Friday, March 04, 2016

Till everyone is blind

Someone I love dearly recently posted a link to an online article, praising it as profound wisdom. When another whom I love also admired the article, I clicked through and read for myself. Sadly, what I found was not wisdom. I found arguments that sounded reasonable, but at the heart of which lay deadly poison. I am so concerned for those whom I love, and for the author of the article (who is but expressing a popular sentiment), that I feel compelled to respond. But I didn't want to do it in bits and pieces in comment boxes, so I'm writing a post of my own.
You can read the column here. The author, ever so gently, excuses the sin of unforgiveness in the name of speaking for justice. She uses the example of Irish pub songs to springboard to the racial tensions in America. The reason this is so wrong is that unforgiveness is a deeper, more pernicious sin than racial injustice or cultural oppression. Unforgiveness can never be excused no matter how noble the rationale, and those who indulge it will ultimately lose all other goods, including justice, as bitterness and hatred consume their minds and souls.
We need to remember that justice is a minimum standard for treatment of others. Ideally, we'll be charitable to each other, but failing that we can be generous, and if we can't manage that perhaps we can be kind, but at the very least we should be just. Of course, it's also true that justice is foundational – without justice, expressions of kindness or generosity ring hollow, empty expressions of sentiment. But if justice does not lead to the higher goods, it remains stunted, a truncated foundation for human relations. Just as foundations were meant to be built upon, not moved into, so justice points to the greatest good, which is charity.
Forgiveness is essential to charity. I cannot be charitable toward someone against whom I am holding a grudge. Neither is forgiveness optional, as if it were some lofty goal that only saints can achieve. As Jesus makes clear in the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matt 18), our not forgiving others can get our own forgiveness rescinded. Forgiving as we are forgiven lies at the heart of the central prayer of Christianity. As Peter Kreeft observes, if we refuse to forgive, we speak damnation on our own heads every time we pray. Forgiveness does not negate wrongs (the Unmerciful Servant was truly owed, and justly deserved repayment), and neither does it negate the requirements of justice. But neither does it become optional when a certain victim count has been exceeded. Unforgiveness in the name of an oppressed nation or group or race is merely whitewash, because ultimately all these things are abstractions. Only individuals are moral agents, and individuals are commanded to forgive.
The cruel irony is that while the sin of unforgiveness is excused in the name of promoting justice in some arena, be it political or economic or whatever, bondage to sin is the deepest bondage of all. Ultimately it doesn't matter how “free” you are economically, or how much “justice” you've obtained in the political arena: if you're in thrall to sin, you're a slave. In her column, Ms. Weiss refers to “songs about killing the English” as “a trope, not an emotional reality”, and excuses singing them because “we root for the underdog.” She acknowledges that “hating people is wrong”, but then neuters her own statement by saying that “telling oppressed people to 'stop that hating' doesn't work too well.” Odd how Jesus stood in the midst of a people who'd been oppressed for centuries and told them to do precisely that. Those who did were freed even though the political and economic yoke of Rome remained. Those who refused to remained enslaved in every sense.
The truth is that the “tropes” which Ms. Weiss considers harmless because they are “not an emotional reality” are not harmless at all, but poisonous seeds that have sprouted and borne bitter fruit in Ireland through the generations. Perhaps the parish priests of Ireland tended to excise Matthew 18 from the Mass readings when it came around, or maybe they taught that it didn't apply to the English, or that it was applicable to individuals but not nations. I don't know, but I do know that the Church in Ireland, as well as the Irish people, are now paying a bitter price because the Church there chose to be a cultural institution interested in preserving its power rather than the impoverished Bride proclaiming her Divine Spouse's message of charity – including that difficult part about forgiving. “Tropes” that keep alive unforgiveness are anything but innocent. In Balkan Ghosts, Robert Kaplan recounts how the Serbs commemorated their crushing defeat at the hands of the Turks at Kossovo Polje in 1389:
On June 28, 1988, the year-long countdown to the sixth centenary of Lazar's martyrdom at Kossovo Polje began when his coffin began a tour of every town and village in Serbia...The coffin drew huge, black-clad crowds of mourners at every stop... “Every [Serbian] peasant soldier knows what he is fighting for,” noted John Reed, at the front in World War I. “When he was a baby, his mother greeted him with, 'Hail, little avenger of Kossovo!'” (Kaplan, Balkan Ghosts, p. 38, emphasis added)
Six hundred years.
In light of these “tropes”, this “rooting for the underdog” (which Serbians would certainly consider “rooted in a longing for justice”), does anyone think it coincidence that Slobadan Milosevic was able to appeal to this bitterness lying at the core of the Serbian soul? Does it surprise anyone that these same Serbs are now resisting the flow of refugees across their country – refugees who are victims themselves, and who have no relation to those who oppressed the Serbs – simply because the refugees are Muslim?
Unforgiveness is never innocent. Regardless of the argument used to rationalize it, it always bears poisonous fruit. Dr. Martin Luther King recognized it, which was why he always preached forgiveness alongside justice. Gandhi recognized this, and though the Muslims and Hindus had a record of mutual oppression that went back centuries, and both had suffered under the British occupation, he stood in their midst and dared proclaim, “stop that hating!” (How many heeded his call can be seen in the ongoing violence between Hindus and Muslims.) Unforgiveness never liberates. To hear a powerful testimony to just how innocent those tropes sung in Irish pubs are, listen to Irish poet Tommy Sands' song There Were Roses.

And another eye for another eye, till everyone is blind.”

That's where unforgiveness leads. Period. Those who condemn forgiveness as weakness, who refuse to leave offense behind, who fan the flames of indignation in their breasts in the name of justice, are but chaining themselves more tightly to a crueler master. There is no freedom down that road, only more slavery.

Stop reciting the tropes. Stop that hating. Forgive. It's the only path to freedom – for an individual, a family, a clan, a race, a nation. For Irish and English, black and white, Serb and Turk, Hindu and Muslim – it doesn't matter who. Forgiveness is the only way to freedom. All other paths lead to slavery.

