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

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Cincinnati and the Demographic Transition of Catholicism

 I'm working on an in-depth series for The Pillar on the shifting demographics and geography of American Catholicism, but with the Archdiocese of Cincinnati making news last week with the announcement of its "parish family" plan, which will consolidate the 211 parishes in the archdiocese into 60 parish families which will share priests and other resources, it seemed like a good idea to do an immediate piece on what led Cincinnati to this point. 

It turns out that Cincinnati provides a good microcosm of the demographic changes going on in the American church, and hopefully it sharpens appetites for what it some come.

In 2019, Cincinnati had 211 parishes but only 143 diocesan priests in active ministry, according to data collected by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). That situation, the archdiocese has said, is not sustainable. Its plan is to group parishes together, assign priests to share pastoral duties, and gradually see parishes formally merged.

As the archdiocese begins its project, we at The Pillar found ourselves wondering: Is Cincinnati's dramatic plan for parish closures a sign of what’s to come across the country, or is it responding to a problem unique to the Cincinnati archdiocese?  

We looked at some numbers to find out.

Given its size, the archdiocese has an unusually high number of parishes.

The Cincinnati archdiocese has the eighth-most parishes of any diocese in the U.S. Its 211 parishes follow closely behind Newark (212 parishes), Philadelphia (212), and Detroit (218). 

But while Newark, Philadelphia, and Detroit each have more than one million Catholics, the Cincinnati archdiocese has only 442,000 Catholics.

The disparity between the number of parishes and the number of Catholics is due, in part, to the changing demographics of the region. While the total population of the region has grown over the last 60 years, it is becoming less Catholic. The Catholic population of the archdiocese peaked in 1996 and has been dropping for the last 25 years.  

At its peak, 19% of the region’s population was Catholic. At latest count that number has declined to 14.5%.

You can read the whole thing at The Pillar, and if you're not already a subscribe, if this is the kind of Catholic journalism of which you'd like to see more, I'd encourage you to subscribe.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Conquest and Words: Who is Indigenous?

In a sense "indigenous people" is a weird phrase. Lots of areas have seen multiple waves of migration, conquest, settlement, foreign ruler elites which eventually become just the elites, etc.  Indeed, intriguing genetic and archeological evidence suggests that the "indigenous peoples" of the Americas (who moved into the continents from Beringia around 15,000 years ago) may themselves have displaced a sparser population which had already been in the Americas for 5,000 years or more before that.

I think to a great extent the colonizer vs indigenous concept as opposed to what we more generally see as conquest and migration is based on the "great divergence", the idea that from 1500 to 1900 Europe surge forward and technological, economic, and cultural development such that when Europeans showed up and set up settlements in other parts of the world, they were able to do so in a deeply unequal way.

Thus, the Turks are not seen as having "colonized" Asia Minor and Eastern Europe, even though they did conquer it and install themselves as the ruling elites within clear historical memory. This is seen as a conquest, but not colonization, because the Turks are at some level seen as having been at the same level as the Byzantines, Persians, Slavs, Greeks, etc. that they fought and ruled. 

Nor are the Arabs seen as having "colonized" Palestine, although the Israelis are often accused of having "colonized" the same area when they established political control over the area which their religious forebears had inhabited prior to its conquest by Arabs (and various other intervening conquests and migrations.)


Poland is not usually described as being "colonized" by the Germans, Austrians, and Russians, although Poland was carved up and ruled over by those three empires during the 1700s. And the Poles are not describes as the "indigenous people" of the region, even as they struggled to maintain their language and culture under the rule of other peoples until regaining their own national government after World War One.

And we talk about the "Norman conquest" of Britain (a conquest which resulted in the imposition of a foreign elite which spoke a different language and ran the government for their own ends for hundreds of years until the country gradually blended into one culture) and the Indo European migrations (which in Europe mostly wiped out and replaced the Neolithic farmer populations in the 2nds and 3rd millenniums BC) but not about "Norman colonization" or "Indo European colonization".

The reason that we see these conquests and migrations throughout history is that peoples move, whether seeking new resources or escape from threats. Often they are moving into areas in which some people already exist, and often when that happens they do not treat those others well.

The division between talking about "conquest" versus talking about "colonization" is also not based on the era.  The Ottomans were establishing rule over the Balkans after the European colonies in the Americas had already been been established, and the Great Powers were dividing up Poland after most of the European colonial empires in Africa, the Pacific and Asia were already extant.  

Some have suggested that the "colonialism" versus "indigenous" terminology is simply anti-European bias.  There's perhaps some element of this, but it's worth noting that "indigenous" is sometimes used to distinguish between different non-European populations.  For instance, people talk about the indigenous Malay population in Singapore as opposed to other Asian ethnicities who moved in during the last few hundred years.  There are also European groups which are referred to as indigenous, primarily nomadic groups living in the far north of Europe and in Siberia.  

This, I think, points to what people end up meaning when they contrast indigenous people versus colonizers, which is some sort of distinction of technology which is seen as giving the outsiders and "unfair" edge over the natives. Thus, because the Ottomans are not seen as having a massive technological edge over the Europeans living in the Balkans, we talk about the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans, but not the Ottoman colonization, while during the same period we talk about the Spanish and Portuguese conquest of the Americas as colonization.  And although no one talks about the Russians "colonizing" Siberia, the UN does describe the semi-nomadic peoples that were in Siberia prior to Russia establishing control over it as "indigenous peoples".  The Russians had a large, complex state architecture and various technical advantages, so they were seen as the outsiders crowding out the "indigenous" natives. 

Characterizing things this way might be seen as unfair, as people have become less comfortable with talking about one culture as being more "sophisticated" or "advanced" than another, even when one has stone tools and the other has firearms.  And yet, I think this hierarchy is clearly implicit in the way that we talk about different historical groups and events.

Of course, another element is that we assign a moral weight to recent historical events (or historical events which are seen as connecting to still-current inequalities) that we don't to others.  Thus, one sometimes hears people claim that the creation of the modern state of Israel was "colonization" and subjugated the "indigenous" Palestinians, but one seldom hears the conquest of Palestine by Arabs in the 600s or by Seljuq Turks in the 1000s referred to in the same moral terms.  Those conquests and displacements are seen as being beyond a sort of moral event horizon, while the actions of the Spanish in the 1400s and 1500s are not.

