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The Locus of Hatred IV
Friday, October 15, 2010, 5:41 PM

     Last week, Congressman Barney Frank, long a member of the House Banking Committee and a common source of discussion on the radio up here in New England, made an extraordinary admission.  He said that some years ago when members of the Bush administration were suggesting that the federal lending agencies Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae were financially unsound, he was "blinkered by ideology" from seeing the truth.  Specifically, he said that he believed that the officials were motivated by racial discrimination.  He did not, however, draw any further conclusion from this remarkable suspicion of his.  To be precise, he did not ask whether this suspicion, if common among his fellows in the House, would not have sufficed to shut down discussion of the sub-prime mortgage market, for people in the public eye would prefer to contract typhoid fever than to be accused of racism.

     This causes me to ask how many political discussions we simply cannot have, because the fear of being accused of political evil stifles them before they begin.  Examples abound.  Can someone name a single public institution designed to help boys develop their identities as young men, so as to become responsible heads of households and pillars of their communities?  I can't either.  I can think of a private institution, the Boy Scouts, under constant pressure to do what Americans within living memory would have condemned as not only perverse but absurd, and that is to saddle the boys with scoutmasters, their role models, who have failed to grow into their bodily and spiritual manhood — men at odds with their own bodies, almost invariably because of cruelty and neglect they suffered when they were boys, from the most important males in their lives.  But we cannot talk about boys, because that would call into question everything that we have accepted about sex, and feminism, and single motherhood, and masculine violence.  Recently some six or seven boys, members of a gang, were arrested for their cruel attack upon another boy, one who had tried to join their gang, because they believed he was homosexual.  And the whole incident was conveniently stowed away under the pigeonhole marked "homophobia," foreclosing the obvious discussion that should have ensued.  After all, if the victim, a fourteen year old boy, really did feel ambiguous sexual attraction to other boys, that was, ironically and sadly enough, a result of the same neglect that caused his persecutors to form the gang in the first place.  In other words, we have a bloody crime wherein all the characters are motivated by the same desperate boyish need for affirmation and approval from other males.  But we cannot talk about that.

     I know that it is the silly season in America, but even at that the shallowness of political discourse is depressing.  Not only that, though, but the hatred — hatred that makes genuine debate impossible — surely should give the lie to the first tenet of the secularist creed, that only if we keep our religion behind closed doors will we be able to live in peace with one another.  The reverse is much closer to the truth: that is, if the miner and the mine owner, the professor and the janitor, the thief behind bars and the lawyer who should join him there, the proud man and the vain woman, the old man and the child, the ignorant teenager and his arrogant teacher, are to be united by anything, it can only be by something like a common faith.  It is instructive to check out the vicious comments that members of the electorate toss at one another at the tag-end of the usually simplistic political news report.  Meanwhile, expressions of our common life, expressions of simple decency, fall by the wayside.  A simple question: how often in the course of a year will a young boy or girl see someone displaying a part of the body that should not be displayed?  Rather more often than they will see, I don't know, someone blessing himself before his meal at a restaurant?

     Secularism is an aggressive form of enforced social dissolution.  Religious expression, or even moral disapproval, is to be shut away in the closet, so that various forms of antisocial behavior can come out — divorce, to lead the way.  Meanwhile, the secularists themselves have nothing to celebrate, once the opponents are swept aside.  They then proceed to prey upon one another.  Perhaps if Democrats and Republicans were found rather more often at worship together, they would not be so quick to see evil where the usual infirmity of human folly suffices to explain our troubles; and they might be quicker to acknowledge principles of good and evil that we must heed in our laws, regardless of our (always beneficent, don't you know) intentions.  I write this as a faithful Catholic whose choices in any election are that of voting for someone who affirms the fundamental right of human beings to live, and staying home.



Il Dolce Far Niente
Friday, October 8, 2010, 6:48 PM

     A silly song that one of my girl cousins used to sing has come to my mind lately:

     I do nothing, nothing, nothing,
     I do nothing all day long,
     I do absolutely nothing!
     How do you like my nothing song?

I'm thinking of it because Nothing seems to have undergone quite a transformation.  Back in the days when people were accustomed to thinking metaphysically, say in the time of Plato, or later, in the time of Augustine, or even later, in the time of Aquinas, Nothing was a pretty paltry character.  What were its characteristics?  It didn't have any, because if it had, then it would lose its title, and perhaps its sinecure in the Bureau for Nonexistents, as Nothing At All.  What could you predicate about Nothing?  Well, nothing.  Nothing could not, without embarrassing impropriety, appear as the subject of a sensible sentence, unless one really meant "Not any existent thing," which, as Nothing well knew, was not the same, semantically, as old bald Nothing.  Nothing had no properties.  But did it, oh did it have latent potencies?  Could Nothing, given the right upbringing or environment, suddenly blossom into Something?  No, sorry.  For if Nothing had potencies, then, yes, it would be Something, and not Nothing.

     A few weeks ago I stumbled upon an angry blogger who cried out, "Of course the universe came from Nothing!  It had to!"  And I had to say to myself, "Something fishy is going on here."  The only Nothing I ever knew — or rather the only Nothing I didn't know, because there never was anything to know about it — was not only under no obligations to produce universes, but could not meet those obligations even if they were illogically expected of it.  Being Nothing, you see, has its advantages.  Nothing could, to use a metaphor that has no just application whatsoever, laze about on a sunny slope of nonexistence, a kind of non-Tuscany, sipping white wine — very white, in fact.  But that was back in the good old days of straightforward materialism.  "Nothing can come from nothing!" cried out Lucretius, and that is why, he said, we must accept the perpetuity of the universe, and, along with that perpetuity, the most distressing corollary that all of this about us, the Vietnam War, rap music, Hillary Clinton, pet rocks, will happen all over again.  I would say that that was the prospect that drove Nietzsche mad, except that some good traveler had already brought him well on his way to that place.

     In any case, that was when Nothing was Nothing, and, being Nothing, could bring about nothing.  "What is so hard about that to understand?" I imagine the kindly old materialist saying.  But Lucretius did not foresee these latter days, when Nothing would come outfitted with the Laws of Physics, and a sheaf of mathematical equations, and latent potencies and probabilities — basically, with the whole universe hidden in his hip pocket.  "But you are not Nothing!" I shout.  "Shh," says the Impostor.  "If you blink, or look the other way, I can whip this Universe out of my pocket, and nobody will know the difference."  Ah, very strange.  Two thousand years ago I was told that Nothing can come from Nothing, and that was sensible enough; and now I am told not only that everything can come from Nothing, but that it absolutely has to, it being the incorrigible habit of Nothing to produce everything.

     But maybe I am letting ol' Lucretius off the hook a little too easily.  For he too smuggled in a Nothing that was strangely Not Nothing.  He says that all the world is made up of atoms and void.  The void, of course, is just empty space.  But that's mysterious, that "space".  What is it?  It is at least location.  Lucretius does say that the universe has to be infinite, because if there were an edge to it, and you stood there and cast a spear, well, where would the spear go to?  It would have to go somewhere; hence there is no edge.  But notice that that means there is some space, independent of the presence of matter.  It is just there — literally, right over there, don't you see it?  It is a Nothing that is Something, which is nothing if not a Contradiction.  Of course, he was wrong about that, just as he was wrong about the backwards perpetuity of the world; for space and time are characteristics of the Something we live in, as Augustine would point out, and that Something was created, and, ontologically if not also spatially and temporally, is finite.

