Sunday, November 11, 2012

In the aftermath

Yes, I have done a lot of thinking and praying about the last election. I'm not going to attempt to rehash many of the observations that have been made elsewhere, some of which were masterful. I'm simply going to share my thoughts and perceptions, and reflect on what I think this means for us as a nation.

Of course, I was tremendously disappointed by the presidential election results. I put effort into every election, but in this case I had hope that we'd see some real change, so I worked (and prayed, and fasted) very hard. I hoped that after four years of this country being on the disastrous course we've followed would have awakened many of my fellow citizens to what was really happening. Ellen and I both had a sense (for what that's worth) that in this election, we as a nation were being given a choice. In past elections we've sensed that we were being spared, or that we'd been given over, but this time we both sensed that this election was truly in the hands of us as citizens.

If that perception was accurate, then I got my answer: a slim but critical majority of voters chose to be subjects rather than citizens. We chose the Leviathan State over the Free Republic, and as Fr. Schall and many others observe, we will never pass this way again. We're beyond the tipping point. It's not a question of whether Republicans will ever again gain ascendancy, because despite the thinking of the brainwashed chattering class, it isn't about political parties or power. It's about fundamental identity.

As I struggled with my grief, the Lord helped me see a couple of things that didn't necessarily make things easier, but helped bring needed perspective. One had to do with the election itself. Given that I'd put such effort into working for pro-life candidates – writing, speaking, organizing, praying, etc. – it was understandable that I'd see the election as a decision point, where we as Americans could choose one way or another, and the outcome of that decision could be influenced. But the Lord, from the perspective of His omnipotence, helped me see that it was in one sense more of an indication than a decision. In other words, the decision had long been made in the hearts and minds of Americans, and the election results simply reflected that decision. In that sense, the results were more like test results than they were like the outcome of a choice. This does not mean we are not responsible for the choices we made, but it helped me see that the choices had already been made long before in many other contexts, and the ballots merely reflected those. (It was also comforting to me, because in my own county all but one pro-life candidate won, including the presidential candidate. My efforts were not completely in vain, for I'm sure I had some influence on my immediate area.)

Another thing the Lord helped me see, and this was harder, was that part of my own motive for working so hard was in hopes of making my task easier. Of course, I have to qualify this by making clear that I don't think the whole affair was about me, and of course the Lord would prefer to have a government run by those who respect all human life, families, religious freedom, etc. But at least part of my motivation was hoping that a less hostile regime would enable me to take it a little easier, be a little less vigilant, perhaps kick back and relax a little. But the election makes it clear that there will be no reprieve; in fact, we can count on a more intense struggle in the days to come. So my hope of a little inline vacation goes by the boards – looks like I'll have to keep growing up after all.

But a perspective shift is helpful, since disappointment rises out of the gap between what we expect and what we get. It's been clear to me for some time, and is now clearer than ever, that my citizenship is not of this world. No, I'm not planning to move to a cabin in the woods and totally withdraw from social and political involvement. As a Catholic who takes my pro-life and pro-family responsibilities seriously, I can't do that. But I will recognize that my country has become, and will become increasingly, hostile to those things. The change has already happened, and will accelerate in the days to come. I need to adjust my expectations and actions accordingly.

I'm writing this on Veteran's Day, when there is a good amount of appreciative sentiment expressed toward us veterans for our sacrifices for the country. This is fine, as are such things as July 4th celebrations, but increasingly these will become expressions of nothing more than sentiment. The substance of what was sacrificed will continue to be gutted until there is nothing left but bread and circuses. Students of history know that this decline is as inevitable as the sunset – true freedom and self-governance is an ideal that rarely lasts more than a few generations under the best of circumstances. I know that I will not die in the same land I was born in, and that this is true even if I die tomorrow. I will fight a rearguard action, but much of my focus will be preparing my grandchildren for the world they will inherit. It will be different, and much harder for them, especially if they seek to live out the Gospel with integrity. But it will be better than living as subservient minions of the Leviathan state.

Increasingly the words spoken by a virtually unknown Fr. Joseph Ratzinger back in 1969 ring true:

The church will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes . . . she will lose many of her social privileges. . . As a small society, [the Church] will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members....
It will be hard-going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek . . . The process will be long and wearisome as was the road from the false progressivism on the eve of the French Revolution – when a bishop might be thought smart if he made fun of dogmas and even insinuated that the existence of God was by no means certain . . . But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.
And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult, which is dead already with Gobel, but the Church of faith. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.”

Sunday, November 04, 2012


I recently had occasion to read Tom Doran's second venture into publication, Terrapin. I reviewed his first work, Toward the Gleam, in May 2011, and found it overall a good read – though even Doran himself admits the premise a little fantastic. Gleam is an example of a sub-genre which I call “Inklings fan-fiction”, which may not appeal to all.

Fortunately, with Terrapin Doran moves into what is more clearly familiar territory for him – the mystery – and it is a wise move. First off, it's a great story, especially if you're a mystery fan. Mysteries aren't my first choice of genre, but I can appreciate a decent one. My wife is far more of a mystery aficionado, and she enjoyed it as a story, ranking at the upper end of well written mysteries – maybe not quite Christie or Sayers, but certainly well above average. Doran seems to be getting more comfortable behind his typewriter.

The book is really two stories: one a current-day murder mystery involving a group of men who are lifelong friends, and the other about the growing-up years of those same friends in Terrapin Township, Michigan during the late 1970s. Apparently this flashback motif is not uncommon in mysteries, with the earlier portion of the tale providing backstory for the modern portion. I must admit that at times I thought the growing up portion dragged a bit, but it was well written, with sympathetic characters, and it did move steadily toward its conclusion.

