21 May 2009

Angels and Demons: Theology for Our Time

Herewith are two insightful articles discussing the latest Dan Brown movie adaptation “Angels and Demons”.

The first is from NY Times columnist Ross Douthat: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/19/opinion/19douthat.html. (With thanks to Fr. Tony de Castro, SJ, for alerting us to this link.)

"Having dismissed Catholicism’s truth claims and demonized its most sincere defenders, Brown pats believers on the head and bids them go on fingering their rosary beads."

Ross Douthat gets it down right. Behind the conspiracy theory thriller lies a brewing theology borne out of a culture that favors a DIY spirituality, a generalized religiousness, a fast-food faith, over organized religion that only imposes morality (bad, bad word) and dares break its selective remembrance of Jesus as a human-only guru (divine, maybe, in a metaphorical way) who taught only about love and universal brotherhood.

Rev. Robert Barron also has some things new and old to say: http://www.wordonfire.org/Written-Word/articles-commentaries/May-2009/Angels,-Demons,-and-Modern-Fantasies-about-Catholi.aspx
“There is a stubbornly enduring myth that the ‘modern’ world—especially in its scientific expression—emerged out of a terrible struggle with backward-looking Catholicism. And thus many avatars of modernity feel the need on a regular basis to bring out the Catholic Church as a scapegoat and punching-bag, as if to re-enact the founding myth.”

Where Ross Douhat found an unseemly theology, Rev. Robert Barron exposes a worn-out philosophy that props up the clich├ęd phantom of a war between faith and reason, between religion and science.

Think: Dan Brown novels, the new spiritual reading of choice today. Now shudder. Then again, haven't Christians done the same already with Paolo Coelho's "By the River Piedra"?

Angels, Demons, and Modern Fantasies about Catholicism

By Fr. Robert Barron

As I was coming to the end of Ron Howard’s latest movie, “Angels and Demons,” I felt like shouting out to the screen, “no, no, you’ve got it precisely backward!” The central theme of the film, based on Dan Brown’s thriller of the same name, is the battle between “science” and Catholicism. It appears as though an ancient rationalist society, the Illuminati, which had been persecuted by the church in centuries past, is back for revenge. They’ve kidnapped four cardinals and placed a devastating explosive device under St. Peter’s and they’re threatening, as a conclave gathers to elect a new Pope, to obliterate the Vatican. To the rescue comes Professor Robert Langdon, a cool agnostic from Harvard, who helps to unravel the mystery after he’s given access to the archives to which the Vatican had heretofore denied him access (presumably for his mischief in the Da Vinci Code!). As the plot unfolds, and Langdon cleverly uncovers the sinister plot of the scientists, one is tempted to say, “well, for once the bad guys are the rationalists and the victims are the faithful. Ah but not so fast (spoiler alert). In fact, we discover, the whole thing has been concocted by the evil camerlengo, an ultimate Vatican insider, who has revived the old tale of the Illuminati and organized the wicked scheme in order to create a scapegoat against which he could engage in heroic struggle and so engineer his own election as Pope! I swear I’m not making this up.

Without going into any more of the goofy twists and turns of the story, can you see what prompted my cri de coeur about getting it backward? In point of fact, it is not Catholicism that feels the need constantly to revive the struggle between science and the faith, but rather secular modernity—and Ron Howard’s movie itself is exhibit A. There is a stubbornly enduring myth that the “modern” world—especially in its scientific expression—emerged out of a terrible struggle with backward-looking Catholicism. And thus many avatars of modernity feel the need on a regular basis to bring out the Catholic church as a scapegoat and punching-bag, as if to re-enact the founding myth. Of course, the central act in this drama is the story of Galileo’s persecution at the hands of the ignorant and vindictive church, and so Brown and Howard bring the great Renaissance scientist front and center: Langdon is almost suffocated by wicked Vaticanisti while he diligently researches in the Galileo archive, and at the end of the film, a grateful Cardinal rewards the intrepid scientist with a long-hidden text of the master. Well.

