Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Raising Up Of The Low

Always in comedic works of literature we encounter a particular phenomenon. It's that which occurs to Trygaeus, the protagonist of Aristophanes' play Peace. The play opens with Greece plunged into the midst of war and all its suffering. You may remember from an earlier post that the Epic genre followed three stages of plot development. The same is true of Comedy, though in Comedy, rather than the stages being lived through as the hero's Battle, Journey, and Homecoming, in Comedy, these same ideas and qualities are lived through by the representation of the story's world as one which is Infernal, Purgatorial, and Paradisal. War is nothing if not hellish.

As the play begins, Trygaeus turns the world into a Purgatorial one by hatching a plan to end the war and return peace to Greece. The farmer has two of his servants mash dung into cakes and feed them to a beetle, the beetle he feeds til it is large enough to carry a man and rides to heaven to plead his case to the gods.

The goddess Peace (the incarnation of the principle) has been locked away by War. Much of the rest of the play consists of Trygaeus stirring up his fellow Greeks to pull away the giant stones with which War has plugged Peace's cell. It is hard work, and takes the full effort of everyone. This is the truth of peace, joy, and paradise. It can only be had by the consistent and loving work of everyone involved. We must cooperate in God's good work, we must become like him in loving action if ever we are to enjoy his bliss and, more than that, infect the world with it.

Of course, Trygaeus and the Greeks are successful, releasing not only Peace but her companions Festival and Harvest as well, (comedy, like God, always gives more than expected, more than deserved) who then set off for Athens with Trygaeus. The play ends, as all Comedies do, with a wedding, here that between the farmer Trygaeus and Harvest. Obviously, this is an analogy for the time of peace bringing a good harvest to the farmers, and, as a result, a cause for celebration.

Finally, after a council, a festival of sacrifice to Peace on the advice of the words of the poet Homer, the farmer and his Harvest are wedded, at the end of which Trygaeus invites the people of Athens to celebrate with he and his new bride, saying, "Follow me, sirs, if ye will, / And of bridecakes eat your fill." The grace of the comedic world has converted the dung cakes from the beginning of the play into bridecakes; i.e., a marriage feast, that which Revelation speaks of as "the marriage supper of the Lamb," (Rev. 19:9).

It is through dung, the most humble, prosaic, and down-to-earth thing one could think of, that Trygaeus gains entry into Heaven. It is always through the lower that the higher comes to us. It is through matter that we have form, through bodies that we have souls. It is through the action of God humbling himself that we are redeemed: "Though he was in the form of God, [Christ] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross," (Phil. 2:6-8). It is through such commonplace things as water, oil, bread and wine that the grace of this redemption is transmitted to us through the Church.

As I've said before, the heroes of our faith are those who never receive any glory, any praise for their good deeds. They are the ones who do the little things day in and day out for the good, the true, and the beautiful and never complain. The families who eat bologna sandwiches one night a week so they can give some money to the poor. The mothers who somehow manage to raise seven children almost singlehandedly and still make three meals a day. The fathers who work ten hour days and come home to six more of crying kids and chores.

It is humility which puts us close to God. We cannot build a ladder to heaven, nor can be build a tower (cf. Gen. 11). We cannot conquer heaven with our devices or our cunning. "Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt you," (1 Pet. 5:6). As Christ himself said, in his kingdom, "the last will be first, the first last," (Matt. 20:16).

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Servi Servorum Dei - Servants Of The Servants Of God

In a recent article over at the Catholic Herald, the Holy Father is quoted as saying that his generation did not evangelize enough:
"We, who have been able to know [Christ] since our youth, may we ask forgiveness because we bring so little of the light of his face to people; so little certainty comes from us that he exists, he's present and he is the greatness that everyone is waiting for."
But what does it mean to "evangelize"? What does it mean to "bring...the light of [Christ's] face to people"?

Dr. Peter Kreeft once compared Blessed John Paul II to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings. It's almost too easy to remember the days when the Holy Father was quite literally bent over, bearing the weight of the world around his neck. If John Paul was Frodo, Dr. Kreeft said, then Benedict is Samwise, his loyal and lowly companion in the background, who was, in fact, always shoring up his dear friend and bearing the weight himself, silently.

This is the legacy these two Pontiffs, surely two of the greatest the Church has yet seen, will leave behind them: Love as hard work, suffering; The presence of God lived out in a day-to-day life of penance and service; Worship as self-sacrifice in adoration of others and God; "The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit: a broken a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise," (Psalm 51:17).

This is the essence of the "New Evangelization," the lesson Blessed John Paul and Benedict teach us with their words, yes, but above all with their very lives and selves. One does not argue or lure people into the Church, one loves them into it, by being present to the world and those in it, living the life of Christ, day in and day out, and thereby becoming a conduit of grace and love.

Monday, August 29, 2011

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

Here's the deal... Notwithstanding the heartfelt claims of many a wrongheaded scientist or misguided animal lover, there are many creatures which, just... Well, they're not pretty. For example:

the naked mole rat,

the aye-aye,

and the elephant seal bull.

This just can't be what things are supposed to look like. Bottom line, beauty isn't in the eye of the beholder. That is to say, while it is true that we receive our standards of beauty from cultural and environmental conditioning, these standards themselves are not arbitrary. Here's why:

All things that exist receive their existence from something else. We received existence from our parents, they from their parents, and so on. Keep going and it all gets traced back to the Big Bang (if you believe in the Big Bang, which I do). But the Big Bang had to be caused by something. Basically, you can't keep going on forever. Eventually there has to be a First Cause that is itself un-caused by anything else, an Unmoved Mover, from which every other thing that exists received (and is currently receiving) its existence. This we call God, (cf. Acts 17:28).

Okay. So everything that exists comes ultimately from God. What about evil? If evil exists, then it must come from God too. Thankfully, it doesn't. Evil is the lack of good. You see, "the Good" is what is desirable. But God is the ultimate cause of everything that is desirable. As a result, he must be the ultimate definition of all those desirable qualities. In other words, God is not only the best thing, he is Goodness itself, in all its forms. "None is good but God alone," (Luke 18:19). All other beings are only good insofar as they participate and share in his supreme goodness.

