July 10, 2008

Why the Eucharist is Not Simply a "Frackin' Cracker"

THE CALAMITIES ARE NEVER-ENDING. Today, we learn (via Dean's World) that a student at the University of Central Florida, after receiving the Eucharist at Mass last week, did not consume it but instead took it back to the pew where he was sitting, supposedly for the purpose of using the Host as a prop to explain Catholicism to a friend. But the student's rash act appalled the laity at the service, who demanded he return it. When he did not, the student claims the laity attempted to pry the Host from his person. He is now holding the Eucharist hostage in a plastic bag and refuses to return it, much to the Diocese of Orlando's distress.

It may come as little surprise to learn the student in question is a member of the college's student government, and upset student activity funds are used to support religious activities. But the situation has taken on a life of its own, as it has attracted the attention of the Catholic League, a pressure group. The League has not only vowed to go after the student in question, but also PZ Myers, a biology professor at the University of Minnesota at Morris who has stood up for the student, albeit in an exceedingly vulgar fashion.

But I do think offended Catholics should realize the student's act was done out of unwitting ignorance. For one thing, he's a college student, and thus wrong about most everything. Although the student's religion is not mentioned, if he is not a Roman Catholic, he will not fully understand the importance which Catholics treat the Eucharist, and if not Roman Catholic, nor could he be expected to understand. In an era when most young people are under the sway of materialism and where most are brought up as Protestants, one could not expect him to do so.

The Eucharist, as all Christians know, is the Body and Blood of Christ, stemming from the Last Supper, when Christ took bread, blessed it and told His disciples, "Take, eat; this is My body," and took a cup of wine and blessed it, telling His disciples, "Drink ye, all of it; for this is My blood of the New Testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. But I say unto you, I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom."

Now in the Protestant tradition, the practice of communion is a symbolic one. The congregation is, perhaps once a month, served some stale white bread and grape juice and the story of the Last Supper is recalled. Communion is given, the worshippers take it, and then leave, some annoyed at having had 15 minutes added to their Sunday worship.

But in the Catholic tradition, Holy Communion is a far more serious and central affair. The giving of Communion is the central act of the Mass. Far from being symbolic in nature, the Eucharist is transformed, through the mysterium fidei, into the Body and Blood, and through taking it one's sins are forgiven and one is reconciled with God. The Church does not pretend to understand how this works -- it is the Mystery of Faith -- but as other writers have pointed out, Catholics believe Christ harrowed Hell and in dying defeated death, rising three days later from His tomb. If Christ did that, they argue, then this is a small matter in comparison.

The mysterium fidei also explains why the church laity reacted the way it did to the student's transgression. For them, it was not simply a case of manhandling a cracker; it was a rejection of God Himself and defiling Him as the Romans defiled Him on the Cross. There are many things in life which can draw out furious anger in people; surely there are some you could think of off the top of your head. If someone stole a prized baseball card, or a treasured family picture, or some other thing that had great sentimental value to you, you would be rightfully upset about that. When combined with religious fervor, it should not be unexpected that some of the laity would react in an emotional manner.

But I trust the student will eventually understand he acted in very poor form, and will consequently realize his behavior was not a credit to his person, nor his student association, nor his school. When he does, he should be forgiven for it. (I trust he will also, at this point, return the Host with which he absconded; the Church has well-established procedures for dealing with "excess" Hosts).

I am of mixed feelings about the Catholic League's decision to go after the professor at the University of Minnesota at Morris. The League is furious over the professor's expressed desire to defile the Eucharist, and has essentially called upon the man's superiors to do something about this.

On one hand, the professor's ranting is so downright nasty, embittered and self-righteous that he effectively cedes the argument to his opponents. For the Catholic League, giving this wide exposure is the public relations equivalent of a penalty kick in soccer; unless you completely screw it up, it's an easy score. I mean, it's that bad. But don't just take my word for it.

On the other hand, though, wide-ranging publicity may also incite the professor to actually go through with defiling the Eucharist in public, an act Roman Catholics would consider blasphemous. One wishes that would not happen, but not because it would hurt the Roman Church, or its believers, or society in general: our professor is of too small account for that. Rather, it is simply because, many decades down the road, our professor might well face a variant of Graham Greene's age-old question: could what these people believe actually be true?

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:26 PM | Comments (10) | TrackBack

June 09, 2008

Demon Out, Lawsuit In

WELL, ISN'T THIS SPECIAL? A Tennessee man who collapsed upon receiving the Holy Spirit at a church service, and as a result struck his head, has sued the church over the injuries he sustained in the incident. Matthew Lincoln has charged the Knoxville-based Lakewind Church failed to have seconds at the ready to catch him, and as such is responsible for what Mr Lincoln contends are severe and permanent injuries. The lawsuit, which Mr Lincoln's attorneys filed in the Circuit Court of Knox County, Tenn., can be seen in full here.

I must say that Mr Lincoln, who is asking for $2.5 million in damages, is a very gutsy man. After all, it takes a certain bit of gumption to sue one's own church. It especially takes gumption when the proximate cause of one's lawsuit is none other than One Person of the Triune God. After all, if the Holy Spirit had not entered Mr Lincoln, Mr Lincoln would not have collapsed, and as such would not be in the situation he finds himself now.

Now, I realize some of my readers -- actually, most of my readers -- are looking at their monitors with confused looks on their faces. Surely, you are thinking to yourselves, Kepple does not actually believe in all this speaking in tongues and collapsing in agony bit. Well, here's my take on all that.

I fully believe there are usually other reasons -- with perfectly logical and scientific explanations -- which underlie these reported experiences of speaking in tongues and collapsing and what not. However, at the same time, I can't rule out the possibility -- no matter how odd it seems -- that the Holy Spirit may very well enter at least a few of these people and cause these effects. The Roman Catholic Church, in its great wisdom and intellectual majesty, apparently doesn't rule it out either, and I looked through the Catechism pretty thoroughly. I would particularly note Part Two, Section Two, Chapter Two, Article Five ("The Anointing of the Sick"), and in particular Paragraph 1508, which reads as follows:

The Holy Spirit gives to some a special charism of healing so as to make manifest the power of the grace of the risen Lord. But even the most intense prayers do not always obtain the healing of all illnesses. Thus St. Paul must learn from the Lord that "my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness," and that the sufferings to be endured can mean that "in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his Body, that is, the Church."

I take this as meaning that if He wants to give you a surprise, He can and will.

Now, I must say I do feel badly for Mr Lincoln, as the injuries his attorneys describe in the lawsuit do sound rather severe. However, part of me thinks Mr Lincoln might be better served through going to the library and picking up a copy of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, or a similar work which looks at the theological issues surrounding human suffering. For this case does bring along with it a whole host of serious theological and legal questions, such as:

-- What exactly would God think about one of the faithful suing his house of worship over an incident that He indirectly caused? Furthermore, if the parishioner won his case, how would God react?

-- Would God be upset if the church's insurer paid the damages? After all, that $2.5 million would have to come from somewhere and I doubt the church has $2.5 million. If the insurer did, this would consequently mean higher insurance rates for the church in future, leaving less money for charitable works, keeping the parsonage kept up and all that. What would He think of this? True, if one trusts in the LORD, the LORD shall provide; but still, that is $2.5 million.

-- If the Holy Spirit did in fact enter Mr Lincoln, wouldn't that mean the Holy Spirit is a natural defendant in this case? Surely He would share some of the liability for Mr Lincoln's situation. But how do you parse that out? Although Tennessee allows joint and several liability, thus allowing all the claims to get passed to the church, shouldn't jurors consider whether the Holy Spirit is at least partially liable for Mr Lincoln's injuries? I mean, not only did the Holy Spirit contribute to them, He knew full well He would do so, as He is omniscient and exists outside of time as we know it.

-- Since no one has deposed God since Pontius Pilate, how do you address these concerns? Could one use the Defendant's past statements in lieu of a deposition?

-- If the Holy Spirit did not actually enter Mr Lincoln, would that not mean Mr Lincoln was partially or totally liable for his injuries, and knew or should have known he was in a situation where the potential for injury would have occurred? And even if the Holy Spirit did enter Mr Lincoln, did he not have a responsibility to make sure he knew everything was safe and ready prior to the laying on of hands?

-- How much of a mess will voir dire be on this one?

Actually, that voir dire process should prove pretty important in this case. You'd have to question jurors on their theological views pretty closely, I think. Do they believe in free will and predetermination? Do they believe in charismatic practices such as the laying on of hands? What do they think of the Book of Job, which deals with issues like this? If it gets to that point, it will be interesting -- but I doubt it will. God knows, as the old saw has it, that a bad settlement is preferable to a good trial.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 01:34 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

June 03, 2008

In the Event of Rapture, I'm Stealing Your Car

SOME TIME BACK, I briefly noted -- thanks to the work of Mr David Malki ! -- that it would be nice if if I could get rich without hustling suckers and idiots. However, there are times I think there's something to be said for hustling people who are easily parted from their money, particularly when I see a good idea that someone else developed.

The latest good idea which I should have considered sooner may be seen at "You've Been Left Behind!" This site, the creation of Massachusetts-based You've Been Left Behind LLC, exists to provide evangelical Christians a way to alert their unsaved friends and family about Christ's saving grace in the event of the Rapture. Yes, that Rapture, where the LORD our God calls home all the God-fearing, right-thinking Christians of the world, while the rest of us (the Pointedly Non-Elect) are condemned to suffer through the Tribulation prior to the Last Day.

The Tribulation shall be terrible indeed: there shall be shortages and hyperinflation, and every mountain and island shall be removed from its place, and the Horsemen shall alight upon the withered globe, spreading pestilence and death and agony. Also the Oakland Raiders will win the Super Bowl year after year. However, the good people at You've Been Left Behind offer us hope. For just $40 per annum -- I mean, each year -- You've Been Left Behind LLC will save important documents and e-mail them out to family and friends when the Rapture comes. This is because anyone who would spend $40 each year on such a service is so gullible -- I mean, so pure in heart -- that the LORD will sweep them up to His presence without so much as a by-your-leave.

So the service is part estate-planning and part spiritual tool -- as we can see in the "Why?" section of You've Been Left Behind's Web site, which says:

We all have family and friends who have failed to receive the Good News of the Gospel. The unsaved will be 'left behind' on earth to go through the "tribulation period" after the "Rapture" ... Imagine how taken back they will be by the millions of missing Christians and devastation at the rapture. They will know it was true and that they have blown it. There will be a small window of time where they might be reached for the Kingdom of God. We have made it possible for you to send them a letter of love and a plea to receive Christ one last time.

You will also be able to give them some help in living out their remaining time. In the encrypted portion of your account you can give them access to your banking, brokerage, hidden valuables, and powers of attorneys' (you won't be needing them any more, and the gift will drive home the message of love). There won't be any bodies, so probate court will take 7 years to clear your assets to your next of Kin. 7 years of course is all the time that will be left. So, basically the Government of the AntiChrist gets your stuff, unless you make it available in another way. You can also send information based on scripture as to what will happen next. Each fulfilled prophecy will cause your letter and plea to be remembered and a decision to be made.

"WHY" is one last chance to bring them to Christ and snatch them from the flames!

I don't mean to rain on anyone's parade, but I live in the United States of America. The Government already gets my stuff and there is nothing I can do about it. So it's not exactly going to make a lot of difference if Randall Flagg suddenly shows up three weeks after the Big Surprise and starts forcing us all into work camps. Besides, let's face it -- if the Tribulation was really a Tribulation, one doubts that brokerage statements or other valuables would prove, well, valuable to anyone dealing with the End Times. You don't need to save money -- and you certainly won't invest it -- if in a scant few years Christ Himself is dividing us up into sheep and goats. That would take all the fun out of it.

Along those lines, while I am sure the nation's probate courts will be pleased to realize the End Timers have such faith in their workings, it seems unlikely one would need anything more than a codicil to his will to have his wishes carried out. If millions of people suddenly go poof, it is not much of a stretch to think a proper probate court would agree to let their survivors get the vanished folks' Ford F-150s.

For that matter, what's all this bit about flames? Who the hell says Hell is hot? Here at The Rant, which operates under Roman Catholic principles, we believe Hell is very much in line with Dante's vision of it. Thus, it could well be cold. Really cold. Or even temperate. It all depends.

Of course, as a Roman Catholic, I do not believe in the Rapture, which is an invention of the 1830s. However, for my evangelical brethren who do believe in it, I would suggest that one could keep the $40 per year and instead engage in some smart estate planning. After all, no man knoweth the day nor the hour.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 08:30 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

May 13, 2008

"To Serve Man -- It's a COOKBOOK!"

THE VATICAN HAS GIVEN its imprimatur to believing in sentient extraterrestrial life, according to an interview which the director of the Vatican's observatory gave to L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican's newspaper. Since the wire services have done a poor job at providing their readers with anything but a short snippet, I would direct readers to a translation of the interview which a Dutch priest has provided.

The key part, as I see it, is reproduced here, in which the Rev. Jose Gabriel Funes discusses the possibility of intelligent extraterrestrial life elsewhere:

Q: And that wouldn’t be a problem for our faith?

Fr FUNES: I don’t think so. Just like there is an abundance of creatures on Earth, there could also be other beings, even intelligent ones, that were created by God. That doesn’t contradict our faith, because we cannot put boundaries to God’s creative freedom. As Saint Francis would say, when we consider the earthly creatures to be our “brothers” and “sisters”, why couldn’t we also talk about a "extraterrestrial brother?" He would still be part of creation.

Q: And what about redemption?

Fr FUNES: Let’s borrow the image from the gospel about the lost sheep. The shepherd leaves the 99 of the sheepfold to search for the one that got lost. Let’s imagine that in this universe there are 100 sheep, corresponding to the different forms of creatures. We who belong to the human race, could very well be the lost sheep, the sinners that need the shepherd. God has become man in Jesus to save us. In that way, even when other intelligent beings exist, it’s not said that they would need redemption. They might have stayed in full friendship with their Creator.

Q: I insist: when they would, on the contrary, be sinners, would redemption also be possible for them?

Fr FUNES: Jesus incarnated once and for all. The incarnation is a unique and non-repeatable event. However, I am certain that they too, in one way or another, would have the possibility to experience God’s mercy, just like we men have.

This interview, as you can see, is yet another example of the Roman Church's tradition of intellectual rigor and discourse. I am only sorry that Fr Funes did not discuss this subject at greater length.

Well, OK, only partially sorry. I mean, I'm not seeing anything in this interview that contradicts my ideas about how to deal with the discovery of intelligent alien life. For instance, if aliens do land on Earth, we apparently still get a pass to confiscate their ship, reverse-engineer their hyperdrive technology and seize it for our own. Also, if we're lucky, we can convince (or force) the aliens to teach us the secrets of their advanced technology and commercialize it for untold profits.

Some of my more conscientious readers may be shocked at this expression of outright greed and aggression, but I am inherently a realist. It is one thing if this alien intelligence turned out to be good and cuddly, but I think we all know the chances of that being the case are practically nil. Even if they seem good, they will undoubtedly have some diabolical ruthless plan in the works to force us off guard or turn us against each other, and then they'll go for our jugular.

Remember -- "To Serve Man" was a cookbook! A COOKBOOK!

Then again, maybe I should just stay home when we have the welcoming ceremony for the aliens' advance party.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:36 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 13, 2008

Vatican Creates "New" Sins

ONE OF THE THINGS I discovered about the Roman Catholic Church, back when I was considering joining it, was that the Church has a great regard for intellectual tradition. This was, in fact, one of the big reasons why I became a Roman Catholic. Every article of doctrine, every tenet of faith, every spiritual statement, is backed with reams of theological argument -- case studies, if you will. Thus, even if one does not agree with every position of the Church, one must respect the thought process that goes into the formulation of its arguments, and intellectual dissension accordingly requires grappling with those arguments.

So I was a bit distressed to find some people have snickered at the annoucement -- reported breathlessly in the secular media -- that the Vatican has somehow created new sins out of whole cloth for the modern age. Yes, they're sins. Yes, they're now spelled out in doctrine. But the sins listed represent an application of Church doctrine to modern developments. (If you're interested in what these new sins are, you can find them here). Therefore, it is no surprise the Vatican would issue such an announcement as a matter of routine: regulatory guidance for the spiritual world, one might say.

Of course, as with any pronouncement, there are some things that make the list, and some things which are sent back for further review.

As it happens, though, I have a source in the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Penitentiary, and I know there were several other pronouncements under consideration, but which haven't yet made the cut. So for all Roman Catholics out there, it might be a good idea to keep these in mind, because they could be released any day now. Oh, and these potential sins also apply to Protestants as well.

What's that? You thought that just because you went out on your own, you're free? Not so fast, my friends! Let's be perfectly blunt about things: even though you've been in schism with the Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church for 490 years, we Catholics remain confident you'll return to the fold -- especially when we unveil the Sacred and Most Blessed Potluck Dinner in a few months. I mean, it's not a tough equation -- Calvinist doctrine or lemon squares? Gee, I wonder what will win out there.

(That said, we must admit the Orthodox have nothing to fear, primarily because their potential punishments for sinning already far outweigh anything the Roman Church has in place. I mean, they do not mess around).

But I digress. Anyway, here's a list of the potential "newer sins" that could soon be released. As I understand it, if they're approved, an addendum to the Catechism should be released shortly. (For those of you unfamiliar with the "traditional" expected punishments for committing these sins and then failing to be absolved of them, here's a handy guide).






