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“Was Sodom ever so dark as this?”
Friday, February 25, 2005, 3:02 PM

Surely when The Best of Mere Comments is published, the threads started by S.M. Hutchens’ posts will occupy a large part of that volume. And surely this quote will be there: “I weary of those who seem to declare themselves better than God, whose patience with evil (in the name of redemptive presence) seems limitless while poor God’s is not, perhaps because he has failed to understand that infinite love requires infinite forbearance.”

Dr. Hutchens’ post explores more than the nominal topic of films and proceeds into the area of the Christian’s encounter with evil in the course of daily living. It is a topic I ponder frequently, especially in my own profession as a lawyer. Today, for example, I agonize over how judges and fellow lawyers can be so morally blind in the Terry Schiavo case. Well, actually I know how they become so blind: my colleagues worship (there is no other word) “the law,” by which they mean a manner of reasoning inculcated into them in law school. Largely divorced from classical moral reasoning, such “law” produces a result in the Schiavo case that most Christians would judge as utterly evil.

To what depths have we sunk when we deny parents the right to care for their incapacitated child—indeed, when we mandate that it is better that society allow a husband to murder his wife than that we should permit the wife’s parents to suffer for the sake of their child? Was Sodom ever so dark as this?

—Bill Reichert

“I must lead her with suffering…”
Thursday, February 24, 2005, 3:14 PM

pope fast 2 “I must lead her with suffering...”

Pope John Paul II was taken to a Roman hospital early today suffering a relapse of the flu, fever and congestion that required emergency care at the beginning of February.

The current edition of Newsweek has a surprising article (thanks to reader Mark Kloempken for the tip) on how suffering has transformed the last decade of John Paul II’s pontificate—how personal pain has added weight to his words about the sacred quality of all life and how a good life ought have a good and holy end in such works as Evangelium Vitae. From the Newsweek story:

The face in the window high above St. Peter’s Square is small and distant and, even when viewed through a long lens, almost without expression. The voice quavers, just a few words breathed with excruciating effort, audible over loudspeakers, but only barely comprehensible. Few people can get close enough to Pope John Paul II to try to read the thoughts behind the mask of sickness on a Sunday morning, but some of those who have approached him say they’ve glimpsed the pain of a man with a vital mind, a man who has loved life enormously, trapped now in a body that brings him nothing but suffering. “You can see it in his eyes,” says such a priest. “To be imprisoned like this must cause him tremendous agony.”

And yet—because he is the leader of a billion Roman Catholics; because he is the first pontiff of the satellite and Internet age, reaching out to billions more, and because he is John Paul II, who has ruled the church for more than 26 years—in that public experience of suffering lies enormous power. And he knows it. More than 20 years ago, after recovering from the pistol shot that almost took his life in front of St. Peter’s, John Paul declared that suffering, as such, is one of the most powerful messages in Christianity. “Human suffering evokes compassion,” he wrote in 1984, “it also evokes respect, and in its own way it intimidates.” In 1994, as age and infirmity began to incapacitate John Paul publicly, he told his followers he had heard God and was about to change the way he led the church. “I must lead her with suffering,” he said. “The pope must suffer so that every family and the world should see that there is, I would say, a higher gospel: the gospel of suffering, with which one must prepare the future.”

Now, to the frustration of some reformers in the church who would like to see the 84-year-old pontiff resign, John Paul’s personal Calvary has become his most powerful message. Every tremor in his hands takes on meaning. (Although the Vatican has never officially confirmed the details of John Paul’s principal afflictions, senior clerics admit privately that he has Parkinson’s disease.) The spectacle of his condition crystallizes his ferocious attachment to life—the most central, coherent and consistent teaching of his papacy—whether that life is threatened in the womb by abortion, or in old age by euthanasia.

For the rest of this Newsweek story by Christopher Dickey and Rod Nordland, click here.

Dolls Replacing Children in Ever-Aging, Childless Japan
Thursday, February 24, 2005, 9:04 AM

captsgenem02230205162949photo00photodefa Dolls Replacing Children in Ever Aging, Childless JapanThis story is, um, haunting. It seems fewer and fewer Japanese have grandchildren (or children) to comfort them in old age. Enter technology:

As Japan produces fewer children and more retirees, toymakers are designing new dolls designed not for the young but for the lonely and elderly—companions which can sleep next to them and offer caring words they may never hear otherwise.

Talking toys have become such a hit that some elderly people have embraced them as substitutes for the children who have grown old and deserted entire neighborhoods in the rapidly greying country.

The Yumel doll, which looks like a baby boy and has a vocabulary of 1,200 phrases, is billed as a “healing partner” for the elderly and goes on the market Thursday at a price of 8,500 yen (80 dollars).

About 8,000 Yumel dolls, designed by toymaker Tomy with pillows and bedding maker Lofty, have already been sold in less than three months in limited marketing in sleeping sections of department stores.

