Monday, March 28, 2011

C.S. Lewis: Studies in Words

Four times I've ordered this book from the library, a year between each order.  Each time I've renewed it the maximum number of times permitted.  And each time I've returned it to the library almost completely unread.

That's not to say I haven't tried. I am a die-hard fan of C.S. Lewis.  I've read almost all of his works, including most of the obscure ones, like "Pilgrim's Regress," "Preface to Paradise Lost," and (the one I'm tempted to call it my favorite) "The Discarded Image."  But "Studies in Words" is somehow different.

Most of Lewis' writings tend towards the apologetic or theological, and that is how most people know him. "Studies in Words," on the other hand, was drawn from Lewis' field of professional expertise (he was Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Oxford) and from his extensive readings in historical literature. It is relentlessly dry, staggeringly rigorous, and unimaginably rewarding for those who venture through its pages.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Joseph Ratzinger: The Ratzinger Report

Since the publication of Luther's famous Ninety-Five Theses in the early fifteen century, the "war" between Protestantism and Catholicism has raged. It is interesting to note, however, that beneath this layer of open schism there are strata of internal disputes and borders disputes that complicate the matter considerably.

Joseph Ratzinger was a lecturer on church dogmatics when, in 1962, he was invited to participate in Vatican II as a theological consultant. He quickly won a reputation among the so-called "progressive" caucus, for his openness to adapt church practice and discipline to modern times. This bloc found itself in a particularly vexing dispute with the more "traditionalist" conference, who favored the older traditions, especially the Latin Mass. Ratzinger's reputation was secured when he became one of the founders of the progressive periodical "Concilium," that became one of the primary dogmatic disputants with the official Catholic organ of dogma: the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly the Holy Office, formerly the Roman and Universal Inquisition.

However, some years later Ratzinger separated from this caucus and this periodical. He would maintain his openness to adaptation and "the modern times," but Ratzinger insisted that any progressive caucus must recognize the authority of Catholic Tradition (and not seek to reinvent everything anew) and the true spirit of Vatican II (without regard for some hypothetical Vatican III that would trump it). The Church must "remain true to Vatican III, to this today of the Church, without any longing for a yesterday irretrievably gone with the wind and without any impatient thrust toward a tomorrow that is not ours" (pg. 19).

In 1977, Ratzinger was appointed by Pope Paul VI to the rank of Cardinal and Archbishop of Munich. Four years later, in 1981, he was selected by Pope John Paul II to be the head and Cardinal Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In this position, Cardinal Ratzinger often found himself butting heads with his former progressive colleagues, as he sought to establish the post-Vatican II identity of the Catholic Church. Indeed, Ratzinger can be directly credited with moderating these divergent influences, and for reining in some of the more liberal doctrines that were promulgated (perhaps most notably by the liberation theology movement). By the time he was elected to the papal seat, succeeding Pope John Paul II and taking the name Pope Benedict XVI, Ratzinger was already the Dean of the College of Cardinals, and the most highly regarded theologian in the Catholic Church.

All of this should tell you just how important Cardinal Ratzinger was, even before his election as Pope. It should also give you some idea how significant it was when Ratzinger agreed to be interviewed by Vittorio Messori, an Italian journalist with a focus on religious issues. This interview was doubly significant because it would last for several days, and would wind up not just as an article but as an entire book, from the most important theologian in the Church besides the Pope himself, speaking from a privileged position about the state of the Church. The interview was trebly significant because of the historical secrecy associated with the Holy Office, and the Cardinal's own reticence about interviews.

The book is fantastic.  The introduction, written by Messori, is in my opinion an exemplar of journalistic integrity and honesty. However, the content is the far more impressive aspect of the work. The text, taken almost entirely from Ratzinger's words in the interview, ranges a whole gamut of issues, from the very notion of the Church to the doctrine of sexual ethics, to the conflicts within the Catholic Church and their presumed resolutions.  Though it was published in 1985, it remains entirely relevant today, even in the wake of the debilitating crisis wrought by the child abuses scandal among American Catholic clergy and the far different circumstances faced by the now-Pope Benedict XVI.  I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Catholicism. The clarity and mental dexterity displayed by Cardinal Ratzinger is a genuine delight.

