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Monday, November 30, 2009

Star Trek

- Chekov, Kirk, Scotty, McCoy, Sula, Uhura

This week's movie rental - Star Trek. I was cautiously looking forward to seeing this, worried it might be a nihilistic Battlestar Galactica clone. Fortunately, it turned out to be way better than I had expected.

The plot has Spock (Leonard Nimoy) trying and failing to avert the destruction of the planet Romulus, with himself and a Romulan mining ship being then sucked into a black hole and sent back through time to the moment of James Kirk's birth. Kirk's dad is kllled due to an attack on his ship by the Romulan ship, and thus Kirk's life, and everyone else's too, unfolds differently than it had in Spock's (and the original Star Trek's) own timeline. This was a great idea, for though much is the same in this storyline as in the original, the writers had the freedom to alter much as well. And alter they did .... Spock and Uhura!

So the plot was satisfying, but so were the characters and their chemistry - I thought they did a really good job with Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), and Dr. McCoy (Karl Urban), and I liked Bruce Greenwood as Christopher Pike (remember him?). There was even a green Orion, though she wasn't a dancing girl but an academy cadet :)

- Kirk

Not so great, though, was the science - much depends on a substance called "red matter" but it's entirely fictional, and I believe getting sucked into a black hole would more likely squish and toast you than send you back in time. Still, the special effects were very nice.

Here's just a bit from the review in The New York Times .....


[...] Kirk and Spock don’t meet in person until they’re adults — now played by Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto — at Starfleet Academy, which, in keeping with the show’s liberal leanings, is in San Francisco. At school Kirk flirts with Uhura (Zoë Saldana), a hot number who coolly brushes him off, and makes friends with a doctor, Leonard McCoy, a k a Bones (Karl Urban, wild-eyed and funny). Kirk also comes smack up against Spock, an officious instructor. In the tradition of many great romances, the two men take almost an instant dislike to each other, an antagonism that literalizes the Western divide between the mind (Spock) and body (Kirk) that gives the story emotional and dramatic force as well as some generous laughs.

Those laughs never slide into mockery. Mr. Abrams doesn’t treat “Star Trek” as a sacred text, which would be deadly for everyone save the fanatics. But neither does he skewer a pop cultural classic that, more than 40 years after its first run, has been so lampooned (it feels like there are more “South Park” parodies than original episodes) it was difficult to see how he was going to give it new life. By design or accident, he has, simply because in its hopefulness “Star Trek” reminds you that there’s more to science fiction (and Hollywood blockbusters) than nihilism. Mr. Abrams doesn’t venture into politics as boldly as Mr. Roddenberry sometimes did, though it’s worth noting he does equate torture with barbarism.

The barbarians here are the Romulans, who at one point in television time used to look a lot like Spock, but here resemble a Maori motorcycle gang complete with facial tattoos and Goth threads. Led by the glowering psychopath Nero (Eric Bana, an actor who knows how to take villainy seriously), the Romulans are mainly on hand to provoke the Starfleet cadets into space. There Mr. Abrams shows off some expensive-looking special effects, including an enemy warship that, with its enormous, grasping tendrils, by turns resembles a monstrous jellyfish and a malignantly blooming flower. The film comes down on the side of hope, but its apocalyptic interludes, including the image of a planet imploding into gray dust, collapsing like a desiccated piece of fruit, linger.

Despite these visions, the flashing lasers and latex aliens, “Star Trek” is fundamentally about two men engaged in a continuing conversation about civilizations and their discontents. Hot and cold, impulsive and tightly controlled, Kirk and Spock need each other to work, a dynamic Mr. Abrams captures with his two well-balanced leads. Mr. Quinto lets you see and hear the struggle between the human and the Vulcan in Spock through the emotions that ripple across his face and periodically throw off his unmodulated phrasing. Mr. Pine has the harder job — he has to invoke Mr. Shatner’s sui generis performance while transcending its excesses — which makes his nuanced interpretation all the more potent. Steering clear of outright imitation, the two instead distill the characters to capture their essence, their Kirk-ness and Spock-ness .......


Here's a trailer for it ...

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The language of the birds

- Language of the Birds by Suzanne Scherer and Pavel Ouporov

I've just been outside leaving acorns for the blue jays. The one that was born here last summer seems to like me. He lands by the acorns and looks at me, and bobs up and down, and then starts muttering - a low musical blend of soft tweets and chirps. It's not a song. I think he's talking to me. It's probably a measure of how much I miss Kermit that I'm talking to the birds, but atill it reminds me of that movie, The Librarian: Quest for the Spear, in which the librarian must decipher the language of the birds to save the world. As Wikipedia states ... In mythology, medieval literature and occultism, the language of the birds is postulated as a mystical, perfect or divine language, or a mythical or magical language used by birds to communicate with the initiated.

Anyway, here below is a neat TED video of hacker and writer Joshua Klein on the amazing intelligence of crows, birds in the same Corvidae family as jays .....

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Anne-Francois-Louis Janmot/2

- The Poem of the Soul - The Golden Ladder

- The Poem of the Soul - The Passage of Souls

Rating life

If asked, I'd say that all life has an equal intrinsic worth, and I had thought that the Church teaches that, but today I saw a post at a First Things blog, First Thoughts, that seems to say that's not true. The post spelled out the answer to a question I've long wanted answered .... why some feel innocent lives are more worth saving (and worse to extinguish), why bishops have been flipping their wigs over pro-choice politicians yet haven't done anything about politicians who support the death penalty or war.

Here's a bit of the post .....


Abortion, Capital Punishment, and War — One of These Things is Not Like the Other

Friday, November 27, 2009, 1:00 PM
Christopher Blosser

Ed Stoddard of Reuters’ religion blog Faithworld carries a roundup of the skirmish between Congressman Patrick Kennedy, the son of the late Senator Edward Kennedy, has claimed that Rhode Island Bishop Thomas Tobin.

In conclusion, Stoddard asks:

This leads to a question about the consistency of views in the U.S. Catholic Church leadership. The Church opposes abortion and therefore liberal politicians who support abortion rights risk being refused communion. The Church supports a healthcare overhaul that would make the system more equitable. So does a conservative Catholic politician who opposes this reform risk being denied communion for ignoring the Catholic social teaching that justifies it?

How about support for capital punishment, which the Vatican says is unjustified in almost all possible cases, or for war? In the build-up to the Iraq war, Pope John Paul was so opposed to the plan that he sent a personal envoy to Washington to argue against it. Did bishops threaten any measures against Catholic politicians who energetically supported that war despite Vatican opposition?

The author’s questions reveal an elementary ignorance concerning the moral issues in question and their relationship to varying levels of Church teaching .....

The basic difference between abortion and capital punishment (or the waging of armed force) is that the Church has firmly and explicitly taught that the former is an intrinsic evil: the direct taking of innocent human life to be opposed everywhere and at all times, while the moral worth of the latter two measures are contigent upon specific criteria and circumstance.

In the case of capital punishment, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s discussion of the fifth commandment, specifically the matter of “legitimate defense” (sections #2263-2267); on the matter of the waging of armed force, the Catholic tradition’s criteria for a “just war” (sections #2307-2317) .....

As then-Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, put it succinctly in a 2004 letter to the U.S. Bishops articulating “general principles” on the distribution of communion:

Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia ...


The Church teaches that innocent lives are more worthy than non-innocent? Or is it that the Church thinks all lives are of equal worth but for some reason it's ok to kill non-innocents? This seems wrong to me.

