WD’s WhyTunes, Vol. 4: Gillian Welch

September 29, 2011

Photo by David Noah on flickr

Gillian Welch is one of the great musicians of our time. It is not because she is a technical virtuoso, or because she has great vocal range. It is because more than anyone else she taps into the great aching heart of American music. Read the rest of this entry »

Our Broken Social Network

October 19, 2010

The Social Network, directed by David Fincher, written by Aaron Sorkin

This new film has received lots of positive reviews and has sold lots of tickets over the past weeks, but I was unsure just what might be in store as I walked into the theater this weekend. What I found was a brilliant, and oddly moving, tragedy. At first, it seemed to be just the tragedy of one man, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of facebook, but in the end the tragedy seems to be so many-sided, so “social” that I found myself drawn right into the drama. I was asking the question: these people’s lives are so very broken, but in the end, are they all that different from me?

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Jesuits on the road

June 29, 2010

There is lots of exciting new work going on in the Society of Jesus these days, and I have been blessed to be part of one piece of it this summer. The project is called “Hearts on Fire,” a series of mini-retreats given across the midwest by a team of six young Jesuits. The focus of the retreat is helping young adults to live their Christian faith in daily life. We have adapted some elements of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius in what we hope is a catchy, inspiring way. The two days include Eucharistic adoration, confessions, talks, discussion groups, contemplation, and even musical entertainment.  We have completed two retreats already, and are looking forward to the last three. Pictures and more information are below the fold. Read the rest of this entry »

On how spring brings out the Wendell Berry in us

May 8, 2010

The blooming of the natural world in spring can make me all the more appalled at our (my!) worship of the works of our hands. Discussing the commandment against idolatry in my Freshman religion class, I found myself recalling the words of the late Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger:

Until a recent period, beginning with the baroque in the seventeenth century, God the Father was always represented by a sign: the sacred tetragrammaton (the four Hebrew letters of the divine Name), the ray, the sun, the hand — in other words, by abstract symbols, because the Father cannot be depicted….

Interviewer: Are you shocked that God is represented physically in human form?

Lustiger: The Father, yes. Because that strikes me as being less respectful of the economy of salvation. You know the sentence from the prologue to Saint John’s Gospel: “No one has ever seen God” (1:18).

In class, I was soon on a mild rant against CCD books that picture God the Father as an old guy with a beard, and depriving a child of the true mystery of who God is. This is the worship of the works of our hands, which worship steals our wonder at who God is, and what God has done.

Wendell Berry, the great farmer-poet of our time, seems to always help me to return to that sense of wonder. Here’s one of his poems of amused rebellion against an idol-worshipping world. +AMDG+

Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front

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Milosz – In Kraków

April 28, 2010

Czeslaw Milosz is regarded as one of the great poets of the 20th century. This poem caught my eye when it was first published in The New Yorker as, perhaps, a poetic theology of the body.  Enjoy!

In Kraków

On the border of this world and the beyond, in Kraków.

Tap-tap on the foot-worn flagstones of churches,

Generation after generation.  Here I came to understand

Something of the habits of my brothers and sisters.

Read the rest of this entry »

Gospel Tumbles and Tweets: part 2

April 25, 2010

What a coincidence! Yesterday, I discovered on Twitter that the Pope gave a speech the same day talking about the need for believers to humanize the internet. Here’s the major quote:

“Without fear we must set sail on the digital sea facing into the deep with the same passion that has governed the ship of the Church for two thousand years. Rather than for, albeit necessary, technical resources, we want to qualify ourselves by living in the digital world with a believer’s heart, helping to give a soul to the Internet’s incessant flow of communication”.

Read Vatican Radio’s summary here.

Michae!, SJ


Gospel Tumbles and Tweets

April 24, 2010

One of the fun things about browsing the internet is that you can always find something new.  But, of course, new internet discoveries are almost always a mixed bag.  What are they for? What are they doing for people? Who uses this? Sometimes, even after I figure out some of that stuff, I end up realizing that it might be cool, but it’s nothing I’ll ever get any use or genuine enjoyment from.

But then there are things that might turn out to be useful – for example, Twitter and Tumblr.

Read the rest of this entry »

On Sad Songs

March 22, 2010

I was realizing the other day, as I listened to Ryan Adams’ country tune, “The End,” that I like great sad songs. I’m sure part of this is in the blood. Being half-Irish and half-German, I joke sometimes that my worldview is evenly balanced: half the time, I’m an extroverted pessimist, and the other half I’m an introverted one.