If you'd like to purchase this book, check it out at
Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church

This was cross-posted at A Sacramental World.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Scott Hahn: Reasons to Believe

Scott Hahn is a former Presbyterian minister who converted to the Catholic Church and is now Professor of Scripture and Theology at the Franciscan University of Stuebenville. He has written upwards of a dozen books, on topics ranging from his conversion ("Rome Sweet Home") and his experiences in Opus Dei ("Ordinary Work, Extraordinary Grace"), to his appreciation of the Eucharist ("The Lamb's Supper") and the Sacraments ("Swear to God"), of the liturgy ("Letter and Spirit"), of the family ("First Comes Love"), and of Marian dogma ("Hail, Holy Queen").

Hahn addresses much of his writing for a Protestant audience, so he is perhaps best known as an apologist, a reputation reinforced by the stellar short work, "Reasons to Believe." The book is divided into three part: the first part addressed to non-Christians, the second part addressed to Protestants and non-Catholic Christians, and the third addressed primarily to his fellow Catholics.

The first part is fairly unoriginal, though I can hardly fault it for being so, as it covers most of the historically recognized and developed arguments for the existence of God, the legitimacy of faith, and the foundations of Christian Scripture and revelation. Hahn's prose is thorough and clear without getting bogged down in a philosophical mire, which is a credit to his craftsmanship. However, while most of the arguments are ostensibly geared towards a non-Christian audience, I suspect it was actually written for Catholic audiences trying to understand the philosophical underpinnings of their faith.

The second part is easily the best aspect of the work. Coming from a Protestant background, Hahn instinctively knows the rhetoric of Protestantism, and is able to present Catholic dogma in a way that makes intuitive sense to his audience. His five chapters delve into issues of Scripture and tradition, the communion of the saints, the sacraments, and the papacy. While he covers similar material in greater depth in many of his other works, this is a brilliant summary of the major points of contention.

I found the third part of the book less compelling, if only in comparison to the second. He introduces his own area of expertise -- covenant theology, the subject of his doctoral dissertation -- and examines the Catholic doctrine of the church through that lens: as the kingdom of God. The conclusion, however, is another high point. Hahn directly addresses Catholics and exhorts them to re-examine the dogma promulgated by the Council of Trent, which directly responded to the claims of the Protestant Reformation. Rather than identify justification on legalistic grounds of imputed righteousness (as Luther asserted) or the merit of works (as many Catholic chose to respond), the Council of Trent advocated a more relational understanding, sometimes called "imparted righteousness" or "divine filiation."

By faith and by the grace of God, we become heirs of the kingdom and can call ourselves truly sons of God. It is this righteousness, ours through inheritance, that is the basis of our justification, as well as our sanctification and future glorification.  It's a doctrine that all Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, could stand to understand and put into practice.

If you'd like to purchase this book, check it out at
Reasons to Believe: How to Understand, Explain, and Defend the Catholic Faith

This was cross-posted at my theology blog, A Sacramental World.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Larry Schweikart: What Would The Founders Say?

"What Would the Founders Say" is the most recent entry in a string of works by politically-minded historians in defense of a conservative ideal. Written by Larry Schweikart, University of Dayton professor and Fox News commentator, this book argues strongly for an "original intent" approach to modern political issues.

To the extent this work is defined by its title, it largely succeeds. With few exceptions, it conveys the common understanding of the Founding Fathers with impressive clarity.  If, however, this book were meant to be anything more -- if it were meant to argue against liberal or progressive policies, or meant to be a template for such arguments -- it would unfortunately fail before it could even get out of the gate.

The crux of the matter appears in the last two paragraphs of the introduction:
The best way for America to find its way again is to return to the ideas and principles of the Founders.... The Founders owed it to us to make their positions plain and understandable, and they succeeded.  We owe it to them to embrace and apply them (pp. 9-10).
Unfortunately, this argument from "original intent" assumes perhaps the most important point of contention in debates over political philosophy. An equally notable stream of conservative thought argues that the intent of the Founding generation should have no hold over Constitutional law, and that only the original meaning of the Constitution, treaties and laws of the United States should be applied to modern governance. This position, "textualism," is most notably espoused by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and is widely considered (even among liberals) as the most formidable legal argument for conservative policies.

