Sunday, July 31, 2005

Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy

It’s John Maynard Keynes vs. Friderich von Hayak in this thriller of epic proportions, with cameo appearances by Margaret Thatcher, Dick Cheney, Milton Friedman, Ben Stein and many, many others.

Bon Voyage

Isabel Adjani, Gerard Depardieu, Peter Coyote, the guy from Ma femme est une Actrice, and some other guy with light brown hair star in this mildly interesting thriller, in which the French (this is an exceedingly unfair generalization) try to show, once again, that their country is best typified by the extreme minority that was la Resistance, and are not, in fact, the ‘cheese eating surrender monkeys’ that Bart Simpson and others have called them. Peter Coyote speaks both French and German, I think with a fairly heavy American accent. Forgive me again, but I couldn’t help but wonder whether using an American to play a German sympathizer wasn’t a calculated bit of casting. Then again, I’ve also heard Coyote speak Spanish in an Almadovar movie, so perhaps they were just availing themselves of his linguistic talents.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Introduction to Christianity Part One: God, Chapter Three

“The God of Faith and the God of the Philosophers” is divided into three sub chapters: ‘The decision of the early Church in favor of philosophy’, ‘The transformation of the God of the philosophers’, and ‘The reflection of the question in the text of the Creed’.

Ratzinger begins by stating, “the choice made in the biblical image of God had to be made once again in the early days of Christianity and the Church; at bottom it has to be made afresh in every spiritual situation and thus always remains just as much a task as a gift.” (137)

On the confrontation of ancient culture by early Christians: “… early Christianity boldly and resolutely made its choice and carried out its purification by deciding for the God of the philosophers and against the gods of the various religions. Wherever the question arose as to which god the Christian God corresponded, Zeus perhaps or Hermes or Dionysus or some other god, the answer ran: To none of them. To none of the gods to whom you pray but solely and alone to him to whom you do not pray, to that highest being of whom your philosophers speak.” (138)

In a nutshell: “The choice thus made meant opting for the logos as against any kind of myth, it meant the definitive demythologization of the world and of religion.” (138)

Here is a paragraph remarkably relevant to today’s world, where science is so often politicized and religion mobilized in servitude of self: “In a situation in which the truth of the Christian approach seems to be disappearing, the struggle for Christianity has brought to the fore again the two very methods employed by polytheism to fight – and lose – its last battle. On one side, we have the retreat from the truth of reason into a realm of mere piety, mere faith, mere revelation; a truth that in reality bears a fatal resemblance, whether by design or accident and whether the fact is admitted or not, to the ancient religion’s retreat before logos, to the flight from truth to beautiful custom, from nature to politics. On the other side, we have an approach I will call for short, ‘interpreted Christianity’: the stumbling blocks in Christianity are removed by the interpretive method, and, as part of the process of rendering it unobjectionable, its actual content is written off as dispensable phraseology, as a periphrasis not required to say the simple things now alleged, by complicated modes of exposition, to constitute its real meaning.” (142)

In The Transformation of the God of the Philosophers Ratzinger follows the change brought about in our understanding of God, from Being as the originator and object of Pure Thought to the Relational Being as revealed in logos. “The logos of the whole world, the creative original thought, is at the same time love; in fact this thought is creative because, as thought, it is love, and, as love, it is thought.” (148) As he writes elsewhere, agape. This chapter includes a powerful reading of Luke 15:1-10, the parables of the lost sheep and the lost drachma, concerning our understanding of the Christian reality.

The Reflection of the Question in the Text of the Creed is concerned with the Christian image of God as “Father” and “Almighty”, pantokrater in Greek, and how it points back to the Old Testament title Yahweh Zebaoth, which means something like “God of powers.”

