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

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

What Are Our Artistic Geniuses Doing Today?

Last week we spent an hour each evening watching the episodes of Bishop Barron's video series Catholicism, The Pivotal Players, which featured an episode each on St. Francis, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Catherine of Siena, Blessed John Henry Newman, Chesterton, and Michelangelo. (If you're curious to give it a try, the episodes are still free online through tomorrow, Thursday May 23rd, at the link above.)

I should probably write a review of the series, but this isn't it. What has me thinking about it at the moment was the last episode, focused on Michelangelo and the religious art of the high Renaissance. Michelangelo grew up in an Caprese, a small town about 100km from Florence. Florence at that time was what today would be considered a small city, with perhaps 100,000 people. That means that Renaissance Florence had a population about twice the size of my small Ohio city of Delaware, Ohio and about on a par with modern day cities you've probably heard little of as major cultural centers: Peoria, Illinois; Provo, Utah; College Station, Texas; etc.

One could say that Michelangelo was a unique genius, one of those one-in-a-billion people whose existence in any given city was so unlikely that where he appeared is a matter of random chance. But while he was one of the most brilliant artists of his time and place, he was hardly the only great Florentine artists of the era. Even the second and third tier artists of Renaissance Florence would stand head and shoulders above the artists of major arts centers today, much less the artistic community of Peoria.

Why did the cities of the Renaissance, seemingly small cities by moderns standards, produce such amazing artists compared to our much larger modern population centers?

Surely some of the responsibility has to do with the structure of the artistic communities themselves. The way in which master sculptors and painters kept studios of apprentices and trained them from a young age in the work of their craft must surely have resulted in people whose native talent received much more training than is often the case now.

Further, commissioning art (and durable art which has come down to us over 500+ years) was a major way for the wealthy to express their power and success in the Renaissance. This meant that there was sufficient money being funneled into those master artists' studios to maintain them and their apprentices.

And thinking of those apprentices and master artists: If someone had the ability to learn to become a great artist in Renaissance Florence, he had a pretty good way to rise in the world, at a time when few people had such opportunities. Perhaps it's significant that today there are many other ways for an incredibly gifted, hard working, and ambitious person to make a mark in the world than by producing art.

Often we think of genius as being focused on one thing. And certainly, a given person is often gifted in a given direction. But might the eye, sense of space, willingness to study, etc. which made Michelangelo a brilliant artist enable a modern person with the same talents able to become a brilliant engineer or surgeon or any number of other things? Perhaps our modern Michelangelos and Da Vincis are scattered out across any number of fields to which people can train their abilities in order to achieve success and lasting effects.

Repost: Pride and Prejudice, at 200 and at 17

A discussion with friends reminded me of this post from 2013 about my first reading of Jane Austen.

Today is the 200th anniversary of publication of Pride and Prejudice, and many people have up retrospectives or tributes or scholarly articles analyzing the enduring popularity of Jane Austen's best-known work.

I first read Pride and Prejudice at age seventeen, seventeen years ago. Doubtless there were then, as there have been for the past 200 years, Austenphiles, but I never knew any. Austen's works were, to me, simply Old Novels, and I neither sought them as desirable or shunned them as being the sort of thing those girls read, simply because I never heard anyone ever talk of having read them. The A&E miniseries had come out the year before, but even if I had heard of it, we didn't have cable, nor did we jaunt down much to Blockbuster, and the library's VHS collection could be spotty.

My family had an old paperback copy of Pride and Prejudice acquired in some donation, and it sat, unread, on the shelf with other battered copies of Great Books that had someone made their way into the house.  One day in 1996, I was going with my dad and siblings downtown to a Cincinnati Reds game, and we were going to ride the bus to the stadium, back when we still called it Riverfront Stadium, although by then it had been renamed Cinergy Field (before it became the Great American Ball Park). Any of you who have ever ridden a city bus know that there is no romance in public transportation. It is to be endured, and a book is one of the best ways to endure it. On my way out of the house, I pulled Pride and Prejudice from its dusty spot on the shelf.

In regards to Austen, I was a complete tabula rasa. I had never even heard the names of Elizabeth Bennett or Mr. Darcy. The blurb on the back of the book said, "No novel in the English language has brought forth more superlatives than Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen's simplicity, gentle wit and ability to draw her readers into the life of eighteenth-century England have brought her universal acclaim. As William Lyon Phelps said, 'Jane Austen is one of the supreme literary artists of the world. Pride and Prejudice is her masterpiece.'"Fine words, but not a lot to go on in guessing what the book was actually about. And so, in complete innocence as to plot, content, characters, or author, I read.

I read on the bus all the way to the stadium. I read walking into the stadium. I am not generally an advocate of reading through events that one has chosen to attend, but I read through the ball game (no big loss; as someone once said, a baseball game is thirty minutes of excitement jam-packed into three hours). I read on the bus all the way home. I read late at night in my room to finish the book. Every incident and plot twist was new and surprising to me; every phrase fresh. I carried no cultural baggage about Pride and Prejudice being the epitome of romance or of Mr. Darcy being the archetype of the perfect man; I simply found it a wonderful book.

In those delightful days before the sheer ubiquity of the internet, it was much harder (though many still made intrepid attempts) to get caught up in fandom. I was spared the silliness of having my enthusiasms instantly validated by Facebook memes or fan fiction or quizzes about "Which Austen Man is Right For You?" The massive Austen marketing machine had not yet been set into full gear. Instead, I had to read the critical essay at the beginning, then read the book again, then read it again.

It took me a number of years to get around to reading Austen's other novels, and for that I'm glad -- I was no prodigy; reading Northanger Abbey now is an infinitely more rewarding and comprehensible experience that it would have been if I had first read it when I shared Catherine Morland's age and experience. Catherine is a heroine for an older woman looking back; Elizabeth Bennett is a heroine for a young woman looking forward.

