I watched the 2006 film The Prestige (based on the 1995 book of the same name) over the weekend. The film does an excellent job of portraying the complex relationship between the two main characters, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale).

These two men are stage illusionists or magicians (the name of the movie derives from the terms that the author gives the three essential part of any magic trick: the setup (pledge), the performance (turn) and the effect (prestige). Their interaction over the course of the years is characterized by rivalry and obsessive vengeance-seeking. The film does well to show the admirable and dishonorable elements of both men, thereby giving a realistic and relevant portrayal of the fallen human condition.

There’s certainly a great deal of morality to be learned from the film’s tale of revenge, but one of the more interesting subplots involves a different kind of obsession. At one point Angier seeks out the famed inventor Nikola Tesla (ably played by David Bowie) to help him get the upper hand on Borden.

The device that Tesla builds for Angier ends up being a critically important element of the developing plot (it gives a whole new ironic meaning to the term deus ex machina), but what I want to examine briefly here is Tesla’s view of technological development.

As the movie progresses, it becomes clear that Tesla and Thomas Edison have developed an antagonistic rivalry similar to that of Angier and Borden. While the latter pair’s relationship is focused on stage magic, the former two men are vying for preeminence in the field of technological innovation.

Tesla is a rather tragic figure, a brilliant scientist who knows he is captivated by an obsession to push his mastery over nature to ever greater scope. He also knows that such a burning obsession must needs eventually destroy him. When Angier approaches Tesla asking for a radically powerful device, Tesla says confidently, “Nothing is impossible, Mr. Angier. What you want is simply expensive.”

Nikola Tesla: “Man’s grasp exceeds his nerve.”

In this way, Tesla’s faith is in technological progress: “You’re familiar with the phrase ‘man’s reach exceeds his grasp’? It’s a lie: man’s grasp exceeds his nerve.” The first quote can be taken to mean that man’s technological capabilities outstrip his abilities to make sound moral judgments about the use and abuse of innovative technology. But whereas Tesla determines that this maxim is a “lie,” there’s a great deal of contemporary evidence that the statement is indeed true.

This is perhaps nowhere more clearly evident than in the field of biotechnology, especially with respect to the research and science related to fertility and embryology. When writing about the moral challenge of in vitro fertilization, Acton scholar Stephen Grabill states, “Technology, it seems, has outpaced our understanding of the fundamental legal, political, theological, and moral issues in the creation and management of human embryos.”

I have written a great deal on the phenomenon of animal-human hybrids, known as chimeras, and there is a recent piece on NRO from Rev. Thomas Berg is executive director of the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person, and member of the ethics committee of New York’s Empire State Stem Cell Board. Berg concludes that “Biomedical science fails humanity when it deliberately destroys human life in the pursuit of trying to cure it.”

The Prestige is a great film on a number of levels. As a morality play it has many things to teach us. One of these is the stark contemporary relevance of a cultural obsession with technological progress divorced from a firm and reliable theological and moral grounding.

Blog author: kschmiesing
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
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French president Nicholas Sarkozy has recommended the formation of a “Council of the Wise,” which would have the task of “elaborating proposals for the future development of Europe.” A recent survey by the Bertelsmann Foundation finds a lot of support for the idea in France, the UK, and Germany. I suppose there are various ways to read this. One, hinted at by the survey story linked above, is that people in the EU are uneasy about the direction Europe is moving and want to establish a counterweight to the politicians in Brussels. More likely, it seems to me, is that this would be one more bureaucratic agency–only this one not actually doing any of the work of government but instead churning out grandiose projects that would gobble up even more of the continent’s tax dollars. All of which leaves aside the at once frightening and amusing title of the group, which calls to mind something out of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

Francis Asbury was so well-known in early America that letters addressed to “Bishop Asbury, United States of America” were delivered to him. During his life, Methodist Bishop Asbury (1745-1816) is said to have preached well over 16,000 sermons and traveled nearly 300,000 miles on horseback alone. The explosion of Methodism in the United States after the American Revolution, and during the Second Great Awakening is well documented in the history of the church. When Asbury arrived in the colonies, Methodists numbered at most a few thousand, but most likely were fewer than that. By the time of Asbury’s death, the Methodist Episcopal Church was the largest denomination in the U.S. with more than 200,000 members.

