Tuesday, March 31, 2009

John Paul II Novena - Day 7

Continued from Day 1.


From Salvifici Doloris (On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering), 19, 26.

One can say that with the Passion of Christ all human suffering has found itself in a new situation. And it is as though Job has foreseen this when he said: "I know that my Redeemer lives ...", and as though he had directed towards it his own suffering, which without the Redemption could not have revealed to him the fullness of its meaning.

In the Cross of Christ not only is the Redemption accomplished through suffering, but also human suffering itself has been redeemed. Christ, - without any fault of his own - took on himself "the total evil of sin"....

The Redeemer suffered in place of man and for man. Every man has his own share in the Redemption. Each one is also called to share in that suffering through which the Redemption was accomplished. He is called to share in that suffering through which all human suffering has also been redeemed. In bringing about the Redemption through suffering, Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption. Thus each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ....

People react to suffering in different ways. But in general it can be said that almost always the individual enters suffering with a typically human protest and with the question "why". He asks the meaning of his suffering and seeks an answer to this question on the human level. Certainly he often puts this question to God, and to Christ. Furthermore, he cannot help noticing that the one to whom he puts the question is himself suffering and wishes to answer him from the Cross, from the heart of his own suffering. Nevertheless, it often takes time, even a long time, for this answer to begin to be interiorly perceived. For Christ does not answer directly and he does not answer in the abstract this human questioning about the meaning of suffering. Man hears Christ's saving answer as he himself gradually becomes a sharer in the sufferings of Christ.

The answer which comes through this sharing, by way of the interior encounter with the Master, is in itself something more than the mere abstract answer to the question about the meaning of suffering. For it is above all a call. It is a vocation. Christ does not explain in the abstract the reasons for suffering, but before all else he says: "Follow me!". Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world, a salvation achieved through my suffering! Through my Cross. Gradually, as the individual takes up his cross, spiritually uniting himself to the Cross of Christ, the salvific meaning of suffering is revealed before him. He does not discover this meaning at his own human level, but at the level of the suffering of Christ. At the same time, however, from this level of Christ the salvific meaning of suffering descends to man's level and becomes, in a sense, the individual's personal response. It is then that man finds in his suffering interior peace and even spiritual joy.

Monday, March 30, 2009

John Paul II Novena - Day 6

Continued from Day 1.


From Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), 29, 34, 36.

In Jesus, the "Word of life", God's eternal life is thus proclaimed and given. Thanks to this proclamation and gift, our physical and spiritual life, also in its earthly phase, acquires its full value and meaning, for God's eternal life is in fact the end to which our living in this world is directed and called. In this way the Gospel of life includes everything that human experience and reason tell us about the value of human life, accepting it, purifying it, exalting it and bringing it to fulfillment

Life is always a good. This is an instinctive perception and a fact of experience, and man is called to grasp the profound reason why this is so.

Why is life a good? This question is found everywhere in the Bible, and from the very first pages it receives a powerful and amazing answer. The life which God gives man is quite different from the life of all other living creatures, inasmuch as man, although formed from the dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7, 3:19; Job 34:15; Ps 103:14; 104:29), is a manifestation of God in the world, a sign of his presence, a trace of his glory (cf. Gen 1:26-27; Ps 8:6). This is what Saint Irenaeus of Lyons wanted to emphasize in his celebrated definition: "Man, living man, is the glory of God". Man has been given a sublime dignity, based on the intimate bond which unites him to his Creator: in man there shines forth a reflection of God himself.

All who commit themselves to following Christ are given the fullness of life: the divine image is restored, renewed and brought to perfection in them. God's plan for human beings is this, that they should "be conformed to the image of his Son" (Rom 8:29). Only thus, in the splendor of this image, can man be freed from the slavery of idolatry, rebuild lost fellowship and rediscover his true identity.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

John Paul II Novena - Day 5

Continued from Day 1.


From Ecclesia in America (The Church in America), 28-29.

In this life, conversion is a goal which is never fully attained: on the path which the disciple is called to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, conversion is a lifelong task. While we are in this world, our intention to repent is always exposed to temptations. Since “no one can serve two masters” (Mt 6:24), the change of mentality (metanoia) means striving to assimilate the values of the Gospel, which contradict the dominant tendencies of the world. Hence there is a need to renew constantly “the encounter with the living Jesus Christ”, since this, as the Synod Fathers pointed out, is the way “which leads us to continuing conversion”.

