27 February, 2007

Chicken House Orthodoxy?

Mom and I were talking on my way to work today - talking about moving chicken houses, GK Chesterton, physics, and Orthodoxy. Yeah, our conversations usually cover a bit and a half of ground...

Anyway, the discussion came to a head in an anecdote about moving our chicken coop (from the old property to the new property on which we were building a people -not a chicken - house). This anecdote is, in retrospect, a rather neat analogy for the Chestertonian idea of the orthodox path.

Our chicken house is a big building to try to move from the backyard to the back of a truck in the front yard. It's a solidly built 9x9x10 foot behemoth that must be an amateur mover's nightmare. Fortunately, we're a family well-versed in ancient Egyptian history (what homeschooling family that's gone through the material once for every kid isn't?) So we did the obvious thing, and rolled the building up hill and down over a series of scientifically-placed logs.

The problem came when we were trying to maneuver it onto the back of my uncle's pickup truck. Eventually the chicken house was half balanced over part of the truck - my parents still holding onto it with an air of desperation- but the truck wasn't near enough to it for them to tip it onto the truck without tipping it over. We could only too well imagine the amusement of our neighbors (who were conspicuously watching us through their bay window) if the thing tipped over and smashed.

Suddenly, my uncle is telling my parents to just let the house go - it would find its own center of gravity. To get a clearer idea of the situation: the house, if they let it go, would be balancing diagonally on one of its edges. Naturally enough, we were all skeptical of the idea. Intellectually, we knew that it should work. But there was still that bit of doubt ... what if it didn't? How'd we ever be able to live that down to the neighbors? Finally, my uncle just yelled "Just trust me! Let it go!"
Believe it or not, this 360 sq. ft. box did balance on its own edge. Now read on and tell me that isn't a cool analogy for GK Chesterton's ideas.

The image which has remained most incredibly vivid in my mind since my last reading of Orthodoxy (a book by Chesterton about orthodoxy, in case you didn't already know or guess) is one he uses to describe the excitement and drama of staying orthodox. Rather than being boring or simply "conventional", he says, Orthodoxy is the most perilous course one can take in a world almost overrun by extremes. It balances precariously between extremes, and one must ultimately accept it with Faith. The thing one cannot do with orthodoxy is to try to push it one way or the other in order to make it fit in with the times, or conform to individual views.
Because orthodoxy is simply the guidance of the true Church this precariousness works: it leaves room for a thousand types of people inside it, but stays the same itself.
In Chesterton's own words: "This is the thrilling romance of orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic."

24 February, 2007

Why are Critics So Critical?

No, really, why are they? You know, I don't mind it when critics point out some flaws in overall good movies, books or pieces of music, but when they begin to complain about the tiniest details, I'm not happy. And unfortunately, that's what most critics do. I can think of some exceptions (Steven Greydanus of the National Catholic Register, T.S. Eliot when he actually wrote literary criticism and a few others) but the vast majority seem too concerned with basing their criticism on criteria of originality, or structure, or whatever else they might choose. When they start to criticize movies, books, and pieces of music on picayune details that aren't even objectively important, critics just look silly. Or to some, they might look intimidating, because many people nowadays think that if people use big words and are picky about details that no one else would notice, they must be extraordinarily smart.

This criticism of critics' criticizing style aside, however, the question of what makes a work of art good is undoubatedly very debateable. As a friend of mine said, "If you pursue to its logical endpoint the idea that one piece of art can't be better than another, all art is created equal and there is no way to determine the good from the bad, because there is no good or bad." Yes, that's a definite conundrum. A complete relativism on the subject is what causes people to call rap, "poetry"; to say that corruptions of language are natural and should be welcomed; or so forth. On the other hand, an overly critical attitude causes reviews like the one I just read on Crime and Punishment - it claimed that the book was worthless because it wasn't structurally flawless.

It seems to me that there must be definite standards out there. It's just defining and agreeing on these that is the problem. Often this is where criticism just collapses into opinion. For example, if you're going to say that structure is what defines the quality of a book, then you can certainly condemn a classic like Crime and Punishment - the only thing is, practically no one will agree with you unless they happen to agree with your criteria.

