Book Review: The Inviolable Pledge

The Inviolable Pledge:  March 1, 1871 – March 1, 1918, by various authors

This book is a strange one, and one that made me feel a lot less friendly towards French political aims during World War I.  This work is made of various political speeches over the course of the late 19th century and early 20th century by French politicians who sought to use the Alsace-Lorraine problem as a way of whipping up patriotic and nationalistic fury against the Germans.  During the Franco-Prussian War, the French had been defeated and forced to give up the territory to Germany.  Germany’s rule was, as might be imagined, less than gentle, and the subject was a sore spot for the French.  Of course, this book presents the cause of the people of Alsace-Lorraine as being something that is near and dear to the hearts of the various ambitious French politicians here, but one does not get the feeling that these speakers had genuine concern for the well-being of the area, but very much wanted it to be a part of France and not a part of Germany, and it seems that neither side thought of any other option but to switch the territory back and forth based on who won in war last, which is unpleasant to say the least.

Fortunately, this book is short at less than 50 pages.  Most of what is written here is from politicians whose ethics and whose understanding of geopolitics and whose concern for the well-being of the people of Alsace-Lorraine is highly limited and whose perspective is hopelessly partisan in favor of France.  From speakers like Paul Labbe and Antonin Dubost and Paul Deschanel and one Mr. Welschinger and Jules Siegfried and Maurice Barres and Stephen Pichon and Georges Clemenceau and Charles Gruel provide plenty of discussions of the supposed attachment of the people of Alsace-Lorraine to France, attack the Germans as being barbarians of the worst kind, and try to stir up popular hatred against Germany as a means of reversing the verdict of the Franco-Prussian War.  But all of the people included here are French of Paris or Bordeaux, not of the people of Alsace-Lorraine.  The reader is supposed to believe that French politicians have the best interests of their lost provinces at heart and that the only way to properly look at the Germans is with contempt, and the result is deeply unpleasant and highly dishonest, and terrible politics to boot.

Among the most frustrating aspects of this book is that the authors think that it demonstrates some sort of positive and worthwhile pledge to the people of Alsace-Lorraine, that it was obviously popular for French politicians of the Third Republic to grandstand on the subject.  What bothered me about this book though was that no one thought to have the people of Alsace-Lorraine speak for themselves.  Nowhere here is there a discussion of what the people of the area itself wanted.  No one asks them whether they would have preferred a less heavily centralized state than either the French or German models and to have had the autonomy that they possessed in the period before they were taken over by the French in 1648, something that the authors seem at pains to minimize, arguing for some sort of mystic ties going back to the Celtic period rather than seeing both Alsace and Lorraine as being border territories like Luxembourg which could have found some sort of peace as a neutral buffer state rather than being passed around like a hot potato over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries.  That solution does not appear to be something these writers could imagine, though.

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Bear Fruits Worthy Of Repentance

Luke 3:7-17 gives us a rather sound look at the advice given by John the Baptist to the crowds, reading:  “Then he said to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.  And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”  So the people asked him, saying, “What shall we do then?”  He answered and said to them, “He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.”  Then tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?”  And he said to them, “Collect no more than what is appointed for you.”  Likewise the soldiers asked him, saying, “And what shall we do?”  So he said to them, “Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages.” Now as the people were in expectation, and all reasoned in their hearts about John, whether he was the Christ or not,  John answered, saying to all, “I indeed baptize you with water; but One mightier than I is coming, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather the wheat into His barn; but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.””

How would John the Baptist fare if he came to contemporary American society and preached a message of repentance and impending judgment such as we have read above?  It is hard to say, but if such a person were around nowadays they would have the same sort of thing to tell us as Abraham did.  They would remind us that no race or class is privileged to be free from the sorts of problems that need to be repented of.  They would point to the need of practical action to demonstrate the repentance that is claimed, that a change in life is a demonstration of genuine faith and proper belief.  This standard is a fair one that includes specific insight based on the sorts of tasks and the sorts of temptations that are available to people based on their profession.  Given the opportunity and temptation that people have to exploit others based on their position, it is of the utmost importance that we remember to use our offices, such as we have them, to serve others and not to take advantage of them.

