Sunday, December 5, 2010

"Behold, I Make All Things New"

I know the Immaculate Conception is controversial as viewed from a Protestant perspective, but there is a Gospel analogy that supports it. Why would Mary, the most important woman in salvation history, "need" to be Immaculately Conceived, a "new creation" like Eve?

Because you "can't put new wine in old wineskins" - Mat. 9:14-17, Mark 2:18-22, Luke 5:33-39. To follow Christ and be saved, we must be made anew, part of the "new creation". We cannot pour his new wine into our old wineskins, ratty and torn as they are from Original Sin. This applies particularly so to the Virgin Mary. She must be the paradigm of the "new creation", sinless from her very conception, to be worthy of bearing forth Christ in a way more powerfully than any of us sinful Christians can.
And once you begin to consider the Virgin’s lifelong purity, other things begin to open themselves up to you. For instance, how did she live before the Angel appeared to her at the Assumption? What was her “hidden life” like? Mary's immaculate heart must have been pierced by many swords along the way, even before Jesus. To be pure and to live in this fallen world must have been an ongoing suffering for a woman who, like Christ, did not need to suffer. Imagine the nasty hard-heartedness and sinfulness she encountered day by day in the world. It must have pierced her heart with many little pins and tiny arrows of suffering.

So while the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception may appear to be divisive, rankling the Protestants among us, we must see the depth of theology implicit in the event, which is God’s desire to remake us utterly, to change our very natures, to give us new wineskins. Mary models for us what the perfect Christian should be, not merely a nice person, but a new creation, a pure and loving man or woman capable of intimate union with the Holy Spirit, a glorious vessel to bear forth the presence of Christ Himself to others, a remade human, not without suffering (in this life), but filled with a contentment that is made even richer through suffering.

As St. Paul tells us, “For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision matters. Rather, what matters is being a new creation.” (Gal. 6:15)

Earthen Vessels

(A response to my friend Joe Grabowski's post about the communion of saints.)

At times like yesterday when I went to Holy Mass at a parish center that is used for Mass by a parish in Kansas that has abandoned its old traditional church and uses a meeting room with folding chairs and no kneelers until the new church is built (even though the old traditional building remains standing), when the priest encourages everyone to sit comfortably for the consecration (since kneeling on the floor would be too difficult), when the homily turns the peace that passes understanding into "why don't we all just get along", when the music sounds like new age sauna background tracks, when the "communion hymn" assures us that we are God's body (true, of course, but not in the way the hymn seems to imply), when a new rite is borrowed from a Bernardine influenced web site for the congregation to bless the "cribe shrine" which the priest encourages us all to pray and which asks for the blessings of the star of Bethlehem upon our homes - whatever that means - deliberately avoiding the invocation of any saint or angel or any plea for the grace of God, when I leave Holy Mass not with a feeling I've come closer to Christ but with a strong desire to punch someone in the face, when all of this happens, I say to myself, "This Church still somehow, against all expectation, produces saints", then I know that it is not a tradition of man, for if it were, it would not last out the next few years without completely self-destructing. It is the saints and their example and our communion with them that serves as the best evidence for me of the continued presence of Christ among us when all else seems lost.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Battle Analyzed

The temptation in this secularized world is to fly to the opposite extreme and become a fundamentalist, a Puritan or a Jansenist. The way to avoid that is simply to note how miserable such people are – and how miserable the liberalists are – the very people against whom the reactionaries are reacting.

There is an irony here that is meant to keep us humble. It is that the greatest sinners are the greatest victims of their own sin. Chesterton speaks of the innocent outer circle and those who mislead them, the “supremely guilty inner circle”. In the attempt to dismantle the Catholic Church, the more one looks into it, the more one sees the “supremely guilty inner circle”, the Satanists, communists and pederasts, who made a conscious choice to mislead the useful idiots about them. These naïve followers, the outer circle, good-hearted and well-intentioned (but foolish) people as a rule, were led astray by a small group of men utterly and deliberately devoted to sin, perversion and death.

And yet even these supremely guilty few were themselves victims of forces beyond their understanding.


Thursday, November 25, 2010

Formed in Formlessness

I have just begun a very interesting book called The Heresy of Formlessness by Martin Mosebach, translated from the German by Graham Harrison and published by Ignatius Press.

The style is delightful and the writer writes with a self-conscious continental attitude that says, “I’m an artist and I see things differently and therefore I am licensed to write about them from a poetic point of view.”

So far his argument seems to be that the value of the liturgy is our unthinking participation in it; that the more conscious we are of the liturgy itself or of the character of the celebrant, the more difficult it is for us to worship. Thus the “form” of the liturgy is something we should automatically pour ourselves into; that if we begin to mess with the “form” of the liturgy, we make the mistake of thinking that somehow it’s all about us and not a gift from God.

And along the way, there are some brilliant quotes, such as …


"We sit in the pews and ask ourselves, was that Holy Mass, or wasn’t it? I go to church to see God and come away like a theater critic."


"If I want to know what a man believes, it is no good to me to go through his 'club regulations' – if you will pardon the expression [meaning the Catechism]. I must observe the man, his gestures, the way he looks; I must see him in moments when he is off guard. … That shows what faith is: the things we do naturally and as a matter of course."

[Mosebach then talks about some ordinary church ladies who begin to become particularly careful about preparing for the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, even though they have not been taught to do this. Thus he notes the sincerity of their faith. He then compares this with the careless melting down of communion patens by those who are suffused with the spirit of the Ordinary Form.]


"I repeat that I am not a theologian: but to me – someone who’s task is to portray people and reconstruct human motivation – if someone allows all the communion patens to be melted down , he can not possibly believe in the real presence of Christ in the Sacrament. We believe with our knees or we do not believe at all."


"A man on his knees because he believes his Maker is present in a little white wafer: this is still a stumbling block in many places, and we must thank God for it."


Indeed, it took a while after my conversion - many years - to come to the conclusion that these liberal suburban Catholics who surrounded me act the way they do, as a rule, because they don't really believe.

Now I will certainly be accused of judging their hearts, which I do not mean to do, but I must echo Mosebach here.

Why did the principal and teachers of our Catholic grade school set up a Thanksgiving Mass dedicated to the Great Earth Spirit? Because they don't really believe.

Why do those in the pews spend their time chatting and laughing and scheming against each other? Because they don't really believe.

Why does our so-called Director of Religious Education teach absolutely nothing about the Catholic Faith? Because she doesn't really believe.

Why do many people do all they can to twist the Church so that Christ endorses their lives of consumption, perversion, affluence, contraception and promiscuity? Because they don't really believe.

Of course, as I say, we can never read another's heart - but Mosebach is on to something. If we melt down communion patens - indeed if we stop kneeling, if we replace worship music with bad pop, if we turn the adoration of God into a narcissitic celebration of self, if we gay up the entire approach to God so that it's all emptiness and perverse affectation, then we "can not possibly believe in the real presence of Christ in the Sacrament" - or in the truth of Christ and His continued presence in the world.

And this I speak as a fully licensed poet, as, in Mosebach's words, "someone who’s task is to portray people and reconstruct human motivation."

On the one side we have the great patrimony of the Church, the teachings of the ascetic and mystics, the narrow way that Bl. John Henry Newman saw and explained so well; and on the other we have the sacrilege of the modern world and all that it gives us in our insipid homilies, our terrible music, our ugly architecture, and our utter devotion to self and sin.

I hate to sound like an old fuddy duddy here, but I am one, and a licensed one, at that.

Anyway, back to the book ...

Sunday, November 21, 2010


First, I was given the great privilege of recording the official audio version of the Holy Father's new book, Light of the World as published by Ignatius Press, which can be ordered on audio CD or downloaded here.

And I said two weeks ago to Jim Morlino, my co-reader for the audio book, "The Pope's comments about condoms will be the comments the press will run with." It did not take much prophetic insight to predict that.

The situation is simple: All the Holy Father is saying is that if a man who is steeped in sin to begin with and is having sex for reasons contrary to God's will and the Natural Law, then if this particular man begins to have a pang of conscience that says, "Perhaps getting physical pleasure is not what this is all about. Perhaps I should be concerned about my partner here. Maybe I should use a condom so as to protect my partner from the ravages of disease," this is clearly (as charity and common sense will tell you) a movement in the right direction.

Is the Pope saying the use of artificial birth control is virtuous? No.

Is the Pope saying that if you use a condom you are allowed to have promiscuous sex? No.

Is the Pope saying that it's better to be sexually active and use condoms than it is to abstain? No.

