Tuesday, November 26, 2013

this is the day

Well, well, well....a while ago (a phrase, btw, that my Ozark dialect would translate as "wall-luh-go") I mentioned Pope Francis' ecstatic followers confronting the news that the Pope, well, is Catholic

At some point I wonder if he'll confront a "Humanae Vitae" moment like Paul VI:  caught between the zeitgeist and the Church's own traditions, which will the pope choose?  And will all those currently enthralled with Francis I's new way still stand with him if he chooses the Church over the world?

And again this past August:

After all, it's currently all the rage to extol Pope Francis as the Church's sha-zam! rehabilitator.  Wait till Pope Francis has a Humanae Vitae moment.

That day of reckoning might have just arrived.  Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) addresses a wide variety of issues, and the commentaries are just beginning.  A couple months the press was all a-rage about interviews with Pope Francis.  Wonder what will happen now that Pope Francis has made it clear that the Church's pro-life stance regarding abortion won't be changed.

Precisely because this involves the internal consistency of our message about the value of the human person, the Church cannot be expected to change her position on this question. I want to be completely honest in this regard. This is not something subject to alleged reforms or “modernizations”. It is not “progressive” to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life. On the other hand, it is also true that we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, where abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish, especially when the life developing within them is the result of rape or a situation of extreme poverty. Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations?

Given this blog's parameters, I'd suggest that this is *not* the authoritarian boom-lowering restorationist counteroffensive so desired by the Catholic right. Section 214 ends, crucially, on a pastoral note.  That should give the Catholic Right pause;  Pope Francis has repeated stressed the Church's reach-out, its evangelization, and not always admonishing sinners.  (I bet, though, Pope Francis still thinks that's required occasionally.)  The same section, though, is a sobering reminder to the Catholic left who embrace Francis' reforms (it's good Pope John all over again!) while overlooking Francis' piety and personal sense of papal style.  No, he's not Benedict.  That is OK.  But that also doesn't mean that Francis has thrown away the Church's teaching role.  As Catholic Memes puts it:

   A couple days ago a couple Catholic bloggers compared Pope Francis to the Honey Badger, as in "he doesn't care--he just does what he wants" (paraphrased).  A fortuitous analogy--and it will be interesting to see what the Pope does next while the rest of us unpack Evangelii Gaudium.

Friday, November 22, 2013

mouth shoots, hits foot

Disclaimer:  this post departs from the blog's usual material:  American spirituality, Roman Catholic studies, sports, popular culture.  At least at first.  Rest assured, the blog is not morphing into some political  hatchet site.   At least not intentionally so...

So first there is Obamacare and its inauspicious debut.  There's probably a semester's worth of lectures about hubris and nemesis in this part of American life, and that extends to Republicans as well as Democrats.  Just check the headlines at Real Clear Politics for the latest in ideological salvos. The problem, though, becomes when confronting one ugly problem (and Obamacare's problems are ugly) the usual response has become:


the corrosion we love

I don't have a smart phone and now I wonder if I ever will.  Can it be that all this--this that 21st century American life has become--all dates back only to June 2007?  The iPhone and all the competitors are even younger than Facebook.

And it's obvious that we now simply can not do without them.  Smart phones dominate my students' lives.  Every element of campus life now involves them:  classes (yes, during--and unless a campus features a particularly tightly-woven culture, find me somewhere smart phones are not used in class), dining, commuting, in-between classes, sporting events.  They are omnipresent.

This blog and all other blogs function, to some degree, because of this.  Blog updates and other little tidbits come in, thus connecting the smart-phone-user to all corners of the world s/he has chosen.  Smart phones are no longer primarily for talking but for connecting:  information, texting (the primary and preferred communication avenue these days), social media, entertainment, directions, reminders, games, photography, etc.

And yet it should be equally clear that this omnipresence is quickly and surely corroding the ways in which we interact with one another.  Notice the story:  device-free meetings, Japanese commuters falling in front of trains, discussions among urban planners of technology-free-spaces.  Simon Grabar writes:

Broadly speaking, any such regulations would require agreement that public computing has negative externalities — that your hand-held device is my problem. ...

But while it is obvious that light, noise and smoke corrupt darkness, silence and clean air, the consequences of smartphone use are far more opaque. What, exactly, does the man texting at the bar disrupt? Is the situation different if he is watching a violent movie or playing a visually arresting game? What does it mean to fellow patrons if his face is bathed in the steady glow of an e-book?

In the past, it has taken decades to pinpoint the external costs of other people’s activities. Though smoking was often considered a bother in the 19th century, it wasn’t until the 1920s that the aggravated parties coined the expression “secondhand smoke.” (All this far before any awareness of its health risks.)

It seems clear that there is such a thing as secondhand glow. It impedes our movement on busy sidewalks, breaks our concentration in movie theaters and libraries, and makes our public places as dull and private as phone booths. The question is what to do about it.

"that your hand-held device is my problem"...whoa, boy, there's a ticking bomb.  It is--when somebody's driving--but Grabar attends to the larger social "web" that is dissolving in our midst.  Somebody once told me that Steve Jobs' biography reads like somebody who suffered from fetal alcohol effect (FAE):  difficulty in bonding with others, stuck in his own world.  Maybe--Jobs is a compelling figure in so many ways.  Yet Jobs, not ironically, created a device that now invites/coerces us all to enter a world similar to his.  Each day I face a room of undergraduates who sit together but apart from each other, each deeply involved in her/his social media world--world that they themselves have.  They're more than willing to look up anything I mention in class:  Google image searches of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, movie updates, political commentary, Facebook memes, etc. 

