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

Monday, April 30, 2007

Playground Woes

I hadn't realized till recently that being the parent on scene can get me almost as mad as I used to be when I was the one having playground squabbles twenty years or more ago.

Some time back I was watching our older two as they rampaged around the church playground while MrsD was in a meeting. There were a few other kids running around as well, among them one boy who was much larger than the others, probably 8-9 while the rest of the kids are 6 and under.

Now, our oldest is fearless, though small, and so when this big boy starts chasing the smaller kids around, she responds by trying to chase him back. He responds by tackling her and holding her down and tickling her. This happens a couple times, with me getting increasingly annoyed over on my bench, until I decide I've had enough.

I head over where the boy is holding Eleanor down and tickling her and, standing over him, deliver a "hey there" in the gruff daddy voice that is meant to telegraph "I'd like to disembowel you at the moment, but I've decided to try words first."

The kid looks up at me and grins.

Now a 9-year-old boy may be big next a four year old girl, but he's got nothing on Daddy, so I simply lift him up by the shoulders, set him on his feet and advise him, "That's enough of that."

He wanders off grumbling and Daddy dusts off his girl, gives her a hug, and sends her off to play.

I returned to my bench and my book, but a few moments later an aggrieved-looking woman comes over with the offending kid.

"You shouldn't touch him," she says. "You'll hurt him. I'm right here. If you don't like anything he's doing just tell me. He never means any harm. Just don't touch him."

A range of reactions of the violent to the sarcastic run through my head, but I keep it down to a brief pause followed by an, "Okay."

"You don't need to touch him," she repeats, in case a didn't hear her the first time, and she heads off sheltering her boy under her wing, lest -- I suppose -- the big evil man should suddenly decide to "touch him" again.

I suppose I must have violated some sacred rule of sensitive modern parenting in lifting her kid off mine -- but I would have at least thought that in the same book it would be written: Let not your child sit on those half his size and of the opposite sex.

Seems to me that when I was growing up:

a) I wouldn't have even tried to complain to my mother that I got in trouble for rousting up a younger kid.

b) If I had been that stupid, I would have been told, "You shouldn't be rough with the smaller kids" rather than held up as the injured party.

Grumble, grumble, grumble...

Bringing Beliefs to the Bench

There's been a certain amount of fuss lately over the fact that the five Supreme Court justices in the majority of the recent Carhart ruling are all Catholic. Certain commentators have declared themselves shocked, shocked that at the possibility that some or all of those justices may be allowing their personal beliefs as Catholics to interfere with their ability to rule from the bench. (With Justice Kennedy this would be a welcome change, but hardly seems to be a sure thing.)

What this raises, or course, is the question of: What exactly is a judge supposed to use as his frame of reference when forming a court ruling?

Clearly, we are a nation of laws, and as such (call me a positivist but there it is) a judge is first and foremost required to rule based on what the law says. But however much one wishes to stick to the idea of positive law as the basis for civil proceedings, clearly a judge cannot rule on the basis of positive law alone.

It is quite simply impossible to define every aspect of a situation. Thus, positive law is invariably interpreted through the lens of the judge's assumptions about the world, whether those assumptions be derived from religious faith, philosophical conviction, or emotional or ideological appeal.

If there were to be a sudden wave of hate against red-headed people and congress rushed through provisions allowing for the confiscation of their property, their imprisonment without trial, etc. the courts would be faced with the task of determining whether the protections laid out in our constitution were meant to apply to red-heads, or only to people with other hair colors. The constitution is silent on this point, since there has never in reality been a necessity of defining that rights apply to all hair colors, and yet this very silence (resulting from previous agreement) would mean that the decision of whether or not such protections applied to red-heads would effectively be left to judges and whatever philosophical or theological guidance they brought to the table in making that decision.

This is where any real law system simply cannot be ideal. For instance, there is I think a certain sense in which passing constitutional amendments that abolished race-slavery and banned racial discrimination was an incorrect approach. If one truly holds that the rights of members of all races should be equal, you shouldn't have to specifically "give" rights to one race via an amendment. They already have them by virtue of their humanity.

And yet, at a practical level, so long as there were a number of members of the judiciary to preferred not to acknowledge that all humans had the same rights, it was necessary to set our this equality by means of positive law in order to avoid a situation where different judges handed down opposite decisions based upon their own ideas of natural law.

Thus, things which ought properly simply be understood as a matter of natural law (such as who is a human being -- and thus deserving of human rights) often end up having to be defined by means of positive law if they come into sufficient question within society. However, we should understand that this is a crutch, not an ideal state. It is not the case that every group right down to the individual must be specifically defined in order to be deserving of their rights under the law. Rather, our need to define such things is the result of the inability of society to clearly understand and obey natural law.

Is that a gun in your pocket?

This one's for Rick and Jay... Iowahawk found the original draft of the Toledo Blade's psycho gun control proposal:

Where was I? Oh yeah, the disarming the American population plan thing. First of all, federal or state laws would need to make it a crime punishable by a $1,000 fine and one year in prison per weapon to possess a firearm. The population would then be given three months to turn in their guns, without penalty. As an added incentive, all owners tuning in guns would receive money saving coupons for Whole Foods and a gift subscription to Utne Reader.

Hunters would be able to deposit their hunting weapons in a centrally located arsenal. It would be heavily guarded, by heavy guards. The hunters would be able to withdraw their guns each hunting season upon presentation of a valid hunting license. The weapons would be required to be redeposited at the end of the season on pain of arrest, with substantial penalties for early withdrawl. When hunters submit a request for their weapons, federal, state, and local checks would be made to establish that they had not been convicted of a violent crime since the last time they withdrew their weapons. To insure the guards are not gun-nut double agents, each of these guards would be guarded by two meta-guards who would themselves be made to rub gravel in their hair and hold their palms over open flames as a test of loyalty to the disarmament cause. Also, these arsenal staff would take at least a quick look at each hunter to try to affirm that he was not obviously unhinged.

...Gun dealers could continue their work, selling hunting and antique firearms. They would be required to maintain very tight inventories, and file detailed reports to various authorities. Also, any gun sold would be delivered immediately by the dealer to the nearest arsenal or the museum, not to the buyer. Imagine the pride of gun owners, knowing their fresh guns will be on display in a prestigious, guarded, Frank Gehry-designed museum instead of laying on the coffee table of their trailers!

The disarmament process would begin after the initial three-month amnesty. Then, special squads of police would be somehow formed and trained to carry out the work. Then, on a random basis to permit no advance warning, BLAMMO! city blocks and stretches of suburban and rural areas would be cordoned off and searches carried out in every business, dwelling, and empty building, bedside drawer, farm field, tree, culvert, bush, stalactite cave, water tower, and body cavity. The special squads would receive special training in scuba, spelunking and interrogation techniques. All firearms would be seized. The owners of weapons found in the searches would be prosecuted: $1,000 and one year in prison for each firearm. The gun owner prison should probably be put between the museum and the arsenal for efficiency, such as for guard training and so forth.

Clearly, since such sweeps could not take place all across the country at the same time. But fairly quickly there would begin to be gun-swept, gun-free areas where there should be no firearms. After the sweeps are done, the special squads would put big signs all over the swept area that said "NO GUNS HERE" in order to restore public calm. For signs, maybe the special squads could use something like the big inflatable gorilla like the one I saw atop Lakeside Subaru last week, when I was getting the oil changed on my Impreza.

Makes more sense than the version that was actually published.

Trip Prep

At Chez Darwin, preparations are in full swing for next week's road trip to Cincinnati. Getting out of the house never used to be such a big fuss when it was just the two of us. Now, however, one must pack diapers, sippy cups, stuffed animals, snacks, and plenty of cleaning supplies. Add these to our plan to leave the house at around 3:30 am next Monday (oh, and the girls' dance recital is on Sunday afternoon) and packing and getting the house ready becomes a week-long affair.

The plan (ha! ha! the plan!) is to clean one room and complete some essential packing task a day. Will this result in a clean house and a full van Sunday night? Stay tuned...

