains as brown and suspicious as ever)? Can you donate this item? But why should I assume that I can push off our stained togs onto "the poor" when I consider them basically unwearable? (And believe me, something has to be pretty stained before I pull it from circulation?)

I pass over entirely the matter of adult clothes, because what does it matter if I wear my stuff until it falls to rags? People only look at the kids, and if they're cutely dressed, no one checks my outfit.

One can obtain even high-end clothing at cut-rate prices on eBay or at Goodwill, but then there are some household items that are gonna cost ya, such as replacing the water softener. Does anyone have a diagnosis for a fifteen-year-old water softener which has has been full of standing water for months? The salt level hasn't budged in that whole time, and we're noticing that the water is starting to smell dusty. We keep debating whether we should find someone to service the thing or just replace it, and meanwhile we change out our kitchen sponge every week.

Good thing our seven year itch doesn't extend to replacing our old worn-out spouses. Now that could get expensive fast.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Friday: Time For A Drink

Scott Carson of Examined Life advises us all to boycott Miller beers. The particular occasion of the mention has to to with a Catholic League suggestion (motivated by Miller's sponsorship of the Folsom Stree Festival -- venue for all sorts of odd behaviors) but really, it should simply that "Friends don't let friends drink Miller." It is, after all, far too much like sex in a canoe. (Those readers confused by the analogy must be complimented on their virtuous vocabularies.)
What then should the discerning Catholic beer drinker do? (This fellow might have a few ideas.) Well, sitting in the fridge at the moment I have two rather promising options:

Go thou and thirst no more!

The Dishonest Steward

While I'm on a scripture kick...

Something struck me last week while listening to the gospel on the dishonest steward -- a parable that's always a bit troublesome. The question that one struggles with is: Why exactly is this fellow being held up as an example for defrauding his master in a totally self-interested way -- though it helps others in the process?

Well, how exactly would a dishonest steward have been living it up all this time? He's been stealing from his master's property (treating it as if it's his own to spend) and also defrauding his master's tenants by demanding more from them than the master is actually asking for. With a lord who wasn't around much, a dishonest steward could practically live at the level of nobility. After all, he had all the resources of a noble estate to work from.

So this defrauding is hardly new. The steward has been defrauding both master and tenants for years in order to line his own pockets. But what happens when the steward learns that the audit is coming? He knows he can't conceal all the wrongs he has done. And he knows that even if he steals one last big amount, he might get it taken from him, and it wouldn't last the rest of his life anyway. So what does he do? The man who has always taken everything for himself starts giving away to others.

The point being, that if even someone who had previously stolen everything not nailed down could suddenly discover generosity when it came down to it -- why don't we do the same when we think that "you can't take it with you"?

Maybe nothing very new, but somehow it "clicked" for me in that sense in a way it hadn't before.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Lady and the Beast

A couple readers have asked that I go ahead and post some notes from the presentation of sorts that I put together for bible study last night on the Whore of Babylon. Notes is probably putting things a little strongly for what I walked into the room with, but I'll try to organize and put up here what I came up with.

First, on the more general principles we've been working on, and which I'm getting primarily from our assistant pastor (who's led half the sessions) and also from Sacra Pagina and the Collegeville bible commentary. As such, I'm taking Revelation as dealing primarily with the situation of Christians living around the time and place it was written (aprox 100AD in the churches of Asia Minor) rather than being a prophecy primarily dealing with the literal end of the world. John is writing in much the same genre as Old Testament books such as Isaiah, Jeremiah and Daniel -- using a fantastic and apocalyptic vocabulary to talk about the current tribulations of God's people, their need for repentance, and their eventual deliverance.

Thus, while John is in a certain sense talking about the end of the world per se, he's also talking much more specifically about the hope that the Christians currently suffering persecution under the pagan Roman Empire can have that a new order will come which will wipe away their current persecutors and allow the worship of Christ our Savior to flourish.

So, all of that said, let's dive right in.

Then one of the seven angels who were holding the seven bowls came and said to me, "Come here. I will show you the judgment on the great harlot who lives near the many waters. "

The "many waters" refer to the confluence of rivers at the historical Babylon. While the term "Babylon" is used metaphorically rather than literally in Revelation (as a nod to the historical references to Babylon in the OT, and also as a way of referring to a large and profane empire in general) this evocation is based on the actual geography of the literal city.

The kings of the earth have had intercourse with her, and the inhabitants of the earth became drunk on the wine of her harlotry." Then he carried me away in spirit to a deserted place where I saw a woman seated on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names, with seven heads and ten horns. The woman was wearing purple and scarlet and adorned with gold, precious stones, and pearls. She held in her hand a gold cup that was filled with the abominable and sordid deeds of her harlotry. On her forehead was written a name, which is a mystery, "Babylon the great, the mother of harlots and of the abominations of the earth."

Something to keep in mind here is that among the prophets of the Old Testament, fornication, adultery and prostitution are all used as a metaphor for idol worship. When paganism springs up in the kingdom of Israel, Israel and Jerusalem (as the metaphorical brides of Yahweh) are accused of harlotry and adultery. Thus, the image of the harlot here is probably best seen as an embodiment of the idol worship that was the state religion (and one cannot over-emphasize the extent to which Roman cult and civic life were intertwined) of the Roman Empire.

I saw that the woman was drunk on the blood of the holy ones and on the blood of the witnesses to Jesus. When I saw her I was greatly amazed. The angel said to me, "Why are you amazed? I will explain to you the mystery of the woman and of the beast that carries her, the beast with the seven heads and the ten horns.

So here we hear that the harlot is gorging on the blood of martyrs, which also seems to underline her identity as the Roman Empire, and the pagan world in general. The angel then provides some additional explanation:

The beast that you saw existed once but now exists no longer. It will come up from the abyss and is headed for destruction. The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world shall be amazed when they see the beast, because it existed once but exists no longer, and yet it will come again. Here is a clue for one who has wisdom. The seven heads represent seven hills upon which the woman sits. They also represent seven kings: five have already fallen, one still lives, and the last has not yet come, and when he comes he must remain only a short while. The beast that existed once but exists no longer is an eighth king, but really belongs to the seven and is headed for destruction.

Okay, so this is probably where some of the "Whore of Babylon is the Catholic Church" stuff gets started: The seven heads represents seven hills on which the woman sits. What city famously sits on seven hills? R0me. Ha! We've got those papists now, haven't we?

Well, maybe not. What did Rome symbolize to St. John? This woman drunk on the blood of martyrs, arrayed in the jewels and purple robes of imperial wealth doesn't seem like a good fit with the Church in Rome circa 110 AD. Saints Peter and Paul were executed in Rome not so many years ago, and the church there suffers some of the more systematic persecutions under Nero, Domitian and Trajan.

This beast's heads represent not only seven hills, but seven kings, the sixth of whom rules now. The Roman Empire, then.

Were they on the sixth Roman Emperor? No. How you count the emperors is fuzzy. Does Julius Caesar count when he never accepted the title? Do you count Galba, Otho and Vitellius from the years of the four emperors? (The fourth was Vespasian, who lasted ten years.) Revelation seems to have been written somewhere around 90-115 AD, which puts it under Domitian, Nerva or Trajan. (see list of emperors here)

I don't think John is trying to be strictly historical here. He may have six specific emperors in mind for the first six heads, or he may not. (You could make a good case for counting Augustus, Tiberius, Claudius, Nero, Vespasian and Domitian as the six "major emperors" -- with Domitian as the current one up to 96AD -- if you wanted.)

So what's this business with this shadowy eight emperor, somewhere in the future, who will be one of the first five who "existed once but exists no longer is an eighth king, but really belongs to the seven and is headed for destruction". The notes in the Jerusalem Bible (as well as Sacra Pagina and the Collegeville commentary) suggest that this is Nero, about whom there was a legend that he would return from the dead. I looked up Suetonius' life of Nero to follow up on this and found the following:
LVII. He died in the thirty-second year of his age, upon the same day on which he had formerly put Octavia to death; and the public joy was so great upon the occasion, that the common people ran about the city with caps upon their heads. Some, however, were not wanting, who for a long time decked his tomb with spring and summer flowers. Sometimes they placed his image upon the rostra, dressed in robes of state; at another, they published proclamations in his name, as if he were still alive, and would shortly return to Rome, and take vengeance on all his enemies. Vologesus, king of the Parthians, when he sent ambassadors to the senate to renew his alliance with the Roman people, earnestly requested that due honour should be paid to the memory of Nero; and, to conclude, when, twenty years afterwards, at which time I was a young man, some person of obscure birth gave himself out for Nero, that name secured him so favourable a reception from the Parthians, that he was very zealously supported, and it was with much difficulty that they were prevailed upon to give him up.
So in addition to the general rumor of Nero's possible return, there was an actual claimed re-incarnation of Nero right around the time that Revelation was written. Certainly, one can imagine a Nero returned from the underworld as the opposite to Christ -- a king of the damned rising not through triumph over death, but as death triumphing over the world, leading a "culture of death" in persecuting Christ's church.

