Monday, January 30, 2006

Smoking and other temptations

Craig Ferguson made an interesting observation several weeks ago. One of his viewers had written in and made a comment about trying to stop smoking (at the time he had a three pack per day habit). Craig praised him for the effort and encouraged him to keep at it, stating that he's been smoke free, after a heavy smoking habit, for ten years.

The thing he said that I found interesting was his observation that when a recovering smoker gets a craving for a cigarette, the craving will go away whether the smoker has a cigarette or not.

It's so elementary it's profound. I doubt it would surprise anyone particularly perceptive who's also been there, but I noticed it seems to be true for other occasions to sin. I used to have some bad habits--and I use the past tense with all deliberate optimism--that would basically result in me succumbing to temptation in order to get past (obviously not overcome) it, something like eating a chocolate cake so there would no longer be a cake to tempt me. Some things weren't hard for me to resist, but other things I was only stopped from doing by circumstances, not by some grace-filled act of fortitude.

I was happy to take what I could get, but it didn't occur to me that struggling with sin in the sense of actually resisting the most tempting things, instead of just succumbing and repenting over and over, was something that I could find outside a storybook on the saints. I know a lot of saints started out with very worldly lifestyles, but when we think of saints we're supposed to think of heroic virtue, and heroism by definition is not prosaic. Maybe I'm oversimplifying a little, again.

Anyway, I realized that while it's good to develop a habit of repentance, it would be a sin against hope to just give up whenever the going gets tough. There are graces to help keep you from sinning as well, remember? Get a craving for a cigarette or something else you've decided to cut out of your life, don't assume you're going to fail; assume that with the grace of God you will succeed, dig your heels in, and pray. Pray for the strength to stay on the side of virtue, pray in thanks for the will to choose good instead of sin, pray in thanks for the grace to pray for fortitude in the first place, and maybe find some other distraction to engage yourself in at the same time; if you're like me, you won't often be able to pray with enough focus to block out the temptation or craving before it passes.

If you're even more like me, you probably won't be able to keep it up every time you're under attack, all the times your weaknesses get exposed, but we have the sacrament of confession for that purpose. With frequent confession and frequent communion, you will have reason to hope for real, if perhaps gradual, conversion and sanctification.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

What a relief...

You scored as Chalcedon compliant.

You are Chalcedon compliant. Congratulations, you're not a heretic.

You believe that Jesus is truly God and truly man and like us in every

respect, apart from sin. Officially approved in 451.

Chalcedon compliant















Are you a heretic?
created with

I wonder what the match distribution would have been like if I'd marked Strongly Agree or Strongly Disagree on the questions whose answers I couldn't quite remember. Now, if I can just relearn enough HTML to eliminate the double spacing....

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Bad science, bad theology (I)

Tom Phillips seems to think science has disproven atheism and evolution. He said as much, anyway. I'm not sure what kind of science he's talking about, though. It's not the kind I practice. I'll write a little more generally about it in the future. I think he's more upset at atheists using the science of evolution as a philosophical crutch. Turnabout's fair play, eh Tom?

I tire of such arguments, on both sides. There seems to be the presumption that a little cleverness will allow anyone to overcome the apparent falsehood of a field of knowledge, even without a solid grasp of that field's bailiwick. Usually I see atheists trying to disprove religion by "scientifically" (I'm using suspicious quotation marks, not sarcastic ones--the science and reason are sometimes rational, and sometimes hollow) attacking propositions that were plausible a hundred or a thousand years ago but do not hold up under more careful scrutiny, using more advanced tools. Theistic scientists also sometimes challenge contrarational assertions put forth by particular groups, faith-based and otherwise, but being willing to accept both Faith and Reason, they are, I think, less likely to succumb to an untenable sense of triumphalism like we so often see: being confident that just one side or the other is correct, it's easy for a theistic nonscientist or a science-interested nontheist to assume his or her beliefs are self-evident and only some competing propaganda stands in the way of widespread acceptance. Some creationists talk about fossilized human footprints being found in the same rock as dinosaur footprints, relying only on a similar aspect ratio to that of a real human footprint as conclusive proof, regardless of the facts that these footprints are far larger than modern humans (maybe they were Nephilim?) and closely resemble the nearby three-toed dinosaur footprint with one toe missing. On the other hand, some atheists consider Marian apparitions to be coincidental configurations of birds in a tree, misinterpreted by gullible theists as a an indistinct image of Our Lady, whereas many descriptions are not of merely gussied up vaguely female outlines on pancakes (although to be fair, I've seen such pictures), but are clear images of a beautiful young woman in obviously out of place garb.