“In effect, the term spirituality means a mode or form of life in keeping with Christian demands. Spirituality is 'life in Christ' and 'in the Spirit', which is accepted in faith, expressed in love and inspired by hope, and so becomes the daily life of the Church community”. In this sense, by spirituality, which is the goal of conversion, we mean “not a part of life, but the whole of life guided by the Holy Spirit”. Among the many elements of spirituality which all Christians must make their own, prayer holds a pre-eminent place. Prayer leads Christians “little by little to acquire a contemplative view of reality, enabling them to recognize God in every moment and in every thing; to contemplate God in every person; to seek his will in all that happens”.

Prayer, both personal and liturgical, is the duty of every Christian. “Jesus Christ, the Good News of the Father, warns us that without him we can do nothing (cf. Jn 15:5). He himself, in the decisive moments of his life, before doing something, used to withdraw to an isolated place to give himself to prayer and contemplation, and he asked the Apostles to do the same”. He tells his disciples without exception: “Go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Mt 6:6). This intense life of prayer must be adapted to the capacity and condition of each Christian, so that in all the different situations of life each one may be able “to drink of the one Spirit (cf. 1 Cor 12:13) from the wellspring of their encounter with Christ”. In this sense, contemplation is not a privilege reserved to the few; on the contrary, in parishes, in communities and movements there is a need to foster a spirituality clearly oriented to contemplation of the fundamental truths of faith: the mysteries of the Trinity, the Incarnation of the Word, the Redemption of humanity, and the other great saving works of God.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

John Paul II Novena - Day 4

Continued from Day 1.


From Dominum et Vivificantem (The Holy Spirit in the Life of the Church and the World), 10 & 65.

In his intimate life, God "is love," the essential love shared by the three divine Persons: personal love is the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of the Father and the Son. Therefore he "searches even the depths of God," as uncreated Love-Gift. It can be said that in the Holy Spirit the intimate life of the Triune God becomes totally gift, an exchange of mutual love between the divine Persons and that through the Holy Spirit God exists in the mode of gift. It is the Holy Spirit who is the personal expression of this self-giving, of this being-love. He is Person- Love. He is Person-Gift.

The breath of the divine life, the Holy Spirit, in its simplest and most common manner, expresses itself and makes itself felt in prayer. It is a beautiful and salutary thought that, wherever people are praying in the world, there the Holy Spirit is, the living breath of prayer… Prayer is also the revelation of that abyss which is the heart of man: a depth which comes from God and which only God can fill, precisely with the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is the gift that comes into man's heart together with prayer. In prayer he manifests himself first of all and above all as the gift that "helps us in our weakness." This is the magnificent thought developed by St. Paul in the Letter to the Romans, when he writes: "For we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words." Therefore, the Holy Spirit not only enables us to pray, but guides us "from within" in prayer: he is present in our prayer and gives it a divine dimension. Thus "he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God." Prayer through the power of the Holy Spirit becomes the ever more mature expression of the new man, who by means of this prayer participates in the divine life.

Friday, March 27, 2009

John Paul II Novena - Day 3

Continued from Day 1.


Reading: From Dives in Misericordia (The Mercy of God), 1-3.

It is "God, who is rich in mercy," whom Jesus Christ has revealed to us as Father: it is His very Son who, in Himself, has manifested Him and made Him known to us. Memorable in this regard is the moment when Philip, one of the twelve Apostles, turned to Christ and said: "Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied"; and Jesus replied: "Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me...? He who has seen me has seen the Father." These words were spoken during the farewell discourse at the end of the paschal supper, which was followed by the events of those holy days during which confirmation was to be given once and for all of the fact that "God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ."

"No one has ever seen God," writes St. John, in order to stress the truth that "the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known." This "making known" reveals God in the most profound mystery of His being, one and three, surrounded by "unapproachable light." Nevertheless, through this "making known" by Christ we know God above all in His relationship of love for man: in His "philanthropy." It is precisely here that "His invisible nature" becomes in a special way "visible," incomparably more visible than through all the other "things that have been made": it becomes visible in Christ and through Christ, through His actions and His words, and finally through His death on the cross and His resurrection.