Though these facts are well known, and though I’ve rehearsed them before, it appears that they bear repeating. Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas were early advocates of Aristotelian science; Copernicus, the popularizer of the heliocentric understanding of the solar system, was a priest; Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics and a chief forerunner of Darwin, was a monk; many of the founders of modern science—Newton, Kepler, Tycho Brahe, Descartes, Pascal, Leibniz—were devoutly religious men; the formulator of the Big Bang theory of cosmic origins was a priest. Perhaps most importantly, the modern physical sciences emerged precisely in the context of a Christian culture, where the belief in creation and hence in universal intelligibility was taken for granted. And today, the supposedly sinister and anti-scientific Vatican sponsors a number of observatories and supports societies at its pontifical universities devoted to dialogue with the sciences at the very highest levels. Despite the tragedy of the Galileo incident, prompted by the ignorance and in some cases ill-will of certain churchmen at the time, Catholicism is not the enemy of science and feels absolutely no compulsion to define itself over against science as though the two are locked in a kind of zero-sum game. It is a longstanding conviction of the Church that since God is one and since all truth comes from God, there can finally be no conflict between the truths of revelation and the truths discoverable through the exercise of human reason. And so the church rejoices in whatever the empirical sciences uncover and expects no conflict between those discoveries and its own faith, rightly interpreted.

What I found particularly galling about the film is that Robert Langdon not only solves the mystery but also effectively protects the church from itself. This, of course, is the modern fantasy in full: “science” emerged from Catholicism after a terrible battle but still has the graciousness and magnaminity to offer its help to its benighted and defeated rival. Ugh! Truth be told, the wound caused by the Galileo incident is being constantly picked open, not by the Vatican, but by representatives of secular modernity; the “battle” between religion and science is now pretty much a shadow-boxing affair, radical secularism shaking its fists at a phantom.

Go see “Angels and Demons” if you like a thriller or you enjoy computer-generated images of the Vatican; but please don’t be taken in by its underlying philosophy.

Dan Brown's America

Published: May 18, 2009
The New York Times

The movie treatment of his novel, “Angels and Demons,” is cleaning up at the box office this week. The sequel to “The DaVinci Code,” due out in November, might buoy the publishing industry through the recession. And if you want to understand the state of American religion, you need to understand why so many people love Dan Brown.

It isn’t just that he knows how to keep the pages turning. That’s what it takes to sell a million novels. But if you want to sell a 100 million, you need to preach as well as entertain — to present a fiction that can be read as fact, and that promises to unlock the secrets of history, the universe and God along the way.

Brown is explicit about this mission. He isn’t a serious novelist, but he’s a deadly serious writer: His thrilling plots, he’s said, are there to make the books’ didacticism go down easy, so that readers don’t realize till the end “how much they are learning along the way.” He’s working in the same genre as Harlan Coben and James Patterson, but his real competitors are ideologues like Ayn Rand, and spiritual gurus like Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra. He’s writing thrillers, but he’s selling a theology.

Brown’s message has been called anti-Catholic, but that’s only part of the story. True, his depiction of the Roman Church’s past constitutes a greatest hits of anti-Catholicism, with slurs invented by 19th-century Protestants jostling for space alongside libels fabricated by 20th-century Wiccans. (If he targeted Judaism or Islam this way, one suspects that no publisher would touch him.)

But Brown doesn’t have the soul of a true-believing Enemy of the Faith. Deep down, he has a fondness for the ordinary, well-meaning sort of Catholic, his libels against their ancestors notwithstanding. He’s even sympathetic to the religious yearnings of his Catholic villains — including, yes, the murderous albino monks.

This explains why both “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels and Demons” end with a big anti-Catholic reveal (Jesus had kids with Mary Magdalene! That terrorist plot against the Vatican was actually launched by an archconservative priest!) followed by a big cover-up. A small elect (Tom Hanks and company, in the movies) gets to know what really happened, but the mass of believers remain in the dark, lest their spiritual questing be derailed by disillusionment and scandal. Having dismissed Catholicism’s truth claims and demonized its most sincere defenders, Brown pats believers on the head and bids them go on fingering their rosary beads.

