Thursday, December 4, 2008
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Saturday, November 8, 2008
"The Golden Compass" is the first movie adapted from a trilogy by Phillip Pullman called "His Dark Materials."This title comes from John Milton's "Paradise Lost," the epic poem about Satan's expulsion from heaven and the fall of humanity in Eden. "I am of the Devil's party and I know it," Pullman once said in an interview, and elsewhere has said "My books are about killing God."
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
Journalist GK Chesterton once said that when people stop believing in God, it isn't that they then believe in nothing, but they'll believe in anything. This is often the case when it comes to ghosts. Having forgotten or discarded or simply not knowing what has been clearly revealed in the Scriptures, people turn to all sorts of notions that suit their personal tastes, or they turn to any person who affirms their notions. This is one reason why people turn to mediums to communicate with the dead.
It is natural, I realize, for a person to want the comfort of knowing a departed loved one is somehow all right, and most people are curious about death and life-after-death. Many people with a superficial upbringing in a church (too often a superficial Catholic upbringing) are easily led to believe that God is somehow working through these mediums - as they themselves claim - to contact the dead. What does the Bible really say about all this?
You may not accept the authority of the Scriptures, but at least you should know what they say - and the Bible clearly and consistently says consulting mediums and spiritists is dangerous.
The danger described in the Older Testament is that people will turn away from God Himself into all manners of superstition and idolatry (since such practices were done for the purpose of divination and seeking the advice of pagan deities), thereby forfeiting their place in the Covenant community. It is a violation of the first commandment to have no other gods.
The danger in the New Testament is similar, but instead of saying what people are turning away from, the description is about what people involved in such practices are turning toward - the great Deceiver and Father of Lies who easily counterfeits spiritual experience and appears as "an angel of light" (2 Corinthians 11:14) and his fellow fallen angels and demons. Celebrity mediums usually talk about encountering such a 'being of light'. So trying to contact the dead usually turns into contacting a real spiritual entity, but not the dead.
No wonder this activity - called necromancy - is so strongly rejected in places like Leviticus 19:31, 20:6, 27; Deuteronomy 18:10-11; I Chronicles 10:13-14 and Isaiah 8:19-20, for example. It is - nearly literally - playing with fire.
Moreover, Jesus' parable of the rich man and the poor beggar Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 suggests that the dead cannot contact the living. If anyone can contact the dead, it is Jesus himself, who calls the other Lazarus out of the tomb in John 11 and who says that, one day, "the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear shall come to life" (John 5:25).
What, then, are we to make of the Medium of Endor, whom King Saul of
There is a difference between this and the Catholic practice of requesting the prayer support of the saints, which is, in fact, a healthy corrective to occult practices. Mediums like John Edward and Sylvia Browne may claim to be faithful Catholics, but their views of humans as "divine sparks" who are part of God and whose destiny is to become perfected through many re-incarnated lives or by passing through ever-higher astral levels is not Christian in the least, but a tempting blend of the Gnostic and neo-pagan.
Finally, what are we to make of their often-correct predictions/pronouncements? Some of it is good generalized guessing, a skilled reading of people's responses to questions, and the eagerness of seekers who interpret readings in the ways they want to. But, as mentioned above, the Deceiver and his minions can disguise themselves as an angel of light (2 Corinthians ) and thereby act as a "spirit guide" to relay information that is correct and therefore convincing to the hearers.
Enough about people turning to mediums here. The one we ought to turn to is Christ himself, who says, "I was dead, and behold I am alive forever, and I hold the keys of Death and Hades." So, for those who depart this earthly life in His friendship, there is a glorious future, and for those left behind, Paul says: "We grieve, but not as those who have no hope".
Sunday, October 19, 2008
Not all ghosts are dead who haunt the living after a tragic or violent death. Most are not whispy, white vapors, nor disfigured, but look like normal people, fully dressed, who walk around furniture, not through it. And no one is quite sure what to make of the many reports – even if they claim to know for sure. Some ghosts are of the living, seen in one place though you know the person is elsewhere. A few people have seen themselves (in literature, it is called “the fetch” or the “doppelganger,” a living person’s spirit that leaves the body and appears to the person as an omen of their impending death).
