Harry Potter & the Longing to Belong

July 28, 2011

Twice over the past week or so I’ve sat in movie theatres packed with entranced 20-somethings.  We (I’ll not exclude myself) sat entranced as, over two hours, we took the last steps of our long journey out of childhood.  Sure that’s a little melodramatic.  Sure, I felt a little out of place – OK, I’ll say it, a little old.  But surely this is a series that has struck upon something deep, and there’s got to be some melodrama surrounding the movie that was the last echo of a generation-defining story.

This looks nothing like my grade school... but I still feel like I went there.

As we walked out of the theatre, awkwardly pulling 3-D glasses off our heads, it seemed to me that varying versions of “Goodbye” could be heard on everyone’s lips.  “I’m sad it’s over” one said, another: “Can you believe it’s the last one?”  Even one young businesswoman in a suit lamenting with a wry smile: “I guess we’ll have to grow up now.”

So, and gimme your best movie preview announcer voice as you read this, I writing to say that: in a world that can no longer mark the transition from childhood to adulthood… Harry Potter part 7 (the 2nd) was certainly a marker.

But why?  Why did a story about a growing up, about a child wizard, sweep millions of people off their feet, cause self-conscious 14-year-olds to don wizard hats and carry cardboard wands, and fill classrooms with sleepy eyed students the morning after a book release?  And why does this last echo of new HP material mean an end of childhood?  For me, the answer comes pretty quick: it’s because on some level we all wanted to be Harry.

Read the rest of this entry »

Homily for the 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A

July 24, 2011


We know that all things work for good for those who love God, for those called according to his purpose. (Rom 8:28)

For the folks at St. Thomas More Parish in Omaha …

When I was in college, there was a courtship story that made the rounds among the students.  It started out the typical way.  Guy meets girl.  Guy starts asking girl out on dates.  Around the second or third date, however, the guy does something unusual.  He gives the girl a small locket and tells her not to open it.  Amazingly, she agrees.  And, at the end of about a year of dating, the guy takes her out to dinner and says, “Why don’t you open your locket now?”   Inside the locket she finds a scrap of paper with the words, “Will you marry me?”  In case you’re wondering, she said yes and, from everything I can gather, they are happily married to this day.  Pretty smooth.

But more than the smoothness, what interests me is the light that this courtship sheds on today’s passage from the letter to the Romans.  There St. Paul encourages his fellow Christians with the following words: We know that all things work for good for those who love God, for those called according to his purpose (Rom 8:28). Read the rest of this entry »

Brant Pitre, Benedict XVI, And Why The Pope Has It Right

July 21, 2011

Perhaps it is because I have lived in New Orleans for the past three years, but the name of biblical scholar Brant Pitre has become well known to me.  He teaches at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, and just about every young adult Catholic I know has met him, read him or listened to his tapes.  His recent book signing of “Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist” was a major event for many of my friends.  The reason seems to be that, like his intellectual mentor Scott Hahn, Pitre has a lively presentation style combined with an active faith life.  The combination is attractive to many.

Yet I have always remained intellectually removed from Pitre as I have from Hahn. Aside from reasons I have mentioned before, Kavin Rowe’s recent negative review of Pitre’s book in “First Things” coupled with the Pope’s “Jesus of Nazareth: Part Two” caused further concern for me about his scholarship.

My problem has to do with the so-called “fourth cup” theory of the Last Supper. Read the rest of this entry »

A Polish philosopher

July 21, 2011

One of the pleasures of this Jesuit life is being a part of such a remarkably mobile international organization.  In my community at Loyola Chicago, one regularly sits down to dinner next to a Bolivian, a Nigerian, a Brazilian, a German, and a Pole.  And the latter two don’t even fight.

The last of these, our resident Polish priest, has been urging me for some time to take a look at a favorite Polish philosopher, whose name had too many consonants in it for me to remember.  I admit, I wasn’t overly eager to dive into tomes of what I was sure would be grim and turgid prose.  When I returned to the house after our Christmas break, however, I found a book by Leszek Kolakowski in my mailbox.  I had been outflanked by the Polish intelligentsia!

Once I read the title, I was won over:  My Correct Views on Everything.  The title comes from the rejoinder Kolakowski wrote in The Socialist Register to the British Marxist E.P Thompson.  Both Thompson and Kolakowski had started off as communists, and both had experienced some disillusionment after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956.  Kolakowski’s questioning had run deeper, however, and led him to see that Marxism itself, and not just its manifestation in Stalinism, was rotten to the core.