Read the rest of this entry »

Schneiders on Religious Life: Part I – important notes

February 4, 2010

In case you have not heard, the Vatican is currently investigating apostolic women’s religious communities in the United States. This investigation has generated a lot of emotional response from people of all sorts of points of view. From those already distrustful of Vatican authority, it has generated talk of resistance, while from those nostalgic for the past is has brought back all sorts of wistful recollections of wimples. I had not thought it helpful to engage in the controversy until I read an interesting series of articles beginning with this one last fall by Sr. Sandra Schneiders in National Catholic Reporter.  She highlighted for me some points that I think may be interesting to people who are not so attuned to church practices and customs, and might be wondering what all the fuss is about. I want to take a moment to highlight this week the helpful points that I took from her articles. I’ll return next week with what I think might be helpful to add to her analysis.

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Church for Agnostics?

January 7, 2010

Pope Benedict recently gave his yearly Christmas address (h/t whispers) to the officials of the Curia, who run the various offices in the Vatican.  It is often a speech in which he touches on the events in his schedule for the past year.  What struck me most this year was right at the end, when the Pope reflected on his trip to the Czech Republic, and floated some ideas for extending the Church’s ministry in a new way to agnostics and atheists.  Could people who do not feel part of Christianity, yet seek beauty and truth, have some real place in the Church? Read the rest of this entry »


December 28, 2009

I hate all these year-end lists. I also love them. The first couple I read were great: Roger Ebert’s ten best films of 2009, Pitchfork’s 25 best albums of the decade. I think it was right when I read Rolling Stone’s 100 best albums of the decade, however, that I started to realize just how much the lists are hokum. Bogus. I realized this first not through any logical process of thought, but through the waves of intellectual nausea that would overwhelm me anytime I saw another list advertised. (I kept hearing myself say, “I just vomited a little in my soul.”) So I have been trying to figure this out. What’s so bad about lists? Read the rest of this entry »

WD’s WhyTunes, Vol. 3: Far by Regina Spektor

December 8, 2009

Regina Spektor first gained some notice when she made a guest appearance on a forgettable Ben Folds song.  She had a striking voice, but she made no great impact.  What has propelled her to much greater attention has been her song “Laughing With.”  It is a powerful song about God, and it led me to buy her new album, Far.  What becomes clear from even a quick listen that she is blessed with a great voice and a sensibility that is as comfortable poking fun at 80’s music (the obvious “Dance Anthem of the 80’s”) as she is talking about the deep questions.  Her fun stuff is everything you might want: catchy, engaging, and bubbly. But I want to pick apart two of her deepest songs to expose some of what I think is going on.

The first lines of “Laughing With” reflect the old saying, “There are no atheists in foxholes.”  She twists the thought around laughter:

No one laughs at God in a hospital, / no one laughs at God in a war, / no one’s laughing at God when they’re starving or freezing or so very poor.

Read the rest of this entry »

Isn’t it Ironic?

November 17, 2009

One of the things that confronts Americans daily is the way in which Irony has come to rule.  There is not much way to escape it.  The young delight in comedy, but it is comedy that is satirical and self-referential.  There is a constant dwelling on the falseness of appearance, the lie behind every apparent truth.  Occasionally up pops a inclination to go back to an age when Irony did not prevail, but this urge immediately is cut off at the knees.  Want to go back to the 50’s? Ah, our dominant narrative tells us, that was a black-and-white era of suburban repression, that yielded to the full-color tie-dye of 60’s authenticity.

I have no inclination to go back to the 1950’s (full disclosure: I do occasionally pine for the 1250’s).  Yet if one cares about anything seriously these days, it is hard not to be daunted by pervasive apathy in the face of any need to change.  David Brooks says we have lost our hope, our optimism.  There are cries of alarm at (15 years ago) couch potatoes, and (today) internet junkies.  As I said about texting a couple of weeks ago, so too I think the recurring alarm about TV and internet sapping our national energy is important, but often I think the alarm is misdirected.

What most passionately convinced me of this is David Foster Wallace’s essay entitled, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” Read the rest of this entry »


November 10, 2009

Have you ever noticed just how many things are left out when you speak?  We drop subjects all the time, starting sentences just with verbs or adjectives: “Great to see you the other day.”  “Love that hat you’re wearing.”

525px-Speech_balloon.svgIn written English we demand “complete sentences” (I can hear my sixth-grade teacher’s voice right now) because in the written word there is often less context available than is needed for comprehension.  As a teacher, if I’m grading quizzes, it is a huge help if the student writes in a complete sentence for every answer, because I get a clear sense of what he thinks he is answering.  I much prefer to see “3. Pepin the Short was crowned king of the Franks in AD 752” than simply find on the paper “3. Pepin the Short.”