One of the forms of goodness is beauty, for we all desire beauty. There is, then, an ultimate standard of beauty, Beauty himself, against which all other beautiful things must be judged. Ugliness is the lack of beauty, and boy is there plenty of that to go around. How, then, do you end up with animals like those above that were supposedly created by the supremely good and beautiful God? You don't. God didn't create them.

Look forward to the rest of this series in which we shall journey through the most disgustingly horrifying animals Nature has to offer and discuss a possible explanation for how they could have gotten here.

UPDATE: Part Two to be found here.

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.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Why Natural Family Planning Isn't Contraception

There are those who would suggest that Natural Family Planning (NFP) is really just Catholic contraception. A loophole by which the Popes can avoid the ridiculous number of babies without having to embarrass themselves and admit they were wrong.

Yes, that is the Pope in a Santa hat.
One of the most common points of misunderstanding when it comes to Catholic doctrine is that of Papal Infallibility. Contrary to popular belief Papal Infallibility does not mean that whatever the Pope says might as well issue from the mouth of God. In fact, the Pope is only infallible when he solemnly proclaims something which the Church has always believed to be true. That is to say, it is primarily the Church (as present in Scripture and Tradition) which is infallible, the Pope is only infallible insofar as he operates as the Church's spokesman, which he is empowered to do by virtue of his office. In other words, the Church has always believed and taught that contraception is objectively evil. The Pope can no more overturn this teaching than he could proclaim that Jesus is no longer the Second Person of the Trinity.

Why, then, does NFP not qualify as contraception? After all, used correctly, it's just as effective in preventing pregnancy as the pill (99%) and more effective than condoms. In order to answer this question it will be necessary to examine the Church's rationale for outlawing contraception in the first place.

Holy Matrimony, the sacramental union of a man and woman with one another, is one of the most sacred institutions there is. Scripture itself teaches us that this is so because Christian Marriage symbolizes "the union that is betwixt Christ and his Church," to quote the English Prayer Book. Like the union of Christ with his Church, the marital union is always in effect. There are, however, regular occasions of special solemnity at which the union is consummated in a special way. For the Church it is the Holy Eucharist, which the Book of Revelation refers to as the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:9). It is at the Eucharist that Christ and the Church come together in love. This is one of the reasons why in many churches there is a canopy over the altar:

The baldacchino at Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.
It is the canopy over the marriage bed upon which Christ and his Beloved consummate their union.

Contraception hinders the completeness of the union between husband and wife. Certain types of contraception put up a physical barrier between their union. Others put up a chemical barrier. When contraception is used, it is as if the husband and wife are saying to one another, "I love you. I want to be one with you, just, not completely. I'm gonna hold this piece of myself back from you, because it's inconvenient."

The loving union between husband and wife is meant to result in a new life (cf. Gen. 1:22). If you think about it, this makes all the sense in the world. It is the union of Christ with his Church that brings new life to the world, for that is what grace is, new life: "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation," (2 Cor. 5:17). Due to the natural cycles of fertility and infertility the marital embrace will not always result in conception. This is really beside the point. The Church doesn't say that marriage should only be consummated with the express intent to conceive. It does say that the couple must be open to life, which is to say, marriage shouldn't be done halfway. You've gotta mean it.

The substantive difference between NFP and contraception is NFP doesn't throw up a barrier between husband and wife. While capitalizing on the natural cycles of fertility and infertility in order to run the family responsibly, it still allows for the complete union, body and soul, of man and woman to be enacted.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Star Trek: Voyager, Reinventing The Wheel

Looking to capitalize on the resounding success of Star Trek: The Next Generation, in the middle of that show’s fifth season, Paramount asked the producers to begin work on a second series to run simultaneously—what was to become Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. As different from Next Gen as it was, the two did well running side-by-side. The experiment having paid off, when in 1993 Next Gen was due to go off the air, Paramount decided to begin production of a fourth series to replace it. Soon after the writers began to weave elements of the Voyager background story into both Next Gen and DS9.

It was important that the creators of this new Trek series set it on a ship again. Many fans had complained that DS9 betrayed the spirit of The Original Series by being set on an immobile space station. After all, Trek has always been about jumping from planet to planet once a week, exploring the unknown. Of course, even if the new series was set on a ship again, it still wasn't really possible to return to this older model. Next Generation and Deep Space Nine had so thoroughly explored the goings on in the Federation (down to Episode I-esque trade disputes, etc. in DS9) that you couldn't really do a plain old Federation ship and it be anything but more of the same. It's that "Roman centurion patrolling the provinces" feeling we've talked about before.

So, what do you do? You throw a Federation ship on its maiden voyage half way across the galaxy into completely unknown territory. Suddenly it's a lot like The Original Series (or early TNG) again, though drawing on the best of Next Gen and DS9 as well. There was a lot about Voyager that was original, though. Captain Janeway, for instance, was a completely different kind of captain than we had seen before. Besides being a woman, where Kirk had been a warrior, and Picard a scholar, Janeway is a scientist. As a result, she takes a far more active role in the day-to-day operations on the ship. When she gives an order, she doesn't sit by like she's royalty and wait for everybody else to do it, she gets down and dirty too. Over time this makes her less like a military or political leader and more like a mother. I'm not saying this is better or worse than the way Kirk or Picard captained their vessels, but it ends up working.

Having been thrown halfway across the galaxy, you'd think the writers would be able to come up with some cool villains we've never seen before for Voyager to take on. Some of the new alien species turned out to be pretty awesome actually. Like the Hirogen, the nomadic hunter species, and the Vidians, who suffer from a horrifyingly debilitating disease and have resorted to stealing the body parts of those they capture to survive. For every really inventive alien like those, though, there's a Kazon to balance it out. The Kazon were the first Delta Quadrant species Voyager encountered, and they were pretty much just a rehash of TOS-era Klingons. It's just laziness, really.

