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

Sunday, April 30, 2017

A Record of my Copious Spare Time

Some days I wonder why I'm always tired, and why my brain doesn't seem to function, and why I don't read like I used to. Here, for future reference, is a record of the second half of this past week.

Wednesday

Still seven months pregnant. I haven't seen my right anklebone for several weeks, but it could be worse.

Morning -- Schoolwork
2:30 -- hastily scheduled doctor's appointment for a child having strange back/abdominal pains (diagnosis: musculoskeletal, heat and tylenol. Why do I even take my kids to the doctor?)
5:30 -- The actress eats and is driven to dress rehearsal at parish school.
6:15 -- The family eats and gets ready for German.
6:30 -- Darwin arrives home and eats.
7:00-8:30 -- German. The actress is dropped off at 8:00
8:30-10:00 -- Hearing about rehearsal, settling everyone, lots of chatter, sisters arguing, bedtime routines, prayers.
10:00 -- Parents are exhausted.

Thursday

9:00-11:30 -- Piano
Schoolwork
4:00 -- Feed babysitters; they walk to their job.
5:00 -- Feed actress; drop her at dress rehearsal; small kids in the car since the babysitters are gone. Bathe younger two who have gotten so disgustingly dusty outside that they look gray.
6:00 -- Feed three kids at home, get bathed dancer ready for ballet.
6:20 -- Darwin arrives home, grabs dancer and runs her to her class.
6:30 -- Darwin arrives home again, eats.
7:15 -- Ballet class over.
9:00 -- Darwin goes down to wait at dress rehearsal, which will certainly not be over at 9:00. I chase down three youngest and get them ready for bed. Babysitters arrive home.
10:30 -- Darwin and actress arrive home after running to the store for several things, none of which is the paper towels.
10:30-11:15 -- rehearsal recap and post-mortem.
11:15 -- Big girls to bed; parents exhausted.

Friday

Morning -- schoolwork
11:00 -- run actress and spot operator down to school performance; leave four at home.
11:10-2:30 -- plant seeds in plastic cups and a pot and in one corner of the planter; make a growth chart, each child places seed cup in a different window so we can track growth. Wash the grubby child.
2:30 -- pick up thespians. Due to technical difficulties, the show didn't get started until quite late, so it ended suddenly on a cliffhanger so the buses could leave on time, and the thespians will need to go back Monday afternoon to finish the last act. Note to self: email voice teacher and tell her that the girls might be late for lessons Monday afternoon. Darwin is home early. We do not do useful stuff in our time together, but sit around talking and checking the internet.
5:00 -- Dinner.
5:30 -- Run actress and spot operator down for call. Set up concessions; realize I have enough work that I might as well just run home now and get the third girl to help me. Make a quick sign on the computer with ticket prices.
6:00 -- Back to school. Set up concessions booth. Price all snacks using insider knowledge based on living with a pricing analyst. Give some makeup advice on how contouring for the stage is different from street makeup.
6:30  -- Cash box arrives; concession sales start.
7:00 -- Show. A great performance, and the new sound system makes it all better.
7:45 -- Intermission. Run concession sales.
8:30 -- Show over. Darwin takes younger ones home. More concession sales; clean-up; cash out concessions and ticket boxes; sweep; finally drag actress away from chatting with friends. It's pouring outside.
10:30 -- Home. Show post-mortem.
11:15 -- Pack excited girls up to bed. Parents exhausted.

Saturday

9:00 -- Darwin to shooting competition.
10:20 -- Drop three girls off at dance studio for Picture Day. Dance costumes, makeup, and frou-frou will be taken care of there by 13yo. Thank God for older children.
11:20 -- Drop off oldest at dance studio, leave two boys (8 and 3) at home for five minutes watching Phineas and Ferb.
11:25 -- Boys are alive and have not budged from in front of the screen.
12:00 -- Darwin's competition was eventually thundered out, but he went to the store and came home with various things, including the paper towels.
12:10 -- Girls call and say they're done with Picture Day. I run over, but two want to stay there and chat with friends, who will bring them home.
Afternoon -- We ought to get work done, but it's still pouring, and anyway, I'm finally motivated to write that post riffing on The Handmaid's Tale. It takes a long time because there is a lot of stuff going on in the house -- friends in and out, marshmallows being made in the already messy kitchen, Darwin and I developing ideas, cranky 3yo.
4:30 -- Darwin works on a German translation while I make a dish for the German Round Table potluck.
5:00 -- Darwin to German Round Table, I feel kids.
5:30 -- Down to school for call. I set up concessions, set up ticket table, sweep entry hall, assemble programs with the kids, spend a long time trying to clear out the jammed stapler. 3yo is bored and gets passed from sibling to sibling.
6:30 -- Darwin arrives.
7:00 -- Show. Even better than last night.
8:30 -- Final bows, closing night speeches, cash out concessions and ticket boxes. All leftover snacks over to the cast party.
9:30-11:00 -- Cast Party. About 20 wound-up middle graders eat pizza, drink soda, reenact favorite scenes and dances. Chaperones guard the food table and ensure that this year there is no food fight.
11:15 -- Home. More post-mortem.
11:45 -- Pack big girls up to bed. Parents exhausted.

Sunday

10:00 -- Breakfast.
11:00 -- Get ready for church. Where are 3yo's pants?
12:15 Mass.
3:00 -- Darwin to church with 13yo for Confirmation rehearsal.
3:20 -- I head to church with PSR kids for religion class, plus 3yo so that oldest can get in her word count for last day of NaNoWriMo.
3:45-5:15 -- PSR classes. 3yo comes with me because my 6-7th graders are watching a movie today. Keep 3yo from gorging on fruit snacks, eventually let him write on the whiteboard because the movie isn't holding his attention.
5:30 -- finish clean-up, head to playground to chat with a friend.
5:40 -- remember that 8yo has to build a cubmobile at 6:00.
5:45 -- home for cold pizza left over from cast party; Darwin and 8yo leave.
Evening -- kids fuss to watch a movie while I stare into space for a long time.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Surrogate's Tale

About five years into the program, the dormitories were built. It was a natural offshoot of the work, and a work of charity as well -- more and more women in need were applying to be part of the program. Homeless women, jobless women, divorced women finding it hard to make ends meet (but without children of their own -- that wasn't allowed any more, because those women should be taking care of the children they already had). College students had long been a mainstay of the program, because it was getting harder to be hired into a good job right out of school, and people weren't getting married early anymore. And of course no one was obliged or compelled to be a Benefactor -- the requirements were clearly spelled out, and there were counseling requirements to be met before a woman was accepted into the program.

Terminology was set in the early stages. The clients were called "Sponsors". Advocacy groups pushed for the term 'parents', but the language of parenthood was fraught in cases where there were anywhere between two and five parties involved in the development of the fetus, and the directors thought it best avoided. And using the term Sponsor deftly sidestepped any judgment of the client, whether it was an infertile couple, or a pair of gay men, or a career woman who couldn't afford the setback of pregnancy, or an actress who relied on a body unblemished. The term for the surrogates had gone through many evolutions. "Surrogate" itself was considered too clinical, "Carrier" was too demeaning, and "Mother" was, off course, right out. Eventually a cadre of outside consultants settled upon "Benefactor" as striking just the right note -- women helping others, giving the precious gift of parenthood to others.

The dormitories were part of the aesthetic of benefaction. The initial Benefactors were cultured women from elite colleges, attractive, healthy, saddled with debt. These coveted genes commanded good money, but there had been problems with administration -- missed doctor's appointments, substandard diets, substandard housing, lifestyle choices that might harm the fetuses. Apparently a single pregnant woman needed more of a network than a monthly check and a monthly check-in. The dormitories offered concierge living -- in-house doctors, a cafeteria, live-in monitors who exercised motherly care over the Benefactors. The Monitors helped ensure that the Benefactors were making good choices with their pregnancies. Sometimes, left to themselves, the Benefactors might engage in unprotected sex or eat less-than-healthy foods. Sometimes, they might take unapproved medicines that could harm the baby, like some unapproved anti-nausea remedies or Tylenol. The health of the fetuses was very important, and everyone needed to work together to ensure that a perfect baby was delivered to the Sponsors.

Again, the dormitories allowed for a wider range of Benefactors, and a wider range of prices. College-educated women with various positive physical specifications could command the highest compensation, but there were potential Sponsors who wanted babies without being able to afford Grade A rates, even with the upswing in insurance coverage. (The dormitories were key in getting insurance approval, in fact -- private surrogacy arrangements were increasingly seen as too risky to cover.) But there were other less-qualified women willing, even desperate, to participate in the surrogacy programs, desiring the security of dorm life and the paycheck, and so a new pricing structure was developed. Past drug use, homelessness, a lower IQ -- why should these preclude a woman from giving back to society? And if they were helping Sponsors with a lower income to get their desired baby while establishing a more stable life, who could complain? 