In this way, in Christ and through Christ, God also becomes especially visible in His mercy; that is to say, there is emphasized that attribute of the divinity which the Old Testament, using various concepts and terms, already defined as "mercy." Christ confers on the whole of the Old Testament tradition about God's mercy a definitive meaning. Not only does He speak of it and explain it by the use of comparisons and parables, but above all He Himself makes it incarnate and personifies it. He Himself, in a certain sense, is mercy. To the person who sees it in Him - and finds it in Him - God becomes "visible" in a particular way as the Father who is rich in mercy."

Especially through His lifestyle and through His actions, Jesus revealed that love is present in the world in which we live - an effective love, a love that addresses itself to man and embraces everything that makes up his humanity. This love makes itself particularly noticed in contact with suffering, injustice and poverty - in contact with the whole historical "human condition," which in various ways manifests man's limitation and frailty, both physical and moral. It is precisely the mode and sphere in which love manifests itself that in biblical language is called "mercy."

Christ, then, reveals God who is Father, who is "love," as St. John will express it in his first letter; Christ reveals God as "rich in mercy," as we read in St. Paul. This truth is not just the subject of a teaching; it is a reality made present to us by Christ. Making the Father present as love and mercy is, in Christ's own consciousness, the fundamental touchstone of His mission as the Messiah.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

John Paul II Novena - Day 2

Continued from Day 1.


From Redemptor Hominis (The Redeemer of Man), 9-10.

"God is love". Above all, love is greater than sin, than weakness, than the "futility of creation", it is stronger than death; it is a love always ready to raise up and forgive, always ready to go to meet the prodigal son, always looking for "the revealing of the sons of God", who are called to the glory that is to be revealed". This revelation of love is also described as mercy; and in man's history this revelation of love and mercy has taken a form and a name: that of Jesus Christ...

Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it. This, as has already been said, is why Christ the Redeemer "fully reveals man to himself". If we may use the expression, this is the human dimension of the mystery of the Redemption. In this dimension man finds again the greatness, dignity and value that belong to his humanity. In the mystery of the Redemption man becomes newly "expressed" and, in a way, is newly created. He is newly created! "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus". The man who wishes to understand himself thoroughly-and not just in accordance with immediate, partial, often superficial, and even illusory standards and measures of his being-he must with his unrest, uncertainty and even his weakness and sinfulness, with his life and death, draw near to Christ. He must, so to speak, enter into him with all his own self, he must "appropriate" and assimilate the whole of the reality of the Incarnation and Redemption in order to find himself. If this profound process takes place within him, he then bears fruit not only of adoration of God but also of deep wonder at himself. How precious must man be in the eyes of the Creator, if he "gained so great a Redeemer", and if God "gave his only Son "in order that man "should not perish but have eternal life".

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

John Paul II Novena - Day 1

In addition to being the Solemnity of the Annunciation, today is nine days before the anniversary of the death of Pope John Paul II, of very happy memory. Our associate pastor here at St. Mary's in Aggieland, Fr. Brian McMaster (my new favorite priest), has put together a novena to John Paul which many of us will be praying over the next nine days. I figured I'd share it with the blog's readers, since it includes some really great readings.


Our Father

Hail Mary

Glory Be


O Blessed Trinity
We thank You for having graced the Church
with Pope John Paul II
and for allowing the tenderness of your Fatherly care,
the glory of the cross of Christ,
and the splendor of the Holy Spirit,
to shine through him.
Trusting fully in Your infinite mercy
and in the maternal intercession of Mary,
he has given us a living image of Jesus the Good Shepherd,
and has shown us that holiness
is the necessary measure of ordinary Christian life
and is the way of achieving eternal communion with you.
Grant us, by his intercession, and according to Your will,
the graces we implore,
hoping that he will soon be numbered
among your saints.


From Redemptor Hominis (The Redeemer of Man), 8.

The Redeemer of the world! In him has been revealed in a new and more wonderful way the fundamental truth concerning creation to which the Book of Genesis gives witness when it repeats several times: "God saw that it was good". The good has its source in Wisdom and Love. In Jesus Christ the visible world which God created for man-the world that, when sin entered, "was subjected to futility"- recovers again its original link with the divine source of Wisdom and Love. Indeed, "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son". As this link was broken in the man Adam, so in the Man Christ it was reforged....

