Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A few changes to the blog...

I added a few things to the blog…
In the sidebar to the right, I added some links to some posts that I consider important. Among these are: Patristics, Question and Answer, and the book reviews that I have written for The Catholic Company. All of these are ongoing projects and I will add new links as they grow.
A few words about each one:
Patristics is the study of the earliest Christian writings from the first few Centuries A.D. These texts teach us how the early Church understood the faith, how they worshiped, and what they believed doctrinally. I have been slowly reviewing the writings of these first Christians beginning with the First Century and moving forward. More to come in future posts.
Question and Answer: I have received many questions over the years concerning Catholic belief and practices. Periodically I will be selecting from those questions and posting a reply here on the blog. If you have a question to ask (anonymously if you prefer) please post a comment. (I recommend commenting on the most recent blog entry on the home page of this blog, even if your question is not relevant to the topic in that post. I will be more likely to see the comment in a timely manner if it appears in a current post.)
Book Reviews: I recently partnered with The Catholic Company website to write reviews of books here on my blog. Links to the book reviews I have written are listed under The Catholic Company Logo in the bottom sidebar of this blog. Just to be clear, I am under no obligation to write a favorable review – I write what I honestly think about the book and submit the review to The Catholic Company for use on their site. If you are shopping for Catholic books, religious items such as rosaries, statues, devotional items, etc. check out The Catholic Company on the web. They sell more than just books.
…Also I will be starting a new series based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The posts in this series will contain selected quotes from the Catechism on specific topics or with a common theme. I will not add any comments or explanations of my own, but will simply allow the Catechism to speak for itself. Under the heading “Catechism Quotes” (or something to that effect) in the sidebar I will give links to these posts for quick reference.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Power of Artistic Expression

It has been said that, regarding pop music, you are either a Beatles fan or an Elvis fan. That’s not to say that you can’t like both, but most people do prefer one over the other. Supposedly this preference says something about your general outlook on life, and considering how very different these two icons of music are, there may be something to this musical test. Artists such as Elvis and the Beatles use their medium (in this case music and song) to convey messages, express the stirrings of their souls, and to arouse emotions. The type of music that appeals to each of us may indicate something about our own longings and beliefs and can even shape our psyche, stirring up emotions and evoking a personal response in us. All art (painting, sculpture, music, film, theatre, and even architecture and commercial graphics) can have this power to influence us and provoke. In this way, life certainly imitates art – and we often imitate without consciously realizing the power that it has over us.

This is not to say that music and art controls us. We do maintain our free will – we can freely choose to reject the message of a song or the power of a masterfully rendered painting. Art can be appreciated without being manipulated by the artist. For example, viewing a violent film does not necessarily mean that a person will act out violently, as long as that person can distinguish between reality and the art that is presented on the screen and choose to reject the violence. But studies have shown that repeated viewing of violence can lead to an increase in violent behavior, especially in young children who have a difficult time separating truth from fiction. And someone who is prone to violent behavior may have that behavior reinforced by viewing violent images. The same is true of sexual references in music, for instance, or the influence of pornography. When something ceases to be “art” and becomes purely provocative and sensual, it is easy to see how we can be manipulated by our senses and society can be negatively impacted.

Besides these concerns about violence and other behavioral issues we must also remember that the artist often uses his or her medium to convey some “truth” as he or she perceives it in the world. Thus the ideology, faith, and/or philosophical and political leanings of the artist must be accounted for in evaluating the impact of the art. The artist often has in mind an agenda, a purpose for producing his or her work. Religious artwork (a Madonna and Child, a Reclining Buddha, a Muslim prayer rug) or political propaganda (Soviet-style images of workers, or the World War II “Rosie the Riveter” posters in the United States) convey different
messages depending on the artist’s beliefs. But in the world of ideas there are many competing concepts of the “truth.” Not all artistic representations can be correct. A painting that depicts the wonder of the incarnate God held in His mother’s arms, cannot be embraced on equal grounds with a statue of Buddha as he meditates on the mystery of his existence. One piece of artwork may be technically better executed, more beautiful, or striking, but the “truth” or ideological insight behind the art may be flawed. Meanwhile a lesser quality piece may convey a “truth” beyond words.

It is sometimes easy to be fooled into believing a “truth,” not because it is TRUE, but bec
ause it is beautifully portrayed: visually, poetically, musically, or on film, etc. But we must always remember that the artist manipulates the composition of the artwork to arrive at this desired effect. A well executed piece of artwork becomes believable when the artist’s treatment of the various elements blends together in such a way that his “truth” appears as the only possible explanation. We then enter into his world and understand things from his perspective. The messages conveyed in this way can be as varied and conflicting as there are artists who ply the trade. The important thing for us to remember is that these themes can subtly influence our thinking if we do not take the time to discern them and carefully weigh their worth. Some are more valuable and “true” than others.

Al
ong the same lines as the Beatles/Elvis analogy mentioned above, the science fiction genera gives us two franchises that exemplify the meshing of art and ideology and the divergent results that can come from two creators’ differing visions. Star Wars and Star Trek present sci-fi junkies with two separate worlds to explore and to be entertained by. While the spaceships, lasers, and alien creatures may seem cut from the same cloth, there are stark differences in how these two worlds explain life, the struggles of humanity, and the world around us.