     But can a Christian believe that nothing comes from nothing?  Oh yes, without question.  I believe it was one of the truths that Lactantius used to cast in the teeth of his pagan opponents.  The Soviets, mind you, understood the problem, and, just to make sure that nobody got the idea that the universe had a beginning, posited the utterly unverified theory of the Steady State universe.  The idea was that the universe would be minding its own business when — hey presto! — a particle would suddenly appear out of nothing, convenient for maintaining the universe in its Steady State.  All this was just another way of saying that the universe was Self-Existent and Necessary.  Now, with the fall of the Soviet Union, a fall devoutly wished by all right-thinking people, including even scientists slow on the moral uptake, we laugh and say that they had things wrong.  Now, we say that the universe is Self-Existent and Necessary because it just had to be the product of something utterly random happening to Nothing, sort of like a cosmic burp.  Which, the attentive reader will notice, is more than a Contradiction.  It is a Contradiction within a Contradiction.  For Nothing can happen to Nothing.  That is nothing other than what it means to be Nothing. 

     The blogger in question, by the way, got in a real pother, and said, "If you say that God made the universe, then who made God?"  And he went on to insist — probably angry because he had dropped his Bunsen burner — that only a five year old, and not a particularly bright one, would come up with the idea that some "anthropomorphic God" made the world.  I'll leave that silly bit about anthropomorphism be; one mustn't be too tough on people who drop their Bunsen burners, or whose batch of genetically altered bacteria has by accident entered the water supply.  I'll only note that those dull five year olds include people named Moses, Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Aristotle — you get the idea.  And it is the "Who made God?" question that is fit for a five year old.  Of said toddler's intelligence I have nothing to say; it is possible he is just an inattentive brat.  Attend: when we use the word "God," we mean that Being who possesses existence by his very essence; he is the necessary Being, upon whom all contingent beings depend, including such contingent beings as, for example, this here sheaf of equations that describe the behavior of that there bag of particles.  I will not say that the rebuff, "Who made God?" is to argue in a circle, because circular motion implies departure from a point, and the rebuff does not depart from the point at all; it seems not to have understood the point in the first place.

     When we say, "God created from nothing," or, more properly, "God creates from nothing," we do not at all mean to imply that there is a Something-Nothing out there, waiting for — ping! — creation.  God does not use some fructifying Nothing to create Something from.  What we mean is that God creates, and that there is nothing which He has not created; that all things owe their existence, which is contingent, to His existence, which He possesses by His Being; that there is nothing about us that, in its own right, exists necessarily, but all depend, including marigolds and differential equations and chihuahuas and the Horsehead Nebula, upon His creative and loving will.

     It is a fine truth to contemplate, while sipping contingent but nevertheless real wine on a hillside in Tuscany, during this brief but blessed time when there is such a place as Tuscany.  I, alas, am in Rhode Island — but then, I never said that our beatitude was here.

The Locus of Hatred, Part 3
Sunday, October 3, 2010, 7:28 PM

    Or, as Father Edward Leen puts it, "The Church Before Pilate."

     "Do not be surprised," said Jesus to his disciples, "should the world reject you, for they have first rejected me."  Why is that?  Is this not a terrible mystery?  Yes, it was prophesied by Isaiah that the anointed of God would be despised of men, reckoned of no account.  The cry of the Psalmist echoes on Calvary, as the people wag their heads in scorn, and cast lots for their own savior's garments.  "Let us beset the just man," say the wicked in the Book of Wisdom, reasoning that God does not see them, and that, since the life of man is short, they might as well seize what riches and pleasure they can, while they can.

     What can explain the hatred of the holy?  The quickest answer, I suppose, is that the holy challenges us to change our lives, and we do not want to do that.  As long as Christ stands before us, with his undeceivable eyes fixed upon our hearts, we stand convicted; and it surely is a disconcerting thing, to be convicted by the convict, to have to submit to the lawgiver who so boldly dispenses with our unjust laws.   If we are a Pontius Pilate, that incompetent bureaucrat with the streak of cruelty, we fear our loss of face; if we yield to the fury of the leaders of the people, we look small and manipulable, but if we yield to the innocence of the holy man standing before us, we dwindle to nothing at all.  Those words, "My kingdom is not of this world," ring in the ear, and at once we scorn them as madness, and wonder what sort of kingdom there could be, in comparison with which Rome itself would be dust.  We have our power, and do not want to become as slaves.  We are robed in glory, and do not want to be stripped naked.  All men speak well of us, at least to our faces, and we do not want to be mocked.  We have our fill of good things, and do not want to go hungry.  We are rich in our own eyes, and do not want to behold the desert in our souls.

     But I cannot help but think there is more.  It was envy, says the writer of Wisdom, that moved Satan to bring sin into the world.  Envy, as Thomas Aquinas defines it, is a species of hatred; in its pure state it is the hatred of someone else's spiritual good.  The faithful Christian may well overlook such a motive in his critics, first because he is far more likely, not less, than his critics are to admit his sins, and second because, living as he does in an anticulture wherein "reason" is reduced to the calculative faculty, he all too quickly will assume that his critic's faithlessness is a matter of the head only and not the heart, the core of his being.  Consider, though, for example, what could possibly move someone to call a Mother Teresa "Hell's Angel."  Consider what could make someone want to believe that Mother Teresa's long years of spiritual darkness, such as have been experienced by the very greatest of saints, were proof of her infidelity.  As if her prayers had not been answered — as if it had never happened, that this sole nun from Albania, in a few decades, among people neither rich nor known for their almsgiving, should have been the Lord's instrument for building hospitals, orphanages, schools, and leprosaria, not only in India but in all those nations where her thousands of followers, in their six hundred and fifty houses, labor.  And more than those institutions of assistance to the poor, she brought them, as she taught her sisters continually, the riches of a smile, a gentle hand, a kindly look, those things too small for the worldly mind to remember, yet things of inestimable value to the poor and the sick and the dying.  How can one behold what Mother Teresa did and not stand in amazement at the wondrous gift of love?

     There is a prayer banner hanging in a school in nearby Cranston, with that general sort of appeal to God that would offend no one of any faith.  Or there was; an atheist has sued to have it removed, though it has hung there for more than forty years without controversy.  Why?  People once jested that a Puritan was someone terrified that somewhere, somebody was having fun.  That does an injustice to the Puritan fathers, but there is something reductive and puritanical in those whose idea of righteousness is to ensure that no one in public will be paying homage to the righteousness of God.  I recall that when I was a boy, during the three months wherein I attended a public school, we sang "Praise to the Lord," accompanied at the piano by old Mrs. McAndrews.  That was several years after such hymns had been proscribed by the Supreme Court; but the people who ran the grade school in my town apparently had said to themselves, "They and whose army?"  Is there anyone who really will care to insist that singing "Praise to the Lord" had harmed a century of second-graders in little old Archbald, Pennsylvania?  Where exactly was the harm?  Were children who believed that the moral law was founded in the power and the love of a divine Lawgiver more likely to steal, to cheat, to fornicate, to squander their means, or to live entirely for pleasure or prestige?  As Jesse Jackson once trenchantly said, if you are walking down a dark street in a city and hear the laughter of three or four young men approaching you, would you not be comforted to know that they have just come from a Bible study?  Or will it be seriously objected that the harm was intellectual, not moral?  If so, it is an odd sort of harm indeed whose sufferers number Dante, Chaucer, Augustine, Aquinas, Shakespeare, Milton, Bach, Mozart, and Michelangelo. 