It's a rare experience now for me to have such a fresh first encounter with a book, and such a well-known one at that. My own children have seen movie versions of Pride and Prejudice more than once, have listened to the audio book, and know the plot. They'll read it for themselves one day, but that first thrill of discovery won't have that pristine newness to it. But of all the books I could come to so marvelously unencumbered by the critical (or uncritical) opinions of others, I'm so glad I struck on Pride and Prejudice at seventeen -- as felicitous a match as any of Austen's heroines made.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

How Writers Live, Tolkien Edition

I enjoyed taking the time this week to read Nicole duPlessis's article "On the Shoulders of Humphrey Carpenter: Reconsidering Biographical Representation and Scholarly Perception of Edith Tolkien" from the Mythopoeic Society's scholarly journal Mythlore.

Carpenter's 1977 authorized biography of Tolkien remains the standard work on the author. Carpenter had greater access to unpublished family diaries and letters than any subsequent biographer, so his work holds a sort of canonical status in shaping perceptions of Tolkien's life. However, as duPlessis writes, Carpenter brought to the table his own interpretive biases, in particular regarding Tolkien's religion and his marriage. In regards to religion, Carpenter saw Tolkien's Catholic faith as a sort of substitute love and loyalty for the feelings Tolkien had felt towards his mother, who died when Tolkien was still in his youth. In regards to marriage, Carpenter finds Tolkien's family life surprisingly prosaic.
“It is a strange paradox, the fact that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are the work of an obscure Oxford professor […] who lived an ordinary suburban life bringing up his children and tending his garden.”
Tolkien's wife Edith comes in a fair amount of blame for this "strange paradox" in Carpenter's telling. He portrays her as not being Tolkien's intellectual equal (though a highly skilled pianist, she was not an academic or a writer) and her desire to keep some sort of order with their home and four children is portrayed as pulling Tolkien away from the creative life he should have been living.

This strikes me as one of the interesting unstated assumptions of Carpenter's biography as analyzed in duPlessis's paper: that there is some particular life that a creative person such as a novelist should be living, and that the occupations of home living and raising children are not part of that life.

Really, though, what can we say of substance about a writer's life other than that he or she writes? Some live obviously colorful existences, others are notably quiet ones. It's hardly surprising from Tolkien's portrayal of hobbit existence that he himself valued a quiet life. duPlessis notes:
Here it is worth recalling Lewis’s description of Tolkien as “the most married man he knew,”
And indeed, although Tolkien had been working on the poems and stories that would eventually give rise to the Silmarillion for many years, Tolkien's entrance into print with The Hobbit saw its origin as a bedtime story told to his children, surely an appropriate origin for the work of "the most married man" Lewis knew.

I'd strongly recommend reading duPlessis's entire article. While the particular aspect that struck me had to do with ideas of the "writer's life", the main focus of the article is actually on Edith, someone clearly very important to Tolkien himself (on their shared gravestone the inscription describes her as the Luthien to his Beren) and yet whom Carpenter treats as an obviously mis-matched spouse.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Ben-Hur (2016)

It is possible that you have a plethora of free time in late May, and if so, I congratulate you on your leisure in one of the most beautiful times of the year. Alas, it is not so with me, although the light at the end of the tunnel is approaching with increasing rapidity. Still, we do have quiet afternoons, such as yesterday when Darwin took the oldest son (10) to his baseball game, and the big girls (17, 15, 13) were all out of the house, and the three youngest (8, 5, and 1) were hanging out quietly with me.

Mostly quietly. The almost-9yo had been promised that at some point she could watch Age of Ultron, and as the library website promised a copy in stock, we went down to pick it up. All lies, as it turned out: the movie was at another location. So as a consolation prize, we picked up a better movie, Black Panther. As I turned away from the shelf, something else caught my eye: the new Ben-Hur (2016).

Now, I saw the 1959 Ben-Hur (with Charleston Heston and a star-studded cast featuring anyone who was anyone in 1959) as a youngster. We had the soundtrack on record -- a two-disc album, with a commemorative booklet! -- and listened to it over and over again, until we had all the cues by heart. I don't think it's a perfect movie by any stretch, but it does what it does just fine. Indeed, I now have my family's old two-tape VHS copy, which is about the only reason we keep the VCR around. But the new Ben-Hur clocks in at about an hour shorter than the '59 version, so why not give it a shot?

Well. What we have here is something almost but not entirely unlike Ben-Hur, not just the movie but the blockbuster novel of the same name, by General Lew Wallace. Some of the standards are here: the chariot race, the naval battle, the friendship and then antagonism between Judah and Messala, a romance between Judah and Esther, Jesus giving water to Ben-Hur on the way to the galleys. And some things are twisted, in ways that make the story altogether different. Judah's encounter with Zealots gives an interesting historical context, but changing the tile slipping from the roof to a Zealot assassination attempt serves to make Messala not more sympathetic, but a less dominating character.

Let's look at some of the odd historical choices that made my head explode. Right at the beginning it's stated that Messala is an adopted son of the Hur family -- actually adopted, not just "almost like one of the family". When Judah Ben-Hur says that Messala is his brother, he means it literally. I want to think about this, roll it around your brain for a minute. A Jewish family -- a wealthy family, to be sure, a family of princes -- adopts a Roman citizen? A Roman citizen wracked with guilt in 33 AD, because his grandfather was helped assassinate Julius Caesar -- in 44 BC, 77 years earlier? In order to prove himself, Messala just ups and goes to Germania to fight barbarians -- under the command of Pontius Pilate? And why does Pilate insist on wearing barbarian furs in Judea, notorious for its sweltering clime?

Indeed, the costuming and design of this movie reflects a general fake awesome ethic: what looks good in the moment, as opposed to what makes sense on any rational or historic level. I too am in awe of the flowing locks of these gorgeous actresses, but a Jewish woman of the first century going out -- going into a Roman fortress -- without covering her hair? And people, Jerusalem is a real city with real topography. We don't have to just make it up to look cool.

