Friday, February 17, 2017

David Bentley Hart on the limits of natural law theory

"In abstraction from specific religious or metaphysical traditions, there really is very little that natural law theory can meaningfully say about the relative worthiness of the employments of the will. There are, of course, generally observable facts about the characteristics of our humanity (the desire for life and happiness, the capacity for allegiance and affinity, the spontaneity of affection for one’s family) and about the things that usually conduce to the fulfillment of innate human needs (health, a well-ordered family and polity, sufficient food, aesthetic bliss, a sense of spiritual mystery, leisure, and so forth); and if we all lived in a Platonic or Aristotelian or Christian intellectual world, in which everyone presumed some necessary moral analogy between the teleology of nature and the proper objects of the will, it would be fairly easy to connect these facts to moral prescriptions in ways that our society would find persuasive. We do not live in such a world, however." 

--From his 'Back Page' essay in the March 2013 issue of First Things.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

The Melancholy Choice

If men are compelled to make the melancholy choice between atheism and superstition, the scientist, as Bacon pointed out long ago, would be compelled to choose atheism, but the poet would be compelled to choose superstition, for even superstition, by its very confusion of values, gives his imagination more scope than a dogmatic denial of imaginative infinity does. But the loftiest religion, no less than the grossest superstition, comes to the poet, qua poet, only as the spirits came to Yeats, to give him metaphors for poetry.

-- Northrop Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism (second essay, p. 125)

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Is there 'Life' in the Movies?

Abortion is not the topic of many movies, and good films that handle the issue well are few and far between. For this month’s theme, I decided to rewind and take a look at a few features that tell a compelling story about women faced with unexpected pregnancies, and how it affects their lives and families. 

The British seem to have the edge on American filmmakers here, but let’s start with the U.S. (Spoilers ahead.

Continue reading at New Boston Post

Thursday, December 03, 2015

A Christmas Season Rant

Every week or so it seems one of my fellow Catholic friends on Facebook will share an article or blog post making a case for how the Church can get itself back into growth mode here in the U.S. I wish I had a dime for every one that says 'better catechesis' is the answer, or 'stop being apologetic about preaching the real faith', etc. etc. [As if the rest of the country is going to respond favorably to aging prelates suddenly dressing in lavish vestments and lace from the 16th century.]

My favorite though are the posts about 'how to get men back into church'. Priests in the pulpit need to appeal to their manhood, blah blah blah.

Well, as a man who never stopped going to church--but who too often dreads going now--let me offer a suggestion. [And if it turns out this is only a regional issue, then apologies in advance.] It's a simple one: 

Let every parish start offering one liturgy per week that doesn't have any music.

I used to think my problem with the dreariness of the modern Catholic liturgy was bad music. The guitars and the pianos. We'd gotten away from the real tradition too quickly and thoughtlessly after Vatican II.

I did the whole Latin Mass thing, for a while. When the traditional rite came back to Boston in the early 1990s, I was so there. Every Sunday at the old German Holy Trinity church in Boston's South End. I used to get into disagreements with my mom about this, because she was happy to see the Latin go; she remembered how happy her Irish parents were when the Novus Ordo, the Mass of Pope Paul VI, was instituted, and they could actually follow the liturgy in English since neither had learned any Latin growing up in Fermoy, County Cork. [Latin was never big in the schools there apparently. Or they simply never reached that grade where it was.]

My flirtation with the Latin Mass revival lasted a few years, but its re-emergence unfortunately brought back into broad daylight some of the more pathological strains of Catholic subculture, and I really didn't need at my age to start hanging out with the non-trivial percentage of traditionalists who turned out to be anti-semites and creationist kooks, and who could argue all day about how the Church never needed to apologize for the Spanish Inquisition or the Trial of Galileo.

Nope. It's music. Everything is sung now. Even at the much more traditional Novus Ordo held at my parish today: The Kyrie. The Gloria. The Responsorial Psalm. Even the Alleluia prior to the Gospel "reading" (which at my parish is also sung now by the pastor), gets an extended track on this ever-expanding program.

And I find it impossible to pray simply or even just reflect on the sermon. It hit me last Easter half way through a truly beautiful liturgy. Our choir is superb. The traditional hymns are beautifully rendered. There's a flute, a trumpet, even a violin sometimes to accompany the singers. But halfway through the Mass, I couldn't shake the feeling that I wasn't at a Mass. I was at a concert. A beautiful concert, but still just a concert. The liturgy was being smothered to death with music. 

And I'm not a music illiterate. I took eight years of piano lessons through high school. I performed at my share of recitals. I have a good ear and can play a lot of old songs that I arranged myself from memory. I love Bach. And Handel. And Beethoven. And Vaughn Williams, etc.

I may be wrong, but my recollection from the Gospels is that Jesus didn't sing a whole heck of a lot during his ministry. I miss his voice, speaking plainly from the reading of the Gospel during Mass. [Even Einstein famously paid tribute to this.] And I miss the priest reciting the Liturgy of the Eucharist plainly from the altar.