All the Pope is saying is that in this particular case, condom use, subjectively speaking, is a movement in the right direction for THIS PARTICULAR MAN. It is still a sinful act, objectively speaking, but it may indicate the work of God's grace in the heart of the sinner.

Likewise, if a prostitue begins to fall in love with her john, she is still a sinful prostitute, but if feelings of tenderness start to enter the equation, it is a movement in the right direction, and may lead her to repentance.

If a thief decides to steal less frequently from here on out, he is still sinning when stealing, but if he is trying to lessen the harm he is causing, he is moving in the right direction.

It's obvious. It's simple. But no one will get it. The noise will drown out the common sense. The book will be discussed by those who will never read it. The quote will be dissected by those who have never heard it. Judgment will be rendered by the right wingers who hate the Pope for being "liberal" and by the left wingers who hate the Pope for being "traditional". The circus will continue.

And what is lost in all of this is the concern for souls expressed by a shepherd of souls.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Philosophy of Acting starring Con Artists, co-starring New Age Pickpockets

So, Lord, I’m supposed to do this? I’m really supposed to write some sort of Philosophy of Acting?

I mean, yes, there’s what I ran into a few weeks back and posted on, the rejection of humor by the Puritans. And indeed I realized that there’s more there than just a lesson on comedy and humility. The Puritan rejection of humor is ultimately a rejection of all dramatic art, as well as a rejection of all literary art. Yes, even novels. For a good novel presents characters in all of their humanity, the great mish-mash of ape and angel, sinner and potential saint that every real-life-character is. This is offensive to the Puritans, who want to cut out the heart of salvation by dehumanizing the process, by taking out the “human” (i.e. sinful and foolish) element, an element redeemed by God but not crushed by Him. In quenching the man, Puritans are quenching the Spirit. In this way the Puritans have much in common with the secularists who love dehumanization for the power it gives them – which is the secret thrill behind Puritanism as well.

And in that is something that’s key to what an actor does. An actor has to have Sympathy. Sometimes this sympathy is expressed in the ability to imitate another, to catch a way of speaking or walking or brooding that another has. But more than that, sympathy is an utterly Christian virtue: it is a “suffering-with” another, an understanding of another, a pouring out of one’s heart to another. And an actor must have an element of this to portray any character. Such sympathy is also the key to a true sense of humor, even a satiric or lampooning sense of humor. Without sympathy, humor can become mean and bitter, the derisive laughter of children mocking a victim on the playground. Without sympathy, jesting becomes derision and caricature becomes contempt.

Compare this with the humor of Charles Dickens, whose novels contain characters that are always rounded and sympathetic, even when they are most ridiculous and absurd. It is this fullness of appreciation of our fellow men and their foibles, it is this understanding of sin that seeks not to condone sin but to transform it in the context of the dramatic story being told, that most offends Puritan sensibilities.

And yet Puritans are not the problem within the world of show biz. Within the acting community, we don’t see Puritans, we see Libertines – Libertines who are what I was before my conversion, hungry for spiritual purpose with an inkling that such a purpose could be found on stage.

But how are such devotees of the craft treated? How is their spirituality channeled in the acting world?

First it is either ignored, or else it flows into sexual libido where they find both great opportunities for pretending and also the everlasting drama of the real life backstage soap opera of the promiscuous or perverse. Their energies are usually canalized into the self-serving hedonism and egotism that actors are justly famous for.

But what is inspiring me to write this, Lord, what is goading me, getting under my skin, what is annoying me, is this.

A lady contacted me a few weeks back who is hoping to start at her parish some sort of acting troupe that would meet regularly and focus on the spirituality of acting. I encouraged her to do this.

But yesterday she sent me the proposed agenda for the troupe, and one of the things it includes is reading so-called “spiritual” works, one of which is The Power of Now by someone who calls himself Eckhardt Tolle. This book, from what I gather, is nothing but excrement bound. Endorsed by The Oprah, Tolle’s spiritual insights include such tired commonplaces as “the transformation of consciousness, a spiritual awakening [is] the next step in human evolution.” This is bound up in “transcending our ego-based state of consciousness. This is a prerequisite not only for personal happiness but also for the ending of violent conflict endemic on our planet". ( link ) Excuse me. YAWWWWNNNNN.

Tolle also bravely advances the unheard of notion that all religions are not only the same, but that all religions are barriers to spirituality, except the liquid religion in the snake oil bottle Tolle is touting. Oh, wait. That’s not bravely advancing an unheard of notion; that’s simply parroting the spirit of the age, the spirit that has given birth to the culture of death.

Tolle was (of course) inspired by Buddhism and is (naturally) devoted to Nothingness and feels (you can see this coming) that emptying of self is key – not emptying of self for the sake of the Truly Real (God), but emptying of self for the sake of the great Illusion that Nothing is Real – in other words, a sacrifice for the sake of the Lie. Tolle is a new age con artist, the type we’ve seen before, the type you could easily parody on stage. His story is typical – troubled childhood, bouts of depression, a sudden realization that Nothing is everything and everything is Nothing, a change of name and identity, a hint of Prussian mercilessness, a pop culture deification in his success that makes him a victim of the false gods he serves, and so forth. It’s a story I could tell in my sleep. It’s a story we see again and again in this day and age, and it’s a story that’s dragging souls to hell, with Tolle the pied piper leading his followers to where he’s headed himself.

Now, speaking of Sympathy, one must feel for this poor guy and his poor insipid idiotic followers. But why on earth would this be required reading for a Catholic Theater Group? Why on earth, if the actors want to study spirituality, don’t they plug into the great, beautiful and true patrimony of spirituality that we have in the Catholic Church? There stands Hamlet, showing his mother two pictures. “You’ve turned from this,” he says, pointing to a picture of St. John of the Cross, the Little Flower, St. Francis de Sales, “to THIS?” he says, pointing to a picture of a used car salesman wearing a yin-yang necklace at a Joyce Meyer meeting.

So, Lord, if you want me to write something more on the Philosophy of Acting, I can at least begin with this.

Actors, the devotion you feel in your hearts for your craft, the self-sacrifice and abnegation you practice for the sake of what you love, the willingness to suffer so that the show must go on, the Spirit that thrills you on stage, He who inspires you, He for whom your hearts are hungry is not your acting coach, not your co-star, not the fame or applause that excites you, not the author of the latest Oprah book-of-the-month club paean-to-suburban-Buddhism, not even the little blonde chorus girl or boy in the back row. He for whom your hearts are restless is He who is calling you to the vocation of St. Genesius. And He is neither Nothing, nor the illusion of Maya, nor the quenching of your rational soul. He is Truth. He is Love. He is Real.

Turn from the lies that surround you and turn to Him.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Death of Drama

John C. Wright has written several posts lately beginning with this one in which he, among other things, claims that post-modernist drama is an oxymoron, that drama can not be an art form for a post-modernist: no dehumanizing thinker can create dramatic art.

He's right, of course, because drama is all about the consequential. Drama is about how certain actions to lead to certain things (and not to others), and about examining what this innate mystery in all action tells us about reality, humanity, and God. But in the post-modern world where nothing leads to anything, where all meaning is contrived and imposed, drama itself ceases to have meaning - its entire reason for being is undone. You can not produce in an art form that exists to explore the consequences of action, nor can you explore the relationship between human character and action, when we no longer believe in either - character or action. The current philosophy denies that acts by their very nature lead to results and sees every aspect of human character (including gender) as being arbitrary and hence meaningless.

I spoke about this at the American Chesterton Society conference in 2009 in Seattle, in my talk Chesterton and Drama, a talk which I hope to rework this week for a more in depth blog post, particularly in reply to some of Wright's musings.

But before I get around to that, in the tradition of being dramatic, here's a teaser. At one point in my presentation I talked about Chesterton's views on good drama vs. bad drama ...


Chesterton contrasts good drama with conventional drama, or what we would call "melodrama". “Though vice is punished in conventional drama,” he says, “the punishment is not really impressive, because it is not inevitable or even probable. It does not arise out of the evil act.”

In making this point, Chesterton refers to a play by Harley Granville-Barker called Waste. It was a play in which a woman dies from what Chesterton euphemistically calls an “illegal operation”, in other words an abortion. George Bernard Shaw praised the play, saying that an “illegal operation” and the deaths that ensued from it arose more truly from acts of unchastity than the more outlandish consequences that arise from unchastity in melodramas – pistol shots or poison. In other words, Shaw was saying that a drama is better, and more faithful to its purpose as an art form, when it depicts a consequence of an action that comes forth by the very nature of that action. Chesterton agreed with this. Adultery and fornication are more likely to produce things less lurid and more tragic (or sometimes more comic) than pistol shots or poison - though in the case of the “illegal operation” Chesterton thought it too difficult a subject for the audience to bear, and the repulsion it caused not fit for civilized literature.