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Highlights from Chaput Interview

July 19, 2011

There’s some really good stuff in John Allen’s interview with Archbishop Charles Chaput (pronounced like “slap you”), the new Archbishop of Philadelphia.  Enjoy the excerpts and go read the whole article!

On whether he is a conservative hard-liner:

I actually don’t see myself as a conservative at all. I try to be faithful to the church’s teaching, as the church has handed it on to us. I don’t feel that as a Christian or as a bishop I have a right to play with that tradition, which is the apostolic tradition of the church. I hope that I’m creative and contemporary, however, in applying that teaching and in the structural living out of it in the local church.

On social justice: Read the rest of this entry »

Homily for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

July 17, 2011


For the good folks at St. Thomas More parish in Omaha, NE–hence the allusions to St. Thomas More…

Once, while I was working at a parish in El Salvador, I watched a youth minister assign an activity to her youth group to help them reflect on the Kingdom of God.  She asked them to take newspapers and magazines and cut out all the “signs of the Kingdom” they could find.  The young people enthusiastically started clipping articles about clean water initiatives, increases in the minimum wage, donations to the poor, and the like.  All good things.  And though I could see that the assignment was meant to foster hope of a better future, something about the assignment made me uneasy.

I felt that if the Kingdom could be spotted in news clippings, its growth would be “obvious” and measurable—even in this present life.  Logically, of course, we should be able to detect the decay of the Kingdom by similar criteria—corporate greed, pollution, and secularism.  But once we start thinking that way, of course, then the Kingdom becomes quite a frail thing—no longer the source of our strength, but now the object of our anxiety.

But Christ has come to “deliver us from every anxiety.”  And perhaps for this reason He left us today’s three parables, each of which stresses the present hiddenness of the Kingdom.  This point is easy to miss. Read the rest of this entry »

Explaining Tough Stuff in the Bible: Genesis 22

July 16, 2011

If anyone tried to do what Abraham did today, we would obviously call him a religious nutcase.  Nor do we have to stretch our imaginations to look for people who think that God has asked them to kill someone.  We see it on the news quite frequently.  So what are we to do with such a difficult passage?

A few weeks ago we had the very famous Genesis 22 reading of God testing Abraham.  It came immediately after the feast of the Sacred Heart, which prompted me to starting thinking about the connection between the two.  Ultimately, I believe, the point of the legend of Abraham for us and for Israel’s readers was not that Abraham was the perfect example of faith, but rather than Abraham was a primitive example of the rocky path of salvation history.  Nor does this downplay Abraham at all.  Within his context, knowing nothing other than common religious practice around him, he thought he knew what God wanted.  And he got it wrong.  Yet we, as did Israel for many centuries, can still learn much from the example of Abraham.

It seems to me, with passages like this one, we have to make certain interpretive decisions. Read the rest of this entry »

Homily for the Memorial of St. Bonaventure, Year I

July 15, 2011


For the priests and seminarians at the Institute of Priestly Formation at Creighton University.

“His disciples were hungry …” (Mt 12:2)

With today being the feast of St. Bonaventure, and with Bonaventure being a great doctor the Church, I thought I would consult him on the episode recounted in today’s Gospel.  In doing so, I discovered that the Seraphic Doctor gives a lot of attention to a detail that I would have otherwise overlooked: Jesus’ disciples were hungry.  Though he gives various causes of the disciples’ famished state—the press of their apostolic labor, their voluntary poverty, their desire to give an example of austerity—I found his last reason most intriguing.  The deepest reason for the disciples’ hunger, says the Seraphic Doctor,

is found in the sweetness of Christ’s word, to which the disciples were so powerfully attracted that they forgot to eat.  So the Psalmist says: “How sweet are your words to my palate!  Sweeter than honey in my mouth (118:103). –Bonaventure, Commentary on Luke, vol. I, 459

Powerful attraction to the sweetness of Christ’s word.  In other words, the physical hunger of the disciples both reflects and sharpens their spiritual hunger.  This dynamic strikes me as being not only a pious allegory, but the very heart of Jesus’ dispute with the Pharisees. Read the rest of this entry »

Response To My “Spanking” Post

July 14, 2011

For those interested, Sam Rocha has written a response and further reflection on my post on spanking.  It can be found here at Vox Nova, where my own post is also up.