     We should never underestimate the power of envy.  Those who hate the church are like rickety boys watching a pickup game of football from the kitchen window, despising the vulgar game and the stupid fellows playing it, and longing for that human communion, and the joy it so evidently brings.  So the rickety boy will look upon a Pope Benedict — a intellectual titan possessed of the wonder of a child — and call him a "villain in a white frock," seething and sulking, while thousands of people line the streets to see him.  There are things, Chesterton is fond of reminding us, that are too big to see.  Yes, a rock star might pack thousands in a stadium, to hear music for the mobs; but where, if not among the faithful, can you find a single man like Benedict, old and frail, with a heavy German accent and a voice barely above a whisper, bringing joy to thousands, encouraging them to love one another — as Christ has loved them?  Yet even if only one person had heard the message, that we find ourselves by losing ourselves, and that only love, the heartfelt giving of oneself, will set us free, would that not be wondrous?

     What should you do, when your envious neighbor asks you to wipe that smile off your face, and keep your happiness to yourself?  I think the answer is simple.  You celebrate all the more.  If a prayer muttered by a single person is too much to bear, then let us lighten the load by praying together, two or three or five hundred.  If a single banner hung with cobwebs is too bold, then let two or three or five hundred bear the cross on their chests.  If a single hymn sung within the squat confines of a schoolroom is too much for the tender nerves, then let two or three or five hundred sing outdoors, beneath the sky, shamelessly and foolishly, for all to hear.  Outdoors, in the marketplace, wherever people gather, let us celebrate, and then, by the grace of God, that lonesome and envious soul may turn, and ask, "May I celebrate too?"

The Locus of Hatred, Part 2
Monday, September 27, 2010, 7:05 PM

     Or: Satan is a subtractor.

     This summer, my daughter and I did some traveling in the upcountry of Sweden, among the hills and the lakes of the province of Dalarna.  The people of Dalarna are known among the Swedes as being tenaciously traditional, still carving their lovely Dala horses, and, in the north of the province, still speaking Aelvdalsk, a language somewhere between Swedish and Old Icelandic.  There I made the delightful discovery that the Aelvdalsk word for "moon" is tungol, which word is incomprehensible to the typical Swede, but would have been readily understood by King Alfred the Great.  We also saw plenty of old "church boats" in the area around Lake Siljan.  In the old days, said a tourist information sign with that necessary shade of snideness, back when church attendance was "obligatory" — the scare quotes were theirs, not mine — people would have to go to service by means of these long boats.  It did not occur to the crafter of the sign that, if the people did not actually want to attend church, it would have taken a great deal more than a boat to get them there.  Nor that the church was at the heart of who they were as a people; what they believed in, how they lived, what brought them joy and peace, and what inspired their art.

     For it did inspire their art.  The Dalarna style of decoration is playful and luxuriant, and such paintings one will often see on the walls and ceilings of the churches in the province.  We saw, for example, a painting of Jonah preaching at Nineveh.  The text of the painting, in Gothic lettering, ran in a square frame all the way around, with the scene in the middle: a balcony of a castle, with the prophet in Dala costume, preaching to the people below, just like a bishop come to town.  We saw another painting, of David and Goliath, with David in knickers, and Goliath looking for all the world like some beefy Lapplander come down to trouble the common folk of Dalarna.  Many of the paintings were rich in detail and sophisticated in coloring and composition; so much so, that the unknown fellow who festooned the ceilings of one small village church is simply known as the Master of Vyka.

     But in some churches there were no paintings at all.  In one of those, I looked up and saw some shadowy shapes on the ceiling, and said to my daughter, "There are only three possibilities here.  Either I am seeing things, or there is mildew up there, or someone has whitewashed over the paintings."  Later, when we had lunch with a retired pastor of the Swedish Church, I was told that I had guessed right.  "During the Enlightenment," he said, "some people got the notion that there should be no images at all in church, so they painted over the ceilings and the walls."  So it was that "enlightened" Christians, looking down upon their own fellow Christians, obliterated irreplaceable works of folk art, works that would now be classified as nothing short of priceless.

     So that period of ingratitude and myopia had been on my mind, when I came upon an article in an old issue of Modern Age, on German poetry and fiction in the mid-nineteenth century.  The author mentioned three authors in particular.  One, Eduard Moerike, I had always considered a lyric poet of the highest rank, every bit as fine in that metier as Hoelderlin or Goethe; the second, Annette von Droste-Huelshoff, is probably the greatest woman writer in German; the third, Adalbert Stifter, the focus of the article, was a novelist I had not heard of, but apparently quite famous in Germany.  What the three authors had in common was a Christian vision of the world (Moerike was, the author said, a rather unhappy Lutheran pastor; Droste-Huelshoff was devoutly Catholic) and attention to common people, living ordinary lives.  They tried to examine the hearts not of great intellectuals and statesmen, or roving rebels, but farmers, housewives, carpenters, teachers (the poem by Moerike that I remember best is a dramatic epistle written by a girl, Erinna, to Sappho — or is it the other way around, now? — and broaches no great Hegelian movements of mind and culture, but reveals what such a young woman might feel, at the separation of her friend).  For their pains, they were scorned by the illuminati of the time, as "Biedermeyer" authors, from "Biedermann," the elite's name for middle class, narrowminded, unimaginative, moneymaking squares.

     It strikes me that you can see the same phenomenon in the naming of historical and artistic epochs.  Who was it who first called the time between Constantine and Michelangelo the "Middle Ages"?  I don't know, but it was meant as a term of scorn, as if nothing worth mentioning happened then.  Ah, nothing but the creation of Europe, and of a vibrant and revolutionary Christian culture; the invention of the university; the preservation and recovery of ancient learning; the decisive turn away from ancient pessimism, in the Christian declaration that the world about us is good; the breaking of the power of the ruling class, so that a mere priest named Ambrose could excommunicate an emperor for indulging his armies in a massacre at Thessalonika, a thousand miles away; the revival of poetry on a grand scale, giving us poets the like of which the world had never seen, in Dante and Chaucer; and true folk art, not by a Phidias directing the labor of artisans and slaves, as they flute the columns of the Parthenon, but by unknown masons and carpenters and glaziers from one end of Europe to the other.  When one actually encounters the poetry of Dante, or the art of Chartres Cathedral, or even the amiable alliterative lines of the anonymous Gawain poet, one knows that one is in the presence of artists whose work is breathtakingly complex and intricate, at the same time as it is meant to appeal to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear.  Pearl, by the same poet who wrote Sir Gawain, is, besides being a profound meditation on human suffering and on the mercy of Jesus, probably the greatest work of technical virtuosity in all of English poetry — the heroic couplets of Pope and Dryden, lapidary though they may be, look rather staid by comparison.  Yet those were the "Middle Ages," when nothing of note was done.