What are we to make of all this?
First things first. There are some Biblical premises about human personhood I’m starting with and accept, so you might as well know them.
The first thing is that humans are fully integrated beings of body, mind, and spirit created in the image of God, a theological expression meaning that we share the Creator’s attributes of intelligence, creativity, will, and the capacity for love and relationships. Every human, sharing these qualities, has inherent worth and dignity. Moreover, every mortal is – well, immortal, with a God-given potential to attain glory in a relationship with Christ – or not. As CS Lewis once wrote, “It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendours” (from “The Weight of Glory”). The Son of God became the Son of Man that we all might become the sons and daughters of God through Him. So he tells the crucified thief who believes in Him, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” and Paul exults, “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord,” and John tells us, “What we shall be has not yet been disclosed, but we know that when Christ appears we shall be like him.” Thus, Christians affirm the survival of a person after death and furthermore in the resurrection of the body, and the eventual re-uniting of the spirit with the body, raised incorruptible – a scandalous thought to the Greeks, who considered the body to be a filthy nuisance and best discarded so that the “soul” could ascend to higher planes. This is not a biblical view. The resurrection of the body is plainly anticipated in I Corinthians 15, Revelation 20 and elsewhere. Christ himself was raised physically, though in a body glorified and changed. His frightened and astonished followers thought they saw a ghost – but he assured them he was not, and asked for a meal which he ate in front of them all to demonstrate he was for real (see Luke 24:36ff).
OK, the reason for this “Introduction to Eschatology (Last Things)” lesson is so say that Christians believe firmly in an afterlife filled with inexpressible wonder – and anything regarding “ghosts” is to be understood in this perspective. Biblical theology doesn’t exclude ghost phenomena – but any explanation for ghost phenomena that excludes the affirmation of biblical basics regarding the afterlife is suspect.
Researchers say there are 6 kinds of ghosts: 1. the dead, seen repeatedly; 2. the dead, seen once or twice then gone; 3. spirits of the dying but not yet dead; 4. spirits of the dead who talk to the living; 5. spirits of the living; 6. poltergeists. Ghosthunters look for 1, 2, and 6. The others find you, according to some. Most people, when they think of ghosts, think of 1 and 2. These are (allegedly) the departed who have some unfinished business who will disappear once their mission is fulfilled. #3, the ghost of the dying, is a ghost that appears at the time a person dies, and the ones who see it learn later the person has died. #4 often needs help to finish a mission, and so is like #1 or #2. Mediums like John Edward and Sylvia Browne claim to act as intermediaries for such messages – ie, as “mediums,” telling clients in effect, “I hear dead people.” More on mediums next time (and the medium of Endor who called the 'ghost' of Samuel to appear before King Saul). Ghost #5 is a kind of bi-location, sometimes as an indication that the person will die soon, as I described above. And #6, poltergeists, are not ghosts at all but the excess energy of a teenager’s angst and anger that causes objects to move and there is nothing “supernatural” about it. It's just a bit creepy and noisy, that's all, and that's what "poltergeist" means: "noisy ghost" - though, as I've said, it's not a ghost at all.
Furthermore, there are two general categories of explanation for #1, 2, and 4: The “Natural” explanation group and the “Spiritists.”
The Natural group holds to a kind of “tape-recording theory” of ghosts, whereby the departed leave a kind of psychic “fingerprint” in a place of strong emotions, a holographic imprint of sorts left over in a space (they call it a “vortex”) that is picked up later by people who are sensitive to such force fields. It is a kind of “energy residue” which can be seen and heard, which is why it is likened to a tape recording that is played over and over in a place, though it sometimes fades out quickly (this, as you can tell, has implications for my mystery novel).
