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Friday, November 21


With the advent of the public library as a provider of Internet access, my role as a librarian has gradually changed. As terminals are added to the downtown branch where I work, I am becoming less what was once rather euphemistically known as a “knowledge worker” than a playground supervisor for the indigents who spend the day entertaining themselves at the library computers.

The Internet, touted by the panjandrums of the library world as a wonderful new way of amassing and transmitting knowledge—which indeed it can be— rises up before me more as a mirror of the soul, with strong amplifying qualities. For the dark and trivial mind, here is darkness and trivia without end, and for those whose lives have lost meaning and direction, here is an endless sea of pointless stimulation.

It differs from a library of books in the unusual strength of its narcotic quality. Once, if man would lose himself in reading, it had to be done with much lifting and carrying, as it were—much labor of a particularly humane sort, of socializing and individuating, before he could finally place the world-numbing words before his eyes. He was given an even chance to become a real man before he lost himself in his books. But the electronic pseudo-world quickly arrests and transfixes the man already made partial to chaos by the disintegrating forces of modernity, draws him in, flattens him out, and diffuses him across a nearly infinite plain, virtually without effort, virtually without resistance, virtually without thought.

11:25 PM

Thursday, November 20


Our youngest daughter wrote to tell us that the approach of her twentieth birthday is causing some apprehension she did not expect, for when it comes she will no longer be a teenager, but has left forever the time of life when any kind of irresponsibility might excused on the basis of her nonage. Not that she hasn’t been a good and responsible teenager, mind you, for she has been—only that this anniversary is adding weight to her shoulders that she didn’t carry before. And there is some resentment for this. One hardly feels that it is deserved, since one wakes up on one’s birthday the same person as on the day before.

Ah yes, I told her, it is the same with your parents. As you grow older, you are the same person you always were; you just add layers, and with each layer, weight on the soul. Just wait until you’re forty and you let out the nineteen-year old You for a brief refrigerium in the world, to the horror and chagrin of your fifteen-year old daughter. You’ll quickly shut her back up inside and keep her there, probably until you die. But she’ll still be there, young, happy, and beautiful, waiting for God to let her out again someday. That’s one of the things dying is good for.

10:05 PM

Wednesday, November 19


A link a friend sent, which some of you may find of interest: Russian Observations Upon the American Prayer Book from 1904.

1:23 PM


A most amusing and instructive article from the English newspaper The Guardian: "Too good to be true" by Tim Radford. The description reads "Fifty years after Piltdown man was exposed as an outrageous fraud, Tim Radford selects his all-time favourite science scams." For example:

The amazing Tasaday tribe

In 1971 Manuel Elizalde, a Philippine government minister, discovered a small stone age tribe living in utter isolation on the island of Mindanao. These people, the Tasaday, spoke a strange language, gathered wild food, used stone tools, lived in caves, wore leaves for clothes, and settled matters by gentle persuasion. They made love, not war, and became icons of innocence; reminders of a vanished Eden.

They also made the television news headlines, the cover of National Geographic, were the subject of a bestselling book, and were visited by Charles A Lindbergh and Gina Lollobrigida. Anthropologists tried to get a more sustained look, but President Marcos declared a 45,000-acre Tasaday reserve and closed it to all visitors.

After Marcos was deposed in 1986, two journalists got in and found that the Tasaday lived in houses, traded smoked meat with local farmers, wore Levi's T-shirts and spoke a recognisable local dialect. The Tasadays explained that they had only moved into caves, donned leaves and performed for cameras under pressure from Elizalde - who had fled the country in 1983 along with millions from a foundation set up to protect the Tasaday. Elizalde died in 1997.

None of the examples are really crushing ones that do in some contemporary guru — like the discovery that the Samoans had hoodwinked Margaret Mead, who almost certainly wanted to be hoodwinked in this way — but they are amusing.

My thanks to Philip Johnson, author of The leading edge column which appears in the magazine every other issue, for the link.