We’ve come a long way, haven’t we?

Thus Chesterton thought Macbeth to be the perfect tragedy, for in Macbeth the nature of sin and the consequences that spring from it are presented with a clarity and swiftness that are unmatched.


More on this later.

Wright's posts are intriguing, though his definitions of comedy, tragedy and melodrama are rather glib (compare, for instance, Chesterton's insight into the limitations of melodrama just quoted), but Wright is approaching the subject not so much as a literary critic but as a critic of the modern malaise - something he's good at. And he has given us some food for thought on what drama is and why the current age is seeing - in the midst of all the movies and TV shows and video clips on youtube - the Death of Drama.

As they say on television ... to be continued.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Comedy and the Devil

My first hint was the fact that they were opposed to Halloween. Foolishly, I ignored this until he sat down before me with a kind of stolid contempt.

“You call yourself a Christian?” he said to me, peering. “How can you be a Christian and perform this kind of comedy?”

I had driven over an hour to meet with this man, a winery owner in rural Missouri, who was interested in booking some of the murder mysteries we offer through our secular theater company, Upstage Productions. I had sent him a promotional packet and a DVD, which includes clips from some of our dinner theater shows, all of which are PG-13 – no real vulgarity, lots of satire, silly humor, and some suggestive moments (more with crowds that are rowdy, less with tame crowds). The owner had seen the video and was scandalized, even though the material on the video is as risqué as a Carol Burnette sketch from the 1970s.

I had noticed flyers indicating that the winery was the meeting place for a local Protestant worship group, and that on October 31 they would be presenting a short drama about Martin Luther – which the owner told me was presented as an “alternative to Halloween”.

Now I think it’s important that we not fool ourselves and overlook the Warning Signs. There are Warning Signs everywhere in life, and I’m usually busy ignoring them. For example, if a man likes Joan Rivers and has seen The Wizard of Oz a dozen times and has posters of Lady Gaga on his wall – those are Warning Signs. If an actor has trouble making it to a noon audition and is rubbing sleep from his eyes and smells strongly of cigarette smoke – those are Warning Signs. If a parish calls itself a “community of believers”, has banners everywhere and a drum set that’s more prominent than the Blessed Sacrament – those are Warning Signs.

Likewise when Halloween is attacked and laughter is suspect and a person says to a stranger, “You call yourself a Christian?” – those are Warning Signs.

I could have walked out. I was certainly tempted to. But the thing that prevented me was the thought that this guy means well. He is a brother in Christ, and he is concerned for the integrity of the practice of the Faith, though from his tone and demeanor he couldn’t care less for the destiny of my soul. Yes, there’s no real charity at work in his confrontation of me, I thought, but there is at least beneath a cloak of self-righteousness a true desire to follow Our Lord and to oppose the sins of the world. Clearly, I thought, if our promotional video offends him, he should never book our shows, and if he did I would be under a kind of pressure and bitter censorship that would prevent me from doing what he’d be paying me to do, but he raises a valid point. How can a Christian perform suggestive humor? Nasty though he’s being to me, I thought, I owe him an explanation.

However, I am reluctant to write on this point, as I was reluctant to address the issue with this winery owner. The fact is that you can’t give someone a sense of humor by explaining a joke. Neither can you explain Halloween to a Halloween-o-phobe. You could try to point out that dressing up and having fun on Halloween is not the service of Satan, but the mockery of Satan and the terrifying yet ridiculous single-mindedness of his demons; it is tweaking the prideful nose of the devil. You could try to point out that Halloween is the preparation and vigil for the great solemnity of All Saints and the feast of all souls – days which honor the dead, especially those who have been blessed by Christ with holiness and a share of the Father’s Heavenly Kingdom. But rational arguments are of no avail with such people. You can no more defend Halloween to a Puritan than you can explain a joke to someone who doesn’t get it. This is because Halloween-o-phobia is not a rational thing in and of itself, but a symptom of a far deeper spiritual error. It is the fruit of the Pharisee. It is the poisonous apple that has fallen from the tree of Puritanism. The roots that produce it go deep. It is a pernicious heresy.

Now to give this winery owner and fellow Christian (though heretic) his due, he and I no doubt shared the vast bulk of the tenets of the Catholic Faith – belief in the divinity of Christ, the necessity of salvation, the danger of sin, the expiation of the cross, the immortality of the soul, and so forth. Where he differed, and what cut him off most markedly from full communion in the Church, is in his belief of guaranteed salvation to those who profess, and what flows from that belief, the pride of presumption. Behind that was the great mood that all Puritans share – hatred of fun.

Again, though, the points he made were worth addressing. He said that as a kid he used to love Red Skelton. Red Skelton could be funny without being the least bit off-color. Why do comics today feel compelled to aim at the lowest common denominator? Why are they wallowing in mire?

The same can be said for “Goths” and people who become fascinated with the occult. Indeed, Satan is a real and powerful enemy and the trappings of Halloween can often draw some in to an obsession with the realm of darkness that lasts longer than that one night, leading to a morbidity of the imagination and a true danger for the soul.

I do not deny, then, that most comedy in the popular culture of our day is rancid, spiteful, self-serving and crude, nor do I deny that Halloween can indeed be used as a cover for interest in the occult. We did, therefore, agree on much. So did he have a point when he said, in so many words, that a Christian should not find humor in the flesh or in sins of the flesh? I tried to address the question at its root.

“Sin is funny,” I said. “In our mystery Slay It Again, Sam, the Humphrey Bogart character, after Ingmar Bergman leaves him, enters into a purely physical relationship with his personal secretary, Brandi, played by a woman in the audience. We make it clear that their relationship is not a chaste one, and we get some laughs from that.”

“An affair is a serious sin! It is never funny!” the man objected.

“Well, fornication is indeed a serious sin,” I replied, “but we are all sinners. Made in the image and likeness of God, we nevertheless waste our lives on things that are unworthy of us – like fornication, and anger, and greed. Everyone in Slay It Again, Sam is searching with a passionate greed for the Maltese Chicken, a rubber chicken worth millions of dollars. They’re willing to kill each other to get it. This is funny. It’s funny because it’s incongruous. It’s not what we should be doing. It’s not what we were made to do. It shows how ridiculous we are when we try to act like little gods, when we go after only the things we want. But it was ever thus. Don’t you see? Without being able to laugh at our sinfulness, it’s far too easy to take ourselves seriously. Humor is a form of humility. We’re all in this boat together. We’re all sinners, and we might as well acknowledge that and laugh at it.”

“For that matter,” he replied, “Murder is a sin. You’re making light of murder in your ‘murder mysteries’.”

“There’s a difference between the depiction of sin and the endorsement of sin,” I answered. “If sin were never to be made fun of or examined, all drama would have to be banned, for that is what all drama is about. Hamlet revolves around murder – and also revenge and lust and so forth – all serious sins, and all examined seriously in drama. Should we never perform Hamlet? Never perform any drama – serious or humorous? The Puritans banned drama once, you know …”

But he was peering at me with an even colder stare.

I concluded. “Humor comes from God. It is a divine gift. God has a sense of humor. If He didn’t, we wouldn’t. We couldn’t. If you reject depicting the sinfulness of man and laughing at it, you’re playing right in to Satan’s prideful hands, and you are giving up a gift that only a creature with reason and will could have, a gift you should cherish, use properly, and not suppress. You are giving up a sense of humor.”

I thanked him for meeting with me and left. I knew it was both a failed sales call and probably a failed witness.

How tragic it is (and also how funny) that we are in a world where the Church is split in two – heterodox liberalists rejecting the full message of Christ so that they can indulge their flesh, and heterodox Puritans rejecting the full message of Christ so that they can indulge their pride.

May the Lord have mercy on us, and may we never back down from making fun of ourselves, or from having fun in making it.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Evolution of a Revival

With success comes danger.

Case in point: as Cardinal Newman was beatified last month in England, the left had to do something; they couldn’t just ignore Newman and they weren’t about to read him. So what did they do? They co-opted him, they made him not only a theological liberal (the one thing he never was), they also made him a raving homosexual (the other one thing he never was). The left says about Newman insipid things like, “he stood for change” or “he told us to follow only our conscience, and my conscience lets me do whatever I like”. In effect, they keep saying, “You know, he’s really one of us,” meaning that John Henry Newman is a sophisticated liberal living a life of quiet despair and going to Anglican services for the music as he sits in the pew with his arm around his boyfriend – something which even a cursory reading of Newman would tell you he’s not.