Such smug carelessness does not edify anyone. It's not instructive, usually insulting, and leaves one side thinking the other is more worthy of contempt and less of respect. One example I remember from maybe sixteen years ago is a crucifix in a Massachusetts church where the eyes of the corpus, which had been open, closed. I was telling a self-described open minded nonbeliever about the event, just to point out that whether or not you believe in God, there are still plenty of bizarre phenomena we don't understand at all and perhaps never will. He asserted, not hiding his skepticism, that some yahoo must have gone in with a bucket of paint and changed the face of the corpus when no one was around. From the pictures I saw, a simple paint job could not have done the job, and from what I remember, there were people about the church at the time of the miracle, so even if no one had seen it happen, there's no way a guy could have gone in, gotten up to the crucifix, and repainted the face, with no one noticing his presence on church property or the freshness of the hypothetical paint. I can see someone pulling a Sherlock Holmes--"once the impossible has been eliminated, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth"--but an explanation like this one is the best that someone free of the intellectual stunting of organized religion can come up with?

There has been much propaganda regarding intelligent design.

In truth, creation/design is the scientific position; evolution is unscientific. By definition, science is based upon what we observe in the physical world and logical inference from what we observe.

While microevolution, which is change within a species, is observed and scientific, macroevolution, which is what "evolution" customarily means, is not. It asserts life somehow arose from non-life by chance.

No, it doesn't. Macroevolution is what biologists refer to as speciation, one type of organism turning into another--dinosaurs into birds, say. It speaks to the origin of species, not to the origin of life. To call what other theoretical biologists are studying "spontaneous generation" is clever but deceptively low resolution of the concept. As for the distinction from microevolution, there's no solid, objective line in between. Speciation is the accumulation of enough intra-species changes for us to recognize that one or more man-made criteria used to decide what's one species and what's another. Usually the main criterion is the biological or societal capacity for interbreeding, but it doesn't have to be.

The old spontaneous generation model, which Phillips correctly stated was disproven long ago, "predicted" that you could get scorpions by putting mustard between bricks, or that maggots would naturally arise from meat over time. Wikipedia (if you're anti-wiki, suspend your incredulity; if you can get past a little hand-waving chemistry it'll be fine) sums up current thinking fairly well. Basically, some experiments looking at Darwin's primordial soup notion, taking a mix of simple chemicals and running an electric current through it, yielded simple amino acids. These acids themselves aren't self-replicating, but self-assembling structures (see also nanotechnology and colloids) comprise a field that is currently enjoying tremendous practical research and progress therein.

Evolution also asserts one life form can change into another, higher form - something also never observed and thus unscientific.

"Unobserved" does not equal "unscientific." If it were that simple, relativity would be unscientific because we could not observe the effects until after Einstein suggested ways to test for it. I suppose relativity could have suddenly become scientific once we learned how to see it, but by the same token, macroevolution cannot yet be ruled out, and intelligent design cannot yet be ruled in. It would be more accurate to say "unobservable" is "unscientific," but it still would be missing the point. A theory, so to speak, can be unscientific, but not a phenomenon. You can say the theory of evolution is unscientific, but speciation can only happen or not happen within our experience. Paraphenomena may be either a protoscience or a pseudoscience, but we cannot say some strange occurance is scientifically treatable or not until we successfully do so (for if we fail, it only means that our attempts so far have been fruitless, not that all possibilities must be fruitless).

In fact, talk like this assertion belies the misconception behind ID: that because we haven't figured something out already, we never will. Unless it's objective, conclusive proof of God.

I should have stopped here, but even though I don't fancy myself a Darwinist pundit, there are some logical problems that often fail to get addressed, and I want to stop it.

Instead, we always observe exactly what Genesis states numerous times: Life reproduces "according to its kind," i.e., cats beget cats, crickets beget crickets, etc. They never change into something else. With microbiology, we understand why.

