Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Ordinary Radicals

On a day when yet another shooting, this one in Virginia, claimed at least one life and dominated the news media, and when political slings and arrows (aka insults) compete for the remaining time, it is refreshing to come upon someone like Shane Claiborne, as I did today in reading about his work with the Franciscan Richard Rohr.

Like another Dorothy Day, committed to feeding the hungry and working for peace, Claiborne, from an evangelical background, is one of several people at work in the New Monasticism movement, creating communities that build on the wisdom of the old monasteries of the Catholic tradition and often partner with them.

Claiborne, as I learned today, is one of the founders of the Simple Way in Philadelphia; he has worked with Mother Teresa in Calcutta and in Bagdad with the Iraq Peace Team.  He is a radical in the sense that Jesus Christ was a radical.

So it is apt that he has teamed up with two Franciscans to present, through the Center for Action and Contemplation, a webcast on Aug. 30-Sept. 1 and conference on "How St. Francis and Pope Francis are changing the world." I wish I were there in New Mexico to hear the speakers. Rohr is always worth listening to.

Like the Trappist Fr. Thomas Keating, he teams up with non-traditional, evangelical and other spiritual seekers who try to apply the Gospel message to an ever-violent world. Rory McEntee and his Foundation for a New Monasticism is another group that appears to be breaking new ground, reaching new audiences that might be turned off by traditional organized religions.

A hopeful sign that good is operating in our world.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Forwarding Emails

Among the hundreds of emails I go through in a week, most are forgettable, but some are amusing, a few memorable.

I am grateful to several retired friends who forward jokes and funny cartoons--most of the time since they tend to be tasteful and not insulting.

This past week, the "joke" forwarded involved racist humor that no doubt amused the sender. I responded to the sender, asking him not to forward offensive material. He responded with an apology that said, in effect, "I'm not responsible; I just pass 'em on."

But the one who passes them on presumably reads them and approves of them and likes them well enough to share them, even if the material denigrates minorities in stereotyped ways that are unfunny.  Doesn't the one who forwards a bit of humor or political satire via email have a responsibility to screen the material he or she passes on?  Those who use the internet have some moral obligations, it seems to me. . . .

This happens about once or twice a year, with the same response from and to me.  What else can I do but object? Ninety-percent of the material these people send me is good, and I know they're decent folks.

The second email this week worth commenting on was totally welcome and worth forwarding. It includes at little known (to me) episode in the life of Walt Disney. He was fired from one of his first jobs working for a Missouri newspaper because he lacked imagination!

Irony of ironies. Moral: assume those who criticize you are fools until proven otherwise.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Understanding Catholic Ideology and Ecology

For Catholics and others trying to understand Pope Francis, the Jesuit writer and political scientist Thomas Reese is essential reading.

I say this because of two of his articles in the National Catholic Reporter: one in July showed in detail how thinking Catholics might respond to the cultural shock of same-sex marriage--and how the bishops should respond.  He writes about the "fanatical opposition to the legalization of same-sex marriage" by the U.S. bishops as a sure way for younger people to look on the church, and organized religion, as bigoted.

Just as Pope Francis relied on the scientific consensus when writing on the environment, Reese says, so the bishops should consult the best social science before making sweeping assertions about families and children. Arguing that children will suffer if they don't have a parent of each sex is not supported by evidence. Just as the bishops were wrong in opposing divorce a generation ago, they should, says Father Reese, accept the reality that gay marriage is here to stay; it doesn't mean the end of civilization.

It doesn't mean sacramental marriage is threatened.

The second Reese article, published this month, deals with a broader issue in less detail.  It shows how radically different Francis is as pope compared with his two immediate predecessors and what this means about the way the church deals with ideology.  Whereas John Paul II and Benedict XVI were men of ideas, who said reality must change if it does not reflect the unchanging ideal, Francis says that facts (and experience) matter more than ideas.  If the facts clash with the reality, he says, question the theory/theology.  This is Jesuit discernment, something Reese understands.

Case in point: the pope's widely praised encyclical on the environment, which begins with scientific facts, not theology. Among those environmental experts outside of Catholicism who have read and evaluated "Laudato Si," Bill McKibben (writing in the New York Review of Books for Aug. 13) offers an especially valuable and detailed commentary.  He calls the papal document one of the most important and influential statements of modern times.

McKibben shows how radical in the best sense Francis is in his critique of how we inhabit the planet and how sweeping this critique is on moral, political, social, economic, and spiritual grounds. The pope sees that underlying the ecological crisis is that a basic way of understanding "human life and activity has gone awry," as we in the modern world have come to believe that "reality, goodness and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power."

The pope is "at his most vigorous when he insists that we must prefer the common good to individual advancement," McKibben says, mentioning in passing how Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher thought the opposite (Thatcher once said, "there's no such thing as society").

This article, "The Pope and the Planet," is must reading; so are the pieces by Thomas Reese. I am grateful to have found them.

Monday, August 3, 2015

What it means to read

I have written posts in the past about the way slow, careful reading of fiction, especially, can lead us to a deeper level of consciousness--quite apart from the value it has as a window into understanding reality.

A recent article in The Nation by Joanna Scott on the challenge of reading difficult books caught my eye, but mainly because she quoted a scholar from American University (Naomi Baron) who asks the question: Are digital media altering our understanding what it means to read? 

Of course, the answer is yes, but how? Baron's study concluded that the attention span in the U.K. has decreased by half--from five minutes to seven seconds--since 1998. I don't know the scope of her study, but I was struck by another of her findings: that among university students in the U.S., Germany, and Japan, there is a widespread preference for reading printed texts--even as many libraries are, regrettably, disposing of much of their print collections.

What happens when young people today, with their penchant for text messaging, confront a long, serious novel?  No data exists yet, apparently.

What effect does the lack of sustained reading have on writing--a topic of major interest to me as a teacher of writing?  I continue to remind would-be writers, especially if they want to become authors, that the first step in being skillful as a writer is to be a good reader, paying attention to the style and structure of what they read.

Reading--the kind that promotes interiority--is basic to learning and understanding the world and the self, and it seems to me that without it, the attention span of students will continue to decline, with disastrous results for them and for society.