Some Thoughts on Harry Potter and Narnia

July 13, 2011

As a post-Christian epic (to borrow a phrase from a friend), Potter’s world is a fragmented world of profoundly Christian moral themes and postmodern moral confusion. J.K. Rowling admits to quite liking Narnia as a kid: “I adored them when I was a child. I got so caught up I didn’t think CS Lewis was especially preachy.”  And at least from my reading, she borrowed quite a bit from Narnia.

For example, the great theme from “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” is the “deeper magic from before the dawn of time.”  This is essentially Divine Providence, the Emperor’s love for his people that goes deeper than anything the White Witch can scheme or execute to undo this deeper plan.  I found the exact same to be true in “Harry Potter:” the fundamental theme of the books is self-sacrificial love, Harry’s mother’s self-sacrifice for him and Harry’s own act of selfless love at the end.  And of course this self-sacrifice is the “deeper magic.”  Read the rest of this entry »

Contra Dennett III: Mystery

July 4, 2011

In my first post on the subject I argued that that Dan Dennett’s Breaking the Spell sets up a straw man by attacking only a childish and incoherent understanding of religion.  In my second I looked at his attempt to weigh the pros and cons of religion, which is riddled with logical flaws.  Dennett paints believers as unquestioning simpletons clinging to the stories they were told in childhood—he compares religion to Santa Claus—and simply ignores or breezily brushes aside any evidence that might contradict his stereotype.

One further aspect of Dennett’s charge against theism, however, deserves attention, for it can sometimes be a stumbling block even to believers—the notion of mystery.

For Dennett, “mystery” is simply a trump card played by believers whenever they can’t think of anything better to say, a talisman to be invoked when one has run out of arguments.  Unfortunately, sometimes this can be the case, especially when dealing with the sort of unsophisticated believers Dennett seems to favor.

In Dennett’s view, religious beliefs once provided simplistic explanations about why the world is the way it is, but believers have had to retreat from many of these explanations as human thought evolved.  Since religious beliefs are false to begin with—only material phenomena are real—they necessarily lead believers into absurdities and contradictions from which they attempt to extract themselves by changing their beliefs or, if they’re too stubborn for that, invoking mystery.

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Homily for the 14th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A

July 2, 2011


For the folks at St. Thomas More in Omaha, NE.

My yoke is easy… (Mt 11:30).

If we’re honest, most of us would admit that we’re far from “self-made.”  Wherever we have grown beyond our immaturity and our limitations, we have usually grown through another’s personal influence: a parent, a coach, a teacher, a friend.  In my experience, these key people almost always manage to combine two seemingly contrary attitudes: 1) fundamental acceptance and 2) ongoing challenge.  I find myself most free to change in the presence of someone who loves me as I am, but who desires—by reason of that love—that I become more.  The football coach who wins games is the one who loves his players like sons and drives them like mules.  The teacher who gets the best results is the one who delights in her students as they are but pushes them toward a common goal.

We see then a basic law of human growth: acceptance and judgment, support and challenge, mercy and justice, must meet.  Support without challenge is cheap love.  Rigor without basic acceptance crushes the spirit and paralyzes with fear.  Only when we encounter both sides of love do we really receive the strength to grow.  And, deep down, we all long for someone who loves us in this challenging way.

Jesus presents himself in today’s Gospel as the ultimate fulfillment of this longing.  And he sharpens our hunger for it through the paradoxical image of the “easy yoke.”  How can a yoke ever be easy? Read the rest of this entry »

On the Feast of the Sacred Heart 2011

July 1, 2011

For the edification of the many on the feast of the Sacred Heart.  Here’s a portion of a letter from St. Alberto Hurtado, SJ, written not long after his priestly ordination, tracing “supernatural happiness” back to a deep devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  The letter suggests the harmony of human and divine love, of temporal and eternal life, so characteristic of St. Alberto’s writings.

Priest of the Lord!


Letter to a friend, written on October 8, 1933, after his ordination as a priest


       Here you have me, a priest of the Lord! You will understand my great happiness and with all sincerity I can tell you that I am completely happy.  God has given me the great grace to be able to live contentedly in all the houses that I have passed through and with all the companions I have had.  I consider this a great grace.  But now, on receiving priestly ordination for always, my joy has reached its limit.  Now I desire nothing more than to exercise my priestly ministry with the deepest possible interior life and all the exterior activity compatible with it.

The secret of this adaptation and of its success is in the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, that is to say, to the overflowing love of our Lord, the love that Jesus as God and as man has for us a love that shone clearly throughout his life. Read the rest of this entry »