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Reinvigorating Culture by Russell Kirk

CultureReinvigorating Culture

by Russell Kirk

Anyone who pushes the buttons of a television set nowadays [written in 1994, Ed.] may be tempted to reflect that genuine culture came to an end during the latter half of the twentieth century. The television set is an immense accomplishment of reason and imagination: the victory of technology. But the gross images produced by television are symptoms and causes of our civilization’s decadence: the defeat of humane culture.

The contrast between the success of technology and the failure of social institutions is yet more striking when we look at any large American city. Some time ago I spent a day in Detroit, once styled “the arsenal of democracy,” latterly known as “America’s murder capital.” I have known Detroit ever since I was a small boy, and have observed the stages of the city’s decay over the decades. Except for some financial and political activity, and a little surviving commerce, about the foot of Woodward Avenue near the river, old Detroit is a dangerous wreck. The length of Woodward Avenue, up to Eight Mile Road and beyond, one drives through grim desolation: Beirut in the midst of its troubles might have seemed more cheerful. One passes through Detroit’s “cultural center,” the Institute of Arts on one side of the avenue, the Public Library on the other. Immediately north or south of those splendid buildings, immediately east or west, extends the grimy reality of a broken and dying city. “Culture” has become something locked into an archaic museum.

Detroit’s technology has produced immense wealth in goods—and still does so, if at a diminished rate. Detroit’s society has produced an inhumane quasi-anarchy. Take Detroit as an ugly microcosm of America, and one may perceive the pressing need for a recovery of humane culture.

Our inherited culture is involved in great difficulties. I suppose that most people nowadays will assent to that statement. Forty years ago, not long after the Second World War, I often encountered people who waxed indignant at my venturing to suggest the possibility of cultural decadence among us. It is otherwise now.

Sometimes, true, I come upon men and women who profess to be well satisfied with our world, and with their diversions—rather nasty diversions, not infrequently—therein. Yet these are not tranquil people: instead they bring to mind a poem by Adam Mickiewicz:

Your soul deserves the place to which it came, If having entered Hell, you feel no flame.

As marvelous innovators in the physical sciences, as wondrously efficient creators of technology, we moderns surpass our ancestors. But as for humane culture, we seem bent on destroying our civilization. Can anything be done by way of reinvigoration? Continue reading

The Catholic Tolkien and the Knights of Middle-earth by Stratford Caldecott

The Catholic Tolkien and the Knights of Middle-earth

catholic tolkien

This month, fans around the world will flock to the cinema to watch the first of three installments of Peter Jackson’s adaptation ofThe Hobbit—the “prequel” to the award-winning Lord of the Rings trilogy that was also released in three parts between 2001 and 2003 (The Hobbit:An Unexpected Journey will be released in U.S. theaters Dec. 14.). Based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic novels, the films depart from the original storyline in significant details, but goes to great lengths to respect the author’s vision of Middle-earth—a world of great natural beauty and intense moral drama, set in the distant past.

Many will argue that translating such a story from book into film, no matter how impressive the result, is a mistake. A movie presents the audience with the filmmakers’ visualization, not the author’s or the reader’s. Conversely, reading or listening to a story engages the imagination at a deeper level than watching it on screen. Yet if a film had to be made, we should be grateful that efforts have been made to remain faithful to the spirit and texture of Tolkien’s stories.

The Catholic Tolkien

The spirit of Tolkien’s hugely successful fantasy novels is deeply Christian. Born in 1892, the author was a devout Catholic who grew up under the influence of Blessed John Henry Newman’s Oratory in Birmingham, England. All through his busy life as an Oxford professor and popular writer, he tried to attend Mass every day. His eldest son even became a Catholic priest. The stories that Tolkien wrote were more than entertainment; they were written to express a profound Christian wisdom.

In a letter Tolkien drafted to the manager of the Newman Bookshop in 1954, but never sent because it sounded too self-important (Letter 153 in the published collection), he admitted that his aim in writing the stories was “the elucidation of truth, and the encouragement of good morals in this real world, by the ancient device of exemplifying them in unfamiliar embodiments, that may tend to ‘bring them home.’” In another letter to a Jesuit friend in 1953, he explained that while he had consciously “absorbed” the religious element “into the story and the symbolism” (because he had no intention of making religious propaganda), The Lord of the Rings remains “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.”