Wow, one example of what Genesis states, although I don't remember the references to like begetting being numerous, except for the geneologies. I do need to read Genesis more, though. I do see snakes getting shunned by humans, with the whole head-and-heel striking business, but none has ever approached me or a flesh-of-my-flesh woman and made any kind of temptation. I haven't heard about anyone bringing back pictures or wreckage of Noah's Ark, either. Is only Genesis subject to literal inerrancy, or can we trust the rest of the Bible, like normal Fundamentalists? How about I Kings, where pi is shown to equal three? Are all those "observations" I make with a compass and a calculator, where pi is a little higher than Kings suggests, erroneous or a hoax?

All life contains DNA, a genetic blueprint containing information. But purely material processes cannot create information, which originates only from a "mind." Evolution proceeds via chance, the antithesis of information. The DNA in simple bacteria has several million specifications; man's has several billion.

What's "information?" A message? A regular pattern? Is ammonia a medium of information because when heated with oxygen (heat and oxygen are not that hard to come by, nor is ammonia, in the world), it creates predictable quantites and proportions of NOx and water? If I may wax sincere for a moment, if I perform an experiment on an abiotic system, do the data I collect constitute information, or does my participation preclude the experiment from being a purely material process, even though I'm only observing? Back to the subject at hand, when bacteria live in or near another organism, they can take in the other organism's DNA. Their nuclear reactions are far stranger than what we normally think of when we imagine microbial reproduction.

Chance and information are not antitheses. Statistics and probability are all about extracting information from chance. Heck, play with any anagram generator on the web and you'll get lots of provoking words and phrases that are not directed by the original permutation. Certainly, anagrams are limited to the letters of the original, but a random string of words can generate an intelligible expression. Was information spontaneously generated ex nihilo? It didn't come from the generator (which only works with what you gave it--some of them filter through a dictionary, but it's not necessary), and its source wasn't in you (else the random string you tested wouldn't have been random), and it didn't come from the letters (which are only symbols of sounds, largely arbitrary things that except for a and i only denote meaning in groups and very limited contexts).

If anything, information is the opposite of entropy, and chance is the opposite of certainty.

The DNA molecule, the most complex structure we know and unquestionably the most efficient copying device, with self-correcting processes, prevents one life form from "changing" into another. We are all copies of a copy of a copy, etc., going back to the very first human parents.

Sorry, where did mutations go? Depending on how strict you want to be in defining "species," we can induce enough mutation in like such that it begets something very unlike, or perhaps just becomes unlike, although that would only satisfy the Lamarckians.

DNA is certainly complex, but it is not terribly efficient, and it does not have self-correcting processes that prevent speciation. These processes do not stop mutation, but allow the organism (or individual cell) to die when too many unfavorable mutations occur, either at conception or through environmental influences.

If we were all copies of a copy of a copy, then we should all look the same. It should be obvious that we're not. Where do you think this variation came from?

Even evolutionists accept the finding that all humans descended from a relatively recent woman whom scientists have taken to calling Eve, based on the DNA in our mitochondria, the cell's powerhouse. Mitochondrial DNA comes unmixed, only from the mother.

So? "Relatively recent" to scientists is still long, long before the usually accepted dates for creation. By my reckoning, it still leaves more than four and a half billion years from the time the Earth coalesced for life to form (sorry--that is, assuming it didn't get here from somewhere else). Either way, this "mitochondrial Eve" is not the first modern human. She is only the last human female whose line of daughters we know not to be broken. Any women who were her contemporaries, or women who descended from them, either had only sons or nor children at all, or possibly we haven't surveyed their mtDNA yet.

The fossil record disproves evolution. If the first life form changed into another, higher form by gradual gene changes, and so on down the line, accounting for all life then, quoting Darwin, "the number of intermediate and transitional links, between all living and extinct species, must have been inconceivably great."

The whole world would be awash in the remains of "infinitely numerous connecting links." It isn't.

Um...we haven't found all the fossils we expect, so we've found all that there are? Scientists know better than to traipse around in fields they haven't mastered; why do people who haven't studied any of it think two and a half years of a liberal arts degree is adequate?

I'm sorry, I was being rude. I don't mean to belittle any liberal arts program. They're not inferior at all; they just deal with completely different bodies of knowledge, just as ferrous metallurgy and constitutional law do. Still, I wonder if Phillips would go so far as to claim that, if we have dug up a dozen T. rex skeletons, then God must have only created a dozen of them, or at least created a dozen apparent skeletons and buried those when He was finishing up with assembling dry land.

Over the hundred years we've been studying paleontology, we've gotten a low-resolution picture of the fossil record, which is billions of years long. Why do self-appointed, external overseers of science get to decide that now is when we need to start producing some conclusive results?