People did complain, of course. The program was controversial from the beginning, creating a new intersectionality between radical feminists and conservative Christians. The objections ranged from "dignity" to "the rights of the child" to "treating women as objects" to "institutional patriarchal oppression". But most people didn't think too hard about the programs, and the directors knew that there were plenty of professed feminists whose ideals could not resist the money offered to Benefactors, and plenty of professed Christians whose ideals didn't stand up to pain of their infertility. More and more people knew someone who'd been involved with the program, either as a Sponsor or Benefactor, and less and less people were being judgmental.

And there were success stories: The women who'd paid off their college educations, put aside a nest egg, made connections, and found good jobs based on their new network. The former drug addict who'd turned her life around, the homeless woman who'd found her purpose helping gay couples achieve their dream family. Particularly physically attractive Benefactors could receive placement help with pregnancy modeling agencies. Literary reputations were established. A significant number of alumni found fulfillment as counselors, social workers, and other altruistic careers. Past experience as a Benefactor wasn't even seen as a detriment in the marriage market -- it ensured that a woman knew what she was getting into with pregnancy, if she opted to go the route of bearing her own child, and anyway, only in the program could one expect to find a virgin, even at the premium prices that a clean sexual history could command. The mainstream societal vision of being a Benefactor fluctuated between an ideal, an obligation, and a vocational program.

The rules for residency were quite liberal -- Benefactors could maintain their jobs if they preferred, or could take classes to earn a GED or get college credit if necessary. Leaves to visit family or friends, or for vacations, were generally granted, assuming specific dietary and exercise obligations were maintained. Sexual contact was not prohibited, though Sponsors could select from a menu of preferred restrictions (and price options), ranging from "no preference" to "screened partners only" to "no genital contact". 

No good program was without its glitches, of course. Sponsors demanded more say into the details of the Benefactor's diets, medical care, exercise routines, and delivery plans. Some Sponsors wanted c-sections for more control over the process and timing; some wanted natural births with no interventions. Some wanted to be able to drop in for unannounced inspections. One memorable day, a Sponsor discovered that their Benefactor had been smoking. The upshot was that the Benefactor was released from the program, the Sponsor opting to start afresh with a new Benefactor and fetus.

The program offered six weeks of residential care, support, and a set number of medical follow-up visits and birth control counseling to provide for Benefactors who had successfully completed their term of service. These were free, included as natural and humane extension of the program. The program remained aloof from various controversies about the state of maternal leave in the United States, as of course the Benefactors were not burdened with the care and maintenance of a newborn. No objection was made if former Benefactors preferred to receive medical care and counseling from the many partisan organizations devoted to crisis pregnancies and support for traumatized women -- if a woman had regrets, she was better off with her own kind, and her own kind could bear the cost. Women who did not complete the follow-up care with the program also received a note in their file indicating unsuitability.

The Benefactors were not passive, of course. There were always attempts to unionize. Some women could not fit into the program. A pattern of miscarriages earned a Benefactor a polite dismissal from the program -- at no cost to her, of course. No woman was obliged to stay with the program if she really wanted to leave, but naturally there were contractual obligations to be met and expenses to be reimbursed. And there was always the issue of the fetuses. Obligatory monthly ultrasounds might reveal defects which needed to be dealt with. Most Sponsors preferred to terminate at that point (and no wonder at the cost of the program), but some Benefactors objected. If the Sponsors particular arrangement did not obligate him or her or zir to accept the fetus as-is, but the Benefactor refused to terminate, the Benefactor was released (with a note in her file indicating unsuitability for future benefacting). There were plenty of private programs to place the fetus or offer support to former Benefactors. The program, whose terms were clearly set forth, did not make provision for defaulters.

Stories did tend to circulate around the dorms, like the urban legend about the Benefactor who'd wanted out of the program after six months, but refused to terminate or give up the fetus. Supposedly, she'd been placed on house arrest, and then in confinement until the earliest point that the fetus could be safely removed and delivered to the Sponsors. Maybe it happened, maybe it didn't. If so, it was an extreme case. It was only natural to have some kind of bond with the fetus and even to be sad about the Sponsors claiming it at birth, but women had been giving up children since the beginning of history. Pregnancy, clearly consented to, chosen for the good of others, without the complications of sex, fairly compensated, medically optimized -- everything lived up to the mission of the program: "Service, society, autonomy -- building better families through science".


Friday, April 28, 2017

Serious Christianity Is Never Mainstream

Everyone else is taking their stab at the Benedict Option concept, so in the end I too have to get in on the action. Indeed, I just ordered a copy, which is something that I probably would not have done but for the odd phenomenon of Dreher's book being covered with surprising fairness by some venues like The New Yorker while being enthusiastically attacked by a lot of Christian writers, many of whom seem not to have actually read the book. I'll post a review in a couple weeks once I'm done with the book, but in the meantime I have to get in my own contribution to the "I haven't read the book yet but here's my reaction to the concept" genre.

Dreher has been writing about his Benedict Option concept for some years prior to the publication of this book. It's inspired by a quote from Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue:
A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead . . . was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness. If my account of our moral condition is correct, we ought also to conclude that for some time now we too have reached that turning point. . . . This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless quite different—St. Benedict.
The New Yorker piece (which is a really good piece of journalism very much worth your time, providing a remarkably clear-eyed portrayal of Dreher as person and author) summarizes the application of this concept to the current period of rapid cultural and moral consensus thus:
This March, Dreher published “The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation,” which David Brooks, in the Times, has called “the most discussed and most important religious book of the decade.” It asks why there aren’t more places like St. Francisville—places where faith, family, and community form an integrated whole.

Dreher’s answer is that nearly everything about the modern world conspires to eliminate them. He cites the Marxist sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, who coined the term “liquid modernity” to describe a way of life in which “change is so rapid that no social institutions have time to solidify.” The most successful people nowadays are flexible and rootless; they can live anywhere and believe anything. Dreher thinks that liquid modernity is a more or less unstoppable force—in part because capitalism and technology are unstoppable. He urges Christians, therefore, to remove themselves from the currents of modernity. They should turn inward, toward a kind of modern monasticism.
...
“I liken liquid modernity to the Great Flood of the Bible,” Dreher said, at the National Press Club, speaking to a standing-room-only crowd of priests and journalists. The election of Donald Trump, he said, proved that the country was in the midst of a profound moral and spiritual crisis; the fact that so many Christians voted for him suggested a weakness in their faith. American Christianity had been replaced with “a malleable, feel-good, Jesus-lite philosophy perfectly suited to a consumerist, individualistic, post-Christian society that worships the self,” he said. “The flood cannot be turned back. The best we can do is construct arks within which we can ride it out, and by God’s grace make it across the dark sea of time to a future when we do find dry land again, and can start the rebuilding, reseeding, and renewal of the earth.”
I wrote earlier about some ways in which I think MacIntyre's and Dreher's take on the fall of the Roman Empire is overly simplistic from a historical point of view. Leaving that aside, however, I think that Dreher's basic assessment is wrong in its diagnoses of a unique modern moment of crisis between Christianity and the mainstream culture, yet right in its call for a certain type of withdrawal and mutual support for Christians.

Perhaps its worth starting out with the monastic impulse which led Saint Benedict and others to seek lives and prayer and stability away from the secular world. The impetus for the monastic movement was not primarily increasing political chaos in late antiquity. Monastic communities began to form well before the first sack of Rome, while Benedict founded Monte Cassino during the time of the Gothic Kingdom of Italy. Rather, the fathers of monasticism withdrew from the world because they believed that in order to devote oneself fully to the perfection of the Christian life, it was necessary to withdraw from the distractions which are part of pursing earthly success. And indeed, though I believe that I'm doing important work as a husband, father, and provider for a family, I can see that point very clearly. I spend a lot of time dealing with the material needs and wants of this world, and much less pursuing prayer and fasting.