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Why I Wrote This Book

 I've obviously been slack on the blog activity of late (not that many would notice), but that's because much of my writing focus has been on the creative side. Since 2012 I've penned four full-length manuscripts, one of which was accepted by the only publisher who has yet dared publish my work. This book, entitled The Accidental Marriage, was released in the autumn of 2014 by Ignatius Press.
But herein, apparently, lies the proof that I am a pitiful excuse for a blogger who doesn't have a clue what personal blogs are for. They are for keeping people informed about what's going on in your life, which would include the fact that you had a book published! Here it is, a year and a half after the book was released, and I've yet to say a single word about the work on my own blog. I've made posts reviewing other books, and had my book reviewed on other blogs, and have even been interviewed on television and radio about the book, but I've yet to use my own blog to comment on my own work.
So, a bit late out of my own gate, here's the story behind The Accidental Marriage. It's a short book, just over 200 pages, with a fast-moving plot and only a few major characters. The protagonists, Scott and Megan, are friends who live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he's an engineer at a tech start-up and she's a clerk in the city office. They both consider themselves gay, have respective partners, and are good friends who meet for lunch from time to time to share their struggles. The story opens with Megan burdened by the latest wish of her overbearing partner Diane: to have a baby. Obviously this requires a man's participation at some point, and though a sperm bank would serve, funds are tight and cheaper options are attractive. Seeing a way to help, Scott blithely offers to donate sperm to the cause with no strings attached. After a few tries, eventually the donation succeeds and Megan becomes pregnant.
Then things start to come apart. Diane turns on Megan, now seeming to despise both her and the unborn child. Her deteriorating performance at work causes Megan to lose her benefits, including health insurance, and Scott offers to assist by getting her on his policy. This forces a rupture in his already-strained relationship with his partner Greg, as well as the most startling adjustment of all: in order to get Megan on his policy, Scott has to marry her. This they do, merely as an administrative formality. When Megan loses her job and her relationship with Diane totally collapses, Scott offers her a place to live, essentially as a roommate. Scott and Megan work out a simple, mutually beneficial living arrangement that endures even after the birth. They have a little girl, Grace Marie, who is a much-loved addition to their lives.
Then Scott's secure world abruptly flies apart. The tech firm that employs him is secretly bought out, and he loses his job in the midst of severe economic conditions (the story opens in summer of 2009, so the story unfolds in the shadow of the Great Recession.) With no connections or resources in the Bay Area, the couple is forced to return to Scott's small hometown in Michigan simply to survive. Once there, Scott takes a relatively menial job, well below his abilities, just to keep food on the table, and both he and Megan have to grapple with the seeming collapse of all their dreams and intentions for their lives, as well as the additional burden of a baby. Scott finds that the relationships which were so easy and fulfilling when he had a surplus of resources are now chafing and burdensome, hindering him from living the carefree life he wants. Finally he is forced to confront some of the darkest corners of his heart as he struggles with what he is living for, and what matters most to him.
Through these trials Megan and Scott learn more about themselves and each other, and grow in understanding of what it means to be human. Their friendship and commitment deepens even as they question many of the assumptions that have been driving their lives. The story ends on an ambiguous note: both still consider themselves gay, but have a renewed commitment to their life together. They still view their marriage as a formality, but there's a hint that it may deepen in the future. There is hope, but resides completely within the friendship they share.
When The Accidental Marriage came out, it was well received by some, but in other corners it sparked no small amount of controversy and even scorn. Seeing that the protagonists considered themselves “gay”, some took up the book in hopes of it being a sympathetic portrayal of that aspect of their lives. Others approached it in hopes of finding a morality tale that would end in either the bitter reaping of a sown harvest or a dramatic renunciation of sinful lifestyles. Since neither eventuality unfolded, both parties were disappointed, and said so. But many read the story for what it was: a tale of human brokenness and movement toward love. They are the ones who saw most clearly what it was about.
But, since I'm the author, I'm able to explain what others can only guess at. One is the “gayness” issue. This facet of the tale was what generated the most discussion, and the biggest amount of disappointment – in some corners because it sympathetically portrayed characters who considered themselves gay, in other corners because it didn't celebrate their “gayness” enough. But I'm about to let the cat out of the bag here: the fact that Scott and Megan consider themselves gay is a minor plot point, invoked for a reason that has nothing to do with anyone's agenda. There's a sense in which it's almost irrelevant.
What? With “gayness” having such a high chatter quotient in modern society, wouldn't it make sense to exploit that? Sure, if you wanted to write a book about “gayness”. But I didn't. What I wanted to write was a full frontal assault on one of the most dangerous idols of our society, and having Scott and Megan consider themselves gay was a good way to stage the attack.
The idol to which I refer is what I call The Myth of the Everything Relationship, the persistent and unquestioned assumption that there is one relationship out there that can complete, fulfill, and satisfy you. This is epitomized in the concept of the “soul mate” – the mystical party for whom you spend your life searching and who, once found, brings meaning and purpose to your life. This idol is worshiped by gay and straight alike, and has even been enshrined even in Christian circles, with Scriptural imagery and passages used to justify this view of romantic relationships. Even the ancient institution of marriage has been pressed into service of this lie, seen as something subordinate and secondary to romantic fulfillment (as witnessed by the countless songs, stories, and movies that revolve around a married people discovering their soul mates somewhere outside their marriage.) Yet in all my nearly 60 years, I don't think I've found a worse enemy of happiness and virtue than this idol.
I discuss this somewhat in my post A Most Terrible Idol, but when I took up my pen to write a story about how love could, and arguably should, flourish outside the reach of this dangerous illusion, I found myself in a bind: how to portray a love that grew out of the reach of “romance”? How to portray a relationship built on self-giving charity that wouldn't risk invoking the shadow of the “soul mate”? In years gone by, the answer would have been easy: write about a friendship between people of the same sex. But, as Sheldon Vanauken predicted, that gate has been closed by the common acceptance of same-sex romance. But how about if one wrote about two people of the opposite sex who were themselves same-sex attracted? Would not their presumptions about their own “gay” identities serve as sufficient insulation to prevent them “falling in love”, and force them to deal with each other out of straightforward charity? That was my hope, and that was the reason I chose to have Scott and Megan consider themselves gay – not to celebrate or to denigrate that, but to make use of it for a different reason.
That reason was to explore what marriage truly is – not as a culmination or stamp of validity on a mystically preordained romantic relationship (which is what the concept of a soul mate is), but as a permanent intimate relationship focused on supporting each other and any consequent children. As a relationship of sacrificial love that endures despite transient emotional states. As a deep determination to will the good of the other regardless of cost. That's what Scott and Megan discover as they forge a life together – one without sexual or romantic attraction, but with a firm intent to help the other.
Another point that came up in various critiques was that the treatment of the ancillary relationships. The story is mostly told from Scott's perspective, and other parties incidental to both Scott and Megan's lives are given scant treatment, including the partners they have at the opening of the story. The reader isn't given much of Scott's history and almost none of Megan's, and other characters are minor by comparison.
I admit this freely: I deliberately chose not to build up those other characters or explore those relationships. I did this for a couple of reasons, one tactical and one strategic. The tactical reason was that I understand that I'm writing for the “post-Postman”* generation who was raised on video stories and prefers texting because e-mails are too laborious. This is the generation that prefers a movie about Narnia because the books are too tedious. Few anymore relish long, intricately plotted novels with a cast of hundreds, rich character development, and complex nests of relationships. Those who do will be disappointed by the sparse, quick-moving plot of Accidental. For that I make no apologies.
The strategic reason is that a principle of good writing is to not involve too many characters outside the circle of your main one(s). Even adept readers can only follow a handful of characters, and the further out you get from the core protagonist(s), the harder it is to follow the story. Thus, I didn't want to get too far from the main character. Scott and Megan were the first layer out, and everyone beyond was yet further removed. But wait – what? Aren't Scott and Megan the central characters, and layers of relationship counted out from them?
No.
The main character, the party around whom the story revolved, was Grace. The baby. Her presence weaves its way through the story and looms over the lives of her parents, and through them, all the other parties in the book. She is the driving force from the first pages to the last, bending Scott and Megan's lives to her needs. Though the story is told through their eyes (mostly Scott's), they are the secondary characters. Interestingly, the artist who designed the book's cover cottoned to this when he first read the manuscript, which partly explains the “flying baby” motif. He spotted that the driving question of the book was, “Who'll catch the baby?” Grace was brought into existence on a whim, but once she was there, she changed everything.
So there you have the secrets. I figure I wouldn't be sabotaging any sales by making these points so long after the book's release. There are more, but if you want them, you'll have to get the book and read it.