Seventh Grade Bible Study: Matthew, Chapters 5-6

 More Matthew for 7th Graders: notes on chapters 5 and 6, from the Sermon on the Mount. 


Matthew Chapter 5

We keep hearing how great crowds flocked to Jesus to hear him, how he taught and proclaimed the gospel of the Kingdom. What was it those crowds were hearing that drew them so much to Jesus? Matthew gives us an example of Jesus’s preaching here in the Sermon on the Mount, three chapters of parables and instructions and prayers and teaching. At the end, Matthew says, “the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.”

Imagine living in a world where no religion embraced the concept of mercy, and where breaking the religious law could mean death or social disgrace, with no way for you to make things right unless you could afford to make offerings to the temple for sacrifices. Imagine living in a culture where wealth meant that God had blessed you, and poverty was seen as a punishment. Imagine a culture where sickness or disability were seen as curses, and people who suffered were seen as having less dignity. Imagine living in a country that has been conquered, where the ones with the most power are the ones with the most weapons and military strength, and where you and your family are routinely humiliated and taxed by people who hold everything you value in contempt.

Doesn’t sound so different than right now, does it? Now listen to Jesus’s teaching -- God talking directly to us, in the words he wants us to hear -- and see if you hear anything astonishing.


1: “his disciples came to him”: people who are already followers of Jesus still need to hear his words over and over again.

How does each Beatitude reflect Jesus, who is God himself?

2: “Blessed” -- think of the Hail Mary: “Hail Mary, full of grace, blessed art thou among women.” “Blessed” means “full of grace”. When we live according to the Beatitudes, we are full of grace.

3: “Poor in spirit”: What does it mean to be poor in spirit? We know what it means to be poor in body, or in possession. How can you have a poor spirit, and why would it be a good thing? And yet it doesn’t mean having no spirit at all, or being a mental slave, because Jesus says that the poor in spirit will be given the kingdom of heaven. Could it be someone who trusts God for all their blessings, instead of relying on their own mental powers (which are themselves a gift from God)? Kind of like the people who claim, “I only believe what I can observe with my senses,” as if their senses aren’t themselves a gift from God.

4: “Mourn”: mourning makes us uncomfortable, because the loss is so big that it’s beyond our power to soothe the pain. It reminds us how small and helpless we are. But Jesus says, “They will be comforted.” By who? By God himself, who knows our pain.

5: “Meek”: Jesus calls himself “meek and humble of heart” in Matthew 11:29. So he himself will inherit the land -- so much for Satan thinking he could tempt Jesus with power! 

6: “Hunger and thirst for righteousness”: Jesus doesn’t say “those who go out and impose righteousness on others”. We are called to long for righteousness, and to practice it first in our own lives. The satisfaction of this desire for righteousness comes from God, not from our own work.

7: “Merciful”: Jesus makes this point in several parables. The measure with which you measure will be measured back to you. First we are given mercy by God -- the necessary starting point! -- and the sign that we have received that mercy and let it work in us is that it overflows to other people. Mercy is an action, not a feeling. We don’t have to feel warm and cuddly to offer mercy. It is enough to be united to Jesus, offering his mercy to others.

8: “Clean of heart”: also translated “pure of heart”. The pure of heart are single-minded, focused on God, and so letting God’s light shine through them like clean glass. Impurities, either sexual or some other kind of sinfulness, cloud our vision and absorb our focus, constantly distracting us from God’s presence. He doesn’t go anywhere when we feel far from him! It is we who pull away from him.

9: “Peacemakers”: Jesus calls to be active peace makers. God has the power to create, and he gives us his own power to make peace in the world, starting with how we treat those around us, whether they’re our family members, our friends, or our enemies. We can make peace by showing mercy, by being clean of heart, by being meek like Jesus himself. Remember, he is God, and what he says is true!

10-12: “Persecuted”: Jesus promises that we will be persecuted if we live according to these beatitudes. He also promises us the kingdom of heaven, which is a pretty huge reward. Do you feel persecuted? Do you feel misunderstood when you try to do the right thing? Jesus is giving us the power to be freed from worrying about what the world thinks of us, because we already know we’re going to be misunderstood. He’s giving us permission and authority not to be afraid of the opinion of others. But also look at what he says: “for the sake of righteousness”. He’s not giving us permission to be a jerk or to push our own opinion on other people, and then claim we’re being persecuted when people don’t like that! We also need to pay attention to the other beatitudes and remain meek, pure of heart, merciful, etc. Everything works together in the kingdom of heaven.

Salt and Light

13-16: Salt preserves, keeps food from going bad, and gives a better flavor. If it doesn’t do those things, what is it good for? (But God can bring good out of all things -- we know that salt underfoot can serve a purpose in cold and icy weather!) 

Jesus calls himself “the light of the world”. And he calls us the light of the world, which means that the light that shines in us is his light. We reveal Jesus to others! If we hide that light because we’re ashamed of it, we are not being true to ourselves or to him. And our good deeds should point others to God and glorify him. Otherwise, they’re like salt that has lost its flavor -- it’s there, but serving no purpose. 

Teaching about the Law

17-20: If Jesus abolishes the law, that mean that the law was bad. He comes to fulfill the law, to show us the deep reality underlying the laws and rules the Jewish people followed. That is why we don’t want to teach people, either by our words or through our actions, to disregard God’s commandments. We want to live so that the underlying truth behind the commandments shines through us. 

Who were the scribes and Pharisees? Religious authorities who seemed to think that just obeying rules externally made them righteous, without letting God’s love shine through them. God gives us his laws, not so that he can ding us when we aren’t perfect, but to guard our hearts and souls (and the hearts and souls of those we live with) as we “grow in age and grace and wisdom” and understand more and more about the rich love of God.

Teaching about Anger

21-26: Here Jesus starts to teach about how the law that the scribes and Pharisees think they’re following so carefully actually reaches into every little nook and cranny of our lives.

This is very personal for anyone who’s ever been angry at their brother! It’s easy not to actually kill your brother. It’s very very hard not to be frustrated with him, or to fight with him, or to see all the things he does wrong and blame him for them. And it’s a reminder to us that we wish people would understand our every little weakness and good intention and be merciful to us, and so we need to extend that same mercy even to the people we think we understand the best -- because God made them and loves them with the same deep love he has for us.