Christ, the Redeemer of the world, is the one who penetrated in a unique unrepeatable way into the mystery of man and entered his "heart". Rightly therefore does the Second Vatican Council teach: "The truth is that only in the mystery of the Incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a type of him who was to come (Rom 5:14), Christ the Lord. Christ the new Adam, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of his love, fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling". And the Council continues: "He who is the 'image of the invisible God' (Col 1:15), is himself the perfect man who has restored in the children of Adam that likeness to God which had been disfigured ever since the first sin. Human nature, by the very fact that is was assumed, not absorbed, in him, has been raised in us also to a dignity beyond compare. For, by his Incarnation, he, the son of God, in a certain way united himself with each man. He worked with human hands, he thought with a human mind. He acted with a human will, and with a human heart he loved. Born of the Virgin Mary, he has truly been made one of us, like to us in all things except sin", he, the Redeemer of man.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Society and Tradition, Form and Content

What are we to do with our traditions when the world has rejected the underlying reasons for them? How long can and should these traditions linger on? How long can and should the form of a tradition survive when it has been emptied of its content and deprived of its function?

These questions came to mind recently when I read Aaron’s post on tradition and society, as well as a short piece in “First Things” decrying the modernist dogma in architecture, “Form follows function.” What I want to do now is try to understand how this dichotomy between form and function (or content) might influence the way we think about tradition and society.

That modernist dogma is obviously not completely historically true, but it’s also not completely wrong. One way to illustrate this is to analyze one important tradition--monarchy--in terms of form and function.

Most traditions, I would guess, arise because they accomplish two important aims. First, traditions arise because they fulfill a practical function. Second, traditions arise (and endure) because they embody what that particular society views as the right order of society and the cosmos. The tradition of kingship historically accomplished both aims. On the practical level, it made sense to have a strong, respected man in authority over an entire people. The alternative was chaos, needless bloodshed, etc. On the more contemplative level, though, many peoples have viewed their monarchs as God’s representative on earth. The Byzantines have had their difficulties with Caesaropapism, but many cultures have not hesitated to reverence their rulers as gods. Furthermore, in many cultures, as anthropologists can attest, the union of king and queen was somehow reflective of nature’s fertility, as well as somehow vital to the people’s own fertility. For instance, the King and Queen of Hawaii used to ritually go out to the fields in early spring in order to lie with each other. I could list more examples, but you get the idea. These traditions were preserved because they had practical reasons, but also because they in some way represented the order of the cosmos.

I must also note one more point. The tradition, however, is not just shaped by certain social views, but in turn helps to shape and reinforce those views. So, in one sense form does follow function, but in another sense form defines function. For example, just as a particular society’s view of the order of cosmos determined the form of kingship, so conversely that society’s view of kingship can influence its religion. In the Middle Ages, many images have come down from the Middle Ages of Heaven as a type of divine court, where God takes the place of the king, Mary that of queen, and the saints as noblemen and courtiers. The very form of monarchy reinforced the idea of its function, viz. to reflect God’s order in the world.

However, in Europe, such conceptions of kingship (for whatever reasons) were outdated by the time of the French Revolution and the various revolutions of the 19th century, especially among the more “enlightened” classes of society. These conceptions lingered on among the peasants of the Vendee, or the followers of Andreas Hofer in Austria, and even perhaps among a few aristocratic reactionaries. By now, though, these ancient conceptions are dead, or persist in only the most inchoate form.

So, here was the question for a 19th-century reactionary, as Aaron recognized: What are we to do with this form, with monarchy? Should we keep it? Or, should we scrap it and start over from scratch?

History seems to have opted for the latter option by abolishing Europe’s monarchies or by so reducing them in significance that they are hardly anything more than expensive pageants and soap operas.

But, was this the right answer?

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Boat Race

This coming Sunday will be the 155th Boat Race. If you find yourself asking, "Which boat race?" please click here. The rest of you know that it is simply the Boat Race, the competition between Oxford and Cambridge, first held in 1829 and annually since 1856 (with the exception of the World Wars), down four and a quarter miles of the River Thames, from the Putney Bridge to the Chiswick Bridge. Cambridge has won 79 of the races, Oxford 74, with one declared a dead heat.

