Friday, May 31, 2013

How I Stopped Being an Atheist

I stopped being an atheist in 2006, or 2007, or maybe 2008; I can't really remember. I should point out that I didn't come to a robust faith at this time. I hit a devastating spiritual crisis a few months later (or maybe it was a few years later), from which I eventually emerged with a sturdy and reflective belief in God.

But my original lapse from atheism happened like this. I was invited to a party that was taking place in a house I had been lodging in some months previously. I'd actually ended up spending as much time in my family home as I did in the lodging; so that my landlady (I'll call her Sheila) use to haggle me down from the rent I was paying. We were briefly colleagues and I was also good friends with a couple who knew her, who were also at the party.

Everybody there was about ten to thirty years older than me. That's how I like parties, anyway.

The first fellow to arrive was a man I'll call Barry, who might have been in his forties. As soon as he arrived, he began to talk to me about a chest-of-drawers (or maybe it was a bedside table) that he had seen on sale in one shop at a price far higher than it had been on sale in another shop. He told me how he had taken the sales people to task about this descrepancy. I later learned that finding bargains was a near-obsession with him. He was a pleasant kind of chap, though his eagerness to launch into such a specific topic as soon as he met me rather took me aback.

Than more people began to arrive. It wasn't a big party; there were probably no more than eight people in total. I seem to remember there was a programme about the poet John Betjeman on Sheila's big colour TV.

That was the night I had my first brandy mixed with Bailey's Irish cream. I had been a teetotaller until I was 27, when two female friends solemnly initiated me into the pleasures of alcohol by buying me a Stella Artois. I didn't think much of it, and it took me a little while to find my personal poison, which was (and is) brandy. I always mix it with cola, which I call a brandola; I can't abide it straight. That evening, however, I learned that it was very nice mixed with Bailey's Irish Cream-- although something of a waste, since both drinks are pleasing in themselves.

I drank a lot of brandy and Bailey's that night. I think I was trying to get drunk, which was something I had never achieved before.

I can't remember what the conversation was about until it turned to the subject of religion. I learned that Barry, the hunter of bargains, was a born-again Christian. This seemed incongrous to me as he seemed like the least otherworldly person you could imagine. (He was wearing a cosy sweater, though, which is apparently de rigeur for born again Christians.) Soon he began to discuss his beliefs with a mixture of assertion and defensiveness, and since it was as good a topic as any to get the party going, we all got talking about religion.

Barry set his sights on me. Maybe I looked like a potential convert. I can remember him asking, with obvious conviction, "What would you think if I told you the world is going to end probably within the next twenty years?". I tried to say something tactful. He asked me if I was a Catholic (in a tone that made plain that he wasn't one). I said that I was. I may have been an atheist, but I always knew which side I was on when it came to the battle for civilization.

After a while, Barry seemed to give up on me. "You're obviously a very logical person", he said, graciously, which sticks in my mind because the last thing I ever think I am is logical.

The theological discussion was raging on all sides. One middle-aged lady (who I subsequently heard was mortified at her drunkenness that night, which seemed entirely unnecessary to me), kept repeating over and over: "I think it's a load of b------", with great solemnity and deliberation, as though she was delivering a very carefully-thought out philosophical thesis.

My friend Adam (not his real name), who was the person there I had known the longest, and who constantly surprises everyone by being in his sixties when he doesn't look a day over forty-five, was challenged about his spiritual beliefs. He was very drunk at his stage. He spread his arms and declared-- no, declaimed-- "I believe that Jesus Christ is my Messiah", with a broad grin on his face. This surprised me a lot. I had spoken to Adam for hours upon hours upon hours, over several years-- library work leaves a lot of opportunity for chatting-- and he never mentioned any religious beliefs. I would have sworn he was an agnostic at the most. I soon discovered that he was Church of England, which explained a lot. All the same, I was still surprised.

The party kept going well into the small hours, Eventually, people began drifted from the house, with the usual emotional embraces that drunkenness inspires. (At least, I think so. I don't really remember too well.) I was staying over for the night-- one final sleep in my old lodging. So was Barry, who got my old bed, while I made do with the couch.

I'm pretty sure I slept soundly, because I always sleep soundly.

The next morning brought my usual struggle with the front door; I had struggled with the knob every morning that I'd lodged there, meaning Sheila had to come downstairs in her bath-robe every morning and let me out. It had become a running joke. I was constantly reassured that it was a tricky lock and lots of people struggled with it.

As I was walking out the garden gate, I heard my name called, and turned around. Barry was standing at the upstairs bedroom window, waving me goodbye. He'd got out of bed to do so.

It was a Sunday morning, and I took the long, long bus journey into the city centre. This had been the bus journey I'd taken every morning I'd lodged in that house, and it was ridiculously long. Even when I got the earliest bus, I was in danger of being late for work. I think I re-read most of David Copperfield on that bus. I also made a start on The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence, though a start was all I made. It was always packed. Today it was especially busy, because there was a big sports game in the city.

I remember looking out the window of the bus at a Gaelic games pitch (Gaelic games are Gaelic football and hurling; the goal-posts are the same for both, and they look rather like rugby goal-posts). I was staring at the goal-posts when I realized-- like someone hearing the vote of a meeting from which he'd been excluded-- that I could believe in God. I decided that I did believe in God. It was like the moment nausea disappears all of a sudden, or oppressive hot weather breaks.

I remember standing on Dublin's main street, waiting for my second bus back to my home. I don't remember what I felt. I do remember that there was a two euro coin lying on the pavement-- this was at the height of Ireland's economic boom. I watched in fascination as person after person, in the crowded street, simply walked past it, for five or ten minutes at least. I don't remember if it was ever picked up, before my bus arrived.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Don't Be a Nervous Reader!

I paid a visit to Chapters today, one of the better Dublin bookshops, in Parnell Street. I usually confine my browsing to the first floor, where the second-hand books are shelved. Today, though, I took a brief tour around the ground floor, and I was amused to see, in the children's books section, a shelf marked "Confident Readers".

Confident Readers! I've always wanted to be one of those, but the ambition continues to elude me. I always worry that I'm missing the author's point, that I won't retain anything that I've read, that my critical judgement is dreadful, and that maybe I shouldn't even be reading the book I'm reading in the first place.