On the other end of the spectrum is the "Living Constitution" arguments from latter-day progressives such as Laurence Tribe.  This argument points out (courtesy of post-modernist epistemology) that the meaning of words is often conditioned on cultures and social environments, and that any attempt to apply an "original intent" or "original meaning" will therefore apply a stringent if arbitrary standard of interpretation. This thesis is quite common among scholars and legal professionals.

Most importantly for our purposes, however, this "Living Constitution" thesis rejects from the beginning any effort to bind modern policy-making to Founding-era values. Thus, "What Would the Founders Say?" is at its heart a book preaching to its own choir. There's nothing wrong with this.  Indeed, as Schweikart points out in the same introduction, the Founding Fathers "are far more than 'dead white men.' They were geniuses..." (pg. 9). The Founding generation lived under a tyranny and studied history extensively, and in the end they crafted a government more free and more stable than anything that had been created before in history. It's an impressive achievement, and we would do well to listen to their advice and guidance. But, unfortunately, that is a premise not always shared among modern progressives, and therefore persuasive appeals must find other grounds for argument.

As for the substantive chapters, I found the seventh chapter on banking and monetary issues to be the most effectively written and argued. While I lack the knowledge of early monetary history to confirm or dispute his statistical arguments, the principles of economic theory were clearly outlined and applied, and the pivotal historical events were presented with clarity and meaning.

There was one aggravating error regarding my own field, the history of economic thought, but Schweikart is hardly responsible for the mistake.  He wrote on pg. 127 that "capitalism as [Adam Smith] outlined it was little known as a theory (though it was already a widespread practice)" -- relying on the common misunderstanding that Adam Smith was the father of classical economics and not reliant on the work of prior economists, notably the French Physiocrats. Likewise, while I wanted to sing from rooftops when Schweikart mentioned the appallingly under-appreciated Jean-Baptiste Say (pg. 155), it appeared that he misunderstood the importance and meaning of Say's contribution to economic thought.

This last point regarding Say is actually part of a broader theme in Schweikart's book. One of main thrusts of the book is a rehabilitation of Hamilton's reputation among conservative audiences. The author's slight misunderstanding of Say is ironically appended to an apologia for Hamilton's misunderstanding of Say. Schweikart is also dismissive of John Adams for the same reason. At one point he notes Adams' tendency to "congratulat[e] himself with characteristic hyperbole" when relaying Adams' opinion late in life that "save for me, [Hamilton] would have involved us in a foreign war with France and a civil war with ourselves" (pg. 165). In all honesty, I'm pretty confident Adams was right, and that his self-congratulation was earned: he did manage to keep us out of the wars raging in Europe at the time, even though it cost him his own prospects for re-election, most of his ties in the Federalist Party, and his close friendship with Thomas Jefferson.

The first two chapters were impressively detailed summaries of the Founder's opinions on religion and education.  I had already read most of the quotes in other works, so it didn't affect me as strongly, but it serves as a decidedly useful antidote to any assertion that the Founding Fathers were generally deists or apathetic to religion, when that is quite possibly the furthest thing from the truth.  The third and fourth chapters, ostensibly on environmentalism and health care, mostly focused on the history of property rights in America -- useful in its own right, but tangential to the question at hand.  I found the ninth chapter on foreign policy to be of particular interest. Where most writers in my experience treat the Founders as non-interventionists, Schweikart argued that the Founders would have preferred a neoconservative approach to foreign policy, but were stymied by the lack of organization that characterized the early republic. I wasn't entirely convinced, but his arguments were well developed, and I will be giving the subject more thought.

On the whole, "What Would the Founders Say?" is a valuable overview of the opinions of the Founding Generation on issues affecting modern America. Some of the issues are developed in a superficial manner, but given the breadth of issues covered and this book's intended popular audience, I'm less surprised by that and more surprised that Schweikart managed to cover issues in as much depth as he did.