This is getting awfully long, but one other thing that struck me and which I mentioned in class is that the beast "was covered with blasphemous names". If we're seeing the beast as embodying in some sense the Roman state and state religion, we might imagine these names as being the countless pagan deities which made up pan-pagan set of cults accepted in Rome: Jupiter, Minerva, Apollo, Mithras, Dionysius, Bacchus, Isis, Osiris and many others drawn from all over the empire, everything from the lars (household spirits) of everyday superstition to the semi-messianic fertility "mystery religions" which had come in from Egypt and the east. Alternatively (or in addition) one might imagine the beast to be inscribed with the countless semi-religious/semi-civic offices through which ambitions Roman citizens climbed the ladder of the state cult: tribune, praetor, questor, augor, consul, etc. The innumerable deities and the many semi-priestly political offices which served them probably both seemed equally bizzar and demonic to the early Christians to whom John was writing.

The account them moves on to a civil war and degeneration into chaos in which formerly subservient kings bring down the beast, and then finally the triumph of the followers of the Lamb. Here John is looking forward to an end of the domination of the earth by profane powers, and the coming of an order the acknowledges Christ as king.

Some might see this as simply looking forward to and to to the pagan Roman order -- but in a larger sense I think we can see this as applying to all of us in looking forward to the kingdom of heaven in which the worldly priorities on which the kingdoms of this world are focused will be forgotten.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Quiet Morning Hours

I am not a morning person. There phrase, though pleasingly concise, fails to evoke the extent of my feelings.

Yes, yes, I can appreciate the quiet, dewy morning as much as the next fellow, but that is after I have, for some unaccountable reason, made it out of my bed, clothed, washed (perhaps in that order if I'm sufficiently sleepy) and made my way outside to apostrophize the dawn. More usually, I hit the snooze button, imprecate the dawn, and snag three to five ten minute intervals of sleep before grudgingly getting up and getting ready for work.

However, despite my general dislike for the dawn, rosy fingers and all, I generally need to be in to work by 8am, and I have this peculiar habit of wanting to eat breakfast and drink coffee before doing so. Thus, as the sun rises later each day, I've been finding myself getting up in the dark most mornings.

The one pay off for this is quiet -- something you don't get so often as the father of three girls under six. At the very least, if I have to get up in the dark in order to get ready for work, I get to get ready and eat my breakfast in silence, perhaps even read a few pages of a book.

And then the kids caught on. The last couple days they've been up and at it by 6:30 at the latest. And so as the sun rises, MrsDarwin and I try to satisfy the demands of a small riot of requests for various breakfast items, drawings of dinosaurs and princesses, help writing favorite words, etc. And instead of the virtuous feeling of getting up without hitting the snooze, the girls now arrive at the same time as the alarm goes off and settle the matter themselves.

Standard time can't come soon enough.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

My Complaint about Portnoy

I've been reading an anthology of American Catholic stories, and I'm just getting to the modern section in which the living authors reside. Some of these are writers I've heard of, but never read: Richard Russo, Ron Hansen, Andre Dubus. This is a chance to expand my literary horizons, and I look forward to plunging in.

However, there are modern American authors who do not turn me on, and chief among these is Philip Roth. Steven Riddle has been wading through Roth lately, and concludes that though he is capable of crafting some excellent prose, he has a rather juvenile fetish:
his insistence that the worth of a man is judged primarily, if not solely, by the correct and frequent functioning of those anatomical parts that define his maleness.
This about sums up my one reading of Roth, which I described in Steven's combox.
Several years ago, a co-worker who knew I was unacquainted with Roth's oeuvre insisted that I read the first few pages of Portnoy's Complaint. What a masterpiece of hilarity! he insisted. So funny!

So I did. And the first few pages left me absolutely cold on an intellectual level, as well as exacerbating my morning sickness on a physical level. I don't really find masturbation as fascinating as Roth, and so I've avoided his company ever since. Perhaps this is a mistake, but I do hate digging through pages of penis-worship to mine the occasional literary gem.

On the Ground in Anbar Province

I've posted links once or twice to Michael Yon's reports from Iraq. Another independant journalist who's been taking time on the ground out in the provinces over the last several years in Michael J. Trotten. Someone turned me on to him a few weeks back, and over the last few days I've been slowly (they're long posts) working through his dispatches from Ramadi, which used to be second only to (if nor surpassing) Fallujah as a "no go" area.

Anbar Awakens Part I: The Battle of Ramadi
Anbar Awakens Part II: Hell is Over
Al Qaeda Lost

One of the officers Trotten spends time with notes an ironic truth: the tribalism which originally made Anbar so resistant to American forces (and allowed Al Qaeda in Iraq to make the area their base) is actually what's made it possible to now make the area significantly more peaceful than major urban areas like Bagdad. Once the sheiks turned around, the tribes followed them, and there's not a great deal of mutual trust between the American officers in the area and the shieks. More urban areas have weaker tribal ties, leaving the playing field more open for sectarian and ideological strife.

In the above poster, it took me a while to realize: those are AK-47s melting down at the bottom. The modern equivalent, I guess, of swords being beaten into plowshares.

There was a whore in Babylon, doo da, doo da

The parish bible study group is wrapping up its stint on Revelation over the next couple weeks, and what did your author get himself into? He signed up to provide a short lecture on the Harlot and the Beast in Chapter 17 and what they mean.

Has he studied or prepped yet? Not a bit.

Is it tomorrow night? Yes.
Nice to know that my study habits haven't changed since college... Must sit down with those xeroxes from Sacra Pagina and the Collegeville bible commentary tonight.

Hey, I've got it, maybe the harlot is Nero's horse that he made a Roman Senator.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Long Quiet Mid-Afternoon of the Soul

It has been observed that, "There seems to be a rash of "Dark nights of the soul" going around the blogosphere. It's almost as if the revelation that Mother Theresa suffered through such an experience has made it pandemic!"

Though I'd read for years about Mother Theresa's dark night of the soul, it seems that the most recent coverage of it has kicked off no small degree of fascination. I've even read some bible-thumpers declaiming that Mother Theresa's lack of "spiritual consolations" (whatever exactly those are) show that she hadn't truly become a Christian.

All this had been giving me some pause for thought, and then the other day I ran across a link over at JulieD's Happy Catholic to a set of podcasts by Fr. Thomas Dubay on contemplation. I was working on a long data project, and I was getting tired of the music I'd been listening to, so I figured I'd listen to a couple episodes while working. (What can I say, I'm an inveterate multi-tasker. It's not always a virtue, but there it is.)

Fr. Dubay was talking (working from St. Theresa of Avila) about how contemplative prayer involved an "intimate being alone with God who love us" and sometimes results in a "strong felt present that He is there." He distinguishes this from either an emotional reaction to the process of prayer, or an intellectual knowledge gained from study and belief.

This somehow brought together for me a couple threads that I'd had in my head up to this point. The root, I think, of my failure to get all the fuss about the "dark night of the soul" is that if the dark night is the failure to feel any of this assurance that God is out there -- that basically describes my normal and constant experience of being Christian. Nor is it something I'm particularly upset about. While I'm certainly willing to imagine that one could have some sort of experience that was clearly something other than one's own emotional or intellectual reaction to belief, it's not something that I can imagine experiencing clearly enough to desire, much less get excited about missing.

I think there must be rather different ways that different sorts of people experience faith. My own experience of Catholicism is simply as the set of beliefs about the world according to which Things Make Sense, whereas none of the alternatives seem to do so. This is not, I will quite willingly own, an ecstatically exiting sort of faith. It's low on special effects, emotional and otherwise. On the other hand, given the very different ways that God has seen fit to make us all, I can hardly see why everyone should have the same spirituality.

Friday, September 21, 2007


Catholic Bibliophagist is seeking book nominations for the Dorothy Parker Flung award:

“This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”
--Dorothy Parker

This morning I was trying to think of which books I’ve read that deserve the Dorothy Parker Flung Award. But since I routinely eschew genre that I know I won’t like and am not required to read books I don’t choose, I can’t think of any candidates right now. I must let this percolate through my hind brain and see if it dredges up anything from the past.