That being said, I get the attraction.  The functionality, the connectivity, the instantaneous ability to comment.  This blog surfaces occasionally on Twitter where I stand amazed at the constant roll of updated tweets.  At a recent parish council meeting I stressed the need for the parish to join, in some way, that very world.  Social media is "where" the younger generations reside that churches want to attract.  And evangelization, especially the New Evangelization declared by John Paul II and Benedict XVI--and taken to a new level by Francis I--advocates going to meet the people "where they are."  The American Academy of Religion's annual meeting features--which convenes this weekend in Baltimore--roughly eight to ten thousand of the nation's top religious studies scholars, and, despite the AAR's membership self-satisfied sense of objectivity and critical remove from religious subjects themselves, the AAR is no different. The annual meeting consists of the usual lengthy (and, yes, fruitful) sessions on a wide variety of religious phenomena--but now the hallways and book displays are clogged with the AAR members on their phones--just like everybody else as Grabar describes.  

And he concludes with the right note:  "what to do about it?"  Where will this technological cum social transformation take us all?  Because it's clear by now we're all on this smart phone train--but do we really want to end up where this journey is headed?

Friday, November 1, 2013

For all the saints...

...who from their labors rest...

Last night was Halloween, and now in my adult years come two of my favorite days in the Church calendar:  today All Saints Day and tomorrow All Souls Day.  Once it used to be about candy but now, perhaps fitting for a blog bearing the name it does, it's now about something we come to know better as we age:  remembering the many who've died.  Some saintly, some not so much;  some loved, some not, some loved more than they should've been, and others less so. 

This post's title honors Bill Placher, long time Wabash College professor and a dear friend and guide of mine for so many years.  At his funeral in 2008, the assembled sang--as per his request--"For All the Saints" (at, also at his request, a vigorous tempo--no woeful mourning here!). As I wrote last year, I've always treasured that request and that hymn.  These days ask annually for time needed to remember our own humanity (so much for the candy) and that of others.  All jokes aside about the intellectual state of current undergraduates, students "get" death and remembrance, largely because they've seen people die and be buried.  They often don't possess the tools with which to understand fully such things, but it isn't unfamiliar territory.  Always a good time and place to throw in the great G. K. Chesterton line: "

“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” 

It took a while but those lines--and the How and Williams hymn--also remind us of the saints whose influence and guidance we perhaps don't want to admit.  For me this ranges from some family members to Dorothy Day to saints like Pope St. Pius X and blessed Raphael Cardinal Merry del Val. So often we seek the saints who look, think, and act like us--and that's the way it should be, at least most of the time.  But what about those saints whose lives call us to some other, higher, and perhaps even more strenuous and rigorous life?    Just as diet and exercise aren't always fun but are necessary elements of any physical health regimen, what about the not-fun parts of spiritual health?  Who are the spiritual fitness instructors we dislike (and/or fear) but whose requirements we recognize we need (somehow)  to follow?

old 80s pop songs direct foreign policy

OK, so everybody now knows that the NSA has spied on basically everybody.  Including Pope Francis.  (On that note, I' like more information.  Did the NSA target Cardinal Bergoglio [and other papabile] or were they just trolling around, fishing for whatever?)  The NSA/Edward Snowden scandal extends far beyond anything this blog would ever dare address.  That being said, the revelation that the surveillance included the Vatican...during a conclave electing the next pope ought to chill everybody's blood. If that's inside the lines of fair play, is anything outside?

At this point it's probably appropriate to blog--as much of the blogosphere already has--about the morality of too-big government, overreach, and humility.  Given some of the parameters within which I've conceived this blog, I should chip in a few cents, too.

However, I'd rather use humor.  When the NSA/Snowden news broke, surely I wasn't the only one to recall the glory days of 80s pop music, like this and this.    Catchy songs with choruses about Orwellian forces watching every move--who knew such pop tunes would become commentary on our 21st century national image?  I know there are others songs, and probably better ones, to add here but the situation seems to beg for some necessary (but still illuminating, hopefully) humor.

There's also a pop music/religion angle.  Currently the nation rages against its own government's intrusions (a government, remember, that we elected), but the Christian culture/secular culture nexus has generated some catchy reflections on secretive (and occasionally insensitive) power.  Some of this boils down to reflections on the Book of Job (a book I just covered with my own students, reminding them that Job isn't nearly as patient as we've been told or like to think).  For example, Seven Nations' Kirk McLeod sings in defiance of the very divine power his band's song captures.  Originally titled "God" the band sped up the tempo, made the guitar heavier (and thus made the bagpipes sound even better, imho), and renamed the song "Up to Me."   As in "it's not up to you, human."  Collective Soul's 2001 hit "Why Pt. 2" takes up that human side, plaintively recognizing the infinite qualitative difference between the divine and human realms.  The song's video subtly adds another layer, depicting the band playing amidst a wild Hollywood party.  As the shenanigans increase among the beautiful people, the police show up and shut it all down.  The band is left alone, being the last ones to leave the house.  The partyers' blithe ignorance of anything other than their own enjoyment contrasts the common-sense, hard-boiled cops who quickly and firmly shoo everybody out.  The scene recalls the cows of Bashan whom Amos warns a day is surely coming when the fun will end.  And as the song tells, it isn't the same.

Now,  the NSA scandal remains open, so who knows the ending there?  But there are signs, even amid pop culture and its still-detectable Christian understructure, that we shouldn't dance around blithely until the authorities show up.