When should we confirm?

September 29, 2011

There’s an old joke about a newly ordained priest whose pastor gives him the task of ending a bat infestation plaguing the church.  The poor young priest tries everything—poison, traps, a call to pest control—but the bats refuse to give up their home among the church’s rafters.  In desperation, the young priest returns to the wise old pastor and says, “Father, I’ve tried everything, but the bats won’t leave the church.”

The old priest smiles, and says, “Oh, Father, the solution is much simpler than you think:  just confirm them!  Then you’ll never see them again.”

For those like myself, who have worked in several different confirmation programs over the years, the joke is more uncomfortable than funny because the proverbial grain of truth it contains is the size of a boulder.  Too often confirmation is treated like a sort of graduation from the Church—an attitude for which, I might add, parents often bear more guilt than teenagers.

While the question of when in one’s life the sacrament of confirmation should be celebrated is not the sort of issue likely to make it into the New York Times, it is theologically more intriguing than the hot-button attention-grabbers.  Fargo’s Bishop Samuel Aquila this summer offered a strong case for changing the order in which the sacraments of initiation are normally conferred.

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A new index of forbidden ideas?

February 22, 2011

The satirical documentary is not a genre known to be friendly to religious faith.  See, for example, my posts on Bill Maher’s Religulous (here and here).  Michael Moore pioneered this type of documentary—NOVA meets Saturday Night Live—with Roger & Me in 1989.  The genre relies heavily on ironic juxtapositions and gotcha moments.

While I have nothing against a little satire, the style and technique of such documentaries limit how deeply they can engage an issue.  These limitations apply to Ben Stein’s Expelled:  No Intelligence Allowed (2008), though Stein’s perspective is antithetical to Maher’s:  it’s secular orthodoxy he’s skewering.

The point of departure for the documentary is the dismissal of several faculty members from various universities across the country (George Mason, SUNY Stony Brook, Baylor, and Iowa State, as well as the Smithsonian Institute).  These professors were allegedly too sympathetic to “intelligent design”.  The film doesn’t do much to help us judge the merits of intelligent design theories, but Stein’s point is not so much about the validity of the theory itself as it is about academic freedom.

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Dressing Korean

August 15, 2010

I’ve blogged about the French-born anthropologist Rene Girard before (here’s my summary of key Girardian ideas); what I find particularly insightful in his work is the emphasis he places on how our desires develop through mimesis.  In other words, we learn what to desire often just by imitating others.  A few Girardian moments this summer reminded me of the validity of this point.

The first came at the first birthday party of my niece, the adorable Chloe, who I’ve mentioned before.  Chloe has idiosyncratic tastes; she’s as often interested in gnawing on someone’s shoe or a newspaper as she is in playing with her toys.  The one thing you can do to make her more interested in the toys, however, is to start playing with them yourself.  Once Chloe notices someone else playing with a toy, she crawls resolutely across the floor and takes it from them!  Mimetic desire starts early.

I thought of Girard again in northeast India when the fifth graders in the remote mountain village where I taught started flashing gang signs whenever I took their picture.  Of course, when I asked them what they were doing and why, they had no real idea—they were just imitating something they had seen on TV.

I should back up a bit here and say that even though the village where I worked has no telephone connections, paved roads, refrigeration, radio reception, or indoor plumbing, nearly every house has satellite TV.  An enduring image of the journey will be that of The Dish sticking out from under the thatched roofs of bamboo huts.

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Luxuries of a Third World Church

August 9, 2010

If you are one of our astute regular readers (and aren’t all of our regular readers by definition astute?), you might have noticed that my postings this summer were rather sparse.  You see, I was in the jungle.

The Jesuits, as most of you know, are a worldwide religious order, and, even though the order is divided into provinces, when a man becomes a Jesuit he enters the Society of Jesus, of which there is but one in the world.  Our current Father General has placed great emphasis on the international character of the Society, encouraging provinces to work together across national borders and reminding us that Jesuits in formation need to be comfortable working in any culture.

All of this, along with the inscrutable workings of Providence, is to explain how I found myself at the beginning of June in a remote mountain village in northeast India.  No phones, no internet, not even mail.

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An Education

April 29, 2010

Well, it’s the middle of final paper season, but fear not!  I’m still finding time for blogging.  And procrastinating.  And watching movies.  And procrastinating by blogging about watching movies.  Among the more interesting movies I’ve watched of late has been the British film An Education (2009).

An Education is set in 1960s London, a more innocent age on the verge of becoming, well, a significantly less innocent age.  The star of the movie is Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a smart 16-year old at an all-girls academy with a bright academic future ahead of her, if all goes well, at Oxford.

Jenny’s home life is a bit oppressive, and her parents are rather dull.  Alfred Molina turns in a particularly good performance as Jenny’s father, Jack, who manages to come across as bumbling, overbearing, and awkwardly caring all at the same time.  In the end, despite appearing almost tyrannical in his desire for Jenny to do well at school, Jack’s greatest fault turns out to be his naïveté.  Jenny faults him for not being strict enough.

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Solzhenitsyn and the Bones of Norilsk

August 3, 2009

Solzhenitsyn2Every June when spring finally arrives in the Siberian city of Norilsk, the bones appear, unearthed by the thaw and washed to the city by the melting snows.  The bones are the remains of prisoners who labored in Norilsk decades ago when the city was a prison labor camp, one of the remote frozen islands of the Gulag Archipelago.  The citizens of Norilsk want to forget the grisly origins of their city.  But the bones force them to remember.

The world came to know of the horrors of the Siberian camps largely through the efforts of one man, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who died one year ago today.  While some of his fiction, such as the novellas One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Matryona’s Place, is among the best of 20th century Russian literature, the work for which Solzhenitsyn will always be known is The Gulag Archipelago. Using mathematical mnemonic techniques to remember in breathtaking detail the events of his eleven years in the Soviet prison system, Solzhenitsyn – like the spring thaw unearthing the bones of Norilsk – brought the horrors of the Gulag into the light of day.  As he wrote in a prefatory note to The Gulag,

By an unexpected turn of our history, a bit of the truth, an insignificant part of the whole, was allowed out in the open.  But those same hands which once screwed tight our handcuffs now hold out their palms in reconciliation: “No, don’t! Don’t dig up the past! Dwell on the past and you’ll lose an eye.”

But the proverb goes on to say: “Forget the past and you’ll lose both eyes.”

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Faith in Anything? or Faith in Jesus?

August 2, 2009
good-shepherd-pa-pd

Fresco of Christ as the Good Shepherd in the Catacomb of San Callisto

One shock I had as I began to teach religion to high-school students was how uncomfortable high-school students are with the word “faith.”  There might be no better way to reduce a class to silence than to ask the question: “So, who wants to talk about his faith in Jesus?”

I imagine this is especially true at the largely white, upper-middle-class, all-boys Jesuit Prep school where I teach, where reason and argument are prized, and faith, story and art are often called… umm… well, let’s just say they are often disparaged.  If something isn’t rational, proven, demonstrated, then it is not worth much.

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