Christian Rock and Rocky Soil

It used to baffle me. “How can so many of my peers who were so ‘churchy’ and ‘involved’ in high school have just drifted away in college?”

It doesn’t baffle me any more.

If you are a new DRE, youth minister, or high school chaplain in the USA, here’s a sobering reality check: the chances are that a lot of the kids volunteering on the weekend, helping lead retreats, signing up for work camp each year, etc., etc., will fall away when they leave high school. No, not all, and probably not most, but many. Some will eventually find their way back, maybe by a chance encounter with a priest, or a random itch of their conscience, or if and when they get married in the Church and decide it’s time to “get serious.” Some will find their way back, but not all.

Why does this happen, how does this illusion of commitment work, and what can be done to prevent this?

Despite the provocative title of this article, music is only part of the problem, though it is one of the best examples of the core conflict – trying to choose both God and mammon in parishes and ministry programs.

But let’s talk music first.

It is possible for rock music to be authentically Christian and still be good rock. But the Christian message must be indirect, or else there will be a lack of proportion between what is being said and how it is being said. Proportion is an essential element of beauty, and who wants music that isn’t beautiful to be used for worship?

Here is one comparison between two songs with similar themes but achieved in radically different ways.

This song is a first-person account of someone trying to overcome some life obstacles.

The lyrics are vaguely Christian, but it seems like even if they were more direct it would not help much – it would still be inappropriate for worship, because it is taking a music genre entirely from and for the world and trying to Christify it explicitly. That is why it’s so awkward, at least for me, even just to listen to.

Furthermore, the music itself in this example is just plain second-rate. The message itself also is very self-centered, which would be one thing if it wasn’t marketed as “Christian” and there wasn’t the almost artificial insertion of a mini-prayer in the lyrics, “God, I want to dream again.” I’ve never heard this at church, but I don’t frequent Protestant megachurches. I can certainly imagine it being used.

The next song is about a couple of kids whose lives are going terribly wrong, starting with one who gets shot on his way to school.

This is good rock music. It’s also profoundly moving, albeit in an unexpected way. Nobody would play this at a church, and rightly so, but I argue that this is a much better example of “Christian Rock” than the first song, not only because it is better musically but also because it knows what it is: the artists don’t try to insert the explicitly other-worldly into a worldly genre, apart from a one-off Scriptural reference (“the blind leading the blind”). Instead, they vividly illustrate real world problems and the emotions associated with them. This leads the listener to the simple consideration of the bleakness of sin and the need for something dramatically good to counter young people’s hopelessness. Finally, they suggest that the solution is at least in part our responsibility: “We are, we are, the youth of the nation.” That’s about a thousand times more Christian and artistic than the previous song. (The band, P.O.D., is loosely self-described as Christian, by the way.)

Anyway, as an alternative to Christian Rock at church, we have masterpieces like this available to us:

It’s very hard to pull off something like this well – and it really MUST be recited live – but that is part of what makes it worth so much as an act of worship. It involves serious dedication. Sacrificial worship doesn’t only mean killing goats, of course: it can also mean slaving away for a few dozen hours just to produce one beautiful arrangement for a single Mass. God likes that.

“But I like the churchy Christian Rock. So do lots of other people. In fact, a lot of the people at my church come because we play that kind of music.”

Now we come to the root.

If it were a simple matter of aesthetics, one taste does not rule over other tastes. Chocolate is not inherently better than vanilla, etc. Except we are not talking about ice cream, we are talking about the public worship of Almighty God and spiritually encountering Him in that worship (which is distinct from emotionally encountering Him). There is an objectivity to music and worship, which is why the objection that “classical” music is just the “rock” or “pop” of the 17th century (etc.) does not work. Certain kinds of music do not appropriately resonate with our soul inasmuch as it is ordered toward loving and encountering the otherworldly. As the famous saying goes, “Lex orandi, lex credendi” – as one worships, so one believes. If someone heard a “Christian song” without knowing the language in which it’s being sung, and he thinks it’s probably about some guy’s girlfriend, for example, there is a big problem. If God, as the Author of Grace, is going to be treated directly, He deserves something more than what your girlfriend deserves, as nice as she may be. And the more one treats God like a girlfriend in worship, the more one is likely to think of God that way. It’s just how human beings work. When your girlfriend gets boring or too challenging, you can leave her for someone else. When God or the Mass or the one true Church is treated like a girlfriend in worship, when they get boring or too challenging, they are all too likely to be left for something else. And the more one tries to dress them up like some other “girl,” the more one will realize that it would be easier just to go after that girl instead. We can’t make God in our image, and when we figure that out, the choice is forced upon us: we either destroy our little idol and worship God on His own terms, or we go seek the thing that we were trying to make Him into.