Oh, to be a Confident Reader! I think there should be such a shelf for adults, as well as children. It could contain books like Being and Time by Martin Heidegger, the Cantos of Ezra Pound, and Finnegans Wake. I'm sure you can think of many others....

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Bothered by the Bard: Or, What Shakespeare Doesn't Mean to Me (1)

Yesterday I bought a complete edition of the works of William Shakespeare. It was very cheap, and it has no introduction or essays or footnotes. It's not the first complete edition of Shakespeare that I've bought. Some years ago I bought the Riverside Shakespeare, which comes with all the trimmings you could wish for. But (despite its great bulk) it has disappeared somewhere or other.

Shakespeare has been a problem all my life. Even before I had read a single line of him, he loomed large in my imagination. I had the combined benefit and curse (mostly benefit, of course) of having a father who was a wonderful salesman for the experience of life. He hyped everything. I definitely remember him hyping Shakespeare. I remember him explaining to me once that, "Shakespeare was like a sponge-- he took in all of human experience". Or something like that. He definitely used the word "sponge" and I knew exactly what he was conveying.

He also recited poetry to me, and I can remember vividly the time he quoted me the famous words from Macbeth:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

I can remember being powerfully struck by the opening lines and the closing lines. In fact, though I have read a lot of poetry since those days, this soliloquy has always remained with me as a candidate for the most profound and sublime piece of writing ever. I got it.

I can also remember a season of Shakespeare plays shown on BBC television (or perhaps on some other English channel), that was screened some time in my childhood. My father was watching them, though he doesn't remember them now. All I can remember is that they were shown over several days at least, and-- most importantly-- they were played against a background of perfect darkness. (At least, that's how I remember them. I doubt it's an accurate memory) Nothing could have been more guaranteed to fill me with a sense of wonder and awe. The darkness behind and around the actors seemed to make the drama intensely more significant, as well as more timeless and more serious. I can't remember anything at all of the actual content-- in fact, I think I didn't watch them, simply presuming that they would be way above my head. But they added to the mystique of Shakespeare that was already building up in my mind. The works of Shakespeare, I understood, were something definitive.

Another memory; we had a school copy of Hamlet lying around the house, probably from one of my elder brothers' or sisters' years in school. I read the introduction and one particular line-- "Hamlet is a prism through which the reader sees his own self", or something like that-- excited me greatly. I think it was the first time I had come across that prism metaphor, and it was not a cliché to me, but a startling and novel idea. (I don't think I even knew what a prism was, but I guessed from the context.) The idea that literature could be, so to speak, interactive-- that a reader could have a relationship with it, and a writer could be so wise and deep that his words might say different things to different people-- exhilarated me. But I still didn't read Hamlet. Or maybe I started it and put it back down, frightened to plunge into those deeps.

Then, when I was fifteen (which has been my favourite age so far), the time came to study Shakespeare in school. It was The Merchant of Venice. (I remember one girl, when the teacher told us what books we had to acquire, innocently asked who wrote it. I can remember the derision the poor girl provoked with her question, and how my embarrassment on her behalf was mingled with Schadenfreude.)

My feelings on finally studying Shakespeare were exactly those C.S. Lewis describes in Surprised by Joy, when he recounts how his tutor told him that they would begin studying Homer in the morning. "Now for Homer. Golly! The name struck awe into my soul". That was how I felt. "Now for Shakespeare. Golly!"

I think my class-mates must have felt the same, because I remember noticing-- even at the time-- how the first lines of The Merchant of Venice seemed to stick in all our minds:

In sooth, I know not why I am so sad:
It wearies me; you say it wearies you;
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff 'tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn;
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me,
That I have much ado to know myself.

I can find nothing especially memorable in those lines, yet I seem to remember them being rather bandied about that year, and I remember one boy quoting the first line when we eventually came to studying Hamlet, two years later.

We were all keyed up for Shakespeare, and we were already inclined to see him as super-human. When the teacher started to discuss the anti-Semitism in the portrayal of Shylock, and to explain to us the anti-Semitic assumptions of Shakespeare's time, one student said: "But maybe Shakespeare knew people would read the play differently in the future." Like myself, she (or he-- I can't remember who it was) automatically assumed that Shakespeare was above the prejudices of his day. Without ever encountering Ben Jonson's claim that "He was not for an age, but for all time", we had imbibed the idea.

We studied The Merchant of Venice pretty intensively. We watched a video, we memorized passages, we even had an acting company come to perform it in the school. And my nervousness before Shakespeare evaporated somewhat. It was comprehensible! It was entertaining! And the teacher's analysis of it-- all the talk of character and themes and dramatic tension-- made sense to me.

But more than anything else, I found that I really did thrill to much of the poetry. Memorizing Portia's famous "quality of mercy" speech was not at all difficult-- the lines engraved themselves on my memory, and mentally reciting it moved me to tears.

I also remember that, as part of my personal strategy of making school lessons more appealing to myself (a strategy that involved coming up with pleasant imaginative associations), when we studied The Merchant of Venice, I would always imagine the smell of coffee and spices on the air, the kind of aroma that seemed appropriate, not only to the Venice of the play, but to the sensual, worldly richness of Shakespeare's worldview.

But a sourness was already entering my relationship with the Bard of Avon. At this time, I was discovering poetry, and slowly and methodically going through Palgrave's Treasury. I found myself falling in love with the poetry of Yeats, Keats, Shelley, Tennyson, Hardy, Housman, Larkin, Swinburne, and many others.

But some poets, no matter how lauded they were, just didn't appeal to me. Alexander Pope and John Dryden, with their clanging heroic couplets, were two examples. John Donne was another. And then there were Shakespeare's sonnets.

I knew Shakespeare's sonnets were meant to be the summit of Mount Parnassus, but I just couldn't bring myself to admire them. They seemed (dare I even write it?) sickly sweet, laboured, overdone, conventional to a fault. Even the rhyming scheme displeased me; the closing couplet seemed irritatingly trite and pretty.

Thus have I had thee, as a dream doth flatter
In sleep a king, but waking, no such matter.

