Thursday, September 29, 2011

"That's How Baseball Go"

Thus spoke MLB's reigning sage Ron Washington.

Oftentimes I get asked by friends and family who live and die by football or hockey what I could possibly see in baseball. The classic complaint is aimed at its slow pace. Well, it's precisely because of the slow pace. Elizabeth Scalia of The Anchoress tells us why:
"Baseball is a game of inches. And hours. And in those moments between release and resolution are contained particles of infinity—the space between a prayer of supplication and the surrender of 'Amen'; the whisper of intention that brings what is empty and void into fullness. The hope for redemption.

We can relate to that just as we can identify with pitcher and batter; the individual confronting a full team of resistance with the humblest of weapons—a ball, a stick—speaks to our daily grinds, the resistance, the persistence, the victory of getting through a day; of correcting a flawed stance; of breaking a bad habit before it owns you.

A man screaming 'for the love of God' in the stands of Fenway Park made perfect and sympathetic sense to my son and me, because baseball may be a mere game, but it is one that relates to the continual process of the life of faith—a life of swings and misses, stupid errors, the clutch of despair, the release, the trust, the clockless innings of new chances that stretch out before us, endlessly, and so full of promise.

It breaks your heart, but it leaves you wanting more; it roars into spring, slips us through summer and delivers us, tired but still game, into autumn, and then we lie fallow—waiting in joyful hope."
Check out the full article over at First Things.

A football, hockey, or basketball game might be exciting, but it'll never make me care. Those other sports make for good entertainment, but only baseball is art. Players aren't mindless chess pieces being controlled more or less strategically by a puppeteer coach, but beloved characters in whose fate I have something of myself invested.

Wrigley Field lit by fans' flashlights
Baseball is art because, like art, baseball imitates life and the world around us. Every baseball game is a microcosmic recreation of the universe and the human experience of it. Two teams, home and away, good and evil, locked in battle. Where baseball is special, though, is that that battle is a slow, time-consuming, almost dreary affair. Like life, baseball is won in the details, in the things no one would ever think really mattered. Like life, 7 out of 10 times you step up to the plate, you're gonna fail. Like life, baseball is about prudence, perseverance, and above all fortitude.

This is true outside each individual game too. How many games are in a regular NFL season? 15? Baseball is day-in, day-out. We love baseball because when our players succeed in their microcosmic "life-play," it makes us believe we can succeed in real life, and it gives us the hope to keep trying, so that, one day, we might be counted worthy to say with St. Paul, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith," (2 Tim. 4:7).

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

An Artist's Rendition Of Lake-Town From The Hobbit

In case the lack of news of late has let you forget, here's something to keep you excited about The Hobbit:

Click the image for the full-sized version.

Zombies: The Post-Modern Horror

The above map illustrates the frequency with which the word "zombie" was entered into Google's search bar by geographical area. It is clear at first glance that only the developed world, and especially only the developed English-speaking world, seem concerned.

I have a theory that zombies are the quintessential Post-Modern horror. Gone are the days when vampires and werewolves scared the piss out of people, contemporary culture even finds them "sexy" now. Why?

Modernity, generally defined as that period that lasted from around 1517 through 1914 or so, is characterized chiefly by a breakdown of the Medieval Synthesis between Christianity and traditional philosophy. As such, in the Modern Era thought on every topic fractured into two opposing camps: realists vs. idealists, rationalism vs. fideism, rationalism vs. idealism, etc. This polarization of ideas manifested itself culturally as the cold, calculating Enlightenment on one side, and the mushy, nostalgic Romantic Movement on the other.

As a result of this fracturing, throughout the Modern Era we can pick up on two chief currents in what frightened people. Those of a more rationalistic bent were frightened by the prospect that they might be wrong about the operation of the supernatural in the world. The Puritans were famously willing to go to great lengths to rid their communities of suspected witchcraft. Likewise, Bram Stoker's Dracula seems to me to be the tale of a sorcerer first, and a "vampire" second. We can also include "mummy" horror here, as essentially a fear of magic.

On the other hand, those who reacted against the Enlightenment and embraced the opposing sentimentality of the Romantic Movement were frightened by the prospect that they might be wrong, and the world might just be a kind of Deistic experiment. Thus Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which told a story in which it was proved that the world is mere mechanism.

Historically, the Romantic Movement was a reaction against the Enlightenment. It sought, by a last ditch effort to appeal to our emotions, to restore some of what the Enlightenment had destroyed of the old culture. Interestingly, following this challenge of the Romantic Movement, the fears of the more rationalistic bent began to shift from witchcraft and the supernatural, to over-sentimentalitya reaction against a reaction.

In this category we find the later vampire mythology, in which they are presented as over-stimulated "romantics" with a metaphorical "lust for blood." Much the same can be said of werewolves, who are ruled by bestial passion.

Post-Modernity, though, is characterized chiefly by a denial of any meaning or purpose to anything. Where Modernity (in both Enlightenment and Romantic forms) sought to replace the traditional culture and philosophy with its own, Post-Modernity offers no contrary hypothesis, it simply denies that there is culture. To put it another way, Modernity sought to reform the truth, Post-Modernity seeks to abolish it outright.

Not surprisingly, Post-Modernity is accompanied by a whirlwind of technological innovation. In a world where actions have no moral repercussions, and men no responsibility, we might as well build the bomb, if only because we can.

The Post-Modern world is founded on technology. If the Middle Ages were founded on religion (albeit in cooperation with reason), and Modernity was founded on ideas, Post-Modernity is founded on stuff. In other words, when you throw religion, morality, and, finally, reason and truth itself out the window, all you've got left to do is seek your own comfort and pleasure. And that's exactly what we have done, and been marvelously successfulthe crowning achievement of this technological pleasure-seeking being the removal of the consequences of sex.