* Read Neal Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Very Much God's Type

Last year, my publisher Ignatius Press took a risk in publishing not one, but two personal conversion stories* - Something Other Than God by Jennifer Fulwiler and Not God's Type by Holly Ordway. One reason this was risky is that conversion stories are an iffy genre. Sometimes the “story” takes a back seat to the “conversion”, and they end up as poorly written tales. Or they can be ponderous, too heavy to enjoy, or cloying and syrupy.
Fortunately, these books avoided these pitfalls. Though the authors write from different backgrounds, they're both able storytellers who produce exceptionally readable works in their own distinctive styles. Both begin from total atheism, but Jen Fulwiler's tale traverses ground that may be more familiar to most readers, involving family, career, and the like. Holly Ordway's account involves academia and fencing competition(!). But far from being heavy or syrupy, they both go down like a pint of Strongbow – dry, crisp, and refreshing.
Dr. Ordway's book pulled me in from the first pages. Her youth sounded so much like mine that I felt I'd found a soul sister. I, too, was a nerdy, solitary youngster who retreated into literary worlds. I sojourned with Mole and Rat, as well as Mowgli and Bagheera (who Dr. Ordway doesn't mention, but I'd be surprised if she didn't visit them occasionally), and – of course – Narnia, as well as Middle Earth in time (high school years for me). So though our external life circumstances differed, I felt like we were citizens of the same literary countries.
One thing that especially appealed to me from Dr. Ordway's account was that she valued honesty over comfort – a stand that, ironically, would come back to bite her as the Hound of Heaven drew nearer. But in her early adulthood she considered Christianity irrelevant not primarily out of scorn or disdain, but from a desire to be honest, and not hunt for what she perceived as an “easy out” from the difficulties of life. This made me stop and ponder. My faith history has exposed me to rigorous Christian thinkers like Lewis, Schaeffer, and Kreeft, but that's unusual even for a Catholic. I need to remember that some who reject Christianity are working from the best position they can muster given what they know – sometimes at great personal cost. Such understanding doesn't come easily to me. I'm more likely to bristle defensively or withdraw from someone who is firm in their unbelief, rather than try to engage them honestly.
One example of one who managed this type of engagement well was Holly's fencing coach Josh. The sturdy Bardia of this face-seeking tale, Josh was a committed Christian who was also committed to excellence in his craft. He meets his student Holly in honesty and mutual respect – even though he probably quickly discerned that she didn't respect his faith. He didn't withhold acceptance from her, nor did he make his dealings with her predicated upon her changing to suit him. He responded to her intellectual and moral integrity with integrity of his own. Above all, he was patient. He related to her as a person, not as an evangelization project. He trusted to God to work in His way and His time, knowing that even He respected Holly's choices.
This was very helpful to me, and an example I will probably return to ponder again and again. In my impatience, I am far too prone to want to see observable (by me) “progress” when I'm trying to help someone toward or in the Faith. Josh's example of being a helpful and available friend reminds me that when it comes to the Gospel, we are the message – not so much our arguments or answers or persuasiveness, but our relating to everyone we meet with dignity and respect (not that arguments and answers don't have their place.) Some might say that Josh “brought Holly to Christ”, but I suspect he wouldn't put it that way. He was simply responding to honesty with honesty, and integrity with integrity, answering her questions and letting the Holy Spirit do the bringing.
In one sense, the story has a “happy ending”, with Holly coming not just to Christ but all the way home to the Catholic Church. But before we Catholics get all triumphalist about this, we need to honestly consider the implications of a conversion such as this. Here is a woman who traveled an unusual road at great personal cost. Certainly there is room in the Church for her – but would there be a place in the average parish? Given her history, parish life would be an alien environment. Expecting her to “find her niche” amidst the usual array of parish offerings would be wasteful of her talents and insensitive to her needs. How would one respond to such passionate integrity and truth-seeking? With a place on the Funeral Luncheon Committee? These are questions we need to grapple with if we're serious about reaching the dark and broken culture around us with the light of Christ. If we're wise, we'll listen carefully to people like Holly Ordway regarding how to welcome passionate converts.
Above all, I found Not God's Type to be both challenging and refreshing. I recommend it highly, not just as a good personal story but as an instructive tale for anyone who takes the New Evangelism seriously. Holly took a risk herself, laying bare some of the most personal details of her life, but it is the reader who reaps the benefits. Travel beside her as she discovers to her delight that she, too, is Psyche.


