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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Fire Sale


- Matt (Justin Long) is threatened by the evil Mai (Maggie Q) in Live Free or Die Hard

The other day I mentioned that I was trying to decide which movie to see next - Julius Caesar or the latest Die Hard film .... Live Free or Die Hard won out.

I've been a fan of the Die Hard movies since the first one, which co-starred Alan Rickman and ballet dancer turned actor Alexander Godunov. This newest member of the series doesn't disappoint .... the stunts are amazing and well done, there's the father/daughter dynamic by which I'm always intrigued, and there's an interesting plot feature ..... a fire sale.

A fire sale is a term from popular fiction describing a three-stage coordinated attack on a country's transportation, telecommunications, financial, and utilities infrastructure systems. The attacks are designed to promote chaos and foster a leaderless environment ..... The term may owe its origins to the 1997 article "A Farewell to Arms", in Wired Magazine, that is credited as its inspiration. The article details government "think-tank" war games-styled exercises called "The Day After" that are designed to help plan for prevention and remediation of a coordinated, systematic attack on the United States national infrastructure. - Wikipedia

For those who'd like to know more about the movie, read Richard Corliss' review - here's just the opening paragraph of it ....

I'm not the sort of film critic who jots down ecstatic remarks during a screening. But about an hour into "Live Free or Die Hard," I scrawled in my notebook: "Ah, American movies!" This might have been after a sequence in which New York City Police Detective John McClane (Bruce Willis), driving through Washington, D.C., with a nerdy hacker named Matt (Justin Long) in custody, evades the bad guys' pursuing helicopter by crashing into a fire hydrant so that the force of the vertical spray knocks the chopper out of its flight pattern ... then gets trapped in a tunnel full of cars speeding both ways and one car tumbling through the air directly at them, and they miss being killed because just as the car is to land on them, two other vehicles drive on either side of the guys and the hurtling car lands smack on top of the other two ... and then McClane jumps in another car, speeds it up a makeshift ramp at the end of the tunnel and jumps out just in time to see it hit and demolish the low-flying chopper. "Jesus," says Matt, "you killed a helicopter with a car!" McClane: "I ran out of bullets."

:-)

I thought, though, that I'd also post below the article from Wired mentioned above - A Farewell to Arms - it's kind of interesting, though written 4 years before 9/11 ....

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A Farewell to Arms
By John Carlin

For those on the ramparts of the world's sole superpower, the digital winds are blowing an icy chill through the triumphant glow of the post-Cold War.

People in Washington play lots of games, but none for higher stakes than The Day After. They played a version of it in the depths of the Cold War, hoping the exercise would shake loose some bright ideas for a US response to nuclear attack. They're playing it again today, but the scenario has changed - now they're preparing for information war.

The game takes 50 people, in five teams of ten. To ensure a fair and fruitful contest, each team includes a cross-section of official Washington - CIA spooks, FBI agents, foreign policy experts, Pentagon boffins, geopoliticos from the National Security Council - not the soldiers against the cops against the spies against the geeks against the wonks.

The Day After starts in a Defense Department briefing room. The teams are presented with a series of hypothetical incidents, said to have occurred during the preceding 24 hours. Georgia's telecom system has gone down. The signals on Amtrak's New York to Washington line have failed, precipitating a head-on collision. Air traffic control at LAX has collapsed. A bomb has exploded at an army base in Texas. And so forth.

The teams fan out to separate rooms with one hour to prepare briefing papers for the president. "Not to worry - these are isolated incidents, an unfortunate set of coincidences" is one possible conclusion. Another might be "Someone - we're still trying to determine who - appears to have the US under full-scale attack." Or maybe just "Round up the usual militia suspects."

The game resumes a couple of days later. Things have gone from bad to worse. The power's down in four northeastern states, Denver's water supply has dried up, the US ambassador to Ethiopia has been kidnapped, and terrorists have hijacked an American Airlines 747 en route from Rome. Meanwhile, in Tehran, the mullahs are stepping up their rhetoric against the "Great Satan": Iranian tanks are on the move toward Saudi Arabia. CNN's Christiane Amanpour, in a flak jacket, is reporting live outside the US embassy in Addis Ababa. ABC's Peter Jennings is quizzing George Stephanopoulos on the president's state of mind.

When suddenly, the satellites over North America all go blind ...

God, Voltaire said, is on the side of the big battalions. Not any more, He ain't. Nor on the side of the richest or even - and this may surprise you - the most extravagantly well wired. Information technology is famously a great equalizer, a new hand that can tip the scales of power. And for those on the ramparts of the world's sole superpower, the digital winds are blowing an icy chill through the post-Cold War's triumphant glow.

