Saturday, September 30, 2006

"We Highly Protest Against Pop's Hypocritical About The Islam"

That's a verbatim quote. The message appeared on a sign carried by Pakistani Muslims protesting what they think Pope Benedict XVI said about Islam in a recent speech at the University of Regensburg in Germany. The sign appeared in a photograph accompanying a Catholic News Service story in my diocesan newspaper expressing the Pope's regret over negative Muslim reaction to the speech. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find the photo online.

I've been wanting to blog about this controversy for a couple of weeks now, but I found it hard to put into words what I thought until I saw that banner. The Pope put forth some complex ideas in German, a language these poor, misguided, agressively ignorant souls don't understand, and are expressing their outrage about what they think he said in English, another language they obviously don't understand.

If they had been willing or able to read the actual speech, they would have found that the Pope's perceived criticism of Islam was actually a quotation from a medieval Byzantine emperor that few people had ever heard of, and that the emperor's views are not shared by the pope. The supposed dig at Islam was offered almost in passing. Indeed, the pope's speech is far more critical of Western rationalism, empiricism, and scientific materialism than it is of Islam.

I'm going to try to summarize what I think the pople was saying as a thought exercise and a way to help me understand it:

  1. From a synthesis of Greek philosophy and the Judaeo-Christian revelation, Catholic Christianity formulated the principle that because God is essentially motivated by love for human beings and all of his creatures, He will act in a way that is comprehensible to human reason. Therefore, it is reasonable for the Christian and the human being to believe in God, and the existence and essential nature of God can be understood, at least in part, by the use of human reason. To act violently, especially in matters of religion is unreasonable, or contrary to the nature of God. The Greek influence on Christian thought, which postulates that God acts in accordance with reason or logos is what the pope refers to as "hellenization."

  2. Islam, however, which either never had or rejecteted a hellenizing influence, presents a concept of God who is so awesome, so transcendent, and so far above human understanding that the God of Islam is not bound to act in accordance with human reason.Therefore violence has always been considered a far more permissible means of spreading the faith in Islam than it has in Christianity.

  3. Unfortunately, a process of "de-hellenization" or rejection of the idea that God acts in accordance with human reason or logos began in Western thought too, beginning with the Protestant reformers who rejected the concepts of Greek philosophy and metaphysics as inadequate to describe God. God could not adequately be described using logic and reason. Therefore, faith ultimately became something subjective and emotional.

  4. The process of "de-hellenization" of Western Christian thought continued with the 19th-century liberal German theologians who emphasized the concept of Jesus as man, moral philosopher, and wisdom teacher, but not as transcendent, incarnate Christ. Jesus as Christ was held to be a theological construct which could not be supported by empirical historical evidence.

  5. If God could not be described using vocabulary derived from philosophy and logical reasoning, and Jesus was only a wise man or a moral teacher, then the only things that human reason and logic could safely be applied to with any hope of finding truth were the physical sciences that could be empirically verified by observation and experiment. The "de-hellenization" of Western thought was complete.

  6. The tendency in Modern Western thought to rely on the rational, empirical, and readily provable and exclude the spiritual, the metaphysical, or the religious leads almost inevitably to agnosticism or atheism, a point of view the Islamic world has rightly rejected. Therefore, the West and the Islamic world cannot enter into real dialogue as long as the West has deprived itself of a real vocabulary to discuss spiritual issues that are so essential to the Islamic world view. Islamic faith and secular materialism can't comprehend each other, much less talk to each other. In order for the West and the Islamic world to enter into a real "dialogue of cultures," as the pope puts it the West will have to rediscover the reasonableness of faith in God and its own religious traditions.

That's what I think the Pope was trying to say. If my vast and erudite readership could read the speech, read what I've written, and tell me if I'm on the right track, I'd greatly appreciate it.


A friend of mine asked why I hadn't posted to this blog in a while. Normally weekends are about the only opportunity I have to post here, and for the past couple of weekends I've been working on a fiction project. It's fun and exciting, but "It's All Straw" is still around, too. In addition, I spent much of last weekend working on Legion of Mary stuff since I am now acting president of our praesidium. Please pray for us, since our active membership appears to be dwindling. I would hate to see our praesidium wither away into nothing. Mary, Mystical Rose, pray for us.

Monday, September 04, 2006

And Speaking of Hymnody . . .