Also, the show was super 90s. There were far too many characters included just to be 90s about it. "Ooh, let's have a woman captain. Ooh, let's have a black Vulcan. Ooh, let's have a female Klingon. Ooh, let's have an Indian on board." Excuse me, Native American. Lord, they played that card waaay too many times. You start to get really sick of vision quests about halfway through Season 2. That's not to say these characters didn't grow and mature into actual people as the show progressed, but early on, they're just hollow shells of affirmative action.

Something that really bugs me about Voyager was how much time travel there was. In Next Gen time travel episodes were really rare. You got really excited when they came around because you knew this was gonna be a cool one. They're like a dime a dozen in Voyager, and familiarity breeds contempt. (Same thing with Vulcan mind melds, by the way.)

One of the things Voyager did really well was to incorporate a lot of the serialization aspects from Deep Space Nine while still remaining a largely episodic show, which is at the heart of Trek. What you end up with is more overarching character development from episode to episode than Next Gen could achieve, but without being so obvious about it like DS9 was. From what I understand that was pretty much a soap opera sometimes.

Later in the series, rather than actually carrying over plot points from episode to episode, a couple of times something that was seemingly resolved in an earlier episode (sometimes even seasons previously) comes back to bite the crew of Voyager. The best example of this is an episode entitled “Course: Oblivion.” Early in the episode the crew is gathered in Engineering to inaugurate the new slipstream drive they have developed. Soon they begin to notice that the new engine is causing the crew to come down with some awful side effects. Basically, it’s making them dissolve. Over the course of the episode, they realize that they are not, in fact, the real Voyager crew at all. They are the duplicate crew that was created in an earlier episode entitled “Demon.” It seems they built themselves a duplicate Voyager and somehow forgot who they really were. In the end, they cannot stop the process and dissolve completely before help can arrive—help from the real Voyager, who never discovers that they exist. Which is also a bummer because they could have used that slipstream technology the fake crew developed.

Another good example is “Flesh and Blood,” which revisits what happened when Janeway gave the Hirogen holographic technology so that they could hunt simulated prey. Didn’t turn out so well. There are lots of these sort of “tie-in” episodes. I like them because they aren’t straight serializations (so it doesn’t turn into a soap opera like DS9 or Lost), but they lend the show a certain cohesiveness across seasons—they show that the actions of the Voyager crew have consequences. A lot of times in Next Gen, the Enterprise left orbit and whatever huge problem they had to solve was never mentioned again, which doesn’t seem realistic.

Voyager was a series that started out as a poorly-executed show with fantastic potential. Over time, much of this potential began to be realized. I have a theory that Voyager's quality is directly related to Captain Janeway's hair style. Over the course of the show it went from this...

...where they're obviously trying to make her look mannish so we'll buy her as captain, to this...

...where they've finally realized that it's her very femininity which makes her successful, albeit in a completely different way from Kirk or Picard, but successful nevertheless.

Of course, there was one other change that went along with Janeway's hair. This... this...

You decide.

All in all, the show was never perfect, but there are times when you really are on the edge of your seat, when you just have to be like "Whoa, that's pretty awesome," and when you actually care about these people trapped on a tiny ship all alone 60 years from home.

Disney Animated Features, Ranked

So, the "Saturday Morning Classics" post is upcoming. In the meantime...

The first thing to do when compiling this list was to break down the movies into three tiers: Tier One being the above average films, Tier Two being the average films, and Tier Three being the below average films. From there, it becomes easier to sort them into specific rankings within the three tiers.

Tier Three:
#33 - Oliver & Company
#32 - The Princess and the Frog
#31 - The Great Mouse Detective
#30 - The Emperor's New Groove
#29 - Pocahontas
#28 - The Aristocats

Tier Two:
#27 - The Rescuers
#26 - Hercules
#25 - Fantasia
#24 - Tarzan
#23 - Lady and the Tramp
#22 - The Sword in the Stone
#21 - The Rescuers Down Under
#20 - Lilo & Stitch
#19 - Alice in Wonderland
#18 - The Fox and the Hound
#17 - The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
#16 - Robin Hood
#15 - Pinocchio
#14 - Mulan

Tier One:
#13 - Sleeping Beauty
#12 - Bambi
#11 - Cinderella
#10 - Aladdin
#9 - The Jungle Book
#8 - Dumbo
#7 - The Little Mermaid
#6 - Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
#5 - Peter Pan
#4 - 101 Dalmatians
#3 - The Hunchback of Notre Dame
#2 - The Lion King
#1 - Beauty and the Beast

So it's really difficult to put the films into exact order. Without a more thorough investigation into each film, it's hard to say which of two very close in quality is better. I'm not dead set on the exact positions in this list, but it's pretty close, I think.

The following films in the official list of Disney features were unable to be ranked because (1) they're obviously terrible and I haven't gotten around to seeing them as a result, (2) I regrettably haven't seen them yet, (3) they're computer animated, or (4) they're really just an extended short film. I'll let you figure out which reason(s) applied: Saludos AmigosThe Three CaballerosMake Mine MusicFun and Fancy FreeMelody Time, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, The Black CauldronDinosaurFantasia 2000Atlantis: The Lost EmpireTreasure PlanetBrother BearHome on the Range, and Chicken Little, Meet the RobinsonsBolt, Tangled, and Winnie the Pooh.

UPDATE: See the recent changes.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Flaws In Jim Krueger And Alex Ross’ Justice

In Justice, Lex Luthor and Brainiac team up and devise a plan to defeat the Justice League once and for all, by striking at various members simultaneously. A good premise in theory, but the specifics of their plan turn out to be rather uninspired and poorly calculated, leading to a somewhat convoluted and confusing plot. For example, an exploration into the mayhem that would ensue should a villain or group of villains get hold of Batman’s files was executed fantastically in Tower of Babel. It’s use here comes in at a distant second.

