Happy Easter. I have long struggled with Easter, I think largely because I’ve struggled with springtime as a time of in-betweens that has often felt uncomfortable. In recent years I’ve become more at peace with this time of year. And I’ve fallen more in love with Eastertime, the central time of the Christian calendar when Christ reformed death from a nothing into a something by bringing down the great and thorny bramble wall and forging in its place a narrow path.

It’s that path that provides the basis for our hope of resurrection, which is a new and transfigured life. I’ve included here my favorite depiction of the resurrection, Sir Stanley Spencer’s 1920s masterpiece that hangs in London’s Tate Museum that shows so well the alarming nature of Christ’s promise.

Bishop Barron has a great reflection on Easter that’s worth watching in its fullness:

I’ve also been receiving Bishop Barron’s Lent reflections, and while each has been rewarding it is Easter’s that I’ve found the most arresting and worth sharing. It speaks to the Easter Gospel, John 20:1-9:

Friends, our Easter Gospel contains St. John’s magnificent account of the resurrection. It was, says John, early in the morning on the first day of the week. It was still dark—just the way it was at the beginning of time before God said, “Let there be light.” But a light was about to shine, and a new creation was about to appear.

The stone had been rolled away. That stone, blocking entrance to the tomb of Jesus, stands for the finality of death. When someone that we love dies, it is as though a great stone is rolled across them, permanently blocking our access to them. And this is why we weep at death—not just in grief but in a kind of existential frustration.

But for Jesus, the stone had been rolled away. Undoubtedly, the first disciples must have thought a grave robber had been at work. But the wonderful Johannine irony is that the greatest of grave robbers had indeed been at work. The prophet Ezekiel says this, “I will open your graves and have you rise from them.”

What was dreamed about, what endured as a hope against hope, has become a reality. God has opened the grave of his Son, and the bonds of death have been shattered forever.

Christ is truly risen.

Will we become machines?

Joseph Bottum reviews a slew of recent books on the coming of the machine age, and reflects on what it might mean (or not mean) for the future of humanity. It’s worth reading in whole for how well he skewers confused utopian thinking. In short, we cannot make ourselves immortal by destroying what we are: embodied and finite creatures. There’s also this, which I’m included here as something to look back upon in the years to come as a test of its skepticism:

We seem to have some weakness that lures us to think fundamental change is barreling down upon us. As it happens, the utopians and dystopians do share one thing in common: For centuries now, neither group has been much more successful at predicting the future than the gypsy lady who reads palms down on 18th Street. But still we imagine that this time, it’s going to be different. This time, the world will change.

The current futurists tend toward happy visions of the world to come, but along the way to their utopias they take our susceptibility for the new and divert it to the old, old belief that there’s something ugly and vile, something outrageous, about life in a fragile material body. Why should the new gnostics differ much from the old? Each of them longs to be an animal, a tree, a stone, an angel, a machine—anything but a human being.

St. Matthew’s Passion

From NPR’s A Visitor’s Guide to the St. Matthew’s Passion: “I think the St. Matthew Passion is one of the greatest pieces of music in the western repertory,” Bostridge says. “And to start one’s journey toward understanding that piece is a very important point in anybody’s life.”

Johann Sebastian Bach wrote his St. Matthew Passion for a single purpose—to present the biblical passion story, in music, at Good Friday vesper services.

Bach’s Passion continues to move audiences more than 280 years after it was first heard in St. Thomas’s Church in Leipzig, Germany. Standing as one of the pillars of Western sacred music, it is at once monumental and intimate, deeply sorrowful and powerful.

Bach’s Passion retells the dramatic and compelling story of the events leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus. Bach divided the music into two parts. Highlights of part one include the last supper and the betrayal and arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.

In part two, the music turns darker and softer—signalling the inevitability of the story—as it depicts the trial, crucifixion and burial of Jesus. The Passion ends with the darkly textured chorus, “In tears of grief.” Bach could leave his parishioners in a sorrowful mood, knowing that they’d be celebrating Christ’s resurrection in just a few days.

Christian marriage

Archbishop Chaput’s Chrism mass homily from a few years ago is worth revisiting this Easter season. In it, he delivers remarks to his brother priests, but his message echoes in my mind as I think about the marriage of many good friends in recent years.

“When a man and a woman fall in love,” says Archbishop Chaput, “a kind of electricity runs not just between them but also in the air around them. The story of every true encounter with God is the same. Scripture is a romance. It’s a story of God’s love for humanity. When we give our hearts entirely to seeking God … we begin to discover and experience the same kind of electricity.” He later continues:

“I saw in the lives of those Jewish students the incredible durability of God’s promises and God’s word. … their covenant with God is alive, and permanent. God’s word is the organizing principle of their identity. It’s the foundation and glue of their relationship with one another — with their past and with their future. And the more faithful they are to God’s word, the more certain they can be of their survival.”

