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

Monday, June 24, 2019

The Real Problem With Christianity

According to a certain line of thinking, there is not greater threat to the Christian message in our current day than to tie Christianity to a political movement which half the country considers obviously villainous.

It is quite possible that this is true. It is also possible that the greatest current threat to the Christian message is the idea that one's creed hardly matters beyond personal taste since anyone can be "a good person".

If we look to the previous century as an example (in which many Christians endorsed nationalism in the first world war and fascism in the second, all the while thinking that they were fighting the good fight against godless socialism, while those who successfully rejected nationalism and fascism all too often endorsed indifferentism and held that Christianity was only good, if it was good at all, when it served as a force to unite the poor against the powerful in a stricture secular struggle) it's pretty clear that both of these contentions are true in what they critique but blind in what they endorse.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Money Pit, part 23423

A week or two ago, I signed a contract to have our eroding sandstone porch (ca. 1929) hammered down and poured as cast concrete in August. It broke my heart to do away with the masonry, but having the stone replaced was prohibitively expensive, and the concrete will be molded and antiqued and sealed so that it looks like stone. More to the point, no one will be likely to injure themselves on ancient stones that have rotted away. Anyway, we had the money in savings.

Last night the Jack and Jill bathroom ceiling fell.

In the fresh morning light.
That particular bathroom, set in a corner and accessed through two kid bedrooms, has been in a bad way since we bought the house (and before, obviously). That window is set in the chimney -- in the chimney, I say, not beside it -- and somewhere up there is a leak we've been trying to fix for nine years. We've capped the chimney, we've tasked the roofers with examining the flashing where the roof meets the chimney, we've had the window worked on. And we thought that perhaps we had dealt with it, except that the past two weeks of non-stop rain have wreaked havoc on the ceiling. It started to crack, then to bulge, and then it collapsed.

A shot from a year or two ago, showing the wall damage.
We knew that one day we'd have to strip this bathroom down to the studs, but we always hoped that day could be pushed out and pushed out. The bathroom has been functional, and has the one really useful shower in the house. (There are four showers in the house. One has never been used due to a leak, one is in the attic in the cat bathroom and subprime, and the third is always draining slowly and has no water pressure and takes forever to get hot.) 

I guess we're all traipsing down the hall to the low-pressure, low-heat shower for a while.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Chanson d'automne

In June 1944, Radio London broadcast the first stanza of Paul Verlaine's Chanson d'Automne, to let the French Resistance know that D-Day was coming. The first three lines, sent on June 1, indicated that the invasion was to start within two weeks; the second three lines, sent June 5, gave 48 hours' notice. D-Day, of course, was June 6, 1944.

Here is Verlaine's poem, and my translation.

Chanson d’automne
Paul Verlaine (1844-1896)

Les sanglots longs
Des violons
De l’automne
Blessent mon coeur
D’une langueur

Tout suffocant
Et blême, quand
Sonne l’heure,
Je me souviens
Des jours anciens
Et je pleure;

Et je m’en vais
Au vent mauvais
Qui m’emporte
Deçà, delà,
Pareil à la
Feuille morte.


Autumn Song

The autumn song
of violins' long
dry drone
Wounds my heart
with langour's smart,

Breathless, wan,
all choking on
the hour's call,
Olden days
in memory's haze,
as tears fall.

Born aloft by,
carried off by
gusts of grief,
To and fro
as winds blow
a dead leaf.

(I find, doing further research, that my last lines are almost exactly the same as Arthur Symons's translation, but I came up with it myself, so I'm letting it stand.)

Tuesday, June 18, 2019


Our community theater just performed Working, the musical based on Studs Terkel's interviews with Chicago laborers. (Hence the radio silence here on the blog during production week.) My two oldest girls and I were in the show, playing a variety of working-class joes. Wish you all could have seen it, but here are our selections.