Spiritists, on the other hand, who clearly deny any biblical description of the afterlife, believe ghosts are the spirits of the dead coming back to communicate with the living or to complete an unfinished mission so they can “let go” of the Earth in peace and move on to a higher plane of existence –
Saturday, October 18, 2008
Do you believe in ghosts? A mystery novel I'm working on has a ghost element in it, and my amateur sleuth works alongside a “Ghost Detective” (sometimes called a “ghosthunter”) to solve a murder and missing person mystery. As with my first two mystery novels, I’m interested in dealing with “mysteries” on a number of levels.
And since my college is sponsoring an event featuring real 'ghost hunters' later this month to coincide with Halloween, this is a good time to opine. Another good reason to offer a comment is that I've observed so many Catholics who do not know what the Scriptures really say about this subject and the afterlife in general, but seem to drift - like their secular peers - into talk-show superstitions about the unseen.
It should be noted from the get-go that we are right to be healthily uncertain one way or the other on this matter, as there are mysteries we cannot fully know this side of heaven. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” we hear in Hamlet – a famous ghost story. Christians in particular are right to exercise caution, reason and skepticism here, since so many people wander easily into occult practices and psychic hooey on this matter and it is easy to be deceived by what we know are unseen, malevolent personalities out there who are intent on fooling whoever they can in order to lure them away from the truth.
It’s quite understandable, isn’t it, that everyone would like to be assured that there is something else after death - especially for lost loved ones. This explains the popularity of certain TV Shows where mediums claim they can speak to the departed who survive in a spirit form on “the other side.” Moreover, popular films have shaped public perception about the subject, especially “The Sixth Sense” and its TV-spinoff, “The Ghost Whisperer.” But we need not be afraid to seek the truth of the matter, either, as there may be a natural explanation (that is, it is a phenomenon that is part of nature, part of Creation).
For example, poltergeist phenomena, in which objects are thrown around the house, are understood mainly as a kind of electrical disturbance peculiar to households where there are teenagers experiencing anger, angst, or trauma. I've observed this firsthand. It's weird, but not technically "supernatural."
As for "ghosts," there are 6 different categories which I will discuss another day. Suffice it to say in this brief introduction that while most uninformed people suppose them to be surviving spirits who cannot leave the earthly plane quite yet due to some unfinished business, and many Christians are too quick to think they are demons in disguise, the most common occurrences have a more "natural" explanation. My story will revolve around this sort of mystery while at the same time remaining Biblical in its understanding of the afterlife, which contains far more hope and wonder than any popularized idea about “ghosts” and a netherworldly “other side.”
Saturday, June 14, 2008
There is a great deal of talk in newsrooms about the need for 'diversity' but the discussion is nearly always in terms of gender and racial diversity, rarely in terms of religious representation. It is journalism's big blind spot. The news business needs more people like Russert to hold journalism itself to a high standard of decency and act as its conscience.
Thursday, June 5, 2008
Tuesday, June 3, 2008
Monday, June 2, 2008
Frederick Buechner (BEEK-ner) is a Presbyterian pastor whose lyrical work brings one to tears and laughter by turn. "Godric" and "Brendan" are historical novels I admire partly because of their ambivalent (and very earthy) treatment of saints, besides the gorgeous prose. His heartbreaking memoirs are even better (especially when he chronicles the struggles of his anorexic daughter). His books built around alphabetical lists of Biblical characters and religious cliches are hilarious and moving at the same time, and serve to make the faith strikingly relevant, especially for cultured unbelievers. He himself hovers at the edge of doubt continually.
Kathleen Norris is a writer like Buechner, a Methodist whose strongest work is in memoir. "Dakota: A Spiritual Geography" is a beautiful work, and her account of coming to genuine faith in "Cloister Walk" is memorable. "Amazing Grace" is similar to Buechner's alphabet books, whereby she takes common religious terms and expounds upon them in a way that makes them new. Her work consistently ends up on the NY Times Bestseller List.
