A week ago today was the first of six days of 70+ degree weather. Today it’s 23 degrees outside and as I look out my window all I can see is a large white flurry of snowflakes accumulating. Hello again February.
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Yesterday I mentioned three books I have been waiting to read in early 2017. I’m currently in the middle of the first book by Anthony Esolen. The second book in my “trilogy” is by Archbishop Charles Chaput. I picked it up a few days ago and plan to dig into it by the end of next week when I’ve finished Esolen’s Out of the Ashes. Robert Royal reviewed Chaput’s new book yesterday. I highlight this excerpt from his review as it speaks to what I wrote yesterday: I’m done with the complaints. It’s time to get to work. It’s time to rebuild.
Many people have recently worked this same ground, but none more astutely and with such breadth of cultural reference. Chaput brings together some of the very best secular as well as religious thinking about our situation: the American Founders, Tocqueville, Charles Péguy, Romano Guardini, Pierre Manent, Leon Kass, Charles Murray, Alasdair MacIntyre, even the great German poet Rilke, and many others. No brief account can do this book full justice. You have to read it, slowly, to appreciate its richness and texture.
But the wide-ranging social analysis is just a preliminary. The central question for us, right now, is what can be done. The answer, the Christian answer, is that there may not be much we can do on a large scale. But what we can do, however modest, we must do. Visiting the sick or dying, maintaining solid families and marriages, having the courage to speak when some human value is violated, being willing even to talk about God, in the right way, amidst a culture that wants, above all things, not to hear the name. Political action, too, as needed. The possibilities are infinite. And we cannot complain that “the times” are evil, because we are the times.
But even that is not enough. Chaput transports all these considerations into a different key by reminding us that the true Christian response to our predicaments is to live in Hope. Hope is not optimism – a foolish thing in a world so obviously wounded by sin and folly. Neither is it confidence in Progress, that 19th Century counterfeit. We have Hope, true Hope, he says, because 2000 years ago, in an obscure regional capital, a man – Jesus – rose from the dead, and defeated the world, the flesh, and – let’s say this openly – the Devil.
The world scoffs at such things, of course, and always has. There are a number of intellectual battles that must be fought to dispel wrongheaded scientific, social, and cultural assumptions. Perhaps the most challenging problem, however, is that the people who most need to hear such arguments are now virtually impervious to reasoning because of the way they have been conditioned to live. Chaput remarks, “The more problematic the behavior, the more sacred grows the liturgy of alibis.”
I like that term, though I hate what it stands for: the liturgy of alibis.
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Knowing “about” Jesus Christ is not enough. We need to engage him with our whole lives. That means cleaning out the garbage of noise and distraction from our homes. It means building real Christian friendships. It means cultivating oases of silence, worship, and prayer in our lives. It means having more children and raising them in the love of the Lord. It means fighting death and fear with joy and life, one family at a time, with family sustaining one another against the temptations of weariness and resentment.
And what about beauty? Beauty can be admired. It can be venerated. It can inspire gratitude or awe. But it cannot be consumed as a product or “used” for instrumental purposes without defacing it. Beauty doesn’t do anything … except the one most precious thing in life: It invites and elevates the soul beyond itself, beyond calculation, beyond utility, and thus reminds us what it means to be human.
Beauty, to borrow from Augustine’s thoughts on the First Letter of John, is like a ring a bridegroom gives to his bride, a sign and a seal of God’s enduring love. It’s the antidote to the deeper, demonic, pornographies of our age: anger, despair, vanity, violence, cynicism … beauty refreshes our hearts in this world while lifting us toward the next, “for here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come.” (Heb. 13:14)
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While on the subject of beauty…
Several weeks back I mentioned having watched the movie Collateral Beauty in the theater with my wife. The usual cadre of critics lambasted the film but, as usual, I enjoyed what they were unable to grasp. I haven’t mentioned that I had a similar experience with another movie in January: The Sea of Trees.