This past weekend the Financial Times had an excellent article on Rebecca Dowbiggin, the Cambridge coxswain. This year's race will be at 3:40pm (British Standard Time), so I might still be at mass while the actual race is happening, but I look forward to watching it online shortly thereafter.

To be honest, I don't really have a dog in this fight. I will, however, be wearing my Caius College tie, in honor of Silas Stafford, a native of Santa Rosa, California, who is studying for an MPhil in Geography at Gonville & Caius and will be rowing stroke for the Cambridge team. I wore that tie the day Caius won their fifth consecutive Lent Bumps, earning them the right to put a bell tower on their boat house, so maybe the tie is lucky. Then again, 1st & 3rd Trinity have won that race every year since then, so maybe it's not.

Below you'll find a video about the Trial Eights, the trial run each school conducts in December.

Special thanks to Barry Arthur Stephen Harding McCain, who gave me the Caius tie.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Did Dan Brown Pass Art & Arch?

The other day, while at the cinema to see The Watchmen (my review here), I happened to see this trailer for Dan Brown's Angels and Demons. Anyone notice a problem in the very first shot? I got a nice chuckle...

Just further proof that Dan Brown & Co. are preying on people's ignorance.

Monday, March 16, 2009

St. Patrick's Day

I suppose tomorrow is the one day everyone is Irish, so I'll share a couple of my favorite youtube videos of Irish music. Also, a few of you may be aware of my obsession with Irish music, so I'm taking opportunity of today to share some of that obsession.

The first video is of the Bothy Band playing a set of three reels. The Bothy Band was a short-lived but greatly influential band in Ireland. They were essentially responsible for rejuvenating Irish music by adding more modern harmonies and rhythms. They were only together from 1975 to 1979 and only made 4 albums, but their style is still very much alive. Also, after the band broke up, the individual members continued to make great music on their own or in new groups.

The second is a video of Seamus Ennis playing an ancient slow air, called "An Raibh tu ag an gCairrag?" Seamus Ennis was of the generation before the Bothy Band who kept the music alive until the revival in the 1970's. Here he is seen playing the distinctively Irish form of the bagpipes, the uillean pipes, in a much more traditional manner than the first video.

Enjoy, and happy St. Patrick's Day!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Dubious Watchmen

Last night I went to see The Watchmen with some friends. Though I've not read the comic book, I like superhero movies, so I figured I would enjoy it. I left the theater with mixed feelings, but on reflection I've increasingly turned against it.

What didn't you like? you ask. The gratuitous sex and violence are worth a mention (though they're not the biggest issue). In superhero movies, I expect violence. Bad guys get blown up - that's the way it goes. But there were several scenes in The Watchmen that were just plain gratuitous. Not bad guys getting their comeuppance (with awesome special effects), just violence for its own sake. Likewise, sex scenes have become something of a staple of modern populist films. I don't like 'em, but in a certain sense, I can accept them: in the language of modern film, we know the hero and heroine love each other because they have sex. It's a wrong-headed notion, of course, but it often has a plot value. Not so the extended sex scene of The Watchmen: it's just an excuse for several pornographic minutes of actress Malin Åkerman.

**Warning: Spoilers, or elliptical references to them, follow.**

Beyond all that, I found the film's plot and attempt to struggle with moral questions sorely wanting. This is not a standard superhero film with good guys who - in spite, perhaps, of occasional foibles - are clearly good and bad guys who - in spite of occasional moments of charm - are clearly bad. A comparison may illustrate the point: Batman Begins is a film which grapples with the moral ambiguities and difficulties which arise from trying to do good in a world filled with evil. Bruce Wayne/Batman refuses to join the League of Shadows; whereas they see death and destruction as the only answer to a decadent and corrupt society, Wayne believes mankind can be saved. The ends do not justify the means. Justice must be tempered by mercy. I was less satisfied with the sequel, The Dark Knight. It seemed to me the desire to paint moral ambiguities at times overwhelmed the basic struggle of good versus evil. This is most clearly seen at the end of the film, when Wayne convinces Lt. James Gordon, his police sidekick, to blame Harvey Dent/Two-Face's murders on Batman, arguing that the people of Gotham City will lose all hope if they find out the truth about Dent. Batman flees as a fugitive. The painful lesson seems to be that doing good can require falsehood and not just the deception of Bruce Wayne hiding behind a mask, but an inversion of the truth about who has committed good and evil deeds.