“Toymakers are targeting senior citizens as the number of children is falling. We are also striving to attract them,” said Osamu Kiriseko, who headed the Yumel project.

For more of the story, go here.

In 1992, the mystery writer P.D. James published a very different sort of novel for her, but a striking and moving one nonetheless, called The Children of Men. It’s about a future in which the entire human race becomes infertile and where that might lead.

Let Live or Make Die?: Touchstone on Terry Schiavo
Wednesday, February 23, 2005, 10:48 AM

At 5 p.m. (Eastern) Terry Schiavo’s stay of “execution” expires, and all eyes are on Pinellas Circuit Court Judge George Greer as he hears arguments today from Ms. Schiavo’s parents, Robert and Mary Schindler, that their son-in-law, Michael Schiavo, is not fit to be his wife’s guardian.

In the March issue of Touchstone (shipping to subscribers today and available on newsstands next week), William Luse takes a South Florida community college class through the difficult (and largely unexamined) questions posed by Terry Schiavo in his essay, Let Live or Make Die?: Terri Schiavo, Christopher Reeve & the Right Not to Be Killed:

Not long after a Florida judge granted Michael Schiavo permission to have the feeding tube sustaining his wife, Terri, removed, I went round the room of a night class that I teach trying to find out who among the students had found a topic for their research paper. One young lady had chosen euthanasia. Was she for it or against it? Against it. The passive form, the active, or both? Umm, she hadn’t read about that yet.

It’s remarkable how little they know about subjects on which their opinions are vehement. I gave her a couple of examples to illustrate the difference between active and passive, then asked, out of sheer curiosity, if she or any of the others had heard of the Terri Schiavo case. None had. This struck me as odd, I said, since it was happening right down the road in St. Pete. Oh yes! A couple of them had heard of it, but were not familiar with the details. So I laid those details out.

“They’re going to starve her to death,” said the euthanasia  girl, Jennifer, which shows that you need not be well read to have an unerring nose for the truth. And they seemed genuinely aghast when I told them it was written into Florida law that nutrition and hydration were to be considered “extraordinary” and unnatural means of prolonging life.

I suggested to Jennifer that she might want to look up the story of Nancy Cruzan to see how a similar case had played out, and that of Karen Ann Quinlan to see how wrong a medical certainty can be. Her appetite seemed whetted, but you never know. In the end, it’s a lot of work they’d rather not have to do.

In another class afflicted with the same assignment, I repeated the process. When I got to a girl in the back, she too had chosen euthanasia. For or against? “For,” she said emphatically, “active euthanasia.” She had done some reading, so I went straight to the issue, and asked if she was familiar with the Schiavo case. Not real familiar, she admitted, but she’d heard of it. Once again I explained the circumstances, and then asked (her name was Sarah, I think), “So . . . should they kill her?”

Believe it or not, this phrasing, this mere statement of fact, shocks. It shocks my students because they’re not thinking in terms of killing, but of “letting her go,” of doing some mercy. Sarah’s eyes widened a little.

“Is she in the process of dying?” she asked. She had done some reading.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “She appears to be in the process of living, with the help of a feeding tube.” When I added that certain therapists were of the opinion that she could learn to take food from a spoon (a fact I consider irrelevant), but that the judge had denied them the opportunity to teach her, in his apparent determination that the tube be pulled sometime in October, her eyes began darting about, looking for another way.

“But if removing the tube would stop her suffering . . .”

“She’s not suffering,” I said, “as far as I can tell. I’ve never seen anyone suffer less,” adding that, by the term most beloved of those who would speed her on her way—that she existed in a permanent “vegetative state”—her capacity for suffering was far less than ours.

I let her indecision become lost in the noise of remarks offered by others (“Pull the plug—she’s costing too much” was typical), and Sarah seemed glad of the reprieve. I think (and I’m guessing again,  but it’s well-educated) she still wanted Mrs. Schiavo “let go,” but  would have to work on another way to justify calling it that.

For more of the Luse essay, click here.

C.S. Lewis Enters the Fray
Wednesday, February 23, 2005, 9:00 AM

I very much agree with Mr. Candrall. No area of life is outside the redemptive work of Christ, and we are agents in this process. Perhaps one should remember the words of one of the patrons of this great magazine and webpage—they can be applied to this situation, I think.

