Thursday, June 30, 2005

Saturday, June 25, 2005

There be dragons

Liesl Schillinger has a rather slight review of Brian Anderson's South Park Conservatives. She's disdainful, and after confusing undisputed Republican dominance at the polls with Anderson's allegation of leftist hegemony in media and publishing, she notes that the book isn't for our kind of readers, dear. (I'd love a Bombay Sapphire martini, thank you! Are you summering in East Hampton again this year?)

Treefrog writes in an email: "I love this paragraph, and the priceless, parochial view of the universe it implies. Beyond the Hudson there be dragons."
Anderson quotes an interview that Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post's media critic, conducted with Lawrence O'Donnell, a political analyst and screenwriter for ''The West Wing,'' in which O'Donnell said, ''You'll never, ever get the Republican TV show.'' Anderson and O'Donnell imply that this has something to do with politics, but isn't it more likely a question of ratings? Would anybody, even a conservative fan of ''South Park'' -- especially a conservative fan of ''South Park'' -- want to watch a sitcom about churchgoing parents with two children who lead an uneventful life and make regular donations to the Fraternal Order of Police?

Friday, June 24, 2005

Chancellor Cruise

is really Darth Tommius! We suspected this all along about Tom Cruise. And yet, the Force is strong with the young Padawan, Katie Holmes. Difficult to see, the future for them is.

UPDATE: new improved video link to Sith Tom.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

City of God

Recently read St. Augustine's City of God. It's a pretty good workout; my impression is that I've only sampled something, without having enough time to properly consider his wide-ranging discussion. Augustine's takes on human nature, the meaning of eternal life and eternal punishment, within an explication of the "meaning" of history. He writes of all human history as a single narrative. It's also a work of Biblical exegesis, as Augustine treats Scripture as a historical document. For Augustine, creation is good, creation exists in time and has a history. Indeed, since God enters into history to show man His love, history itself is sanctified, through the City of God.

The book contains the parallel histories of what Augustine terms the City of God and the City of Man, both descended from Adam. The City of Man is founded on murder (specifically fratricide, the murder of a brother, viz. Cain and Abel, Romulus and Remus). The City of Man has been deceived and debased, fallen under the sway of pagan gods, which appear to be either demons or, at best indifferent or benign spirits that are mistakenly worshipped.

Augustine wants to explain the ways of God to man, but he does this from some humility, expressing his speculation in doubt. City of God also shows Augustine to be interested in the goods of Greek and Roman philosophy and rhetoric and in purging the negative elements of these while and Christian revelation. He's always intent on removing the possibility of gnostic/Manichaean distortions of Christian texts, such as St. Paul's admonitions not to "live according to the flesh" but rather "according to the spirit." Augustine is clear that this does not mean disdain for the body, but that one should refuse to live according to human ways, and consent to live by God's will.

Again, there's no way to give an adequate summary of a book like this, but it is surprising readable (if voluminous). I'm sorry I waited as long as I did to read it.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Schiavo autopsy press release from Not Dead Yet

Not Dead Yet has an excellent press release in reaction to the Schiavo autopsy report last week:
Today's release of findings in the autopsy of Terri Schiavo leave the central issues in her life and death unanswered, says a national disability rights group.

For example, contrary to articles stating the autopsy report 'supported' the diagnosis of 'persistent vegetative state (PVS),' a neuropathology expert today was careful to say that PVS is a clinical diagnosis rather than a pathological one. He added that nothing in the autopsy was 'inconsistent' with a PVS diagnosis.

The real elephant in the living room, of course, is whether or not we can really know how conscious anyone labeled 'PVS' really is. Several studies have revealed high misdiagnosis rates, with conscious people being mistakenly regarded as totally and irrevocably unaware.

The autopsy also documented significant brain atrophy, and the medical panel called the damage 'irreversible.'

This is not the same as saying she had no cognitive ability.