Now take that trajectory from Batman Begins to The Dark Knight and follow it several steps further. There you will find The Watchmen. The villain, Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias, motivated by a desire to bring peace to the world, kills a few million people and blames it on Jon Osterman/Doctor Manhattan, his former colleague. In the end, his scheme does bring world peace, and no one dares reveal the truth, lest it all be ruined. (We are given a hint at the end that the truth may come out, but through circumstances set in motion before our heroes knew about Veidt's plan.) There is no doubt that Veidt is the bad guy here, and yet... it's hard to hate a man who brings about world peace. One of the subplots mirrors this strange moral ambiguity: Sally Jupiter/Silk Spectre reveals to her daughter that the reason she could never bring herself to hate Edward Blake/The Comedian, a man who tried to rape her, is because he fathered her daughter, Laurie Juspezyk/Silk Spectre II. The suggestion is that the means (Blake) justify the ends (Laurie).

Other contradictions and problems abound: Dr. Manhattan, Laurie's boyfriend, becomes increasingly disenchanted with her and humanity generally, though he ultimately defeats Veidt to save mankind. In spite of his conversion of sorts, eventually concluding that life may not be totally worthless, he nevertheless goes into self-imposed exile in the distant reaches of the galaxy, leaving her and everyone else behind. The Comedian is a psycho-killer and a sex-addict. Rorschach, our most morally consistent character, enjoys exacting psychotic revenge on evildoers. Laurie and Daniel Dreiberg/Nite Owl II are happy to take up an affair when her boyfriend - who left his previous love, Janey Slater, for the younger Laurie - grows more distant. These are not model citizens.

However, bad people don't necessarily make for a bad story. Indeed, one of my favorites, Homer's Iliad, is full of bad people. They're part of what make it compelling, actually. So what makes The Iliad different from The Watchmen? The difference, I think, is in the way that the Iliad's plot confronts these problems, whereas The Watchmen's accepts them. The Iliad opens with the problem of Achilles' honor being offended. Does he choose to withdraw from the fighting and protect his personal honor, or does he acknowledge his communal responsibility, continue fighting with the other Greeks and swallow the dishonor? He chooses to sit it out. However, when the Greeks are hard pressed, his sense of communal responsibility kicks in and he tries to paper over the problem by allowing his friend Patroklos to fight in his place. Does this seeming compromise solve the problem? No. That is made painfully clear when Patroklos is killed and Achilles accepts that he should have been fighting (which he promptly resumes). But then the whole question of personal honor versus community responsibility is circumscribed when Priam comes to Achilles to ask for the body of Hektor. Empathy triumphs over rage, providing the peace of mind that neither Achilles nor Priam could heretofore find. At each turn the plot introduces a moral quandary, allows the reader to dwell on it for a time, and then, through the action of the story, shows the consequences of a particular response to that quandary. Moral difficulties are not ignored, they are confronted.

It's been a few years since I read any of Aristotle's Poetics, but as I recall, one of his big points is that the plot must carry a story. You cannot try to describe a character as X, if his actions reveal him to be not X. You cannot say that the moral of the story is Y, if the action reveals it to be not Y. By this standard, the Iliad deserves high marks. The Watchmen, on the other hand, fails. More than just a story of mostly despicable people often doing despicable things, the action of the plot fails to interrogate whether or not these people are exemplary, whether or not they provide a valid window into the nature of reality. That is not only woefully disappointing; it is dangerous.

PS: Intrigued by what Barbara Nicolosi, a respected movie critic, had to say about The Watchmen, I took a look at her review. "WE WALKED OUT. Awful. Disgusting. Degrading. Vile. Barbarous. The kind of entertainment the Roman mobs were watching just before the barbarians came over the walls. Did I say depraved? I meant to. If you let your kids go to this piece of absolute unmitigated garbage, you deserve whatever nightmare lives they end up inflicting on you. I fear I haven't expressed myself strongly enough..." Wow.