How would people in our age bear fruits worthy of repentance, and to whom should these fruits be obvious?  There are at least four groups of people to whom John the Baptist speaks.  There are some people who view their identity as making them immune to the need to repent.  Throughout history a great many people have viewed their ethnic (or some other aspect) of their identity as making them righteous and viewed other identities as being automatically in need of some sort of repentance.  For example, the Jews of Jesus’ time thought that their identity as children of Abraham made them automatically privileged as part of God’s people, just as many contemporary black people and minorities view their race as making them automatically superior to evil and racist white people who have benefited from generations of imaginary structural racism.  In contrast to those who believe in some sort of identity politics, all human beings (other than Jesus Christ) are natively rebellious against Jesus Christ and need to repent and change.

In addition, there are people here who have positions that allow them to exploit and take advantage of others and are given specific information in how to avoid doing so.  Those who have a lot more when it comes to material possessions are told to be generous with those who have less, assuming we are dealing with the deserving poor here.  Tax collectors, those who have the opportunity to exploit others financially, are told to avoid assessing more tax than is required and not to enrich themselves at the expense of others, advice that would be worthwhile to follow for not-for-profits as well as public agencies.  In addition soldiers (who in this case are acting like police) are told to be content with their wages and not to intimidate others, which is good advice for police officers in general in their dealings with the general public.  To the extent that we have the power to take advantage of others, we should avoid doing so, and this is not particularly complicated to understand.

In such times as our own, it would be good if people would view themselves as needing to show fruits worthy of repentance in general rather than having this be targeted by people with ideological and political axes to grind to manipulate people through some sort of guilt for imaginary systemic injustice that they claim to be victims of.  To the extent that we think of ourselves as just and enlightened and progressive, we will tend to rebel against the recognition of ourselves as needing repentance.  It is easy to call upon others to repent and to seek some sort of advantageous treatment as a result of being seen as a prophet calling others to repent and change, but it is hard to recognize that there are no privileged classes of victims in the eyes of God, who sees all as sinners in need of repentance and change.  To the extent that our view disagrees with that of God as expressed by John the Baptist, we may consider ourselves to be broods of vipers whose commitment to repentance may be rightly called into question.

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Book Review: Crisis Of Fear

Crisis Of Fear:  Secession In South Carolina, by Steven A. Channing

It is not an easy thing to ponder the reasons why it was that South Carolina chose to rebel against the United States without being either sympathetic to the cause of the Confederacy or being unjust towards the rebels themselves.  The author, without being sympathetic to the Southern cause, does a good job of being understanding regarding the fear that was felt by the people of South Carolina that led them to take the drastic step of seeking their independence.  For one, they did not trust Yankees, even those Yankees who were nominally a part of their same national party, viewing them as being corrupted by a growing hostility to slavery that made them real enemies of the South regardless of the temporary electoral alliances that they may come to.  Given the record of the War Democrats in seeking Union even without being as passionately antislavery as Republicans, this was not an unreasonable concern.  The belief on the part of South Carolina that the North would not fight was incorrect, much to their chagrin, but given the tenacity of their belief in the justice of their worldview, they recognized that in the face of growing electoral majorities in the House and Senate for the North did endanger their political power and were not irrational in their fear.  It is only that their rebellion provoked the disaster that they in fact feared.

This book is about 300 pages long and is divided into nine chapters in three parts.  The author begins with the first part, that shows the fear that increasingly dominated in South Carolina (and other Deep South states) in the aftermath of the Harper’s Ferry raid (1), as well as the memories and forebodings relating to South Carolina’s previous reputation as an extremist and trigger-happy state (2) as well as the way that this fear and anxiety removed the political tendency towards cooperationism among the South Carolina political class (3).  After that the author discusses the radical mind on the eve of the Democratic conventions (4), the pressure Unionists were under in trying to pull South Carolina back from rebellion (5), and the last confrontation between the two before the Civil War in the election over delegates to the conventions as well as the secession convention (6).  Finally, the author discusses the campaign for revolution that took place in late 1860 (7), the radical persuasion that took place that gave South Carolina something approaching unanimity (8), as well as the crisis of secession that took place after Lincoln’s election (9).  The book is then ended with a bibliography and index.