Tolkien’s Christian wisdom can pop out at readers in unexpected ways, but most often it simply sinks in at a deep level without distracting our attention from the story. I noticed an example as I read The Lord of the Rings to my youngest daughter recently. The story concerns the attempt to destroy a magical “Ring of Power” that threatens the freedom of all the peoples of Middle-earth. As the little hobbits Frodo and Sam struggle up Mount Doom in the final stage of their quest to reach the volcanic furnace in which the Ring can be unmade, Frodo comes to the end of his strength—drained by the ever-growing weight of the Ring he bears around his neck and the constant temptation to claim its power for his own.

His faithful servant Sam, who knows he is not permitted to bear the Ring, invites Frodo to climb onto his back. “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you and it as well. So up you get!” Staggering to his feet, he finds to his amazement “the burden light.” Tolkien writes, “[Sam] had feared that he would have barely strength to lift his master alone, and beyond that he had expected to share in the dreadful dragging weight of the accursed Ring. But it was not so. Whether because Frodo was so worn by his long pains, wound of knife, and venomous sting, and sorrow, fear, and homeless wandering, or because some gift of final strength was given to him, Sam lifted Frodo with no more difficulty than if he were carrying a hobbit-child pig-a-back in some romp on the lawns or hayfields of the Shire. He took a deep breath and started off.”

Does this not remind you, as if in a faint echo, of a certain well-known passage in the Gospels? I am thinking of the one where Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mt 11:28-30).

The echo may be faint, yet the whole journey of the two Hobbits across Mordor—including descriptions of the Ring and Frodo’s many falls under its weight—recalls the Way to Calvary, where Jesus bore the weight of the world’s sin. Those who are familiar with the Gospels can hardly fail to recognize a similarity. If the Ring is analogous to the Cross (because it represents sin), and Frodo as Ringbearer is analogous to Christ, then when Sam hauls the burden up onto his shoulders he finds exactly what Christ has promised: It feels light because Christ himself is still bearing the major part of the weight.

The link to the Christian story is even reinforced by the calendar date. The Ring is destroyed on March 25, which in our world is the Solemnity of the Annunciation, the day Christ was conceived in the womb of Mary to bear our sins away.

Nobility of the Soul

There are plenty of other parallels with Christianity in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but as the author insisted, the important point lies deeper than this. The story is meant to be enjoyed for its own sake, not merely decoded. A story is a way of exploring the way the world works. No author can avoid bringing his own understanding of free will and fate or providence, not to mention some conception of good and evil, to his writing. Tolkien’s understanding was shaped by his faith, which is the truth revealed by God about the way the world really works — and not only this world, but every possible world.

An important part of Catholic wisdom is the ethical tradition that rests on the natural laws of our nature, made in the image of God. This tradition could be called “nobility of soul” or “spiritual chivalry.” We see both in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings a learning process that Tolkien called “the ennoblement (or sanctification) of the humble,” which he believed was an important theme of his writing as a whole. In both novels, the hobbit heroes (Bilbo in the one, Frodo and Sam and their friends in the other) are lifted from the narrow, comfortable world of the Shire into a much vaster landscape to play key roles in battles that decide the fate of Middle-earth. This was a process that Tolkien observed among the soldiers he fought beside in the Battle of the Somme, in the First World War.

Through suffering and trial, the hobbits are fashioned into heroes, empowered to save their little world of the Shire from the spiritual evil that has corrupted it while they were away. Gandalf the wizard tells them, “That is what you have been trained for.” Although the film versions of The Lord of the Rings unfortunately omit this last stage, it is still clear that the hobbits have attained greater maturity and courage through their adventures.

After all, Tolkien wove the idea of “nobility of soul” very deeply into his mythology. This concept is represented partly in the Elves. The human beings and hobbits who are closest to the Elves by influence or nature are the noblest: Frodo (named “Elf-friend”) among the hobbits, Aragorn and Imrahil and Faramir among the men. The “elvish” tendency in man is always towards physical beauty, artistic ability and respect for creation. It is associated with a love for God’s creation that seeks to improve, protect, celebrate and adorn.

The “chivalry” that reveals this nobility is shown in behavior towards others, such as kindness and mercy, the refusal to mistreat even prisoners of war, and the showing of honor to the bodies of the dead. We see this, for instance, when Aragorn, heir to the throne of Gondor and leader of the fellowship of the Ring, insists on a proper funeral for Boromir before they continue with their quest. The knights of Middle-earth defend the weak from their oppressors and remain faithful to friends and liege-lord. Such behavior outwardly signifies the presence of heroic virtue within the soul, especially the cardinal virtues of prudence, fortitude, temperance and justice.

It is with these virtues that we are equipped to defend the truly important things, the little things, the domestic world of the free family, and the love that binds people together in fellowship.