Ironically enough, just after I finish posting a piece on the glories of polyphony, comes this item. Via Drew at Shrine of the Holy Whapping, I learn that an essay by Catholic cultural critic extraordinaire George Weigel, on the most deplorable tendencies in contemporary Catholic music, is now available online. Mr. Weigel half-jokingly suggests creating a musical equivalent of the old Index of Forbidden Books, an Index Canticorum Prohibitorum. I read this essay when it first appeared in my diocesan newspaper a couple of years ago. While Mr. Weigel makes several valid points, I must respectfully disagree with him when he says the following:

Next to go should be those "We are Jesus" hymns in which the congregation (for the first time in two millennia of Christian hymnology) pretends that it's Christ . . . . "Be Not Afraid" and "You Are Mine" fit this category, as does the ubiquitous "I Am the Bread of Life," to which I was recently subjected on, of all days, Corpus Christi — the one day in the Church year completely devoted to the fact that we are not a self-feeding community giving each other "the bread of life" but a Eucharistic people nourished by the Lord's free gift of himself. "I am the bread of life" inverts that entire imagery, indeed falsifies it.

Huh? While it is true that "Be Not Afraid" and "You Are Mine" take some liberties with biblical texts and concepts, the lyrics of "I am the bread of life" (at least if they're the ones I'm thinking of) come almost verbatim from Jesus's discourses in the sixth and eleventh chapters of the Gospel of John. The congregation is recalling the words of Christ recorded in Scripture. By that logic, is any lector delivering an Old Testament reading beginning: Thus says the Lord "pretending" to be God? For that matter, is the priest or deacon reading the Gospel and quoting the words of Jesus "pretending" to be Jesus? (Yes, yes, I know, the priest stands in persona Christi, but that's different). If a lector, priest, or deacon can read the words of God, the people of God should be able to sing them.

Furthermore, while listing certain hymns that should be unceremoniously booted from every Catholic hymnal in the land posthaste, Mr. Weigel fails to mention the one that in my humble opinon is the most egregious offender: "Let There Be Peace on Earth."

This piece of drivel (I hesitate to call it a hymn) is so bad on so many levels! Theologically, yes, it mentions God, but only once, and fails to specify whose god is being invoked. Certainly not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or the God who became incarnate in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was born in Bethlehem, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, was buried, and rose again on the third day. Not that God. No, the god the authors of this song want to invoke seems to be some sort of cosmic Santa Claus who is there to make sure we get along with each other and play nice:

"With God as our Father
(Wonder how that got past the Inclusive Language Police?)
Children all are we.
Let us walk with each other,
In perfect har-mo-nee."

Bad poetry? You betcha. Pass the Pepto, I'm about to be ill.

My late father used to say that this song reminded him of that detestable Coke commercial from the late '60s and early '70s. You know the one I mean. ("I'd like to teach the world to sing . . ."). Have to agree with ya there, Dad. Musically, this song always sounded to me as if it would be more at home at a Celine Dion concert than as part of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Yet I have heard parishioners and choir members, mind you, get all teary-eyed and ask, "Isn't it beautiful?" (Well, not if you ask me, but I guess there's no accounting for taste).

It seems to me that Mr. Weigel is straining at gnats and swallowing camels. If he wants to get rid of wretched hymnody, I'm all for it, but let's start at the top and dump this gigantic stinker first. Then we'll move on to the small fry.

There. I feel better. I'll go try and calm down now.

The Palace of Tallis

I have never placed my hope
in any other than you, O God of Israel,
who can show both anger and graciousness,
and absolve the sins
of suffering man.
Lord God, creator of heaven and earth,
be mindful of our humiliation.

—Thomas Tallis, Spem in alium, translated by The Tallis Scholars.

For several days now, my tiny apartment has been resounding with the magnificent polyphonic liturgical music of Thomas Tallis (1505-1585). I'm listening to him now as I write this. In a post back in April, I mentioned my fairly recent discovery of Tallis and my determination to get a CD of his music, but I couldn't decide on which one. After much dithering, I chose The Tallis Scholars Sing Thomas Tallis, a two disc collection by the English choral group who, as their name implies, devote themselves to the music of Tallis and other Renaissance liturgical composers. I chose this album because of the completeness of the collection, the thoroughness of the liner notes, and the inclusion of complete translations of all the Latin lyrics. This was despite the complaints of some listener-reviewers on who felt that the soprano voices tended to overwhelm others and predominate on Tallis Scholars recordings. My only real quibble with this album is with the packaging. The little tray holding the two discs broke off from the rest of the container on the second day I had the album. Surely there must be a simpler and more durable way to package this music! On balance, however, I would say that the strengths of this collection far outweigh the weaknesses.