Certainly I've stumbled into novels I didn’t like. But since I don’t feel obliged to finish them, I usually don’t feel the need to fling them. Sometimes I’ve finished a novel I wasn’t enjoying because I kept thinking that sooner or later there was going to be a payoff that would turn the whole thing around and make it all worthwhile....

...Okay, guys: nominate some titles. I promise not to read them.
Like the Bibliophagist, I usually finish a book. Same with movies. Off the top of my head, I can think of two movies I've stopped watching more than five minutes in: Total Eclipse, in which Leonardo DiCaprio plays a 19th-century French boor; and some early Harrison Ford flick set in WWII England, in which our hero is a American fighter pilot who has an affair with a local woman. Boooring.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

In Praise of Amateurs

In many ways, we live in an age of experts. Over the last century or two, the number of fields of knowledge, and their depth, has proliferated to such an extent that to truly be a "renaissance man" and have a solid grounding in everything is virtually impossible.

Doctors use computers which are essentially magic to them. Computer technicians drive to work in cars that are similarly mysterious. And car mechanics are generally not up on the current advances in medical science. There is simply so very much to know about so very many things, that most of us settle down to be an expert in one or two fields, be interested in one or two others, and ignore or regard as magic the rest of the world.

The dabbler has thus fallen into disrepute. "Oh, he's just an amateur," people say. Some even suggest that to do anything other than obey the commands of the expert before one is to deny reason.

Certainly, it's true that in most fields major discoveries are invariably made by experts these days -- while a hundred years or more ago they were at least as often made by fascinated amateurs, often from among the leisure class. And those discoveries that are still made by amateurs (the majority of new asteroids and comets are still discovered by amateur astronomers) are generally methodological ones rather than conceptual breakthroughs.

Yet even if one stands no chance of achieving the level of knowledge of experts in the field (and in conversation one should acknowledge as such) I am a great fan of amateurism, as is perhaps evident from the scribblings here. I work in marketing analytics, but I dabble in history, classics, literature, writing, economics, politics, guns, Go, carpentry, biology, anthropology (and science generally), brewing, liturgy, theology, philosophy and (that which sums all such things together) education.

I'm far from an expert in any of these, and I try not to oversell my knowledge. I doubt I shall be providing any unique contributions to any of these fields -- and yet certainly all of them make a unique contribution to me. We need amateurs. Fields of knowledge and work need amateurs for the love they bring to the subject. And society needs people to be interested in things other than their specialties, lest we all be highly trained techno-peasants.

While it is experts who make many of the discoveries and write the original works these days, it is amateurs, I suspect, who do much of the spreading of the love of that knowledge to others. What, after all, is knowledge unshared, or books unread?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Science, Atheism and the Big Tent

Science blog Pure Pedantry has a post up entitled Why Pairing Science and Atheism is High-Brow (HT: Razib), which makes some interesting reading, especially from the point of view of a Christian with an interest in science.

The context for the piece is the argument among science bloggers (all of those involved atheists, so far as I'm aware) over what the relationship between science and atheism ought to be. The "neo-atheists" (generally fans of the Dawkins, Dennet, Harris books that have recently been appearing) essentially assert that one must be an atheist to have a truly scientific mind -- and so the cause of science is best advanced by getting rid of religion as quickly as possible. The other folks (most amusingly called the "Neville Chamberlain atheists") maintain either that religion is pretty much built into the human creature or that it will die off eventually on its own, but either way that trying to abolish religion as a first order of business will simply turn the vast majority of the population off science permanently.

The article is centered around a 1922 piece written by John Dewey, reacting to the Scopes Trail and the triumph of William Jennings Bryan. Dewey's point is essentially that, tempting as it might be for progressives to attack Dewey and the evangelical/populist movement that he represented, it would be counter productive to do so since in doing so they would be cutting themselves off as a "high-brow" group with no sympathy from the majority of the population. The authors on Pure Pedantry feel that science is in a similar situation in regards to religion: If they declare war, they'll lose, since most people are already religious and would simply write science and scientists off.

Now clearly, I've got some basic philosophical disconnects with the mentality behind the post. They think that religion is essentially irrational, but that one can overlook it and deal with people on a scientific basis anyway. I see a totally materialistic worldview as lying somewhere between the irrational and the unsatisfying (either you're a materialist who thinks the world means nothing, and that should be unsatisfying, or you're a materialist who thinks the world does mean something, and that's irrational.)

However, I see the point to a similar willingness to coexist with a scientific community whose practitioners are, let's face it, mostly atheists and agnostics. Theists are, I think, unwise to go to war with the idea of a methodologically materialist approach to scientific enquiry because, in diagnosing the workings of material systems, such an approach works well and is entirely appropriate. Now, this kind of enquiry both attracts those with an atheistic bent (after all, there is at that point nothing else in the world to know) and also may win some converts to atheism. However, I'm fairly confident, as a Christian, that most people will not be won over to the view that the only things that can be known at material things learned through material investigation. It's just not a viewpoint that "rings true" for most people. It leaves too many spiritual and intellectual needs in the human person unmet.

Stitching to the finish?

I am all about the conceptual process of creating. Selecting colors for painting, planning out a project, coming up with the "big idea" -- I love that stuff. I even like the hands-on work that goes into finishing some great artistic work. As long as it doesn't take too long.

The girls were rooting around in the front closet and found the bag containing the quilt I started months ago for Eleanor. I stalled out in the quilting process and packed the thing away "until the weather gets cooler". Note the hallmark of a great excuse: it's got enough of the truth in it to sound plausible. Summer weather in Texas isn't conducive to sitting under several layers of fabric and batting. The heat wasn't really the issue, however. I just got bored with the repetitive quilting process and packed it away.

Heat means nothing to the girls, and they're begging me to finish the quilt. I have a feeling that their enthusiasm will stall out when they realize that they won't actually be doing the sewing, but the goad of their nagging has prodded my conscience. No doubt I'll flame out at least one more time before the thing is finished, but hey, all human loves are cyclical.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Lost in Translation, II

When I did my post at the end of last week about translating the mass, I found myself with an strong desire to take a shot at doing not only a clunky, totally literal translation, but to try my hand at writing a realistically speakable translation. I hushed this desire on the theory this would be a rather futile exercise: since I'm neither a true classicist nor a liturgical expert and obviously not a voice of input on ICEL. But since there seemed like there was a certain amount of interest in translation, I've decided to dig into the question a little more for the only reason that really flies in blogging: because I feel like it.

Now, the tricky thing about translating something is that different languages often work in rather different ways. For instance, because of the structure of Latin, it's easy to hang a lot of descriptive clauses on a noun or even a relative pronoun without losing the tread of your meaning. It's also easy to hang participial phrases on a noun or pronoun in Latin which effectively act as semi-independent clauses with the participle acting as the verb.

Thus, in the section of Eucharistic Prayer I which I worked on in the last post, it's not at all unusual that the two paragraph, 100-word section is made up of only two sentences. However, as you try to translate into English, it can become difficult to keep the meaning clear without producing a tangled and repetitive sentence.

So for example, one of the sections I found a bit tricky was "offerimus praeclarae maiestati tuae" which I translated as "we present to you, in your splendor and majesty". Now in Latin, the adjectives praeclarae and maiestati hang directly on the "to you". But if you say something like "we present to you, splendrous and majestic, these gifts" it is unclear whether it us, God, or the gifts which have these attributes.

Another example comes near the beginning of the passage, where the descriptive phrase "servi tui, sed et plebs tua sancta" hangs on the "we, remembering". This is simple and clear in Latin, but in English the interjection of the phrase (which emphasizes the contrast of being both God's humble servants but also his chosen people sanctified through the sacraments) muddles things up and makes it easy to lose track of what the sentence is about.

Now, one of the things that struck me as I was looking at some of these issues was that since Eucharistic Prayer I is the Roman Canon which has been a part of the liturgy in the west for 1500 years, there must be plenty of old translations from the facing-text missal days. So I did a google search on the phrase. I found a couple translations, but I also found a recent piece by quixotic Catholic blogger Fr. Joseph O'Leary, which dealt with the question of the translation of the Roman Canon and the new ICEL translations in particular.

As it happens, O'Leary's piece answers some of my questions as far as what the original ICEL translators back in 65-73 were thinking. In advocating the virtues of the current English translation over the forthcoming ones, Fr. O'Leary says:
They are aware of the archaic roots of the Roman prayer-style, which is an inculturation of the liturgy into Roman Imperial culture. To some extent their translation is an effort to reinculturate the prayer into the conditions of the present. The timeless, ahistorical attitude taken by the new literalist translators is alien to the contemporary sense of history and also to the Christian sense of history.