I was an aging teacher, bitter about the changes that the years had wrought in my classroom. The lady who sings it here belts it out and is working hard on her American accent (this being from the London cast recording), but I played it lighter and a bit more dotty, based in part on the five-foot chemistry professor who trotted into Chem 101 at 9:00 on Tuesdays and Thursdays and chirped, "Who's excited about science?" to a bunch of sleepy freshmen.

Also, I wish you all could have seen my coke-bottle glasses, in which I was nearly blind, but which magnified my eyes to crazy-scientist levels.

This song was composed by Mary Rodgers, daughter of Richard Rodgers (of Rodgers and Hammerstein). Listen for the Sound of Music nod in the very last line.

My oldest daughter, 17, was a delivery girl dreaming of a better life. The character is named Freddy Rodriguez in the script, but she used the name Delores Ramirez as a tribute to her great-grandmother. This song was added for the 2012 revival and was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

My second daughter, 15, played an immigrant nanny. "Minamahal kita" means "I love you" in Tagalog -- when she sang that, she signed "I love you". She was so pleased to have this song because it is reportedly Lin-Manuel Miranda's favorite song.

We'll miss the thrill of performing, but it is a relief to have our evenings back.

Monday, June 10, 2019

The Return of Dr. Boli!

The world is a vale of tears, but sometimes a glimmer of light breaks through. Here's your glimmer for today: the estimable Dr. Boli is publishing again. This is the quality content which the internet was created to showcase. Here, a challenging word scramble:


UNSCRAMBLE THE LETTERS to find the secret word, and of course if you want to cheat you may use the clues provided.
1. Health resorts for the well-to-do.
SSAP = _ _ _ _
2. Hapless fools; usually preceded by “poor.”
SSAP = _ _ _ _
3. A gap between peaks, affording travelers a route through the mountains.
SSAP = _ _ _ _
4. Venomous snakes, of which Cleopatra was rather too fond.
SSAP = _ _ _ _

Friday, June 07, 2019

A Lived Model, not an Academic Model

Last week, when the Spirit was pouring words through me, I wrote to all our parish catechists asking for their support as I went to the parish offices to propose different model of religious education. PSR means "Parish School of Religion", the regional term for religious education classes.

Every one of us knows, and many of us have talked about it together, that no matter what we do in PSR, what is most important to children in learning to live the Catholic faith is their parents' example. We know that parents are the primary educators of their children. I would like to suggest a once-a-month family catechesis model for next year, a strong support system for helping parents live their faith and model it for their children so that children are actually immersed in Catholic life, instead of just hearing about it in a classroom once week. For our children, for our families, for our parish, this is crucial!

Our children will be better prepared for First Communion if they are living every day in a family that is making efforts to pray together, to attend mass every Sunday, and to take advantage of the sacrament of Confession. Our teens will be better prepared to receive the Spirit at Confirmation if they see their parents actively trying to use the gifts that they received at their own Confirmations.

I want a family catechesis program to be open to every single family in the parish, not just to "PSR families". We have a line of demarcation between school families and non-school families that is divisive, and I would like to heal that division and help our parish to be a true family. I'm sure that there are school parents who would love support in living their faith more deeply so that their children won't just shrug the Church off after graduating.

This is why I'm proposing a lived model, not an academic model. I believe deeply in knowing the history of the church and in understanding the doctrines and tenets of the faith, but all the Diocesan graded courses of study in the world cannot replace a family going to mass together each Sunday, or reading one bible verse together before supper. Children can tell what their parents really prioritize.

The kind of model I'm thinking of is a program like this: This is NOT in addition to our weekly classroom hours, making more work for catechists and putting our already strained resources to the task. This is INSTEAD of our current classroom model. The classroom model is failing our children -- not because our teachers aren't dedicated, because I've seen you all at work, week in and week out, pouring your hearts into your classes. But if parents are not living out the faith, not going to mass, then PSR is just a band-aid, a cosmetic check-the-box fix for a deep and festering wound in our parish life.