“If all the world were Christian, it might not matter if all the world were uneducated. But, as it is, a cultural life will exist outside the Church whether it exists inside or not. To be ignorant and simple now—not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground—would be to throw down our weapons, and betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defense but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered. The cool intellect must work not only against cool intellect on the other side, but against the muddy heathen mysticisms which deny intellect altogether.” — C.S. Lewis

Paulo F. Ribeiro, MBA, PhD, PE, FIEEE
Professor of Engineering
Calvin College

Jennifer Roback Morse on the Limits Good Marriages Set for Government
Tuesday, February 22, 2005, 4:20 PM

Jennifer Roback Morse, research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford Univerity, wife, and mother, recently spoke with Marvin Olasky, editor of World Magazine, about why her latest book, 101 Tips for a Happier Marriage (available in paper and e-book editions), “is the most libertarian thing [she has] ever written.” Excerpts follow:

WORLD: Some libertarians claim that easy divorce increases liberty. Why do you believe the opposite?

Jennifer Roback Morse: Two reasons. First, there is a dangerous confusion about what liberty actually means. The lifestyle left has been promoting a vision that defines freedom as being unencumbered by human relationships. This vision underlies the left’s position on easy divorce, unlimited abortion, day care on demand, and many other social issues.

Second, current divorce laws are not consistent with the most basic principle of the free market, namely a respect for contracts. Millions of dollars change hands in real-estate transactions in every city in America, every day of the week. People couldn’t do that if they were permitted to unilaterally violate their contracts without penalty. Yet we expect people to make lifetime investments in children, without any contract protection whatsoever. Establishing a legal system to define and enforce contracts is one of the most basic functions of government.

WORLD: This fits with your economic analysis of the importance to children of what you call a “marriage revolution—one man, one woman, for life.”

JM: We now have a regime of unilateral divorce: One party can end a marriage for any reason or no reason, essentially without legal penalty. But children are one of the most important “products” of marriage, to use economic language. Children require large-scale capital investments over a long period of time. The parenting relationship also has what economists would call “relationship-specific capital.” That means that no other man is a good substitute for the particular man who is the father of my children. Economists know that contract enforcement is extremely important in activities with these properties.

WORLD: In a paper you presented at last month’s Witherspoon Institute conference in Princeton you explained how the child-custody arrangements that grow out of divorce lead to government expansion. Why?

JM: Family courts routinely invade the privacy of families having custody disputes. The courts pass judgments on things like how much money and time each parent spends for their children, what kind of schooling and religious training they should have, whether parents can move out of the state, what language they speak at home, and much else. In a functioning, intact family, people work these things out themselves. People who gasp at the thought of government regulating sexual conduct seem oblivious to the fact that the government engages in egregious invasions of personal privacy when marriage breaks down.

To read the entire interview, click here.

A Christian Screenwriter Responds
Tuesday, February 22, 2005, 1:41 PM

S. M. Hutchens reminds me of what is, I think, a classic debate among Christians. The one I’m thinking of has one side telling good faithful Christians, “You will ’take leave of the self and become Christ’ when you abandon the cities, with all their decadence and depravity, and become ascetics continually praying for the world’s redemption in the desert monasteries.” On the other side are those telling good faithful Christians, “You will ’take leave of the self and become Christ’ when you enter the city, preach His Word and live out God’s call in your work.”

Which path is the Way? I don’t really know. I just think it is wrong to encourage Christians to abandon their neighbors to the most powerful proponent of secularism, materialism, nihilism, and general anti-Christian animosity. It is just as wrong to encourage Christians to abandon the ascetic life in order to shed their Christian light on the culture. Those in the city and those in the proverbial desert oppose the culture of death as they are called by God.

Most of Hollywood has become a force that eats away at the West’s Judeo-Christian foundation all the while claiming, “But it’s just a movie.” I am a Christian and an aspiring screenwriter who believes that Hollywood can become a force that resists the destruction of this foundation and that I can be an agent in this change. Should anything I write ever end up on the big screen, I pray that there is a Christian film reviewer out there encouraging Hollywood to redirect its talents who will tell me whether or not I’ve missed the mark.

Daniel P. Crandall
Rancho Santa Margarita, California

The Wesleys Didn’t Use Tavern Songs
Tuesday, February 22, 2005, 11:05 AM

After reading Kate Bluett’s letter, a reader pointed us to this United Methodist News Service story that dubunks as popular myth the notion that John and Charles Wesley wrote their hymns with melodies from popular drinking songs:

[Dean] McIntyre [director of music resources at the United Methodist Board of Discipleship in Nashville, Tenn.] says the legend began when a seminary or music student became confused over the musical term “bar tune” or “bar form”—a medieval pattern for poetry consisting of three or more stanzas—which became the pattern for songwriting. Someone with no knowledge of medieval poetry heard “bar form” in connection with John Wesley, and the songs became tavern songs, he says.

The “bar form” term is still used by songwriters today. The popular “Over the Rainbow” is written in this form, as are all of the classic blues. The bar form is most commonly used in hymns and folk songs, and a number of bar tunes accompanying text written by the Wesleys and Luther are found in the United Methodist Hymnal. Those songs include:

    •     “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” UMH 110.
    •     “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” UMH 139.
    •     “Come, thou Almighty King,” UMH 61.
    •     “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” UMH 298.
    •     “Praise the Lord Who Reigns Above,” UMH 96.
    •     “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” UMH 196.
    •     “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” UMH 384.

