House’s Christian ending

November 20, 2012

I don’t have much time for television in my current job, but parishes or no parishes, I haven’t been able to give up House, MD.  The show ended last year but I’ve been watching it on Netflix—I march at my own pace, as readers here know—and last week I reached the final episode.

Dr. House, as viewers can attest, is a difficult man to like.  A drug addict, a cynic, a master-manipulator, he shows glib disregard for the feelings, beliefs, and even human rights of others.  He has a penchant for insulting patients and destroying relationships with anyone who dares to get close to him.  A difficult man to like, yes—but I like a challenge.

The genius of the show comes from the character’s complexity, the fact that House needs relationships even as he unconsciously (and sometimes consciously) burns the ones he has.  His colleagues (and viewers) see through his frequent, and slightly too insistent, assertions that curing patients for him is only a matter of solving puzzles.  And a great deal of his off-putting-ness comes from the fact that he says things that are true, or uncomfortably close to the truth, but socially unacceptable. Read the rest of this entry »

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Heaven: Miracle or Entitlement?

March 15, 2012

Our readers might be interested in my latest offering on The Jesuit Post.  Here’s how it starts:

In my current line of work—I’m the administrator of three small parishes on an Indian Reservation in South Dakota—I deal with a lot of funerals.  I schedule them; I lead prayers; I empty the ashes out of the censer afterwards.  I’ve helped to bury everyone from the saintly to those who haven’t seen the inside of a church since they were baptized.

The job causes one to hear and say and think quite a bit about the life after this one, which is a good thing: in our liturgy, in fact, we ask God to turn our thoughts from the things of this world to the things of heaven.  And contrary to what skeptics like Nietzsche thought, a lively belief in heaven helps one live a good life here below; the courage of the saints and martyrs would never have been possible without it.

And yet…

…and yet, I often find myself cringing at the things people say about heaven.  Atheists have historically mocked Christians’ belief in paradise as an opiate—a comforting fantasy, a fairy tale we tell ourselves to soften the pain of loss.  And sometimes I find myself agreeing with Christianity’s critics.

I’ve noticed, for example, a tendency among many to attempt to remake heaven in our own image.  So if Grandpa really loved donuts, heaven gets described as an all-you-can-eat Dunkin’ Donuts, open 24 hours, where the Bavarian cream is always fresh and smooth.

You will be relieved to know that even though I cringe inwardly when I hear someone preach hope in an everlasting supply of jelly donuts, I don’t jump in with, “Actually-it’s-not-like-that.”  Still, I can’t help but think how awful such a “heaven” would be—even if one were spared the indigestion.  As Pope Benedict put it, reflecting on the possibility of an endless prolongation of this life:  “…to live always, without end—this, all things considered, can only be monotonous and ultimately unbearable” (Spe Salvi, 10).

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Come, Lord Jesus!

December 21, 2011

It is almost 2012, and the world will soon be ending.  At least, according to the Mayans and a fundamentalist preacher in California, it will.  Even though the Church’s readings in November, the end of the liturgical year, and Advent, the beginning, point toward the Second Coming, I have, I admit, not been overly concerned.

But then I had an unusual conversation a few weeks ago with a priest who was passing through town, one of those delightful Jesuits one meets who could be described as “a little crazy, in a good way.”  On the surface, this good priest appears a tad unkempt, but you can tell from the way he prays the Mass—and he is praying, not performing—that the man has real spiritual depth.

While visiting our community, this man talked about his time, many years ago, working on the Rosebud Reservation, where I am now stationed.  He talked about working with prisoners and people in one of the reservation’s most depressed communities and then said, almost out of nowhere, “It was here that I realized that prisoners and the really destitute have an intuitive understanding of the apocalypse—the good news of the apocalypse.”  And then his voice rose slightly and he gave his little-crazy-in-a-good-way laugh and added, “Because it is good news.”

I realized I had never thought of the apocalypse as good news before, but I should have.  The Bible itself ends with an urgent prayer for the Lord’s swift return:  Come, Lord Jesus!  (Rev 22:20).  We pray for the end of this world every day in the words of the Our Father, Thy Kingdom come.

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F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jesuit story

February 7, 2011

I have long thought F. Scott Fitzgerald to be a very Catholic writer, though explicitly Catholic themes show up only rarely in his work.  There’s the urbane Monsignor Darcy in This Side of Paradise, for example, and a few scattered references in Tender is the Night, but mostly Fitzgerald’s Catholic sensibilities come through in his moral vision, in the interplay of truth and illusion we see, for example, in The Great Gatsby.