Susan Howatch's Church of England series is exquisite in its stylish exploration of our deepest motives, following a set of smart characters from the 1930s through the end of the 20th Century. Howatch cut her teeth on vast family sagas with a gothic edge. Her latest series, set in the present around the Healing Centre of St Benet's in London, is a gripping and layered portrayal of deeply flawed yet empathetic people groping through the fog of sex-and-power secularism toward genuine meaning in life. It's not everyone who can portray a male prostitute protagonist with such force and psychological insight.
Michael O'Brian's apocalyptic novel "Father Elijah" is part of a brilliant series that is theologically astute and beautifully written. Don't let the 'apocalyptic' part throw you; this is no cheesy "Left Behind" melodrama. O'Brian also paints and does jewelry work, and this artistry shows in the well-wrought prose.
Well, that'll do for now. I must admit that when I read people like this I throw up my hands in despair and say, "I could never write like this - why bother?" But I am encouraged at the same time, to know that there are men and women of faith who bring their worldview to bear on their art, making it both true and beautiful.
Saturday, May 31, 2008
Catholics. The repeated prayers are a way to detach oneself from the world, to avoid distractions. It is a contemplative practice proven to provide a sacred space, a time set-apart, for thinking deeply and gratefully about the 'mysteries of our redemption,' as Catholics say (a thoughtfully-prayed 5-decade rosary only takes about 20 minutes, by the way). "Mysteries" have two meanings here: first, in the Pauline sense, they are holy truths now revealed, and secondly they are truths that we can understand to a point before becoming lost in wonder. I mean, who can truly grasp the terrible mystery of the Prince of Peace being crowned with thorns?
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
Monday, May 26, 2008
Perhaps Flannery O'Conner explained it well when she described fiction as 'an incarnational art,' whereby the writer is able to observe, in the concrete and tangible, the workings of the unseen. This sacramental approach to life itself makes deep fiction-writing possible.
This whole idea of the importance of story can be approached another way: Consider how Evangelicals and Catholics respond to the question, "What is the Gospel?" Evangelical Protestants - I was one for a long time - are well-versed through diligent Bible study to reply with a set of distilled propositions, often in a brief outline form: God is holy and loving, we are fallen and sinful and this shortcoming results in separation from God and one another, God's merciful answer to our problem is Christ who died for our sins, and we need to believe it and receive the risen Lord personally and live thereafter with integrity by His Spirit. That's all true and good as far as it goes - I wish more Catholics could articulate this.
Now, propositions aren't bad. Catholics also adhere to a set of propositions as articulated in the creeds (Apostle's, Nicene). But even in the creeds, what we get is less a set of proposals and more of a story outline.
That's the difference. Catholics are much more comfortable with narrative. So when asked what they believe, they're more likely to give you the story of the gospels rather than a series of proof-texts from Paul. They're big on the life-stories of the saints. This is similar to Jews: if asked what they believe, they're likely to reply, "Let me tell you a story..."
In fact, Catholics see the Christian life itself as a kind of story with a beginning, middle, and ending that is not entirely certain and contains some suspense. So the beginning is baptism, where one is initiated into the kingdom of Christ and "born anew" into this covenant family. Then there is the middle, a long series of conflicts and complications that test and temper the believer towards holiness. At the end, the one who has endured inherits the fullness of the kingdom - though there are some who forfeit their birthright and end up badly by their own choices.
Before closing, I must note that good storytelling is not completely absent among conservative Protestants. This is clear by many fine novels coming out of CBA circles recently. Granted, much of it is still spiritually and sexually "safe" fiction for a market looking to be entertained and comforted at the same time. But some risks are being taken, and that's coming a long way from the days when fiction of any sort was rejected as a 'lie' unbefitting a believer.
The edgier - and more honest - fare is being published outside CBA, and I'll take a look at some of that work another day.
Friday, May 23, 2008
This is silly, of course. One might argue, nontheless, that a gardener who is consciously Christian will bring to the work an appreciation for nature, a gratitude for the created order, perhaps even a sense of stewardship ala Genesis 2:15. In a similar way, an artist with Christian sensibilities will bring to the work a baptized imagination (as Lewis called it) with an eye for what is true, good, and beautiful, as per Paul's injunction in Philippians 4:8--
"Whatever things are true, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy - meditate on these things."
Not that everything be sanitized, sentimental, superficial or syrupy, obsessed with the sensational portrayal of demons and End-Times scenarios and covertly committed to winning souls. This is the stereotype and it is, unhappily, well-deserved.
Instead, I think a writer who happens to be Christian naturally produces work that is informed by an honest and full anthropology built on a Biblical premise - a view of humans as imbued with dignity, being made in the image and likeness of God, and yet fallen. Even so, renewal is possible, though not always achieved, given free will.
Christian writers are mindful of the fact that the Bible itself is composed primarily of narrative and poetry. It is telling, is it not, that when God wanted to communicate with humans, He used stories and songs. When Jesus Himself wished to make a point, he often told a short story.
Others have spoken with depth and clarity about this subject: CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, GK Chesterton, Auden, Madeleine L'Engle (in her book "Walking on Water"), Flannery O'Conner ("Mystery and Manners") and even John Gardner's book is useful in this regard ("On Moral Fiction").
And there is an intelligent and insightful discussion on this topic in this discussion area, where I've posted a few comments as well.
Thursday, May 22, 2008
Q: You've been writing historical novels but are now turning toward mysteries. What makes a person want to experience a mystery? As more things become known in the world (say, the composition of Saturn's rings), does the hunger for mystery grow or lessen?
A: Mysteries - classic murder mysteries, I mean - connect with something deep inside us. They are the modern form of the medieval morality play, where the sleuth is Everyman who works against time, big money, a determined antagonist, daunting odds and his own flaws to expose evil and to restore the balance of justice. At the end, readers who identify with the successful hero or heroine feel a little better about the world and about themselves. A critic might say that mystery novels are escapist, since they offer a fantasy word in which justice prevails, right always wins over wrong, and love finds a way. But mysteries, close as they are to the barest human motives and fears, and because they deal so openly with death, have a built-in opportunity to explore life's higher mysteries - both seen and unseen. There will always be a hunger for that. As Aristotle says (and he's a character of sorts in my first mystery), the desire to know is the central drive in all humans.
Q: Writing is such a personal activity. Even with your background in teaching, is it hard to guide someone in how to write? What's the biggest obstacle in those lessons?
A: I like your term "guide" because that is about all you can do. You can show the way, point out features along the path, and explain how some things work. You can't teach desire and discipline, the two most important factors. A writer must have them already. Techniques can be acquired by imitation, experimentation, and habit. But what's really needed is vision, and, as Aristotle might add, a touch of madness.
Q: Your blog uses the name Johnny Dangerous. What makes you so dangerous?
A: My last name can be difficult to pronounce, so my colleagues had a little fun with it. I suppose it suits me, as I dare to interogate the prevailing postmodern dogmas of absolute uncertainty. As Aristotle says, there is truth outside our own subjective persceptions that can be known, if only imperfectly (or as St. Paul might say, "through a glass darkly"), and as Aquinas and Wittgenstein suggest, sometimes we must be told what it is by Someone from the outside.
Q: Your books combine history, religion, and mystery. When you look at the success of Dan Brown's "The DaVinci Code," what do you feel?
A: There's hope for any writer, even for work that is poorly written, badly researched, and built on a spurious premise. But seriously, this reminds us that stories have the power to shape perception. That's why it's important to deal honestly with the material. It's fiction, but we must try to deal with what IS. Serious fiction - even seriously written 'genre' fiction - is interested in the truth, especially in the truth of what it means to be fully human in both our dignity and our fallenness.
Q: The name of a character, especially the one who might be the lead in a series of books, can be quite important. Where did the inspiration for Reed Stubblefield come from?