Fear is a terrible thing, and in reading about the prelude to the Civil War it does not appear likely that the injustice of whites will provoke a Civil War.  The author, though, is wisely pessimistic in thinking that it is unlikely that white and black people in the United States can live at peace in the face of the fear that each side has of the other.  We are seeing at present that this fear runs deep on both sides and that attempts on the part of one side to argue for the reality of their paranoid fears about white injustice prompts other fears of race war that encourage a militant policy of self-defense.  The author is shrewd enough to realize that the Civil War itself demonstrated a great deal of what was divided between South Carolina society and it was that the society was radicalized to the point where the people themselves pushed and prodded their leaders to take drastic action because of their own fear.  Rather than blaming secession on corrupt South Carolina elites, he points out that it was a grass roots driven fear of government action taken against a defensive social elite fearful of losing power and with limited means of addressing that fear.

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Book Review: A Critical Study Of Nullification In South Carolina

A Critical Study Of Nullification In South Carolina, by David Franklin Houston

This book is an interesting one in that it provides a scholarly and deeply historical look at the reasons why South Carolina became such a noted state in the desire to nullify federal laws and eventually attempt to secede from the United States.  In any study of the politics of the antebellum South, it is clear that South Carolina is the most radical of these states in defending the interests of the slave power, but how it was that South Carolina first became triggered with regards to its fear and suspicion about federal power when it was initially part of the core pro-Federalist part of the South to begin with is a mystery to many readers and something that this author does a good job discussing at some length.  The case is an interesting one and so there is a lot to appreciate here.  As someone who is always looking to read more information on the Civil War I was pleased by what I found here in terms of the author’s discussion of the local politics of South Carolina that eventually compelled John C. Calhoun, in an effort to preserve his political base, to turn away from nationalism towards the states’ rights position that he is most famous for holding.

This book is a bit more than 150 pages long and is divided into 8 chapters with various appendices that put the material of the book in context.  After a preface, the author begins with a discussion of the broad construction of the Constitution and its appeal in South Carolina during the optimistic period between 1789-1823 when the Rutledges and then Calhoun and his cohort rose to power in the state (1).  After that the author discusses the various ideas about the theories of the Constitution that were held in the state between 1789 and 1828 as the mood of the state darkened towards the national interests as a whole (2).  After that the author discusses the immediate causes of nullification (3) and South Carolina’s change of attitude towards the nation as a whole (4).  This leads to a discussion of the formulas of nullification that were advanced within the state by its political elites (5) as well as the progress of the nullification sentiment from unease to the threat of rebellion (6).  The author discusses the response of Jackson and Clay and others to South Carolina’s growing intransigence (7) and then the significance of nullification in understanding the later crises that led to the Civil War (8).  The appendices of the book contain Calhoun’s statement of his constitutional principles (i), the Ordinance nullifying the Force Bill (ii), protests against protective tariffs in the 1840’s (iii, iv, vi), the re-affirmation of nullification by South Carolina in 1842 (v), and a bibliography of nullification (vii), after which the book ends with an index.

At the basis of South Carolina’s turn towards nullification there appears to be a deep economic fear about the failure of South Carolina to economically progress in the decades of the 1820’s and beyond.  The depopulation of the state as the declining fertility of the soul led enterprising scions of the South Carolina aristocracy to move South (Florida) and west (Alabama, Mississippi, Lousiana, Texas, etc) appears to have led to a growing siege mentality on the part of South Carolina’s voters, which was responded to by a generation of political leaders that began to replace the early nationalists that Calhoun had grown up with.  Calhoun was sensitive enough to respond to this before being voted out of office and ended up being the voice of his state, which was hostile to the economic interests of the North and deeply concerned about any financial changes that would make plantation slavery less profitable for those aristocrats who remained in power on the state and local level and whose political opinions were essential for anyone who wished to maintain a power base within the state.  Even if the tariff of 1828 and not slavery was the precipitating cause of the Nullification crisis discussed here, slavery was still at the root of the economic malaise that hurt the state as increased supply of staples given the expansion of the plantation system led to decreased profits for slaveowners in the state.