What I hope for with family catechesis, and what some parishes around the country do, is to work with parents to help them live the faith for their children. Instead of weekly classroom time where parents drop off children, family catechesis would involve once-a-month meetings with families to help support parents in becoming living examples of the Catholic faith for their children. Our classroom model simply isn't working as a means of passing on faith -- it just lumps religion in with other school subjects for kids. I'm suggesting transitioning away from the classroom almost entirely, even just as a one year experiment. I hope that a program like this would actually increase family participation, by cutting down on the "check the boxes" aspects of PSR which have little to do with the heart of Catholic life and practice.

This would reduce the time burden on families, and would put the emphasis not on the academic knowledge of Catholicism (which our students don't seem to be retaining anyway), but on putting the faith into practice. If we can increase family mass attendance, if we can bring families into going to confession more often, if we can support parents in modeling forgiveness, mercy, patience -- in making the real lifestyle changes that show their children that they believe that the faith is real and will make a difference in their lives -- we will have accomplished more for our parish than any classroom instruction we can give children.

Many parents want help and support. They're interested in having their children learn about Catholicism, but feel like it's something for experts or other people to teach. My point is that if we help families to realize that the main way to transmit the faith to their children is to live the basics -- to pick up a pin for the love of God, as St. Therese said -- we will have done more for our parish than years and years of PSR.

Thursday, June 06, 2019

Why To Leave A Job

Tomorrow is my last day at a company that I've worked at for seven years. Monday I start a new job at a new company.

I don't tend to do work blogging, but this struck me as a very perceptive post about why people leave jobs, in particular noting that the rational reasons we come up with for why we decide to move on are different for those triggering factors which cause one to first answer a recruiting call.

Resignations happen in a moment, and it’s not when you declare, “I’m resigning.” The moment happened a long time ago when you received a random email from a good friend who asked, “I know you’re really happy with your current gig because you’ve been raving about it for a year, but would you like to come visit Our Company? No commitment. Just coffee.”

Now, everyone involved in this conversation transaction is aware of what is going down. While there is certainly no commitment, there is a definitely an agenda. The reason they want you to visit The Company is because, of course, they want you there in the building because seeing a potential future is far more compelling than describing it.

Still, seeing it isn’t the moment of resignation. The moment happened the instant you decided, “What the hell? I haven’t seen Don in months and it’d be good to see him.”

Your shields are officially down.

Your shields drop the moment you let a glimpse of a potential different future into your mind. It seems like a unconsidered off-the-cuff thought sans consequence, but the thought opens you to possibilities that did not exist the moment before the thought existed.
As a leader of humans, I’ve watched sadly as valued co-workers have resigned. Each time I work to understand two things:

  • Why are they leaving?
  • When did their shields go down?

In most cases, the answers to Question #1 are rehearsed and clear. It’s the question they’ve been considering and asking themselves, so their answers are smooth.

  • I’m looking for a smaller company where I can have more impact.
  • I’ve been here for three years and I’m looking for a change of scenery. It happens.
  • I want to work somewhere more established where I can dig my teeth into one hard problem.

These answers are fine, but they aren’t the complete reason why they are leaving. It’s the politically correct answer that is designed to easily answer the most obvious question. The real question, the real insight, comes from the answer to Question #2: When did their shields go down?

Their shields drop when, in the moment they are presented with the offer of potential future opportunity, they quickly evaluate their rubric and make an instant call: Is this job meeting my bar?

To find and understand this shields-down moment, I ask, “When did you start looking?” Often the answers are a vague, “It kind’a just happened. I wasn’t really looking. I’m really happy here.”


If I’m sitting here talking with you it means two things: I don’t want you to leave and, to the best of my knowledge, you didn’t want to leave either but here you are leaving. It didn’t just happen. You chose. Maybe you weren’t looking, but once your shields dropped, you started looking. Happy people don’t leave jobs they love.