What, then, could possibly frighten Post-Modern Man, tucked away in his fortress of comfort (I think they call them Man-Caves now)? Simple, a world in which one has no time to seek pleasure because he's too busy fighting for his very survival. I can't be the only one who's noticed the really astounding frequency with which tales of a post-Apocalyptic, dystopian horror have been produced in the decades since the '70s, especially if you include disaster movies, which are basically the same thing.

Like the Moderns before us, we look at the things that terrify us and see ourselves gone wrong. Mary Shelley looked at Dr. Frankenstein and saw a man willing to do awful things as a result of his inability to see life and humanity as more than just machines and scientific principles. Bram Stoker looked at Dracula and saw a man that terrified him because of the incredible things he could do as a result of his sorcery. Post-Modern Man looks at zombies and sees creatures who care nothing for comfort or pleasure, who desire only to feed a ravenous and insatiable hunger and, as a result, are capable of destroying anything that stands in their way.

The map above illustrates this point rather well. If, at its core, the fear that zombies and other post-Apocalyptic tales inspire is based in our fear that we might have to give up our technological conveniences, then it would only affect the first world. After all, it's sad to say in a way, but if Mad Max came true, life in Central Africa wouldn't change that much. It doesn't make a lot of sense that they would be too worried about it.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Arcade Fire's "Intervention" As A Warning Against "Enthusiasm"

Just three albums in, Arcade Fire have taken their place at or near the top of quality music currently being produced. This monumental piece from their 2007 sophomore album Neon Bible still blows me away. Here's the direct link in case the embedded audio below doesn't work.

The king's taken back the throne.
The useless seed is sown.
When they say they're cuttin' off the phone,
I tell 'em you're not home.
No place to hide,
You're fightin' as a soldier on their side.
You stay a soldier in your mind,
But nothin's on the line.
You say it's money that we need,
As if we're only mouths to feed.
I know no matter what you say,
There's some debts you'll never pay.
Workin' for the church while your family dies.
You take what they give you and you keep it inside.
Every spark of friendship and love will die without a home.
Hear the soldier groan, "We'll go at it alone."
I can taste the fear.
Lift me up and take me outta here.
Don't wanna fight, don't wanna die,
Just wanna hear you cry.
"Who's gonna throw the very first stone?"
Oh! Who's gonna reset the bone?
Walkin' with your head in a sling,
Wanna hear the soldier sing:
"Workin' for the church while my family dies."
Your little baby sister's gonna lose her mind.
Every spark of friendship and love will die without a home.
Hear the soldier groan, "We'll go at it alone."
I can taste your fear.
It's gonna lift you up and take you out of here.
And the bone shall never heal,
I care not if you kneel.
We can't find you now,
But they're gonna get their money back somehow.
And when you finally disappear,
We'll just say you were never here.
Been workin' for the church while your life falls apart,
Singin' hallelujah with the fear in your heart.
Every spark of friendship and love will die without a home.
Hear the soldier groan, "We'll go at it alone."
Hear the soldier groan, "We'll go at it alone."
It's a bit of an intimidating task to attempt an analysis of this song. It's worrying to think there's no way one could ever do it justice. But that's the way with all works of art. How could you ever be worthy to try to plumb the depths of The Divine ComedyCrime and Punishment, or The Iliad? You can't.

Oftentimes in literary works of art a particular image or set of images will be dwelt upon or repeated so as to draw attention to it and delineate its centrality. In a piece of music the obvious place in which to accomplish something like this is the refrain, which is why a lot of the time the refrain will contain the song's core.

In "Intervention" the refrain changes a bit as it gets repeated. Nevertheless, the basic content remains the same: the entreaties of one family member to another, "working for the church while [his] family dies." This over-zealous dedication to religion leads to "every spark of friendship and love [dying] without a home." Then, "the soldier," put off by the inability of his friends and family to appreciate the divine mission that is harming both them and himself, groans "Fine. I don't need your approval."

I think the crux of the song lies in the fact that it is not religion itself, but a particular kind of religion which "the soldier" has espoused. It is a religion which revolves around "singin' hallelujah with the fear in your heart," in other words, a religion of emotion, one focused on one's own personal "experience" of God first, and "friendship and love" second. Ronald Knox calls it Enthusiasm.

This disordered religion leads the soldier to neglect his responsibilities in favor of fighting an imaginary holy war. His misguided perception of the world sees one so depraved, so totally lost, that "there's no place to hide." In reality, he's only "a soldier in [his] mind," for, as we shall see, this is not the real war, but one made up by men convinced all men and the entire world are inherently and completely evil.

The consequences get more and more dire as the song goes on. At first it's just that they're "cuttin' off the phone." The family needs money; both the speaker and the soldier know this. The soldier sees only a lack of money: "You say it's money that we need, / As if we're only mouths to feed." The truth is that the family's real lack is the soldier's refusal to contribute, to pay off his debt of responsibility to the family: "I know no matter what you say / There's some debts you'll never pay." If he would do that, there would be no money problem.

Eventually, the debtors and loan sharks come to collect. When they do, the family that the soldier himself abandoned will now abandon him. He refused to "fight" and "die" for them, why should they for him? Of course, the truth of the matter is they should fight on his behalf. Real love, real family asks for nothing in return. But when one member chooses his own interests over his family, even if they're religious, the pattern begins to repeat itself. Evil begets evil, and, in the end, they will relish in his pain just as much as the loan sharks: "Just wanna hear you cry."

The family, speaking to the soldier, are warning him of the things to come if he continues down this path. When it comes time to face up to his debts, he may quote Jesus self-righteously: "Who's gonna throw the very first stone?" But when they break his leg anyway, there won't be anybody to "reset the bone." His foolish faith certainly isn't going to help: "The bone shall never heal, / I care not if you kneel." We'll see how zealous you are when you're "walkin' with your head in a sling."