12:22 AM

Tuesday, November 18


Jim Kushiner did some research about one of the churches whose pastor (or whatever they have) signed the letter described in the next blog, and found it described as:

The Church of Spiral Oak is a gathering place for spiritualists, Witches, Druids, shaman, and other magickal people and for all people who identify themselves as having a spiritual pathway that is uncommon and hard to describe as anything else but "Pagan."  This is a connecting point for people who have walked the Path for a long time, and for people who are still seeking a Way.

I have never understood the appeal of nature religions, which Wicca and its cousins are supposed to be. Nature being, as Tennyson observed, "red in tooth and claw," is not the sort of thing one would want either to worship or to blend oneself with. Nature isn't butterflies and bunnies, it's birds gobbling the butterflies and hawks eating the bunnies alive.

The pagans I've read talk a lot about achieving harmony with the cycles of nature and that sort of thing, but these cycles are completely impersonal and indeed inhumane and inhuman. The Black Plague is part of the cycle of nature. Just thinking purely in terms of self-interest, I would think a religion that says a loving Person lives behind nature and will correct and heal all the wounds it gives us, is a vastly more attractive religion.

I suspect that many neo-pagans actually rely, psychologically, on the comforting sense of personal immortality that two millenia of Christianity have produced. They don't actually think they're going to go out of existence and be merged in impersonal nature. In other words, they do not pay the emotional costs of real paganism.

And for that matter, I suspect that they also rely, psychologically, on the sense of the ultimate goodness of the universe that Christianity has also produced, and the astonishingly comfortable and affluent society they live in has encouraged. The ancient pagans knew the spirit world included devils as well as gods, and the gods themselves weren't to be trusted. They were wise enough to see that what the world suggested about itself was not encouraging.

Which is why Christianity came as such a liberation, and still comes as such to people in some societies. (A man who had lived in Nepal once told me some heart-rending stories about the fear of the spirits that characterized popular Nepalese Buddhism.) But the neo-pagans, supported by the Christian sense of the world, do not see the world as the real pagan sees it, and therefore do not see the Lord as he is.

8:14 PM


A letter from an interfaith group in Akron, Ohio, published in the local newspaper: "Akron Area Interfaith Council is awake to the vastness of God" (I didn't make that up). It ends:

We believe that God can work through anyone and any religion. The power, majesty and mystery of God is too grand to be contained in but one religious vessel. The vastness of God transcends all limits of human experience, including the intellect. The ways of God are mysterious and diverse, and we celebrate the diversity of God through our interfaith relationships. . . .

We are the men and women of the AAIC, and we have awakened to the joyous reality that all people are creations of God.

We celebrate our oneness with Akron, Summit County and beyond. We are not one in theology, but we are one in spirit. We invite you to join us in celebrating the diversity of God through freedom of religion, equality and tolerance, and in boldly using our religions to celebrate life and to work for social justice.

We are different branches of the same tree of life. God, Allah, Yahweh, and the Spirit are all metaphorical terms pointing beyond themselves to the same pulse of universal life that beats in every human heart.

We are awake.

Where is Evelyn Waugh when you need him? The signers include several pastors of mainline churches, one rabbi, one laywoman from a Catholic church, one man from the Islamic Community Center (!), two Unitarian-Universalist pastors (both female), and several people from groups like the Bahais. The signers are evenly divided between men and women.

7:59 PM


A reader, Ben Philips, sends this interesting article from The Economist: "God, man and growth". It reports on a study by two economists, "Religion and Economic Growth". The authors found that

More prosperous countries seem to have lower rates of church attendance, although America—the best instance of a country of competing sects rather than a state religion—is a conspicuous exception. More urbanised countries tend to be less religious. However, contrary to what many people think, religion seems to have a stronger hold in countries with better educated populations.

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.