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Ends and Means

Sometimes you read something and you wonder if the author is even serious -- because if they are they must be quite mad. Such a case is an editorial that Pro Ecclesia links to suggesting a plan for eliminating guns from American society.
The disarmament process would begin after the initial three-month amnesty. Special squads of police would be formed and trained to carry out the work. Then, on a random basis to permit no advance warning, city blocks and stretches of suburban and rural areas would be cordoned off and searches carried out in every business, dwelling, and empty building. All firearms would be seized. The owners of weapons found in the searches would be prosecuted: $1,000 and one year in prison for each firearm.
Now, I know some perfectly good and reasonable people who are uncomforatable with guns in concept and practice and would be much happier if guns were not widely available in our country.

However the author of this article (who is apparently an ex US diplomat) is downright scarry. I can think of no objective that would be worth submitting our society to this kind of total police state. This man is a totalitarian at heart, and a rather brutal one at that.

There is no end which could possibly justify such means.

Friday, April 27, 2007

History of Rome

Toss out question for any avid classical history readers out there...

As I go through working over the reading lists for the High School Humanities Program, I'm trying to decide whether to keep Moses Hadas' History of Rome as the high level secondary source on Roman history. I recall it's virtues as being that it's quite concise and readable (I don't want the secondary source to be taking up all sorts of time that could be better devoted to reading Roman authors) yet gives a pretty good feel for Roman history and the ways in which the Roman character changed over the course of the city, republic and empire's history. Hadas war primarily a historian of literature, and it shows.

However, it's out of print -- though still fairly available used.

Does anyone know of a fairly concise and respected history of Rome that's still in print which I should look at as a substitute? I'd be curious to read over something that's more recent which might fill the same niche (Hadas' history was, I believe, written in the early 50s.) However, I haven't heard of anything that sounds like it's trying to do the same thing. Suggestions?

(cross posted on Humanities Program blog)

The End of Religious Greatness?

Dear old Christopher Hitchens, that bundle of love who pours out well-styled verbal acid on the pages of various publications and believes that Mother Theresa was a monster in human form, has a book coming out titled subtly Religion Poisons Everything. Doubtless he felt bad not having yet cashed in on the recent run of strident atheist best sellers -- and one must certainly concede that anything written by Hitchens is sure to be more pleasing in style (if not content) than anything churned out by the likes of Daniell Dennett, Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris.

Salon has up a pair of excepts from the book (hat tip: GeneExpression) and the following is a selection therefrom:
We atheists do not require any priests, or any hierarchy above them, to police our doctrine. Sacrifices and ceremonies are abhorrent to us, as are relics and the worship of any images or objects (even including objects in the form of one of man's most useful innovations: the bound book). To us no spot on earth is or could be "holier" than another: to the ostentatious absurdity of the pilgrimage, or the plain horror of killing civilians in the name of some sacred wall or cave or shrine or rock, we can counterpose a leisurely or urgent walk from one side of the library or the gallery to another, or to lunch with an agreeable friend, in pursuit of truth or beauty. Some of these excursions to the bookshelf or the lunch or the gallery will obviously, if they are serious, bring us into contact with belief and believers, from the great devotional painters and composers to the works of Augustine, Aquinas, Maimonides, and Newman. These mighty scholars may have written many evil things or many foolish things, and been laughably ignorant of the germ theory of disease or the place of the terrestrial globe in the solar system, let alone the universe, and this is the plain reason why there are no more of them today, and why there will be no more of them tomorrow. Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago.... We shall have no more prophets or sages from the ancient quarter, which is why the devotions of today are only the echoing repetitions of yesterday, sometimes ratcheted up to screaming point so as to ward off the terrible emptiness.
I could note that it seems off base to compare "the plain horror of killing civilians in the name of some sacred wall or cave or shrine or rock" to a walk across the library, instead of the "plain horror" of mass slaughter of priests, nuns and active laypeople in Spain, or the sheer horror of starving Ukraine into submission or the sheer horror of sending millions of innocents to the Siberia, but that is well trodden ground and would be far too easy.

What strikes me as odd, rather, is the claim that while there may have been great religious thinkers and artists centuries ago, their like shall never be seen again. From here on, Hitchens believes, all the great men will be atheists, and all believers will be squalid little cranks.

Yet if the province of atheists is that of the library and the art gallery, as Hitchens seems to suggest, where exactly are we to find all these gems of atheist thought, art and literature?

I certainly do not claim that all great art is explicitly religious, or that all artists are good people, faithful to their religions. Far from it. Yet it seems to me that there is in the truly atheist and materialistic mind a demystifying and overly self-observing quality which does not lend itself to great art or writing.

You'd be hard put to come up with two authors more clearly atheistic in their assumptions than Camus and Sartre, and both are good writers. However, there's a tight, closed in feel to their writing. The ceiling presses down upon their characters, because there is nothing above the ceiling. Atheism will never produce a Dostoevsky or a T. S. Elliot. It may produce a Picasso, but it will not produce a Michelangelo, a Rubens or a Rembrandt. There can be a Last Judgement, but no last non judgemenalism.

This is not to say that great art and writing requires Christianity. Far from it. But I think that art beyond a certain level requires belief in something beyond the everyday material reality. Homer wrote great poetry because he wrote of the struggles of men against fate and the caprices of the gods. Virgil dealt with the conflicting moral claims that resulted from an emerging sense of objective, philosophically-based morality vs. a lingering conviction that it was necessary to do the will of the gods. Norse mythology dealt with a pantheon which was itself doomed, and yet that sense of looming destruction also held out hope for a world reborn without the pain and conflict of the present one. All of these can inspire great art.

Perhaps because it is such a modern, urban, middle-class phenomenon, the current round of strident atheist writers project instead a sense of inward-looking self satisfaction. A smallness. How could someone produce much interesting in the way of art who adhered to Richard Dawkins' "secular commandments" which include things like "Do not indoctrinate your children" and "Enjoy your own sex life (so long as it damages nobody else)"?

This is not the stuff of greatness. If great art and thought are dead, it is the comfort of modern secularism sitting in its well padded armchair that killed it.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Pagan Tragedy as Christian Antecedant

Matthew Lickona links to this outstanding piece inspired by the newly released Tolkien book, The Children of Hurin.
It is too simple to consider Tolkien's protagonist Turin as a conflation of Siegfried and Beowulf, but the defining moments in Turin's bitter life refer clearly to the older myths, with a crucial difference: the same qualities that make Siegfried and Beowulf exemplars to the pagans instead make Turin a victim of dark forces, and a menace to all who love him. Tolkien was the anti-Wagner, and Turin is the anti-Siegfried, the anti-Beowulf. Tolkien reconstructed a mythology for the English not (as Wainwright and other suggest) because he thought it might make them proud of themselves, but rather because he believed that the actual pagan mythology was not good enough to be a predecessor to Christianity.

Read the whole thing.

Advice for Writers

Dover Publications has just released a handy little work entitled Great Writers on the Art of Fiction: From Mark Twain to Joyce Carol Oates. Included is an essay by Kurt Vonnegut, in which he urges clarity above all.
I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am. What alternatives do I have? The one most vehemently recommended by teachers has no doubt been pressed on you, as well: that I write like cultivated Englishmen of a century of more ago.

I used to be exasperated by such teachers, but am no more. I understand now that all those antique essays and stories with which I was to compare my own work were not magnificent for their datedness or foreignness, but for saying precisely what their authors meant them to say. My teachers wished me to write accurately, always selecting the most effective words, and relating the words to one another unambiguously, rigidly, like parts of a machine. The teachers did not want to turn me into an Englishman after all. They hoped that I would become understandable -- and therefore understood.
Or, if Vonnegut's not your bag, T-Rex is dishing out his take on literary stylings.

Liturgy Committee Revisited

Those of you with long memories may recall that last year I joined the newly-formed Liturgy Committee at our parish. Since then I haven't posted much about it -- mostly because there's not much to say. We meet fairly sporadically. I'm the youngest on the team by fifteen years and all the other women know each other fairly well and are involved in various other church ministries and projects. They know all the church politics going back to who-knows-when. We're not really a committee dealing with the Liturgy, but with church decoration. We don't study Church documents on liturgy -- our text is an insipid book called To Crown the Year, which is full of helpful tips on making cornucopias of thanksgiving or putting out luminarias for the transfer of the Eucharist on Holy Thursday.

Frankly, I feel superfluous, and I wonder if the other women on the committee think it's cute that I'm interested in "getting involved!" As it turns out, there's nothing for me to "do" because all the actual work happens behind the scenes.