George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, researched ancient myth, religion, and mysticism to come up with a fictional world in which Good and Evil clash and an unseen power known as the “Force” binds the universe together. In Star Trek, Gene Rodenberry, an avowed atheist, constructs a future for our own galaxy in which science rules the day and religion and myth play only a tangential role. In Star Wars, the Empire is clearly evil, while the Rebels are on the side of good. In Star Trek, good and evil are sometimes relative, depending on the alien culture encountered in a particular episode and the situation confronted by the crew of the Enterprise. In Star Wars, the good guys include the Jedi – the practitioners of an ancient “religion” with seemingly supernatural powers whose main objective is to ensure that good triumphs and their cause for justice spreads to every world in the galaxy. In Star Trek the heroes are the Federation – a group of non-religious (or at least not specifically religious) scientific space explorers whose main goal is to discover new worlds and observe them, but avoid influencing those worlds.

From their opening credits these two science fiction icons show their differences. Star Wars is set in a time “long ago.” This mythical story is meant to evoke ancient truths. Star Trek is set in the future. It leaves the past behind us and pushes forward, “where no man has gone before.” These tag lines tell much about how these two epic tales should be interpreted. A closer examination reveals more.

Gene Rodenberry had this to say about religion: “Religions vary in their degree of idiocy, but I reject them all. For most people, religion is nothing more than a substitute for a malfunctioning brain.” While religion was sometimes viewed favorably in some episodes of Star Trek, it was never a key component of the overall story arc and was occasionally seen as a flaw in some alien cultures. At best Star Trek is ambivalent toward religion. As Brannon Braga, a Star Trek producer, said concerning God and faith: “We wanted to avoid it to be quite frank. But we did very often explore theology through alien characters. Which frankly is much more interesting anyway. Whether it was the Bajorans and their religion or the Borg and their religion…That, I think, was more interesting. We wanted to keep Star Trek secular. The human facet of Star Trek secular.”

While the crew of the Enterprise in Star Trek examined religion from the outside as just another facet of human (or alien) behavior to be studied and analyzed scientifically, the main characters of Star Wars absorb religion into their lives. In the end, their faith in the Force wins the day. The climax of any episode of Star Trek likely includes Spock (the uber-logical science officer) analyzing and solving some mind-puzzle; whereas Star Wars ends with Luke switching off his targeting computer and blowing up the Death Star, demonstrating that the Force is certainly with him. And Obi Wan speaks words of encouragement from the afterlife.

This is not to say that Star Trek should be avoided by people of faith. There are many insightful truths and entertaining stories offered up in the Star Trek world. Some are very favorable toward faith and religion and even explicitly Christian in nature. Nor, on the other hand, is Star Wars a perfect example of Christian story-telling. The “Force” and the Jedi Order include elements of New Age mysticism, pantheism, and Gnosticism, and Lucas blends together so many different mythical elements that it becomes almost absurd in some of its contradictions and implausible assumptions.

As I have said on this blog before, Catholics should not mindlessly absorb the cultural trends and pop art that surrounds us on a daily basis. No art or mode of artistic expression should be taken at face value. But rather we should assess the relevance and moral worth of each piece produced for our consumption. We should know the ideals and values that shape each piece and how the subject could be viewed from other angles, whether the artist’s conclusions are based on false assumptions and how the artist has manipulated the medium to achieve the desired goal. Artwork may be fictional or unreal, but there is always some element of real life that makes the story, the painting, the song, believable on some level. There are themes and ideals embedded in art that can influence us in more subtle ways than we may perceive on the surface. We must question the “truth” of art and base our own conclusions on a higher TRUTH to which we must one day answer.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Catholic MP3s

The start of the summer has been busier than expected, and it seems that I have begun to neglect my blog. With lawn work, gardening, family events, and vacation planning I just haven't had the time to dedicate to writing. That should change as I settle into a more stable routine (and drier weather causes the weeds in the garden and the grass in the lawn to not grow as quickly). In the meantime I have a few links I would like to post...
While I work around the yard or in the garden I often listen to music to pass the time. I purchased a cheap little mp3 player (nothing fancy, but it gets the job done), and I transferred music from CD into mp3 format and acquired some music from friends and family. But I also found some great sources for mp3s online...for free.

Specifically, I would like to point out some Catholic sites where you can download lectures and other apologectics materials from people like Scott Hahn, Patrick Madrid, Steve Ray, Karl Keating, Peter Kreeft, Father Neuhaus, Father Groeschel, Father Corapi, Archbishop Fulton Sheen, and many, many others. There are also many EWTN broadcasts found at these sites, such as
The Journey Home program.

You will find the links below:

Sonitus Sanctus
Catholic Audio
Evangelical Catholic Apologetics
Catholic Ipod

The quality of some of these recordings is not stellar, but what do you expect for free? The content however is excellent, and they allow for hours of contemplation while doing otherwise mundane tasks around the house. Great for listening in the car as well.

