Friday, April 21, 2006

Carving out a new hobby... (g'huh!)

I've always wanted to develop skills in a fine art. Well, ok, not always--at least, not while I was still fooling myself into thinking that Web design was a "fine art". Puh--forget being avant-garde. I want to learn how to do one thing well that people have been doing for centuries. Something that will allow me, permit me to bring something beautiful into the world that will last for generations and can be enjoyed by anyone regardless of their background.

To this end I can think of no more sublime and versatile art than woodcarving. I am partially inspired by a friend of mine from my first year of seminary, who taught himself woodcarving (the man also taught himself Latin, chant, and good theology, all of them by every account in spite of the seminary).

I have fantasized about doing work in any number of the fine arts, especially music--to let one's fingers dance on a piano; serenade a violin, or even caress a harp. I have fantasized about being able to dance, to write popular music or compose popular music that championed Catholic counter-culturalism while lampooning the bubble-gum pop-Catholic "diddies" masquerading as good Rock and Roll. I can do none of these things. And--perhaps a blessing to the music and performing arts scenes--I probably never will.

So I turn my attention to the static arts, and my attention is inevitably shaped by the beauty of the churches and cathedrals in my life. I can think of four elements that make a church building beautiful: (above all) the piety of its builders, but also the awesomeness of the architecture, the richness of the stained glass, and finally the life and authenticity of its sculpture. A church with many sculptures is a church confident in the crowdedness of the Kingdom. Of course, proportionate placement is an important issue--disparate saints loitering in dark corners leads to unhealthy pietism and the mutation of devotions. But I am convinced that a populous sanctuary is a happy sanctuary.

For me, no art is more incarnational and more human than sculpture; the fact that wood is organic only adds to the earthy, substantial feeling behind this conviction. Of course I know I shouldn't wax too poetic about woodcarving before I actually take some real steps toward learning it. Otherwise my warbling here is no different than past fantasies.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Flying Spaghetti Monsterism

OK, so we have a new joke religion. I have some points to make on it.
  • I don't follow the Intelligent Design movement, based on the persuasive arguments of my professor of systematic theology Fr. Edward Oakes, S.J. I won't go deep into those arguments here, except to link to his articles: Zenit articles on evolution, parts 1 and 2; his review of "The Wedge of Truth;" and his response to criticism. Basically, whereas most popular critics call it bad science, Oakes argues that it is, more importantly, bad theology. It mythologizes God's creative activity in a way that makes theodicy impossible, and is a throwback to the unsustainable theosophies of 19th century deists.
  • However, FSMism is only the slightly more colorful (and increasingly boring) rehash of bad agnostic doctrine. It merely repeats the belief (itself non-scientific) that the physical sciences define the upper limit of practical human knowledge. I think it's laudable to push for the purity and integrity of the physical sciences as they are taught (not only in public schools, but in Catholic schools as well). But people who jump aboard the FSMism bandwagon seldom consider that atheistic and agnostic science teachers (and even textbooks) have it easy when it comes to exploiting their authority to purvey non-scientific ideas. When I tell you that the physical evidence doesn't mesh well with Genesis, I can do that in a way that permits your Christian faith or mocks Christianity. Either way, I won't be censured by public school authorities.
  • Let's talk about the 1st Amendment - 'no established religion'. In a sense, people both have the freedom of religion, and a freedom from religion--or at least, from undue impositions by one particular religion. But what the 1st Amendment doesn't protect us from is the freedom of philosophy. That means that teachers--and any government official, for that matter--can teach and govern by any philosophy they choose--good or bad, friendly or hostile to religion. Thus, as a public high school teacher, I can teach agnostic doctrines because agnosticism is not a religion. But if I argue against agnosticism, even on philosophical grounds, I risk losing my job (because, by implication, my arguments would encourage an examination of intellectual conscience regarding religion).
  • Thus the Intelligent Design movement, even if their theory is both scientifically and theologically bad, do have a point. They expose the double-standard of public education. Because our whole country is philosophically stupid, we don't see how good and bad philosophies (mostly bad) are running wild and untamed on high school campuses, creating a tremendous imbalance in favor of defaulting to the comfortable noncommital of Aldous Huxeley. If the I.D. movement is perceived as illegitimately soiling the purity of public high school science classes with non-science (religious or no), it could argue that it is hardly innovating by doing so. For the standards of the correct interpretation of data are not themselves determined by science but by the philosophical branch known as hermenuetics. And in a realm where largely Kantian/atheistic/agnostic hermenuetics have reigned supreme (whose priviledged status is, I repeat, not scientifically self evident), who can blame the I.D. movement for wanting to introduce what they consider a complimentary, theistic/deistic hermenuetic?
  • I don't blame them, but neither do I agree with them. If the problem is the impurity of the science in science classes, then the solution is not to turn the science classes into a tug-of-war between theistic and atheistic hermenuetics. 'Course, when it comes to high school, my solution to everything is to make a year of philosophy mandatory for graduation.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Has TV grown a conscience?

