Monday, August 18, 2008

Andrew Bird, Meet Rich Mullins

Indie singer/songwriter Andrew Bird's latest album, Armchair Apocrypha, includes a thoughtful piece titled 'Imitosis.'

Early on the song delivers this rather depressing line: "It was anything but hear the voice / That says that we're all basically alone." Is this an atheist' lament? Not exactly. Look more closely:

Turning to a playground in a Petri dish
Where single cells would swing their fists
At anything that looks like easy prey
In this nature show that rages every day...

Despite what all his [Professor Pynchon's] studies had shown
What's mistaken for closeness
Is just a case of mitosis
And why do some show no mercy
While others are painfully shy?
Tell me doctor can you quantify?
He just wants to know the reason why

I have no reason to believe that Bird has any particularly religious persuasions, but he seems to have acutely diagnosed the problem of fallenness. In spite of our best efforts and all of our claims to the contrary, human being find themselves in more or less constant conflict with one another (cf. Thomas Hobbes). In the midst of our vast society we often find ourselves quite alone, because... well, because we just can't seem to get along.

While Bird, Hobbes and others have noted this phenomenon, it seems to me a particularly Christian theme. A long-time favorite of mine, Rich Mullins, considers it thus on his Songs album:

It took the hand of God Almighty
To part the waters of the sea
But it only took one little lie
To separate you and me
Oh, we are not as strong as we think we are

And they say that one day Joshua
He made the sun stand still in the sky
But I can't even keep these thoughts of you from passing by
Oh, we are not as strong as we think we are

We are frail, we are fearfully and wonderfully made
Forged in the fires of human passion
Choking on the fumes of selfish rage
And with these our hells and our heavens
So few inches apart
We must be awfully small
And not as strong as we think we are

Christianity does not, however, simply discuss the problem of fallenness, the separation it breeds and the acute pain they can produce. No, Christianity also offers a way out, something Mullins often wrote about, though only hints at here:

When you love you walk on the water
Just don't stumble on the waves
We all want to go there somethin' awful
But to stand there takes some grace

In the end it is not social projects or international law or believing in ourselves that solves this conundrum, but God's grace: our ability to love one another is pure gift, beyond any just deserts.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Why I Hate Shots

I graduated from college a couple years ago and have been working since then, so I had forgotten about a lot of the silly things we have to do when registering for classes at a new school. How many times do I have to make a new password to log onto a university website designed specifically for registration that will certainly crash at the beginning of registration?

Well, I had forgotten about all this rigamarole until this summer, when I had to get ready to start law school this fall. And I had completely forgotten about shots--until I received a letter in the mail telling me to get a tetanus shot.

And this rude reminder got me thinking (that's where you, dear reader, are supposed to roll your eyes) about the school's and government's justification for this coercion.

First of all, why do I speak of "coercion"? Quite simply, because I was not allowed to register for classes until I prove that I had received a tetanus booster within the last ten years. I was forced to go a doctor and have him sign a sheet verifying that he had given me a tetanus booster. (I suppose I could have just forged the doctor's signature. . .)

More importantly, a question came to mind which, I think, might challenge the way most people today think of politics: Why on earth do a law school and the government need to make sure I have had a tetanus booster? Why can I not make the decision myself?

We are not speaking of a communicable disease here. I might be able to understand it if the school made me get a tetanus shot so I wouldn't spread the disease to other people, but the only way I can think of spreading tetanus to my classmates is to run around stabbing them with a rusty nail. We are also not dealing with an environment where tetanus is a constant threat. If I were enlisting in the army, I could understand that the government would make me get a tetanus shot because I would in all likelihood be serving in some a filthy, unhygienic part of the world. (Now, I know a lot of you think law is a dirty business. . .) Granted, tetanus is a horrible disease. But, if I ever step on a rusty nail, I hope I should have the sense to clean the wound up and go to a doctor.

Maybe some of you can find a compelling reason why the government and a university should force me to get a tetanus booster. I can't. My question remains: What vital interest does the government have in making me get a tetanus booster, and why should the law school be so eager to do the government's bidding? What ever happened to personal responsibility and the acceptance of risks in life? I would venture to propose that most people secretly enjoy having the government take the risk out of life, because responsibility is a real burden. But that's only a guess.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Ethics at a Young Age

This Sunday, August 17th, Bishop Loverde of Arlington, Virginia will dedicate Pope John Paul the Great Catholic High School, the first highschool in America to have an integrated bioethics curriculum. This curriculum will cover bioethical issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and stem cell research, as well as provide a solid formation in philosophical ethics and morality.

Click here to visit the News Channel 8 story in their video archives.