The authors betray a fundamental misunderstanding of Batman as a character. For a start, included in the last pages of each volume is a collection of “Bruce Wayne’s Files from the Batcomputer.” It seems pretty basic Batman to know that Bruce Wayne doesn’t have any files in the Batcomputer. Batman has files in the Batcomputer. Bruce Wayne and Batman are two totally distinct characters, partly for security, partly for the effectiveness of Batman as a crime fighter. Bruce Wayne is a man. Batman must be more than a man; he must be a principle, an idea, as made explicit by Ra’s al Ghul in Chris Nolan’s Batman Begins. He must be more than a man because he must be able to make the kinds of decisions men are not able to make. He must avoid Hector’s mistake, remaining objective, distant, free from the lower concerns of family and friends. For example, as evidenced in The Dark Knight and pointed out by Alfred, Batman must be able to concede casualties in the name of the larger goal—establishing Justice and Peace.

Second, in the introduction, Jim Krueger says explicitly that it was one of his goals “to reinforce the friendship between Batman and Superman.” I agree wholeheartedly with Frank Miller on this issue. Batman and Superman would never, never be friends. I admit that, in their later years as they are presented in Justice, Batman and Superman would have found a way to work amiably with one another, but they would not be friends. This is shown cleverly in the three-part cross-over episode of Superman: The Animated Series “World’s Finest.” Luthor and The Joker team up, so Bruce Wayne finds an excuse to visit Metropolis for a couple of weeks. In that time, he and Lois Lane fall for one another, much to the chagrin of Superman, of course. It’s ironic, but true, that Superman (Clark Kent’s true self) and Bruce Wayne (the façade) would definitely be friends, and Clark Kent and Batman might get along, but never in any other combination.

In addition, Hal Jordan is portrayed as an irresponsible, foolhardy jerk. While he certainly exhibits these characteristics in some measure, they do not hit at the heart of who he is. It could also be argued that these traits fell more and more by the wayside as he grew older and wiser. Presented as he is (somewhat middle aged), they should be mostly absent.

Don’t get me wrong, Doug Braithwaite’s pencils and Alex Ross’ painting are inspired. It’s worth buying just for the art. The characterization of many of the primary and especially secondary players (e.g., Captain Marvel) is first rate. Overall, I’d say Justice is thought-provoking and ranks up there with other great Justice League ventures like Tower of Babel, New Frontier, and Identity Crisis, even though it bears imperfections.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Mountain Goats’ "Sax Rohmer #1" As Tragedy

Around the middle of the last century, T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis found themselves on opposite sides of an important literary debate. Lewis thought that the matter of Modern and post-Modern Literature was inherently flawed. That is to say, he was convinced that no literary device, conceit, or convention was worth it's salt unless it preceded 1517. (This position is analogous to that of many hyper-Traditionalists as regards the Liturgy and Duncan Stroik as regards ecclesiastical architecture.) Eliot on the other hand saw nothing wrong with adopting the style of Modernity, as illustrated by his plays and poetry. Why should these materials, this style be any less capable of incarnating reality than the older? Eliot himself proved his hypothesis to be correct, and it is largely as a result of his literary corpus that I agree with him.

A particular style is relatively arbitrary when it comes to a work of art. That is to say, a particular work of art could utilize any, so long as it appropriately incarnates the vision of the artist. Pop music is no exception. There is no reason at all why it should not be possible to produce art in this style. In an effort to show that it is possible and has, in fact, already been accomplished many times over, here beginneth a new feature here at PopSophia: Tunesday (awful, I know), in which I shall endeavor to feature relatively contemporary music which I believe attains to the level of art.

To start then, a song from The Mountain Goats' album Heretic Pride. The full lyrics are included below the embedded mp3. I suggest reading along as you listen. Here's the direct link to the music video in case the audio doesn't work for some reason.

Fog lifts from the harbor, dawn goes down to day
An agent crests the shadows of the nearby alleyway
Piles of broken bricks, sign posts on the path
Every moment points toward the aftermath

Sailors straggle back from their nights out on the town
Hopeless urchins from the city gather round
Spies from imperial China wash in with the tide
Every battle heads to war, surrender on both sides

And I am coming home to you
With my own blood in my mouth
And I am coming to you
If it’s the last thing that I do

Elves move in the tower, wolves howl in the hills
Chalk marks show up on a few high windowsills
And a rabbit gives up somewhere, and a dozen hawks descend
Every moment leads toward its own sad end

Ships loosed from their moorings capsize and then they’re gone
Sailors with no captains watch awhile and then move on
And an agent crests the shadows and I head in her direction
 All roads lead toward the same blocked intersection

I am coming home to you
With my own blood in my mouth
And I am coming to you
If it's the last thing that I do
As expounded eloquently by Dustin Hoffman's character in Stranger Than Fiction, if Tragedy were reducible to one fundamental element it would be death. Death as inescapable. “Every moment leads toward its own sad end.” In Tragedy time always seems to be running out. It presses on the protagonist, reminding him there’s only so much left. The Tragic protagonist is pursued relentlessly be the agents of death and damnation. The entire song encapsulates this feeling of impending doom: “Piles of broken bricks, sign posts on the path / Every moment points toward the aftermath.” Enemies are everywhere. “Agents” and “spies” always upon us. Nature itself seems evil and unhinged, turning on itself and the protagonist with ferocity: “Elves move in the tower, wolves howl in the hills / . . . And a rabbit gives up somewhere, and a dozen hawks descend.” Life becomes but a horridly painful struggle. There is no grace, no mercy, no salvation: “Every battle heads to war.” Even more than that, the song speaks to this struggle’s Tragic futility. Ships are engulfed while leaderless sailors watch and do nothing. No one cares about anything or anyone else because there is no meaning. “All roads lead toward the same blocked intersection.” There is no right choice. No matter what I do, I end up gone, swallowed by the Abyss closing in around me. Soon I will be done for. For what? Nothingness awaits me in this life and the next.