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Book Review: A Disquisition On Government And Selections From The Discourse

A Disquisition On Government And Selections From The Discourse, by John C. Calhoun

It may be argued that the political writing of John C. Calhoun [1] is a classic example of rigorous reasoning drawn from faulty premises, but there is more to Calhoun’s faultiness than merely having the wrong premises.  In the beginning part of his career, John C. Calhoun was quite a nationalist along the lines of Henry Clay, someone who desired to see America expand and who was optimistic about the way that federal funding could help develop the South and West and lead to increasing wealth and power for frontiersmen and slaveholders like himself.  That said, somewhere over the course of the 1820’s and especially the 1830’s, South Carolina became turned in on itself and increasingly pessimistic about its place and far more defensive than outward looking, and Calhoun was strongly influenced by the darkening mood of his electoral base within the state, and responsive to its shifts with his own turn away from the nationalistic agenda he supported at the beginning of his political career, to the point where he is remembered in history as a crabbed and hostile representative of the malign spirit of his own cursed state.

This particular work is a short one at just over 100 pages and it is published by someone who appears to be in support of Calhoun’s thinking.  Before the writing there is a fair amount of introductory material by Gordon C. Post that praises Calhoun for his desire to see the United States adopt a more consensus-based approach to government that rejected electoral majorities and sought a majority of interest groups that would be familiar to the approach of the contemporary Democratic party.  Indeed, Calhoun is at pains throughout the book to defend a veto on acts prejudicial to the South on the grounds of identity and thus this book is a model for later identity group theorists who similarly lack self-examination on their own sins that need repentance on how corrupt minorities can preserve their privileged position by seeking to dominate the power of government.  After the introductory material there is Calhoun’s disquisition itself and then a couple of fragments from the Calhoun’s Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States that involve the formation of the federal republic and his ideas for a plural executive.  Combined these two elements and the notes on the text make for a short but interesting book.

By and large this book is not a particularly good one.  Most of these faults belong to Calhoun, because his thinking was based on improper premises.  Nonetheless, while Calhoun’s premises about the importance of identity group approval in consensus-based government were mistaken, not least because he seemed only to think of those identity groups who were powerful and of interest to him (a common flaw in the lack of consistency of such approaches, which always seem to neglect some unpopular but large sections of the population), they are important to note because the author shows himself appealing to a sort of socialist view of the “general will” that is made up of a combination of elites whose opinions do not necessarily match with nor give any respect to individual rights themselves.  The author’s desire to form a plural executive and to dilute the electoral majoritarianism of the Constitution appears to be done in order to turn a functioning republic into an oligarchy where politics consisted of compromise between elites who sought to best oppress the commonfolk who were not wise enough to engage in the high arts of practicing power and exercising political freedom.  And Democrats ever after him have been attempting various ways at bringing this sort of plantation-style politics to pass in the local, state, and national levels up to this day.

[1] See, for example:

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Lessons From The Hyrax

[Note:  This is the prepared text for a sermonette given to the UCG Portland congregation on June 27, 2020.  The message is based on a previous study of the hyrax done by the author.]

Are you smarter than a Bible scholar?  One of the lamentable aspects of critical Bible scholars is that when they are faced with something that is mysterious or odd within the Bible, their immediate tendency is to avoid giving credit to the insights that be found from scripture, and to demand that anything the Bible says be verified and confirmed by outside sources.  For example, the city of Nineveh and the empire of the Hittites were long unknown to scholars and so it was figured by them to have been imaginary and fictitious until the ruins of their civilizations and their written documents, which correspond so closely to scripture, were discovered and deciphered.  So it is as well that animals that the Bible discusses are not assumed to be real unless they are known from outside sources.  Among these mysterious biblical animals that were long thought to have been imaginary is the humble hyrax, the subject of today’s message.