The same is happening with our man G. K. Chesterton, but it’s not the left who are making Chesterton an ugly caricature; it’s the right.

Ten years ago no one knew who G. K. Chesterton was. I did, because I was devouring his books (he was the writer most responsible for my conversion), and I noticed on what was then a still-fledgling internet that there were only a few references to him scattered here and there that one could find if one looked hard enough on search engines. There was, for example, something called the American Chesterton Society and a guy who spoke on EWTN at odd times about Chesterton, but the average intellectual or reader had never heard of him. Chesterton, the most brilliant essayist and thinker of the twentieth century, had been buried.

But, as I pointed out in an article for the St. Austin Review, this is a Faith of Resurrection, and we now see Chesterton out of his grave, jovial and ebullient as ever. This has caused a rush on shovel sales.

Many people are made uncomfortable by this laughing and living corpse talking and thinking among them, more alive now than most of the people we see on the street, and so there’s a desire to cover this man up again and pretend his resurrection never really happened. But the reburial of Chesterton is only one of the dangers his followers now face. There is another that might be the more dangerous. For Chesterton is once again in the public eye – and being in your eye is just a tad shy of being “in your face”.

And people are responding in two major ways to Chesterton being “in their face”. They are either

1. Reading him, or
2. Not reading him.

If they are not reading him, they are either

A. Dismissing him (burying him, damning him with faint praise, slandering him), or
B. Co-opting him for their own partisan agendas which bear no relation to who Chesterton really was or what he really wrote (in other words, doing to him what the liberals are doing to Newman in England).

The two tactics employed are, therefore, BURIAL or CO-OPTION. And we need to understand these tactics well and be wary of them.

For I assert that we are no longer in the Early Stage of the Chesterton Revival, a stage that consisted almost entirely of Getting the Word Out, promoting Chesterton and trying to get people to read him. We have now passed into the Middle Stage of the Chesterton Revival, a stage that consists of Defending Him, both from the attacks of those who want to get rid of him; and also Defending Him from those who want to co-opt him, who want to take Chesterton and wave him as a banner or use him as a cloak to defend their less-than-Chestertonian designs.

And so far we see these two responses of the non-readers in a left / right split.

The left are the ones who are damning Chesterton with faint praise, who are writing grudging articles that acknowledge the revival while at the same time making sure we understand that Chesterton was a shallow, partisan thinker, a rabid Catholic who was from an utterly bygone era, a judgmental boor who was a bigot in a jester’s costume. Or, as Stanford Nutting calls him, with livid indignation, “that anti-Semitic, medievalistic, misogynistic, homophobic pre-post-modernist G. K. Chesterton.”

On the other hand, the right are the ones who are trying to co-opt him. Take for example this past week’s hubbub over James O’Keefe (see my latest two posts), a young man who claims his two heroes are Saul Alinsky (who dedicated his book Rules for Radicals to Lucifer) and G. K. Chesterton, a very unlikely combination to say the least. O’Keefe’s latest stunt, exposed by CNN, the evidence of which has still not been addressed by O’Keefe without spin, distraction and fudging, has embarrassed a number of Chestertonians who feel that O’Keefe never should have been invited to speak at this year’s Chesterton Conference to begin with and who feel that the American Chesterton Society should now officially distance itself from him. (By the way, although I am one of O’Keefe’s most vocal critics, I speak as someone who actually likes O’Keefe personally and admires his sense of humor, his pluck, his stirrings of Faith, and therefore I think it’s particularly important to call him out when he messes up as profoundly as he has).

This type of problem would not have happened ten years ago and did not happen ten years ago. Back then, a young idealist like O’Keefe would have read Alinksy only because no one in his circle of friends would even have known who G. K. Chesterton was. But now Chesterton is popular again, and as such is part of the popular culture, a thing that is reeking and rotting and that tends to corrupt everything it touches – corrupting it especially with partisan politics.

And so we see that the right is attracted to Chesterton because he’s Christian – indeed Catholic. And the left is appalled with Chesterton for the same reason, for the left is viciously anti-Catholic, having openly and virulently rejected much Catholic teaching by supporting abortion, euthanasia, the destruction of the family through the degradation of marriage, and so forth and so on. But what so-called conservatives are loath to admit is that the right has also rejected much Catholic teaching by supporting torture, unbridled capitalism, unjust war, degradation of the poor, Puritanism, and (as we can see with O’Keefe and his supporters) unadulterated consequentialism (the teaching that the end justifies the means). Either way, the Church is despised. Either way Christ is crucified all over again.

And either way, Chesterton is not read. Or if read, read superficially and not understood.

Of the two reactions against Chesterton by those who do not read him, or who do not read him well, I think the latter is the more dangerous. The left can’t bury him again. He’s too big and they can’t shovel the muck fast enough. They can’t heave such a heavy thinker so easily back into the pit of oblivion. But the right can do worse than that. The right can fashion him into an ugly painted puppet on a stick who’s no more than a fat little ventriloquist dummy, moving his mouths to the words they themselves are speaking.

But either side may yet use either tactic. As the left has used the tactic of CO-OPTION on Blessed Cardinal Newman, so they may find that by co-opting Chesterton’s economics they can turn a Distributist into a Communist and thereby further their economic and social agenda; and as the right becomes more uncomfortable with the passages of Chesterton that deride personal attack and Puritanism, the right may reach for the nearest shovel in the blink of an eye, hoping to BURY the sign of contradiction in their midst before he becomes a cornerstone of something bigger and more distasteful to them. So don’t expect the twin tactics of BURIAL and CO-OPTION always to be used by the same group of people. That’s one of the things we need to be mindful of.

For we can only be prepared to save Chesterton from the oblivion into which the left is heaving him, and from the ugly painted puppet on a stick into which the right is fashioning him by recognizing that the challenge is different now, though the solution is still the same: read Chesterton, read more of him, read him carefully, read him well, and turn with all of our hearts to the very Everlasting Man G. K. Chesterton everlastingly served.

Thus the Middle Stage beings. Thus the wariness and wakefulness demanded of us by our own success.

Monday, October 4, 2010

James O'Keefe Continued

On Facebook, James linked to his rather lame defense of his sex toy scheme, which I blogged about here.

I posted this comment on his FB post in response to this defense:

James, what about the email evidence CNN claims to have that you in fact approved of this scenario and were set to impliment it until Izzy Santa blew the whistle? What "guerilla theater" skit were you going to implement if not the sex toy scheme? It's evident you wanted to meet with Boudreau personally to coax her into a video of some sort. What was that video to be, if not the one CNN is reporting? It's also odd that Santa would freak out the way she did in intercepting Boudreau unless she knew specifically what was up.

I would love to give you the benefit of the doubt, James, but CNN seems to have some solid evidence that needs more than a statement from you that merely accuses them of bad and biased journalism. Certainly, they're a biased organization, but that's not the issue here; it's not even in disupte. The question is how do you refute the hard evidence they have?

Also, if you had no plan to impliment this scenario, how is it that you haven't been able to convince Breitbart of that?

As you know, James, many of the Chestertonians and I were impressed with you when you spoke at the Chesterton conference, though even there questions were raised about your tactics, questions which I tried to help you answer. However this latest problem is not really a question of tactics but of judgment and intention. It's disturbing to your followers to try to figure out what your intention was in any kind of ambush of Boudreau, particularly the one Ben outlined in detail in the document. The plan seemed far from investigative journalism and not even good guerilla theater. I think for you to assuage your base you have to be clear about what you really had intended to do and you also need to respond directly to the evidence CNN has presented. Your online statement does not do either.

We are praying for you, and praying that you "purify your intentions" as a friend of mine put it. The end does not justify the means, and beyond that, the end must be something more than just smearing another human being out of a kind of juvenile spite. You show much promise, James, as a crusader for truth, but this, the Louisiana debacle, and even the music video seem to be very wrong-headed. You are called to something greater than what you've been attempting lately.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

What is James O'Keefe Doing?

There is awash in the world today a kind of idealism that’s loosed from its moorings. I suspect this is because the cynicism against which the idealism reacts is so strong and entrenched that it’s provoking reactions that are unrealistic.