In the Brownian worldview, all religions — even Roman Catholicism — have the potential to be wonderful, so long as we can get over the idea that any one of them might be particularly true. It’s a message perfectly tailored for 21st-century America, where the most important religious trend is neither swelling unbelief nor rising fundamentalism, but the emergence of a generalized “religiousness” detached from the claims of any specific faith tradition.

The polls that show more Americans abandoning organized religion don’t suggest a dramatic uptick in atheism: They reveal the growth of do-it-yourself spirituality, with traditional religion’s dogmas and moral requirements shorn away. The same trend is at work within organized faiths as well, where both liberal and conservative believers often encounter a God who’s too busy validating their particular version of the American Dream to raise a peep about, say, how much money they’re making or how many times they’ve been married.

These are Dan Brown’s kind of readers. Piggybacking on the fascination with lost gospels and alternative Christianities, he serves up a Jesus who’s a thoroughly modern sort of messiah — sexy, worldly, and Goddess-worshiping, with a wife and kids, a house in the Galilean suburbs, and no delusions about his own divinity.

But the success of this message — which also shows up in the work of Brown’s many thriller-writing imitators — can’t be separated from its dishonesty. The “secret” history of Christendom that unspools in “The Da Vinci Code” is false from start to finish. The lost gospels are real enough, but they neither confirm the portrait of Christ that Brown is peddling — they’re far, far weirder than that — nor provide a persuasive alternative to the New Testament account. The Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — jealous, demanding, apocalyptic — may not be congenial to contemporary sensibilities, but he’s the only historically-plausible Jesus there is.

For millions of readers, Brown’s novels have helped smooth over the tension between ancient Christianity and modern American faith. But the tension endures. You can have Jesus or Dan Brown. But you can’t have both.

13 May 2009

The Task of the Next Generation of the Catholic Commentariat

Rev. Fr. Robert Barron
Posted: 1/27/2009 9:21:48 PM by Word On Fire

Here is a belated re-posting of an important observation on certain movements within the Catholic Church. Father Robert Barron calls attention to a changing of the guards among the so-called Catholic commentariat, himself one of today's leading commentators on things Catholic, deftly engaging pop culture with solid theology.

This past year, we have witnessed the deaths of a number of prominent commentators on things Catholic. William F. Buckley, who died last spring, was, of course, primarily a political observer, but he also frequently and incisively weighed in on ecclesial and theological matters. Tim Unsworth, who passed away several months ago, was a long-time writer on religion for the left-leaning National Catholic Reporter. And within just the past few weeks, Cardinal Avery Dulles and Father Richard John Neuhaus—stalwarts on the Catholic right—went to their maker. The deaths of these major players in the religious commentariat prompts some reflections on the changing nature of the Catholic intellectual conversation in our country.

For the coterie of Catholics that is now fading from the scene, the dominant fact was the Second Vatican Council. That coming together of bishops, abbots, theologians, and members of the press was, as John O’Malley recently argued, “the greatest meeting of all time,” and historian Barbara Tuchman characterized it as the most significant event of the twentieth-century, surpassing in importance the two world wars and the dropping of the atomic bombs. It is not surprising in the least, therefore, that it preoccupied the minds and hearts of an entire generation of Catholic intellectuals. Vatican II has been described as the council of the church, for ecclesiology and liturgy were its major themes. How does the church worship? What is the nature and purpose of the church? How is the church governed and structured, and what is the correct manner of its relationship to the modern world? These were the central questions that beguiled the minds of the council fathers. Some have argued that Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae was even more determinative of the Catholic conversation than were the conciliar documents themselves, but discussions of that famous letter often turned on the fundamentally ecclesiological question of the range of the magisterium’s authority.

And so, in the wake of Vatican II, the commentariat turned with enthusiasm to a range of ad-intra questions: women’s ordination, the possibility of married priests, changes in the liturgy, developments in regard to the exercise of episcopal authority, sexual ethics, the nature of Catholic marriage, the adjustment of Catholic practices to modern styles, etc. To be sure, there were a variety of views on these matters, from hard left to hard right and every possibility in between, but the focus was on the household of the church. I remember these arguments well, since they dominated the years that I was coming of age. I recall the church of the late sixties and seventies as a community at war with itself, struggling to get its own affairs in order. But through all of this, the members of the Vatican II generation—whether on the left or the right—seemed to hold to the basic narrative of Catholic Christianity. There did not appear to be major disagreement in regard to God’s existence, the Trinity, the sacraments and the eucharist, redemption, Mary and the saints, eternal life. The center held.