The trumpets that will blare at Our Lord’s return will be playing music closer to Mozart than to Meatloaf, and not for no reason. If I don’t like the Parousia’s music – or even Heaven’s music – will it be because God doesn’t know what’s “relevant,” or will it be because He knows there’s something more objective about transcendence than my fleeting emotional inclinations?

Liking secular-ish Christian-ish music and feeling good about God on its account is not wrong in itself.

feelsmeme
Go on ahead! Feelings and emotions are NOT evil. But they are only GOOD if they are in line with reason.

What is wrong is when those things are at the foundation of one’s spiritual life, instead of the imperceptible indwelling of the Holy Spirit and sanctifying grace expressing themselves in the exercise of moral virtue and frequent prayer (even continuous prayer, to the point where instead of talking to yourself to think through the mundane tedium of your daily life, you talk to God). If and when well-performed secular-ish Christian-ish music and/or nice feelings about God become inaccessible for some reason, a person who had seemed to grow up in the spiritual life so quickly is liable to become “withered by the sun and die,” so to speak, just like the seed sown in rocky soil (Mt. 13: 1-23). Such a person will eventually notice that the world (or even some other church) gives quicker and easier nice feelings, and that continuing to pray and go to Mass diligently is really hard when faced with that alternative. And why resist? “If spirituality is all about the feels anyway, when I get them, great, when I don’t get them, then I just won’t kill anyone or rob any banks, and I’ll go to Heaven, or something like that. But maybe the whole ‘organized religion thing’ is all just a psychological prison anyway, and a nondescript ‘spirituality’ is where it’s at.” And down the slope we go. People don’t usually think or express their desires in exactly these terms, but they often act based exactly on the ideas found in them.

If you live in the Western world, this process is almost certainly happening with people in your parish, especially to millennials. The problem, of course, is not limited to music – the approach of condescending indefinitely to worldliness can permeate the air of entire parishes. Let pastors who are looking to “Rebuild” be aware of the lesson of Aaron and the calf… Money and popularity do not make a parish a spiritual success. Your sanctuary may be tricked out with the latest live streaming gear and some nifty projector screens, and your band may make a 6 figure salary due to generous tithing, but if there’s not perpetual or nearly perpetual adoration; if there aren’t vocations; if there aren’t long lines at the confessional; if people are not praying before and after Mass in silence… these deserve more attention.

The Protestant megachurches and the world will always win the game anyway. They produce better, flashier, trendier stuff, including morals and doctrine. They produce better rock music. They condescend to our worldliness better. Therefore, the game ought not be played. Our Lord did not play the game, though He was invited to by the Devil. (Mt. 4: 1-11)

Christ condescended to our worldliness by becoming a human being. Beyond that, He used language and images we could understand. He identified with us in our need for food and drink, as with the woman at the well, or with the Eucharist itself. He pointed out the way to perfection to the Rich Young Man and to those wondering about divorce by meeting them where they were, and yet He did not insist on poverty or celibacy as Commandments. All this condescension, however, actually serves the will of the Father by calling people to look beyond the world. Christian Rock, as commonly understood, does not do this, but instead lowers God more than He lowered Himself by putting Him into a worldly genre of music which can certainly make people feel nice feelings but cannot lead one to contemplation as it is understood by the spiritual masters. (In fact, prolonged silence is one of the best things for that.) And of course, some other parochial and ministerial projects fall into the same trap. We must not be in the business of making good novices: we must be in the business of making saints.

The longer one pretends he can find God in the storm, the earthquake, and the fire, the more likely he is to miss the small whispering sound that calls a soul out of the cave. God showed His might on Sinai with signs of His fearsome power, but now, in the invisible life of grace, the signs of His love manifestly prevail – and lovers very often want to be alone together in silence, do they not?