“The word “Father”, which in its reference point here still remains quite open, at the same time links the first article of the Creed to the second; it points forward to Christology and thus harnesses the two sections together in such a way that what is said of God only becomes fully comprehensible when one at the same time looks over at the Son. For example, what “almightiness” and “lordship of all” mean only becomes clear from a Christian point of view in the crib and the Cross.” (149)

Friday, July 29, 2005

The Art of Fiction

This collection of (often very) short essays by David Lodge is an excellent way of looking at various tropes of fiction. It also serves as a nice anthology of some memorable passages in the history of the novel. Mostly novels, at any rate. There are were a few surprises for me here, such as his use of Kundera to illustrate 'magical realism.' I'm not sure how much the Czech emigre would appreciate being put in the same demonic company as Garcia Marquez, though of course he has been put there before. Lodge's point here is well observed, though, as is most everything else he brings up in these pages. His explanation for the innerworkings of Kipling's Mrs. Bathurst is literary criticism at its very best, valuing what is excellent in a writer that is sorely neglected while providing good evidence that this undeservedly so.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

My Conversation with the Pope

Adapted from "Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium: An Interview With Peter Seewald"

Seewald Tertullian gave us the paradox: “I believe it is absurd.” Augustine believed “in order to understand”. Why does Cardinal Ratzinger believe?

Ratzinger I am a decided Augustinian. Just as creation comes from reason and is reasonable, faith is, so to speak, the fulfillment of creation and thus the door to understanding. I am convinced of that. Faith therefore is access to understanding and knowing. Tertullian’s remark – he loves exaggerated formulations – naturally reflects the sum of his thinking in general. He wanted to say that God shows himself precisely in a paradoxical relation to what prevails in the world. And in doing this God shows his divinity. But Tertullian was admittedly somewhat hostile to philosophy. In that respect I don’t share his position but that of Saint Augustine.

Seewald Have you also developed something like your own expression for the core of the faith?

Ratzinger I don’t need any new motto here. It seems to me that Augustine’s statement, which Thomas, too, later adopted, really describes the right direction. I believe! And already the act of faith itself implies that this comes from him who is reason itself. And in first submitting myself in faith to him, whom I do not understand, I know that by this very act I am opening the door to understanding.

Quintilian Your Holiness, is it possible that this last sentence itself points towards that ‘paradoxical relation’ understood by Tertullian? And that perhaps this relation leads to the sort of surrender (or leap, or will-to, or whatever it was) we find in his statement “I believe because it is absurd.” As if to say, 'Very well. I submit myself in faith to him, whom I do not understand, and in doing so hope to attain greater understanding.’ What could be more paradoxical than this? It seems more likely that this would lead to further mis-understanding, and surely there is something of ‘the absurd’ in that we come to any understanding at all. Perhaps ‘true understanding’ is what we are groping towards. But with much difficulty.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

More from Secondary Worlds

"... while it is a great blessing that a man no longer has to be rich in order to enjoy the masterpieces of the past, for paper-backs, first-rate colour reproductions and stereo-phonograph records have made them available to all but the very poor, this ease of access, if misused - and we do misuse it - can become a curse. We are all of us tempted to read more books, look at more pictures, listen to more music, than we can possibly absorb; and the result of such gluttony is not a cultured mind but a consuming one; what it reads, looks at, listens to, is immediately forgotten, leaving no more traces behind it than yesterday's newspaper." (128)

Just as true today, if not more so.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Desire / Oh Sister

Oh, sister, when I come to lie in your arms
You should not treat me like a stranger.
Our Father would not like the way that you act
And you must realize the danger.

Oh, sister, am I not a brother to you
And one deserving of affection?
And is our purpose not the same on this earth,
To love and follow his direction?

We grew up together
From the cradle to the grave
We died and were reborn
And then mysteriously saved.

Oh, sister, when I come to knock on your door,
Don't turn away, you'll create sorrow.
Time is an ocean but it ends at the shore
You may not see me tomorrow.

Hearing this in the coffee shop as I sit and type. What a great album. Here's a question I've been pondering: do these lyrics (c. 1975) show Dylan approaching a kind of tipping point leading up to the full fledged conversion in '79, so obvious on Slow Train Coming? I'd think so, but then between these two albums we have Street Legal, which is a good album, but hardly indicative of the stuff he'd be putting out on the next three albums. Desire (or at least this song) is, I think.

