Thursday, December 18, 2014

What's So Difficult About Believing in the Virgin Birth?

I grew up Catholic. I grew up with a manger scenes in the house at Christmas time. I grew up hearing the story of the Annunciation from Luke and the account of Jesus' birth from Matthew, and never questioned it. It's true that my credulity had as much to do with my natural childhood innocence as with any supernatural virtue of faith that I may have had. But even after finding out about the birds and the bees, Jesus' origin story never gave me pause to question.

I was into adulthood before I found out that there are many people who find the Virgin Birth troublesome. Some are total skeptics, but others believe in the Resurrection, in the miracles, and even call Jesus Lord and God. But that Jesus was conceived outside the regular way is a bridge too far. I have to be honest, I don't understand the doubts. The skeptics or the atheists I get. They've drunk a different kind of Kool-Aid, so there's a certain period of intellectual detox that they need to go through before we can even get to discussing something like the Virgin Birth. But that some accept the other mysteries of Jesus' life and reject the Virgin Birth is a total non sequitur to me. I think part of the problem is that many people take the event of Jesus' conception in isolation when it needs to be seen in light of the reason Jesus, the eternal Word of God, took flesh in the womb of the Virgin to begin with.

Everything needs to start with the Paschal Mystery. That Jesus died and rose again is the core of our Faith. It is the reason that 10 of the 11 surviving Apostles suffered martyrdom, and John suffered torture and exile. Countless others suffered the same fate in the first decades and centuries for their refusal to deny that Jesus is risen, like the first 11. No one died, that I know of, for refusing to denounce the Virgin Birth. But whether we're discussing this doctrine, or the veracity of the miracle accounts or the belief in the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, we always have to see these things in light of Jesus' dying and rising. If we believe that Jesus rose from the dead, then other supernatural claims we make about him shouldn't be difficult to accept, or at the very least shouldn't be dismissed as impossible.

The Resurrection is the ultimate validation that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. Whatever other things he did, they were building to that moment when the fullness of the Kingdom was revealed: a Kingdom where illness is unknown, where the power of Satan is banished, where death is defeated. And it is a Kingdom where life is unending. All this is made possible because Jesus, who was sinless, came and stood with sinners, even dying in their place, to make our Redemption possible. Could an ordinary human person have accomplish this? Even one who is blessed by God in a special way? No. Jesus' claims to have existed "before Abraham was," or that he shared in the glory of the Father "before the world began" preclude that Jesus was an ordinary man, or even a special man. This all points to Jesus as a divine person. So if we believe these claims of Jesus, then the idea that he came into the world in an ordinary, natural fashion is harder to believe than the Virgin Birth.

So, I continue to have no problem with the Virgin Birth. I have no problem with it because, from how I see it, it isn't only possible, it is essential when we take all the claims that Jesus and his followers made concerning him. If this was the only extraordinary claim made about Jesus, then the idea that Jesus was miraculously conceived would be a stretch. But taken together it makes perfect sense.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Our Lady of Guadalupe 2014

One of the great things about being a priest and being forced, in a way, to constantly reflect upon the Word of God in relation to the liturgical times of year is that new levels of meaning become apparent over time. It's not necessarily a yearly unfolding, but I can say that my preaching this Advent is very different than it was, lets say, ten or even five years ago. This year I have noticed a clear shift in my homilies, though. I've become much more focused on the eschatological meaning of these weeks than previously. I won't go into the whys right now, but it's just to say that "it is what it is." My preaching is a reflection of my prayer life, and this is where the Spirit is moving me. I will go as far as to say that I don't have any strong feeling that we have entered the "End Times." But I do believe that this has been a neglected topic, one that many Catholics have been content to let our Evangelical brothers and sisters tackle, much to our detriment and confusion for those who are only hearing that perspective and think it's authoritative for all Christianity (which it isn't). Again, a topic for another day.

Today is the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and serving a predominantly Mexican immigrant community, it's kind of a big deal. We had several pilgrimages leave from parish last evening, heading to a shrine about 15 miles away for a special Mass with Archbishop Cupich, returning between two and 3 in the morning. Then the traditional Mañanitas at 4:30 A.M., complete with mariachi's, and Mass at 6. Tonight we'll have the Rosary, with more mariachi singing starting at 5, with Mass, and the blessing of the roses at 7pm.

