Archive for the 'Literature' Category

Recalled to Life

It is Easter’s Eve. Dr. Faust has passed the night in his study agonizing over his search for truth that has ended is such desolation. As morning dawns he mixes a deadly elixir with which he will end his life. Despair has prevailed. The light is extinguished; only the void remains. As Dr. Faust bravely raises the goblet of despair to his lips, he hears the choirs of heaven singing for joy: Christ is Risen! Alleluia!

(Faust, Part One, Goethe, transl. David Luke, Oxford, 1998)

FAUST. You gentle puissant choirs of heaven, why
Do you come seeking me? The dust is stronger!
Go, chant elsewhere to tenderer souls! For I
Can hear the message, but believe no longer.
Wonders are dear to faith, by it they live and die.
I cannot venture to those far-off spheres,
Their sweet evangel is not for my ears.
And yet – these strains, so long familiar, still
They call me back to life. There was time
Of quiet, solemn sabbaths when heaven’s kiss would fill
Me with its love’s descent, when a bell’s chime
Was deep mysterious music, and to pray
Was fervent ecstasy. I could not understand
The sweet desire that drove me far away
Out through the woods, over the meadowland:
There I would weep a thousand tears and feel
A whole world come to birth, my own yet real.
Those hymns would herald youthful games we played
To celebrate the spring. As I recall
That childhood, I am moved, my hand is stayed,
I cannot take this last and gravest step of all.
Oh sing, dear heaven-voices, as before!
Now my tears flow, I love the earth once more!

Dr. Faust is, but for a time, recalled to life.


The Maddening Search for Truth

As much as we Christians talk about the complimentary nature of faith and reason, we are still all to tethered to the post-Enlightenment ideal of certainty through reason. As we search for “the Truth” we expect all of our arguments to make perfect sense, so that logically each piece of the puzzle fits in nicely within a coherent whole. But if we are honest with ourselves, we know that it doesn’t quite work out that way. Paradox is at the heart of our religion, and if you don’t believe that read a little G. K. Chesterton. He will paint a vivid picture for you on how paradox informs our faith at almost every turn. Of course, this should not be taken as a weakness of religion, for as Chesterton says (paraphrasing), “the belief in reason takes faith”. There are those who have faith and know it, and there are those who have faith and do not know it.

The search for “the Truth” when using reason alone (solo ratio!) can be a maddening experience. I suspect all who have read a good deal of philosophy, especially of the last 300 years, have had a glimpse into this terrible maelstrom of reason. Nothing expresses this madness quite like the words of Dr. Faust in the opening sequence of Goethe’s famous play (Faust – a wonderful translation by David Luke – Oxford University Press, 1998):

FAUST [sitting restlessly at his desk]

Well, that’s Philosophy I’ve read,
And Law and Medicine, and I fear
Theology too, from A to Z;
Hard studies all, that have cost me dear.
And so I sit, poor silly man,
No wiser now than when I began.
They call me Professor and Doctor, forsooth,
For misleading many an innocent youth
These last ten years now, I suppose,
Pulling them to and fro by the nose;
And I see all our search for knowledge is vain,
And this burns my heart with bitter pain.
I’ve more sense, to be sure, than the learned fools,
The masters and pastors, the scribes from the schools;
No scruples to plague me, no irksome doubt,
No hell-fire or devil to worry about –
Yet I take no pleasure in anything now;
For I know I know nothing, I wonder how
I can still keep up the pretense of teaching
Or bettering mankind with my empty preaching.

FIRST THINGS Moments of 2008

Moving on from the previous post into the current Year of Our Lord, 2008, here are few of the moments that stood out to me from the pages of FIRST THINGS this past year. Feel free to add any of your own fond memories.

Regarding FT in 2008, there are three things that stand out to me – Joseph Pearce, N. T. Wright, and the death of the Oldline Mainline Protestants here in America.

ft_2008-08First, my dear Joseph Pearce. Back in July I did a post on the shellacking Joseph Pearce took in the pages of the August/September issue of FT. What made this so surprising is FT is a journal that would otherwise be friendly to someone like Pearce. So what did Pearce do to get such sour treatment from a friendly source? It has to do with that all too entangled question of Shakespeare’s religion. I personally don’t think Shakespeare’s religion matters, but there are many (apparently) who do.

In his much publicized book, The Quest for Shakespeare, Pearce clearly wanting to discredit himself right from the start, begins by touting his “Bellocian bellicosity” and distancing himself from the “asses of academe.” Translation: Pearce thinks all those scholars in their ivory towers are arrogant nitwits. Unlike himself, of course.

Robert Miola, professor of English at Loyola College (Maryland), is the culprit behind the aforementioned shellacking. Actually, a careful reading of Miola’s writings in FT regarding the issue of Shakespeare’s religion (see the May 2008 issue of FT) shows that he is somewhat sympathetic to the view that the great Bard of Avon may have been a Catholic (Pearce’s thesis). But if there is one thing Miola can’t stand, it’s arrogant grandstanding by an unproven scholar, such as Pearce, who clearly has no idea what he is talking about. And the way I word it is much nicer than the way Miola does. No kidding. The book review by Miola is really quite stunning – I had my mouth open almost the entire time I was reading it. If you have not read the review, do yourself a favor and read it: Thy Canonized Bones.

And as is the way with peer review journals, Pearce was given the opportunity to defend himself, which he did on the FT blog, On The Square. The rebuttal by Pearce with a response by Miola was included in the latest issue of FT (December 2008). Unfortunately, I can’t link to it since it hasn’t been made public online. However, you can still read Pearce’s rebuttal here.

Second is the “out of nowhere” N. T. Wright / Fr. Neuhaus skirmish that began in April. From what I understand Fr. Neuhaus and N. T. Wright are fairly acquainted with each other and even consider the other to be a friend. So when Neuhaus took to taking cheap shots at Wright in his featured Public Square essay of April 2008, I was taken aback. Now, I say cheap shots, but I am quite sure Fr. Neuhaus doesn’t see it that way. However that may be, I thought the attacks were unfair and so did Wright, understandably.

I call this a skirmish because it didn’t last but for a single follow up exchange in subsequent issue of FT. Thankfully, the whole nasty – and very odd – exchange was quickly dropped, and I can only assume/hope Neuhaus and Wright have since made nice and will continue their good work for the Church, each in their own way.

You can read the original essay by Fr. Neuhaus here: The Possibilities and Perils in Being a Really Smart Bishop. As much as I say Fr. Neuhuas’ attacks were unfair, he does, not surprisingly, make some good points; but the whole seems to be tainted by the way in which he treats Wright. Wright’s rebuttal and Neuhaus’ response can be found in the June/July 2008 Correspondence section.

And last, but not least, is Joseph Bottum’s lengthy essay entitled The Death of Protestant America: A Political Theory of the Protestant Mainline – also from the August/September issue of FT. The article generated much discussion with the great majority of the correspondence agreeing with general outline Bottum presents of the death of the Mainline Protestant Churches in America.

You can read this interesting essay by Bottum, here: The Death of Protestant America: A Political Theory of the Protestant Mainline. The follow up correspondence letters are in the December 2008 issue of FT. As I noted earlier, this issue is not publically available online yet. Give it a couple of months.

So that does it for FT in 2008. I eagerly await the memorable moments that are sure to be in store for 2009.

In the meantime, have a happy Advent!

Gloria in excelsis Deo!

Who Art Thou O Shakespeare!

I have never understood the debate that surrounds the particular Christian faith of Shakespeare. Oh sure, if we knew that Shakespeare was a Catholic that would shed new light on his plays, but is it really worth fighting for? To me, Catholics have always come off a little silly by trying to hammer Shakespeare into a awkward fitting Catholic mold. Perhaps Shakespeare was Catholic. Or maybe he wasn’t, and we have been right all along. We will likely never know, but are we really so much the worse off for not knowing?

In his latest book, Joseph Pearce has apparently taken up the old issue with new vigor. Much loved in Catholic circles for his work on the many great Catholic writers of the early 20th century (Chesterton, Tolkien, Hilaire Belloc, Evelyn Waugh, etc.), it is sad to see that Mr. Pearce has taken such a beating in FIRST THINGS for his latest book, The Quest for Shakespeare: The Bard of Avon and the Church of Rome (Ignatius 2008) (Amazon Link).

Robert S. Miola in his review of The Quest for Shakespeare has this to say about Pearce’s latest work:

In The Quest for Shakespeare, Joseph Pearce claims that the “real Shakespeare” was a secret Catholic. Pointing in the preface to his own “robust muse” and “Bellocian bellicosity,” Pearce goes on to mock contemporary writers on Shakespeare as “vultures,” “carrion critics,” “gossip and gutter-oriented ‘scholars,’” and “silly asses of academe.”

A promising beginning, you might think. Unfortunately, The Quest for Shakespeare proves to be a patchwork of other people’s work, indiscriminately selected, hastily stitched together, and served up with self-congratulatory fanfare. Seldom has such a slight book managed to combine ignorance and arrogance on such a grand scale.

The review does not get any kinder to Mr. Pearce. Attacked for its astonishing lack of scholarship, The Quest for Shakespeare does not fair well in Moila’s critique. At one point Miola says, “What he [Pearce] does not know about Shakespeare and the Catholicism of his times would fill several large libraries.” Ouch. In the end, it seems Miola is just fed up with Pearce’s apparent arrogance:

At a conceptual level The Quest for Shakespeare repeatedly exhibits the logical fallacy of association—the idea that identification of Catholic associates constitutes evidence of Shakespeare’s religious beliefs. It never occurs to Pearce that a survey of Protestant associates could just as easily lead to the opposite conclusion. His work also exhibits the biographical fallacy—the unqualified conviction that one can read the author’s life from the work and vice versa.

This fallacy is widespread in Shakespeare studies, true enough, but the business of wrenching passages out of dramatic context as evidence of the playwright’s personal beliefs usually reveals more about the critic than about Shakespeare. Pearce endorses this method for himself—and then vents his spleen on anyone else who dare use it for different conclusions. Thus, for example, he ridicules the “doyens of postmodernity” for writing into the plays their own “prejudiced agenda.” As Pearce notes about much contemporary work on Shakespeare: “For the proponents of ‘queer theory’ he becomes conveniently homosexual; for secular fundamentalists he is a proto-secularist, ahead of his time; for ‘post-Christian’ agnostics he becomes a prophet of modernity.”

Quite right, one wants to say. But what shall we do when Joseph Pearce comes along to say, in essence: “You’re all stupid to think that Shakespeare is just like you. Actually, Shakespeare is just like me”? There is a parable about a mote and a beam that applies somewhere here.

Hopefully, the scholarship of Joseph Pearce isn’t as bad as all that. Having not too long ago expressed great interest in his new critical edition series from Ignatius Press, I still hold out hope that his scholarship in the arena of literary criticism will be able to stand on its own two feet. After the review in FIRST THINGS (a journal which is sympathetic to all things Catholic and conservative, mind you) I have my doubts. Nonetheless, I will withhold my judgement, and I look forward to Pearce’s rebuttle to Miola in the Correspondance section of the next issue of FIRST THINGS. At least, I hope a rebuttle is forthcoming. If not, I shall not know what to think of our beloved Mr. Pearce.

On Contemplation and Beauty

Our old friend, Dietrich von Hildebrand again. This time on the subject of contemplation. From Transformation in Christ, Chapter 6:

In order that contemplation may bring out its full meaning and attain its perfection, another feature must be present. The object must affect us not only with its isolated specific content, it must elevate us into the world of valid and ultimate reality. We must, in contemplation, meet that world as such, so as to acquire suddenly a comprehensive new attitude towards all things.

Who of us does not know the supreme moments when a great truth, a glorious beauty of art or of nature, or the soul of a beloved person manifests itself to our soul with a lightning-like splendor, gracing our eyes with a vision of ultimate reality and prompting us to exclaim, “O Lord, how admirable is Thy name in the whole earth!” (Ps. 8:10)?

That other feature of contemplation which must be present, to which the feature noted above is an addition, is the sense of timelessness. In contemplation proper, we are taken up out of the world of time, or rather, the temporal world around us ceases to exist.

In regards to the question in the second paragraph quoted above, I am afraid of the great awkwardness with which many people in 2008 would answer such a question. Dietrich von Hildebrand was by all accounts a highly cultured and educated man with a supreme appreciation for beauty, whether it be found in nature, art, or music. Perhaps only he could ask such a question with child-like naivete. He may have been unaware that not everyone has the gift of being able to appreciate beauty or even recognize it as he did. Nevertheless, I will trust, or at least hope, that everyone has had the kind of “supreme moment” noted above; if not a full realization of such contemplative joy, at least a hint of it.

However, if there are many who have not had such an experience, it is certainly because of the noise that fills our world. Without silence of heart and soul, contemplation is impossible. Our soul needs silence so that it can hear the voice of its maker.

“And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.” I Kings 19:11-12 (RSV)

Compounding the problem of our inability to assume a contemplitive posture, we appear to have also lost a true appreciation for beauty. We are not sure why we need to study poetry anymore, or why we should care about making art that elevates the soul, or why we should care about the great works of Mozart and J.S. Bach. We can’t even agree about what is beautiful. I suppose even a trash can full of shit can look beautiful if you’re depraved enough to see it. Have you seen what counts as art these days?

I am reminded of the famous words of Fyodor Dostoevsky through his great character Prince Myshkin: “beauty will save the world.” It would seem so. Beauty will save the world because it will draw us back into contemplation. When authentic beauty is appreciated and reverenced in our culture, it is a sure sign that our souls have once again found value in silence and can once again hear the voice of God.

Imagine a world in which beauty is reverenced. What place would there be for war? How could rape or any sort of violence against a human being exist when the essential beauty of each person is apprecated in its fullness? How could pornography exist in a world that honors true beauty? Of course, sin will always be a reality of our world, but if our culture, with all its great power to influence and shape minds, would only embrace goodness, truth, and beauty, what a different place this world would be.

Indeed, beauty just might save the world.

Literary Criticism Proper?

… a tradition-oriented alternative to popular textbook series such as the Norton Critical Editions or Oxford World Classics

So the new critical edition series from Ignatius Press defines itself. I for one am excited for the release of the first 3 books in this series – one released already (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), the other two due out very soon (Wuthering Heights and King Lear). I hope this is a series that can stand up to the critical editions of a scholarly nature that are widely accepted today. Perhaps, labeling yourself as “traditional” won’t help, but hopefully the scholarship will stand on it’s own. I have no doubt Joseph Pearce, the general editor of the series, is up to the task. The only question is does he deliver?

I, for one, will be ordering King Lear as soon as it’s available. But I’m addicted to books… so don’t mind me :)

The Genius of Flannery O’Connor

To those who, through no fault of there own, are ignorant of the writings of Flannery O’Connor, I implore you to get to know this great American and Catholic writer of the 20th century. I have, myself, only recently become acquainted with this gifted author. In my part of town there is this great book store that routinely has absolute gems on it’s shelves for prices around $5-$7. One of the books I happened to see about a year ago was a 1971 hardcover edition of The Complete Stories of Flanney O’Connor. I probably paid $5.95 for this amazing book (the usual price for most books in the store), that has contained within it’s 555 pages, all of the short stories written by Miss O’Connor.

Known for her brutally honest assessment of humanity as being marred by original sin, O’Connor brings to life in her fiction some of the most remarkably vivid characters to be found anywhere. She’s wholly unafraid to put any number of sins into the mouths and thoughts of her characters including envy, pride, gluttony, ingratitude, irreverence, and, most famously, racism. What strikes the reader most when reading Flannery O’Conner is that we see a bit of ourselves in her characters. We see our own prejudices, our own selfishness, and our own spiritual immaturity, when we read her stories. As much as we don’t want to admit it, we are sinners in need of grace. In today’s narcissistic world of self-absorption, this is a message that needs to be heard.