Education in the spiritual life must become a greater priority in parishes, especially youth ministry programs, if we are to stop the bleeding of parishioners looking “to be fed” somewhere else – back in Egypt, that is, where there were melons and leeks and fleshpots.  We especially ought to curb the enthusiasm in our young people for getting chills and thrills on retreats – and certainly for “speaking in tongues” and being “slain in the Spirit,” for goodness’ sake – and instead teach them that the greater effects of prayer and the sacraments are in an undying thirst to do what is right out of love for God and the pursuit of union with Him at the expense of any and all other pleasures. Growth may seem slower, but it will be steadier.

Better, more subdued, more dignified music is just one part of the solution. Christ our Rock is more spiritual than worldly, after all.

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image: The Sower, Vincent Van Gogh, 1888

Why Thomas the Apostle was so Skeptical

The Apostle St. Thomas Didymus (“The Twin”) was conveniently absent for the first Resurrection appearance to the rest of the Eleven. (Jn. 20: 24-29) Then he famously insisted on seeing and touching the wounds of Jesus, which he then got to do 8 days later. This reading comes to us every year at the close of the Easter Octave to commemorate the event. Let’s take a look.

Aside from “telephone” conspiracy theories (which ultimately don’t allow for any sensible understanding of what happened in 1st century Palestine nor of the text of the Gospels), there are usually three alternate explanations for the supposed Resurrection.

  1. Mass delusion.
  2. A spiritual resurrection proclaimed as if it were a physical one.
  3. The body was stolen and the disciples lied about it (the story that “circulated among the Jews”).

Each of these have plenty of issues, of course. Leaving aside #3 (which has the largest problems of motivation among the 3, and it ultimately just destroys the trustworthiness of the entire text), #1 and #2 do not explain the skepticism of Thomas. Why was he not part of the delusion or vision of the spiritually risen Christ from the beginning? How was he incorporated into it?  What sense does recounting Thomas’ separate physical encounter make given such scenarios? There is no good answer.

There is a fourth alternative. It is the scenario, in fact, which Thomas had in mind when he questioned the claims of his friends.

He clearly doubted that they had seen the Risen Christ… But he did not doubt that they had seen someone. It just does not make sense that he would think all his friends would lie.

The words of the Gospels are careful. If you see some little detail that is added, you can be sure it is an important detail… The author went out of his way to add it. Paper was expensive in the 1st century – no Kinko’s, remember – and drafting the Gospels would have involved the most serious attention to what was going into the text. And of course, this is all under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. That being said, in this passage we do not find the Apostle called plain old “Thomas.” We also don’t find “Thomas the Scientist,” or “Thomas the Physician,” or “Thomas the Skeptic.” We find “Thomas called Didymus,” or “Thomas the Twin.”

Why add that detail?

Thomas thought Jesus had a twin who until that time had been in hiding. He figured the supposed Resurrection was part of a massive scheme of some sort, like the tricks he and his own twin brother would have undoubtedly played as children but with an agenda far larger. It may even be the case that Thomas’ brother had died, and that one time Thomas was confused for him, no doubt producing a similar effect of shock and confusion and joy in the mistaken person or persons.

This also makes sense of Thomas’ startling insistence on seeing and touching the wounds, as he knew that this would be the best way to show that it was actually the same person who died on the Cross. (There was a recent movie based on this theme. Spoiler alert.) No mere man could walk around with those wounds! The others had been shown the wounds (Jn. 20: 20), but it does not seem they had “double-checked” as Thomas wanted to do by completely verifying that they were the same kind of wounds that one would get from a crucifixion rather than being some serious paper cuts.

This incident with Thomas the Apostle, then, also preemptively answers the Muslim objection to the Resurrection, which is simply the “twin claim” in reverse: Jesus had a look-alike who was killed. (The Muslims, however, wave their hands over the inconvenient parts of the New Testament though, so it matters little. If every clear bit of evidence from the text is a corruption, then there can be no efficacious textual demonstrations.)

All this can also help shed light on the slight differences in Christ’s appearance before and after the Resurrection. Mary Magdalene and the men walking to Emmaus didn’t recognize Him at first. While identical twins can usually be told apart on close inspection, they are mistaken for each other easily. Jesus must have looked quite different indeed – unlike a twin, but close enough to His old appearance that one would be able to see that it is really Him. This is certainly not a twin – no one would dare try to pull off such a stunt unless he did indeed have an identical twin.

Perhaps seeing the Risen Christ was like running into a grown man you had been friends with in childhood… different, but the same. With the Risen Christ, the flesh-cloak of Adam’s sin has been shed so that the man Jesus, the New Adam, could be as glorious as the Divine Person He embodies. (See Gen. 3:21, Rom. 5:12-18) Yet He keeps the wounds, as if to be in solidarity with us and to remind us of His suffering, in addition to proving He has risen.

