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

Sunday, March 31, 2013

French Lit Reading Bleg

I just wrapped up my current audiobook (Count of Monte Cristo) and I'm trying to decide what to read next. The ideal would be something that could help provide background for the next novel project, which would mean French (or German or Eastern European) literature from shortly before World War One. And I've tried the first novel by Proust and found it really hard to get through, so that rules out that.

Does anyone have any recommendations?

Sepulchum Christi Viventis

"Why do you seek the living one among the dead?" (Luke 24:5)

Friday, March 29, 2013

Good Friday Prayer before the Crucifix

Behold, o good and most sweet Jesus, I fall upon my knees before Thee, and with most fervent desire beg and beseech Thee that Thou wouldst impress upon my heart a lively sense of faith, hope and charity, true repentance for my sins, and a firm resolve to make amends. And with deep affection and grief, I reflect upon Thy five wounds, having before my eyes that which Thy prophet David spoke about Thee, o good Jesus: "They have pierced my hands and feet, they have counted all my bones." Amen.

A plenary indulgence is granted to the faithful on any Friday of Lent or Passiontide who after Communion piously recite the above prayer before an image of Christ crucified. On other days of the year the indulgence is partial. 

Thursday, March 28, 2013

“Maronna mia, o Papa accà!”

Like many others, I had mixed reactions to the news that Pope Francis would be celebrating Holy Thursday mass in a youth prison. Wow, what an example and all, but also a very large break with tradition, and a bit harsh on all those who had made plans to be in Rome for Holy Thursday, counting on that tradition.

But here's what one of the young prisoners had to say to the news that the Pope was coming: “At last I shall get to meet someone who says he is my father!”

Here is the text of Pope Francis's Holy Thursday sermon in the prison:
“This is moving, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. Peter understands nothing. He refuses but Jesus explains to him. Jesus, God did this, and He Himself explains it to the disciples.. ‘Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do’. 
It is the example set by Our Lord, it’s important for Him to wash their feet, because among us the one who is highest up must be at the service of others. This is a symbol, it is a sign – washing your feet means I am at your service. And we are too, among each other, but we don’t have to wash each other’s feet each day. So what does this mean? That we have to help each other…sometimes I would get angry with one someone, but we must let it go and if they ask a favor of do it! 
Help one another. This is what Jesus teaches us. This is what I do. And I do it with my heart. I do this with my heart because it is my duty, as a priest and bishop I must be at your service. But it is a duty that comes from my heart and a duty I love. I love doing it because this is what the Lord has taught me. But you too must help us and help each other, always. And thus in helping each other we will do good for each other.  
Now we will perform the ceremony of the Washing of the Feet and we must each one of us think, Am I really willing to help others? Just think of that. Think that this sign is Christ’s caress, because Jesus came just for this, to serve us, to help us”.
h/t Whispers in the Loggia

Make Me a Channel of Peace, as St. Francis Never Said

Simcha Fisher wrote about misattributions, deliberate or no, and referenced the Peace Prayer of St. Francis, which is NOT by St. Francis, and behold, in her combox someone gives a source:

Posted by Mr Joseph G Mulvihill on Tuesday, Mar 26, 2013 1:06 PM (EDT): 
On the origin of the “Prayer of St. Francis”:
“Origin of this Prayer 
The first appearance of the Peace Prayer occurred in France in 1912 in a small spiritual magazine called La Clochette (The Little Bell). It was published in Paris by a Catholic association known as La Ligue de la Sainte-Messe (The Holy Mass League), founded in 1901 by a French priest, Father Esther Bouquerel (1855-1923). The prayer bore the title of ‘Belle prière à faire pendant la messe’ (A Beautiful Prayer to Say During the Mass), and was published anonymously. The author could possibly have been Father Bouquerel himself, but the identity of the author remains a mystery. 
The prayer was sent in French to Pope Benedict XV in 1915 by the French Marquis Stanislas de La Rochethulon. This was soon followed by its 1916 appearance, in Italian, in L’Osservatore Romano [the Vatican’s daily newspaper]. Around 1920, the prayer was printed by a French Franciscan priest on the back of an image of St. Francis with the title ‘Prière pour la paix’ (Prayer for Peace) but without being attributed to the saint. Between the two world wars, the prayer circulated in Europe and was translated into English. Its has been attributed the first time to saint Francis in 1927 by a French Protestant Movement, Les Chevaliers du Prince de la Paix (The Knights of the Prince of Peace), founded by Étienne Bach (1892-1986). 
The first translation in English that we know of appeared in 1936 in Living Courageously, a book by Kirby Page (1890-1957), a Disciple of Christ minister, pacifist, social evangelist, writer and editor of The World Tomorrow (New York City). Page clearly attributed the text to St. Francis of Assisi. During World War II and immediately after, this prayer for peace began circulating widely as the Prayer of St. Francis, specially through Francis cardinal Spellman’s books, and over the years has gained a worldwide popularity with people of all faiths. 
For more information : see the book by Dr. Christian Renoux, La prière pour la paix attribuée à saint François : une énigme à résoudre, Paris, Editions franciscaines, 2001, 210 p. : 12.81 euros + shipping (ISBN : 2-85020-096-4).—Order From: Éditions franciscaines, 9, rue Marie-Rose F-75014 Paris. 
Author’s Note: Dr. Christian Renoux, is continuing his research on the propagation of this prayer, and is looking for new information about its publication in English between 1925 and 1945, and in all other languages between 1912 and today. If you have such information, please contact him at contacted at this email address.
The Franciscan Archive wishes to thank Dr. Renoux for permission to publish the Original Text of this very popular Prayer and the history of its origin.” 
Read more:
All right, so I'm quoting from a combox to refute a misattribution, but the sources are laid out for anyone to consult or refute:

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Skill Crunch

Megan writes about a recent paper which argues that it's not just an over-supply of college grads that has BAs waiting tables -- the number of skilled jobs has actually been dropping since the dot com boom.

It seems to me that in general history shows an increase in skilled work as the economy becomes more specialized, but this increase is not smooth but rather choppy, such that at a given time one may see the supply of skilled jobs shrink.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

When Science Fiction Writers Propose Laws

Someone recently quoted Arthur C. Clarke's three laws at me.
1) When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

2) The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

3) Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
I'm not sure if I'm just being unusually dyspeptic at the moment, but these are all striking me as rather egregious pseudo-profundities.

But then, golden age science fiction's big three (Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein) Clarke is the one who never produced anything I enjoyed. All three were subject to occasional fits of pomposity, but Clarke's novels weren't even enjoyable.

Should Economists Tell You To Marry?

Bryan Caplan has a roundup of a couple of recent posts discussing the apparent effect that marriage has on people's earning: it causes men to make more and women to make less. He then provides nine observations on the question of whether economists could consider the effect to be causal.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Future Cloudy

Perhaps artificially so...

The political dilemma over geoengineering – deliberate, large-scale intervention in the climate system designed to counter global warming or offset some of its effects – will perhaps be most acute in China.