What is a hyrax anyway?  It is worthwhile to note something about the hyrax in terms of its biblical name, as that name gives the reader some insight as to its character as far as the Bible is concerned.  It is the Hebrew word shafan that is used to describe the hyrax, and this word is related to the Hebrew word for concealed or hidden the way that treasures are.  Intriguingly enough, the hyrax’s identity was long hidden to English-language translators who were not aware of the animal, and the animal’s ability to make its home within the rocks of desert cliffs despite being feeble folk (more on that shortly) is something that drew a great deal of praise within the Bible.  Indeed, the Bible views hyraxes in a positive sense and draws some lessons that are well worth remembering, suggesting that if hyraxes are obscure for us, that they were definitely something that the Bible finds worthy of paying attention to.

The first two times the hyrax appears by name in scripture is a note about the uncleanness of the animal for eating.  Let us begin in Deuteronomy 14:7-8:  “Nevertheless, of those that chew the cud or have cloven hooves, you shall not eat, such as these: the camel, the hare, and the rock hyrax; for they chew the cud but do not have cloven hooves; they are unclean for you.  Also the swine is unclean for you, because it has cloven hooves, yet does not chew the cud; you shall not eat their flesh or touch their dead carcasses.”  Leviticus 11:4-8 has a somewhat longer but generally similar mention:  “Nevertheless these you shall not eat among those that chew the cud or those that have cloven hooves: the camel, because it chews the cud but does not have cloven hooves, is unclean to you; the rock hyrax, because it chews the cud but does not have cloven hooves, is unclean to you; the hare, because it chews the cud but does not have cloven hooves, is unclean to you; and the swine, though it divides the hoof, having cloven hooves, yet does not chew the cud, is unclean to you.  Their flesh you shall not eat, and their carcasses you shall not touch. They are unclean to you.”  It may very well be that the Bible means by the expression the appearance of chewing the cud even without the reality of it, given that it does not expect the Israelites to cut open the hyrax or other animals to see how many stomachs it has but rather judge it by its visible and obvious behaviors.  It is rather telling that the hyrax is here compared to the camel (another animal of the desert like the hyrax is) as well as the hare, which the hyrax was originally confused with by translators who didn’t understand the existence of the hyrax.  The obvious lesson here is that God did not create all animals for our consumption as food, so the purposes of the hyrax are not to be consumed by mankind as part of a healthy and balanced diet.

Outside of the law, the hyrax is found in two passages that use the animal as a source of insight and instruction.  Psalm 104:16-18 tells us:  “The trees of the Lord are full of sap, the cedars of Lebanon which He planted, where the birds make their nests; the stork has her home in the fir trees.  The high hills are for the wild goats; the cliffs are a refuge for the rock badgers.”  Here we see the psalmist praising God’s providential care for creation by looking at the way that animals find their home in the different parts of creation that God has created.  God planted the cedars of Lebanon (which, sadly, have long been destroyed due to the improvidence of mankind), and in those trees the stork found a home in the fir trees.  High hills and rock cliffs are not habitats that are highly regarded by many people, but they provide a home for the wild goats and rock badgers (another name for hyraxes), respectively.  Notably, Psalm 104 is providing us with a lesson concerning creation that we would do well to listen to.  That lesson is that God’s creation of the earth is not only for mankind or what can be done for mankind.  Rather, God’s creation also shows concern for other creatures whose well-being we may not always be well disposed to respect.  To the extent that we develop godly character, we will will care about the well-being of storks, wild goats, and hyraxes just as God does.  No animal is too odd or too obscure to be beneath God’s concern and care, and the same should be true regarding our own concern for God’s creation.

The final mention of the hyrax in scripture is from a source that is nearly as obscure as the animal itself, the wise Agur, whose insights about God and man can be found throughout the entirety of Proverbs 30, including one of my favorite messianic prophecies.  Among his other insightful comments in Proverbs 30 is a reference to the surprising survival skills of the hyrax as part of a context in verses 24-28:  “There are four things which are little on the earth, but they are exceedingly wise:  The ants are a people not strong, yet they prepare their food in the summer; the rock badgers are a feeble folk, yet they make their homes in the crags; the locusts have no king, yet they all advance in ranks; the spider skillfully grasps with its hands, and it is in kings’ palaces.”  Here Agur talks about four small but wise creatures.  Ants are weak but prepare for the change of the seasons, showing that they are wise.  Hyraxes are feeble but can make their home in the crags, showing their skill at surviving in difficult terrain.  Locusts have no autocratic leaders (unlike humanity) but are able to maintain unity, something that human beings struggle with.  Finally, spiders are small but are skilled and able to make their home even in palaces where their webs catch unwary insects for their meals.  Here the lessons are plain that God has created animals who are able to overcome their natural limitations and show themselves to be far stronger and far more powerful than they would be upon first observation.  This is something that we would do well to remember, so that we do not underestimate anything that God has created.