Ding-a-ling! It seemed infinitely inferior to me to the ending of a Petrarchan sonnet, with its gracefully delayed final rhyme:

Or like stout Cortez, when, with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific; and all his men
Looked at each other, with a wild surmise
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Not that I disliked all of the Shakespeare poems that appeared in the Palgrave Treasury. I loved "Fear no more the heat o'the sun", which seemed entirely different from the courtly, contrived, affected style of the sonnets-- it was earthy, direct, elemental. Qualities which applied even more to "When icicles han by the wall":

When icicles hang by the wall
And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
And Tom bears logs into the hall,
And milk comes frozen home in pail;
When blood is nipt, and ways be foul,
Then nightly sings the staring owl
Tu-whit! tu-whoo! A merry note!
While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

This was the poetry of the workaday world and the soil, of cold and hard and stubborn and ruefully humorous things. It seemed so much fresher and keener to me than the tedious compliments of the sonnets.

If I was less than impressed by the sonnets, that certainly didn't apply to what I considered Shakespeare's real poetry-- that is, his matchless soliloquies. Here I had no problem at all echoing the applause of the ages. It seemed to me that, once Shakespeare went from rhyme to blank iambic pentameter, he soared into heights almost too dizzy to bear.

I remember the first time I came across Prospero's great speech from The Tempest-- I was seventeen years old, I was spending the first ten pounds I had earned in my life (for cleaning a shed), and I was standing in the second-hand basement of a bookshop and reading my planned purchase, The Library of World Poetry. And my soul melted in bliss at the lines:

The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

It occurs to me now, right now, that the reason I loved the great soliloquies is because nearly all of them are making a philosophical point-- they are great thoughts, expressed more magnificently there than anywhere else. And not only are they great thoughts, but they are great thoughts on the deepest and most consequential themes in human life. The "tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow" speech expresses the idea of the absurd, of nihilism, much better than any existentialist writer ever did. Prospero's "we are such stuff as dreams are made on" speech expressed an idea that has always haunted humankind, and that occurs independently to most of us in childhood-- much the same idea that is often labelled the "brain in a vat" or "evil demon" theory, and that in the twenty-first century became rebranded as the "Matrix" theory-- the theory that we are simply figments of somebody's imagination, that this world that seems so sturdy may be simply a computer programme or an idea in the mind of God. And this isn't just an idle fancy-- everybody at some time really feels that the world is as airy and as fleeting as a dream, even if we don't seriously believe it's a hallucination.

As for Hamlet's great "to be or not to be" speech, this deserved its pride of place because it tackled the prime existential question, the question that transcends every circumstance of history or fortune or personality: why should we go on living? Why should existence itself continue? You could hardly get more primal than that.

Jacques's "All the world's a stage" speech from As You Like It takes up another theme of universal and grand human relevance, the theme of transcience. I remember a substitute English teacher-- one I had an enormous crush on-- writing that single word, Transcience, in chalk on the blackboard during one English lesson. This was when school was hastening to its end, and I was feeling sick at the onrush of the unknown future. I remember thinking that, even when the word "transience" was written in white chalk on a blackboard, I still couldn't really grasp it. I knew school was ending and that youth was passing away, but I couldn't really believe it or appreciate it. I stared at the word as at something alien and dreadful.

The amazing thing about the "All the world's a stage speech"-- just like the "unto every thing there is a season" passage from Ecclesiastes-- is the strange and counter-intuitive comfort that it instils in the reader. Why should a speech that ends in one of the bleakest and most brutal lines imaginable, the line describing extreme old age--

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything--

Fill us with a strange serenity? I think it might be because of its sheer matter-of-factness. When we read it, we seem to be looking down on human existence from such a lofty height that even our own impending decrepitude is not distressing. We feel equal to reality.

Then there is the "course of true love never did run smooth" speech from A Midsummer Night's Dream, which captures a sentiment that anyone with a drop of red blood has felt poignantly at one time or another.

(It's true that some of Shakespeare's great soliloquies don't share this trait of universality. King Henry's great speech before Agincourt may be the most eloquent expression of the thirst for military glory ever, but military glory is a passion that animates relatively few of us. Mark Antony's defence of Julius Caesar-- the "Friends, Romans and countrymen" speech-- seems very much tied to the circumstances of the story. But I think my observation is true of most of Shakespeare's celebrated speeches.)

When I was seventeen, in my penultimate year in school, we took on Hamlet-- and this really felt like going into the deep end of the pool, like the stabilisers were off the bicycle. I even remember how the grey-blue, gun-metal colour of my edition seemed appropriate to the dark, adult, no-holds-barred atmosphere of the play. We weren't kids any more, and we were ready for Hamlet.

I remember that there was a meningitis outbreak in Dublin that year, and we heard about real deaths-- real deaths of people our own age, people who were on the brink of adulthood just like we were. I remember listening to my class-mates talking about this before an English class and feeling (without thinking of it consciously in these terms) that it was strangely consonant with the spirit that Hamlet had dispersed through the class-room-- the sensation that we had come face-to-face with ultimate things, with death and sex and adulthood and the fabric of reality. And, of course, with Hamlet.

But I have already written more than I had expected to, and I have only made a start on describing my troubled relationship with the Swan of Avon. The rest will have to wait for another post; soon, I hope.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

On A Box of Christmas Decorations, Seen in Summer

In the corner of the cupboard lies
A cardboard box of Christmas things.
Huddled as not to scandalize
The summer time, it hides its joys
Until the carol singer sings.

How sad, how sweetly sad it seems!
How far away seems Christmas now!
These trinkets are an old man’s dreams
Of boyhood, or a boy’s glimpsed gleams
Of what his future might allow.

What is so achingly, shyly tender
As the dark vigil these baubles keep?
Sad as the melting snow’s surrender
Or the submission a child’s eyes render
To the triumphant tyrant, sleep.

It seems like a legend, an idle story
That ever there was a Christmas Day.
These tinsel treaures that glitter before me;
The thought of them raised again in glory
Seems so impossibly far away.

Monday, May 27, 2013

A Review of Redeeming the Dial by Tona J. Hangen

Redeeming the Dial: Radio, Religion and Popular Culture in America
Tona J. Hangen
The University of North Carolina Press

Academic writers rarely succeed in writing dispassionately about religious fundamentalism, especially (gulp) American religious fundamentalism. Your average sociologist, political philosopher, professor of English, or (especially) lecturer in media studies tends to regard the Religious Right with a kind of horrified fascination, somewhat akin to children turning the carcass of some dead mouse or bird with a stick.