Consider this litany. From former National Security Agency director John McConnell: "We're more vulnerable than any other nation on earth." Or former CIA deputy director William Studeman: "Massive networking makes the US the world's most vulnerable target" ("and the most inviting," he might have added). Or former US Deputy Attorney General Jaime Gorelick: "We will have a cyber equivalent of Pearl Harbor at some point, and we do not want to wait for that wake-up call."

And the Pentagon brass? They commissioned their old RAND think-tank friends, who combed through the Day After results and concluded, "The more time one spent on this subject, the more one saw tough problems lacking concrete solutions and, in some cases, lacking even good ideas about where to start."

Not that nothing is being done. On the contrary, there's been a frenzy of activity, most of it little noticed by Washington at large. A presidential commission has been established; the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA have created their own specialist I-war teams; interagency bodies, complete with newly minted acronyms like IPTF (Infrastructure Protection Task Force) and CIWG (Critical Infrastructure Working Group), have been set up; defense advisory committees have been submitting reports thick and fast, calling for bigger budgets, smarter bombs, more surveillance, still more commissions to combat the cyber peril.

Yet, for all the bustle, there's no clear direction. For all the heat, there isn't a great deal of light. For all the talk about new threats, there's a reflexive grasp for old responses - what was good enough to beat the Soviet Union and Saddam Hussein will be good enough to beat a bunch of hackers. Smarter hardware, says the Pentagon. Bigger ears, says the NSA. Better files, says the FBI. And meanwhile The Day After's haunting refrain is playing over and over in the back of everyone's mind: What do we tell the White House?

A little digitally induced confusion might be par for the course in, say, the telecom industry or even on the global financial markets. But warfare is something else altogether. And while the old Washington wheels slowly turn, information technology is undermining most of the world's accumulated knowledge about armed conflict - since Sun Tzu, anyway.

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The Divine Dawning - Karl Rahner SJ

I saw this Advent reading in my web travels abd thought I'd post it here below ....

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The Divine Dawning

Karl Rahner

Light of lights! All gloom dispelling,
Thou didst come to make thy dwelling
Here within our world of sight.
Lord, in pity and in power,
Thou didst in our darkest hour
Rend the clouds and show thy light.
Praise to thee in earth and heaven
Now and evermore be given,
Christ, who art our sun and shield.
Lord, for us thy life thou gavest,
Those who trust in thee thou savest,
All thy mercy stands revealed.

- St. Thomas Aquinas

Every year we celebrate the holy season of Advent, O God. Every year we pray those beautiful prayers of longing and waiting, and sing those lovely songs of hope and promise. Every year we roll up all our needs and yearnings and faithful expectation into one word: "Come!"

And yet, what a strange prayer this is! After all, you have already come and pitched your tent among us. You have already shared our life with its little joys, its long days of tedious routine, its bitter end. Could we invite you to anything more than this with our "Come"? Could you approach any nearer to us than you did when you became the "Son of Man," when you adopted our ordinary little ways so thoroughly that it's almost hard for us to distinguish you from the rest of our fellow men?

In spite of all this we still pray: "Come." And this word issues as much from the depth of our hearts as it did long ago from the hearts of our forefathers, the kings and prophets who saw your day still far off in the distance, and fervently blessed its coming. Is it true, then, that we only "celebrate" this season, or is it still really Advent?

Are you the eternal Advent? Are you he who is always still to come, but never arrives in such a way as to fulfill our expectations? Are you the infinitely distant One, who can never be reached?

Are you only the distant horizon surrounding the world of our deeds and sufferings, the horizon which, no matter where we roam, is always just as far away? Are you only the eternal Today, containing within itself all time and all change, equally near to everything, and thus also equally distant?

When our bleeding feet have apparently covered a part of the distance to your eternity, don't you always retreat twice as far away from us, into the immense reaches filled only by your infinite being? Has humanity drawn the least bit closer to you in the thousands and thousands of years that have elapsed since it boldly began its most exciting and fearsome adventure, the search for you?

Have I come any nearer to you in the course of my life, or doesn't all the ground I have won only make my cup all the more bitter because the distance to you is still infinite? Must we remain ever far from you, O God of immensity, because you are ever near to us, and therefore have no need of "coming" to us? Is it because there is no place in our world to which you must first "find your way"?

You tell me that you have really already come, that your name is Jesus, Son of Mary, and that I know in what place and at what time I can find you. That's all true, of course, Lord - but forgive me if I say that this coming of yours seems to me more like a going, more like a departure than an arrival.

You have clothed yourself in the form of a slave. You, the hidden God, have been found as one of us. You have quietly and inconspicuously taken your place in our ranks and marched along with us. You have walked with us, even though we are beings who are never coming, but rather always going, since any goal we reach has only one purpose: to point beyond itself and lead us to the last goal, our end.