I don't mention all this to boast about how busy we are here at Bosco (O.K., maybe just a little). The main point is that with this major Marian feast, along with the Immaculate Conception on the 8th, it can be easy for Advent to get lost a bit. But I would say that actually this feast fits in just fine, especially when this theme of the End Times is taken into account. .

The Blessed Mother appeared to Juan Diego at the very moment that his society had experienced an apocalypse. Only twelve years previously the Spanish had arrived in what we call today Mexico City, and nothing was ever to be the same. Their religion, culture, economy and governance were replaced in an instant. But the indigenous peoples didn't now how to take this new religion. Sure, there was no more human sacrifice, but the Spanish conquistadors weren't exactly kind and gentle. Mary came with a message of hope for Juan Diego, who had already become Christian, and for all the people. They had experienced great change, revolutionary change in the deepest sense of the word, but they were not to worry. She was their mother, and she was bringing them Jesus Christ. The God who gives us His blood so that we may have life, as opposed to their old gods who craved human blood to keep themselves appeased.

We are in a time of transition as well. We should not expect that social orders or political institutions will last forever, not even our own. We shouldn't be surprised if in the decades, or even years ahead, epoch changing events take place. But the message of Our Lady at Tepeyac is the same: she is our Mother who loves us, who protects sum who guides us. She brings us her Son, who will make all things new, and indeed already has. While we await his coming in glory, we should not despair if there are ups, down, progress and reversals along the way. All history is moving toward one goal: the fullness of life in Jesus Christ.

Word on Fire in Mexico: At Our Lady of Guadalupe

Our Lady Guadalupe as Star of the new Evangelization from AOP

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Detailed Study of Our Lady of Guadalupe by Fr. Luis Fernando Castañeda Monter

These are rather comprehensive conferences on the story and science of the miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  These are rather long talks (I usually try to only post short clips of no more than ten minutes), but these are worth the time. These talks explain the cultural and religious background of the Aztecs and how the image fits with that.

What was most impressive to me is Fr. Castañeda explaining the symbols on Our Lady´s dress and mantle and how she used religious and cultural symbols familiar to the indigenous peoples to evangelize and catechize.  The Spaniards thought that there were "mistakes" on the image, because the symbols were so foreign to their way of thinking.  As Fr. Castañeda keeps on saying, God makes no mistakes, and the Blessed Mother makes it clear that she herself is human, but is greater than the Aztec's most powerful god.  She is sent from heaven, but walks the earth to bring the the all powerful God to them, of whom she is mother.  She is our mother too, and wants to bring her us "the one true God for whom all people live."  May our hearts be open to this great grace.

Just as a note: Fr. Castañeda makes some statements concerning cultural anthropology that may or may not be accurate.  For instance at one point he says that all Native American groups practiced human sacrifice.  I'm assuming he means the indigenous groups of Mexico and Central America.  I'm not sure even that would be true, but I never heard of Sioux or Cherokees engaging in sacrifices of the kind the Aztecs did.  Plus, I'm pretty sure that by the time of Columbus the majority of educated Europeans understood the Earth to be round.  Some certainly still held to a belief that the Earth was flat, but science had progressed enough for people to figure it out.   

These are quibbles though.  This is a very fascinating study.  Enjoy!

Monday, December 8, 2014

Fr. Barron visits Lourdes: Mary, the Immaculate Conception

Pope Francis explains the Immaculate Conception from Catholic News Service

Pope Francis, Cardinal George, Advent and the End Times

Robert Hugh Benson

Cardinal Francis George, who just stepped down three weeks ago as Archbishop of Chicago, had an interview with Crux's John Allen published the day before he left office that made some headlines. While he's been long respected for his coverage of the Vatican by figures on both sides of the ideological divide, it is in this age of Pope Francis that Allen has emerged as the go to American Catholic journalist (this fact alone drew attention to the piece). It's a far reaching interview that covers many topics including George's reputation as a "culture warrior," (which he rejects), and whether the appointment of Archbishop Blase Cupich, a perceived moderate, to replace him is a "course correction" or "repudiation" of his legacy (notions he also rejects, but with caveats).  He also seeks to clarify a now legendary statement about a future persecution of the Church that he said was taken out of context. Most of the attention drawn by the interview focused on his desire for a heart to heart with the Holy Father over perceived ambiguities in the pontiff's statements. The Archbishop Emeritus doesn't question the pope's orthodoxy or intentions, just that he feels that his off the cuff comments have left many in the hierarchy, and in the grass roots, wondering what exactly is expected of them.