If you're interested in purchasing this book, check it out at What Would the Founders Say?: A Patriot's Answers to America's Most Pressing Problems

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

I don't consider myself much of a connoisseur of Hitchcock films.  I've seen my fair share -- "The 39 Steps" was my first, and "Rope" may be my favorite --  but my personal preference is for more recent films.  On the other hand, whenever I discover a new Hitchcock film I know for a fact that I'm in for a treat, so occasionally I carve out to time to watch one.  Thus I found myself watching "The Lady Vanishes," one of Hitchcock's last works before he moved to produce for American studios, and the film that firmly established his early reputation.

The first half-hour or so of the film is quite slow.  A large number of passengers are waiting for a train that has been snowed in, and must stay overnight at an already crowded inn.  We first see the events of the film through the eyes of two British gentlemen, Charters and Coldicott, utterly enraptured by the sport of cricket and utterly enraged at their inability to learn the score. They meet a young happy couple on their honeymoon -- a secret kept from both their real spouses -- and a chatterbox of an English governess, Ms. Froy (played by the inimitable Dame May Whitty).  At length we shift perspectives to Iris, a beautiful but rather spoiled young lady vacationing in Europe on her distant fiance's money. She bribes the innkeeper to stop the noise coming from the room above her, and meets the charming and worldly Gilbert, who was trying to transcribe a local country dance. Finally, as the night concludes, we return to Ms. Froy, listening in raptures to the trilling melody of a serenading guitarist.

As the music ends, the guitarist is strangled.

Events quickly accelerate. As they board the train, Iris is hit on the head with large flower-pot intended for Ms. Froy.  She manages to get on board, but suffers a concussion, and when she awakes, Ms. Froy has vanished, and none of the other passengers remember seeing her.  Only Gilbert believes her, and it takes him some time for that as well.  They search high and low for Ms. Froy, but to little avail.

The great joy of the film is in Hitchcock's ability to construct a compelling 'conspiracy,' for each person in the compartment must have a compelling reason for forgetting Ms. Froy.  Either they are all in on the conspiracy, or each is lying for reasons of their own.  That slow half-hour at the beginning of the film establishes those independent reasons, such that the final effect doesn't feel nearly as artificial or hodge-podge as it might have otherwise seemed.

There are a few sequences in this film that stand out to me. The fight in the baggage compartment between Gilbert and Doppo the Magnificent (a magician famous for his "vanishing woman" act...) is somewhat suspenseful but mostly uproarious, as Gilbert invites the fish-out-of-water Iris to help him fight.  Likewise, the climactic scene has moments of hilarity as the several English gentlemen find themselves (to their chagrin and disbelief) engaging in a gun battle.  The plot pressed onward, and the suspense is constantly maintained, but such moments and little asides are a genuine delight.

Unlike some of his bleaker works, the conclusion of the film is pretty unambiguously happy -- though Charters and Coldicott are disappointed when the fourth match of their cricket team is canceled due to flooding.  The MacGuffin is satisfactorily revealed, and there is a moment of romantic bliss in the penultimate scene involving Gilbert, Iris, and her fiance -- and no, I won't say more than that. There's nothing terrible profound about this film, but it is decidedly entertaining, and that's good enough for me

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Gnomeo and Juliet (2011)

I'll admit, I was pretty skeptical about this film. An adaptation of Shakespeare's immortal romance, starring garden gnomes?  Within the first few minutes of the movie, however, I was hooked.  A gnome walks onto the stage and, in what I can only describe as a Veggie Tales voice, apologizes in advance for how many times that story has already been told. Without further ado, he wipes out a massive scroll, and begins reading Shakespeare's prologue. Spoiler warning: he doesn't finish.

If you don't enter the theater knowing this particular story in advance, my feelings towards you would probably be categorized as: "Oh, how cute!  And how many years old are you?" To reduce it to essentials: boy meets girl, boy is supposed to hate girl, but boy thinks girl is kinda cute, and their doom is thereby assured.  Sure, there are other details like "boy kills girl's brother, and girl wishes he hadn't," but those are really of secondary importance to the gloriously doomed romance.