The Dark Knight didn't get a review that bad, though it wasn't a lot better: "Too Dark. Too long. Too fast. Too pretentious. Too loud. Too many characters. Too much steady cam. Too little substance. Too little fun. The whole world has lost its mind." So I looked up her review of Batman Begins. Far more positive (though not without reservations): "Batman Begins is a very solid movie. It is well-produced, structured for suspense, and incorporates a number of satisfying - if not hugely compelling - characters. It just isn't what you expect it to be as a comic book movie, which might be the kiss of death with the comic book genre fans who want some mystery under their capes. We'll see. I'm giving two bats ears up."

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Tradition in Society

As a conservative, I like tradition. It is, after all, what we are conserving. I freely admit that part of this is simply my love of old-fashioned and aristocratic things. However, there is also a bundle of intellectual arguments, many of them originating with Edmund Burke and repackaged in the 20th century by Russell Kirk, which point out that changes have unintended consequences, that well enough ought to be left alone, that society needs continuity across the generations, etc.

However, this post is not an intellectual defense of conservativism in any of its many permutations. No, this post is about tradition and its place in society. Specifically, how it is transmitted and maintained.

In the Western Civilization course for which I am a teaching assistant, we have been talking recently about the revolutions of 1848, the Austro-Hungarian Empire (whose arms are pictured above and ethnic regions below) and the reactionaries of the 19th century. It is an interesting period, set in motion when the armies of Revolutionary France rampage all over the Continent, are defeated in Egypt, Spain and Russia and are eventually rolled back to a final defeat at Waterloo. Nevertheless, the revolutionary spirit remains and various revolts and reform movements, many of them liberal or nationalist (or both), crop up throughout the rest of the century.

Conservatives were deeply skeptical of this revolutionary spirit. The teaching authority of the Catholic Church was denied and many of her clergy killed. Some of these men had been involved in various abuses, but by no means all of them. Like the Reformation before it, the French Revolution was not simply about abuses, but was an ideological confrontation with the Church. Likewise, kings were pulled down from their thrones and aristocratic privileges abolished. Again, this was partly a response to abuses, but many representatives of the Old Order were subjected to cruelties entirely at odds with the humanistic ideals espoused by their persecutors.

Be all that as it may, the extent to which revolutions were a response to failures of the Old Order is not what interests me here. Rather, I am interested in the responses of the conservatives in their attempt to retain the hallowed traditions of their respective societies. There were two basic approaches in the 19th century, as there were in the 20th and are today as well. In the first camp you have those who argue that the powers of the state should be used to prop up tradition against revolutionary onslaughts. In the 19th century this meant establishing and subsidizing religion, censoring the press and defending traditional customs by secret police and force of arms. In the second camp, however, we find those who are no less devoted to tradition, but who contend that it must be protected by other means: fostering fervent religion in the home and in the church, promoting traditional values and practices in the cultural sphere, and defending tradition at the ballot box and in the marketplace. There were, of course, many conservatives who fell somewhere in between these two positions, but the basic distinction existed in the 19th century and - in slightly modified form - exists today.

I, for my part, am a proponent of the second camp. It seems to me that when society, as a whole, has abandoned august and valuable customs, the powers of the state - assuming they can be marshaled - can do rather little to enforce the observance of such customs. Those who called for the use of arms to defeat revolutionary agitation were too often guilty of the title given them by their enemies: reactionaries. They had stood idly by while large segments of society forgot the value of tradition and did nothing about it until it was too late. For those interested in conserving the Permanent Things, it must be done each day, and in the bowels of society, not simply in the halls of kings or Congress.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Personal Authority (Part II)

Yesterday, I tried to show that even in our bureaucratic age, we still desire personal authority, whether we realize it or not. Today I want to add just one more observation in connection to a book I recently read.

In Kafka’s unfinished novel The Castle, the story revolves around the protagonist (K) and his attempt to navigate a village’s labyrinthine bureaucracy so that he can go to work there as a surveyor. The village officials rarely go into the village, usually staying in the castle above the village. Each higher official has hordes of secretaries, many of whom seem to work at cross-purposes to each other. Many of their decisions seem completely arbitrary; letters are written, then stored away for years, and only sent years later after the whole affair has already been cleared up, causing more confusion than there originally was. Interestingly too, these bureaucrats are at times referred to as “the count’s officials,” but nowhere is the count given a name. And most disturbingly, many officials seem to have faces that don’t remain the same. This is literally authority without a face. And yet, the people of the village really seem to love these bureaucrats.