'It's always seemed to us that PVS isn't really a diagnosis; it's a value judgment masquerading as a diagnosis,' said Stephen Drake, research analyst for Not Dead Yet, a national disability rights group that filed three amicus briefs in the case. 'When it comes to the hard science, no qualified pathologist went on the record saying she couldn't think or couldn't experience her own death through dehydration.'

"PVS isn't really a diagnosis; it's a value judgment masquerading as a diagnosis." That's the money quote. That the judicial system was making life-and-death decisions for a woman based upon a diagnosis as fungible as PVS went largely unremarked. The fact that our deaths may be decreed because a more powerful clique of doctors and lawyers have looked into our face and decreed that, like reading images in clouds, they have determined that we are no longer "there," this should scare us.

Hat Tip: Michelle Malkin.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Off to hell, a Manichee?

Caryn James writes about quasi-spiritual concerns in the current crop of fantasy films, such as Batman Begins and Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith. She repeatedly refers to them as "Manichaean." . . .

She writes:
And as crowd-pleasing movies so often do, they reflect what's in the air, a climate in which the president speaks in terms of good and evil, and religion is increasingly part of the country's social and political conversation.
. . .When Night Watch was released in Russia last year, it quickly became the highest-grossing film in that country's history. It's hard to predict how an action-fantasy with subtitles will do here, but its eternal battle between good and evil is simple to translate, and its language is familiar from statements like this: "We are in a conflict between good and evil, and America will call evil by its name." Those words weren't spoken on the planet Tatooine, but by President Bush at West Point in 2002 (considering the lag time of movies, practically yesterday). By now, whether the real-life rhetoric of good and evil reminds us of the movies, or the other way around, is probably impossible to guess.
Ms. James is dutifully doing Frank Rich's work of making political commentary under the guise of an Arts review. Unfortunately, when discussing Manichaeism, she's out of her depth. . . . Read more . . . She apparently believes that any reference to clearly delineated good and evil is "Manichaean." She would do well to acquaint herself with the actual doctrines of Manichaeism, namely, that good and evil were effectively equal but opposing principles, and that the physicality per se is morally debased. Mere depictions of great good and great evil in the world are not Manichaean (or at least not uniquely Manichaean -- they are also Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Confucian, etc.)

Ms. James, despite her misunderstanding, is essentially correct about the entire Star Wars series having Manichaean (and gnostic elements). These include a belief in a special elite knowledge and training given to Jedi that allow them special spiritual and material benefits, a general equivalence between the Good Jedi and the Evil Sith, a disdain for corporeal existence and a lack of physicality presented as an evidence of sanctity (the absence of blood in these movies, Obi-Wan and Yoda's bodies vanishing at the point of death, etc.). These elements are in the very first Star Wars installment, which predates the current administation by about twenty-five years.

Bush, on the other hand, clearly does not believe that evil is as strong as good generally. Such a belief would contradict both his stated Christian beliefs and his approach to evil in the world. Indeed, the prevalent criticism of Bush at the Times is that he is overly sanguine about the likelihood of success for his military ventures. A Manichaean would view the evil opposition as being as strong as the good protagonists.

If Ms. James is looking for a modern Manichee, maybe a better example would be George Felos. She could start with a review of his book Litigation as Spiritual Practice, in which describes joyously freeing a woman of her pesky body. Presumably she is one with the Force now.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Amnesty in Iraq?

This story is getting a lot of play today: reports of a possible amnesty program for insurgents in Iraq. In most reports that have come my way, it seems to play as a desperate move that will involve open negotiation with terrorists. This report strikes me as a bit more balanced and credible: the reported plan is an attempt to divide the terrorists, aimed at getting Sunni sympathizers to switch loyalties, and negotiation with terrorists is being ruled out.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The perfect crime

Here, apparently, is how you do it:

  1. Decapitate one person, repeatedly stab another
  2. Approach the American border
  3. Give up your bloodied chainsaw, homemade sword, and brass knuckles
  4. Be released


Well, it wasn't a perfect crime. Some smart detective put 2 and 2 together when corpses were found in the home of the man in question. The murderer is now in custody.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Pope Benedict on gay marriage

Benedict reiterates opposition to gay civil marriages.