But what got my attention was Cardinal George's exploration of the pope's fascination with the end times. He points out that one of the pope's favorite books is The Lord of the World, a novel written in 1907 by an English priest Robert Hugh Benson. In it Benson, the son of an Archbishop of Canterbury who converted to Catholicism, looks ahead a hundred years and envisions a secularized, socialist one world order. (I'm reading it myself right now, and while it gets details wrong, the big picture of a radically secularized West threatened by the rise of "Eastern" religious movements, and a stubborn Catholic Church that won't go away is uncanny). Cardinal George admits to his own interest in eschatology, and finds the pope's references to this novel, in particular, and the end of the world, in general, fascinating. Is Pope Francis moving so fast because he believes that we are living in the final age before the great confrontation between Christ and anti-Christ?

My interest in The Lord of the World stems from the fact that I've seen it referenced in several articles about the Holy Father lately, which might come as a surprise considering the eccentricity of the book. The general perception is that Francis is a social justice pope, which he is, but I would argue not in the vein most think. As I've written many times in this space, the great tragedy of contemporary Catholicism is this artificial divide created between orthodoxy (right belief) and ortho-praxis (right action), as if one is more important than the other. Francis' genius is that he can talk about the plight of the poor and the need to reform unjust political and economic structures, but also say that Satan is working behind the scenes of this injustice (and not mean this in some ironic or figurative way). Yes, he wants us to give alms, but he also talks about getting the unemployed, especially teenagers who need work, proper jobs (not something I usually hear my progressive brothers and sisters talk about). He's a man who prays two hours a day the first thing in the morning, and also works to alleviate the suffering of the poor and marginalized. He will criticize those who put abstract ideas and complex theology ahead of serving people's needs (something "conservatives" are usually accused of), but has traditional minded cardinals as the heads of the congregations for the Doctrine of the Faith and Divine Worship. Even Cardinal Burke's replacement is said to be a by the book prelate, in spite of the talk of a traditionalist purge in the Vatican. My point being is that Francis can't be pigeonholed, and the idea that a very down to earth, practical, socially conscious pope is also looking to the skies for the return of Christ in His glory shouldn't shock us.

What does all this have to do with Advent, you might be asking about now.

Amid the Black Fridays and Cyber Mondays, premature Christmas decorating at shopping malls and endless loops of "Jingle Bell Rock" on the radio, we can forget that these first weeks of Advent are meant to focus us on Jesus' second coming. In CCD as children (showing my age, I know), we were told that Advent was the four weeks of preparation for Christmas (which it is). You might have been told that we were preparing to "receive" Jesus, or getting ready for his "arrival." But things were kept somewhat vague as to what this meant. This could be interpreted in a spirtiualized way (i.e. making room for Jesus in our heart), or in a more concrete way (going to confession so you could receive Holy Communion with a clear conscience). But rarely, if ever, did I hear the escatological significance of this liturgical time of year explained. Maybe it was because they thought we couldn't handle it, or maybe it was the '70's and '80's tendency away from teaching doctrine, but we simply weren't educated to this aspect of Advent's significance, at least not in any pronounced way.

When in last week's Sunday Gospel reading (November 30) Jesus tells us to "be alert," it's a warning. We don't know when He will return, so the need to be vigilant in prayer. This past Sunday Peter tells us that the heavens and earth will be destroyed by fire and the elements melted. All the physical world around us will not so much be destroyed as transformed. So the need to distinguish between what is lasting and what is passing, holding firm to the true and eternal.

When this end will come is a mystery. To paraphrase Malcolm X, those who say that they know don't, and those who might have an inkling wouldn't dare say. While I hold Pope Francis is high esteem, I'm not saying he has some special private revelation about these things. As many saints have said, every age is permitted to think theirs is the final age so that they will remain vigilant, firm in the faith. So, he is reading the signs of the times, bringing it to prayer, and acting in accordance with how the Spirit is moving him.