Of course, not everyone is called to the religious life, and Dreher is not actually calling for people to withdraw into a family equivalent of monasteries. It's not a new idea to write about how devout Christians can live in the world without being totally of it. A key work that comes to my mind in this regard is St. Francis de Sales's book Introduction to the Devout Life. The interesting thing about de Sales' work is that it's written specifically with the devout layperson living in the world as its intended audience, and de Sales does not at all assume that the mainstream culture of 1609 is going to be particular reinforcing for Christian virtue.
EITHER to seek or to shun society is a fault in one striving to lead a devout life in the world, such as I am now speaking of. To shun society implies indifference and contempt for one’s neighbours; and to seek it savours of idleness and uselessness. We are told to love one’s neighbour as one’s self. In token that we love him, we must not avoid being with him, and the test of loving one’s self is to be happy when alone. “Think first on thyself,” says S. Bernard, “and then on other men.” So that, if nothing obliges you to mix in society either at home or abroad, retire within yourself, and hold converse with your own heart. But if friends come to you, or there is fitting cause for you to go forth into society, then, my daughter, by all means go, and meet your neighbour with a kindly glance and a kindly heart. (Chapter 24)
Elsewhere he has advice on dressing properly without being vain, attending amusements like dances without being overly frivolous, etc. The idea that you needed to think about whether your attachments to mainstream society were pulling you away from the Christian life is hardly new.

And this, to me, is a key point. de Sales was writing in 1609. Wasn't the mainstream culture Christian then? What about a time like today when the mainstream culture is aggressively contrary to Christian teaching?

It's true that in some other times and places the mainstream culture has given much more lip service to Christianity than it does today. But just because most people in a given time and place were nominally Christian does not mean that most people were devout. And indeed, in some ways, if a hollow version of Christianity is widely accepted, it's all the easier to be lulled into ignoring the ways in which conventional morality differs from actual Christian morality.

So I think that Dreher is very much right that serious Christians today will find themselves to some extent aliens within the mainstream culture. I think he's also right that it's thus important for Christians to realize that being a good Christian may make it hard or impossible for you to achieve some types of worldly success. And he's right that in order to help ourselves persevere in the face of an unfaithful culture, we as social creatures will find ourselves in need of finding community with others who share our determination to live out the faith seriously.

What I draw back from a bit is the idea that our time is unique or apocalyptic in this sense. In his Press Club speech Dreher talks about communities of believers being like arks riding upon the flood of modernity, as if a cataclysm is sweeping over us that we need to wait out so that we can re-populate the world after the chaos is gone. There are clear ways that the mainstream culture of 2017 draws people away from Christianity. That was also the case in 1917, in 1848, in 1788, in 1618, in 1517, in 1378, in 1209, etc. The forces and temptations are different, but those who are committed to living as serious Christians will always find themselves at odds with (and often rejected by) the mainstream culture. We humans are a fallen people, and the more we try to draw back to God and away from our fallen nature, the more we will find ourselves divided from many of our fellows.

The solution, I think, is right, but the crisis is both more universal and less urgent than Dreher at some times seems to imply. We will always be aliens in this world.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Truth, Untruth, And the Benedict Option

Rebecca Bratten Weiss has a piece up about truth, error, and how we encounter it. It ties together three loosely connected arguments under this theme, and there are different and interesting problems with each, so I'd like to work through all three.

First up, she tackles the recurring paroxysms surrounding reactionary (I hesitate to use the word 'conservative') speakers encountering violent reactions at university campuses. The most recent example was the student group which sought to have Ann Coulter give a talk as UC Berkeley. Threats of violence or disruption from organized protest groups objecting to the talk were so great that the university went through several iterations of rescheduling and re-locating the planned talk in an effort to assure security. Eventually, Coulter canceled her planned visit, since the attempts at assuring security mostly consisted of putting the talk at a place and time when not many students would be able to attend anyway.

Coulter claimed that the cancellation of her lecture was a dark day for free speech in America, but Bratten Weiss takes a different view:
My own argument is that part of the role of education is to allow us to claim our inheritance of an intellectual tradition that confers on us the right to determine what is or is not of intellectual, aesthetic, or moral value. This is entailed in the rejection of soft relativism, and consistent with the western liberal arts tradition.

To say that Ann Coulter – or Milo, for instance – is not of sufficient intellectual or moral value to merit a university platform is not to suppress their freedom of speech. No one is stopping them from writing inane books or going on Twitter rants. But that doesn’t mean they need to be paid to air their opinions.

It’s not suppression of free speech if I am not invited to speak on how I feel about neuroscience, because my feelings on neuroscience are professionally irrelevant, since I have not been trained in that field or deemed by peers to have a valuable perspective.
I agree fully that one of the purposes of an education is to learn what is and is not a speech that expresses truth. There's no great value in promoting the expression of that which is false -- a thing which the promoters of Banned Book Week fail to realize. I would also agree with her assessment that speakers such as Ann Coulter or Milo Yiannopoulos don't actually have much good to say. I think it would show good judgment on the part of a college or student group not to invite people like that to speak. I would indeed consider it a good sign if a group which had invited one of them to speak reconsidered and canceled the invitation after thinking more deeply about the sort of things those speakers actually stand for.

However, what Bratten Weiss seems to gloss over is that this is not what happened in this situation. Coulter's speech was not cancelled because more sensible heads realized that she wasn't actually someone who would say much that was true or wise. Rather, her speech was cancelled because people who didn't like the idea of her talking threatened to riot violently. While I would agree with Bratten Weiss that it is a good thing if people are wise enough not to invite people who are wrong or foolish to give speeches, I would hope that she would agree with me that it is not a good thing when people to threaten to smash things, burn down buildings, or injure or kill people as a result of their displeasure at whom others have invited to give a speech. If, for instance, the situation was that a left leaning secularist group had invited Peter Singer to give a talk -- I would think it very wrong if Christians who objected to Singer's views successfully got the talk cancelled by threatening to riot. I would think that even though I would consider it a good sign for our society if no one held or expressed Singer's views. The threat to free speech is not that Coulter is not speaking is Berkeley. There is no requirement for a civil and free society that Coulter speak at Berkeley. Rather, the threat to a free and civil society is that it was the threat of violence which stopped her talk, and indeed that a certain portion of citizens of our country are just fine with that. Myself, I would hold it a bad thing if people routinely prevent those they disagree with from speaking via threats of violence.

The second argument has to do with the idea of professors at Catholic universities taking an oath of fidelity to the magisterium. Bratten Weiss writes:
The other conversation was less good. The question prompting it – whether Catholic universities should require all faculty to take the oath of fidelity to the magisterium – was a valid one. My own view is that, beyond the theology department, this is not necessary. And even in the theology department, I believe the inclusion of experts on Jewish or on Orthodox theology would be of great benefit to a rich intellectual program. Ideally, a Catholic university would have a solid identity in fidelity to church tradition, as well as a genuinely small-c “catholic” willingness to engage with many different perspectives and traditions. Here, again, the goal is to balance principles with freedom.

Most of my interlocutors, however, were distressed by my view. “We don’t need to wallow in slime in order to understand it,” one individual wrote. What slime? I asked. Is everything outside the purlieus of Catholic orthodoxy “slime”? How about Homer and Virgil? How about Beowulf? How about Jewish philosophy? If I were a university administrator, I would consider anyone who made such a sweeping – and intellectually vacuous – condemnation of other traditions to be unfit to educate. On Catholic thought, or any thought.

My interlocutor – whose English usage was not of the best, I noticed, like the “elite” that I am – claimed to have been involved in Catholic higher education for over twenty years.

And this is worrying to me.
I have no knowledge of the specific interlocutor whom Bratten Weiss engaged with. There are a great many misguided people in the world, and some of them support the idea of Catholic professors taking oaths of fidelity to the Church, so it may well be that the specific person she was talking to was much off base. However, I am interested in addressing the topic more generally.  I'm familiar with it having graduated from a college whose theology faculty do indeed take the Mandatum (the oath of fidelity to the Church which the USCCB has helped to put together as a way for universities to bring themselves into line with the guidelines for Catholic education put forward by Saint John Paul II in Ex corde Ecclesiae.)

In this general sense, I think that there is some serious misunderstanding of what the oath of fidelity is going on here. Here is the suggested text from the bishop's website linked above:
I hereby declare my role and responsibility as a professor of a Catholic theological discipline within the full communion of the Church.

As a professor of a Catholic theological discipline, therefore, I am committed to teach authentic Catholic doctrine and to refrain from putting forth as Catholic teaching anything contrary to the Church's magisterium.
Note that this has to do specifically with the teaching of Catholic theology, not some broader sort of religious studies department. The example Bratten Weiss brings up of having a professor to teach a Jewish or Orthodox perspective is thus not in play here. The oath specifically has to do with not claiming to present Catholic teaching when in fact teaching something contrary to Catholic teaching. Thus, someone who was teaching, "This is what members of the Jewish faith believe" necessarily cannot be violating the oath, because he or she is not claiming to say what the Catholic Church teaches but rather what another faith teaches.