Darwin conceded that fact, calling it "the most obvious and serious objection" against his theory. He attests the "sudden appearance" of species, complete and distinct, in the fossil record - just as if God created all life individually.

Uh, okay. Last I heard, Darwin's linchpin was something closer to irreducible complexity, but I may have simply forgotten. Maybe Phillips forgot that most biological and paleontological research took place after Darwin died, so Darwin couldn't have known to write about it. Einstein fudged relativity to permit a steady-state universe, though, so if he can be wrong about something untrue, despite having a surprisingly (to him, in the case of universal expansion) accurate grasp of something true; then why can't old Charles?

Evolution is scientifically preposterous. Laws of probability are real scientific laws. Our DNA is unique because the odds of another person having our exact DNA are so remote we can dismiss that possibility altogether. Likewise with evolution.

Here he's confusing science with engineering. Engineers are all about how to make things work first and asking about why things work later. A good rule of thumb for an engineer is to always try a first-order approximation and see if it's close enough to work with.

You do see similar simplifications in statistical mechanics, but no stat mech scholar will deny that the extremely rare events that seem impossible to those of us living in the big, slow, hot regime we do live in are still possible. You can drop a piece of metal in a bucket of water and reasonably not expect the water to freeze while the metal turns red-hot, but an actual scientist who knows a thing or two about stat mech would not look at a red-hot piece of metal in a bucket of ice and say "Nah, didn't happen; it's too unlikely."

I'm suddenly reminded of the island of peaceful, terrible musicians from "Erik the Viking." They got to live in peace as long as not a drop of blood was spilled there. One of the main characters murdered someone, and the island sank. The inhabitants refused help, as the water rushed up around them, believing their track record should speak for itself. Am I being clear enough?

Lastly, one should hesitate before labeling mathematical principles as scientific laws. Sure, math is a sort of science, but probability and statistics derive from logic, not from analysis of test results (which even theoretical physics has to fall back on, after a fashion).

Nobel laureate Francis Crick calculated nature's chances of producing one small protein: 1 in 10 to the 260th power. Crick reminds us there are only 10 to the 80th power (1 followed by 80 zeros) atoms in the whole universe; he concludes even the elementary components of life "cannot have arisen by pure chance."

Ah, another infallible scientist. No, I'm only being mean again, although I'm not sure why the faithful would be inclined to use the work of an atheist, who believed the soul was only a superstitious model of the yet-undefined psychological phenomena that emerge from the structure of the brain to form the person, to support something the atheist himself found ridiculous. Is he accidentally promoting some theistic principles, or just being misinterpreted and/or taken out of context?

What I'd really like to know, though, is where these statistitians are getting their probabilities from. Some of the magnitudes seem reasonable, but if I can accept ten to the 260th power for a probability, should I not be willing to consider ten to the 250th? The 270th? The 100th or 1000th? The 80th?

Whatever the answer to that question, the comparison is disingenuous. If there were 1080 particles randomly distributed throughout the universe, my chance of taking one particle and pairing it with another randomly selected particle is 1 in [1080-1]. The universe isn't built that way, though. We're dealing with a much smaller population, yes, but also one that is much denser, so particle interactions have a tremendous impact on the kinetics of the system.

Mathematician Emile Borel states an event will never happen when the odds are less than 1 in 10 to the 50th power.

Dr. Borel sounds like either a good engineer or an arrogant classical physicist. If I showed you that some phenomenon had odds worse than 1:1050 of occuring, and then I showed you the phenomenon, would you deny that it did happen? Odds like "1 in 10 chance" don't mean something might occur ten times but actually does so only on the tenth. The probability of an event is not based on the opportunity for that event to happen. If I roll a die, the chance of me getting a 5 is one in six; on average, I'll have to roll six times to get a five, all the numbers coming up more or less equally often. It does not mean that if I roll the die once, I cannot get a six. When these other, huge improbabilities get bandied about, I suspect that critics of evolution are looking at the average expected behavior (for the six-sided die, add up the possibilities and divide by how many there are: 21÷6=3.5, which is sensibly right in the middle, but unreasonable for obvious reasons) and taking it as the way things must be.

1 in 1050 is still a nonzero possibility. "Statistically impossible" is an arbitrary, if convenient, lie we tell ourselves to keep the math easy.