Teaching about Adultery

27-30: We often think that our thoughts are safe because no one can see them. But not only does God see into the depths of our heart (understanding things about us that even we don’t know), but what we think influences how we treat others, even if we don’t realize it. The bond of marriage is sacred, and it’s a great sin to be physically unfaithful. But it’s also a sin to use another person in your thoughts, because each person is made in the image and likeness of God. Jesus uses some vivid imagery to make his point. If it would be better to lose your hand (a major, painful loss) than to risk losing happiness with God forever, wouldn’t it be better and easier to change something that seems so little and hidden: the way we treat people in our minds?

Teaching about Divorce

31-32: Jesus is pointing to something very real and sometimes painful: that the bonds of marriage are real bonds, that create real connections. Even the legal action of divorce cannot sever those bonds, and this is especially obvious when the marriage brings forth new life. (Every child of divorce knows this.) Marriage isn’t something we can put on or off at will, or a legal contract with an escape clause. It is a reflection here on earth of God’s eternal faithfulness to us. 

It’s also something that can be extremely difficult, which is why Jesus gives us the sacrament of matrimony, so that the love between a man and a woman can truly be the love of God, in good times and in bad. 

Teaching about Oaths

33-37: People in the Old Testament took their oaths seriously and thought that they could somehow compel God’s help by making big promises. Only Jesus, the Word of God, can create by his very words! The only time that God gives our human words his own creative power is in the sacraments. Otherwise, we can swear up and down about something and it doesn’t change reality. There were several Old Testament stories about people who thought that their oaths were so powerful that they had to sin to fulfill them (Jepthah and his daughter, Judges), but Jesus tells us to speak plainly and simply and avoid big talk. Otherwise we just sound silly. We can’t make God do anything by swearing big oaths.

Also, swearing implies that we can’t be truthful without being forced to be. Jesus calls us to be so honest and full of integrity that our “yes” means “yes”, without extra words and promises to make it stick.

Teaching about Retaliation

38-42: We often think that we’re standing up for our own dignity by insisting on payback for the ways that we’ve been hurt. But Jesus shows us a new way: the way of love. The old law prescribed “an eye for an eye” because we often have the instinct to lash out harder and hurt the other person more than they’ve hurt us. But Jesus’s teaching is different than just total equality in everything. We are to give, even more than we think we should have to, and that way we don’t rely on our strength and goodness, but on God’s.

Plus, our very cooperation confounds our enemies and forces them to confront themself -- which is always more effective than being confronted by someone else.

Notice that Jesus is calling us to avoid sinning and doing evil to others, not to cooperate in doing evil. There are many ways we can be meek, peaceful, merciful, etc., without cooperating with bad things.

Love of Enemies

43-48: We are called to be “unusual”! Jesus gives us examples of natural behavior: loving your children; loving those who love you. That may not always be easy, but it’s standard human behavior. But God loves with a supernatural love, a love that is deeper than is naturally possible. His love is stronger than indifference or cruelty or hatred. And he gives us this love so that it will overflow through us to others (and from others to us -- have you ever received love and kindness from an unexpected person?). When he says, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” he’s not telling us to do something impossible. Remember, he’s the Word of God -- what he says literally becomes true. We can only love supernaturally because he gives us that love. And that’s good! It means we don’t have to rely on our own feelings or efforts to drum up love for people who seem unlovable, because all love comes from God in the first place and in the end. 

Matthew Chapter 6

1-4: Jesus just talked about loving our enemies and not just doing loving things for those who love us. Now he’s giving an equal but opposite warning: not to do good deeds just for show. It’s not that we are required to always hide everything we do. But we are required to do it from from love, not for some earthly reward. And there are lots of kinds of rewards: money, popularity, sympathy. God, who sees what is in our heart, can repay us more deeply than anyone on earth can. 

5-8: More caution from Jesus about doing things for show. Again, it doesn’t mean that we’re not supposed to pray in public! We’re not supposed to be ashamed of God. But we also don’t worship him so that others may see us. We worship him so that we (and others) may see him. And he does see us, even if no one else does, because when we are praying in secret, he is right there within us. He knows what we need before we ask because he is always with us. 

9-13: So how do we pray? Jesus gives us a model:

Praise first! Before we ask for what we need and want, we come into God’s presence and give him glory, and that puts everything else into perspective. Our problems aren’t meaningless or stupid, but they also aren’t the only way we relate to God. 

Our Father in heaven: First of all, we acknowledge our unity before God. OUR Father means we are all his children. FATHER means that we are dependent on him, and like him, and that he will always care for us. HEAVEN: He is where we want to be, and when we are truly with him, we too experience a taste of what heaven will be like when nothing separates us from him.

Hallowed be your name: HALLOWED means holy. This is both a statement of fact (your name is already holy) and a hope that his name will be held holy by everyone on earth.

Your kingdom come: Isn’t that what Jesus is always preaching, that the kingdom of God is at hand? And what does he call people to do because the kingdom of God is at hand? Repent. To repent is to turn away from what is wrong, which leads right into the next petition:

Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven: How can we know that the kingdom of heaven is here, or that we’re working to bring it about? The kingdom of God is where his will is done. We already know that God’s will is done perfectly in heaven; Jesus tells us so in this prayer. But he also tells us that God’s will can be done on earth as it is in heaven. We can start to taste the happiness of heaven here on earth. Sounds pretty good!

Give us today our daily bread: Jesus knows that we have bodies, and we have to eat. We need to take care of our physical needs, and the needs of those around us. But first: we’re asking God to GIVE us our daily bread. We don’t magically make it appear by our own power. All good things come from him and are gifts to us. We ask for it TODAY, not for a lifetime supply. Jesus doesn’t let us imagine in this prayer that we somehow control the future. God told Moses his name is I AM: right now, the present (for us); existing eternally outside of time, not bound by our conception of past, present, or future. He gives us what we need, when we need it. Our DAILY BREAD: Our bodies need to be nourished every day, and so do our souls, and God gives us what is right for each day. Some days we need to feel his help more; some days we feel stronger. That’s okay. Each day is different for us and we need God’s grace differently, and he supplies it. BREAD: this means our physical food, but it also points forward to the Eucharist, the food that feeds our souls. His bounty never runs out, even though to our eyes it may look like there’s barely enough to keep us alive. 