How refreshing, then, to read Redeeming the Dial, which traces the story of Christian evangelical radio preachers from the dawn of the technology to the beginning of the Billy Graham era. Tona Hangen describes the pioneers of the genre, not only without passing judgement upon their beliefs, but also with sympathy for their human struggles and aspirations.

I spotted this book in Book Worms, a little bookshop in Middle Abbey Street, Dublin. Like all good bookshops, it has a character all of its own. It boasts several shelves full of military history DVDs, a corner filled with incense sticks and New Age totems and tarot cards, lots of showbiz gossip books, and a goodly amount of highbrow literary and cultural works. (Interestingly, and incidentally, it also has a sign forbidding mobile phone use-- something strangely rare in bookshops.) I came across Redeeming the Dial amidst books about Hollywood stars and rock music, and I resisted buying it two evenings in a row before finally succumbing to temptation on the third evening. I was glad that I did.

I love the passage with which the book opens, and I think it perfectly captures the fascination-- even the poetry-- of the book's subject matter:

Imagine a wind-scoured farmhouse and beside it a small barn, huddled together under an ashen gray Montana sky. It is 21 January, the dead of winter, so cold that a widow woman will not venture out for anything but to milk her cows-- and even then, not too early, not until long after daybreak. She is sixty-seven years old, farming alone, tending her herd with stiffening hands that have known hard times...Inside the barn, the air is a little warmer; the cows breathe by snorting clouds of vapour, which hang in the air. The woman sings and prays as she milks, listening to a radio set on a shelf amongst the pails and coils of baling wire. She sings a familiar gospel song, adding her voice to the rippling chords of a piano and a jubilant-sounding choir in sunny Long Beach, California, thousands of miles away. They cannot hear her, of course, yet she sings. Only the cows hear; the cows, and God.

I loved this passage for several reasons. First, because I think that every book whatsoever should begin with a flourish. Scholarly works, however, seem to almost make a point of avoiding this. (My personal "favourite" opening line of academese is from Male Masochism by Carole Singer: "In the wake of Michel Foucault's discussions of the construction of sexualities, much important work has been done in recent literary theory to historicize theory's primarily classic psychoanalytic, and thus synchronic, vision of textual representation of gender difference and, relatedly, heterosexuality and homosexuality." Snappy.)

Secondly, I loved this passage because it captures the magic of radio itself-- its ghostly, intimate, disembodied, transporting enchantment. As this book explains, fundamentalist evangelists were able to make use of this intimacy to make their preaching seem, not the mass media message that it was, but a kind of fireside chat between the preacher and the listener. Listeners were made to feel like they were participating in a cosy chapel service, even when the show was being broadcast from a theatre in front of an audience of hundreds.

Finally, I loved this passage for the idyll of rural American piety that it evokes. Here in crowded, suburban, jaded Europe, I think pretty much everybody-- even the most ardent secularist-- harbours a poetic vision of a vast, spacious, corn-fed, Bible-thumping, God-fearing American heartland, swarming with old ladies in front porch rocking chairs and Norman Rockwell families saying grace around the dinner table. I remember, when The Passion of The Christ was released, how eagerly the media and the general public lingered over stories of churches block-buying tickets to screenings of the controversial film. Everybody--- left and right and all the way in between-- seemed strangely satisfied that Mel Gibson's movie had proved such an industry-shocking success. God was in the Bible Belt and all was right with the world-- or wrong with the world, if you were a secular liberal. But still, wrong in a comfortable and reassuring kind of way.

However, Christian fundamentalism in America has not always had an easy time of it, and Redeeming the Dial describes the lean and anxious years that fundamentalism endured between the two World Wars, and indeed during the Second World War, before the triumphant rise of Billy Graham and the post-war boom of conservative Christianity. This revival, Hangen shows, did not come out of the blue but was the fruit of many years of foundation-laying-- much of it by radio evangelists, whose fund-raising appeals helped to found the colleges, seminaries and publications that were instrumental in bringing about the eventual revival, when it came. This might be a salutary tale for orthodox Catholics in Ireland today!

Although it is hard to imagine now-- given the culture war that rages in America, and the popularity of polemical media like Fox News and talk radio-- the early days of American radio were marked by a studious effort to avoid controversy. That religious broadcasting was a public good was generally accepted-- so much so that radio stations granted free air-time to religious organizations. Significantly, though, this "sustaining time" was only granted to mainstream Protestant, Catholic and Jewish voices. Fundamentalists and evangelicals-- deemed to be too controversial, dogmatic and divisive-- were more or less confined to the commercial airwaves. This generally led to them buying airtime, which they funded through direct appeals to their listeners for donations.

And the donations poured in. Redeeming the Dial is not just the story of pioneering figures in American religious broadcasting, but-- just as much, perhaps-- the story of the very ordinary, often impoverished, listeners who kept the show running with their widow's mites. Hangen reproduces many of the fan letters that accompanied these donations (in fact, the letters were often an important feature of the shows themselves). Some of them are so poignant that they moved me to tears: "Like so many others" one letter reads, "the flood took the crop on our small farm, and as it is the only form of income I have, won't have a tithe much longer, so I am sending you this small offering of what I have on hands."

It is touching, too, to read just how much the broadcasts meant to many of the listeners. A lonely widower in Montana wrote: "I walk back and forth from one window to the other. I know no one is ever coming but out of nervissness I look just the same. In the forenoon it is not quite so bad as I can listen to all the Sermons over the Radio."

The book introduces us to a colourful cast of radio preachers, nearly all of them trail-blazing mavericks who felt called to take God's word to the airwaves, and found their own ways of doing so. Catholics will not enjoy reading about Father Charles Coughlin, the fiery Catholic priest who started out with a legitimate message of economic justice but who eventually descended to anti-Semitism and fascism. At one point he drew ten million listeners, but eventually the hierarchy condemned him, and his radio career had ended by 1942. It was Father Coughlin's polemics, to a great extent, that led broadcasters to view religious programming with such caution in this period, and to favour non-controversial material.

The torch then passed to Protestant fundamentalists; the emotional Paul Rader, the glamorous Sister Aimee Semple McPherson (a larger-than-life figure who I had never heard of before), and the much more sober and appealing Charles Fuller, who (along with his wife Grace) created the famous Old-Fashioned Revival Hour show.