Aragorn exemplifies all of these virtues in the highest degree, but we see them develop in the hobbits, too, as they learn to submit to discipline and overcome their fear to achieve great deeds without hope of reward — just because it is the right thing to do. This is Tolkien’s challenge to us: to become, in our own way, the knights of Middle-earth.


The Age of Intolerance by Mark Steyn

DECEMBER 20, 2013 6:00 PM

The Age of Intolerance

When Worlds Collide: Pajama Boy and Duck Dynasty‘s Phil Robertson

Mark Steyn 

Mark Steyn 

Last week, following the public apology of an English comedian and the arrest of a fellow British subject both for making somewhat feeble Mandela gags, I noted that supposedly free societies were increasingly perilous places for those who make an infelicitous remark. So let’s pick up where we left off:

Here are two jokes one can no longer tell on American television. But you can still find them in the archives, out on the edge of town, in Sub-Basement Level 12 of the ever-expanding Smithsonian Mausoleum of the Unsayable. First, Bob Hope, touring the world in the year or so after the passage of the 1975 Consenting Adult Sex Bill:

“I’ve just flown in from California, where they’ve made homosexuality legal. I thought I’d get out before they make it compulsory.”

For Hope, this was an oddly profound gag, discerning even at the dawn of the Age of Tolerance that there was something inherently coercive about the enterprise. Soon it would be insufficient merely to be “tolerant” — warily accepting, blithely indifferent, mildly amused, tepidly supportive, according to taste. The forces of “tolerance” would become intolerant of anything less than full-blown celebratory approval.

Second joke from the archives: Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra kept this one in the act for a quarter-century. On stage, Dino used to have a bit of business where he’d refill his tumbler and ask Frank, “How do you make a fruit cordial?” And Sinatra would respond, “I dunno. How do you make a fruit cordial?” And Dean would say, “Be nice to him.”

But no matter how nice you are, it’s never enough. Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson, in his career-detonating interview with GQ, gave a rather thoughtful vernacular exegesis of the Bible’s line on sin, while carefully insisting that he and other Christians are obligated to love all sinners and leave it to the Almighty to adjudicate the competing charms of drunkards, fornicators, and homosexuals. Nevertheless, GLAAD — “the gatekeepers of politically correct gayness” as the (gay) novelist Bret Easton Ellis sneered — saw their opportunity and seized it. By taking out TV’s leading cable star, they would teach an important lesson pour encourager les autres — that espousing conventional Christian morality, even off-air, is incompatible with American celebrity.

Some of my comrades, who really should know better, wonder why, instead of insisting Robertson be defenestrated, GLAAD wouldn’t rather “start a conversation.” But, if you don’t need to, why bother? Most Christian opponents of gay marriage oppose gay marriage; they don’t oppose the right of gays to advocate it. Yet thug groups like GLAAD increasingly oppose the right of Christians even to argue their corner. It’s quicker and more effective to silence them.

As Christian bakers ordered to provide wedding cakes for gay nuptials and many others well understand, America’s much-vaunted “freedom of religion” is dwindling down to something you can exercise behind closed doors in the privacy of your own abode or at a specialist venue for those of such tastes for an hour or so on Sunday morning, but when you enter the public square you have to leave your faith back home hanging in the closet. Yet even this reductive consolation is not permitted to Robertson: GLAAD spokesgay Wilson Cruz declared that “Phil and his family claim to be Christian, but Phil’s lies about an entire community fly in the face of what true Christians believe.” Robertson was quoting the New Testament, but hey, what do those guys know? In today’s America, land of the Obamacare Pajama Boy, Jesus is basically Nightshirt Boy, a fey non-judgmental dweeb who’s cool with whatever. What GLAAD is attempting would be called, were it applied to any other identity group, “cultural appropriation.”

In the broader sense, it’s totalitarian. While American gays were stuffing and mounting the duck hunter in their trophy room, the Prince of Wales was celebrating Advent with Christian refugees from the Middle East, and noting that the land in which Christ and Christianity were born is now the region boasting “the lowest concentration of Christians in the world — just four percent of the population.” It will be three, and two, and one percent soon enough, for there is a totalitarian impulse in resurgent Islam — and not just in Araby. A few miles from Buckingham Palace, Muslims in London’s East End are now sufficiently confident to go around warning local shopkeepers to cease selling alcohol. In theory, you might still enjoy the right to sell beer in Tower Hamlets or be a practicing Christian in Iraq, but in reality not so much. The asphyxiating embrace of ideological conformity was famously captured by Nikolai Krylenko, the People’s Commissar for Justice, in a speech to the Soviet Congress of Chess Players in 1932, at which he attacked the very concept of “the neutrality of chess.” It was necessary for chess to be Sovietized like everything else. “We must organize shock brigades of chess players, and begin immediate realization of a Five-Year Plan for chess,” he declared.