And thus we still cry: "Come! Come to us, you who never pass away, you whose day has no evening, whose reality knows no end! Come to us, because our march is only a procession to the grave." Despairing of ourselves, we call upon you - then most of all, when, in composure and quiet resignation, we bring ourselves to accept our finiteness.

You promised that you would come, and actually made good your promise. But how, O Lord, how did you come? You did it by taking a human life as your own. You became like us in everything: born of a woman, you suffered under Pontius Pilate, were crucified, died, and were buried. And thus you took up again the very thing we wanted to discard. You began what we thought would end with your coming: our poor human kind of life, which is sheer frailty, finiteness, and death.

Contrary to all our fond hopes, you seized upon precisely this kind of human life and made it your own. And you did this not in order to change or abolish it, not so that you could visibly and tangibly transform it, not to divinize it. You didn't even fill it to overflowing with the kind of goods that men are able to wrest from the small, rocky acre of their temporal life, and which they laboriously store away as their meager provision for eternity.

No, you took upon yourself our kind of life, just as it is. You let it slip away from you, just as ours vanishes from us. You held on to it carefully, so that not a single drop of its torments would be spilled. You hoarded its every fleeting moment, so you could suffer through it all, right to the bitter end.

You too felt the inexorable wheel of blind, brute nature rolling over your life, while the clear-seeing eye of human malice looked on in cruel satisfaction. And when your humanity glanced upwards to the One who, in purest truth and deepest love, is called "Father," it too caught sight of the God whose ways are unfathomable and whose judgments are incomprehensible, who hands us the chalice or lets it pass, all according to his own holy will. You too learned in the hard school of suffering that no "why" will ever ferret out the secret of that will, which could have done otherwise, and yet chose to do something we would never understand.

You were supposed to come to redeem us from ourselves, and yet you, who alone are absolutely free and unbounded, were "made," even as we are. Of course, I know that you remained what you always were, but still, didn't our mortality make you shudder, you the Immortal God? Didn't you, the broad and limitless Being, shrink back in horror from our narrowness? Weren't you, absolute Truth, revolted at our pretense?

Didn't you nail yourself to the cross of creation, when you took as your own life something which you had drawn out of nothing, when you assumed as your very own the darkness that you had previously spread out in the eternal distance as the background to your own inaccessible light? Isn't the Cross of Golgotha only the visible form of the cross you have prepared for yourself, which towers throughout the spaces of eternity?

Is that your real coming? Is that what humanity has been waiting for? Is that why men have made the whole of human history a single great Advent-choir, in which even the blasphemers take part - a single chant crying out for you and your coming? Is your humble human existence from Bethlehem to Calvary really the coming that was to redeem wretched humanity from its misery?

Is our grief taken from us, simply because you wept too? Is our surrender to finiteness no longer a terrible act of despair, simply because you also capitulated? Does our road, which doesn't want to end, have a happy ending despite itself, just because you are traveling it with us?

But how can this be? And why should it be? How can our life be the redemption of itself, simply because it has also become your life? How can you buy us back from the law, simply by having fallen under the law yourself (Gal. 4:5)?

Or is it this way: is my surrender to the crushing narrowness of earthly existence the beginning of my liberation from it, precisely because this surrender is my "Amen" to your human life, my way of saying yes to your human coming, which happens in a manner so contrary to my expectations?

But of what value is it to me that my destiny is now a participation in yours, if you have merely made what is mine your own? Or have you made my life only the beginning of your coming, only the starting point of your life?

Slowly a light is beginning to dawn. I've begun to understand something I have known for a long time: You are still in the process of your coming. Your appearance in the form of a slave was only the beginning of your coming, a beginning in which you chose to redeem men by embracing the very slavery from which you were freeing them. And you can really achieve your purpose in this paradoxical way, because the paths that you tread have a real ending, the narrow passes which you enter soon open out into broad liberty, the cross that you carry inevitably becomes a brilliant banner of triumph.

It is said that you will come again, and this is true. But the word again is misleading. It won't really be "another" coming, because you have never really gone away. In the human existence that you made your own for all eternity, you have never left us.

But still you will come again, because the fact that you have already come must continue to be revealed ever more clearly. It will become progressively more manifest to the world that the heart of all things is already transformed, because you have taken them all to your heart.

Behold, you come. And your coming is neither past nor future, but the present, which has only to reach its fulfillment. Now it is still the one single hour of your Advent, at the end of which we too shall have found out that you have really come.

O God who is to come, grant me the grace to live now, in the hour of your Advent, in such a way that I may merit to live in you forever, in the blissful hour of your eternity.

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Friday, December 14, 2007

Ebert on The Golden Compass



A while ago I had posted something about the movie, The Golden Compass, but later it got deleted in one of my blog-pruning fits. Yesterday, though, when I was reading movie reviews at Roger Ebert's site, I saw that he had given it a good review (four stars), so I thought I'd post some of what he had to say here .....