Why, then, would anyone still fight? Why not just commit suicide and be done with it if there's no point to anything and it's all going to end up in death anyway. The refrain offers a glimmer of hope—the person waiting at home. To get back to her. It’s going to cost me dearly—blood at least, if not my life. But there’s nothing left to try for except to get back to her. She is Cordelia to my Lear, Antigone to my Oedipus (see Oedipus at Colonus), there to wrest me out of the arms of Nothingness. She is the one agent of grace left in the world, the only chance to make something of life. And death. To give it meaning and purpose. To make the fighting, the suffering, the humiliation that is life count for something. She is the Beloved of Scripture and countless lyrics. She is the Church, the Bride for which Our Lord lived our wretched life and died our wretched death, thereby making it possible for our life and our death to become a participation in the Divine life and death.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Tale As Old As Time

All works of art, no matter what the medium, are at the same time both new and old, both novel and traditional. As William Faulkner put it in his speech upon accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950, one of the artist’s primary tasks is to “[leave] no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed.” All artists ever do is tell a very old story in a new way—for a new time and place. Drawing on their own particular experience of the world, artists retell “the old universal truths” insofar as they have experienced them. To use Michael Oakeshott’s term, artists “re-create” the world and the human condition according to their own experience of it, and insodoing, they give life to and delineate the eternal principles of Truth underlying all that exists.

In his essay Tradition and the Individual Talent, T.S. Eliot called this simultaenous perception in the artist of both the universal past and his own particular present the “historical sense.” “The historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his own contemporaneity.”

This is the principle which Joseph Campbell picks up on in his work in comparative my-thology. All myths, all great stories are really just different cultures’ takes on the same fundamental ideas and principles. All stories have their foundation in the same basic human experiences, thoughts, and desires. More than that, they have their foundation in the same truths of the world in which we live. That is what artists do, tell very old stories with new characters and new imagery based on their own personal experience of the world. That is what they must do, for art re-creates the world, and the truth in the world never changes, it merely takes on new shapes and faces.

Take for instance one of Campbell’s own favorite myths—the heroic journey. All heroes follow the same simple pattern: Battle, Journey, Homecoming. Though the pattern expresses itself differently across different times and cultures, nevertheless the pattern remains the same. Let’s look at a few specific examples:

Odysseus cleansing his house of the suitors.
Odysseus left his home, wife Penelope, and son Telemachus in Ithaca for ten years to fight in the Trojan War. After his victory, he had to travel another ten years in order to reach home. The point of this journey was that the hero should learn how to leave the Battle behind and prepare the way for a life of peace. Upon returning home, Odysseus finds his house overrun with potential usurpers. He applies the things he learned on his journey to the cleansing of his house, setting it in order once and for all.

In The Divine Comedy, Dante must fight his way through Hell, literally. He must then journey up Mount Purgatory, being purified more and more along the way, allowing himself to be prepared for his eventual homecoming in Paradise, in which he is granted the vision of God himself.

Christ our Savior came down from Heaven to do Battle against Sin by dying on the cross, even to the point of descending into Hell. Like Odysseus, Christ waits in order that the victory he won may be perfectly applied to his Body the Church through his heroic patronage, until the time is right for him to return and set his house in order once and for all.

Like every element of art and literature, this heroic pattern contains inherant within it implications and meanings beyond a simple tale being told. This is not to say that the any work of art proposes to send an explicit message. If that were the case it would be mere propaganda. That being said, by virtue of the truth that lies in its characters and events, it can be more than just characters and events. These characters and events, insofar as they are representative of larger truths and realities, are able to signify them, stand for them, personify and incarnate them.

In this case of the heroic journey, we can draw an analogy to the general experience of Mankind. All men must fight their own Battle for the principles of Truth, Jusice, and Honor. All men must endeavor on the Journey to bring the victory home, work to restore order to their sphere of influence. And it is the Homecoming, the setting into Order of our household for which we fight, and for which we hope. By extension from this analogy, we are all called to be heroes, in our own specific times and places—we are all called to live a heroic life, especially in those mundane things which occupy everyday existence. We must fight for Truth, Justice, and Beauty, sacrifice our lives to the principles which are greater than us, and the people whom we love. More than just being true for us men, however, we have seen how this heroic journey is true universally and eternally by virtue of the Christ having lived it out himself.

It turns out, then, that his is the Truth that poets, painters, composers, and authors have been recreating over and over again throughout history, bringing it to us in new ways, for new times and new peoples. Insofar as any character (fictional or real) is heroic, then, he is Christ-like, and the title of an old film about his life seems all the more apt—The Greatest Story Ever Told.

The Nightly Exchange Between The Wife And I

Courtesy of The Anchoress.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Tolkien Diet

Starry Night Over Mordor - Courtesy of The UniBlog.
Um, so I am definitely an advocate of incorporating The Lord of the Rings into child rearing as often as possible.

Courtesy of BabyCenter...
“I’m still hungry,” my youngest said roughly five minutes after he didn’t finish his breakfast. It was an issue. He had developed the bad habit of playing with his food rather than eating it, and it was something that needed to be addressed. Luckily, I had foreseen such a moment and took the proper steps needed to combat it. Basically, I set said breakfast aside and played Words With Friends on my iPhone while the world went spinning on.
“Then you,” I replied, “are in for a treat.” I slid his breakfast across the counter as he climbed onto the same stool that he had only recently vacated. The stool was still warm, his food was not.
“This is my breakfast,” he said. “Again.”
He’s pretty quick.
“It’s your second breakfast,” I explained. “Like a hobbit.”
“What’s a hobbit?”
“You, but hairier.”
“They eat two breakfasts?”
“That’s what I’ve read.”
“Do you know any hobbits?” he asked.
“I suspect a few,” I told him. “But I can’t prove anything.”
His breakfast was colder than he remembered it. I assured him that was the way it was supposed to be. The hobbit way. One hot, one cold. The ying and the yang of a balanced diet(s).
“Do hobbiths get beg and strawng from eating so munch?” he asked.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” I answered.
Time passed.
“Do hobbits get big and strong from eating two breakfasts?” he asked.
“I can see why one might think that,” I started, “but the fact-ish is they don’t. They don’t grow much at all.”
“Why not?” his concern was palatable and smeared with jelly.
“Well,” I took a breath and looked him squarely in the plate. “The popular theory is they might get bigger if they actually ate one healthy breakfast the first time it was served and didn’t waste food.” I let the time and money go — everybody wastes those.
“Healthy is good for you,” he said.
The light above his head glowed warm and knowingly.
“I only want one lunch,” he stated, “a good one.” I nodded accordingly.