Secondary Worlds

This is a collection of essays by W.H. Auden first published in 1968, no longer in print, but available from good libraries everywhere. Many consider Auden’s later poetry to be thin gruel, but whatever quality or attention he may not have maintained in his verse may well have been reserved for his essays. Originally delivered at the University of Kent in Canterbury as the inaugural T.S. Eliot lectures, these four essays specifically address what Tolkien termed the ‘Secondary world.’ As Auden describes Tolkien’s terms:

“Present in every human being are two desires, a desire to know the truth about the primary world, the given world outside ourselves in which we are born, live, love, hate and die, and the desire to make new secondary worlds of our own or, if we cannot make them ourselves, to share in the secondary worlds of those who can.” (49)

The first three lectures are each concerned with a particular genre; The Martyr as Dramatic Hero, The World of Sagas (dealing with the epics of Iceland in particular), and The World of Opera. These should be of interest to almost anybody interested in these particular arts. The last lecture, Words and the Word, is specifically concerned with a topic that lurks in the background, sometimes further, sometimes nearer, in the three previous essays: particular problems and opportunities raised by Christianity (the Word) for poets and their secondary worlds (Words). This should be of interest to just about everybody. Here are a few special selections:

“Every human being … is at one and the same time both an individual member of the biological species, Homo Sapiens, which came into being by the process of natural selection, and a unique person, with a unique perspective on the world, endowed with a consciousness which is a Trinity-in-Unity. As St. Augustine said: ‘I am willing and knowing; I know that I am and will; I will to be and to know.’ The human condition is further complicated by the fact that man is a history and culture making creature, who by his own efforts has been able to change himself after his biological evolution was complete. Each of us, therefore, has acquired what we call a ‘second nature’, created by the particular society and culture into which we happen to have been born.” (119)

“To say that a poem is a personal utterance does not mean that it is an act of self-expression. The experience a poet endeavors to embody in a poem is an experience of a reality common to all men; it is only his in that this reality is perceived from a perspective which nobody but he can occupy. What by providence he has been the first to perceive, it is his duty to share with others. ” (131)

And Auden then quotes George MacDonald (Victorian Congregationalist minister and author of Phantastes), for a theological explanation:

“In every man there is an inner chamber of peculiar life into which God only may enter. There is also a chamber in God himself into which none can enter but the one, the peculiar man – out of which chamber that man has to bring revelation and strength to his brethren. That is that for which he was made – to reveal the secret things of the Father.’ (131)

Later he quotes from “The Future of Belief,” by Leslie Dewart:

“God does not send a message in place of Himself. He comes in person to deliver his message, and moreover, his message is not other than Himself.

The ‘Word’ that He send is an utterance only in the sense that it proceeds from Him, but not in the sense that what is uttered is other than Himself.

What He communicates to us would not be Himself unless that which is communicated proceeded from Him in Himself. Thus the Word of God is not only with God, but the Word was God.

The Christian God is not both transcendent and immanent. He is a reality other than being Who is present to being, by which presence He makes being to be.”

This last statement strikes me as extraordinary. Isn’t it Aquinas himself who has taught us to conceptualize God as pure Being, transcendent and immanent? This runs against everything we’ve inherited from the western metaphysical tradition, going all the way back to the Pre-Socratics. Aside from its metaphysical implications, there seems to be a washing of hands here in regard to the tradition by which we understand creation as incarnate. And yet Dewart is also indebted to this tradition, for without it such a bold renunciation could not be made. Or so it seems to me. It also seems to me difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a 'Who' that does not participate in being, but that's at least part of what makes the statement so arresting.

Anyway, these are just a few of the many treasures to be found among Auden’s essays, and Secondary Worlds is no exception.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Introduction to Christianity Part One: God, Chapter Two

‘The Biblical Belief In God” is divided into five subchapters. In the ‘Problem of the story of the Burning Bush’ Ratzinger takes up Exodus 3 and examines the story of how the name ‘Yahweh’ was established as the name of the God of Israel. In telling Moses to tell his people “I am who I am,” the name is established both in light of the word for being (I am) and as the God of Israel’s ancestors. This jibed well with the Greek philosophical tradition of the Church Fathers, where a comprehensive idea of Being was “considered the most appropriate expression of the divine” (118) Moses sounded like Plato. However, as Ratzinger points out Emil Brunner pointing out, “The name is here replaced by the concept, and the not-to-be-defined is replaced by a definition. It is likely that the name ‘Yahweh’ comes not from the word for ‘being,’ but from the Babylonian theophorous names containing the syllable ‘you’ or ‘ya’, meaning “mine” or “my God.” “It is the God who, as the personal Being, deals with man as man.” (121)