     The contempt of the illuminati did not stop with the Middle Ages, of course.  The term "baroque" was used to sniff at the tumultuous and emotional art of the late Renaissance; it means, roughly, "grotesque stuff coming from some cave or other."  The effrontery is simply astonishing.  Let us take painting for example.  I admire the portraits of Sir Joshua Reynolds and Gilbert Stuart well enough, but they, in their classical decorum, could not touch — for sheer human depth, let alone for insight into the divine — any number of portraits by Rembrandt, as for instance his impressionistic portrait of Jesus, disappointed in sinful mankind, yet infinitely patient.  I can put up with the paintings of David — I actually like The Death of Marat a great deal; but for compositional audacity and theological depth he cannot be admitted to the same studio with Tintoretto's Annunciation, with the angel Gabriel bursting through the breach in the wall of a broken world.  But the Baroque period, we are to believe, was a time of the crazy and the bizarre, merely.  (It required the genius of the Catholic Mozart, I believe, to recall that wild Lutheran fellow Bach to his proper place as the greatest composer who ever lived.)  It was also — not coincidentally — an efflorescence of a genuinely Christian and still more or less popular culture.  Perhaps the whole attitude of the illuminati could be seen in that paradigmatic "New Testament" of Jefferson's, with the miracles cut out.

     Modernity may be but the enshrinement and institutionalization of these habits of subtraction.  I find it hard to read much modern fiction, not because it is difficult — it is sometimes obscure, but rarely difficult — but because I miss the hundred things going on in a poem by Spenser, or in a novel by someone as late as Dickens.  I look at a modern building — I am thinking of the downtown of Stamford, Connecticut.  The city has been invaded by the aliens of high finance, who have built huge steel and glass towers, dwarfing a local neo-Gothic Irish church.  Where is the true humanity to be found?  The church humbles, and exalts; the steel and glass towers rise up in pride, and humiliate.  Perhaps that is what most modern architecture is meant to do: to revel in sheer institutional power, in bigness for its own sake, in vastness, in featurelessness, in utter detachment from such lowly things as people, and their loves, and their history; and yet what is it all but streamlined, mechanical, and subtractive?  John Ruskin wrote that every corner of a Gothic cathedral is devoted to play.  You can't turn anywhere without seeing a googly-eyed gargoyle, or a bunch of lemons, or a woman plying her wool, or a saint, or a sinner.  When, in the history of the world, have unnamed artisans by the thousands been freer to sculpt or paint as their hearts and minds led them?

     And then I turn to philosophy and theology.  I think of a current philosophy professor at Princeton, who says that the only things that count, morally, are pleasure and pain, and that therefore all carnivores should be eliminated.  That, besides being absurd and ungrateful and blind to sheer beauty, is rather like a bare brick wall, no complexity, no great craftsmanship, no imagination, no real encounter with the world, no wonder at the fundamental goodness of being.  How barren, how simplistic, how jejune, how drab and gray and petty, compared with a single page of Thomas Aquinas, he who was interested in everything, visible and invisible!  Our Christian heritage is astonishingly rich; and when we turn away from it, we get blank walls; we get people whose only adverb is only.  Then I ask, "Why would anyone wish to subtract from the grandeur of man?"  The answer is straightforward enough.  When a member of the illuminati, of the ruling class, says, "Man is only an animal," or whatever else he uses for the predicate nominative, depending upon the fashions of the day, what he really means is that you and I are only animals, and that therefore he, as he is possessed of such great intelligence, may do with us as he pleases.  Some people vote for higher taxes on everyone, because their own incomes derive from tax revenues; so too some people "vote" to demean and demote mankind, because their power and prestige derive from the demotion.  They add — for themselves — by subtracting.

The Locus of Hatred, Part 1
Sunday, September 19, 2010, 7:53 PM

    It is a commonplace among our ruling class that religion is irrational and inherently divisive, fostering hatred of one group for another.  On the rationality of religious faith, Christian philosophers and theologians have long spoken, and I am not going to repeat their arguments here.  It is the supposed tendency to divide and to foster hatred that puzzles me.

     Let us leave Islam out of consideration, and the largely defensive wars waged by Europeans against Islamic aggression.  Where are the religious wars in human history?  Name them.  Not Greece against Persia, not Athens against Sparta, not Rome against Carthage, not the Germanic invaders against Rome.  Where are all the religious wars?  In the Middle Ages, the Church, in lay movements such as the Truce of God and the Peace of God, served to restrain the violence of the ruling class.  Yes, medieval city warred against city, but the warfare was not religious, nor was it inspired by religion when in the late Renaissance, Catholic France under Richelieu cast her lot with the Protestant Scandinavians against their common foe, the Hapsburg empire.  That Thirty Years' War is the best candidate for a truly religious European war, and it is no doubt the one remembered most keenly by the philosophes of the eighteenth century.  But England continued to war against France, not over religion but over control of various colonies.  Name, one after another, every war waged by England, France, Spain, Germany, or Italy from the Thirty Years' War until the present, and you will find much bloodshed, but not because of religious hatred. 

     I look at the last hundred years, and see hatred wherever a European people has turned away from its Christian heritage, to exalt some idol in the place of God.  Look at Albania, that miserable nation.  Look at the gulags in the Soviet Union, or the forcible elimination of Confucian piety under Mao's cultural revolution.  How many millions of people died of starvation in the Ukraine under Stalin, while the ruling class in America, represented by the liar Walter Duranty, looked demurely away?  How many people of both parties in America, people of the ruling class again, whose religious faith was rather in "progress" than in Jesus Christ, looked benignly upon the rise of the nationalist Hitler, and praised his clear grasp upon the problems of population and eugenics?  How many people of that same ruling class still give Mao a free pass, or forgive the dictator Castro for his excesses now and then?  Spanish Catholics are loathed for having favored the nationalist Franco rather than the communists in the Spanish civil war — and what were they supposed to do, when the communists were murdering priests and nuns, as they had done shortly before, in Mexico? 

     Where is the hatred?  Yes, you can find sinners everywhere, including such great clerical haters as Father Coughlin and Reverend Paisley.  But look, in America, at what the hater John Dewey did to public education — he who helped introduce Marxism into China.  No qualms of conscience over that one?  Students had been praying in our public schools for many generations, and if there was in many places a distinct Protestant cast to their prayer, yet somehow or other people dealt with it in a civil manner; I know of not one violent confrontation over it, in all of American history.  Yet what was it but hatred that motivated Angela Davis, and Madeleine Murry O'Hair?  She who, when her son converted to Christianity, refused to speak to him ever again, saying that she was not bound to forgive, because she was not Christian. 

