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.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Sins of Elsa

I was late seeing the recent Disney smash Frozen.  The older I get, the less likely I am to rush to a theater to see even a film I want to see (I can wait for Netflix), and of late I've been ambivalent about Disney productions.  The technical artistry of things like Pixar's digital animation has been impressive, but their stories have never strayed far from the formulaic.  They even have seemed to recognize this, with works like The Incredibles and Enchanted gently (or not-so-gently) sending up aspects of the cultural legendary framework which Disney has milked so effectively.

But when some of my kids whose judgement I respect mentioned that they liked Frozen, I took Ellen to see it.  And then we went to see it again the next week, and again when another one of my kids came up for the weekend.  I think this set a record for me, and certainly for Ellen and me seeing a movie more than once in a theater.  Like millions of other, I love the movie, and for one surpassing reason: the story.  As a storyteller myself, that's what I look for and appreciate the most of any movie.  Acting mastery, superb direction, special effects – all of these are a distant second to the story itself.  And in Frozen, the story was the core of it.

I heartily commend both the screenwriters and the staff poets (i.e. the songwriters) on their cooperative effort in writing a truly original story that was masterfully implemented.  I gather (from one of the after-the-fact did-you-know snippets that emerge) that the story was proceeding along more formulaic lines until the screenwriters heard one of the songs – the now-iconic Let It Go – which changed their perception of the character of Elsa and thus the trajectory of the tale.  The result was a sharp break from the stereotypes of the past, and a story that resonated with millions because of the complex and sympathetic characters.

Though the central character is Princess Anna, a close second is her sister Elsa, the one with the mysterious magic.  The main tension line of the story originates when they are children, and in a careless moment of play Elsa accidentally injures Anna with her nascent powers.  Though Anna is healed of the injury, the event is very traumatic for Elsa, causing her to fear the expression of her magic and withdraw from interaction out of fear of exposure, and of harming others.  This withdrawal of her beloved sister mystifies and hurts little Anna, as poignantly expressed in the opening song, Do You Want to Build a Snowman?

The story's crisis unfolds after the girls are grown (and have lost their parents in a tragic accident), on Elsa's coronation day.  Anna loves her sister, but there's ambivalence due to Elsa's never-explained relational distancing.  Elsa is frightened by the public presence required of her new position, but resolves to step into it out of a stern sense of duty.  It's clear that she's accepting the crown under duress, and is willing to squelch her personal preferences in order to fulfill her responsibilities.  But things fly apart when the long-suppressed emotional fault line between the girls emerges at the coronation party, and Elsa's powers are inadvertently unleashed.  Terrified that her secret has been exposed and that she might endanger others, Elsa escapes into the mountains, not realizing that she has brought about the very thing she is seeking to avoid: her land is gripped by a devastating winter even as she flees.  The rest of the story revolves around Anna seeking her sister to rectify this situation, forcing them to face some of the difficulties of their relationship.  The drama heightens when Anna is inadvertently and lethally cursed by her sister, the resolution of which ultimately exposes a secret villain, reveals the True Love (with the help of a reindeer), and forces Anna to make a desperate choice between self-preservation and protection of Elsa.

Though the story has formulaic elements (what story doesn't?), I'm convinced that a good part of its appeal is that it focuses on sibling reconciliation, and that even the “villainess” Elsa is a sympathetic and nuanced character.  She isn't portrayed as a “bad person” (to use the meaningless cultural idiom), in the sense that Syndrome or Scar are “bad people”.  It's clear that she means well, and even her relational isolation is undertaken out of concern for others.  But the film masterfully portrays how she is in the grip of deep fear, and ultimately the story's deepest problems stem from this.

Much of the complexity of the tale can be understood through the scene Let It Go, which will surely survive as one of the masterpiece scenes of Disney movies, possibly of all movies.  The orchestration is beautiful, the vocals by the inimitable Idina Menzel are flawless, and the animation is unparalleled.  The scene is a visual and aural feast that sticks in the mind and imagination.  (If you haven't seen it, you can catch it here.)  This soaring anthem to autonomous individualism does reflect much of our cultural attitudes, and has come under some criticism for that (including such lines as “No right, no wrong, no rules for me!”)  If that were the only moral lesson of the film, that critique would be more justified.  But in the course of the tale the storytellers do a wonderful job of placing Elsa's “liberation” in the full context of her life and relationships, showing that autonomy is only the illusion of liberation, but that love and courage are the foundation for true freedom.