A case in point is James O’Keefe, a young man who spoke at this year’s American Chesterton Society Conference. O’Keefe is best known as the video journalist who brought down ACORN and who exposed the racism inherent in Planned Parenthood’s abortion agenda by means of undercover videos in which he posed as a pimp or a racist, and elicited responses that were shocking enough to cause a few tremors. He struck us at the Conference as a quixotic idealist carrying on against the windmills of corruption while under assault from the mainstream media, lawyers and other nasty bugbears.

However, it was a bit disturbing when, in the Q & A session following his speech, O’Keefe was asked, “How do you justify your technique? You lie to people in your undercover videos. You pretend to be something or someone you’re not, and they react to you based upon that falsehood,” and O’Keefe answered, in effect, “the end justifies the means: I am lying to bring down a greater lie.” – which, of course, is consequentialism - poison to any society, any individual, or any attempt at reform.

I later spoke publicly before our performance at the conference, and tried to give a better defense of O’Keefe’s activities. “It’s a kind of guerilla theater,” I said, “in which, as in all theater, masking is used to reveal the truth.” In other words, as in Candid Camera we get to see how people would react in a given fictional situation, but not simply (as in Candid Camera) for cheap laughs, but as in Shakespeare, the fiction, the mask, the pretense, serves to reveal a greater truth that would otherwise remain hidden. But I was not entirely satisfied with this defense, which seemed to be perhaps a bit Jesuitical to me. For one thing, in actual drama the participants and audience are all aware of the charade and no one is victimized by being deliberately fooled. In O’Keefe’s videos, there is a kind of victimization going on, even though the victim might himself be a victimizer, and even though O’Keefe’s guerilla theater might be doing a good by revealing that.

But now we learn it’s not just O’Keefe’s tactics that are in question. He seems, in light of some recent revelations, to be a young idealist utterly overwhelmed by the forces that are preying upon him. These forces are both external – including his financial supporters who appear to be exploiting him, and his critics who are viciously opposed to him – as well as internal: he is being undone by a lack of mature judgment at the very least. His latest attempts at investigative journalism / guerilla theater are far from Shakespeare’s “the virtue of IF”, far from using a mask to reveal a truth, far from even the cheap laughs of Candid Camera, and almost below the level of Punked on MTV.

To wit: the news this week is that O’Keefe had planned on luring a female CNN reporter onto his boat and “faux seducing” her while surrounded with sex toys and pornographic magazines and filming this encounter – to what end being rather unclear. What is clear is that the script outline for this “prank”, obtained and released by CNN, reads like a bad idea for a frat house comedy night sketch.

Suddenly O’Keefe and company seem much more like teenagers with cameras than anything resembling investigative journalists. Give a frat boy a camera, and this is what you’ll get – bad self-indulgent theatrics on the one hand, and nothing resembling journalism on the other.

Of course there’s always the chance that CNN is twisting this to serve its own liberal bias and to bring down O’Keefe, but I doubt that. O’Keefe’s cohort who wrote the scenario has admitted to the plot and the authenticity of the script CNN obtained; another of O’Keefe’s cohorts who “outed” him seems to have legitimately done so out of concern for the pointlessness, perverseness and potential harm of this prank, and so on.

Meanwhile, James O’Keefe is trying to defend himself from what he thinks is a serious misunderstanding concerning his failed mission in Louisiana, in which he and some cronies disguised themselves as telephone repairmen and tried to gain access to a Louisiana senator’s phone system – to catch the senator in a lie. O’Keefe ended up arrested and charged for this one, and he is now serving out his probation. And he’s upset that when the news hit, it was inaccurately reported that he was engaged in wiretapping – which he wasn’t. Of course, this also shows a lack of maturity on his part, for if you enter government property under false pretences and in disguise attempt to gain access to the phone system of a U.S. Senator while surreptitiously filming said event ... well, that’s not much better than wiretapping. Our buddy Bill Clinton can gloat over the fact the he didn’t technically have “sex” with Ms. Lewinsky, but he’s only fooling himself when he flaunts this kind of narrow innocence, and so is James O’Keefe.

Still, O’Keefe is offended by the wiretapping misnomer, and so he wants to set the record straight. And how do you suppose he intends to do this? How does he hope to clear his name and let his viewers know the purity of his intentions before his Federal arrest and guilty plea? By producing and starring in a music video.

A music video.

Well, I think the upshot of all of this is that Distributism is a dangerous thing. It’s a great good, having electronic information technology, once controlled by a handful of megalithic corporations, now in the possession of the people. But like all great goods, it can really sting.

If O’Keefe were an investigative journalist fifteen years ago, neither the telephone scheme nor the sex prank would have gotten past the first editorial review. But now Distributism in media has given ordinary people what was once extraordinary power – the power to be your own producer and your own editor, a dangerous mix; the power to expose corruption and the power to make an ass of yourself; the power to use proper means to achieve an end and the power to use illicit means to achieve an end – in both cases for all the world to see; the power to engage an audience in a virtuous and responsible way and the power to indulge infantile fantasies that are painful and repulsive for your audiences even to hear tell of.

James O’Keefe struck us all at the Chesterton Conference as being a young idealist, and he struck some of us as being distracted, burdened and troubled in spirit – whether from the persecutions he was enduring or from some other issue which was not clear. He was astonished that so many people were telling him they would be praying for him. He was clearly on some sort of Faith journey. He has the potential to be a kind of monk, living frugally, at risk, on the edge, all for the sake of the truth.

But he won’t get there the way he’s traveling now. If G. K. Chesterton is indeed a hero of James O’Keefe’s, then we should continue to pray for O’Keefe that he focus, as Chesterton did, on what is true, on Him who is Truth, on His way, and not on all of the various temptations that can bring a budding young Christian down, from adolescent self-indulgence to using bad means to achieve good ends.

And in the meantime Mr. O’Keefe has to decide if he is a crusading journalist or a Penthouse Magazine version of “Borat”; if he is the child who points out that the emperor is wearing no clothes or the teenager who won’t turn down his crappy music; if he is serious about what he’s doing or if he’s just (like most actors I know) working out his “issues” on a very big stage – in a very sad way.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Facing up to Facebook

On the St. Austin Review Ink Desk, Sophia Mason has written an post in which she both pans and praises Facebook. How I empathize with Sophia!

As regular readers know, Facebook and I have had a tumultuous relationship. She and I have split a few times after ugly public shouting matches, she pushed me down the stairs once, I have accused her of infidelity, her algorithm had originally sized me up as a loser and drug abuser simply because I was an actor, and so forth.

But we’ve settled into something rather permanent of late. Facebook and I are not exactly “married”, nor “single”, we are “in a relationship” and “it’s complicated”.

So I do indeed empathize with Ms. Mason over her tendency to love / hate this thing called Facebook.

But how much is Facebook as a mode of communication to blame for Facebook’s shortcomings? As the internet blogger Dr. Thursday pointed out to me once, “Objecting to the internet is like objecting to a road or a highway. The internet is simply a pathway to a variety of destinations.” This is true, but certain kinds of roads encourage certain kinds of traffic and it’s easier to take some roads to particular destinations than it is to take others.

For example, when men had to take a physical road to find a pornographic book store or a strip club, they had to risk the dangers of going into a seedy neighborhood and risk the shame of being seen doing so. But if someone can instead take a virtual highway across cables linking computers to one another, so that pornography can be viewed in the safety and privacy of one’s own home, then naturally the use of pornography will mushroom and men will indulge their lust far more so than had such technology not been around.

Likewise, in the early days of printed books, reading and writing were more careful and more deliberate. With the advent of the dissemination and popularization of the printing press, you begin to see such things as magazines, newspapers and pamphlets, which by their nature allow for more immediacy in communication, which leads both to the use of printing for political agitation and for capitalizing on sensationalism.

And thus we see that new developments in technology lead to the cultivation of new kinds of behaviors. Even in the development of literature, we see that when the technology available to Drama was the stage only, scripts tended to be less intimate and sensational than they became when written for the new technology of film. Likewise, when the new (or “novel”) technology enabled “novels” to appear, we find the beginnings of a kind of fiction that is detailed, complex, and intensely psychological. And yet the novels that first appeared in serial form in periodicals, such as the novels of Dickens, have a different structure and feel than novels written to be read from start to finish all at once.

So technology, itself a development of culture, does indeed impact the further development of culture. Roadways are not neutral. Different kinds of paths are conducive to different kinds of traffic and different kinds of purpose. You can’t safely ride your bike on the freeway, for instance; nor can a rutted gravel road in the country allow for the development of a fancy new suburb in that area.