The Scriptures are wiser to objections than we are ourselves. That is not only because God understands us better than we do ourselves, but also because the Resurrection actually happened… That removes the need for creative thinking and gives the writer of the text the freedom simply to say what really happened.

St. Thomas Didymus, pray for us!

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image: The Incredulity of St. Thomas, Caravaggio, c. 1601-1602

Intercession and Science

Once in a while some zealous atheist, agnostic, or deist will throw down a challenge: “If God answers prayers, we should be able to prove it with an experiment. But we see no statistically significant difference between groups of sick people who are prayed for and groups who are not. Therefore: A) there is no God, or B) we can’t be sure if there is a God, or  C) God does not involve Himself with us.”

It seems like a strong argument at first. If God really does respond to intercession, then we ought to be able to observe that response in contrast with a lack of response corresponding to a lack of intercession. Intercession is an action, healing or whatever response is or would be an equal and opposite reaction, while on the other hand whatever is in motion tends to stay in motion – those who are sick or in need will continue to be so unless they are helped.

There are some problems with this argument.

First, let’s take a look at the Temptations of Christ (Mt. 4:1-11)… It is Lent after all.

  1. Turn stones into bread – Jesus could solve world hunger and win over all the crowds this way. (Jn. 6:26 – “Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.”) He responds, “One does not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.”
  2. Fly around Jerusalem – Jesus could publicly manifest Himself with abundant clarity in a way that would leave everyone in awe. (Mt. 16:4 – “An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign…” And in the same chapter, v. 17 – “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in Heaven.”) He responds, “You shall not put the Lord thy God to the test.”
  3. Make a compromise – Jesus could rule over the Earth without the Cross, without the public ministry, and generally without much effort. (Jn. 18:36 – “My Kingdom is not of this world.” And Lk. 24:26 – “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”) He responds, “Get away, Satan! For it is written, ‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship and Him alone shall you serve.'”

Christ’s Temptations provide the first major counterpoint to the skeptic, which is that God is not primarily concerned with making this life easy for us. We are promised that we will receive whatever we ask in His Name (Lk. 11:9, Jn. 14:13), but we are also promised trouble and suffering, the acceptance of which is even a condition of discipleship (Mt. 10: 16-39). These two promises do not square with each other unless we see that Jesus does not mean we will be given whatever material convenience we want, like a genie would do for us, but that we will be given every spiritual gift truly suited for us for which we pray sincerely. Virtues are the goods which truly help us.

Furthermore, God is wise to our tests and designs (Jn. 2:24). And no, He does not care to play along. A mysterious kingdom needs a mysterious road to lead to it. The New Jerusalem is nothing like the New Rome. Citizenship in the one is gained by unyielding faith in a crucified carpenter as God Incarnate, while in the other citizenship would be gained by simple obedience to an opulent and benevolent dictator.

Let us consider another passage, Mk. 9:14-29, where Jesus heals a possessed child. The crowd gathers, and the boy’s father explains the damage the demon has done over the years… “But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus does not take kindly to the word “if”: “‘If you can!’ Everything is possible to one who has faith.” Then we are given the famous line, “I do believe, help my unbelief!” Jesus rebukes the spirit and tells his disciples that this kind of demon only comes out “through prayer.”

This episode gives us an insight into the project of the public ministry – it is not primarily about fixing people’s inconveniences, it is about fixing people’s souls. Jesus waited to do a good deed until the boy’s father manifested faith… This was His prerogative, since He came to draw people away from the world to Himself. The Christ did not open a miraculous hospital, or an infinite soup kitchen, or an infallible psychic hotline; rather, He told people to beg for God’s forgiveness (Mt. 4:17), to sin no more (Jn. 8:11), and to extend faith in God to Him as well (Jn. 14:1). Fixing people’s earthly problems were and are for Christ merely a means to an end: moving people to repentance, conversion, discipleship, and finally perfection in union with Himself and the Father. Just because we don’t get exactly what material convenience we want, when we want, how we want it, does not mean that God does not exist or concern Himself with us. When He doesn’t give worldly help, even when asked sincerely, it’s because He knows that to give us some particular opportunity to forsake the world and cling to Him in abandonment to His will is better than to give us what we’re asking for. (Remember the dichotomy of promises!)