This high school is a step in the right direction. It is an important realization that the proper education of youth is going to help in fighting the culture of death in the near future. Hopefully others will adopt this new bioethics curriculum into others schools across the nation.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Looking for the Whole Picture

The beautifully filmed introspective documentary, “The Human Experience,” asks the question, “What does it mean to be human?” The film is refreshing in its hopeful message as we follow two brothers from their home in a half-way house in New York City to discover the meaning of life. They spend a week with homeless men on the streets of New York, take a trip to Peru with a group of surfers who volunteered at a doctor’s clinic for mutilated children and to a leper colony in Ghana. As I observed my fellow audience members, I noticed that my heartstrings were not the only ones being strummed. Who would not be touched by lepers glad to have guests, homeless men who believe in God, and a child with one leg who is constantly smiling?

While the film could not fail to inspire, I don’t feel they sufficiently answered their fundamental question. The documentary returns to New York where the boys and experts talk about the importance of families. Supposedly, family is what makes us human. However, the entire full-length film did not show family life at all- except for the brief background story of the main character’s relationship with his father. Instead, the film explored themes of hope, charity, and community.

After the film there was a chance to ask the director and the main actor a number of questions. The questions ranged from filming techniques to trip details to questions about the actors’ personal lives. During this discussion, the director and actor fleshed out their ideas about families being the fundamental building block of society. I agree with this idea, naturally. I couldn’t help but be disappointed, however, by the lack of a cohesive answer within the film. If natural families were the focus, why were no homeless families shown, no African families, nor families in Peru? Not only were they not shown, it wasn’t clear that this was a fundamental lack in these places.

I am wholeheartedly in support of films with an anthropologically correct understanding of man, such as the “Human Experience,” which Grassroots Films produced. I simply implore wonderful new film companies like this one to artistically demonstrate the conclusion which they want their audiences to reach. This consistency in plot and artistic layout incorporates traditional ideas of literature with the inspirational message which new grassroots media wishes to convey.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Improvised Europeans: American Literary Expatriates In London

Alex Zwerdling's Improvised Europeans: American Literary Expatriates In London follows the lives and exploits of four Americans: Henry Adams, Henry James, Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. Part fourfold biography, part history, part literary criticism, the work tells the story of changing American demographics and shifts in the trans-Atlantic balance of power, and what this in turn meant for Anglophonic culture. Zwerdling explores changing notions of identity and why these four Americans sought, and received, a kind of cultural refuge in Great Britain.

I've not yet finished reading the book, and therefore can only give a provisional recommendation, but the subject is interesting, the writing enjoyable and the questions academically relevant. Zwerdling's consideration of social identity touches upon themes that are quite vogue in academia today, and therefore puts him in touch with that ongoing dialog; however, his treatment of the matter is sober and thoughtful, unlike many politicized and inane attempts at scholarship in this field.

This book has also appeared under the title Improvised Europeans: American Literary Expatriates and the Siege of London.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve

The other night one of my former roommates was watching The Two Towers while I was doing some research in the next room over. I ignored it for a while but eventually gave up on that endeavor and joined in on the viewing. Afterwards he and I got to talking about various 'historical' questions regarding the world of Tolkien and soon we were pouring over appendices and family trees and such things.

That, in turn, reminded me of an interesting idea that came to me some days before. Do you ever wonder what the world would have been like had death not entered the Garden? Many of the Church fathers argue that Adam was established by God as king over the whole world and I see no reason to disagree. After all, he would always be the oldest man living, with the most experience caring for God's creation. But think about it: as time progressed, not only would Adam's sons come along, but also his grandsons and great grandsons and so on, for countless generations. And each new generation would have known all of the preceding generations. (You might contend that this would soon get to be an awful lot of relatives to know, and that is true, but when your life has no end, you've got a lot of time to get to know them too.) I can just imagine wise old Adam traveling about the world, visiting his sons, his vassals, who might rule whole continents, and their sons and meeting the latest members of the 1,000th generation. Wild, eh?

(A brief aside here: some might contend that this whole vision is based on a literal reading of the first few chapters of Genesis, which might in fact only be a myth, meant metaphorically. I am willing to consider that possibility, but if that is the case, I think we first need to plumb the depths of the myth before we try to decide what it means. We are far too quick to jump to interpreting the myth, before we even think of its full implications.)

So I had this whole notion in my head of how countless generations would have lived side by side had death not come to the Garden, when I realized that this will actually happen in the life to come. Many pious traditions contend that Adam and Eve, after being the last to leave Purgatory, will take their rightful places of glory in heaven. Not only shall we be there, but also (God willing) shall our fathers and grandfathers and all the generations between us and our first parents. Isn't that wild? There are a few Civil War veterans among my ancestors and I often forget that they were actually real people and (perhaps even more amazing) I am of their own flesh and blood. But then to think that I will actually meet them, and spend eternity with them, and with all generations to the dawn of time... Wow! (Yes, it is possible that there will be a few gaps in that line, that not everyone will be in heaven, though that hardly makes the idea less stunning. Besides, von Balthasar, I think it is, holds out hope that no men will go to hell. I don't know his line of reasoning and I doubt I could understand it, but I'm willing to hope and trust in God's saving power.)

So now, when I read in the Chronicles of Narnia that we are Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve, I sit up and take note.

This post originally appeared on December 20th, 2006 on the Quincy House blog.