Hangen's description of Fuller's preaching style is interesting, given the stereotype of fundamentalist media evangelists: "He spoke simply, without flowery language or much sentimentality. He addressed the listeners directly, calling them "Beloved" or "Fellow strangers and pilgrims"; "Notice this verse", he would say, or "Will you pray with me?". His sermon themes stayed narrowly rather focused around the necessity of salvation and of the individual sinner's responsibility to accept the gospel of Jesus-- although he spoke little of hell and its horrors. Instead he tended to emphasize God's mercies, blessings on the righteous, and promises that their regenerated lives would buoy men and women up to endure their everyday lives."

All of these figures attained enormous success, and drew enormous amounts of donations. But the survival of fudamentalist preaching on radio remained precarious, always vulnerable to shifts in network policy, especially when it came to the soliciting of donations on air. There were continual tussles between mainline religious denominations (Lutherans, Calvinists, Catholic, and Jewish) and fundamentalist sects over religious broadcasting regulations.

At one point, an atheist even got in on the act-- in 1946, a San Francisco radio station gave Robert Scott a half-hour to broadcast his anti-theistic arguments. This was enormously controversial, becoming a cause celebre-- seventy-five per cent of the correspondence the station received was critical of the decision-- and Scott never broadcast again. ("It has always been regarded as contrary to public interest that atheism be promoted", one evangelical leader claimed. America was still not ready for the likes of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, it seems.)

I think the lesson of Redeeming the Dial is that nothing is pre-ordained, when it comes to the place of religion in modern society. Modern technology, often seen as a threat to religious faith, was used effectively to propagate it by skilled and visionary preachers. Religious conservatism, apparently on the wane in inter-war America, made an exuberant come-back after years in the wilderness. The exclusion of fundamentalists from public service broadcasting time, apparently a disadvantage, may well have motivated them to make a better and more aggressive use of the airwaves. I think this a book from which orthodox religious believers can take great heart.

I Love This Prose Passage from W.B. Yeats

"Then in 1900 everybody got down off his stilts; henceforth nobody drank absinthe with his black coffee; nobody went mad; nobody committed suicide; nobody joined the Catholic church; or if they did I have forgotten."

From his introduction to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse.

Three Cheers for Feminism

A feminist group in the UK is threatening to sue newsagents and supermarkets who display smutty magazine covers on their shelves for sexual harrassment against staff. I wish them all success.

I have no "freedom of speech" problems with this at all. Freedom of speech is there to protect the serious exchange of ideas, not blatant smut.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

This is a Nice Site

Pray the Holy Rosary online with other people. There is a recorded video you pray along with (either showing images of the Holy Land or people praying the rosary in church), and the best thing is that there is a counter showing you how many other people are online praying it with you.

Just Finished Seeing The Great Gatsby Movie (Spoiler Alert)...

...I read the book in my late teens but it didn't make much of an impression on me; in fact, I barely remembered the plot beyond the general outlines, so the details were all new to me.

However, one thing I did remember very vividly was the extremely poetic passage with which the book ends, and which I've always regarded as one of the most lyrical flights of prose poetry ever. These words especially:

And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old Island that flowered once for Dutch eyes—- a fresh green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

Since the whole story is narrated in voiceover by Tobey Maguire's character, the stockbroker and would-be writer Nick, who is also the first-person narrator of the novel, I was looking forward to hearing those words at the close of the movie.

But, to my bafflement, they were left out!

The final lines of the passage were included, and lingered over, but the most poetic part was just dropped. Bizarre.

It was a pretty good movie, though.

My Letter in the Irish Times

I had a letter in The Irish Times today. It was in response to this letter:

Sir, – Midwest Radio is to broadcast a special Mass for good weather (Home News, May 22nd). Are you really telling us that there are people in this country who believe that seeking divine intervention will result in an improvement in their economic situation? That there is a God who believes in providing financial assistance to those who ask her nicely? That She is willing to consider providing such aid selectively, and thereby to give preference to the farming community in Ballyhaunis over say, farmers in drought torn parts of Africa or indeed investors in bankrupt banks?

You also report that there is an appeal for a large attendance at the Mass. Do the promoters also believe there will be some sort of correlation between the attendance level and the scale of the economic assistance that will be delivered?

April 1st has gone. Please let us have some real news. – Yours, etc,


Howth Road, Howth, Dublin 13.

Mine was as follows (I reproduce it along with a typo that was not picked up-- "word" instead of "world" in the second last line. Tsk, Tsk, sub-editor!)

Sir, – It’s fascinating to see how powerful the animus against religion has become in this country. Gerry Moloney (May 24th) is agitated simply because The Irish Times carries a report that Midwest Radio is broadcasting a special Mass for good weather. One would presume that, even for those who do not believe in petitionary prayer – as I do, despite Mr Moloney’s incredulity that such people can exist – this would be a rather harmless and well-intentioned activity. Could secular intolerance reach any more absurd levels?

As for the various objections Mr Moloney makes to the validity of petitionary prayer, all that can be said is that those who wish to make God a performing monkey or a divine slot-machine have a pretty banal conception of the Deity. In any case, if the weather were to take a sudden turn for the better immediately after the Mass, you can be sure that Mr Moloney and those of a similar mind would dismiss it as a coincidence.

Personally speaking, I pray because the evidence of a benevolent Providence in our world seems overwhelming to me, and because (more specifically) the historical and other evidences for Christianity are so compelling. I am not keeping a score-card on God’s “performance” in answering my prayers. Besides, since people can (and do) argue endlessly about the exact causes behind pretty much everything that happens in the word, ruling out divine intervention seems arrogant in the extreme. – Yours, etc,



Sillogue Gardens,


Dublin 11.

I took up this matter because it seems like an important one to me. The challenge of sceptics regarding petitionary prayer seems to me a legitimate one and one that requires a response.

What I find funny is that the debate between believers and sceptics is often conducted at a high-flown, intellectual level that seems to me far less important than the more simple, blunt challenges. Even before I started to practice my faith, I could never see any difficulty at all in reconciling Christian faith with the theory of human evolution-- in fact, even the word "reconcile" seemed unnecessary as there was no conflict. The Gallileo case or the Spanish Inquisition seemed to me entirely irrelevant to the question of whether Christianity was true or false. Even the much-heralded "problem of evil", about which so much ink has been spilled and so much breath spent, always seemed like a non-problem to me. It seems to me painfully obvious that God could have very good reasons for permitting evil in the world, that right now we see through a glass darkly and we do not see the whole picture.