The reason this reads cranky is because I, the leader of the humans, screwed up. Something in the construction of the team or the company nudged you at a critical moment. When that mail arrived gently asking you about coffee, you didn’t answer the way you answered the prior five similar mails with a brief, “Really happy here. Let’s get a drink some time!” You think you thought Hmmm… what the hell. It can’t hurt. What you actually thought or realized was:

  • You know, I have no idea when I’m going to be a tech lead here.
  • Getting yelled at two days ago still stings.
  • I don’t believe a single thing senior leadership says.

Often you’ve forgotten this original thought in your subsequent intense job deliberations, but when I ask, when I dig, I usually find a basic values violation that dug in, stuck, and festered. Sometimes it’s a major values violation from months ago. Sometimes it’s a small violation that occurred at the worst possible time. In either case, your expectations of your company and your job were not met and when faced with opportunity elsewhere, you engaged.
Thinking back over the last few months during which I explored and decided to take another opportunity despite having a team I liked at a company I mostly enjoyed, I can definitely identify with the experience of having got a call at a time when I was frustrated by a particular set of factors. Those factors were temporary, but they caused me to pick up the phone. As the interview process at the new company continued, the interest of finding out more (and my own personal tendency to need to 'win' at anything I try) impelled me to push on with the process. And when it seemed like there was a break in the factors that had caused my frustration, and even a chance to move on to some new and interesting challenges internally, I'd already got so far down the interview process that it seemed like I would be giving up too much and had already committed to the new job.

To be clear, it's not that I don't, in the end, think the new job is a good move, that I was impelled to take it as a process started out of temporary frustration gained momentum and became unstoppable. But eventually things came along which would have mitigated my frustrations at my old job and given me reasons to keep going. The process was: temporary frustrations -> listening to new opportunities -> finding one that really appealed -> making a measured examination of old versus new and decided to move on. But I never would have got to those stages of looking at outside opportunities and sitting down to decide if it was really better to go or stay if I hadn't been driven to it by a fairly momentary urge, a frustration springing from comparatively insignificant conversations and disappointments. I might have put in more years here if I hadn't been riled up by those couple things, and if an opportunity hadn't happened to seek me out just as I was riled. And while I think I'm better off leaving, I would doubtless have been mostly happy during those additional years, just as I've been mostly happy during the years that I've spent here.

I think this tendency holds true in other areas of life as well. It is not always big events that cause us to make big decisions. Even if we, in the end, identify big reasons why we should make some change (in a job, a relationship, where we live, our religion, our philosophy, our political alignment) the reason why we first start looking into those big reasons may be small, even petty. And this in turn means that it's important to remember that the ways we treat people in small matters may have very big results, for us and for them. Small pebbles can start an avalanche, and it can be seemingly minor acts of ours that turn out to have very large consequences.

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Consuming Fire

All you who are thirsty,
come to the water!
You who have no money,
come, buy grain and eat;
Come, buy grain without money,
wine and milk without cost!
Why spend your money for what is not bread;
your wages for what does not satisfy?
Only listen to me, and you shall eat well,
you shall delight in rich fare.
Pay attention and come to me;
listen, that you may have life.
Isaiah 55:1-3
All throughout last week I was consumed by a task that the Spirit laid upon me, regarding a new vision of what religious education could be in our parish. I was charged to go speak to my pastor and tell him that our current classroom structure was a failing model, that we should drastically reduce the cost and pull back to a once-a-month model that focused on parental formation, and that if we tried this for a year we would see Mass attendance skyrocket, confession times expand, and our weekly collections increase.
Were not our hearts burning within us...?
Luke 24:32
I use the word "consumed" advisedly. This mission burned within me. Everything spiritual thing that was not this task was scoured away: old resentments, current vices, and even bad habits. (Except, alas, biting my nails.) Until I delivered my message, I could not sleep or eat. At night, I lay awake, this vision driving out every other thought or plan. During the day, I had no desire to eat anything before I fulfilled this task. I'd been trying for months to fast regularly, but this week, I didn't have to try. The fasting was ancillary to the mission.
Is this not, rather, the fast that I choose:
releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke:
Setting free the oppressed,
breaking off every yoke?
...Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed;
Your vindication shall go before you,
and the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Isaiah 58:6,8
There are many ways of discerning whether a message is from God, and I tried them. One compelling factor was that of my own accord, I didn't want to do it. The thought of laying a crazy prophetic message before the powers that be made me feel sick and terrified. Excited, but terrified. And I wished God had chosen someone else to make waves. I emailed all the catechists of the parish to ask for their prayers and support, and received both. And so, impelled I went first to the religious education office to lay out this vision.

