Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Amen, brother

Matt Walsh explains why the bible is not a self-help book.

What Matt argues for might be called "hard truth," which despite its intimidating presence and sometimes fearsome demeanor (think Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia) is what we're built for. His essay finishes in an especially poignant way.

Yes, the famous phrase from Saint Augustine about how "our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee" looms large in mind as I write this -- how could it not?

In a smoothly-written but visceral reaction to wayward pastors who want the church to get with the times, Walsh reminds us why Christianity must be counter-cultural. I'm glad he did that.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Exalting convenience

I do not ordinarily watch The Simpsons, but I remember laughing at a line in an episode called "Exit Through the Kwik-E-Mart," when Apu the convenience store owner is carried away while yelling, "Convenience forever; freshness never!"

That's as pithy a summary of a common business model as you're likely to hear anywhere, and it's also a sentiment that doughnut-loving Homer Simpson has no problem accepting. I sometimes worry, though, that convenience in our culture has absconded with a cloak of authority it was never meant to wear.

On this Ash Wednesday, for example, ABC News profiled an Episcopal church in Georgia that experimented with a program called "Ashes to Go." The story also mentioned an Episcopal congregation in Michigan with the same idea. In both cases, a clutch of ministers stood in a parking lot, dispensing ashes and quick blessings to anyone who drove up asking for them. You could get a cross of ashes on your forehead and be on your merry way in 30 seconds, without ever taking your hands off the steering wheel.

Something about that approach makes me sad, and I think it's because any drive-thru "service" can never be solemn or reflective. In catering to the manic pace of modern life, it throws mystery overboard. Defenders of the practice make a point of saying that any blessing is better than no blessing. They've got the "Jesus always meets you where you are" part of Christian belief memorized. As far as I know, however, that thought is incomplete. If saints through the ages are unanimous about any insight more bite-size than the Nicene Creed, it's that Jesus meets you where you are, but He never lets you stay there.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

When Somewhere meets "Somewhither"

John C. Wright and one of his readers have a fascinating dialog when the reader explains why he is tired of "faith-based" defense against vampires that is often described by inexperienced authors in the horror genre.

Short version of the objection: if you meet a vampire and need emergency protection from evil, but your faith is strong enough to compensate for the MacGyver-like improvisation you'll have to do when you want a crucifix but settle for a can of Spaghetti-Os, then almost any implement answers to your need, because it's incidental to the contest of wills that you're having.

Fortunately, nobody in the conversation seems ready to abandon the idea that "well begun is half done." Tools matter. In this instance, they speculate, it's not either faith or crucifix that you should arm yourself with, but both faith and crucifix.

Mr. Wright adds an excerpt from a forthcoming novel (Somewhither) to the proceedings, and the excerpt fits. 

Other fantasy novelists have wrestled with the same question, of course. Interestingly, the consensus view of the people chatting at Mr. Wright's blog seems to be that Larry Correia's Monster Hunter International books are weak on this point, whereas Jim Butcher's novels about Chicago wizard Harry Dresden are well-educated. Based on what I've read of those authors, I agree with that consensus.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Grocery store philosophy

The piquant mix of description and social commentary in highlighted italics after this paragraph made me smile. It's from an entry on the Z blog that was linked by Gerard at American Digest:

"Whole Foods is another example of why libertarian economics is utter nonsense. If humans were transactional, value seeking machines, they would not be squandering money on sustainably grown fair trade instant coffee, processed by one-legged transgendered midgets."

As far as I can tell, the "Z man" who wrote that has no real animus against Whole Foods. He simply holds that upscale grocery chain up as a symptom of the conformity in college towns like Cambridge, Massachusetts, where diversity is honored more in the breach than in the observance. Apple's iPhone also draws his eye, because it's another example of something "conformational" and "affirming." Those are interesting adjectives. Mr. Z does not treat them as outriders for an argument about greater and lesser goods, but I suspect he could. The discussion is much bigger than "farm raised" vs. "wild caught."

"Conformational" and "affirming" reminded me that some of the men at my parish have been talking about how to develop better spiritual habits. We're using the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola as a guide for that effort. One of the recommended practices in those venerable Exercises is a daily examination of conscience. It turns out that the examen is not just a mental accounting of the day's mistakes. Done right, the examen should not be discouraging; it looks back at blessings received, and our response to them. This approach makes sense because there are questions of "right order" buried in our daily lives. Shopping at Whole Foods, for example, is morally neutral unless or until it becomes part of our self-image. If that happens, we need a reality check, and that might be part of what Mr. Z was alluding to. Affirmation from things never works out, because (as saints and Scriptures remind us), it's an inversion of the moral order that puts people first.

I know that sounds preachy, but I don't mean it that way. I need the reminder myself. I'd say I was trying to philosophize my way out of a paper bag, if that metaphor hadn't been hobbled in many places by the rise of reusable canvas totes.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

One more voice in the 'sphere

In the halcyon days before Instapundit became a founding member of PJ Media,  and soon after James Lileks thumped "parachute journalism" with his "Notes from the Olive Garden," I maintained a little blog that was a mix of family anecdote and political commentary. Fun as it was, I let the thing go fallow after several years because it was consuming more of my time than it should have. It wasn't just the blog that went dark. I stopped writing for publication, period. Trying to salvage a failing marriage was more important work.

That salvage effort came to naught. Eventually, I traded a four-bedroom house for a two-bedroom condominium. On the other side of divorce, I'm more acquainted with my own shortcomings than I once was. I no longer follow the news as avidly as I had, or assume that I'm communicating even in or through silence.

But I also know that it's still possible to grow, to think, to hope, to say thank you, to give and receive forgiveness. I'm still a father, still a Catholic, and still one of those people who learns his own mind by using a keyboard or a pen to unleash thoughts as though they were tennis balls thrown for retrieval by faithful dogs. Moreover, mine is a surprisingly musical life. I don't know which movement of the symphony I'm in, but I know that there is a symphony. Often, that's enough to keep me going.

I decided that I could go safely back to blogging. If you find my essays thoughtful or amusing, I'm glad for your company. I've no plans to post as frequently as I once did, or comment often on news of the day. What I am looking forward to is a chance to hold prevailing assumptions up for scrutiny, while learning more about the love of God along the way.

This morning, there was a bird singing outside my window. First time this year. I did not see it, and I'm not enough of a bird watcher to be able to identify birds by their songs, but who's to say there wasn't something sacramental about that? Gratitude has to start someplace.