In the second part, The Intrinsic Assumption of the Belief in Yahweh, the subject is this God of Israel’s fathers, bearing the name El or Elohim (singular and plural, respectively), taken from the surrounding peoples. “By deciding in favor of El, the fathers of Isra-el thus made a choice of the greatest importance: they opted for the ‘numen personale’ [personal divinity] as opposed to the ‘numen locale’ [local divinity], for the personal and person-centered God, who is to be thought of and found on the plane of I and You, not primarily in holy places.” (124)

This also means that he is not a God of nature, of the aforementioned ‘stirb und werde’ who is interpreted in light of cosmic changes, even though he may govern them. He is the God of coming events, the God of hope in the future. Addressed as El and Elohim “he is one, but as the exceeding great, entirely Other, he himself transcends the bounds of singular and plural; he lies beyond them.” (125)

In the third part, Ratzinger brings these meditations to bear on their importance of the creed concerning ‘Yahweh, the God of Our Fathers’ and the God of Jesus Christ.’ By identifying himself with the words “I am who I am,” God has rebuffed Moses’ search for a name to give to the Jewish people. God is beyond naming, and as Ratzinger writes, this “serves as a kind of negative theology.” (128)

Moreover, “when God here calls himself ‘I am’, he is to be explained, according to Jacob, as he who ‘is’, as Being in contrast to Becoming, as that which abides and persists in all passing away.” (129) In John 17, this ‘I am’ is taken up by Jesus Christ. “He himself is the name, that is the “invocability” of God.”

Ratzinger begins The Idea of the Name by asking “What is a name really?” He answers, “When God names himself after the self-understanding of fith, he is not so much expressing his inner nature as making himself nameable, he is handing himself over to men in such a way that he can be called upon by them. And by doing this he enters into coexistence with them; he puts himself within their reach; he is “there” for them.” (134)

“In part five The Two Sides of the Biblical Concept of God are considered. “One side is the element of the personal, of proximity, of invocability, of self-bestowal, an element that is heralded in the idea of the “God of our fathers, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” summed up comprehensively in the giving of the name, and concentrated again later in the idea of “the God of Jesus Christ”.

“On the other side is the fact that this proximity, this accessibility is the free gift of the One who stands above space and time, bound to nothing and binding everything to himself. The element of timeless power is characteristic of this God; it become concentrated more and more emphatically in the idea of Being, of the enigmatic and profound ‘I am’.” (136)

I don’t think there’s any thing to add to this, and I don’t really have any questions about it. I just think they're exemplary passages.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Miyamoto Musashi

Pretty decent movie starring Toshirô Mifune. What struck me most was a slight similarity to Onibaba, which I watched a couple of weeks ago. Makes me wonder if there's an entire sub-genre of movies about medieval Japan which feature a mother and a daughter who make their living by stripping dead soldiers of their armour and selling it on the black market. Otherwise, there were great battle scenes and some fairly corny romances to round the whole thing out. And it's in color. But if you're interested in mother-daughter teams despoiling samurai warriors, I'd have to go with Onibaba.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Introduction to Christianity Part One: God, Chapter One

Entitled ‘Prolegomena to the Subject of God’ and divided into two parts: The Scope of the Question and The Profession of Faith In The One God. In the first part he asks “Where does this idea of ‘God’ really come from?” and then states ‘So far aas this point is concerned, it could of course be demonstrated that in spite of a confusing appearance of extreme variety the subject exists in only three forms (which occur in a number of different variations, of course) – monotheism, polytheism, and atheism, as one can briefly describe the three main paths taken by human history on the question of God.” (103-104)

Later he writes: “. . . all three paths are convinced of the unity and uniqueness of the absolute; where they differ is only in their notions of the manner in which man has to deal with the absolute or, alternatively, of how the absolute behaves toward him. (109)

The difference between the idea represented by ‘God’ in human history and the idea of the ‘absolute’ here is fairly puzzling, but I think what he’s getting at is the idea that behind all human thought is an aspiration towards unification – an even grander unification theory, maybe. In ancient cultures with polytheistic traditions I wonder if this became apparent only in the development of Greek philosophy: monism as a kind of latent monotheism. Concerning atheism, Ratzinger points out Marxism as its most developed form, in which absolute Being is considered material.