Yet this requirement for complete sentences in written English is not absolute.  Look, here’s a sentence discussing George Clooney, from this week’s New Yorker, a magazine legendary for its grammatical fussiness:

The most handsome and capable star in the world, and he doesn’t mind coming across as a total dork. [emphasis original]

It is an incomplete sentence, joined to a complete sentence.  In this sort of conversational and familiar writing, we tolerate incomplete sentences because we have the context, we have the flow of thought. When writing imitates the easy flow of speech, many of the grade-school rules of grammar drop away. Read the rest of this entry »

“The Encroachment of the Buzz”

November 5, 2009


In a recent issue of America Magazine (10/26/09), there is an article from Mark Bauerlein, calling current U.S. teenagers “The Dumbest Generation.” What the article notes is that the current generation of teens is not necessarily more or less intelligent, in raw terms, than any other generation.  Yet Bauerlein goes on to use this term “Dumb” to describe these teens because he believes the technology they employ confines them to immaturity.

This article fails on a number of different levels.  First, there is the major problem of his audience.  Bauerlein and the editors of America are making a clear statement that they expect no one under the age of 30 to be reading this article.  Anyone who texts with any frequency, anyone part of the Dumbest generation is surely not going to be brought to enlightenment by use of such pejorative language. Read the rest of this entry »

Love in Daily Life

October 27, 2009

In many of the world’s great spiritual traditions there are strong themes of finding the presence of God in the mundane.  There is a call to “awareness” so that by becoming aware of the passions one might move beyond them to a higher reality.  What many Christians might not be aware of is just how much this mystical tradition exists also in Christianity.  Recently there has been some renewed influence of mysticism in Christianity, but often it is imported, so to speak, from other religious traditions. Yet there are thinkers who draw their origin and life directly from the Christian tradition who also can offer a profound link and connection to the mystical life, an awareness of the presence of God in all things. Read the rest of this entry »

Does a song have any meaning if it’s not shared?

October 10, 2009


Sufjan Stevens is the most interesting musician I know.  To be clear: he is not the best singer, he is not the best lyricist, he is not the best songwriter or composer.  What he has done, up to now, is combine a love for complex, beautiful music, and a deep love for God.   It’s a combination that has fascinated me.

I had the rare privilege of seeing him in concert the other night at a tiny venue in Philadelphia called Johnny Brenda’s. Sufjan had not toured since 2006, and the crowd’s anticipation in the room seemed at times literally breathless — people hardly daring to exhale for fear of spoiling the moment. Is he going to play new stuff? old stuff? weird stuff?  And beneath it all, there lingered the dominant question – will any of his songs move me tonight the way they have moved me before?

Read the rest of this entry »

Do you believe in status?

September 21, 2009

Unlike my fellow contributor, Aaron Pidel, S.J., who reads genuine sociologists like Mary Douglas, my tastes these days run toward the trivial musings of Christian Lander.  In 2008, with an unfinished Ph.D. and an office job, he started writing whimsical posts on a blog he titled “Stuff White People Like.” Don’t immediately think the worst: it is not the rantings of a white-supremacist, or some strange fashion guide.  It is faux-sociology, written from the point of view of a non-white guide who describes the strange traits of white people.  Amusing, short, and often sloppily written, the posts went along for a while attracting little notice, until, as they say, his blog “blew up.”  Now he has a published book, and stuffwhitepeoplelike.com claims to have been read 62 million times.

What’s the hook? Read the rest of this entry »

Pack like it’s priceless

September 10, 2009

ewaste3The article on Spike Jonze in this week’s New York Times Magazine was a great story, but somehow the article that has stayed with me this week was not about that fascinating filmmaker but about something much more banal: self-storage.  I strongly encourage you to read it.  Strangely for me, what makes the article come alive are not only the personal stories of Elizabeth, Danielle, or Terry, but the statistics.  Now there is the old canard about statistics: “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”  So keep some grains of salt nearby.  But it’s hard not to drop your jaw at some of these numbers from the Times: Read the rest of this entry »

WD’s WhyTunes, Vol. 2: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix by Phoenix

August 27, 2009

Phoenix_mg_5773It is tempting to dismiss the latest album from the band Phoenix as the work of shallow men.  The French band, who sing in English (mon Dieu!), might be reduced to a charming recipe: mix addictive melodies and dancing beats, blend with gently angst-filled lyrics, top with references to Franz Liszt and Mozart, and serve chilled, poolside.

This judgment is tempting, but I think it sells short what lead singer Thomas Mars and his bandmates are doing. Underneath all the seductive pop is a reckoning with deeper struggles.  They want something greater than the frenzy.  They want eternity, but they are not sure how to get it. Read the rest of this entry »