In December, the country listed geoengineering among its Earth science research priorities, in a marked shift in the international climate change landscape noticed by China specialists Kingsley Edney and Jonathan Symons.

On the one hand, China's rapid economic growth has seen a huge escalation in its greenhouse gas emissions, which on an annual basis overtook those of the United States five years ago. Sustained GDP growth provides China's Communist party with its only claim to legitimacy, its "mandate of heaven". China's efforts to constrain the growth of its emissions have been substantial, and certainly put to shame those of many developed nations.

Yet neither China's efforts nor those of other countries over the next two or three decades are likely to do much to slow the warming of the globe, nor halt the climate disruption that will follow. Global emissions have not been declining or even slowing. In fact, global emissions are accelerating. Even the World Bank, which for years has been criticised for promoting carbon-intensive development, now warns that we are on track for 4C of warming, which would change everything.

China is highly vulnerable to water shortages in the north, with declining crop yields and food price rises expected, and storms and flooding in the east and south. Climate-related disasters in China are already a major source of social unrest so there is a well-founded fear in Beijing that the impacts of climate change in the provinces could topple the government in the capital. Natural disasters jeopardise its mandate.

So what can the Chinese government do? Continued growth in greenhouse gas emissions is a condition for its hold on power, but climate disruption in response to emissions growth threatens to destabilise it.

Geoengineering has immediate appeal as a way out of this catch-22. While a variety of technologies to take carbon out of the air or to regulate sunlight are being researched, at present by far the most likely intervention would involve blanketing the Earth with a layer of sulphate particles to block some incoming solar radiation.

Spraying sulphate aerosols could mask warming and cool the planet within weeks, although it would not solve the core problem of too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and oceans.

Should it start to seem that we are seeing real negative effects due some some kind of global warming, China choosing unilaterally to do something about it might be one of the more likely eventualities. The thing about being a one party dictatorship of sorts is that there isn't a whole lot of worrying about governmental checks and balances, and other countries with more red tape might be happy to sit back and let China take the blame.

Of course, just as now it's virtually impossible to determine whether any short term change in the weather has anything to do with global climate change (which the chicken little faction eager to blame any hurricane, tornado, drought or early frost on global warming, while critics rightly point out that all of these things have a tendency to happen at intervals anyway), once anyone starts trying any geoengineering you can bet that critics will blame any adverse weather occurances on the geoengineering. It would make a perfect scapegoat since it would be very hard to prove that it wasn't at fault for any given thing.

In Which the Pope Has To Move

We've all had this conversation lately.

Yes I Still Support The Iraq War

This last week marked the tenth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War and so it offered many pundits a chance to write anguished pieces of self examination in which they told why they wish they had opposed the Iraq War. (Then there's the variant in which those who were opposed all along snear at those who are late to the anti-war party.)

My reactionary tendency revolts against the late breaking attempt to jump on the band wagon, but even setting that aside I can't find it in myself to see toppling Saddam Hussein's dictatorship as an unworthy endeavour. If anything, the main injustice I see in the Iraq War was in not having gone all the way to Bagdad in 1991. We left the Iraqi people hanging out to dry in 1991, allowing Hussein to crush the uprising which we encouraged but failed to support. Hussein remained a brutal dictator, but one ruling at our sufferance from 1991 to 2003. I think removing him at any point during that time would have been a just and noble action.

Certainly, there is a great deal that could have been done better in the aftermath of the invasion and toppling of the regime. I wish that it had been done better and that suffering and loss of life, both Iraqi and American, had thus been less. It seems odd, however, to argue that ending Hussein's dictatorship could only be just if we knew for a certainty ahead of time that all of our actions in the region afterwards would be carried out with competence and success.

There's a lot that the Bush Administration can be blamed for, and in many ways the Iraq War and its aftermath were ill-managed. But even in its current unpopularity, I still support the basic justice of seeking to finish the job that we started in 1991 and end one of the world's nastier little dictatorships while it was still easy to do so.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

There Is Not Just One Way To Be Pope

One of the things that's been bothering me (as well as several other good bloggers I read) in the days since the election of Pope Francis is the seeming need of many to identify a single cookie-cutter model which every "good" pope most follow. I recall some of this when Benedict succeeded John Paul, but it was perhaps more muted both by a certain gravity stemming from John Paul's very public death and funeral, and also by the fact that the although we certainly lived in a "new media" age then, it hadn't gained the dizzying speed which social media has since provided to "reax".

Thus it seems as if much of the coverage of the new pope boils down to, "Francis isn't as intellectual and liturgically focused as Benedict, so he's not as good" or else "Francis is so 'humble' and focused on the poor, he's clearly a much better pope than Benedict". Then there's the next level of escallation in which each side tries to steal the virtues of the other: Oh yeah, well if Francis were really humble he wouldn't insist on simplicity, which is really a subtle exercise in saying "look at me"! You say Francis cares about the poor and about simplicity? Well look how much Benedict cared about the poor and about simplicity!

I think this quickly gets silly, and more to the point it starts to act as if there is only gone right way for the pope to act. The fact is, being the shepherd of God's flock on earth is a job large enough that there are multiple different ways of doing it that are right. (Which is not to say that every way is right, obviously, we've had some pretty bad popes over the centuries.)

It seems to me that John Paul II's dense intellectualism combined with his oversize and highly charismatic personality was arguably exactly what the Church needed at the time of his pontificate -- as we emerged from a time in which it seemed like the roof was coming down and everything was up for grabs. Benedict's liturgical focus was another thing that the Church desperately needed at the time that he was chosen -- and I think that his ability to write deeply yet clearly was also a huge need. If John Paul II's struggle to incorporate Catholic teaching and a moderl philosophical understanding of the human person were something very much needed in our modern era, I at the same time suspect that Benedict's books (both his books about the life of Christ and the many books he wrote prior to his pontificate) may actually be read more often by ordinary Catholics in the coming decades than anything that John Paul II wrote.

Similarly, I think that Francis' intentional simplicity is something that we need to see in our pope at times. This is not to say that Benedict and John Paul were not simple. They were, though in different ways. But while not every saint needs (or should) be simple in the sort of over-the-top way that our pope's namesake St. Francis of Assisi was, St. Francis nonetheless remains a good saint to have. That it is good that we have St. Francis as an example does not mean that every other saint is the less for not being St. Francis. (I mean, let's be honest, St. Francis could be kind of nuts.) And similarly, admiration of Pope Francis's qualities need not, and indeed should not, be turned into a criticism of other popes for not being like him in every way.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Homeschooling High School Catechesis

A friend dropped me a note suggesting a blog topic:

What's your opinion of how a four-year high school religion course of study should be organized?

I went to public school and never received any catechesis as a child or teen, so I don't have a mental model of how things should go. I went looking around at various homeschool curricula and at the religion coursework at different area Catholic schools, and discovered there's quite a bit of diversity in the approaches.

This is the sort of question that I would have jumped at a lot more eagerly 5+ years ago. Having been homeschooled, and being a bit of a know-it-all type, I was pretty well assured of my ability to come up with comprehensive curriculum ideas back when our kids were young enough that theory didn't have to meet reality. What I've run into as I get older is:

1) A general realization that I don't know everything -- perhaps formed to a great extent by knowing more than I did before.

