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April 30, 2006

Thank You for Satire

Isabel and I saw Thank You for Smoking last night. At first, I was concerned that the film might take a political turn that would annoy me, but I was pleasantly surprised to see a fairly well balanced attack on most social institutions. It is a very witty and funny film about a charming if flawed modern day sophist (he considers himself "morally flexible") who works as a tobacco company lobbyist. The only objectionable material in the film are two kinky bedroom (really, bedroom/living room/kitchen) scenes with Katie Holmes, potty language, and an implausibly propagandistic gradeschool homework assignment. Other than that, it was a smart and funny film that you should go see...especially if you are taking freshman writing at UMD.

Posted by Peter Terp on April 30, 2006 at 04:37 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 29, 2006

Mystery of the Pentangle

In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the hero bears a symbol of the pentangle on his shield. As editors frequently remind us, the pentangle (the five pointed star we all learn to draw in third grade) was also known as the "endless knot." The star has no visible start or end, but each line segment is dependent on the other for a complete "whole." Pull any one line segment out, and the star suddenly has a beginning and an end point. The pentangle represented the virtues, including faith, and therefore suggested how they were intertwined. Take any one virtue out, and the rest are doomed. But it seems to me the pentangle is only a useful image if you are already inside the system of virtue. If the pentangle has no beginning or end (like a circle), then where does someone on the outside enter in to it. There is no "logical" or "rational" place to start. One just has to take a leap of faith and start somewhere.

Sometimes I find that people dismiss the Church as being an exercise in circular logic.

I haven't really found a way to refute the argument.

In fact, it seems like we at times actually embrace the Church precisely because it's logic is circular. It is complete in itself. If it depended on some external truth, it would be dependent on that truth and therefore subject to change. Maybe this is why RCIA takes as long as it does. You have to be able to see the whole pentangle before you can fully accept the Church.

There really isn't a "starting point" with faith. The whole star is in fact the point at which you start.

Posted by Peter Terp on April 29, 2006 at 10:53 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 28, 2006

Yes - I agree with the last post!

No disagreement here.  If I had to teach people about the Eucharist, it would not even enter my mind to willingly use that handout to do it, because I think it would be confusing [word-of-the-day scream] to many people.  It addresses issues that (as far as I can tell) may have been pressing on people when my father was my age, and it does it in a way that really sets my teeth on edge.

I am sure it was meant to be read in a way that does no harm and only service to the Faith, but it seems to me like (in the video game analogy three posts ago) a push in the direction that the tree is already leaning.

To go off on a bit of a tangent, it reminded me of the tone of a number of the books we had in CCD when I was a kid - "You don't know what it was like back then.  It was horrible!  But now things have changed, and they're much better."  Ok, they didn't actually use the word "horrible."  But they hardly acknowledged anything that happened between Apostolic times and the Council, except to point out how much better things were now.  At first this didn't seem strange to me because this is basically the same approach our history textbooks in public school took to that vague blank spot between ancient Rome and the Renaissance, but then I started noticing.  And I couldn't help wondering - why all the pent-up anger towards the better part of the history of the Church?  Didn't they have anything good to say about it?  When I saw all the beautiful sacred art and music and spiritual writing and great saints that came out of those periods, and the paucity of the same in the present, I decided that the writers of those books must have some issues.  The result of their efforts was a too-conservative phase.  Fortunately, however, I encountered the writing of Pope John Paul and the documents of the Second Vatican Council and read them in time to prevent me from developing prejudices against them.

This is a totally different experience of the Church and of the Faith than people who grew up in the 60s had.  So of course I'm going to be different from them.  So maybe I'll talk about that in future posts.  The principle of these will be, as St. Augustine famously said, "in necessary things, unity; in optional things, liberty; in all things, charity."

Posted by Thomas A. on April 28, 2006 at 11:08 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack


Hey, kids! Today's word is CONFUSING! If you see CONFUSING! Make sure to jump up and scream and look like a mad person!

I think confusing is a very handy word dealing with cases where someone is trying to push a theology that just doesn't sound right. Most of us aren't equipped to engage in a drawn out theological debate. Heck, most of us aren't equipped to resolved conflict over where to have dinner. So rather than point fingers and say that a person is wrong, it's a far more effective tactic to say "You're being CONFUSING." (Are you jumping up and screaming, yet?)

I believe it was Einstein who once said that if he couldn't explain his theories to a lay person, then he had failed. Likewise, if, in the attempt to advance a congregations understanding of some theological point, you leave them drooling in their seats (or foaming at the mouth), then you haven't really advanced anything. In fact, you've sown doubt.