Punishment: Third Circle, perhaps Fifth

IN THE PARABLE of the maidens and the bridegroom, the LORD compared Heaven to a marriage celebration (Matthew 25:4), in which half the maidens, being foolish, did not bring extra oil for their lamps, while the wise maidens brought extra oil along with them. When the bridegroom was delayed, the foolish found their lamps going out, and called upon the others to aid them. But the wise maidens could not. Thus, the foolish were forced to go scamper about searching for oil, which was especially difficult on a Saturday night, and when they returned from Wal-Mart the celebration had already begun. And lo, the bridegroom's in-laws, who had spent a fortune on the party and were cheap, claimed it was dark outside and they had no idea who these people were.

Yet behold the maiden who runs low on oil through no fault of her own, but rather the incompetent kitchen manager who hadn't paid the supplier promptly, thus resulting in a shortage. Truly it would be unjust for the customer to blame the waitress and leave her a bad tip for the manager's ineptitude. The just man would tip the waitress well, but call for the kitchen manager, and chastise him for his bad management, or at least try to get an entree voided on the bill. Verily, the man who stiffed the waitress by leaving ten percent -- or even worse, nothing -- would risk the wrath of the LORD. For that man would say (Luke 12:19-20) to himself, " 'Thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.' But God would say unto him, 'Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?' "

Behold, the man who stiffs the waitress shall be cast into the Third Circle, and there face an unending rain of ice and hail, and groan in the grim darkness; and if he makes a scene, he shall be cast down to the Fifth Circle, where the angry wail and gnash their teeth.

Punishment: Seventh Circle

WHEN THE LORD spoke to Ezekiel, He said (Ezekiel 17:12): "Say now to the rebellious house, 'Know ye not what these things mean? Tell them, behold, the king of Babylon is come to Jerusalem, and hath taken the king thereof, and the princes thereof, and led them with him to Babylon." In other words, the covenant the homeowner agreed to when he bought the McMansion in the fancy subdivision is sacrosanct, and breaking it will mean a host of plagues, up to and including swarms of officers sent to harass him and eat out his substance. And the LORD said (Ezekiel 17:18): "Seeing he despised the oath by breaking the covenant, when, lo, he had given his hand, and hath done all these things, he shall not escape."

For the LORD has made clear one shall not paint one's house an appalling shade of fuschia, nor fail to keep up one's yard, and any man who dares lower his neighbors' property values shall suffer and pay recompense on his own head. And the LORD will spread His net upon him, and he shall be taken in His snare, and only then will he realize the absolute world of pain that awaits him. Behold, any man who defies his homeowners' association -- at least, really unreasonably so -- shall be cast down to the Seventh Circle, and there made to suffer the tortures of the Phlegethon.

Punishment: Fifth Circle

AND THE APOSTLE Timothy (2 Timothy 2:20) said: "But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and of earth; and some to honour, and some to dishonour." Behold, the District Courts and the Superior Courts and the Supreme Courts -- which is really the Superior Court in New York -- give you plenty of time and notice to appear before them, unlike the LORD, Who would remind you again that no man knoweth the day nor the hour. Must you handle these vessels of gold and silver as you would the vessels of wood and earth? Must you not even take the trouble to ensure you're wearing a pressed shirt -- and a real shirt, not the cheap T-shirt you bought in Atlantic City that reads, "I'M WITH STUPID?" Let us also recall the words of 3 Timothy 19:14, in which the apostle writes: "Would it really kill the Galatians to wear ties once in a while?"

Behold, the man who attends a hearing concerning him before an Honorable Court, which beseeches God to save it, in anything other than proper attire shall be cast down into the Fifth Circle with the sullen, unless he is already in the dock and wearing the garb of the local House of Correction, in which case he gets a pass, provided he demands to wear street clothes and is denied.

Punishment: Fourth Circle.

AND IN THE EARLY PART of the decade, the Brown & Co. brokerage created an advertisement, in which a client inquired at her brokerage (that was not Brown & Co.) about trading on margin. And lo, the clueless client representative responded, "You want to ... trade ... butter?" And the client said no -- on margin. So then the clueless client representative had a conversation with his colleague, which went thusly:

"Hey, Bloated Rates?"
"Yeah, Useless Overhead?"
"What's the rate for trading on margin?"
"Eight and a half."
"Eight and a half?"
"No, wait -- nine!"

Then, the client protested -- but that's as high as a credit card!

Yes, it is. Thus, any client of any brokerage should not buy options on margin, even if (perhaps especially if) you have a "hot tip." For the hedge funds and institutional traders control the markets, and lo, they are as the kings described in The Revelation to John (Rev 17:12), which are each given great power but only for an hour. And that hour is a human hour, between three and four p.m. Eastern time.

During these hours, they shall hold sway over all the earth and its dominions, and their strategems and cunning shall overwhelm your positions, and you shall be out of the money when triple-witching day comes. Then, you shall wail and gnash your teeth, but it shall not save you when your broker calls and demands you pony up your margin money, lest your other positions be sundered. Behold, any client who buyeth options on margin shall be cast down with the moneygrubbers and wasters on the Fourth Circle, destined to forever roll heavy weights to and fro in misery, and be smitten in the weights' inevitable rotation.

And the LORD, by the way, saw the commercial and saw that it was good, but yet, one cannot find it on YouTube.

Punishment: Fourth or Seventh Circles

NOW THERE WAS a day (Job 1:6-12) when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them. The LORD said to Satan, "Whence comest thou?" Then Satan answered the LORD, and said, "From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it."

And the LORD said unto Satan, "Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil?" Then Satan answered the LORD, and said, "Doth Job fear God for nought? Hast not Thou made a hedge about him, and about his house, and about all his fancy electronics he bought from Best Buy? Thou have protected him from power surges and bad factory manufacturing and dropping his new 42-inch LCD TV. But put forth Thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face." And the LORD said unto Satan, "Behold, all that he hath is in thy power; only upon himself put not forth thine hand."

So Satan went forth from the presence of the LORD, and laideth a curse most foul unto Job's electronics, and lo! Job's television did fall from its stand, and his hi-definition stereo shorted out, and his mp3 player broke, and Job rent his garments and fell to the ground and worshipped the LORD. Then, he rose and said, "Hey, wait a minute. I am Job, and I live in the land of Pasadena, and the LORD has granted me and all in Pasadena a wondrous trade imbalance with the Chinese. Thank you, LORD!" Thus Job went forth, and for little money replaced his television and stereo and all his electronics from the Easterners, and the LORD chuckled as Satan was defeated by his misunderstanding of the modern capitalist system. Then the LORD unleashed the moonwalk upon Satan, and Satan was chagrined. Then Satan saith unto the LORD, "Let's see how Job likes it when he ends up with boils. I said, frickin' boils!"

Behold, even if the Devil himself should curse one's electronics and cause them to fail, the LORD has made a hedge around the economies of East Asia, and artificially depressed their currencies, so that their products are cheap. Rejoice, for the LORD has made it so one does not need to shell out extra money for the extended-service warranties the people at the electronics stores push. And behold, those that have no faith in the LORD, and buy the extended-service plans and waste their money, shall be cast down into perdition.

Punishment: varies -- Second Circle to Ninth Circle, but probably the Eighth

BEHOLD THE WISDOM of Reagan, who declared that women were the civilizing influence on men. For men in their primal state, without women, are prone to all manner of sloth and vice, ranging from not eating properly to not showering for days on end just because they can. Do not women cause you to clean your bath regularly? Do not women cause you to appear neat and clean? Do not women know how to coordinate colors and all that, and make your apartment appear as if an adult lives there, and not someone just out of college? Verily, they do. Plus, there are the other benefits, if you catch our drift, which by the way you're not supposed to enjoy until you're married, but we'll talk about that later.

Yet many men abjure their responsibilities, and conduct themselves in a most appalling manner, and drunkenly cavort in seedy bars despite being in a relationship with a woman who is too good for them. Even worse, some men fester and rot in pursuit of idleness, even as their women hold down a steady job and then do all of the housework. Did not De Niro say, "Be a man. Don't be a pimp," or something to that effect? Yes, he did. And even worse than that, there are those men who cannot control their base urges, and pursue other women despite the fact they are already in a relationship. That's just wrong.

Behold, any man who is a jerk to one's girlfriend shall reap what he sows, and open himself up to a world of incredible and amazing pain, and suffer accordingly, with the pain to be determined by Minos himself, who in Hell's vestibule shall wrap his hideous tail around himself and bite it, and condemn the man to the Chasms of Fraud. (In the meantime, the Chasms of Fraud may or may not be worse than the tortures exacted by the girlfriend and her friends, however).


(After much consideration, the Holy See has decided adhering to this commandment pretty much absolves women in a relationship from pretty much everything else, particularly if women agree to let men watch football on non-traditional days like Thursday nights, plus bowl season. However, "pretty much everything else" notably does not include, "Cheating on one's boyfriend with his best friend," which remains right out).

Punishment: varied; from Third Circle to Ptolomaea (Ninth Circle, Third Zone)

AND THE APOSTLE JAMES wrote (1 James 23-24): "For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass. For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was." James, being an apostle, was too polite to say that any man who would stare admiringly at himself in a mirror is a cad.

Do not James' words apply doubly to the man who talks loudly and abrasively on his mobile phone during dinner out, insulting his guests and annoying others in the establishment where he dines? Yeah, we think so. For Christ's sake, put the phone away. It can wait. We don't care if the stupid Poindexter account blew up again -- it can wait until you get home, when you're at an actual computer and can do actual real work. Don't you type under the table with your Blackberry either. God! Please, get some backbone. If you're really that important, you don't have to prove it to your guests -- who are theoretically your friends -- or the other people in the restaurant, who don't really care that Finnster is an incompetent poltroon who would screw up the Poindexter account anyway. And if you don't get some manners, you're going to Ptolomaea, home of traitors to guests, whom God has damned and damned justly. Wretched, putrid scoundrel!



Vaticanus omnia sibi vindicat iura

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:11 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 06, 2007

I Am So in Trouble for This

YOU KNOW, BECAUSE I haven't added enough years to my eventual sentence in Purgatory, which will undoubtedly prove Not Fun and require me to spend millenia in excruciating pain. Anyway -- the reason I'm in trouble is because this is Holy Week and specifically Good Friday, and despite my best efforts, I still find this unbelievably and hysterically funny.

The link -- I don't know how long it will last -- leads to a video clip of an old sketch from "The State," a comedy show which once appeared on MTV. For those of you who aren't familiar with it, this page might help explain things. For those readers who do remember it, I would simply note the following line of dialogue:

"Judas? Judas, why did you invite Louie?"

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 08:47 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 27, 2006

An Environmental Note

NEAR THE BEGINNING (Gen. 1:26) GOD said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps over the earth."

"So God created man in his own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, 'Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves on the earth. That includes the horrific and ghastly Guinea worm, which ranks up there with leprosy and septicemic plague and necrotizing fasciitis in terms of things you weren't warned about growing up.' "

"Well, at least try to have dominion over it: it may be tough tackling a hideous, yard-long parasite which uses acid to burrow its way out of its still-living victims. And here you were worried about a snake," God added.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 08:12 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

May 23, 2005

A Special Thank You to The New York Times

GEE, THANKS, GUYS. Thanks for putting one of my favorite vacation/relaxation spots right there in the Sunday travel section. That's just great. Now everyone's going to want to visit San Miguel de Allende and I will be priced out from visiting on my own.

But one of the advantages of having been to a place mentioned in The New York Times travel section is that I can fisk -- I mean, critique -- the writer's version of events. Consider how the Times article begins:

WHY GO NOW: The jacaranda trees are blooming, and so too is this 16th-century colonial town, thanks to an ambitious renewal effort that is halfway through its two-year run. Every building along the narrow cobblestone streets has been repainted in the colors of a desert sunset: ocher and sienna, deep orange and clay red. The government is restoring churches and theaters, rebuilding plazas and illuminating the arches of the plaza and the ornate spires of the main church with Disneylandlike brightness.

This is all well and good, but unfortunately, writer James C. McKinley Jr. has neglected to mention a few minor points -- such as the fact that seemingly random street reconstruction work is also going on (or at least it was, when I was visiting).

Not that it's a big deal -- it's really not -- but I just wanted to point it out. Oh, and that reminds me -- cobblestones may look pretty, and may be historic, but God -- there's something to be said for nice, level streets with nice, level pavement.

But I quibble, and unjustly so.

A real complaint with Mr McKinley's essay might have to do with the fact that it was published in May. During the days, San Miguel can get frickin' hot during late spring, even at an elevation of 7,000 feet. The combination of "really hot weather" and "oxygen deprivation" means one might want not to just jaunt down to San Miguel for the weekend. If you're going to stay, give it some time.

By the by, the Times mentions several hotels in San Miguel, but don't rule out renting a house either. It's not as crazy as it sounds and it can be a pretty amazing experience in itself. Obviously, one can't just rent a house on the fly, but with planning it can be really cool -- and perhaps a good deal cheaper than many of the hotels which the Times mentions. (That said, should a Loyal Rant Reader decide to rent out Casa Carino please invite me along for the party).

Anyway! Back to it. The Times continues:

WHERE TO EAT: Yes, it's expensive - especially for Mexico - but one night should be devoted to La Capilla, (7) Cuna de Allende 10, (52-415) 152-0698, which serves innovative seafood and poultry dishes on a terrace that used to be part of the Parroquia church. The chefs create sauces with mango and other exotic fruits, cheeses and local spices, making even red snapper an adventure. A three-course meal for two runs $150 to $200. The music from the schmaltzy piano bar leaves something to be desired.

Note to husbands, boyfriends, etc.: Mr McKinley is right that one night during one's trip ought be devoted to La Capilla. That would be because:

* the Parroquia, the main church in San Miguel, WHICH IS amazing, is lit up and breathtakingly beautiful;

* from La Capilla's terrace, you WILL have the best dining view of the lit-up Parroquia in all its glory, and --

* if you take your date to La Capilla, and throw down 2,000+ pesos on the three-course meal, you are virtually guaranteed to make wild and passionate love later that night.

Sadly, I was single on my trip -- but I can assure you the view is THAT amazing. So make sure you sit upstairs, out on the terrace. Also, make sure you go on a night when the Parroquia is lit up!

After all, why d'you think you're paying 2,000+ pesos? It's true the food is very good, but when I was there, it was just that -- very good, but not amazingly so. It was not of the oh-my-God-do-you-remember-that-meal variety, so I think Mr McKinley was a wee bit too generous.

That said, for amazingly good food, go to Nirvana. I am not generally a fan of fusion cuisine, but Nirvana won me over. Nirvana served up meals one remembers.

The Times man was right on, though, about Bugumbilia -- it had the best traditional Mexican food ever. He also had this useful advice:

HOW TO GET THERE: The closest international airport is about 66 miles away, near Guanajuato. ... Several van services at the airport will take you to San Miguel for about $70, among them Reyna Polanco Tours, (52-415) 152-4193, Julian Cartas, (52-415)152-0079, or Rafael Tovar, (52-415) 152-7196.

Tip well. Tip especially well if one is traveling with another gringo, and one mistakenly takes the other gringo's bag, and one thus causes Jorge to drive all the way back across town to make the switch. But do enjoy the drive between Guanajuato/Leon and San Miguel -- it is pretty country and it should set you on the path to relaxation -- which is, of course, the main reason to visit San Miguel de Allende.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:13 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

May 22, 2005

Well, That Was Unexpected

SO THAT'S what happens when you cross the nightmarish visions of H.P. Lovecraft with the straightforward fundamentalism of Jack Chick. Who knew it could be so damned funny?

(via Dean)

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 08:43 PM | TrackBack

April 06, 2005

Ecce Petrus Pontifex Maximus

THERE IS LITTLE one can write about Pope John Paul II which better men have not said more eloquently. But it seems wrong for me to let the passing of such a great leader go unmentioned.

While the Popes work meant different things to different people, from my point of view, he had three accomplishments which really stand out from the rest. The first was his work for human freedom, not only in helping overthrow the Communist order in Russia and Eastern Europe, but for continuing that effort at every opportunity for instance, when he visited Cuba, and Castro was forced to allow Christmas celebrations.

The second was an unwavering yet reasonable stand in support of the Churchs doctrine. This was not something which made his administration especially popular, and there were many in the American wing of the Church who particularly disliked the Churchs refusal to budge on certain issues. And even though Im a convert, I suppose Ive sometimes fallen into cafeteria-Catholic mode too. But even as I wished the Church would change its positions on this or that, I never lost respect for its views, for to me they were soundly backed and smartly-argued. That type of rigor, I think, has done much for the Church, and I think the Pope did much to keep things rigorous.

Finally, though, what impressed me about the Pope was, well, the Pope. Could we Catholics have asked for a better leader in these tumultuous times? I daresay wed be hardpressed to find one. He was strong and capable and unbending, but at the same time he was compassionate and sincere and loving. And he was well loved, to the point where many good and loyal Catholics disobeyed parts of his last wishes the part in which he told them not to weep.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:55 PM | TrackBack

February 16, 2005

De asini umbra disceptare

WE NOTE with interest that several of our blogging colleagues are discussing whether those who believe in God are more likely to meet their Maker through accident than those who do not believe in the Almighty. It is an interesting question, although thus far, the only thing that's been proven is the old saw about economists not reaching a conclusion.