"Latin words such as 'supplices' and pairs of words such as 'rogamus ac petimus' are employed for reasons of rhythm and style or rhetoric; they do not represent thought content which need or should be explicitly translated" (p. 28). Other examples of words that have a rhetorical function in Latin which loses point in translation are 'placatus,' 'digneris,' 'cognita-nota,' 'donis ac datis' -- literalistic translation produces an impression of superfluity and many pleonasms.
So basically, the argument as to why almost all of the adjectives and emphatic repetition are left out of the English translation is: We're assuming that's not part of the essential prayer, but rather an "inculturation" of the prayer into Late Antiquity which we in the modern age should strip out because we don't talk that way. Which is, I think, pretty close to my theory that the original ICEL translators found the prose of the mass a little too grovelling in its spirituality, and decided to produce a more calm, adult version for sophisticated modern audiences.

I really don't know that I buy this inculturation argument, however. Elsewhere, O'Leary argues that the use of this rhetorical grovelling has more of a pagan than a New Testament feel to it. I'm not sure I entirely buy that. Certainly, the Gospels are generally pretty plain-spoken in their prose. However, Revelation especially is definitely generous in its use of adjectival color and exaltation of the divine. Nor, honestly, has much of the pagan work that I've read showed that much grovelling in relation to the Roman gods.

Also, I think it's important to note that the other ancient liturgies used in the Eastern Churches contain similarly "mere mortals in the presence of the Almighty" type language. I don't think it's at all an unnatural reaction to humanity's encounter with the all-powerful and eternal to get rather humble.

However, this kind of highly vertical expression is not often found in modern American society. Americans a very egalitarian lot, and we much prefer expressing warm feelings to expressing strong ones. Think of the universal "extemporaneous prayer" formula "Lord, we just..."

To my mind, the appropriate response to this situation is to try to write an English translation which is intelligible to the English-speaking mind, yet tries to bring into the American-thinking mind some concept of extreme reverence for and humility before the divine. I'm not a great stylist, nor a great translator, but along those general lines I came up with the following, which I hope is moderately speakable English, while retaining the theological allusions and general attitude of the Latin original:
And thus, O Lord, we – mere servants and yet chosen by you as a holy people – remember the graces won for us by the passion of the same Christ, your Son, our Lord. Recalling his resurrection from the dead and his glorious ascension into heaven, we offer this to you, God of splendor and majesty, from among the gifts that you have bestowed upon us: A pure sacrifice. A holy sacrifice. A spotless sacrifice. The holy bread of eternal life and the wine of everlasting salvation.

We beg that you deign to look with favor upon these offerings and accept them, just as once you found it worthy to accept the offerings of your just servant Abel, the sacrifice of our Patriarch Abraham, and those which your high priest Melchizedek offered: a holy sacrifice, a spotless victim.
This takes more liberties than my previous attempt, but I think it's still much closer than the one in current usage, while trying not to be literal in the more stilted fashion. One of the things that this whole exercise (both trying to do a translation of just these two sentences, and reading up about the issues involved) has brought home to me is that it is no simply matter to move things such as this from one language into another. The ancient liturgical translations (as with the translation of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom into Old Slavonic) were generally done by one person of incredible holiness, who had the liberty and ability to be a little bit creative in preparing a translation that brought the liturgy properly into another tongue and mind. Such things are not achieved by committees, so no wonder that we're having difficulties in coming up with something of comparable quality. Similarly, it helps underline the benefits of keeping certain parts of the liturgy in the original language, while perhaps translating only the changeable parts into the vernacular to aid the understanding of the congregation.

Dulles on Evolution in First Things

Cardinal Dulles has a piece in the October issue of First Things dealing with the topic of evolution. The cardinal's piece is better than the ones they've published in the past by Cardinal Schönborn and by the occasional explicit Intelligent Design apologist. However he still seems a bit over-focused on the "neo-Darwinian" bogeyman. The term has gained a set of meanings in some religions circles which is, I think, increasingly divorced from the meaning of the term when used in debate between scientists.

I find it disappointing that FT and particularly Dulles and Schönborn (who are certainly brilliant men in their own rights) seem so bent on dipping into the scientific debate over neo-Darwinian theories with a set of philosophical baggage which, frankly, a lot of the scientists they're trying to address simply don't understand (or don't see the relevance of to science).

What I think is a much more fruitful direction is that which Stephen M. Barr has taken both in the pages of FT and also in his book Modern Physics, Ancient Faith in regards to talking about the position of science in human knowledge as a whole, rather than trying to make sure that science per se "leaves room for God". I recall reading in a piece by Frank Sheed that one of the questions that invariably interested audiences of the Catholic Evidence Guild was, "Why is there anything?" While science provides some very solid answers to questions along the lines of "How do things work?", it is singularly ill suited to provide compelling answers to the question of "Why is there anything" and "What does the universe mean."

When Dulles says, "Christian Darwinists run the risk of conceding too much to their atheistic colleagues. They may be over-inclined to grant that the whole process of emergence takes place without the involvement of any higher agency. Theologians must ask whether it is acceptable to banish God from his creation in this ­fashion." I'm concerned that he's failing to sufficiently context (if I may abuse the English language by turning that into a verb) science as an intentionally limited field.

The cardinal gets into this a bit near the end of his piece, as when he quotes Justin Barrett:
Justin Barrett, an evolutionary psychologist now at Oxford, is also a practicing Christian. He believes that an all-knowing, all-powerful, and perfectly good God crafted human beings to be in loving relationship with him and with one another. “Why wouldn’t God,” he asks, “design us in such a way as to find belief in divinity quite natural?” Even if these mental phenomena can be explained scientifically, the psychological explanation does not mean that we should stop believing. “Suppose that science produces a convincing account for why I think my wife loves me,” he writes. “Should I then stop believing that she does?”
This, I think, is rather more the right track, and I could have wished that he'd spent his entire article talking more along these lines, rather than examining what he sees as the different schools of religious thought within Darwinism.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Beer Can Chicken (snicker)

What kind of exciting things did we do this weekend? Well, seeing as we had a chicken and a can of beer both just sitting around, we thought we'd try our hand at grilling beer can chicken. It was quite tasty and a hit with the kids, but the best part was the delightful image of the chicken squatting over the can.

Last night I thought this was about the funniest thing I'd ever seen. It's still pretty amusing today. You guys! He's got elbows!

(An animal was harmed during the grilling and photographing of this meal.)

Princes of the Church

Last Friday Fr. Richard Neuhaus posted a piece on the First Things site titled "The Competence of Bishops", a continuation of the debate he has been having over whether it is entirely appropriate of the USCCB to form a joint task force with congressional Democrats with the aim of ending US military involvement in Iraq.

Neuhaus argues that in specifically allying with congressional Democrats (or at least, with a "bipartisan task force" which happens to have only Democrats as members) to achieve a political objective, the bishops dilute their teaching authority and step outside their proper sphere. What they should do, he argues, is focus on preaching clearly the moral issues involved.

This has prompted some to accuse Neuhaus of behaving little differently from those on the political left, who get all huffy about the bishops exceeding their competence when they speak out on issues such as abortion and assisted suicide -- as when Cardinal Mahony called out a specific Catholic and friend in the California Legislature for his prominent support of an assisted suicide measure. I think there's a legitimate case to be made that laws on issues such as assisted suicide and abortion come so close to dealing directly with the moral issue itself, that there is no distinction between the moral and political issue, but let's leave that aside for now.

The bishops are the direct successors to the apostles, our shepherds in the Christian faith. As such, their primary duty is to convey to the faithful, and to the world, the sacred truths of the Christian faith.

In his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, Benedict XVI wrote, "Building a just social and civil order, wherein each person receives what is his or her due, is an essential task which every generation must take up anew. As a political task, this cannot be the Church’s immediate responsibility… The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible." In that they are the institutional backbone of the Church, I think one might legitimately say that the political task of "building a just social and civil order" is thus not primarily the task of the bishops. Their task, as the shepherds of the Church, is to convey to the world clearly and convincingly what truth and justice are -- leaving the laity to figure out how to instantiate those truths in civil society.

So to that extent, I think Neuhaus has a pretty solid point. The bishops would, I suspect, be most successful if they focused all their energies on preaching the faith and morals of the Church, and made sure that their administration of their diocese did not cause blowback that radically undermined that message.

However, a bit of historical realism is also called for. Once upon a time, it was not unheard of to refer to bishops as "princes of the Church". The term is not used now, in part, because of the bad taste which the excessive opulence and temporal power of some bishops left in people's metaphorical mouths. But for well over a thousand years, the centrality of Catholicism in Western Culture meant that episcopal sees were naturally centers of great power.