Phillips goes on a little longer about famous people citing figures and attitudes that seem to have no place outside classical physics. Maybe it's not fair to use ad hominems, but he's the one who started name dropping, and appeals to authority are not logically sound, either. His evidence comes from scientists who died decades ago, an atheist who had nothing a creationist would stomach for an alternative to evolution, a mathematician who believes in panspermia, and Albert Einstein:

Albert Einstein said, "I want to know how God created this world." Einstein knew the universe didn't happen by chance.

Right, because he also knew the universe was static, and he has access to secret proof of God that doesn't actually happen to explain scientifically God's existence, so Einstein has to do that part himself.

Nobel laureate Ernst Chain said, "To postulate that the development and survival of the fittest is entirely a consequence of chance mutations seems to me a hypothesis based on no evidence and irreconcilable with the facts."

Which facts? We've only had a hundred or so years to sift through what so far looks to be billions of years of fossil-hiding rock? Everything we know, scientifically, jives poorly with some poetry composed in a prescientific, and at the time probably preliterate, society?

Atheism and evolution are dead. Science destroyed them. Those claiming evolution is scientific must demonstrate that life can come from non-life by purely material processes and that one life form can turn into another, higher form. Science demands it. Put up or shut up.

Now Phillips just sounds, to me, like he feels seriously threatened and is posturing, at least after everything else he's written. Evolutionary science has yielded too many fruitful results for such an ultimatum to be taken seriously. Science, by definition, does not speak to the absence or presence of a Diety. Atheists like it because it explains so many things so well without invoking the Deity. Creationists, literal or otherwise, see science as an incomplete religion (and I can't blame them for getting that impression sometimes, although everybody really should know better) and try to graft in the Truth they know from revelation as if we should have been able to find it by reason alone, making the attractiveness to atheists and scientists themselves (I've written on narrow ecclesiology and the inadequacy of reason before, as have far greater thinkers) less of a threat.

Anything we could reliably reproduce and test--i.e. with science--is inherently not supernatural. Evolution, meanwhile, does not speak to the origin of life, like I said, but only to its development, hence the name.

You cannot demand that a field, which is not even your own, solve problems outside its scope, and when it says it cannot, you have no place to declare the whole field invalid. Whom could I rail against if I believed that a shotgun should serve well as a hammer, or a briefcase as a dinner salad?

As I would like to say if they let me give out flu shots, "This vaccine is brought to you by the science of epidemiology and the theory of evolution." As the theolgians say, "Believe it, so that you might come to understand." Short of understanding, you will always fail to disprove it.

Monday, January 09, 2006

It sometimes seems to me that one advantage, if you will, of being Catholic in 21st century America is that there is never a shortage of lessons on how we can not be of this world, even while we're in it, just so long as we're willing to look. I know Evangelicals also are keen on counterculturalism, so maybe I'll appeal to them, and maybe some folks in between, too, for once.

I used to take a more fatalistic view about the direction our society's taking, with the promotion of libertine lifestyles and what would be called socio-political revisionist history (try not to read too much paranoia into that phrase) if only it had any context, and whatnot. I always planned on doing my part to stem the tide, but I couldn't see any way to repair the damage, short of an overt and obvious act of God or something like starting over from scratch after the fall of some imperial civilization. Since I didn't think I could do much more than lament the global problems and try to manage the local ones, I didn't pay much attention.

More recently, I have begun to see things through more Catholic eyes. I'm not sure that my perspective has really changed much, but some things seem just a little clearer than they used to. Not everything, though, and not always, and I'm still not sure what I can do about it other than my original plan to just try to tidy up my little corner of the world, although I guess I can write about it a little, since I've got this venue and all. Well, most of what follows is pretty lame by itself, but more evidence would probably be easy to dig up.

I saw part of a interview on television a few months ago with an actress whose career appears to be past its prime. She may have been pimping some new project, but since she's been mostly off the radar for a number of years--a number of TV specials that didn't get much attention, which may or may not be a bad thing--there was the usual gamut of questions about what she's been up to in the meantime. Since it was entertainment news, personal questions were asked and intimate answers were given, such as about her latest beau. I only remember part of a comment she made about her dating patterns: "If the sex is good, I'm like his wife; I'll stick by him." Something to that effect, anyway. I got tired of the show and didn't wait long before going to find something more compelling on any of the other channels.