Let us now review the lessons from the hyrax as they appear in scripture.  Learning these lessons and keeping them in mind will help us to remain smarter than the Bible scholars who disregard the wisdom that the Bible provides us from creation.  The first lesson that the Bible provides us is the reminder that not everything that God has created was created for our own consumption, and the worth of the hyrax does not consist in its being fit for food.  After this, the next lesson that the Bible provides us is a reminder that God is concerned about providing a place for the hyrax to live in the desolate and obscure areas of the world, the cliffs of the Middle East and North Africa.  It is fitting that an obscure creature should have an obscure home, and we ought to be comforted by the way that God provides for even the most unusual creatures, so perhaps he may be believed to provide for the well-being of even the most odd and obscure and unusual among His people as well.  Finally, Agur, an obscure but wise fellow himself, reminds us that the hyrax may look weak and feeble from the outside, but it possesses the tenacity and strength to make its home in the harsh environment of rocks and cliffs.  We should not underestimate those around us, because other people and creatures often possess strengths that we are scarcely aware of and will not understand unless we approach them with an attitude of respect and curiosity.  We would all do well to heed the lessons that God provides us through the humble hyrax.

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Book Review: The Bad Catholic’s Guide To Wine, Whiskey, And Song

The Bad Catholic’s Guide To Wine, Whiskey, And Song, by John Zmirak and Denise Matychowiak

How does someone who is a moderationist but by no means a knowledeable person when it comes to drinking read and appreciate a book like this?  As it happens, one of the authors of this book made a comment online about some bad Catholic music and I commented that it could be used as interrogation, to which the author replied that it was a suggestion he made made in an article as well as in a book and what do you know, that is definitely the case.  On its face, this book is a hilarious look at some amazing recipes as well as some humorous examples of how it is that Catholic monasteries kept alive basic knowledge during the Dark Ages in the face of massive illiteracy in the general European population, including the knowledge of how to make a wide variety of spirits.  Besides serving as broadminded celebration of Catholic culture, though, this book has some darker points about the untrustworthiness of civil authorities and especially secular ones who profit off of the knowledge that has been provided by churchmen before turning on them and seeking to expropriate their wealth.

This book is organized from A to Z and includes a look in some areas of Christian culture that would likely be unfamiliar to many, including the true European roots of popular Californian wines and the way that Ethiopian cuisine can wreck a date.  Yet those who see this book as only being good for laughs would miss the melancholy notes that are just underneath the surface of this book, which talks about the songs of Catholicism, many of which have a tragic meaning, such as the rousing “Faith Of Our Fathers” or the songs sung by the Vendeean counter-revolutionaries who gave their life to help France maintain some aspect of its Catholic honor in the face of Revolutionary terror.  Indeed, the author implicitly points out here that Catholic conservatives or traditionalists tend to be canaries in a coal mine whose struggles serve as a reminder that a state has moved into a deeply oppressive state.  And in almost 400 pages of reading, this book mixes plenty of humor with some rather dark observations of Catholic history, an area I must admit I am not as familiar about as I am with many other aspects of history.

Ultimately, this is a book that is for several groups of readers.  For one, it is an excellent read for those who want to explore the richness and diversity of Catholic culinary culture while appreciating the complex history that the Roman Catholic church has had around the world, especially in its periodic persecution by hostile secular forces.  For another, the book offers the means of encouraging the deeper study of Catholic culture for Catholics and those who are at least not hostile to the popular level of Catholicism of monasteries and their role as repositories of knowledge.  For those who are willing to laugh as well as enjoy the legacy of wine, whiskey, and song, this book is certainly of a lot more use as critical but loving look at Catholic culture and how it has been viewed by society than a Chinese-made tschotske at some sort of nominally Catholic university bookstore, although such places might consider this book and others in the series not elevated enough for such a prestigious place of honor.  Those who can appreciate this work would do well to enjoy the fine recipes by Matychowiak while pondering upon the way that tyrannical governments demonstrate their abusiveness by the way that they attack the Church, and wonder how long until our own militant secularists attack it here.