*They also took a risk publishing my book, but that was a different sort of risk.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Why we're losing...

...and will continue to lose until something radically changes.
Recently, Ellen and I were at a support group we attend, and were glad to see a member we hadn't seen for a couple of years. However, we were surprised to see him with a woman we didn't know, who he introduced as his bride. The last time he'd attended the group, it had been with his wife – who was another woman. We'd both had some hints that something had changed in their relationship, but were not expecting to see him show up claiming a different woman as his wife.
To make things worse, this support group is based out of a Christian church.
Even worse, the group's purpose is to support and strengthen Christian marriage.
Even worse, the man in question was a pastor.
Think about this for a minute.
Even knowing nothing about the circumstances behind the couple's separation (which we don't), having no idea whose “fault” things were (even if that made any difference), we have a man who claims to not only know the Word of God but to teach it to others acting as if Jesus never spoke these words:
“Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one'? So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?” He said to them, “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery; and he who marries a divorced woman, commits adultery.” (Matt 19:4-9)
Even if we charitably assume that the pastor's marriage had enough difficulties to make it intolerable, that still does not explain the “remarriage”. The couple could have separated for the sake of peace, but still respected Jesus' words by not “remarrying”. I don't know what's going on with the wife, but the husband should have known better, especially if he was taking Jesus' words seriously.
Sadly, this situation is all to common in our culture, and puts us all in a place of perplexitas, to use Aquinas' term: a situation with no easy, charitable solution. How should one handle a couple in a “second marriage”, especially under these circumstances? Ask them not to attend out of respect for the integrity of God's word, thus cutting them off from a possible channel of grace? (Not to mention risk being accused of what is to our culture a mortal sin, i.e. being “judgmental”?) Or tolerate their presence at the risk of eroding the authority of God's word? And what will be the long-term effect of this life decision on that man's own integrity and authority? How clearly and firmly is he going to preach on the matter of the Biblical view of marriage with his “second wife” sitting right there in the pew?
When the ancient Israelites started straying into idolatry, they didn't jettison Yahweh – they just let other practices and beliefs creep in to sit alongside their practice of Torah. In fact, I've heard that the warning portion of the First Commandment (“You shall have no other gods before me”) carries the inflection of “in my presence” - or, to use the modern idiom, “in my face”. The meaning is that to honor other gods in Yahweh's presence is to flaunt them before Him. One gets the impression that this double-worship, this state of divided heart, is more detestable to the Lord than outright rejection. This is certainly the sense of Elijah's rebuke: “And Elijah came near to all the people, and said, 'How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.'” (1 Kings 18:21) Yet this is precisely what we have come to accommodate in the Church today, even from leaders: lip service to the Word of God and its authority, yet appealing to the gods of the world when God's Word is too stringent or demanding.
That very week, a group of pastors in the area protested strongly against amending our state's anti-discrimination statute to include “discrimination” against LGBT parties.) Sympathetic as I am to the ideal, it's a rearguard action. We've long since ceded the critical grounds of the battle, with mealy-mouthed accommodation of divorce and remarriage, fornication, abortion, and contraception. Now we have our backs to the gate, fighting to hold the final corner from being taken. Ultimately it's a losing battle, unless and until we obey Jesus' commands in a way that costs us. As long as we pay lip service to obeying Jesus but take short-cuts by way of the paths of other gods when obedience becomes too costly, we will be driven back.
We shouldn't have our backs to the wall. We should be routing the enemy from the field, not just to vindicate our Lord but for the sake of all those poor victims out there who are being deceived into thinking that they can find happiness outside of God's plan for all humanity. They're the ones who are suffering most for our disobedience. Only when we obey all of Jesus' words will we be victorious, and be able to witness with our own lives that even costly obedience is worth every ounce of sacrifice, because it is the only path to freedom and true happiness.

Until then, we will lose.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Iota