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"The Golden Compass" is a darker, deeper fantasy epic than the "Rings" trilogy, "The Chronicles of Narnia" or the "Potter" films. It springs from the same British world of quasi-philosophical magic, but creates more complex villains and poses more intriguing questions. As a visual experience, it is superb. As an escapist fantasy, it is challenging. Teenagers may be absorbed and younger children may be captivated; some kids in between may be a little conflicted, because its implications are murky.

They weren't murky in the original 1995 novel, part of the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman, a best seller in Britain, less so here. Pullman's evil force, called the Magisterium in the books, represents organized religion, and his series is about no less than the death of God, who he depicts as an aged, spent force. This version by New Line Cinema and writer-director Chris Weitz ("About a Boy") leaves aside religion and God, and presents the Magisterium as sort of a Soviet dictatorship or Big Brother. The books have been attacked by American Christians over questions of religion; their popularity in the U.K. may represent more confident believers whose response to other beliefs is to respond, rather than suppress.

For most families, such questions will be beside the point. Attentive as I was, I was unable to find anything anti-religious in the movie, which works above all as an adventure. The film centers on a young girl named Lyra (Dakota Blue Richards), in an alternative universe vaguely like Victorian England. An orphan raised by the scholars of a university not unlike Oxford or Cambridge, she is the niece of Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), who entrusts her with the last surviving Alethiometer, or Golden Compass, a device that quite simply tells the truth. The Magisterium has a horror of the truth, because it represents an alternative to its thought control; the battle in the movie is about no less than man's preservation of free will.

Lyra's friend Roger (Ben Walker) disappears, one of many recently kidnapped children, and Lyra hears rumors that the Magisterium has taken them to an Arctic hideaway. At her college, she meets Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman), who suspiciously offers her a trip to the north aboard one of those fantasy airships that looks like it may be powered by steam. And the adventure proper begins.

I should explain that in this world, everyone has a spirit, or daemon, which is visible, audible and accompanies them everywhere. When they are with children, these spirits are shape-shifters, but gradually they settle into a shape appropriate for the adult who matures. Lyra's is a chattering little creature who can be a ferret, mouse, fox, cat, even a moth. When two characters threaten each other, their daemons lead the fight.

Turns out the Magisterium is experimenting on the captured children by removing their souls and using what's left as obedient servants without free will. Lyra challenges this practice ..... The struggle involves a mysterious cosmic substance named Dust, which embodies free will and other properties the Magisterium wants to remove from human possibility. By "mysterious," I mean that Dust appears throughout the movie as a cloud of dancing particles, from which emerge people, places and possibilities, but I have no idea under which rules it operates. Possibly it represents our human inheritance if dogma did not interfere .....

I realize this review itself may be murky, because theological considerations confuse the flow. Let me just say that I think "The Golden Compass" is a wonderfully good-looking movie, with exciting passages and a captivating heroine in Lyra. That the controversy surrounding it obscures its function as a splendid entertainment. That for adults, it will not be boring or too simplistic. And that I still don't understand how they know what the symbols on the Golden Compass represent, but it certainly seems articulate.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Lk 1:26-38



From the Lady Lever Art Gallery ..... ''The Annunciation' 1876-79', by Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) . Here's a little of what the page has to say about the painting .....

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In 'The Annunciation' Burne-Jones chose a vertical and narrow composition, as if the painting was another of his stained glass designs. The young Virgin looks startled by the angel's appearance, the hunching of her shoulders and the way in which she tightly clasps her dress suggest her awe for the determining event in her life. It is not only the honour of giving birth to God's Son but there is the sadness and sorrow she will experience as a mother losing her son. A visual link with the role of the Virgin in saving humanity is made through the relief on the arch, depicting the angle expelling Adam and Eve from Eden.

There is a tremendous amount of drapery detail, especially for the angel who despite the expressiveness of his face and gesture is almost suspended in space. Burne-Jones emphasised the lines in his works but never really demonstrated a great command of spatial arrangement. This is obvious in the way Burne-Jones rendered the arch of the building. The texture of the stone is most thoroughly painted and so is the supporting structure of the arch; however the perspective is ineffective and one is not naturally drawn into the depth of the painting.

Neither is there anywhere in the painting a play between light and shadow; the whole surface is equally illuminated by the inherent qualities of the rather sombre colours. Burne-Jones was obviously not concerned to convince spectators about the reality of the scene or to make them feel present by means of illusion. Instead his aim is much more poetic and spiritual in that we are expected to contemplate the news of the arrival of the saviour and feel the mystery of the divine union with human beings. The lack of movement in the painting evokes a contemplative response and a thorough examination of the surface of the painting. We are meant to experience our distance from the divine and at the same time share the Virgin's awe .....