They also show something which vindicates some things I've been learning over the past few years: that fear can give rise to sin.  Many of us have an adolescent understanding of sin, thinking that only really “bad people” (like Syndrome or Scar) actually sin.  The rest of us may be misunderstood, or make mistakes, or have bad days, but because we're “not bad people”, we don't truly sin because we don't mean to sin.  Yet here we have Elsa, who is living a life steeped in fear.  I'm convinced that's one of the reasons so many identify with her – existential fear is part of the human condition, and especially part of our post-modern culture.  But Elsa sins, sometimes severely, not out of raw malice but out of fear.

Let me give two examples.  Admittedly, Elsa's inadvertent freezing of her country doesn't qualify, because she didn't know that she did it, and is dismayed when she learns of it.  Even her freezing of Anna's heart, though tragic, was done by an accidental unleashing of powers Elsa was still learning to control.  But when Elsa creates a snow monster to eject her sister and companions from her presence, that's a deliberate, conscious misuse of her powers.  She creates this being to do her dirty work because she doesn't want to do it herself.  How well this portrays the manner in which we fearful humans surround ourselves with things to distance ourselves from those around us, enabling us to dismiss and deprecate at a distance.  We don't have to make a hard decision, we can always hide behind our policies and practices and habits.  We aren't sinning, we're just being consistent. (“I never give money to those kind of street people – you never know how they're going to use it.”)  We think that we have moral distance from our actions or inactions because we aren't directly performing them, just as Elsa undoubtedly didn't think she was the one who chased her sister down a mountain and off a cliff.  She just made a monster to protect herself – in other words, out of fear.  This makes me wonder how many “monsters” I have made out of my fear, and what sins I have indirectly committed through them.

Another example is a subtle one: the sin of dereliction.  In the middle of Elsa's declaration of personal autonomy, Let It Go, she pulls the newly-placed crown from her head, glances at it with contempt, and casts it aside while singing, “ I'm never going back / the past is in the past.”  The modern mind, valuing personal autonomy above all and viewing positions of political power strictly in terms of privilege, sees this as an unmitigated good: Elsa is doing what “her heart tells her” (i.e. what she feels like doing at the moment), and if she gives up an exalted role in the meantime, what does that matter?  In fact, it could even be interpreted as a noble act, the sacrifice of privilege for the sake of self-expression.

But this ignores corporate responsibility.  A crown cast aside on the ground is a much worse insult to a kingdom than a flag burned, and when it's the sovereign who does the casting, the offense is even more severe.  By this impulsive action, Elsa was expressing contempt for her people, her lineage, and ultimately herself.  The wise King Lune of Archenland would have some things to say to young Elsa regarding her responsibilities:

“The king's under the law, for it's the law that makes him king.  Hast no more power to start away from thy crown than any sentry from his post.”  (C.S. Lewis, The Horse and His Boy)

The crown Queen Elsa wears is both privilege and burden, just as our roles as fathers or legislators or managers are both privilege and burden.  If we abdicate those roles, even from a mistaken sense of humility, we sin against those to whom we are responsible.  We also open the way for the unqualified and undesirable to step in where we stepped out.  In an ironic (and unintentional, I'm sure) twist, an afterscene that appears late in the credits shows the snow monster which Elsa created wandering around the shattered ruins of her abandoned ice palace.  He finds the crown which she so carelessly cast aside and places it on his own head.  This image is intended to be humorous, but it has a dark undertone of truth: if we do not fulfill our roles faithfully, others will – perhaps even the constructs we created to distance ourselves from our moral responsibility.

The film does a good job of resolving many of these moral quandaries, but you have to consider the whole story, not just one slice of it.  As with all good stories, there is much to be learned from it, for those willing to learn.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Ceremony of Innocence

(Again, it's been a while since I've posted here, but life's been busy.  Since my last entry I've married off another of my children and written, edited, and submitted another novel.  Between all that and working for a living, there hasn't been much time for blogging.  But I finally got around to a review of Ceremony of Innocence, a recent novel from Ignatius.  Hopefully it won't be as long until my next post.)