I've heard it said that if the world made sense, men would ride sidesaddle. I'm going to up that by claiming that if the world made sense, artists like Tom Doran would be able to quit their day jobs and devote all their time to enriching our literary heritage by writing stories. The world needs more full-time authors like Doran and fewer like – well, like the ones we tend to get.
Besides, if he was writing full time, he might get around to penning a book in a genre I typically enjoy. 
Doran’s first effort, Toward the Gleam, was a thriller involving prominent historical characters. It was a solid first effort, and I enjoyed it. I enjoyed even more his second work, Terrapin, which is a mystery – not what I usually choose to read, but I enjoy a well-written one, and Terrapin was certainly that. 
Doran’s newest work, Iota, is another type of story – a gritty wartime prisoner drama. I’ve seen stories like this, and am not sure if they’re prevalent enough to constitute a genre of their own, but they’re not my first choice for reading. However, because Tom Doran is a friend, I decided I’d plunge in anyway.
I’m very glad I did, if only to experience Doran’s increasingly polished writing. Experienced readers will know what I mean when I speak of a story that’s so smooth you don’t even realize you’re reading – you’re just carried along with the story as if you were inside it, living it out. Doran has reached this stage with Iota. Any rough edges (authors know what I mean) are almost unnoticeable and the plot flows smoothly. Nothing seems forced, and the characters do what they do because they are who they are, not because something or other needs to happen in the plot at this point.  As a novel, it is a superior work.
The story itself rotates around Jan Skala, a Czech journalist who is arrested by the Soviets toward the end of WWII and imprisoned in a makeshift prison, a set of open cages set up on the floor of an abandoned abattoir (slaughterhouse). The cages are occupied by a variety of people who've been put there to be managed by the major, who wants something from each of them. Just what that something is remains clouded for each of the prisoners, though there is plenty of speculation. There is no privacy among the cages – everything about the prisoner’s lives is in the open.  Part of the major’s strategy for dealing with them is to strip them of all humanity, reducing them to the level of beasts – beasts that would even devour each other. The main tension of the story revolves around the struggle of the prisoners to retain their humanity in the midst of their circumstances.
One of the reasons I usually don’t read tales like this is because most modern authors use them as extended metaphors for our existence – i.e. “if we had the courage, we’d acknowledge that all our lives are nothing more than a superficial coating over a brutal reality.”  Doran doesn't indulge in this sort of nihilism – in fact, quite the opposite, which is part of what makes the tale worthwhile even if it’s not your usual type of story. Yes, the Cages are a metaphor as well as a plot setting, but the message isn't “see, this is what you really are!”, but “see, this is what you can become if you’re not careful!”  The manipulative major and his cruel henchmen, the stripping of all dignity, the struggle of the prisoners to cling to the slightest shreds of humanity – these are all seen for what they are: aberrations, perversions of how humans should be treated.  The challenge for Jan is to remain human, and deal with the others as human, in the midst of this brutality.  Even the captors are seen caught in a struggle to retain their humanity, for as they treat their victims as beasts, they risk descending into brutality themselves.  By all this Doran communicates hope, not despair, through the grittiness and pallor of the story. 
The question of why Jan is being held prisoner is one of the mysteries of the whole book, and Doran’s mystery-writer edge comes out a bit in the final denouement. It turns out to not be related to some of the hints and nudges presented early in the story, but instead springs from something so banal, so disgustingly petty, that I recoiled in dismay. But here again Doran pegs something real and vital: it’s often our pettiness, our mindless cruelties, that can subject others to unspeakable misery. 
Despite its bleakness, hope glimmers through the story, even in the darkest moments. Despite their humiliations, the prisoners try to keep their humanity. In the end, Jan is rescued by an act of superhuman heroism, but I won’t spoil things too much.

Even if you wouldn't normally read this type of story, I highly recommend Iota, and not just as penitential heavy-lit reading. It’s a struggle at times, but that’s due to Doran’s skill in putting the reader in the story. You won’t like the cages on the slaughterhouse floor, but you will appreciate the human struggle that takes place in the midst of them.

Friday, June 27, 2014

What's a Person to Do?

It really isn't my intent to turn this into a book review blog, but I've been reading so many good ones recently that I just have to pass along the good news.

When considering reading even for self-development, the statement, “Hey, why not read a little moral theology?” is rarely heard.  It seems to me that this is partly because works of moral theology and philosophy are rarely “user friendly” - they're typically full of carefully parsed statements, nuanced definitions, and intricate abstractions. As a result moral theologians often end up talking to nobody but each other, because they have a language all their own. In this way they're similar to lawyers, medical experts, and computer technicians.

The difference being that we laymen can ultimately turn a situation over to lawyers, medical experts, and computer techs and say, “Just send me a bill”, thus detaching ourselves from the need to know the gritty details. We can't do that with moral questions, which confront us commonly and can have serious consequences.  This puts us in a bind, because we need guidance in moral matters, especially considering the complex questions that face us these days, but the guidelines often defy easy understanding.

Fortunately, at least on moral theologian has come to our aid. Dr. Mark Latkovic, a professor at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, has written a book called What's a Person to Do? Everyday Decisions that Matter.  It is his attempt to make the nuances of moral theology accessible to those of us interested in making prudent decisions with a well-formed conscience.

The book is a slender volume written in an accessible, conversational style, as if you were talking with Dr. Latkovic over coffee.  The format is that of forty questions with moral implications drawn right from modern life.  These are not theoretical abstractions, but concrete questions like “Is it morally okay for me to have a Facebook account?” and “Is it morally justifiable to attend the wedding ceremony of a man and woman who have cohabitated?”  The intent of the chapters isn't just to give specific guidance, but to use the situations as a springboard to explain the principles that should guide us in pondering such decisions.  These aren't simple questions (hopefully “Should I shoplift this item?” won't present much of a moral dilemma for any of us), but are chosen for their complexity and ambiguity.

Dr. Latkovic begins the book with an introduction which he titles “The Ethical Toolbox”. Though this is where you might expect to get lost while the seminary professor lapses into moral theospeak, the section is quite accessible. He defines some terms but never strays far from the basics like the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, and the Golden Rule.  Most critically he defines what a Catholic conscience is, and what it means to have a well-formed one (hint: it's not what most people think.)  He also reminds us that consideration of moral questions doesn't just involve guidelines, but also virtues – personal strengths within each of us that reflect the character and nature of Christ.

As Dr. Latkovic addresses the forty questions he has chosen, he keeps returning to this duo: moral guidelines and personal virtues.  In nearly every example, he explains the relevant issues in terms of what moral issues should come into play, and what virtues we will need to charitably answer this question.  In this, Dr.  Latkovic moves beyond the “advice columnist” approach to these knotty issues and forces us to grapple with our own weaknesses and sinful predilections.  Let's face it: when faced with some thorny moral dilemma, the usual reason we seek an “advice columnist” answer, be it from an actual advice columnist, or from a coworker at the water cooler, or through our social media outlets, is that we want an easy out. We want someone to assure us that the low-cost option we're considering is right, or that there's some rule we can invoke that will relieve us of responsibility.  We want to avoid difficult or costly outcomes, particularly ones that require us to grow in personal maturity and holiness.

This is not to say that Dr. Latkovic doesn't give some practical, immediately usable advice. For instance, in the chapter addressing the question “Can I read a book or attend a play or watch a movie with risqué parts?”, he tersely reminds us:
Just because we are in the realm of entertainment – broadly defined to include both high and low culture – doesn't mean we are now also in a moral-free zone of behavior where we can do whatever we want. And yes, sorry, that includes our favorite rock bands and rock music of all types. (p. 35)
This is one example of how Dr. Latkovic uses the questions he has chosen to educate his readers on moral principles.  He really does want to provide everyone with ethical tools so that when that forty-first question comes up, they'll know where to turn and what voices to listen to while considering their response.

