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

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.