Asbury’s dedication is renowned, he was a man who rose everyday at 4 a.m. for prayer, devotion, and to teach himself biblical languages. Asbury was self-educated, and he organized schools for young people. Many of his days he spent on horseback, where he traveled far and wide to bring the Good News to the American frontier. Asbury was famous for being seen on American trails, riding and reading at the same time, in order to not have any idle moments. In fact, just by the sheer physical demands of his travels, it had a serious effect on his health. Always pushing himself to the end, he was so weak by the end of his ministry, he had to be carried to his carriage after his last sermon.

Mark Tooley of IRD, looks back at Asbury’s influence in America with an article for The American Spectator, “Asbury, Itinerant Leader.” His article recalls President Calvin Coolidge’s dedication speech of the Asbury statue in Washington. Tooley also reminds us of the importance of faith in the history and founding of our nation. Tooley says:

Today, almost nobody notices the Asbury statue any more, and few outside of diehard Methodist circles even remember who Asbury was. But the Coolidge dedication and speech were front page news in Washington, D.C. newspapers in October 1924. Coolidge called Asbury a “prophet of the wilderness” who is “entitled to rank as one of the builders of our nation.” But the President also exploited the opportunity to speak more largely about the role of religion in American civic life.

Comparing Asbury with some mainline denominational leaders, Tooley also notes of Asbury:

Unlike some of his modern mainline Protestant successors, who advocate a stale 20th century Social Gospel, Asbury had little direct interest in politics, despite living during some of history most revolutionary times. “Methodist preachers politicians! What a curse!” he once remarked. Asbury’s 50 years of journaling barely mention the momentous events of his day. He never mentioned Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison or Andrew Jackson, though he likely met them and many other great statesmen. Estimated to travel about 6,000 miles every year, Asbury was probably the most traveled American of his era.

During the outbreak of the American Revolution, Asbury was the only Methodist minister to remain in America. Mark Tooley correctly notes of Asbury’s views, saying, “When [John] Wesley, an ardent Tory, denounced the Revolution, Asbury remained publicly silent, while privately lamenting that the ‘venerable man ever dipped into the the politics of America.'”

Tooley also addresses the Methodist character which was so influential in early America:

While the early Methodist Church mostly stayed out of politics, it created an ethos that deeply shaped early American life. Methodism encouraged thrift, hard work, entrepreneurship, private philanthropy, and civic righteousness. Even if the church itself did not become politically active, Methodist individuals became renowned for their reforming zeal. But their main focus was always on the Gospel.

“He did not come for political motives,” Coolidge rightly observed of Asbury. “He came to bring the Gospel to the people.” Asbury preached to whites, blacks and Indians. He opposed slavery and was indifferent to wealth. He confirmed to early Americans that morality and religion were inextricably linked.

Tooley’s article brilliantly notes the zeal of American Methodists, who contributed greatly to the early days of our Republic. While Asbury knew and conversed with famous politicians of his day, his main mission was to win souls for Christ. He sacrificed worldly comforts to travel and preach the gospel, often in what we would describe as deplorable conditions. His legacy can be seen by the fact there are Methodist Churches in almost every American community to this day. He organized and led the famed Methodist Circuit Riders, who pushed themselves out deeper and further in the frontier, so that no American souls would miss the chance to hear the Good News of Christ. American Methodism would do well to recapture the spirit and fortitude of Francis Asbury.

I’m preparing to travel to Minneapolis later this week to present a paper at the annual conference of the Sixteenth Century Society, which is a major academic society focusing on the study of the early modern period.

I’ll attempt to blog from the conference as I have opportunity and there is information of relevant interest to the PowerBlog audience. Posted after the jump is my tentative schedule, including which sessions I’ll be attending (full conference program is in PDF form here). These reflect my own scholarly interests as well as those that mesh with the focus of the Acton Institute and the Journal of Markets & Morality. My paper will be presented in the last group of sessions late Sunday morning, and is titled, “Wolfgang Musculus and the General Covenant.”

Musculus was a second generation Protestant reformer and a contemporary of John Calvin. His doctrine of the covenant is related to later developments of covenantal theology (which has important implications for political and moral thought in the post-Reformation period). (more…)

In my three and a half years as a student at Asbury Theological Seminary, I encountered more anti-capitalist rhetoric than I may have experienced in my entire life up to that point. Before Asbury, I attended a state and secular university, Ole Miss, where socialist propaganda was largely out of fashion.

Acton President Rev. Robert Sirico is quoted in a new piece titled, “The Religious Left, Reborn” by Steven Malanga. The article appears in the autumn issue of City Journal. Rev. Sirico notes the influence of unions and left wing clergy on young seminary students:

Younger seminarians may be particularly receptive to such experiences, Seminarians are preaching all the time, and if they don’t have an economic background, it’s easy for them to fall into the fallacy of the Left that our economy is a zero-sum game that demands conflict between business owners and workers.

This influence was especially evident at Asbury, which is an evangelical seminary and originally founded to combat the rise of liberal theology. Some new students at the school began to associate justice with wealth redistribution. This transformation in thinking often occurred after students were required to take a required class Kingdom, Church, and World. In this class, business, profit, entrepreneurs, and chief executive officers were often used as examples of anti-Christian behavior.

The free market was also seen as a system that subjugated labor, and especially third world nations. On occasion in Kingdom, Church, and World, I tried to defend the free market and was rebuked by my professor who told me, “Ray … capitalism is an enlightenment construct and not a Christian value.” Fortunately, this rebuke did not convince me that a command economy or a socialist-Marxist construct was better than the free market.

Another issue raised in the City Journal piece is the use of clergy by labor to advance its agenda. Many people who attend a mainline protestant church in America are very aware of this tactic, especially if they hold a differing opinion. Malanga declares:

The Wayne State University Labor Studies Center’s “activist handbook” advises living-wage campaigns always to put religious leaders out front. “As soon as you have clergy arguing for something called a ‘living wage,’ you’ve lost the battle if you’re representing businesses.

Malanga does an exceptional job at pinpointing the real reason why poverty plagues many people in the U.S. Quoting Michael Novak, he notes:

By contrast, observes Catholic neoconservative writer Michael Novak, research demonstrates that the way out of poverty for most Americans is to make a few simple life choices. “Some 97 percent of those who complete high school, stay married (even if not on the first try), and work full-time year-round (even at the minimum wage) are not poor,” Novak points out. “Nearly all poverty in the United States is associated with the absence of one or more of these three basic accomplishments”—not with insufficient social spending or a lack of economic opportunity.

Family stability, education, and a sound moral fabric can never be overestimated as elements necessary to escape poverty and create economic opportunities. What was so perplexing about the economic views of some students and professors in seminary was that they did not necessarily regard socialism as a negative. The Church would be wise to do its best at helping and encouraging those in need, instead of rallying to the aid of class warfare tactics already deeply entrenched in partisan politics.

Kishore Jayabalan, the Director of Acton’s Rome office, took to the airwaves this morning on Relevant Radio’s Morning Air program to discuss recent media speculation about Pope Benedict XVI’s statements on the moral responsibility of Catholics to care for creation. Does this make Benedict “green”? Or is this simply a continuation of long-standing Vatican policy dating to the pontificate of John Paul II and prior?

Kishore answers those questions and sheds light on how the Holy See approaches environmental issues and treaties in general during his conversation with host Sean Herriott. You can listen to the interview by clicking here (3.5 mb mp3 file).

Blog author: mvandermaas
Wednesday, October 17, 2007
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If you haven’t been following this story, now might be a good time to look into it – Belgium may be dividing into two separate entities sooner rather than later, with Brussels possibly becoming an independent city-state in the process:

Belgium is the host country for the EU project, and the bureaucrats in Brussels are terrified that the epicenter of European anti-nationalism may be about to break apart due to national differences. Also, free-market-oriented Flanders, where 60-percent of the population lives, generates 70-percent of the national wealth, effectively subsidizing socialist-leaning Wallonia. So the move to partition carries powerful economic lessons as well. If Belgium does break up, Brussels, the capital of Europe, could become an independent city-state. It would also be the first Western European state with a Muslim majority.

Besides my two years of living abroad in Egypt, I spent my entire elementary and upper school existence in the public schools. My experience with the public schools in Hawaii and Mississippi were rather atrocious. To read one experience I encountered in the public schools in Hawaii, check out this Acton blog post.

Mississippi has a wonderful and generous culture, and the people have strong values. In fact, I love Mississippi. The state’s public schools, however, could often be described as nothing short of disappointing. It should also be noted that I went to one of the public schools that was considered to be the best in the state. The problem in my view was not that Mississippi was a poorer state. The teachers for the most part were intelligent and just as there are everywhere, there were good and bad teachers. I had an exceptional teacher in high school who helped foster a love for American history, and American military history.

But one of the fundamental problems with these schools was that most people did not want to learn. In fact, classes were daily interrupted by kids “pantsing” each other, or oddly enough, sometimes pantsing themselves. If you walk into many high schools in America, it becomes evident it’s more of a fashion show and popularity contest than an actual serious center of learning. While socialization is an important part of education, it’s hard to argue public schools are the best models for socialization.

I had an English class in 11th grade where the teacher was mooned by students on several occasions. The kids of course would be suspended. They would be back only days later to disrupt class and offer a rerun of their crimes. When I first moved to Mississippi, I was shocked to learn that corporal punishment was allowed to be administered by administrators in the school. Within weeks, I felt it was not administered enough.

Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe has a piece today titled, “Big Brother at school.” The fact that government schools are so steeped into our life and culture makes it hard for traction to be gained for reform, and for differing views to emerge about education. It may be why so many conservative leaders talk about government never voluntarily giving up power, or government never voluntarily reducing itself in size.

Jacoby delved into a host of ideological conflicts between parents and government run public schools. Here is his main point against government domination of education:

A more fundamental truth is this: In a society founded on political and economic liberty, government schools have no place. Free men and women do not entrust to the state the molding of their children’s minds and character. As we wouldn’t trust the state to feed our kids, or to clothe them, or to get them to bed on time, neither should we trust the state to teach them.

The point is all the more valid when we hear politicians talking about their federal and state programs for daycare and preschool. Many generations of infants, children, pre-teens, teens and beyond will be raised, taught, shaped, and cared for by the state. Do we really think that’s a good idea?

“Global warming doesn’t matter except to the extent that it will affect life — ours and that of all living things on Earth. And contrary to the latest news, the evidence that global warming will have serious effects on life is thin. Most evidence suggests the contrary.”

The quote is from Dr. Daniel Botkin, professor emeritus in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I guess we can add him to the list of scientists who disagree with the ironclad, unshakable “consensus” that we’re on the road to catastrophe. More from Botkin, from today’s Wall Street Journal:

I’m not a naysayer. I’m a scientist who believes in the scientific method and in what facts tell us. I have worked for 40 years to try to improve our environment and improve human life as well. I believe we can do this only from a basis in reality, and that is not what I see happening now. Instead, like fashions that took hold in the past and are eloquently analyzed in the classic 19th century book “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds,” the popular imagination today appears to have been captured by beliefs that have little scientific basis.

Some colleagues who share some of my doubts argue that the only way to get our society to change is to frighten people with the possibility of a catastrophe, and that therefore it is all right and even necessary for scientists to exaggerate. They tell me that my belief in open and honest assessment is naïve. “Wolves deceive their prey, don’t they?” one said to me recently. Therefore, biologically, he said, we are justified in exaggerating to get society to change.

The climate modelers who developed the computer programs that are being used to forecast climate change used to readily admit that the models were crude and not very realistic, but were the best that could be done with available computers and programming methods. They said our options were to either believe those crude models or believe the opinions of experienced, data-focused scientists. Having done a great deal of computer modeling myself, I appreciated their acknowledgment of the limits of their methods. But I hear no such statements today. Oddly, the forecasts of computer models have become our new reality, while facts such as the few extinctions of the past 2.5 million years are pushed aside, as if they were not our reality.

Today the Acton Institute announced it fourth annual selection of theCatholic High School Honor Roll, the best 50 Catholic secondary schools in the United States. The purpose of the Honor Roll is to recognize and encourage excellence in Catholic secondary education. It is a critical resource for parents and educators that honors those schools that excel in three categories: academic excellence, Catholic Identity, and civic education.

To see a list of the top 50 schools, as well as lists of the top 25 schools in each category, visit www.chshonor.org.

This year’s list includes 11 new honorees as well as 11 schools that have earned recognition each of

St. Theodore Guerin High School

the past four years. Honorees range from newcomer schools such as the Heights School in Potomac, Maryland, to repeat honorees such as All Hallows High School in the Bronx and Brother Rice High School in Chicago. The state of Texas again led with 6 schools selected, followed by California, Florida, and Michigan with 4 schools each. 9 different religious orders sponsor honorees, including the Christian Brothers, Marists, Dominicans, Legionaries of Christ, Jesuits, and Norbertines.

Quigley Catholic High School – A visit by newly appointed Bishop Zubik

The Honor Roll is produced in consultation with a national advisory board comprised of Catholic college presidents and noted Catholic scholars. Advisory board member Rev. John Schlegel, President of Creighton University, said the Honor Roll is significant for Catholic education. “Catholic High schools that excel at forming students in the faith and at teaching them to think critically and act virtuously are a great asset to the Church,” he said. “Not only do these schools deserve to be recognized, but they should also be imitated by all Catholic schools.”

All of America’s nearly 1,300 Catholic high schools were invited to apply to the Honor Roll by completing three detailed surveys, indicating that inclusion in the Honor Roll requires exceptional merit in each of the areas measured. This balanced approach assesses a school’s adherence to the Church’s educational calling, where the best schools offer more than the strong academic preparation Catholic education is known for. Rather, the best schools also have vibrant Catholic identities and offer sound civic training that help prepare students to live their faith in the world.

The Honor Roll is of particular importance because Catholic schools have shown an increasing trend

Mt. De Sales Academy

toward secularization in recent decades. Having long set the benchmark for moral and academic formation as well as education in the classical liberal tradition, many schools now see a loss of traditional Catholic identity, a weakening of academic standards, and the support of views contrary to Church teaching. It is no surprise that the majority of Catholic secondary students are taught to be suspicious of business and the free market.

To generate some positive momentum, Acton saw an obvious need for an ongoing, independent, and rigorous assessment of Catholic high schools in the U.S. – and the institute is well positioned to serve this need. Its staff of serious Catholic scholars with backgrounds of business, law, theology, philosophy, economics, ethics, history, and education is more than equipped to evaluate schools based on the Church’s teaching.

By using the power of incentives and competition, the best schools are highlighted to inspire imitation and encouragement among all schools. The Honor Roll calls on all Catholic schools to scrutinize themselves in relation to the Church’s educational calling – and to other schools.

Pinecrest Academy

In turn, schools earning this recognition use the Honor Roll to tell the country that they excel at defying the trend. Since the program began in 2004, over 200 media stories – in major newspapers, magazines and on TV and the radio – have highlighted the fact that these schools have earned this distinction and are remaining faithful to their calling. Even more, schools use the Honor Roll to promote and strengthen themselves, all because the bar has been held high and they’re proud to have risen to the occasion.

By recognizing Catholic high schools excelling in their purpose and mission, the Acton Institute is planting a seed for broader work in secondary education – work that will encourage sound moral preparation for America’s youth and promote virtuous vocations in business, politics, and theology for years to come.