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Tablet on Spe Salvi

The latest issue of the Tablet has an article on the Pope's encyclical letter, Spe Salvi (you can check out the quickie summery of the letter at Wikipedia or read the complete text of it at the Vatican's site). The Tablet article - A virtue saved from neglect by Fr. Bruce Williams, O.P. - brought up some interesting points, so I thought I'd post a bit of it. I've interspreced the excerpts from the article with my thoughts on them .....

Most of the media coverage of Spe Salvi has emphasised its criticisms of modern philosophical and social movements, particularly Marxism and other forms of atheism. What appears most noteworthy about them is their benevolent and respectful tone. Marx and Engels are credited with having described "alarmingly" and "with great precision ... the situation of [their] time", i.e. "the dreadful living conditions" of the industrial proletariat (n. 20). Modern atheism more generally is acknowledged to be motivated by "a type of moralism: a protest against the injustices of the world and of world history" by people who find themselves unable to accept such a world as "the work of a good God" (n. 42) ...... Those hopes are illusory because they both rest on an unreliable foundation (human effort devoid of God) and they are directed to an unrealisable goal (earthly paradise). Countering these two basic errors, Pope Benedict offers bracing reminders: a: defectible human freedom can never guarantee permanent happiness (n. 21); b: even the noblest human efforts cannot eliminate all suffering from earthly life (n. 36) .....

I actually find depressing this idea that human freedom and noble human efforts are doomed to failure in their quest for peace and happiness. I do harbor the admittedly fragile hope that we humans will eventually create a society without war, hunger, or inequality. If there's no hope of that ever being accomplished here on earth, then what are we saying .... that the journey is what's important (keep working towards the goal), not the destination (but the goal will never be reached)? I'm not ready to give up on this secular hope.

If it is appropriate for us Christians to criticise "deceptive" notions of hope characteristic of secular modernity, it is also incumbent on us to address the impoverished dynamic of hope too often evident in modern Christianity. The Pope identifies this impoverishment in a common tendency among Christians to focus too narrowly on "the individual and his [eternal] salvation" with inadequate concern for the condition of the human community in the present world. "In so doing, [modern Christianity] has limited the horizon of its hope and has failed to recognise the greatness of its task" (n. 25) .....

Yes! Go Liberation Theology! :-)

The unbalanced individualism and otherworldliness of much recent Christianity is seen by Benedict as a response to modern historical influences traceable to the Enlightenment (and Francis Bacon in particular). Unmentioned here is the fact that by the time Bacon and later Enlightenment philosophers gained prominence, significant numbers of people had already ceased to regard the Christian Church as a creditable bearer of hope. In other words, the obscuring of authentic Christian hope did not simply originate with the Enlightenment movement; to some extent at least, it also preceded and enabled that movement. How did that earlier loss of confidence in the Church come about? ...

I thought this was a good point .... Francis Bacon is said to be the father of the scientific method and the originator of the phrase knowledge is power .... interesting guy!

If, as previously mentioned, many have felt driven to atheism by the scandal of pervasive injustice in the world, should we not also recognise that many Catholics feel alienated because their experience of ecclesiastical life does not allow them to relate to the Church as an agent of hope for them? And are there not analogous difficulties in the way many outsiders perceive the Church? As it was put some years ago by one Canadian ecclesiastic who has served in church ministry at several levels, those who do not recognise the Church as a source of hope will instead perceive it as a burden - one more burden they do not need in their already overburdened lives ...

Yep.

Finally, in the last major section, we are presented with a discourse on the Final Judgement as hopeful assurance of the ultimate vindication of all justice (nn. 41-48). Included here is an instructive and appealing explanation of Catholic teaching concerning hell, heaven and purgatory, along with a likewise appealing instruction on how prayer for the dead is encompassed within Christian hope. This section serves to tie together the individual and communal concerns of hope ....

This is an interesting topic, given the popularity of the Left Behind books which dwell on the Rapture and the Tribulation. Also interesting, the stuff about worldly suffering and justice .... Yes, there is a resurrection of the flesh. There is justice. There is an "undoing" of past suffering, a reparation that sets things aright. ..... Benedict's theodicy. The part about indulgences just seems strange to me, and the part about hell and justice is upsetting ... I like the idea of restorative justice of the kind about which David Hart writes, and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, "Behold, I make all things new." ... but I'm afraid of justice in the shape of eternal punishment. I'd rather hope that all will be saved, as did Hans Urs von Balthasar.

I was especially intrigued with this bit of the Pope's letter on what purgatory might be like ......