Kafka’s novel is obviously a nightmare about a bureaucracy taking over society, and it might come across to a reader skeptical of my thesis as just a clumsy exaggeration of the bad experience we’ve all had waiting on hold for an hour just to speak with an insurance representative or to an IRS agent. There is some truth in this objection, but there is a fact that most people don’t know: Kafka was a lawyer for an insurance company. Kafka knew the system from the inside. He dealt mostly with workplace accidents and improving safety guidelines for workers. He must have known the hardships—physical and spiritual—faced by a worker who finds himself unable to work and thrown upon the mercy of a bureaucracy. This sympathy with the ordinary individual must be what led K, in The Castle, to exclaim when he was most frustrated by the bureaucracy: “I feel that my very existence is threatened!”

All this is to say: Try telling an injured worker that the delay in his medical treatment is the system’s fault, and he won’t believe you. He needs a person, an authority, to blame (or to praise for resolving the problem). As much as we try to deny it and work our way around it, we can’t change the fact that authority needs to be personal.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Personal Authority (Part I)

Last Friday one of my law school classes took a field trip to the federal Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in Chicago to hear oral arguments. The second case of the morning involved a woman who was suing her health insurance company for breach of contract. The key issue was whether the insurance company had actually authorized the surgery. This may sound like an easy factual question to resolve—just look for a letter or some other record—but what made it difficult was the fact that even though the insurance policy seemed to state that it did not cover surgeries related to the woman’s condition, this policy was nearly impossible to decipher, a customer representative gave oral authorization for the surgery in question, and the insurance company had approved a surgery relating to the same condition just a year earlier.

The insurance company’s lawyer tried to make the case that this was an ordinary insurance policy; she even said to the three judges that this 50-page contract was probably just like their health insurance policy. This move backfired, however. All three judges looked rather uncomfortable at this comparison, and one of the judges even asked: “But, counsel, what about the ordinary person reading this contract? Would he know that this procedure wasn’t covered?” From then on, the judges’ questions seemed to indicate that they wanted to rule in the woman’s favor.

This made me wonder about two things. First, these three federal appellate judges appeared not to have read their own health insurance policies. They seemed uneasy—if I may extrapolate a bit from their reactions—with the realization that some of the most important aspects of our lives are governed by contracts and regulations which even the finest legal minds in the nation have a hard time understanding. Health insurance, taxes, Social Security, probate, etc., these are all areas of law whose details are nearly incomprehensible to a non-specialist.

Second, lurking behind all this was the question whether a mere customer service representative can speak for the insurance company and whether a patient should rely on that representative’s word. This is a completely natural question for a vast bureaucracy, such as an insurance company or a government agency. When an organization is made up of thousands of people, many of whom do little more than answer phones and look up answers to simple questions on their computers, it’s obvious that not everyone can speak with authority for the entire organization. But, who speaks with authority then?

These two considerations, I would submit, point to the conclusion that one of the main problems with modern bureaucracy lies in the anonymity of authority. Authority is nowhere to be seen. When we deal with authority, we naturally look for a person to exercise that authority. But that’s simply not how the world works today. Rather, today we try to compensate for this lack of personal authority by weaving an ever denser web of contractual and regulatory obligations to give the appearance of authority, but don’t really succeed.

This is not to say that we should breach all our contracts or disregard state and federal regulations. All this means is that in a world of impersonal bureaucracy, supported by impersonal law, we will remain deeply dissatisfied because of the lack of personal authority. Laws and contracts are not enough, and can often make us unhappy, but it’s nearly impossible to rebel against just a law. Rebels and revolutionaries understand this quite well. They don’t fight against abstractions. What did American colonists do to protest the Stamp Act? They went out and tar-and-feathered the first British official they could find. What did they do to protest the taxes on tea? They dumped crates of tea into Boston harbor. Even today, when members of one political party in Congress express their opposition to a particular bill, they denounce “Senator X’s bill” or “President Y’s proposal.” The ad hominem attack may be bad logic, but it’s indispensable to the way people think. Authority needs to be personal.

Part II tomorrow...