Likewise the technology of Facebook makes certain kinds of behaviors easier than others. The emphasis on pictures and the brief space allowed for “status updates” encourage a trivializing of relationships. But the ability of users to post links to articles and blogs that interest them means that if you have a variety of friends who read good things, you will be treated to a variety of posts linking to some very good stuff. And while “threads” of discussion can be compelling, the nature of comboxes seems to draw out a kind of defensive argumentation that makes it hard to develop points formally and carefully.

All in all, however, the benefits of Facebook for me have outweighed the drawbacks. It still remains the best technology out there for photo sharing and for keeping up with friends who otherwise I would not keep up with.

Still, I don’t completely trust the gal. She’s a bit of a tramp. So, yes we’re back together, but “it’s complicated”.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Beast Advances Part 2 - Good Faith, Bad Faith, and the Gateway of Faith

The Beast Advances Part II

by Kevin O’Brien

It occurred to me what the thread is, not only in people arguing unreasonably on the internet, but on a number of things we encounter in our lives.

The thread is Bad Faith.

When a fellow becomes a Facebook “friend” only to post a nasty and superficial attack upon the Catholic Church on my Facebook “wall”, and then runs away when I point out the fallacies of his argument, he is not arguing in Good Faith. When a teen-aged punk uses profanity on my youtube combox in an effort to claim that God is an immoral monster, he is not arguing in Good Faith. When an unemployed transvestite rails against those filthy men who define things in life like gender, the oppressive males who believe in the outmoded Western notion of the law of non-contradiction, he is not arguing in Good Faith. Almost anyone you engage in debate who defends torture these days is not really open to reasoned arguments against torture from either a theological or a moral perspective; they are simply trying to rationalize their position and placate their fear. Indeed, every torture supporter I have yet to engage is simply not arguing in Good Faith – though it may take a few hours to figure this out.

What do I mean by this? I don’t mean that these people are arguing poorly or stupidly or in a bigoted or wrong-headed way. I mean that they are not arguing at all.

To argue is to engage in a discourse of reason, through which the parties attempt to discover which party is closer to the truth. Now even in arguments of Good Faith, people can become heated and their logic can be faulty and their ability to communicate imperfect, but a Good Faith argument is an argument where all of the parties are indeed open to discovering the truth, either by convincing the opponent of the wrongness of his position, or by being convinced of the wrongness of one’s own.

But I find myself frustrated on the internet because I defend my own faith and attacks upon it presuming that those attacking it are attacking in Good Faith and will be open to reasoned rebuttals.


That’s right, ha!

But then, if you think about it so much of what we see in life has to do with people approaching things in Bad Faith. I had actors who were supposed to be helping us evangelize through drama, but who had no interest in evangelizing and only wanted paid work. I often negotiate with clients who poor-mouth me, not because they really can’t afford our services but because they’re simply jerking us around. And, believe it or not, there are women who show an interest in famous Catholic actors not because they really like them but simply because they want to get them in their famous Catholic bedroom. These are all examples of people dealing in Bad Faith.

And then there are the people who operate in Good Faith, but who are so incompetent that they appear to be operating in Bad Faith, like a client who books you and intends to return your contract and promote your show, but who simply never does either.

And then there are the people who argue in Good Faith, but who take more pride in scoring petty victories in argumentation than in an honest search for the truth; though if they can subdue their own competitive streaks, they indeed will be open to hearing a reasoned case.

Now why, in all of these things, do we use the terms Good Faith and Bad Faith? Does any of this really have to do with Faith, that is to say the grace of Faith, theological faith in God?

I have just recorded for Ignatius Press Audio Books a brilliant sermon by John Henry Newman on the relation between Faith and Works. What Newman says (and I may in fact expand on this in another post) is that Faith is the gateway, and the works that follow Faith are the works of co-operation with the Spirit dwelling in us, the gift of the Spirit purchased for us by Christ’s passion, and given to us once we assent to the grace of Faith, and therefore are Good Works leading to sanctification, sanctification being the prerequisite of life in Heaven; whereas bad works are those performed before passing through the gateway of Faith, works which are of the unregenerate man only, works which have no divine co-operation, and are therefore unavailing, such as the dead works of the Law of which St. Paul speaks. Newman says both St. Paul and St. James are right: Works without Faith are dead; Faith without Works is dead; we are saved by both, our living Faith being the prerequisite for fruitful Works, Works which, inspired by the Spirit of Faith, become meritorious in God’s eyes.

And the same is true on the natural level. Theologically meritorious works aside, let’s speak simply of the works men do, inspired or not – works considered from a merely human and temporal perspective.

All human things done in Bad Faith, which is to say without one’s heart being in the right place, are wrong, even from a social point of view and not a spiritual one. In other words, things done for ulterior motives, done in some degree malevolently and not benevolently, done without the honesty and integrity and earnestness they deserve – things not done in Good Faith – are in some way or another always wrong and hurtful.

And we can see that if a person exhibits Good Faith in anything, it is much easier to cut this person some slack. If, for example, a student writes an essay that is poorly written, but shows an honest effort, the essay being the disappointing product of a genuine attempt, a Good Faith attempt, we are liable to praise this more than a shoddy essay, or even a fairly good essay, written by a student off-handedly or lazily or dishonestly, the result of a Bad Faith attempt.

And when it comes to Faith, there are Good Faith attempts to approach Faith and Bad Faith attempts to approach Faith. If a person really desires to understand the Gospel, but honestly struggles with Church scandal, shocking things in Scripture, the bad behavior of Christians, or the unwillingness to renounce sin, I think any of us would be willing to talk to such a person at length, for as long as it took to elucidate the truth.

But when a person is only playing games, ringing your doorbell and running, throwing sticks and stones and throwing about nasty names, and simply spewing venom, then I think it’s time to shake the dust off of our feet as a witness against him.

But we must be careful. I myself was a nasty little Bad Faith brat at one time, a vehement proponent of atheism and a vocal hater of the Church.

And yet it was not until I began to approach the whole issue of God – and life itself – in Good Faith that things began to change, and the gift of True Faith was eventually given to me.

So, in conclusion, I think we must assume everyone we meet is dealing in Good Faith, until he or she shows evidence to the contrary, at which point we need to exercise some prudence and wisdom about the ways of this world and the miserable darkness of the human heart.

The Beast Advances or The Attack on Reason

This is part one of what will be posted in two parts on The St. Austin Review Ink Desk.

The Beast Advances or The Attack on Reason

by Kevin O'Brien

Hilaire Belloc, in “The Great Heresies”, pointed to a disturbing feature of the Modern Attack on the Catholic Church: the attack upon Reason.

Nowhere is this more clearly displayed than on the internet - yes, on Facebook in particular, but also everywhere on the internet. And though I have written about Facebook before and my on-again off-again love-hate relationship with her, I’m beginning to see that the enemy is not Facebook. The enemy is us!

Let me try to categorize the problems I’ve noticed:


A friend of mine on Facebook can not post even innocuous quotations such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s, “The Saints are the Sinners who keep on trying,” without a barrage of comment box (combox) attacks nitpicking at all sorts of things the quote never intended to convey. In this case, commenters insisted such things as “saints do not sin; they are not sinners”, or “it’s not the efforts of sinners ‘trying’ but God’s grace that does all”, or other such picayune objections that miss the entire point of the quotation and are willfully tone-deaf to its verve and its fun.

If I were to post my Facebook status update as Henny Youngman's "Take my wife, please!" I'd get the following comments ...

"Certainly by take he can't mean ravish, as that's simply the sin of adultery."

"Since in heaven we are neither married nor given in marriage, Youngman must be referring to our ultimate end, thereby longing for the absence of his wife as he gazes forever at the face of God."

"If he said simply, 'Take my wife', I'd go along with that. But the word 'please' implies free will, which, as a Calvinist, I find offensive."

"Take her where? To the Obamacare Death Panel?"

... and so forth.

I think we've come to the End of Civilization as We Know It - hence we must always find ourselves explaining the joke.


A person I never knew “friended” me on Facebook, apparently for one reason: to post this on my wall:

“And what exactly is the church doing these days to keep priests away from little boys? ...or is it all just imaginary dust underneath a giant magick carpet?” (sic)

In a series of combox back and forths, I began by conceding that pedophilia is indeed a serious sin, and that the Church should be doing public penance, and that the Church has indeed done much to address this, most especially with Pope Benedict now creating bishops who are actually Catholic and not sympathizers of pederasty.