Real faith, real religion, real Christianity, is never at odds with one's responsibilities to one's family. The essence of our duty to God is our duty to others; it is through them that we serve the Lord; it is by loving them that we love him. Love, remember, is not an emotion, but an action, the service of others. So that when Scripture says "Love your neighbors as yourselves," it doesn't mean care about them, it means care for them.

Real Christianity happens in the home and on the street. This is why traditionally Christianity sent only consecrated religious into the mission field, those who had dedicated their entire lives to the Church and would not be leaving anything behind.

Religion is the duty we owe to our Creator, which is to be like him by loving and serving those around us. A religion which asks you to put God before your family is no religion at all, for it seeks not the welfare of "our neighbors," but only the inflation of our own self-righteous ego.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Christian Fatherhood

Little baby Beyer at 13 weeks, 1 day
I'm happy to be able to say that my wife and I are expecting our first child. It's a strange thing, being an expectant father--to know that one has produced a new life and, at the same time, to have that life remain hidden from view. That is to say, I know I have a child, but, not having met him/her, it's a very abstract and theoretical kind of knowledge.

Expectant mothers, on the other hand, begin being affected in very tangible ways very early on. It's kind of amazing how quickly and to what degree a new mother begins to be affected in every way possible. Of course, the new baby has affected me too, but only in a sort of indirect, "I'd be happy to run to the store at 4am to get you a cinnabon," kind of way. In other words, it seems like my role as an expectant father has little to do with the child, except in an indirect way, insofar as I am responsible for caring for its mother.

All of this makes me wonder whether there's something to the fact that motherhood seems to come along gradually, as the baby grows, growing and affecting its mother more and more over time, while fatherhood hits you all of a sudden in the delivery room.

In some ways, I think it's true that my wife has been a mother since we conceived, but I won't really be a father until the baby is born. This turns out to be more than just a feeling of mine, too. Apparently, when the baby is born, it will already recognize its mothers voice, but won't recognize mine over anyone else's for quite some time. I think this speaks to the fact that real fatherhood has to be earned.

"In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." This is the beginning of all faith, the foundation on which all religion lies. Everything that is receives its being, more or less directly, from the first cause of all things, God. This makes him our Lord. But Christ teaches us to call him "Abba, Father." Could we rightly do that if, in good Deist fashion, he had simply created a machine that would run its course while he observed from afar?

It is true that God is the Other, infinitely transcendent. Scripture tells us, "His greatness is unsearchable," (Ps. 145:3). Yet, because all being proceeds from him, everything that is bears his mark, as it were--participates, shares in his ultimate Being, otherwise it would not be. This is the sense in which God is "all in all," for "in him we live and move and have our being," (Acts 17:28). "In the words of Saint Augustine, God is 'higher than my highest and more inward that my innermost self.' With creation, God does not abandon his creatures to themselves. He not only gives them being and existence, but also, and at every moment, upholds and sustains them in being, enables them to act and brings them to their final end," (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 300-301).

The reality, then, looks something like this:

God creating ex nihilo and of his own free will, yet eternally, even though that Creation happens in time.

It is God's act of Creation which makes him our Lord and God. It his continual act of sustaining that Creation from within, that makes him our Father. Our God interacts with his children on a daily basis, sustaining us moment-by-moment, giving us everything we need to succeed. For that matter, giving us everything he is, in Christ, allowing his entire existence to revolve around his beloved children.

Human fatherhood, then, imitating the Divine Fatherhood, sticks around. True Fatherhood lasts a lifetime. It is a gift of self to one's wife and children, a gift of self without reservation, a gift "unto death, even death on a  cross," (Phil. 2:8). This gift is given, not primarily out of a sense of moral responsibility, though this is necessary, but out of love, a love which is action in the family and in the world, day in and day out.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Top 10 Reasons Picard Is Better Than Kirk

A friend made a good point when he said that the things which make Kirk awesome and the things which make Picard awesome, while completely different (and often opposed to one another) are equally valid. That being said, I thought the following list would be a good way to cap off this long series of Trek-related posts:

#10. He doesn't bang everything, thus avoiding space STD's.

#9. Picard solves crime mysteries in his spare time. Kirk couldn't if he tried.

#8. He's not a foolhardy idiot, never leaping into action and risking Red Shirts' lives in the process.
#7. He has a lovely singing voice and can play the flute damn well.

#6. He's got principles and stuff like that, leading him to give awesome impassioned speeches on morality:

#5. Size matters.

#4. (This one's from the wife.) He doesn't feel the need to take off his shirt willy nilly, but when he does... Wow. Kirk, not so much.

#3. You can rub his head for good luck.

#2. He got assimilated and freaking came back from it!

#1. He's British. 'Nuff said.

That's the last Star Trek post for a while. I promise.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

September Salon

For those in the Dallas-Fort Worth area:

The Great Society 2.0
by Devin Foley

Tonight at 7:30 at the Church of the Holy Cross in Dallas, the Walsingham Society of Christian Culture and Western Civilization presents a free lecture by Devin Foley of Intellectual Takeout on the topic of just economic theory.

The Star Trek Civil War That Should Have Been, Part Two

When we left off, every eye in the Federation is on the Federation Council chambers where Captain Picard has showed up and given his account of the events in Star Trek: Insurrection. This launches a Federation-wide debate about whether the ends justify the means, about whether the Federation's interests as a whole outweigh those of its constituents. (Sound familiar?)

Out of nowhere, in the midst of the debate, a border planet gets attacked by some no-name alien race, and, in light of the raucous stirred up by Captain Picard's report, the Federation can't get its shit together in time to respond adequately. A bunch of people die before a neighboring planet can gets its own (non-Federation) ships there in time and the planet's governing body get together and decide to send a communiqué to Starfleet Headquarters on Earth announcing their secession. Thanks but no thanks.