“We need to do everything we can to purify ourselves of vanity, and fear, and fatigue, and resentment. And to make ourselves worthy of that responsibility. Our own souls … will depend on the fire which should burn in our hearts. A fire of love for Jesus Christ, for the Church as our Mother, and for the people God places in our care. … God’s word never weakens. His promise never disappears.”

Christian marriage, summed up:

God as the organizing principle of their identity.

As the foundation and glue of their relationship across time.

As a fire burning in the heart.


Seeing Roger Scruton

I saw Roger Scruton speak at Penn on Wednesday where he delivered the Collegium Institute‘s 4th Annual Elizabeth Anscombe Lecture on the topic of “Art and Morality: on the Relationship between Aesthetics and Ethics.”

Scruton has been a hero of mine for many years, since I discovered his book The Meaning of Conservatism and his humane and philosophical (rather than political) approach to answering who we are and what the uses of things are. Great introductions to his life on Sunday Hill Farm can be found on YouTube, along with his one-hour BBC special answering Why Beaty Matters. Collegium Institute filmed his talk at Penn’s Claudia Cohen Hall, and that’s available too.

Scattered/paraphrased notes from his talk:

  • Can aesthetics point to the transcendent without their creators having an animating belief in the sacred and the God that art has traditionally invoked for its vital power?
  • Can aesthetics do more without invoking God? Can it replace God-directed conclusions?
  • What are the consequences, morally or otherwise? Can we fill the God-shaped hole in our lives and our world with a new moral way of life?
  • If once there was a naive confidence among some in the literalism of religious belief, there is today naive confidence in reality’s nothingness.
  • Morality and religion are separate but complimentary things, and religious theology provides a foundation that shores up the moral life when it comes under question.
  • According to Kant, the judgement of beauty is an unavoidable consequence of our reasoning power.
  • But where does reasoning stop, and engagement with the transcend things of longing for harmony start?
  • Suppose you build a door in your home. You might say that the purpose of the door is to let people through from one part of the home to another. That’s a reason for building it. But there are infinitely many ways to fulfill the “letting through” function. The question “Why am I building the door this way?” is one that no rational being can avoid but which is so difficult to answer. We might talk about matching the moldings of the surrounding rooms, or fixing a particular type of knob, or selecting a cut of wood with particular grain. Why? We might say it “looks harmonious” or seems to “fit.” We immediately find ourselves in the realm of aesthetics, yet we’re also giving rational answers.
  • In thinking of such examples, we realize that almost all of our lives are filled with situations like this—where our reasoning marries itself with an indefinite but present sense of rightness about the way a thing should be.
  • In this, we don’t merely reason about the ends, but about the means themselves. Does an effort in its wholeness fulfill its duty to seem right?
  • The aesthetic part of our psyche is a way of training about endeavors and about things as ends in themselves. Aesthetics help train us in the “oughts” of life.
  • Kant was wrong to focus on natural beauty at exclusion of man-created art, because it’s in what we do that there are consequences: make the bed, make the place. “Look right and wrong”- getting things to fit together in such a way as we can be home with them.
  • But can “fitting in” or together be enough? Can aesthetics by themselves speak to the meaning (morality) of the world?
  • An artist is discovering and imposing order, which is why there’s such importance in what sort of things an artist brings forth and in the basic desires of the heart.
  • The thing about desire is that you don’t necessarily have to ascertain the moral qualities of the person or thing you desire. We often try to disentangle these naturally related things, or are simply unconscious to them. (We unfortunately sometimes find out about the moral qualities of a person too late.) An obviously erotic feeling can be transfigured into a moral relationship with another, and this is really one of the tasks of every relationship—to ensure harmony and whole feeling there.
  • Aesthetics (even when created by a good and godly person) cannot guarantee a moral outcome among the observer, listener, etc.—even when a feeling of the sublime, etc is experienced. In this way, aesthetics are like religious faith in providing a guide, a context for striving, without themselves being capable of replacing interior moral sense or a pedagogy for being human.
  • The moral questions are the most difficult, because it seems as if the God-shaped hole belongs there and does not resolve, because we’ve discovered that we’re determined (embodied) creatures, but also free.