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Book Review: The Bad Catholic’s Guide To The Seven Deadly Sins

The Bad Catholic’s Guide To The Seven Deadly Sins, by John Zmirak

Even without having a close background in the Thomist language of the seven deadly sins, the seven cardinal virtues, and then the seven neuroses, a lot of the material of this book is somewhat familiar to those who wrestle with questions of finding balance in a world where it is all too easily for one’s thinking to get caught up in extremes.  At the core of this book there is a discussion about vices, neuroses, and virtues and the way that they interact with each other in unpredictable ways.  All too often vices and neuroses can creep up on us and we can think ourselves free without actually being so.  The author’s winsome sense of humor and willingness to discuss some of the more embarrassing aspects of his own life and background and the way that vices make their way as generational curses is quite interesting as well.  There is a lot here to unpackage and the book is clearly written from a Catholic (and specifically a Thomist) point of view, but whether or not you happen to have that particular view yourself there is a lot to gain here if you take moral philosophy seriously.

This book is between 250 and 300 pages long and it is divided into fourteen chapters that explore the seven deadly sins (as well as the seven corresponding neuroses) and then the seven cardinal virtues that stand in contrast to these sins.  So, for example, we begin the book with a chapter on lust that also talks about the corresponding neurosis of frigidity (1) and then follow that with a chapter on chastity (2).  There is a chapter on wrath and its evil counterpoint servility (3) and then a chapter that gives the contrasting virtue of patience (4).  There is a chapter on gluttony (a vice I am sadly all too familiar with) along with insensibility (5) followed by a chapter on the unpopular virtue of temperance (6).  After this there is a chapter that discusses the sin of greed and its corresponding neurosis of prodigality (7) followed by a chapter on the virtue of generosity (8).  Then we see a chapter on sloth and fanaticism (9) that is followed by one on diligence (10).  Vainglory and scrupulosity (11) are then contrasted with the virtue of humility (12) and finally envy and pusillanimity (13) are contrasted with magnanimity (14), at which point the book contains a brief sample of one of the author’s other books.

What is notable when it comes to various extremes is that they tend to be partial truths that are exaggerated into gross error made all the worse because of imbalance.  Bringing contrasting extremes into harmony requires not a compromise between them but a perspective above them that is able to point out the elements of both that are nevertheless worthwhile but which have to be kept in their proper proportion.  In ages like our own it is of the utmost difficulty to keep anything in its proper proportion and that tends to make books like this far more necessary than they would be in better times.  And the author’s own personal experience has a lot to do with the way that this book comes off so humorously and encourages the reader to examine their own view.  The quizzes which examine the state of the soul of the person with regards to each of the seven deadly sins is pretty entertaining as well, and I was pleased that my own responses tended to fall in the middle of the options and thus at least amenable to being brought into the right harmony and balance, which is something that tends to worry me given the state of the world and its desire to force people into extreme positions.

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Book Review: The Bad Catholic’s Guide To The Catechism

The Bad Catholic’s Guide To The Catechism:  A Faithful, Fun-Loving Look At Catholic Dogmas, Doctrines, And Schmoctrines, by John Zmirak

Admittedly, I read and review a book like this one as an outsider when it comes to Catholicism and its thoughts and ways and not as an insider.  Perhaps unusually, I come to a book like this as a sympathetic outsider, not least because the author and I are online acquaintances and because I have some idea of the author’s thinking and opinions from having interacted with him and read a great deal of what he posts online, as he is a prolific writer on matters of the Catholic faith and its interaction with the contemporary world.  This book appears to be written mainly for two groups of people, either sympathetic outsiders to Catholicism who can appreciate the importance of godly traditions and the need for church and authority to counteract the willful and rebellious tendencies of individuals unshackled from restraint, an audience which I am a part of, or those who are nominal Catholics who have at least some curiosity in better knowing what they feel a vague but not very well-informed understanding of and connection to.  And by and large this works well at providing a sympathetic but brutally honest picture of Catholic teaching and doctrine that is well-aimed at making its internal and external enemies look at least a little bit ridiculous.