2) That while MrsDarwin and I really enjoy working on high concept, we tend to bog down when it comes to producing the kind of detailed breakdown necessary to operationalize an educational high concept -- especially for 4th and 5th graders like we have now: kids of an age to still need detailed direction, and a lot more than at the tender age when the curriculum really only seemed to need to consist of "teach them to read, teach them some basic arithmetic, and read lots of good stuff to them". I think what formed a lot of the way I thought about "designing your own curriculum" was dealing with the high school "humanities program" which my parents put me through. Since I was high school age, the plan for the year consisted of a two page long reading list roughly broken into weeks. That kind of two page plan I enjoy working on. However, we've found ourselves repeatedly wrecked upon the rocks on not getting around to forming a weekly, much less daily plan, and with our kids being the age they are, that's the kind of planning that's actually necessary.

All of which is a long way of saying I don't feel like the wise resource on homeschooling I once did. However, it's a good question, and one that I opinionated on a bit when I was a homeschooled high schooler (who hated the parish religion education/confirmation program he had to go through) so I'll take a shot at saying a few things and then turn things over to the hopefully greater experience and wisdom of our readers.

I had two sources of high school level religious education: the two year program in our parish leading up to confirmation at the end of my sophomore year in high school, and homeschooled religious instruction all four years.

The parish program was uniformly terrible in the way that one could really only expect from the 1990s in Los Angeles Archdiocese. Instruction was on Sundays and started off by attending the 10:30am "rock mass". And hour-and-a-half classroom session then followed which was heavily focused on small group discussion to draw out from us "how we felt" about... well... that was never all that clear.

The reason I bring this up is basically to say: While I experienced parish religious education, it was virtually content-less. There was no book, and no program. And so I don't really have a good way to compare that with what we did at home or with the sort of actual catechetical programs that exist these days.

The homeschool program that my parents laid out for me in high school in terms of catechesis was not necessarily hugely structured. In the Humanities Program I was slated to read a number of works from throughout Christian history, so there was additional material beyond what was strictly in the "religion" part of the program.

I was a fairly bookish and argumentative teen, so what we did was also slated towards my strengths and interests. The first year was structured around reading a catechism -- this was before the Catechism of the Catholic Church was issued, so what we used was Pocket Catholic Catechism by Fr. John Hardon. These days, I think one would clearly use the CCC or perhaps more appropriately one of its variants such as the Youcat or the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults. I used the latter when helping to teach RCIA back in Texas, and although I was initially hesitant about a "simplified" catechism for adults from the USCCB I was pretty impressed with it.

I also read the New Testament straight through, something I hadn't done before.

The later years were more focused on apologetics books, something that I thrived on given my argumentative turn. I remember some of the titles (What Catholics Really Believe, Catholicism & Fundamentalism, etc.) but in a sense apologetics books tend to age faster than many other books on the Church. I think at this point one would want to sit down and assess clearly what would be a good collection of apologetics books to read.

I was also assigned a couple of books dealing specifically with morality, including one focused on sexual issues. This was before the popularizing craze around Theology of the Body, and the specific text we used as a textbook for teens from Ignatius Press which I can't recall the name of and may well be out of print these days. It was good, but not earth shattering.

I found some of the things I read in the Humanities Program deeply formative to my religious understanding. The big ones were: Augustine's Confessions, the Rule of St. Benedict and Dante's Divine Comedy. The first two are very accessible, the latter is probably not something that would appeal to all teens.

The biggest area I feel like I don't know how to fill in is some sort of formation in prayer and personal spirituality. My family certainly went to mass together, and we prayed together as well: morning offering, rosary, evening prayer from the Liturger of the Hours. And I'd read about prayer in the catechism and various other books. Somehow, though, I've always felt like there's a lot to prayer that I just don't "get". I was reading Fr. Dubay's Fire Within at one point, and I remember feeling like I was a blind person reading about color. It all sounded fascinating and entrancing, but not like something I could actually experience. I'm really not sure how one teaches prayer and spirituality, though, so I don't have any particular recommendations beyond the obvious point of making sure to have a family prayer life, and one which is not strictly relegated to the level of the youngest members.

So to summarize, to the extent that I have recommendations on a high school homeschooling program for relgious instruction I would suggest:

- A catechism of appropriate level
- The New Testament
- Several books dealing with basic apologetics
- A good teen-level book on sexual morality
- Several classic works from great Christian writers (I'd primarily suggest Confessions and Rule of St. Benedict for readability and applicability to the age level)

I'm not sure how helpful this is, so I appeal to readers to provide their own suggestions.

Monday, March 18, 2013

New Pope, Old Pope

I was struck by, and agreed with, Amy Welborn's post on reactions to Pope Francis and the sense in which they tie in with our feelings about Pope Benedict. (As I was reading down the post and the comments it also struck me that as we were all adjusting to the end of John Paul II's pontificate and the beginning of Benedict's, it was Amy Welborn's comboxes over at Open Book where I'd discuss things with other online Catholics. That was prior to my starting my blog.)

I want to write more about the beginning of Francis's papacy when I have a little more time, but one thing that has struck me as I examine my own excitement about every story that comes out about Pope Francis (and read the excitement of others via the semi-stream-of-consciousness of people's Facebook reactions) is that there is something deeply appealing to the human person about monarchy. As a Catholic, I find myself joyful at the new pope simply because he is the new pope. Not because I think there was something lacking in prior popes. I felt the same deep attachment to John Paul II and to Benedict XVI. I was excited that John Paul II hiked and skied. I was excited that Benedict XVI kept cats and played Mozart. I am excited that Francis rode in the bus with the rest of the cardinals and dropped by his old hotel in person to pay his bill. It's not that I prefer one pontif's personality to another, I simply enjoy "getting to know" these deeply holy men who lead our Church on earth.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

"The Horror!": The Hysterical Rad Trad Reaction to Pope Francis

I remember the horror of the hard-left Catholics when Pope Benedict XVI was elected, but it seems that now it's the turn of the hard right to rival the left in hysterical ugliness. In reading around for the various reactions to Francis's election, I went over to a few of the traditionalist sites and was absolutely appalled by the tenor of the conversation:
  • snide remarks about his vestments (no mozzetta!), coupled with fears that this indicated all the beauty was about to be leached out of the liturgy
  • horror that he actually asked the people to pray for him before giving his blessing
  • indignation about the arrogance of choosing the name Francis (someone really did call it a break with tradition that a Pope should choose a new name, as if there had never been a Pope Pius I)
  • fussing that he didn't chant his blessing -- people! he only has ONE LUNG!
  • disgust that he greeted the crowd by saying, "Good evening!" -- so plebeian
This letter posted with approval at Rorate Caeli is a sampling of the kind of gracious commentary from the hard right: 
The Horror!

Of all the unthinkable candidates, Jorge Mario Bergoglio is perhaps the worst. Not because he openly professes doctrines against the faith and morals, but because, judging from his work as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, faith and moral seem to have been irrelevant to him.