Six years later, the political winds having shifted, Krylenko was executed as an enemy of the people. But his spirit lives on among the Commissars of Gay Compliance at GLAAD. It is not enough to have gay marriage for gays. Everything must be gayed. There must be Five-Year Gay Plans for American bakeries, and the Christian church, and reality TV. There must be shock brigades of gay duck-hunters honking out the party line deep in the backwoods of the proletariat. Obamacare pajama models, if not yet mandatorily gay, can only be dressed in tartan onesies and accessorized with hot chocolate so as to communicate to the Republic’s maidenhood what a thankless endeavor heterosexuality is in contemporary America.

Did ‘The Great Society’ Ruin Society? by Pat Buchanan

800px-Lyndon_Johnson_signing_Civil_Rights_Act,_2_July,_1964 Did ‘The Great Society’ Ruin Society?

“I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs a repair, I’ll fix it.”

Thus did Mitt Romney supposedly commit the gaffe of the month — for we are not to speak of the poor without unctuous empathy.

Yet, as Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation reports in “Understanding Poverty in the United States: Surprising Facts About America’s Poor,” Mitt was more right about America’s magnanimity than those who bewail her alleged indifference.

First, who are the poor?

To qualify, a family of four in 2010 needed to earn less than $22,314. Some 46 million Americans, 15 percent of the population, qualified.

And in what squalor were America’s poor forced to live?

Well, 99 percent had a refrigerator and stove, two-thirds had a plasma TV, a DVD player and access to cable or satellite, 43 percent were on the Internet, half had a video game system like PlayStation or Xbox.

Three-fourths of the poor had a car or truck, nine in 10 a microwave, 80 percent had air conditioning. In 1970, only 36 percent of the U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning.

America’s poor enjoy amenities almost no one had in the 1950s, when John K. Galbraith described us as “The Affluent Society.”

What about homelessness? Are not millions of America’s poor on the street at night, or shivering in shelters or crowded tenements?

Well, actually, no. That is what we might call televised poverty. Of the real poor, fewer than 10 percent live in trailers, 40 percent live in apartments, and half live in townhouses or single-family homes.

Forty-one percent of poor families own their own home.

But are they not packed in like sardines, one on top of another?

Not exactly. The average poor person’s home in America has 1,400 square feet — more living space than do Europeans in 23 of the 25 wealthiest countries on the continent.

Two-thirds of America’s poor have two rooms per person, while 94 percent have at least one room per person in the family dwelling.

Only one in 25 poor persons in America uses a homeless shelter, and only briefly, sometime during the year.

What about food? Do not America’s poor suffer chronically from malnutrition and hunger?

Not so. The daily consumption of proteins, vitamins and minerals of poor children is roughly the same as that of the middle class, and the poor consume more meat than the upper middle class.

Some 84 percent of America’s poor say they always have enough food to eat, while 13 percent say sometimes they do not, and less than 4 percent say they often do not have enough to eat.

Only 2.6 percent of poor children report stunted growth. Poor kids in America are, on average, an inch taller and 10 pounds heavier than the youth of the Greatest Generation that won World War II.

In fiscal year 2011, the U.S. government spent $910 billion on 70 means-tested programs, which comes to an average of $9,000 per year on every lower-income person in the United States.

Among the major programs from which the poor receive benefits are Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, the Earned Income Tax Credit, Supplemental Security Income, food stamps, the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) food program, Medicaid, public housing, low-income energy assistance and the Social Service Block Grant.

Children of the poor are educated free, K-12, and eligible for preschool Head Start, and Perkins Grants, Pell Grants and student loans for college.

Lyndon Johnson told us this was the way to build a Great Society.

Did we? Federal and state spending on social welfare is approaching $1 trillion a year, $17 trillion since the Great Society was launched, not to mention private charity. But we have witnessed a headlong descent into social decomposition.

Half of all children born to women under 30 in America now are illegitimate. Three in 10 white children are born out of wedlock, as are 53 percent of Hispanic babies and 73 percent of black babies.

Rising right along with the illegitimacy rate is the drug-use rate, the dropout rate, the crime rate and the incarceration rate.

The family, cinder block of society, is disintegrating, and along with it, society itself. Writes Rector, “The welfare system is more like a ‘safety bog’ than a safety net.”

Heritage scholars William Beach and Patrick Tyrrell put Rector’s numbers in perspective:

“Today … 67.3 million Americans — from college students to retirees to welfare beneficiaries — depend on the federal government for housing, food, income, student aid or other assistance. … The United States reached another milestone in 2010. For the first time in history, half the population pays no federal income taxes.”