Rather than provide a plot synopsis, I encourage readers to try Terrapin for themselves. If my wife's reaction is any indicator, lovers of mysteries will at least appreciate, if not richly enjoy, the book. What I want to address is a question that will undoubtedly occur to readers who know the publisher, Ignatius Press, as a leading name in Catholic publishing. When they finish Terrapin, they may find themselves asking, “What was so 'Catholic' about that?” Those who expect “Catholic” fiction to involve priests, or Vatican intrigues, or even a strong religious theme, may be disappointed. Aside from some passing mentions of attending church, the only thing approaching a religious “event” occurs on the final page, and even then it isn't much. What is a publisher like Ignatius doing publishing ordinary mysteries?

Herein lies the strength of Terrapin, and I'm grateful that Ignatius took the risk of publishing it. C.S. Lewis and others pointed out that the key to rebuilding a Christian culture was not inserting explicitly Christian themes into non-religious arenas such as entertainment and politics, but that devout Christians should engage these arenas as part of their everyday work, bringing their Christian world view to bear on the problems and challenges found there. After all, a good portion of the problems arising from places like the entertainment industry is that those working there are operating out of a non-Christian mindset (as I point out.) If Christian artists are to reclaim the culture, they must do it as good artists expressing their Christian outlook through their art.

This is what Doran pulls off with subtlety and skill. His protagonist, Dennis, is what our culture would consider a “decent fellow”, but there's nothing explicitly religious about him. Turns out that he and his band of friends, who are more regular guys, have a mischievous history with an ominously dark edge. The growing-up part of the tale shows them moving from simple pranks to some deeds that are outright harmful. Dennis himself comes across as something like moral Play-Dough: his character isn't wicked or vindictive, but he can be pressured into things, and seems to lack a firm moral compass.

This is not for lack of guidance. His widowed father, identified only as TA, is the quiet presence who stands in the background of the entire story – not just the growing up portion, but the current-day setting, by which time he's deceased. TA is an understated character, seemingly to the point of insignificance, but as the complex tale unfolds, it becomes clear that he's the person around whom the whole tale revolves. In a sense, the story is about Dennis remembering that he's TA's son – a fact which he'd essentially forgotten.

From the outset it was clear to me that TA was important, and I was almost frustrated by how quietly he was played. He seemed almost passive in the face of Dennis' increasingly destructive shenanigans, providing quiet suggestions and a calm presence rather than firm direction and severe consequences. Perhaps that was just the father in me responding (“If that had been my son, I'd have...”), but as the story unfolds it becomes clear that TA's handling of his son was neither negligence nor incompetence.

For one thing, the flashback portion of the story opens when Dennis is in his early teens, moving into an age when a father's direct hand doesn't weigh as heavily as it does in younger years. The youngster's attention is focused outward, more to friends and other influences, and a wise father will be more subtle in his attempts to influence behavior.

Furthermore, there is a fault line in the father-son relationship: the tragic accident that killed TA's wife and other son some years before. This not only leaves the home wounded and both parties emotionally damaged, but causes friction between TA and Dennis over the question of resolution. The fatal accident was a hit-and-run, and Dennis becomes convinced that more could have done to seek out the perpetrator and bring him to justice. TA is convinced that there would be no purpose to such an effort; that forgiving and moving on is the best course. This difference between them is more important than it first seems (in more ways than one), and the rift becomes a root of estrangement between the young Dennis and his father.

As the story unfolds and Dennis learns more about his past, it becomes clear that in their working-class neighborhood in Terrapin Township, TA was more than just his father. He counseled his neighbors, consoled the grieving, welcomed the stranger, corrected the errant, and even gracefully dealt with the improper advances of a tormented woman. This blue-collar man, bereaved and struggling with his own son, was the yeast that leavened his neighborhood, the quiet light that shone in the gathering moral darkness in which he lived. He didn't preach (not even to his son), but simply was the presence of Christ.

I believe this is the genius of the story, because it is so true to life. Very few of us are called to share our faith by preaching to big audiences, or writing for wide readerships, or broadcasting from coast to coast. But all of us are called to be the salt and light of Christ right where we are, with the people we rub elbows with in our daily lives. We are called to “preach” to them by being Christ to them, not just with niceness and platitudes but with sacrifice, suffering right beside them when it would be much easier just to sign a Hallmark card and leave it at the door. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that this is the sort of ministering TA did to all who came across his path, if they would accept it.

Here is another point of subtle genius: at first blush, it seems that Dennis has rejected his heritage. He's successful in the worldly sense, being a tenured professor at a major university with a home in a nice neighborhood and all the trappings, but there's little in his life that reflects the ideals of his father. Yet that is part of the point: Dennis “shallowed out”. For all his learning and temporal success, he doesn't have the depth of his blue-collar father. Where TA was a quiet but positive influence in the lives of those around him, Dennis just has annual reunions with the friends of his youth. His marriage is sterile, his career mundane. Judging from Dennis, one could conclude that TA failed in his childraising, but it becomes clear that it was Dennis who walked away from what was offered him.

Terrapin is a complex and at times uncomfortable story. There are no quick fixes, no tidy resolutions, no magical redemptions. There is progress, but there are also struggles and misunderstandings and setbacks. But again, this is true to life. The resolution of the story is a sharp lesson to Dennis that TA was very right about some crucial things, but how much Dennis will be changed by that lesson is left unanswered. There are glimmers of hope, but that's all the reader is given. In that sense, there is much in Terrapin that many of us can relate to.