The collection itself includes nearly three hours of music from throughout Tallis's career, both pieces he wrote for the Roman Catholic liturgy in Latin and the Anglican liturgy in English. I find that while the English material such as "If Ye Love Me," is indeed quite beautiful in a stark, severe sort of way, it lacks the soaring, transcendent quality of the Catholic, Latin compositions. Judging from the music alone, I would say that in his heart of hearts, Tallis was and remained a Catholic even though he lived in a time of considerable social and political pressure to become Protestant. His sympathies, musically speaking, are plainly with the Catholics. The liner notes point out that Tallis's Catholic and Anglican pieces are written in significantly different styles because the Anglican liturgy placed a premium on the congregation's ability to understand the text. Since the Catholic compositions were in Latin to begin with, the congregation's ability to understand the text was probably considered somewhat less important, which allowed Tallis to be freer musically and create layers upon layers of sound. Again, judging from the music alone (and I am certainly no expert), I would say that perhaps Tallis's intent with his Catholic, Latin compositions was not so much to inspire reflection on a text but to create a mood, a general atmosphere, if you will, of prayer, praise, and adoration. Spem in alium, quoted above, is usually considered Tallis's masterpiece, but I find myself especially moved by Gaude gloriosa Dei mater ("Rejoice, O Glorious Mother of God"), a hymn to the Blessed Virgin that goes on for over 15 minutes. To me, this music is what heaven sounds like.

I expect this is only the beginning of my adventures in polyphony. I'd like to get some more Tallis recordings (perhaps by different ensembles to compare their interpretations of various pieces), as well as works by Byrd and Palestrina. Stay tuned.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Medieval Madness!

Attention medievalists! Did you know Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog? That's right. The author of The Canterbury Tales has entered the cyber-age! (Neat trick, considerin' ol' Geoff died around 1400). Two bloggers calling themselves Le Vostre GC and Katherine de Swineford have created a spot-on parody of Middle English prose, and, for English majors at least, one of the funniest blogs around. I wasn't always a lowly librarian and Mark Shea/Amy Welborn wannabe, no sir. Back in the day I was a graduate student in English and American Lit. specializing in medieval and Renaissance literature, and for a split nanosecond, this blog made me think nostalgically about graduate school. I had a professor who would have loved it. I daresay the authors are two grad students in medieval studies facing rather bleak employment prospects who've decided to have a bit of fun at Geoff's expense. Don't miss Serpentes on a Shippe, their send-up of Snakes on a Plane.

Chaucerians looking for chuckles might also try Geoff Chaucer, Medieval Dick. If the Parlement of Fowles had included The Maltese Falcon, it might have gone something like this. Newly illustrated--with tapestries! (For those of you concerned about bad language, the word "Dick" in this case refers to the slang term for detective, not a vulgarism for a certain portion of the male anatomy). Enjoy!

Astounding Adventures Now Online!

Happy Labor Day to all citizens of the blogosphere and greetings to all my faithful readers (both of you)! If you're looking for some light reading this weekend (and I do mean light), you might try Astounding Adventures, my online pulp magazine and fiction archive. In a previous post I confessed desire to start writing again and my unfortunate fondness for old-fashioned adventure fiction of the kind you might have found in the old pulp magazines of the 1930s and '40s. Astounding Adventures is my tribute to the genre and a central location for all the fiction I've posted to date. There you'll find a couple of Star Trek stories and a story inspired by Michael Chabon's extraordinary novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a loving tribute to the "golden age" of comic books, pulp fiction, and old radio.

I plan to add more stories as time goes by. In honor of the Superman Returns movie that came out earlier this summer (which I enjoyed hugely, BTW), I decided to dust off an old idea I had for a story in which Superman meets The Shadow. I will say no more about it at present, as it's in its earliest stages and may take awhile to complete. In the meantime, enjoy what's there and let me know what you think.