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Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation "as through fire". But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ's Passion. At the moment of judgement we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy. It is clear that we cannot calculate the "duration" of this transforming burning in terms of the chronological measurements of this world. The transforming "moment" of this encounter eludes earthly time-reckoning—it is the heart's time, it is the time of "passage" to communion with God in the Body of Christ. The judgement of God is hope, both because it is justice and because it is grace. If it were merely grace, making all earthly things cease to matter, God would still owe us an answer to the question about justice—the crucial question that we ask of history and of God. If it were merely justice, in the end it could bring only fear to us all. The incarnation of God in Christ has so closely linked the two together—judgement and grace—that justice is firmly established: we all work out our salvation "with fear and trembling" (Phil 2:12). Nevertheless grace allows us all to hope, and to go trustfully to meet the Judge whom we know as our "advocate", or parakletos (cf. 1 Jn 2:1) ....

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Sunday, December 09, 2007

Mitt's speech on Mormonism

I was interested to hear that Mitt Romney was going to make a speech about Mormonism. It's not surprising that he would give such a speech - Obama has already given his version of the 1960 "Kennedy speech" - how much more anticipated might a talk about one of the most exotic of Christian denominations, with popular culture links to topics as diverse as Victorian explorer Sir Richard Burton's admiration for Joseph Smith to the roots of Battlestar Galactica.

So I was intrigued when I saw that On Faith had asked a question about the speech .... What did you think of Mitt Romney's speech Thursday about religion? What would you have told him to say?. One of the answers given was by Thomas Reese SJ and, as usual, his answer was very thoughtful and thorough, and touched not just on Mormonism and politics but the whole subject of the separation of Church and State. Here's just part of it .....

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[...] Governor Romney in his speech made many intelligent points with which I can easily agree.

• “A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith.”

• “[N]o authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions.”

• “I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause, and no one interest. A President must serve only the common cause of the people of the United States.”

• “There are some who would have a presidential candidate describe and explain his church's distinctive doctrines. To do so would enable the very religious test the founders prohibited in the Constitution.”

• “[L]iberty is a gift of God, not an indulgence of government.”

• “[O]ur founding fathers defined a revolutionary vision of liberty, grounded on self evident truths about the equality of all, and the inalienable rights with which each is endowed by his Creator.”

There are other statements to which I would respond, “Yes, but….”

• “John Adams’ words: ‘We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion... Our constitution was made for a moral and religious people.’”
The rule of law cannot be maintained simply by the fear of getting caught. We are not a police state. Religious moral codes support civilized behavior and help make civilized society possible. But while most Americans get their morality from their religion, it is also possible for nonbelievers to be moral citizens. Both believers and nonbelievers can be moral paragons and moral failures.

• “Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom…. Freedom and religion endure together, or perish alone.”
As a sound bite this works well, but it requires some qualifications. By insisting that all people are children of God with inherent dignity and rights given to them by God, religion lays the foundation for limiting the power of government. And when believers have used governmental power to limit the freedom of others, they have not only harmed their neighbors but have corrupted their own religion. But Romney’s sound bites give the impression that only believers support freedom. Like believers, nonbelievers have both supported and suppressed the freedom of others.

• “The founders proscribed the establishment of a state religion, but they did not countenance the elimination of religion from the public square. We are a nation 'Under God' and in God, we do indeed trust. We should acknowledge the Creator as did the Founders – in ceremony and word. He should remain on our currency, in our pledge, in the teaching of our history, and during the holiday season, nativity scenes and menorahs should be welcome in our public places.”
Yes, but we are also a nation that has room for nonbelievers and protects their right to be atheists. This is an area that requires dialogue, civil discussion and compromise. Any impression that government is favoring one religion over others or forcing religion down people’s throats must be avoided at all costs.

• “Our greatness would not long endure without judges who respect the foundation of faith upon which our constitution rests.”
This statement is vague and therefore dangerous. Clearly we do not want judges who abuse their positions either to advance a particular religion or to abuse religion in general. When, where and how religion can be expressed in the public square are not easy questions. The courts have grappled with prayer in public schools, aid to religious schools, nativity scenes on public property, bible and religious study in public schools, etc. I would not agree with all of their decisions, but they are mostly reasonable attempts to balance competing interests and goals with distinctions and nuance. For example, voluntary prayers composed by students are OK; prayers composed by school (government) employees are not.

• “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind.”
I believe this too, but it does not belong in a campaign speech. Like Governor Mike Huckabee's Iowa ads touting himself as a “Christian leader,” it implies that there is a “religion test” for political office. Both are pandering to those who would deny political office to people who differ with them on theology. Senator Joseph Lieberman cannot make this statement, but that is no reason to exclude him from office.

• “[W]hile differences in theology exist between the churches in America, we share a common creed of moral convictions.”
Perhaps we do on the general level of high principle, but many of the fights within and between churches today are over moral issues: abortion, gay sex, embryonic stem cell research, the Iraq war, immigration, AIDS prevention strategies, sex education, etc. The devil is in the details.