Again, the critics tried to crush this movie in the cradle and to a large part succeeded. It was actually booed at the Cannes Film Festival and the once-promised theatrical releases largely cancelled. I was able instead to watch it on Amazon Prime. Yes, its pace is slow. Yes, the actors actually act and no CGI is involved. Yes, you have to be able to think and have empathy. Thus, critics and much of today’s movie audience were deaf to what the film was trying to say.
Again I will pass on offering a review. I do recommend the film and plan to watch it again in fact. From the Internet Movie Database:
Arthur Brennan treks into Aokigahara, known as The Sea of Trees, a mysterious dense forest at the base of Japan’s Mount Fuji where people go to commit suicide. On his journey to the suicide forest, he encounters Takumi Nakamura, a Japanese man who has lost his way after attempting suicide. The two men begin a journey of reflection and survival, which affirms Arthur’s will to live and reconnects him to his love for his wife.
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Here’s a shocker. Social Media Are Driving Americans Insane.
Social media use has skyrocketed from 7 percent of American adults in 2005 to 65 percent in 2015. For those in the 18-29 age range, the increase is larger, from 12 percent to a remarkable 90 percent. But while an increase in social media usage is hardly surprising, the number of people who just can’t tear themselves away is stark: Nowadays, 43 percent of Americans say they are checking their e-mails, texts, or social media accounts constantly. And their stress levels are paying for it: On a 10-point scale, constant checkers reported an average stress level of 5.3. For the rest of Americans, the average level is a 4.4.
Know what else has increased in use?
To the uninitiated, the figures are nothing if not staggering: 155 million Americans play video games, more than the number who voted in November’s presidential election. And they play them a lot: According to a variety of recent studies, more than 40 percent of Americans play at least three hours a week, 34 million play on average 22 hours each week, 5 million hit 40 hours, and the average young American will now spend as many hours (roughly 10,000) playing by the time he or she turns 21 as that person spent in middle- and high-school classrooms combined. Which means that a niche activity confined a few decades ago to preadolescents and adolescents has become, increasingly, a cultural juggernaut for all races, genders, and ages. How had video games, over that time, ascended within American and world culture to a scale rivaling sports, film, and television? Like those other entertainments, video games offered an escape, of course. But what kind?
Read the entire article about video games here.
Neil Postman was right back in 1985. We are amusing ourselves to death.
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One of my dad’s favorite recording artists would have celebrated a birthday on February 26th. I grew up listening to my dad’s Johnny Cash records, as well as Elvis, The Beatles and the comedy of Bill Cosby…even Charlie Pride now and then. But there was always something about Cash’s songs. They went just a little deeper, and even in my younger days I knew there was more “there” there. I highly recommend this article about The Johnny Cash You Never Knew.
It was a tough line, the line Cash was trying to walk — the line we’re all trying to walk between our worldly and spiritual lives.
Cash was once asked how he was able to reach so many people with his message without ever hiding his faith, and he gave a simple and perfect answer: “I am not a Christian artist. I am an artist who is Christian.”
Cash was revered by artists of every genre, from hip-hop to rock. Bruce Springsteen, Bono, and Snoop Dogg all admired the openly evangelical Southern man. And all because Cash transcended stereotypes and musical categories. He even transcended time, something that can be said of very few stars in any medium.
His 2002 acoustic take of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt” was about as courageous a recording as any ever made by a popular artist. Cash took that song, originally written about the pain of heroin addiction, and turned it into a reflection on his own mortality.
“The truth of fading beauty, forgotten earthly achievements, and broken human bonds, powerfully and yet wordlessly seep from the screen,” Steve Turner said when describing the music video, which peaks emotionally when Cash sings these words:
What have I become, my sweetest friend?
Everyone I know goes away in the end.
As he delivers those lines, the video cuts to a picture of June, standing at the foot of a staircase watching her husband. “Her lips quiver,” wrote Turner, “as though she knows that she is watching the man she loves singing his final testament.”
What no one knew as the video crew shot that scene was that, on the day before, June Carter Cash had been diagnosed with a leaking heart valve.
I’ve watch this video a lot over the years. I think it’s because when it flashes back between the younger Cash and the 2002 version, I see a lot of my own dad. In the words and in the images.