Then there's the politics of dealing with various factions in the parish -- liturgy committee vs. the ladies who own the placement of the altar flowers and become incredibly offended if someone moves their arrangements, even if they're violating guidelines or cutting off Father's access to the catechumens at the Easter Vigil. More and more I see the value of adhering to the rituals and rites and liturgical guidelines as a useful antidote to pride and vanity. This is not my mass or my church. These things belong to all Catholics: those who have preceded us and have established forms, those who currently benefit (or suffer!) from our work, those who in the future will feel the effects of the precedents we've set.

Perhaps I'm making some impact. As we surveyed the liturgies of Lent and the Triduum I was able to make some suggestions that were favorably received -- for next year, the inclusion of the first gospel on Palm Sunday; the necessity for the choirs to work together so that the whole work of the Triduum doesn't fall one one group; the accentuation of Divine Mercy Sunday. In response to a discussion of the bi-lingual Mass on Holy Thursday, I casually mentioned using Latin. One or two of the ladies coughed behind her hands, but Father wasn't dismissive. "There are some places that do that, you know," he to them. I doubt we'll see a Latin mass at our parish any time soon, but who knows? We're getting in a freshly-ordained priest in July; it will be interesting to see what his liturgical views are.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Conspiracy Theory

From Julie D's quote journal:

We who are
your closest friends
feel the time
has come to tell you
that every Thursday
we have been meeting,
as a group,
to devise ways
to keep you
in perpetual uncertainty
discontent and
by neither loving you
as much as you want
nor cutting you adrift.
Your analyst is
in on it,
plus your boyfriend
and your ex-husband;
and we have pledged
to disappoint you
as long as you need us.
In announcing our
we realize we have
placed in your hands
a possible antidote
against uncertainty
indeed against ourselves.
But since our Thursday nights
have brought us
to a community
of purpose
rare in itself
with you as
the natural center,
we feel hopeful you
will continue to make unreasonable
demands for affection
if not as a consequence
of your disastrous personality
then for the good of the collective.

Phillip Lopate

Hungry yet?

Via Suburban CEO comes this comparison of fast food pictured in ads vs. its actual appearance.

Every now and then (usually on Fridays) I get a craving for the perfect burger -- juicy, thick, and on a crusty bun. Sonic, where we usually pick up burgers, is okay, and I remember In 'N Out fondly from our California days. Steakhouse burgers are generally acceptable. But if you want the gen-u-ine article, you gotta make it yourself. Preferably with homemade steakfries.

Presidential Candidates React to Court Ruling

The Sienna Institute blog does Catholic voters a nice service by putting together a selection of direct quotes from the front runners reacting to the Supreme Court decision upholding the partial birth abortion ban.

Bible Stories as Mythology

One thing that the Classical Education and Cultural Literacy movements have been very good about is bringing up the importance of familiarity with the standard pagan mythologies of Western culture. There are some great books out there for kids of Greek, Roman and Norse mythology. However I wonder if (outside of religious circles where it is taught as part of catechesis) the standard Bible stories, which are equally a part of Western Culture and referenced even more often than pagan mythology get as much play.

There's a group out there called the Bible Literacy Project which has apparently put together a public-school-approved high school book on the bible as cultural literacy which is now in use in various school districts in 30 states. There are some sample pages from it here. (Skimming through, it looks moderately good at first glance, though I think I'd put it at 6th or 7th grade rather than high school.) There's also a Time Magazine article about the program here.

It seems like an interesting approach, and I think the point is well made that in order to understand much of Western art and literature you need to know the biblical stories to which people were referring. There is, of course, also a danger of demythologizing scripture and treating it as nothing more than a large book of primitive literature. Still, given the current state of cultural illiteracy among many of today's public school students (Christian as well as non) I suspect that being exposed to all of this in a systematic fashion is much better than not. And getting a guided tour through where all of the books came from and what messages people have drawn from them is probably much more useful than a kid without any religious formation just pulling down a bible and starting to randomly read around without any direction.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Introducing the Humanities Program

I thought I'd take advantage of what looks like perhaps otherwise being a slightly slow day on the blog here (both Darwins having a lot of stuff lined up today) to introduce the latest project, which was been slowly coming up to steam over the last month.

The Humanities Program is going to be a long term project over the coming years, which will probably crop up from time to time here -- though we'll be careful not to let it overwhelm the accustomed DarwinCatholic topic range.

There are two more or less distinct projects involved. The High School Humanities Program is a slightly revised version of the high school Great Books-style program that I and my siblings all went through in high school. It takes a four year tour through Western history and literature combining lots of reading the original works from Ancient Sumer through the present day with good modern stuff about the periods.

The Elementary Humanities Program is designed to provide children aged somewhere between 6 and 10 with an illustrated, story-based tour of Western culture by putting important people, events and stories into a chronological, readable format.

Since electronic publishing is my thing, and in an effort to get feedback as we go along rather than banging away for months or years before knowing if we're providing what people want, we're putting it together in an open format with comments available on all items. New stories for the elementary program and notes on the works for the high school program should be going up on a pretty regular basis so if you find the project interesting do check back or put it on your RSS.

For our readers who are in the homeschooling community, please do feel free to pass this around. We'll be needing lots of feedback going forward, and hope we're providing something that might be useful.

And, of course, there's a humanities program blog too, which may become the destination for a certain amount of our homeschooling-themed blogging as time goes on, so that the topic doesn't overwhelm things here.

Lacking in Religious Thought

Razib of Gene Expression (definately my favorite of the atheist science blogger set) has an interesting not up today talking about an article in the New Yorker about an Amazon tribe whose cultural assumptions basically rule out the ability to understand religious concepts. I'd be curious to know if the tribe lacks a sense of the supernatural and/or superstition, or if they simply can't wrap their minds around some of the abstract ideas and understanding of past events which Christian missionaries have tried to present them with.
...Overall the tribe seems to have a rather attenuated tendency toward engaging in abstract thought, and has been incredibly immune to any attempts by Christian missionaries to convert them. At some point in the piece the author notes that occasionally someone will ask a Christian if they've ever met this Jesus Christ that they keep talking of, and when they're told that he died 2,000 years ago all interest disappears. Below, I argued that humans have psychological propensities which bias them toward being religious. If the research about these Amazonians pans out I think you have here a group which is totally insulated by their culture from the attractions of religion because they lack some of the necessary psychological propensities (I suspect, and the article pretty much claims, that those propensities can be developed by tribal members who are raised outside of the group, but that culture constrains cognition in this case). Now, I've said that though I'm not religious myself and kind of find the whole behavioral tendency kind of alien and strange, I think that we'll have to turn humans into autistics for them to truly be "rid of" religion. The Amazonians are not autistic, but, in some ways they are pretty strange, and I don't know if we want most people live like them if that's the price for being grounded in the empirical present instead of delusions of the supernatural.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Sept. 11th, 9 A.D.

One thousand nine hundred ninety eight years and a few months ago, the three-day-long Battle of Teutoburg forest ended on September 11th, 9 A.D.

During the course of those three days, Legions XVII, XVIII and XIX were virtually wiped out by Germanic tribesmen led by Armenius, a German chieftan who had been raised as a hostage in Rome and received Roman military training.

The Roman leader in the area was Quintilius Varus, appointed governor of what was to be the new province of Germania. He set about exacting tribute from the Germanic tribes and trying to build up the infrastructure of a Roman province as quickly as possible -- generating no small amount of bad feeling among his intended subjects in the process. Armenius was actually in his train for much of this time, serving as a leader among the Germanic auxilary troops.

Reports were brought to Varus that there was an uprising some distance to the north, and he set out with three legions to quell it. Their route took them through heavy forest, and since Varus did not believe they were yet in "enemy territory" the legion was strung out along the road, completely out of fighting order, and with engineering squads clearing trees and building bridges.

Armenius excused himself, saying that he was going to raise native troops to help, and vanished.

Not long afterwards, Germanic tribesmen attacked the legions all along their drawn out marching line. There was utter confusion in the ranks, and the Romans suffered heavy casualties, but eventually managed to draw themselves together and set up a fortified camp for the night. There they burned the equipment they couldn't easily carry on in battle order, and the next day succeeded in breaking out from their surrounded position, although suffering heavy losses.