But my growing conviction is that, as the Vatican II generation fought with itself over intra-ecclesial matters, the basic story became less and less convincing to the culture. As the commentariat bickered about the household of the church, they, perforce, spent little time presenting a compelling, coherent version of Catholicism to a world grown increasingly skeptical, secularized, and materialist. Mind you, I’m not suggesting for a moment that the questions they debated were unimportant or that they themselves were anything less than serious in their endeavors, but I am arguing that something extremely important was allowed to slip on their watch.

And therefore I believe that it is the task of the coming generation of Catholic intellectuals to offer a convincing apologetic for the basic narrative of the faith. To a scientific culture, we have to show how only a properly transcendent and intelligent cause can explain the contingencies and intelligibilities of the finite world. To a materialist culture, we have to show that, in the words of our present Pope, Logos is more metaphsyically basic than mere matter. To a skeptical culture, we have to show that belief in the resurrection of Jesus is intellectually coherent and historically defensible. To a bored culture, we have to demonstrate that life in the Spirit is a high adventure, corresponding to the deepest longing of the human heart. The new Catholic commentariat has to return, I believe, to the style of the first preachers and teachers of the faith, those who were trying to beguile the bored and materialist culture of their own time with the impossibly good news of a God who raised his son from the dead.

As we say farewell to a generation of Catholic intellectuals, we realize that for the next generation, important work remains.

postscipt from the learning visit

3-7 May 2009

parol from pampanga................. P800.00
ticket to manila ocean park........ P500.00 (with promos)
sampaguita from child vendor...... P 10.00
green inspirations from marikina... priceless
lesson in politics from pampanga.. priceless
rousing words from mayor oca..... priceless
conspiracy with noel cabangon.... priceless
serendipity bus ride................... priceless ;)

much thanks to bcdi-bugs for organizing the trip,
and for galing pook for sponsoring the visit
to 3 top performing lgus:
marikina, pampanga, san fernando.

with prayers for building not just pockets or islands,
but an archipelago of good governance...

Prayer for Hya

As she turns 18, Father in heaven,
gift her with the capacity

to look at the world with clear eyes and wander,

to find happiness in simple things,

to stand by the goodness of her heart
and the greatness of her spirit,

to develop her sense of right and wrong,

to value family and true friends, and love always
even when her loved ones disappoint,

to learn from her mistakes
and rise from it a better person, and

to not stop dreaming and being filled with hope,
especially when times turn hard and life becomes trying.


02 May 2009

The Shepherd's Flute

For my homily this Sunday, 4th Sunday of Easter, also known as Good Shepherd Sunday, I am including a story from Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopalian priest and theologian, from her sermon “The Shepherd’s Flute,” from her book Bread of Angels.


“On the night before Christ died, all of His sheep fell asleep. They had had a big meal and with the sound of the shepherd’s flute in their ears, they fell asleep. And as they slept, they shared a terrible dream: of wolves with clubs and torches who came out of the woods, led their shepherd away, and tore him to shreds on a hillside outside of town.

In the dream, they huddled for safety, unable to think, unable to move, and they stayed that way for three whole days, wondering if they would starve to death before the wolves came back to finish the job. But then on the third day, they heard a flute—far away at first, then drawing nearer—that woke them from their sleep, and they stood once again in the presence of their good shepherd.

Everything was the same again, but everything had changed. Looking around at each other, they saw what had happened. They had fallen asleep as sheep, but they had woken up as shepherds. As they slept, every one of them had been changed into the image of their master, and as they stood there staring at one another he handed them staves like his, and flutes, and sent them out to gather their own flocks. ‘Do for them as I did for you,’ he said, and played them a little tune as they set off to do just that.”