For a moment, though, I felt a little relief that there was still someone out there who had retained a shred of the concept of fidelity, but then it struck me how pathetic it was to be celebrating such a superficial attitude toward love.

Oh, I'm glad we're still dimly aware of virtue, but are we this dim?

I've started seeing a commercial on TV that can serve as a different example. When I first saw it, it took me just over two seconds of watching an attractive young woman kissing a young man, presumably attractive, through a chain link fence, to figure that it was a Trojan condom advertisement. I have to give them props for being clever, I will say that much. In fact, at the risk of heaping too many accolades on them, I'll also say I was glad to see them citing abstinence in the ad's subtitles as an effective strategy to prevent STDs, as well as reminding the viewer that STDs left unchecked deprive many people of the joys of parenthood. All else aside, if people start thinking ahead more about anything, even if it's just a little further than their own skin, I consider it a small victory.

There was still a tragic element, though, that not long ago I was not perceptive enough to recognize. Kissing a loved one through a fence isn't romantic (well, maybe for some tastes), it's an act of desperation. Okay, there is something romantic about love not being quenched by adversity, like when you can't be with the one you love because of circumstances, such as Romeo and Juliet, or like when Miss Piggy and Kermit kiss through the barrier after Kermit's arrested in whichever Muppet film it was, but it's still a compromise of sorts, an acceptance of less than what should be because of mitigating circumstances. I looked at the couple, in a willfully handicapped embrace, and I saw a dysfunctional relationship, another dysfunctional attitude. I'm not sure Trojan really saw the depth of the imagery here; they probably hardly even see this dimension, despite the verbiage. What does the fence mean? "I'm really into you, but there are things I will not share with you, so when we become intimate, let's set up some internal barriers that will stunt our collective emotional development, but pretend they're not influencing the dynamics of our relationship." It's not just protecting yourself from disease; it's also protecting yourself from the one you love. So much for tearing down your inner walls and connecting to people in a healthful way. Aren't we supposed to be sitting down and talking our feelings out more, these days?

In that spirit, I think the next time I meet a girl I'm interested in, I'll refrain from giving her my name, so she won't be surprised when I withhold things later...say, when we start discussing our feelings, if things get that far; I'll not use verbs, so she won't be able to understand anything that she doesn't want to think about at this time in her life, like how much time she wasted with a guy she suddenly thinks she can't trust because she never knew me in the first place. I'd only be protecting her, you see. Less emotional commitment makes for a less emotional breakup. If she doesn't know my name, after I hurt her (but just a little!) and leave her, it'll be easier for her to forget me.

Just trying to be prudent, you see. Is prudence not a virtue? What do you mean, developing a healthy environment for children is more than just an exercise in prudence? What do children have to do with anything?

I could sure go for some doughnuts right about now.

The Book of Daniel

I was just listening to some local talk radio on the way home. The show was sort of like the Drudge Report; in fact, the host and Matt Drudge sound so similar to me, I think I've mistaken their two shows on several occasions, now that I reflect.

The host spent a few minutes talking about the religious drama that recently premiered, "The Book of Daniel," about an Episcopalian priest with a Vicodin problem, a promiscuous son, a drug peddling daughter, and a distant, apparently alcoholic wife. I probably have some of the details wrong. One aspect I found interesting-it could make for some outstanding television, but is full of trapdoors-was the propensity for Daniel, the priest, to have imaginary (so I gather) conversations with Jesus, who in the show actually appears and talks to Daniel...or Daniel imagines it and we get to watch like it's real. Whichever.

The host commented that four network affiliates elected not to air the program, citing concern about anti-Christian bigotry, and said he personally didn't see anything offensive. Sure enough, the first caller was irate, and tried in vain to explain how a profoundly flawed (in terms of character, not necessarily accuracy) portrayal of Christians doesn't do anybody any good.

Of course, the caller had lost his cool, and tried to beat the show's host at his own brash game, and that's a game callers will lose even if they win, so he wasn't going to get much beyond reinforcing the stereotype that Christians in America have a persecution complex and demand especially kind treatment in the public eye. Nevertheless, the caller made a good point, which got drowned out particularly because, I think, it was a valid comparison.