Also echoes of Exodus 16: the manna.

And forgive us our debts: We are not just sinners, but also weak. Our entire life is a debt to God. He gives and gives and gives as his free gift, and we are in debt to him not because he’s mean and wants to get things back, but because there’s no way we can ever match his generosity and his graciousness. That’s okay! We can’t be as big as God. But we can let him work through us, as WE FORGIVE OUR DEBTORS. It doesn’t always feel easy. But it’s not impossible. And since we know we have failed God in the past, we pray:

Do not subject us to the final test: Isn’t this a strange prayer? Shouldn’t God know whether we can pass the final test or not (or be strong in the face of temptation, as the more common version of the prayer puts it)? But these are the words of God himself, giving us permission to ask again for his mercy. Even Jesus, the night before he died, prayed that he might be spared, if it was God’s will. We’re allowed to ask for that! Our prayer might not be answered in the way we expect, but God himself tells us to ask him for mercy and help.

But deliver us from the evil one: How much should we focus on the devil and his attacks? Jesus puts him dead last in this prayer. Sometimes people think it’s exciting to think about all the creepy and horrible power the devil has -- look at the popularity of horror movies. But Jesus doesn’t seem too concerned with who is going to be victorious in the end. Does the devil scare you? That’s okay, and Jesus himself gives us permission to pray that we be delivered from him. But he’s very last on the list, and that shows where he should be on our priority list.

Still -- don’t mess with the devil! Halloween is coming up, and people think it’s fun to play games with spiritual powers. Don’t open that door. Keep your eyes on Jesus.

14-15: And what can’t the devil stand? Forgiveness! Our forgiveness comes straight from God. If you’re worried that the devil has a hold on you, pray that you can forgive others. Forgiveness isn’t a feeling, but a choice. It doesn’t mean that you haven’t been hurt, or that the other person is getting off easy somehow. It means you leave them in God’s hands.

16-18: Truly they have received their reward: if you think about it, what could be scarier than the idea of receiving your reward here on earth, with nothing left for eternity? When we do things for show here on earth, we get our reward here on earth. Jesus talks about this in the next section, the idea of laying up treasure in heaven. Here, he’s warning us against doing good things in order to get earthly recognition. Note that he’s not telling us not to do good things! Fasting is good; we know that Jesus fasted. And nothing we do is hidden from God. He sees and treasures every hidden battle we fight. He knows how to truly value our quiet gifts. And his rewards, unlike earthly rewards, last forever.

19-21: What kinds of treasures can we lay up for ourselves on earth? Money, of course; fame; recognition; power; sex; likes on social media. Even the treasure of safety -- of hiding away our gifts or talents because we don’t want anyone to notice us. These things bear no eternal fruit, and they receive no eternal reward. We give our heart easily here on earth, to people or to ideas. How do we lay up treasures in heaven? This is what Jesus has been showing us through the Beatitudes. His whole life is a guidebook for us on how to live in eternity here on earth.

22-23: The eye is the lamp of the body. The eye brings in light to the body; a lamp puts light out. What we look at, what we take into our minds affects the whole body and can even turn our light to darkness. Be careful what you consume! Be careful what you watch and read! Are you taking in good and nourishing books and movies and ideas and conversations that will keep your lamp bright? Or do you consume things that hurt you? Jesus is guiding us to pay careful attention to what we choose to watch and think about.

24: Two masters: who might your other master be? Mammon is a word for money or riches, and we know from above that we can have lots of different kinds of riches. What are you serving? What would you do anything for? What brings you peace and happiness? You cannot serve God and some other thing. 

25-34: “Therefore,” Jesus says, jumping right off the previous statement. How is it that we can stop serving Mammon, whatever Mammon may be? By not being anxious about our lives. Not putting undue emphasis on what we wear, what we eat, all the physical things that are important, but not as important as God. When we put him and his kingdom first, all other priorities fall into line. 

Why? Because he loves us. Look at the extravagant beauty of flowers, or the glorious plumage of birds. And these are things that will pass away quickly, even as we measure time. 

Do we spend time looking at God’s creation? Jesus is almost commanding us to take a walk, to observe all the things that God has made beautiful because he loves beauty, and he loves them. This applies to people as well! Everyone is beautiful because God made them. And he knows what we need, more than we do ourselves.

“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow”: this is your homework this week. Do not be anxious about tomorrow! Believe that God will send you your daily blessings as you need them, because he loves you so much.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Immediate Book Meme: Darwin's Reading

I think I've only dipped into MrsDarwin's immediate book meme once or twice, in part because MrsDarwin reads much faster than I do and gets through more books.  However, this time I felt inspired to chime in with my own reading.

photo by Evan Laurence Bench

There are plenty of memes that want to know all about your book history and your all-time greats and your grand ambitions, but let's focus on something more revealing: the books you're actually reading now, or just read, or are about to read. Let's call it The Immediate Book Meme.


1. What book are you reading now?


The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000 by Chris Wickham

I started reading this because I was trying to decide whether to use it as part of the history/literature program for our sophomore, who will be wrapping up with Roman history in the last third of this year and needs to cover up to about 1000. I won't be assigning it. It's too detailed for that student, but I'm finding the dive into Late Antiquity interesting and I tend to be a completist, so I'll finish it up myself.

Dead Tree Reading:

The Verge: Reformation, Renaissance, and Forty Years that Shook the World by Patrick Wyman

I've listened to Wyman's Fall of Rome podcast, and the ancient history seasons of his Tides of History podcast, so I picked up this book both to support the author and because the structure of telling about 1490 through 1530 via the lives of ten individual people sounded interesting.

I picked this up based on recommendations from pre-history resources that I was reading online, and it's a fascinating and slightly offbeat approach to describing what we know of the peoples who lived in dozens of prehistoric sites from the last glacial maximum to shortly before the development of writing, off beat due to Mithen's conceit of having a character, John Lubbock (named after a real life Victorian archeologist) travel through time and see what life was like in each of these sites, while at the same time the narrator is describing the digs and often his personal experiences with them. It's an unusual narrative device for a book which is not by any means light reading.  Mithen is an academic archeologist and this is the kind of book which is readable but very detailed.