I think it's also important to note that one need not necessarily be something in order to teach about it. This is obviously the case with other disciplines. One of my good friends is a history professor specializing in ethnic cleansing. It goes without saying that he has never himself carried out ethnic cleansing. However even in regards to religion one can study a tradition from the inside or the outside. There are many professors who have made a study of Islam or of Judaism (or of Christianity) without themselves being members of that faith. Indeed, in some ways, an outside scholar may provide a more objective approach. An Islamic scholar (as in, an Ulama) will necessarily be trying to explain Islamic history and practice according to his particular view, just as either a Catholic or a Protestant theologian's view of ecclesiastical history will be heavily weighted by his view as to the nature of the Church, sacraments, etc.

But assuming that a Catholic college did decide it was best to hire a faithful Jew to teach classes about Jewish faith and history, I think we can assume safely that such a professor would not be presenting Judaism and claiming it was the Catholic faith, but rather presenting Judaism as Jewish. Thus, a Jewish professor teaching about Judaism would in no way fall afoul of an oath not to falsely represent the Catholic faith.

Now there are Catholic colleges which have all professors take an oath of fidelity to the Church. For instance, Thomas Aquinas College has all their tutors take the following oath:
I, (Name), in assuming the office of tutor at Thomas Aquinas College, promise that in my words and in my actions I shall always preserve communion with the Catholic Church.

With great care and fidelity I shall carry out the duties incumbent on me toward the Church, both universal and particular, in which, according to the provisions of the law, I have been called to exercise my service.

In fulfilling the charge entrusted to me in the name of the Church, I shall hold fast to the deposit of faith in its entirety; I shall faithfully hand it on and explain it, and I shall avoid any teachings contrary to it.

I shall follow and foster the common discipline of the entire Church and I shall maintain the observance of all ecclesiastical laws, especially those contained in the Code of Canon Law.

With Christian obedience I shall follow what the Bishops, as authentic doctors and teachers of the faith, declare, or what they, as those who govern the Church, establish. I shall also faithfully assist the diocesan Bishops, so that the apostolic activity, exercised in the name and by mandate of the Church, may be carried out in communion with the Church.

So help me God, and God’s Holy Gospels on which I place my hand.
The idea here, I think, is that if a college sees it as part of its mission to teach truth, and holds that the Catholic faith is true, then it's necessary for those who teach there to be able to follow that mission honestly, that is, to actually hold that the Catholic faith is true. Is this the right mission for a Catholic college to have? Would it be better for a college to actively seek disparate and conflicting voices so that their students can learn both from those who hold the Catholic faith to be false and those who hold it to be true? I think there are probably good arguments to be made on both sides of that question. I can easily imagine someone arguing that there's no need for mathematics or engineering to be taught by a Catholic at a Catholic university. On the other hand, I can also imagine an argument that from a standpoint of modeling the Catholic intellectual and vocational life in its fullest, there is in fact a value in Catholic students seeing Catholic professors pursuing all manner of subjects to their fullest.

But what I don't think is a good argument is the one that Bratten Weiss makes, that it's necessary for the theology department to include non-Catholics in order to have experts on the thought and history of other religions.

In the third section of the post, Bratten Weiss lashes out against the "Benedict Option". She says:
TThere’s a lot of talk right now about the “illiberal liberals” who seek safe spaces and shun free speech. But this is by no means only a problem on the left. I would put it to my audience that it is a greater problem on the Right, and that this problem is exemplified in the so-called “Benedict option” – a studied and deliberate disengagement not only from ideas perceived as threatening but from, well, everything.
...
This leads me to my other big issue with the so-called Benedict Option. It leads to sloppy thought, poor philosophy, and bad art. If students are being proselytized and shielded from any alternative views, they will not acquire the ability to make their own moral judgments, but will continue to operate within a condition of heteronomy, simply repeating what they have been told – as long as it seems to work. The moment their mantras fail, so will their faith, because it was never grounded in anything solid. Refusal to engage with any new or innovative philosophical ideas does not mean protecting the tradition. It means, trying to stifle it. And when one is afraid, constantly, of what any outside influence will do to the imagination, one will turn away from any art that doesn’t just lull one into complacency. Pop propaganda, and aesthetic kitsch, are the result of this.
Honestly, in these circles, I doubt any of the Great Catholic Writers we like to bemoan the loss of would be very welcome. Graham Greene would definitely be disinvited. Once, Greene was regarded as scandalous; now that he’s received the mark of approval those who otherwise would disinvite him accept him. But this is not to their credit. It’s to the credit of those who, utilizing the tools of discernment, engaged, instead of retreating in fear. And, maybe, sometimes there is fear. It’s okay to acknowledge this. It’s okay to recognize that a book can be dangerous: look at the way even certain truly great books have been misread and misused. Look at some of the creepy criticism on Lolita (Nabokov overestimated his audience’s intelligence). And then there are the ideas that are dangerous because they are truly bad. Some ideas are bad, yes. Some speakers need to be disinvited. But we need to have a true discipline in an intellectual tradition in order to be able to articulate why.
And the Ben Op proponents largely lack this. This doesn’t mean that they’re oafish or ill-read. They may have read all the Great Books, and have opinions on them, but only because they are repeating what they were told they were supposed to think. Imagine if they had to confront the Great Books new minted. Think of the scandal of Dante, arguing for separation of church and civil authority, writing in the vernacular. Imagine if Socrates came wandering into one of their communities, grubby and pugnacious, asking impertinent questions, a non-Catholic in weird robes, of dubious sexual preference.
They’d probably want him to drink the hemlock.
I'm not a Dreher fan. His Crunchy Cons book annoyed me, his manner of leaving the Church earned my dislike, and I find some of his posts petty and overly combative. However, the number of clearly unfair attacks on his book are gradually bringing me around to the determination to read Benedict Option. So here I go again:

The Benedict Option does not, to my understanding, involve withdrawing totally into a bubble only of like-minded people. It also doesn't involve silencing all forms of dissenting opinion as the "illiberal liberals" are accused of doing.

Dreher's claim, indeed, is that orthodox Christians in the modern world will inevitably find themselves so completely surrounded by non-Christian and indeed anti-Christian opinion that they should stop trying to shut down non-Christian behavior and expression (abandon the Culture Wars) and instead focus on forming comunities of support who will aid them in living within a hostile world.

He points to examples like observant Jews, but its worth remembering that observant Jews in places like urban New York are not withdrawn from and innocent of the wider gentile culture. They have jobs and businesses within the wider world. They earn a living and raise a family while living in two worlds, the wider world that they are visibly not conforming too, and also the world of those who share their faith. Dreher advocates that people realize they cannot both be faithful Christians and be seen as conforming to the world's standards. The American-Catholic dream which flowered in the Camelot era --  that somehow you could be fully a mainstream American and also fully a faithful Catholic -- is, from the Benedict Option point of view, an illusion. Serious Christians are going to seem different from those who give themselves fully to the mainstream culture, and to persevere despite that they will need the support of their communities of similar believers.

It's interesting that Bratten Weiss specifically singles out authors like Graham Greene as being antithetical to the Benedict Option idea. Now, it's certainly true that in religious circles one can find a fair share of narrow minded people. (You can elsewhere as well, they're just narrow minded about different things.) But in the Anglosphere of Graham Greene's day, Catholics did very much live in a sub-culture. Think of Brideshead Revisited where Sebastian complains to Charles, "I wish I liked Catholics more." Charles asks what he means, saying that Catholics seem to be like anybody else. "My dear Charles, that's precisely what they're not."

At that time and place, mainstream culture was a mixture of Protestantism and secularism, but Catholics (and Jews and others) were very clearly aliens in it. The great Catholic novelists of the '30s through the '50s were very much members of a sub-culture, with their very own particular backgrounds and experiences, participating in the mainstream culture as semi-outsiders. I suppose in that sense, one could draw a parallel to the huge crop of Jewish novelists in America in the early post-war years. During the last era when being Jewish at all (as opposed to being an Orthodox Jew) clearly set one apart from the mainstream culture, with members of that sub-culture participating in the mainstream one as outsiders, that community produced perhaps its largest and most talented crop of writers.

Now, this certainly does not mean that all people who live in sub-cultures are artistic or have insightful outsider perspectives. Indeed, some of the outsider perspective of writers of the Catholic revival came from the fact that they felt doubly outsiders, estranged from the narrowness of the sub-culture and from the mundanity of the mainstream culture. But while being estranged from the mainstream culture is not guarantee of artistic merit and understanding, it most clearly also does not preclude it.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

"You aren't serious when you're seventeen"

In a desperate attempt to avoid facing our German class tonight, I'm joining Brandon in translating a French poem by Arthur Rimbaud.

I.

You aren't serious when you're seventeen.
-A fine night, no need of beer or lemonade,
The raucous cafes with such brilliant sheen!
-You stroll underneath the green lime tree's shade.