“I feel called to set the record straight,” McIntyre says. “It is not difficult to understand how the musical term ‘bar form’ also referred to as ‘bar tune,’ can be confused in an uninformed person’s mind with a barroom tune, drinking song, or some other title to indicate music to accompany the drinking of alcoholic beverages.”

More Letters on Popular Culture
Monday, February 21, 2005, 3:59 PM

A reader responds further to the latest posts from S.M. Hutchens and Anthony Esolen:

I completely agree with S.M. Hutchens: this world has indeed “done its damnedest to let us know where we stand in its books.” It doesn’t like us. That does not, however, excuse us from the call to love the world. Pearls are pearls, buried in manure or fresh out of the oyster. They are of great price, no matter where they are found. The pearls in question should not necessarily be our own portraits, however. (We will never be portrayed well by Hollywood—this Hollywood, at any rate. Maybe that means we’re doing something right.) Rather, it is well worth digging through more than plenty of manure to find the pearls that are portraits of others.

We must not forget that every such pearl, shimmering or not, is also a portrait of Christ. We must not forget that Christ’s love is the fulfillment of the love inherent in all humans (created and placed their by God). Pagans and producers, no less than prostitutes and tax collectors, love. They make mistakes. They do good. They hide their shame. They wake up the next morning to begin again. Their portraits are our portraits—incomplete, perhaps, insofar as they lack the palette of revealed colors—but mirrors of ourselves, nonetheless. Like looking through a glass darkly.

Christ did not back away, refusing to touch this world unless “a pole or a club” was at hand. I don’t think we have the choice of retreating, at least those of us without a monastic vocation. It may be that listening with an active mind and a critical ear to “Britney Lopez or Jennifer Spaniel or the vast indistinguishable Whatever” is the way to learn what are the a priori assumptions behind the thoughts of our neighbors. Getting at those, we can actually engage in a dialogue with these neighbors. We cannot counter opinions we have not bothered to investigate—we won’t have any arguments the so-opined will listen to. Going home with Zaccheus, seeing the art on his walls, and listening to the music coming from his stereo, are all ways of loving him. They may also be the seeds of ways of converting him.

Pagan morality, while lacking Christ, is not necessarily exclusive of Him. Pearls, all pearls, are worth finding. And no one will join our “town choirs” if we aren’t writing music they can sing. Charles Wesley knew that when he set out to turn drinking songs into hymns we still sing. “In the world but not of it” still means being in the world.

—Kate Bluett


It was worth writing about culture merely to receive Miss Bluett’s spirited and eloquent response. And no Christian can disagree that we must be in the world, but not of it. She and I disagree, perhaps, on the application of that command.

My plea was that we distinguish between mass entertainment, which in its current debased form has the curious effect of making people both worldly and utterly clueless as to what life is really like (that is, they grow to be of the world, but not in it!) and popular culture. It seems to me almost impossible that mass entertainment and popular culture can subsist, side by side. Now I could be wrong about that, but I haven’t seen it. As the one grows, the other withers.

I am not now speaking as a Christian, but as an amateur anthropologist. People used to create their own entertainment, as they used to play their own sports (and cook their own meals, and dress up for their own parades, and so on). I am a great lover of popular culture—therefore, if my premise is correct, I must be suspicious of mass entertainment.

As I said, the Golden Age of American film came early, when the actors and filmmakers were sons and daughters of miners and farmers and masons, who went to vaudeville shows and could dance a bit and sing and maybe play the fiddle. Hollywood has long since severed its ties to the popular culture, and popular culture has long since withered, so that in America now there is not much left that is worthy the name.

So for me it is an affirmation of the goodness of this world and of man’s endeavor in it—both of which I uphold with hearty cheer—to reject mass entertainment. Of course, it’s not enough just to stay home from the megaplex. We need to recover what we used to have. If my podunk town in coal country, with its one hotel and fifteen Irish watering holes, back when you were well educated if you finished high school, could boast a homegrown drama club, then if we try really hard even we college educated folks could have at least a shadow of the same. That is, only if we turn off the television and confront the world again.

—Anthony Esolen

Hollywood Bible Study
Monday, February 21, 2005, 11:32 AM

Mark Shea sends this unintentionally-amusing story from the Pasadena Star-News about Bible studies based on—wait for it—Constantine, the new film starring Keanu Reaves reviewed in this space on Friday. Thinking of taking your teen group to see this R-rated film or just need some amusement this Presidents Day? You can download the Constantine Bible Study Guide here.

Winfield Myers of the Democracy Project takes a closer look at the Pasadena Star-News article and Blogodoxy gets what’s wrong with this picture.

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