In contrast, here's an article on the death penalty by Ken Overberg SJ in which he stresses that the Church equally values all life - The Death Penalty: Why the Church Speaks a Countercultural Message

Friday, November 27, 2009

Catherine Sasanov poems


Offshore, the Apocalypse
stays contained
to one island and its church.

Venice's ruler's out wedding
himself to the ocean

while I'm ankle deep
in the Adriatic,
eyes raised to a book

unencumbered by words: A Bible
that reads from East to West. Guidebooks
want only

to see it as ceiling—the Basilica
San Marco,

where Christ's hands open on wounds
embedded with rubies, and priests

hold back the sea with brooms.
I'm taking on incense,

bowing at altars dragged out
of Constantinople,
sloshing across marble
sacked from Jerusalem.

Offshore, the sea's a bride bought
with a fist full of diamonds
the Doge throws into the deep—

a sign of his true and perpetual dominion.

Then why does walking into this church
mean stepping into the ocean?
The sea is a dog—
Priests throw in bones just to placate it.

The year's nearly 2000,
but the millennium already hit once

on the island Torcello,
a kind of plague the Venetians contained.
999 years,

and the dead still crawl from dirt
towards their radiant bodies,
they still gather up

missing limbs: arms, legs, hands
sharks and beasts keep regurgitating.

We do what we know—
But Christ never wanted to manage
resurrections in Venice.

Underdressed in the flesh
from dead civilizations,
he moves among us in Byzantine skin.

I'm getting close to this God
worshiped only by tourists.

He picks at the wounds
on his crucified body, the injury
scabbed over with jewels.

Statue of a Soul in Purgatory: Iglesia Santa Teresa la Antigua, Mexico City

Look how I died
just so someone could drag in
a hunk of wood
and hack me out of it.
I’m fuel
feeding my own torment,

up to my waist in carved fire
gone cold after hundreds of years.
Fire covered in dust,
throwing no light in the dark.

Flames shoot up around me—
my own picket fence
and splintering. The difference
between you and myself

is lawn that separates
you from that fence
while you stand in your backyard
looking for God. You’re waiting

for the thin layer of paint
men scraped off this ceiling: God falling
in pieces into my outstretched arms.
Friend, come close

and caress this grief.
Dig its splinters of flame
out of your hands.

Cratícula (El Convento de Santa Teresa la Nueva, Mexico City, 1693)

Its architecture
works each woman down
till she’s nothing but hunger: hole in the wall

where her mouth will be.
One word on her lips.
One word wooing Christ into her body—

God doled out in pieces on her tongue.

passes for window
in this windowless room. Look what thrives

in the dark:
St. Theresa supporting
the terrible tree growing out of her chest—

Each branch bearing Carmelites.

The roots
feeding on her heart.
What you see is a body: useful

only as dirt.
A tree painted on a wall
so no one can hang herself from it—

so no one climbs down from its branches.

Dead to the world,
each nun craving God
waits in this room to be fed. One clutches

a knife in her fist:
Esclavo de Cristo carved
into her chest — Each woman

so docile, a priest feeds her by hand.

Deceive, Inveigle, Obfuscate

Mulder, not everything is a labyrinth of dark conspiracy, and not everybody is plotting to deceive, inveigle and obfuscate. - Scully, The X-Files

Scully should have known better - after all, she was Catholic.


There's a post at dotCommonweal - Dublin clergy-abuse report released - that brings up a kind of weird topic - mental reservation ....

[...] Church authorities used the concept of “mental reservation”, which allows senior clergy to mislead people without being guilty, in the church’s eyes, of lying .... Ah, mental reservation. The truth but not the whole truth so help you God. Is Father available? No, the secretary says, knowing Father is upstairs not doing much of anything. She has mentally reserved the rest of the truth: that Father is not available to the person asking. Clever concept. Perhaps it’s time to give it a proper burial ...

I remember reading about the doctrine of mental reservation when reading about the Jesuits in Elizabeth's England. Here's some of what Wikipedia has ........


The doctrine of mental reservation, or the doctrine of mental equivocation, was a special branch of casuistry developed in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance .....

The doctrine of mentalis restrictio or mental reservation was most fully enunciated by the 16th-century Spanish theologian Martin de Azpilcueta (aka Dr. Navarrus). Navarrus held that mental reservation involved truths "expressed partly in speech and partly in the mind," relying upon the idea that God hears what is in one's mind while human beings hear only what one speaks. Therefore the Christian's moral duty was to tell the truth to God. Reserving some of that truth from the ears of human hearers was moral if it served a greater good. The user of the doctrine could reply "I know not" aloud to a human interlocutor, and "to tell you" silently to God, and still be telling the truth (stricte mentalis).

The doctrine of mental reservation was intimately linked with the concept of equivocation, which allowed the speaker to employ double meanings of words to tell the literal truth while concealing a deeper meaning. Navarrus did not by any means originate these ideas, but he gave them a far more broad and liberal interpretation than had anyone up to that time. Other Catholic theological thinkers and writers took up the argument in favor of equivocation and mental reservation. Though the concepts remained controversial within the Roman Catholic Church (which never officially endorsed or upheld the doctrines), the Jesuits came to favor these tactics for their obvious advantages ...

The linked doctrines of mental reservation and equivocation became notorious in England during the Elizabethan era and the Jacobean era, when Jesuit agents penetrating England to maintain the Catholic cause were captured by the authorities, and used these concepts in their legal defenses. Robert Southwell (c. 1561–1595), a Jesuit priest and agent (also a poet of note) who was arrested in England in 1592, defended the doctrines at his trial, to the predictable resistance of the authorities. (Southwell was convicted, and executed in 1595.) More famous in his own era was Henry Garnet (1555–1606), who wrote a defense of Southwell in 1598; Garnet was captured by the authorities in 1606 due to his involvement in the Gunpowder Plot. He used the same doctrines in his own defense, with the same result as Southwell: Garnet was executed that year.

The Protestants considered these doctrines as mere justifications for lies. Catholic ethicists also voiced objections: the Jansenist "Blaise Pascal ...attacked the Jesuits in the seventeenth century for what he saw as their moral laxity." "By 1679, the doctrine of mental reservation had become such a scandal that Pope Innocent XI officially condemned it. Other casuists justifying mental reservation included Thomas Sanchez .... Following Innocent XI's condemnation of strict mental reservation, equivocation was still considered orthodox .....


I think the doctrine of mental reservation is indeed about lying, despite church protestations to the contrary.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Pacifism and the philosophy of war

The latest post at Philosophy Bites has philosopher Jeff McMahan talking about ethics and war. I found it of interest, given my dislike of the just war theory, so I looked him up. Here's what Wikipedia has on him ...

Jeff McMahan is an American philosopher. McMahan took his first degree at the University of Oxford and his PhD at the University of Cambridge, and is currently professor of philosophy at Rutgers University. He has written extensively on normative and applied ethics. His publications include The Morality of Nationalism (co-edited with Robert McKim; Oxford, 1997) and The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life (Oxford, 2002). Killing in War (published by Oxford University Press) is due to be released Jan 15, 2009. The work will deal with Just War theory and will argue against the deeply held beliefs within the theory ...

From there I went to his webpage where he has a list of his publications, some downloadable in pdf, on the ethics of life and death issues like abortion, war, disability, torture, and the questionable difference between human beings and animals (yep, he's a vegetarian :)

Here's a video of him giving a talk about pacifism and the philosophy of war. I didn't agree with everything he had to say in the talk, but it was interesting .......

A Hard Day's Night

This week's movie rental - A Hard Day's Night. I saw that it had just been made into a DVD so signed up to get it. As Wikipedia says ....