Also I'd like to point out an excellent source for Classical recordings:

Classic Cat

This site offers a HUGE selection of royalty-free music to download for free. Much of it is orchestral pieces by the likes of Beethoven, Mozart, Handel, Bach, Haydn, and all the usual names in Classical music (along with many obscure composers as well). Among these works are some choral pieces such as chant and Mass settings and hymns.

Enjoy listening!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Book Review: Wisdom for Everyday Life from the Book of Revelation

Making John's Vision a Lived Experience

At the start of 2010, with Lent just around the corner, I received my copy of
Wisdom for Everyday Life from the Book of Revelation by Father Richard Veras. Whenever possible I try to arrange my reading around the seasons of the Church’s liturgical year, and so initially I planned to begin reading Father Veras’ book on Ash Wednesday, hoping to conclude well before Easter. An overview of the Book of Revelation seemed an appropriate way to reflect on Scripture throughout Lent.

Anyone remotely familiar with John’s Revelation, the final book of the New Testament, knows that the work is filled with bizarre creatures, strange prophesies of future events, battles that pit demonic forces against all that is good, and of course signs foretelling the end of the world. With that in mind, it is understandable that we might approach the Book of Revelation with a sense of dread, an acute awareness of our own failings and sinfulness, and a spirit of repentance - fitting stuff for the Lenten season. We might even ponder our own fate should the final epic battle take place in our own lifetime.

But as any good Catholic commentator on Scripture knows, and as the author of this book points out, the “battle” does indeed take place in our own lifetime, and for our very souls. As soldiers in this ongoing war, Revelation speaks directly to each of us, here and now. Of course, there are prophesies of future events (the precise meaning of which is unclear…no matter what any televangelist claims), but we also know that on some level the great “battle” against Satan, followed by God’s triumph over sin and evil, is happening within each of us now as we try to live out our call to Christian holiness. In this way the Book of Revelation has a personal relevance for each of us and is not simply a symbolic foreshadowing of geopolitical events that will precipitate the end of world. We must live out the Book of Revelation in our own lives just as we live out the rest of God’s Word.

The supernatural battle between good and evil happens every day in the decisions we make for or against Christ. With that in mind, Father Veras does not attempt to decipher some earth-shattering meaning for the Beast or the number 666, as many fundamentalists do. Nor does he claim to know when the world will end or who the Antichrist will be. What he offers instead (as the title suggests) is a personal application of the text of Revelation that can be used by every Christian in their daily life.

Certainly parts of Revelation are meant to address a broader worldview. Some of John’s vision encompasses whole peoples and nations and foreshadows things to come on a global scale; some passages apply to Christ and the Church as a whole. Father Veras does sketch out the general idea for these major themes. But throughout the text he consistently makes the case that the Book of Revelation speaks clearly to the average Christian, teaching us how to live the faith in a world that is at odds with Christian values.

On that note, one of the themes that spoke directly to me was that of marriage. Christ is the bridegroom awaiting His bride (the Church), who will be united to Him in the great heavenly wedding feast at the end of time. The image of marriage and the wedding banquet, the bride and the bridegroom, and spousal love stood out to me as a reoccurring symbol in Revelation - not only in the joy of our final union with Jesus, but also the contrasting “harlot” who represents unfaithfulness and a cheap imitation of marital love.

With marriage increasingly threatened in today’s culture and Christian morality in general under attack, the message of Revelation is more urgent than ever. Yet when reading John’s apocalyptic vision, it is easy for us to get distracted by images of seven-headed beasts and sinister horsemen We forget that God’s Word must reach into our souls and change us, not just put on a good show. The symbolic nature of apocalyptic writing often diverts our attention away from the deeper lessons hidden within the symbolism. But these lessons must be learned and applied to our everyday lives.

Father Richard Veras cuts through the difficult imagery and drives home the core message of Revelation. Behind the monsters and beasts, Revelation describes the kind of love that we must show to Christ and assures us of the love that even now He has for us. A chief example of this love can be found in our earthly marital unions which foretell the heavenly union we will one day share with God. In this regard, the Book of Revelation is a reminder for every Christian that we must live a spiritually chaste life in anticipation of our wedding day, as members of Christ’s Bride (the Church).

As it turns out, I did not read Father Veras’ book during Lent as I had initially planned. Much can be found there that would aid our Lenten experience (especially concerning sin and repentance as we evaluate the state of our own souls), but there is also much joy in these pages, the kind of joy and anticipation that is shared by a bride and groom as they approach their wedding day. Fittingly I read this book in the Easter Season, a time of rejoicing as we celebrate the Resurrection of Christ and await His final return when He will be united with His Bride. Equally significant, I began writing this review on the day of my tenth wedding anniversary, a traditionally symbolic number that coincides nicely with the numerology of John’s Apocalypse as well as its nuptial overtones. This chance convergence of events - of marital and Easter joy - made Father Veras’ insights both more relevant and more personal to me. Perhaps this was mere coincidence and should not be viewed as anything more. But it certainly caused me to appreciate more deeply the Wisdom for Everyday Life from the Book of Revelation.

To purchase this and other great books and Catholic products, visit The Catholic Company website.