Concerning an ancient a-theistic religion such as Buddhism (which seems to be gaining influence in our own time), Ratzinger is more helpful back in the Preface when he marks out the difference between Buddha and Christ: “Buddha – and in this he is comparable to Socrates – directs the attention of his disciples away from himself: his own person does not matter, but only the path he has pointed out. Someone who finds the way can forget Buddha. But with Jesus, what matters is precisely his Person, Christ himself. When he says, ‘I am he’, we hear the tones of the ‘I am’ on Mount Horeb.” (21)

In ‘The Profession of Faith In the One God,’ the importance of the faith of Israel is identified at the outset: “Yahweh, thy God, is an only God” is the important background to the Creed. “It is not the registration of one view alongside others but an existential decision. As a renunciation of the gods, it also implies the renunciation both of the deification of political powers and of the deification of the cosmic cycle ‘Stirb und werde” (Die and Become).

What exactly did Goethe mean when he wrote ‘Stirb und werde’? Was he identifying what he thought to be an ancient understanding of the cosmic cycle, and/or did he mean to contradict the Christian view of the universe? Can it be said that the cosmic cycle is transformed through Christian faith, rather renounced? It’s safe to assume Ratzinger knows his Goethe, but in ‘Stirb und werde’ I hear something akin to John 12:24: “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” What Ratzinger tries to make clear is the importance of what he terms ‘Christian renunciation,’ and how this ‘No’ (to paganism in particular) is tied to a much more fundamental ‘Yes’.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Simon Boccanegra

I took a night off from reading to watch this 1988 production for the Glyndebourne Festival with Giancarlo Pasquetto in the title role and Elena Prokina as Maria. Apparently this isn’t considered one of the more successful performances available on DVD, but I have to say that I enjoyed it quite a lot. This may well become my favorite opera by Verdi; while the score isn’t as familiar (to me, anyway) as Rigoletto or Aida or any of the other great ones, great is exactly what it is. It’s also a fairly gripping drama, though very dark. The voices of Pasquetto and Prokina and most everybody else very good, and I thought Prokina in particular gave a great performance. Some of the others maybe less so. The sets were simple without being austere, the costumes seemed designed to reveal something about their characters rather than complicate their image, and the color scheme was vibrant throughout. But what a great score. I’m looking forward to seeing another performance.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Introduction to Christianity

I’m working my way through this book by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, a 358 page explication of the Apostles’ Creed first published in 1968. If anyone is qualified to deliver such a title it would seem to be the pope, and in this work Benedict XVI has presented us with an illuminating meditation on what it means to be a Christian. That’s my humble opinion after reading the first hundred pages, anyway. What I offer here isn’t really intended as a review, but more in the way of a collection of my favorite passages as I work my way through the book, and maybe a question or two here and there.

I’ve read Bernard Lonergan’s “Way to Nicea” about half a dozen times over the years, and the two studies make for an interesting comparison. Lonergan has given us a study of the dialectical development of Christian dogma and its early formulation by writers such as Hermas and Tertullian. While Ratzinger is certainly concerned with earlier sources, occasional references to the likes of Romano Guardini and Teilhard de Chardin reveal his purpose as something more than delineating the ancient setting of an ancient creed. For example, here’s a paragraph on “The Dilemma of Belief in the World of Today:”

“Belief appears no longer as the bold but challenging leap out of the apparent all of our visible world and into the apparent void of the invisible an intangible; it looks much more like a demand to bind oneself to yesterday and to affirm it as eternally valid. And who wants to do that in an age when the idea of “tradition” has been replaced by the idea of “progress”? (53)