The lime trees smell sweet in the sweet nights of June!
The air softly perfumed, your eyes closed but clear;
The breeze charged with noise - the city it looms -
The scents of the vine and the scents of the beer...

II.

Suddenly you see a small scrap of deep blue,
Night sky framed with branches which drape like a pall,
Pricked by a cruel star which melts away to
the sweetest of shivers, cold, white, and small.

Night in June! Seventeen! Drink deep of bliss!
You've tapped the champagne and your head starts to spin...
You're crazy; that buzz on your lips is a kiss
which tingles and throbs like a gnat on your skin.

III.

Your heart's castaway on the shores of romance,
Then, in the pool of pale streetlamp aglow,
Passes a minx with an air that enchants,
Tucked 'neath her daddy's grim collar's shadow.

And, as she finds you just too-too naive,
As she trots past with the tap of a schoolgirlish boot
She turns, alert, lithe, alive -- a new Eve,
And she plucks the tune off of your lips like a fruit...

IV.

You're in love. Up until August you waste.
You're in love. Your sonnets she greets with a yawn.
Your friends are all bored with your terrible taste,
Then one night -- bright angel -- she deigns to respond!

That night -- you go back to the cafe's harsh sheen
You call for the beer and the lemonade.
You aren't serious when you're seventeen
And the green lime trees line the promenade.

Here's the original French.

The Fluffification of Science Programming

Contradicting the theory that there are no second acts in American life, mid-nineties kids show presenter Bill Nye of "Bill Nye the Science Guy" has been much in the news of late as a symbol of Science. He was one of the figureheads for the March for Science (which sought to do for science whatever it was that the Women's March did for women), and he has a new show being made by Netflix entitled "Bill Nye Saves The World" in which he tackles tough topics like overpopulation and the sexual orientation of ice cream cones via panel discussions and music videos.

His original show was on back when I was in high school, an older demographic than it was aimed at. I never saw it, though I think my dad watched a few episodes out of curiosity. Dad was a planetarium lecturer and dedicated his career to science education, both for kids and adults, so he had a strong interest in science popularizers and how they went about their work. As I recall, his reaction was that the Bill Nye show was pretty fluffy but with Nye so much in the news and my own lack of experience with the show, I thought I'd look up an episode and see what it was like. Here's the Bill Nye episode on simple machines. It starts out with a roller coaster, then goes on to discuss levers, wheels, ramps, and pulleys.



Watching this over lunch, it struck me that it encapsulates a lot of what annoyed me in the transformation of PBS edu-tainment programming in the 90s. We get a lot of the quick cutting, a lot of attention getting visuals, and it's heavier on the entertainment than the explanations. For instance, in talking about using machines to make motion easier, we have Bill Nye get rammed through the ceiling with a fork lift, but they don't actually take the opportunity to show that a forklift is actually powered by a pulley, even though that's one of the simple machines they're talking about. There's a skit about a brute force moving company which a couple of body builders who move everything straight from place to place by hand, versus a moving company run by kids using simple machines to lift things, but even though it would be really easy to show multiplication of force by demonstrating how a lever or pulley system could allow a kid to lift as much as a body builder. I guess if this got kids excited about science, that's good, but I found the content pretty thin.

To try to make a fair comparison, I looked up one of the shows that I remember watching back when I was a kid, the PBS show Newton's Apple. Whole not exclusively a show for kids, it aired on Saturday or Sunday mornings on our station, so I recall watching it pretty regularly. The format was that people would write in with a science question, and the host would then do a segment where he consulted with experts and showed how the thing in question worked. There aren't a ton of segments online, it seems, but here's one on roller coasters which gives the flavor pretty well.



Not super deep, but (perhaps because it's familiar) I found it less cringe inducing to watch, and it does include some basic "hey, let's measure this" elements like riding the roller coaster holding the accelerometer and seeing how many Gs you pull. It also sticks with a basic "let's talk to some experts who explain this and then try experiencing it ourselves" format, rather than all the visual gags and quick cuts.

Perhaps I'm in full aging "get off my lawn!" mode about the quick-cut, gag-filled edutainment style, but I tend to think that even a modern audience is willing to sit through pretty straight forward visual exposition when it provides actual content. Witness the enduring popularity of nature specials and also of shows like How It's Made, an addicting watch if there ever was one.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Functional Eduction

Last night we did a post-Easter catch up session with the older kids to see how well we were tracking towards finishing school work on time. In general, the answer is: better than we were at the last check-up a month and a half ago, but not as well as we parents would like.

Some people take being checked up on different from others, so this also triggered some sobbing and some recriminations about how hard various subjects were, how boring the textbooks, etc.

"Why is it so boring? Why do I have to memorize all these terms? Why do I have to know the steps of mitosis? It's so hard to remember anything from that. It's not like watching one of those nature specials. I remember stuff from those, but this is all just confusing words and diagrams."

I'm actually not crazy about the science book in question. It is kind of dry, and I think it focuses heavily on justifying its rigor by insisting on a lot of memorization. I'm tempted to say, "Look, just read the chapters, stop worrying about the workbook and quizzes, and get through the book." But I'm hesitant to concede curriculum planning to a gripe session, so for now the orders are to keep plugging away.

However, this does touch on one of my vulnerable points as a homeschooling parent, as the kids get older. On the one hand, they're now starting to learn things which I can explain to them crop up in my everyday life. In helping one of the kids through graphing some equations, I explained how I use similar graphs (though in Excel) in order to predict the changes in customer demand when we change price on a product. However, they're also starting to cover things that I've forgotten through disuse. When the younger kids read about the solar system or the classification of life forms, I know the material they're covering right off. When it comes to cell mitosis, I'll admit, while I recall the basic outlines of the process, and the diagrams in the science book look basically familiar, I'd forgotten both the terminology and the details. For most people, knowing that cell division happens is perhaps a good piece of general knowledge, but the details gradually fade away after we pass our last biology exam.

Thinking about that can lead me one of several different ways.

If most people only retain a certain amount of general knowledge, is getting just the general sense enough? If even most well educated people will remember that cells divide and copy genetic material in the process, but don't remember the terms and details, is getting the student to the point where she too will possess this piece of general knowledge enough? Why teach detail which will almost certainly be forgotten if it's not used?

Ah, but that's the key: if it's not used. To some people, however, these things are used a great deal, people who actually deal with biological science. One of the reasons why we might insist on children learning a moderate degree of detail about a broad range of subjects is so that some particular area can catch their interest, and they will then have sufficient grounding to learn more about that subject.

And yet, is a dry couple pages in a Life Sciences textbook, in which the student is told in a few pages about cell division and then instructed to memorize the names of the steps and redraw from memory the diagrams, really the sort of thing likely to create that spark of interest that draws a child into a job or interest in the field? To hear my child rant, all it does is enforce the idea that science is a miserable topic that is too hard for her and boring to boot.

"Why can't we watch science specials and read books about science that Mom checks out from the library?" was the wail.

And yet, to judge by the results, no one was deeply fascinated then either, and there was then also question as to whether people were getting the sort of broad (if shallow) familiarity which comes from... reading dry books and memorizing the stages of mitosis.

Sigh.

The ideal, of course, is that the kid develops a fascination with a topic and actively wants to learn and retail knowledge. And yet, there has to be a certain amount of forcing the issue or else people's areas of academic specialty with be The Avengers and The Great British Baking Show. What I keep trying to figure out is how much and what type of force feeding builds basic literacy and background knowledge of topics, and how much simply builds antipathy.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Great War, Vol 2, Chapter 2-3

This section concludes Chapter 2. Chapter 3 will focus on Natalie.


Mourmelon-le-Grand, Champagne , France. May 4th, 1915 Orders to move the regiment to the rear had come in the last week of March. It had been a journey of only fifteen kilometers, a morning’s easy march, to the town of Mourmelon le Grand and the nearby military Camp de Châlons.

The camp had hosted soldiers since Napoleon’s time, and even during the long years of peace had been the site of annual maneuvers. There were rows of large canvas tents where the men had cots to sleep on. As an officer, Henri received a room in the officer’s barracks building. It was small and bare, but it did at least offer a small degree of privacy: a door that he could shut, a window looking out on the dusty street where men marched by at all hours, a bed with a thin mattress, and a small bureau on which he put his photograph of Philomene and the children.

When a town of five thousand is host to an army division three times that size, the needs and wants of the soldiers shape the character of the town. Mourmelon le Grand offered more than the usual small town’s share of bars and brothels. There was even a makeshift theater for watching moving pictures. Soldiers crowding into its chairs could watch by the flickering light of the projector as Inspector Juve pursued Fantômas, the criminal master of disguise, through the streets of their native Paris.