We are not in the same position. It does not belong to us to help others conditionally to the same extent as God because we do not have the same privileged insight into people’s souls that He has, and even if we did we would not always know how best to use that knowledge. Sometimes we can be quite sure that withholding some help will be good for another – like when we allow a child to “learn the hard way” – but by and large we have a duty to provide basic goods for others we encounter and are able to help. We do need to open hospitals. We do need to run soup kitchens. (No psychic hotlines, however.) In fact, we would never be able to show love for each other without the opportunity to do these kinds of selfless acts.

So, can we test God’s response to prayer and prove with statistically significant results that He does indeed answer them? As it turns out, we actually can. Anyone who prays earnestly and frequently for help to become virtuous and holy will become virtuous and holy. And you can survey the lives of the saints and see that this is indeed how they prayed.

I will now teach you a short but powerful prayer which if you repeat often and with sincerity will change your life radically by changing you radically: “Oh Lord, help me to become a saint as soon as possible and at any cost to myself! Amen.”

Don’t be afraid to have this prayer answered.

 

Post by: Eamonn Clark

 

Main image: screenshot from the film Aladdin (1992)

The Liturgical Creeps

In my time in parish work, and in my exploration of the world’s great (and little) churches, I have encountered many interesting phenomena. As you might imagine, that involves a spectrum, with the simply “good” on one end and the simply “bad” on the other, with plenty of ho-hum stuff in the middle. But there is also a category of things sort of “in the middle” which don’t really fit well into such a simple paradigm. They deserve their own little separate space.

In psychology, there is something called the “uncanny valley.” Here is a chart:

uncanny1

At this point, I’m not exactly sure how I would rearrange the variables on this chart to explain these experiences, but they are definitely of the kind that would fit into that valley which just feels “off.”

Electric candles – especially votive candles – are a big one.

Yes, it’s cheaper. Yes, it’s less dangerous. Yes, it’s cleaner. But isn’t that all part of what makes it not as good? It seems far “less human” than it should. All you do is put in a coin… Some electrons move… And there you go. That’s it. No careful management of the flame as you transfer it from a candle already lit, no satisfaction of getting your wick to light, no organic timeline for when it will go out, and nothing is actually burnt up and “wasted” on God. The last bit is probably the most important. Here’s 2 Sam. 24:22-24:

But Araunah said to David: “Let my lord the king take it and offer up what is good in his sight. See, here are the oxen for burnt offerings, and the threshing sledges and the yokes of oxen for wood. All this does Araunah give to the king.” Araunah then said to the king, “May the Lord your God accept your offering.” The king, however, replied to Araunah, “No, I will buy it from you at the proper price, for I cannot sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.”

King David was worried about not spending enough himself for a burnt offering of oxen. One can only imagine the king’s reaction if Araunah had offered to put coins into a candle machine that just moves electricity in a circle.

This does not necessarily mean that the one using a candle machine is doing a poorer job praying, but perhaps over time it could have an effect on a person’s perception of worship, leading to the thought that what’s in your wallet is more important than what’s in your heart… After all, there are no “suggested donations” for a machine.

Another big one is recorded music.

We don’t accept lip-syncing at concerts. Why would God accept a recording from a CD at Mass? This can be especially prevalent at funerals, where a well-meaning family wants their loved one’s favorite song played, and while it is certainly difficult to deny a grieving family, the songs are often inappropriate and are never anything much more than a catharsis over memories when what the funeral rite is primarily for is prayer for the soul of the deceased.

Recorded music also shows up outside liturgies as “filler,” when silence is, I suppose, too unsettling. You will find this in many churches in Rome, Paris, and beyond. While the music is often “good,” the fact that it is an mp3 means that those voices and instrumentalists are not actually there praying with you – it just sounds like it. And to me that can be a bit more unsettling than silence.

Notice once again the lack of “waste” – it is a mere digital re-presentation of someone else’s work.

On the other hand, once I walked into Wieskirche in Bavaria and there was a magnificent little choral arrangement being sung by a small group. Wonder and joy, the opposite of the liturgical creeps?

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Notice the real candles. The detached altar was nothing to write home about, but everything else was!

The “liturgical creeps” are then, I suppose, when something a little “fake” is helping mediate or ground prayer that reduces the “waste” of human effort. It’s a working definition, at least.

Perhaps you have had the experience yourself. What else fits into the liturgical uncanny valley?