But the blunt challenges of the village atheist seem far more potent; challenges like the challenge of petitionary prayer, or the question of why demonic possession seemed rife in the environment Christ lived in, but doesn't seem very evident today. And I think these are matters which Christian apologists should shrug not off so casually.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

More Prayers Please

Under a lot of pressure right now, friends-- and not the fun kind. A lot of it of my own making, too. I appreciate all your prayers in the past and I would be grateful of any going now. Be assured I keep you in my prayers, too. Thank you.

Monday, May 20, 2013

This was Too Good to Last

I've been feeling nostalgic about the comic-buying days of my childhood and early teens recently. Every Thursday, I would buy Eagle comic (war and science-fiction and fantasy) and The Transformers (Optimus Prime and company). I would buy them while out shopping with my mother and I would actually read them while walking around the supermarket.

I very vaguely remember Scream!, a British comic devoted to horror which ran for only fifteen issues in 1984. Then it ceased publication, and was absorbed by The Eagle. Nobody knows why it was cancelled, though some think it might have been just too gruesome for kids-- there was quite a lot of controversy about it, and this was the era of the "video nasty" panic and of Mary Whitehouse.

Now, I am a belated admirer of Mary Whitehouse, who I think must have been very courageous and who was pilloried by the liberal intelligentsia and "alternative" (i.e., unfunny) comedians-- a good enough reason to admire anybody, methinks. (Readers from America and elsewhere might not know who she was-- she was a crusading housewife who led a campaign to "clean up television" in the eighties.) I've even flicked through her autobiography.

But I do think it's a pity Scream! fell victim to this reaction. (If it did, that is; it might simply have not sold very well. There is a lot of speculation on the internet on this subject, which makes me wonder why nobody ever just asked the publishers. Come on, it was 1984, not 1884). I think the ghoulishness of horror-- vampires and skeletons and ghosts and zombies all the rest-- are an entirely healthy and natural part of childhood, and not at all of the same order as graphic violence or explicit sex or drug references.

Like the lady on the billboard in Philip Larkin's wonderful poem "Sunny Prestatyn", Scream! was too good for this life.

But fear not, you can read the whole thing on this website, for free! I just read a few stories and they were pretty good-- but only if you can remember what it was like to be thirteen (and I pity you if you can't).

(So why should readers of a blog by an Irish Catholic layman be expected to be interested in a British horror comic from 1984? Oh, well. I just go for it at this stage-- I'm often surprised by what does interest people who come to this blog.)

Lines Written in Frustration

Curses on him who delays a reply to an urgent email
Make his hair all fall out (make her hairy all over, if female);
Let him in nightmares be chased by some villain straight out of a crime mag
While every one of his steps is slowed with a five second timelag;
And may the worst day of his life, this scrofulous scoundrel who ducks such an onus,
Pass by with a glacial—a ghastly—- a geological slowness.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Intellect and Christian Evangelization

Dr William Lane Craig, the prominent American philosopher of religion, explains the importance of the one to the other.

It's interesting that at one point he says that evangelization in Europe is "immeasurably" more difficult than in America, as Europe has become so hostile to the gospel. He should know, as he spent thirteen years in Europe and spoke in many universities here.

I think the importance of this subject simply cannot be exaggerated. Christianity is essentially an evangelistic religion; but now more than ever, in Europe especially, evangelism is imperative.

And an intellectual basis for Christianity is essential for evangelization, since appeals to emotion, aesthetics, social cohesion, self-fulfilment, or nostalgia simply isn't going to cut it. (Of course, there is a place for all those things, as well. If God made man to find his ultimate happiness in Himself, than it stands to reason that religion would "tick all our boxes", so to speak. But they need to be accompanied by some intellectual rigour.)

Dr. Craig is an appealingly avuncular figure, and I especially like the cosy sweater he is wearing in this video. The Chrismas tree lights in the background add to this sense of cosiness.

Is C.S. Lewis Better than Chesterton?

I was watching a video of a lecture given by the Church of England apologist Alister McGrath to promote his new biography of C.S. Lewis. Towards the end of the video, McGrath answers a question from an audience member about the comparison between Chesterton and Lewis.

I found myself quite surprised and indignant at his response (it can be found about fifty minutes and thirty seconds into the video):

Lewis frequently emphasized how much he owed to G.K. Chesterton, especially his book The Everlasting Man. And, indeed, I would personally say that I’m sure Chesterton’s apologetic writings were a inspiration to Lewis. The real danger, I think, is, if you’ve read Lewis and then read G.K. Chesterton’s book, for example Orthodoxy or The Everlasting Man, you kind of feel you’re turning to something that’s not quite as good, and the real problem is that Chesterton actually is very good, it’s just that Lewis is better [audience laughs], and so that inevitably, in a way, we’ve kind of devalued Chesterton as a result, but Chesterton was very important for Lewis.

I find it hard to believe anyone would come to this conclusion. I love Lewis, and I love Chesterton, but Chesterton seems to me to be easily the more important talent and the deeper thinker of the two. For one thing, Chesterton defended and proclaimed Christianity on so many more fronts than Lewis did. Lewis made several important philosophical arguments, including the argument from reason-- that is, that a thoroughgoing naturalism can't explain how the conclusions of rational thought can be defended in the first place, since rational thought must simply a physical process like everything else. (The argument was not original to Lewis, nor did he pretend that it was. Chesterton had made the same argument himself, though he never developed it as fully.) Lewis also made important arguments from the field of textual analysis, which was his expertise. I myself am very struck by his argument that the gospels simply don't read like myth or legend-- that the Evangelists seem to have pre-empted novelistic writing by many centuries, with their use of incidental detail and matter-of-fact reportage.

But Chesterton did so much more. Chesterton's defence of Christianity takes in literary criticism, social comment, history, folklore, humour, politics, sociology, mythology, psychology, and pretty much every other field you can think of. He was so much more prolific than Lewis, writing his weekly Illustrated London News column alone for forty years, and even when he was not explicitly writing about religion, the link between his spiritual beliefs and any given argument he is making is always fairly obvious. Chesterton well and truly defended his claim that "nothing can be irrelevant to the proposition that Christianity is true".