For much of that time, in most parts of Christendom, bishops were selected by the local temporal powers, not the Holy See. (Though, of course, the bishop could only be consecrated by the Church, not the temporal powers.) While bishops were responsible for supporting and overseeing much of the great Christian thought and art of the last two millenia, they also collected taxes, waged wars, and generally became enmired in the power struggles of their regions. People were used to the idea that while the bishop was God's shepherd, and thus deserved great respect, he was also a ruler and a man of power.

In the US, bishops never held this kind of direct temporal power, but nonetheless, if you read over the biographies of the great 19th and early 20th century bishops of this country, you'll find plenty of men who wielded considerable political influence, in the sense of looking after their (often poor immigrant) flocks and working with the political machines that sought to both protect and benefit from the packed immigrant neighborhoods.

While these bishops certainly worked hard to catechize their flocks and convey the doctrines of the faith, they also played politics on a scale none of our modern prelates could even aspire to. (I don't think a bishop has called for or stopped a riot any time recently, but both used to be well within the capability of the prelates of cities like New York and Boston.)

With the waining of the "Catholic ghetto" and the general slackening of Catholic cultural solidity in the last sixty years, this power has mostly vanished. I think there's also been a deliberate attempt on the part of the hierarchy to become more "pastoral" and less political in their approach. (It may also have been helped by the evaporation of the Democratic party as a Catholic-friendly option. Traditionally, Catholics had been solid Democrats, and I think many bishops would far rather be "non-partisan" than be seen as in any clear sense aligned with the other party.) A few still like to play the game. It was downright fun to watch Cardinal Mahony swing the LA City Council around by its tail while pushing to be able to build his cathedral where we wanted to -- though the process of seeing the monstrosity go up was considerably less fun.

One of the ironies of the new wave of orthodox Catholicism in the last 25 years, is that despite its deep love for tradition, it is in many ways a re-building rather than a continuation. This is added to by the fact that so many of our writers these days are converts from within the last 25 years -- as indeed is Fr. Neuhaus. Even among cradle Catholic like myself, we have often fallen in love with a historic Catholicism which needs to be rebuilt before it can be experienced.

Thus, while I think that it is a good point that the primary duty of bishops is to server as a shepherd in regards to faith and morals, it is perhaps also as well to recall that for more than half of Catholicisms history bishops have been temporal as well as spiritual princes. I would assume that, back when the bishop of a major city might maintain his own army and try to make sure that his own preferred claimant achieved the temporal throne, people would naturally have been able to discern the the distinction between a bishop's temporal and spiritual activities.

Is it really reasonable to believe that today's bishops will not also have their own partisan leanings? Is it necessary to ask the bishops to remain silent on temporal issues, or should we simply try to remain clear on what are the firm teachings of the faith versus what is the "political battle to bring about the most just society possible."

Friday, September 14, 2007

Hell Is...

...When you get home after the last day of a long week, find that the rest of the family won't be home for about an hour, have a good book to read, and so you go to the fridge. You put ice in a glass. You add lime juice. You add a generous portion of gin.

And then you find NO TONIC WATER. None.

You realize that there are other concentric rings of suffering above you, but in yours you have a gin an tonic, with no tonic.

Fortunately, sometimes you then discover that someone has simply put the tonic water on a lower shelf than you expected. This brief taste of an everlastingly incomplete G&T is simply a foretaste of hell: a warning calling you to repentance.

And so you do what any good Catholic does when warned against his many sinful habits: you take your completed gin and tonic over to the couch and read, because while you are there steeped in good prose and mid-shelf gin, you know that you certainly won't have time to commit any sins.

Evolutionary Dating

For your Friday dose of science: GNXP provides an evolutionary perspective on why "pretty boys" are popular (with some women) and a chance for us men to figure out what color lizard we are.

Lost in Translation

I got in a bit of a discussion yesterday with Todd of Catholic Sensibility (whose link I finally updated in the blogroll, sorry about that Todd) on another blog, in regards to the forthcoming new English translation of the mass, currently due around 2009.

Now, I'm certainly willing to admit this is a liturgy/classics geek set of concerns, but I must admit myself rather interested in the question of the translation of the mass. As you doubtless know, the official edition even of the new "post-Vatican II" missal is in Latin, and each bishops conference (or in this case, group of bishops conferences) is responsible for coming up with a suitable translation into the vernacular.

There's a lot of general muttering about our current translation (which dates from 1973) into English, among those who care about such things. Others might justly wonder what all the fuss is about. Well, I can't speak for others, but for me the main complaint is that the current English translation seems to have felt a need to eliminate many of the adjectives (and tone superlative adjectives down to basic ones) that seem to serve the place, in the Latin, of emphasizing the importance of what's going on.

Perhaps an example would suffice best to show what I mean. This selection is from the middle of Eucharistic Prayer I, not the most used option, due to its length, but doubtless at least passingly familiar to the average pew-sitter. (I picked the selection because I felt it especially highlighted the point I'm trying to make, but this one is hardly unique in this regard.)
Father, we celebrate the memory of Christ, your Son: we, your people and your ministers, recall his passion, his resurrection from the dead, and his ascension into glory; and from the many gifts you have given us we offer to you, God of glory and majesty, this holy and perfect sacrifice, the bread of life and the cup of eternal salvation.

Look with favor on these offerings and accept them as you once accepted the gifts of your servant Abel, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the bread and wine offered by your priest Melchizedek.
Sound familiar? Okay, here's the Latin for that same section:
Unde et memores, Domine, nos servi tui, sed et plebs tua sancta,
eiusdem Christi, Filii tui, Domini nostri, tam beatae passionis, necnon et ab inferis resurrectionis, sed et in caelos gloriosae ascenionis: offerimus praeclarae maiestati tuae de tuis donis ac datis hostiam puram, hostiam sanctam, hostiam immaculatam, Panem sanctum vitae aeternae et Calicem salutis perpetuae.

Supra quae propitio ac sereno vultu respicere digneris: et accepta habere, sicuti accepta habere dignatus es munera pueri tui iusti Abel, et sacrificium Patriarchae nostri Abrahae, et quod tibi obtulit summus sacerdos tuus Melchisedech, sanctum sacrificium, immaculatam hostiam.
Now, if you're like most folks, that perhaps didn't mean a great deal to you, so I will now render it into what doubtless could be accurately put down as a "schoolboy" translation -- trying simply to err toward accuracy rather than English felicity.
And from which, O Lord, we, your servants but also your holy people, remembering the very blessings of the passion of the same Christ, your Son, our Lord, and also his resurrection from the underworld, and glorious ascension into the heavens: we present to you, in your splendor and majesty, from among the gifts that you have given to us, a pure sacrifice, a holy sacrifice, a spotless sacrifice, the holy bread of eternal life and the chalice of everlasting salvation.

May you deign to look on these with a gracious and serene gaze: and accept them, just as you thought it worthy to accept the offerings of your just servant Abel, and the sacrifice of our Patriarch Abraham, and that which your high priest Mechizedek offered: a holy sacrifice, a spotless victim.
Ouch, yes that was pretty rough wasn't it? But note (even accounting for general clunkiness of my translation) how much more descriptive richness there is in the Latin than the current translation allows to come through. (Indeed, given how wordy English is by comparison, always be suspicious when an English translation has significantly fewer words than the Latin original.)

It's not just a bit of cleaning up here and there, I think, that we see in the current translation, but rather a deliberate decision that "English speakers don't go in for all this florid emotion and description." I get the impression the translators may have found the effusions of the Latin verbiage just a trifle embarrassing. I'm picturing the scene in Gosford Park where one of the characters scolds his wife: "Stop carrying on! One might almost think you were Italian."

Well, I'm not Italian. I don't go in for crawling around from one statue niche to the next on my knees. (Which is just as well, because our church doesn't have any.) But nay-the-less, I think we can all afford to grovel a little more and fling down a few more adjectives in the path of our Savior. English speakers, and Americans in particular, don't normally speak as effusively as the Latin would suggest. But then, the mass is not an email, or a PowerPoint presentation.

Sometimes a higher diction, and a more effusive one, seems more appropriate to prayer, which is not after all supposed to sound like normal speech. After all, we don't say: "Dad, in heaven, your name is good. I hope your rule comes soon and everyone obeys you, on earth and in heaven..."

Thursday, September 13, 2007

For your Thursday afternoon

Ella Fitzgerald, singing Stompin' at the Savoy:

Apologetics: Tahriif

Abu Daoud writes about the Islamic teaching about the tahriif of the Bible, the Arabic word means "corruption" and the teaching is that Jesus and the Old Testament prophets received an exact word-for-word revelation just like Mohammad, but Christians and Jews later corrupsted the writings of these prophets. This is used to explain any contradictions (of which there are of course many) between the Koran and the Bible, which according the Koran is indeed the word of God.