 

Post by: Eamonn Clark

 

Main image: Opening title from the popular 90’s kids’ show, “Are You Afraid of the Dark?”

Uncanny chart: By Smurrayinchester – self-made, based on image by Masahiro Mori and Karl MacDorman at http://www.androidscience.com/theuncannyvalley/proceedings2005/uncannyvalley.html, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2041097

Babel University

There is an old adage that a PhD is given to someone who knows everything there is to know about nothing. This is to say that as someone advances more and more in education, he will have to choose a field, then a sub-field, then finally a very precise issue in some topic within that sub-field on which to write a dissertation. That person might become the world’s foremost expert on the life cycle of African dung beetles, or the influence of Shakespeare on early 19th century Russian literature, or the architectural history of Plano, Texas.

Obviously, a person has to do preliminary studies to prepare to enter a doctoral program and might become extraordinarily well-educated in all manner of topics beyond his own specialty along the way and after earning his doctorate. So while the aphorism is ultimately untrue, there is still something right about it: simply because a person has an advanced degree within some larger field (biochemistry, American history, music theory, etc.,) does not necessarily imply that that he is truly an expert in the entirety of that larger field; it only implies expertise in the narrow sliver of that field which he focuses on. Much less does it imply that he is an expert in “science” or “history” or “art.” Yet often there is indeed such a delusion of grandeur in the academy, and even more so in those who look up to it and aspire to it.

In today’s world, some 18 year old Americans are shipping off to colleges where they will be taught remedial English skills, be coddled with trigger-warnings and safe-spaces, celebrate diversity by forcing everyone to share the same childish values and opinions as themselves, and complain that national election results are making them too distraught to take tests which they will then be allowed to skip. After four exorbitantly expensive years of this foolishness, these bright-eyed and bushy-tailed graduates will go on to call themselves “well-educated,” and they will be confirmed in this delusion by the society which they will then be poised to run.

There is nothing “higher” about this sort of education, except the greater availability of illicit substances. Students may be free to take all kinds of elective courses, often basing their choices on fleeting interests or even by factors having nothing at all to do with the content of the course itself (such as friends taking the course, having it at a certain time, etc.), or conversely, they will immediately be deeply plunged into their field of choice without ever being exposed to anything outside of it, putting them on the fast-track to knowing everything about nothing. And all of this after a primary and secondary education which probably left them with little more than a rudimentary understanding of algebra, a couple of names and events in world history, and some loosely connected ideas about science. After all, why should one bother to master these topics when they will not be part of one’s profession, especially since in a pinch all the answers can be accessed instantly by consulting WikiOracle? All the specialization without regard for the whole and all the reckless ambition and vanity which can drive educational pursuits create a paradoxical trajectory of learning for the sake of income or for the sake of advancing a political agenda without regard for what one would do if he made enough money to have no need to work anymore or actually accomplished that political agenda. It’s an upward trajectory, but where does it lead? We will never know – the tower is crumbling, just like at Babel.

Fulton Sheen was complaining about some of these exact imbalances of higher education some 60 years ago. Take a second to let that sink in.

It goes without saying that standards of education have dropped over the ages. What “well-educated” used to mean for an adolescent was having obtained serious proficiency in the classical group of liberal arts (grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy – in that order) as well as literature and history, plenty of Latin, and maybe some Greek as well.

Today it means “having a degree.” The argument from authority no longer works so well when appealing to the words of God or the Church, but one can appeal to the opinions of “experts” without feeling a touch of shame. If only Jesus had gone to an Ivy League and wore a lab coat!

The salve for this wound is precisely a return to older standards and methods of education. Since college has in many ways become the new high school, colleges ought to be teaching students at least the basics of the world which they are about to step into, no? Sure, let kids have a major, but a strong core curriculum is absolutely indispensable in these mad times. The tendency toward rapid specialization in education has gone too far. As each individual learns only his own language, the common language disappears, and so too does a recognizably unified culture. We are building a tower to the sky, but our base is shaky and nobody knows anything but his own special craft. The polymaths are gone. Will the West ever see another Alcuin? Another Dante? Another da Vinci? If we do, it will be in spite of our educational priorities, not because of them.