A Hard Day's Night is a 1964 British comedy film written by Alun Owen starring The Beatles—John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr—during the height of Beatlemania. It was directed by Richard Lester and originally released by United Artists. The film was made in the style of a mock documentary, describing a couple of days in the lives of the group. It was successful both financially and critically; it was rated by Time magazine as one of the all-time great 100 films.

The plot = the Beatles, with Paul's grandfather in tow, go to London to do a live tv concert, encountering a number of complications along the way. Interestingly, Pattie Boyd has a small bit part and this is how George met her. Also in the film in small bit parts - Charlotte Rampling and Phil Collins. It's a musical, of course, and the songs featured in the movie are ...

* "A Hard Day's Night"
* "I Should Have Known Better"
* "I Wanna Be Your Man" (sample)
* "Don't Bother Me" (Harrison) (sample)
* "All My Loving" (sample)
* "If I Fell"
* "Can't Buy Me Love"
* "And I Love Her"
* "I'm Happy Just to Dance with You"
* "Tell Me Why"
* "She Loves You"

I liked the movie very much and recommend it if you like Beatles music. It was sort of haunting in a way to see them so young and happy, given all that's happened to them since. Here's a trailer, and below that some of Roger Ebert's review of the film .......


A Hard Day's Night (1964)

Roger Ebert / October 27, 1996

When it opened in September, 1964, "A Hard Day's Night" was a problematic entry in a disreputable form, the rock 'n' roll musical. The Beatles were already a publicity phenomenon (70 million viewers watched them on "The Ed Sullivan Show"), but they were not yet cultural icons. Many critics attended the movie and prepared to condescend, but the movie could not be dismissed: It was so joyous and original that even the early reviews acknowledged it as something special. After more than three decades, it has not aged and is not dated; it stands outside its time, its genre and even rock. It is one of the great life-affirming landmarks of the movies .....

It was clear from the outset that "A Hard Day's Night" was in a different category from the rock musicals that had starred Elvis and his imitators. It was smart, it was irreverent, it didn't take itself seriously, and it was shot and edited by Richard Lester in an electrifying black-and-white, semi-documentary style that seemed to follow the boys during a day in their lives. And it was charged with the personalities of the Beatles, whose one-liners dismissed the very process of stardom they were undergoing. ``Are you a mod or a rocker?'' Ringo is asked at a press conference. ``I'm a mocker,'' he says.

Musically, the Beatles represented a liberating breakthrough just when the original rock impetus from the 1950s was growing thin. The film is wall to wall with great songs, including "I Should Have Known Better,'' "Can't Buy Me Love,'' "I Wanna Be Your Man,'' "All My Loving,'' "Happy Just to Dance With You,'' "She Loves You,'' and others, including the title song, inspired by a remark dropped by Starr and written overnight by Lennon and McCartney ......

The most powerful quality evoked by "A Hard Day's Night" is liberation. The long hair was just the superficial sign of that. An underlying theme is the difficulty establishment types have in getting the Beatles to follow orders. (For "establishment,'' read uptight conventional middle-class 1950s values.) Although their manager (Norman Rossington) tries to control them and their TV director (Victor Spinetti) goes berserk because of their improvisations during a live TV broadcast, they act according to the way they feel.

When Ringo grows thoughtful, he wanders away from the studio, and a recording session has to wait until he returns. When the boys are freed from their "job,'' they run like children in an open field, and it is possible that scene (during "Can't Buy Me Love'') snowballed into all the love-ins, be-ins and happenings in the park of the later '60s. The notion of doing your own thing lurks within every scene.

When a film is strikingly original, its influence shapes so many others that you sometimes can't see the newness in the first one. Godard's jump cuts in "Breathless" (1960) turned up in every TV ad. Truffaut's freeze frame at the end of "The 400 Blows" (1959) became a cliche. Richard Lester's innovations in "A Hard Day's Night" have become familiar; because the style, the subject and the stars are so suited to one another, the movie hasn't become dated. It's filled with the exhilaration of four musicians who were having fun and creating at the top of their form and knew it.

Movies were tamer in 1964. Big Hollywood productions used crews of 100 people and Mitchell cameras the size of motorcycles. Directors used the traditional grammar of master shot, alternating closeups, insert shots, re-establishing shots, dissolves and fades. Actors were placed in careful compositions. But the cat was already out of the bag; directors like John Cassavetes had started making movies that played like dramas but looked like documentaries. They used light 16mm cameras, hand-held shots, messy compositions that looked like they might have been snatched during moments of real life.

That was the tradition Lester drew on. In 1959 he'd directed "The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film," starring Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan among others: It was hand-held, anarchic, goofy, and contains the same spirit that infects "A Hard Day's Night." Lester had shot documentaries and TV commercials, could work quick and dirty, and knew he had to, because his budget was $500,000 for "A Hard Day's Night.''

In his opening sequence, which shows the Beatles mobbed at a station as they try to board a train, Lester achieves an incredible energy level: We feel the hysteria of the fans and the excitement of the Beatles, intercut with the title song (the first time movie titles had done that), implying that the songs and the adulation were sides of the same coin. Other scenes borrow the same documentary look; a lot feels improvised, although only a few scenes actually were.

Lester did not invent the techniques used in "A Hard Day's Night," but he brought them together into a grammar so persuasive that he influenced many other films. Today when we watch TV and see quick cutting, hand-held cameras, interviews conducted on the run with moving targets, quickly intercut snatches of dialogue, music under documentary action and all the other trademarks of the modern style, we are looking at the children of "A Hard Day's Night."

The film is so tightly cut, there's hardly a down moment, but even with so many riches, it's easy to pick the best scene: The concert footage as the Beatles sing "She Loves You.'' This is one of the most sustained orgasmic sequences in the movies. As the Beatles perform, Lester shows them clearly having a lot of fun--grinning as they sing--and then intercuts them with quick shots of the audience, mostly girls, who scream without pause for the entire length of the song, cry, jump up and down, call out the names of their favorites, and create a frenzy so passionate that it still, after all these years, has the power to excite. (My favorite audience member is the tearful young blond, beside herself with ecstasy, tears running down her cheeks, crying out "George!'')

The innocence of the Beatles and "A Hard Day's Night" was of course not to last. Ahead was the crushing pressure of being the most popular musical group of all time, and the dalliance with the mystic east, and the breakup, and the druggy fallout from the '60s, and the death of John Lennon. The Beatles would go through a long summer, a disillusioned fall, a tragic winter. But, oh, what a lovely springtime. And it's all in a movie.


Don't Bother Me

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving, politics, religion

- does America have a genius as seems to be suggested in Genius of America by Adolphe Yvon?

What kind of holiday is Thanksgiving ... political, religious? I'd never given it much thought but today I saw a post at the Georgetown/On Faith blog about it and I learned that Thanksgiving is a mix of religion and politics .... gratitude for the providence of God which has ensured the creation of this nation .... yikes! I must admit I don't like that idea - it sounds too much like manifest destiny, not to mention flying in the face of a separation of church and state.

Thomas Jefferson agreed with me about the church/state idea. Here's part of the post ........


Jefferson's Thanksgiving wish


Michael Kessler

Happy Thanksgiving. Simple words that conjure images of national traditions like pumpkin pie and roasted turkey, and family and friends gathered in holiday cheer. Central to that tradition is the presidential proclamation for a National Day of Thanksgiving.

You can read each of them from the beginning, when George Washington issued the first, fulfilling the "duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor - and Whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me "to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness."

Such sentiments are widely shared, deeply woven into the fabric of our civil traditions. Likewise, expressing these sentiments seems harmless.

President Thomas Jefferson, however, famously did not issue such proclamations. Was this the omission of a curmudgeonly atheist? Not at all. He was motivated by concern for the protection of religious liberty. In reply to a letter from Rev. Samuel Miller as to why he refused to issue proclamations, Jefferson espoused not hatred for religion, but concern for the dangers to religion that could result if the civil executive of the country makes statements that give the appearance of sanction to religious practices. For the President to call for fasting and prayer is to usurp their proper role and enter into the province of ecclesial authority. Even without threat of legal sanction, the possibility of public pressure that might ostracize the non-compliant was too great for Jefferson to countenance. The full text of his reply:

To Rev. Samuel Miller
Washington, Jan. 23, 1808

--I have duly received your favor of the 18th and am thankful to you for having written it, because it is more agreeable to prevent than to refuse what I do not think myself authorized to comply with. I consider the government of the US. as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises. This results not only from the provision that no law shall be made respecting the establishment, or free exercise, of religion, but from that also which reserves to the states the powers not delegated to the U. S. Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general government. It must then rest with the states, as far as it can be in any human authority. But it is only proposed that I should recommend, not prescribe a day of fasting & prayer. That is, that I should indirectly assume to the U. S. an authority over religious exercises which the Constitution has directly precluded them from. It must be meant too that this recommendation is to carry some authority, and to be sanctioned by some penalty on those who disregard it; not indeed of fine and imprisonment, but of some degree of proscription perhaps in public opinion. And does the change in the nature of the penalty make the recommendation the less a law of conduct for those to whom it is directed? I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct it's exercises, it's discipline, or it's doctrines; nor of the religious societies that the general government should be invested with the power of effecting any uniformity of time or matter among them. Fasting & prayer are religious exercises. The enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, & the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the constitution has deposited it.

I am aware that the practice of my predecessors may be quoted. But I have ever believed that the example of state executives led to the assumption of that authority by the general government, without due examination, which would have discovered that what might be a right in a state government, was a violation of that right when assumed by another. Be this as it may, every one must act according to the dictates of his own reason, & mine tells me that civil powers alone have been given to the President of the US. and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.

I again express my satisfaction that you have been so good as to give me an opportunity of explaining myself in a private letter, in which I could give my reasons more in detail than might have been done in a public answer: and I pray you to accept the assurances of my high esteem & respect.

While Jefferson had formal and principled reasons for not issuing a Proclamation, since the 1860s, there has been a Proclamation in one form or another each year. Some are more explicitly generic (President Ford: "Let each of us, in his own way, join in expressing personal gratitude for the blessings of liberty and peace we enjoy today. In so doing, let us reaffirm our belief in a dynamic spirit that will continue to nurture and guide us as we prepare to meet the challenge of our third century.") and others are decidedly sectarian (President Reagan: "Although the time and date of the first American thanksgiving observance may be uncertain, there is no question but that this treasured custom derives from our Judeo-Christian heritage. 'Unto Three, O God, do we give thanks,' the Psalmist sang).

Regardless, the practice is here to stay. So, take your Thanksgiving advice from the President, if you will, but remember that your cleric, your mentors, and the wisdom of your traditions are resources in which you may more deeply and richly engage for yourself to find theological and spiritual meaning about gratitude and humility ........


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

If you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original

Saw this neat TED video of Sir Ted Robinson on creativity .......

Monday, November 23, 2009

Christ the King

-The Alpha and Omega by Ted Larson

Saturday, November 21, 2009

H. Paul Santmire

Today I came across a blog by Lutheran theologian H. Paul Santmire, author of Nature Reborn (Theology and the Sciences). There aren't many posts but one of them was a sermon and I thought I'd post just the first part of it ........


Are You Living In the Valley of the Shadows?
Come to the Mountain –
Then Come Down to the Feast

A sermon by the Rev. Dr. H. Paul Santmire
University Lutheran Church, Cambridge
The Twenty-Second Sunday After Pentecost
October 12, 2008

It’s a pleasure and a privilege to stand here in this pulpit, where I used to stand, with some frequency, forty years ago. It was a wonderful trip.

Today I invite you to concentrate on three texts from Holy Scripture.

First, this phrase, which you know well, from the 23rd Psalm, appointed for today: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death...” (Ps. 23:4)

Second, from our first lesson, the prophet Isaiah: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines...” (Is. 25:6)

Third, from our Gospel, where Jesus picks up Isaiah’s image, the great feast: “Look, my banquet is all prepared.... Come to the wedding.” (Mt. 22:4)

These texts suggest this theme to me: “Are you Living in the valley of the shadows? Come to the mountain. Then come down to the feast.”


First, the valley of the shadows. I don’t have to tell you too much about this.

Last week a gathering of which I was a part, including some folks from this congregation, explored together some of the striking meanings of the fine 2007 novel by Don DeLillo, Falling Man.

I thought I had had enough of 911, but I was swept along by this book. It is indeed a 911 novel. But it’s much more. It’s a novel about 911 as a metaphor of our times. The tone is set, when the main character, Keith, stumbles out of one of the towers on 9/11, and eventually finds his way home, where his estranged wife, Lianne, tries to pick shards of broken glass out of his dazed, dust-covered face.

I think that that book does tell the story of these times, as well as yours and mine, remarkably well. Are you living in the valley of the shadows? I wouldn’t be surprised to hear you answer Yes.

I’ll leave it to you to read the novel, if you wish, if you haven’t already done so. To fill out the picture, I want to set another book by its side, which in its own mundane way also speaks of the valley of the shadows, but more from the perspective of someone who wants to believe.

Around the time when I was hanging out in this pulpit, a Catholic publishing house issued a thin, but provocative volume called Letters to God from Teenagers.. This is one of those letters, which I have kept on file all these years. I take this to be the voice of one who also lives in the valley of the shadows:

Dear God,
Where are you? I know you’re supposed to be everywhere, but there are times when I just can’t seem to find you. I see good and honest people getting hurt and dying. I see people who don’t have enough to eat. Are you there with them? It just doesn’t seem fair that people should have to suffer like that. I know that you suffered and died on the cross for us, and maybe I’m a little selfish, but it just doesn’t seem right.
There are times when I really need someone, and I want to reach out, but I don’t know if you’re listening. How can I learn to hear you better? What am I expected to do and become? I want to be able to do the right thing.
Your friend,

Are you living in the valley of the shadows? If so, what can you do about it? .......


Justice #6 - Freedom

The sixth episode of the Harvard philosophy class on Justice taught be Professor Sandel is on Kant and shows why Kant rejected the Utilitarianism of the philosophers discussed in the earlier classes, Bentham and Locke.

It may seem uninteresting but actually I think it's really relevant to everything we do ... the question Kant tries to answer is the same one all the previous guys ask, and that I hope we all ask ourselves .... how do we know what's the right thing to do? The answer, for Kant, is all about freedom.

Not saying I completely get Kant correctly, but what I believe he would say is that freedom isn't about doing whatever we want, for when we seek pleasure or avoid pain, we aren't really acting freely but as slaves of impulses and appetites that we haven't chosen for ourselves ... the freedom to eat that Big Mac is not truly freedom but a following of the law of nature or necessity :). To act freely is to act autonomously, according to a law I give myself. To act freely is to chose an end for its own sake, as an end in itself, not for its utility .... I choose to eat the lowly carrot instead of the Big Mac, not because it is better for me health-wise but because I want to spare the suffering of animals, for instance (though Kant may cringe at my example - he wasn't an animal person).

So what gives an act its moral worth then if not utility? Kant would say that what makes an act morally worthy doesn't have to do with the results that flow from it, but instead the motive of the actor, the intent, doing not only the right thing, but the right thing for the right reason.

Still, how do you discern the right motive? Take a listen ........

And for those interested, another video on Kant by former Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford, Keith Ward, can be found at my past post here.

Can't sleep

It's late but I can't sleep. My sister, who has been looking for a job, has an interview for one in another state. I've been thinking about what it will be like if she moves away. It's been a while since I've had to be out and about by myself and I forget most of the time what it means to not see well because she sees for me. Yes, I can read most stuff on the computer - I can make the words very large and I can control how close I can be to them, but that's not usually possible out in the world. Imagine what it would be like to not be able to read street signs, the bus schedule, a menu, price tags, bulletin boards, cross-walk signs, cash register read-outs, the titles on the spines of books at the library, the numbers on a telephone or in a phone book. Imagine not being able to drive, not seeing cars coming when you cross the street, not seeing who among a group of people is talking to you, or if you are indeed the person they're talking to, or if they're male of female, of they're smiling or frowning, imagine getting lost. And not seeing things will be nothing compared to the loneliness. I hope she doesn't move away.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Feast of the Presentation of Mary

- Presentation of the Virgin by Testa, Pietro, Hermitage Museum

Tomorrow is the Feast of the Presentation of Mary and not really knowing much about it, I looked it up. Here's a bit about it ....

The feast is associated with an event recounted not in the New Testament, but in the apocryphal Infancy Narrative of James. According to that text, Mary's parents, Joachim and Anne, who had been childless, received a heavenly message that they would bear a child. In thanksgiving for the gift of their daughter, they brought her, when still a child, to the Temple in Jerusalem to consecrate her to God. Mary remained in the Temple until puberty, at which point she was assigned to Joseph as guardian. Later versions of the story (such as the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and the Gospel of the Nativity of Mary) tell us that Mary was taken to the Temple at around the age of three in fulfillment of a vow. Tradition held that she was to remain there to be educated in preparation for her role as Mother of God.

The question that occurs to me is why Mary would be sent ahead of time to prepared for being the mother of Jesus when she had not yet made the choice to say "yes" to the offer ..... must be one of those "God stands outside of time" things. But anyway, looking this up, I found there's much art of Mary before Jesus was born. Here are some examples .....

- Birth of Mary, Gospel Lectionary of St. Peter in the Black Forest, Karlsruhe, Badische Landesbibliothek

- The Childhood of Mary Virgin by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

- The Annunciation by John William Waterhouse

- The Marriage of the Virgin by Giotto, Scrovegni Chapel

- The Visitation by Domenico Ghirlandaio, Tornabuoni Chapel

The Taking of Pelham 123

This week's movie rental was The Taking of Pelham 123, a 2009 remake of a 1974 movie of the same name. It's a product of Scott Free Productions, the team of the Scott brothers, Ridley and Tony, and Tony does the directing. The movie stars Denzel Washington, John Travolta, and John Turturro, and tells the tale of four bad guys led by Bernard Ryder (John Travolta) who take hostages on a subway car to extort $ from the city of New York. MTA dispatcher Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) is assigned to negotiate with him.

The best thing in the movie is Denzel Washington - he really is a great actor. I guess they tried to make his character more interesting buy having him be somewhat ethically flawed - he is being investigated (and admits his guilt) for having taken a work-related bribe. But of course he endeavors to redeem himself before the end. Also good - John Turturro as the NYPD negotiator. The next best thing about the movie is the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the subway system itself ... it's kind of neat to see how it's run.

It's hard, though, to say what's the worst thing in the movie ....

Was it the megalomaniacal bad guy redux Travolta gives us (see Broken Arrow, Swordfish, Face/Off, etc.)? Oh, I guess they tried to make his character more interesting too - he was a dishonest Wall Street high roller who dated a derriere model, was really ok with murdering people in cold blood, and was for some reason also Catholic (his favorite line - "We all owe God a debt." Sounds more Calvinist to me :).

Or was the worst thing the writing? If you feel the need to see bad guys taking hostages for mean-spirited selfish reasons (rather than the more ethical reason of ideology?) try the original Die Hard or Speed or even From Dawn to Dusk - at least with the latter you get vampires :) Overall, I found the cynicism written into almost every line of the story just numbing. But maybe I'm wrong - The New York Times gave it a better review. As it states ...

No one [in the film] is untouched by moral rot .... The heroes and villains are separated not by metaphysical essence but by choices, habits and the durability of a native ethical instinct, embodied in the flawed, diffident Walter Garber, that somehow survives amid all the excess and corruption. The best, truest and most unashamedly sentimental image of New York in “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” comes in the film’s final shot of an outer-borough homeowner walking home from the subway after a hard day’s work, having saved the city once again.

Odd, but this above that the reviewer found so laudable about the movie, I found contrived, but I have to say that Denzel Washinton and John Turturro almost made up for it.

James Alison / Trinity Wall Street

Here's a short video of Catholic theologian James Alison from Trinity Wall Street (the church from the National Treasure movie :). If you visit their site, they have another longer video of him giving a talk at a conference also.

For those interested, I have a number of past posts with stuff by Fr. Alison and you can visit his site - James Alison, Theology

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Rowan Williams / ordaining women

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, gave a speech today at a symposium held at the Gregorian University in Rome, celebrating the centenary of the birth of Cardinal Willebrands, first president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. You can read the whole speech here, which details some differences between the Anglican and Catholic churches, but I just thought I'd post the bit about the ordaining of women, which I support .....


[...] the local decision to ordain women as priests – and as bishops in some contexts – is presented by Roman Catholic theologians as one that in effect makes the Anglican Communion simply less recognisably a body 'doing the same Catholic thing'.

Harvesting records the substance of the early consensus in ARCIC on the nature of ordained ministry and also the acknowledgement that there had as yet been no consideration of who could be ordained (the 1973 Ministry and Ordination text, #17). Since then, this latter issue has been defined by the highest authority in the Roman Catholic Church as one in which the Church does not have the liberty or the competence to license change as regards the historic prohibition against women in holy orders. This is now presented as a clear obstacle to any further recognition of Anglican orders.

I don't want here to rehearse the arguments for and against the ordination of women, only to ask how recent determinations on the Roman Catholic side fit with the general pattern of theological convergence outlined. The claim of certain Anglican provinces is that the ordination of women explicitly looks to an agreed historic theology of ordained ministry as set out in the ARCIC report and other sources. Beyond that, many Anglicans have been wary of accepting a determination of who can be ordained that might appear to compromise the some [sum?] of the agreed principles about how ordination relates to the whole body of the baptised. This, by the way, would hold for at least some who believe that a decision within a divided Church about a matter affecting the universal ministry should not be taken by a single province or group of provinces. But for many Anglicans, not ordaining women has a possible unwelcome implication about the difference between baptised men and baptised women, which in their view threatens to undermine the coherence of the ecclesiology in question.

And the challenge to recent Roman Catholic thinking on this would have to be: in what way does the prohibition against ordaining women so 'enhance the life of communion', reinforcing the essential character of filial and communal holiness as set out in Scripture and tradition and ecumenical agreement, that its breach would compromise the purposes of the Church as so defined? And do the arguments advanced about the "essence" of male and female vocations and capacities stand on the same level as a theology derived more directly from scripture and the common theological heritage such as we find in these ecumenical texts?

Let us take this a stage further. All ordained ministers are ordained into the shared richness of the apostolic ministerial order – or perhaps we could say ministerial 'communion' yet again. None ministers as a solitary individual. Thus if the ministerial collective is understood strictly in terms of the ecclesiology we have been considering, as serving the goal of filial and communal holiness as the character of restored humanity, how much is that undermined if individuals within the ministerial communion are of different genders? Even if there remains uncertainty in the minds of some about the rightness of ordaining women, is there a way of recognising that somehow the corporate exercise of a Catholic and evangelical ministry remains intact even when there is dispute about the standing of female individuals? In terms of the relation of local to universal, what we are saying here is that a degree of recognizability of 'the same Catholic thing' has survived: Anglican provinces ordaining women to some or all of the three orders have not become so obviously diverse in their understanding of filial holiness and sacramental transformation that they cannot act together, serve one another and allow some real collaboration.

It is this sort of thinking that has allowed Anglicans until recently to maintain a degree of undoubtedly impaired communion among themselves, despite the sharpness of the division over this matter. It is part of the rationale of supplementary episcopal oversight as practised in the English provinces, and it may yet be of help in securing the place of those who will not be able to accept the episcopal ministry of women. There can be no doubt, though, that the situation of damaged communion will become more acute with the inability of bishops within the same college to recognise one another's ministry in the full sense. Yet, in what is still formally acknowledged to be a time of discernment and reception, is it nonsense to think that holding on to a limited but real common life and mutual acknowledgement of integrity might be worth working for within the Anglican family? And if it can be managed within the Anglican family, is this a possible model for the wider ecumenical scene? At least, by means of some of the carefully crafted institutional ways of continuing to work together, there remains an embodied trust in the possibility of discovering a shared ministry of the gospel; and who knows what more, ultimately, in terms of restored communion?


Scott Cairns / poems

Into Hell and Out Again

In this Byzantine-inflected icon
of the Resurrection, the murdered Christ
is still in Hell, the chief issue being

that this Resurrection is of our agéd
parents and all their poor relations. We
find Him as we might expect, radiant

in spotless white, standing straight, but leaning
back against the weight of lifting them. Long
tradition has Him standing upon two

crossed boards—the very gates of Hell—and He,
by standing thus, has undone Death by Death,
we say, and saying nearly apprehend.

This all—the lifting of the dead, the death
of Death, His stretching here between two realms—
looks like real work, necessary, not pleasant

but almost matter-of-factly undertaken.
We witness here a little sheepishness
which death has taught both Mom and Dad; they reach

Christ's proffered hands and everything about
their affect speaks centuries of drowning
in that abysmal crypt. Are they quite awake?

Odd—motionless as they must be in our
tableau outside of Time, we almost see
their hurry. And isn't that their shame

which falls away? They have yet to enter bliss,
but they rise up, eager and a little shocked
to find their bodies capable of this.

The Entrance of Sin

Yes, there was a tree, and upon it, among the wax leaves, an order of fruit which hung plentifully, glazed with dew of a given morning. And there had been some talk off and on—nothing specific—about forgiving the inclination to eat of it. But sin had very little to do with this or with any outright prohibition.

For sin had made its entrance long before the serpent spoke, long before the woman and the man had set their teeth to the pale, stringy flesh, which was, it turns out, also quite without flavor. Rather, sin had come in the midst of an evening stroll, when the woman had reached to take the man's hand and he withheld it.

In this way, the beginning of our trouble came to the garden almost without notice. And in later days, as the man and the woman wandered idly about their paradise, as they continued to enjoy the sensual pleasures of food and drink and spirited coupling even as they sat marveling at the approach of evening and the more lush approach of sleep, they found within themselves a developing habit of resistance.

One supposes that, even then, this new taste for turning away might have been overcome, but that is assuming the two had found the result unpleasant. The beginning of loss was this: Every time some manner of beauty was offered and declined, the subsequent isolation each conceived was irresistible.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The unseen

I saw this in an old issue of Image. It's very long, so here is about half of it .......


Reversing Entropy
- Luci Shaw

The following homily was given on Sunday, November 9, 2003, at the conclusion of Image's annual conference, “A Narratable Word: The Theological Implications of Story.” The event was sponsored by a grant from the Lilly Fellows Program. Except where otherwise noted, the poems that appear in text are Shaw's own.

I love to tell the story of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love.

THIS Sunday school song that echoes from my earliest memories suggests a question: just how do we tell the story of the unseen? The song says it's about Jesus and his glory—but how and when have we witnessed heavenly glory? We can perhaps speak of Jesus's love with great personal authenticity, but without viewing Jesus in the flesh, we find that words fail us again. Without the visuals, how do we know enough to form a narrative? Is imagination useful here, or might it lead us into dangerous waters?

Narrative is a word originally derived from the Latin noscer—to know—and a related word, gnarus —knowing . Perhaps that is another way of saying that story is how we come to know the world.

As the theme of this conference suggests, we live in a world susceptible to narrative. We all find ourselves, without ever asking for it, part of a cosmic story that continually unfolds as future becomes present and present becomes past. I sometimes think of our lives as open-ended novels, with our calendars, journals, correspondence, photo albums, computer files, and our grown children and grandchildren marking the work-in-progress as the plot develops and the characters evolve. Who knows what change-points of circumstance or relationship will transform us in the next weeks or months or years?

We try, in the moment, to make sense out of what may often seem horrifying, incongruous, paradoxical, irrelevant, or absurd, while retaining a kind of eschatological hope that God's order, peace, design, or glory, will fill all the spaces in our widely scattered personal and cosmic jigsaw puzzles. We look forward to a time when, like Moses's did after his Sinai encounter with Yahweh, our faces will shine in a way that no earthly story could make them do. We watch and wait for the fulfillment of the prophecy that assures us, “The earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea!”

They asked, and he brought quails,
And gave them food from heaven.

—Psalm 105:40

I'm not asking for quails for dinner
and if they flew in my window at mealtime,
in a torrent of wind, I would think
panic, not miracle.

Time is so multiple and fluid. I lose a day
flying west, and gain it back returning.
I am ravenous to know where I am today.
And who. And how am I to be fed? And if
the prayer I offered this morning at first light
was known and answered last week
am I in some horizontal pleat of time,
some rock crevice in the mountain's shoulder
with a great hand shielding me from
the tempest of too much knowledge?

You never know what a simple request
will get you. So, no expectation of birds
from heaven. Rather, I will commit myself
to this quotidian wilderness, watching for what
the wind may bring me next—
perhaps a small wafer tasting like honey
that I can pick up with my fingers
and lay on my tongue
to ease, for this day, my hunger to know.

Meanwhile, here we are, caught in time and rooted in space. Time, multiple and fluid as it is, is an essential part of story. And, as we might guess, the word story is linked with the word history (from the Greek word historia, the learning that comes by narrative telling) . Without a sense of time, the forward movement of living and growing, of purpose and events and progress and change, the shape of history and living would be without meaning. And as a Christian I do believe that life has meaning, that we are heading somewhere.

The story of the world is imprinted everywhere—the growth rings widening in the boles of trees, the wind-and water-carved art of coastal sandstone rocks, sharp, young mountains like the Tetons contrasted with the older Appalachians the up-ended strata of geological shift, inscribed parchments and tablets, the artifacts discovered in archeological digs, the fossil evidence, and the eroding edges of continents that cannot be reclaimed any more than lost innocence.

We may be trapped in time, but God is not. Charles Williams believed in the kind of retroactive prayer that was effective regardless of chronology, that the Almighty could change the outcome of, say, the Battle of Hastings, as a result of our prayers in the twenty-first century. Whether or not you believe in petitioning the Almighty for a more propitious outcome from past events, it is a dictum of physics that at the speed of light (and to the timeless God who is not, as we are, bound by time), the now of the on-going present includes all the pivotal moments in history of creation: the exodus, the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection, and the arrival of the Holy Spirit to be our pathfinder into truth.

At light-speed, God-speed,
time collapses into now so that
we may see Christ's wounds as
still bleeding, his torso,
that ready sponge, still
absorbing our vice, our toxic shame.

He is still being pierced
by every hateful nail
we hammer home. In this
Golgotha moment his body—
chalice for the dark tears
of the whole world—brims,

spilling over as his life blood
drains. His dying into the earth
begins the great reversal—
as blood from a vein leaps
into the needle, so with his rising,
we surge into light.

Story has the power to grasp bits of the past and carry them into the imaginative present, rescuing us from the pitfalls of abstraction. It is not insignificant that much of the Bible, including the deuterocanonical books, is narrative in form, and that the characters and plots revealed on the sacred pages are not so different from those that surround and involve us today. As Eugene Peterson writes in Leap over a Wall:

Story is the primary way in which the revelation of God is given to us. The Holy Spirit's literary genre of choice is story.... The biblical story comprises other literary forms, sermons and genealogies, prayers and letters, poems and proverbs, but story carries them all in its capacious and organically intricate plot....

Somewhere along the way, most of us pick up bad habits of extracting from the Bible what we pretentiously call “spiritual principles” or “moral guidelines,” or “theological truths” and then corseting ourselves in them in order to force a godly shape on our lives.... Mighty uncomfortable, [but] it's not the gospel way. Story is the gospel way. Story isn't imposed on our lives; it invites us into its life. As we enter and imaginatively participate, we find ourselves in a more spacious, freer, and more coherent world. We didn't know all this was going on! We had never noticed all this significance! Story brings us into more reality, not less, expands horizons, sharpens both sight and insight. Story is the primary means we have for learning what the world is, and what it means to be a human being in it. No wonder that from the time we acquire the rudiments of language, we demand stories....

God isn't a doctrine David talks about but a person by whom he's led and cared for. God isn't a remote abstraction that distances him from the conditions of his actual life but an intimate presence who confirms his daily life as the very stuff of salvation.

There we have it: the God who is other but in whom we live and have being. The God who is both transcendent as well as immanent, both there and here. The Lion and the Lamb. Story continually attempts to fill the unsearchable spaces left by mystery and paradox. Mrs. Blake said of her husband, William, “I miss the company of my husband; he is so often in Paradise.” Unlike Blake, most of us are not mystics. We are earthbound, but with the longing for an occasional glimpse of a wider, more profound understanding of our existence.

Story is the most familiar and accessible way for human beings to understand the world. Despite the tenets of postmodernism—itself a meta-narrative, a horizonless landscape—again and again, through story, this world relaxes into coherence, in the process becoming less inchoate or disjunctive. Every time we tell a story or write a poem or compose an essay, we give chaos a way of reintegrating back into order; we reverse entropy; pattern and meaning begin to overcome randomness and decay. We find satisfaction in juxtaposition and linkage and succession and resolution as things split and differentiate and flow together again.

Not that it's all pre-packaged and programmed. I like to think that the uncertainty principle allows for surprises. Freshness and new insights happen in a continuous stream as we learn from our own stories, and beyond. How many of us novelists and poets are taught by the words and images that come to us as unexpected gifts, without our even trying, from quite literally God knows where? A poem fragment of mine, “Holy Ghost”:

My imagination has always been a window for you
to open. Sometimes it's like this: a drab day, and then
a little dance begins in the brain—bubbles rising like yeast,
a quickening spirit hovering over the waters. Dreams begin
to come in three or more dimensions, rhythms pulse in waves,

phrases nudge me like little fists, sounds begin to click
together, green turns real enough to be written as a word
on paper. Skeptic, and no scientist, I am being tuned
the narrative of heaven. My own poems persuade me the way
an available womb, and labor, persuade a baby to be born.

This element of the transcendent, what C.S. Lewis called “patches of God-light,” what many of us have experienced as epiphany, hints to us that this is not just our story (we realize, perhaps ruefully, that we are only a minuscule part of it). Just as a bicyclist riding along a country road through the woods may be dappled from time to time with the bright light of the sun, so we, in the course of everyday living, may be made aware of a brightness and a vision of what is above and beyond us, and so find ourselves, along with other travelers, linked into that larger universe. Described variously as “cosmic consciousness,” or by Aldous Huxley as “mystic experience,” examples are everywhere. A recent poem in the New Yorker, “Analogue,” by Maurice Manning, said it like this:

Oh, revelation only ever comes
at sudden crossings—the heart hopping like a happy frog.

The short-story writer Dorothy Canfield talked of “a generally intensified emotional sensibility.... Everybody knows such occasional hours or days of freshened emotional responses when events that usually pass almost unnoticed, suddenly move you deeply.... I have no idea whence this tide comes...but when it begins to rise in my heart I know that a story is hovering in the offing.”

Even Sylvia Plath, whose name is in the news again, in print and film, argued:

Miracles occur,
If you care to call those spasmodic
Tricks of radiance miracles. The wait's begun again,
For that rare, random descent.

In an imaginative sense we are invaded by mystery and transported into a place of even greater and more persistent reality than the “real” world we know. Jesus welcomes us, in his parabolic stories, into a realm of truth that would be otherwise impenetrable to us. What Jesus had to say about transcendent truths may be literally unspeakable but metaphorically suggestive and rich with insight. Metaphor bridges the gap between unknown and known. The stories Jesus told are, to varying degrees, metaphorical. Annie Dillard comments, in Living by Fiction, that the parables are “a hermeneutic of the world.”

In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 13, Jesus's friends ask him, “Why do you tell stories?” It's a good question. Often a gospel parable will start out with the words, “The kingdom of God is like...,” and then proceeds to sketch a story that may be hard for us to comprehend. Have you ever wondered why some of Jesus's stories seem to complicate or even obscure truth rather than clarify or simplify it? Perhaps it's that God, who knows us better than we know ourselves, is not content to speak simply to the rational intelligence, but informs us instead through imagination, intuition, wonder, and epiphany.

Though theologians draw principles out of these narratives that seem logical, those principles are abstract. The Bible wasn't written as systematic theology. We can talk in broad terms about soteriology or atonement, but until such ideas are fleshed out to us in story and imagery, say in the life of Christ who “purchased” our salvation (another metaphor), or the bloodletting of sacrifice to achieve atonement, such considerations do not touch us deeply. But images and stories print themselves on our minds (and even our senses) in such brilliant color and texture that time and distraction cannot obliterate them.

The parables were never meant to be dissected analytically; they were designed to be absorbed by the senses and the imagination and felt, the subtext of ideal, principle, and truth taken in almost unconsciously as the mental image and the quickening power of narrative suffuse the understanding over a period of time, a kind of divine soft-sell. And this, in our time, is the Spirit's work. Another fragment, from a poem titled “Ghostly”:

the third
person is a ghost. Sometimes
he silvers for a moment, a moon sliver
between moving leaves. We aren't sure.

What to make of this.... How
to see breath?...
This for sure—he finds
enough masks to keep us guessing:
Is it really you? Is this you also?

It's a cracked, crossover world, waiting
for bridges. He escapes our categories,
choosing his shapes—fire, dove,
wind, water, oil—closing the breach
in figures that flicker within
the closed eye, tongue the brain, sting
and tutor the soul. Once incarnate
in Judea , now he is present
(in us, in the present tense),
occupying our bodies—shells to be
reshaped—houses for this holy ghost.
In our special flesh he thrives into something
too frequent to deny, too real to see.

God does not always speak openly, plainly, directly, as he did to and through Noah and Moses and Jonah. While figurative language often leaves us with vivid impressions, or teaches by analogy, it may also cause puzzlement about what is being meant. Metaphor not only enlivens and suggests, but it furnishes a kind of screen between the object and what it is being compared with. Can we ask Why?

First, there is the difficulty of myopic, fragile human beings facing the reality of the God of glory. We all know Emily Dickinson's succinct dictum: “The truth must dazzle gradually / or every man be blind.” In C.S. Lewis's words: “God is the only comfort; he is also the supreme terror; the thing we most need and the thing we most want to hide from. He is our only ally, and we have made ourselves his enemies.” And so a full frontal view of the Almighty, swift as light, sharper and more intense than a laser, with the energy of the universe flashing out of him, would paralyze, flatten, and annihilate us.

Perhaps that is why God gives us imagery, instilling his ideas and truths, his grace and love, into our minds through story and psalm and prophetic vision and dynamic illustration so that the truth dazzles us gradually ...........


The Prince of Persia

The very first computer I owned I bought used and it came with a game already on it from the previous owner ... The Prince of Persia. So it was with interest that I noticed a trailer for an upcoming film, The Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

The movie stars Jake Gyllenhaal (who I thought was really good in Zodiac), Gemma Arterton, Ben Kingsley, and Alfred Molina, and tells the story of a 6th century Persian orphan who, after showing bravery in a battle, is adopted by the king, and who cooperates with a princess to rescue a magical object, the Sands of Time, from an evil nobleman. Looks like fun :) Here's the trailer .......

A Jewish p.o.v.

Yesterday I saw two interesting posts at another blog, The Bible and Interpretation, which brought up some points with which I agree ........ Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Rabbis and Abortion, Jewish Law, and the US Constitution. Here's the latter post .....


Abortion, Jewish Law, and the US Constitution

By Charles David Isbell
Louisiana State University

October 2009

If the teaching of religion is to be more than a dry exercise in the analysis of ancient texts and cultures, teachers of religion cannot avoid addressing the tough questions faced by their students in twenty-first century life. One of the toughest of these questions centers on the question of abortion. Here is one way in which the study of religion can inform the current debate.

On March 3, 2009, newspapers across the nation carried an editorial in which Cal Thomas made what he evidently believes to be an airtight case against abortion. Mr. Thomas expressed his personal Christian belief that all abortion is a sin, abortionists are playing God, and there is no room for reasonable people to voice a dissenting view. Of greatest interest is his argument that the separation of church and state supports his position. Here are his words: “Where is the separation of church and state when you really need it?”

On May 17, 2009, the President of the United States gave the commencement address at Notre Dame University. Although a majority of Catholic voters had chosen Mr. Obama in November, 2008, and he carried both the county and the state (Indiana) in which Notre Dame is located, the invitation extended to him by the university was met with a torrent of outrage from conservative Catholics led by a number of bishops and cardinals. The most prominent phrase used by the opponents of President Obama was their description of abortion as “a culture of death.”

Although Jews and Judaism were not mentioned either by Mr. Thomas or by the opponents of President Obama, I believe Judaism should have a voice in this controversy. Let me start with an unequivocal statement. Jews traditionally and for millennia have evinced resounding respect for life, and we take a back seat to no one regarding the sanctity of all human life. Our own history is replete with examples of the suffering we have endured when Jewish life has been devalued, often while non-Jewish eyes were averted from the tragedy that ensued. Given this Jewish reverence for life, it is significant that the early rabbis (ca. 100 BCE-220 CE) were careful to note that once an infant came into the world and was capable of living independent of its mother’s womb, every effort should be made to preserve and protect that new life regardless of its physical condition. In particular, the rabbis opposed the Roman custom of killing newborn babies that were deformed or otherwise unacceptable to their society.

But the rabbis believed that abortion was sometimes unavoidable. In Jewish law, the only circumstance that permits one person to kill another is for the purpose of saving the life of an intended innocent victim. According to the Talmud (Sanh. 8.7), whenever any person pursues (rodef) another individual with the manifest intent to kill him, everybody is under a duty to rescue the victim, even if the only way to do so is by killing the pursuer. From this premise, the argument was made that a fetus threatening the life of its mother must be terminated. In other words, if a woman is an observant Jew, her religion has taught for hundreds of years that whenever a fetus threatens her life, it is a religious obligation of the community to save the life of the mother even at the expense of the unborn fetus. Suppose her rabbi counsels her by quoting from the statement in the Mishnah that they both accept as authoritative: “the life of the mother has priority over the life of the child” (’Oholot 7.6), which meant halakhically that a woman does not have the moral right to risk her own life in order to save an unborn fetus. Does the same separation argument cited to support absolute opposition to all abortion now protect the right of the Jewish woman to follow the dictates of her personal religious convictions? Or is it only the religion of the majority that holds sway in all cases?

From this perspective, abortion is a religious issue, not a political one, and thus not simply a matter of American jurisprudence that can be voted upon by the majority or decided in a court of law. I do not have to agree with the Catholic position that abortion under every circumstance is a mortal sin in order to support the legal right of a practicing Catholic to follow the teachings of her church. By the same token, anti-choice advocates need not agree with the classical Jewish position that abortion performed to save the life of the mother is required in order to support the legal right of a practicing Jew to follow the teachings of her faith. Separation of church and state cannot apply only when it involves those who have majority status, but must be extended to every individual regardless of her faith.

The primary question is this: Are we concerned about the mother who has an established, independent life, a husband and perhaps other children who depend upon her? If the life of a mother is threatened, on what authority can we argue only about an unborn fetus whose ability to exist outside the womb has yet to be demonstrated? The Tanna’im simply made the reasonable argument that the established life of a mother takes precedence over that of an unborn fetus. Additional questions also need to be asked: What is a fair definition of “threatened?” Who determines the existence of a threat? These are all legitimate questions. But they cannot be answered by having politicians write the kind of laws for which anti-choice advocates argue, making all abortion illegal because their personal religious beliefs dictate that stance to them.

To be sure, a Jewish decision to abort should not abandon individual mothers to an agonizing choice made in isolation. But personal beliefs must be tutored not by elected politicians but by spiritual and medical professionals who take seriously their moral responsibilities. Thus it might be argued that while the woman alone must make the choice, a Jewish woman should also be granted the privilege of consultation with medical professionals, spiritual advisors, her male partner, and her family and friends.

I do not want a Catholic mother to be forced by American law to follow Jewish law and have an abortion to save her own life if her church teaches her that such a choice would be wrong for her. But neither do I want a Jewish mother to be forced to follow Catholic law and risk her own health when her faith, medical science, and her own conviction lead her to conclude that terminating her pregnancy is appropriate for her. This is nothing short of dictating to a Jewish woman what she must do merely because a majority religious system teaches that an appropriate Jewish decision would be a sin for its adherents. The laws of the USA must preserve the right of both the majority Christians and Jewish (and all other) minorities to make decisions based upon their personal religious beliefs. It is the province of government to protect the right of all individuals to follow the dictates of their own religion, not to tell individuals what those dictates should be for everyone.

Removing the issue of abortion from the sphere of the political and returning it to its appropriate place in the realm of the moral, the religious, the spiritual, can honor the principles that both sides profess to honor. Surely the goal of removing “government” from the private moral lives of its citizens is one issue on which we might agree. If such becomes the case, honorable Christians (and indeed some honorable Jews!) may oppose abortion under all circumstances within the confines of their private religious communities. Honorable religious Jews (and indeed some honorable Christians!) may consider each case carefully, spiritually, medically, and prayerfully, free from governmental intrusion into the realm of their religious lives.