The 19th century statesman John C. Calhoun warned against allowing government to divide us into “tax-payers and tax-consumers.” This, he said, “would give rise to two parties and to violent conflicts and struggles between them, to obtain the control of the government.”

We are there, Mr. Calhoun, we are there.

Essays by Pat Buchanan may be found here. Books related to the topic of this article may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

Breaking Bad: A Contemporary Tragedy by Dutton Kearney

breaking badBreaking Bad: A Contemporary Tragedy

by Dutton Kearney

The final eight episodes of Breaking Bad are upon us. If you haven’t been following the series, you’re missing what many media critics are calling the best show on television and one of the best of all time. Perhaps so. For many, it has been a five year guilty pleasure. The writing is quite good, and characters like Saul Goodman are so interesting that they could very well have a show of their own. It’s not for children, with its language, drug economy, and extreme violence. However, it does seem that violence has become the tenor and vehicle of American television drama, and many of its best series—especially those available only on cable—are indeed violent. The Writer’s Guild of America recently issued its list of the 101 best-written television shows, and it is probably no surprise to anyone that The Sopranos is on the top of that list. Breaking Bad is number 13, and The Wire, another cable drama featuring drugs and violence, is number 9.

What is the appeal of a high school chemistry teacher who decides to cook methamphetamine when he discovers that he has Stage Four lung cancer? The characters are vivid, well-drawn, and memorable, but that’s not why so many people can’t get enough of the show. The setting is New Mexico—with its beauty on the one hand, and, because of its shared border with Mexico, its proximity to the drug trade on the other—but that’s not why viewers tune in either. Neither is it its relentless series of violent cliffhangers—watching an episode replicates the exhilaration and exhaustion of a roller coaster. As Justin Jackson, a colleague at Hillsdale College, put it, the tragic plot of Walter White is what makes the show so interesting. It is probably the closest we will get to experiencing tragedy as the Greeks did in Athens. We know the characters. We know the conclusion. We know the plotline’s inevitability. We are simultaneously drawn to Walter and repelled by him, just as the Greeks were with Oedipus, just as the Elizabethans were with Macbeth. We pity Walter White as much as we fear him.

Continue reading

St. Nicholas Tavelic and Companions: Defenders From Islam

St Nicholas Taveric
St. Nicholas Tavelic and Companions
(d. 1391)

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Nicholas and his three companions are among the 158 Franciscans who have been martyred in the Holy Land since the friars became custodians of the shrines in 1335.

Nicholas was born in 1340 to a wealthy and noble family in Croatia. He joined the Franciscans and was sent with Deodat of Rodez to preach in Bosnia. In 1384 they volunteered for the Holy Land missions and were sent there. They looked after the holy places, cared for the Christian pilgrims and studied Arabic.

In 1391 Nicholas, Deodat, Peter of Narbonne and Stephen of Cuneo decided to take a direct approach to converting the Muslims. On November 11, 1391, they went to the huge Mosque of Omar in Jerusalem and asked to see the Qadi (Muslim official). Reading from a prepared statement, they said that all people must accept the gospel of Jesus. When they were ordered to retract their statement, they refused. After beatings and imprisonment, they were beheaded before a large crowd.

Nicholas and his companions were canonized in 1970. They are the only Franciscans martyred in the Holy Land to be canonized.

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Comment:

Francis presented two missionary approaches for his friars. Nicholas and his companions followed the first approach (live quietly and give witness to Christ) for several years. Then they felt called to take the second approach of preaching openly. Their Franciscan confreres in the Holy Land are still working by example to make Jesus better known.

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Quote:
In the Rule of 1221, Francis wrote that the friars going to the Saracens (Muslims) “can conduct themselves among them spiritually in two ways. One way is to avoid quarrels or disputes and ‘be subject to every human creature for God’s sake’ (1 Peter 2:13), so bearing witness to the fact that they are Christians. Another way is to proclaim the word of God openly, when they see that is God’s will, calling on their hearers to believe in God almighty, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Creator of all, and in the Son, the Redeemer and Savior, that they may be baptized and become true and spiritual Christians” (Ch. 16).

YA HEY: Persecution & Salvation for the Coptic Christians in Egypt

I created this music video during the height of the slaughter of Coptic Christians in Egypt during August, 2013.  This film looks at the current persecutions of Christians in light of Catholic Revelation on salvation history and the redeeming merits of Our Lord, Jesus Christ.  Though this film addresses the Coptic Christians in Egypt may it stand as a symbol of hope for all persecuted in the name of Christ.

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