They made some progress trying to escape over open ground, but then were forced to pass through another forested area where the Germans attacked again in even greater numbers. A heavy rain began to fall, making the legionaries' bows and javelins useless, and soaking their sheilds, making them heavier and harder to use.

Still they continued on, but on the third day marched into another ambush that Armenius has laid for them at the foot of Kalkriese Hill. There was a road around the hill on which the Romans were able to move forward in good order, with the hill on one side and swampland on the other. The Germans had thrown up a defensive wall across this road, from the hill to the bog, and thus had the Romans trapped in a dead end. The romans tried several times to break through the rampart, but failed.

At this point Varus and a number of the other officers took the Old Roman way out and fell on their swords. Thousands died fighting, a number of captured officers appear to have been killed in sacrifices to the Germanic gods, and captured common soldiers were made slaves. Some 25,000 men were killed or captured -- the greatest Roman defeat since they fought Hannibal.

Suetonius records that when Augustus received news of the catastrophic defeat, he had a mental breakdown and went wandering through the palace pounding his head against the walls and crying "Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!"

The setback was so major that it ended Roman expansion in that direction. The rest of Germany was never conquered by the Romans.

Forty years later, around 50 A.D., Tacitus tells how when Roman legions defeated an invading group of German tribesmen, they found among them and liberated survivors of the battle who had been in slavery for forty years.

Should you want to read about it in depth, the standard modern work on the topic is Adrian Murdoch's Rome's Greatest Defeat: Massacre in the Teutoburg Forest.

You can also read Dio Cassius' account online here, starting in section 18.

Never the Twain Shall Meet?

Fr. Longenecker wonders whether there may be more overlap than is imagined between charismatics and traditionalists. The post in apparently inspired by a report that when a bishop addressing a large charismatic conference mentioned in his talk that he was looking forward to soon seeing wider use of the Latin Mass, the attendees cheered.

Fr. Longenecker speculates that while the two groups have widely divergent liturgical styles, where is at the same time a unity of purpose in that both are often refuges of those with an intense personal piety and loyalty to the pope.

But, of course, a couple people piled on in the comments to announce that it is the charistmatics who are the problems with the Church. Just in case anyone was worried that our internal lambs and lions were laying down together or anything...

Fussing Like an Unweaned Child

Psalm 131:
LORD, my heart is not proud; nor are my eyes haughty. I do not busy myself with great matters, with things too sublime for me.
Rather, I have stilled my soul, hushed it like a weaned child. Like a weaned child on its mother's lap, so is my soul within me.
Israel, hope in the LORD, now and forever.
Maybe it's just that my orbit passes a little to close to some mommy-blog type elements of the Catholic blogsphere, but it seems sometimes that there's an awful lot of goo-iness spent over nursing. Nor is it strictly a Catholic thing. I once had a fellow new-father ask me at work, "Doesn't it kind of seem unfair that your wife gets to have all that closeness to the baby when she's nursing, and there's nothing you can do like that?" (Me: "Maybe, but I get over it fast by rolling over and going back to sleep.")

Now, don't get me wrong here. I'm not saying that women shouldn't nurse in public, that babies should be given bottles only or anything like this. Clearly, breastfeeding is the most efficient and healthy way to keep a baby fed for the first 9-12 months of its existence.

But then comes the stage where baby is eating solid food just fine (in some cases more than her older sisters) but has got hooked on the nursing fix.

This comes especially into play at mass. First of all, I hold baby -- because otherwise she gets ideas right off. She looks around and burbles quietly and scrambles on the floor a bit if given the chance and all goes well till about the Psalm. Then she looks over at mommy, decides she'd like a fix, and starts fussing.

Daddy makes all efforts to silence the baby and eventually beats a swift retreat to the vestibule. (Mind you, this child is not hungry. She just ate five pancakes and drank a full cup of milk for breakfast.)

Silence. Silence as when the whale swallowed Jonah. I'm such a happy baby, daddy. I'm sucking my fingers. I'd never fuss at all in church. I'll just sit hang quietly on your shoulder till you realize that I'm never bad in church and take me back to the pew.

When everyone stands for the gospel, Daddy does just this. Now baby sees Mommy. The arms go out, the face crumples, and we fuss louder than before. Daddy and baby head out before the gospel is over.

Silence. I'm such a good baby, daddy, that I hardly know the meaning of fuss. I don't know why you keep dragging me out of the church.

Daddy has wised up by this point. He stays in the back and the silence continues. But even a long distance view works. When Mommy stands up to go up to communion, baby's nursing radar start bleeping like crazy and The Fuss begins again.

Until Mommy sits down again, at which point there is contented silence.

So I'm all with the psalm writer about this. Once you get past 12mo. or so, an unweaned child is like an alcoholic and mommy is the bottle. Just about time for someone to get on the wagon.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Evil, Free Will and the Existence of God

John Farrell has some good thoughts on God and free will, inspired by some comments made by an atheist science blogger about the incompatibility of the belief in God and the existence of great moral evils.

Among said science blogger's comments:

By any normal moral standard, however, if you can stop great evil from happening without any harm to yourself, and you consciously choose not to do so, then you are guilty of great evil in your own right. We can not evade this point by arguing that God gave us free will, which implies the freedom to choose evil as well as good. What of the free will of the victims? God could simply have caused the killer's gun to jam, after all. Then everyone would have their free will and thirty-two people wouldn't be dead today.
I don't normally think of myself as some sort of raving libertarian, but am I alone in finding profoundly unappealing the description of how this fellow would like a God that he could believe in to behave?

Think of this in terms of dealing with your kids, or your parents. If this version of God were a parent, he would be the sort of parent who would insist "I always give you your freedom" while at the same time making sure the car was broken when you tried to head out on any date he didn't approve of; that somehow only the college he wanted you to get to received your application (dang postal service...); that your resume "just happened to show up" on the desk of someone he "just happened to know"; etc. That wouldn't be a parent, it would be a puppetmaster.

Perhaps I have a run-away sense of indepence, but I can't imagine wanting to apply the human common law concept of "if you can stop great evil from happening without any harm to yourself, and you consciously choose not to do so, then you are guilty of great evil in your own right" to an all knowing and all powerful being. Indeed, I can't imagine anything worse.

For those willing to give the Christian belief in God the benefit of its own premises, God does not provide a safety net in the from of hidden puppet strings that keep us from hurting each other too much. Instead, He allows us freedom in the knowledge that each one of us has an immortal soul, unique and beloved by Him, which may find eternal rest in His love if we choose to allow ourselves to.

Prayer Request

A reader's three-day-old first son is sick -- severity not yet know. Please keep mother, father and child in your prayers today.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Random Thoughts on Shootings

Someone on The Corner linked to this account by a fellow who was on campus during the 1966 campus sniper incident at UT Austin.

There were about thirty students already there looking out of the windows onto the south mall when the professor entered the room. He actually began class but could not seem to get the attention of the students. He followed the class’s attention out on the mall just in time to see an Austin policeman gunned down trying to move students to a safer area next to the mall. A security officer came into the room saying someone was shooting from the top of the tower. We evacuated the classroom rather quickly. The hallway and basement were the safest places to be but I decided to go up to the top floor offices to get a better idea of what was happening.

None of the professor’s offices were occupied except for one whose door was open. As I walked down the hall toward that office the sound of a large caliber rifle thundered from that open doorway followed by two men talking. After all the bizarre events of the last few minutes it didn’t seem strange to me when I peeked around the office doorway to see one professor shooting a deer rifle at the top of tower while the other fed him ammunition. It never entered my mind to question why an English professor would have his deer rifle in his office complete with boxes of ammunition. This was Texas after all. Guns were commonplace. From the office windows, we could see the top of the tower clearly. Small puffs of smoke were coming from the rifle of the sniper on the observation deck. The large glass faced clock above the observation deck was shattered from others shooting back at him. The professor ran through several boxes of shells before running out of rounds. My ears were ringing.

I'm very fond of my adopted state, but I have the feeling that UT Austin doesn't have quite the same atmosphere as in 1966. Still. What a story.


On a different note, apparently this Asian-American VT student was widely reputed to be the shooter. His blog detailed his gun collecting enthusiasm, and mentioned that he was bummed over his recent breakup with his girlfriend.