He started out by asking the host if he would have been so blasé if the show had been about an all-black family, where the parents weren't married, one child was a drug peddler, maybe the other a streetwalker or something. The host said "Why don't you stick to the question at hand?" Seems to me "Would or should you feel differently about the content of the show if its concept were slightly different?" is an entirely fair and pertinent question to ask, regardless of whether the caller would like the answer or not. It seems less than respectable to me to dismiss rhetorical questions half-asked, if he's going to bother allowing callers on the air at all, but my point is not about how the guy should run his show.

I'd rather consider the caller's question. Generally, I'd agree with the answer he gave for himself: such a show should only qualify as entertainment in the basest sense. Sure, most of us have faced at least one of the problems manifest in Daniel's family, and many of us have faced more. The host had a good point here, as well. A show doesn't have to be bad just for addressing these issues. I don't think it's honest, though, to write off Daniel as "Desperate Housewives" caliber fare and then say it wouldn't be the same as if HBO were doing a poignant remake of "Good Times."

Maybe it shouldn't be counted as satire at all. I've only seen snippets of the show, and I've only read other people's opinions, so I will refrain from judging, although by now I trust you know me well enough not to take it personally if I speculate and hypothesize a bit.

Maybe the show's not supposed to be satire. I wouldn't be surprised; satire requires a certain degree of openmindedness and intellectual participation on the part of the audience, and while some other things put out by the MSM (mainstream media, in case anyone forgot the TLA) call for the former, just about none calls for the latter anymore.

I think the root of the problem lies in what I call the ER Effect. A nurse with whom I am acquainted once said that the show "ER" is realistic in that all the things that happen there happen in a real emergency room; however, what transpires over the course of the show's one hour, that makes for good and dramatically intense television, usually is spread over the course of maybe a week in the real world. It'd depend somewhat on the size of the city and the dangerousness of the neighborhood, of course.

Thus, in an attempt to build in some plot thickeners, NBC gave every major character in "Book of Daniel" a serious problem. Bingo: instant story fodder for several seasons. Unfortunately, it seems like NBC tried to streamline or condense things a bit too much.

I don't have a problem with densifying society's problems, as the show tried to do. It's good television. However, was it necessary to give each member of Daniel's family a major problem? Would it not have sufficed to have Daniel actually trying to help parishoners who had drug or marital problems, instead of getting out of his dysfunctional home to play golf with the jerks in his congregation now and then? I'm sure the show does deal with Daniel trying to shepherd his flock, but sometimes it seems even to me that there was someone up the pipe who deliberately decided to make this "representative" Christian family a lot crazier than average. It's not apparent to me--and to be fair, I will remind you that most of what I think I know does not come firsthand--that any of Daniel's family is even struggling to overcome their problems. Daniel seems to worry about them, but I wouldn't be surprised if he relied on his Vicodin more than his Jesus. It doesn't even sound like these characters are terribly sympathetic, let alone interesting. I can watch "Friends" and see them struggle with and get laughs out of Ross' dumbassery, or Monica's compulsive neatness, but here? We're merely told that drug dealers and statutory rapists are flat-out good folks. Well, okay, guess I don't have to seriously consider any conflict between behavior and these pronouncements over the course of the show, since I'm told otherwise by the show itself. Seems about as realistic and plot-driven (and vapid, if I had to make a qualitative evaluation) as any reality show you could name.

In short, sure, Daniel's family and life are sort of a microcosm of the human condition in contemporary America, but they're profoundly dysfunctional. Like it or not, satire or not, deliberate or not, NBC is saying that Daniel's family is in some way representative of Christian families, and Christians are rightly getting tired of being dismissed out of hand for being hypocritical nutcases, or whatever the implied condemnation is.

I can remember when a "religious freak" was someone who would come to your house and then pray in your closet, or who would kill people they disagreed with and/or themselves in order to protest something. Nowadays, it seems like all you have to do is go to church much more often than twice a year. No, personally it's not that bad, but it's rare that I can open a magazine or turn on the TV and see a devout person, outside of an interview or documentary, portrayed as competent, let alone well balanced. The apologists for this kind of thing like to point out that Christians are flawed too, and it's interesting to see these folks with an alleged inside track on grace to deal with things like the rest of us (if only they had some writers who could accurately portray such a situation!), but I can't shake the feeling of familiarity with trolls who instigate flame wars for their own satisfaction and then hide behind a rationale of only trying to bring light to a problem that everyone else is repressing rather than solving.