Also, though Lewis could certainly be funny, Chesterton is much funnier.

It is true that Lewis was the more careful and analytical writer, and that his clinical prose can sometimes make Chesterton seem (by comparison) sloppy and slapdash. That is a point in his favour. But if Chesterton was sometimes careless, it was because he could afford to be. He was simply brimming over with ideas, inspiration and insight. In depth and breadth and brilliance, I think he outshines Lewis as the sun outshines the moon. Probably Lewis would have agreed.

P.S. Twice today, while reading about C.S. Lewis on the internet, I've come across the claim that Lewis became an atheist as a result of the carnage he witnessed in World War One. One of these claims was during this teaser trailer for a planned film about Lewis's conversion. (Unfortunately, the website to which the trailer directs the viewer is now "suspended". But there was a real studio behind the venture, since there are several articles about the project on the internet. I hope the idea hasn't been scrapped.)

But I wonder how they could make such a mistake? Lewis, of course, was an atheist before World War One, and also after it. He lost his faith in his teens and didn't regain it until he was thirty-two. The carnage of the trenches neither made him an atheist nor a believer. It devalues both his atheism and his conversion to attribute either to an emotional reaction.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

A Gable Wall

Nothing is more beautiful than a gable wall.
For all the whirling splendour of a waterfall
Or a kaleidoscope, or dust motes dancing in air,
There is a splendour, too, in the sublimely bare;
The chastely, simply, humbly, gloriously bare.

What lies behind a gable wall? Life lies behind;
Life happening over and over and over, time out of mind;
Too many tales for the telling, in kitchen and bedroom and hall.
Oh somehow, I cannot say how, I hear life's jubilant call
Never more clearly than when I look at a gable wall.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Another Wonderful Video by Father Robert Barron

Here, he discusses how modern culture finds it hard to "hear" the Catholic Church because modern culture has discarded the idea of formal and final causes.

Perhaps I shouldn't say this, but I think there are an awful lot of bad Catholic apologetics and bad Catholic commentary out there. Walk into Veritas books in Abbey Street and take any book from the shelf; most likely even a glance at the blurb will tell you that it's full of platitudes.

Father Barron is one of those commentators who avoids platitudes, and who strikes at the heart of a topic. Here, he addresses an important philosophical question that has profound implications on how Catholics (and their secular critics) view such matters as sex, the family, freedom, and human life-- and a lot more besides.

Dialogue of Faith and Doubt Part One

FAITH: Sometimes I am filled with delight at the very existence of Christianity.

Let me put it this way. I can't imagine a situation where the universe didn't exist; I can conceptualize it, but I can't imagine it. But given that something does exist-- that the universe exists, along with the world, and life itself-- it seems to me all-too-imaginable that ultimate reality-- the bottom layer of existence, as it were-- would have been something deadly dull. In fact, it is something deadly dull for scientific materialists, for all their vapid rhetoric about wonder and awe. (Any wonder and awe a scientific materialist feels towards the universe must, by his own logic, simply be a quirk of brain chemistry; boredom and disgust would be equally legitimate reactions. It seems to me to be strangely inconsistent to accept the existence of the universe as a simple fact, requiring no further explanation, and yet to feel "wonder" towards it.)

But Christians believe that Christianity is the ultimate truth about everything. And Christianity is wildly exciting and romantic and beautiful. I honestly can't imagine a better way for Providence to have arranged matters. The history of Christianity is the ultimate ripping yarn! The apostles, filled with the fire of Pentecost, going forth into the world as lambs amongst wolves; the courage in persecution of the early Christians; the stories of missionaries, martyrs and saints, of miracles and visions and conversions; all are utterly brimming over with drama and incident and passion and colour.

I realize you could say the same thing about any other narrative thread in human history. The history of socialism, the history of feminism, the saga of the British Empire, even the development of science and technology all have their own human interest, their own saints and martyrs and Scripture (if you will). For instance, the story of the mathematician Sir William Rowan Hamilton carving the formula for quaternions (whatever they are) on the side of Broom Bridge in Cabra, Dublin, is rather similiar (insofar as it features a sudden flash of inspiration) to the story of the St. Paul's experience on the road to Damascus, or the moment where St. Augustine heard a child's voice say "Take and read", and, opening the Bible at random, came on a verse that made his vocation clear to him.

However, there seems to me a qualitative difference between the story of the mathematician and the two other stories. The detail of the formula carved on the bridge is incidental to the mathematical breakthrough-- it is mere window-dressing. It wouldn't need to be mentioned in a history of mathematical thought. In the same way, the trial of Socrates have to be mentioned in a history of philosophy. And I think this point applies in general. Most of the ways of looking at the world and at human society-- economic, evolutionary, Marxist, anthropological, and so forth-- are, when it comes down to it, impersonal. But the Christian way of looking at the world is irreducibly personal. Christ was not simply a man or a prophet who was vouchsafed the definitive truth about reality. He himself is the way, the truth and the life. The saints were not just a sort of moral or spiritual Nobel Prize winners. We are encouraged to have a personal devotion to them, too.

This essentially personal nature of Christianity-- which, to a believing Christian, means that reality itself is essentially personal-- is only one of the reasons why Christianity seems such a gift to me. Along with that there is the profound sense of rootedness, of historical continuity. There is a sense of communion with Christians throughout the world. There is the refeshment and exultation we can take, especially in this utilitarian modern age, in the ritual and symbolism and poetry of the Church's life. And so on.

All of this-- this almost incredulous delight in the gift of our Christian faith-- makes the act of faith itself a kind of grateful tribute. We are happy to face the derision and hostility and challenges of the non-Christian world. Faith gives us something to do. We are like the young man who is desperately in love and dreams about saving his beloved from a fire, or fighting a duel for her honour. We are like the patriot who burns to stand true to his country in its hour of greatest trial. We accept that "we walk by faith, and not by sight", but we take pleasure in this, because it gives us the honour and joy of saying "Yes" to God. We feel that the most precious gift God could give us was leaving room for faith, by refusing to coerce our intellect into belief.

DOUBT: Very well said, and very moving. This is indeed the kind of thought to lift the heart on a bright summer's day, or a moonlit night, when you are well-fed and in good health and you have no very pressing anxieties.