After all, what does it really mean to say, “I believe”? This question and its relevance in the ‘world of today’ is the subject that Ratzinger takes up in the first eighty pages of the introduction. It is a question he approaches in at least seven different ways, including examinations of the relation between faith and doubt, the modern understanding of reality, and the rationality of faith. The most explicit statements made about faith are drawn from the ancient Hebrew word ‘amen,’ which embraces meanings as various as, ‘truth,’ ‘firm ground,’ ‘loyalty,’ ‘take one’s stand on something.’ “Thus faith in God appears as a holding on to God through which man gains a firm foothold for his life. Faith is thereby defined as taking up a position, as taking a stand trustfully on the ground of the word of God.” (69)

What comes through in this introduction is the author's intellectual honesty, so that at the end of this searching we are brought to ask, with John the Baptist, “Are you really he?” If I understand correctly, we can only really know the answer when we have the courage to ask the question.

In the second part of the introduction Ratzinger takes up ‘The Ecclesiastical Form of Faith.’ This part is in turn divided into sections concerning the History and Structure of the Creed, Limits and Meaning of the Text itself, Creed and Dogma, and the Creed as Expression of the Structure of Faith, including the sections Faith and Word and Belief as Symbol. Though short, I found these chapters especially striking for such a convincing demonstration of the clear development of Christian identity and community from the apostles’ experience (as revealed in the gospels) to the medieval form, in which there are many ways even now that we still understand ourselves.

Here Ratzinger writes of how the creed developed out of the gospels (specifically the words of the risen Christ in Matthew 28:19) as a dialogue ‘embedded in the ceremony of baptism.’ In the third and fourth centuries the form changed from question-and-answer into one continuous text, and into the Latin language. As the specifically Roman baptismal confession it was known by the Greek word ‘symbolum,’ symbol, and ‘finally Charlemagne secured the recognition of one form of the text throughout his empire, a form that – based on the old Roman text – had received its final shape in Gaul.’ Apparently the legend that the creed comes to us from the apostles themselves comes from the fifth century, and this legend later developed into the assumption that each of the twelve articles was contributed by one of the twelve apostles.

From the second part: “Something absolutely central becomes visible here, namely, that faith has to do, and must have to do, with forgiving, that it aims at leading man to recognize that he is a being that can only find himself in the reception and transmission of forgiveness, a being that needs forgiveness even in his best and purest moments.” (86)

From Creed and Dogma: “This means that faith is located in the act of conversion, in the turn of one’s being from worship of the visible and practicable to trust in the invisible.” (88) And in comparing the Apostles’ Creed to the Nicean Creed: “If we wish to feel our way toward the fundamental nature of Christian faith, it will be right to go back beyond the later, purely dogmatic texts and to regard this its first dialogue form as the most appropriate one ever created. This form is also more suited to its purpose than the We-type of creed, which (unlike our I-creed) was developed in Christian Africa and then at the big Eastern Councils. The latter kind represents a new type of creed, no longer rooted in the sacramental context of the ecclesiastical ceremony of conversion in the execution of the about-turn, and thus in the real birthplace of faith, but proceeding from the striving of the bishops assembled at the Council for the right doctrine and thus clearly becoming the first step toward the future form of dogma.” (89)

Concerning faith and word: “in faith the word takes precedence over the thought, a precedence that differentiates it structurally from the architecture of philosophy. In philosophy the thought precedes the word; it is after all a product of the reflection that one then tries to put into words; the words always remain secondary to the thought and thus in the last resort can always be replaced by other words. Faith, on the other hand, comes to man from outside, and this very fact is fundamental to it.” (91)

From Belief as symbol: “Dogma (or symbol, respectively) is also always . . . essentially an arrangement of words that from a purely intellectual point of view could have been quite different yet, precisely as a form of words, has its own significance – that of uniting people in the community of the confessing word. It is not a piece of doctrine standing isolated in and for itself but is the form of our worship of God, the form of our conversion, which is not only a turn to God but also a turn to one another in the common glorification of God.” (98)