A sworn enemy of the Traditional Mass, he has only allowed imitations of it in the hands of declared enemies of the ancient liturgy. He has persecuted every single priest who made an effort to wear a cassock, preach with firmness, or that was simply interested in Summorum Pontificum.

Famous for his inconsistency (at times, for the unintelligibility of his addresses and homilies), accustomed to the use of coarse, demagogical, and ambiguous expressions, it cannot be said that his magisterium is heterodox, but rather non-existent for how confusing it is.

His entourage in the Buenos Aires Curia, with the exception of a few clerics, has not been characterized by the virtue of their actions. Several are under grave suspicion of moral misbehavior.

He has not missed any occasion for holding acts in which he lent his Cathedral to Protestants, Muslims, Jews, and even to partisan groups in the name of an impossible and unnecessary interreligious dialogue. He is famous for his meetings with protestants in the Luna Park arena where, together with preacher of the Pontifical House, Raniero Cantalamessa, he was "blessed" by Protestant ministers, in a common act of worship in which he, in practice, accepted the validity of the "powers" of the TV-pastors.

This election is incomprehensible: he is not a polyglot, he has no Curial experience, he does not shine for his sanctity, he is loose in doctrine and liturgy, he has not fought against abortion and only very weakly against homosexual "marriage" [approved with practically no opposition from the episcopate], he has no manners to honor the Pontifical Throne. He has never fought for anything else than to remain in positions of power.

It really cannot be what Benedict wanted for the Church. And he does not seem to have any of the conditions required to continue his work.

May God help His Church. One can never dismiss, as humanly hard as it may seem, the possibility of a conversion... and, nonetheless, the future terrifies us.

It would seem that for this crowd, making a statement about gay marriage such as, "Let's not be naive: this isn't just a simple political fight, it is the destructive pretension against the plan of God," does not count as strong enough condemnation unless the speaker is wearing a fiddleback chasuble.

Over the years it has been part of my plan to provide a space in which – to put it bluntly – some of you of the more traditionalist flavor could vent a little. After decades of what can only be called oppression and heart-breaking disappointment, some of you were understandably angry. Some venting has been necessary now and then for the sake of healing the bruises.

In the last few years I have sensed that some of the more traditionalist flavor were finally beginning to unclench a bit. Thus, the time for a certain kind of venting is drawing to a close.

Since the announcement of a new Pope last night, I had to clean some really harsh things out of the combox and the comment queue. ...I won’t stand for bashing the new Pope here.  It isn’t going to happen in my combox. You are NOT welcome to come into my living room and have a spittle-flecked nutty like whining liberals do whenever Catholic teaching and discipline is reaffirmed. I don’t expect “papolatry”. I ask for respect and decorum when concerns or disagreements are expressed.

If it turns out that our new Pope starts us down a path you or I don’t like, then we will discuss those matters as they come along. But… how long has he been Pope?

Look. We all have to get to know Francis. He has to get to know himself now, too! Pray for him.

Last night I saw a man come out in what looked like a state of mild shell shock, who called first for communal prayer, starting with the most traditional prayer there is, the Lord's prayer; who brought St. Peter's square to a state of near-perfect quiet by requesting a moment of silent individual prayer; who called our Christian life a journey of charity; who offered an indulgence to all watching. Christ was present in his Vicar on earth and in the prayers of his people, and it was beautiful.

Beauty is not just a part of Christ. Christ IS beauty itself. If anyone can see a man proclaiming Christ -- and see people responding to that proclamation -- and complain about the lack of beauty, then that person does not know what beauty is. That person only recognizes aesthetics.

Bad History: Was the Persecution of Christians a Myth?

Donald McClarey has a well deserved barn-burner of a post up at The American Catholic about a new book entitled The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom out from University of Notre Dame theology professor Candida Moss. I'd seen a couple articles on this book before it came out and more or less passed over them as yet another fluffy work of pop scholarship intent on telling us that "everything we know is wrong" in relation to Christianity. However, the book appears to be getting a certain amount of press and is climbing the Amazon sales ranks, so it's worth giving it a bit of attention as the politically motivated pop-history that it is.

Dr. Moss talks about her motivations for writing the book in an interview at HuffPo:
I initially became interested in this subject because of a homily I heard that compared the situation facing modern Christians in America to the martyrs of the early church. I was surprised by the comparison because modern Americans aren't living in fear for their lives and the analogy seemed a little hyperbolic and sensational. After this, I began to notice the language of persecution and victimization being bandied about everywhere from politics, to sermons, to the media, but rarely in regard to situations that involve imprisonment and violence.
She goes on to argue that modern Christians have a view that persecution of the early Church was pervasive when it was in fact not:
[A] lot of weight rests on the idea that Christians were persecuted in the early church because, without the idea of near-continuous persecution, it would be difficult to recast, say, disagreements about the role of prayer in schools as persecution. ... But intriguingly, the historical evidence for systematic persecution of Christians by Jews and Romans is actually very slim. There were only a few years before the rise of the emperor Constantine that Christians were sought out by the authorities just for being Christians. The stories about early Christian martyrs have been edited, expanded, and sometimes even invented, giving the impression that Christians were under constant attack. This mistaken impression is important because it fosters a sense of Christian victimhood and that victim mentality continues to rear its head in modern politics and society. It's difficult to imagine that people could make the same claims about persecution today were it not for the idea that Christians have always been persecuted.
Moss also has a recent piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education summarizing her argument and promoting the book:
For the first three hundred years of its existence, tradition maintains, Christianity was a persecuted and suffering religion. Members were hunted down and executed, their property and books burned by crusading emperors intent on routing out the new religion. Women and children were thrown to the lions and boiled alive in caldrons, as maddened crowds bayed for blood. Jesus, Stephen, and the Apostles were only the beginning.
The history of early Christianity, as we have received it, is a history of victimization and pain. It underwrites the idea that Christians are at odds with their world, engaged in a continuing struggle between good and evil.

But that narrative has very little basis in the documentary record.

There is almost no evidence from the period before Constantine, traditionally called the Age of Martyrs, to support the idea that Christians were continuously persecuted. That idea was cultivated by church historians like Eusebius and Sozomen and by the anonymous hagiographers who edited, reworked, and replicated stories about martyrs. The vast majority of those stories, however, were written during periods of peace, long after the events they purported to describe. Even those that are roughly contemporaneous with the events have been significantly embellished.
Now, it's pretty common practice in this kind of "de-mythologizing" for the author to discount all early Christian sources as being ideologically motivated, and then announce that by golly we don't seem to have any early Christian sources left, but when it comes to persecution of Christians there are some obvious pagan references from the early 2nd century, and I was curious to see how Moss dealt with these in order to get a flavor for her work.

Let's start with Tacitus, who wrote that Nero blamed the Christians for the Great Fire of Rome (in order to shift blame from himself.)  Tacitus says:
Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.

Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man's cruelty, that they were being destroyed. [Annals, 15]
Moss deals with this as follows:
In Roman biographies of the emperors, Nero is well known for his temper and cruelty, but this does not mean that this story is completely believable. We need to exercise some caution when it comes to dealing with Tacitus. Tacitus's Annals dates from 115-20, at least fifty years after the events he describes. His use of the term "Christian" is somewhat anachronistic. It's highly unlikely that, at the time the Great Fire occurred, anyone recognized Jesus followers as a distinct and separate group. Jesus followers themselves do not appear to have begun using the name "Christan" until, at the earliest, the very end of the first century. If followers of Jesus weren't even identified as Christians, it's highly improbable that Christians were well known and disliked enough that Nero could single them out as scapegoats. It seems more likely that Tacitus's discussion of the events in Rome around the time of the fire reflects his own situation around 115. Tacitus is evidence for growing popular animosity toward Christians in the second century, but he does not provide evidence for their persecution in the first.

In popular imagination as well as some scholarly literature the Great Fire of Rome and Nero’s subsequent persecution of ‘Christians’ begins the so-called Age of Martyrs. Our earliest martyrdom stories date to this period, between the Great Fire and the persecution of the emperor Decius. Yet with the exception of Nero’s tempestuous accusations against Christians, there’s no evidence to suggest that Roman emperors themselves were that interested in the Christians during this period. For almost all of the first century, it’s unclear that Roman emperors even knew that Christians existed. (Myth of Persecution, page 138-139)
First, we can see some obvious sleight of hand. She throws doubt on whether the term "Christian" would have been used in 64AD, then argues from that that if the word wasn't in circulation, then obviously Nero couldn't have persecuted Christians. This seems like a pretty slim pretext to throwing out one of our key Roman sources for the period. But is Tacitus even the only one? No. Suetonius also talks about persecution of Christians in his lives of Claudius (Nero's predecessor) and Nero. Here's from Claudius (ch25):
Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.
There is considerable scholarly dispute as to what this passage means, but one fairly common interpretation is that from the Roman point of view followers of "Chrestus" were troublemakers among the Jews, and that these troubles resulted in the expulsion of all Jews from the city of Rome by Claudius which is mentioned in Acts 18:2.

Later, in his life of Nero (ch16), Suetonius says:
During his reign many abuses were severely punished and put down, and no fewer new laws were made: a limit was set to expenditures; the public banquets were confined to a distribution of food; the sale of any kind of cooked viands in the taverns was forbidden, with the exception of pulse and vegetables, whereas before every sort of dainty was exposed for sale. Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition.
So here we have two of Rome's premier biographers of the early emperors (both pagans writing in 110-120 AD) saying that Nero persecuted the Christians. That's pretty seriously good evidence as such things go, but Moss waves them away. (Suetonius she barely mentions.)

Next up Moss addresses one of the best pieces of evidence we have for what motivated persecution of the Christians in the early 2nd century and how it was carried on, the letters exchanged between Pliny the Younger and the Emperor Trajan around 112 AD in which Pliny explains how he's dealing with Christians in modern-day Turkey. Here's the letter:
It is my practice, my lord, to refer to you all matters concerning which I am in doubt. For who can better give guidance to my hesitation or inform my ignorance? I have never participated in trials of Christians. I therefore do not know what offenses it is the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent. And I have been not a little hesitant as to whether there should be any distinction on account of age or no difference between the very young and the more mature; whether pardon is to be granted for repentance, or, if a man has once been a Christian, it does him no good to have ceased to be one; whether the name itself, even without offenses, or only the offenses associated with the name are to be punished.

Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished. There were others possessed of the same folly; but because they were Roman citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome.

Soon accusations spread, as usually happens, because of the proceedings going on, and several incidents occurred. An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ--none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do--these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.

They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food--but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.

I therefore postponed the investigation and hastened to consult you. For the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found. Hence it is easy to imagine what a multitude of people can be reformed if an opportunity for repentance is afforded.

[Trajan's response to Pliny]

You observed proper procedure, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those who had been denounced to you as Christians. For it is not possible to lay down any general rule to serve as a kind of fixed standard. They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it--that is, by worshiping our gods--even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance. But anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution. For this is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out of keeping with the spirit of our age.
Moss relates the substance of the exchange, then argues:
The fact that Pliny has to make inquiries about this indicates that, before this point, there were no measures in place for the treatment of Christians. It's clear, then, that the Christians weren't the ancient Roman equivalent of enemies of the state. No modern governor would need to write to the Department of Homeland Security to ask what should be done about an admitted al-Qaeda operative in his or her state. Pliny would not have had to write to Trajan if Christians were high on the list of Roman concerns. His letter demonstrates a lack of familiarity with Christians and how to treat them. Pliny was uncertain about whether to sentence all Christians equally regardless of age and maturity and whether Christians should be executed as a matter of course or whether recanting their beliefs could earn them a pardon. (page 140)
But, of course, this shifts the goal posts. The question at hand is not whether Christians were considered to be Enemy Of The State #1 in the Roman mind, but rather whether they were being persecuted. In this case, obviously they were, since Pliny figured that a good minimum was interrogating everyone accused of being a Christian and executing those who would not recant. His only concern is whether he should execute them even if they did recant. Apparently, however, Moss's claim is that persecution isn't really persecution if it could have been worse.

She goes on to bolster this with several accounts of instances from the 2nd and 3rd centuries when Christians weren't persecuted, including one in which a group of Christians approached the house of governor C. Arrius Antoninus and demanded martyrdom, but were turned down by the governor. All this does is reinforce the well known fact that persecution of the early Church was not constant or consistent. Sometimes and in some places Christians were persecuted fiercely, at other times and places they were mostly left alone. This was, obviously, a relief for those not being persecuted. However, at the same time, that doesn't mean that Christians were wrong to feel under threat.  If the wider society reserves the right to begin killing members of a minority at any time they feel like, this is going to make that minority feel persecuted all the time. Indeed, the very capriciousness of a persecution can end up being part of the suffering it causes in the victims. From the Roman point of view it may be that many governors simply didn't care about Christians or were in favor of leaving them alone, but from the Christian point of view, the threat continued to lurk in the background even when it wasn't applied. (To draw on Moss's modern example: If the US government maintained that it had the right to put people to death at any time for believing in Islam, it wouldn't necessarily make Muslims feel more secure to know that this right to legally persecute them was only exercised when governors felt like it.)