Whether we are entering in to the final stages before the Second Coming or on the verge of a change of historical epoch (which is my belief), we are being called to be vigilant, united in prayer and charity. We shouldn't get caught up in politics, of the church variety or otherwise. We shouldn't get so caught up with the material preparations for the holidays that we lose sight of the deeper meaning of this time. It is a time to prepare for something greater than the anniversary of a birth, it is a time to be made ready to truly meet our Lord in his glory.

A Girl from Nazareth: On the Immaculate Conception from AOP

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Revolution Will Most Certainly Be Televised: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1

Continuing my yearly duty of screening the latest installment of the Hunger Games franchise, I have for you my take on part one of the adaptation of the third book in the series (are you following me, or am I going too fast for you?): The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1. And this really does feel like a chore right now, to the point I regret seeing the first movie two years ago, thus locking my self into seeing the series through.

And while I had reservations about the violence and general theme of that film, considering its target audience is made up of teenagers and middle schoolers, I couldn't deny that it was gripping entertainment that actually had some ideas behind it. I remember next to nothing about the second movie, but going back and re-reading my review I see that I liked it. I'm guessing that my lack of memory has less to do with the ravages of old age as it does with the fact that the themes established in the first movie weren't really expanded on, and the story itself not moved ahead as far as the movie makers would want you to think. This third film does add some new thematic wrinkles, but in the attempt to make an extra billion or two, the splitting of the last story into two parts made the action drag a bit, and in the end it seemed like a series of events strung together as opposed to a real driving narrative. In other words, we are again faced with moving only a short distance after a time consuming journey.

Mockingjay, Part 1 picks up shortly after Katniss Everdeen (again played by Jennifer Lawrence) was plucked out of the Games by the rebel forces. She's been brought to District 13, once thought destroyed, but living on in a huge underground bunker complex. Not only does District 13 exist, but it is the hub of the resistance, complete with a rather sophisticated military, considering the situation, and a functioning government complete with a president (Julianne Moore). The late Philip Seymour Hoffman returns as Plutarch Heavensbee, a sort of media consultant / propaganda minister who sets Katniss up to be the face of the rebellion. (the two parts of the film were shot together, so Hoffman appears in both movies, even though he died before principle photography was wrapped up. Some key scenes he was supposed to be in were rewritten putting other characters in his place). Katniss is  resistant to taking on this role at first, but does so after the rebel president agrees to rescue the other surviving tributes from the Capitol, including her partner Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), and grants him, in particular, a pardon for his role in Panem's own propaganda campaign. (Liam Hemsworth also returns as the third corner of the seemingly obligatory YA fiction love triangle)

I started out "with" the movie, but my commitment to it slowly waned as the film dragged on, and I began to question the validity of the message. In Mockingjay we are finally out of the game, and the revolution is on, and it is televised. We are in District 13 and it stands in stark contrast with the opulent Capitol. The conditions are harsh: there are heavy restrictions on what people can possess, there is a strict prohibition on alcohol, everyone wears the same bland dark grey clothing that wouldn't be out of place in Mao's China. And I guess that's what struck me. Both the Capitol and District 13 are heavily regulated, controlled societies. The Capitol keeps the districts of Panem in check by a combination of bread and circuses and using the Hunger Games to ferment animosity between the districts and loyalty to the central government. District 13 maintains a dedicated, spartan populace with promises of a better, democratic future, free of the present tyranny.

But both sides use propaganda and manipulation to promote their cause. Of course District 13's is based on the effective packaging of the truth, while Panem's is pure lies. I still had a nagging feeling throughout the film, though, that neither side was terribly admirable, or at least deserved to be portrayed as such. I understand that we are dealing with a post apocalyptic fantasy, and one geared at younger end teenagers, but the actors are of a caliber (series regulars including Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks and Donald Sutherland are joined by newcomer Jeffery Wright), the presentation so plain, that I couldn't help but think that they're glossing over a basic truth: for District 13 to maintain this high level of disciplined austerity and unity of purpose among its populace it would have to be just as oppressive as Panem.

There is a lot of suspension of disbelief I had to engage in, and I did it happily. I'm mainly thinking of my wonderment at how these rag tag rebels living in a subterranean concrete shaft feed their people, maintain an impressive military industrial complex and manage a rather sophisticated telecommunications system. The electrical power alone would seem impossible to supply. But it is this point that I find hard to get around - that one side appears to my eyes to be the photographic negative of the other; District 13 may be devoid of color and shade, but it is just as manipulative and controlling as their adversary, and portraying it as a benign dictatorship ready to give up that control once the revolution is over is a little more than I can buy.