CS Lewis' An Experiment in Criticism is very unlike any other literary criticism theory I've heard of, but I think it's quite plausible. He had the idea that a work of art is defined by the people who read (or listen to, or admire) it. So, those books most admired by "true readers" (those who don't read egotistically - simply in search of thrills or of "egotisitical castle building", as he calls it) are books which are good.

A full time critic of any form of art is sure to be biased, no matter how much he tries not to be. If this bias coincides with the absolute standards we can't seem to pin down, then this isn't necessarily a bad thing. But most critics will be looking for a specific thing in art that they personally consider essential to it. They also tend to be heavily influenced be intellectual fads.

Now most critics seem to be obsessed with originality in art. If a book is "different" it is defined a classic. A few decades ago (at least in the forwards of my older books) critics seem to have been preoccupied by structure. But the literary public often as not disagrees with their assessment, because the criteria rings true for only a few individuals. Half the population looks at cavils against a really good book and says "who cares!"

If the book is well-writtten, Lewis thinks, the literary public (not the romance or horror novel public) will recognize it as such. And I jolly well agree with him. It sounds like the most sensible criteria, even if we haven't yet agreed on a definition of what properties of the art itself make it good.

22 February, 2007

Pope Benedict's Message

Wednesday, 21 February 2007

Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Today – Ash Wednesday – we begin our Lenten journey in a spirit of prayer and penance. From the earliest days of the Church, Lent has been a special time of preparation for Baptism. For those already baptized, Lent is a time of conversion and renewed faith. It is a time to “exercise” our desire for God by opening our hearts to the new life offered to us in Christ. Jesus exhorts us to “repent and believe in the Gospel”. Only conversion can lead to true happiness, and God’s grace is needed to inspire and sustain our efforts to direct our hearts completely to him. Conversion consists in recognizing that we depend entirely on God, who created us and redeemed us in Christ. In my Lenten message this year, I wanted to emphasize God’s immense love for us, and to invite all Christians, together with Mary and the Beloved Disciple, to draw near to the Lord, who gave his life for us on the Cross. The Cross – the definitive revelation of God’s love and mercy – is the only way to enter this mystery of saving love. This Lent, by a more fervent participation in the Eucharist, may we learn to enter more deeply into the Paschal Mystery and to “re-give” Christ’s love to others, especially the suffering and those in need.

21 February, 2007

Ash Wednesday

So today, on Ash Wednesday - of all days the most ideal for this - my priest, Fr. Paul, said something that was a definitive and unmistakable answer to one of my prayers.

Over the past few months, I've been praying like mad to get some clarification on the issue of "justification". From the time of Luther, the debate about this has been one of the basic things keeping Protestants and Catholics apart. Really, it's a problem dating even further back, from the Pelagian heresy in the early Church. The question at stake is how mankind is saved, or "justified." Most Protestants basically believe (although this certainly is a caricature at best) that one is justified by Faith alone. That is, once a person has ‘accepted Christ’, nothing they do can prevent their salvation. Pelagianism is the opposite position. This heresy says that one can reach heaven entirely through one’s own merits and works.

Now I have always been rightly taught that the Catholic position is a delicate balance between these two extremes. However, try to explain the exact position to any non-Catholic! You end up with a litany of “not quite that”-s and “well, we don’t look at it quite that way, more in this way”-s and “no, it’s not semi-Pelagianism at all, that’s a heresy according to the Church.” I reseached everywhere in apologetics magazines and websites, hoping to find some succinct way of putting the answer, or at least an answer that didn’t seem to trip over itself.

After our parish Bible class tonight, Father was talking to a bunch of us about the Faith. I don’t remember how the subject came up, but the next thing I knew, Fr. Paul was saying: “The answer to the debate about justification, as they call it, is in St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles. God does 100% in our salvation… but we do 100% as well. God saves us completely in His order, and we must still give ourselves completely in order to enable Him to save us. We do 100% towards our salvation, but only in the order of our creation; in the order of our humanity.”

Immediately a light went on. A thousand things seemed clearer, and I felt that I had advanced farther in my understanding of things in a moment than I had in the past several years combined. This is entirely Providential, coming when it did. After all, Lent is the time of year when works of penitence are most emphasized for Catholics. Now I have a whole new point of view through which I can better appreciate the importance at this time of year. Lent should be even more exciting than ususal!

20 February, 2007

Jolly Ho!

Well, this is my first real try at blogging. I've kept a blog sporadically at various forums before, but this should be quite different.