A: Illinois cornfields at harvest time. On the rural drive to my college, I pass miles of stubbled fields full of shaven stalks, and the brittle, vulnerable remains reminded me of that line in Isaiah 42, "He will not break a crushed reed, or snuff out a smoldering wick; unfailingly He will establish justice." Reed is wounded in body, heart, and spirit, and he slowly, reluctantly recognizes the presence of grace in a story about justice and the possiblity of loving again after a major loss.
Q: Your second mystery, in progress, is set in the same location but features a Latina character, Selena de la Cruz, as the protagonist. Where did she come from?
A: Writers are often cautioned about allowing an intriguing minor character to run away with the story. As soon as she walked on the stage of the first novel, even in a small part,I knew she had a story of her own.
Q: Given your journalism background, have you ever considered the nonfiction realm of writing?
A: I've done some freelance magazine work and publish an essay now and then. But telling all the truth but telling it slant, as Emily Dickinson said, is much more fun.
Q: How many false starts, flame outs, and other aborted attempts currently reside in the dark recesses of your desk?
A: I've had my share. There is a sprawling historical novel set in the Roman Empire of the early 400s smoldering in my cabinet, a prequel to "The Throne of Tara" that is based largely on the life of Saint Patrick. I'm focused on the mysteries for now, but at times I still hear the thunder of hooves, the ring of steel on steel, the chant of monks and the crackle of Druids' fires coming from behind the doors.
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
Sunday, May 11, 2008
Wednesday, May 7, 2008
(from Dancing in the Water of Life: The Journals of Thomas
Merton, Vol. 5)
Tuesday, May 6, 2008
Monday, May 5, 2008
Wednesday, April 9, 2008
As a writer and literature professor, I have little patience for censorship of any sort and I believe the call to boycott films to be ill-considered. And I certainly will not silence the student - especially since I believe in academic freedom and that an honest appraisal of the book will expose its mean-spirited agenda.
Since many others will be drawn to the books because of the first film -- ironically released during the Christmas season -- and think it is simply more Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, or Narnia fare, here's a plot summary below for all three books in the series that, I believe, speaks for itself. Read these and decide for yourself if the books aren't visciously anti-Christian and especially anti-Catholic:
Book I. We meet 12-year-old Lyra who lives in an alternative Oxford that is dominated by a group called The Magisterium. As every educated Catholic knows, 'the magisterium' is the term for the official teaching office of the Church. This fictional one has brutal monks, sadistic nuns, power-hungry priests, bishops, and cardinals, but no pope since Pope John Calvin moved the Vatican to Geneva (sounds like a swipe at Catholics to me). The Magisterium's goal is to absolutely crush all 'heresy' and opposition. There is no Christ in its teachings. Just as well, I guess. I'd like to believe that Mr. Pullman is trying to say, "this is what any institutionalized church would be without Christ, so it is important to be focused on the love and mercy of Christ, and not on bureaucratic power" -- but this isn't his point. His 'alternative world' church is what he believes the real one to be like. Back to the plot: Like all humans, Lyra has a personal "daemon", a personal spirit-self that lives outside her body in animal form that changes for children but is stable for adults (students of the occult will recognize this as akin to one's "familiar"). Humans separated from their 'daemons' lose their imagination and will. As you might guess, the religious figures in the film have snakes, lizards, and frogs for their 'daemons.' Lyra uses a magic compass to find her way to the Arctic to rescue her friend Roger and other kids who have been kidnapped by the evil Mrs. Coulter and the Magisterium, who have performed experiments on the children to find out why 'dust', or Original Sin, doesn't affect kids as much as adults. Lyra is helped by a witch-queen and a talking polar bear among others. The movie ends here but the book continues with Lyra's evil father sacrificing Roger in order to blast open a portal to parallel worlds as part of his own revolt against God, and Lyra follows him through the hole.