The Fundamental Problem With The DC Comics Reboot

Article first published as "The Fundamental Problem With The DC Comics Reboot" on Technorati.
Many good points have been raised both for and against the upcoming massive, universe-wide reboot. If you ask me, I think the Cons far outweigh the Pros (see this article from, but that’s really beside the point. A reboot like this hits at the heart of what comic book superheroes are.

As soon as superhero comics started catching on in the 1930s, they began to carve out their place in the American mythos. To put it simply, more than anything else, they are our heroes. They are beginning to occupy a place much like that which Achilles, Odysseus, Ajax, Hercules, and all the rest did in Ancient Greece. That Greek literary tradition developed gradually and organically over many hundreds and thousands of years, being retold again and again from generation to generation. Over time the stories and characters were reshaped many times, refined, tested by the ages, and perfected into those we have today. This process is admittedly ugly, time-consuming, and, at times, confusing. It might seem like a much better idea to simply start from scratch and make up the whole thing at once, start to finish. It would certainly all be much more coherent and cohesive, but the authenticity gets lost in the process. No one person or small group of people can accurately represent the mindset of an entire people. This is to say nothing of losing the organic and fluid nature of the traditional method, which allows the characters and ideas to be honed and polished, at the same time that it fosters novelty and creativity.

Stupid - Image courtesy of
It was in the 80s that superhero comics finally grew out of their infancy and proved that they could make their mark as a legitimate art form. Usually this level of quality and substance is not achieved except by a graphic novel or limited series, but that is not to discount the value in the ongoing continuity. Frank Miller’s work in Batman: Year One or The Dark Knight Returns could be considered analogous to that Homer did when he adapted the historic and noble tradition of Greek history and mythology into his own, stand-alone work of art. The Iliad and The Odyssey don’t displace the entire Greek literary tradition, they merely augment it.

In his Essay on the Development of Doctrine, Blessed John Henry Newman expounds the Christian position on how it is that doctrine develops over time. He explains that “when an of a nature to arrest and possess the mind, it may be said to have life, that is, to live in the mind which is its recipient. ...When some great enunciation, whether true or false, about human carried forward into the public throng of men and draws attention, then it is not merely received passively in this or that form into many minds, but it becomes an active principle within them, leading them to an ever-new contemplation of itself....” That is to say that influential new ideas and doctrines (like those proposed by early Christianity) do not lie dormant over time. Instead, they take on a new life within those who contemplate them. “At first men will not fully realize what it is that moves them, and will express and explain themselves inadequately.” In the beginning, a new idea will be poorly and incompletely understood. All new ideas have implications beyond their explicit original content. Over time “new lights will be brought to bear upon the original statements of the doctrine put forward; judgments and aspects will accumulate. ...Thus in time it will have grown into [a body of thought].” Experience, knowledge, and wisdom originally exterior to a new idea will, over time, be compared against it.

Throughout this process the idea grows and flourishes into its full self. The body of thought produced has not added anything which the explicit original content of the idea did not contain implicitly and in germinal form. “This body of thought, thus laboriously gained, will after all be little more than the proper representative of one idea, being in substance what that idea meant from the first, its complete image as seen in a combination of diversified aspects, with the suggestions and corrections of many minds, and the illustration of many experiences.” In other words, the body of Catholic dogma as it exists today is in fact no more than that which was there implicitly from the beginning having been fleshed out to a greater degree and with more clarity “through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts.” Authentic development is not addition or subtraction, but “the germination and maturation of some truth or apparent truth on a large mental field.”

While Newman treated of this principle of development especially as it pertains to doctrine and theology, he does not limit its sphere of application to these only. On the contrary, the same can be said of many things, including a body of literary and mythological tradition.

The fundamental problem with the DC reboot is that it attempts to do exactly what Descartes set out to—rewrite the whole of Philosophy (or in this case, the American mythology) singlehandedly. Insodoing, DC is turning its back on almost a century of tradition, of natural and organic growth and development, of progress and refinement, not to mention its own fans. Insodoing, DC has caused countless hours of artists’ sweat and toil to count for nothing, and, more than that, DC has cheapened its comics’ appeal, quality, even their very nature.

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Harry Potter Cocktails

So, it's probably unethical to repost these without actually having tried them, but I know the concepts behind the drinks are fantastic. So, head on over to The Backyard Bartender and check out posts one and two she's done of cocktails based on some of your favorite Harry Potter characters.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Search For The Beyer Family Coat Of Arms, Part One

So lately I’ve been looking into heraldry; i.e., coats of arms and stuff. I started thinking about it ‘cause the prospect of having kids soon got me interested in looking into some of my family history. I thought it might be nice when it comes time to decorate a nursery for it to include a couple of family trees and the Beyer and Walker family arms. At any rate, I just thought I’d share some of the more interesting elements with you.

The first and most fundamental rule of medieval heraldry is called the Rule of Tincture. Tinctures are heraldic colors and they fall into three main categories: metals, colors, furs (which are conventional geometric approximations of traditional furs), and “proper.” The metals are Gold (traditionally called Or and often represented in paint by yellow) and Silver (called Argent and represented by white). The colors are Azure (blue), Gules (red), Sable (black), Vert (green), and Purpure (purple). Interestingly, there are also for determining a color in a monochromatic setting like etching. Or is dots, Argent blank, Azure is horizontal lines, etc. “Proper” refers to when specific images (like a lion, horse, or dog) is pictured as it would be naturally (e.g., “a palomino horse proper”).

So the Rule of Tincture states that no metal shall ever lie on another metal and no color shall ever lie on another color (furs and “proper” are exempt). The thinking is that since the metals are light colors (gold/yellow and silver/white) and the colors dark (blue, black, etc.) they should never lie one on top of the other because it decreases clarity. One must remember that the original purpose of heraldry was anything but ceremonial. You as a Lord (or whatever) bored a shield with your house-specific colors and designs on it so you could be easily identified in battle. Either that or a herald carried your shield or a flag version of it. It is imperative, then, that your colors be legible and distinguishable from others’ at a good distance.

This is also why the fifth category of tinctures is all but ignored. In the nineteenth century it became fashionable to include more varied tinctures (called “stains”) like brown (brûnatre), sanguine (deep, blood-red), and bleu-celeste (sky blue). Of course pink and orange weren’t included originally either, because they could too easily be mistaken for Argent and Gules. They also liked over-using “proper.” In other words, having your coat of arms tend more towards a naturalistic painting than bright, bold, easily recognizable colors and designs. (Of course, this tendency was also due to the fact that by the nineteenth century heraldry had lost its practical purpose and become solely ceremonial.) Thankfully, almost everyone now rejects this tendency as decadence contrary to the true and traditional purpose of heraldry.

Another interesting fact, since women don’t traditionally go to war, women’s arms (if they have their own) aren’t represented on a shield but on a “lozenge” (which is exactly like the diamond on playing cards). Likewise, clergy display their arms on a “cartouche” (or oval) as can be seen on the façade of countless cardinalatial titular churches in Rome.

Also, turns out the actual heraldic device has little to do with any pictorial representation of it. The heraldic device itself is a traditional description of elements to be represented by an artist. This process is called “blazoning,” according to the heraldry scholar John Woodward, it is not just any description, but to describe arms “in heraldic terminology so exactly that anyone acquainted with the language of armory may be able accurately to depict it from its concise description.” For example, the simple blazon “argent, three palets sable” translates to a silver (white) field onto which are laid three black vertical bands:

This is to be distinguished from “paly argent and sable” which describes a field which is itself divided into alternating bands of silver (white) and black:

Imagine how complicated that can get.

And that’s just the beginning. A couple of hours of research convinced me that in order for me to feel comfortable enough with all the rules to blazon my own Beyer family arms I would need to keep studying for at least several months. Of course, I wouldn’t exactly feel comfortable doing so anyway. Even though there’s no legal prescription against doing so in this country, I don’t really like the idea of doing what amounts to knighting myself. I certainly wouldn’t want to follow the path Monsieur Napoleon did. Seems like a better idea to go back far enough on or the like to see if the Beyers ever had a real one.

Windows From The First Church Of Comics

There's probably something slightly blasphemous about this gallery from io9. Nevertheless...

Friday, August 19, 2011

Batman Characters As Reflections

One of the things Christopher Nolan has done amazingly well in his Batman Trilogy is to push along Batman's struggle with his identity and mission. This is, after all, the heart of any work of literature, the protagonist's inner struggle to come to terms with himself. As an Epic hero, however, this is not just Batman's struggle, but Gotham's too.

One of the chief ways in which Nolan has accomplished the task of pushing Batman to question himself is to confront him with characters which are mirror images of himself. Let's examine some of them:

Ra's al Ghul - Made Batman who he is. Nevertheless, as Batman himself says, there is something that makes Ra's al Ghul and his League of Shadows vigilantes while Batman remains a legitimate source of order and justice. That is the fact that Ra's al Ghul seeks to impose his own will on the world, his own idea of what's good for it, rather than freeing it up to do the right thing itself, first from the Mafia which had the city by its throat and then fromt he Joker's chaos. As Batman says, he hopes for the day when Gotham will no longer need him. As the opening sequence of The Dark Knight proves, his presence is preventative as well as punitive.

The Scarecrow - Uses fear to conquer his opponents. How is Batman different? The Scarecrow is a weak, calculating wimp who uses a gas to induce fear chemically. Batman is big and strong, and strikes fear into the heart of criminals by his very existence. Remember that in art, exterior attributes are never arbitrary, but illustrative of the interior realities of the characters. What this means here, I think, is that Scarecrow is a snake, a fraud. He uses a fake fear to get his way. Batman on the other hand, has more in common with the fear we should have for God. It is his very being which should be respected and looked upon in awe.

Commissioner Gordon - In one of the comic books that inspired Christopher Nolan, Frank Miller's Batman: Year One, you can almost split the pages up evenly between Batman and Gordon as you alternate perspectives on their parallel roles in the main plot and character development. Nolan has done the same thing in his films, drawing the comparison as often as possible. How they're alike? They are both keepers of the peace and ministers of order. How do they differ? Gordon operates inside the written law. Batman serves a higher law because he believes the lower law of men has failed.
Thomas Wayne - Like his father before him, Bruce Wayne seeks to work toward the good of his city and people. Unlike his father, Bruce got to witness first hand his father's lack of success. In Batman Begins, the Mob has made Gotham so afraid to go out that they won't use the train Bruce's father built for them, having left it to rot and decay from misuse and maltreatment. I think it's significant that the solution to impending disaster is the destruction of the train. Batman has established a new order, one in which such half-measures have been done away with.

Two-Face - Like Two-Face, Batman must play host to two personalities, one forever challenging the other for supremacy. Unlike Two-Face, Batman's decisions about who he wants to be (not to mention his decisions in general) are purely his own, settled on after thought and deliberation rather than the flip of a coin.

The Joker - "You're just a freak, like me." "You complete me." Notice how in the last Joker scene in The Dark Knight, Batman has him strung upside down. They are set in opposition to one another during their conversation. Yet, as it progresses, Nolan rotates the camera on the Joker so that he is upside-down from Batman's perspective, but cutting back and forth between the two of them, they appear to us as if they're both upright. It's a masterful visualization of how the two characters are a mirror for one another and also polar opposites.