Moss goes on to talk about the persecutions under the later emperors, which she acknowledges (grudgingly) but continues all the way through to emphasize that they could have been bigger. The following is her conclusion (pages 160-161):
There's no doubt that Christians thought they were persecuted; they ruminate on it, theologize about it, bewail, lament, protest and complain. Nor should we underestimate the reality of their experiences. There is no doubt that Christians did die, and they were horrifically tortured and executed in ways that would appall people today, however uninterested they are in human rights. We can imagine that for a small community the death of even a single member would have had a devastating effect on the group and left a lasting imprint on the ways in which they thought about themselves. We do not need to conclude that the authors of Revelation and 1 Peter were hysterical when they complain about being persecuted, but their experiences do not line up with either the mythology of Christian persecution or modern definitions of persecution in which persecution is centralized and state-led.
She then takes a very interesting, if somewhat sinister, turn:
If persecution is to be defined as hostility toward a group because of its religious beliefs, then surely it is important that the Romans intended to target Christians. Otherwise this is prosecution, not persecution. The death of a Christian or group of Christians might be unjust, but it is not persecution as it has traditionally been defined. This leads us to the prosecutors. Why did the Romans execute any Christians at all?
This launches her into Chapter 5 "Why Did the Romans Dislike Christians?". It starts off kind of strangely:
Romans are not known for their cruelty; in contrast to the ancient Assyrians, who gained a reputation for brutality and sadism, they were known for being comparatively beneficent rulers.... In assessments of Roman treatment of Christians, this supposed kindness has been used in two diametrically opposed ways: on the one hand, it is used to highlight the extraordinary quality of their prosecution of the Christians and to amplify the sense of injustice. The Romans were usually so kind, the argument goes, that their treatment of Christians was out of character and cruel. On the other, it is used as evidence of Roman innocence; the Romans were so kind that we must conclude that the Christians deserved it.
Honestly, I have no idea where she's getting this from. Sure, the Romans may not have been seen as rivaling the Assyrians in cruelty, but that's an awfully low bar, to put it mildly. Roman society was violent and cruel by modern standards. This is a society in which gladiatorial games were standard elements of public festivals. It was a society based on slavery which applied the death penalty (in very nasty ways) for a whole host of offenses. If the HBO series Rome or its BBC ancestor I, Claudius is any example of popular ideas of Roman culture, the idea that the Romans were big softies does not really seem to be a pop culture standard.  And needless to say, the Romans don't come off as particularly cuddly in the old toga epics such as Sparticus and or the modern ones such as Gladiator.

After this odd intro, Moss goes on to argue that the Romans weren't really persecuting Christians, they were prosecuting them for what they saw as violations of Roman cultural and legal norms. She pulls out examples of other religious and cultural groups which the Romans also persecuted (her word is "prosecuted" but I'm not willing to concede her linguistic game here except when quoting her directly.) She explains why Romans saw Christianity as being subversive to the the Roman order. What I've read of this is kind of okay, though there are certainly better and more scholarly treatments of the topic. Moss is so fixated on explaining away Christian persecution that she seems to talk about everything through the lens of special pleading. She concludes:
The Sunday school narrative of a church of martyrs, of Christians huddled in catacombs out of fear, meeting in secret to avoid arrest, and mercilessly thrown to lions merely for their religious beliefs is a macabre fairy tale. When Christians appeared in Roman courtrooms, they were not tried as heretics, blasphemers, or even fools. Christians had a reputation for being socially reclusive, refusing to join the military, and refusing to swear oaths. Once in the courtroom Christians said things that sounded like sedition. They were rude, subversive, and disrespectful. Most important, they were threatening. Even if the actions of the Romans still seem unjust, we must admit that they had reasons for treating Christians the way they did. (page 186)
Well, no kidding. Every group seen as cruel and repressive has reasons for what it does. Pick the nastiest groups in history, and you can bet that with sufficient study one can come up with reasons why they behaved as they did. And indeed, it's worth doing that. A view of history in which dangerously bad bogeymen do horrible things simply because they are bad is a shallow view of history that teaches us nothing. If all that Moss were doing with this book is trying to give a balanced view of how the Romans understood Christians and why they treated them the way that they did, it would make a good read. Although she constantly engages in sleight of hand and special pleading in support of her contention that Christians weren't really persecuted (much), she does have at least a basic knowledge of the sources. If she were content to simply talk about the sources, she might be able to write a decent book. (If you want such a book, there's a pretty good one I've read called The Christians as the Romans Saw Them -- it's also out from a real academic press, Yale, as compared to Moss's work which is out from HarperOne) This book, however, has all the flaws of a ideologically motivated hack job. And that it's written by a theology professor from Notre Dame just completes the joke.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Habemus Papam Franciscum!

God bless our new Pope, Francis, the Argentine Jesuit Jorge Maria Bergoglio! His gentleness and humility and affability won our hearts here immediately, as did his immediate emphasis on prayer, communal and private.

John Allen wrote a profile of Cardinal Bergoglio ten days ago:

Born in Buenos Aires in 1936, Bergoglio's father was an Italian immigrant and railway worker from the region around Turin, and he has four brothers and sisters. His original plan was to be a chemist, but in 1958 he instead entered the Society of Jesus and began studies for the priesthood. He spent much of his early career teaching literature, psychology and philosophy, and early on he was seen as a rising star. From 1973 to 1979 he served as the Jesuit provincial in Argentina, then in 1980 became the rector of the seminary from which he had graduated.

These were the years of the military junta in Argentina, when many priests, including leading Jesuits, were gravitating towards the progressive liberation theology movement. As the Jesuit provincial, Bergoglio insisted on a more traditional reading of Ignatian spirituality, mandating that Jesuits continue to staff parishes and act as chaplains rather than moving into "base communities" and political activism.

Although Jesuits generally are discouraged from receiving ecclesiastical honors and advancement, especially outside mission countries, Bergoglio was named auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires in 1992 and then succeeded the ailing Cardinal Antonio Quarracino in 1998. John Paul II made Bergoglio a cardinal in 2001, assigning him the Roman church named after the legendary Jesuit St. Robert Bellarmino.

Over the years, Bergoglio became close to the Comunione e Liberazione movement founded by Italian Fr. Luigi Giussani, sometimes speaking at its massive annual gathering in Rimini, Italy. He's also presented Giussani's books at literary fairs in Argentina. This occasionally generated consternation within the Jesuits, since the ciellini once upon a time were seen as the main opposition to Bergoglio's fellow Jesuit in Milan, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini.

On the other hand, that's also part of Bergoglio's appeal, someone who personally straddles the divide between the Jesuits and the ciellini, and more broadly, between liberals and conservatives in the church.

Bergoglio has supported the social justice ethos of Latin American Catholicism, including a robust defense of the poor.

"We live in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most yet reduced misery the least," Bergoglio said during a gathering of Latin American bishops in 2007. "The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers."

At the same time, he has generally tended to accent growth in personal holiness over efforts for structural reform.

Bergoglio is seen an unwaveringly orthodox on matters of sexual morality, staunchly opposing abortion, same-sex marriage, and contraception. In 2010 he asserted that gay adoption is a form of discrimination against children, earning a public rebuke from Argentina's President, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

Nevertheless, he has shown deep compassion for the victims of HIV-AIDS; in 2001, he visited a hospice to kiss and wash the feet of 12 AIDS patients.

My brother texted me what is no longer the set-up to a joke: "A Jesuit, the pope, and a guy named Francis walk into a bar..."

MORE: Our new pope has a strong record of pro-life statements, including some that ought to answer those who claim that pro-life advocates only care about pre-born children (and not their mothers):
“In our ecclesiastical region there are priests who don’t baptize the children of single mothers because they weren’t conceived in the sanctity of marriage. These are today’s hypocrites… Those who separate the people of God from salvation. And this poor girl who, rather than returning the child to sender, had the courage to carry it into the world, must wander from parish to parish so that it’s baptized!”