2. What book did you just finish?
My finishing of books has been slow lately.  I've been listening to a lot of history podcasts, which has slowed down my reading of audiobooks.  And I just have been short of time for reading hard copy books.  But these are my last two:


Yes, I'm still working on those novels, and thus still doing research reading for them.  Hart's book is heavier on first hand accounts (mostly British) and lighter on the development of military tactics, but it's definitely a good read for what it's doing.  (My favorite Somme history remains Philpott's Three Armies on the Somme.

Dead Tree Reading:

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Weir's third novel is much more in the vein of his first, The Martian, than his sophomore work, Artemis (which I didn't enjoy much.)  A deep character study it is not, but the main character is enjoyable and it whisks the reader through one well described technical problem after another.  Weir is definitely the kind of novelist you'll enjoy if you liked the early days of hard SF.

3. What do you plan to read next?

The Reverse of the Medal by Patrick O'Brian

I feel like I've been lacking in fiction reading lately.  It's almost two months since I took a weekend off to read Project Hail Mary.  And the Audible credits have been piling up, so I already queued the next book my in re-read through Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels.  Actually, I'd only made it half way through the series before, so this is the first one that I haven't read before.

August 1914: A Novel by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

You can see why a massive series of novels spanning the history of WW1  and the Russian Revolution would appeal to me.  Plus, it's Solzhenitsyn.  I've had a copy sitting on my shelf tempting me for a while.  Gotta pick it up.

I may be kidding myself that I'm going to make it through another big history tome not related to WW1 this year in hard copy, but this was the other book that I acquired when I was on my ancient and pre history kick, and I'm curious about it because... well, humanity came out of Africa (and this book goes all the way back to the geologic past) and yet the history of the continent seldom gets covered in any comprehensive fashion.  I'm fairly excited to read it.

4. What book do you keep meaning to finish?

Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich

This book of interviews with Russians about the waning days of the Soviet Union and its aftermath is fascinating (and depressing) and I keep meaning to finish it but have been in the middle of it for over a year.

Red Cavalry by Isaac Babel

Collected short vignettes written by Babel for Soviet newspapers portraying his colorful and often brutal experiences with a Red cavalry unit fighting in the Polish War against Polish forces in Ukraine and Poland, this was fascinating primary source material and yet somehow it's been sitting half finished on my nightstand for a long time.  It's easy to stop, because most of the stories are completely self contained.  And one doesn't always feel like a pleasant evening's ultra violence.

And of course, like MrsDarwin, I have completely failed to finish:

5. What book do you keep meaning to start?

I always feel like saying I'll read a novel condemns me to not reading it.  Indeed, I'm almost afraid I've cursed the books in question 3 by listing them, so I'll leave it at that.

6. What is your current reading trend?

History which I'm inspired to read by various intellectual rabbit holes.

Saturday, October 09, 2021

The Immediate Book Meme

photo by Evan Laurence Bench

There are plenty of memes that want to know all about your book history and your all-time greats and your grand ambitions, but let's focus on something more revealing: the books you're actually reading now, or just read, or are about to read. Let's call it The Immediate Book Meme.


Because of my reduced access to my laptop now that the kids take classes online/chat with friends/do labwork, and because all of our computers have grown so slow that they're difficult to write on, this post has lingered on the vine long enough that my books keep shifting categories. But this time for sure!

1. What book are you reading now?

Jane Austen's Names: Riddles, Persons, Places, by Margaret Doody.

About the complex meanings behind the names of Austen's characters and places, and the history of names in this period of England. Fascinating, and a great resource for anyone wanting to write about this era.

I'm working through these as I prepare for each chapter of my Seventh Grade Bible Study on Matthew.

The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison

I just read Beloved (of which more below), so I'm trying some other Morrison to get a feel for her range.

1a. Readaloud

Fellowship of the Ring, by J.R.R. Tolkien

We've just entered the Mines of Moria. (My 15yo daughter: "Wait, all this time it's been a literal mine? I thought you were saying "Minds of Moria".)

2. What book did you just finish?
As I say, this post was so long in the making that a lot of books that were going to be Next reads are now Just Finished.

I found this at the library while looking for something else. I read The Weeping Time, about the largest slave auction in American history, held at the Butler plantation. British actress Fanny Kemble married into the family before visiting the plantation (and later divorced out of it). Her horrified diary and letters and memoir give a window into the appalling culture of the plantation. Novelist Owen Wister (The Virginian) was a grandson of Pierce Butler and Fanny Kemble, son of their abolitionist daughter Sarah.

What Can I Do When I Grow Up?, by The School of Life

Also found on the library shelf in passing. (Folks: go browse the shelves in person.) This is a wonderfully British book from a foundation in London called The School of Life, which exists, I guess, to prepare people for life. The book begins with the commonsense assertion that it's ridiculous that adults will put kids on the spot asking what they want to do when they grow up when most adults don't feel entirely grown up themselves or know what it is that they want to do, even if they have a job. Then it discusses what is a job, what is the purpose of money, what your talents and inclination might point you towards, and examines the universe of hidden jobs that aren't always obvious to the consumer. 

This is the sort of book that I would have devoured devotionally as a child. My own children didn't seem quite as fascinated, but I bought a copy anyway. I made everyone do the exercise in which each person ranks the different kinds of pleasure derived from activities (The pleasure of Order, of Teaching, of Making Money, of Beauty, of Nature, of Technology, etc.) which can clarify why it is you like what you like. 

My daughter with dyslexia had a major reading click this year, and is tearing through books by herself. She's been reading the Penderwicks series, and I've skimmed along with her to refresh my memory. The author is clearly reaching for the easy childhood sibling fun of Edward Eager and E. Nesbit, but there's a odd disconnect in these books, an unwillingness to address the implications or even the existence of modern technology, and piggybacking on a foundation of Christian moral behavior without having to acknowledge that religion exists. 