I am generally a person with a highly developed political sensibility, skilled at communication and able to play both social 4-D chess and the long game, but in retrospect, perhaps I was naive to expect that the person whose full-time job it is to choose curriculum and administer classes would be instantly excited by a plan that called for less curriculum and less classes. The more I talked, the less I seemed to make myself understood. Each time I tried a new tack -- excessive fees, teacher exhaustion, scheduling difficulties -- I found myself at an impasse. Reasoning that had been compelling to all the parents and teachers I had spoken with seemed to make no impact on administration.

Friends, I have not cried publicly for perhaps twenty years, but I found myself sobbing in this meeting. In the moment, I tried to brush it off with a number of lame excuses -- I'm sorry, this isn't like me; I'm tired; I'm hormonal -- but none of these was the full truth. I had been carrying this burden for a week, this message from God burning from within, and I couldn't seem to communicate its urgency. I didn't feel like a failure, because I had done what I was charged to do. Indeed, as I bawled afterwards in church, all I could say was, "I did what you told me to!"
Then the LORD answered me and said:
Write down the vision;
Make it plain upon tablets,
so that the one who reads it may run.
For the vision is a witness for the appointed time,
a testimony to the end; it will not disappoint.
If it delays, wait for it,
it will surely come, it will not be late.
Habakkuk 2:2
The next day I met with our pastor. He was gracious and attentive. He asked questions to clarify what I was telling him. I believe we were on the same page as to the actual purpose of religious education, and how we were not meeting that right now. But as with the day before, I could not carry my point either on price or on structure. It didn't matter so much. I had done what I was told to do, and I remembered one of the key rules of negotiation: if you win major concessions right away, they will almost always be walked back. Never go for the instant win or the instant change, because people want to chew on ideas until they come around to them themselves.

In the very last moment, as I was saying goodbye, a chance remark opened the door to an entirely different conversation, in which, instead of me pushing for financial change from the catechist angle, Darwin joins finance council and works from that side. If that's the only thing that comes out of this whole ordeal, it's probably a pretty effective solution, at least to that side of the problem (although I did ask God why he couldn't have arranged this more directly and spared me the grief of the past week). I hope we will see great changes. I hope God chooses another messenger. I hope I don't gain back the weight I lost over the past few days.

But I did what God asked of me, and now it's out of my hands.
Yet just as from the heavens
the rain and snow come down
And do not return there
till they have watered the earth,
making it fertile and fruitful,
Giving seed to the one who sows
and bread to the one who eats,
So shall my word be
that goes forth from my mouth;
It shall not return to me empty,
but shall do what pleases me,
achieving the end for which I sent it.
Isaiah 55:10-11

Monday, June 03, 2019


Took the younger kids to see Aladdin today, and here's a capsule review: My five-year-old son was bored stiff.

"Beeee yourself!" Robin Williams buzzes memorably to Aladdin, in the original animated movie about the big blue motor mouth and the street kid who rubs his lamp. Will Smith echoes this advice, if less buzzingly, in Disney's newest animation-to-live-action attempt, but alas, the movie itself cannot follow the sage advice. Time after time it tries to step out toward something original, only to sink helplessly back into the oversized footsteps of the animated movie. It's all so blandly pretty to look at, so very colorful that the eye can focus on nothing and eventually stops trying.

Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott as Aladdin and Jasmine are likable enough as actors, but whenever a spark of chemistry appears, the script and pacing conspire to quench it before it can flame into anything original. If only they could be themselves, I thought. However, Marwan Kenzari is actually something different as a Jafar who also knows what it is to be a street rat. The one scene in the movie that made me sit up and pay attention is when Jafar entices Aladdin to enter the cave of wonders by using one of his streetwise tricks against him. Alas, this one moment of purely original, pitch perfect drama is all we see of the movie that could have been.

I am of the generation that might be called "Willenials", and remember the heady days of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Gettin' Jiggy With It, to say nothing of the back-to-back blockbuster summers of Independence Day and Men in Black. I watched Bright on Netflix last year because it featured Will Smith. Will Smith is Will Smith, and at his best, he's playing Will Smith, which is what we want to see because we all know and love Will Smith.

Which is pretty much what he's not allowed to do here. Oh, there's some silliness, and there are some flashes, but it's mostly Will Smith pulling his punches, trying not to make the role too much his own in deference to Robin Williams, without treading on Williams's late toes by imitating his most inimitable schtick. This is a tightrope act that will constrain any artist's performance, and it serves this movie ill. When I think of Will Smith as the genie, I want to see a 10,000-year-old Fresh Prince: relaxin', maxin', chillin', all cool. And we get that -- over the closing credits, as Smith cuts loose on a rapped-up version of Friend Like Me, the only moment in the theater when I saw people grooving in their seats. If the producers had had the cojones to put that into the movie proper, we might have had something that made us sit up and pay attention. Instead, we dutifully nodded to the homage to Robin Williams, whether by commission or omission. This is not how great movies are made.

In the tradition of padding live-action remakes with new songs in an attempt to freshen them up, Jasmine is given a ballad titled "Speechless", which is what she intends not to be. Unfortunately for us, the Broadway talent penning this new song is not Lin-Manuel Miranda, who proved his chops most lucratively for Disney with the compulsively singable "How Far I'll Go" in Moana, but Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the duo behind The Greatest Showman, a rather less musically distinguished outing. And unfortunately for Jasmine, this ditty is wedged into the worst possible moment of the movie, breaking up the dramatic tension and so irritatingly filmed as to lose all visual interest. When is that movie makers will remember that theater is not an art of close-ups, but of large-scale pictures?

This movie is a nostalgia-grab for Disney, and it will of course make a stack of dollars that will reach to the moon and back. Knowing this, perhaps Disney felt no need to bother with the minor issues of pacing, structure, or character development over which a studio less assured of success might labor. Myself, I might go back and watch the animated movie and marvel over how a few hand-drawn lines can convey so much genuine emotion and dramatic impact. And the original has never once bored a five-year-old stiff.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

The Kids Are Alright

We're nearing the end of the homeschooling trail with our eldest child. She's heading into her senior year of high school, and will be taking the SAT in a week. Like a lot of things going on in life lately (turning forty, deciding after seven years it's time to move on to a new job, etc.) this lends itself to looking back and assessing how things have gone.

How have they gone?

We went into homeschooling thinking that we were pretty well prepared for it. MrsDarwin and I were both homeschooled through middle school and high school. We both did very well on the ACT and SAT respectively. We both did well in college. So when it came to homeschooling our own children we were very confident. We were going to be organized. We were going to build our own curriculum. We were going to start the kids reading early. They were all going to be brilliant.

The realities have been a lot more modest. This has been something we've adjusted to over the years -- indeed, adjusted to the point that hearing young parents talking about "I'm trying to decide what kind of curriculum to use for my child who is currently two" is rather painful. But I've had to firmly adjust my feelings again as we've entered into College/SAT prep season.