     Let's suppose that you deny the transcendent worth of every human being.  Suppose also that you deny that this life is a pilgrimage to God.  Then you are bound to see your political opponents here as threatening "progress" itself, and if you deny, to boot, that moral good and evil are discernible by right reason — if you deny the natural law — then you have no recourse but to lash out against your opponents.  And the quickest and easiest thing to do is to embroil yourself in hate-filled accusations of hatred.  I don't derive any pleasure from this observation; I am trying to understand how a Christopher Hitchens can call Mother Teresa "Hell's Angel," or cry out, when the mild-mannered George Rutler calls him out for public obscenity, that the Monsignor should go sodomize some little boy.  Or how, when James Dobson fell ill of a stroke a few years ago, the proponents of the homosexual agenda should have reacted with glee.  I know that there are haters on the political right, too.  But the belief that each person is loved infinitely by God tends to, well, cause the believer to behave accordingly, at least some of the time.  Plenty of the English hate Pope Benedict, but Pope Benedict seems not to hate anybody at all.  Plenty of people hated Pope John Paul II, but he was sternest with the communist puppets like Jaruszelski, who were oppressing his countrymen, and with schismatics on the Catholic right.  He too was not a man of hatred. 

      Why is not politics, especially politics as religion, seen as the locus of hatred?  If irreligion is unitive, why is the academy a snake pit of envy and backstabbing and internecine strife?  I cannot hate my political opponent — I cannot hate Bill Clinton — because politics just is not that important to me; it would be like hating someone for being wrong about fiscal policy.  Well, someone may be wrong about fiscal policy, but I'm not going to wish the gallows on him for it.  And conversely, where is that love unto death to be found — the love that will move someone to toss everything he loves away, even his life?  Not in the academy, not among the ruling class, not in the halls of Washington.  See the man upon the cross.  He is the answer to our questions; not a philosophy, not an ideology, but a Person.  And his arms are thrown wide, for all to come to him.


What’s in a Number?
Wednesday, September 8, 2010, 5:13 PM

People who know me well know that my first love was not poetry, but mathematics.  In fact, I typically see my love of poetry in more or less mathematical terms, which may not be the best way to look at poetry — indeed, I'm now persuaded that it is utterly inadequate — but still, it's a link between me and the architects of medieval and Renaissance verse, not to mention the architects of medieval and Renaissance churches.  So I dabble now and again in pointless problems.  What is the length of the diagonal of a regular heptagon, with side 1?  How many triangles will you get if you connect all the vertices of a regular polygon of n sides?  I solved that last one many years ago, but I've forgotten the solution, which was kind of cute.  I'll also perform pointless calculations in my head, sometimes when I have trouble sleeping, like squaring a four digit number, or coming up with the prime factorization of a four or five digit number, or calculating a square root with a method of approximation and exhaustion.  I tease my students by telling them I can calculate, in a few seconds, the remainder, accurate to as many decimal places as they like, when their Social Security numbers are divided by 37.  As I said, it's pointless, and there are calculating people who make what I do look like tic-tac-toe.

Still, I've been thinking about numbers lately.  Perhaps it's the fine article by our good rivals at First Things, on the mathematics and the faith of that positivism-destroyer, Kurt Goedel.  Let me give an example.  We learned in high school that, on earth, the distance that a falling object will travel (in a vacuum, and try to get one of those) is given by the formula d = 16t(2), with distance measured in feet and time in seconds.  The meaning of the formula is, more or less, that the acceleration of the object varies directly with the velocity; that the plot of the function giving the acceleration from the velocity will be a line.

Now, that intrigues me.  First of all, the line is a mathematical object, an abstraction.  It is not to be found in nature, strictly speaking, nor are points and circles, for that matter.  I confess I am a Platonist when it comes to mathematical objects.  I believe they have real existence.  What I don't believe is that they exhaustively describe what goes on in the world.  That puts me at odds, I know, with the modern allergy against metaphysics, an allergy which causes people to deny that mathematical objects have real existence, but to insist that everything in the world "obeys" these things; a conjunction of beliefs I find incoherent.

Anyway, when I think about it, I am compelled to conclude that every unit in that formula, d and t and the superscript 2 and the 16, is fraught with metaphysical and physical complications.  Let's take the 16, for example.  Of course everyone will readily concede that it is only an approximation.  But I have two problems with it, even at that.  The first is the assumption that the number, whatever it is, is invariable.  I don't see that — because, first, the object falling, and the earth itself, are not invariable; they are in continual change.  But also, the gravitational force, whatever that is, is not the only force acting on the bodies approaching one another (the ball, let's say, and the earth).  It is of course convenient for most purposes to ignore these other forces, but when the task is to determine with exactitude just what the rate of falling will be for such and such an object in a vacuum approaching such and such another object, I don't see that the other forces can be ruled out.  Remember, what we want here is not an approximation, however useful that would be, but the actual law, with the actual specific constant (which we only approximate with 16).  That's because we are doing more than applied physics here.

There's another problem, one that I've never seen addressed, though I admit I don't read up on these things.  That's whether the actual number, whatever it is, can be specified.  I divide all numbers into two groups: the expressible, and the inexpressible.  All rational numbers, and many irrational numbers, are expressible in some finite form.  That is, the sum of the series 1/x(2) ln x, with x going from 1 to infinity, is a particular and expressible number.  The square root of 2 is an expressible number. 

Now here's where the problem grows interesting.  I conjecture that there is a qualitative difference between the number of expressible numbers and the number of inexpressible numbers.  That is, each way we have of expressing a number is a discrete way, whether it involves a summation sign or a root sign or whatever.  Let the number of these discrete ways be infinite.  Still, they are what is called countably infinite, and the numbers we can express by their means will also be countably infinite.  Now, all countably infinite sets are equal in size.  This is counterintuitive, but provably true; there are no more rational numbers than there are integers; and I am conjecturing that there are no more expressible numbers than there are integers.  If this is so, then the number of inexpressible numbers is uncountably infinite.  Let us suppose you take the composite set of expressible and inexpressible numbers.  What is the chance, if you pick a number at random, that you will pick one that can be expressed in some finite form?  Well, the chance is, for all practical purposes, zero; it is lower than any number, no matter how much thinly greater than zero you want to propose; lower than a millionth, lower than a trillionth, lower than a zillionth.

The result of this is that that constant, which we approximate with the number 16, is really unknowable, undiscoverable.  We believe that it exists, but we cannot tell what it is.  Does it matter what it is?  Yes, I believe; the smallest variation in that number will eventually produce a variant result.  But note the metaphysical problem here — one which people of faith will cheerfully embrace.  An unknowable number is involved in a "law" which describes the behavior of matter.  Whence this number, and whence this law?  Matter alone is incapable of saying; mathematics too is incapable. 

That's as I see it, anyway.

