An odd kind of irrelevance

The latest incident of people working so very hard to take a few words of Pope Francis and make them into what they apparently want him to have said, without reference to what the Church teaches, has me thinking.

Pope Francis
Pope Francis

This happens a lot, with every pope. Sometimes it’s to make the pope look bad, like with Pope Benedict XVI at Regensberg. Other times it’s to try to find evidence the pope is going to do the impossible and overturn some Church teaching, or to try to drum up some narrative about a conflict between one pope and previous popes. Sometimes it’s in search of something to rub in the face of Catholics who believe the Church’s teaching. The agendas are all too familiar.

In this case maybe it’s even cause for hope. If learning what Christianity has always taught — that Christ died for everyone — is joyful news to a bunch of people estranged from Christ, that suggests an opening of grace. Praise God!

But the striking fact is this: Those of us who believe Catholic teaching are constantly told that the pope doesn’t matter.

“He’s just some old, celibate guy in Rome! Even most Catholics don’t listen to him. The world has moved on! Get with the times!”

Isn’t that the constant refrain? Isn’t that what we heard ad nauseum all through the papal conclave? And yet here is the world, months later, not just interested even in the Holy Father’s daily Mass homilies but parsing his words, spinning them, straining over them. Even twisting them is still a very different thing from ignoring them. Only words that actually matter are worth twisting.

Interesting, isn’t it? I think that is also cause for hope.


Bounties, Vikings and flag football

As a lifelong Vikings fan, the bounty scandal of the badly misnamed New Orleans Saints caught my attention, not least because during the 2009 NFC Championship game between my Vikings and those thugs I spent much of the game screaming at the television — and at Facebook — about what seemed an obvious attempt to injure quarterback Brett Favre. This did not thrill my friends with New Orleans sympathies.

When the proof of what my lying eyes had told me in 2009 came out last month, I was off of Facebook for Lent, so I had less opportunity to get back into debates about it with those who took issue with me. In other words, I had less opportunity to say “I told you so,” which is probably just as well.

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Immigration and the triumph of bad faith

One of the most striking features of the nation’s immigration debate is the intensity of the rhetoric. It simply hasn’t been a “discussion” of the subject until someone has been called a xenophobic Nazi and somebody else an America-hating commie.

That’s puzzling, when you think about it. It’s perfectly possible to think that national security and the laws of the land are worth enforcing without despising human dignity or being a racist. And it’s perfectly possible to recognize the terrible plight of many immigrant families and call for leniency without wanting to turn the southwest United States into a Mexican province or hating the rule of law.

Not only are those views both possible, I think they are common. In fact, for decent, thoughtful people, it’s not only possible but required to value national security, the rule of law, the desirability of assimilation and the human dignity of immigrants in dire poverty all at the same time. Given the many facets of immigration policy, one can apply those principles to the complicated facts and come to different conclusions in relative good faith.

But that’s not the debate we’re having. People do not assume basic decency on the part of those who disagree with them, let alone go one more step to recognizing their opponents are standing for worthy principles worth defending.

The more cynical side of me is tempted to think it’s because both sides are actually right about the other, and this really is a battle between racists who hate Mexicans and commies who hate America, with the rest of us caught in the middle. But I don’t really think that’s it.

Part of it is because the stakes are so high, and because so many people on both sides are affected so directly. (Full disclosure: I’m about as insulated from this issue as one could possibly be.)

But at heart I think it’s simply the triumph of bad faith. We don’t have a rational discussion of it because we no longer have the patience to think through complicated things, so we oversimplify. We are so thoroughly polarized that we rarely hear a thoughtful opposing view anyway, but rather get it filtered through a partisan media tailored already to our sympathies. The caricature is formed before we even engage the enemy, assuring yet another delightful battle of talking points. The crowd gathers and shout inflammatory things. The most outrageous are repeated in the opposing press. Then the other side gathers to shout its inflammatory things. Rinse. Repeat.

Illegal immigration is a big problem. But I think the debate itself exposes an even bigger problem.

Ten Commandments as coloring book

In a previous line of work, and in some ways a previous life, I was a poetry critic, and one of my favorite local poets was Connie Wanek. As you can see, she’s a local artist made good with credits in Poetry and The Atlantic Monthly and elsewhere, with books and awards to her credit, named alongside some pretty famous poets, at least as modern poets go.

I think this is richly deserved. What I admire about her poetry is the “noble simplicity,” if I may borrow that term, of her language, and her clear images and metaphors. It was a joy, then, to see one of her poems pop up on Poetry Daily.

In some ways, “Coloring Book” is vintage Wanek: a poem with a single, simple image at its heart, a purity of language that still allows some music to flow (“heartbreakingly banal” in the opening line).

But I want to take up the argument I see implicit in it.

Consider these lines:

A coloring book’s authority is derived
from its heavy black lines
as unalterable as the Ten Commandments
within which minor decisions are possible:
the dog black and white,
the kitten gray.


Rembrandt depicts Moses and the Ten Commandments. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

The Ten Commandments are an interesting choice of metaphor. In looking at just these lines, it would be possible to imagine the comparison being made in passing, but just a few lines later, she is comparing the short phrases found under coloring book images to Psalms and sermons.

In such an accomplished writer, this is not an accident. It’s a poem about biblical religion, then, and not a flattering one. Biblical religion is the cheap, “heartbreakingly banal” thing she’s talking about, with its hard lines allowing only “minor decisions.” (Note that the colors in Wanek’s coloring book are black, white and gray.)