My favorite brand of humor is probably self-aware humor, and this movie has it in spades. The movie is full to brimming with Shakespeare references, whether in the name of the two neighbor in whose yards this gnome-gang warfare is set, in the name of the movie company (it's a famous duo, and it's not "Starsky and Hutch") , or in the giant talking statue of Shakespeare located in the nearby park. Some of the dialogue is admittedly groan-worthy, but there are several particularly clever lines.  On one occasion Juliet encounters the neighbor's dog and pushes it away, "Out!  Out!", whereupon the neighbor is heard searching for the dog, "Damn Spot!" Another scene shows two gnomes are searching for a mysterious vandal, and decide to split up... only to realize that their feet are joined to the same base.  The first gnome shrugs, "I wish I could quit you," and they continue on their merry way.

Some of the voice work is also top notch: James McAvoy and Emily Blunt voice the two leads, Michael Caine voices Juliet's father and the leader of the red gnomes, while Maggie Smith (see also: Professor McGonagall from the Harry Potter series) voices Gnomeo's mother and leader of the blue gnomes. There are more than a few funny moments involving Featherstone, a rather demented pink flamingo played by the legendary voice actor Jim Cummings (who at points seems to channel Robin Williams as the Genie). Meanwhile, Jason Statham is perfectly cast as the villainous Tybalt, and the show is nearly stolen by Ashley Jensen, who plays Juliet's "nurse," the boy-crazy frog Nanette.

Elton John was a producer of the movie and it definitely shows: the 70's- and 80's-themed soundtrack, while it fits the energy of the piece, tends to get in the way of some of the scenes.  The ending is particular was a bit too much -- I felt like it just hadn't earned the right to be quite so jubilantly cheesy and saccharine.  On the whole, though, it was an energetic and unabashedly self-referential comedy that earned its keep and at least temporarily sated my appetite for cornball humor.  If you liked the film "Over the Hedge" -- or, better yet, you liked that film but for the pontificating on social issues -- you'll almost certainly enjoy this film.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Kirill Yeskov: The Last Ringbearer

Some things in the world you just know. Tigger's butt will always be made out of rubber and springs, Aurora will invariably find the one remaining sewing machine in the kingdom in the secret passage to the abandoned tower just before her sixteenth birthday, and Sauron will forever be remembered as the personification of True Evil among the inhabitants of Middle Earth.  But ah, the skeptic asks: can you ever really know?

Enter, stage left: Kirill Yeskov, world-renown arachnologist and paleontologist by day, author of "Lord of the Rings" fan-fiction by night. Back in 1999, he published "The Last Ringbearer," a revisionist history of Middle Earth. Dismissing Tolkien's fantasy epic as hagiography ("history is written by the victors," his epigram reminds us), Yeskov rewrites the saga and its aftermath from the perspective of Mordor. The battle between the inhuman armies of Mordor and the free peoples of the West becomes in his hands a contest of the Elvish masters of magic against the technological and industrial innovations of Mordor. The Elves fear that Mordorian tech would one day prove their undoing, and so manipulate the Luddite populations of Gondor and Rohan (along with the wizards' Council at Isengard, over the objections of Saruman the Wise) into armed conflict with Mordor.

It is here that the novel's classically Russian heritage becomes evident: Yeskov demonstrates an impressive grasp of military history, strategy, and geopolitics. It turns out that Mordor was not bent on world domination, but was at a strategic impasse that forced it into war. Mordor relied heavily on foreign imports of food and raw materials, which flowed through trade routes to the West, particularly through Gondor.  Raids on such caravans would quickly push Mordor to the brink of starvation and stagnation, and force it into war.  Strategically, however, a defensive war was impossible, for though its mountainous borders were impenetrable, Mordor could not survive under siege, lacking an internal supply of food. Moreover, located between the two contingents of its enemy (Rivendell and Lorien, home of the Elves, to the North, with the kingdoms of Gondor and Rohan to the West), it was almost ideally situated for an offensive strike.