Less momentous questions that came up in the course of the reading for me have mainly to do with that emphasis on ‘standing firm.’ Ratzinger convincingly lays out the evidence that this is in the spirit of the creed, but I can’t help but feel that something else is left out of this equation, though not the creed itself. Taking to heart his own words, that “in our attempt at understanding the Creed we must take care to keep referring the whole to the New Testament and to read and interpret it in the light of the aims of the latter,” I respectfully bring up the following point. In my own experience ‘standing firm’ has at times too easily degenerated into stasis. The gospels contain many other conceptualizations of faith, some of which don’t place so much emphasis on standing firm; in fact some seem to run contrary to it. The calling (and sending forth) of the disciples, the many miracles, and, of course, many of the parables given to us by Christ: the prodigal son, the workers in the vineyard, the bridesmaids and their lamps, and more than a few others. The idea of standing firm is certainly prevalent: the parable of the mustard seed, the seeds in good soil, the house built on a firm foundation. And of course the crucifixion, the central Christian event, the central human event, is the ultimate ‘standing still,’ but even this points forward to the resurrection. The creed also points us forward to the resurrection (it’s right there between the descent into hell and the ascension to heaven, after all), but in the resurrection itself I don’t see much emphasis on standing. The two disciples on their way to Emmaus, Jesus saying to Peter “Feed my sheep,” and “You will be carried off where you do not want to go,” Thomas touching the wounds of the risen Christ. There seems to me something beyond ‘standing firm’ at work here.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Benedict XVI on the Feast of Saint Benedict

Changing gears a bit, we move from the Devil and decadence to the Blessings of Benedict. I spent the weekend at the Mount Angel Abbey near Salem, Oregon, and there received a copy of a letter from Pope Benedict XVI to Benedictines around the world. Since I couldn't find it anywhere else online, I thought I'd provide it here. I don't think he'd mind.

Message of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI on the Feast of Saint Benedict - July 11, 2005

Dear Brothers and Sisters:

Tomorrow, the feast of St. Benedict of Norcia is celebrated, patron of Europe, a saint who is particularly dear to me, as can be intuited from my choice of his name.

Born in Norcia about 480, Benedict's first studies were in Rome but, disappointed with city life, he retired to Subiaco, where he stayed for about three years in a cave -- the famous 'sacro speco' -- dedicating himself wholly to God.

In Subiaco, making use of the ruins of a cyclopean villa of the emperor Nero, he built some monasteries, together with his first disciples, giving life to a fraternal community founded on the primacy of the love of Christ, in which prayer and work were alternated harmoniously in praise of God.

Years later, he completed this project in Monte Cassino, and put it in writing in his Rule, the only work of his that has come down to us. Amid the ashes of the Roman Empire, Benedict, seeking first of all the kingdom of God, sowed, perhaps even without realizing it, the seed of a new civilization which would develop, integrating Christian values with classical heritage, on one hand, and the Germanic and Slav cultures on the other.

There is a particular aspect of his spirituality, which today I would particularly like to underline. Benedict did not found a monastic institution oriented primarily to the evangelization of barbarian peoples, as other great missionary monks of the time, but indicated to his followers that the fundamental, and even more, the sole objective of existence is the search for God: "Quaerere Deum."

He knew, however that when the believer enters into a profound relationship with God he can not be content with living in a mediocre way, with a minimalist ethic and superficial religiosity. In this light, one understands better the expression that Benedict took from St. Cyprian and that is summarized in his Rule (VI, 21) -- the monks' program of life: "Nihil amori Christi praeponere." "Prefer nothing to the love of Christ."

Holiness consists in this valid proposal for every Christian that has become a true pastoral imperative in our time, in which one perceives the need to anchor life and history in solid spiritual references.