Theoretically, every planet in the Federation is sovereign, but would that really hold up if it came down to it? For that matter, the Federation doesn't seem that inclined to follow its own rules lately. Say this border planet was home to some vast cache of resources the Federation couldn't survive long without.

All of a sudden, the issues from Insurrection, those which everybody in the Federation has had just enough time to come down on either side of, are of vast importance. To many, the prospect of a life without the Federation would be nigh unimaginable. How would they possibly be able to defend themselves against the Romulans, the Dominion, or the Borg?

On the other hand, the Federation was founded on a set of principles which many would never betray, no matter what the advantages, nearly primary among these being the sovereignty of its member-planets, and their rights to live according to their own systems of belief and conscience.

The battle lines drawn, it gets interesting to think about what could happen on board the Enterprise. Would everybody back Picard? Suppose in the intervening period Riker had been granted his own command. This ended up happening at the beginning of Star Trek: Nemesis, the movie that actually got made. Riker had turned down his own ship a number of times throughout the series, believing he could make a bigger difference as second-in-command on the Federation's flagship than as captain of some research vessel. He turned out to be right, and finally Starfleet offered him command of the newly-commissioned and state-of-the-art USS Titan.

Probably, like Robert E. Lee, the Federation would try to win Captain Picard over by offering him the top spot, which he would immediately turn down and take up the position in the Secessionist camp, bringing the Enterprise with him. Undoubtedly, he would be kind enough to offer safe transport to all those aboard when the decision was made.

The question is, where would Riker fall? I think, most likely, he would side with the Secessionists. There is the fact that he's spent his entire career living in Picard's shadow, and might not want to continue to do so. Especially considering the Federation might consider givnig him the Fleet Admiralship if he asked for it. He was always a good guy, though, and never resented Picard. The question is, then, when would he pick a side?

My guess is he would waver between one choice and the next as long as he could, siding with the Federation early on. Probably, though, the Federation would want to launch a swift attack on the first planet to secede in an attempt to persuade others not to follow suit. Inevitably, they would react too strongly, though, throwing the planet's leaders in prison as war criminals at least, if not executing them. Riker would witness this and realize the Federation actually has gone off the deep end.

Counselor Troi would, of course, do whatever her husband did, but I bet her planet wouldn't. Worf would, and would himself captain the USS Defiant on Picard's wing. Geordi would, and Picard would surely give him his own command as well. Dr. Crusher would probably side with the Loyalists. If only because it's more interesting, and would give her character something to do, which is rare. The real question mark is Data. You always think you've got Data figured out, and then he surprises you. I'm not sure what Data would do.

Of course, the other cool thing is that this would all happen after Voyager made it back to Earth. My money would be on Janeway siding with the Federation. If not here, then definitely Chakotay, and certainly Tuvok. After all, "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one." The Doctor probably would too, but I'm not sure. Seven of Nine wouldn't. Neither would B'Elanna. I would bet neither Harry Kim nor Tom would either.

Then you've got to think about what the all the different aliens would do. The first thing to realize is that in the last episode of Voyager, Janeway destroyed one of the Borg's trans-warp hubs, making super-fast transport to the Alpha Quadrant impossible. That being said, even though they're probably a 10 year journey away, the Borg have a retaliatory armada on the way. Probably the Klingons would side with the Secessionists. Or maybe they would split themselves.

The Cardassians would side with whoever looked stronger, but they would probably only offer economic and moral support, coming out of a long war themselves. The Romulans would be smarter and wait out the war, seizing the opportunity after it was over to slaughter the weakened winner, though Picard would make every effort to persuade them to support his side. A big selling point would be that, like Tuvok, the Vulcans would all be Loyalists, so they'd probably help out some under the table.

It's fantastic, see? You get to slice up the universe and make them wage war on one another. You mix things up with Voyager crew on Riker's ship and the like. It's great. Plus, there's at least 2 movies there. If not a trilogy.

It's definitely too late to do it now. They should stick with J.J. Abram's awesome new Trek-verse. I'm just saying, the awfulness that is Nemesis didn't have to happen.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Star Trek Civil War That Should Have Been, Part One

As it came time for Star Trek: The Next Generation to end its run on television, it became clear that there was a market for a new Trek movie featuring the new cast. The writers got together and produced two feature-length scripts. One served as the series finale "All Good Things..." and the other became Star Trek: Generations, and featured Captain Kirk fairly heavily in a "pass the torch" kind of apperance:

Here the two Enterprise captains can be seen making breakfast together. No joke. That happened. But it was fine, I promise. At any rate, Generations was good. Not great, but solid. Kirk dies in it. That happens. Twice actually. Both scenes are fantastic. Top-notch stuff. Befitting Kirk's legacy.

So, Generations does pretty well at the Box Office, netting over $81 million, enough that Paramount wants to do another one. With the torch passed, the obvious choice for the next movie is to revisit Next Gen's most fearsome enemy, the Borg. There were some loose ends to tie up with the whole Picard being assimilated thing. Throw some time travel in there. Always a good combination. Long story short, Star Trek: First Contact is good. Second only to J.J. Abrams' Star Trek, I'd say, which isn't really even a fair comparison in a lot of ways. You should see it:

Told ya. After the success of Generations, the studio felt confident enough to give First Contact a bigger budget, and it paid off, netting over $100 million.

What next? Well, they decided to tone it down a bit for the next movie, opting for something much smaller in scale, much closer to something like an extended episode, and we got Star Trek: Insurrection. It's good. Better than Generations was. More importantly, however, it was called "Insurrection."