This book is about 250 pages long or so and it is divided into six very large chapters that tackle different aspects of Catholicism.  The preface gives a loving discussion of how this book is sort of following in the footsteps of Fulton Sheen in making the Catholic faith accessible to others.  The introduction gently reminds us that this is not a catechism in the formal sense, even though the book is structured as a dialogue between a clueless but inquisitive young nominal Catholic and a wiser and sardonically humorous persona of the author.  The six chapters begin with a discussion of reason and revelation that deal with the authority of the Bible and of the magisterium (1).  After that comes a discussion of God the Father (2), the Son (3), and the Holy Spirit (4) as they appear in the Bible, in Catholic teaching and understanding, and in the understanding of believers and even occasionally unbelievers, with a healthy discussion of various heresies that involve attempts at simplifying matters.  After that comes a discussion of the Church (5), which also comments a good bit on the contemporary crisis of Catholicism in the light of the sexual revolution and a view of the sacraments that provides a thoughtful discussion of baptism, marriage, the Passover (called the Eucharist here), the laying on of hands for illness, and the other sacraments.

This book is part of a series, which is pretty funny from what I have seen so far, relating to a Bad Catholic looking at Catholic culture with an honest and loving but brutally honest eye.  As someone who is similarly a loving but also brutally honest examiner of my own religious traditions, this is an approach I wholeheartedly enjoy and can entirely understand.  Intriguingly enough, this particular book was written in a period where a run of conservative “good popes” was going on and where there was a high degree of respect for the Catholic hierarchy despite the recognized and serious problems of the Catholic bishops and ordained leadership as a whole.  The author notes, though, that there have been plenty of periods where the leadership of the church was less morally elevated and quite worthy of disgust and contempt, and it appears that as I read this we are in one such period at present.  If the author and I spring from different religious backgrounds, there is a lot I can relate to here and if you are someone who has a generally traditional but highly critical relationship with Christianity, you will find a fair amount to appreciate here as well.

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An Introduction To The Core Curriculum Project

Because I never have too many projects to be working on simultaneously, I thought it would be worthwhile to begin a series that discusses the difference between core and periphery matters by looking at a lot of material that serves the same purpose.  While I was discussing the music of Styx, I had the idea of reviewing three of their best-of collections (of which there are many) and this led to the idea in seeing of there was for Styx and other groups a core set of music that everyone agreed was of vital importance as well as a periphery of music that was recognized to lesser degree.  Is it possible that by combining the information of various best-of collections together that one might come to a determination of what is considered to be a consensus of what is the most important music of a group.  This is especially true of legacy groups that have a lot of best-of compilations that are on the market, as some artists have only one collection by, by default, is the definitive one.

This does not only apply to best-of collections of songs, though.  As a lifelong member of the Church of God tradition, I have become familiar with a wide variety of hymns that are sung, and it would be possible to determine based on a comparative examination of hymnals what songs are viewed as “core” songs across time and across various organizations within the larger Church of God tradition and what songs are more peripheral.  From this we might determine the writers and material that has the most general and widespread appeal and that which appears to only a certain segment of the larger culture as a whole.  Similarly, one might approach a variety of textbooks on American history, for example, or any other subject, and to see which materials are given treatment most consistently throughout the books and which subjects are left up to the whims of the textbook writer.  It is interesting to note the divide that exists between consensus picks and that which is more peripheral or of more idiosyncratic interest.

So, with that in mind I would like to start a progress where I look at various subjects through a syntopcial [1] perspective that seeks to examine that which is included in a wide variety of perspectives and that which is narrowly based on only a few perspectives.  We will, of course, begin with a musical history perspective when it comes to legacy rock & roll acts, but we will continue this to other areas as time and interest permit.  As always, if you have a particular subject you would like to see examined in this way, please let me know.

Core Curriculum:  Legacy Rock & Roll Acts

Bryan Adams

[1] See, for example:

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