All of this occurs within the first few pages of the novel.  With this new realization of Mordorian geopolitics, it is almost impossible not to sympathize with their plight, nor their ultimately catastrophic failure to secure the necessary leverage to ensure food delivery and bring about peace.

Early on in the novel, Yeskov forces us to re-examine the list of races.  In his world, there are Elves and men and wizards.  But the trolls are simply rustic mountain-dwelling men who specialize in masonry; orcs are no longer demonic-looking dwellers of darkness, but ordinary men living in the shadow of the Ash Mountains; and both dwarves and hobbits were legends invented for the pleasure of credulous Gondorian ears

Moreover, the original cast of characters are reimagined. Aragorn is a Machiavellian schemer who deals in Dark Magic to secure the allegiance of the dead soldiers of Dunharrow, and who wins his throne from the rightful heir Faramir by blackmail and an invented lineage -- though even he is far outmatched in scheming by his Elvish "handler" Arwen. In the character of Gandalf, the author's evidently Soviet sympathies come to the fore: for the Grey Wizard is an oddly villainous cross between Adolf Hitler (seeking a "Final Solution" to the Mordorian problem) and Ronald Reagan (describing Mordor as "an Evil Empire"). Only Faramir and Eowyn remain of the original cast with their nobility intact. As for the infamous Ring of Power, it was a legend invented by the Nazgul (ancient wizards, counterparts to the Council of Isengard but unafraid of technology and therefore sympathetic to Mordor) to distract the power-hungry Western kingdoms.

After a few chapters of ret-conning the final defeat of Mordor's forces (Sauron evidently met his heroic end fighting as an ordinary captain among his men at the Battle of the Black Gate), Yeskov presents his own main characters: a field medic from Umbar, a port-city south of Mordor, and an Orocuen scout.  These two principals propel the story to its conclusion, for to them is entrusted the last hope of Mordor: they must sever the connection between Middle Earth and the Ardan world of magic, and thereby drive out the Elves from their positions of dominance.

Revisionism and ret-conning aside, this is a fantastic work.  (After some consideration, I've decided I am quite pleased with that inadvertent pun, and will let it stand).  Yeskov's influences from classical Russian literature are demonstrable, especially in his Tolstoyan grasp of military strategy and politics. There is a fascinating spy v. spy interlude that verges on a danse macabre -- undertones of Liszt's "Totentanz" seem to periodically ring out in this high-stakes game of death.  There is tragedy, high comedy, hints of mythology, and even romance.  It must be said, however, that there are several scenes with sexual content that would make Tolkien blush.  I don't recall anything explicit being described, merely discussed, but it may be too much for some readers.

The epilogue is decidedly ingenious as well. Hearkening to a similar historian's conceit, the prologue to "The Princess Bride," the author claims to have received his account from the folktales passed down by the descendants of the original Orocuen scout.  He also derides the popular Gondorian media for its vulgar and politically correct depictions of the tale, and includes a delicious passing shot at film festival critics, who (fearing the labels of racist, sexist, homophobe) give the vulgar cinematic trash every award in the book.

Despite the sometimes clunky translation, occasional anachronisms, and rare but decidedly off-putting revelations of the author's Soviet sympathies, I found this work a fascinating counterpoint to Tolkien's original.  Tolkien's method, as a philologist, was to create a world and a mythology from languages.  Yeskov's is to create a world and a social reality from a geological and geopolitical climate. I am too unread in Tolkien's other works to know whether this tale is compatible with the rest of the official history of Middle Earth, but as far as I could tell it was grounded in as comprehensive and coherent a world as the original. I'm not at all sure that "The Last Ringbearer" would appeal to fans of Tolkien's work, but on the whole I would consider it one of the best works of 'fan fiction' I have ever read.

**Note: the Tolkien estate has thus far prevented publication of an English translation of the original Russian novel.  However, at the end of last year an English version did appear, and last month a full English translation was vetted and approved by the author.  It can be found, in full and for free, on the translator's blog at the following address:  Enjoy the read.**