Ecclesiastical Homeopathy
Monday, September 6, 2010, 10:15 PM

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a lecture — nearly two hours long, without intermission, and without the usual ad lib digressions into humor — on "What Will — and What Will Surely Not — Save the Church."  Of course the question is absurd, as I finally declared, one hour after shooting down five of everyone's favorite remedies.  There is no "what" that will save the Church.  God alone saves the Church.  That fact struck the CBC reporter who called me the next day, looking for a laundry list of political objectives, as something of a surprise.  She seemed to believe that it was open question, whether the Church was going to survive.  "Oh, there's no doubt about that," I said, feeling irrepressibly cheerful.  "We have the guarantee of Jesus Christ!"  The real question she should have asked, I wanted to reply but restrained myself, was whether Canada or any nation so conceived — or rather, so unconceived, so culturally eviscerated by the worship of individual "choice" — can long survive.  I did not break out into a rendition of the refrain to the Canadian national anthem, whose text in French is boldly Christian, but in English fussily avoids any reference to carrying the Cross.  My rendition would have gone thus:

O Canada, you're here to stay,
Big, rich, and dumb, just like the USA!
O Canada, you're like the USA.

If nations survive by raising up heroes, who are willing to shed their blood to defend what their countrymen hold dear (this assumes, note well, that there are people who are recognizably one's countrymen, and that they love something dearly), then it should not surprise us that God, who alone saves the Church, should do so by raising up saints, those astonishing loser-take-all witnesses to the holiness of God and to his abundant mercies.  Who would know a thing about Assisi, were it not for the poor little brother Francis?  Ars was but a backwater village with an empty church, till the hardheaded John Vianney turned it into a place where the faithful and the wavering, the saintly and the snide, the devout and the curious, came by the thousands, to speak to the simple man, to confess their sins, and to be made whole again. 

Nothing else will do but holiness, which is just another way of saying that God wants all from us, because anything less is a sin against love.  Yet we persist in thinking that something else will save.  If only we had women priests!  If only we could use the pill!  Thus we practice what I call Ecclesiastical Homeopathy.  You take up your shotgun, aim at your left foot, and fire.  Then you pray that the Lord will make you whole.  When no miracle is forthcoming, you declare that God really wants you to be lame, that in fact "lameness is a great gift of the Holy Spirit, in the New Pentecost."  So you pick up the shotgun again and blow the other foot to splinters too, to make the cure complete.

"Be ye holy," said Jesus, "even as your Father in heaven is holy."  That we cannot do, unless we accept the grace of God; but grace upon grace is given to us, if we would but humbly submit to it, knowing that on our own we can accomplish nothing, or rather we accomplish only destruction, but that we can do all things in Christ who strengthens us.

The Inverse Martyr Rule
Friday, September 3, 2010, 3:13 PM

     Tertullian famously said that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. It should not surprise us that it is so. When Jesus poured out his precious blood for us upon Golgotha, crying out, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani,” he experienced the depth of dereliction, and in that very emptying, that ultimate humbling, that engagement with nothingness, he was at one with the Father. Recall the moment of creation, when the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters of nothing. Then, by the Word, the Father said, “Yehi 'or,” “Let there be light,” and in the terse and simple Hebrew, changing tenses after the connective, “yehi 'or,” “there was light.”

     That the eternal and incorporeal God should have humbled himself, as it were, to create bodily things that pass into and out of being, in time, was a tremendous victory, a communication of his life and his glory. That he then should, in George Herbert's words, “give dust a tongue,” making corporeal man in his image and likeness, was yet another victory. Christian poets have long celebrated it, and have seen that Satan and his minions would recoil from it in disgust. Says Tasso's Satan, as the climax of his grudges against God, “Then man the vile, born of vile mud, He invites / To rise instead to those celestial heights!” So too Lewis's Screwtape hates the humility of flesh, and fairly writhes in disgust to think of the little grunts of pleasure we give when we take off our sodden and uncomfortable clothes, to soak in a hot bath – and to think, moreover, of the joy we will feel when we shuck the scabby husk of sin, to stand nakedly ourselves before the holy angels, and before Christ.

     The blood of the martyrs, then, is the seed of the Church, and that is not because people look upon them and are struck with their courage and their joy, though that may well happen. It is because martyrdom is the very form of our becoming like unto Christ. Except a grain of corn fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but when we descend, in obedience, we rise. Every apparent defeat suffered by obedience is in fact a victory, and the greatest and exemplary victory was won upon the morning after the Sabbath, after the victory of the Cross.

     I have been thinking lately that there is a corollary we can draw from Tertullian. It is that the sweat of the antimartyr is poison for the Church. The antimartyr is what we are all in danger of becoming, when we forget the devastating and wholly salutary words of the Baptist, “He must increase, and I must decrease.” The antimartyr is not necessarily someone who hates the Church, or who seeks to spread paganism across the land. He is one, as I see it, who testifies to himself – one for whom the Church has become a means for the aggrandizement of himself. As I said, this is a grave danger, and one that writers like me had better be wary of! What keeps us in line is a humble submission to authority – spiritual direction, perhaps, but mostly an attitude of obedience, which means that we will say little but listen much, pondering things like Mary. I could then posit the Inverse Martyr Rule, thus. Every apparent victory attained by disobedience is in fact a defeat. The history of various orders in my church, the Roman Catholic, in the last several decades, could provide plenty of rich examples.

On Second Thought … Another Movie List
Thursday, June 10, 2010, 6:43 PM

     Thanks to all who have recommended movies embodying the Christian vision of the world — many of those movies I've never seen, especially the foreign-made, and so I have something to look forward to.  In the meantime, I'd like to revise my former list, thus — and place an asterisk next to movies that I especially like, and that are rarely seen or talked about.  Again, this list is unranked, and includes only movies I have actually watched:

1. The Passion of the Christ.  Worth seeing just for the theologically judicious flashbacks.

2. Ben-Hur (William Wyler).  Incomparable score.  Stephen Boyd as the malign Messala steals every scene he's in.  A movie about the triumph of the Word of God, victorious in death.

3. Jesus of Nazareth (Franco Zeffirelli).  Everybody's in this movie, but then, almost everybody's really good in this movie, from Anne Bancroft (Mary Magdalene) to Christopher Plummer (Herod Antipas) to Ian Holm (the evil Pharisee Zerah).  Robert Powell as Jesus is a tad on the emaciated side, but riveting.

4. The Ten Commandments.  Hey, you can't beat Yul Brynner saying, "Moses, Moses, Moses!"

5. The Greatest Story Ever Told (George Stevens).  A bit overdone, like most Biblical epics, but I like it anyway, and Max von Sydow is excellent.

*6. Friendly Persuasion (William Wyler).  Quakers out west.  Gary Cooper is superb.

7. Stagecoach (John Ford).  The movie that defined westerns for three decades.  John Wayne ends the movie by taking the former prostitute Dallas out to a ranch outside the town and the Ladies' Temperance League.

*8. How Green Was My Valley (John Ford).  The chronicle of the slow withering of a Welsh mining community.  Walter Pidgeon plays a bluff and earnest young preacher, whom half the town despises for his not preaching enough hell fire.  Maureen O'Hara is the young woman who loves him.  Roddy McDowall is the boy Huw, through whose eyes the story is told.  Donald Crisp as the patriarch of the Morgan family is unsurpassable — as is the actress, whose name I can't remember, who plays his wife.

9. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford).  The dark western in which the good and self-sacrificing man does not get the girl — in fact gives up everything that means most to him in life.  John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart are the suitors, and Lee Marvin the bad man.