One short story of Flannery’s, entitled The Turkey, will help illustrate her subtle way a portraying grace in the midst of “everyday” life. The plot revolves around a young boy, age 11, who is out in the woods playing by himself when he providentially spots an injured turkey in the wooded brush. Thinking that this must be his lucky day, he runs after the turkey, imagining what it will be like when he returns home in triumph with the turkey slung across his shoulders. Oh how highly they will think of him! He’s often ridiculed as being such “an unusual boy”, but this will show ’em. He’ll be the talk of the town, the hero of the family.

After much effort and many bumps and bruises, he finally loses the chance to catch that darn turkey, or so he thinks. Why was he shown the turkey if he was never to catch it? This must be God’s idea of a cruel joke. He then proceeds to profane the name of God and curse in ways that would make his grandmother’s “teeth fall in her soup”. Typical of a boy at that age, he giggles at his display of “naughtiness” and imagines what would happen if his mother or grandmother could hear how he’s talkin’ now. They’d slap him silly! That’s what they’d do. Maybe he’ll “go bad” like his brother and start smoking cigars and drinking alcohol. Why shouldn’t he? It’s the way he feels. God surely doesn’t care. All He wants to do is play jokes on hapless boys for His own amusement. Bah! Who needs God!

But wait! What’s that in the bush? It’s the turkey again. By this time it becomes apparent, the turkey has been shot and is now too exhausted to run away any longer. The turkey is finally his! With the turkey slung across his shoulders, he decides against taking the shortcut trail to get to his house. After all, he has some time to kill, why not take the long way home through the center of town? Along the way he begins to repent of the things he had thought before, and most especially the things he had said. In the end, God did give him the turkey. See how great God is after all. In this spirit of repentance, he even prays that God will send him a beggar so that he may give away his last dime to show his gratitude for the turkey that was now his.

While walking through town to get to his home, all eyes are on him and his bird. They must think he’s sumpthin’ else. Look at ’em. They can’t take their eyes off him. Along they way he thinks maybe God won’t send him a beggar after all. But he so desperately wants to show his gratitude. God won’t refuse, will he? As luck would have it, a notorious town beggar appears. He hands her his last dime (oh how wonderful of him) and makes his way home. Along the way, some town boys had been following him. He just knows they want to see his turkey. So he turns around and asks if they’d like to take a look at it. Sure they would, but as it turns out, they not only want to look at the turkey, they want to steal it. And they do, and there’s nothing Ruller (that’s the boy’s name) can do about it. Here the story abruptly ends.

What are we to learn from this mundane, but remarkable tale? The moral themes of pride and spiritual immaturity are obvious. The young boy has all kinds of grand images of himself as captor of the elusive turkey. They will think so highly of him. They might even be jealous. And why shouldn’t they be? But the moment his fortunes turn and the turkey seems lost, he turns on God (i.e. spiritual immaturity). And as soon as the fortunes turn yet again and the turkey is caught, he turns back to God (i.e. spiritual immaturity par excellence). Further more, he is now willing to help the poor, now that he has been helped by God (a bit of self-righteous quid pro quo). It’s here that we find the moral gravitas of the story. Ruller is not only asked to give up his last dime, but he’s asked to give up his turkey as well. The turkey God gave is now the turkey God taketh away.

Isn’t this precisely how God works? How many times do we tell God, I’ll give you this, but not that? Anything, but that. It’s mine and why shouldn’t I keep it? Does anyone else hear echoes of The Lord of the Rings? It’s my precious… and you wants to takes it from me. But God does ask for “our precious”. Whatever that may be for us, individually. We justify ourselves by focusing on how much we already “do for God”. We tithe, write checks for the needy, help people get through tough times in their life, hardly ever curse, show up to church every Sunday, and pray everyday. Does God really want this too? Can I really be expected to give up contraception (it’s my body!), pornography (I’m not hurting anybody), or drunkenness (I’m just having fun)? Doesn’t God already see what I do for Him?… Yes, but He wants more. He wants us to be holy as He is holy. His only goal for us is to spend eternity with Him. Deus caritas est. It is this divine love that spurns us onward toward perfection. It is Jesus who invites us on this journey when He says to each of us, “Follow me”.

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