Fewer of the soldiers frequented the church, even during Easter week, which came just after the 4th Division settled in the camp. Attending Easter mass, Henri found himself surround primarily by the women, children, and old people of the town itself. Little girls were in their bright dresses. Several of the boys were wearing miniature uniforms in honor of absent fathers. Too many of the women were dressed in black. Watching these familial scenes was enough to recall Easters of years past, of Philomene putting the children into their best clothes for church, of the rich loaf of brioche for breakfast and the roasted lamb and potatoes for dinner. There were no such comforts in the officers’ mess that night, though there was wine and gin in copious amounts to make up for the everyday nature of the fare. Though few soldiers from the company had appeared in the church on Saturday night, so many were absent from muster on Monday morning as they slept off the effects of the night before that the senior sergeant set the men to cleaning latrines on Tuesday as a penance for failure in devotion to the military laws.

After this initial disruption the division settled into the routine of life behind the lines. The company drilled. They performed fatigue duty. They took long marches to keep the men fit. The mess kitchens served out three times a day food that was monotonous but nonetheless healthy and filling. Wounds, physical and mental, had time to heal, and men who had become thin and sallow during days when all too often hot food could not be brought to the front line trenches due to artillery fire or supply problems gradually regained their health.

With this safety and health, however, came certain discontents. It was nine months since the men had been called up to active duty, and most had received no leave during that time. Despite the drills and training, camp life was incapable of filling all the hours of the day. Different men sought to fill their remaining time in different ways.

The town’s bars were always full, and the number of men under disciplinary action for public drunkenness and for the fights which went with it gradually grew. Such sprees were, at least, fairly quick to recover from. More concerning to the medical section were the number of men being hospitalized for venereal diseases. While the brothels were of at most dubious legality, the army had acknowledged them sufficiently to conduct regular inspections of the women in them in an attempt to control the spread of infection. Yet in the crowded conditions of town and camp, this was not enough to avoid difficulties. When one of the prostitutes became ill, more than two dozen soldiers from the division ended up in the hospital even though she has removed from work as soon as symptoms appeared.

The fate of soldiers injured at the front was uncertain, however much the nation spoke of the field of honor. The pensions that existed for men disabled by the ravages of war were as yet insufficient to keep men off the streets, the rates having been set according to the cost of living during the last war, forty years ago. Everyone agreed, at least, that these conditions would be improved as soon as the Republic had sufficient time to consider the matter. But if the men used up by the war had little recourse, the women used up by those men had none. Those who provided lonely (or simply lustful) soldiers with a solace of companionship for pay were already on the lowest step of society’s ladder. Should they become infected and rejected from the purpose to which they had been relegated, they no had fallback other than begging.

For all these reasons, it seemed best to wink at those instances where soldiers’ women from back home came to stay, forbidden though such visits technically were by military regulations. Not a day passed but Henri and the other company commanders received some report of a soldier’s wife being found in the barracks or a man slipping out of camp at night to visit a woman staying in one of the town’s boarding houses.

Nonetheless, this latest seemed to go too far.

[Continue reading]

Friday, April 21, 2017

MST3K, 2.0

In a chaotic world, sometimes one yearns for the simpler pleasures of times past. When I was a teenager, I used to watch Mystery Science Theater 3000 with friends. We howled not just at the delicious snark being served up, but at the dismal quality of the movies themselves. How did this stuff even get made? What committee signed off on it, what producer approved the funds? But it was good clean fun for all that. I still remember the abysmal Russian folktale "Jack Frost", and the scene in which the beleaguered heroine, after working all night for the evil stepmother or someone, steps out into the first light of morning and stands, breathing in the fresh morning air.

"Ah, Claritan D!" sighed one of the hecklers.

I still think about that every time I go outside and take a deep breath.

***


Last night I gathered the children around the glowing hearth of the computer screen, and we fired up the first installment of Netflix's new series of MST3K. I did wonder how the movies would change. Styles in trashy movies have changed, and perhaps it was a mistake to go into this with the kids without having previewed it first, despite the glowing recommendations of friends.

Fortunately, Netflix has preserved the same low-budget, innocently trashy vibe of the original series. The movie was "Reptilicus", an English-language Danish production about a giant prehistoric reptile who wreaks havoc in Copenhagen (the hecklers started singing, "Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen!", which rolled over my kids' heads as a bit of absurdity but started me choking). The production values were non-existent, the snark was on-point and basically clean, and we had a rollicking time.

I don't remember tons about the original frame of MST3K, so I can't say how well it's been reproduced. Felicia Day, who I gather is a cult favorite, didn't do much for me as the villainess, but Jonah Ray was fine as the captive maintaining his sanity by heckling the awful movies he's forced to watch.  This is all my opinion, as one who watched the original without grokking every cultural reference, and mainly for the purpose of having fun with friends. If you're more discriminating, here are the first two reviews thrown up by Google:

Con: http://www.citypaper.com/blogs/noise/bcpnews-the-new-mystery-science-theater-3000-is-a-bad-show-about-bad-movies-20170417-story.html

Pro: http://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/film/mst3ks-return-is-good-enough-that-you-should-really-just-relax-9242216

I suppose you can be a purist, or you can go outside, take a deep breath, murmur, "Ah, Claritan D!" and just enjoy the show.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

A dialogue

Players: A mother and her teenage daughter

Teen: I need chocolate!

Mom: Why?

Teen: There's nothing else to eat for a snack.

Mom: Eat some jam toast.

Teen: What kind of jam is there?

Mom: Well, you can open the fridge and use your eyes.

Teen: I don't know how to do those things. Can I eat your chocolate?

Mom: You had a whole basket full of chocolate, and you ate it already.

Teen: But I had cramps. You didn't have cramps.

Mom: Child, I'm going to have a baby.

Teen: You're not having the baby now.

...and scene.

***

Someone is going to go without chocolate for a long time at this rate.

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Diognetus Option

From the Office of Readings: the Letter to Diognetus

The Christians in the world 

"Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.

And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives.

They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they, rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life. They are attacked by the Jews as aliens, they are persecuted by the Greeks, yet no one can explain the reason for this hatred.

To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen. The body hates the soul and wars against it, not because of any injury the soul has done it, but because of the restriction the soul places on its pleasures. Similarly, the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments.

Christians love those who hate them just as the soul loves the body and all its members despite the body's hatred. It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together. The soul, though immortal, has a mortal dwelling place; and Christians also live for a time amidst perishable things, while awaiting the freedom from change and decay that will be theirs in heaven. As the soul benefits from the deprivation of food and drink, so Christians flourish under persecution. Such is the Christian’s lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself."

From a letter to Diognetus (Nn. 5-6; Funk, 397-401)

Saturday, April 15, 2017

"A great silence, and stillness"

source

From an ancient Holy Saturday sermon. It's part of the non-Biblical office of readings for today.

The Lord's descent into hell

"What is happening? Today there is a great silence over the earth, a great silence, and stillness, a great silence because the King sleeps; the earth was in terror and was still, because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled.

Truly he goes to seek out our first parent like a lost sheep; he wishes to visit those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. He goes to free the prisoner Adam and his fellow-prisoner Eve from their pains, he who is God, and Adam's son.

The Lord goes in to them holding his victorious weapon, his cross. When Adam, the first created man, sees him, he strikes his breast in terror and calls out to all: 'My Lord be with you all.' And Christ in reply says to Adam: ‘And with your spirit.’ And grasping his hand he raises him up, saying: ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.

‘I am your God, who for your sake became your son, who for you and your descendants now speak and command with authority those in prison: Come forth, and those in darkness: Have light, and those who sleep: Rise.

‘I command you: Awake, sleeper, I have not made you to be held a prisoner in the underworld. Arise from the dead; I am the life of the dead. Arise, O man, work of my hands, arise, you who were fashioned in my image. Rise, let us go hence; for you in me and I in you, together we are one undivided person.

‘For you, I your God became your son; for you, I the Master took on your form; that of slave; for you, I who am above the heavens came on earth and under the earth; for you, man, I became as a man without help, free among the dead; for you, who left a garden, I was handed over to Jews from a garden and crucified in a garden.

‘Look at the spittle on my face, which I received because of you, in order to restore you to that first divine inbreathing at creation. See the blows on my cheeks, which I accepted in order to refashion your distorted form to my own image.

'See the scourging of my back, which I accepted in order to disperse the load of your sins which was laid upon your back. See my hands nailed to the tree for a good purpose, for you, who stretched out your hand to the tree for an evil one.

`I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side, for you, who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side healed the pain of your side; my sleep will release you from your sleep in Hades; my sword has checked the sword which was turned against you.