New Jersey primary is today

Wasn't Corzine something you put on a cut when you were a kid?

Oldest joke thrown out of court

"Chicken Cleared of Crossing Road Charge" -- Associated Press, May 31

Monday, June 06, 2005

Another Iceberg story

Reuters, the London Times, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle -- all of these have been running front-page stories with headlines that indicate that a Pentagon investigation has concluded that the U.S. is, indeed, guilty of "Koran abuse" (shudder!).

The submerged parts of this iceberg story include these details:
  1. There were no incidents of guards flushing the Koran.
  2. All of those who disrespected the Koran were immediately disciplined.
  3. The report finds that 4 out of 5 of the incidents occurred before strict guidelines for handling the Koran were sent to guards in January 2003.
  4. Some incidents were accidental.
  5. The report summary states that "the Southern Command policy of Koran handling is serious, respectful and appropriate."
  6. There were 15 incidents of prisoners desecrating the Koran, including ripping out pages and (drum-roll, please). . . shoving the pages into the toilet.
Can we put this in perspective? The U.S. is distributing these copies of the Koran to prisoners in the first place! I wonder if any of the beheaded kidnapped victims were allowed a final Eucharist, or were entitled to an evangelical prayer gathering before they were dispatched on videotape . . . .

Friday, June 03, 2005

Futile care for the English Patient

Wesley J. Smith weighs in on the Leslie Burke case, which I blogged earlier. Smith writes at the end about "futile care," a bioethical theory and associated protocols that leave doctors with greater authority to determine when continued care is no longer in a patient's best interest.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

It's about forgiveness, part II

Christoph Arnold has written a great deal about acts of forgiveness. This page in particular includes links to his writings, including many anecdotes and stories about the role that forgiveness has played in many peoples lives. The first link, "Long Row to Hoe," includes many riveting stories about transcendent forgiveness that saves both forgiven and forgiver.

Hat Tip: treefrog.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

The heart of the matter (It's about forgiveness)

A friend who is spiritually searching recently asked me about Christian perspectives on forgiveness, about how our participation in forgiveness, our willingness to love and truly forgive, is necessary for us to fully realize the good of our natures. A cradle Catholic but for many years wandering a great deal, he saw Christian belief as entailing a kind of quid pro quo in forgiveness (God forgives us, but only if we forgive others). I can see where this comes from, but since I don't hear the Faith that way, I thought I'd flesh out a different way of thinking about it. Read more . . .

Although he specifically asked for books, none came to mind immediately. Rather, Scripture suggested itself. Two passages stuck in my head when considering forgiveness. The first was from Matthew 18:

Peter approaching asked [Jesus], "Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?"

Jesus answered, "I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times. That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount. Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt. At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.' Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan.

When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount. He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, 'Pay back what you owe.' Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.' But he refused. Instead, he had him put in prison until he paid back the debt. Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair.

His master summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?' Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart."

I thought about what my friend had said he felt, that in a Christian view, we are punished unless we forgive. So it seems God threatens us to get good behavior. It's possible to read this passage to confirm that, but I don't think that's quite right. One reason comes from Luke 11:

He was praying in a certain place, and when he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray just as John taught his disciples." He said to them, "When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread and forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us, and do not subject us to the final test."

And he said to them, "Suppose one of you has a friend to whom he goes at midnight and says, 'Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, for a friend of mine has arrived at my house from a journey and I have nothing to offer him,' and he says in reply from within, 'Do not bother me; the door has already been locked and my children and I are already in bed. I cannot get up to give you anything.' I tell you, if he does not get up to give him the loaves because of their friendship, he will get up to give him whatever he needs because of his persistence."