As a teen, I was very eager to go away to college. I loved my family and our family culture, but I was very independent minded and being at college was something which loomed large in my mind. I'd had good friends who got near perfect scores on the SAT and went on to go to top ten colleges. I got a score of 1510, which though not quite as high was still in the 99th percentile. And then... Well, although I was quite capable of getting high scores on tests, I wasn't always very diligent. I did a pretty lackluster job of filling out and following up on the application process for the one top tier college I applied to (not bothering to schedule an alumni interview, because I was embarrassed to call up a stranger and arrange an appointment) and thus landed on a wait list rather than being accepted. Then got scared off by the sex and drugs culture of the one secular college I went to visit. I ended up going to Franciscan University of Steubenville, where I'd had a marvelous time visiting, met the wonderful MrsDarwin, got married right out of college, and lived happily ever after.

Except, despite what should have been the clear lessons that high test scores and elite colleges aren't everything, I still had lurking at the back of my mind that sense that getting high test scores was some sort of seal of approval. We were both pretty studious kids who did well on tests. Surely we deserved to have our kids do the same.

So when our eldest got PSAT scores that suggested she'd score around 1100 on the SAT (basically average), my ego took something of a bruising, while she seemed pretty unphased by the experience.

The first thing I did is remind myself that her scores are just that: her scores. They're not a judgement on her as a person, on the education we gave her, or on us as parents. They're the result of how she did on this particular sort of test based on the experiences she's had to date and some choices that she's made, such as not always applying herself all that strong to subjects she finds tedious (such as math.)

Having determined to be calm about the whole thing, I sat down with her and said that I thought with some practice she could do better. We got on the Kahn Academy SAT Prep site and had her take a practice test. Another score in the 1100s. We went over the types of questions she'd got wrong and why. I made sure she was using basic good technique (write down the problem and manipulate the equations on paper -- don't just assume it's faster to do in your head because you'll make slips and fall for decoy answers.) We also talked about how taking the test strategically (do all the ones you know for sure first, then go back to harder ones) isn't cheating, it's just good tactics.

We've done a fair amount of work on SAT prep over the last two months. Indeed, I let her out of the last few sections of Algebra 2 in order to focus on the the math sections of the SAT prep. Given that she currently doesn't want to study anything math intensive in college, and may not be taking calculus next year, it seemed like the right choice to focus on what gets her into college rather than checking the box on the last few chapters.

So far her scores one practice tests are up about a hundred points, to the mid 1200s. That would get her to the 80th percentile. Not the sort of score that would get you into an elite college, but then she has no desire at all to go to an elite college. It would easily get her into the local college in our town, or into our alma mater a couple hours away, and those are probably about the speed we're looking at.

What I've focused on reminding myself throughout this process is that while getting decent scores is important in having a choice of colleges (and getting financial aid) they are not a measure of personal value, and that her scores and her college choice need to reflect her interests and priorities, not combating my old insecurities about scores and colleges.

Could we have turned out kids with top scores and stronger interests in tough academic subjects if we'd pushed harder all these years? Probably. I have little doubt that giving kids the motivation to excel in certain activities is well within the powers of parents. After all, our kids naturally want our approval pretty badly. But I haven't been willing to make family approval and happiness dependent on hitting a certain level of academic excellence. Right now our eldest spends her spare time (and a bit that maybe shouldn't be spare) reading genre fiction, filling notebooks with drawings of fantastic creatures while listening to epic-sounding music on hear headphones, and playing Pokemon games. This is not a set of activities off of which one can make a living, and we've talked about that.

But through all this the purpose of parenting (and of guiding the education of one's children) is to help them become virtuous and happy people, not to attain specific achievements, academic or otherwise. On that front, I think we've done a pretty good job. I'm sure we could have done better. (On any given thing, one could usually have done better.) But the kids are alright. We love them. They talk to us. And they seem pretty happy. That's not too bad.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Economy of Salvation

Our Religious Ed program has been undergoing some chaotic change in the past weeks, of a piece with some change in the parish. We are in the strange position of not planning to have a DRE next year due to financial constraints, and it seems that the same people who made that decision have also set the pricing for Religious Ed classes next year.