Book II. A young boy named Will (no accident) finds his way into the parallel world where Lyra is hiding. There are only children in this world because there are spirits that roam it eating the souls of adults. Will obtains a knife called 'the god-destroyer' that can rip through anything, even the universe itself. Back in Oxford, Lyra finds a friend in a physicist named Mary who is an ex-nun and has dumped her faith (slap forehead here). The choice of "Mary" as a name can't be an accident, either. In the meantime, the wicked Mrs Coulter learns that Lyra is, according to a prophecy, the New Eve (this term will be familiar to Catholics, who regard Mary as The New Eve, "the Mother of the Living" who have new life in Christ her Son). Mrs Coulter kidnaps Lyra. Cliffhanger end to Book II.
Book III. Assisted by two homosexual angels, Will escapes Mrs Coulter and rescues Lyra. The Magisterium tries to destroy Lyra while her father prepares to attack God-The-Authority, now seen as a senile fraud. Using Will's magic knife, Lyra enters the land of the dead, a dismal prison where the spirits of all intelligent beings are morbidly tortured. Lyra and Will release the spirits to a blissful oblivion, absorbed into the Oneness of the Cosmos (kinda pop-Buddhist-New-Agey). In the final Armageddon battle, Lyra and Will kill God ("The Authority") while her parents kill the Regent of Heaven (hmmm- wonder who he means by THAT) and themselves to boot (might as well get rid of all authority, while we're at it). Lyra joins her physicist friend Mary in another world's paradise where she - Lyra - plays the serpent to their Adam and Eve. The children discover the higher knowledge of erotic love and the universe is saved. Survivors return to their own worlds to begin building a society that is god-free.
An honest reader should be able to see here plainly the agenda of one who believes that religion, especially Christianity, is the problem and must be destroyed. The way Pullman does this is by turning the Christian faith inside-out and saying the rebel angels and Satan were right to oppose the tyrannical Deity, and after their defeat, did a noble thing by signing up the first humans to join their campaign of 'self-awareness' and freedom. But this is actually moving away from real freedom - the freedom to do what is right in love, not merely to do what feels good to me now. That's being a slave to one's own passion and selfish conceit.
What GK Chesterton said years ago is still true: When people stop believing in God, it isn't that they believe nothing - but they'll believe anything. Pullman will fool many people with his stylish prose and erudite Gnosticism by suggesting that God is the oppressor, the real Deity is not knowable, the serpent in Eden enlightened the first human pair with Wisdom, and matter and spirit are really the same so we should enjoy sexual pleasuring wherever we find it and at death be content to dissolve into oblivion.
Don't be suckered. Pullman, a militant atheist, believes the wrong side won the war in heaven. "I am of the Devil's party and I know it," he said in an interview, and elsewhere has said, "My books are about killing God." He is joining the trendy party begun by other atheist authors elevated to celebrities lately. But this time, the target is kids. His work is an answer to Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" and CS Lewis' "Chronicles of Narnia," fantasy stories that Pullman says he loathes -- precisely because they embody a Christian worldview and Christian virtues.
Let no one be fooled into thinking this is harmless entertainment. Values and worldviews are conveyed primarily by a culture's stories. And Pullman's story is driven by a virulent agenda imposed upon impressionable children and, perhaps, their poorly-catechized parents. With all the color and action and apparant heroism in the story, children will not be able to recognize it for the spiritual pornography that it is. Let's hope the adults will.
Saturday, April 5, 2008
Is there a right and a wrong way to cross oneself? And why do people touch their forehead, eyes and mouth at one point in the service?
Yes, there is. Roman Catholics use the right hand fingertips to touch, in sequence, the forehead, chest, left shoulder, then the right, while saying "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." It is, in a way, a brief Trinitarian prayer that also affirms the centrality of the cross. It can be a challenge for left-handers like myself! Greek Orthodox Christians touch the forehead and chest, but then the right shoulder first, then the left, and then bow deeply.
The use of the body, by the way, in kneeling, crossing, standing and so on is a way to get the entire person involved in worship - just like in the Old Testament. It is this continuity with the practices of the ancient Hebrews that I find interesting.