10. The Searchers (John Ford).  Either this or the previous movie is the greatest western ever made.  A man eaten up with hate and the desire for revenge (John Wayne) must come to terms with the truth.

11. High Noon (Howard Hawks — I think).  Gary Cooper plays the sheriff of a town who has to do the right thing even when his deputy (Lloyd Bridges) and his best "friend" among the town's elders (Thomas Mitchell) either turn against him or give him no support.

12. Shane.  A man comes to town who knows how to fight and how to shoot — and helps the embattled farmers hold their own against ranchers that want to drive them off the land.  One of the best "boy" movies ever made.  I could have chosen instead Angel and the Badman, wherein John Wayne is brought round to goodness and faith by a village of Quakers.

*13.  A Tale of Two Cities.  Ronald Coleman as the drunkard lawyer Sydney Carton is perfect; he can say more with a look on his face than most actors can in a week of movies.  When he makes his fateful decision in the end, a plaque on the mantel behind him reads, "I am the Resurrection and the Life."  Also great is Edna Mae Oliver (who was in everything; see Guns Along the Mohawk) as the kindly battleaxe Miss Pross.

*14. Penny Serenade.  A heartbreaking movie about a marriage that is on the rocks.  Cary Grant and Irene Dunne play a couple who lose their beloved little daughter, and then grow apart from one another.  Edgar Buchanan (Uncle Joe in the TV show Petticoat Junction) is spot-on as their old friend and business associate — who teaches Cary Grant how to change a diaper.  This one's not to miss.

15. It Happened One Night (Frank Capra).  Clark Gable, the hardscrabble news reporter, wins the girl, Claudette Colbert, who is fleeing from an arranged marriage with a man from high society.

16. It's a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra).  Everybody knows about this one — a movie about the goodness of not pursuing your dreams!

17. You Can't Take It With You (Frank Capra).  In this one, Lionel Barrymore — Mr. Potter in the previous movie — is the good guy, a rich man who retires from the world to pursue human interests, along with the rest of his family of wise fools.

*18. Lady for a Day (Frank Capra).  A poor old woman has been pretending, to her daughter who lives overseas, that she is a rich socialite; then the daughter comes to visit.

*19. The Inn of the Sixth Happiness.  Ingrid Bergman is magnificent as a strong-willed missionary to China who wins the respect of the people and of the local mandarin ruler (Robert Donat).  Features one of the great final scenes in all film history.

20. The Bells of Saint Mary's.  The better of the two Bing Crosby / Father O'Malley movies, though Going My Way has its final surprise — when the director brought Barry Fitzgerald's nonagenarian mother from Ireland, without Fitzgerald's knowing it.  Anyway, you can't beat Ingrid Bergman as the sister who runs the school (and learns a little bit of boxing, too).

21. The Sound of Music.  Everyone knows this one …

*22. Marty.  Ernest Borgnine is a butcher whose mother and brother and pals don't want him to marry the plain-looking girl he has fallen in love with.

23. On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan).  Marlon Brando walks the Via Dolorosa.  You can't beat the cast in this movie: Lee J. Cobb as the corrupt union boss, Rod Steiger as Brando's compromised brother Charlie, Eva Marie Saint as the young woman whose brother was killed by the union thugs, and Karl Malden as the priest who rouses the men to action — in Hollywood's finest portrayal of a priest.

24. The Scarlet and the Black.  Gregory Peck is Monsignor O'Flaherty, protecting Jews in Rome in the Second World War; his Nazi opponent is Christopher Plummer.

*25. The Nun's Story.  Audrey Hepburn is a nun who works as a nurse in a hospital in Africa.

26. A Man for All Seasons.  Incomparable script, for a great cast: Paul Scofield as Thomas More, Robert Shaw as the conflicted Henry VIII, John Hurt as the perjured Richard Rich, and Leo McKern (Rumpole of the Bailey) as the malevolent Cromwell.

*27. I Confess (Alfred Hitchcock).  Montgomery Clift is a Canadian priest who is suspected of murder, but who has heard the confession of the real murderer, and cannot reveal it, or even give testimony that would help to reveal it.

*28. Great Expectations (David Lean).  John Mills as Pip and Alec Guinness as Herbert Pocket turn in superb performances.  A film about gratitude and ingratitude, and the coming to life of two human souls.

29. Sergeant York.  Gary Cooper is Alvin York, a simple Christian farmer who doesn't want to go to war, because it's against his convictions, but who, when persuaded, becomes the most decorated veteran of World War I.  Walter Brennan is his preacher friend back home.

30. Chariots of Fire. Ian Holm is the good guy in this one for a change.  Had it been made in the 1940's, when editing was done by people with a sense of the coherence of a play, this movie might have been one of the greatest of all time.  As it is, it is superb.  Great moments for revealing those things that transcend sport, and national pride.

*31. The Straight Story.  Richard Farnsworth rigs up a contraption powered by a lawn-mower engine to travel from Iowa to Wisconsin to be reconciled with his brother.

*32. The Trip to Bountiful.  Geraldine Page is an old lady who lives with her son and his often shrewish wife.  She cuts out on them one day, on the sly, to take a bus to Bountiful, the plantation and village where she grew up.  A movie about loyalty and forgiveness.

*33. Lilies of the Field.  One of my favorite movies of all time.  Sidney Poitier is Homer Smith, a mason and carpenter whom a group of German refugee nuns "hire," to build them a chapel.  Check out character-actor Stanley Adams as the owner of the diner.  The actress who plays the mother superior is absolutely fantastic.  The screenplay, I believe, was written by Horton Foote, who also wrote the screenplay to the previous movie, and — I think — to the following:

*34. Tender Mercies.  Robert Duvall is a country-and-western singer down on his luck, who finds love and the Christian faith at a filling station in the middle of nowhere.  Tess Harper is radiant as his wife.  A beautiful movie about the grace of God.

35 and 36. Almost Anything by Alfred Hitchcock.  I had chosen Foreign Correspondent (Joel McCrea) and The Man Who Knew too Much (Jimmy Stewart, Doris Day), but I could well have chosen Rope, with its probing of modern nihilism (Jimmy Stewart, Cedric Hardwick, Farley Granger), or Saboteur, or The Thirty Nine Steps …

37. The Third Man (Carol Reed).  Joseph Cotten must do the right thing and help to turn in his "friend" (Orson Welles), who is making money by selling diluted antibiotics on the black market.  The screenplay was by Graham Greene, I think, on whose novel the movie is based.

38. Judgment at Nuremberg.  A fantastic cast — Spencer Tracy, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift, Burt Lancaster, and Oscar-winner Maximilian Schell.  The movie upholds the natural law, as against all attempts to justify human actions by appealing to the positive law.

39. The Grapes of Wrath (Frank Capra).  Henry Fonda leads the Joad family from dusty Oklahoma to California, in search of work, and food.

*40. Come Back, Little Sheba.  Shirley Booth (the maid Hazel on the television show) won an Oscar for her portrayal of a long-suffering wife who is loyal to a man (Burt Lancaster) who does not deserve her.

*41. Goodbye, Mr. Chips.  Robert Donat is a boys' school don who learns to teach by love.  Not to be missed, if for nothing else than his courtship and marriage to the love of his life (Greer Garson).