Instead of turning to the treasures of our own culture and seeking to present them in the most effective way possible, Catholic schools often get distracted by trying to be on the “cutting edge.” It is a losing race, of course… We are outspent, especially in primary and secondary education. Most Catholic schools will never be able to beat secular schools at their own game even if they pay the hefty fees of conscience and identity. But we can offer the richness of the Western tradition from the platform of revealed truth without indoor plumbing, let alone without an iPad for every student. Perhaps endlessly trying to “keep up with Principal Jones” is a waste of our time, money, and energy, when we already have on the shelf an incredible product that we own by Divine right and therefore have an educational monopoly on.

We need an academic Pentecost to undo our academic Babel. A rigorous and holistic Catholic liberal arts education is the God-given way to make that happen. Otherwise, our universities will be full of sub-curricula which are so “united” that they will create students who are too “diverse” to share significant goals with each other in a meaningful way.

I will suggest in harmony with the mind of Professor MacIntyre that we as a Church ought to focus much more energy on building up our own communities in sound doctrine and morals, in addition to providing a solid education in secular knowledge. Perhaps parishes could invest “real money” in local homeschooling programs. But whatever the solution is, it will necessarily involve an openness to what has come – and is coming – from above.

 

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image: “The Tower of Babel,” Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563

Some art in the Roman Forum!

I was in the Roman Forum the other day to see Santa Maria Antiqua… It is the oldest church in the Forum, connects to the Imperial Palace, was the one-time seat of the Bishop of Rome, and it has some killer frescoes. Due to ongoing renovations and excavations, it is rarely open – this year it allowed visitors in for a few months, and the last time it did so was 1980. Sadly, as of tomorrow (Sunday, 10/30/16) it will be closed for who knows how long (the figure I heard was 20 years). Since you missed your shot, let me provide it for you!

First things first… Behold, the first basilica in the world!

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It has a sunroof.

No, it is not the brick building. That’s the old Roman curia – before it was a Church thing, it was a Roman thing. You are looking through the basilica, which is a ruin. You can see the pillars sticking up out of the ground. Once again, before it was a Church thing, it was a Roman thing. We baptized both ideas, and they stuck around.

Another first… Behold, the first real CCD classroom on planet Earth!

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The church itself is to the right, and leads up towards the Imperial Palace and observation platform. Hold that thought.

Before there was coffee and donuts at RCIA, there was the Oratory of the 40 Martyrs. If you teach Sunday school, here you can go back to your roots. Let’s take a look inside, shall we? (Click to enlarge the photos.)

The Byzantine influence is almost as clear as the weathering. But all throughout the site there are slightly different styles, reflecting the fact that there were many different patrons and artists at work over the ages. Like the rest of the Forum, there are layers, and analyzing this site is made especially difficult by the unique character these frescoes have among contemporary Roman works.

Here’s the exterior of the church:

Santa Maria Antiqua is called “Antiqua” for a reason… She’s been around since the 5th Century! After Constantine, the Forum became more than just a safe place for Christians, it became an opportune place for worship.

Into the church we go!

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The hanging picture is called an “iconostasis.” Notice the use of arches, with the apse in the back (surrounding the iconostasis). Many of the frescoes are in rough shape, but we will look at some of the better preserved ones.

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The left side of the nave.

Yes, even the pillars were decorated. See the one on the right there? This place was like stepping into an ecclesiastical coloring book. Every inch was covered, it seems.

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Close-up of the wall.

Here is an image of some the frescoes in one of two “corner chapels,” on the right side of the nave near the back… It is called the “Chapel of Physicians” (or the “Chapel of the Medical Saints”), where there would be constant intercession for the sick, whether the infirm were present or not. (The other is the “Chapel of St. Theodotus” on the left.) Apparently St. Francis visited this place, by the way, when he was in Rome.

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The saints pray along too! They cover all four sides.

The apse has the earliest Roman image of Mary as a Queen, and the image of the Cross (in the Chapel of St. Theodotus) is notable as well…

Pope John VII was totally enamored with Santa Maria Antiqua. Not only did he commission a ton of work on the church, he also moved there, way back at the start of the 8th Century before there was an Associated Press to misunderstand why he might do such a thing. However, only about a hundred years later, an earthquake would cover much of the church, leaving it dormant for 1,000 years or so. (The Chapel of the Medical Saints apparently remained accessible, and somehow people forgot there was a church attached!)

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Another view. This looks over where the ambo would have been toward the main altar.

Here there was a main altar and a “holy table” further back near the apse where the gifts would have been prepared.

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From the holy table toward the main altar.