The Catwoman - Of course we can't be exactly sure what Nolan's going to do with Catwoman, but we can at least say that she will mimic Batman's wits and cunning. The struggle with Catwoman is always her skewed intentions, viz., her own good rather than that of her city. She also threatens to seduce Batman into involvement in romantic affairs, which he must be bigger than.

Bane - Bane is Batman's equal in every way. In the comics he was even runner up as Ra's al Ghul's apprentice in the League of Shadows. He uses a substance called Venom to artificially elevate his strength in order to have an edge over Batman. In the recent trailer, Bane is shown in perfect parallel to Batman, only stronger. He is shown doing push ups to train in a prison, just like we saw Batman do. He is shown climbing out of a deep well, where Batman had to be lifted out by his father. Bane has the potential to be a hero, but hes eeks his own honor and glory, not the good of his polis and people.

Ah, Sophistry...

Top Ten Next Gen

In the spirit of recognizing the solid storytelling in Star Trek: The Next Generation, what follows is a list of the 10 episodes everyone should see before they die.

#10 - The Drumhead

Speaking of preachy... This episode epitomizes one of the major elements of the entire show—Picard taking a stand on moral issues in the face of a corrupt bureaucracy. In the later seasons, there’s always this tension in Picard, between the liberal ideas he's adopted as a Starfleet captain and the Traditional values he was brought up France...even though he has a British accent. They don’t ever explain that. Or how such a conservative family could still be around in such an “advanced” society. Anyway.

#9 - The Nth Degree

I know what you’re thinking...

The ninth best Next Generation episode came first.

By far one of the best things about the later seasons of Next Gen was Lieutenant Barclay. Nervous, neurotic, and accident prone make for good ingredients in a lovable character. Wait... Shouldn’t Roddenberry’s "perfect" society have done away with these qualities by genetic engineering and selective breeding? Anyway, in this episode, Barclay accidentally makes himself the smartest, most charismatic person alive.

#8 - Masks

Captain Picard could have been an archaeologist. In this episode, he gets to show off his mad skills. Throughout the course of the ship this alien device gradually converts the Enterprise into a replica of the civilization that built it, including Data. As a result, Brent Spiner gets to play multiple characters, which he does really well (and which happens quite a bit actually, now that I think about it).

#7 - Elementary, Dear Data + Ship in a Bottle

These two episodes (the first from Season Two and the second from Season Six) are basically two halves of the same story. Data and Geordi are messing around on the Holodeck in Season Two, playing Sherlock Holmes, and the computer accidentally creates a holographic version of Holmes' archvillain Moriarty self-aware. Trouble ensues. Just really clever stuff, and a fine adaptation of Holmes to boot.

#6 - The Best of Both Worlds, Parts I & II

By far the most important contribution Next Gen made to the Star Trek universe (aside from the badass-ness that is Captain Picard and Data) was the Borg. A hive mind of cybernetic drones bent on galactic domination. They’re pretty much zombies. Except, if the zombies were super strong cyborgs linked to a central computer that can tell them exactly where you are and how to kill you, based on the knowledge its accumulated over several millenia of turning trillions of other people into zombies. In this season-straddling two-parter, they manage to zombify Captain Picard. How do you defend against an enemy which has just obtained all the knowledge of one of your foremost military commanders?

So, my dad made a good point. It’s a cliffhanger, right? Check it out:

...and that’s it. My dad said that was the only time he checked the TV Guide every week all Summer.

#5 - Cause and Effect

Always in Star Trek (that is, until the travesty that was Star Trek: Enterprise) the coolest episodes involve time travel. They rarely hold up logically, but they're awesome just the same. In this episode the Enterprise gets caught in a time loop. ...Also, Frasier Crane makes a cameo appearance.

#4 - All Good Things...

Isn’t it the worst when good shows just kind of fizzle away, or jump the shark and end on a low note? Thankfully, Next Gen wasn't one of those. Its finale really satisfied. Picard finally sat down at the poker table with the rest of the guys. Plus, it involved time travel.

#3 - Darmok

Now this is just a really, really good episode. One of Trek's biggest cop outs has always been the Universal Translator. Basically it makes everybody speak English. Which is dumb. I mean, even if it like overrided the communications system and simulated them speaking in English over the speakers, they should still be mouthing in their language, right? Anyway, in this episode, it stops working—rather, it can't translate these guys' language. So they've gotta figure it out. Turns out it's a super cool language, P.S.

#2 - Chain of Command, Parts I & II

Captain Picard steps down as captain of the Enterprise and goes on a super secret black ops mission. Um, do I really have to say anymore? Maybe that he gets captured and tortured by Russians! I mean...Cardassians. (You see, they’re this alien race that the Federation is in a Cold War with. All similarities are coincidental, though.) It’s pretty interesting, though, ‘cause we rarely ever get to be reminded of the fact that Starfleet (not to mention the larger Federation Military) is about much more than flying around in starships. There must be ground troops, artillery, troop ships to ferry them all from planet to planet, special forces, in short, just about everything we have. I mean, surely they’re at least kinda prepared to defend themselves against an all-out invasion, right?

#1 – The Inner Light + Lessons

"The Inner Light" is the best episode ever. Seriously. Picard gets probed by this satellite thing and it takes over his brain and makes him live an entire lifetime in a matter of minutes. Throughout which time he teaches himself to play the flute in his free time. When he dies in that life, he wakes up and he's back as Captain Picard of the Enterprise. The satellite shuts down and the only thing the crew can find inside is a small box containing the very flute Picard dreamed about playing.

What a fantastic idea to explore the effects that such an experience might have on a person, which the series does in subsequent episodes. One of those is "Lessons," which isn't as good in itself, but it builds on "The Inner Light." Picard falls in love for reals, sharing his second lifetime and flute with someone for the first time, leading to this poignant scene:

Later, he has to make the decision to sacrifice her in the name of the greater good. It's rough. Fantastic television.

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