As it happens, he had nothing to do with it all -- but apparently his blog has been flooded with visitors, he's been getting death threats (hadn't anyone heard the real shooter was already dead?), and the police have spent some time with him.

I was mildly amused that one of the pictures of his guns that had people worked up was of 14 Russian M44 bolt action rifles. I have a M91/30, the slightly longer model on which the M44 was based. Mosin Nagants may be cheap (the M44s sell for about $70) but they have got to be the hardest and slowest bolt action in the world to cycle. Works great as a tent pole, canoe paddle or club, though. Buying 14 of those may be a sign of poor priorities, but it probably doesn't indicate you're dangerous. (Especially as collecting MilSurp rifles usually involves filing papers with the ATF and your local chief of law enforcement -- not exactly the normal behavior of someone contemplating crime.)


"This is why I don't want to have children," announced one of my female co-workers. "You never know what's going to happen to them. It's scary. How can you have children in this kind of world."

"It's the only one we've got," I replied.

I'm never quite sure what to make of these kind of comments. Why should the realization that the world is at times dark and terrible incite in one the desire to avoid sources of hope?

I've been summoned

I opened the mailbox on Monday to discover that I've been summoned for jury duty.

I'm of two minds on this. On the one hand, I feel strongly that it's a civic duty to sit on a jury. Were I ever to be on trial, I'd want a fair-minded jury of educated citizens on my panel. It's only fair to take my turn. I may not even be called to sit on a jury.

On the other hand, I'm the main caregiver to three small girls. I can easily get baby-sitting for one whole day, but what if I have to sit on a jury for a week? Darwin has to work, and although my friends are accomodating, it would be a hardship for them to have three extra children to watch for an extended period of time.

And then we're planning to leave on vacation a week from the date of my summons. I doubt there will be any big trials in Georgetown, TX, but I would be not at all pleased if I had to miss my brother's college graduation because I was sitting in a jury room.

Any thoughts from anyone who's served?

Darwin's New Baby

Born in the Springfield Armory in October of 1944.

The new addition needs a little care and cleaning before heading out to the range, but the essentials look solid.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Children of Hurin

Salon has up a review of J.R.R. Tolkien's "new" book: The Children of Hurin.
"The Children of Húrin" will thrill some readers and dismay others, but will surprise almost everyone. If you're looking for the accessibility, lyrical sweep and above all the optimism of "Lord of the Rings," well, you'd better go back and read it again. There are no hobbits here, no Tom Bombadil, no cozy roadside inns and precious little fireside cheer of any variety found here. This is a tale whose hero is guilty of repeated treachery and murder, a story of rape and pillage and incest and greed and famous battles that ought never to have been fought. If "Lord of the Rings" is a story where good conquers evil, this one moves inexorably in the other direction.
...I came away from "The Children of Húrin" with a renewed appreciation for the fact that Tolkien's overarching narrative is much more ambiguous in tone than is generally noticed. As has been much discussed, he was a devout Catholic who tried, with imperfect success, to harmonize the swirling pagan cosmology behind his imaginative universe with a belief in Christian salvation. Salvation feels a long way off in "The Children of Húrin." What sits in the foreground is that persistent Tolkienian sense that good and evil are locked in an unresolved Manichaean struggle with amorphous boundaries, and that the world is a place of sadness and loss, whose human inhabitants are most often the agents of their own destruction.
H/T John Farrell

Booked by 3 Meme

Julie D. tagged me.

Name up to three characters . . .

1) . . . you wish were real so you could meet them.
  1. Bertie Wooster (lots of books by P.G. Wodehouse)
  2. Jack Aubrey (Master and Commander series by Patrick O'Brien)
  3. Jin (Samurai Champloo)

2) . . . you would like to be.
  1. Elizabeth Bennett (Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen)
  2. Sophie (Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones)
  3. Eliza Dolittle (Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw)

3) . . . who scare you.
  1. The stranger (The Violent Bear it Away by Flannery O'Connor)
  2. Annie Wilkes (Misery by Stephen King)
  3. O'Brien (1984 by George Orwell)
1. Literacy-Chic
2. Matthew Lickona
3. Melanie Bettinelli

Fear and Hope

One of the gems of 1950s and 60s Catholic publishing was a series of collections of short stories (translated from Italian) by an author named Giovanni Guareschi about the parish priest of a small town in the Po river valley and his rival (and friend) the town's communist mayor. In the past I've run several individual Don Camillo stories, with the help of a site which features most of the Dom Camillo stories online.

Today I wanted to link to a series of three stories, however, so links will have to suffice. This is from the collection The Little World of Don Camillo.


The Fear Continues

Men of Good Will

Prayers for Virginia Tech

I was surprised to see the news of the shootings at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA. Tech is my dad's alma mater, and for most of the first twelve years of my life I lived in Blacksburg. Many of the buildings (Burress Hall is pictured on the left) and campus landmarks mentioned in news reports are familiar to me. My dad even lived in West Ambler Johnston dorm, site of the dorm rampage.

Virginia Tech is a beautiful campus in a beautiful corner of Virginia. I don't know how much has changed in sixteen years, but my childhood memories are mostly of bucolic countryside and unspoiled farmlands surrounding the small town and campus. My siblings and I used to love to run around the drill field and throw bread to the ducks in the duck pond.

The War Memorial Chapel on campus was particularly impressive. I don't know which war it memorialized, but the monumental architechture and sculpture was in a style best described as "Progressive Triumphant". (According to my parents, that probably sums up the liturgical style as well.) Underneath the mall (left) the chapel walls were sculptured with nude farmers proudly plowing and other fantastical agricultural characters. You can bet that I didn't pay much attention to Mass whenever we attended the chapel.

The campus chaplain, who will certainly be in need of prayers this week as he consoles his flock, is the same chaplain who baptized my brother almost 25 years ago.

Please keep Virginia Tech in your prayers this week.

Monday, April 16, 2007

The Value of the Wanted

Some contradictions you see so much of you start to wonder if you should even mention them any more... Still, it's been throwing me off the last week that at Large Corporate Employer I keep finding emails in my inbox with subject lines like Save The Little Babies! It's fundraising week for March of Dimes here, which in addition to Planned Parenthood and some environmental causes is up at the top of Large Corporate Employer's cause celebre list.

Coming from the religious and political background that I do, seeing "save the babies" emails and finding fliers on my desk with tiny footprints on them suggests to me a pro-life cause of some sort. And indeed, March of Dimes does great work. (I know they provided a lot of help to a co-worker who had her baby at 32 weeks a few years back.)

Now, to be fair, although corporate giving funnels a lot of money into Planned Parenthood, we don't get treated to PP fundraisers and events around here. I think even most supporters must have some sense that this isn't something which deserves to be talked about openly.

Yet the combination of the two causes seems to underline perhaps the only great victory of existentialist philosophy in the wider culture -- though few people recognize it by that name. The worth of the unborn is routinely defined by how much they are wanted. On the one hand we have a respected, well funded charity whose purpose is to help save the lives of babies born very prematurely. On the other, we have a not insignificant number of politicians who assert that it should be a protected right for mothers who do not want their children (of exactly the same early viability age) to utilize "partial birth" abortions.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Easter Meditations on Purgatorio: Moving Towards Holiness

At last, the poets find a narrow way that allows them to climb up to the path that winds around the mountain. The way is steep, and Dante is on the point of giving up and demanding rest when they finally reach the path. He asks Virgil:

"But if it please you, I should like to know
How far we have to travel, for the hillside
Leaps up higher than my eyes can reach."

And he told me, "This mountain is such that
Always at the start the climb is the hardest,
But the higher that one mounts the less one tires.

"Therefore, when it seems to you so gentle
That walking up is just as easy for you
As riding down a river in a boat,

"Then you will be at the end of this path:
There you can hope to rest from your fatigue.
I say no more, but this I know is true."
(Purg. IV, 85-96;)

In the Inferno, Dante had to learn to reject sin. But he has not yet learned to work hard towards virtue. Thus, his first steps up the mount of Purgatory are difficult in the extreme.