A sublime and perfect model of sanctity is Mary Most Holy, who lived in constant and profound communion with Christ. Let us invoke her intercession, together with that of St. Benedict, so that the Lord will multiply also in our time men and women who, through an enlightened faith, witnessed in life, will be in this new millennium salt of the earth and light of the world.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Devil in a Blue Dress

The Devil in the shape of Jennifer Beals, that is, which is pretty tempting indeed. This was another recommendation by Dad, and the movie itself is pretty good. Denzel Washington is very good as Easy Rollins. So are Don Cheadle, Tom Sizemore and most everybody else.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Logan's War: Bound by Honor

Watched this with my dad last night on his new Tivo system. We're big Chuck Norris fans from way back. As for this one - wow. Simply... well, it's hard to get much purchase on the whole thing. There was one scene (don't think I'm giving too much away here) in which one of the bad guys is trying to run down Chuck Norris with his Lincoln Town Car. Chuck gets a running start and jumps feet first right through the wind shield, killing the bad guy instantly. My question: didn't Chuck do this twenty years earlier in Good Guys Wear Black? Answer: He did, as I just confirmed with a quick visit to the IMDb site. Which also has this great line from that earlier movie, which may help put everything in perspective:

"Everything went wrong by the numbers. And that takes planning."

Wednesday, July 06, 2005


Heard this the other day for the first time since I don't know when. What a great record. Donald Fagin and Walter Becker composed pop music like no other musicians I know. So precise. And as so often noted, so decadent. How well it seems to exemplify the zeitigest of the early eighties, and yet how different it was from the masturbatory narcicissm of disco and violent narcicissm of punk. The fusion of jazz, funk and pop was what I always wanted Chick Corea's Return to Forever to be, but just wasn't. The nod to Latin music in the title and on a few choice riffs counts for about as much here as the stylized lettering on the cover of Aja meant to Asian themes, but the musical textures on Goucho shimmer more smoothly than even their most beautiful earlier albums. And the lyrics are as strange as any, in their own understated way. Can anybody explain to me what they were getting at in following verse?

Who is the gaucho amigo
Why is he standing
In your spangled leather poncho
With the studs that match your eyes
Bodacious cowboys
Such as your friend
Will never be welcome here
High in the Custerdome. . .

On second thought, don't. But if you haven't heard this before, or in a while, do yourself a favour and give it a listen. Sure to put a smile on your face, to quote from another great song on the album.

Sunday, July 03, 2005


“Evil is the heart when wars, tragedy, death, sweep away the civilized veneer and reveal the primitive beneath”

“Demon Woman”, as it is translated in the opening subtitles, is exclusively concerned with murder, sex and mayhem in medieval Japan. A young woman (Jitsuko Yoshimura) and her mother-in-law (Nobuko Otowa) make their living during the warring states period by killing travelers, stripping them of their clothes and dumping them down a deep, dark hole, and then selling the spoils to a local merchant in exchange for millet. After local fisherman Hachi (Kei Sato) returns from the war in Kyoto and tells the older woman that her son is dead, he strikes up an erotic friendship with the younger woman. The mother-in-law hungers for sex herself, but after being refused by Hachi assumes a moral tone against the young couple’s bourgeoning sexual relationship, even as she continues her practice of murdering traveling samurai and shoving them into her own private gehenna-in-the-grass. She is aided in her efforts by the mask she tears from the dead face of one of her victims, and the ensuing terror she inflicts on her daughter-in-law is offset for the audience only slightly by dramatic irony before the entire movie turns into a parable concerning the relationship between men, women and the myths we’ve made to help us govern right conduct. So the above quotation (from the original English language poster for the film) has it only half right: the movie isn’t so much about ‘the primitive’ as it is the permanence of that ‘civilized veneer’, even during the very worst of times. It’s a tale about what happens when we fail to let our own best stories lead us along the shining path of the Buddha, and where that failure leads.

Friday, July 01, 2005

The Beggar Maid

“What do they have to say to each other? It doesn’t really matter. Flo speaks of Rose’s smart-aleck behavior, rudeness and sloppiness and conceit. Her willingness to make work for others, her lack of gratitude. She mentions Brian’s innocence, Rose’s corruption. Oh, don’t you think you ’re somebody, says Flo, and a moment later, Who do you think you are? Rose contradicts and objects with such poisonous reasonableness and mildness, displays theatrical unconcern. Flo goes beyond her ordinary scorn and self-possession and becomes amazingly theatrical herself, saying it was for Rose that she sacrificed her life. She saw her father saddled with a baby daughter and she thought, what is that man going to do? So she married him, and here she is, on her knees.” Royal Beatings (15)