Dr. Latkovic doesn't let anyone off the hook, returning again and again to the Scriptures, basic moral teaching, and the question of personal virtue. If you're looking for a book to tell you that the easy-out you're considering is A-OK, then buy another book (or better yet, write that advice columnist, making sure to word your letter carefully so that you get the answer you want.)  But if you want sound moral advice grounded in God's Word and centuries of wisdom, then Dr.  Latkovic's book is an excellent and accessible place to begin.


What's a Person to Do? Everyday Decisions That Matter © 2013 by Mark Latkovic published by Our Sunday Visitor. It can be purchased at bookstores or online at sites like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Joseph's Way: Prayer of Faith - the best book on Christian fatherhood available

By most objective standards, I have been a successful father. My wife of nearly 33 years and I accepted all six children the Lord sent to us and raised them so that they have taken responsibility for their own lives. They are all faithful to the Lord in their own unique ways, most have married fine spouses, and most of those are responsibly raising families of their own. In a culture where “my kid doesn't live in my basement” is considered a milestone of parental achievement, my record as a father looks pretty good by external measures. More than one person in my life has noticed this, and suggested that I write a book about how to be a good father.

Well, I've got good news: you don't have to wait for me to get around to that project. The book I would have written on fatherhood has been written, and more powerfully than I could have done. It's called Joseph's Way: Prayer of Faith by Devin Schadt, and is published by Ignatius Press.

I have read many guidebooks for Christian fathers in my day, many of them excellent. But this work is the finest I have ever laid hands on, a superb blend of the devotional and the practical that will change any man who reads it and takes it to heart. Throughout the book I found Devin speaking truths that I had learned over the my 28 years of raising children through much trial and heartache, and speaking these truths in a way that made them understandable and applicable by every man. This is the book I wish I'd had when I was starting out as a father, and even now I'm grateful for its lessons.

I don't know much about Devin Schadt, except that he founded a ministry called Fathers of St. Joseph and speaks on the vocation and calling of fatherhood. It is clear from the book that my brother Devin is a very Godly man who knows the Scriptures like the back of his hand, has steeped himself in the teachings of the Church, and has a profound devotional life.  This is a man who sits at the feet of Jesus, Mary, and St. Joseph, as well as many other godly teachers, and then passes along what he has learned for the good of his brothers.

The book's subtitle is “80 days to unlocking your power as a father”, and that's exactly how it is divided up – as 80 brief, 1-3 page meditations which are perfect for reading over the morning cup of coffee.  But each one is profound and insightful, illustrating important truths and challenging men to step up to their Divine calling. Unlike many other books on fatherhood, this book doesn't deal with superficial, how-to formulas, as if raising Godly children was some kind of mechanistic process. There's a place for such books, but more important are the “heart adjustments”, where men learn to form a Godly character. Using Old Testament saints like Abraham and Jacob, and always returning to the shining example of St. Joseph, Devin shows how Godliness is not only attainable but necessary for every man.

One thing I deeply love about this book is that it's an antidote to the subtle poison of clericalism. As Catholic men, it's easy for us to fall into thinking that if we're really serious about our faith, we should become priests or religious. Then we make the logical and spiritual error that because we're not priests or religious, therefore we don't have to be serious about our faith.  We want to leave holiness to the professionals (and maybe our wives) while we bring home the paycheck and insure the lawn is mowed.

My beloved brother Devin doesn't let anyone get away with this attitude.  He makes clear that marriage and fatherhood is every bit as much a Godly vocation as the priesthood is, and that our personal paths to holiness lies through our diligent attention to that ministry, whatever the cost to ourselves.  This echoes what I believe to be the central lesson that I've learned over the years as a father, and the one lesson I'd emphasize as central to whatever success I've had: that I – not my priest, not my wife, not the religious ed department – was primarily responsible for my children's spiritual formation as well as their physical welfare, and I would someday answer before the Throne of God for my attention to that responsibility.  (I give credit to my own father for teaching me this.)  Not that I can't accept assistance from any possible source, but ultimately I would be the one responsible. That more than anything was what drove me to my knees to seek the help of the Lord, St. Joseph, and anyone else I could find.

If you're serious about growing as a husband and father – heck, if you're serious about growing as a man – this is the book to get. Don't order one copy. Order four, because as you delve into it, I promise you that you'll want to hand along copies to men you know. Sisters, order this book for your husband, or for any man in your life who wishes to grow in holiness.  (Right now, it's on sale at ignatius.com!)

I thank Devin Schadt for writing this book, which clearly is the result of much experience, prayer, and personal devotion.  I look forward to reading the followup books he's written.  He has clearly and profoundly laid out the path to holiness for husbands and fathers, the path trod by our great hero and mentor, St. Joseph.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Rising

Superpowers. We're fascinated by them.  We buy books (usually comic books) and flock to movies that feature humans with extraordinary strength, or speed, or mobility, or whatever. The image of the super-man, whatever “super” might mean, rivets our imagination. (I discuss this in an earlier post.)

To me, our appreciation of these imaginary characters seems largely vicarious: we enjoy superheroes because we like to imagine what we'd do if we had such powers. This may partially explain the growing phenomenon of costumed play (“cosplay”), where participants don costumes and attend conferences and gatherings “in character”, enabling them to indulge the fantasy that we can be immortal, or super-strong, or possess some other super-human attribute that lifts us above the mundane lot of common life.

One thing notably lacking in this view of superpowers is a genuine apprehension of what life would be like for the possessor of such powers. Oh, the better of such tales, such as Iron Man and Spiderman, at times attempt to grapple with the humanity of the heroes and the struggles that accompany, and at times are caused by, their distinctive condition. And though these aspects of the stories do add depth to the characters, the consumers of such fare can only tolerate so much angst-ridden introspection before returning to the exercise of the superpower to resolve matters (this is, after all, a superhero story.)