This fellow responded derisively, and kept bringing up what a terrible scandal this was and began to make fun of the sacrament of Confession as a make-believe way of sweeping things under the “magick” carpet. So I continued with this …

“By the way, may I remind you that it's the Catholic Church that condemns child molestation and perversion, not the culture at large. If Church members do not live up to this standard, then by all means we should seek to repent - but you put yourself in an awkward position when you attack the Church with a weapon she herself endorses, the condemnation of sin. If you're so eager to endorse the Church's teaching on the evils of child molestation and sexual perversion, I assume you also endorse all the other teachings of the Church, teachings which its members fail again and again to live up to.”

He then replied – astonishingly:

“I do not condone nor condemn the said priests (sic) actions. Pedophilia is merely a (sic) human nature, i.e. Greek traditions of initiation, that the church (and some conformists) oppose ... My apologies if I antagonized you.”

So I couldn’t resist:

“Wow. Glad to know you don't condemn any actions, despite what you wrote on my wall and in the combox. Consistency was never to be expected from this, I see. … Meanwhile, keep focusing on sin. It’s good for the soul.”


Another mark of the abandonment of reason is indicated by all these “sics” above. People who argue foolishly on the internet display and flaunt their foolishness not only by what they say but by how they say it. Not only do they abandon any attempt at punctuation, as E. E. Cummings and many of the modern poets did, they also refuse even to use spell-check, apparently.

Take, for instance, someone who attacked me by commenting on a youtube video of mine, telling me that if I read the Bible cover to cover I would be “de-converted”, by which he apparently meant converted back to atheism, where I started. When I replied that I have indeed read the Bible cover-to-cover, perhaps a dozen times, and asked him if in fact he had himself read it even once, he replied with …

“Yes I read it from cover to cover the first when I was 12. And thta was th eend of me believing in thta fairytale. My morals could not accept your god to be all loving and all that bs when he orders? genocide in men women and innocent childre and at age 12 I was pretty sure I didnt need an invisible friend. Adults shred their imaginary freinds you know.. part of growing the f*** uo.”

I present this comment exactly as he posted it (it’s actually an amalgam of two of his comments), although I have put asterisks where he used letters. The phrase was “part of growing the f*** up.” He spelled the F word right, but not much else. Not even “up”.

My only thought was, while God chose the foolish of this world to put to shame those who are wise, when the devil tries to use the foolish of this world, they only end up shaming themselves.


One of my Facebook “friends” is in the midst of denying his own gender. He uses a female name and is objecting to not being allowed to wear a dress to work. So he won’t work; he sits at home (in heels and hose, I’m guessing) hopping on Facebook, praising Ayn Rand and Nietzsche and railing against something he calls “Christian Privilege” and the paternalistic oppressiveness of “definition” and “reason”.

He uses reason to attack reason because reason and definition are essential to understanding identity, and identity (a thing being what it is) is central not only to our being, but to God’s vocation for us and to our ultimate destiny. But if we can re-define even “definition”, if we can deconstruct the most basic construct that we have – who we are – then by God we are gods!

Sad that we want to be gods not to live forever or to rule the world, but just so we can go to work with lipstick on.

But be that as it may, in the real world we hear the expression “follow the money”, which means find out where a person’s vested financial interest is and you can explain a lot, from the travesty of “climate change” to the protection of abortion mills. By the same token, if you follow the sin, and see where the trail of disordered desire leads, you begin to sniff out just why we’re rejecting reason and just where such a rejection will lead.

It will lead to idiocy. It will lead to men wanting to be first women, then children, then chairs and cows. It will lead to hit and run attacks that really don’t care if they make any sense. It will lead to a loss of humor and a loss of the appreciation of literature. It will lead to incomprehensible statements. It will lead to the great big horrific abyss we call hell.

As Belloc says, “But that great Modern Attack, which is more than a heresy, is indifferent to self-contradiction. It merely affirms. It advances like an animal, counting on strength alone.”

And may we, with God’s grace, work to weaken its growing strength.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Guide to Bad Homilies

I had posted this before on my other blog, but here it is again.


I'd like some input from our readers to help identify the features of what makes a bad homiliy. This way, next time you hear a bad homily, you can say, "Oh, that was a #3 on the Official Guide".

So, here are some features I've identified so far ...


This is the homiliy we usually hear in our suburban parishes. Love = quiescene / Fighting for what you love = evil. If this theme describes what you're hearing ... it might be a bad homily.


Beware of homilies that start with anecdotes about cute crap. "A boy at camp whose mother sent him cookies ..." "There was a woman who found she had a terminal illness ..." Anything with a Reader's Digest flavor to it is probably from, which is what I call the clearing house for shallow thinking sermons that fit easily into a template. If your priest sounds like he's beginning his talk with a canned anecdote ... it might be a bad homily.

3. DON'T GET IT WRONG, BUT DON'T GET IT RIGHT ENOUGH. This is very common. The priest doesn't say anything wrong or heretical per se, but he makes a huge implication about the nature of the Faith in what he leaves out of his homily, in what he does not say.

So, for example, if speaking on Our Lord's commission to the apostles at the end of the Gospel of John ("Feed my sheep" "Someone will lead you, Peter, where you do not want to go"), a bad homilist will focus on how important it is that we must care for the poor, and leave it at that. True enough, but what about Our Lord's promise to Peter that in feeding his sheep and tending his flock he will be persecuted? There's an edge to this reading that a bad homilist will always cut away, giving us the gelded interpretation.

This is akin to discussing "King Lear" and saying, "a daugther should be nice to her father". Well, true, but that sure leaves a lot out.

If your homilist Doesn't Get it Wrong, but Doesn't Get it Right Enough ... it might be a bad homily.


If your homilist tells more jokes than Heny Youngman with a fiddle ... it might be a bad homily.


A quote from a homily I once heard: "My mother suffered. My grandmother suffered. My grandmother made my mother suffer. My father suffered. My father made my grandmother suffer. My grandmother made my father and my mother suffer. Our house was filled with suffering." Note to homilist: we are not your therapists, and that's way too much personal information.

The corrolary to "It's All about Me" is "It's All about the Musicians". And we all know what that message sounds like.

So, if your priest or deacon sees the Gospel as a Rorschach of his dysfunctional background ... it might be a bad homily.


This infects all of the liturgy and not just the homily. It's the mistaken attitude that going ... really ... slowly ... means you're being ... really ... pious.

If the homily and the Lord's Prayer both take the same amount of time, 40 to 45 minutes each ... it might be a bad homily.


If anyone other than a priest or deacon is invited to talk in place of the homily and solicits contributions ... it might be a bad homily.


This homily is used for school assemblies, eulogies of the retiring but still living, and for that dreaded monster, Catholic Schools Week. It consists of praising everything about the person or institution being honored, when in reality the subject of the praise is typically a despicable, hateful, machiavellian creep.

If Principal Power-Grabber is praised to no end, even after teaching your kids pop-Buddhism and no-math ... it might be a bad homily.


Any time the priest says, "The alleged author of the Gospel of John" or "The Q Source for this reading" or "scholars know this didn't really happen, but this was included to make a point" ... it might be a bad homily. You'd do better watching a Discovery Channel special.


One of the most insidious of homilies - speak clearly, make your points, don't commit any of the errors above - but leave the pews listless with a sense of pointlessness and despair. It takes a really effective subversive to pull off this one, but I've seen it done.

Well, that's my list so far, but it needs to be expanded and codified, so I ask humbly for your input.
Labels: Homiletics

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Action of Grace

“I have found, in short, from reading my own writing, that my subject in fiction is the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil,” wrote Flannery O’Connor.

This is hard for readers to grasp, for O’Connor’s stories are so shocking, violent, and disturbing that we wonder how they can be about grace. This is because we see grace as being a “nice thing”, like quietly saying grace before meals, like the “graceful” moves of a figure skater, like the “social graces”, which are about soothing and calming people and situations. We really believe the message of all the Scriptures is “Jesus was nice; you be nice, too.”

But the Grace of God is a man clothed in rags with a wild gleam in his eye eating locusts in the desert and warning his people to flee from the wrath to come. The Grace of God is the zeal of Phineas, who slew the Israelite and his wife who were flaunting God’s commands. The Grace of God is St. Paul, blinded, knocked down, humiliated.

When the hand of God reaches out to us, we usually see it as a disturbance in our otherwise orderly lives. We want to do things our way, and so we want no interference. We usually think of the strident atheist as railing against God, but in fact we are the ones railing against God quietly when we take the awe of Him out of our parish architecture and when we castrate our homilies and when we gay-up our liturgical music; we rail against God when we choose a life devoted to nothing but bourgeois comfort, when we placate our lusts with private porn and shut out the silence with headphones and texting. We come to feel satisfied that grace is a predictable thing we can keep in a box, that God is a feeling we can turn on or off whenever we want, that the prophets are wrong, that zeal is a bit much, that St. Paul is best left ignored, that he’s a tad embarrassing.