$200/child, with a $500 family cap.

A $500 family cap.

Perhaps there is some way that this made sense in committee, as people reviewed our dropping contributions and made desperate suggestions to bring the budget back into line. We need to bring in money somehow -- how 'bout making those Religious Ed families contribute their fair share? And surely people ought to be willing to pay for their child to have a religious education, because religious education is important, important enough to be worth paying for.*

In a purely human economics, raising prices does several things: reflect a more accurate cost structure; create scarcity, indicate desirability. I'm not sure how this price increase works on any of these levels. Since the full-time staffer was laid off due to financial constraints, surely these constraints have now been somewhat eased. Since most of the volunteers who actually teach the classes are parents, creating scarcity will drive families away to other parishes with less expensive religious ed programs, depleting our source of teachers. And instead of indicating that our Religious Ed program is so essential and high-quality that we can afford to charge top dollar, an extremely high price says that classes aren't really for everyone, but only for the rich people who can afford to fork out this much for a once-a-week class run by volunteers. The high cost, in fact, has the effect of making Religious Ed look optional, and making our parish look far wealthier than the weekly collection would seem to indicate.

The economy of salvation runs on a different price structure. "You who have no money, come, buy grain and eat," says the prophet (Is. 55:1). The grain is not worthless; indeed, it has a price and must be bought. But that price is paid not by the recipient, but by the seller, the only one who truly understands the work it took to bring forth the grain. The more valuable and essential something is in the economy of salvation, the less it costs. God's grace is freely bestowed for the asking. Not only is the message of salvation free, we who are Christians are tasked with evangelizing.

"If I preach the gospel, this is no reason for me to boast, for an obligation has been imposed on me, and woe to me if I do not preach it! If I do so willingly, I have a recompense, but if unwillingly, then I have been entrusted with a stewardship. What then is my recompense? That, when I preach, I offer the gospel free of charge so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel." (1 Cor. 9:16-18)

Our Religious Ed programs must not be tasked with breaking even, or paying for themselves. They are designed to deliver the gospel.

It is one of the precepts of the Church that Catholics are obliged to provide for the material needs of the Church, according to their means. Parishes have a reasonable expectation that parishioners and those who receive the benefit of parish life will contribute to the support of the parish, out of gratitude for the free gift of God. "How can I make a return to the Lord for all the good he has done for me?" (Ps. 116:12, my translation). But we don't charge admission to mass, despite the many expenses of keeping the building in good order, maintaining the vessels and books, repairing the organ, and compensating the priest for his essential work.

It's not unreasonable for a Religious Ed program to have a fee to cover the costs of materials, books,  and some operating costs (always assuming, of course, that a parish hasn't chosen an outrageously expensive curriculum). When a program is completely free, showing up can seem optional, since families don't have any skin in the game. But when a parish is trying to balance its budget on the back of the Religious Ed department, while requiring participation in Religious Ed classes in order to have access to sacramental prep, it is binding up heavy burdens on parents' shoulders without lifting a finger to lift them.

*These rationales are sheer conjecture, and I have no idea if they accurately reflect my parish's financial discernment process.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

What Are Our Artistic Geniuses Doing Today?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Repost: Pride and Prejudice, at 200 and at 17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

How Writers Live, Tolkien Edition

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 20, 2019

Ben-Hur (2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Predictive Text Fiction

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

And once you've read it, watch it:

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

Monday, May 13, 2019


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

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

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

Friday, May 10, 2019

Doctrinal Fidelity Buffet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 06, 2019

In Defense of Good Characters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 29, 2019

One Death is a Story; Three Billion is a Statistic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 22, 2019

Rhapsody in Blog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 19, 2019

By His Stripes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

A Symbol Between Heaven and Earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Till Age Snow White Haires On Thee

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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