The first entry in this whole debate comes from Will Wilkinson, who writes in part:

In a fit of Beckerite rational choice reasoning, I decided that theists ought to have higher rates of death by accident. If I believe that heaven is infinite bliss, then I should be quite eager to join my maker ... So, one should expect that theists who believe in perpetual Miami would take more risks than those who do not so believe, and that thus, death-by-accident ought to be higher among believer than non-believers.

My guess is that there is no difference in rates of death-by-accident among believers and non-believers. If my guess is correct, then there's another reason to believe that many people don't really believe in God, even though they think they do. Or, at least, there's a reason for rational choice economists to believe meta-atheism.

In response, Tyler Cowen writes:

Most of all, theists should have stronger reasons to live. They have their own selfish reasons, plus whatever role they think they are supposed to be playing in God's plan. So they ought to take fewer chances; indeed the data suggest that both religious belief and religious participation are correlated with longer lifespans. And even if theists believe death is paradise, that will come sooner or later in any case. In other words, heaven brings an "income effect," not a "substitution effect." We need of course two auxiliary assumptions. First, theists, given their perceived roles in God's plan, do not feel a strong impatience to arrive in heaven. Second, the method of death under consideration should not affect the probability of heaven vs. hell.

Megan McArdle, meanwhile, argues on Mr Cowen's side:

What, after all, is the goal of theists? To spend eternity with their Maker. Eternity, as we all know, is infinitely long. So they cannot add to the time that they spend with Our Heavenly Father, since "infinity + 30 years" = "infinity"...

... On the other hand, assuming that they have some utility to life on this side of The Great Divide, they can add to their net "mortal" utility, by having more human years, without subtracting from their total "Hosannas on Highest" years. It's a winning strategy for the rational theistic value-maximiser.

So, to sum up, we have two nays and one yea in favor of the proposition. Out of the three, Ms McArdle has written the briefest and smartest answer to the question at hand. Yet because none of the three writers fully address the theological implications of such a question, their answers necessarily fall short. Furthermore, the question's theological implications explain exactly why one cannot answer the question one way or the other. Hence the argument itself is making a mountain out of a molehill.

For all three arguments have the same glaring, fundamental flaw: the idea that all religious believers have the end goal of getting to Heaven. Yet this is not the case, for that's not the point of religious belief. The end goal for religious believers is to do His will in all things, to pursue whatever calling He puts before them. If Heaven is a result of that, then wonderful. If it is not, then the faithful can only accede to His judgment in the matter.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:30 PM | TrackBack

January 28, 2005

In Hoc Signo Vinces

OVER AT Arguing with Signposts, Bryan has decried the present trend among certain Christians to appropriate pop-culture symbols for use on T-shirts, knick-knacks and other religious-themed goods. Bryan finds this, and we quote, "sickening," and has inquired about other folks' views on the subject.

Now, we personally think such practices are acceptable, provided they are done in moderation, and with the greater glory of God and His church in mind. Sadly, we do not believe the purveyors of these goods hold too strictly to that ideal. It's not merely the rampant profiteering that bothers us, either. What annoys us about this trend is that in practice, it has diluted and tarnished the message of the faith.

We are sorry, but wearing a T-shirt which proclaims the Glory of the Risen Lord has nothing to do with the Glory of the Risen Lord. Rather, it has to do with the Glory of the Person Wearing the Shirt, who can now proclaim to all who see him that he is a Virtuous and God-fearing Member of the Elect. In general, one ought not do such a thing. For doing so doesn't merely direct attention away from the faith, it also can subtly point the person wearing the shirt down the wrong path. (There's nothing like a little pride to eat away at one's spiritual foundations).

We submit this state of affairs holds for anyone who displays similar goods in such fashion. For instance, those annoying metal fish on the backs of cars, a public symbol of one's belief in Christ. We personally see those as unfortunate. For one thing, it seems to run counter to His admonition regarding the folks who pray in public. For another, it has spawned an entire cottage industry among clever secularists, who have designed displays showing the fish being eaten by a larger Darwin fish. Upping the ante by having a THIRD God fish eat the Darwin fish is not, in our view, how Christians ought go about spreading the Gospel.

As for the bumper stickers which proclaim the car in front of us will be left without a driver when the Rapture comes, we would merely say the drivers of such cars are likely going to be in for quite a surprise.

We must say that many who wear these shirts and put this stuff on their cars are perfectly well-meaning, God-fearing people. We do not mean to impugn their motives or their intent; we merely would caution them as to the effects of their actions. Our true ire is saved for those who produce such offerings.

For those producing these goods have much higher moral hurdles to jump. A Christian who sells religious wares for his living ought have an eye to the consequences of his labors. It is one thing to produce a true work of art or a craft of amazing beauty in His service, but another to produce cheap goods for general consumption -- especially if, as Bryan notes, the goods are derivative off commercial goods which others have developed.

But it is not merely the cheapness of such goods which are of concern. There is also the question of one's motives and actions in producing them. Does the purveyor keep true to His message? Does he treat his workers well? Does he compensate them adequately? Is he charitable? Does he tithe? Did he take risks in producing the goods? Where do the profits go? All these things are factors which Christian buyers of such goods must consider, and we would encourage Christians to keep an eye on such matters. And we would note there is no sin in making inexpensive religious goods, or making a profit on them. It is merely that the goods must be well-made and well-conceived, and the profits must be used wisely.

Finally, in the interest of full disclosure, we would note we recently purchased a religious good -- a trade paperback copy of St Francis de Sales' Introduction to the Devout Life. St Francis is our patron saint -- we were confirmed under that name in the Roman church, and he is one of the three saints charged with overseeing our profession. We paid $15 for the book, and bought it from a church bookstore, meaning any end-line profits went to support one of our local churches.

Interestingly enough, when we first took a look at St Francis' work, we opened the book at random and found our eyes resting on this sentence: "By your words you shall be justified, and by your words you shall be condemned." Christians will recognize those are not St Francis' words, but those of his Editor; but the message holds all the same. It is something we hope purveyors of religious goods will keep in mind for the future.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:13 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

June 03, 2004

Psalms for All Occasions!

THE EVENING STANDARD has reported the Church of England will publish a modified text of Psalm 23 in a forthcoming pocket prayer book. While the version is not the Church's official version for use in services, the excerpt transcribed from "Pocket Prayers For Justice And Peace" is pretty grim:

In a new version published by the Church of England, the words: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil" are replaced by: "Even if a full-scale violent confrontation breaks out I will not be afraid, Lord." The new version shares with the traditional one the opening line "The Lord is my shepherd", but the psalmist goes on: "He lets me see a country of justice and peace and directs me towards this land" and that His "shepherd's power and love protect me" - instead of "thy rod and thy staff they comfort me."

Folks, we think we're pretty safe in arguing that "Pocket Prayers for Justice and Peace" has reached a Critical Desalinization Point. Still, if the Church of England can publish versions of prayers based on things like debt relief and trade issues, we don't see why we ourselves couldn't do the same about other matters. So here are our ideas -- with apologies to the original authors of the Psalms, some of whose lines we borrow outright.

And may God forgive us.


Relief Prayer 37B: Claims Adjusters

Hear my prayer, O Lord; give ear to my lament!
For I have given a man's car a very large dent.
My luck has been awfully bad as of late,
so of course that car was a Jag XK8.
I'm really afraid my premiums will jump,
since that idiot stopped dead for a lousy speed hump.
So deliver me from said fiscal abuse;
let my claims adjuster buy my crappy excuse.

Relief Prayer 88C: Vending Machines

I lift up my eyes to the machine.
From whence does my help come?
No help comes from the maintenance people;
they are all on break.

I want my dollar back,
so I bang the machine most mightily.
Yet the second-rate cupcakes sit there, mocking;
they refuse to fall.

Lord, I really need those cupcakes,
because as You know I went on the Atkins Diet,
and it has been six days since I had carbs;
hence I might just kill.

So I beseech you, oh Lord,
have mercy on Your supplicant;
Deliver to me the cupcakes for which I hunger,
let this kick free them.

Relief Prayer 124: Bad Customer Service

Hear my voice, O God, in my complaint;
for this illiterate moron doesn't understand
this DVD I bought had a thick scratch in it,
making it unplayable.

This pimply-faced twenty-something does so on purpose,
for his bitterness exists without bounds;
as if it's my fault he went for philosophy
at that third-rate school in East Lansing.

He holds fast to his evil purpose, just for kicks;
he claims he can do nothing without clearance,
which I know is a complete and utter lie.
Yet he persists in telling me such falsehoods,
as if I was just born yesterday.
Did they teach him anything in East Lansing?

Clearly he is bitter about my stellar success,
but then of course I went to Ann Arbor;
and also I studied a proper subject.
Yet such reason counts naught with him.
He will not deign to give me store credit,
even though I have the receipt.

But You will stand fast with me, that I know;
and will prevail upon him to act quickly.
Barring that, though, give him the typhus,
or at least some social disease.

Relief Prayer 234: Adjustable-Rate Mortgages

Save me, O God!
For the waters have come up to my neck;
I sink in deep payments
and there is no abatement.
I have come into misfortune
and the red ink sweeps over me.
I am weary with my pleading;
my wallet is empty.
My eyes grow dim
with waiting for the Fed.

How could they raise the rates right now,
as I just closed on this place last week;
now my loan shall be upside-down
with an impending balloon payment
in a mere five years.
O God, Thou knowest my folly;
buying at the height of the market just killed me.
For zeal for this house has consumed me,
and I paid no attention to the bubble.

But it's such a nice house, really,
with three bedrooms and two baths;
and a decent yard with shade trees.
Now it has become my curse, and worse,
my neighbor absconded with my mower.
O God, prevail upon the Fed and Greenspan;
let them keep rates steady one more quarter,
let me have a soft landing,
for I need some equity
and decent schools for my kids.

Song of Praise 12: Sundry Home Items

O sing to the Lord a new song,
for He has done marvelous things!
He has delivered unto me a crisp twenty
from the dark innards of my sofa cushions;
Now I can purchase a good pizza,
from that place down on Sycamore Street,
and it will count for dinners tonight and tomorrow.

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth!
Break forth into joyous song and sing praises!
For I have found a roll of paper towels
when I thought I had used the last one.
Now I can actually clean up that spill
which had conquered the kitchen countertop,
and it will not fester while I am at work.

Relief Prayer 512: Stock Market Investors

My God, my God,
why hast Thou forsaken me?
Why are Thou so far from helping me,
from the words of my groaning?
O, my God, I call by day,
but my brokers do not answer;
and by night, their Web site's down.

I wanted to sell shares
in a firm they recommended;
they gave it a strong buy.
But then the earnings reports arrived
and the firm missed expectations;
so I lost ten percent in two days.
In them I trusted; I trusted.
Yet they did not deliver.
Now I am left with my woe and grief.

O God, remind me to think long-term,
to deal with the misery of my 401(k);
which has the only funds in history
with a beta more than one going down
and less than one on the upside.
Let me recall the lessons of compounding,
let me stand fast with dollar-cost averaging,
since the market always goes up,
or at least it's really supposed to.

Give me, O God, the patience to deal
with the speculators and day-traders;
who conspire with hedge funds and short-sellers
to drag down the market each passing day.
Grant me a rally, O Lord, a big rally
and break them like ships thrown onto shore;
Let their schemes and machinations fail,
but deliver me to critical mass.
For buy means hold, and hold means sell,
for ever and ever.


Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 12:12 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

May 04, 2004

Religious Aspects to Risk, Part II

WE HAVE NOTICED THAT The Raving Atheist has fired back a response to our previous entry on neo-paganism, thus setting the stage for a nice argument over religious matters. So we shall set out to refute his missive accordingly, and engage in wanton and cruel bashing of his less erudite disciples.

We should start by saying there is plenty of stuff in both our arguments which obscures the real debate at the core of our disagreement: namely, whether God exists.

For instance, vis-a-vis our previous entry, The Raving Atheist pokes fun at us for saying that spell-casting prompts all manner of unnecessary extravagance on things like incense. The Raving Atheist does not think much of this argument against Wiccanism, as it comes from a Roman Catholic; do we not, he asks, use incense and candles in our own ceremonies?

It is a worthy thrust but one that is easily parried. After all, The Raving Atheist knows full well that candles and incense may be easily disposed with in Catholic ceremonies. The essence of the Mass is in the transubstantiation of the Eucharist; all else is subordinate to that. However, were a Wiccan or other neo-pagan to cast a spell, the components of the spell would be central to that act. Hence one cannot, if one is intellectually honest, compare the two practices that way.

As an aside to this, we note that a commenter -- apparently directed here from The Raving Atheist's site -- has issued a less reasoned response. Hence, we are glad that we shall have the chance to educate this "Nick the Dick" person, who writes as follows:

I wonder who spends more money on holy candles, and holy oils, Pagans or Catholics? Most Catholic churches have more candles than most places Ive ever seen. Holy water anyone? How about a scepter that sprays holy water, like some voodoo device? Prayers and spells are the same thing bullshit!

The answer to Nick's question is simple: pagans, of course.

Naturally, we speak on a per capita basis, as there are thousands of Roman Catholics for every practicing neo-pagan. But this allows the Catholic faithful to take advantage of economies of scale.

Now, according to Nick's e-mail address, he is a Canadian; so we shall endeavor to put that idea in terms which he will instinctively understand:

1. Let us say the waiting room at a hospital in Shawnigan can hold two severely-ill patients, who face a wait of four hours before being seen by a doctor, and the cost to Government for this is C$1,000 an hour per person. Let us also say the room was then doubled in size. The marginal cost of adding two more deathly-ill people would be much less than that C$1,000 per hour figure, as the Government would not spend any additional money on life-saving equipment or personnel to tend to their needs.

2. Let us say Sheila Copps makes one speech per year in Parliament denouncing Americans in unclassy and gauche terms. As Canadian taxpayers pay C$109,000 per annum for Ms Copps' service to that nation, it would cost them about C$21,800 per American normally reached by Ms Copps' remarks. However, because someone from the National Post happens to be in the press gallery and his report gets picked up on Drudge, the cost per American reached would fall to nearly nothing.

So now, Nick can see that "economies of scale" basically describes what happens when one makes more of any given thing, and the long-run average cost of doing so falls accordingly. The same principle applies with Roman Catholics: we get fabulous deals on candles and incense, and as such, the typical parishioner pays practically nothing for having those items used in service. Meanwhile, your typical neo-pagan would spend $40 to $50 on various products bought from a dingy holistic store in some strip mall. Hence, pagans spend more. Q.E.D. Besides, holy water is free.

But "Nick the Dick" is not alone in offering up such surface criticism. One commenter on The Raving Atheist's site writes as follows:

God give me strength, to deal with all of your annoying and idiotic followers. Give me the strength to turn them against you, and unite the world in peace and justice.

You know, I bet theists are much better at circular reasoning than atheists. They keep having to tie their beliefs in knots, just to make them look straight! I bet that Kepple would also come up with ways that Buddhism, Hinduism, and even Mormonism were tied to Catholicism, if you asked him real nicely. You know--Buddhism is what happens when you convince yourself that people are god...

Actually, last time we checked, Communism is what happens when one becomes convinced that people are like God. But even though we could actually find common ground between various religious traditions -- it's not difficult to find -- we would for the moment like to focus on this larger question of whether God exists.

Now, The Raving Atheist holds the view that there is no God, and as such, he made the argument that prayer and hence religion are meaningless. We can understand that view, but we wonder if he is not basing it on underlying principles which are unsound.

The core argument that any atheist makes rests on two key principles: that God does not exist because He has not been proven to exist, and that God as theists describe Him is an impossibility.

But the flaw in such thinking is NOT just that it stands in the face of all the evidence that suggests that He just might exist after all, and dismisses all that out of hand. It is not that an atheist must come up with Rational Explanations for every unexplained thing, must scour the histories to explain away tales of amazing happenings, and must wash away millennia of established thinking. And nor is it that an atheist must attempt to fit God into a box devised by human logic, and crush said box accordingly.

No. The flaw is in the core argument itself. For the argument an atheist must make to prove his point is not, "God has not been proven to exist, therefore He must not exist." The argument an atheist must make is "God has been proven to not exist, therefore He must not exist."

For all their carping about not having any conclusive proof from theists about God's existence, not one atheist has managed yet to conclusively and scientifically disprove the existence of God. This is, of course, because it cannot be done. Never mind the basic assumptions which The Raving Atheist has set out; they are flawed attempts to impose temporal logic on spiritual matters. Such cutesy arguments might delight the like-minded, but they do not fundamentally address the one thing that might convince theists they were in the wrong: namely, a conclusive and scientific proof that God does not exist.

Can the hard-core atheists provide that? One does not see how they can do so -- yet it would seem as if their position would require it, if only to justify the haughtiness with which they promulgate their arguments.

Personally speaking, we would better understand The Raving Atheist's anti-religious positions if he would merely admit that he has, for whatever reasons, animus towards organized religions and the people who follow them. Really, sir, just come out and say it, and leave it at that.

It is true that doing such a thing, compared to espousing militant atheism, might not be as rebellious or as witty or as well-received with the intellectuals at some dinner party. But perhaps it would be liberating.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:05 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

May 02, 2004

Religious Aspects to Risk

WE NOTE, with no small bit of amusement, that The Raving Atheist has vowed to join the priesthood should he win the New York State Lottery with numbers from a fortune cookie. His continued failure to win the contest's million-dollar jackpot has led to some rather funny entries, such as this one about neo-pagan ethics vis-a-vis earning money via spell-casting.