This may be an Irish thing. My Orthodox friends and some of their theologians have written and spoken about the minimalist Irish Catholic liturgy here in America which, for the most part, they find appallingly deficient in rich chanting, singing, etc. I blame the British for that. And I'm only half joking when I say it, but I'll leave the details to Catholic historians.

I'm just saying, for better or worse, I miss the Mass that I learned to serve as an altar boy. It was spoken. Directly. With no music (and none of us missed music because we never really had much of it then).  

I miss the lack of music now. I miss the silence.

So let me reiterate. This isn't rocket science. It won't cost a thing. It won't require any special dispensation from the local bishop or the pope. 

Does the Church want to get men back into the pews? Then offer a liturgy for us old curmudgeons, once a week--doesn't matter when: 4AM, sunrise, sunset, or midnight, we'll turn out. 

But to paraphrase Wolf from Pulp Fiction: once a week, please, pretty please... with sugar on top, drop the music.

[Updated: 8:16 PM]

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Catch Up for Thanksgiving, 2015.

Some recent posts:

My review of the film, Spotlight, about the Boston Globe's investigation of the clerical abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.

My Forbes post on Canadian researcher Timothy Kieffer and his lab's breakthrough on a stem cell therapy for the treatment of Type 1 diabetes.

And my plug for the History Channel's Einstein documentary, Secrets of Einstein's Brain, in which I appeared briefly, along with Michio Kaku, Paul Davies and Michel Janssen, among others. The film is available on iTunes for a few bucks to download.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Monsieur le Duc, Meet Mr. Bond...

I should not have been surprised to learn that Ian Fleming's Bond series of novels was inspired by Dennis Wheatley's earlier success with the Duke de Richlieu and his intrepid team of adventurers. The Forbidden Territory came out in 1933, featuring the Duke and Simon Aaron on a perilous journey into Soviet Russia to rescue their friend Rex van Ryn. While the next turn, The Devil Rides Out, turned to the supernatural, Wheatley wrote other espionage adventures and they were popular. A list of all his novels gives you an idea of where his imagination roamed.

Ballantine Books' 1971 edition of Wheatley's famous novel

But by the time Fleming came along with Bond, I imagine readers were ready for more sex and violence, but what amuses me is the similarity in their writing styles and their sensibilities.

1959 edition of Ian Fleming's James Bond novel

The casual, upper middle class racism stands out. Also the casual drinking. In Devil Rides Out, for example, Rex makes more than a few mid-day cocktails for Tanith and himself during a stopover at the Duke's 'cottage' on their trek across the English countryside. No worries about drunk driving in those days, apparently.  

Interesting that, although he blazed the trail in a sense, Wheatley saw none of the success of his books translated into film the way Fleming did with Bond, even though he outlived Fleming.  The Devil Rides Out remains the most famous of the four films based on his books--and in spite of its still impressive production design, as Christopher Lee often lamented, from the get-go the film suffered from unforgivably low-budget visual effects.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

The Dandelion Rides Out

This summer I've been going back to classic paperbacks I read when I was a teenager. It's been fascinating to re-read Alistair MacLean, Dennis Wheatley, and most recently Ray Bradbury.

For fun I posted snaps of the books from the beach cottage where we vacation. The Dandelion Wine cover brought a groan of recognition from one of my fellow high school classmates on Facebook.

"Gawd I hated that book..."

I have to say, for all the shortcomings of the two British authors, MacLean and Wheatley, which I'll address in separate posts, Ted A. was right. Bradbury could write beautiful prose, but it only served to underline the almost cloying self-absorption of the main character-- twelve-year-old Douglas Spaulding. And I don't care if most twelve-year-olds are in fact self absorbed. I know I was. But Bradbury could have done a much better job of presenting his characters.

In fact, as I was reading the short chapter where Douglas accompanies his father and brother into the countryside to gather berries, I was reminded of a more recent novel--The Shipping News--which I put down after 60 pages.

Bradbury can be excused to a certain extent I think because he was self taught--in an age long before MFA writing programs. Annie Proulx I just couldn't stand. When the prose draws so much attention to itself to the detriment of the characters and the story, I don't feel the slightest guilt about throwing the book into the Goodwill bin.

Between 6th and 8th grades I read just about everything Bradbury had in print: Martian Chronicles, Golden Apples of the Sun, Machineries of Joy, S is for Space, etc. But even before high school, I came to realize how narrow his range was as an observer of human beings and human nature. (He must've ended at least half a dozen stories with the same stupid homage to Edgar Allan Poe's Cask of Amontillado.)

I thought perhaps revisiting him after all these years I might see something new, something I missed as an adolescent.

And while I do appreciate how well he could write, and how evocative, in a poetic sense, his prose could be, I don't regret getting rid of that paperback collection once I got to high school.