The author -- and I find this exceedingly problematic -- also ends up excusing some very bad behavior by eliding over real and deep family traumas. This isn't as much in evidence in the earlier books, but I think it's the fourth novel, The Penderwicks in Spring, that has one sister blaming another for the childbirth death of their mother, and the younger sister going into a major spiral of depression and anxiety over it, and at the end instead of arranging for intensive therapy (and possibly hospitalization) for these troubled kids, the adults kind of brush everything off with "I'll try to pay more attention to you all." This is... not okay. These kids are intensely troubled, and the resolution is pretty troubling too.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston

Hurston was a great student and observer of African-American folkways and cultures, and this story of Janie Crawford, a woman who longs to find true love, is an intense, engaging, and sometimes critical depiction of the vibrant Black culture of the 30s in Florida. 

Beloved, by Toni Morrison

Morrison is following a literary path blazed by Hurston, even in her lush emotional writing. (Margaret Atwood's description of  Morrison's "anti-minimalist prose" is no more than the truth.) Morrison is a gifted writer who knows how to highlight the evils of racism with carefully vivid thematic elements. Beloved is a big bruising story of the ghost of a baby girl haunting the home of her traumatized mother Sethe, who has escaped from slavery and doesn't intend to see any of her beloved children forced back into that cruel life.

Morrison chooses the maximal visceral detail to underline the horrors of her story. Many of these I've read about in historical sources, but one major thematic incident is unprecedented in my reading (which is not to say that it is historically unprecedented, but just that I've never seen any documentation of this kind of violation, even in other cruel and oppressive cultures in world history.) It would be as if I wrote a book about the evil effects of Irish oppression on mothers during the Potato Famine and included a vile English landlord who wore a coat made of the skins of Irish children. The history is evil enough without my needing to invent a disgusting event to make it even more gut-wrenchingly gross. But as I say, perhaps Morrison found a mention of this in her research.

Uprooted, by Naomi Novik.

I thoroughly enjoyed Spinning Silver by Novik and was excited to read her previous novel. And Uprooted is set in the same kind of world that Novik does so well -- a Grimm's Mitteleuropa of fairytales where magic is woven into the landscape. But where Spinning Silver was so devoid of romantic scenes that you almost wondered how the main characters would deal together, Uprooted features a two-page-long sex scene that makes it, in my mind, a bit much for teen readers -- more so because of fantasy nature of the interaction that doesn't seem humanly true to the awkward nature of first-time intimacy -- nor entirely true to the main character, either. I was disappointed, because it was a strange intrusion into an otherwise-recommendable book. It did make me want to re-read Spinning Silver, so there's that.

I should note that I also thoroughly disliked A Deadly Education, Novik's more contemporary fantasy novel, which did not have any sex scenes. This seems to make me an outlier in my community of reading friends, most of whom loved it. 

3. What do you plan to read next?

I... did not read Moby-Dick, and I no longer plan to read it next.

Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison

Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik

4. What book do you keep meaning to finish?

Lost in Thought, by Zena Hitz
I really the concept here, an exploration of why the intellectual life matters to everyone, not just self-styled "intellectuals", but I felt like the book wasn't well-served by the current editorial trend of putting an autobiographical chapter right at the beginning. For all that, I'd like to finish it, and it's on my nightstand on top of everything else.

The Broken Road, by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Why is this taking me so long? I love it while I'm reading it, but once I put it down...

See above. I will never finish this book.

5. What book do you keep meaning to start?

I'm sure there's something out there I'm supposed to start, but nothing's leaping to mind right now.

6. What is your current reading trend?

Acclaimed fiction by African-American women.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

The Gospel According to St. Matthew, for 7th Graders

Tuesday was the feast of St. Matthew, and it was also the third meeting of my Seventh-Grade Bible Study on the Gospel of Matthew. We meet in the cozy attic space on the third floor of the Federal-era parish office building (once the rectory), not in a classroom, because we are not a class. We do not have quizzes or textbooks or homework. No one is required to read in public. Each attendee has a notebook and a pen in case doodling helps them to listen, but no one has to take notes or write if they don't want to. What we do is read Matthew, chapter by chapter.

When I first started in on religious education with this grade level, someone told me, "Oh, this is an exciting time. They have so many questions!" Friends, today's seventh-graders do not have so many questions. What they want most of all is not to stand out in any way. They do not want to venture an opinion that can be criticized. They do not want to sound stupid. They do not want to sound smart. And they do not know enough to have even formulated questions.

Perhaps you are a catechist at St. Brag's School for Gifted Tweens, and your experience is different. I can only speak from my near-decade of working in religious ed. with your average public-schooled middle-American middle-schoolers. They do not need more classroom time. They are glutted with school, even and especially when it's virtually miserable. They need something gentle, led by someone gentle. They need to hear, "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourself. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light."

And they need to hear it from Christ's own mouth, not rehashed in a textbook or explained by a glossy video course. They need to meet God as he wants us to know him: through the humanity of Jesus. And -- get this! -- some people even wrote books in which Jesus's actual deeds and words are preserved in the fascinating format of a story, not a textbook or a manual of ethics. This story is universally appealing. You don't have to be super-intelligent to understand it, or already pious. It transcends all racial differences and class lines and age groups. It is literally how God wants us to understand him.

We are not using a prescribed study guide or a packaged program. These things are all very well and good, and necessary in certain contexts, but it is vitally important for kids to see that reading the scripture is not the domain of professional Catholics --  that someone in their very parish can just open up the Bible and talk about it. The DRE wisely requires me to submit notes a week ahead of time on points I want to draw out of each chapter as we read, which keeps me honest in actually preparing for Bible study and not just winging it each week because I can.

So far we've covered the first four chapters of Matthew. I read a section, and then we go back for a deep dive, verse by verse if it comes to that. I do all the reading, because I know most of my kids are petrified by the idea of reading in front of others, and I am running a Bible study, not a boot camp for self-esteem. (This is no hardship for me because I love reading out loud, and since we're all wearing masks it helps that I'm loud and enunciate clearly.) I ask questions and see if I get any answers, and if not I answer the questions myself. Once a class I will go around and ask each person to tell me something about what we've read so far, even if it's just one word. Sometimes it is only one word, but this past week I got complete sentences, and even some laughs and jokes about the eating of locusts and wild honey. 

This is exactly the engagement I expected with this study, and I am well-pleased. The kids are content to listen to the word of God, and what more can I want? The Word itself is living and effective, taking root in a way that no words of mine could ever do. Some sections, like the genealogy in the first chapter, do need more in-depth explanation, but for the most part, Matthew is not inaccessible. He has a good narrative, and he tells it engagingly. Jesus walks by the shore and says, "Follow me" -- and we do.