In this latter essay, The Raving Atheist has picked up on a message-board discussion in which one neo-pagan asks for aid on that very topic. The petitioner asks whether casting spells to win the lottery would have any negative repercussions. As one might expect from someone who would ask such a thing, we would note the supplicant says of the lottery, "the money is coming from a specific place where no one really loses anything." This would suggest the spell-caster ought quit worrying about the lottery and conjure up an economics text.

But we do not mean to be cruel: we do have some small measure of familiarity with neo-paganism, and we could probably answer the supplicant's question. Namely, of course casting spells to win the lottery would have negative repercussions. For one thing, it would prompt the spell-caster to purchase lottery tickets: not merely a losing proposition, but openly advertised as a losing proposition. In America, they are a way for state Governments to gin up money for education spending; The Raving Atheist makes oblique reference to this fact in his essay. But a second consequence is that it would prompt all sorts of expenditures on incense and candles and herbs and oils and maybe some little hoodoo dolls and what not. This would mean the spell-caster would be even more out of pocket, and he would stink up his place with patchouli and candle smoke.

However, the laws of probability do dictate that somewhere around the eighty- millionth try, the spell would actually appear to work. Were this to actually happen, it would cause all sorts of woes and unpleasantness, as a successful money-casting spell also tends to attract lots of old and new friends who need loans. Some of these friends would also offer up crack-brained investment schemes which the spellcaster -- whom we suspect may not be the most financially-savvy person in the West -- would undoubtedly subscribe. The end result is that the spell-caster would be ruined in a few years, and the good relationships he or she enjoyed before the win would be lost, and he or she would not be speaking with his or her family, etc.

Besides, if we recall correctly, Wiccanism (is that the right phrase?) is one of those pleasant and friendly new-age religions; by which we mean practitioners can't (or don't) actually cast malicious spells, because they supposedly backfire to greater effect on the spell-caster. To us, this makes the whole exercise pointless.

For if we were going to all the trouble to cast spells and invoke spiritual powers from the furthest reaches of the netherworld, and hence put our immortal soul in awful jeopardy according to the tenets of our own religion, we would at least want a rival to develop scalp itch or something.

We realize this admission speaks to some defect in our own soul; and of course, we would never do such a thing in the first place. But we're just saying, if we were going to embark on what our spiritual authorites suggest may be the wide path to damnation, we'd want to go all out.

All that said, though, we would take issue with one point The Raving Atheist makes in his essay: the argument that one cannot ask for something directly in prayer. This is silly. Of course one can ask for whatever one wants. It does not ensure one will get it, but one can ask; and if one's prayers are granted, well, it may be that God has granted that particular request. It could be also be coincidence, of course; but one must weigh the probability inherent in the request. Our atheist did get half the equation right, however; it is generally good form to also ask for strength, to accept what may come regardless.

CLARIFICATION, 5/3/04, 11:45 p.m. As we have noticed some small confusion over the direction of our mockery, we should sharpen our original remarks. Hence, we would point out that we are not -- except in the ultimate paragraph -- criticizing The Raving Atheist for his essay, but rather the neo-pagans whom he excerpts in that work. Those who know of the rather sharp arguments in the past between the both of us may be surprised at this present harmony between his and our positions; this is, after all, the person who superimposed a photo of our head on a pig. But hey. Matters of religion, like politics, can often make strange bedfellows.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 12:58 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

March 26, 2004

Infighting Fierce, Stakes Small

WE HAVE BEEN INFORMED that a heated discussion has broken out over whether it is right for a practicing Christian to use mockery in castigating one's enemies. To be honest, we do not know what to make of this, but our initial thought is that everyone involved would be well served by going out for a good walk.

Now, this all started when Joshua Claybourn, an Indianapolis blogger, thought it funny that a certain dead terrorist bore a remarkable resemblence to Saruman. Yes, the bad wizard in the "Lord of the Rings" movies. Anyway, he then blogged about it. This prompted such ire that Mr Claybourn was moved to defend himself, and then other people jumped in, and now one can't read three lines of anything without being confronted with Holy Scripture. In short, it is the religious version of Kissinger's old dictum.

We are reminded of C. S. Lewis' remarks that one ought not argue with a fellow believer about such things, except in private, lest the discord between the two prove embarrassing for the faith. But since that principle has gone to hell in a handbasket, we may as well address a few points on the matter.

1. Christianity is not served by beating up on a graduate student for a parody.
2. Mockery has its purposes. In fact, it can be extraordinarily useful.
3. Getting openly bent out of shape about these things is unseemly.

That's pretty much all we have to say on the whole affair. However, we do note that one of Mr Claybourn's opponents, the Rev Mike Murdock, has argued that because he has followed Christ since before Mr Claybourn shuffled on this mortal coil, his argument matters more.

Sadly, Rev Murdock seems unaware that for American young people, this automatic respect generally only holds for those born before about 1930, because they beat the Nazis. Well, that, and they're responsible for the prosperity of the post-war period.

But we digress. Our point is merely that no matter one's age, one is going to have to justify one's argument accordingly, if one expects it to be taken seriously. We offer no apology for this view, either; it is merely one of the lessons which we young folk have learned from our parents' generation, and learned very well.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 06:32 PM | TrackBack

March 01, 2004

The Passion About "The Passion"

ANY REACTION TO JAMI BERNARD'S most recent column in the New York Daily News, in which she details the slings and arrows sent her way since her one-star review of "The Passion of the Christ," should start out with a spirited defense of her position.

For Ms Bernard writes that some of those responding to her passionate critique of the film went far beyond the boundaries of respectable opinion. She writes that many people who wrote to her assumed that since she did not care for the movie, she was therefore Jewish; and further writes that many of these same people dragged out several vicious canards regarding Jews. As such, we feel it quite important to condemn such hateful and bigoted remarks on the part of these letter writers.

Several years ago, back in our salad days, we once wrote an article with a friend and colleague which drew similar criticism directed against the both of us. So while any right-thinking person should condemn such vicious criticism with immediate effect, we feel we personally have an obligation to doubly condemn it for being not just wrong, but evil as well. Hence, we sincerely empathize with Ms Bernard's position in this regard; we know how painful it is to learn of such uncouth sentiment.

That noted, it is a sincere pity that the rest of her column, to say nothing of her original review of the movie, was not as eloquently written as the one section we have cited. We are not, as readers know, experts on film; but we do like to think that we are somewhat competent at writing. And this is why we must say we were astonished by several things in both works.

For instance, we were astonished at Ms Bernard's sheer hubris in both the latter half of her reaction column and her review of "The Passion" itself. But that was not all. You see, as a writer ourselves, we found it amazing that someone would fire off a truly sharp and nasty essay -- as Ms Bernard did with her review of "The Passion" -- and then not substantively defend it!

Good heavens, Ms Bernard! Stand -- and -- deliver! You hated the film. You had your reasons. You expected you would get a hostile reaction -- not merely from cranks and bigots, but from rational and thoughtful readers. Given all this, why on Earth would you write such condescending, elitist claptrap in response to that latter group? We mean, for someone who writes, "My tools, meanwhile, are words," why do you make the writer's equivalent of chopping off your thumb with a table saw -- to wit:

What interests me as a movie critic is the profusion of people who do not understand or care how to evaluate a movie.

They don't see how film images are juxtaposed to create a desired emotion, that what is left out of a screenplay can be as important as what is kept in, and how constantly and subliminally manipulative a medium this is. They cannot see through filmmaking's beautiful deceptions.

Now look. We're writers. We know these preceding two paragraphs which Ms Bernard has written can be boiled down to one simple sentence: "Those who disagree with me are idiots." Yes, she argues here that people -- in the autocratic sense of the term, i.e. the unwashed rabble -- are too stupid to get, on the gut level, what she writes.

That Ms Bernard should be so unthinking in this matter is appalling. Consider: this is someone who watches movies and writes about them for a living. As such, her work is not merely a luxury, made possible in the macro-economic sense through the sweat and toil and production of millions of men and women in the factories and offices of our great nation. No -- it is an extravagance. Yet, sadly, Ms Bernard has seemingly forgotten this; and in doing so, she has forgotten her audience.

Why do many people not think highly of what critics like Ms Bernard think about certain movies? That's perhaps simpler to answer than one might think, really.

First, the technical expertise that folks like Ms Bernard have in spades means little to them. That's not to say, of course, that most film-goers cannot appreciate new techniques -- they loved them in "The Matrix", for instance. But when most folks see a movie -- and we certainly include ourselves in this group -- they don't scrutinize every single detail; they see it as a whole more than as the sum of its parts.

Second, film critics as a class seem to be a bit pretentious. Actually, we will go further, and say that a few -- but certainly, certainly not all -- professional film critics validate Mao's saying that the more books one reads, the stupider one gets*. They are officially too far removed from reality, as a certain former official for a foreign Government might have said. Now, why this is, we do not know. But it seems to us that there's a noxious combination at work here: writing about cultural works whilst being amazingly out of touch with the culture as a whole.

Of course, this doesn't matter nearly as much if one is writing for a specialized audience, but for a mass-market publication? The mind boggles. Even with the technical training and the study and the learning one has, one must remember to write for one's audience. Ms Bernard has not done this.

As such, it will come as no surprise to learn that Ms Bernard compounds her error as she continues:

There is a famous Magritte painting of a smoker's pipe, under which are the words (in French): This is not a pipe. In other words, the representation of an object should not be confused with the object itself.

Many people mistake a movie for the actual subject, and likewise mistake movie reviews for comments on historical events.

Interesting choice of words here, isn't it? We mean, given her review of "The Passion" and all. The review where Ms Bernard flatly declares "The Passion" is not faithful to history; the review where she compares it to Nazi propaganda films; the review where she sees fit to expound upon her own take on this world. Yes, so very odd people would mistake Ms Bernard's review in this way. Perhaps if she stuck to writing about the movie itself -- as she claims is her job -- instead of denouncing it with a passion, she might have had a case. But she did not; and as such, we are not in the slightest impressed with her argument here.

But, after a bit, she continues:

My main objection to "The Passion" is that Gibson has used the tools at his disposal to disguise sadism as piety. My tools, meanwhile, are words.

But it takes more words than there is commonly room for in a newspaper to encompass all the fine print. Otherwise, I would have cited Soviet theories of montage to explain how Gibson turned that despicable historical figure Pontius Pilate into a sympathetic character and the Jews into an undifferentiated, bloodthirsty mob.

Due to space limitations, film reviews are like compressed files. Not all readers are able to "unstuff" them.

Ms Bernard? As a matter of fact, we have Mr McLuhan right over here. Gad. Look, we like being pedantic; we admit it; it is a temptation to which we often succumb. This, though, is just light years beyond pedantry -- even educated readers are going to mistake "Soviet theories of montage" as "that scene in that one movie where the baby carriage goes down the steps."

But that's not what really gets us. What really gets us is that we don't see how someone who is as technically skilled and film-oriented as Ms Bernard could honestly draw the conclusions she did from the movie. We just don't. It doesn't make sense.

We will say that we thought Pilate's character in the film was much too soft than we would have preferred. Pilate was not, as others have noted from the accounts of Tacitus and Philo of Alexandria, a sensitive person when it came to religious matters. In short, he was generally a bastard. This, we should add, is why historians say Pilate ended up suppressing rebellions all the time when he was procurator. We do not think history says clearly that Pilate was a complete tyrant, just because there's not that much we have on which to go. We would note, though, that the Gospel of John gives the impression that this was the last thing Pilate wanted to deal with; not because he was kind-hearted, but because he had enough problems of his own making.

But to say the Jews depicted in the movie were an undifferentiated, bloodthirsty mob is to us ludicrous, as we noted in our own chock-full-of-spoilers review. The Sanhedrin were divided; the people were divided; everyone was divided. It's made awfully clear, at least to us, that this was the case. Even in the crowd scenes, Caiaphas was clearly portrayed as the one force behind it all. (Are we missing something? Are we just not getting it? We mean, it just seemed as if this was truly apparent to any movie-goer).

So, naturally, this got us to thinking -- if we were surprised at this interpretation of the film, what else would we be surprised at in Ms Bernard's review? Well, let's have a look.

She starts out by saying that no child should see this movie; a perfectly agreeable sentiment. Then she writes that even adults are at risk -- she doesn't say why they are at risk, but still, that in itself is not distressing. But then she writes this:

Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" is the most virulently anti-Semitic movie made since the German propaganda films of World War II.

What? What? Isn't this ... a bit harsh?

Good heavens. We assume that Ms Bernard, a student of film, has seen those films. Hence, we assume that she knows how hateful, how vile, how awful they were. How can one make such an implicit comparison? Factually, of course, it's not true -- MEMRI has more on this -- but the whole premise is not true. That's to say nothing of trivializing just how brutish and horrible those Nazi films were, in the process of making such a premise. There are some things one ought not argue about "The Passion" -- and Ms Bernard's third sentence is one of them.

But she continues:

It is sickening, much more brutal than any "Lethal Weapon."

The violence is grotesque, savage and often fetishized in slo-mo. At least in Hollywood spectacles that kind of violence is tempered with cartoonish distancing effects; not so here. And yet "The Passion" is also undeniably powerful.

We should note we have no complaint with this argument, and find it entirely reasonable. But then, Ms Bernard flips back into maddened-critic mode!

Because of all the media coverage of this movie and the way it was shown only to handpicked sympathizers until yesterday's screening for movie critics, many questions hang in the air: Is it historically accurate?

Of course not. As with any movie, even a documentary, this one reflects the views of its filmmakers, who are entitled and expected to use their art persuasively. Gibson has been up-front about his own religious agenda.

What? How can one flatly say it is "of course not" historically accurate? We can see quibbling with certain parts, or noting where artistic license is taken. But to dismiss the whole thing out of hand is either clumsy or disingenuous; we don't know which.

And then, Ms Bernard reverses into standard-critic mode:

But is it any good?

"The Passion" - once you strip away all the controversy and religious fervor - is a technically proficient account of the last 12 hours in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

The movie is sanctimonious in a way that impedes dramatic flow and limits characterizations to the saintly and the droolingly vulgar.

That said, there are many things in its favor - a heroic physical effort by star Jim Caviezel; stunning cinematography by Caleb Deschanel, and the chutzpah to have the actors speak in the dead language of Aramaic (with some subtitles).

We find these perfectly reasonable analyses of the movie, even if we don't fully agree with them entirely; and especially so given Ms Bernard's work as a professional film critic. This is what she is supposed to do. And then comes the next few paragraphs:

Is Gibson devout, or is he mad?

Had Gibson claimed Napoleon helped him direct, instead of divine spirits, the answer would be clear. Even so, a touch of madness is often a good thing in a director.

But "The Passion" feels like a propaganda tool rather than entertainment for a general audience.

OK, this is just getting ridiculous. Now, it's as if Jekyll and Hyde are writing the review. On a technical level with the writing, one would think one could separate the dispassionate review of the film with the enraged parts.

Ms Bernard continues:

Is it anti-Semitic?


Jews are vilified, in ways both little and big, pretty much nonstop for two hours, seven minutes.

Gibson cuts from the hook nose of one bad Jewish character to the hook nose of another in the ensuing scene.

Unless we're really not remembering things right, we don't recall that the slave who got his ear cut off, the Twelve Apostles, Mary, Mary Magdalene, the dissenting priests, the wailing people along the crucifixion route, Simon of Cyrene, the good thief next to Christ, the kids who found Judas Iscariot a bit strange, and many others were vilified in the movie. We didn't even think the crowds were vilified either. Caiaphas, yes. A few of the priests, perhaps. But we honestly don't see how one can make such a blanket statement.

He misappropriates an important line from the Jewish celebration of Pesach ("Why is this night different from all other nights?") and slaps it onto a Christian context.

Most unforgivable is that Pontius Pilate (Hristo Naumov Shopov), the Roman governor of Palestine who decreed that Jesus be crucified, is portrayed as a sensitive, kind-hearted soul who is sickened by the tortures the Jewish mobs heap upon his prisoner.

Back to rationality again. Now, we do see how people might get offended at this, and it is Ms Bernard's job to point something like this out. We can see where it fit in this film, but we have no doubt that might annoy some people; just as if someone appropriated Christian verse and applied it to a movie promoting, perhaps, Buddhism. And, as we've said, we don't agree with the portrayal of Pilate.

The most offensive line of the script, which was co-written by Gibson with Benedict Fitzgerald, about Jews accepting blame, was not cut from the movie, as initially reported. Only its subtitle was removed.

Would readers fluent in Aramaic kindly raise their hands? OK, that would be no one -- or at least not many of you. (We have a lot of university readers). Removing the subtitle is, for all intents and purposes, the same as removing the line; because only a few scholars would be able to tell the difference. The average viewer is not going to follow the Latin, much less the Aramaic. They just aren't.

"Passion" assumes the audience already knows Christianity 101, and plunges right into the aftermath of the Last Supper. Taunted by an effeminate, seductive Satan and anticipating betrayal, Christ suffers.

Oh, does He suffer.

The movie is a compendium of tortures that would horrify the regulars at an S&M club. Gibson spares not one cringing closeup to showcase what he imagines Jesus must have endured.

The lashings are so brutal that chunks of flesh go flying and blood rains like outtakes of "Kill Bill."