I'm assuming you've seen or at least heard of "God or the Girl" on A&E. If not, read the reviews on Metacritic to learn about it.

Not likely, but after watching "God and the Girl" on A&E and reading a lot of the commentary, it made me think. If you look at the Metacritic page for the show, you'll see a lot of really mixed reviews by the major papers. Reading those reviews was a lot more fascinating for me than watching the show itself. These reviewers... it's almost as if they care about the characters on the show! True, a number of them express their care in existentialist language in order to avoid statements of respect for Catholicism. But even the negative reviews, save for Doug Elfman in the Chicago Sun Times, were negative because they felt the production was distracting from the actual stories of the discerners themselves!

Some great comments, from the least favorable reviews to the most:
  • "But Joe does try to walk from Cleveland to Niagara Falls, relying only on the handouts of strangers who want their mugs on TV. Mike goes on a retreat to escape both Aly and his insistent mentor priest. And Steve Horvath, 25, flies down, all by himself (if you don't count the obviously ever-present producers and cameramen) to Guatemala, not to take a meeting with Danni Boatwright, who won $1 million on Survivor there last winter, but ostensibly to help the poor." - Jonathan Storm, Philly Inquirer.

    Now, Mr. Storm also pointed something out that I want to counter. He quotes Jesus against the show, citing Matthew 6:1--"Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: Otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven." But he forgets Matthew 5:16--" Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father." These teachings are not contradictory, but they point to the fact that Jesus is teaching an interior disposition rather than a mere external commandment. The men on "God or the Girl" were not seeking personal glory, but God's.
  • "If ever there were a reality show that personifies Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle - the idea that the act of observing can alter the nature of what's being observed - this is it.

    The spiritual search these four young men are going through (Steve Horvath, 25, and Mike Lechniak, 24, are the others) is real, but what's captured on camera in "God or the Girl" is a lot more suspect.

    Series creators Darryl Silver, Stephen David and David Eilenberg should have come up with a more distant and purer way to observe their subjects." - David Bianculli, New York Daily News

  • "It's remarkable to see how unobtrusive "God or the Girl" is on these young men, on their demanding moms and on their potential lovers, given that it must be getting harder for TV series to simply document people rather than destroy them." - David Bianculli, Chicago Sun Times
  • "What the series leaves you wishing for is more of a portrayal of the power and mystery that binds a person to the Catholic faith. Or, in the spirit of full disclosure, it doesn't commit as sufficiently as I, a lapsed cradle Catholic, would have liked it to.

    The other question so desperate to be answered these days is why young men are still attracted to the priesthood at all -- an institution associated with an outdated patriarchal ideal at best and rampant sex-abuse scandals at the very worst.

    In the middle are many other notions "God or the Girl" fails to sufficiently explore, such as why, in a culture that equates success with power and wealth, would young men choose a life of celibacy and service?" - Melanie McFarland, Seattle P-I

    I really like McFarland's review. The fact that she identifies herself as a "lapsed Catholic" but nevertheless feels intrigued and inspired by the men on the show--and irritated by the production's cheapening of their stories--is exactly the kind of thing that convinces me that "God or the Girl" was, in the end, a good thing.

  • "Too many deeply religious folk already harbor a persecution complex when it comes to their depiction in the media. It would be a shame if "God or the Girl" adds to that sense of distrust simply because A&E's tendency to sensationalize has left them unable to distinguish the forest from the trees." - Brian Lowry, Variety

    Cheers to Lowry for the brief nod to the plight of the "deeply religious folk."

  • "The creators of ''God or the Girl," Darryl Silver, Stephen David, and David Eilenberg, neither ridicule nor revere their subjects, despite obvious opportunities. At regular intervals, one of the young men says or does something that most reality producers would exploit shamelessly, such as when Mike, who is dating Aly, says he resists making out with her because lust is ''sick and disgusting." ''The Bachelorette" would have hung an entire episode, and relentless promotion of the episode, around that comment. Joe, too, could be easily pathologized since he's so profoundly fearful of romance. And Dan spends his spare time praying at strip clubs and abortion clinics, a fact that the producers let us judge for ourselves." - Matthew Gilbert, Boston Globe.