Speaking of making it up: I don't know that I am a fan of the old-style cinematic depictions of Jesus as too holy to speak, but it does beat dialing in dialogue and situations from the religious text generator. Why have Jesus rescue a man from being stoned in an undefined context, when we have to hand the far more dramatically satisfying episode of Jesus saving the woman caught in adultery? Why put in generic speeches about loving your enemy and forgiveness when you could draw from actual scriptural discourses, far richer content-wise? Indeed, after I had tuned out for a large portion of the movie, I found myself drawn back in by a surprisingly moving crucifixion scene. Here at last, Jesus speaks his own words, and they are, as they always are, powerful.

And then, the movie had to go and undercut its hokey but serviceable ending by layering contemporary Christian music over it. This is a trend that cannot die too soon, and I heap opprobrium on all filmmakers who think that a blatant appeal to lovers of CCM will pull their movie to box-office glory. We have final credits for this kind of pandering.

(But MrsD, what about the chariot race, you ask? Eh, thrilling enough. But I just can't suspend belief enough to admit that anyone racing a chariot in an arena could follow coaching from the sidelines, nay, even if that coach does have the voice of Morgan Freeman. )

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Predictive Text Fiction

Brandon is having fun with Talk to Transformer, a neural network that uses predictive text to create stories or articles from one snippet of text. We tried it ourselves here, but didn't come up with anything fascinating enough to share. However, it reminded us of our favorite predictive text venture: Harry Potter and What Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash.

And once you've read it, watch it:

And soon you will find yourself pressing the baby's curls every time you pass him and murmuring, "You are Hagrid now."

Monday, May 13, 2019


For Mothers Day, I sat around all day after church and read two books. I wish I could say that it was a day of deep thought and contemplation, but it's more accurate to say that I charged through the books, devouring for plot and then tossing them aside when I was done. I consumed them.

Consumption leads to satiation, but not satisfaction. The more you glut, the more you want, and the less what you get fills you. And alas, this has been my pattern since Easter, when I abandoned my Lenten disciplines. That lack of discipline is telling on me lately. I've done plenty of reading, but it's mostly been consumption. Mysteries, sci-fi, the kids' books, Facebook, the newspaper, and, in two days I'll never get back, American Gods by Neil Gaiman, a doorstop of a tome which I didn't enjoy yet finished anyway to see if it would ever get better. And in the meantime, the good things I want to do and read and write have slipped away from me.

I think the way to break through this cycle of malnutrition is fasting -- cutting back drastically on content. "Why spend your money for what is not bread; your wages for what does not satisfy?" (Is. 55:2) We are at a point in our year where things are finally starting to break: sports ending, dance ending, school drama ending. Soon there will be time to breath, and lazier days when the time can be well spent on reading, without guilt. That time isn't yet, though. Right now it's time to stop consuming before what I'm consuming ends up consuming me.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Doctrinal Fidelity Buffet

For whatever reason, Commonweal keeps me on their mailing list, and so I see a smattering of their articles as part of my "read the other side too" diet. A recent article discussed trends the Episcopalian author believes he sees towards doctrinal fidelity among mainline Protestant denominations such as his own. He begins by referencing the much discussed Nicholas Kristof NY Times column in which Kristof interviewed theologian Serene Jones of Union Theological Seminary just before Easter. The author summarizes and quotes the Kristof/Jones interaction as follows:
In the interview Kristof, Nicodemus-like, tiptoes toward Christian faith with hesitation but sincere interest (as he has before). “For someone like myself,” he says, “who is drawn to Jesus’ teaching but doesn’t believe in the virgin birth or the physical resurrection, what am I? Am I a Christian?” “Well,” Jones replies, “you sound an awful lot like me, and I’m a Christian minister.” In another part of the interview, she elaborates:

For me, the message of Easter is that love is stronger than life or death. That’s a much more awesome claim than that they put Jesus in the tomb and three days later he wasn’t there. For Christians for whom the physical resurrection becomes a sort of obsession, that seems to me to be a pretty wobbly faith. What if tomorrow someone found the body of Jesus still in the tomb? Would that then mean that Christianity was a lie? No, faith is stronger than that.
The author argues that this kind of theological modernism is more typical of mainline Protestantism of the Baby Boomer generation, and that among his own generation things are different:
The evangelicals I follow were rightly, albeit predictably, upset. But I also follow a lot of fellow Episcopalians and other progressive, mainline Protestants. The ones I have in mind are, for the most part, young, educated, left-of-center in their politics, LGBTQ-affirming, and committed to all manner of other progressive social-justice causes, and mostly uninterested in the latest trends in worship music or church-planting, preferring instead the stability of venerable institutions and formal liturgy. And, virtually to a person, they took Jones’s comments as an occasion to affirm—nay, celebrate—the traditional doctrine of the empty tomb and Jesus’ bodily life after death. They were saddened and bewildered by Jones’s views and ready to proclaim their own confidence that, on Easter morning, “if he rose at all / It was as His body.”

To some observers, this “turn to orthodoxy” looks like the product of a generational shift. In a 2016 survey of then-current LGBT students enrolled at Episcopal seminaries, Ian Markham and Paul Moberly Mazariegos found that virtually all (92 percent) of the respondents agreed with the claim that the “creeds teach that Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead, which has traditionally meant that the tomb was empty.”
It’s fair to ask whether this blend of political and ethical progressivism and old-time theology is coherent, let alone sustainable. Might it be that the real dynamo of mainline Protestants’ faith is left-wing activism while belief in the resurrection is a kind of unrelated accessory, sincerely held but mostly disconnected from the rest of their convictions? No doubt that’s the case for some. Yet one of the striking things about the reactions I saw last Saturday and Sunday to Jones’s comments was how tightly many mainline Protestants intertwined their belief in the bodily resurrection with their concern for social justice.