And back again we go! This is something that many viewers have said; without a religious background, a viewer would have no context. And it's a legitimate argument. Of course, this did get Christians to go back and study the New Testament again, so perhaps that's a good thing. Also, we think the description of the violence ... well, it's crudely expressed, but we see no fault in that description.

One quibble, though. Satan was not seductive. Satan looks, as one friend of ours noted, like Marilyn Manson. Ick.

The Romans capture their prey with the help of a terminally regretful Judas, then haul Him around to be whipped, beaten, spat upon, mutilated and finally crucified - all with the cheering encouragement of a ghoulish mob of Jews. No one in the crowd speaks up for Jesus, not even, strangely, his mother (Maia Morgenstern).

Religious intolerance has been used as an excuse for some of history's worst atrocities. "The Passion of the Christ" is a brutal, nasty film that demonizes Jews at an unfortunate time in history.

Whatever happened to the idea that the centerpiece of every major religion is love?

This isn't a movie review. It's a Tilt-a-Whirl. A clumsy Tilt-a-Whirl, too.

We must ask -- what exactly did Ms Bernard want out of "The Passion?" Did she want it to appear like a debate in the General Assembly of the United Nations? Did she not want any of the violence in it? What?

We ask, because if we knew this, we would know why she so disliked it. As it stands now, we can't understand why she did; because she finds fault with the movie that we can't see. And this really bothers us. It bothers us because both our natural conclusions in the matter are so disagreeable: either we are completely missing a whole lot that we ought not be missing, or Ms Bernard has allowed her outlook on life to obscure the truth of what this film was, and what it meant to viewers like us.

In the film, of course, Pilate asks Christ, "What is truth?" It seems that nearly two thousand years after Pilate spoke those words, we as a society -- as human beings -- are still arguing that question. Perhaps we will do so until the end of time. But it seems such a pity that we must.

* Just for the record: we detest Chairman Mao and consider this quote to have the same intellectual gravity as Ford's outlandish saying that "history is bunk." But in this one isolated example, it serves our purpose.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 06:51 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

February 28, 2004

IT DRAINS YOU. That we can say of "The Passion of the Christ." It drains you physically and emotionally and spiritually and leaves you sitting in the theatre soaked in cold sweat as the credits flash at the end. It crumbles the walls you have built around your soul. It hulls out your pride like one scoops out the innards of a melon. And in the end, at least for us, we felt ... we felt broken by this film. It hit that deep, and that hard, and it did so over, and over, and over again.

We will give it our utmost here to give an accurate rendition of what happened in the hours preceding, during and following our viewing of the film. It may not be our top form; we do not think we have fully regained our composure; but this may be the way for us to give our truest and best account of the matter. We must warn you that we have to spoil the movie in writing about it; we simply must in order to explain its full effect on us. So we've put much of this review in the extended entry box. If you've seen the movie, feel free to click on the link below; if you haven't, please don't. Go see the movie, and then read it.

For those readers unfamiliar with The Rant, we should clarify that when we say we throughout our work here, it is the same as writing in the singular. Normally that is not a concern when we write -- but we did not go to "The Passion" alone this afternoon.

Indeed, we can assure you that we went with our friend and blogging colleague Andre Vladimir Sebastian, who for a few months ran the now-defunct "Curveball" blog. Mr Sebastian had picked out an excellent theatre some miles south of here, and so this afternoon, we went.

After being pleasantly surprised at the ticket prices -- just $4.75! -- we eagerly sprang for both tickets, leaving Mr Sebastian to pay for the goods at the concession stand. After a bit of scrounging about for some change -- Mr Sebastian found that even the small order had drained him of his ready cash -- we proceeded through the hallways of the multiplex to the theatre in which "The Passion" was showing. Perhaps it was here that we first noticed something was different.

Actually, it was Mr Sebastian who did so. For as we both looked up the rows of seats, looking for two seats that were together, people waved to us and invited us to sit near them. As we sat down, Mr Sebastian remarked that had never before happened to him at a theatre, and we had to agree that our experience had been the same. Mr Sebastian also noted the audience: it was largely older, although there was a girl sitting two seats away from Mr Sebastian who was quite young -- say thirteen or fourteen years old. Later, we and Mr Sebastian both wondered how she reacted to the film; certainly we personally thought it not a movie for children -- in any respect.

IT SEEMS IMPOSSIBLE TO KNOW where to begin discussing "The Passion." It is an immensely moving work in every respect of the word. There were times when we recoiled in horror; times when our heart bled; times when we felt truly and utterly anguished. We have no doubt that this was Mel Gibson's intent when he created the film, and in that respect Mr Gibson succeeded beyond all our expectations.

We cannot say whether "The Passion" will serve as an evangelical tool; as Mr Sebastian noted following the film, its violence is so extreme that it may repel non-Christian viewers who might otherwise be open to the message. But we can say that for believing Christians -- as we are -- "The Passion" will be an intensely moving and haunting experience. It is not a movie that one would want to watch immediately again; indeed, as Mr Sebastian noted, one does not need to watch it more than once. For the message will stick, and it will keep a viewer thinking about it for a very long time afterwards.

We believed the narrative generally stuck to how it was written in the New Testament; but we enjoyed Mr Gibson's use of artistic license throughout the film, and thought it was pretty well done. Mr Sebastian pointed out that Mr Gibson makes use of some old tried-and-true tactics; the sudden-entry into the room, for instance. But he also noted that they work -- and they do. It may have been old hat, but by Jove, we jumped in our seats when Mr Gibson intended us to do so.

We also enjoyed the little flourishes: for instance, when Satan sent forth the snake towards Christ, as the Devil taunted Christ at the Mount of Olives. The overt use of Satan -- perhaps the most notable aspect of artistic license to appear in the movie -- was well-done. We especially thought that of the scene where Satan and Mary stare at each other as they make their way through the crowds on opposite sides of the crucifixtion route. If one had to point out a subtle theological message from Mr Gibson in this movie, perhaps that was it. For there you had Mary, for so brief an instant, take on the role of Michael.

The violence is perhaps the most striking feature about the film; we can only describe it as a continual escalation of pain, both for Christ in the film and for a viewer in the audience. We were shaken enough when the Roman soldiers started to beat Him with canes; and we were doubly shaken when they progressed to using the horrible flagellum. We counted along in anguish as the soldiers screamed in Latin ... twenty-one! twenty-two! twenty-three! But at the end of it, when they unlocked the chains -- only to turn Him over to flay His front!

But the most horrible part was the crucifixion, and there, it hovered at and then went over the top for us. It was bad enough to see Christ so beaten and bloody that his flesh was worn away to the bone at points. But watching as the nails were driven home -- that was almost too much. Hearing the crunch of the bones as the soldiers broke the thieves' legs to ensure their demise was gruesome. But what really got to us was the crow. We did not need to see the evil thief's eyes being plucked out.

However, now that it has been a few hours since we left the theatre, we must say we felt that almost all of the violence was justified -- to get the point across about just what Christ suffered, and how much.

Another point "The Passion" made very well was the chaos that accompanied Christ's crucifixion. It's not something that we ever thought about before, but it made sense when we thought about it afterwards. And what chaos! People lining the streets, wailing and struggling with the escort taking Christ to Golgotha; the people watching in horror as Christ was flayed; the conflict as Pilate stood before the crowd. It was chaos, smouldering and rebellious, and something that a few men turned to their advantage.

For after seeing "The Passion," we must say we did not find it anti-Semitic. We watched with a critical eye in that regard, or so we thought, and we just didn't see it. At least to us, the movie stands as a powerful rejection of the blood libel, that is, the hateful and evil doctrine of holding Jews collectively responsible for Christ's death.

We must say when we watched the movie, we thought the script took pains to focus on one man -- Caiaphas -- as the instigator in the matter. Not the priests, not the people -- Caiaphas. Even in the crowd scenes, perhaps the most provocative in terms of this issue, it is Caiaphas who clearly is behind things. Not the people.

Finally, we would note that Christ says in the film that no man on Earth has the power to subdue Him if He had not wished for that to happen. In the end, all of mankind shares the responsibility wholly and equally; and something that should not be overlooked is that He forgave us for it.

We honestly believe that people who see the movie will find it as we did. Furthermore, we cannot see how any thinking, rational person would come away from this movie wanting to "kick in some Jewish and Roman teeth," as Maureen Dowd claims. Ms Dowd's seemingly reflexive hostility to the film was ... well, we don't get it. She watched the film, and took away nothing from it. That is something that we cannot fundamentally understand; we cannot grasp how one could watch this film and not be moved. But her words, if you wish to read them, are available via the above link; and they speak for themselves.

No, one will not want to kick in anyone's teeth when one leaves this movie. One will be too shell-shocked, too distraught, too shaken to feel anything but miserable after watching "The Passion." Mr Sebastian noted at least three people crying during the film, and we can assure you we were very close to openly crying ourselves. For while the film ends with Christ's resurrection, it is too brief to erase the trauma of the proceeding two hours. And so, as the credits rolled, we sat and watched in silence, stunned and scarred.

Then, we got up and we went to the men's room and we threw water over our face. We walked out of the multiplex, past the lines of people, and said nothing. When we were outside, we stopped for a bit, and we paused along with Mr Sebastian and took note of the other releases playing.

It was then that Mr Sebastian made a particularly astute observation.

As we both looked at the listings for "Along Came Polly" and "50 First Dates" and "Cheaper by the Dozen," Mr Sebastian said: after seeing something like that, how could you watch these movies? How could you waste your time watching these?

How indeed? The very idea of watching them seemed silly. Here you had "The Passion," a work that treated the most important of subjects with what we thought was dignity and respect and fairness, and then you had these other movies; all of which looked insipid, mindless, and gauche.

Mr Sebastian's words got us to thinking. Perhaps there are some other things in our life which we focus far too much of our time and energy and thought upon. Perhaps we ought to rebalance our life portfolio, and start focusing more on things that are a bit more important. It will come as no surprise to hear we did a lot of thinking on the drive back. The daze was wearing off. In its place was reflection, and sadness, and most of all, grief.

When we arrived home, we got a Diet Coke out of the fridge, took off our jacket and threw it on the futon. As we walked over to the computer to begin writing, we looked up -- straight at the small crucifix mounted to the wall above our work desk.

And we wept.

OTHER BLOGGERS' REVIEWS of "The Passion of the Christ" include those from Allison Barnes, Ben Domenech, Sheila O'Malley, Stephen Silver, and Chris Weinkopf. These are certainly not the only reviews out there, so keep top eye out.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:24 PM | TrackBack

February 12, 2004

Rhythm in Exile

WE UNDERSTAND that a certain blogger, who goes by the name of "Matt," has offered up quite a popular question about music. Matt has asked bloggers to name the compact discs which they would take with them were they on a desert island or their house burned down.

This is quite a question! Not so much because it would be difficult to name the compact discs in question, but because -- well, we'd be exiled on a desert island and the house had been burnt down (to us, these things go hand-in-hand). As such, the last thing we would take to such an isle would be our favorite compact discs. Instead, we would take gold; lots of gold. Some silver too, so we could make change. For we can see this happening:

ISLANDER: Yes, what do you want?
US: Hi! Jack and I here -- he's my bodyguard, whilst I'm his long-lost pal -- have fled the United States after a Soviet-style revolution. We're looking for food and water. Also shelter. And one of those spit thingies so we can roast game.
ISLANDER: What are you, some kind of beatnik? Just go to the market down the road. They've got hamburger patties on sale this week. And you can get a hibachi.
US: Yes, but the trouble is ---
ISLANDER: Well? Out with it, man!
US: I only have my ten favorite CDs with me. It's all Jack has too.
ISLANDER: Oh, not again.
US: Well, what do you want? Dear God! We just barely got out with our lives! After all, when the rebels took the airports, they didn't exactly ask for a by-your-leave ...
ISLANDER: Look. A CD is nothing. We just got file-sharing!
US: What!
ISLANDER: Yes! We've downloaded ALL the songs we want! Besides, the record companies aren't exactly in a position to sue us -- they're too busy guarding their warehouses with hired mercenaries! Heh. Who knew civil authority in California would collapse so quickly?
US: Well ... shit. Sorry to have troubled you, then.
ISLANDER: Oh, no trouble a'tall.
US: Say, that reminds us. Have you -- Gad -- some kind of refugee office around here? You must.
US: Maybe?
ISLANDER: Heh heh heh.
US: Don't give us that shoe-on-the-other-foot crap. Not now.

As you can see, our CDs would be entirely worthless in such a situation -- especially if they were Top 40. On the other hand, everyone loves gold and silver! Especially if it's minted in a recognized coin standard! Why, in the physical space of ten compact discs, we could easily store $10,000 worth of gold and silver coins -- and that's at today's values. If -- God forbid -- we were in such a situation, they would prove useful. (1)

We realize that things may not be as dire as that -- although they would still be dire indeed if we ended up in exile on a desert island. We mean, New Caledonia is Plan C -- our escape hatch should Bermuda (Plan A) deem us not rich enough to enter (2) and The Isle of Man (Plan B) closes up to outsiders. (3) At least we could count on the first two places to stay stable -- but New Caledonia? Gad! On the other hand, we expect we could get a lot of its cheapo currency with our gold cache.

On the other hand, having some CDs from home would be nice while we were out on the beach sipping mai tais. So here they are:

10. Our special "War and Remembrance" Soundtrack CD. Because it'd probably be rather fitting in such a situation. It's too bad we'd have a devil of a time taking our DVD collection along with.

9. Peter Gabriel, "Shaking the Tree." Because no one should be without a Peter Gabriel Greatest Hits collection.

8. "Recurring Dream: The Very Best of Crowded House." If we're going to be exiled close to New Zealand, we'd better get used to music from New Zealanders. Actually, this is a hell of a disc; beautiful music.

7. "The Beach Boys -- Greatest Hits." This is for after we get a bit established on the island and start zipping around in a power boat. Hello, Sloop John B.

6. Chris Isaak, "Always Got Tonight." This is just a kick-ass CD, at least we think so. We like every song on it. It is an actual, honest-to-God album.

5. The Beatles, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." This will provide fun nostalgia when we're sixty-four.

4. Jimmy Buffett, "Songs You Know By Heart." Because our exile was nobody's fault. Hell, it could be our fault. OK, so it was our own damn fault.

3. Our Two-Disc James Bond Theme Songs CD Set. Because not even the collapse of civilization could strip the inherent coolness away from James Bond. Even if the Timothy Dalton movies came pretty close to doing just that.

2. Bach at Zwolle. A truly fabulous collection of Bach's organ works, on a truly stunning pipe organ. It has to be heard to be believed, that's how good it is.

and finally ...

1. Mozart, Requiem. OK, so a recording of a funeral Mass may seem a bit of a downer. But we think that it would be nice to have, just because it is an incredible recording -- and we can imagine we would need frequent reminders of our fragile spiritual state, out on that desert isle.

So there you have it -- Our Music Collection in Exile. We'll make sure to put these in the safety-deposit box, next to the stash of gold.


(1) DO NOT, on the basis of this essay, go out and purchase krugerrands or other precious-metal-based investments. Jesus. We're clearly joking here. And even if you really must possess specie, please -- go easy on it. We ourselves would in no circumstance hold more than one percent of our worth in the stuff, and it would require an extreme set of circumstances (and an extreme amount of worth!) for even that. But that's just us: you must make your own decisions. And read the prospectus before you invest anything, and realize past performance is not indicative of future results, and all that. Also talk anything over with a certified financial planner.

(2) While we still believe our Bermuda Escape Plan is sound, we know that in the event of general collapse, many other people will flee to Bermuda too. The island can't hold all of us. Since those others undoubtedly have more to offer Bermuda in the way of skills, money, and so on, we realize the Bermudans could send us back postage due.

(3) We also realize the Manxians -- we think that's right -- might not be all that pleased to see us either, even if we agreed to work as a lowly bookkeeper. See Note 2. As such, the research staff has informed us that we might need to consider places larger than Washington (the city, not the state) which could serve as refuge.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:00 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

January 21, 2004

Beyond The Lord of the Rings

"THEN THE LORD GOD said, 'Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever --' Therefore, the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken."

-- Genesis 4:22-23

WE MUST SAY we are delighted the three Lord of the Rings films have garnered such amazing critical and box-office acclaim. Yet this is not merely because the movies in themselves are amazing. That would be triumph enough. Rather, it is because when placed against any conceivable cultural standard, they rise to that standard and surpass it. As proof of that argument, consider the following.

First: the movies are, as we said, amazing cinema. They're just quality films, and it's always nice to see people choose those over some mindless drivel. Second: the movies reinforce the concepts of good and evil, which have wrongly been discounted in this modern age. Thirdly: the films will excite their audience to the point where hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people will buy the books on which the films are based. It is this that gives us the most inner joy.

We are joyful not merely because people will rediscover the love of reading; and go on to read other books. It is that the books themselves will cause people to do some serious thinking about the greater and more important things in life. For whilst "The Hobbit" is a children's story, the Lord of the Rings trilogy is most certainly not (Sheila O'Malley pointed that out). Indeed, we can imagine that those who only know the movie may find the books a bit daunting at first -- but they'll finish recharged.