This doesn't mean that things have to be "watered down" or intentionally misrepresented for a idiot community. It's usually just a matter of not throwing the baby out with the bath water.

For example, I always have students who will turn in papers that attempt to bolster their arguments at the expense of others. "Obviously, Shakespeare could only mean that Antony was an aardvark. Interpretations that Antony was a Roman triumvir are backwards and flawed." This is unlikely to convince me. A more engaging read would be "Antony exhibits certain characteristics of an aardvark that must be understood in light of his traditionally accepted position as a Roman triumvir." Now we're cooking.

I think the problem is that people often think that the either/or position is easier to understand, and that a both/and position is CONFUSING (Aaaagh!), when, in fact, people are hardwired to see wisdom in seeming paradoxes.

Posted by Peter Terp on April 28, 2006 at 09:32 AM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

April 27, 2006


Sometimes I think I feel too free to pick on Peter when he posts something, especially since he's so courteous to me.  But the latest posts have recalled an interesting if frustrating part of contemporary Catholic life to my mind: the so-called "generation gap."

I have found that many people on both sides of it don't understand the others and so end up wasting their time hassling each other or taking offense where none was intended to be given.  Often enough, older people can forget that young people might legitimately think and act differently than them, and young people forget that people who are set in their ways don't necessarily change their outlook to fit the latest developments of things. 

I don't mean to give a blanket excuse to people with bad or mistaken agendas on the other side of it, but I have found (in some cases the hard way, others the easy way) that if you understand something about the people on the other side of it, you can avoid needless and unhelpful conflicts (or at least pick your battles) and focus on the real problems.  I am not an expert, but how about we talk about it some?  Probably most of the people reading this are going to be younger people like me, so this will probably be more along the lines of telling my fellow young people what I have found out about people my father's age.  We then don't necessarily have to agree that their way is the best way to do things, nor they ours, but we should each become aware of the legitimate differences and attempt to remedy our own errors and shortcomings, hopefully combining the strengths of both.

Posted by Thomas A. on April 27, 2006 at 03:29 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 26, 2006

Video Game Analogy

I found this Website with a little online game that seems to speak to our point:


Any one minor deviation, even a few minor deviations, within certain parameters and you're okay. Now, a lot of minor deviations in one direction, and bang! Game over!

Posted by Peter Terp on April 26, 2006 at 03:42 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Re: Enlightened & "Update Your Understanding"

G.K. Chesterton wrote in one of his books in which he railed against the errors prevalent in his day that "if all goes well," then in the future "this book will be unintelligible gibberish."

I think this same sort of effect accounts for much of the rift between Peter's thought and that embodied in Msgr. Shannon's article.  Our elders were extremely successful in combating many of the chief vices, errors, and weaknesses of their age and in preventing them from being passed on to the next generation.  Not only were they successful, but the change they effected was so thorough and so sudden that if they continue to think and act in the way they have been accustomed to their entire lives (which is difficult not to do), they may have trouble making young people understand what it is they are talking about.  To us they seem to be in the position of someone who has not only been beating a dead horse, but has even continued to beat it long after the corpse has rotted away and disintegrated, so that if you didn't know that there used to be a horse there, you would wonder what madness makes them keep whacking at the ground with such fury.

I would say that the problems I have with that article are not so much factual issues as issues of tone and emphasis.  That is, any particular thing in it, if you challenged it, you would find that there is a sense in which it is not inaccurate, and I suspect that is the sense it is meant in.  Not that that helps us if it's sufficiently foreign to us - the "JP2 Generation."

In particular, the use of the word "literal" was a poor choice, because "literal" is one of those words whose meaning isn't anchored to much of anything, so that in order to use it effectively you have to pretty sure that your audience is going to take it in the same way you mean it, or there will be confusion (kind of like the word "liberal").  Perhaps Msgr. Shannon is constantly beset by ueber-pragramatist/reductionist kind of people who assume that their version of literal is the safest way to guard orthodoxy and in doing so they forget to ever think about the fullness of the actual teaching.  That wouldn't have even occurred to Peter, who, if you asked him, would probably describe Christ's Eucharistic presence as "Body, blood, soul, and divinity" whole and entire in each particle or drop.  Another thing that Msgr. Shannon may have to deal with (or have had to deal with) is what some people derisively call the "better living through chemistry" approach to the Eucharist - the mistaken notion that Catholics believe that at the consecration the atoms and molecules of the bread rearrange so that the bread turns into our Lord's body that way - but God intervenes to deceive your senses so that you still see/feel/smell/taste bread (this isn't what the Church teaches, but perhaps you can see how someone might mistakenly think so).  This is where you have Catholics who both actually believe what the Church teaches about the Eucharist confusing each other when one of them says that the Eucharist is/isn't the "physical" presence, etc., and isn't clear about what he means by that, and the other misunderstands, and there's headaches all around before things get sorted out.