This, for example, was how Andrew McGowan, dean of Berkeley Divinity School, the Episcopal seminary at Yale, responded to Jones: “If Easter really meant just that love is more powerful than death but Jesus didn’t rise, how’s the love-death score today?” The “today” in question was the day terrorist bombs killed hundreds of Christians in Sri Lanka. “Is it coincidental,” McGowan asked, “that liberal Protestantism grows in the soil of privilege?” Later, when President Trump took to Twitter to use Easter as an occasion to celebrate the booming economy, McGowan quipped that that’s what you get “when Easter is about niceness, spring, or even ‘love’ without a sense of how the resurrection disrupts our idols and fantasies. This empire will crumble, and if you base contentment on its falsehoods, enjoy them while you may. A different world is coming.” That’s an accusation calculated to sting a progressive constituency: to surrender belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus is to aid and abet Trumpism!

In short, if my online friends represent any bellwether, the future of mainline Protestantism will see a tight connection between radical politics and the hope of the bodily resurrection. Lose the latter, and the former will ultimately be lost too.
I don't want to shortchange the fact that it is a good thing that people are taking seriously the idea that Jesus really is God, who died for our sins and rose from the dead. And, clearly, it is good for people to root their ideas of justice in Jesus's divinity. It is also doubtless worth turning a more skeptical eye at the memories of the last few generations in terms of religious thinking. It's interesting that the author cites Episcopal bishop Spong as an example of the "boomer" theology in the piece, since Spong was apparently born in 1931 and thus was more a later member of the group sometimes called the "greatest generation" than the baby boomers. Unbelief in the resurrection among self described Christians is the sort of idea that's been knocking around prominently since the Enlightenment. It's certainly not something new to the aging 60s generation.

At the same time, I'm not clear how coherent this supposed fidelity to creedal Christianity of the author and his friends necessarily is. They believe in the resurrection and that is obviously a good thing. However, the fact that they seem to feel authorized to pick and choose which teachings of Christianity to accept and which to ignore is underlined by the fact that he uses "LGBTQ-affirming" as a shorthand for "modern and right-thinking progressive people".

Now clearly, that's a phrase that could be parsed a lot of different ways. People who are gay, lesbian, etc. are children of God made in his image, and they are as such as worthy of affirmation as people as any other human being. At the same time, given the source, it's hard not to conclude that the author probably means "affirming the morality of same sex marriage, gender transition, etc." This has continued as a major flash point between the kind of progressive Christians that the author discusses and those who affirm something more like orthodox Christianity. For instance, in my own town, several of the United Methodist churches have put up signs and banners proclaiming the fact that they reject the decision of the worldwide United Methodist gathering in which votes from the African members tilted the majority in favor of rejecting a plan to introduce same sex marriages.

Christians need to ask themselves how much they really believe in a risen Christ if they do not allow the Church's teachings to pull them away from the secular political alignments to which they would otherwise pledge their allegiance. It's legitimate to ask whether politically right wing Christians are forming their attitudes towards the poor and the vulnerable based on the teachings of Christ or the teachings of secular right wing political leaders. But it's also essential for Christians who consider themselves politically progressive to ask themselves whether they are followers of Christ or of the secular progressive movement when it comes to issues relating to sexuality, marriage, abortion, and contraception. These are no less moral issues than what are often labeled as "social justice issues" and often they touch on our own behavior much more directly.

Monday, May 06, 2019

In Defense of Good Characters

In several different contexts lately, I've heard people assert that "good" characters are boring. Bring on the villain-as-main-character! Bring on the anti-hero! Bring on the shades of moral gray!

To the extent that fiction is a world distilled, focused down to the elements necessary to develop some particular plot, character, or theme, how we think about morality in fiction is not a bad way to examine how we think about morality in real life, and it strikes me that this complaint that good characters are boring gets at a misunderstanding as to what "good" is. Often we talk about someone as "good" based on what they haven't done.

He hasn't defrauded anyone. He hasn't clubbed baby harp seals. He hasn't cheated on his wife. He hasn't committed genocide. See? He's a "basically good person".

But what could be more boring than a basically good person? The virtue of the basically good person is that he hasn't done anything shockingly wicked, and he's in some bland sense what the 18th century called "clubbable". Bon homie mixed with not doing things doesn't make for an interesting story. Thus, bring on the villains! At least they might have done something interesting.

However, I'd argue that this "not done anything" virtue is entirely the wrong way to look at goodness, both in fiction and in our world.

Virtue consists of striving to do what is good, not just to avoid what is evil. Striving suggests struggle, and struggle is conflict. Conflict is what provides drama. So struggling to achieve what one believes to be the good (what one wants) should clearly be interesting dramatic material, and should remain interesting whether what one wants is actually good or one is striving for a false good which will, in the end, fail to satisfy.

Thought about this way, both a hero and a villain are interesting in that they are struggling to achieve something, the difference is just that the hero is struggling to achieve something positive while the villain is struggling to achieve something destructive.

Monday, April 29, 2019

One Death is a Story; Three Billion is a Statistic

[This post mentions key plot points for Infinity War but spoils no surprises in Endgame.]

MrsDarwin and I made our way out to see Avengers: Endgame the other night, making it to the theater a couple days after our oldest three kids had already seen it. It's no kind of spoiler for those who saw Infinity War that this movie has to grapple with the world created by the last moments of that prior movie, in which the arch villain Thanos, having acquired a set of "infinity stones" that give him near infinite power, snaps his fingers and thus wipes out half the living population of the universe, with the dead (including half the characters of the series) drifting off into dust on the wind. I won't go into detail on how I think Endgame did with the details this portrayal, but it did strike me that they struggled to show such a world persuasively in a movie which was necessarily going to focus on other, subsequent events.

The world we're shown here has experienced an almost unimaginable tragedy: 50% of the population wiped out in an instant. Notwithstanding the clumpiness of basic probabilities (someone will have had the coil toss come up heads for the entire family and lost no one, while other entire family groups would be wiped out without exception) it's basically right to say that everyone would have been affected. Even if their own loved ones happened to survive, the sudden loss of so much population would put every government, every economy, every neighborhood into a tailspin. Every aspect of life would be changed.

It's interesting that even with this portrayal of mass tragedy in the background, the movie managed to get more emotional impact out of the depiction of a couple individual deaths during the course of the movie than it did out of the portrayal of the mass tragedy that stands in the background. And yet, I think this points to how we as humans think about stories, and how they are conveyed to us, whether through non-fiction or through fiction.