On the path, sheltering from the sun behind a boulder, Dante meets another old friend: Belacqua, a Florentine maker of musical instruments known for his laziness. He and others among the slothful who did not repent of their sins until the last moment are waiting outside the gates of Purgatory proper, where they must be for as many years as they delayed in life. He, like Manfred, asks for the prayers of Dante and others to speed his journey. But Virgil is already pressing on up the path that winds around the mountain, and Dante must run to catch up.

Further up they meet another group among the late repentant, who (after marvelling that Dante is in the realms of the dead while still alive, and thus casting a shadow with his mortal body) beseech Dante:

"O soul, who move ahead to be made blessed
In the same limbs you had when you were born,"
They came crying, "a short while stay your steps!

"Look if you ever have seen one of us
That you may carry news of him back there.
Ah, why press on? Ah, why not stop right here?

"All of us shades met with a violent death
And remained sinners up to our last hour.
The light of heaven then had so forewarned us

"That we, by true repenting and forgiving,
Came out of our life, our peace made with the God
Who fills our hearts with longing to see him."
(Purg. V, 46-57;)

We have now seen three groups among the late repentant: Those who, like Manfred, died separated from the Church but sought God's forgiveness; those like Belacqua were simply lazy in life, and did not seek forgiveness until their last days; and now these who were killed before their time, but repented of their sins even in the moment of their deaths.

Several of these souls tell Dante the story of their violent deaths, and others are listed briefly -- all with the request that Dante's readers pray for their souls. The catalog of betrayals, unmarked graves, even a woman killed by her own husband underline the often chaotic and violent background of the art and literature that Renaissance Italy poured out. Dante meditates on his troubled country:

Ah, slavish Italy, hostelry for griefs,
Ship without a captain in huge storms,
No madam of the provinces but of brothels!

That noble spirit was so eager-hearted,
Just at the sweet sound of his city’s name,
To welcome there his fellow-citizen —

And now all those who dwell within you live
In war; enclosed by one same wall and moat,
One person gnaws away at another!
(Purg. VI, 76-84;)

Night is falling, and a Mantuan poet who has befriended them explains that it is not possible to continue climbing the mountain once darkness falls. Thus, he takes them to a sheltered valley in which they can stay for the night. There he points out to them a veritable who's who of 13th century European rulers: kings of England, France, Germany.

As darkness falls, these former wielders of power fall silent and, looking upwards toward the heavens, sing the Te lucis ante from compline, and two angels descend from heaven to guards the valley during the night.

These rulers were not necessarily late in their repentance, as the other souls whom Dante has met outside the gates of purgatory proper, but they were (by the nature of their positions are worldly rulers) focused on things other than the search for holiness during life. Though they may have, within their lives as rulers, tried to follow the path of virtue, they allowed too much of their attention to focus on the world, and not enough on God. Now they, like the late repentant, must spend a time on purgatory's threshold learning to pursue God alone and shun the power and glory that were for so long their focus.

When morning comes, Virgil leads Dante to St. Peter's Gate, where the souls ready to embark upon the final path towards holiness set out. The angel inscribes seven P's on Dante's forehead, and tells him:

"From Peter I keep these keys, and he told me
Rather to err in opening than in closing
If souls but cast themselves down at my feet."

Then he pushed the sacred portal open
And said, "Enter, but I would have you know
Those who look back return outside once more."

And when the pivots of that holy entrance,
Which were round rods of ringing and strong steel,
Turned within the sockets of their hinges,

They made a louder and more resonant clangor
Than Tarpeia did, when the good Metellus
Was snatched from it, the treasure gone forever.

I turned around at the first thundering sound
And thought I heard "Te Deum: Praise to God"
Chanted by voices mixed with that sweet strain.

The notes I heard conveyed to me the same
Exact impression which we have at times
When people sing in concert with an organ

And now and then we just make out the words.
(Purg. IX, 127-145;)

Note the chant of joy that goes up as Dante passes into Purgatory. While hell is typified by the loneliness of sin, purgatory has a strong sense of the Body of Christ, the union of all believers. Souls work together to purge themselves of their attachment to vice, celebrate each others progress on the road to final bliss.

I also think the echo of the classical myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is interestingly used. The angel at St. Peter's gate will let any soul pass that asks, but if the soul turns back (metaphorically longing for the hesitance to pursue God that for so long kept him from the path towards heaven) he will immediately return to the vestibule of purgatory.

But while Orpheus was told to prove his strength of will and faith by walking out from the underworld without looking back to see if Eurydice was following him -- the souls who pass St. Peter's Gate are told they must walk ever towards their goal, never taking their eyes off it. Orpheus was told he had to believe that Eurydice was following him, even though his senses gave no confirmation of it. The souls in purgatory must continue ever upwards towards the goal they can see, rather than allowing themselves to be turned aside by other concerns.

Thanks to:

The translation and notes of James Finn Cotter

The translation, original text, and notes provided by Allen Mandelbaum

And most especially the translation and extensive commentary by Dorothy Sayers, which Penguin keeps appearing to drop, but never quite has.

When Consumerism Subs for Experience

I made it down to the Go club the other night, something which I don't manage to do nearly as often as I'd like. Playing in person is a very different experience than playing online -- it tends to make you stop and think about your moves longer before playing, and it's much easier to get friendly feedback, which I need as a beginner.

The meetings are held at a game store, which has an awesome selection of books and equipment for classic games such as Go and Chess as well as numerous modern strategy/wargames. So after playing I wandered over to the shelf of Go books and looked through to see if there was anything I couldn't live without.

I was on the point of buying one when I stopped myself: I've got three Go books that I'm kind of in the middle of and a couple others that I haven't read. Sure it's "only seven dollars" but what the heck do I need with another book (however good) when I haven't read the ones I've already got?

There is, I think, a particular temptation as your income climbs and your amount of free time decreases to buy things instead of (or as an excuse for not) doing things. I only get around to playing 2-3 games of Go a week, but having books around makes it feel like I'm serious about learning -- even if the fact is that I simply don't have the time to get particularly good at it at the moment.

Similarly, I found myself recently trying to justify buying the iPod Nano that I've been wanting for ages by telling myself: "You really need to get back to running so you'll stay in shape. But running can be boring, so you don't go. Now, if you bought the iPod you'd go running all the time."

Yeah right. For about a week. Then I'd simply listen to the iPod at work and still not go running. How about first building up the discipline to exercise more regularly and then shelling out $150 for the iPod?

There are simply so many possessions that are available to us in the modern, middle-class USA that it often seems easy to convince yourself you're getting something accomplished simply by buying something, even without taking the time to use it.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Whirl of Fame

Notice our fun new badge on the sidebar? Some kind soul has nominated us for Best Religion Blog in the Blogger's Choice Awards. I attribute this directly to Jen's plea for more Catholic blog nominations.

Jen has also received a richly-deserved nomination and is currently trouncing us with her five votes to our three. It's on, girlfriend...

UPDATE: In the interests of getting some good Catholic guys in play, I've nominated Fr. Fox, Pro Ecclesia and Rich Leonari. Go campaign, gents. Let's get these atheists off the top slots. And the Caveman is already up.

Speaking of culture

So the next time you're walking through a crowded subway station in Washington D.C. and you hear a fabulous violinist playing his heart out for donations, stop and listen. Because it might just be JOSHUA BELL, you philistine!

Three minutes went by before something happened. Sixty-three people had already passed when, finally, there was a breakthrough of sorts. A middle-age man altered his gait for a split second, turning his head to notice that there seemed to be some guy playing music. Yes, the man kept walking, but it was something.

A half-minute later, Bell got his first donation. A woman threw in a buck and scooted off. It was not until six minutes into the performance that someone actually stood against a wall, and listened.

Things never got much better. In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run -- for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.


H/T Patrick, who's off his Lenten blog-fast.

Archaeology/Classics Bleg

Do any of our classically/archeologically informed readers know whether Charles Pellegrino's Unearthing Atlantis is remotely worth reading? It wandered its way home from the library and MrsDarwin has been skimming it.

On the one hand, we'd be interested to read something solid about the Minoan excavations on Thera/Santorini, and I'd heard the book mentioned somewhere, which was why I picked it up. However, some of the bits MrsDarwin has been reading aloud to me covering other historical periods (he provides a whirlwind tour of medieval and classical history which is so ignorant as to be comical) suggest to me that he doesn't know what he's talking about. And I gather he signs on to the theory that the explosion of Thera was the source of the plagues of Egypt in Exodus -- a theory which fits neither Biblical nor archeological chronologies, and indeed is off by 200-400 years from the dates I've seen for Exodus.