As a new exception to this trend, I recommend The Rising (Ignatius Press, 2014) by Robert Ovies.  It's a hard book to categorize, containing elements of a supernatural thriller, a conspiracy novel, and a family drama. But in the final analysis, it's a book about a boy with what we'd call a “superpower”, and what effect that has on his life and the lives of those around him.  The plot revolves around an ordinary  nine-year-old boy named Christopher Joseph Walker, or C.J., who discovers that he has the power to touch people and heal them – even if they are not only dead, but embalmed. There seems nothing extraordinary about C.J.  He doesn't display any unusual piety or interest in spiritual things. He lives with his mother who is divorced, and they attend a parish in suburban Detroit. When attending a viewing for a family friend who succumbed to swift-moving cancer, C.J. touches her and says, “Be well.” It's only a wish, he doesn't mean anything by it and certainly doesn't expect anything to change.  But then the lady proceeds to begin healing right there in the coffin, to the point that she's animate within ten minutes and is completely restored to health within a day.

Ovies handles this astonishing event with commendable realism. At first the incident is suspected to be incompetence by the medical staff. Then doubt is cast on the funeral director. It takes a while for the truth to come out that C.J. was responsible. This delay gives Ovies time to develop the protective relationship that C.J.'s mother Lynn has with the boy.  To the impatient reader this may be frustrating, but it has a point – in fact it is the point – in the story.  Her estranged husband, the ambitious but irresponsible Joe, is still engaged in the boy's life, but Lynn is the primary caretaker – a status that will prove critical as the story unfolds.

As the truth becomes slowly apparent, various tests are arranged to verify that C.J.'s incredible ability is legitimate. Another dead and embalmed person is touched and healed. They learn that C.J.'s gift is not restricted to the dead – he touches some severely ill people and wishes them to be well, and they recover miraculously. (Incidentally, this brings up one of my few quibbles with the book – it keeps referring to the dead returning to life as “resurrection”. “Resuscitation” would be the more appropriate term, since the parties will die again.  C.J.'s gift is that of “super-healing”, working on not only diseased but necrotic tissue.)  The secret of who is responsible for these wonders is at first kept between Lynn, Joe, and their parish priest, Fr. Mark. Lynn is cautious but Joe dreams of the riches he will (finally) make due to his son's power.  To Joe, this is The Break he's been hoping for his entire life. But then, due to the duplicity of one of the desperate characters in the story, C.J.'s identity and abilities are made public.

This is when the story makes a sharp departure from the typical “superpower” story. The expectable pattern from here would be C.J. gaining increasing notoriety, doing greater and greater wonders with his powers, going to Impressive Places to meet Important People, perhaps encountering some Nefarious Opposition leading to a Dramatic Confrontation, but emerging as an Important Person in his own right.

Instead, though we certainly have increasing notoriety, we also have Lynn responding with skepticism and reticence to expose C.J. to the forces wanting to make use of him. This may seem odd to the reader, especially given the nature of C.J.'s gift. Super-healing? How can that be anything but good? For Pete's sake, get him down to the ICUs and cancer wards and trauma centers where he can start helping people! It's not like it costs him anything, and it could do a world of good!  What's the problem?

Here is where I think Ovies hits the target dead-center. Lynn, with a mother's canny intuition, discerns the true issue: will her son be reduced to an object to be used by others for their purposes?  She appreciates the good C.J. could potentially do, but she doesn't want him objectivized in the process.  Given the dramatic and powerful nature of his gift, she knows that's exactly what could happen if someone doesn't look out for him. Even Joe is bedazzled by the prospect of what C.J.'s gift could mean, his (legitimate) paternal concern for the boy's true welfare assuaged by the fact that a healing gift this powerful can do only good.

This becomes the axis of tension for the entire book, as Lynn seeks to protect C.J. and extricate him from the maelstrom of expectations that swirl around their lives.  Ovies skillfully weaves a tale without any “bad guys”, only people responding predictably in the presence of such unexpected potential. Oh, there's a mob boss – but he's just a grieving father in danger of losing his beloved son. The hard-nosed lawyer? Just trying to protect his employer and friend from heartbreak.  The cardinal? At worst misguided in his response to this phenomenon. Even the cardinal's ambitious friend, who does the worst thing in the story, isn't malicious, just overreaching in his hopes and desires – though he does epitomize the tendency to objectivize young C.J.

I won't reveal any spoilers, because you should enjoy the book for yourself. Redemption comes from an unexpected corner, so in a sense that resolves the story's main tension. But many questions are left unanswered, and indeed unaddressed. Where did C.J.'s power come from? Why was it given? Is it gone? The people who were resuscitated – what happened to them while they were dead? Did Lynn make the best choice in insulating C.J., or was he given the gift to be used?  There's no tidy wrapping up of these knotty questions, which is probably as it should be.

As a story, particularly as a first story, Ovies did a wonderful job with this book. Perhaps he put a bit too much time into the numerous scenes portraying how much Lynn loved C.J. and would protect him, but not so much as to bog down the story and certainly no more than one might expect in a debut work.  There are a few copy editing points (hopefully you'll miss them – I didn't), but if The Rising is Robert Ovies initial effort, I'm looking forward to his future works.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Tobit's Dog

I try to order new novels from my publisher whenever I can afford to, partly to encourage them to keep publishing fiction and partly out of solidarity with my fellow authors.  Sadly, the results are sometimes mixed, but lately I managed to get two real winners which I deeply enjoyed. The first of these is Tobit's Dog, by Michael Richard.

This book had to have been an adventure to write. It is quite up-front about the fact that it is a “retelling” of the story of Tobit from the Bible (you'll need a complete Bible to find it.)  Though some might carp about “not being original” or some such post-Romantic nonsense, this didn't put me off in the least.  None of us really tells any truly original stories – everything is but a recasting and re-presenting of stories we've heard time and again. The only question I had was, how well did Mr. Richards retell the story of Tobit?