Almost unthinkably, Star Trek went completely against its heritage and had Starfleet officers go against the orders of their superiors and take a moral stand. Turns out that, not just some admiral, but the entire Federation council has decided to ignore the rights of a small group of people and re-locate them Trail of Tears-style so everybody in the Federation can have eternal youth. Picard and the rest of the crew don't stand for it and rise up against Starfleet.

So the people in question inhabit a planet in the middle of nowhere, so we don't get an all-out war or anything, and it's very, very disappointing. Consider the following speech by the movie's main villain (played by F. Murray Abraham):

Think about the situation that's been set up at the end of this movie: "The Federation is old." It's beginning to disobey its own rules and finds itself mired in endless bureaucracy. Its flagship captains are being forced to lead all out revolts against their superiors, and their crew are participating without even raising an eyebrow. To borrow an analogy from an episode entitled "The Chase," the Federation has become a corrupt and "bloated empire," overstepping its bounds at every turn, barely able to keep the barbarians from pushing past its legions and sacking the capital (as nearly happened in First Contact).

After Insurrection's mediocre box office performance, it was clear some "new life" needed to be injected into the franchise. Insurrection was about aging, the young rising up to replace the old, and putting the principles of nature before those of technological advancement, which is another way of saying putting justice before utility. This is the perfect set up to do what Marvel Comics did when their universe needed a shake-up: start a Civil War. All the building blocks are there:

An important and influential Captain willing to go rogue in defense of his principles; a loose confederation of (in this case) planets, who will be more than happy to split into factions should they feel their corporate government is too big and slow to protect them from threats, exterior and interior; a hot button issue to push everybody further into their own corners and lessen the likelihood of a compromise being made before somebody overreacts.

The stage is set. Next up: what should have come next.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Top Ten Creatures I Can't Buy A Good God Created, Part Three

Last post we discovered that we contributed to the downfall of Nature when we sinned in the Garden. We also realized that, because fangs and poison and death and other bad stuff seem to have been around before us, they must be due to some other evil influence on the world.

There can only be one answer to who that could be, seeing as, before us, there's only one other source of evil: the Devil and his fallen angels. But why should the Devil have anything to do with God's Creation?

In The Silmarillion, Tolkien recounts his creation myth, called the "Ainulindalë," meaning, "Music of the Ainur." The Ainur ("Holy Ones") are Middle Earth's angels, beings of pure spirit, issuing out of the mind of God before time itself. Together, they perceive God's plan for Creation, and begin to sing their respective parts in harmony with one another, which causes the universe, in all its splendor, to jump into being.

Granted this is a work of fiction, but what Tolkien has done is to synthesize two seemingly contradictory myths of creation, the classical and the Judeo-Christian. God is still the Creator of the universe, and exterior to it, as in Genesis, but his creative act is performed through others, each of which has a domain which they create in accordance with the will of God, and later rule on his behalf. In the end, then, there are Ainur of the sky, and sea, and craftsmanship, and so on, just as in the pagan pantheons.

All of this is to say that God's act of Creation needn't be direct in order for it to be his. It is entirely consonant with Christian theology and what we know from the Book of Genesis for God to have created via the angels, whom he has given charge over the disparate categories of Being.

C.S. Lewis picks up on this idea in his Space Trilogy, when he has different angels (he calls them "eldila") as the caretakers of the various planets in the Solar System. The hero discovers that the rest of the universe refers to Earth as "the silent planet" because Lucifer its caretaker, and when he rebelled against God, he cut us all off with him.

In Tolkien, this notion of the fallen angel occurs when Melkor decides to rebel against the will of God for Creation and begins singing his own, discordant tune, and thus bringing a level of disorder and chaos to the things being made. I think something similar happened at the beginning of time, the Devil doing his best to mess things up even as God and the angels were creating the universe. "Really?" Really:

Last time we saw pictures of messed-up mammals. Today we're obviously looking at birds, reptiles, and amphibians. Technically speaking, I would put birds in between mammals and reptiles, but since they're basically just slightly less terrifying, slightly more highly-evolved reptiles anyway, I decided to include them here.

More than just this list of horrible animals, we see in Genesis that things had already gone wrong long before Mankind showed up. "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." This verse is likely more of a title than a verse. Oftentimes Jewish literature begins with a short summary of the story it will tell in detail. The story really begins with Genesis 1:2: "The earth was without form and void, and darkness was on the face of the deep."

"Formlessness," "void," "darkness," does that sound like the work of God to you? It seems to me that Satan was there from the beginning, trying to corrupt everything as best he could. The story of history, then, turns out to have been a rescue mission from the beginning, God fighting a war with the Devil for Creation, in order that he might fashion a world fit for his Son to inhabit, and thus undergo the ultimate act of redemption on behalf of the fallen universe.

UPDATE: Part Four to be found here.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Heaven's Light: The Supernatural in Disney's Tangled, The End

Tangled ends with the unlikely hero Flynn dying on the floor, stabbed by the evil, sorceress step-mother in order that she may keep Rapunzel's regenerative powers from doing any one any good but herself. Rapunzel cuts a deal with her step-mother: she will submit to slavery if only she is allowed to heal her knight-in-shining-armor, which she proceeds to do despite Flynn's protest. In the end, Flynn sacrifices himself on behalf of Rapunzel's freedom, cutting all her hair short and robbing it of its healing magic. Rapunzel cradles her dead Beloved in her arms and sheds a tear:

Flynn knew that in order for his beloved to "have life, and have it abundantly" (Jn 10:10), he needed to give up his own. Yet, surprisingly, after he does so, at that moment when it seems all hope is lost, Rapunzel's tear falls on his cheek. Turns out they too carry the "light of the Sun" and Flynn is healed.

September 14th is the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. This is followed immediately by September 15th's feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. When the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph went to the Temple, as was the custom, to present the child Jesus to Simeon the High Priest, he prophesied Jesus' death on the Cross. In the same breath he said to Mary, "A sword will pierce through your own soul also," (Lk 2:35).