To make sure that everyone understood that Christianity was not ditching its Jewish roots, there was significant emphasis on the Old Testament. Here is a sarcophagus with stories of Jonah and some more frescoes of OT events:

It was lunch time in Rome, which beckoned, but in the end the platform won out. The long climb was definitely worth it. Panning left to right:

There’s just too much to point out. Sorry. But do notice that the corner of the church is on the top left. The rest of the view is mainly out towards the Quirinal Hill and Capitoline Hill (the Forum is on the Palatine).

Considering that you will probably never actually be inside this amazing church… you’re welcome for the quick glimpse inside!

Post by: Eamonn Clark

How the Camera is Spoiling Religion

A while back a professor commented to my class about the cover of a recent edition of The Word Among Us. He noted that the title was “The Gospel of Encounter,” and yet it featured something rather opposed to such a notion… A woman who actually “turned away from the Vicar of Christ,” as he put it, to take a selfie. (It’s the June 2015 issue.)

You have no doubt experienced the frustration of such things before, if you’ve ever been to Notre Dame, the Holy Sepulchre, or any major church or shrine. A lot of people are there just to snag photos.

I was recently at the Holy Father’s Sunday Angelus address, which is held weekly in St. Peter’s Square. Yes, it makes sense that people would take a picture or two, yes, it makes sense to have two large television screens with live streaming due to how far away the Pope’s window is. But what I noticed was something very odd and disconcerting: many people were taking pictures of the screens.

They were taking pictures. Of pictures.

“Little Johnny, look at this photo here, it’s from 40 years ago.”
“Oh boy, what’s it of, grandpa?”
“It’s a picture of some footage of the pope.”
“Wow, golly gee, that must have been special. But can’t I just look up the real thing on YouTube?”
“That’s not the point – I saw this footage in person.”
“I can too, grandpa, here it is. If only you had seen the pope himself!”
“I did, but the screen was just as interesting.”

Why aren’t people satisfied with a postcard from a famous church? Certainly, it’s not the 50 cents it costs, because people are likewise not satisfied with the professional quality footage that is now taken at every papal event and then immediately uploaded for the whole world to see. Is it really necessary that it’s on YOUR phone? Why not just soak in the experience instead, so that it’s actually in YOUR brain?

“I just want to remember it,” people will say. Well, first of all, if you need to take a picture to remember something, it couldn’t have been that spectacular, so why do you want to remember it? And you can’t remember something you never really encountered in sincerity anyway. The “flesh and blood” of the experience must be primary, the digitized “word” of the experience must be secondary.

In focusing too much on getting a picture, one immortalizes a moment that he never had.

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God can’t be experienced directly in this life, only in the next life in the fullness of the Beatific Vision, where we will behold the Divine Essence “face to face.” For now it is always, as St. Paul says, “dimly in a mirror.” (1 Cor 13:12) Why are we so intent on adding yet another piece of glass to hide Him from ourselves?

Many years ago I traveled to Quebec. I was in some reenactment Native American village (or is it Native Canadian?), where my group was told by the guide that absolutely no pictures were to be taken of the masks inside one particular hut – that if this law was broken, our cameras would be too. Why? Because there was a belief that developed that taking a picture somehow steals the soul away from the object… It desecrates it, profanes it, sucks its life out. While we know that masks don’t have souls, and that cameras don’t half-kill what they capture images of, perhaps this is not far off from the truth, but in the opposite direction: taking pictures of the sacred, if done irreverently, is bad for the photographer’s soul. It half-kills the experience he could have had. It has profaned and desecrated his relationship to it.

Now, there can be good photography of the sacred. There is plenty of it, actually. But good sacred photography is never done out of vanity, out of “touristic” motives, out of bandwagon-hype. Such would be, in some small way, a sacrilege. If a Catholic walks into one of the great churches of Christendom, forgets to genuflect, and starts grabbing pictures of the statues, hasn’t he sort of missed the point? And how much of an excuse does he really have?

Perhaps some person or place really speaks to you, and after having authentically encountered it you desire to catch a picture. That is quite a different phenomenon, as you have already genuinely engaged with what you now encounter through lenses, mirrors, and a screen. The Word became flesh, after all – He certainly did NOT become a digital picture.

In the meantime, let’s all sit back, relax, and actually experience the incarnational nature of our Faith, rather than neurotically re-immaterializing it.

 

Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image: CTV’s coverage of the Papal audience of May 25, 2016