• “[N]o movement of conscience can succeed in America that cannot speak to the convictions of religious people.”
This is empirically true because there are so many religious people in the U.S.; they must be won over. But many movements of conscience have had nonbelievers as both leaders and followers.

• “The consequence of our common humanity is our responsibility to one another, to our fellow Americans foremost, but also to every child of God.”
My problem is with the word “foremost.” While it is true that we have a special responsibility to those closest to us, God does not have a preferential option for Americans.

Catholics come to the discussion of religion in the public square with their own unique experience. We know that when our church abused its political power in Europe, it sinned against the freedom and rights of others. When the church got in bed with kings and elites, it sowed the seeds of its own corruption. European secularism is in many ways a response to abuses by the churches.

The Catholic experience in America is one of both freedom and discrimination. The separation of church and state allowed Catholicism to flourish in freedom, but Catholic immigrants also experienced discrimination from Protestants who felt that Catholics were not American enough. Protestant prayers in public schools drove Catholics to build their own school system. As a result, American Catholics are especially sensitive to the rights of religious minorities.

Within the Catholic community there are divisions over the role of religion in the public square. Since Catholics believe that not just Scripture but also reason is a source of morality, one group believes that political discourse in the public square should appeal to reason and the natural law not to scripture and church authority. References to scripture and church teaching are appropriate in Catholic churches and schools, but not on the campaign trail.

A few also fear that the generic God of political religion is a form of relativism.

Other Catholics see the public expression of religion in the public square as the positive fruits of ecumenism and interreligious dialogue. A vocal number fear that secularists want to push religion totally out of public life. They are pushing back.

While we can thank Governor Romney for his contribution to the discussion of religion in the public square, what is needed is a calm public discussion of these issues away from the campaign trail. Demonizing opponents as Christian fascists or religion haters does not help American society. We need to listen to each other, walk in each others’ shoes and look for common ground. Rather than zeroing in on extreme positions, we need to search for a middle ground that respects all Americans.

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Saturday, December 08, 2007

Ron Hansen on sacramental writing

I saw an article by Ron Hansen, the Gerald Manley Hopkins Professor in the Arts and Humanities at Santa Clara University and the author of books like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Mariette in Ecstasy, both of which became movies, and whose newest book is to be a novelization of Jesuit poet GM Hopkins's life. The article is Writing as Sacrament and I thought it might be interesting since so many of us are writing fiction as well as blogs. Here's part of it below ....

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WHEN Saint Jerome translated the Bible into the Latin Vulgate, he chose the Latin sacramentum, sacrament, for the Greek mysterion, mystery. We understand these words to be highly different, but their difference is an efficient way of getting at my argument that good writing can be a religious act.

In the synoptic Gospels mysterion generally referred to the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, and, in Saint Paul's Epistles, to Christ himself as the perfect revelation of God's will. Tertullian introduced the term sacramentum as we know it when he talked about the rite of Christian initiation, understanding the word to mean a sacred action, object or means. And Saint Augustine further clarified the term by defining sacraments as "signs pertaining to things divine, or visible forms of an invisible grace." Eventually more and more things were seen as sacraments until the sixteenth century, when the Reformation confined the term to baptism and eucharist, the two Gospel sacraments, and the Roman Catholic Council of Trent decreed that signs become sacraments only if they become channels for grace. Twentieth century theology has used the term in a far more inclusive way, however, describing sacraments "as occasions of encounter between God and the believer, where the reality of God's gracious actions needs to be accepted in faith" (according to The Oxford Companion to the Bible).

Writing, then, is a sacrament insofar as it provides graced occasions of encounter between humanity and God. As Flannery O'Connor noted in Mystery and Manners, "the real novelist, the one with an instinct for what he is about, knows that he cannot approach the infinite directly, that he must penetrate the natural human world as it is. The more sacramental his theology, the more encouragement he will get from it to do just that."

..... (snip) .....

My first published book was Desperadoes, a historical novel about the Dalton gang from their hard-scrabble beginnings, through their horse rustling and outlawry in Oklahoma, to the fatal day in 1892 when all but one of the gang were killed in bank robberies in their hometown of Coffeyville, Kansas. "Crime does not pay" is a Christian theme, as is the book's focus on honor, loyalty, integrity, selfishness, and reckless ambition—the highest calling Bob Dalton seems to have felt was to be as important as Jesse James. But my own religious experience does not figure greatly in Desperadoes; most people read the book as a high falutin' Western, a boys-will-be-boys adventure full of hijinks and humor and bloodshed.