We are, at root, very concrete thinkers. The quip allegedly made by Stalin "One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic" (I haven't researched the source of this quote, but many overly memorable quotes are fake, so I use the attribution with hesitation) actually points to a very real human tendency. Tell me that a million people died, and I instinctively imagine my own loved ones dying, and many, many other people experiencing the same tremendous suffering that that would entail. I can't really think of "a million deaths". I can only think of one or three or five, and then imagine that is somehow multiplied out beyond my ability to think.

This is why the technique, which historians have seized upon, of telling "ground level history" by selecting the stories of a handful of individual people and telling their experience of some great historical tragedy as a sort of sample of the whole. We can't really process the idea of thousands of people dying in the first hours of D-Day, but tell us about the last moments of a half dozen individual men, and about the telegrams being delivered to their families, and we mentally do a sort of calculation of "this, but much more of it". We still haven't grasped the idea of thousands of deaths. But we have some hook upon which to hang the idea.

I think this is why historical fiction, done well, can be a particularly effective way of conveying a set of events too vast to really comprehend in a human fashion. A novel like Tolstoy's War & Peace -- or to take somewhat more middle-brow modern examples, José María Gironella's The Cypresses Believe in God or Herman Wouk's The Winds of War -- follows a cast of characters which is large, but still humanly comprehensible, and follows that cast through a set of events which is fundamentally beyond the ability to follow in a human sense.

We could read about Napoleon's invasion of Russia, or the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, in terms of troop movements on maps and casualty counts on paper, but it takes assigning human names and experiences to it to provide some kind of emotional understanding of the human dimension of events.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Rhapsody in Blog

In the circles I move in, there's been a lot of hand-wringing about the demise of blogging, and nostalgia for the golden days where one could write thoughtful posts which got a lot of engagement, and which in turn were linked to by people carrying on the discussion. And there's analysis: did Facebook kill blogging? Is Twitter killing Facebook? Are we all doomed to converse in snippets of 140 characters or less, or worse, an endless series of curated images on Instagram? How do we revive the blogsphere?

So here's the curious phenomenon I observed, as I was off Facebook for Lent. Blogging isn't dead. It's just being carried on by the same people who've been doing it for years, who are used to the format and have the endurance to persevere in a less of-the-moment medium, who aren't looking to move to the next big platform where everyone's congregating.

The day of the Notre Dame fire, the most significant event on the historical and cultural scene since I don't know when, I refreshed my blogroll obsessively, since I was off other forms of social media. The list of people posting instantly and thoughtfully, and with updates, were few: Amy Welborn, Brandon. We ourselves, mere pikers beside these venerable bloggers since we've been going for less than 15 years, put up three posts in lieu of updates as we thought through the event and tried to process it. Anne Kennedy and Simcha Fisher, also stalwarts with more than a decade of blogging experience, also posted rapidly and with characteristically intelligent writing.

Doubtless people were throwing out their quick takes and feels and pix on more insta-forms of social media.  But when we talk about blogging, we are talking about writing with the long game in view. There are lots of people who start blogs and flame out, either because the time commitment is too great or because there are other platforms that offer quicker hits of engagement with less effort. To be a blogger, I think, you have to be resigned to the dry spells, the long stretches of writing as its own reward.

As I've been writing letters during Lent, it has struck me that letter writing has a lot in common with blogging. I put down my thoughts, process some idea, and send it out, without expecting a response. I'm content to know that what I've written has reached its recipient, and has perhaps sparked new thoughts or clarified old ones for my reader. Probably I'll never hear about it, and that's not the point. The point is that the idea travels on, and takes root in the minds of others.

When Pope John Paul II was Karol Wojtyła, acting in and writing plays in Poland, he wrote about a style of drama called Rhapsodic Theater. This theater wasn't heavily plot- or character-driven; rather, it engaged with an idea, explored it from new angles, drew out nuances, and, by speaking it aloud, presented the Word to the audience, who, by hearing it, received it and engaged with it in their turn. Wojtyła described the longer, more rhapsodic passages of theater as "song" -- a concentrated expression of idea, presented not as dialogue but as sustained thought.

Blogging, or letter writing, or any kind of long form writing, has a stronger potential than other forms of public interaction, to be Rhapsodic because it allows for more development time. A post on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, no matter how thoughtful, is quickly swallowed up by the constant stream of new content pushing old content down and out. The idea is like the seed sown among thorns, which quickly takes root and springs up, but is choked out by cares and worries and entertainment and whatever is quick and easy and funny and new. And that's not considered a flaw -- it's the nature and goal of the medium, to be ever updating.

So it's not that you have to be ancient to be a blogger. It's that the field winnows itself out over time, and those who endure are those who have proven themselves over time to those willing to put their thoughts out there without thought of reward, in the quiet belief that someone out there is reading and receiving and developing the rhapsodic idea.

Friday, April 19, 2019

By His Stripes

The prisoner sat quietly in his cell, waiting for the guards. The firelight from the courtyard flickered through the bars of the narrow window above his head, revealing scratches on the stone wall. The man reached out, traced the rough angry characters, and spoke: "Yakob."

Across the city, in a squalid room, Yakob's feverish mutterings quieted. His wife, basin and cloth in her lap, gasped as she reached out to wipe his back, torn from a Roman beating a week ago, and found fresh whole cool skin under her fingertips.

The prisoner walked the length of the cell, passing his hand over the wall. His fingers found a deep gouge that ended abruptly in a broad gash.

In a tent in a desert work camp, an elderly slave sat up suddenly and lit a lamp with trembling hands. He stared in amazement at his left forefinger, as flexible as a ten-year-old boy's, unscarred by the mark of a careless chisel slip that had nearly severed it fifty years before.

The door clanked open. The gentle step of the prisoner was not fast enough to suit the impatient guard at the door. He opened his mouth to bark an order, then stood openmouthed as the prisoner passed him. With his tongue, he poked at his cracked molar, and felt no echoing stab of pain.