Here are my notes on Matthew 1-4. We have three meetings a month through April or May, which is slightly more than one chapter a week. I have it all mapped out week by week, but I don't think much more than a month ahead for planning purposes. I'm very excited for October, when we'll read Matthew 5-7: the Sermon on the Mount.


First Class: Introductions and Matthew Ch. 1


Gather, name tags, get Bibles and get settled.


Begin Introductions



Do you have much experience reading the Bible? Does your family read the Bible? Tell me one thing you know about the Bible.


Introduction to Bible Study

What is the Bible? The Inspired Word of God, written by human authors influenced by their own times and places, but always through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

“Bible” comes from the Greek word “biblios”, meaning “library”. It’s not meant to be read straight through from beginning to end, but like a library, books are in different sections and genres, and have different purposes. And some are easier to understand than others.

What are the parts of the Bible? It is centered on Jesus, with the Old Testament pointing to him, the New Testament examining how to live life through him. (Other kinds of books: historical, Wisdom, Prophets, Epistles, etc.)

What are the Gospels? The heart of the Bible, the “Good News”: the accounts of Jesus’s life and deeds and words. Some of them are written by eyewitnesses; others are accounts written by people who interviewed those who knew Jesus.

Jesus is how God chooses to reveal Himself to us. His words are God literally speaking to us. The best way to come to know Jesus is through His own words, and that’s what we’ll be reading in the Gospel of Matthew.

Questions answered throughout.

Introduction to Matthew

Who wrote the four Gospels? Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Scholars disagree on which book came first -- the consensus used to be Mark, but there is good evidence that Matthew’s Gospel was actually the first written. 

Who is Matthew? A Jewish man, a disciple of Jesus, writing about what he has heard and has seen with his own eyes for a Jewish audience.  A former tax collector for the Romans -- one of the outcasts whom Jesus welcomed and forgave. Since Matthew is Jewish, he is always making connections to the Old Testament prophecies and stories.

Matthew’s theme is “God With Us”. He starts the book with Jesus’s title of Emmanuel, which means “God With Us”; he ends the Gospel with Jesus telling his disciples, “I will be with you always” (Matt. 28:20). This is Good News!


Matthew, Chapter 1

Read aloud and discuss as we go. Questions answered throughout. (Any of these talking points can be skipped or glossed over for time. New points can be addressed as the Spirit moves, or in answer to questions.)


Why does Matthew mention David and Abraham at the very beginning of the book? Have you heard these names before? What do you know about them?

David is the great king of Israel, who truly joined the scattered tribes into a strong country. He was a man after God’s own heart -- not because he was sinless, but because he repented again and again. God promised that David’s line would never end, and that the Messiah (the promised Jewish savior) would come from David’s descendants. David was also a poet who wrote many of the Psalms that prophecy about the Messiah’s coming. Every Jewish man, woman, and child prayed the words of David.

Abraham is the father of the Jewish people. His faith in God was so great that he believed, against all earthly evidence, that God would found a great nation through him. God made a covenant with Abraham to be faithful to him and to his descendants forever.

David represents the earthly glory of Israel; Abraham represents its spiritual glory.

Family tree: Do you know your genealogy? The Jewish people loved family trees and tracing their line back to a glorious ancestor. Are all these people in Matthew 1:2-16 glorious? Are they all good? Are they all famous? Jesus comes from a mixed human family just like all of us.

Four women (besides Mary) mentioned in Jesus’s genealogy, all quite different. All bore children in ways that were strange or unexpected. Some weren’t even Jewish. But they all point toward Mary in different ways.

Three sections of the genealogy: the patriarchs, the kings, and the decline after the Babylonian Exile. The Exile was as important and somber to the Jews of Jesus’s time as the Holocaust is to the Jewish people now. It was a story of earthly persecution and sorrow. Most of the names in this section aren’t mentioned anywhere else. The line of the kings seems to be ended.

Why the focus on repeated sets of fourteen generations? Numbers are important to Matthew’s Jewish readers, and the Hebrew letters of David’s name have a numerical value of 14. 


Have you ever heard this story of Jesus’s birth? What’s the usual story we hear about an angel announcing Jesus’s coming?

Betrothed: The Jewish marriage ceremony has two parts: betrothal and wedding. Betrothal is far more binding, legally and morally, than our modern engagement. After a betrothal, the couple was considered man and wife, but did not yet live together. They formed a new household after the wedding. Matthew is emphasizing that Mary was not yet living with Joseph when she conceived Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. There is no question of Jesus having a human father.

Joseph is called “righteous”, the same word used of Abraham. Abraham is praised in the Old Testament for his great faith in God. Joseph is faithful to God’s commands in the Jewish law, but he’s also faithful to God’s message to him in a dream -- the same way that some of the people mentioned in the genealogy also believed messages in dreams.

Jesus! It means “God saves.” What do we need to be saved from? Why is this good news?

“All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet” (1:22) -- Matthew drawing connections with the Old Testament. Find Isaiah 7:14.


Wrap up, answer questions, dismiss.


Matthew Chapters 2-3


Arrival, name tags, attendance, greeting


Check in with kids, review last week’s chapter: what do they remember? What has helped them in the past week?


Chapter 2

(Read aloud, answer questions throughout. Talking points may be elaborated on, or skipped for time or because the kids bring up different points.)

Have you heard the story of the three wise men before? What do you remember?

What details here are new to you? Does anything stand out?

We don’t know much about the magi from the East (does Matthew tell us how many there are?), but Herod is referenced in other historical documents and records. Jesus is rooted in our history. He’s not a mythical character or a fiction. Since we know that Herod died in 4 B.C, we know that Jesus was born before that, probably around 7-6 B.C. The monk who compiled our current calendar a few hundred years after Jesus was born was off on his dates by a few years!

More Old Testament reference! Our Bible helps us find other verses that are referenced -- can you find that section? Who can find Micah 5:1? 2 Samuel 5:2?

An angel appears several times in a dream in the first chapters of Matthew. Is that the same way that an angel appeared to Mary? Check Luke Chapter 1.