    What Gilbert writes here is a common observation by reviewers. Generally, they're struck by the uncommon non-judgmentalism of the series (with the exception of some really awful cut-scene commentaries). Now, I know guys in the seminary who are very much like each of the four men on the show. That means, to me, that if people find things to like about the guys on the show, then by extension they would find lots to like about the next generation of priests.

  • "That this type of spiritual dilemma still plays out in an age of cynicism is inspiring to follow, even if too many of the usual reality show trappings (intrusive music, manipulative narratives) detract from the central theme. Despite that, "God or the Girl" is laudable simply for bringing the issue of morality and higher calling to a genre notably devoid of same." - Ray Richmond, The Hollywood Reporter

    Here here!

Friday, April 07, 2006

If I were going to write books...

One of my dreams is to be able to write books with popular appeal. I don't know if I'll be able to do that, but to even write a single book (popular or not) would permit me to die a happy man. Maybe that's nothing more than my instinctive appetite to perpetuate memes... but I wouldn't want to write anything if I didn't think it could maybe maybe maybe help someone find some peace or to satisfy their hunger for knowledge. It isn't like I've forgotten that "there's nothing new under the sun." But, like the guide I wrote for an old video game, the usefulness of a book can be less in its new ideas and more in it's comprehensive, accurate, and helpful information.

Here are some ideas I've had for books I might consider writing some day.

  • To Flatten the World - My goal here would be to trace the trends and patterns of what could be called liberal Catholicism (as well as other contemporary movements and philosophies) to their philosophical and historical roots; not to dismiss them for being historical, but rather to illumine their common direction. That direction, I argue, is the ultimate dissolution of difference in an ideological quest for identity. Such philosophies are doomed to terminate, when taken to extremes, in either futility or totalitarianism. The key, I would argue, resides in the transcendence of the One God, the hypostatic union, and the work of the Spirit in the Church. (Predictable, I know).
  • The Virtue of Understanding - The goal here would be to explore and define what I believe is a much maligned intellectual virtue, and to argue against the notion that highly "sensate" (detail or fact oriented) people can validly dismiss the conclusions of "intuitives" (pattern oriented) as merely a different perspective. Sensates must defer to the intuitives' recognition of patterns and meanings just as much as intuitives must defer to the keen observations of sensates. I want to demonstrate that it is epistemologically irresponsible for sensates to dismiss understanding.
  • What Does it Mean? - Similar, if not identical to the previous idea. Recognizing the concrete impossibility of endless interpretation and analysis, still, this book would be a prophetic accusation against a world which has failed to sufficiently ask this question about its most cherished idols of thought and action.
  • Pattern of the Liturgy - A synthesis and dialogue between great liturgical theorists, contemporary trends, ancient liturgical history, and revelation, with a view toward answering the following questions: What is the most important standard? What is allowable, and what is not, within the framework of pastoral possibilities? Can one possibly claim a mandate for concrete liturgical reform in a pluralistic diocese, persuasively defend it from opponents, and enact it?
  • A Book About Freedom - Basically a longer and more tradition-soaked exposition on my writings on freedom and God here on NN. I want to discuss Freedom as the other name for God (the first being Love). But I want to clarify certain common Christian language regarding freedom, as well as demolish not only brazenly simplistic concepts of freedom, but more sophisticated errors about freedom.
  • The Choice to Love - A reflection on love (caritas) as an act of the will and how it subsists in spite of the absence of corresponding feeling and even in times of supreme anger.
  • A Systematic Introduction to Christianity - An introduction to the faith according to the four headings I outlined in NN: (1) Creation and her Creator, (2) Freedom and Salvation, (3) Analogy and Being,(4) Caritas and kenosis.
  • Consolations - An elongated sermon and love letter to those who suffer from guilt, anxiety, and depression, inspired by Henry Suso.
  • Three Logics - A book placing classical logic (non-contradiction), Hegelian logic (contradiction), and aesthetic logic (analogy, fittingness) in dialogue with one another, giving priority to the last.
  • Gender and Salvation - Really just a companion to John Paul II's Theology of the Body: a top-down (revelation and systematics-based) reflection on the ultimate meanings of gender and sex, and how male and female pervade salvation history; and as always with a view to concrete questions in everyday life and politics.
  • Convert to Catholicism? - A bald series of books targetted to atypical but undeniable contemporary groups: different volumes for agnostics, for atheists, for pluralists, for right-wing/left-wing schismatics, for Jews, Muslims, etc. A little bit out-there of an idea, I know, but fun to keep on the backburner.
  • Straw Compared to What I Have Seen - A book in praise of simple faith; and in praise of a tradition which allows itself to be simple for all in spite of its inexhaustible depth. It would be a self-referential warning to intellectualists; consolations for the anxious; and perhaps even a venture into writing a Theresian Rule of the Little Way for the laity.