In the courtyard the prisoner was shoved along by the guards. He stumbled and caught himself against a long low row of streaks on the dusty wall. In the servants' quarters blind Maryam, daughter of the gatekeeper, her fingertips calloused from brushing them along guiding walls, opened her eyes and for the first time saw the morning stars.

The growling mob hustled the prisoner to the praetorium, all except the temple guard who stood in wonder, opening and closing the hand that had struck the man in the face, the motion no longer hindered by the puckered skin of an ancient burn.

The Roman soldier sighed in disgust at the prisoner's blood splattered across his sandals. He wiped his leg with a cloth, then wiped again, searching vainly for the scars of his wound he received from the rebels at Galilee.

In her cool room facing the courtyard pool, Claudia finally fell into a deep placid sleep, untroubled for the first time in years by the terrors that nightly tormented her dreams.

As Veronica held the grimy veil against her breast, watching the condemned man stagger away from her under the weight of the beam, the blood soaked through her dress, warming and melting away the hard tender lump that had troubled her for months.

Levi fixed a vinegar-soaked sponge on a stick and pressed it against the chin of the dying man hanging above him. As the vinegar mixed with spittle and blood dripped down his arm and shoulder, it carried with it all the pain of the pinched nerves that had kept him from standing straight for so long. He reached higher, finally resting the sponge against the man's mouth. The man sipped, shuddered, strained against the nails in his feet, and gasped, "It is finished."

Hannah woke suddenly at this cry, clawed at the sheets across her face, and pushed past the shattered rock of the tomb opening to gaze at the distant hill where a bloodless man with arms outstretched had summoned her forth.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

A Symbol Between Heaven and Earth

Yesterday evening, Paris time, a fire broke out among the wooden timbers that support Notre Dame cathedral's exterior roof, and in the end the fire consumed pretty much the entirety of the roof. The vaulted stone ceiling beneath mostly survived. No one was killed, and while much was lost, much was preserved. As of this morning, hundreds of millions of dollars have already been pledged towards the rebuilding.

It's one of the oddities of modern technology that people around the world could watch on live video as the cathedral burned. Many feared the building would be a complete loss and expressed their feelings about this loss and its meaning.

I want to write about two particular reactions, because I think they throw a light on how we as humans relate to both the divine and to the beauty we create in this world in our attempts to honor the Good and Beautiful which is beyond this world.

First is the "fitting symbol" reaction which a number of people proclaimed, particularly while the cathedral was still burning and it appeared that the damage might be much worse than it thus far appears. This reaction was that the cathedral as a burned out shell would be a fitting symbol of what Christianity had become in the modern world. Some even went so far as to argue that the cathedral should not be repaired, because for a secular age to repair a sacred piece of architecture would be dishonest.

It is true that Christian beliefs permeated medieval and even renaissance Europe in a way that even those of us who are actively religious have a hard time doing today. This struck be when MrsDarwin and I were watching a production of Hamlet at the local college this last weekend. Hamlet is not any kind of paragon of faith and morals. Yet he accepts absolutely the idea that intentional suicide would lead to damnation and also the idea that if he kills his uncle at a moment when the uncle is repenting of the wrong he has committed, the uncle will be saved rather than damned (and since Hamlet wants his revenge to extend to the afterlife, he's intent on killing his uncle at a time when the uncle will be damned.) Admittedly, Hamlet's beliefs about judgement and afterlife are arguably simplistic, but it's significant that he holds to them without any real question, as if they are just how the world works, whereas in our modern world even many professed believers struggle with the idea of judgement and hell for anyone at all.

However, while it's true that Christianity had a centrality and acceptance in Medieval Europe which it does not now, the argument that it's somehow fitting that in our modern world a Gothic cathedral be reduced to a burned-out husk strikes me as being overly simplistic. Yes, there was deep acceptance of Christianity in Medieval France, but there were also a great many very bad Christians. Yes, the work that went into the cathedrals was in part of form of devotion, but it was also an employment and cathedrals served both as a way for the diocese to showcase its financial resources (which were often literally princely) and also as a draw to bring pilgrims and their money from far away.

To see cathedrals in their beauty as reflecting nothing but the purest faith is overly rosy, and to see modernity as not having sufficient faith to deserve a beautiful cathedral is to be too cynical. There are today still many people whose faith can be inspired by a beautiful church, an just as Abraham pleaded that Sodom not be destroyed if there were but ten good people in it, so we too should want to see the cathedrals continue to stand for the faith of the few, rather than destroyed for the unbelief of the rest. If cathedrals deserved to be burned for the unbelief of their people, then doubtless all cathedrals in all places and times would burn.

The second reaction of which I'd like to speak is the "a church is just a building" reaction. This is, of course, true. A church is just a building. There's a curious conundrum when it comes to preserving the material things precious to us. Firefighters risked their lives rushing into and onto this burning building to put out the fire and rescue relics and works of art from the flames. By doing so, they in some sense showed a willingness to give their lives to preserve a sacred and beautiful building. And yet, at the absolute level, we know that each human life is more precious than any building or relic. Even so, I don't think this willingness to risk oneself to preserve a thing of this world is misguided. A cathedral is not just stones. It is also a thing which makes concrete the work and love and belief of thousands. It is a work of art that serves as a sign. It is not of heaven, it does not, like a human being, possess the divine spark of a soul. And yet it is build to point us towards heaven and capture in some imperfect way a vision of the beauty and perfection that is God.

Thus, while Notre Dame is "just a building" it is also much more. Its value is not in the rocks and timbers themselves, but rather in the way that it points the humans who look at it towards contemplation of the beautiful and the divine. And its value is in the way that it records by its very being and construction the work and love of so many people over so many years.

We should not treat it as if it is itself a divine thing, yet we should treat it with honor and reverence because of the meaning that it conveys -- and it conveys more meaning than most other buildings.