The other touching you describe comes with the announcement of the Gospel reading. It shows particular reverence for the Gospels where we read about Jesus and hear His actual words. Notice how only the priest is permitted to read it (the lay lectors can't), and how he carries the Book of the Gospels aloft from the altar to the podium while the congregation stands and sings "Alleluia". In some parishes, the altar servers flank the podium with lit candles, another symbolic act that displays special regard for the Gospels. People respond to this precious opportunity to hear Christ Himself by touching the right thumb to the forehead (an act that asks for the Word to illuminate our minds), the lips (that we may speak the Word aright to others) and the heart (that the Word of God and the Living Word, Christ, would dwell in our hearts). These parts are not just touched with the thumb tip but the thumb makes a tiny sign of the cross on those three places and the person says, "Glory to you, O Lord." As with all practices, many do it rotely without much thought. But for converts and anyone who is aware, it's a deeply meaningful prayer.
Friday, April 4, 2008
Thursday, April 3, 2008
The only requirement, as I understand it, is to participate in the "Sacrament of Reconciliation" -- and isn't that a nicer way to say it? -- once a year, in the Easter season. It is done before one's first communion as a new Catholic. It is not required before every communion (in fact, the reason there is a corporate confession in the Mass near the beginning is to sacramentally prepare everyone to receive Christ with a clean conscience). More frequent use of this sacrament - this 'contact point' with Christ - is encouraged. Some go every week, some monthly. I'm not there yet.
There are some who object to this practice completely, as you suggest, pointing to First John 1:9 and declaring that there is no need for a human priest or intermediary to hear a confession. While Catholics affirm the wonderful truth of that First John verse, they also take seriously Matthew 16:19 and John 20:22,23. These are verses I had always overlooked and avoided. But the meaning is plain. Christ entrusted to the apostles and their successors the authority to forgive sins in His name based on His all-sufficient merit. When a person meets a priest in this sacrament, he/she is meeting with Christ sacramentally. It is a scary - and powerful - and healing - encounter.
Historically speaking, early Christians were excluded from communion if they fell into sin (in keeping with First Corinthians 11:27 - you ARE looking up all the verses, right?) but upon repentance and restitution (if needed) they then proclaimed - ie, 'confessed' - to the priest that they were ready to participate once again. "Confession," in the way the ancient church used the word, was to PROFESS God's mercy.
The emphasis has changed over the years from imposing a 'penance' (like the rote reciting of a few memorized prayers - how empty) to assigning a positive action to heal any hurts caused and to improve one's plan to virtuously live the excellent life (a phrase Aristotle would have liked), and to grow toward Christlikeness. The idea isn't to somehow 'make up for' the sin - we can't - Christ paid the full price. The idea is to demonstrate a resolve to improve.
This is another good thing about the Church: there isn't this 'once saved always saved' attitude that can lead to bad behavior. Instead, there is a practical recognition that we still sin and fail and need to participate fully, cooperate fully, in the process of our full salvation. We must admit that there is a poor attitude among some Catholics that it's ok to sin as you please, since it can always be 'confessed.' These folks never read Romans 6, I guess. It's just as bad as the 'once saved always saved' business.
Maybe the sticking point is the religious word "salvation." This word appears next to the word "salvage" in a dictionary. Think of how a ship is salvaged, or a vintage car that has been left in a junkyard a long time. We have been salvaged from the depths of our ruin by the proper owner in a singular action (the cross and resurrection), but now we are in the longer process of being renewed to the beauty we were meant to have and restored to usefulness and our original purpose. This takes grinding and polishing - the grinding off of rust and mold and imperfections so we may be transformed into our intended state. That is what is going on in this sacramental practice.
"Salve" is the other word next to "salvation" in the dictionary, meaning to bring healing and wholeness. That's the other thing going on in this sacramental practice. I think it's a lovely thing.
Can you go to God directly? Yes. And we should. The Psalmist prays to God directly; King Hezekiah did; the publican did in the back row. But Christ Himself established this sacramental means by which we experience reconciliation with Him, and we who love Him - and wish to obey Him fully - take part in this practice with humble gratitude.