One might find it a stretch to say that "The Lord of the Rings" might cause a cultural reawakening; but we are hopeful that such a thing happens. We hope that people will read Tolkien very closely indeed -- not only because the work deserves it, but because for many readers, the books will spark an intellectual and spiritual fire. Intellectually, the books are challenging. Spiritually, although Tolkien was extraordinarily subtle in his work, religious messages do exist in it. And while the book is clearly not out to convert anyone to a particular faith, we would be pleased enough if people began giving such things thought.

IT IS AMAZING to consider that even as Western society continues to reach unmatched heights in terms of its knowledge and prosperity, we have seen an increasing disconnect between the temporal world and the spiritual/intellectual world. Such a gap was nonexistent when our country was founded; it was still quite small fifty years ago; but now, it has exploded open. We submit that this trend must be reversed, lest the stratification become permanent, and the damage to society go beyond repair.

This is not to say that we are looking for a religious revival, so to speak. We understand that Faith, in the religious sense, is highly personal; this goes hand-in-hand with the doctrine of Free Will. One cannot be forced to believe in anything, no matter how much another screams or pleads. In short, one must accept -- or reject -- God on one's own terms; and there's nothing anyone else can do about that.

Still, we find it disconcerting that these issues are not as prevalent today as other matters. This may be a case of us looking through rose-colored glasses at the past, but we find it disturbing that in this life, people can in theory go without thinking about these things at all. Indeed, people are openly discouraged from thinking about the spiritual. What we have seen instead is a marked emphasis on the temporal world -- with its omnipresent focus on materialism. And while wealth is clearly a good thing, consumption alone does not encourage thought. If we are to give everyone a true chance at happiness, we ought value both the intellectual and spiritual building blocks upon which they can construct that.

One thousand years ago, even the poorest peasant -- while deprived of even the most rudimentary education -- gave thought to the spiritual. It was nitroglycerin for the mind; it opened a frontier; it gave him the chance to reach higher. Today, on the other hand, we disregard spiritual matters. We do all right with the intellectual side of things, but we don't do enough to encourage rigorous study on one's own. And if both building blocks are thus diminished, how can people have all the tools they need to make the decisions which lead to happiness?

Thus, enter Prof Tolkien. We sincerely hope that his work will build respect for the intellect, but also for the soul. And while that was an incredibly long digression -- sorry -- we also hope that people will start reading some of Tolkien's friends as well.

Specifically, we refer to C.S. Lewis, whose relationship with Prof Tolkien has been well-documented. We bring him up because Dr Lewis wrote a trilogy of his own that is well worth reading. That would be the so-called "Space Trilogy" -- Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength.

It is an odd trilogy -- and we say that because the books are different in tone and style. They are all wonderful, but they are different. Dr Lewis writes from a Christian perspective, one might say. It's not overpowering or blunt or TOO over-the-head, but it certainly does exist, and one should expect to see that regularly in the series.

The first volume is something an educated high schooler would read and get. The second is about the same, but a bit more difficult. The third -- which one can read on one's own, without the other two -- is extremely tough reading, for it challenges a reader's intellect at every turn

Interestingly, Prof Tolkien apparently had a significant influence on that volume. As Dr Lewis writes in his preface, "Those who would like to learn further about Numinor and the True West must (alas!) await the publication of much that exists only in the MSS. of my friend, Professor J.R.R. Tolkien."

We won't spoil the story, although we will say this: That Hideous Strength may seem a slog to get through at times. Do not let this discourage you, though. It is that way for a reason. You see, Dr Lewis was not kidding when he gave That Hideous Strength the sub-title "A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grownups."

For it deals entirely with the world as an adult knows it, and all the wonderful and terrible things adults deal with on a daily basis. It is passionate and yet maddening; troubling and yet awe-inspiring; immensely spiritual and yet so very temporal. As the tale unfolds, it pulls no punches. And it will keep you thinking long after you turn the last page.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 01:13 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

December 25, 2003

This Silent Night (Our Spiritually-Oriented Christmas Entry)

THERE IS SOMETHING TO BE SAID for moments of silence -- not the fleeting moments in which a man is given the chance to bow his head, but rather those instances of absolute quiet in which one becomes acutely aware of one's surroundings. One such moment I had came a couple weeks ago: I was outside of a gas station during a snowstorm in the dead of night, and the roads were deserted. It was so quiet I could hear my heart beat.

It is in those moments where a person's innermost thoughts come to bear; and I had another of those moments this Christmas night.

After I got home from the movie (see entry below), I went on-line, and idly checked my referral logs for the site. I saw a site listed that I hadn't noticed before. I had no idea how I got mentioned there, but I apparently had; and so I went and gave it a look.

Ten minutes later, my heart was in my throat and I was on the verge of tears -- and it has been a very long time since I cried. For the site's first entry struck at the deepest part of my soul; that place where I keep my innermost hopes and dreams, as well as my fears.

Those who know me well are aware I don't open up much about those things. I may complain once in a while about my lot -- we all do that -- but in my personal life, I do everything I can to be strong. I do everything I can to be that shoulder for others to rest upon. I do that not merely because I want to be there for the people in my life; but also because I work in a hard business and I sometimes have to deal with a lot of hard things. Tenacity, as it turns out, remains very much an important life skill even in this comfortable age.

Still, there are always those things which can pierce the strongest armor; and that entry had several things which pierced mine.

The essay in question is a Christmas story. It was written by a woman named Denita: not too much older than I, apparently in Texas, whose brother was born in physical circumstances quite similar to my own. Three months premature; in a rather bad way right at the start, surgeries along the way, stuck in an incubator for months. He and I were even born about the same time, in the mid-Seventies. These are the similarities.

The difference is that he was not as lucky as I was.

For the only way you can tell I went through all that is from the scars on my body: the tracheotomy scar on my neck, the massive scar on my side from when they tied off my paten ductus. That those scars are all the evidence which remains of the struggle is a true blessing. There were so very many like me who did not make it; and there were others who did, but who still carry severe health problems. In the case of Denita's brother, it was hydrocephalus: a rare condition in which fluids build up on the brain.

In her essay, she writes about an instance when that nearly killed him. After he had healed up, and things were back to normal again, she wrote: "Somewhere along the way that month, I stopped giving a damn about getting presents." And, as she writes later, she knows damn well that the Christmas gifts under the tree are not the gifts which matter. It is a truism which in my life, I too often forget. That I do often forget that prompts nothing but a sense of burning shame in my heart.

For I ought remember that I am damned lucky to have any of what I have: not merely a success here or there in life, or the material goods which I possess, but an amazing set of life experiences and wonderful amazing friends and my family, whom I hold so very dear in my heart. The world and everything in it cannot replace those things, nor substitute for them. Neither can they replace the pleasures of life which I have been so lucky to enjoy -- whether something as complex as the act of putting words to print as I am doing now, or as simple as breathing.

And so, this Christmas, having regained that necessary sense of perspective, I stand a man very much humbled. It is something for which I am very thankful, and I hope that three months or a year down the line, I will have not again forgotten the lessons of which I was reminded tonight. It would do me much good, I think, if this time around they actually stick.

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December 02, 2003

One Minor Quibble

THE ANGLICAN ARCHBISHOP of Australia has declared that under that nation's immigration policy, Jesus would most certainly not have been given any room at the Australian Inn.

It is a stretch of a point, of course; and a sloppy one. It is one thing for a nation to show compassion for their fellow men, and another thing entirely to abandon any sort of immigration policy. But that's not our real bone of contention. We're just surprised that the Archbishop made his statement in the first place.

After all, if Christ had wanted to go to Australia, it stands to reason He would have no trouble doing so.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 09:02 PM | TrackBack

November 15, 2003

The Creation of Wealth ...

... IS AIDED BY RELIGIOUS BELIEF, The Economist reports on its excellent Web site. It is also apparently in the magazine's print edition this week, but since our useless news agent failed YET AGAIN to have The Economist on sale, we wouldn't know.

In any event, The Economist writes that Harvard economists Robert Barro and Rachel McCleary have found as follows:

The most striking conclusion, though, is that belief in the afterlife, heaven and hell are good for economic growth. Of these, fear of hell is by far the most powerful, but all three indicators have a bigger impact on economic performance than merely turning up for church. The authors surmise, therefore, that religion works via belief, not practice. A parish priest might tell you that simply going through the motions will bring you little benefit in the next world. If Mr Barro and Ms McCleary are right, it does you little good in this one either.

We here at The Rant do not find this at all surprising, but we have our own thoughts about why religious belief drives economic growth.

The first is that morality is the natural product of a societal belief in God. The roots of this morality run extremely deep -- so much so, that people who are not actively religious hold to the morals they were taught in their youth; and even people who have no use for religion adhere to that morality. In the latter case, that's due to both such folks' hard-wired sense of right and wrong, and societal pressure, namely how their colleagues or friends or family would look upon their conduct. True, the laws of our nation also forbid activity which we deem to be wrong. But those laws only serve as punishment for wrongdoers. They in themselves do not prevent wrongdoers from committing anti-social acts in the first place.

An active religious believer, we think, will also adhere to his religion's guidelines regarding lifestyle. One might assume that a goodly sense of moderation, temperance and duty would go along with such belief; and as such, the believer would be personally strengthened by it. It then follows that such a believer would have stronger ties to his community, his place of employment, and-- this is the key -- his family.

We know -- thanks to the work of folks like Patrick Fagan at The Heritage Foundation -- that strong family ties go hand-in-hand with economic well-being. We further know that a strong family will actively prevent both adults and children from engaging in anti-social or otherwise detrimental behavior. Obviously, these things are not absolute, but they certainly do help.

Along with this sense of duty to one's family also comes a sense of obligation -- the inherent desire to provide for one's family, the desire to have one's children be better off than one was in life. Like religion, all these things are good things. It also does much to explain one issue which The Economist's writer brought up: why societies such as China, in which fear of a monotheistic Hell is not at all widespread, are doing very well. The Chinese tradition, of course, has an admirable emphasis on both family and order -- e.g. Confucius' Six Relationships. Confucianism also holds as its highest order the command to do what is right.

Of course, giving into temptation and avarice and all of mankind's other myriad faults do much to make living up to these guidelines difficult. This may also hint at why belief in Hell acts as an economic engine: because for folks who believe in Hell, committing anti-social acts won't just earn one a fine or jail time, but a ticket to Perdition.

(Link via Jane Galt)

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November 11, 2003

Guess Who's Coming for Dinner?

JOHN HAWKINS HAS COMPILED a list of the 20 people, living or dead (and at the peak of their abilities), which a selection of bloggers have determined as History's Most Interesting Dinner Companions. The list is both a sign of the times and an insight into the influences which have had an effect on the bloggers in question. First on the list is Jesus Christ, followed by Ronald Reagan, Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson. We found the selection of Christ as tops on the list both reassuring -- because it shows that Christianity's influence remains strong -- but also a bit intriguing.

You see, we here at The Rant know that we would be rather intimidated were we to dine with our Lord and Savior. We can see ourselves spending rather a lot of time attempting to craft a dinner menu, and then agonizing over whether we made the right decisions about it. We can imagine that process would have a Lileksian touch of humor to it, too. ("Oh, swell. He's going to think we're having bread because He's Jesus.")

Given that, we couldn't exactly ask Him to bring wine, either. Even so, we can imagine He would bring a nice bottle of red anyway -- not too expensive, but still good. Then, the atheist we'd have mistakenly invited would challenge Him to transform the San Pellegrino. That's another problem too, while we're thinking about it. What do we do about the guest list? After all, look what happened the last time He had dinner with friends.

On the other hand, though, we don't think He would be all that concerned about how dinner turned out, provided we did our best to do a nice job. We daresay He might actually go for some pizza and beer -- nice and relaxing, that!

In any event, many folks -- among them Sheila O'Malley -- have created their own list of people with whom they would like to have dinner. So we will too, as it seems like a fun thing to think about.

First up on the list: Dante. Definitely Dante. As a fellow writer, we think we'd get along famously with him. It is not merely that he was perhaps the greatest writer of the medieval era; it is that the guy had that quiet self-confidence we very much admire:

According to Sercambi, Dante was invited by King Robert to the Neapolitan court and, like the poet he was, arrived carelessly dressed. It was dinnertime and, owing to his appearance, he was seated at the tail end of the table. Since he was hungry, he ate anyway, but as soon as the meal was over he left town. Appalled at having mistreated the great poet, the king dispatched a messenger and invited him back to court.

This time Dante arrived richly attired, which caused the king to seat him "at the top of the first table, right next to his own." Service had hardly begun when the poet began tipping meat and wine all over his fine clothes. The king was astonished and asked what he was behaving in this way.

Dante replied, "Your Majesty, I know that in paying me this great honour you are in fact honoring my clothes, and I wanted those clothes to benefit from the food that is being served. And I shall tell you frankly that I had no less genius or common sense when I came the first time, when I was seated at the tail end of the table because I was poorly dressed..."

-- from The Medieval Kitchen

As it was much harder to kick ass and take names in the Middle Ages than it is today, we must say we strongly approve of Dante's action: not because it was all that gentlemanly but because it showed he had his priorities in the right place. For dinner, therefore, we would go to one of those good Italian restaurants in New York which stays open until after last call. But nowhere that would require a jacket.

Some others on our list, which would be by no means complete:

* Luca Pacioli. Woefully underappreciated in our view, his treatise on mathematics and finance helped set the groundwork for our society to enjoy our high standard of living.

* C.S. Lewis, author of Mere Christianity and other theological works in the 20th century. Dr Lewis' work has had the most impact on our religious thinking.

* Miguel de Cervantes. If you had spent an entire semester of high school English reading the unabridged Quixote and analyzing it and falling in love with it, you would say the same.

* John Bogle, the founder of the Vanguard Group, Inc. We very much admire Mr Bogle for his candidness and honesty in matters financial.

* Johann Sebastian Bach, whose organ works we consider among the highest musical accomplishments of man.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 07:59 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

September 28, 2003

Christ, Like, Revealed

WE HAVE LEARNED that Thomas Nelson Inc., a Nashville-based publisher of Christian books and other material, has come out with a version of the New Testament aimed at teenaged girls. We also don't know how exactly we ought to deal with this.

After all, we recall Christ's admonition in Matthew 19:14, in which we adults are instructed not to hinder children in such matters, as theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. We also recall the words of Dr Lewis: that Christians ought take great care in expressing their views on doctrinal issues, unless the audience for such views is also entirely Christian. As such, we are mindful of the need to temper our words accordingly.

That said, it's a Bible that looks like a magazine. Or, to use the publisher's phrase, it's "a Bible that looks like a magazine!" Hence, as one might expect, there are within the pages of this new New Testament magazine-style articles that focus on topics from relationships to Christian books.

Christianity Today has an extensive look at this new New Testament, which is no longer called the New Testament, but rather "Revolve." Why did the publisher think "Revolve" up? Here's why:

In focus groups, online polling, and one-on-one discussion (the company) has found that the number one reason teens don't read the Bible is that it is "too big and freaky looking." This fashion-magazine format for the New Testament is the perfect solution to that problem. Teen girls feel comfortable exploring the Scriptures and over 500 further-study notes because of the relevant format!

Revolve is the new look for teen Bible publishing!

Now, when we were teenagers, the last thing that kept us from reading the Good Book was that it was too big and freaky looking. There were quite a number of other things that got in the way, such as our waning faith in the Methodist cause and our interest in things that seemed more important at the time, such as, we don't know, everything. Look, when you're sixteen years old, you're more interested in girls and cars and homework and Taco Bell and going out for the night than you are in your immortal soul. It's because you're sixteen.

Nor did we ever feel uncomfortable about reading Holy Scripture -- bored, perhaps, because being young and immature we failed to realize the majesty and the power of it. Even if one does not believe in it, one cannot deny that it is some of the most beautiful writing ever produced.

In short, it took us a while to get it.

And we think it does take a while for most people to get it. Even if one was brought up in a particularly strict house, we are not convinced that one can truly appreciate religious matters until one has lived a bit, until one has truly experienced life. That's not to say that religious education is meaningless; certainly we believe that our parents' decision to bring us up in a Christian house helped solidify our later beliefs. But we know that we didn't fully understand just what we were taught until later.

True, there are exceptions to that rule; but even John Paul II was known to ski and dance in his youth.

So what to make of all this? "Revolve" has already sold 40,000 copies, which Christianity Today tells us is an impressive accomplishment for such a title. And still, while we do not deny that some -- perhaps a lot -- of good may come out of that, we suspect that a majority of those 40,000 copies were purchased by well-meaning but decidedly not with-it parents. For that matter, the folks behind "Revolve" seem decidedly not with-it.

Consider this excerpt from Christianity Today:

Add to this a great sense of caution over girls and guys prayingyes, prayingtogether present throughout the book. The editors published the opinion of a boy in "Guys Speak Out" who believes that girls and guys should not pray together before engagement! Another boy, when asked if girls and guys can pray together, advises everyone not to "get carried away."

Also imparted within "Revolve" are various screeds forbidding teen girl readers from, for instance, calling guys they like. As such, we can clearly see from these and other examples that the editors of "Revolve" live in the goateed-Spock universe*.

But let's discuss the two things that, quite frankly, trouble us the most about "Revolve." We do not refer to the name, although we think they probably could have come up with something better. Nor do we refer to the fact "Revolve" uses the New Century Version of the Bible, which we consider simplistic and politically correct. Besides, one can't forget St John's old admonition (see Rev. 22:18-19).