For my birthday I received a copy of the recently released Ceremony of Innocence by Dorothy Cummings McLean. I'd read the synopses and was intrigued, but wanted to find out just where the author went with all those elements in her debut novel. I was pleased by the quality of the writing – the story drew me in easily and engaged me in the plot and characters. This is important, because if “Catholic” authors are going to escape the “Catholic literature ghetto” (you know – that place where people buy “Catholic works” in order to support the authors, not because they necessarily enjoy the stories), then first and foremost the authors need to be high quality artists. If this is what McLean can do in her first novel, I have high hopes for her later efforts.
The story takes place in and around Frankfurt, Germany in 2008. The protagonist is Catriona McLelland, a woman in her 30s who is Canadian by birth but was raised in Scotland and now works as a field reporter. (Though Catriona isn't an example of the author writing herself into her own story, it seems clear that Miss McLean is drawing on her own experience as a foreign journalist to flesh out her characters.) “Cat”, as she is known, lives the life of a modern urban professional. She is divorced and awaiting word on her annulment, lives with her decade-younger university student boyfriend, and spends time in clubs leveraging her low-level celebrity status to flit about the edges of the privileged class of the wealthy and noble.
McLean paints a picture of postmodern, post-Christian European culture that is gritty, dingy, and a little depressing. Cat herself is no heroine – she is a “tribal” Catholic who knows but does not live by the tenets of her faith. She cannot claim ignorance. She has a doctorate, understands the subtleties and nuances of the Faith, works for a Catholic news agency, and writes “spiritual” books on the side. But despite this knowledge, her life far more reflects the values of the world in which she lives than the ideals of the Kingdom of God. She's casual about her occasional heavy drinking and drug use as well as her concubinage with her boyfriend . McLean handles the character well. Because the story is told from Cat's perspective in the first person, the reader is naturally sympathetic. But as the plot unfolds, one gets a better picture of Catriona – her condescending treatment of her boyfriend, her dalliance with the amoral “butterfly set”, the implicit cynicism of her double life as a spiritual and religion writer who lives in such moral confusion. I found myself sympathetic to Cat in the fullest sense, as uneasy and ambivalent about her identity and behaviour as I can imagine such a person would be herself.
The plot centers around the entry of Suzy into Cat's settled existence. Suzy is an idealistic young westerner who also hails from Canada, which in her mind gives her a natural relationship with Cat. Suzy has decided political opinions as well as (eventually) an eye on Cat's boyfriend. Out of respect for their friendship, Suzy is above board with Cat about this attraction, which introduces tension into their relationship but does not end it. The jaded, sophisticated Cat initially views Suzy as a dilettante, a child with a cause and a credit card. But as the story unfolds and they are thrown together in some very unusual circumstances, hints of deeper and more disturbing things begin to surface. I won't give away any critical details, but suffice it to say that it turns out that Suzy is involved in some ugly stuff and comes to a bad end (something that is known from the opening pages – the driving question of the book is at whose hands?) The most compelling part of the story is watching the moral dilemma in which Cat finds herself as she struggles with the disturbing knowledge she gains as the tale unfolds. This tension is particularly acute when Cat's boyfriend leaves her for Suzy – a development that has almost nothing to do with Suzy's allure and everything to do with Cat's waffling and duplicitous treatment of him.
As I pondered the story and its intricacies, one theme that became increasingly clear was how Cat was the mother of Suzy. Not literally, of course – the two women were only about 10 years apart in age – but philosophically. There will always be high-minded crusaders with young heads on their young shoulders, but ideally they would be assisted by wiser elders who, if they haven't always walked paths of righteousness, at least gained wisdom from the lessons learned when they didn't. Cat walks in neither righteousness nor wisdom, and thus can provide neither good guidance nor good example when Suzy appears, searching for a life of high ideals and stringent standards, a cause to live up to and sacrifice for. When she looked at Catholics like Catriona, she saw nothing of that, and thus looked elsewhere. If Cat and those like her had been living a vibrant and dynamic faith, people like Suzy might have an alternative to dangerous places where error is taught.
Even though this type of story isn't my first choice to read, I found Ceremony of Innocence a good novel, and hope to see more from Miss McLean in years to come. One bit of technical advice I might offer: the story is told in a flashback mode that gets a little confusing at times. It opens in the immediate aftermath of some dramatic developments, and then goes back to fill in the background of how matters came to this point. However, this flicking back and forth between the “current” situation and the “past” that explains it happens at several points in the story, and I struggled at times to figure out just what “present” I was in. I understand this technique, having used it myself, but with a story of this length and complexity it proved a little clumsy. Perhaps a more chronologically linear storyline would help the next work – either that, or clearer delineations between what time the reader is in. But this is not a showstopper, and those who love thrillers set in exotic locations and filled with dark secrets will not be disappointed by Dorothy McLean.
Ceremony of Innocence by Dorothy Cummings McLean, 2013 Ignatius Press, ISBN 978-1-58617-731-7