Now what I'm not so fond of is all the medieval-bashing I see in it.  I know when you're trying to make a point it's natural to exaggerate how right you are and how wrong the other other guy is.  It's like when Hilaire Belloc's Protestant opponents wrote history books about how a certain Catholic monarch was the most loathsome, villainous, vile scum ever to walk the earth and he countered with books about how he was really the most virtuous, upright, and noble king ever to grace the earth, when the fact was that he had his good and bad - but you couldn't counter by saying this because people will read that as you as much as conceding that your opponent was right.  But when you're talking to people (like us) who don't glorify every aspect of 1940s Catholicism as the pinnacle of perfection it doesn't make any sense to take the "how could they have been so stupid" approach to people who lived before the Liturgical Movement, nor to dismiss everything that came out of the medieval period, because you'll only make yourself look, well, wrong to people who can see anything good in the Church in former times.

Posted by Thomas A. on April 26, 2006 at 01:13 PM | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

So Enlightened...

Here's a handout that they were passing out back in my home parish:


I'm happy to learn that we aren't "literally" eating body and drinking blood during the Mass.

That would be gross.

(Reader alert: sarcasm level 8.3)

Posted by Peter Terp on April 26, 2006 at 10:30 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

April 25, 2006

Whom Do You Trust?

This came up in CTP on Monday...

Whom do you trust more regarding whether or not God exists: an academic whom you've never met and whose livelihood depends on convincing people to accept his theories, or your dad who has spent the better part of his life slaving away at a job so that you could have a better future?
Who has more authority on the concept of an all-loving, self-sacrificing God?
Whose thoughts on God is it wiser for you to take seriously?
Who has your best interests in mind?

Posted by Peter Terp on April 25, 2006 at 06:05 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack


I am in the middle of reading Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday.  I have read a lot of his other stuff but not that one yet.  I haven't finished it yet, but I understand why "Doctor Thursday" likes it so much.  As in many of his other writings he has skewered the vices of the modern world with prescient precision.  Here is a passage that struck me as having a great deal of relevance to the way things stand today.  If you don't have a little of this in you, you probably know someone who does:

Gabriel Syme was not merely a detective who pretended to be a poet; he was really a poet who had become a detective. Nor was his hatred of anarchy hypocritical.  He was one of those who are driven early in life into too conservative an attitude by the bewildering folly of most revolutionists.  He had not attained it by any tame tradition.  His respectability was spontaneous and sudden, a rebellion against rebellion.  He came of a family of cranks, in which all the oldest people had all the newest notions.  One of his uncles always walked about without a hat, and another had made an unsuccessful attempt to walk about with a hat and nothing else.  His father cultivated art and self-realisation; his mother went in for simplicity and hygiene.  Hence the child, during his tenderer years, was wholly unacquainted with any drink between the extremes of absinth and cocoa, of both of which he had a healthy dislike.  The more his mother preached a more than Puritan abstinence the more did his father expand into a more than pagan latitude; and by the time the former had come to enforcing vegetarianism, the latter had pretty well reached the point of defending cannibalism.

Being surrounded with every conceivable kind of revolt from infancy, Gabriel had to revolt into something, so he revolted into the only thing left--sanity.  But there was just enough in him of the blood of these fanatics to make even his protest for common sense a little too fierce to be sensible.  His hatred of modern lawlessness had been crowned also by an accident.  It happened that he was
walking in a side street at the instant of a dynamite outrage.  He had been blind and deaf for a moment, and then seen, the smoke clearing, the broken windows and the bleeding faces.  After that he went about as usual--quiet, courteous, rather gentle; but there was a spot on his mind that was not sane.  He did not regard anarchists, as most of us do, as a handful of morbid men, combining ignorance with intellectualism.  He regarded them as a huge and pitiless peril, like a Chinese invasion. 

He poured perpetually into newspapers and their waste-paper baskets a torrent of tales, verses and violent articles, warning men of this deluge of barbaric denial.  But he seemed to be getting no nearer his enemy, and, what was worse, no nearer a living.  As he paced the Thames embankment, bitterly biting a cheap cigar and brooding on the advance of Anarchy, there was no anarchist with a bomb in his pocket so savage or so solitary as he.  Indeed, he always felt that Government stood alone and desperate, with its back to the wall.  He was too quixotic to have cared
for it otherwise.

Posted by Thomas A. on April 25, 2006 at 03:57 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack