Blog author: kschmiesing
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
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As The Dark Knight sets box office records, and the Acton Institute plunges deeper into the business of film production, it might be an opportune time to revisit the question of Christianity and movies.

Scads of ink have already been spilled on the subject, which is of course part of the larger question of the relationship between Christianity and art, upon which many great minds have ruminated. (See, for example, Jacques Maritain on Art and Scholasticism.)

On the PowerBlog, besides the occasional movie review, John Armstrong (here) and Jordan Ballor (here and here) have alluded to the broader questions raised at the intersection of morality, movie production and viewing, and evangelization.

A provocative recent contribution to the discussion comes from Time magazine’s Anthony Sacramone, writing at On the Square. Sacramone refers to the defunct Motion Picture Production Code (one part of an interesting history of Catholics and American movies) in the course of a critique of the contemporary Christian Movieguide, concluding,

There should be a happy medium between resigning oneself to the rank nihilism emitted from cineplexes like stink lines from an R. Crumb cartoon, and pining for the days when the Production Code had to be formally amended to permit Rhett Butler’s valedictory “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

The feature interview for the Winter issue of Religion and Liberty was Dr. David W. Miller, who at the time served as the Executive Director of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. With his permission, Dr. Miller has agreed to let us inform our readers that he is taking a new position at Princeton as the Director of the Princeton University Faith & Work Initiative. The Trinity Forum is the only organization with an updated biography mentioning his new position.

No stranger to Princeton, Dr. Miller received his Master of Divinity degree and Ph.D. at Princeton Theological Seminary. He will also be an Associate Research Scholar and teach at Princeton. Dr. Miller will also continue as president of the Avodah Institute, which helps “leaders integrate the claims of their faith with the demands of their work.” The Acton Institute takes great delight in congratulating Dr. Miller on his new academic position.

The sixth week of the CRC’s Sea to Sea bike tour has been completed. The sixth leg of the journey took the bikers from Fremont to Madison, a total distance of 548 miles.

The “Shifting Gears” devotional for this week does a good job reminding us of the appropriate relative value of temporal vs. eternal things. “A human being’s life consists not in the abundance of his or her possessions, but in the blessing of loving relationships. May we be shrewd stewards of all the rest and not forget those around us who live in meager circumstances,” concludes the day 37 devotion.

The daily prayers for the road often take a look at local organizations doing work in the areas that the tour passes through. On day 37, for instance, the prayer notes the work of Justice For All (JFA), “a movement to defend and advance disability rights and advocate for the self-sufficiency and empowerment of adults and children with disabilities.” The day 41 prayer remembers the Interfaith Hospitality Network (IHN), which “serves homeless families in collaboration with local faith communities and organizations.”

The sixth week of the tour travels through the state of Iowa, and you can check out the Samaritan Guide for programs integrating faith and work effectively in this state, including the Rural Senior Citizen and Prison Inmate Volunteers of Hope Haven, based in Rock Valley, Iowa. These volunteers, made up of rural senior citizens and prison inmates, volunteer their time and efforts “to refurbish used wheelchairs and to manufacture our own pediatric wheelchairs to deliver to the disabled poor living around the world.”

Iowa is also the home of one of the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, a program related to the work of Prison Fellowship Ministries that was challenged on constitutional grounds in 2006. While much of the ruling against IFI was overturned on appeal, the state’s contract with the group was terminated and ended in June of this year.

Blog author: jcouretas
Monday, August 11, 2008
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Writing in the London-based Times, Chris Ayres in “Welcome to Nannyfornia” looks at the “frenzy of puritanical edicts from California’s politicians” that cover a host of sins, ranging from transfats to the highly objectionable use of the terms “Mom” and “Dad.”

Ayres raises a “disturbing” question:

Is Nannyfornia providing us with a glimpse of what Obama’s America might look like? After all, Obama is a classic banner. He recently proposed banning all toys from China. He banned his own staff from wearing green clothing during his recent trip to the Middle East (green is the colour of the Hamas flag). He banned the New Yorker magazine from his press plane after it depicted him as a terrorist in a political cartoon. He wants to ban “excessive” profits by raising capital gains tax. Why? Because he thinks it’s fair. No matter that the state’s revenues from the tax have always gone up whenever the rate has been lowered.

Jot Condie, president of the California Restaurant Association, is one of many Americans who fears all this prohibition is going too far. “The Government here in California is banning a food product simply because it’s not healthy,” he complains. “What do you ban next? Bacon fat? The possibilities are limitless.”

Read “The Sin Tax: Economic and Moral Considerations” by the Rev. Robert A. Sirico on the Acton Web site. Quote:

It is a mistake to entrust the modern state with the enforcement of certain moral codes of behavior that extend beyond obvious crimes against person and property. When government is allowed to go beyond these limits and enforce a wider array of moral issues, it will substitute its own form of morality for traditional morality. A government program like recycling, for example, could be deemed more morally worthy than traditional virtues like fidelity in marriage. Obeying securities regulations could be seen as the very heart of virtue, whereas teaching children at home seen as a vice. The government’s sense of morality, especially when it is influenced by excessive power, is often at war with traditional standards and common sense.

Also see “Cigarette Tax Burnout” in today’s Wall Street Journal.

Democrats are planning one more pre-election go at a $35 billion children’s health program expansion (S-chip) funded by a 61-cent per pack tobacco tax increase. They justify the new levy as a “sin tax.” OK, but if Americans don’t start sinning a whole lot more, states and Uncle Sam are going to go broke.

Blog author: jcouretas
Saturday, August 9, 2008
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In the Wall Street Journal, Edward E. Ericson Jr. asks whether “this week’s evenhanded obituaries signal merely momentary respect for the newly dead or augur better days ahead for Solzhenitsyn’s reputation.” In “Solzhenitsyn, Optimist,” Ericson observes that the writer “had the last laugh” in his struggle against the Soviets.

Solzhenitsyn has described himself as “an unshakable optimist.” On a dark day when one of his helpers had been arrested and interrogated and ended up dead (who knows how?), he could “raise a defiant battle cry: Victory is ours! With God’s aid we shall yet prevail!” Virtually every one of Solzhenitsyn’s works, of whatever type or length, ends on the note of hope. This is not an accident or affectation; it is a revelation of character and statement of faith. In seeing him as he isn’t, we err.

What could his mortal foe do about Solzhenitsyn’s great weapon, “The Gulag Archipelago,” first published in the 1970s? Solzhenitsyn was “sure” that “Gulag” “was destined to affect the course of history,” and early reviews reinforced his optimism. A German newspaper editorialized, “The time may come when we date the beginning of the collapse of the Soviet system from the appearance of Gulag.” Diplomat George Kennan said that this “greatest and most powerful single indictment of a political regime” would stick in “the craw of the Soviet propaganda machine . . . with increasing discomfort, until it has done its work.”

Solzhenitsyn, for his part, instructed us early in the book that if all we expected from it was a political exposé, we should “slam its covers shut right now.” It is more than a history of Lenin’s concentration-camp system; it is a literary investigation, the work of an artist. An “ordinary brave man” could decide “not to participate in lies, not to support false actions.” But “it is within the power of writers and artists to do much more: to defeat the lie! For in the struggle with lies art has always triumphed and shall always triumph!” Solzhenitsyn was not the first witness to speak truthfully about the gulag. But because he was an artist, he was the first one able to make us all hear it and believe it. There is no answering “the many-throated groan, the dying whisper of millions” that he transmitted.

In this week’s Acton commentary, Solzhenitsyn and His Critics, I point to the criticism that has been leveled for many years at the writer who turned out to be not exactly the sort of dissident that many in the West were waiting for. I suspect that much of this antipathy to Solzhenitsyn was based on his uncompromising moral vision, which seems to offend some people. I say:

Solzhenitsyn’s critique of modern societies went much deeper than ideology. He drew from a Christian moral tradition, not a political platform. He yearned for a “moral doctrine of the value of the individual as the key to the solution of the social problems.”

I received today a copy of the Spring 2008 Ave Maria Law Review in which is published an article titled “The Enduring Achievement of Alexander Solzhenitsyn” by Edward E. Ericson Jr. Ericson, with co-author Daniel J. Mahoney, edited ISI’s Solzhenitsyn Reader, an outstanding one-volume collection drawn from the author’s prodigious life work.

In Ericson’s article, adapted from a lecture he gave at Ave Maria last year, he says that Solzhenitsyn “never did get the hang of the West’s unspoken rule governing free speech, namely self-censorship.” Then there was his Russian Orthodox faith. Ericson:

In 1972, with all hope lost of his ever being published again in the Soviet Union, [Solzhenitsyn] made public the fact that he was a religious believer, specifically, a Russian Orthodox Christian — how quaint. Following his 1978 commencement address at Harvard University, conventional wisdom crystallized into cliche: Solzhenitsyn was objectionable, wrongheaded, retrograde. Case over. Close the books.

Unless Solzhenitsyn’s many critics, on the left and the right, understand him on his own terms — as an artist working from the moral framework of an ancient Christian tradition — they will never understand him or his work.

Even before Solzhenitsyn publicly identified himself as a Christian, those with eyes to see could discern that his fiction operated within what we may call the moral universe, which, in turn, seemed to posit a religious worldview. In 1970, Father Alexander Schmemann described Solzhenitsyn as “a Christian writer” because his writings exhibit “a deep and all-embracing … perception of the world, man, and life, which, historically, was born a grew from Biblical and Christian revelation, and only from it.” Schmemann described the essence of this perception as “the triune intuition of creation, fall, and redemption.”

Is Solzhenitsyn above criticism? Of course not. But understand him in light of his great achievement — the moral courage he displayed and the power of his ideas. Ericson again:

Someone needed to articulate compellingly what everyone knew deep down. Someone needed to say the emperor had no clothes. Solzhenitsyn, more than anyone else, delegitimized the Soviet experiment at home and discredited it abroad. And he hammered home his case through the concreteness that literary art is singularly suited to provide. It helped to have people pushing against the tottering tower from the outside, but external pressures are of less consequence than demolition charges ignited from the inside.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, August 8, 2008
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On an episode of NPR’s Talk of the Nation last month, professor Jay Parini of Middlebury College discussed his role in the criminal justice sentences given to students who were involved in the vandalism of the former summer home of renowned poet Robert Frost.

Some of the younger students involved took part in a class on Robert Frost as part of an alternative sentencing plea agreement. As Prof. Parini says, “It’s a sort of unique punishment, talk about the punishment fitting the crime.”

Be sure to listen to the show to get the details of the whole story. This sounds to me like a perfect example of jurisprudence, that is, wisdom in the application of law. By connecting the offenders to the reality of Robert Frost’s life and work, the real impact of what they had done was communicated to them.

The potential for alternative sentencing agreements like this is just one of the possibilities I discuss in a newly published essay, “To Reform or to Abolish? Christian Perspectives on Punishment, Prison, and Restorative Justice,” Ave Maria Law Review 6, no. 2 (Spring 2008): 481-511. In that piece I lay out a basic scheme for understanding the different Christian approaches to restorative justice, particularly with regard to the relationship between punishment and restoration, along with some of the theological and practical implications for these various streams.

“It seems obvious that from a perspective of personalism,” I write, “relevant contextual differences should be considered in sentencing, and judges should have the ability to exercise prudential judgments on such matters.”

The case of the Frost house vandals underscores the value of this perspective, contrasted with that which emphasizes strictly controlled mandatory sentencing, especially for minors and youths. As Parini also says, “Poetry is about reparation and restoration.” The task for the prudential administration of justice is to balance and coordinate the necessity of punishment as an end in itself and as an instrument oriented toward reconciliation.

As an aside, I might also note that Prof. Parini would do his regular college students better service to teach them as he taught the offenders. Talking about his treatment of the Frost poem, “The Road Not Taken.” “When I teach the class to my students at Middlebury, it’s a you know sophisticated group, I do a fairly post-modern reading of the poem…. In a post-modern reading of that poem it’s more complicated.”

But in teaching the class of offenders Parini emphasized the recognition of metaphoric and symbolic values as a necessary part of coming to grips with the realities and responsibilities of life: “I realized these kids are at a very simple level here and Frost is confronting one of the issues that we have moral choices breaking in front of us at every moment.” This latter approach does more justice, so to speak, to the duties of the moral imagination than the sophistry of a post-modern reading, in which there is really no “wrong” road to take.

The theme of this issue of the Ave Maria Law Review is “The Constitutionality of Faith-Based Prison Units,” and there are some valuable resources for coming to grips with a practical dilemma facing the relationship between church and state in America. Another noteworthy and timely essay in this issue is Edward E. Ericson Jr.’s “The Enduring Achievement of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.”

At Solzhenitsyn’s grave. Donskoy Monastery, Moscow. Aug. 6, 2008.

The Associated Press has published a moving series of photographs from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s funeral here.

Acathistus

By Alexander Solzhenitsyn

When, oh when did I scatter so madly
All the goodness, the God-given grains?
Was my youth not spent with those who gladly
Sang to You in the glow of Your shrines?

Bookish wisdom, though, sparkled and beckoned,
And it rushed through my arrogant mind,
The world’s mysteries seemed within reckon,
My life’s lot like warm wax in the hand.

My blood seethed, and it spilled and it trickled,
Gleamed ahead with a multihued trace,
Without clamor there quietly crumbled
In my breast the great building of faith.

Then I passed betwixt being and dying,
I fell off and now cling to the edge,
And I gaze back with gratitude, trembling,
On the meaningless life I have led.

Not my reason, nor will, nor desire
Blazed the twists and the turns of its road,
It was purpose-from-High’s steady fire
Not made plain to me till afterward.

Now regaining the measure that’s true,
Having drawn with it water of being,
Oh great God! I believe now anew!
Though denied, You were always with me …

From The Solzhenitsyn Reader. New and Essential Writings 1947-2005 (ISI Books, 2006)

Blog author: jcouretas
Thursday, August 7, 2008
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Dr. Luckey

We welcome Acton adjunct scholar Dr. William R. Luckey, Professor of Political Science and Economics at Christendom College, to the PowerBlog. Dr. Luckey has expertise in Political Philosophy, Business and Economics, and Theology, and posts from his excellent Catholic Truths on Economics will be shared here. His tagline explains why he is a perfect fit for the PowerBlog: Guidance on Economics, its importance for Catholics, its importance to civilizations, and what are its objective truths. It might sound boring…but boy, we are all affected by it.

This is from his latest post, Are there economic laws?

In the latest edition of an otherwise scholarly theological journal, a writer, who only ever writes about one subject, attacked the free market as usual. He wrote: “Neither can economics be satisfied with leaving human beings to the mercy of markets with their supposed ‘laws.’. . .” While there is certainly no space to take on his whole article, this part might just be the most serious error in it.

This particular writer, and those trained in his school, which he denies is the German Historical School, but it is, operate from a nominalistic approach. Nominalism, a school of thought begun in the Middle Ages by the Franciscan, William of Ockham, denies that there is any human nature. Therefore, human beings have no necessary consistency in them. In ethics, each person makes up his own code, and the codes can be very much at odds. To a nominalist, everything is will alone, not reason. This is why the writer in question asserts that people are at the “mercy of markets.” To those who think like this, everything is power. Even in moral theology, the reason one obeys the Ten Commandments is that it’s God’s will only, and there is no connection with those commandments and the nature of things. God could have commanded ten other things we were to avoid, and we would be required to obey them, because they are His will, even if they were the opposite of those actually listed. (I am sure many people would not have any trouble with the commandments were that the case) Thus, to those who think in this manner, markets are power, and that’s why there are no laws of economics. That’s why corporations are evil; because money gives them power, which they use to take advantage of others.

Read more. Dr. Luckey takes on questions such as Does John Courtney Murray’s Defense of Freedom Extend to Economics? An Austrian Perspective. He also weighs in on The Calumny Against “Speculators” and Catholics, Calumny and Oil Prices. Great stuff.

Welcome, Bill!

Mark Tooley pens another brilliant critique of the latest endeavors of the religious left in this piece titled “God’s Welfare State” in FrontPage Magazine. The commentary is a response marked with reason and clarity to left-leaning interfaith groups who are calling for more government programs and initiatives to tackle poverty. Tooley also notes in his piece that the signers of the letter calling for Senator John McCain and Senator Barack Obama to address their party conventions with a ten year plan to end poverty, are the usual suspects who equate “The federal welfare state with God’s Kingdom.” Tooley always seems to have a knack at getting to the heart of the issue, and he concludes by simply noting:

The left-leaning religious officials, guided by 100 years of statist Social Gospel, want to wage a government-led coercive struggle against “poverty” in the abstract. But most of their religious traditions express God’s love for specific poor people, while emphasizing voluntary and relational charity towards the needy. This historic stance of these religions towards the poor understandably has less appeal to the Religious Left, which often is more preoccupied with political power than with concrete compassion.