But on the other hand, the authors

find that church-going, after a certain point, is (in an economic sense, anyway) a waste of time. They argue that higher church attendance uses up time and resources, and eventually runs into diminishing returns. The “religion sector”, as they call it, can consume more than it yields.

The writer questions the study's findings, I think rightly. It leaves too many important questions unasked, one of which is whether specific beliefs matter. Religion covers a very wide range of beliefs about the cosmos and some of them are bound to be more economically fruitful than others — which is not, I stress, necessarily a point in their favor.

7:48 PM


An interesting article on, ”The hypocrite of Kabul”, a review of a new book, The Bookseller of Kabul by a Norwegian writer, Asne Seierstad. According to the reviewer, Ann Marlowe, the book tells the expected story of brutal Afghan males and horribly oppressed Afghan women. As a result, perhaps, it

has broken all records for Scandinavian book sales, with a half million copies sold. This is a concrete demonstration that Orientalism is by no means out of style, even when handled by hands as crude as Seierstad's.

Marlowe criticizes the writer severely. Seierstad, who had lived with the Afghan family she describes, “deep-down believes that the people she is among are unfathomable savages” and “never tries to find out why they do the things she describes,” writing instead an ideological tract. She writes in an omniscient style that makes her suppositions sound like eye-witness reporting. Seierstad’s experience of one Afghan family does not

entitle Seierstad to make sweeping generalizations about Afghan marriage. "In Afghanistan, a woman's longing for love is taboo," she writes. For love outside of marriage, yes. But surely not for a loving marriage. What would Seierstad make of the old Uzbek saying, meant to come from one aged spouse to another: “I hope we meet in the afterlife, because 50 years together was not enough”?

The people who passed that down for generations cannot have thought of women as simply "objects to be bartered or sold," even though the marriages they had in mind were arranged. And if body language, eye contact and tone of voice mean anything, the marriages I saw compared favorably with American marriages in terms of affection and, especially, respect.

Marlowe then tries to explain — she lived with an Afghan family herself — what the culture is really like. She is not uncritical, but she writes with respect. And with some historical knowledge, pointing out, for example, that the common practice of marrying first cousins was once common in Europe as well and protects the women from abuse, since they are marrying into a branch of their own family.

She ends the article with an interesting comparison of Afghan and American culture:

But the best epigram I've ever seen about Afghans comes from the first Afghan-American novelist, San Francisco physician Khaled Hosseini. "Afghans cherish customs but abhor rules," says a character in his moving debut, "The Kite Runner." When you consider that Westerners are nearly the opposite, the inevitable collision of cultural styles becomes clearer.

I rather like that, cherishing customs and abhoring rules. It has a certain romantic appeal.

But to proceed. Marlowe argues that this leads to “risk-aversion,” which in turn helps explain the violence of Afghan society. I have no idea if she is right, but her theory makes sense.

Coasting on the familiar tide of custom, insulated from the need for organized institutions by their hundred cousins, Afghans have been motivated to develop only the merest skeleton of a civil society. A tendency toward consensual decision-making and risk-aversion means stasis. Especially for those born into higher-status families, there's more to be lost by trying and failing than there is to be gained by trying and succeeding.

. . . Precisely because few people want to rock the boat, it's easily tipped over when someone does. Bad geopolitical luck, combined with the lack of strong civil institutions, leave custom and the gun as the two easy alternatives. Afghans can't seem to stop killing each other because, like a couple in a bad marriage, they've never tried the scary venture of learning how to have survivable fights.

American culture, in contrast, prefers rules, but — this is me, not Marlowe — this loses us all the benefits of custom. An old-fashioned Southerner would understand the Afghans. I am not a partisan for custom as the Southern apologists present it, since it included the racial divisions they tend to ignore or romanticize. (The conflict of the organic, familial South and the commercial North is was one of the themes of the movie Gods and Generals, but I didn’t find it convincing.) But a society that values rule over custom will still lose important things that custom has preserved.