As for the movie itself, it runs a little over two hours, and begins to feel it about half way through. I thought the first part moved fairly well, but then I realized that the story wasn't going anywhere. They found a way to fill the time, but most of it doesn't seem to matter. A rescue mission, that seems tacked on, becomes the climactic episode, pulling a very faint thread of plot from earlier in the movie. The result of the mission gives the movie a convenient place to finish up and still keep us wondering about what will come next, but after all that time I felt no farther ahead in the story than I was at the end of the second movie (or even the first, for that matter).

There has been a lot of criticism that stretching this series into four movies renders this one a bit moot. I got the feeling that both middle movies are a tad superfluous, supplying a lot of sound a fury while moving the plot along just a smidgen. We could have gotten to where we are much more efficiently if they had edited together half of number 2 with half of this third installment. Or, just do the logical thing and make three movies from the three books. But then that would mean passing on an extra billion in worldwide receipts, and who wants to do that?

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Going Nowhere, Not Nearly Fast Enough: "Interstellar" // Movie Review

About a year ago I was pleasantly surprised by the Sandra Bullock, George Clooney space adventure Gravity. I had seen the adverts, read and heard the reviews and was convinced that it couldn't possibly live up to the hype: I was wrong. This week I went to see Interstellar: the Christopher Nolan directed sic-fi space adventure, skeptical that this was just a Gravity knock-off, but walked in open to the prospect of being surprised, considering last year's turnabout.

All I can say is, this is no knockoff of last year's hit (at least not in its totality), but it certainly isn't worth the hype.

I must be up front: I'm not a big Christopher Nolan fan. He's certainly a great action director but, to paraphrase Orson Welles, he likes to come off like a big thinker, which really must be stopped. I thought 2010's Inception was a pretentious fraud: a fun popcorn movie masquerading as existential psycho drama. I liked the Dark Night, the middle movie of Nolan's Batman trilogy, but thought the other two, especially the finale, were depressingly nihilistic. What made the Dark Knight Rises even worse is that he stuck on a happy ending to the doom and apocalyptic gloom.

In the case of Interstellar all signs point to a transcendent reality helping our heroes along, explained away using "reason" in a manner that takes more faith to accept than it does to believe in God.

The plot is very complicated, but at the heart of it the earth, in some not so distant future, is experiencing droughts and blights that are one by one killing all the main agricultural food staples. Corn is the only thing left. After that goes, so goes humanity. Matthew McConaughey plays a former astronaut turned farmer mysteriously drawn, through his daughter, to a secret NASA base. To make a very long and convoluted story short, his mission is to enter into a black hole that mysteriously appeared next to Saturn, following other secret missions that went before. Once on the other side he and his crew are to scout potential planets these previous missions had identified as being potentially habitable, selecting the one that gives humanity the best chance to start over.

There are all sorts of games played with the time space continuum, so that people on earth age faster than those on other planets and solar systems. The science gets fuzzy, as well as the logic, which I wouldn't care about if it didn't make so much of a difference to how the story wraps up. If Inception's problem was that it treated the dream world with far too much concrete linear certainty, here it's that the natural world is treated with the disjointed logic of a dream, and this strategy works no better than the first.

Plus, it takes a long time, over two hours, to get where it's going. I have nothing against long movies, but Nolan, with co-writer (and brother) Jonathan set up a plot so complicated it demanded at least an extra half hour then it probably should have get it all untangled and the loose ends tied off. Even then, it all doesn't fit. Again, I have no problem suspending disbelief in films like this, but not when so much is riding on the science part of the fiction, to the exclusion of a non-scientific explanation for anything.

As I wrote earlier, a recurring point made throughout the story is that so many events seemed to be pre-planned by an unseen agent. The black hole seemed to be placed in just the right place at just the right time. McConaughey's daughter believes that they were given clues to the base's location by ghosts. The scientists talk of the previous missions being led to their destinations by "them," whoever "they" are. McConaughey refuses to believe any of this, stating that if a phenomenon is unexplainable it's just that science hasn't figured it out yet, but it will in time (a very common atheist/skeptic argument when faced with mysteries that defy human reason). There is no explicit rejection of God or the spiritual, but it is clearly implied by how the story wraps up.