Till Age Snow White Haires On Thee

The kids have been watching Howl's Moving Castle, which makes me long to sit down and read the book again. But alas, I have no time for that, so I'll have to compromise by reading John Donne, whose Song plays a significant role in the book (and none in the movie). Here's a post from 2007 with not only John Donne, but PoetBot.

Eat your heart out, Shakespeare -- PoetBot can say it in four words.

I've been reading John Donne lately, and here's what's been rattling around in my head:

Goe, and catche a falling starre,
  Get with child a mandrake roote,
Tell me, where all past yeares are,
  Or who cleft the Divels foot,
Teach me to heare Mermaides singing,
  Or to keep off envies stinging,
       And find
       What winde
Serves to advance an honest minde.

If thou beest borne to strange sights,
  Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand daies and nights,
  Till age snow white haires on thee,
Thou, when thou retorn'st, wilt tell me
  All strange wonders that befell thee,
      And sweare
      No where
Loves a woman true, and faire.

If thou findst one, let mee know,
  Such a Pilgrimage were sweet;
Yet doe not, I would not goe,
  Though at next doore wee might meet,
Though shee were true, when you met her,
  And last, till you write your letter,
      Yet shee
      Will bee
False, ere I come, to two, or three.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Cathedral Design: The Roof That Burned, The Ceiling That Remains

MrsDarwin and I were looking at the news tonight, trying to understand how bad the damage to Notre Dame cathedral was. What seemed confusing was on the one hand the images of the fire which seemed to show the whole, burned roof collapsed amid a hollow shell of walls:

And on the other hand the first images from inside which seemed to show an interior which was damaged but not totally "gutted" as so much coverage kept saying.

Then I remembered David Macaulay's marvelous book Cathedral, which I'd read many times as a kid and watched the PBS movie of even more times. (Indeed, pulling up this link, I remembered that the story of the fictional cathedral in the animated sections begins with the old cathedral burning down, and the town resolving to build a new cathedral to house the relics miraculously rescued from the burning building.)

The outer roof that we saw burning is built of wood covered with lead sheeting, but under that is the stone vaulting which you see when you look up.

I think the lake of fire we see in the drone image at top is probably mostly on top of the stone vaulting, which acted as a fire break. Only in some places has debris broken through the vaulting down into the church below. In this picture you can see up through the breaks in the vaulting to the fire above:

The strength of those medieval stone vaults may have kept much of the fire up above, away from the interior of the church. 

Monday, April 15, 2019

A House for My Name

Thus says the Lord: Is it you who would build me a house to dwell in?

As long as I have wandered about among the Israelites, did I ever say a word to any of the judges whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel: Why have you not built me a house of cedar?

Moreover, the Lord also declares to you that the Lord will make a house for you: when your days have been completed and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, sprung from your loins, and I will establish his kingdom. He it is who shall build a house for my name, and I will establish his royal throne forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.

Your house and your kingdom are firm forever before me; your throne shall be firmly established forever.

2 Samuel 7:5,7, 11-13, 16

Persisting Images

Notre Dame de Paris has stood for over 850 years. I saw it for the one and only time just over twenty years ago in 1999, when MrsDarwin and I went there for Palm Sunday mass there during Spring Break of our European semester in college. I never would have thought that I would live to see it suffer a catastrophic fire.

One of the things that appeals to me about film photography is the way that it turns something as transient as an image into something which can remain for decades. My grandmother's box of photos included prints up to a hundred years old, most of them looking much as they had when first made. The four images above are ones that I took that spring day twenty years ago. After searching through a few boxes this evening, I found them as fresh as ever. It's hard to believe that cathedral roof and spire are now melted and caved in.

Saturday, April 13, 2019


This post from three years ago was apropos yesterday -- not because I was particularly restless, but because it was a glorious Lenten Friday and I was searching for the Stations of the Cross linked herein. I couldn't remember who wrote them. Charles Borromeo? Robert Bellarmine? You'll see I was kind of in the ballpark, anyway.
My soul rests in God alone,
from whom comes my salvation.
God alone is my rock and salvation,
my secure height; I will never fall.
--Psalm 62:2-3
Today is one of those glorious spring days that makes the soul restless. I want... I don't know what what I want, except that it's something other than what I'm supposed to be doing. I want to be outside. I want to be traveling. I want my children to do their work peaceably without my having to guide them. And none of these desires are bad. They're simply not the work that God has prepared for me right now.

Every Friday in Lent we go to Stations of the Cross at church. This is another experience that leaves me yearning for something else. Our parish doesn't use the meditations by Alphonsus Ligouri that I grew up with:
My Jesus! loaded with contempt, nail my heart to Thy feet, that it may ever remain there, to love Thee, and never quit Thee again. I love Thee more than myself; I repent of having offended Thee. Never permit me to offend Thee again. Grant that I may love Thee always; and then do with me what Thou wilt.
Instead, we have a modern version that incorporates short monologues from various characters through the gospels. Every week these monologues grate on my dramatic soul, and instead of praying I find myself mentally rewriting them, again, and every week I go back, because this is how my parish chooses to pray together. And I wonder why there are three stations devoted to Jesus falling, and none devoted to Jesus getting up after he falls and starting again, putting one foot in front of another.

At his most restless, Jesus couldn't go anywhere. I feel nailed down, metaphorically, but he was literally nailed down as he cried out, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?"

The kids and I have a little prayer time each morning. After our Bible readings and meditation, we spend fifteen or twenty seconds in silence, listening to and talking to God. I call this practice, because if you don't practice prayer as you practice everything else, how will you grow? My prayer this morning was that God would show me the work that he has prepared for me today. Most of it I already know. Two loads of dishes. Some laundry, now that the baskets are finally empty of the clean clothes. Sweep the floor. Again and again, make the children go back and finish their work. Finish my own work

It's a good life, and I like it. I don't really want it to be different than it is. And so, when I feel this restlessness in my soul, I know that the end of all desire is God. I don't need a temporal change. I need my blinders off, to realize that this day I am with Jesus in Paradise, right where I am.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

15 Minutes on Thursday

(15 minutes on the timer.)