Abu Daoud produces three arguments against the tahriif; the first two will sound familiar from other Christian apologetics, but the third seems to spring from a bit more of a Middle Eastern mindset, and thus is interesting, but a little alien.

Weekday Mass

The last few weeks I've been dragging my tail out of bed one day a week to go to 7am mass before work.

I can't necessarily claim credit for this, since my initial impulse was a solid old-style guilt trip that our associate pastor laid on us one week at bible study. But having once gone, I found myself remembering the things that make solo, early morning mass going so fulfilling.

First off, as the parent, it's a great chance to be able to pay full attention to the mass itself, rather than splitting attention between paying attention to the mass, and trying to make the kids give some vague semblance of at least facing in the right direction.

But it also seems like a much more direct experience of the sacrament, with 20-30 people all within a twenty feet of the priest. At Sunday mass, we usually have 400-600 people and approach standing room only, and the tenor of the liturgy are very much in the hands of the priest and the music director for that mass. The weekday mass, on the other hand, is as much in the hands of the congregation as the priest in many ways. To use the meal analogy which is so often abused in amateur liturgics: a banquet's tone is set by its organizers, but the feel of a dinner party is as much a result of the guests as the hosts.

Something that struck me these last few weeks is how young our parish really is. Growing up, most of my experience of going to daily mass was with my grandparents, who were daily communicants. Daily mass in their parish was the domain of a dozen folks in their eighties who congregated as Denny's or McDonalds afterwards for breakfast. And at 7am, the old ladies got the mass they wanted, one way or another. When the priest forcibly retired the sanctus bells, the sanctuary echoed with half a dozen old ladies loudly jingling their keys at the elevation.

Own own weekday mass has an average age a good thirty or forty years younger than my grandparents' parish did, and a number of brave souls even march in their kids each morning. The middle-aged woman who sits in the front row in her veil keeps custody of a set of sanctus bells, and the hymns we croak out a capella in our morning voices are generally much older than the ones that the music leaders invariably select for Sundays.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Did the World "Change Forever"?

One of the frustrations for those seeking surety from science is that the observational method of modern science does not tell us how the universe works -- it tells us how the universe appears to work so far, where we happen to be at the moment. Thus, when we say, "According to the law of gravity, two objects are attracted to each other by a force equal to the product of their masses divided by the square of the distance between them" what we actually mean is "Up to this point, in all situations that we've observed, it appears that objects behave that way."

With our ability to deduce patterns, we all fall victim from time to time to false assumptions that what we've observed lately is universally the case, not just in relation to physics, but to everyday life. My cat is convinced that when I come down from putting the kids to bed, he will invariably received canned cat food -- not realizing that if his store of cans in the pantry has run out I simply can't provide him with any. Back during the internet boom, I imagined I could keep my sales job at the web company I worked for until I was ready to move and trade up to something higher paid -- until the day we all arrived for shift and found the door locked.

I recall back, in the days following the 9-11 attacks, various co-workers saying over and over again, "It will never be the same. The world changed for ever on 9-11." This was usually roughly the same people who said, "I could never imagine anything like this would happen."

Well, of course, it could happen. Indeed, Tom Clancy readers and action movie fans had been steeping themselves in even larger terrorist attacks for years. But a great many people didn't bridge the gap from imagining such things to actually thinking they could happen.

Our country has been fortunate enough in the last century that we have built up a lot of "natural laws" in our heads, based on what has been rather than what must be. There hasn't been a major war on US soil for nearly 150 years. Our economy hasn't collapsed in 80 years. We haven't been invaded in 200 years. We've never suffered a military coup. With the exception of 9-11 and the OKC bombing, terrorism has virtually never happened in our country. The list goes on. In a discussion of poverty in the US a while back, someone demanded with rhetorical irony, "What do you want to tell the working poor, that they're better off than people in Haiti?"

Perhaps that's not a helpful thing to tell people struggling to pay the rent and keep the lights on, but at the same time, we forget all to easily that in the history of the world Haiti is more normal than we are.

So while I've moved states and jobs since 2001, and lost track of my old coworkers from that period, I can't help imagining that to a great extent, the world that changed for them back then has mostly changed back. People tend to expect that tomorrow will be like yesterday, and being ever-ready is more work (and perhaps more depressing) than most people are actually up for. So it is in all times...

At last, the shelf

We finished our bookshelf two weekends ago, and we've been so consumed with admiring our exquisite craftsmanship that it's taken until now for us to post pix. Sorry for the grainy quality of the shot -- sooner or later we'll get around to getting a better digital camera than the one on my cell phone.

Now all we need are two comfy chairs or a bench, and to fix the round coffee table that broke when the t.v. fell on it, and our living room will finally look almost complete.*

*We've only lived here four years.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

In this House of Brede

I am most indebted to everyone who suggested I read In This House of Brede. Darwin brought it home from the library for me last night. I sat down with the book right after dinner, and at twenty pages in had already drawn two conclusions:

1) This was going to be an absolutely gripping novel.
2) Rumer Godden is a consummate master of her craft.

In This House of Brede is an elegant and eloquent account of life in the Benedictine abbey of Brede, anchored (though not tethered) by the story of Phillipa, a wealthy businesswoman who leaves behind her worldly successes to follow her vocation. Godden never holds herself aloof from the complexities of ninety-odd women each trying in her own way to life out the Benedictine ideal. Instead, she creates a beautifully delineated picture of the joys, the consistency, and the sometime pettiness of the cloistered contemplative life, centered around the seven-fold structure of the Hours.

I read late into the night, finally turning the last page at 1:30. Tired as I was, I lay awake meditating on the life of a Benedictine: the series of prayers, the singing, the assigned tasks, the night vigils. Not half an hour later, as I washed a girl, dressed her again, stripped her bed, and put the sheets in the wash, I smiled to think that for all the differences, the night vigil is something the cloistered nun and mother of small children have in common.

*Addendum* Thanks especially to Entropy, who put the idea in my head.

Catholic Fiction

And speaking of good books, Catholic Bibliophagist has a post up on the question of "what is Catholic Fiction?" In addition to some good ideas as to what this is, she asks for suggestions of good novels that people consider Catholic.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Book Review: Eifelheim by Michael Flynn

For some months now, various other Catholic bloggers (mainly JulieD of Happy Catholic) have been telling me I should read Eifelheim by Michael Flynn, a science fiction novel about aliens who crash in Germany's Black Forest during 1348. I've been on a non-fiction kick lately, and hadn't got around to it, but when a copy came across my path at Half Priced Books one day last week, I picked it up. Over the weekend, I dug in and read it -- which as MrsDarwin can attest means that I was no use at all for long periods of the weekend, as the young monkeys tried to sort out their own rather liberalized doctrine of just war theory: if my sister is within reach, then hitting her for any reason is justified.

If you haven't heard of it before, the elevator pitch for Eifelheim is that it tracks to sets of characters: the inhabitants of the medieval village (with the parish priest as main character) who are trying to understand and help the shipwrecked aliens (who look rather like giant grasshoppers), and a couple of modern academics whose disparate fields (physics and analytical history) come together to show evidence that our first contact with another species was about 800 years before.

The modern characters border on being annoying, mainly as a result of being so very, very modern. But they take up at most 20% of the text space in the book, and eventually come to serve as some interesting counterpoint to the medieval characters, with whom I, at least, found myself much more in sympathy than the modern ones.

What makes the book fascinating is what a good job Flynn has done in getting across clearly and humanly the intellectual and religious cast of the high middle ages. There's been a trend in the last few decades within the academic community towards re-examining a lot of the old stereotypes about what the "medieval" period was actually about. Judging by this interview, Flynn's work benefited quite a bit from reading that scholarship:
Question: Your protagonist, the village priest, is extremely rational and logical. Aren't medieval clergymen, as well as the rest of the Christian world at that time, supposed to be unscientific?

Flynn: The Middle Ages was an age of reason ... and yet we've been taught to think of it as an age of superstition. It probably glorified reason far more than the Age of Reason. The medievals invented the university, with a standard curriculum, courses of study, degrees and, of course, funny hats.

The curriculum that was taught consisted almost entirely of reason, logic and natural philosophy—or, as we'd say, science. They didn't teach humanities, they didn't teach the arts, they taught essentially logical reasoning and natural philosophy. If you wanted to be a doctor of theology, a churchman, you had to first go through a course in science and thinking.