The first issue we have is that there's far more -- too much more -- than just the New Testament. If you read the Christianity Today article, you will see that there are apparently a lot of photos and such within "Revolve." One wonders if that will take away from the message inside. Indeed, as the Washington Times notes:

Then there's "Blab," a column interspersed with the holy writ.

"I'm nearly 14 and I have never even had a boyfriend," one question reads. "Am I the only one? All the people in my class must think I'm pathetic!"

Another question: "What about replacement curse words? My church and my parents don't believe in saying 'Gosh, darn or dang.' Is that wrong?"

Calendars also appear in the text. For Nov. 12: "Grace Kelly's birthday. Be extra feminine today!" For June 30: "Pray for a person of influence. Today is Mike Tyson's birthday."

But May 18 Pope John Paul II's birthday is not noted.

No, they wouldn't mention him, would they?

But that little omission not-withstanding, our second issue is with a list of the "Top Ten Great Christian Books" listed within the pages of "Resolve." Christianity Today also didn't think much of it:

On page 186, the girls can find "Top Ten Great Christian Books." C. S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers haven't made the list. Top honors go to Witnessing 101 by Tim Baker and published by Transit Books. In fact, all of the top ten books have been recently published by Thomas Nelson, most of them through Transit Books.

Here's another curiosity: The eighth of the top ten great Christian books is titled Why So Many Gods? Its authors are Tim Baker and Kate Etue. Kate Etue is also the senior editor of Revolve. She was the one promoting the biblezine on CNN recently ...

Of course, in Revolve, such rules don't apply. It's not a magazine. It's not a Bible. It's not even a study Bible, (Laurie) Whaley told me. It's "an inspirational and motivational Bible product."

The Word of God is not the only thing this product is selling.

Let's be very clear: we find this state of affairs appalling.

It is bad enough that mediocre theological tracts are presented as representative of the best which the Christian tradition offers. That is a gross indecency, and we hope that in future editions the publishers of "Revolve" will correct their list accordingly. After all, in theory, the kids could then move on from "Revolve" into some greater works, such as Dr Lewis' Mere Christianity, for instance. Yet what do we have instead? Well, we shall be charitable and say only that there are better things out there.

The trouble here is that the children who actually end up reading "Revolve" may very well exclude those better works in favor of books like "Witnessing 101." As noted above, this particular book is No. 1 on that list. (And here we thought it would be The City of God!)

From its description, "Witnessing" apparently strives to be with it and down for whatever. It also deals with spreading "the true gospel message." To make it clear to the kids, the book--according to the publisher's Web site--goes into detail about what IS and what ISN'T the Gospel, that latter section dealing with "cults and other religions."

While we have not read "Witnessing," we will say that description definitely sounds a warning bell for us here at The Rant. However, in the interest of Christian fellowship, we will say only that we are concerned for the kids who read "Witnessing," and then eventually stumble upon the Book of Wisdom.

But we also find it crass that a book publisher would so flagrantly seek to profit off selling the Bible, to the point where the power of its words and messages are arguably diluted.

That is not to say that we take issue with the profit motive when it comes to selling religious books. We see no problem with publishers serving God and making a reasonable profit at the same time. However, we do find it unseemly and gauche that a publisher would be so quick to suborn religion to what certainly appears to be capitalist motives. That brings into question not only the publisher's integrity, but the integrity and value of the works that publisher produces.

We would argue that a Christian book publisher, publishing the Word of God, ought not do such things.

* "goateed-Spock universe." We think Lileks came up with this first; at least we think he used it. Anyway, it's not our turn of phrase, and it refers to an old episode of "Star Trek" where Kirk and Bones are thrown into a parallel universe, and the evil Spock within that universe has a goatee. This is how you could tell he was evil. This is not to say the publishers of "Revolve" in the above entry are evil, of course. Just that ... well, Gad. You get the idea.

(Links via Bryan Preston).

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 11:59 PM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

August 03, 2003

The Question of Free Will

Regular readers of The Rant know that we often devote posts on Sundays to the subject of theology, an issue which we find uplifting and fitting for the Sabbath. Regular readers also know that we tend to write such posts with a quite positive tone, as we feel the Christian message is inherently positive and inherently good.

Unfortunately, we have come across some work that we find so spiritually deficient that we cannot let it pass without comment. Specifically, we are referring to an old post from one Dr. David Heddle, a self-proclaimed Calvinist who has written extensively on the concept of predestination. Consider the following excerpts from one of those posts:

Unconditional Election, or (Calvinistic) Predestination says:

Before the foundation of time, God chose certain (future) men (and women) to be saved. Not for anything that he foresaw that these particular individuals (the elect) would do that was meritorious, but solely for His own pleasure in fulfillment of His perfect will. He decided to show mercy on some. The rest receive justice, i.e., the eternal damnation that all sinners deserve.

I am saved. I am one of the elect. It is something to be grateful for (what an understatement!) but it is not something to boast about. I did nothing to deserve it; I am as deserving of hell as anyone else. Amazing grace, amazing mystery, amazing amazing amazing.

Of course, this passage is boasting, and prideful, and we would say even acedic. While we certainly agree with Dr Heddle that God's grace is an amazing thing, we are rather appalled at his snarky tone as to the rest of his pronouncement. Primarily, this is because Dr Heddle is running about joyously proclaiming his salvation whilst at the same time condemning a large swath of humanity to the everlasting fire.

We would submit that Christians ought not believe and spout such things in the first place; but if they must persist in that error, then they should keep such thoughts private. It alienates many to the overwhelmingly positive message inherent in Christianity, namely that anyone can achieve salvation if they believe in Christ (or God, if of another faith; see Items 839-848 in the Catechism); and it also violates the teachings of both Church tradition and the Bible itself:

God predestines no one to go to Hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end."

-- The Catechism of the Catholic Church (see Item 1037; see also Part Three, Section One, Article 3, "Man's Freedom").

"Man is rational and therefore like God; he is created with free will and is master over his own acts."

-- Sirach 15:14

That's to say nothing of the message imparted in John 3:16, which is the single most important verse in the Good Book.

That said, we especially find such talk appalling because spiritual authorities recognize that God's grace is freely given to all, if they but accept it. We also find it quite troubling that Dr Heddle would persist in such foolishness, in terms of his immortal soul. We do not detect a shred of humility (the greatest virtue) in his work, for instance, which leads us to submit that Dr Heddle may not be as strong in his faith as he might suppose himself to be. We would further suggest that this lack of humility could very well lead to further acedia if he is not careful, and we wish he would take a very long hard look at the tone of his own work.

We borrow heavily from Lewis in this next statement, but the fallacy of predestination is this: while God exists in the spiritual world (and can choose to enter the temporal if He so chooses), human beings exist in time. Hence, while God very well knows who will get into Heaven and who shall not, He gives us plenty of opportunity to accept His grace while we still have the chance. This makes predestination not merely irrelevant, but deficient and wrong as a theological concept. In short, it is a divisive and erroneous doctrine.

Of course, Dr Heddle also cites Holy Scripture in support of his view, which we find disingenous. He writes:

If there is no scriptural support for this, then I should be stoned. Fortunately that is not the case. You may say that I misinterpret some scripture, but if you are honest then I think the worst that can be said is that I dont agree but I can see how someone might believe that.

Well, Dr Heddle does misinterpret Scripture. We will say that we can see in theory how someone might believe in his position, but then we also can say we see that there are a lot of damn fools walking on God's Green Earth.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:43 PM | Comments (18) | TrackBack

July 16, 2003

A Very Sad Case, II

What is brighter than the sun? yet the light thereof faileth; and flesh and blood will imagine evil.

-- Ecclesiasticus 17:31


ONE COULD SUBMIT that the intense reaction to Dr Daniel Dennett's recent commentary about "brights" in The New York Times is evidence that the Republic is not yet lost. For Dr Dennett's supporters and detractors have largely produced excellent work defending their theological beliefs.

Let us examine but a small portion of these opinions:

Andrea Harris has argued the operating phrase for "brights" ought to truly be "smugs." Dean Esmay has proclaimed he is still a "bright," and in such a way that I think he ought to have written instead of Dennett on the Gray Lady's pages.

Meanwhile, Telford Work offers his own opinion; as does Kieran Healy and Charles Murtaugh. Four of the five preceeding articles were noted over at Camassia; while Camassia kindly also links my work.

Brian Linse offers up a very well-written and erudite post on the "bright" movement and his own atheism, which you should all read. (Full disclosure: Mr Linse was quite complimentary to my own first post on the subject). Finally, Geoff Brown has a post on a related matter, with which I do not agree; but perhaps another time for that.

My position on the matter has not changed. However, I would like to address the comments which readers have addressed here at The Rant, as I feel it is important that I do so.

First off, Mr Esmay remarks that it would be nice if brights had a symbol to go with their newly-appropriated word. On a temporal level, I must agree with this, as he makes the logical point that having such a symbol could quiet the militants who insist religious displays must be banished.

You know, Mr Esmay's comment got me to thinking, and I thought up an adequate symbol for the "bright" movement -- one I think they probably would have truly liked. But after giving the idea a lot of thought, I decided against sharing it. It is not my place to suggest a symbol. The least of my reasons is that I am not one of them. On a spiritual level, though, I must also admit that in my heart, I would prefer that atheists had no symbol. One cannot force a man to believe in God, and I certainly have no quarrel with those who do not. But my fear, to be honest about it, is that it might strengthen a movement of which a minority of adherents are openly hostile to religion. Religion, I would argue, is a positive force in life; it is painful to see some people's openly negative reactions to it. Not, I hasten to add, that Mr Esmay is such a person; not at all. Go read his essay and you shall see that he does not mind even folks like me.

OK -- moving on! (You would not believe how much time I spent wrestling with that; how I detest my own pusillanimy sometimes).

Some commenters -- SFT was the first -- took issue with my witticism regarding Dr Dennett's first sentence and its reference to "us brights." I partially accept blame for this. I made the mistake of reading "us" as the subject, instead of the correct subject ("The time"). "Us" is clearly the direct object and as such the sentence is correct.

That said, it was a badly-composed opening sentence and Dr Dennett should have done much better in writing it! Gad! "Us brights" indeed; good way to create a trip-up right there. The second sentence wasn't much better, either. One ought not use rhetorical questions when writing.

I know that is being overly harsh; I admit it. But come on, though! I have to save some face here :-D.

Geoff, you have your link in the above reference. You're very welcome, and keep on blogging.

I would also like to say that I very much appreciate Kevin White's thoughtful and gracious response to my post. It is a very reasonable, rational and kind-hearted composition.

Finally, Max Power numbered his complaints for me in point-by-point form. I must say I appreciate that as it makes it easy for me to respond. Here is that response:

1. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know. What can I say? Nobody's perfect :-D.

2. When Dr Dennett or anyone else compares belief in God to belief in the physical existence of the Easter Bunny, The Rabbit from the Trix Commercials, or the Tooth Fairy, it is quite insulting to religious people. That's because we do not believe in the existence of these things either; we all agree these are childish figments of the imagination or marketing concepts. So to compare theism with a four-year-old's outlook on life is necessarily arrogant and an insult.

Now, if an atheist and a theist are having coffee after a nice dinner and they get into a nice discussion on theology, we would not be offended by your first statement that you believe God is man's creation. That truly represents a difference of opinion. However, folks like Dr Dennett do not confine themselves to such statements: they go a bit further. I don't doubt you honestly believe that Dr Dennett's essay was not rude or offensive; but then you are in the choir to which he is preaching.

Naturally, this also means your original question is flawed. There are many religious believers who do place an emphasis on hellfire and brimstone; but the mere statement that "I am a Christian" merely conveys the fact that I happen to hold to a particular world-view. It is not a glove thrown in the face, and neither is saying, "I am an atheist." Such things are badges of identity and nothing more.

I don't know you, so I don't know whether you don't care for organized religion or if you are merely playing -- ha, ha -- devil's advocate. But your statement that if a man identifies himself as a follower to Religion X, he is automatically condemning Group of People Y doesn't compute. Not a bit.

There are two reasons why it is next to impossible for a "bright" to take part in public discourse. The first is that in the grand scheme of things, not many others share his viewpoint, and as such that viewpoint receives little serious attention. The second (and more important) is that public "brights" (O'Hair, Newdow, Dennett) have absolutely no tact.

"Brights" will not be taken seriously as a movement unless the tactful ones drive out the people who feel oppressed because the phrase "under God" is in the Pledge of Allegiance. Until the vast majority of Americans think that "brights" are willing to take their beliefs seriously, "brights" will not be given the time of day.

3. I am sure Dr Dennett's books are fascinating. But, if by naturalistic views of free will, you mean the concept of Free Will Without God Entering Into the Picture, then that's something that doesn't interest me. As a Christian, I consider such a premise flawed from the get-go.

As for Darwin's Dangerous Idea, I'll be honest -- I care little about the controversy over it. Whether Man came about via evolution, creationism, or intelligent design matters nothing to me. These and other things are subordinate concerns to what really matters, which is this:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

You see, that's what's Christianity is all about -- right there, in that one sentence. That through His sacrifice, Christ died on the Cross and Redeemed a fallen world. That is the rock upon which I stand. That is the message to which I subscribe.

Now, do I believe there is a Hell? Yes -- because the concept of the Redemption, in my mind, warrants it.

Ah -- wait a minute, now. Just wait. You are opening your mouth in protest and getting ready to fire off an angry response -- but read this first. Then fire away.

The message in John 3:16 is a message of hope; of faith; and of love. It is overwhelmingly positive. It offers men a wonderful thing. It offers men the chance to have their sins and their wickedness washed away; the chance to leave temporal things behind for something so much better.

Now, the question of whether other monotheist believers will not share in this is a question for the theologians. Personally, though, I would find it very, very difficult to believe that any good man who believed in God would not find himself in Heaven when all was said and done. Let's be clear: I don't believe that. Nor do I believe that good men who do not believe in God would find themselves suffering in fire and brimstone. Let me explain that.

Regular readers of The Rant know that I have a thing for Dante: he is perhaps my favorite author. In fact, he's the fellow in the first image up on the banner. My favorite work of Dante's, naturally, is The Divine Comedy. Some commentators have called it "The Fifth Gospel," and I think with good reason.

What I like about the structure of the afterlife in Dante's work is that to me it makes sense. It is ordered. It is logical. It is both terrible and beautiful. But it also raises a lot of questions for anyone interested in theology, and Christianity in particular. Now, the structure and meaning of Dante's Paradiso and Purgatorio are subjects for another time.

It is the Inferno which really draws all our interest, anyway, isn't it?

The Inferno's Plan is based on one fundamental concept: that, as Dante wrote, there are degrees of sin which displease God more than others. This is why Satan is at Hell's center, and why lustful souls must merely suffer getting blown about on the dark winds. In between, of course, the tortures of the damned are varied and often awful to even read.

But all is not agony and torture in that Hell; there is also sadness, and just sadness in many cases. There is no punishment except a sense of longing to be with a Presence which they did not accept in life. To me, that concept of Hell is very real as the concept of fire and brimstone. Can both exist simultaneously? Of course they can: there is nothing that would prevent a just God from punishing the wicked, while at the same time differentiating otherwise good people who merely didn't believe in Him.

What the reality is, we will all eventually find out someday. But I have digressed for too long. The crux of the matter is that we all have to make our own choices in terms of religious belief. And once militant atheists accept that theists' views aren't meant as constant slaps in their face, and accept that people will continue to believe in God, then perhaps we can have some progress.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 12:09 AM | Comments (8) | TrackBack

July 13, 2003

A Very Sad Case

Philosophy professor Daniel C. Dennett has written an astonishing op-ed column in The New York Times in which he proclaims his disbelief in God. In openly identifying himself as a so-called "Bright," Dr Dennett complains that politicians and society-at-large belittle and deride his fellow non-believers' views. He ends his article with a clarion call for action, beseeching his fellow citizens to support "bright rights."

Now, I say Dr Dennett's article is astonishing not because I approve of it. I find it astonishing because of its insufferable arrogance, its smarmy self-righteousness, and its breathtaking hostility to religious views. I find it astonishing because of its flawed reasoning, its sneering self-conceit, and its insulting moral relativism. Finally, I find it astonishing because it sums up so very well the complete and utter hubris of what Dr Dennett might call the "aggressive atheistic" mindset.

So let us take a look at the relevant parts of Dr Dennett's essay in depth. He's in italics:

The time has come for us brights to come out of the closet. What is a bright? A bright is a person with a naturalist as opposed to a supernaturalist world view. We brights don't believe in ghosts or elves or the Easter Bunny or God. We disagree about many things, and hold a variety of views about morality, politics and the meaning of life, but we share a disbelief in black magic and life after death.

Since Dr Dennett openly says later in his essay that the "bright" campaign is a public-relations exercise, I find it odd that he sees fit to compare belief in God with belief in the Easter Bunny. I mean, this certainly isn't the way to win friends and influence people in the much larger community of religious believers. Also, what he means to write in his opening sentence is we brights. Forgive him for that: they don't teach writing well in the colleges these days.

The term "bright" is a recent coinage by two brights in Sacramento, Calif., who thought our social group which has a history stretching back to the Enlightenment, if not before could stand an image-buffing and that a fresh name might help. Don't confuse the noun with the adjective: "I'm a bright" is not a boast but a proud avowal of an inquisitive world view.