The answer is, “dang well”. First and foremost, Tobit's Dog is a rollicking good read. Siting the story in the American South just prior to the Second World War was genius.  The story of Tobit itself, with those Bible-era people with the Bible-era names and circumstances, is hard for we moderns to appreciate.  Portraying Tobit as a black man during the Jim Crow days subtly but powerfully brings home just what life must have been like for Jews during their exile in the greater Middle East.  Richard skillfully translates thematic elements from the original story into the new setting, making them not just believable, but easy to relate to. The story is engaging and fast-moving, with personal drama, tension, a bit of mystery, tragedy, and redemption all flowing in a thoroughly enjoyable stream.

Michael Richards is a very skillful writer. He draws the reader in effortlessly, creating believable situations and empathetic characters that make you want to follow along, to see what will happen next (even the durn mule!)  The story has characters, not two-dimensional caricatures. Nothing is strained or forced. Things happen and people respond because that's what would happen next, and that's how that character would respond, not simply because that's what needs to happen next in the plot. (As an author myself I can really appreciate this – one of the big struggles to keep a story authentic to itself is keeping the events and characters internally consistent.)  He also gracefully folds in elements from the original tale in such a believable manner that you find yourself wondering how he's going to pull off the next one! (Look for the catfish.)

But – believable? With an angel as a protagonist? Richards pulls it off, his Ace Redbone subtly played, with only hints and glimpses of the hidden reality.  I was reminded of C.S. Lewis' observation that everyone can recount some event in their life that they would call “rum” or “curious” - never fully comprehended, but part of their experience.  We see the negative of that from time to time, even in this story which alludes to intergenerational abuse, official corruption, secret murder, and brutal suicide.  Is it that hard to believe that there are also good forces slipping about in the shadows, nudging here and strengthening there? Indeed, Ace Redbone's most prominent role is in support of the humans he encounters – to encourage the good, roadblock the evil, offer hope to those on the edge of despair (some take it, some don't.) The interplay between this mysterious presence and the humans in the story is skillfully told – even to the point that at a critical juncture his power is subdued until the human releases it by an act of fierce courage.

This is a hard tale to categorize. Human drama? Mystery? Supernatural thriller? Quirky Gothic? It defies pigeonholing. I recommend you get a copy and judge for yourself.

I've heard it increasingly said of late that the problem with the modern world isn't that it doesn't have enough information, or even think clearly enough, but that it listens to the wrong stories.  Before we are deceived by wrong facts or misled by poor logic, our imaginations are corrupted by false tales.  We need to fill our hearts and imaginations with true stories. Tobit's Dog is such a story (reasonably enough, given its original source). It includes evil – horrendous evil – but tells the triumph of the good in a believable way.  Not without struggle and sorrow, but never without hope. That's a story our world needs to hear more often.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Welcoming God's Blessings - or rejecting them

Within the last eleven months we've married off three of our children. Their spouses are all wonderful people, the families are all tremendous, and we're delighted in all of them. But in the midst of the beauty and love, I heard something that caused me to ponder, and ultimately saddened me.

The thing itself was beautiful and wonderful: the solemn Nuptial Blessing pronounced over the the couples as part of the Wedding Mass.  I imagined it was a delight to the celebrating priests to pronounce it over the couples, knowing that they were entering into the sacrament with clear-eyed awareness of what they were doing and full-hearted intention of following through with their whole lives.  These couples, at least, received the blessing in its fullness, accepting all the grace that came with it to help them with the wondrous burden of Holy Matrimony.

All of the weddings had the Nuptial Blessing, but at two of the Masses the full, “long-form” of the blessing was pronounced, during which we all prayed for the couples and then the priest read the full blessing, which included the following text:

...may they be blessed with children, 
and prove themselves virtuous parents, 
who live to see their children's children.

Someone as familiar with the Old Testament as I am will recognize and appreciate how this draws from places like Psalm 128, and is implicit in so many blessings found throughout salvation history. This summarizes God's desire for the human family: fertility, long life, and intergenerational blessing.  When things go God's way, this is what is seen: couples lovingly welcoming the children God sends, and then raising them and seeing them raise children of their own, all within the framework of loving families. Ellen and I have certainly seen this in our lives.

But even as I heard this, I considered a bitter incongruity in our current age.  In our pro-life work, and ministering to many women over the years who've had abortions, I'm keenly aware of a cruel fact: many times women are pressured into abortion by their own family, often their own parents.  Think about that, especially in light of the line from the Nuptial Blessing.

Grandparents are pressuring to have their own grandchildren killed.

How much further from God's plan can you get?

I'm currently reading the wonderful book Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews by Kevin Madigan and Jon Levenson.  The whole thing is great, but I'm particularly intrigued by how well they spell out the differences in outlook between the ancient cultures, especially Hebrew, and other cultures like the Hellenistic, or our own modern times.  People in ancient cultures saw themselves much more embedded in their society and family (which were usually the same thing). They knew where they came from, and their descendants were extremely important to their effective immortality. Childlessness was the worst of conditions, and having many descendants was the greatest thing to be desired (getting to see them was even better – see Genesis 48.)

But cultures steeped in atomic individualism, such as the Hellenistic culture, or our own, cannot grasp the importance of this. To us, individual success is the pivotal thing. Parents want to “succeed”, with “success” being defined almost exclusively in terms of economic prosperity and worldly comfort, and the best thing they could wish for the children was more of that. Hence the urgency of getting into a good college and graduating well and nailing down that all-important first job.  Unexpected pregnancies are a hindrance to that, so those have to be swept aside.

But listening with “ancient ears”, as when hearing a blessing pronounced over your own children that has echoed down through the millennia, makes one think of the spiritual consequences of our modern actions. If the blessing of children, and living to see them to the third or even the fourth generation, is a good which the Lord Himself has pronounced supreme, then what must be the spiritual fallout of grandparents so rejecting their own offspring that they're willing to snuff out their lives?  If one is the wish of heaven, what can the other be but the very ideal of hell?

I rejoice for my children, the more fully because I know they all agreed with that blessing and accepted it with a wholehearted joy (in fact, two of them are now expecting – the third, it's too early to tell!)  But with a heavy heart I had to wonder what the spiritual effect is of so many grandparents so rejecting the blessing of grandchildren that they're willing to pour out their blood on the altar of Moloch just to have the “fulfilled life” which that terrible idol so deceptively promises.