This was an era where the most celebrated theologian of all time was Thomas Aquinas, who dared to apply logic and reason to the study of theology. In fact, theology is the application of logic and reason to religious questions. They must have elevated reason to a pretty high pedestal if they were willing to subject their own religion to it.

In the Middle Ages, they first learned how to apply mathematics to scientific questions. After the time of the story, Nicholas Oresme, who was mentioned briefly in passing, was able to prove the mean speed theorem in physics using principles of Euclidean geometry, which marks the first time a theory had been proven by using mathematics, as opposed to us[ing] mathematics to describe the angle of refraction or to do surveying.
Much of what makes Eifelheim such a pleasure to read is how convincingly Flynn plays out the conversation between the village priest (who was trained in natural philosophy, philosophy, and theology in the universities of Paris, but has been lying low for the last decade as a parish priest after becoming a bit too involved in the radical politics of his day) and several of the scientists among the aliens, who have what in many ways is a fairly normal, modern, materialist point of view.

Although listening to a medieval Aristotelian/Thomist discussing cosmology with an advanced, materialist, star-farer makes for a lot of fun (at least, if you're in medieval cosmology) what most readers will probably find much more compelling at a human level are the religious discussions that go on between the human characters and the aliens. The Krenken, as the German villages term the aliens, find the idea of caritas somewhat alien, especially when applied across classes -- which in their species remain very rigid, due to their insect-like heritage. The religious dimension of the story is very well rounded, with the pastor's rationalism balanced by the strong but at times theologically fanciful faith of a young Minorite Franciscan who is staying in the village, and a very interesting cast of other characters from the village and the manor.

I've heard Eifelheim compared to Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, another science fiction novel involving the period right before and during the Black Death. I liked Doomsday Book quite a bit, though I thought that in some places Willis' Episcopalian conviction that the medieval church in England had been more Anglican than Catholic felt a bit jarring at a historical level at times. Eifelheim is far from being as unrelentingly grim as the latter of of Doomsday Book, even when the plague does come to the village, yet I think that at a human level it is actually more powerful at a human level. The intersection of humans, aliens, Catholicism and the impending dooms of both the humans and some of their alien friends bring out some very interesting and important questions about humanity and Christianity, and some pretty good answers.

If there's weakness in the book, it's in the modern (or more properly, near future) segments, which take up maybe 20% of the books pages. There's a somewhat odd narrative choice to have these segments narrated first person by a minor character who comes in only very late in the modern narrative, giving you an odd first person but almost third person view. I've no idea why the author made that choice, and it's a bit jarring at times. The personal/relationship problems of the modern character also never see the sort of wrap up one might want to see -- living you with the impression that the medieval characters have it much more together than the modern ones. I'm not sure if this was intentional or not. I could almost wish that Flynn had dispensed with the modern plot entirely and instead wrapped with more concluding material in the medieval segment, perhaps with some of the events which evidently took place 20-40 years after the main action in that part of the book.

Overall, though, this is a very, very good book.

Friday, September 07, 2007

How Now Brown Frau?

I've always wanted to use that title, and it's been a while since I've pulled in some hard core science/genetics content.

Razib of GeneExpression has a lengthy post up on a recent paper looking at the genetic basis for skin color variation in South Asian populations. A couple of interesting take-aways (as I understand them) for the person not up for reading about specific genes:
  • Despite the massive cultural movements in and out of India and Europe in the last 10,000 years since the end of the last ice age, in both regions the majority of the ancestors of the population go back to the end of the last ice age.
  • The highest caste (and often lightest skinned) groups within India have the highest proportion of non-Indian ancestry (going back 10k years).
  • The overall skin color difference between the African and European populations is primarily the result of a single gene which is set differently in each population. Variations in skin color within each population are then the result of variation in other genes that affect skin color.
  • Skin color in the East Asian population is the result of different genes, thus suggesting a longer term population separation.
  • In the case of South Asians, variation in skin color is to a great extent the result of variation in the same gene that controls the primary difference between European and African skin coloration -- and yet the appearance of that gene doesn't seem highly correlated to other neutral markers that would suggest European genetic input. That suggests that both populations have independently begun selecting for the same mutation in that gene (producing light skin color) within the last 10,000 years.

Anyway, if that's not already genetics for you, go check out Razib's post, since he actually knows what he's talking about, and I'm just a clever and interested parrot. Or, if you've no interest in genetics, some may still want to check out the Bollywood babes whom Razib uses to illustrate his skin tone point. You know who you are.

UPDATE: See Razib's comment for a few clarifications, explanations on my bullets above.

The Iranian Schindler's List

In this morning's Wall Street Journal:
Every Monday night at 10 o'clock, Iranians by the millions tune into Channel One to watch the most expensive show ever aired on the Islamic republic's state-owned television. Its elaborate 1940s costumes and European locations are a far cry from the typical Iranian TV fare of scarf-clad women and gray-suited men.

But the most surprising thing about the wildly popular show is that it is a heart-wrenching tale of European Jews during World War II.

The hour-long drama, "Zero Degree Turn," centers on a love story between an Iranian-Palestinian Muslim man and a French Jewish woman. Over the course of the 22 episodes, the hero saves his love from Nazi detention camps, and Iranian diplomats in France forge passports for the woman and her family to sneak on to airplanes carrying Iranian Jews to their homeland.... [full article -- registration may be required]
The article goes on to explain that the perhaps odd programming choice, from a country that routinely demands that Israel be wiped from the face of the earth, may in part be an attempt by the Iranian government (through their state-run television) to emphasize that while they demand the extermination of Israel, they believe they treat native Iranian Jews (of which there are roughly 25,000 still in Iran) fairly. That may be small comfort of Israeli's as the possibility of an all-out confrontation betweel Israel and Iran over Iran's nuclear program becomes more likely, but the TV show is an interesting phenominon nonetheless.

The creation of the show explained that, "he came up with the idea for "Zero Degree Turn" four years ago as he was reading books about World War II and stumbled across literature about charge d'affaires at the Iranian embassy in Paris. Abdol Hussein Sardari saved over a thousand European Jews by forging Iranian passports and claiming they belonged to an Iranian tribe."

It sounds like in some ways the show is indeed managing to put a human face on the plight of European Jews in the Holocause, which the Iranian president is on the record as denying the existence of. However, it sounds like they also couldn't help getting their political digs in:
The message appears to be grabbing the public. Sara Khatibi, a 35-year-old mother and chemist in Tehran, says she and her husband never miss an episode. "All we ever hear about Jews is rants from the government about Israel," she says. "This is the first time we are seeing another side of the story and learning about their plight."

The show also pushes Iran's political line regarding the legitimacy of Israel: The Jewish state was conceived in modern times by Western powers rather than as part of a centuries-old desire of Jews for a return to their ancestral homeland. In one scene, a rabbi declares it a bad idea for Jews to resettle in Arab lands. In another, the French Jewish protagonist refuses a marriage offer by a cousin, who is advocating the creation of Israel.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Islamic Apologetics: Original Sin

Abu Daoud of Islam and Christianity shares a specimen of Islamic apologetics from a Muslim website:
Q. Jesus sacrificed himself to save mankind and deliver us from the sin, why did not Muhammad do so?

A. You did not study history enough and you did not know unfortunately what happened to Jesus, peace be upon him. Jesus, peace be upon him, did not sacrifice his life for our sins. And if it were to be true, Jesus would have been sent by God as the first child of Adam to save our sins. We human beings are born without sin, pure. Again, Jesus, peace be upon him, was not crucified. Go back and find who the one crucified was. If you don’t know, we will tell you. Jesus in as much as God brought was a hypocrite whose name was Juda, became his look like and then people crucified him thinking he was Jesus.
Abu Daoud explains, "I include this sort of thing on the blog not to frustrate non-Muslims, but to show them what Islamic thinking looks like. This sort of idea is what you face every day when you live with Muslims and you share the Gospel with them."

The Pit

Many years ago, a good friend told me, "I had an experience once, on the basis of which I am sure that either God exists, or I am insane. So I don't really have any problems with that question."

That sounds awfully nice to know -- but I certainly could not say the same myself. My own faith is, I suppose, much more intellectual. If I were cornered and asked to give the one minute explanation of why I am Catholic, I would reply that I am Catholic because although I can readily imagine that Catholicism is not true, the only other alternative I can see would be in agnosticism -- and although I can imagine that God either does not exist or is knowable, to my mind the world simply wouldn't make any sense at that point. Without God, and specifically the God of the historic Christian religion which is Catholicism, the world simply doesn't mean much of anything. We're just a bunch of highly intelligent primates whose pattern discerning urge tends to go into hyperdrive and identify meaning where there isn't any. And I simply can't believe that that's the case.