Which is not to say that Christians shouldn't develop tougher skins. If you dislike "Daniel" for any reason, personal religious offense or insipid programming or something else, you have the right to boycott the show and the network, and to write to NBC and tell them how you feel; and you should; NBC, like every other network, does not owe deference to anyone by default, but they should be making well-informed programming decisions. However, we can't be flying off the handle at every little injustice. Abortion? Sure, get upset there, but remember that some people don't agree, and will have a hard time understanding why you're angry or sad over different aspects of the controversy than they are. A TV show? Eh, maybe pick a different battle to take personally. A defamatory trend in the MSM needs to be treated gravely, but no single instance is going to save or damn us by itself, so acting like it will would be more harmful than helpful. That way lies splitting a congregation over the recarpeting plan for the sanctuary and demanding that cartoon pigs not be depicted in pop art.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Why go to confession?

When I was home over the holidays (Christmas being the primary but not sole celebration in question), my parents told me about a homily some friends of the family, fellow parishoners, heard when they went to a church out of town. At some point, the priest admonished the congregation against giving bad confessions--I'll elaborate a bit below--and my parents and I spent a few meals discussing what his intention could have been.

Basically, the priest seemed to be discouraging people from coming to confession without having anything substantial to say. His words were something to the effect of "I'm tired of just old people coming and giving confessions like first graders." We figured there were three plausible interpretations:

The first is that he was encouraging people with more serious sins, people with a more dire need for grace, to take advantage of the sacrament. Older people may have an urgent need, in the sense that they are generally closer to their own mortal ends than young people, but many appear to be too tired or too well disciplined (especially if they do confess frequently) to succumb to temptation, so all they have to confess are relatively minor things. Not that I'm in a position to judge, but I hope it's permissible to speculate for the sake of the argument; I'm not terribly old, myself, but sometimes it's not willpower or some other overt act of divine protection that prevents my commission of some sin.

The second is that he was trying to reassure (or discourage, depending on your perspective) the scrupulous. While in the first case we may have people who are saving up their sins so they only have to go in once, and then unload a whole bunch of stuff once, and receive penance once, in this case we have people who are going in frequently who probably feel they should still be able to make a dramatic confession, since we're all terrible sinners who should be nothing less than appalled if we could only see the true state of our souls. Unfortunately, it can be easy to try too hard to think of something to confess. I don't think it's unreasonable to expect that if you're going to mass at least on Sundays, and more likely daily, and going to confession on Saturday, that you're periodically going to have a pretty good week. Not that we should ever presume that we've had an impeccable week. Look instead at the confession schedule of a church near the town I live in: the usual hour, maybe forty-five minutes before Saturday evening mass, and 6:45-6:55 every morning before the 7:00 AM mass. Most people may not absolutely need reconciliation every day, but if they really did, I wouldn't be surprised if matters were grave enough that they needed more than the ten minutes scheduled. If the priests at this parish didn't want to hear confession a lot, they could simply not offer it, or offer it only rarely, and only at obviously inconvenient times for the parishoners.

The possibility of a reluctant confessor is the the third interpretation. Whether out of frustration with people little needing confession receiving it a lot while people who really need it decline to partake, or out of more ignoble motivations like simply believing it's not an important sacrament (which would simply be wrong, being belied by the fact that it's one of the two we should expect to have frequently), the priest might just be telling people not to waste his time by coming. Hopefully, though, it would just be intended as a medicinal slap in the face (remember when they used to do them at confirmation?).

Whatever the priest's intent, he brings up some good points. We should all go to confession, and most of us should go more often. Don't wait until you think you need it; with frequent communion and frequent confession, you can receive graces to resist sin in the future. If you can't think of anything specific, enumerate your typical temptations, especially if you have not done so recently; your confessor might still be able to offer some wisdom in dealing with them, and you're still in all likelihood going to have some venial sins that should be taken care of. One way or the other, however, do not obsess over your sins. Make a careful examination of conscience, but don't second-guess yourself or doubt the validity or sincerity of your last confession (unless you really were deliberately insincere or not forthcoming). Your focus should be on Christ. A healthy perspective of your sin is not obsession or denial.

I'm going with the first interpretation of the homily. General rule of thumb: any motivation to well-orderedly (there's got to be a legitimate adverb for this term, but I can't think of a more elegant construction without my dinner) take advantage of a source of grace more often is good and should be obeyed; any motivation to neglect or put off reception of a sacrament (distinct from abstaining for legitimate reasons, which the Church tends to spell out pretty durn clearly) is only diabolical.