Now, is not the place one would expect to find an attack on a feminist writer —a feminist polemicist — like Seierstad. It is cheering to find a writer trying, while admitting her own limitations, to tell a different story than the standard one.

When the war on the Taliban in Afghanistan first started, I was amused to see conservative writers who had never shown great interest in the status of women suddenly sounding like feminists. “The women have to wear Burkhas!” was too good an argument to pass up. I imagine the sense of relief some of they may have felt, that finally they could say something the liberals would like.

But if Marlowe is right, this was not all there was to be said.

7:31 PM


From last Thursday’s edition of the always useful OpinionJournal, another reason to distrust journalists.

The Living Constitution

Sorry to beat up so much on the New York Times today; it just sort of worked out that way. Check out the second item in the corrections column:

*** QUOTE ***

An article yesterday about Gen. Wesley K. Clark's support for a constitutional amendment to ban desecration of the flag referred incorrectly to the process for adopting one. In the process that begins with passage by Congress, a proposed amendment is normally sent to state legislatures or state conventions for approval, not directly to voters.

*** END QUOTE ***

It seems reporter Edward Wyatt and his editors were all ignorant of this basic fact of American civics. And what does the Times mean, "normally"? State legislatures and state conventions are the only bodies that can ratify an amendment under Article V of the Constitution. Though we suppose it's true that the procedure isn't always followed. The constitutional amendment establishing the right to abortion, for instance, was never ratified by the states.

As every writing teacher tells his students over and over: check your sources. I've told mine that the two rules for research were provided by The X-Files: "The truth is out there" and "Trust no one."

The same mailing included another useful item, this one about the simple-minded moralizing of a Boston Globe columnist who once, revealingly, won the Pulitzer Prize. Ellen Goodman wrote:

The picture shows the president surrounded by an all-male chorus line of legislators as he signs the first ban on an abortion procedure. It's a single-sex class photo of men making laws governing something they will never have: a womb.

This was not just a strategic misstep, a rare Karl Rove lapse. It perfectly reflected the truth of the so-called partial-birth abortion law. What's wrong with this picture? The legislators had indeed erased women. They used the law as if it were Photoshop software, to crop out real women with real problems.

The writer agreed that not included the women who supported the bill — who included Sens. Elizabeth Dole (R., N.C.), Blanche Lincoln (D., Ark.), Mary Landrieu (D., La.) and Lisa Murkowski (R., Alaska) — was "a politically boneheaded move." And then noted that:

But it's silly to paint this ban, which applies only to an especially gruesome form of abortion performed late in pregnancy, as somehow sexist. After all, not all the children who have their skulls crushed and their brains sucked out in partial-birth abortions are boys.

10:11 AM

Monday, November 17


A reader writes in response to Saturday's "As the world turns" about Wheaton College's introduction of dancing:

I’m just catching up on Mere Comments this weekend but instantly thought of St. Francis de Sales’s thoughts on dancing after reading your blog entry on dancing at Wheaton College:

<< Bethink you, then

1. That while you were dancing, souls were groaning in hell by reason of sins committed when similarly occupied, or in consequence thereof.

2. Remember how, at the selfsame time, many religious and other devout persons were kneeling before God, praying or praising Him. Was not their time better spent than yours?

3. Again, while you were dancing, many a soul has passed away amid sharp sufferings; thousands and tens of thousands were lying all the while on beds of anguish, some perhaps untended, unconsoled, in fevers, and all manner of painful diseases. Will you not rouse yourself to a sense of pity for them? At all events, remember that a day will come when you in your turn will lie on your bed of sickness, while others dance and make merry.

4. Bethink you that our Dear Lord, Our Lady, all the Angels and Saints, saw all that was passing. Did they not look on with sorrowful pity, while your heart, capable of better things, was engrossed with such mere follies? >>

Let us continue to encourage one another in Christ to set a good example not only for the world but also for our fellow Christians.