There is a parallel being drawn here between Christ's sufferings on the Cross and Mary's at his feet. As Christ's "soul" was pierced by Longinus' spear, so his Mother's soul would be pierced in sorrow as she stood at her dying son's feet. Of course a mother would grieve for her son dying in horrible pain, but does this passage point to something else as well?

Recently we took a look at rood screens and their place in traditional ecclesial architecture. What we didn't talk about is why they're called rood screens. Atop a great many of these screens or beams stands the Rood, Old English for cross. Inevitably, under the cross on either side stand Our Lady and John, the Beloved Disciple:

It is significant that it is John specifically, continually referred to as "the disciple whom Jesus loves" that stands at the foot of the Cross with Our Lady and his Mother. Of course, God loves all his children, but, as Jesus himself said, "Not every one who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of my Father," (Mt. 7:21). But what is the will of the Father? St. Paul tells us that "we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him," (Rom. 8:16-17).

In other words, our salvation is dependent on our suffering like Christ: humbly, lovingly, and on behalf of others. St. Peter tells us that "one is approved if, mindful of God, he endures pain while suffering unjustly," (1 Pet. 2:19). Like John, if we are to be faithful and "beloved" servants of Christ, we must stand with him in his agony. We must live a life of humility and suffering as he did.

Amazingly, though, according to Paul, our suffering can do even more good than just getting ourselves into heaven: "I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, the church," (Col. 1:24).

Wait a second. Did he just say what I think he said? How can it be that "Christ's afflictions" on our behalf "lack" anything? Of course, strictly speaking, they don't. Christ's sacrifice was all-sufficient. What, then, could St. Paul mean?

What is lacking in Christ's afflictions is the application of his grace to the individual. Christ's death on the Cross redeemed the world, it didn't save it. In other words, Christ did everything necessary for it to be possible for us to be reunited with God, but it is up to us whether we will take advantage of the redemption he offers or not. St. Paul is telling us how to do that: be like Christ, humbly submit ourselves to the pain the world has to dole out, unite our sufferings to his, and so become true Christians, or "little Christs."

In this way, we participate in Christ's redemption of the world. Not adding anything, for one cannot add to something infinite. One can, however, cooperate with it. The love and suffering of the Church makes Christ's sacrifice effective in the world, just as Rapunzel's sadness brought about the happiness Flynn's sacrifice had made possible.

If, by our suffering, we can cooperate with Christ in the salvation of the world, surely the Blessed Mother, forced to witness the brutal death of her sinless, divine Son, should be the preeminent cooperator. This is what Simeon prophesied, and why Catholics name her Coredemptrix.

Why should Rapunzel's tears make her Beloved well again? Why should suffering heal? How is it that our suffering and, primarily, that of our Blessed Mother can work good in the world? Because it makes us like Christ. When we suffer willingly and in a good spirit, not seeking it out, but accepting it when it comes (and it will come), we hang ourselves on the Cross with Christ, which is exactly what he told us to do: "Take up your Cross and follow me," (Mk. 8:34). Thanks be to God, "as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too," (2 Cor. 1:5).

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Temperaments And Personality Types, Part Three - Christianity

Given the fact that Galen actually comes after Irenaeus, speaking strictly chronologically, I should have included the following Christian thought in the Classical post. However, seeing as the advent of Christianity is in itself the advent of the Medieval Age (i.e., of the Medieval Synthesis of Classical and Christian thought), it seemed most appropriately included in the previous post, but it ended up running long, so here we are.

Writing about the year 180, St. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons says the following concerning the canon of Scripture:
"It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the 'pillar and ground' (1 Tim. 3:15) of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh," (Adversus Haereses III.11.8).
The number four has carried symbolic meaning throughout Western history (as all numbers do). Dino Marcantonio did a fantastic article outlining the significance of the number four and the quincunx in art and architecture. In the chapter entitled "The Numbers Game" in Why Do Catholics Do That?, Dr. Kevin Johnson says this of the number four:
"[The number 4] carries the connotation of...stability.... There are four seasons to a year and, in classical thought, four elements that make up the material universe (fire, water, earth, and air). Four evangelists told the whole story of Christ and everything we need for salvation. The Church divides Advent into four weeks, marked with four candles, because with the coming of Christ the cycle of times is brought to completeness. Sometimes the halo shown on Christ's head contains a four-armed cross, but that's not a reference to the Passion. It means that Christ, uniquely, is a complete being, God as well as a man," (262).
There is a symbolic dimension to the fact that the foundational symbol of our faith is the four-armed cross. In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton compares the fundamental image of Christianity to that of Buddhism, the circle:
"Buddhism is centripetal, but Christianity is centrifugal: it breaks out. For the circle is perfect and infinite in its nature; but it is fixed for ever in its size; it can never be larger or smaller. But the cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms for ever without altering its shape. Because it has a paradox in its centre it can grow without changing. The circle returns upon itself and is bound. The cross opens its arms to the four winds; it is a signpost for free travellers," (50).
A horizontal line (or horizontality itself) refers to the horizon, to the boundary between heaven and earth that humanity can never cross. A vertical line (verticality itself) is symbolic of the path the Sun traces across the Sky, and the direction of the heavenly in general. The Cross is, then, the intersection of the earthly and the heavenly, the union of God and Man in Christ, who, by virtue of his action on the Cross, brings that union to us all. This is why traditionally-designed church buildings always feature two elements most prominently: a long, horizontal path that represents Man's journey to union with God, and lofty heights that represent the descent of God to Man. At "the crossing" the vertical dimension opens out onto a horizontal one, and the two intersect visually at the altar, the tabernacle of the "God with us," which (even from the sky) radiates out in the four cardinal directions, encompassing all there is.

Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, where the blue line represents the architectural horizon, the
farthest point Man can reach in his long journey to God (the green line), except that God, in his
mercy, has deigned himself to descend to Man in Man's own flesh via the Cross (the red line).

Irenaeus goes on to correlate masterfully the four Gospels with the four Living Creatures of Ezekiel 1 and Revelation 4 as well as to four chief characteristics of Christ himself. The Gospel according to Matthew corresponds to the Man, because it emphasizes Christ's humanity, especially by beginning with his genealogy; Mark corresponds to the Lion, because it emphasizes Christ's divine kingship; Luke corresponds to the Bull, because in it Christ is presented as the servant and the sacrificial offering on behalf of sin; and John corresponds to the Eagle, because its clarity of vision pierces the highest things.

Though not explicit in Irenaeus, these groups of four can be correlated to the four temperaments quite easily. If we compare them in terms of Plato's societal roles, his Guardians are like the Bulls of the community, solemnly bearing the burden for the greater good; Plato's Artisans are the courageous and outgoing (Sanguine) Lions; Plato's Idealists are the passionately ethical, harmony-oriented Men; and Plato's Rationals are the intellectual, head-in-the-clouds Eagles.

Interestingly, though Irenaeus himself doesn't draw the connection between Plato's temperaments and the Four Evangelists, he does adopt Plato's system, giving the four temperaments his own labels, which are more behaviorally and less role-oriented: Artisans he calls "spontaneous;" Guardians, "historical;" Idealists, "spiritual;" and Rationals, "scholarly."

So, we have a few new things to add to our chart:

Stay tuned for the next post in this series which will look at how Modernity dealt with the question of temperament.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Of Rood Screens

The chancel screen at Westminster Abbey. It might say
something about the state of the Church of England that
they erect a temporary altar here and cut the church in half
so it doesn't seem so cavernous when no one shows up.
In a great many churches there is a screen, or at least a beam, dividing the nave (where the people do their thing) from the chancel (where the ministers do their thing). A lot of the time this screen is all the average parishioner would be able to see. At King's College Cambridge the rood screen is actually a wall 6 feet thick. You may have noticed at the Royal Wedding that the screen at Westminster Abbey is so thick one passes under it via tunnel and the orchestra camp out on top. It even has a gate in it.

There is something to be said for this separation of the average Joe from the most sacred action being performed up front. Wait a second, you might say, isn't it important for all of us to see what's going on and be a part of it? Isn't Church all about coming together and being a community? Doesn't "liturgy" mean "work of the people"? Yes, but that is exactly what it means: work of the people, not you, or me, or anybody else considered singly. Worship is the eternal work of God's People, the Church Universal, enacted here and now by her ministers, not us.

We laypersons play a part in this action of worship, but in a very different way. We are participants insofar as we are members of the Universal Church, and it is the action of the Church which is being undertaken. In other words, our participation in the worship of the Church doesn't depend on us doing anything; it depends on us being something: namely, a baptized Christian. The sacred ministers, on the other hand, (those in Holy Orders) are they that actually perform the work, if only on behalf of all of us (the Church on earth and in heaven). Nevertheless, it is only they which can do so, never us, for they are the only ones who, by virtue of their Ordinations, have been given the ability to stand on behalf of the Church Universal. I can only act as an individual.

This is why the Sacrament of Holy Orders has the name it does. Because by bestowing on individual men the ability to act on behalf of the whole Church, it creates order out of chaos. And that is how St. Paul tells us we must worship: "decently and in order," (1 Cor. 14:40).

Thursday, September 15, 2011

What's In A Name?

You may have noticed I'm a pretty big fan of C.S. Lewis. It's because like few others in history, Lewis was able to take sometimes complex and distant philosophical and theological principles and demonstrate them in the simplest, most accessible ways. This is one of the goals of this blog.

If the traditional, capital "P", Philosophy of Western Civilization (that of Aristotle, Boethius, Aquinas, and the rest) is right, while its ideas may be abstract, lofty, and hard to understand, those very principles undergird and inform all of existence, and are thus evidenced in everything around us all the time. In this way, Aristotle says, though it may be hard to come to an understanding of these first, most fundamental principles, once understood, they seem self-evident.

The name "PopSophia" is meant to reference two things. First, if there can be "pop psychology," then certainly there can be "pop philosophy." In other words, the content of this blog isn't meant to be particularly elevated or scholarly. It's meant to be accessible, because that is where philosophy is most compelling and really matters, on the ground, not in ivory towers.

Second, as intimated in the banner, the blog aims to showcase the wisdom that appears in pop culture. Rather than dealing in abstracts, we look at philosophical principles as they occur in the real world. Contemporary literature, film, music, and television can't help but take positions on important issues of truth and nature. This blog is here to facilitate discussion of these issues.

As always, it is you, the readers, who will make or break this blog in the end, by choosing to contribute to that discussion or not. As stated in the inaugural post, this blog is meant to be a community, a forum for ideas. In order to fulfill that mission, someone other than myself must participate. PopSophia isn't meant to be a lecture, but a conversation. Please join in. It is my sincere hope that you have found and will continue to find the odd post mildly interesting. Let the rest of us know. Feedback, good or bad, is always welcome.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Temperaments And Personality Types, Part Two - Medieval Times