‘But arise, let us go hence. The enemy brought you out of the land of paradise; I will reinstate you, no longer in paradise, but on the throne of heaven. I denied you the tree of life, which was a figure, but now I myself am united to you, I who am life. I posted the cherubim to guard you as they would slaves; now I make the cherubim worship you as they would God.

"The cherubim throne has been prepared, the bearers are ready and waiting, the bridal chamber is in order, the food is provided, the everlasting houses and rooms are in readiness; the treasures of good things have been opened; the kingdom of heaven has been prepared before the ages."

Days in the Tomb

It's been a quiet couple days in the Darwin household.

One of the things that I quickly realized once we had kids is that it's not possible as a family to have Good Friday as a day entirely devoted to prayer, spiritual reading, and the various observances of the day at church. The younger kids in particular have a pretty limited tolerance for such things, so rather than spend all day squelching them, we aim to cut out some frivolities (no TV, no computer games) and go just to the Good Friday service at the parish.


What we do often get done on Good Friday (and spill over into Holy Saturday) is a lot of work around the house. Cleaning. Yard work. Organizing. It gives small people something to do rather than fussing about their lack of entertainments, and there seems to be a certain fitness in making these "preparation days" for the feast to come in a household as well as a spiritual sense. My instinct is to focus on the darkness of these days, the events of the passion. And yet, this more prosaic approach which our state in life pushes me into holds another truth. Christ's death and burial is not an ending. He died to rise. The events of Friday are a preparation for the resurrection on Sunday. Now all the world is in waiting for the Savior to spring forth.

A blessed Holy Week to all of you.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Trying to Say God

In a last fling before Master Darwin VII makes his appearance and puts all other creative ventures on hold, Darwin and I are planning to attend the Trying to Say "God" conference, dedicated to "Re-enchanting Catholic Literature", at Notre Dame, June 22-24.
For years the Catholic intelligentsia has debated the causes of a dearth of Catholic literature, lamenting the end of the "golden age" of Catholic writing and the days of O'Connor, Percy, Merton, et. al. "Catholic literary culture today might best be described as a funeral for multiple corpses. This, for living Catholic writers, makes for a rather depressing set of circumstances to enter into," wrote Kaya Oakes in an essay for America Magazine in 2014. We, the founders of the Trying to Say God conference, agree with Oakes that the problem isn't a lack of serious, talented, and faithful Catholic artists—it's that we lack a Catholic arts culture. We aren't the first people to say this, but we want to take a concrete step to change it.

So instead of "a funeral for multiple corpses," we envisioned this conference as a celebration of the contemporary writers, artists, and musicians who have emerged in a literary, religious and cultural milieu vastly different from that of our lionized predecessors. We want the adjuncts, freelancers, bloggers, poets, painters, singer-songwriters and genre fiction writers to come together and share the ways they're working within a tradition that at may trouble them, challenge them, and inspire them all at the same time.

Moreover, in a time when traditional religion is viewed as suspect, passé, or offensive, many authors and artists are uncomfortable talking about their personal religion or spirituality, while others grope for new ways to say “God.” They attempt to articulate an amorphous truth in an “elsewhere beyond language,” in the words of Fanny Howe, but use language to explore their way toward it. The Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts at the University of Notre Dame—together with Sick Pilgrim, Patheos, Image, and St. Michael's College in Toronto—will bring together both well-known and emerging writers, artists and musicians who are wrestling with religious experience and traditions in new ways. We will feature authors in all literary genres: poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction and memoir, fantasy, and science fiction.

We want to create a community of support, encouraging each other in a world that is dismissive and outright hostile toward our faith to continue Trying to Say God in our own distinctive way. 
Speakers include Tim Powers, Mary Karr, Heather King, Bishop Daniel Flores, Br. Guy Consolmagno, and panelists include friends of DarwinCatholic such as John Farrell and Leticia Adams. Darwin's own sister Rosamund Hodge will be attending, as well as some of the Korrectiv, and Betty Duffy will be supplying music. We ourselves are not presenting or anything, just looking forward to meeting many Catholic worthies and catching up with some old friends who'll be there as well. No one will be able to miss us: I'll be 38 weeks pregnant, so I'll be taking up most of every room I'm in, even the great outdoors.

You come too! Registration at the early-bird price of $75 has been extended until April 15.

The Great War, Vol 2: Chapter 2-2

I apologize for the long delay -- various events in life intervened -- but this is also a nice long section, almost double the average length. One more section for Henri to come in order to complete Chapter 2.



Near de Perthes les Hurlus: Champagne , France. March 13th, 1915 “A man with that attitude has no business commanding any unit. What example does he set for the men under his command?”

There had been times when Henri had asked himself this same question, but not about matters such as the one needling the inspector commandant facing him. “I understand, sir,” he said, giving a slight bow. “I will speak to Sergeant Sellier about his decorum.”

The commandant’s carefully waxed mustache twitched and he passed his walking stick from one hand to the other. “I would not presume to tell you how to manage discipline in your command, Captain Fournier. But I advise you to do something. I advise it strongly. Pride and discipline are what distinguishes an army from an armed mob. Never forget that, Fournier. We cannot control a mob. We create one to our peril.”

Henri and the commandant exchanged salutes, and then the commandant turned to his car. The corporal wearing transport insignia who had been hanging discretely back while the officers spoke now hurried to open the door of the shiny blue Panhard Levassor, from the hood of which a little 4th Corps flag fluttered. He closed it on the commandant, and turned to give Henri a quick smile and shrug before going around to driver’s door and starting the engine with a full-throttled roar.

As the car churned away, throwing up mud from the rain-soaked road behind it, Henri considered the merits of the situation. If he failed to discuss the incident at all with Sellier, it would encourage more behavior of the same sort. If he took disciplinary action… Sergeant Sellier’s cleaning section was beginning to show real promise as specialized trench fighters. That brought some rough edges. He’d have a few words with the sergeant about the treatment of staff officers visiting from Corps Command, and with luck there would be a chance soon enough for the newly promoted NCO to expend his energies in other ways.

[Continue Reading]

Saturday, April 08, 2017

Comfort Fiction

I think for most dedicated readers, there is some particular genre from which they can enjoy reading even mediocre book.

It's not so different, I think, from comfort foods: foods which taste familiar and pleasurable even in their most basic forms. Grilled cheese sandwiches are a comfort food for me. They don't have to be made with great ingredients. I'll eat a grilled cheese sandwich made from processed American cheese singles and cheap white bread quite happily. Sure, a fancy grilled cheese can be fun. I had one with aged cheddar and asparagus on sour dough bread once which was very good. But a grilled cheese sandwich does not have be made with good ingredients to please me.

Comfort fiction is much the same: familiar, enjoyable, homelike. Even if the characterization is flat and the prose does not sparkle, you're prepared to enjoy it just for being part of the genre, so long as it fills its slot in the genre well.

I used to feel that way about science fiction and fantasy. I enjoyed the conventions of the genre enough (the world building, the imagery) that I was prepared to forgive a lot of fairly mediocre writing for a novel which did a good job of being genre.

All this was striking me because over the last decade or two my comfort tastes have changed. I'm no longer prepared to forgive flat characters, cliched dialog, or clunky prose because a novel has a really interesting take some new alien race or how the ability to skip in and out of hyperspace might affect ship to ship battle tactics. I still really enjoy some books in the the genre, and not only old favorites. But these days, when I enjoy a SF or F novel it's because it has the qualities which I otherwise find interesting in novels: good characterization, well written prose, and compelling depiction of the human condition in some particular set of circumstances.

I think if I have a new comfort genre it's probably older books. I enjoy the period feel and dialog of some older novels even if the plot is kind of plodding or the characterization indulges in period cliches.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Nice Things, If You Can Keep Them



This evening, the three-year-old, who has been acting extremely three lately, swung on the curtains in a fit of exuberance (wound up by the next two siblings up) and pulled the rod right out of the wall.

The story of the living room curtains is a years-long saga of waiting to afford the right thing to fit the old house, and having a rod custom-bent to fit the bay, and having a real curtain shop sew up the curtains to spec to fit our non-standard windows above the non-standard radiator. So you can imagine Mother's dismay at seeing a very large angled iron curtain rod on the floor in a pool of brocade fabric, and you can imagine that three children were spanked and put to bed at a very early hour. The two older ones, 8 and 6, were quite sobered and understood the justice of the situation; the three-year-old wailed in shock and had to be tucked into the crib which still takes up a corner of the parental bedroom.

Beautiful curtains, with bonus shot of beautiful daughter as Sybil Trelawney. If you never put an end table on the radiator to hold a box fan, well, then, you don't live in an old house, is all.