I take up this discussion not to single out a poet whose skill I admire but because I think the view expressed there is a very common one. It relates to the divorce of contemporary culture from the Christian culture which built it, not just among secularized intellectuals but even among average Christians in the pew, who often do not know Augustine, Aquinas or Chesterton – or even their Bibles.

As for the Psalms, it’s enough to say that anyone not long estranged from them knows they are among the most profound works in world literature, sounding the depths of the human experience, even considered apart from their divine origin. If they are banal, I would like to see what isn’t.

The more potent salvo is at the Ten Commandments. Isn’t that part simply obvious fact? That those unalterable lines in the Mount Sinai sand, and all that follows from them, restrict our freedom and leave us only “minor decisions” and vanilla, cookie-cutter lives written in black and white?

That’s what most people think, unthinkingly, I would contend. The more specifically one looks, the less plausible that idea becomes. The Ten Commandments forbid idolatry, blasphemy, murder, adultery, theft, lying and coveting.

Is it the case that you cannot be free, that you can only make “minor decisions,” if you cannot revile the sacred, embrace unjust violence, betray the spouse to whom you have made solemn oaths, be consumed desiring and finally taking that which is not yours, and deceive those around you? That’s silly.

I am not free to betray my spouse by leaping into bed with someone else, but if that law is observed I am free to trust her, raise children with her, grow old with her when I’m long past being desirable to anyone. I am not free to murder my enemies, but if that law is observed I am free to walk down the street and even express unpopular views in relative safety. I am not free to lie, but if that law is observed I am free to trust a business partner, a friend, a repairman, an eyewitness. I am not free to blaspheme what is holy, but if that law is observed I am free to worship, to wonder, to reverence that which is greater than me, and aspire to be better.

A just and good order is the foundation of freedom, the foundation of peace. Anarchy looks free but is instead a tyranny of competing wills governed by force and by fear. One who flouts the laws of physics is free to do many foolish and self-destructive but not to build a bicycle. Similarly, one who flouts the Ten Commandments is free to self-destruct but is correspondingly less free to live a good and happy life.

I think this is actually bound up in Wanek’s own metaphor. In the closing lines we see what freedom has supposedly been denied by those hard black lines of the coloring book: a blank page upon which we scribble when we are “tired and sad” and can “bear no more.”

But coloring books are for children, to teach them line and form and rudimentary hand-eye coordination so they may progress to more advanced forms of art. A six-month-old or even a monkey can scribble on a blank piece of paper without any instruction or practice. An older child who has worked through a few coloring books can begin drawing stick men and some day, perhaps, with great training and discipline, the Mona Lisa.

Which is more free, the monkey or the master?

New technology, old books

“Silence is the door-keeper of the interior life.”St. Josemaria Escriva

I have some weird competing inclinations.

Take this pairing: Part of me loves computers and gadgets and making them tick, which led me, as a kid at the dawn of the home computer age, to buy a two computers with my saved-up money and write my own word processing program to do school papers. The other is a deep love of silence and solitude coupled with strong temptation to go off the grid (one of my favorite books growing up was Walden), living in a hermitage somewhere and never looking at another glowing screen. The quote from St. Josemaria Escriva sums it up well. I consider zoning into the Internet for hours (or more rarely a TV) among my worst habits precisely for this reason.

I have had both inclinations since childhood, and still have them both. Being half Geek and half Luddite is often uncomfortable.

Kindle 2
Image licensed under a Creative Commons license. Photo by Jon 'ShakataGaNai' Davis.

But I think I’ve found the perfect technology for me in the Amazon Kindle.

I’ve had my eye on them for a couple of years now, and this Christmas, my (much) better half bought me one. I was, and remain, thrilled.

The great benefits of the new generation of e-book readers, of which the Kindle is only the most famous, are the vastly improved reading experience (comparable to ink on paper) and the availability of  more stuff, especially new releases and periodicals. I have bought several books through the Amazon store, and I have read several issues of a variety of different newspapers on it. Both experiences have been good. I may have more to say about newspapers on Kindle in another essay.

But neither is why I wanted a Kindle. I wanted one so I could read old books comfortably and for free. Possibly the greatest thing about the Internet is that it has thousands upon thousands of great old books that are now in the public domain. There’s great literature there — Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Hopkins — alongside old Westerns to read just for fun. You can find the writings of the saints. You can find the writings of the world’s great thinkers who have shaped the world (for good and for ill). With Google Books even the mediocrity of the ages is available.

Even taking the very best of the ages and building a library in paper would cost thousands of dollars and take up a room in the house. (Just ask my wife!) But now you can get it for free and hold it in the palm of your hand. The only major drawback has been the horrible experience of reading on a computer screen, now solved with the e-book reader.

I think I have done more serious reading since Christmas than I had since the previous Christmas. Stepping away from the digital fire hose of my RSS feed, my Twitter account, my Facebook page and so on has become a regular habit that refreshes the soul.

It’s true that you can log on to the Internet from your Kindle, but it’s not a great browsing experience, so it’s no great temptation. And it’s true you can browse the bookstore 24/7 from the comfort of your couch. That’s a real temptation. But it’s been easily solved by simply turning the wireless service off, which has the added bonus of extending the already long battery life even more.

So there it is. For once, high tech has served to increase, rather than diminish, silence, solitude and the interior life. Luddite and Geek shall meet, high tech and old books shall kiss, and now I only  have to discipline myself to stop reading and go to bed at night.