I will have more to say about this point soon, because I think a treatment of Interstellar's metaphysics deserves a separate treatment. But I'll leave it at this: I loved the cast, including John Lithgow, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, and a slew of cameos and stunt casting that would be a spoiler to reveal. The special effects are jaw dropping for their realism (the budget was a reported 165 million dollars, and every penny of it is on the screen). Some have criticized Nolan for being emotionally detached, but I thought the human characters were drawn as well as one could expect from a sci-fi action adventure. I believed the relationship between McConaughey and his young daughter played effectively by 14 year old Mackenzie Foy, though this probably has more to do with the actors then the script.

I could say these same things about any of the other Christopher Nolan films I've seen: Good actors who elevate the material and mind blowing special effects. But what's missing, now as always, is a soul. For all the black holes and distant worlds, we are still in a closed universe that we are the center of. In short, Interstellar is nothing more than feel good nihilism.

But more on that next time.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Poppies to Keep Us Awake

The World War I Poppy Memorial at the Tower of London
For us here in the United States the 11th of November is Veteran's Day; a moment to say thank you to the men and women who have served in the armed forces, and increasingly to recognize those still serving in uniform. But we have lost the reason why this day is different from all other days, so to speak. Today is the 96th anniversary of the ceasefire agreement on the Western front during World War I, and until 1954 we observed it as Armistice Day to reflect that connection. Even as child, long after Veterans Day supplanted the previous holiday, I can recall church bells ringing at 11am, a faint echo of remembrance that the fighting ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918. Here in the States this fact is lost on many people. But in Canada and England the observances still focus on this singular event.

And for good reason. England alone lost upwards of a million people, both military and civilian due to battle, war crimes and disease. Those young adults who were killed, as well as those who survived the experience are often called the Lost Generation. There was mourning for lives that never reached maturity as well for those who were able to carry on but had lost a sense of purpose and meaning in life. We have short memories on this side of the Pond, but even a hundred years after the war began the people of the United Kingdom, and much of the Commonwealth, are still enveloped with a pall of sadness over the destruction, both human and cultural, that resulted from the conflict.

But there was another casualty of World War I. If the Faith is dead, or at least dormant, in Europe today it is due to a great degree to the war. A profound existential doubt hit Western Culture over the years of 1914 to1918, and then was solidified by World War II resulting in people losing faith that there is a providential God who loves and guides human progress. If God is all loving why would he permit such suffering and destruction? What is the purpose of being born if life can be taken so swiftly and senselessly? Where is God in all this? For many, no satisfactory answer was found, so the churches emptied and the culture became increasingly secular. But does this reaction make sense?

While questioning one's faith in the face of calamity is more than understandable, in the particular case of the Great War, I would argue that it, along with World War II, were not religiously motivated conflicts, but came after periods of increased secularization and optimism in the ability of human progress to shape a bright, prosperous and peaceful future. In the second half of the previous century Germany, France and Italy had all undergone Church - State conflicts that saw the place of religious institution is public life greatly limited (some would call it a persecution). We can see here the beginnings of later totalitarianism in which the state claimed complete control over the loyalty and even wills of the people. Nietzsche saw that religion was on the retreat as a relevant cultural and social force, proclaiming the God was dead, and that it was our indifference that had "killed" Him.  The late 19th and early 20th century saw an explosion of world's fairs and exhibitions where the latest scientific and technological advancements were put on display. While many of the items being shown off were the latest turbines or industrial machines, there were also plenty of artillery pieces and other armaments. The industrial revolution had given birth to modern warfare and killing could be done wholesale.

World War I was the time when all the technology, all the political strategy and all the secular notions of progress were put into practice. Our faith was no longer in a providential God who needed to be obeyed, but in science and technology's ability to shape and manipulate nature and the state which would guide and control our lives from cradle to grave. The guiding principle was enlightened human reason's ability to control it all. If World War I was a failure it was in humanity's ability to shepherd itself.

The failure of the churches during this time was that they tended to go along with the notion, even implicetly, of boundless human progress, and in surrendering to nationalism that was the great tool used to stir up hate between the nations. Priests, bishops, ministers and preachers helped promote the war effort, and were really dupes. Yes, there were voices like Pope Benedict XV calling for peace and reconciliation between peoples, but far too many churchmen, both Catholic and Protestant, were preaching "praise the Lord and pass the ammunition."