We had to stand in the living room and ponder a bit after the dust settled upstairs (after replacing light bulbs, since only one of the three bulbs we can use in the old five-socket fixture was working). The original screwholes for the brackets were stripped and unusable, but there's only so much room to put up the rod without it bumping the bay ceiling or having the curtains hang too close to the radiator. But when we took a closer look at the situation, it wasn't hopeless. Despite having wondered why we'd spent money on curtainy things while the kids were still young, it turns out that an iron rod doesn't warp out of shape, pricey custom sewing and heavy fabric pays off in strong seams that don't rip, and old plaster and lath doesn't crumble to pieces like drywall. Darwin measured and moved each bracket up an inch, while I went upstairs and read to the penitent children in their bedroom. The three-year-old had conked out and lay snoozing beatifically in his crib, snuggled with a teddy bear and a stuffed duck. The two big girls who were home, faultless in this situation, nevertheless started in on doing the dishes without being asked because they knew the parental units were frazzled. Their pleasant chatter reached me upstairs, and it was good.

Not long afterwards, I had to bring home the 13yo from ballet. She had to hear the the story and exclaim over the whole business, but her mind was elsewhere. Lately she's been thinking about career and college options, and she's decided that she'd like to get cosmetology training before going for a degree in something theatrical (see photo of Sibyl Trelawney, above), with an emphasis on acting, singing, costume design, and makeup. (She wants to make money in college and for college by cutting and styling hair.) An older girl in her ballet class had been telling her about the vocational arm of the local high school, which offers a cosmetology track for juniors and seniors. At home, we all squeezed on the couch and looked at the website for the career center and read the cosmetology description, but then she was off to finish making costume pieces for the drama club's show. It's crunch time, see, since the play is three weeks off. I heard the sewing machine whirring upstairs, and then giggling in the kitchen, and three silly sisters came in to display a Carmen Miranda hat loaded with fake fruit, and two Civil War caps. The curtains were drawn, and the children snug upstairs in their beds, and Darwin was sitting down to start work on his novel earlier than he does most nights. And baby, not one to miss his piece of the action, gave me a few swift kicks. Curtains, children, husband, baby, house, happiness: all nice things, if we can keep them.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Announcement!

It's time to make this official: Darwin and I have had a great run here, but after 12 years it's time to close down the blog.

We're on to some bigger and better things. I can finally reveal that I have a book contract with Our Sunday Visitor for a book targeted to families considering homeschooling. No title yet, but content will include tried and true tips about curriculum for preschoolers, and how to plan and execute field trips. Tentative chapter titles are "Getting the Most Out Of Your Chore Chart", "Strategies for Smooth Mornings", and "A Sentence a Day: Writing for the Littlest Ones". These are topics I've been writing about for years, so it's exciting to be able to put all my knowledge at the service of the people who want to know how to homeschool correctly.

There are time-consuming career changes on the horizon for Darwin, though fortunately we won't have to relocate. Columbus is home to several major companies that require pricing expertise, and a few months ago a headhunter contacted him about a role reorganizing the pricing function at L Brands (formerly Limited Brands). L Brands is an umbrella corporation owning companies such as Bath and Body Works, Victoria's Secret, and Pink. This role will require him to do a lot of traveling to places like New York and Brazil to evaluate how the products fit his pricing models.

All good things must come to an end, and we'll always treasure the conversations we've had over the years at DarwinCatholic. We're excited, though, for this new phase in our lives, one that should allow our long-time aspirations and goals to flourish.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Lunch and Marriage

The political world would not be happy if it were not having regular freak-outs that allow its members to think ill of their ideological opponents, so it is perhaps no surprise that commentators have managed to put themselves into a paroxysm over Vice President Pence's dining habits. Apparently Pence (happily married to his wife for over thirty years) has a personal rule that he will not dine alone with women other than his wife and does not attend social functions where alcohol is served unless his wife is with him. This has drawn all sorts of hysteria from the left, with a Washington Post opinion writer concluding, "He obviously thinks that every interaction he has with a woman is so sexually charged that it’s safe to be around them only if there are other people there, too." And Vox putting up a lengthy piece arguing that this personal rule may in fact be an illegal form of gender discrimination.

I suspect that in my younger days, I would have been more inclined to say that this kind of policy suggests a basic insecurity about one's marriage and a shying away from fruitful friendships with the opposite sex. From a more middle-aged vantage point, although I do not follow Pence's policy myself it certainly doesn't strike me as crazy. Indeed, I can see how it could be quite wise. That's not because women are dangerous temptresses or because men can't control themselves. It's because sometimes a good way to avoid temptation is avoid the path which might, some way down the line, lead there.

If you won't want to become dissatisfied with your marriage, it's a good idea to avoid behaviors which might lead you to become dissatisfied with it. One piece of advice that I was given early on was never let yourself get into the habit of recreational spouse bashing. Surely you've heard this kind of talk. Women joke about how their husbands are lazy or can't manage the kids or can't cook or are interested in dumb movies and sports. Men joke about how their wives are always nagging them to do things or take forever to get ready or ask impossible questions like, "Does this dress make me look fat?" It's mildly funny in a sitcom sort of way and at first pass harmless, but when you let yourself make a practice of joking about your spouse's flaws you make yourself notice them more. Now you have friends who see the same flaws in your spouse that you do. You have backup in your gripes. Next thing you know, those flaws start to bother you more and more. After all, everyone else sees them. Why can't your spouse see them and fix them?

While few people seem to follow the "never criticize your spouse to others, even as a joke" rule, I doubt it would come in for the incredulity that Pence's has received. So why would I see the "no dining alone" rule as somehow similar?

To me, the risk would seem to be comparison more than active romance. Work is an inherently artificial environment. We get dressed up to go to the office. Someone else does all the cleaning and cooking and other unpleasant work for us. We're assigned tasks that, while they may be difficult, can be accomplished in some reasonable period of time. Sometimes we're even praised, given awards, or paid extra money for these accomplishments. Compare that to life at home: Many tasks (laundry, cleaning, cooking, home repairs, yard work) are never definitively done. We accomplish them one day, and they're right back the next day looking undone and messy. We don't look our best while doing them. If we have young children, we work for people who actively cause chaos and disrupt attempts to have quiet adult conversation.  On some days, it can seem more satisfying at a surface level to be at the office.

I don't know if there could be a similar dynamic for women, but as a man I can see how the selective vision of the work environment could set up an unrealistic comparison to your wife. If you only see your female co-worker wearing nice clothes and full make up, if you go have fun lunches together every few weeks and talk about the things that interest you, even if there were never the flicker of a romance between you that might after a while start to seem like a pretty rosy contrast to the spouse that you see early in the morning, late at night, dealing with household catastrophes, and constantly having your time together be interrupted by the kids. Of course, you might know intellectually that your woman-friend-at-work has the same frazzled and messy moments as your wife. But you would never see those, and so the "why can't my wife be orderly and put-together like her?" comparison could take root, followed perhaps eventually by "I enjoy being with her more than my wife." That would be a bad day. It would be bad for your marriage, and it wouldn't even be based on an accurate knowledge of your co-worker. Moreover, I can picture many of these risks being multiplied in the kind of long hours and often-away-from-home work that elected officials do.

Does this mean you shouldn't work with people of the opposite sex at all? Of course not. But at least in my world, one-on-one work meals where you head out to a restaurant or a bar to talk outside the office are less than half about business. The other half is about building a friendly relationship of the sort that it's useful to have with various people at your workplace and others. If it was all business, you wouldn't need the waiter and the table cloth, much less the bottle of wine. Business 1x1s are held at one of our desks, in a conference room, or in one of the common areas (which includes the cafeteria) and have a totally different feel from the "let's go out to a restaurant and relax or celebrate" kind of business meal.

Again, I don't have this rule. A month or two ago I took a female co-worker who'd just given her notice in order to take a better job at another company out for a congratulatory lunch and beer. Another time recently I went out to lunch with one of the women who works for me just to talk and relax after she'd finished a big project. However, while I can see the set of risks that I've described, I have my own sort of distance in that I have a habit of not discussing the things which are most important to me at work. Even if I have things in common with my coworkers in terms of religion, philosophy, literature, etc., I would never know it because I leave those topics alone with work acquaintances. And after knowing her for twenty years, I'm pretty confident that I'd never find myself preferring to talk to any other woman than MrsDarwin. Indeed, one of the frustrations of our married life is that between household tasks and kids we don't get to spend as much time just hanging out and talking as we'd like.

Still, I can definitely see how Pence's rule might be a prudent one in many marriages. Nor do I see that it would necessarily be a career block to women that he worked with.  People can work together very well and very productively without developing the kind of "let's go grab a nice lunch, just the two of us" relationship which he's put off limits.