"And I tell you, ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish? Or hand him a scorpion when he asks for an egg? If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the holy Spirit to those who ask him?"
Christians connect our forgiveness of others to God's forgiveness of us. That connection is not simply "if we don't forgive others, God will turn up his nose at forgiving us." If that were true, we couldn't make sense of the unconditional guarantee of love and forgiveness that Luke talks about ("everyone who asks, receives"). Rather, as Christian readers, we're asked to read the two passages together. Then we begin to see that forgiveness is truly supernatural, even when we are the ones doing the forgiving. True forgiveness is like a miracle. True forgiveness (as opposed to a sham forgiveness that forever throws the supposed "forgiveness" in the face of the "forgiven" in acts of perpetual humiliation) may strike us as unnatural or impossible. God is not simply the One who requires forgiveness -- he is the One who makes forgiveness possible, he is Forgiveness and Love itself.

So how do we read the passage in Matthew in light of this? To the extent that we are unable to forgive and love, we have not truly accepted God's love -- we have not surrendered our will to His. In the language of Luke, we have withdrawn before knocking, before asking. And that withdrawl of our will from God's keeps us from His Forgiveness, and keeps us from forgiving others.

One of the great Eastern church fathers, St. John Chysostom, delivered an Easter Sermon that contained this passage: "Let no one lament persistent failings, for Forgiveness has risen from the grave." Chysostom identifies Christ as not just forgiving, but as being Forgiveness itself.

Killing with kindness

Something to be aware of: yet another controversy around the proposed removal of a feeding tube for an incapacitated person. This time it's in Britain. The man, Leslie Burke is still capable of expressing his wishes. The twist? Burke is suing to make sure his feeding tube is not removed.
Leslie Burke does not want to spend the rest of his life imagining a slow death by starvation. He can picture it: lying still, unable to communicate but conscious every second as his doctors let him die.

"That is, in my mind, the most inhumane way possible for someone to die," said Burke, 45, who suffers from a degenerative brain condition that in 15 to 20 years is expected to incapacitate him, taking away his ability to speak.
Apparently the General Medical Council, which oversees medical treatment in Britain, has granted doctors the prerogative to withhold life-prolonging treatment, including nutrition and hydration, if they deem the patient's quality of life so poor that treatment causes more suffering than benefit. They may do this even against a patient's wishes.

Mostly harmless

Recently read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

I'm probably treading on thin ice here, talking about a revered piece of pop culture. When I was in college, Douglas Adams had a cult following that knew all the jokes and could quote them to each other. Read more . . .

I find myself in a middle ground. I was first exposed to Hitchhiker's Guide when it ran as a BBC radio serial (I heard it on NPR, I think). It got a some laughs out of me, and I enjoyed it, but it didn't inspire in me the kind of devotion that it did in other geeks.

Having read the first book, I have to say the radio series is my favorite. Playing as a serial, the gags are front and center. Read as a novel, the book seems a little pointless.

That said, a lot of the jokes are still funny. Adams was a vocal atheist, and at his best he has the satiric touch of a Voltaire. He also enjoys skewering atheists in his book: Oolon Coluphid, the atheist writer that Adams posits as "the author of philosophical blockbusters," seems quite pretentious and silly, at least in his choice of book titles.

Occasionally, there is a true insight that is nicely played for a joke. My favorite revolves around the babelfish, a fish that is used a universal translator. When a babelfish is placed in one's hear, one can hear and understand the words spoken by another, regardless of the original language spoken. The end of Adams digression on the babelfish ends with the acidly ironic observation that the babelfish is responsible for more wars than any other species in the universe.

(John Durham Peters, author of this book on communication, makes the point that we often hold an implicitly utopian view of communication, believing that differences between people will automatically be resolved with better communication, whereas sometimes the truth is the opposite: the better two groups of people understand each other, the less they like each other.)

I place Adams in the same category as Kurt Vonnegut. They're both writers that have a special appeal to the young, to high school and college age readers. They both write satirical, absurdist fiction in which the skewer traditional beliefs and middle class norms. Adams tends to be more detached, more bemused, less pointed, passionate, and angry than Vonnegut. In some ways, that makes him easier to take. On the other hand, I don't think he's as compelling, for the same reason.

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