The church, in the broad sense of the word, has learned from this experience. While not nearly all religious people are pacifists, I do believe that most know that war is not to be glorified and the men and women who served need to be cared for, and not shepherded to their deaths on behalf of blind nationalism. We also know, I hope, the difference between patriotism and nationalism; one being a love of country and the other a love of the state (maybe a discussion for another day).

But otherwise the broader culture has doubled down on stupid. We still believe that science, technology and government are our saviors, in spite of the 20th Century's atomic bombs, gulags and genocides, which used man made tools meant to save us rather to destroy and dominate. Some may point to Islamic terrorism as a sign of how religion motivates wars and conflict, but if we look closely can anyone honestly say that ISIS is motivated by faith, or is religion being used as an excuse for political conquest? Again, a discussion for another day.

The people of England still mourn a century later. There is a temporary memorial made up of clay poppies filling the moat of the Tower of London; one for each life lost by that country. The public out pouring as been overwhelming, with thousands of people coming to visit the site everyday for the past several months. Poppies are usually associated with opium, sleep and forgetfulness. Here they are meant to keep us awake and remembering. But what we remember is important. As Christians we need to remember that we are at the service of the One Lord, Jesus Christ, and while we love our country, we are not slaves of the state. For the entire culture science, technology and sound government are tools that are not goods in and of themselves, but need to be guided by deeper principles rooted in faith, or else all manner of atrocity is possible.

While the memorial's reference to the blood spilled in the poppy fields of Belgium is obvious, the way they appear to be cascading out of a window of the Tower is reminiscent of the blood flowing from our Saviour's wounded side. England, Europe and all Western Civilization suffered a passion in the 20th Century. I pray that we may all soon experience a resurrection of the Faith.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Scott Bradlee & Postmodern Jukebox

I was recently introduced to the musical ensemble Scott Bradlee & Postmodern Jukebox (PMJ), by way of a You Tube video of one of their more popular offerings: a jazzified version of the Meghan Trainor hit All About That Bass. Band leader, arranger and pianist Scott Bradlee's premise is simple: take current pop hits and re-imagine them in various pop genres of the past century. And for the most part it works extraordinarily well. PMJ's offerings make two things abundantly clear: first, that pop music, no matter the era, is incredibly elastic and adaptable (Bradlee's observation). The second is that your average pop star today isn't very talented, or more to the point, there are incredibly talented musicians and singers out there who never get a chance because the music industry is more about style, spectacle and shock, and not so much about music.

Yes, the idea of post modernism does play a part here: there is a clear ironic twist to the proceedings. When Jason Derulo's Talk Dirty is redone as a Jewish, Fiddler on the Roof style folk song you know that you're not supposed to take it all too seriously. PMJ's collaborations with cabaret singer Puddles the Clown (Michael Geier) are the height of genre bending bordering on parody. Their version of Lorde's Royals, is superior to the original in terms of arrangement, phrasing and overall emotional punch. But in the video, done in PMJ's minimalist, one camera format (until recently taped in Bradlee's bare white living room), Puddles gently mugs and gestures, indicating a disconnect between his rich and expressive baritone and his "this is a big put on" demeanor (as if performing in full sad clown suit and make up isn't the first hint).

In a way it's too bad, because these guys and gals are really talented. Robin Adele Anderson, Cristina Gatti and Ashley Stroud, regulars who rotate on vocals, all have great voices and know how to work a song. PMJ also features a wide variety of guest musicians and vocalists. Kate Davis, who sings and plays the upright bass on I'm All About That Bass, takes an over glorified novelty song and offers a playful, nuanced performance. In doing so she and Bradlee transform something base and obvious into something sly and almost innocent. A New Orleans Jazz version of the Guns 'N' Roses rocker Sweet Child O' Mine, sung by Miche Branden captures the bombast of the original, with textured horns and vocals, that once again, bring out emotions beyond what the contemporary Pop-Rock genres are capable of. PMJ mine what are too often vacuous lyrics for all their emotional worth, making the words sound like they mean more than they really do. I get it, that's the point: but like with Puddles the Clown, their talent raises these performances above mere parody, making me wonder what they could do with more worthy material.

I could go on, but it's better to listen to this original, fun and impossibly entertaining musical conglomeration.