This has been a week filled with a thousand pinpricks of mortification, not the least of which was the necessity of writing to the editor of my textbook project and admitting that at least until summertime, I simply do not have the time to write, and if he needs to find someone else to handle the project sooner, he should. Ladies and gentlemen, I am so swamped. I don't understand how school parents get the kids to sports practice (every night) and juggle the small kids while there because the babysitters are all off doing drama, and then get people fed and to bed on time, and then get them up for school at dark o'clock and then go to work, while still getting the laundry done and taking the cat with diarrhea to the vet. This must be why people have 1.7 children and eat at McDonalds.

Today the older four drove themselves down to Columbus to tech the first of two performances today of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The next two are parked at home in front of Mr. Rogers (streaming on Amazon; you're welcome) while baby is finally sleeping off his fever in my bed. (All night he tossed next to me, fiery and fitful.) I'm taking this morning to nurse my sinus headache and try to salvage my voice before the press of Confirmation/Triduum/Easter, while running laundry and doing dishes and contemplating the state of the kitchen floor. Also, I'm chasing down the cat to give her her medicine, scrubbing yet another round of non-human poop off the floor, and feeding the guinea pigs that have been neglected lately by the thespians. This afternoon at rush hour the big girls will drive downtown for the final show, and I too will venture into very Columbus  with four children for an away baseball game, perhaps trading off at some point with Darwin if baby's fever comes back.

(If you are expecting a Lenten letter from me, the project will resume shortly; I was temporarily derailed by the obligation of writing letters of encouragement to all the kids in my Confirmation class.)

Timer's buzzing. Shall I do dishes? Shall I kick the kids off the computer and read to them? Shall I start dinner in the crockpot, or count on fast food this evening? Shall I worry about the girls driving on the highway in rush hour, or push that to the back of my mind because they've been fine so far? Shall I sit here navel-gazing, or take up my cross?

We who are about to die to self salute you.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Refusing to Fight or Flee

As part of the inevitable give-and-take of church politics, I sent an email carefully crafted to be polite and conciliatory, while expressing my disagreement with a decision made. This morning I received a response which evokes two reactions:

1. Rationally, I wash my hands of the issue, acknowledge that I did my best, and accept a decision I dislike, but which is not a matter of faith and morals, obediently and do my best to cooperate with what I'm asked to do, while reading the more ambiguous passages in a charitable light.

2. Physically, my body has gone into an anxious fight-or-flight reaction. I feel off my feed, my coffee is making my stomach churn, I'm jittery and nervy.

I can't help how my body responds, but I'm trying to account for it in my interactions this morning, so I don't transfer my frustration to the kids.

--The first thing this requires is prayer, lots of it, and remembering to pray before I open my mouth or physically react to anything.

-- I have to intentionally not snap at the little boys for doing mildly frustrating things that I usually can ignore.

-- I can choose to let the older girls sleep a little later so I can process in some peace, rather than getting irritated because people aren't out of bed yet.

-- I can put off a less essential, non-time-specific business call that I need to make some time this morning.

-- I can join my lack of appetite to Lenten fasting.

None of these things make the physical reaction go away, but hopefully they'll help me regulate in time without making innocent people around me feel upset. And, ideally, it imitates Christ on the cross -- taking a particular suffering into my own body and letting it stop there.

Monday, April 08, 2019

Do You Want to be Well?

Notes on reading John chapter 5: Jesus heals the man at the pool of Bethesda (or Bethsaida).
After this, there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

Now there is in Jerusalem at the Sheep [Gate] a pool called in Hebrew Bethesda, with five porticoes. In these lay a large number of ill, blind, lame, and crippled. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been ill for a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be well?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; while I am on my way, someone else gets down there before me.” Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your mat, and walk.” Immediately the man became well, took up his mat, and walked.

Now that day was a sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who was cured, “It is the sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.” He answered them, “The man who made me well told me, ‘Take up your mat and walk.’” They asked him, “Who is the man who told you, ‘Take it up and walk’?” The man who was healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had slipped away, since there was a crowd there. After this Jesus found him in the temple area and said to him, “Look, you are well; do not sin any more, so that nothing worse may happen to you.” The man went and told the Jews that Jesus was the one who had made him well. Therefore, the Jews began to persecute Jesus because he did this on a sabbath. But Jesus answered them, “My Father is at work until now, so I am at work.” For this reason the Jews tried all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the sabbath but he also called God his own father, making himself equal to God.
When Jesus asks the man if he wants to be healed, the man does not say "yes" or give a direct answer. He has an ready explanation, a sad story about how he's a victim in all this.

But he obeys Jesus outwardly.

Jesus knows this guy is going to be trouble. He seeks him out -- he could have left him alone -- and warns him about falling into sin, about continuing in sin, that nothing worse may befall him.

The man goes and tattles on Jesus to the pious authorities -- again, an outwardly religious action, but one with evil results, since the authorities persecuted and wanted to kill Jesus.

Immediately after the story, verse 19: "The Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever he does, that the Son does likewise." We've just seen the Son healing and warning, having a direct personal encounter with the sick man. He doesn't offer the man platitudes or generic hellfire, but sees right into his soul and gives him a very specific warning tailored to his personality: "See you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may befall you." He knows this man, knows that physical healing has left his soul like a room swept clean and put in order but uninhabited (Luke 11:25). And immediately after this personal encounter, Jesus's unforced revelation of himself to the man, the man betrays him -- for what? For prestige? It can hardly be to escape punishment from the authorities, so it must be to curry favor or to establish himself as a right thinker.

The Son as mirror of the Father: Jesus repeatedly emphasizes that the Son does only the will of the Father. Do you want to know the mind of God? Read the gospels; study Jesus.

Verses 25-29: Jesus speaks of the hour when the dead will hear the voice of the Son and live. "For just as the the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself." Sounds like a prophecy of the resurrection. Death has no power over the Son because he has life in himself. He hears his own voice and comes forth from the tomb. (v. 28).