H/T to Paul Zummo at The American Catholic for both links.

LATER: Those encouraging East/West reunion by using the image of the Church "breathing with both lungs" might want to reach for a new metaphor: apparently, Pope Francis is breathing fine with only one lung. The other was removed when he was a teenager as a result of an infection, if I recall correctly.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Conclave

The Doors Are Closed for the 2005 Conclave

In two hours, the cardinals will process into the Sistine Chapel to begin the process of selecting the next pope. Each cardinal will take an oath to abide by the rules of the conclave. The last people who are not among the voting cardinals will be asked to leave, and the first vote will be taken.

One vote will be taken this afternoon, and it's incredibly unlikely that a pope will be chosen in that vote. The cardinals will, however, get a chance to see from the results of that vote who among have accreted a certain degree of support. They will then have the evening to talk and think and pray before beginning the first full day of voting tomorrow. Two morning votes and two afternoon votes will be taken each further day of the conclave until a pope has been selected. (You can find all sorts of good information the conclave process over at

Last time around I strongly hoped that Cardinal Ratzinger would be selected -- though at the time it seemed like everyone was saying that he was too old and too "hard line" for that to happen. I was shocked and elated when his election was announced. At the time, I worked five minutes drive from home. MrsDarwin and the kids (then just two of them) saw the white smoke on TV, drove to work (we only had one car at the time and I'd walked in) picked me up, and brought me home in time to see Benedict XVI be announced and greet the faithful from the balcony.

This time, I don't have a "favorite" cardinal and haven't read much of anything by any of them. I find myself excited but open minded on what will happen. I signed up on in hopes that if the white smoke goes up while I'm at work, I can rush back to my desk and watch live video. And now we wait and pray and wonder.

Monday, March 11, 2013

History in Color

I've been reading several books on World War One of late, and one night found myself hunting around YouTube trying to discover whether anyone had put out a video showing WW1 era artilary pieces and what they actually looked like when firing. What I stumbled across in the process was a documentary series narrated by Kenneth Branaugh, entitled "World War One in Color". (Full series available on YouTube here, links to further episodes in the expanded video description.) Made in cooperation with the Imperial War Museum, the makers of the documentary colorized some 8 hours of vintage World War I footage, and this colorized footage is used throughout the documentary. (I've watched the first two episodes and want to get to more. Thus far I'd say it's a good but unexceptional discussion of the war. The main interest to me is the large amount of footage presented.) I'm not normally a fan of colorized movies, but the concept in this case struck me as interesting.

World War One, which began 99 years ago this summer, lives in a sort of twilight of historical memory. Taking place in the early 20th century, it lurks in the background of WW2 (which has attained its own mythic status as "the good war" against ultimate evil.) It is usually presented as a futile, unnecessary war in which the generals didn't yet understand how to deal with the implciations of modern technology and whose conclusion simply set the stage for World War II.

The war also has a distinctive visual look in our historical consciousness, characterized by the stark and grainy black and white photographs of trenches and blasted landscapes.

This gives the war a certain visual sense of distance and unreality. In this regard, colorizing footage of the war can give a certain sense of immediacy. The dirt is brown, the flames orange and red, the uniforms shades of blue, khaki, green and grey.

As I sought to read up a bit on the documentary, I discovered that getting a color view of the Great War does not rely solely upon modern colorization techniques. There were, in fact, color photos being taken, although the process was slow and thus the photos are all portrait and landscape images not "action" shots.

Der Speigal ran an article several years ago about one of the German photographers who documented the war in color.

There were also several French photographers taking color pictures during the war. Two fairly extensive websites are here and here.

These are utterly fascinating to me, and have in some ways contradictory effects on historical perception. Seeing the actual colors gives a certain sense of immediacy, yet it also serves to underscore some of the differences from what we would think of as "modern". The "horizon blue" of the French uniforms in particular seems as much 19th century as 20th, though of course, not nearly as much as so as the red trousers and red slouch hats (still similar to those worn in the Franco-Prussian war 40 years earlier) in which French soldiers started out the war.

The Monk, now with popcorn

In the department of Things That Messed With Me Today, literary edition: The Monk, Matthew Lewis's 1796 gothicky-gothic novel, is coming to a theater near you:

This one has it all: hubris, elopements, lust, intrigue, murder, starvation, virtuous women defiled, gruesome punishments, demonic pacts, hauntings, the Wandering Jew -- if it's sordid, then by gum, it's in The Monk.

On watching this trailer, my first thought was: Oh my stars and garters, someone actually made Satan's Alley.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Count of Monte Cristo, Reader's Fantasy

My latest audiobook has been The Count of Monte Cristo, which thus far I am enjoying quite a bit. Of course, this is perhaps not surprising as it occured to me the other day that in addition to being a rolicking adventure, the book is something of a wish fulfillment story for avid readers. I was particularly struck by this exchange between Edmond and his mentor in prison, the Abbe Faria:

"I had nearly five thousand volumes in my library at Rome; but after reading them over many times, I found out that with one hundred and fifty well-chosen books a man possesses, if not a complete summary of all human knowledge, at least all that a man need really know. I devoted three years of my life to reading and studying these one hundred and fifty volumes, till I knew them nearly by heart; so that since I have been in prison, a very slight effort of memory has enabled me to recall their contents as readily as though the pages were open before me. I could recite you the whole of Thucydides, Xenophon, Plutarch, Titus Livius, Tacitus, Strada, Jornandes, Dante, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Spinoza, Machiavelli, and Bossuet. I name only the most important."

"You are, doubtless, acquainted with a variety of languages, so as to have been able to read all these?"

"Yes, I speak five of the modern tongues—that is to say, German, French, Italian, English, and Spanish; by the aid of ancient Greek I learned modern Greek—I don't speak it so well as I could wish, but I am still trying to improve myself."
from Chapter 16

Is there any more tantalizing idea than to have figure out what the 150 most essential books are and to have studied them all in depth? The Abbe, however unrealistically, seems a sort of dream come true for the autodidact.

When The Man Comes Around

Alrighty. I'm committing to getting a Stillwater installment up by tomorrow... or else the man is going to have something to say about it.

So You're Writing a Resume

I'm hiring two positions at work at the moment: a summer internship for a college student and a permanent position for someone with roughly 2-5 years of relevant experience (analytics, finance, marketing, etc.) The result is that I've been spending a lot of time reading resumes. I think I've gone through about 100 in the last couple weeks.

I don't pretend to be any great expert, but allow me to offer my basic advice on how to write the kind of resume that is one of the 20% that I ask HR to follow up with and do a quick pre-screen.

The big challenge in reading resumes for the internship is that I don't really expect the applicants to have any relevant job experience. I've got people majoring in Business, Finance, Economics and Mathematics in my stack, and any one of these would be a perfectly decent background for the summer internship. (I'd be fine with other fields as well, but only students from those fields have applied.) Job experience tends to be inapplicable: food service, cleaning, yard and painting work, etc.