Now here’s the surprising thing. When we invite God out of our lives in this way, He sometimes exercises a great Grace on us – by going. The Grace of God is not always an active thing. He is content to be passive, as passive as a good man hanging on a cross. He is content to give great Grace by removing His Grace.

And what happens then?

In Psalm 106:15 we read, “And He gave them their request, but sent leanness into their soul.” In Hosea 4:10, “They shall eat, but not be satisfied; they shall play the whore, but not multiply.” Isaiah 9:20, “On the right they will devour, but still be hungry; on the left they will eat, but not be satisfied.” These are three penetrating descriptions of the modern world, of people filled with every activity but never able to be made full by this activity, of people working to crawl out of the hole, but never being able to pay the debt, of never being able to say, “It is enough”, of people who have been given what they want - sterility.

It is a great grace for God to remove His Grace and show us how empty we are without Him.

But then when the active Grace comes, when the great gift is given … we cry out, “Mountains and hills fall on us!” and we flee, as if from the wrath to come.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Death and Dirt

(A view from the fourth summit of Buford Mountain)

Buford Mountain is the third highest mountain in Missouri, and the trail that climbs it and loops back is 12 miles or so in length, if measured from where you have to park. The first two or three miles of the trail is a steep and relentless rocky ascent, with a 700 foot gain in elevation. Once you’ve climbed to the top, the trail continues for about three miles along the ridge of the mountain, then descends on the eastern side, making its way through dry creek beds, until it ascends again 700 feet steeply to the crest and retraces the path to the parking area. So two ascents up the same mountain that are not so bad if you’re in shape, unless it’s 95 degrees and humid, which it was.

I’ve hiked all over the world, and this is by far the most remote hike I’ve ever been on. I saw not only no other hikers, but no signs of hikers – no footprints in the two or three spots where the ground was soft, and this being a Missouri “conservation area” and not a state park, very few hikers know about it or make the hour-and-a-half drive from the suburbs to walk it, especially on a weekday where the heat index was well over 100. Even in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the back trails of Washington’s Mount Rainier, or a canyon in the outback of Western Australia, I’ve always come across other hikers. But not on Buford Mountain.

I had about a gallon of water with me. But to my surprise, I had drunk all of it by the time I was only a third of the way into the hike. I did not have my dog, as I was planning on going from Buford Mountain to Imperial, Missouri, to see my daughter Kerry play in a basketball game. My cell phone had a signal throughout, and so I forged ahead, even after running out of water, thinking that the oppressive heat and humidity would not take too terrible a toll, since I was out of direct sunlight except for when I was at the rhyolite balds at the peak.

But things started to go bad.

I had been praying and writing the plot of our latest play and enjoying the walk, and even though my shirt was soaking wet and even though my sweat running down from my chest had made my blue jeans begin to look like I had wet myself, I was doing fine without water, until the second ascent of the mountain. The loop had taken me about two-thirds of the way through the hike, and then the fierce re-ascent began. I had to keep stopping and resting, and by the time I had gotten to what must have been 100 feet or so from the crest, I knew I could go no further. I collapsed beside a boulder along the trail and looked at my cell phone clock. It was 3:40 pm.

I felt overwhelmed, exhausted, and agitated. I was breathing very rapidly and shallowly. A kind of panic was threatening to set in. I knew I could easily pass out at this point, so I decided I would simply sit in the shade beside this boulder until my respiration improved and I could climb the rest of the way to the top, after which the path to the car was mostly down hill. But by 4:00 – after twenty minutes of rest – my breathing had not improved. It was just as rapid and shallow as ever and I knew I was not cooling off. I was in a serious mixture of physical pain and agitation the whole time, praying and praying. “I’m not getting cooler!” I said to myself! “I’m not catching my breath!”

I knew throughout this whole twenty minute span that I was in the midst of heat exhaustion, very close to heat stroke, and that considering where I was, I would probably not make it out of the woods alive. Even a call to 911 would have meant an ambulance dispatched from the nearest hospital, which was probably 45 minutes away, with the paramedics forced to hike to me, and I was perhaps two hours in if they took the most direct part of the loop to get to me. I was deep in the forest, in a spot inaccessible to helicopters, and even the bald dome of the peak was covered with too many jagged boulders to make landing on the mountain feasible. I would have been better off in the midst of the Arizona desert where copters are often sent to rescue hikers.

This was all on the anniversary of the death of Hilaire Belloc, one of my favorite authors, a man who devoted his life to walking, and whose feast day I was about to share.

And so in the midst of this, and in the midst of my fervent prayers, I thought, “What would Bear Grylls do?” or WWBGD? He’s the host of the wilderness survival show Man vs. Nature, and though I had not seen enough episodes to recall how he dealt with extreme heat and humidity, I said to myself, “The only thing cool that’s anywhere near me is the soil underneath these leaves.” So I stripped off my soaking wet clothes, began digging in the dirt, and covered myself with soil from head to foot, throwing dust on my head like the Old Testament mourners.

And I immediately began to cool off. Within five or ten minutes my breathing was back to normal, and I knew I would be OK. I left my sopping wet t-shirt and blue jeans and underwear on the boulder, put my cell phone, wallet, keys and sunscreen in my backpack, put on my sweat soaked socks and hiking boots, and continued to tackle the ascent.

So there I was covered with dirt, walking naked through the forest, brown from the mud from top to toe. I was not worried about running across any other hikers, as I knew I was nowhere near people. I had seen no power lines, fences, litter, footprints. I also knew I had a pair of gym shorts in the car, if I could indeed make it back. The trail all along had been unmarked and unmaintained, with fallen trees frequently blocking the way and blackberry bushes growing in the path any time there was enough sunlight to make it through the canopy. The blackberries were welcome and helped sustain me, but the thorns were not, with my bare legs now getting pretty scratched up.

I came upon a small stagnant waterhole on my left just before the summit, filled with cat tails and frogs. It was two feet deep at its deepest, but deep enough for me to submerge myself and find a thin layer of cool water on the bottom.

By 5:45, I had made it back to my car, where I sat in the full-force of the AC thanking God for my rescue. I brushed off the dirt, put on the shorts and an extra t-shirt that was in the front seat, and drove to the nearest gas station, which the GPS told me was 7.4 miles away, and became almost sick after drinking a cold sports drink. The 90 minute drive home was difficult, as I kept feeling nauseated and either too hot or too cold all the way.

I had missed Kerry’s basketball game, but I had made it out of the woods.

And while this was not my first brush with death, all of my other near-misses have happened within a few seconds here or a few seconds there. Never have I had a full twenty minutes of knowing that my chances of survival were less than my chances of dying.

And what was the lesson of all of this?

First, there’s the obvious practical lesson that we can all learn. Don’t mess with Mother Nature. We are so used to our pampered, climate controlled lives that we forget how awesome and unforgiving nature is. It was stupid of me to attempt this hike on such a steam bath of a day. It was stupid not to have more water, stupid not to turn back as soon as the water ran out. I did have my sunscreen, bug spray, and Bactine with me, along with my cell phone and hat and a good pair of hiking boots, as well as a topo map of the hike; but a remote 12 mile hike with 1400 feet of vertical elevation gain on a day with a heat index well over 100 is simply foolish.

(picture of a rattlesnake that confronted me on a Missouri hike two years ago)

And then there’s the symbolism of burying myself in order to save myself. The ashes to ashes, dust to dust experience of covering myself with mud in order not to die is very humbling.

But what amazes me is that at my worst moments on this hike I had God and my saints and angels. I did not want to die, and I was grabbing onto Our Lord more tightly than ever, and I knew He was there for me. And although I felt a physical and emotional agitation, the agitation I felt was not a fear of death, oddly. I was praying to avoid it, and trying to figure out how to avoid it, but I was not afraid of it. It’s a hard thing to explain, but if you can trust God at the brink of death, then you can certainly trust Him with things like booking shows or paying the mortgage or sending your son off to college – all things that have recently been giving me anxiety.

So now it’s back to work, and all of the adventures that come with that. But as hard as a typical day running two businesses used to seem to me – by comparison it is now a (pardon the expression) walk in the woods.

(these were all pictures from my cell phone, including this one that I took in a Kansas church a few years ago. The glowing crown of lights to the right of Our Lady came physically from nowhere I could determine.)