I fell into my second book because of the first. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is another historical novel, but is far darker than Desperadoes because I was far more insistent on a Christian perspective on sin and redemption and forgiveness. These were bad guys I was writing about, guys who were sons of preachers but did the wrong thing so blithely and persistently it was like they'd got their instructions all bollixed up. If Jesse James was a false messiah for those Southerners still in civil war with the finance companies and the railroads, then Bob Ford was both his Judas and his Barabbas, a self-important quisling who hoped to be famous and who got off scot-free for the killing of his famous friend, but who was hounded out of more than one town afterwards until he ended up as a saloonkeeper in Creede, Colorado. There he himself was killed at the hands of a man who claimed he was evening the score.

It's a form of bad sportsmanship for fiction writers to complain that too few reviewers pick up their hidden agendas, but in fact I was disappointed that the general reading of the book on Jesse James was pretty much as it was for Desperadoes. Hidden beneath the praise were the questions: Why is this guy writing Westerns? When oh when is he going to give his talent to a subject that matters?

..... (snip) .....

Mariette in Ecstasy concerns a seventeen-year old woman, Mariette Baptiste, who joins the Convent of Our Lady of Sorrows in upstate New York as a postulant in 1906. Her older sister, Annie, or Mother Celine, is the prioress there and on Christmas Eve, 1906, Mother Celine dies of cancer and is buried. On the next day, Christmas, Mariette is given the stigmata—those wounds in the hands, feet, and side resembling those that Christ suffered on the cross. Whether Mariette is a sexual hysteric full of religious wishful thinking or whether her physical wounds are indeed supernaturally caused is the subject of the novel.

I first thought about writing Mariette in Ecstasy after finishing Saint Therese of Lisieux's Story of a Soul. She was the third of her sisters to enter the Carmelite convent of Lisieux where her oldest sister was prioress and, like Mariette, she soon became a favorite there. You may know that Therese was just fifteen at the time she entered religious life and she did so little that was outwardly wonderful during her nine years as a nun that when she died of tuberculosis at twenty-four one of the sisters in the convent feared there would be nothing to say about Therese at the funeral. She did perform the ordinary duties of religious life extraordinarily well, emphasizing simplicity, obedience, and self-forgetfulness over the harsh physical mortifications that were common then, and she impressed some with her childlike faith in God the father and with her passionate love of Jesus. She can seem sentimental at times; there are those who would call Therese a religious fanatic and there are certainly psychologists who would diagnose her as neurotic. And then there are people like me who have a profound respect for her in spite of her perceived excessiveness. When you have a tension like that you're half way to having a plot.

..... (snip) .....

Saint Thomas Aquinas says that art does not require rectitude of the appetite, that it is wholly concerned with the good of that which is made. He says that a work of art is good in itself, and this is a truth that the modern world has largely forgotten. We are not content to stay within our limitations and make something that is simply a good in and of itself. Now we want to make something that will have some utilitarian value. Yet what is good in itself glorifies God because it reflects God. The artist has his hands full and does his duty if he attends to his art. He can safely leave evangelizing to the evangelists.

Evangelization for Jesus was generally by means of parables that were often so bewilderingly allusive that his disciples would ask for further explanations of his meaning. Mark has it that "he did not speak to [the crowds] without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything" (Mk 4:33-34). Christ's parables are metaphors that do not contract into simple denotation but broaden continually to take on fresh nuances and connotations. Parables invite the hearer's interest with familiar settings and situations but finally veer off into the unfamiliar, shattering their homey realism and insisting on further reflection and inquiry. We have the uneasy feeling that we are being interpreted even as we interpret them. Early pre-Gospel versions seem to have resembled Zen koans in which hearers are left hanging until they find illumination through profound meditation. A kind of koan is Jesus' aphorism in the Gospel of Luke: "Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted" (Lk 14: 1 1).

We are challenged, in Jesus' parables, to figure out how we are like wheat sown in a field, or lost sheep, or mustard seed, or the evil tenants of a householder's vineyard, and in the hard exercise of interpretation we imitate and make present again the graced interaction between the human and the divine.

To fully understand a symbol is to kill it. So the Holy Being continually finds new ways to proclaim itself to us, first and best of all in the symbols of Christ's life, then in Scripture, and finally in created things, whether they be the glories of nature or art or other human beings. And those symbols will not be objects but actions. As theologian Nathan Mitchell puts it, "Symbols are not things people invent and interpret, but realities that `make' and interpret a people. . . . Symbols are places to live, breathing spaces that help us discover what possibilities life offers."

The job of fiction writers is to fashion those symbols and give their readers the feeling that life has great significance, that something is going on here that matters. Writing will be a sacrament when it offers in its own way the formula for happiness of Pierre Tielhard de Chardin. Which is: First be. Second, love. Finally, worship. We may find that if we do just one of those things completely we may have done all three.

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