Thus, my lack of surety that God exists doesn't really bother me. The alternative is a pit of nonsense; a pit without a bottom.

But I'm also the sort of person who thrives on knowledge. Like Kipling's mongoose, "Run and find out," could be my motto.

So while I wouldn't feel like I'd missed out on much by believing in something rather than believing in nothing if I'd been wrong -- the one thing that really bothers me is that if I'd been wrong I'd never know it. If we're wrong for believing that God exists, that souls exist, that an afterlife exists; we won't get some brief instant after death in which we're told, "Ha, you were wrong. The universe makes no sense and you hadn't the wits to realize it!" and have the chance to respond back, "If for two thousand years up to my time, we poor apes imagined something so much better than reality, I'm glad to be wrong."

It seems the idea of being wrong would be more bearable, if it weren't that I'd never know that I'd been wrong.

But then, who ever said faith was easy?

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Washing out the plastic bag

One of the oddest things I've heard around recently is that some people, in an effort to be environmentally conscious, wash out and reuse plastic Ziploc bags. This kind of puzzles me. Why would one wash out plastic bags instead of just using a plastic container that's designed to be washed multiple times and will last much longer? I don't ask to mock; I'm just curious as to the motivation. I have to say that most of the time I use Ziploc bags for such purposes as storing raw meat, and I would be dubious of the likelihood of getting all the crevices clean enough for reuse.


Catholic Bibliophagist writes about removing duplicates from her library, and the ones she can't bear to part with.

When re-organizing the books this weekend (after finally finishing the bookshelf project) we weeded out a dozen or so duplicates to go down to Half Price Books for credit. But these were just modern paperbacks we'd had to buy in college (and the copy of Emile that we decided we would never read again, even if it wasn't a duplicate.)

Finding Wealth Beyond Measure

One of the things that helps, I suppose, in coughing up a (hopefully) thoughtful post or two every day is having an imagination that tends to grasp a piece of information and immediately slip sideways with it. Thus, when reading a history piece about the pre-Great War US and an opinion piece about illegal immigration coincided, I found myself wondering: What would things have been like if, in 1905, there had been a vast country just to the north of the US which was operation at current US levels of technology and affluence?

In 1905 much of our economy was still agricultural, and "blue collar" work was grim and low paid by today's standards. We talk about the growing gap between rich and poor today, but in most ways that's got nothing on the gap that existed in 1905.

The US wasn't in famine in 1905, it wasn't poverty stricken, but if you lived on a poor family farm it wouldn't necessarily be unusual for your diet to be highly monotonous. Porridge for breakfast, lunch and dinner dominated by bread. Vegetable and fruit were actually seasonal, unless they were jarred or canned. Here in the modern US people go on protein only diets because carbs do too good a job of providing a lot of energy in a small package -- for most of human history people have lived on carbs most of the time for the very same reason.

My grandfather, who grew up in rural New Mexico and joined the navy in 1945, talks about how the thing that amazed him when he joined up was the amount of food they were given. There was as much food as you wanted, and there were a couple different kinds at each meal. You didn't get that in a small mining town in NM in the 30s and 40s.

Before the Great Depression, the early part of this century was in some ways a pretty wide-open, optimistic place to be, for all of what in these days would seem like deprivation. But what if, just across the border, was untold wealth? Wealth that you just couldn't imagine. So much wealth that by laboring in the fields illegally you could make ten times what you could make working back at home.

That kind of temptation would be hard to resist. The dreamers, the ambitious, those looking for a quick buck, the adventurers -- a whole mix of different people, good and bad, hard working and not would have headed up to see what it was all about and try to get a piece of it. The rich would have gone there on vacation and for medical care.

Clearly, there are differences. The countries from which streams of immigrants want to come into our country are not in fact 100 years behind us in technology, though in some economic and political senses they may be nearly a century behind. But it seems an interesting thought experiment.

In order to pioneer, I think you need in some sense to feel like you are being the first. Pioneering something that was already pioneered by others provides no rush and sense of accomplishment. Indeed, when you have yet to pioneer something which for others is common place, I think there's a strong feeling that you should just be able to go get it, or be given it. Why should a whole country have to struggle and strain to attain something which has become so ordinary as to be unappreciated elsewhere? Why shouldn't it just happen without any work at that point?

Well, of course, things don't just happen without any work. Old roads still need work to travel down. That's just how the world works.

But I think we can count ourselves very, very fortunate that we were able to go into new territory first. It certainly wasn't easy, but it avoids a whole set of neurosis and loss of valuable talent that countries must face when they still need to boldly go where most other people went 50+ years before.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007


So last Sunday we heard:
He told a parable to those who had been invited,
noticing how they were choosing the places of honor at the table.
“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet,
do not recline at table in the place of honor.
A more distinguished guest than you may have been invited by him,
and the host who invited both of you may approach you and say,
‘Give your place to this man,’
and then you would proceed with embarrassment
to take the lowest place.
Rather, when you are invited,
go and take the lowest place
so that when the host comes to you he may say,
‘My friend, move up to a higher position.’
Then you will enjoy the esteem of your companions at the table.
I suppose another observation that might be made about humility is that if you're a young woman wearing a t-shirt which proclaims "Everything is BIGGER in Texas!" across your bosom, the guy standing in line behind you to buy his lunch may notice that the shirt is not looking all that filled out in the chest region.

This example clearly didn't make it into the parable for two reasons:
  1. Christ didn't live in Texas
  2. He was too much of a gentleman to note such things

However, not everyone is Christ...

Happy Birthday to my favorite four-year-old

Today we celebrate Julia, who is a whopping four years old.

Julia is a lady and a consummate fashionista. She prefers to wear the right shoes and dress for the occasion, whether it's going to church or attending a dinner party or simply because the clock says 2:05. The delight of her life is dancing with wild and fabulous gyrations around the living room, particularly to her favorite song, which (in a fine illustration of her personality) is "I Won't Dance." Her older sister is her best friend and pushes her to achieve newer and better heights, particularly when it comes to climbing the crape myrtle in the back yard.

Julia wears her Kiki bow, fashioned out of burlap and a piece of yarn.

Happy birthday, sweets! You may be in the middle, but you never fade into the woodwork.

The Darwins: Sub-prime Lending Victims?

Catching up on my blog reading while taking the day off yesterday, I saw that Fr. Martin Fox had a great post up about the sub-prime lending crisis.

I've been keeping my head down and my mouth closed lately at work, as some of my more vocal colleagues have been wandering the aisles lately demanding to know what the lending industry was thinking and why the government didn't put safeguards in place to make sure they wouldn't lend money to people who could afford to pay their loans.

As Father Fox says, maybe it's time to re-write It's A Wonderful Life with George Bailey as the predatory lending villain and Mr. Potter as the man of virtue, who knows not to lend all those simple little poor people money they can't afford to pay back.

Not to say that there weren't predatory lenders out there, I'm sure that there were places out there seeking to give loans out on terms likely to reap lots of short term interest while paying off very little principle, and then packaging those loans up and selling them off to other institutions before the chickens came home to roost. (One of the reasons this whole thing is such a problem is that mortgages are now routinely packaged and traded as commodities, just like bonds, which means that it's by no means only the places that originally gave out bad loans which are now having problems.)

But at the same time, there are a lot of people who may not look like a good credit risk who want (and can pay for) the chance to own their own houses.

When we moved out here four years ago, we fit the bill exactly. Indeed, far better than our lenders could have realized. My California employer (which was going to miss me) had agreed to keep me on for a month after I moved in order to tie up loose ends. I didn't have a job in Texas yet, though I thought I might be able to get freelance work if I couldn't find a job right off. So I bought a house based on the job I knew was actually going to end within a month -- and we put down less than 10% because I wanted to keep some of our savings in case the job thing took a while to work out.

Not only that, but we did indeed get a 5-1 ARM, a loan with a very low initial interest rate which goes adjustable rate after five years. I figured that in five years we might be ready to move, and if we weren't, that I'd be making a lot more by then.

As it turns out, I was right. Though as the sub-prime crisis suggests, there were a lot of people who weren't.

So yes, lenders should be careful, and of course people seeking to borrow sums equal to 2-5x their annual income should read the fine print, and then read it again, and then think hard. But I certainly am not going to start wandering the aisles demanding to know "who would be stupid enough to lend money to 'those people'" any time soon -- because I'm rather glad to have been one of "those people".

The world has gotten rather to big for George Bailey's, I guess. Your lender isn't going to be able to know, "This looks like a promising young family. I think they'll be making twice as much in four years." So short of that, I'm glad I was able to slip through the system without anyone looking too closely.