In a Fitzgerald biography, however, I’d once come upon a reference to an early (1920) short story called “Benediction,” and I took advantage of a Chicago snow day last week to track the story down.  I was not disappointed.

The story is a gem, written in the witty, dancing prose of the youthful Fitzgerald, and touching on many of his typical themes—the giddiness of coming of age, the wistful sadness of romance, even a hint at class sensitivities.  The story centers around Lois, a romantic and beautiful nineteen-year-old travelling to Baltimore to meet her lover, Howard; on her way to their rendezvous she stops to visit her only brother Keith, a seminarian she has not seen in seventeen years.

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Catholics and abortion: The question of priorities (Part II)

January 24, 2011

Last week, I argued that how Catholics respond to attacks on the lives of the unborn tests whether or not we believe the Lord’s words in Matthew 25.  My comments were in response to the question of whether it is appropriate for American Catholics to prioritize the issue of abortion to the degree that they have.  In today’s post, I will argue that for practical, as well as theological, reasons, it is right for Catholics to make abortion issue number one.

While opposition to abortion has been a part of Christian teaching since the Church first encountered the practice in the pagan world—as seen in the Didache, possibly the earliest non-Biblical source of Christian moral teaching, which states explicitly, “You shall not kill by abortion the fruit of the womb”—the pro-life movement is by no means limited to Catholics, or even Christians.

The basic ethical insight I discussed in last week’s post—that human dignity does not depend on a person’s utility or how we feel about that person—has been adopted as the foundation of our modern system of human rights.  In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson—no lover of orthodox Christianity—declared the right to life to be “self-evident” and “unalienable” because it is derived directly from the Creator.

In this foundational insight, American ideals and Catholic social thought overlap, so it is appropriate that American Catholics have shown particular leadership on the right to life issue.  As one prominent American archbishop put it, abortion is “the preeminent civil rights issue of our day.”  Some, however, such as Commonweal’s George Dennis O’Brien or Newsweek’s Lisa Miller have lambasted bishops who have taken such a stand, often insinuating that they are either gullible Republican dupes or scheming partisans themselves.

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Nietzsche in November

November 21, 2010

We are nearly at the end of the liturgical year, with daily readings from the Book of Revelation reminding us of the end of everything else too.  Indeed, the month of November as a whole, beginning with the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, is dedicated in a special way to remembering the dead and contemplating our own eternal future.

Some people have a problem with that.

Friedrich Nietzsche, one of Christianity’s most brilliant enemies, criticizes our faith for placing too much emphasis on the life to come, thereby emptying this life of meaning and giving unhappy and unsuccessful human beings—“mutterers and nook counterfeiters”—an excuse to wallow in their own misery until they arrive in “heaven,” which in Nietzsche’s estimation seems like little more than a very long nap.

This, I’m afraid, is not one of Nietzsche’s better arguments (though to give the poor old guy a break, I don’t think it’s original to him).  Unfortunately, it has too often been taken up in one form or another by well-meaning Christians themselves.  If we spend too much time contemplating heaven, they say, we will be neglectful of our duties here on earth.  Or, as that summit of liturgical kitsch, “Gather Us In,” puts it, “Gather us in… [but] not in some heaven, light years away.”

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“Because I could not stop for death …”

August 13, 2009

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Death is never convenient, no matter how long anticipated or how stoically accepted.  I experienced this to some small degree as I boarded a red-eye flight last week, bound for Georgia and my grandfather’s funeral.  His body had been failing steadily over his last months, and the family had received frequent updates on his condition until the very end.  Nonetheless, when death finally came, it demanded recognition with its customary imperiousness.

Perhaps because of the interruption that death inevitably entails, there is something fitting about the Southern custom of pausing for funeral motorcades.  The neighbors of the bereaved participate at least for a brief moment in his experience. It is hard to imagine a courtesy of this sort in Boston or New York.  Granted, it might not happen on the interstates of Atlanta either (which is full of former Bostonians and New Yorkers anyway).  However, as we processed down the two-lane highways of Dearing, Georgia; where white, clapboard churches are as common as urban Starbucks, and every gas station doubles as a “feed and seed” or a “bait and tackle;” unfamiliar cars dutifully took their ease.  Read the rest of this entry »