Given all that, I'm deeply skeptical of his apparent claim (not having finished the book) that Minoan civilization was centered on Thera rather than Crete, and that it fell as a direct result of the Thera irruption.

Is there indeed any reason to think Thera was the center of Minoan civilization? Or is this guy simply smoking History Channel crack?

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Prayer request for the Leonardis

Please remember Rich Leonardi's wife in your prayers.
"Red Herring." That's what the neurosurgeon called the six herniated discs. "They're not causing the symptoms." Blood tests today, CT scan Thursday.
She and the family are in our prayers.

Engaging the Culture

Matthew Lickona (who, we're glad to see, is back blogging after his Lenten hiatus) links to a few of his movie reviews for a Catholic website -- specifically, Black Snake Moan and Million Dollar Baby. He and his fellow reviewer hold a thoughtful discussion of the viewability, truthfulness, and imagery of the films, and find that they cannot recommend either to Catholic viewers. Their commenters engage in this dialogue about art, truth, and beauty:
"What is this movie review column is doing on an orothodx Catholic site? Why are these movies being reviewed at all? If anyone really wanted to watch these movies, there are plenty of secular sites that could give us the low down. Do you seriously think Catholics striving for holiness are going to waste time viewing such trash? Also, why should we be giving money to Hollywood to make more garbage? Secondly, why are these two Catholic men watching such movies? Couldn't they be occasions of sin? What kind of images are being stored in your subconscious? Is it for the sake of "art" - kind of like "I read Playboy for the articles" Really, I think most Catholics who visit your site would like to see something that is not morally objectionable reviewed. Something countercultural."

"Perhaps Brother Grimm has stumbled upon a jewel of wisdom while searching for treasure at the bottom of the outhouse he claims he was visiting in a noble effort to disinfect todays society ."Somebody's got to clean them, right?" Mr Grimm proclaims meaning he and Lostello. Perhaps he has found a calling to his life his writing skills and crumpet crowd do not fulfill. Janitorial work is a vital occupation that civilization needs in order to run smoothly. Since he and his partner in slime have already become the Ralph Cramden and Ed Norton of film critics, it is time to redirect their time to more earthly pursuits."

"I don't see what good is going to come about by reviewing these movies. What do you hope to accomplish? A serious Catholic wouldn't think of watching them anyway, even if there was a smidgen of good contained. Only the most naive would think most movies don't come with an agenda hostile to the culture of life. Your movie reviews so far are a "No duh..." I gave up on movies a long time ago. It is a waste of precious time. Reading, cooking, playing with the kids, gardening, praying, playing music, singing, performing corporal works of mercy are a far better use of time."

"I think your review should have read something like " I walked into the movie, they started playing sinful trash, I walked out. Don't see the movie." End of review. However, you could have saved some money by reading the review on the USCCB, or simply looking at its rating. How can you see any redeeming qualities in a movie full of "too much copulation", that would require you to go to confession after seeing it?
Here's an upfront admission to stave off indignation: I myself don't intend to see either of these movies -- mostly because I read several reviews that convinced me that I wouldn't like either of them. But as Catholics it is our job to engage the culture and transform it -- and that means at least being familiar with moral and cultural and religious issues raised (however erroneously) by popular forms of entertainment. How many Catholics familiarized themselves with the plot and talking points of The DaVinci Code in order to contradict the vapid theology underlying that opus?

Here at Chez Darwin, we don't get to see many current movies, and when we try to get out to the theater we're often thwarted in our attempts (as testified to by the complete failure two weekends ago of our plans to see Blades of Glory). We do, however, stay abreast of the latest book and movie reviews so that when we are presented with an opportunity to view or read something, we'll be able to make informed choices. (I'm just now reading Ian McEwan's Atonement, for which I saw a review years ago.) I'm grateful to reviewers like Matthew Lickona who can view a movie through my eyes, as it were, and give me an honest Catholic perspective on the issues and images involved. Engaging and transforming the culture requires artistic assessment that's a bit more cogent than " I walked into the movie, they started playing sinful trash, I walked out. Don't see the movie."

An Issue Held Hostage

The other day I stumbled onto a somewhat stridently liberal Catholic blog. He quoted with relish a brief passage from Pope Benedict's Easter message, in which as part of a discussion of the current problems in the world the pope said, "In the Middle East, besides some signs of hope in the dialogue between Israel and the Palestine Authority, nothing positive comes from Iraq, torn apart by continual slaughter as the civil population flees."

The point (at least to judge from some of the authors comments on other blogs to the effect of "what do you say to that, huh?") appears to be one of: When will you conservatives admit what a mess you've made of Iraq? Even the pope is against you.

I'm not sure exactly what the reaction to this is supposed to be. "Gosh, you're right. Things were so much better when there was a single brutal dictator to keep all these factions from indulging in their desire to try to wipe each other out. We should have left him in charge." Really?

There is certainly a huge amount of trouble and suffering in Iraq right now. (Though the impression is to an extent exacerbated by a media which has latched onto a simple theme "Iraq is a disaster" and only searches for stories that fit that theme.) With the clear vision of hindsight, if we had known the level of civil strife that the country would sink into (and to a great extent involve us in) we might well not have gone there, or we might have prosecuted the war very differently.

Yet in another sense, blaming the liberation of Iraq for the current chaos is like blaming the fall of communism for the civil wars in the Balkans. The dangerous thing about freedom (or at least lack of tyranny -- freedom may still be a bit too strong of a word) is that it allows people to do what they want. And if a small but significant faction of them want very much to try to slaughter each other, they will. Welcome to human history -- we've been slaughtering each other for millenia.

There seems to me to be a certain irony in on the one hand fuming about the suffering in Iraq, and on the other demanding to know why we don't "do something" about Darfur and other areas of genocide and suffering around the world. Don't get me wrong, I wish we would do something about Sudan. But understand, if we send people (either humanitarian workers, soldiers, or perhaps inevitably both) into Darfur we will (as we did in the Balkans, as we did in Somalia, as we inevitably will when inserting ourselves into a disastrous civil war or genocide situation) find ourselves in the middle of a civil war. "Doing something" does not mean that the suffering of the innocent will immediately evaporate.

In that sense, while there are certainly a number of mistakes which could (at least in hindsight) have been avoided, I hesitate to say that the suffering in Iraq is "all Bush's fault" any more than the suffering in Somalia and the Balkans were "all Clinton's fault". In all those cases, our interventions could have been managed better -- but the suffering is primarily the result of those factions in the area bent on slaughtering their fellow human beings.

Similarly, I don't exactly get the "because there is so much suffering of 'born children' in the world, you people clearly are just hiding from the issue by claiming to be 'pro-life' and helping only pre-born children" kind of attitude that one gets out of a certain stripe of thinking.

If the day ever comes that these Pharisees ever care about born children dying, or preventable death in this world at any age as much as they care about the unborn - I will be the first in line at the next anti-abortion march. Until then my friends - do not call yourself "pro-life". You are simply "anti-abortion".
Yes, the innocent, especially children, suffer terribly in areas of war, drought, famine, and the like. However it seems no more just to me to insist that war and famine be eliminated before fighting against abortion than it does to insist that abortion be eliminated before trying to alleviate all other kinds of suffering. Clearly, some people feel a calling to focus their personal energies on the abortion issue, while others feel a call to focus primarily on helping the hungry, the poor, the homeless, etc. All of these activities are good. And for all the "conservatives don't care about the born" talk, I suspect that our family is not alone among conservative families in donating more to causes like Food For The Poor than the specifically pro-life causes (that we also support).

However, it's very hard to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and clothe the naked if they are killed before they see the light of day.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

What has church done for me lately?

Along our route from the house to our parish church, a billboard was recently put up for one of the regions large bible churches. It shows a bunch of kids (probably ages 7-10) watching raptly as several loudly costumed people perform a skit, with a cross in the background. The tagline is "When was the last time your kids dragged you to church?"