Joseph takes Mary and Jesus to safety in Egypt, and then brings them back again to Israel. Can you remember any other references to Egypt, any stories that all Jewish people might know? Any references to rulers trying to kill baby boys? Any baby boys who were saved from death who grew up to set their people free? Try Exodus Chapter 1.

Where does the Holy Family settle? A great city? A rich town? Nazareth is hicktown, country territory, looked down on (John 1:46). Jesus is not positioned as a great ruler. He is from somewhere small and despised, and so, as Bishop Barron says, he slips under the guard of the rulers of this world.


Chapter 3

Something new is starting! Let’s fast-forward about 30 years.

Why start with John? What do you already know about John the Baptist?

More prophets! Where can we find this prophecy from Isaiah? (Isaiah 40:3)

Do you think all the people are going out to hear John out of curiosity, or do you think his message is drawing them? How does he tell us to prepare for the kingdom of heaven? What does it sound like John thinks the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven will be like?

Why do John’s clothes matter? Another Old Testament reference, to the great prophet Elijah. 2 Kings 1:8. Why is the comparison with Elijah so important? Let’s check the very last verse of the Malachi, the very last prophecy in the Old Testament: Malachi 3:23-24.

The Jordan River is also an important place in the history of Israel. It’s the river that Joshua led the Israelites across as they entered the Promised Land after they left Egypt. And it’s where Elijah handed on his ministry to his even-greater successor, the prophet Elisha. 

Have you been to a baptism? Tell me about it. Each sacrament uses physical material -- what’s the material of baptism? (Water)

Why does Jesus want to get baptized? Jesus shares in our human nature, and he sets an example for us -- he says it is “fitting” to get baptized, appropriate for someone with a human nature to be baptized. His being God is what blesses natural water and gives it the power to wash us free not only of dirt on our bodies, but of original sin, the weakness of our fallen human nature. 

Can you find each person of the Holy Trinity in Jesus’s baptism?


Wrap up, dismissal


Matthew Chapter 4


Greetings, name tags, set-up

Read Matthew 9:9-13 -- the conversion of Matthew, for the feast of St. Matthew.

Recap of Matthew 1-3:

What does the name “Jesus” mean?

Why is Matthew always bringing up what the prophets say? 

How many Magi were there?

Where did Joseph take Mary and Joseph to escape from King Herod?

What did John the Baptist wear?


Chapter 4

V. 1: The Spirit leads Jesus into the desert. Why is the desert an important place in the Bible?

The Israelites were tempted in the desert after they left Egypt, and they did worship a false god that they made -- a golden calf. Jesus does not succumb to the temptation of boredom to create a new god to worship.

Why does Jesus go into the desert? He's just been anointed by the Spirit, as his ancestor David was anointed king -- and like a king, he's going out to do battle. With whom? With the devil.

V. 2: Forty days and forty nights. What’s the significance of forty? The Israelites spent forty years wandering in the desert after they left Egypt before they were allowed to enter the promised land. Moses spent forty days and forty nights in God’s presence on Mount Sinai when he received the Ten Commandments. 

He fasted, and he was hungry. Jesus is like us. He gets hungry, thirsty, tired. But he never loses sight of his Father.

V. 3-4: First temptation -- bodily hunger and appeal to pride (first sin) -- turn stones into bread, if you’re really the Son of God. Jesus doesn’t fall into this all-or-nothing trap. As always, he ignores false choices and goes straight to the main point. He does not use his power for his own comfort or to make himself look good. He uses it to glorify his Father.

Who is the word that comes from the mouth of God? Jesus himself. (John 1:1)

V. 5-7: Second temptation -- big dramatic gesture, proof-texting scripture -- throw yourself down because the Bible says God will protect you. Jesus answers with a more directly applicable scripture passage. He doesn’t bother to argue with the devil about his interpretation of the Bible -- always a waste of time!

V. 8-10: Third temptation -- earthly power in exchange for humiliation. The devil acts like the kingdoms of the earth are actually his to give, and for the first time he asks Jesus to do something directly contrary to scripture. Jesus tells him to leave, and quotes a scripture passage where God commands that only he be worshiped. Satan is a liar, but he has no power over Jesus, and must leave when he is commanded.

Angels minister to Jesus after temptation. They will also minister to us! Ask for their help!

V. 12: John the Baptist gets arrested. We’ll hear more of his story in chapters 11 and 14.

Jesus goes to Galilee to start his ministry -- he begins with the least significant people in Israel. 

V. 13: Why is “Zebulun and Napthali” significant? They’re the names of two of the twelve tribes of Israel, named after Abraham’s grandson Jacob’s family. (Jacob saw an angel in a dream, who gave him a new name: Israel.) The Jewish people divided into twelve tribes based on Jacob’s descendants. Jesus was from the tribe of Judah, like his ancestor King David.

V. 16: “The people who sit in darkness” -- do you know what that’s like? Have you ever felt dark, blue, unhappy, weighted down? Did you long to see a great light? Jesus fulfills this prophecy.

V. 17: Who else preached that the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand? John the Baptist. But Jesus is the Word of God. John could only prophesy. Jesus’s word effects what it says.

V. 18: Jesus sees Simon and Andrew at their work and calls them out of ordinary life. Are you waiting for Jesus to call you in some extraordinary way? Do you think that you have to be different or special or worthy before Jesus will call you?

“Casting their nets” -- how did fishing work? The nets picked up a lot of fish, if there were any fish in the area to be caught. This is way that Jesus works as well: he casts a wide net and brings in everyone. He’s not picky!

At once they followed him. Why are the apostles considered saints? Not because they’re perfect, but because they listen to Jesus. 

V. 21: Simon and Andrew were casting their nets; James and John are mending their nets. What’s the difference here? Maybe the active life and the contemplative life -- we see that distinction other places in the gospels (Martha and Mary). 

Why do they all follow Jesus without even knowing him? There is something about him. We see that all through the gospels. What is there about Jesus that attracts you to him? Is he interesting to you? Do you love him? As we read the gospel, pay attention to the character of Jesus. Learn to love him. He is lovable.

V. 23: teaching, proclaiming the gospel of the Kingdom, curing: this is what God does on earth. This is how God wants us to know him. He makes what was broken whole. Where Jesus is, is the kingdom of Heaven.