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Giving Away

Again, my long neglect of this blog has not so much been because I have forsaken writing, but because my writing energies have been focused along more creative lines. Hopefully you all will have a chance to appreciate those energies in due time; in the meantime, here are some thoughts on developments in our lives:

I recently had the opportunity to do something that I'm not going to have many opportunities to do: walk a lovely daughter down the aisle at her wedding. This old custom, known as “giving away”, raises hackles in some quarters, who automatically paint it as a degrading vestige of patriarchy, with the woman being treated like property to be handed off from one Domineering Male to another.

Fortunately, the participants and attendees at this wedding were too well-educated to buy into such simplistic interpretations, but the term offers a good opportunity to meditate on the nature and manners of love. Of course, my daughter was never “mine” in a proprietary sense, even when she was a newborn. She hasn't even been “mine” in a custodial sense for many years, since she eased into a mature and personal relationship to her True Father. She's lived on her own for quite some time, traveled further and studied more than I have, made courageous and costly decisions, and accepted responsibility for her own life. Of course I've supported her as I could, offering support and sympathy and feeble advice, but I've by no means directed her life – she's made her own decisions.

Still and all, I think there's an important lesson behind the custom of “giving away”, and I could hardly find a better living example of it than the wedding itself. In all her travels and studies, my daughter has made many friends – not just casual acquaintances, but serious heart companions. She has poured herself out in love to those she meets, at times at great personal cost. She has given herself away in love, because love is the most important thing on earth.

At the wedding we saw some of that coming back around. One of the guests was a friend of my daughter's who had gone through some turbulent times in her life some years before. My daughter helped her through those times – I know because my daughter would retreat to her room for long, supportive phone conversations. That friend made it through those times into a wonderful marriage to a good man, without damaging any family relationships in the process. So when it came time for my daughter's special celebration, this friend showed up and essentially made herself a personal servant of my daughter and our whole family – serving in any way necessary without regard for dignity or convenience. Another dear friend was there with her loving husband and wonderful little baby boy. I know that my daughter had helped both the friend and her husband during some difficult years before their marriage – not with professional counsel, but with a steadfast, loving presence. I can't say for sure, but my guess is that my daughter's love was a critical component in that family forming and staying together. They were there to support and embrace my daughter as she began her married life.

These are but two examples of how the love which my daughter had poured out came flowing back to her on that blessed day. The hall was full of people who were there to rejoice with the new couple and, in a small way, pour back the love that they had poured out in their time (I'm sure it was equally true of my new son-in-law, but I don't know his stories as well.) My daughter had given herself away over the years, given in love in response to her Heavenly Father's promptings, and now love was given back to her.

So, what am I saying? That love is a prudent investment because it always has a good ROI? That's a self-contradictory attitude – something that is done in a calculating manner, trying to evaluate the “return”, is something other than love. Love can only be freely given by independent agents who seek the good of another – anything less fall short of true love. Sometimes we get a chance to perceive the fruit of our love, sometimes we don't. My daughter saw some of it on her wedding day (and that was a lot!), but I imagine that much more wasn't manifested there due to simple practicalities – people couldn't make it, etc. But in time, all the love she has poured out will come pouring back to her, as it does for all of us.

In that sense, all acts of love are “giving away”. I didn't walk down that aisle to “give away” my daughter as one would give away an object. What I was “giving away” was love – in this case the loving person my daughter had become, freely and joyfully granted into the capable hands of her new husband, who will pour himself out in love for her good. It was a symbolic act, but one that exemplifies the very nature of love.