A couple things stuck me about this. First is the basic awkwardness of touting a church's resemblance to entertainment as it's big selling point. It seems like the basic message there is "Your kids hate church and like entertainment, but we make church so entertaining, that they'll like it in spite of themselves." Now, if sitting in a church building for an hour or two each week were somehow an end unto itself, this might be just fine. Maybe from a certain point of view it is. But if (as I would) you think that it is what happens at church that is important to experience, than ditching that in favor of something more "kid friendly" seems off base. Not only are you not training children to appreciate the liturgy that in theory is their reason for being there -- but you're training them to appreciate something else instead.

Now, I think a certain amount of this may have to do with the differences between an American Protestant way of looking at religion and its place in one's life vs. a more Catholic view. The other day at work I was listening in as a couple of guys who are very active in their (bible church style Protestant) churches were comparing notes. One said, "We're pretty satisfied with the church we found. They've got a good men's and women's bible study, good kids program, good preaching and fellowship. The big problem is with the teen program. We have our daughter go to First Baptist instead because our church doesn't even have a full time youth minister."

And I'm sitting there thinking: Sheesh, I like our parish because the liturgies are according to GIRM, the choir at the mass we go to is pretty good, and our pastor and assistant pastor don't go in for loopy theology or liturgy. It wouldn't even occur to me to look for nearly the number of specialization of ministries that my Protestant friends seem to consider essential in a church. Sure, it'd be nice if our parish had a good bible study or lecture series, but that'd be strictly gravy. I don't think I'm totally out of the norm in that to me, extra-liturgical groups at church are things like St. Vincent de Paul drives, parish grounds cleanup day, and occasional projects/snacks/beer with the Knights of Columbus.

I'm not clear in my mind where there differences come from, or if there's a right answer to them. Another area of difference I notice every so often is that noun pressed into service as a verb as well: fellowship, to fellowship, and even fellowshipping. I once read a "secret worshipper report" by a Protestant visiting a Catholic church where the author complained: "There was no one to greet me as I entered. After the service, no one welcomed me as a stranger visiting for the first time and I was not invited to any sort of coffee and fellowship hour."

My first thought was: With at least five masses every weekend and 2500 families in the parish, I recognize at best 10-20% of the people who usually attend at the same times as we do, much less the people who always go at other times. I'd have no way of knowing if someone was a stranger. And I don't think I've ever gone to the parish coffee hour.

My second thought was: It would kind of creep me out and annoy me if I attended mass at another parish or in another city and someone immediately came up to me and said, "I see you're new here. Welcome to the parish. Let me take you under my wing..." I may not quite be one of the "don't offer me the sign of peace" kind of people, but I do still very much consider the mass to be communal time in private with God. We're there for the liturgy, so being overwhelmed with all sorts of community seems more a distraction than a benefit.

Every so often I read someone talking about how much better a job Evangelicals do of providing "extras" to their congregants, and how Catholics are starving for this stuff. I don't know if I've simply found ways to appreciate that lack because that's how things are, or if there's actually a different set of priorities which we rightly should have as Catholics. But there's clearly something very different going on.

Monday, April 09, 2007

The Liturgical Peanut Gallery

The Lair of the Catholic Cavemen has up a thought-provoking post on why some traditional and orthodox priests don't like saying the Tridentine mass.

Easter Meditations on Purgatorio: The Saved

I've been debating back and forth with myself whether to go on with the Divine Comedy at all, but I think at this point that I will, but at a more leisurely pace, and trying very hard to keep the posts down to a reasonable length. As such, I'll be trying to stick to main themes and avoid getting bogged down in quoting at length every interesting exchange of incident.

To race for safer waters, the small ship
Of my poetic powers now hoists sail,
Leaving in her wake that cruel sea.

And I shall sing this second kingdom where
The human spirit purifies itself,
Becoming fit to mount up into heaven. ...

Soft coloring of oriental sapphire,
Collecting in the calm face of the sky,
Clear right up to the edge of the horizon,

Brought back delight again into my eyes
As soon as I stepped out from the dead air
Which overburdened both my sight and breast.
(Purg. I, 1-6; 12-18)

The Purgatorio opens with quietly beautiful imagery. Both the reader and Dante the character are exhausted and mentally bruised from the harrowing sights of the pit of hell. At the end of Inferno, Dante and Virgil emerged from the underground passage leading up from Hell into the starlit night, and compared to the sights they had but recently seen even the dim starlight gave the impression of coming out into the light after a long, dark journey.

Now the first rays of sunrise are breaking of the island of Purgatory. It is Easter morning, 1300 -- a jubilee year declared by the pope, and on the morning of Christ's triumph over sin and death, Dante escapes the realm of sin and eternal death into the land of those who suffer cheerfully, in the knowledge that they are preparing themselves for eternal bliss.

Soon they are confronted by Cato, the guardian of Purgatory. Cato is an interesting figure in Dante's imagery because he is both a pagan and a suicide. Living in the last days of the Roman Republic, as civil war tore the empire apart and Julius Caesar rose to prominence, Cato had the reputation of being an "old Roman" who cared first and foremost about law and virtue. When Caesar seized control of the empire and Cato was ordered to submit to him, he committed suicide instead. As someone who valued virtue and freedom more than life, Dante makes him the guard at the entrance to Purgatory, one of the few pagans not confined to Limbo.

Cato asks the poets the nature of their journey, and once satisfied that it is ordained by Heaven, allows them to continue, but commands Dante to cleanse his face of the dust and tears of Hell. Dante does so, washing his face with the fresh dew on the grass. Then, in the distance, he and Virgil see a boat approaching with great speed.
The opposite of the boat in which Charon which transports the damned into Hell across the river Acheron, this boat is piloted by a radiant angel, who sends the boat skimming over the water by the flapping of his wings. The souls in the boat cheerfully sing out Psalm 113, which tells of Israel's delivery from Egypt. Dante and Virgil fall on their knees at the site of the angel, and do not rise until he has discharged the joyful souls upon the shore.

Among these newest among the saved, Dante meets a friend of his, Casella, a musician and singer who set several of Dante's poems to music. The old friends talk, and sing several of Casella's songs, until Cato comes upon the group of newly disembarked souls milling on the shores and chastises them for wasting time. At this the souls head off for the mountain at a run, leaving Dante and Virgil to follow at a slower pace.

As they circle the mountain, looking for a place where they can start on the path they see spiraling around its steep sides, the poets come upon a large group of souls walking slowly along the shore. These, they discover, are the late repentant: souls who persisted in grave sin until the very moment of their death, and then repented, commending their souls to God. Now they must circle Mt. Purgatory for thirty times as long as they persisted in sin -- unless the prayers of those still living help to shorten their time of waiting.

Among these souls, Dante meets King Manfred, a political hero of Dante's.

Then added with a smile, "I am Manfred,
The grandson of the glorious Empress Constance,
And so I plead that you on your return

"Visit my lovely daughter, mother of
The crowns of Sicily and Aragon,
And whatever else is said, tell her the truth:

"After I had my body riven through
By two mortal thrusts, I gave up my soul
Weeping to Him who pardons willingly.

"Horrible was the depth of my transgressing,
But infinite goodness has its arms so wide
That it embraces all who turn to it.
(Purg. III, 112-123)

After telling how he was buried in unconsecrated ground because he died while fighting in a civil war that put him on the opposite side of Italian politics from the pope, Manfred begs that Dante tell his relatives of his place in purgatory and ask them for their prayers. This will be a continuing theme through the Purgatorio. While the souls of the damned sometimes asked for fame, and other times asked to avoid it, the souls in purgatory at interested primarily in the prayers that will aid their swift ascension to the heavenly spheres, rather than any sort of earthly fame.

Another thing to note here is that Dante shows even those souls whose repentance was truly at the moment of their deaths -- without the chance to receive absolution. The middle ages are at times accused of a magic-like understanding of confession, which failed to take into account heartfelt repentance unaided by the sacraments. However Dante, certain the high point and summation of medieval thought on matters of salvation from an artistic point of view, definitely understands that even such personal contrition directly to God can save. Nonetheless, he holds these late repenting souls accountable for not having repented earlier and sought sacramental absolution, which would have allowed them to avoid this thirty-fold period of waiting.

Thanks to:

The translation and notes of James Finn Cotter

The translation, original text, and notes provided by Allen Mandelbaum

And most especially the translation and extensive commentary by Dorothy Sayers, which Penguin keeps appearing to drop, but never quite has.