1:30 PM

Sunday, November 16


A reader, Ken Pierce, sends the following excerpt from Dorothy Sayers' book The Mind of the Maker. It comes from chapter VIII, "Pentecost" (I've subdivided the paragraphs) and is an important reminder of a power we treat too cheaply:

This is the Power of the Word, and it is dangerous. Every word—even every idle word—will be accounted for at the day of judgment, because the word itself has power to bring to judgment. It is of the nature of the word to reveal itself and to incarnate itself — to assume material form. Its judgment is therefore an intellectual, but also a material judgment.

The habit, very prevalent to-day, of dismissing words as “just words” takes no account of their power. But once the Idea has entered into other minds, it will tend to reincarnate itself there with ever-increasing Power. It may for some time only incarnate itself in more words, more books, more speeches; but the day comes when it incarnates itself in actions, and this is the day of judgment. At the time when these words are being written, we are witnessing a fearful judgment of blood, resulting from the incarnation in deeds of an Idea to which, when it was content with a verbal revelation, we paid singularly little heed.

Which Ideas are (morally) Good and which are anti-Good it is not the purpose of this book to discuss; what is now abundantly manifest is the Power. Any Idea whose Energy manifests itself in a Pentecost of Power is good from its own point of view . . .

It is the business of education to wait upon Pentecost. . . . The Energy of Ideas does not seem to descend into the receptive mind with quite that rush of cloven fire which we ought to expect. Possibly there is something lacking in our Idea of education.

3:39 PM


In response to yesterday's request, another reader sends with his recommendation a link to Maternal Life International. On the front page, this ministry says:

Hope begins in the recognition of the infinite dignity of the human person. Such hope and such dignity begs to move beyond words to become a lived reality. The mission of Maternal Life International is directed to such a hope, as it works to provide women with emergency obstetrical care, AIDS prevention and care, and practical instruction in natural family planning.

Another page on the site describes MLI's "unique paradigm":

Nearly 600,000 women die each year from pregnancy and childbirth-related complications. Ninety-nine percent of these deaths occur in developing countries.

While two-thirds of the world's AIDS occur in Sub-Saharan Africa, fewer than five percent of Africans receive specific care for HIV- related disease. In many regions, between twenty and forty percent of pregnant women are HIV positive.

The response of many international health-care organizations has emphasized the provision of contraceptive technology and widespread distribution of condoms. Such a response fails to address the real needs of women in terms of obstetrical care, AIDS specific interventions and education.

A different paradigm is needed. Authentic human development can only transpire through respecting the life and dignity of the human person. It is within this paradigm that Maternal Life International has developed the following programs:

— Training & Resource Assistance for Emergency Obstetrical Care

— Training & Resource Assistance for AIDS Prevention and Care

— Training & Resource Assistance for Practical Instruction in Fertility Awareness

The site includes two papers by a Dr. Mulcaire-Jones, though I can't find him or her identified on the site:

"The Bead System of Fertility Awareness: Development and Methodology" about a system the group developed, and

"Integrating Human Consciousness
into Health-Care Development"

Another site and ministry I commend to your attention.

3:36 PM


In response to the next blog, which I posted last night, a reader has kindly sent the link for MaterCare International. The group's homepage says that:

MaterCare International is an association of health professionals dedicated to improving the lives and health of mothers and their unborn children throughout the world, through new initiatives of service, training, and research, in accordance with the contemporary teaching contained in the Encyclical Evangelium Vitae (the Gospel of Life).

One of the problems they will fix is obstetric fistula (the website contains a description), which can be fixed by a surgery costing $425 Canadian (which is, what, $275 US?). They estimate that 1,000,000 women (I think they mean in Africa) suffer from this.

The site includes links to an interview the Vatican news service conducted with the group's executive director, Dr. Robert Walley. You can find the two parts of the interview on their news page, along with several other helpful stories.

I commend the site and the work to your attention.

1:57 PM

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