42. The Diary of Anne Frank.  Nothing more need be said.

43. The African Queen.  Katherine Hepburn the missionary lady meets up with Humphrey Bogart.

*44. Three Came Home.  Claudette Colbert plays a Christian nurse in the women's section of a POW camp in Southeast Asia.  Sessue Hayakawa is brilliant as the Japanese chief of the camp, who comes to respect Colbert for her integrity and courage.  Another movie with an astounding final scene.  I do not know of any actress in the last thirty years who could match Colbert in this movie.

45. A Christmas Carol.  Get the one with Alistair Sim as Scrooge.  Almost as good is the Mr. Magoo cartoon version, with large passages of Dickens' text left intact.

*46. King Lear.  Yes, Shakespeare was a Christian playwright.  This is the Olivier version, with standout performances from Leo McKern (Gloucester), Diana Rigg (Regan), John Hurt (The Fool), and many others.

*47. The Agony and the Ecstasy.  Charlton Heston is Michelangelo and Rex Harrison is Pope Julius II; the movie recounts their tumultuous quarrels, and the strange friendship that develops between them.

*48. Life with Father.  Author Clarence Day was something of a skeptical soul, but the screenwriters for this movie decided to focus upon the love of Mr. and Mrs. Day, and the maneuvering whereby she persuades him in the end to be baptized.  William Powell and Myrna Loy are the Days.  A very funny movie, featuring a teenage Elizabeth Taylor, and Martin Milner (Adam-12) as a mischievous boy.

49. To Kill a Mockingbird.  Moral integrity has never been better portrayed than by Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch.  The young Robert Duvall has a surprising part in this movie.

*50. The Bravados (Howard Hawks?).  Gregory Peck plays a man who joins a posse on the hunt for a group of marauders, who he believes are responsible for the rape and murder of his wife.  The plot contains a profound surprise, which I can't reveal.  The final scene occurs in a church, with the whole town congratulating Peck, who knows what he has really been harboring in his heart.  Joan Collins, Stephen Boyd, and Albert Salmi are among an excellent cast.

That's it for now.  Again, thanks for the recommendations.  We will take you up on some of them, to be sure!

The Top Eleven Christian Television Shows
Sunday, June 6, 2010, 3:00 PM

     How about another list?  Again, we're looking for shows that embody the Christian ethos, and not necessarily shows that are explicitly about Christianity.  Here goes, for me, in ascending order:

11. The Honeymooners.  Actually, I almost wrote in The Red Skelton Show, or the first incarnation of The Jackie Gleason Show.  The reasoning's the same: these are shows featuring the clown (Freddie the Freeloader, The Poor Soul, Ralph Kramden) whom the world would consider unworthy of our attention or affection.  The Honeymooners is probably the best show ever made about a blue-collar Joe.  It is diagnostic of our materialism that we haven't had a character like that on television in more than a generation.  The title character of Everyone Loves Raymond does not really make the grade.  As a comedy show alone, all other considerations aside, I'd rank The Honeymooners higher, even first or second.

10. The Loretta Young Show.  It was Miss Young's avowed intent to preach by means of her weekly dramatic sketches, and preach she did.  But she did it well — she was an accomplished actress, and the roles she played covered an impressively wide range.  The show was very popular in its time.

9. Leave It To Beaver.  Easy to make fun of this show, especially when you haven't seen it in a long time, but the writing was consistently clever, the boys were boys (and not smart-mouthed imitation adults), and the purpose of the family was clearly to bring up the next generation in integrity and love.  Hugh Beaumont, who played Ward Cleaver, was a Methodist minister, and it shows.

8. Marcus Welby, M. D.  Conservative for the time; reliably pro-life not only in the matter of abortion but in affirming the dignity of all human lives, even those of the handicapped or the psychologically troubled or the mentally retarded.  Medicine with a human face.  St. Elsewhere, edgy and salacious though it often was, might well have been included on this list.

7. Davey and Goliath.  Early clay-mation — and excellent.  I can still hear the trumpets playing A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.  The Lutherans produced this show, but Christians of all sorts loved it.  It had a moral and dogmatic intent, and could move you close to tears, but it was also genuinely funny.  "I'm queen of the May, I'm queen of the May," sings Goliath, as he runs around the maypole with a streamer in his mouth.

6. Fulton Sheen.  The most human and humorous and shrewdly learned of all the television preachers.  It says something about the time that for a while Bishop Sheen was the most popular figure on television, beating out that hard-bitten Milton Berle.

5. Father Knows Best.  Another Robert Young show, and another show people belittle, who have not watched it in decades, or who have never watched it.  The joke was that Father often did not know best, but he was still the Father, and somehow or other elicited both reverence and love from his children.  Robert Young and Jane Wyatt have never been excelled, for showing in a comedy the love of husband and wife.

4. Bonanza.  A fine cast, and a fine idea, often carrying second-rate writing farther than it had any right to go; yet it was always entertaining.  The show was consistently about moral rectitude, including personal sacrifice, and it was clear that the Cartwrights were devout Bible-reading Christians.

3. Star Trek.  Strange choice, at first glance; the producer Gene Roddenberry was Jewish, I believe, as are William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy.  But it's hard not to include somewhere a show whose two principal influences are The Book of Genesis and Paradise Lost, and whose opening episode affirms the singleness of God and the fall of man.

2. Gunsmoke.  This show started off great, and got better as the seasons went on; the very best episodes are those of its second decade, in color, with Ken Curtis as Festus, the wise fool and television's greatest sidekick.  Yes, there were saloon girls, and yes, Miss Kitty was (in the early shows especially) obviously Matt Dillon's woman.  But it is hard to find a show more affirmative of the holiness of marriage, or the need to uphold the law, or the terrible beauty of a man willing to put his life on the line  for his fellows — and often his unappreciative fellows.  Possibly the greatest show in television history, or it would be, were it not for

1. The Twilight Zone.  Not science fiction, this!  These were half-hour morality plays, laying bare the shame of man, but also celebrating his dignity.  Rod Serling was a liberal back in the day when that meant an uncompromising affirmation of the value of every individual, including the weakest and the least among us, as against the brazen claims of technocrats, social engineers of the right and the left, and the power of brute nature.  The writing ranges from very good to stupendous, as does the acting — by an astonishing medley of old stars (Gladys Cooper, Buster Keaton, Cedric Hardwicke), new stars (Lee Marvin, Robert Redford, Anne Francis, Dennis Weaver, Cliff Robertson), and incomparable character actors (Burgess Meredith, Nehemiah Persoff, Jeannette Nolan, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden, John Dehner, John Anderson).  A down-and-out boxer who can't believe; a young woman who doesn't want to be made pretty; a man stranded alone on a planet; a little boy who wants everybody to think only happy thoughts –it seems that there was not a single human situation that this show did not probe. 

Honorable Mention: The Beverly Hillbillies, Misterogers, Make Room for Daddy, Have Gun Will Travel, Columbo, The Donna Reed Show, The Fugitive, Little House on the Prairie, The Waltons (first few seasons only), Law and Order, My Three Sons.

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