Well, one could argue that modern-day atheism, such as it is, began in the works of certain ancient philosophers and Pelagius, the 4th-5th century heretic; and was refined from there on out. I can see why Dr Dennett might not want to mention him as an inspiration, given that even he admits atheists' image needs buffing. That said, I am not impressed at Dr Dennett's shoddy attempt at doublethink either. The words "boast" and "proud" do, after all, go hand-in-hand; and this is made clear through Dr Dennett's proclamation that the atheists' world-view is inquisitive -- and its unsaid inference that a religious world-view is not.

For the reality is exactly the opposite. Most Christians and other religious are by their nature inquisitive folk, and we see the hand of God at work in every new astronomical discovery or scientific breakthrough. On the other hand, when unexplainable phenomena occur either in the historical record or even in the present day, an atheist would by animal instinct write it off as having some natural cause, even if not readily apparent. Their supposed tautology -- God has not been proven to exist, therefore He does not exist -- is a mile wide but an inch deep. And only an uninquisitive sort would write off the possibility that such logic could in fact be flawed.

You may well be a bright. If not, you certainly deal with brights daily. That's because we are all around you: we're doctors, nurses, police officers, schoolteachers, crossing guards and men and women serving in the military. We are your sons and daughters, your brothers and sisters...

What? No mention of petty thieves, bank robbers, gangsters, wife-beaters, confidence men, grafters and swindlers? No mention of deadbeat brothers-in-law, drunks, document forgers? They're all around us too, you know!

... Our colleges and universities teem with brights. Among scientists, we are a commanding majority ...

Please don't remind me. Now I'm going to get depressed.

... Wanting to preserve and transmit a great culture, we even teach Sunday school and Hebrew classes ...

Wanting to stay on good terms with the wife is more like it.

Many of the nation's clergy members are closet brights, I suspect. We are, in fact, the moral backbone of the nation: brights take their civic duties seriously precisely because they don't trust God to save humanity from its follies.

We quote from Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles for our response to this little bullet. We will put it in bold just so Dr Dennett and his sympathizers see what we think of his proclamation:

Eminent, eminent people, one and all, members of the Society for the Prevention of Fantasy, advocates of the banishment of Halloween and Guy Fawkes, killers of bats, burners of books, bearers of torches; good clean citizens, every one, who had waited until the rough men had come up and buried the Martians and cleansed the cities and built the towns and repaired the highways and made everything safe. And then, with everything well on its way to Safety, the Spoil-Funs, the people with mercurochrome for blood and iodine-colored eyes, came now to set up their Moral Climates and dole out goodness to everyone. And they were his friends!

I would rather put my trust in God's saving grace than Dr Dennett's moral backbone.

As an adult white married male with financial security, I am not in the habit of considering myself a member of any minority in need of protection. If anybody is in the driver's seat, I've thought, it's people like me. But now I'm beginning to feel some heat, and although it's not uncomfortable yet, I've come to realize it's time to sound the alarm.

Gee, it would appear that Dr Dennett doesn't like it when people disagree with him. Clearly he is being persecuted and oppressed.

Whether we brights are a minority or, as I am inclined to believe, a silent majority, our deepest convictions are increasingly dismissed, belittled and condemned by those in power by politicians who go out of their way to invoke God and to stand, self-righteously preening, on what they call "the side of the angels."

Somehow I don't see how invoking God equates with condemning atheism, but many aggressively-atheistic people can't stand it when the Government allows religious displays or "ceremonial Deism." It's a key difference between religious folks and aggressive atheists. Religious folk are happy whenever God gets a mention; atheists can't stand it because they want the rest of us to adhere to their God-less beliefs.

A 2002 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life suggests that 27 million Americans are atheist or agnostic or have no religious preference. That figure may well be too low, since many nonbelievers are reluctant to admit that their religious observance is more a civic or social duty than a religious one more a matter of protective coloration than conviction.

Translation: Twenty-seven million people is approximately nine percent of the population residing in the United States. Dr Dennett does not want to admit that those who share his views may only constitute nine percent of the population residing in the United States.

Of course, I do think it worthy to note that there is a big difference between atheism, agnoticism, and being non-religious. An agnostic does not take one side or the other in the debate, and neither do the non-religious. As such, as Madalyn Murray O'Hair once put it, these folks have "one foot in the God camp." This would seem to separate the chaff from the wheat: only an atheist could truly call himself a "bright," because the agnostic and non-religious are leaving open the possibility that supernaturalism really does exist. So Dr Dennett's claim that there are 27 million brights lurking among 300+ million citizens in all is likely a bit high.

That shouldn't take away from his argument in a logical sense, of course; but to me it shows that he's willing to bend logic's rules a bit if it will help his case.

Most brights don't play the "aggressive atheist" role. We don't want to turn every conversation into a debate about religion, and we don't want to offend our friends and neighbors, and so we maintain a diplomatic silence.

Go talk to this guy, Dr Dennett. You'll have hours of fun, I can assure you.

But the price is political impotence. Politicians don't think they even have to pay us lip service, and leaders who wouldn't be caught dead making religious or ethnic slurs don't hesitate to disparage the "godless" among us.

Well, this is what happens when folks don't believe in something: they give other things deemed more important, such as tax policy and foreign affairs and retirement benefits, more weight. That's only natural, of course; but until Not Believing in God and Also Wanting to Suppress Other People's Religious Expression becomes a priority among a large segment of the American People, it will stay that way.

It is time to halt this erosion and to take a stand: the United States is not a religious state, it is a secular state that tolerates all religions and yes all manner of nonreligious ethical beliefs as well.

Yes, but I'm thinking that you don't tolerate all religions. I mean, God forbid someone should put an expression of religious thought up on public property. Why the aggressive-atheists don't put up their own expressions next to them is beyond me. I mean, it's their right. But that might be constructive.

I recently took part in a conference in Seattle that brought together leading scientists, artists and authors to talk candidly and informally about their lives to a group of very smart high school students. Toward the end of my allotted 15 minutes, I tried a little experiment. I came out as a bright.

Notice the favor given to intelligence over character. Someone, quick, call John Engel.

Now, my identity would come as no surprise to anybody with the slightest knowledge of my work. Nevertheless, the result was electrifying.

Anybody out there have the slightest knowledge about who the hell Daniel C. Dennett is and his work? We're just wondering here, folks, cause we hadn't heard a thing about the guy or his work before he showed up in The New York Times.

Many students came up to me afterwards to thank me, with considerable passion, for "liberating" them. I hadn't realized how lonely and insecure these thoughtful teenagers felt. They'd never heard a respected adult say, in an entirely matter of fact way, that he didn't believe in God. I had calmly broken a taboo and shown how easy it was.

Well, yeah, that's the thing. It's very easy. It's also very easy, for we as people, to give into our own desires and our own wills and our own flawed instincts. It is the first step down a path which leads to letting one's vices conquer oneself. It is the first step towards one's eventual self-destruction as a moral person.

In addition, many of the later speakers, including several Nobel laureates, were inspired to say that they, too, were brights. In each case the remark drew applause. Even more gratifying were the comments of adults and students alike who sought me out afterward to tell me that, while they themselves were not brights, they supported bright rights. And that is what we want most of all: to be treated with the same respect accorded to Baptists and Hindus and Catholics, no more and no less.

True, but Professor, you have to realize that respect is a two-way street. You've just spent half your op-ed being snarky about the views of Baptists and Hindus and Catholics and Mormons and Jews and Presbyterians, so why should they -- we -- give you that respect in return? I would encourage you to remember the Golden Rule -- do unto others as you would have done unto you. Some old Teacher said it a while back.

If you're a bright, what can you do? First, we can be a powerful force in American political life if we simply identify ourselves. (The founding brights maintain a Web site on which you can stand up and be counted.) I appreciate, however, that while coming out of the closet was easy for an academic like me or for my colleague Richard Dawkins, who has issued a similar call in England in some parts of the country admitting you're a bright could lead to social calamity. So please: no "outing."

OK! Here's the first insulting life comparison, folks! Dr Dennett's thesis here is that it's just as hard to be an atheist in, let us say Tennessee, as it is to be a homosexual.

(crickets chirping)(dog howls in background)

But there's no reason all Americans can't support bright rights. I am neither gay nor African-American, but nobody can use a slur against blacks or homosexuals in my hearing and get away with it. Whatever your theology, you can firmly object when you hear family or friends sneer at atheists or agnostics or other godless folk.

I hope I'm not reading this wrong, but is Dr Dennett seriously equating society's awful and undeniable bad past treatment of blacks and homosexuals to the supposed suffering of atheists? That's certainly how it seems to me. Somehow this just doesn't compute. Having one's after-dinner cocktail ruined because a dinner partner vociferously disagrees with you does not, in my mind, equate to years upon years of slavery, discrimination, or being treated like a second-class citizen.

But I don't know, and perhaps I am reacting to reading this at a truly Godawful hour on Sunday morning. To me, though, everything about Dr Dennett's essay reeks of what's wrong with an aggressively-atheist position: the self-conceit, the arrogance, the almost-blind confidence, the inner surety that he is right and the rest of the world consists of "sheeple." (I hate that word but it gets a lot of use).

And in a way, it's saddening.

I don't think anyone should be discriminated against on the basis of race or sexuality or creed. I'll admit I would like it if non-religious people became religious, but I also know that when all is said and done, they will make their own decision on the matter. You can't force anyone to make decisions in that regard: it just doesn't work.

But neither do I understand why a small minority of those who do not share in religious beliefs cannot merely accept the fact that many Americans do. For we are talking about the small minority of activist atheists who consider their non-religiosity so important that it alone defines them as a person.

No one, of course, would mind if such militant atheists merely wanted to be left alone. But given the past history of that movement, it does not take a leap of faith to argue that this is merely a tactic to denigrate and scorn organized religion and those who believe in it.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 02:05 AM | Comments (8) | TrackBack

July 08, 2003

REAGANTOWN, Pa. -- On Monday, one of my uncles, one of my cousins, my brother, my father and I were five of the six men who carried my grandfathers coffin to its final resting place.

Shouldering him over the hard Pennsylvania earth was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life.

The act of putting down in words the events of the past four days, and the toll they have taken on me, is almost as difficult. But I hope and pray that as I do so, it will provide me with both closure and strength: the type of closure and the strength I eventually gained after the loss of my fathers mother some years ago, and which I now need to deal with losing my mothers father.

Its impossible, of course, to sum up my grandfathers life and what he meant to me in even a long essay. I could post the obituary, but that would not begin to do justice to him; death notices are not designed to do such things. But I can write about his life and what he taught me, and pray that God gives me the capability to write what should be written.

My grandfather was 83 years old; born on March 14, 1920; died on July 4, 2003. In a way, now that I think about it, it was fitting that he died on the Fourth. He was not a rich American or a famous American, but he was a good American. It wasnt merely that he paid his taxes and voted: he had an American character. He worked like an ox and gave of himself to others. He never complained a bit about the lot he drew in life; instead, he worked harder to achieve his dreams. I dont know if he fulfilled all of the dreams he had in life, but had you met him, you never would have been able to tell whether he had or not. He had his home and his family, and his garden, and I do think he was happy.

During the funeral on Monday morning, my mother spoke about the legacies that my grandfather had given her. How she was able to say all those wonderful things during that sad hour will always amaze me, just for the sheer strength it must have taken. She said many of the same things I wanted to say if only I could have mustered the will to do so. After she spoke, though, I felt as if I didnt need to say anything. Her words were far superior to anything I could have said then, or anything that I write now.

So, Mom, I hope that you wont mind if I borrow one point from those that you mentioned: namely, my grandfathers Legacy of Faith.

I do not think that I have known any man who had a stronger faith in God than my grandfather, nor any man who did as well practicing that faith without fail in his daily life. It was always something I found special, but in the past few years I realized just how inspiring and special that was. And it was his example above all that I have tried to emulate in my own adult life.

My grandfather was baptized a Methodist on the same day as my mother was, and in that same plain Methodist church where his funeral was held. I dont think he ever lost sight of those original teachings; teachings that the Methodist Church once held very dear.

For me, that explained a lot about why he never drank and never cursed; why he had perfect attendance at the churchs Sunday School program for at least sixteen years, and why he served in leadership roles at that church for much longer than that. And I do think that if the Methodist Church had held the line the way my grandfather had held it, I never would have left it.

But my point is not to focus on doctrinal issues. It is, rather, to try to show how devout a person my grandfather was. For if the end result of Christianity is, as the old saying goes, to lead men from wretchedness into happiness, then there was no better example of that in my life than my grandfather. He never had an easy life, and he only earned what he did through sweat and toil and aggravation. Lesser men, I think, would have abandoned their faith or complained mightily about the injustice of their situation; but my grandfather never complained. He bore his cross as was his duty, and he did it with style and class and with his sense of humor intact. I can only pray that, when hard times come in my life, I will be able to do the same.

You should also know that my grandfather was truly a modest and humble man, not merely in his own countenance but in how he lived his daily life. You could not help but notice that if you were you to walk into his Connellsville home, the home where my grandmother lives still. It has everything that one might need, and it is a cozy and quiet place. But it is almost as if it comes from a different era, and I have to think that was how they wanted it.

On Sunday, when our family took a break from calling hours at the funeral home, we came back to that house and shared a meal. We talked for a bit but largely ate in silence, and some of us in that family room where he spent so many of his days. No one sat in my grandfathers favorite recliner, a recliner which, if I had to guess, is at least 30 years old.

Later, as my grandmother was standing over it, she remarked that she had once suggested that my grandfather purchase a new recliner, as the present model was shabby. My grandfather would have none of this, for as he noted at the time, the old recliner worked fine.

I dont know if I would go thirty years before I replace my own favorite recliner, but I do think that instance was a small lesson that one ought to be thankful and satisfied with what one has in life. That doesnt mean that one shouldnt work hard, or refuse to change; but rather that one ought not focus on material things compared to other things in life.

God knows I have often failed in putting that and other of his lessons into practice, but I can hope I someday gain the strength and insight to finally learn what my grandfather and so many of those close to me have figured out.

July 6 July 8, 2003

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:29 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

June 28, 2003

France's Earthly Salvation?

Regular readers of The Rant know that I have been in rather a disagreeable mood towards France as of late. Yet, this morning, I saw a pair of stories so inspiring that I about stood up and sang The Marseillaise.

Now, while some readers already know this, all should know that as odd as it may sound, I have a very strong interest about what goes on in France. You see, I've got a French connection -- and something fierce too.

Tracing back the direct paternal line (my father to his father and all that), one finds that it leads to the tiny village of Dehlingen, in Alsace. Indeed, Hans Peter Koeppel, the fourth of his line (1644 - 1719), was a lay-magistrate and even the town's mayor. And since there are reportedly Kepples all around Dehlingen to this day, I maintain a fond hope that they will be liberated from the Fifth Republic's stupider ideas.

Well, we may have found a liberator.

The Telegraph reports that Sabine Herold, a 21-year-old university student, is leading a charge against the vicious public strikes that have paralyzed France as of late. Her true activism started out with demonstrations in favor of our war against Iraq; there was later a small address in front of city hall in Paris. Now, she's addressing crowds of up to 80,000 people at a time. She has also been the subject of an impressive profile in The Telegraph, written by Alice Thomson. You ought read the whole thing:

Back on Oxford Street, she wants to go to the cheapest stores. "Our Left-wing newspapers say that I must be rich not to champion the workers. They say I dress only in Hermes. But my coat is from Etam. My mother is a school teacher who refuses to strike, my father a professor. My brother is a table-tennis player. We are from a small village near Reims. We work hard but I have no family money."

Next, she wants to go to Speakers' Corner. In one corner, a Christian is ranting against sex in public lavatories; in another, a Muslim is sounding off against the Iraq war. "In France," says Sabine, "we have no freedom of expression. Being different is frowned upon. Everyone must conform. I want to give power back to individuals."

It's a fabulously inspiring story. And, in an age where we have few heroes, I daresay that Mlle Herold is well on her way to becoming one of mine.

UPDATE, 3:57 PM: Andrew Dodge est en dsaccord tout fait avec force avec mon poteau sur Mlle Sabine. Bien, chacun a droit son avis, je supposent. Cependant, je trouve la description de Mlle Sabine comme 'fraud' tout fait dure et injuste. Je ne sais pas le bon tour de l'expression ici, ainsi j'emprunterai cela de Graham Greene dans The Quiet American: "dites vous quand vous parlez une dame."

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 12:48 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

June 06, 2003

Religion-Parody Website Only Mocks Protestants

A Web site which pokes fun at Christians only focuses on Protestants, we have discovered tonight.

Lark News, which bills itself as "a good source for Christian news," has articles this month snickering at a litany of Protestant groups, ranging from Southern Baptists to United Methodists. Seemingly no Protestant offshoot escapes condemnation, and even the Mormons get a bit of mockery directed their way.

Yet, weirdly, after we went through six full months of Lark News' on-line archives, we found not one article bashing Roman Catholicism or its counterpart, Eastern Orthodoxy. We fully admit we have no idea what to make of this development.

On the one hand, we here at The Rant are quite pleased to see that the Roman and Eastern Churches are not the target of Lark News' rhetorical slings and arrows. But on the other hand, we are quite displeased to see that this Web site ignores two out of the three main branches of Christianity -- just like a very small minority within that third branch makes a point of doing on a daily basis. For Pete's sake, it all started with us; can't you just admit that and get over it?

Ah, well. In any event, Christians of all stripes -- well, most Christians, anyway -- will enjoy the good-natured humor Lark News provides. So go give it a read.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 10:39 PM