When we left off in Part One, Aristotle had just defined our four temperaments in terms of what makes them happy. Subsequently, Humorism and its corresponding Personology was quietly incorporated into the corpus of Western thought. To again quote David Keirsey's account in Please Understand Me II:
"We see Geoffrey Chaucer (in 1380) describing a Doctor of Physic as knowing 'the cause of every malady, And where they were from, and of what humour.' [...] Shakespeare points out dozens of times what he called the 'spirit of humours' in his enormous gallery of characters: a soldier's sanguine appetite or a Countess's sorrowful melancholy a lover's impassioned choler or a physician's phlegmatic detachment. Moreover, Shakespeare's contemporary Ben Jonson developed a whole style of play he called the 'Comedy of Humors,' creating his characters according to a formula he articulated in 1599: 'Some one peculiar quality Doth so possess a man, that it doth draw All his affects, his spirits, and his powers In their confluctions, all to run one way,'" (23-24).
The work of Hippocrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Galen persisted throughout the Middle Ages without any substantive contributions until we come to the Renaissance physician Paracelsus:
"[Paracelsus] proposed four totem spirits which symbolized four personality styles, and which ran parallel to the temperament types of Galen and the character types of Plato. Paracelsus characterized human beings as 'Salamanders,' impulsive and changeable; as 'Gnomes,' industrious and guarded; as 'Nymphs,' inspired and passionate; and as 'Sylphs,' curious and calm," (24).
Paracelsus was kind of a strange fellow, happily intermixing traditonal science and philosophy with the occult and alchemy. But that wasn't really uncommon in those days, as we know from the most famous Renaissance Man, Leonardo da Vinci. Nevertheless, his contribution to the topic at hand is not without merit, adding one more level of clarity to our understanding of the four temperaments. Nodding to Aristotle's "sources of happiness," Paracelsus calls his Sylphs "curious," indicating that they seek knowledge and rational understanding. Likewise he refers to his Gnomes as "industrious," in that they seek material goods. He refers to Plato's intuitive Idealists when he calls his Nymphs "inspired."

Interestingly, though, his Salamanders, which correspond to Plato's Artisans, he calls "changeable," rather than "sensitive" or something of that sort. But isn't that what it means to be sensitive? To allow oneself to conform to the world around oneself? That's part of what makes an artist an artist. He is better able to receive impressions from things in the world, seeing them more clearly and deeply, and thus able to recreate them more completely and beautifully. Likewise, by choosing Slyphs (which are similar to Angels) to represent Rationals, more than referring to their rationalistic and logical tendencies, he has indicated that they are more spiritual and abstract, more "head in the clouds" in general, than other types.

While not explicit in Keirsey's works, a correlation can also be seen in the four Feudal Castes. Plato's Guardians becoming the Peasant/Soldier class, Artisans becoming the Merchant/Craftsman class, Idealists corresponding to the Clergy, and Rationals to the Nobility, seeing as they were the only ones with access to education and the ones Plato wanted to run the kingdom. Maybe the Medieval World would have fared better in the long run had its leaders actually been intelligent philosopher-kings. Of course, these castes likewise correspond to the four French suits of cards that originated in the Middle Ages and the numbers 1 through 4.

Even more interestingly, though not traditional as far as the West is concerned, the Middle Ages in India saw the rise of the Bhakti movement, which emphasized a personal and loving God and required our reciprocal devotion and service. The Bhakti movement distinguished four "yogas," or paths of salvation, that one can follow in order to devote oneself rightly to God, and which correspond well with the four temperaments we've been outlining.

Combine everything we've looked at so far and we can put together a new chart:

Next up: What Christianity has to say on the topic.

UPDATE: Great Commentary On Papal Infallibility

À la the last post's dealings with the Catholic doctrine of Papal Infallibility, I highly recommend The Sacred Page's running treatment of the subject:

Head on over and check it out. It's simple, thoughtful, and concise.

UPDATE: Part 2a and Part 3 have been added recently.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Starship Enterprise

We've touched on this issue before, but it seems to me the clearest, most obvious way in which a particular incarnation of Star Trek demonstrates its character is via its ship (or lack thereof).

Kirk's Enterprise meant business:

It was light, fast, and just looked like it packed a punch. I think it's that sort of industrial quality, much like a navy vessel. An even better comparison might be a submarine, which, after all, is what Trek starships are at heart. This ship was suited perfectly to The Original Series. You get the sense that Starfleet is really just a fledgling organization trying to establish a foothold in the galaxy, yet one with determination and firepower. Things aren't perfect yet, but they have potential, if only Kirk and other adventurers like him can build Starfleet into a real force for change.

The ship underwent a major refit for The Motion Picture which built on the principles established by its predecessor:

The Enterprise got slightly bigger, all the elements thickening up a bit to make it look a little sturdier. It looks tougher and more impressive. By this time Starfleet has carved out a niche for itself. It is expanding by leaps and bounds, and other races like the Klingons are being forced to realize they must take the Federation seriously.

Follow this line of development for 70 years or so and you end up with Picard's Enterprise-D:

Picard commands his Enterprise at the height of the Federation's power and technology. It is massive, over 2000ft. long and incorporates the best Starfleet has to offer at every turn. It's like a luxury liner compared to Kirk's Enterprise and even has massive quarters where crewmen can house their families. It can still move and kick butt, though. In fact, to a much, much greater degree than Kirk's ever could, but it's not meant to. It's meant to inspire awe as it patrols the provinces.

Compare the development of the U.S. Navy submarine from the 40s 'til today:

Then - An emerging political power.
Now - A bloated economic empire.
The second Next Gen movie Star Trek: First Contact unveiled the Enterprise-E:

One of the first ships to be developed after the introduction of the Borg threat, the E looks like it's ready for war. Bigger even than the D, it's long, lean, and mean. Everything got stretched out so that it looks like it's moving fast standing still. The engines just keep on going. Like before with the original Enterprise refit, everything has been tightened up and brought in closer to make it seem stronger. I’m just saying. It looks like it might just flip its shit and totally tear you a new one at any moment.

Let's compare the two bridges:

The Enterprise-D bridge is plush and arty. It's designed for negotiating and research and other B.S. The Enterprise-E bridge on the other hand... designed for battle.

Next up: the Trek Civil War that should have been.

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