Given that, the keys to getting contacted are:

- Be clean and organized: With so little experience a sprawling and messy resume looks like a bad sign.

- Write a good cover letter: For more experienced candidates I don't find the cover letter all that interesting, but here it's a good way to show that you can write clear and forceful prose. 2-3 short paragraphs explaining why you'd be great for the job. Go for genuine over trying to fake business-ese. I read real business-ese all the time.

- Have a hook: This is the trickiest one, since doing it will be pretty individual, but either in the resume or in the cover letter convey something that's interesting and individual. It doesn't actually have to be relevant to the job, because with an internship in which the candidates don't have much of any relevant except their class work, there's not much you can do to stand out there. The key is just to sound like someone it would be interesting to talk to.

Analyst: 2-5 Years Experience
Here, the keys seem more obvious, so I'm a bit surprised that they aren't more consistently followed:

- Keep your cover letter (if any) to 2-3 short paragraphs which make it clear that you've read the job description and explain in not-overly-grandiose terms why you think you'd be a good fit for it. This is your chance to relate experience that may be a little different from the job you're applying to the job description. (Otherwise I'm left to figure out why someone whose experience is in retail fashion merchandizing is applying for a finance job at a lawn and garden company.)

- Proofread. Lots. If you can't write a coherent cover letter and resume, I'm unlikely to interview you.

- Keep your resume short. Try to describe each of your jobs in three bullet points and never more than five. Your full resume should never be more than two single sided pages. I kid you not, I got a six page resume.

- Formatting matters. When I'm reading through a stack of resumes and get to one that's hard to read, I won't want to read it. This also tells me about your ability to put together an attractive presentation. If you can't bother to do it on your resume, why would I expect you to do it after your have the job and you're putting together a PowerPoint deck for me on a deadline? I'm not wedded to any one format. But some key things are:

-- Make it easy to distinguish your name and the sections (different jobs you've had, education from jobs, etc.) Use dividing lines and whitespace as necessary to achieve this.
-- Provide some kind of a description right near the top. I'm not personally crazy about having this as a "goal" because these often sound silly or forced, but a tagline is good. Mine, for instance, says rather generically "An experienced marketing professional with a track record of analytical problem solving."
-- Include a "Key Strengths" section which summarizes the skills that you want the hiring manager to know you have. This is your chance to draw out the elements from your job descriptions which you think are most relevant and state them in a way that sounds like the job description of the position you're applying for.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Temperamental Git

A quasi-local community theater is holding auditions for a summer production of The Wizard of Oz, and I'm suddenly seized by the desire to go down and try out. This is ridiculous all the way around -- I haven't auditioned for a show or acted in one since my senior year of college, and I've never prepared a song for audition, not to mention we have two weddings and a baptism in the key months. And Darwin says, "You don't really want to be a flying monkey all summer, do you?" Well, no, not exactly, but...

I think this is probably my version of the mid-life crisis. Several months ago, after we'd seen The Avengers, I realized: I will never be Scarlett Johansson. I will never play the girl next door, or an ingenue, or a superhero in a fitted suit. I'll never be America's Sweetheart. I don't look 18, or even 29. I have too much gray hair (far more than most 34-year-olds, even if everyone else didn't already dye their hair) to pass for Juliet or Desdemona.

And of course, I'm happy. I don't have a hard life, as I remind myself with clenched teeth while I'm bathing fighting children or washing out some boy's poopy underwear. I do have a real life, but it's easy to forget that when I'm off in fantasies about what could happen, dreams of achievements or honors without the hard work, diligence, and trials that necessarily attend those things. My head is full of half-written novels or glorious martyrdoms, none of which seem to correspond with my actual half-written novel and actual mundane opportunities to die to self every day. An overactive imagination doesn't turn out to be a substitute for just doing the grunt work.

Of course, it's a lot easier to keep chanting, "There's no place like home," when you've already got your ruby slippers.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Three Axes of Gun Control

Arnold Kling's three axis model of political ideology is one of those things I keep meaning to write about -- I don't fully agree with it, but it's useful enough as to sometime lead to certain insights. The model, in his own words, is as follows:
My hypothesis is that progressives, conservatives, and libertarians view politics along three different axes. For progressives, the main axis has oppressors at one end and the oppressed at the other. For conservatives, the main axis has civilization at one end and barbarism at the other. For libertarians, the main axis has coercion at one end and free choice at the other.
One of his latest in this mode made me chuckle:
A reader familiar with the three-axes model asks,
The oppressed would seem to be victims of violence, but wouldn’t that make criminals the oppressors? How do hunters, recreational shooters, and the NRA end up being the bad guys?
1. The progressive model requires a villain who belongs to some sort of privileged class. Criminals do not fit the bill.

2. Hunting and recreational shooting are not approved activities for city-dwellers. Rural folks need to start acting like normal people and taking Zumba classes, going to restaurants run by celebrity chefs, and spending more time on smart phones.

Financially Planning Downton

We're still a couple episodes from the end of Season 3 of Downton Abbey, being in that limbo state of generally wanting to finish seeing it but never feeling like devoting the hour on any given night. However, I much enjoyed this slightly tongue-in-cheek analysis of the series from a financial planner point of view. [Some spoilers in full article.]

"It's like a law-school exam in what not to do," says Jonathan Forster, national wealth-management chairman at law firm Greenberg Traurig in McLean, Va.

The show has become something of a sensation among financial planners and lawyers, who see parallels in their clients' lives. "We're always very interested in wealthy people and how they handle and manage their problems," says Carol Harrington, head of the private-client group at law firm McDermott Will & Emery in Chicago. Ms Harrington even got tickets to tour England's Highclere Castle, the real-life setting for the show, in July as a birthday present from her husband.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Parables and Economic Statistics Make An Odd Mix

There's a strain of theology writing which seeks to be prophetic in drawing analogies between the economic situation and the gospels. I don't think that's a bad idea in principle, the economy is a part of the human experience and the gospels tell us, among other things, about how to treat our fellow humans. However, it seems like this approach can lead to some odd over-dramatizations. Take for example:

The recent reports on the economy seem hauntingly similar [to the parable of the rich man and Lazarus]. The rich man dresses in fine stock prices—“The Dow past 14,000 to within 75 points of a record high last week”—and dines sumptuously on profits—“Corporate earnings have risen at an annualized rate of 20.1 percent since the end of 2008”. Meanwhile, on the door step, sits poor Lazarus who would have eaten of the scraps of the rich man’s table but instead has had his “disposable income inched ahead by 1.4 percent annually” since 2008. Lazarus’ only companions are the dogs of sequestration that come and lick his sores: The economy is estimated to loose about 700,000 jobs without substantially affecting profits or stock prices.

Somehow, having one's disposable income increase by 1.4% each year just doesn't have the feeling of lying starving and covered with sores on a rich man's doorstep and wishing to eat the scraps he serves to his dogs, and that's not just because mixing wonkish numbers with biblical imagery seem odd.