In the presence…

Rod Dreher shared the comments of a Muslim reader of his last month, and I made a note to share the entire comment (on the subject of The Benedict Option) to share. It’s beautiful:

I went to Manhattan College in the Bronx, NY.  It is a Catholic college run by the Christian Brothers of the Order of De LaSalle.  All students are required to take three classes on religion during their four years of undergrad studies in order to graduate.  It just so happened that my first religion class was also the first class on my first day as a freshman.  It was taught by Brother Robert Berger (who is still a good friend two decades later).  And he began all his classes (as I came to learn over the years) with a simple prayer – “Let us remember that we are in the presence of God”.  When I look back on my awesome college experience, i am struck by how the most important truth I learned during that time was communicated to me in that prayer in the opening moments of my fist class at the school.

The BenOp, for me, is a way for Christians to actualize this truth…this awareness of God’s active presence in our lives, and to make it inform everything they do…how they worship, how they love, how they work, their mercy, kindness, honesty, how they control anger and other temptations, how they are resilient, etc. It is not about retreating to mountaintops but it is about building communities that can enable individuals to mutually encourage and reinforce this God awareness in their lives.

The BenOp puts God at the center of a christian’s universe again.  God stops being a means to an end like political victories or commercial success, and instead resumes being the End that Christians should strive for.  The BenOp also forces hard choices around how to live in this world.  It is not about disengaging from it but it definitely lays down markers for what’s acceptable and what’s not.  It moves away from thinking of Christian faith as some kind of a la carte menu (something for everyone here), and instead challenges and asks Christians to commit fully to their faith and its demands no matter how they diverge from social and commercial norms.

I also like how the BenOp essentially gives primacy to the spirit and soul over the intellect.  In our culture today, we obscenely fetishize innovation…the ability to use the intellect to solve problems and satisfy needs. We valorize those we think are innovative, disruptive, builders of stuff that is new and different.  The BenOp is a recognition that an innovation focused intellect is just an endless spinning down an unending rabbit hole..that the spirit is more important, and it can be nourished, strengthened, and made beautiful by rediscovering and dedicating oneself to the timeless and essential truths that God has provided us with through the Faith He has revealed to His creation.

The Quran tells us that God does not change the condition of a people for the better till they first change themselves.  The BenOp is about trying to get Christians to do the latter.

I wish you best of luck and success with the book.


Fake news as cover

Alex Smith, my friend, writes: “I’m currently fascinated by the idea that all the hullabaloo over Fake News is really just a strategic revenge play of major media outlets vs Google for stealing all their ad revenue:”

“Here is a story about how JPMorgan Chase & Co. used to advertise on 400,000 websites every month, and now it only advertises on 5,000, and “the company is seeing little change in the cost of impressions or the visibility of its ads on the internet.” I hope that they don’t draw any broader lessons from the experiment: I bank at Chase and work in Manhattan, and I find it very convenient that there are 400,000 Chase ATMs within a block of me at all times. I would be sad if they cut that down to 5,000.

But this is also a fascinating media-business story. JPMorgan was doing programmatic ad buying, buying ad space on thousands of websites in bulk through advertising networks. That is a standard feature of life on the internet, and has led to the rise of huge internet companies, like Alphabet Inc., that run on advertising revenue. Of course there was a pre-internet advertising ecosystem where newspapers and television were much more central. If you wanted to advertise, you’d call up the New York Times and buy an ad, because that was where the ads were. Now the ads are everywhere, so the way you advertise is by sending an order to an ad network and getting filled with a few million impressions, somewhere out there on the internet.

But there is a lot of terrible stuff out there on the internet, and one thing that has happened in the last few weeks has been that reporters at newspapers have called up advertisers and said “hey do you see the terrible stuff that your ads are appearing next to?” And the advertisers have pulled the ads, which has been bad for business at Alphabet (which owns Google and YouTube). The standard internet model of putting ads next to everything is under pressure, as advertisers are realizing that “everything,” on the internet, means mostly racist videos.

So what do you do, if you’re JPMorgan, and a New York Times reporter calls you up to tell you that your programmatic ads are appearing on a fake news site? You might cut back your programmatic buying, and buy advertising only on individual sites that serve up content that you trust. (“JPMorgan has limited its display ads to about 5,000 websites it has preapproved, said Kristin Lemkau, the bank’s chief marketing officer.”) That would be great for the newspaper business! Traditional news organizations, after all, put a lot of money and effort into making sure that their websites are free of fake news and racist rants. If there’s a backlash against the just-put-it-anywhere ethos of advertising on the internet, that will benefit traditional arbiters of truth and newsworthiness. It’s a nice revenge of traditional journalism against Google.”