It is easy to feel like this when you are kneeling in church, surrounded by reverential whispers and earnest faces. It is easy to feel like this in conversation with fellow Christians, or even with respectful agnostics, when the very name "Christ" is spoken with such halting earnestness. It is even easy to feel this when you are arguing with atheists, or enemies of Christianity. Christianity seems on the agenda at moments like that. It is like the silent question that hovers over everything.

But-- do you remember that depressing night you spent in that ugly, budget hotel? Do you remember when you settled down to your prayers, and decided to switch the light out, since the room was so ugly it would be difficult to pray while looking at it? Do you remember how utterly dark, how utterly silent it seemed? How your own mind seemed like a disembodied consciousness floating in the depths of space, and all of the life and laughter and controversy and discussion of the human race seemed to have simply flickered out of existence?

Do you remember how your prayers seemed to drop into an abyss, mere words and ideas, like the piteous toys of centuries-dead children dug up by some archaeologist?

Does your faith not shrivel in places where nobody is even thinking or talking about God or Christ or Christianity, for good or ill? Standing beside a motorway and looking at car after car after car hurtling by? Walking through an industrial estate and shuddering at the sheer size of those enormous factories and warehouses? Navigating the city centre on a Saturday night, looking at all the revellers and lost souls and drunkards wandering past the shuttered shop fronts, the remorseless and unflickering light of the street lamps making the scene all too solid and real? Or face to face with the vastness of nature, perhaps staring out into the sea and feeling a vague dread at the thought of all those miles upon miles upon miles of water? In moments like that, can you really believe that Christ is the answer to the riddle of life? Can you even feel that life is a riddle, and not just a....state?

Doesn't it all boil down to atmospherics, this matter of belief and unbelief? The expression on a face, the timbre of a voice, the mood of a gathering? Isn't religious faith simply like those high spirits that pep talks used to inspire in you, or that a rousing climax to a movie can still inspire in you? Think of all the times in your teens that you felt absolutely sure that you were suffering from some deadly disease, or that all you cared for in the whole world were the smiles of that girl who never noticed you and who you never think about today, or that the meaning of your life depended upon some particular achievement. Isn't religious faith just a case of-- getting worked into a tizzy?

FAITH: That's a good question. Let me think about my answer.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Prayers Please

Please pray for my fianceé Michelle, who is facing into a gruelling ordeal tomorrow.

UPDATE: My heartfelt thanks for your prayers. She is through the ordeal now and it went as well as could be hoped for. Thank the Lord!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The BBC Website Makes a Joke Out Of Hell

The facts are sufficiently solid, but the tone is one of barely-concealed facetiousness.

If you believe there is any chance at all that your immortal soul might not attain the fulfilment it was created for-- the only thing that ultimately matters-- how could you be flippant about it?

Even before I was a believing Christian, I could never enjoy horror stories where somebody's immortal soul was at stake.

"In modern times Christians have become increasingly sceptical about Hell", the article informs us. How much is unsaid in such a simple sentence!

A New Irish Catholic Blog!

There's a new Irish Catholic blog in town! And goodness knows we need all the orthodox voices we can get with all the anti-Catholic venom out there in cyberspace, especially Hibernian cyberspace. (You doubt me? Take a look at,,, or the comments on the online version of The Irish Times.)

Welcome, Cor Jesu Sacratissimum!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Is Christianity a Cult?

In the last week or so, I have been doing some pretty gruelling reading, and not just reading but-- rather more gruellingly-- listening and watching. I became interested-- perhaps morbidly fascinated-- by the story of the People's Temple, the cult who committed mass suicide in 1978, under the influence of their charismatic leader Jim Jones. Nearly a thousand people died, in a purpose-built settlement in Guyana called Jonestown.

One of the most compelling aspects of the Jonestown case is how well it is documented. There is a website, maintained by a university, where transcripts and audio recordings from the cult's archive can be found. And the cult kept very full archives indeed, right up to the end.

I am not including a link to this site, as I would urge readers not to visit it. It's not that it is salacious in itself-- it is perfectly sober and factual, and rather intended to counteract sensationalism than to foster it.

But I actually regret reading and hearing some of the material I encountered on it, which has cast rather a chilling shadow over me in the last week or so.

And it has made me face the question: is all faith a bad idea? Should we run a mile from anybody who claims to possess authoritative knowledge from on high, as the Magisterium of the Catholic Church claims to do? I was not asking myself this question in any rhetorical spirit. I was very shaken by what I learned of Jonestown and what happened there.

It's not that Jonestown was a specifically Christian or even religious tragedy. The Reverend Jim Jones began as a Christian preacher in the mid-fifties, and his group (the People's Temple) were affiliated to a major Protestant denomination, the Disciples of Christ. (It wasn't just this organization that lent legitimacy to the cult. Harvey Milk, the gay activist who has been exalted as a hero figure in recent years, defended Jim Jones in a letter to President Carter. The columnist Herb Caen also wrote sympathetically of the People's Temple.) However, Jones pretty much stopped even pretending to be a Christian towards the end of his life, and the Peoples Temple had embraced Marxist-Leninist principles by the time they moved to Jonestown.

But I think Christians have to honestly face the fact that many of the characteristics of cults seem to be applicable to Christianity.

First off, cults tend to cut their adherents off from friends and families and other ties. Which may put one in mind of Luke 14:26: "If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple."

Secondly, cults tend to demand complete commitments of time and money from their adherents. This may not seem very relevant to Christianity today, but it certainly seems to apply to the primitive Christianity as pictured in the book of Acts. In this regard, I have always found the story of Ananias and Saphira rather troubling:

But a certain man named Ananias, with Saphira his wife, sold a piece of land, And by fraud kept back part of the price of the land, his wife being privy thereunto: and bringing a certain part of it, laid it at the feet of the apostles.

But Peter said: Ananias, why hath Satan tempted thy heart, that thou shouldst lie to the Holy Ghost and by fraud keep part of the price of the land?

Whilst it remained, did it not remain to thee? And after it was sold, was it not in thy power? Why hast thou conceived this thing in thy heart? Thou hast not lied to men, but to God.

And Ananias, hearing these words, fell down and gave up the ghost. And there came great fear upon all that heard it.

But even today, the claims of Christianity are absolute. "For me to live is Christ", said St. Paul. "He must increase, and I must decrease", said St. John the Baptist. "Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it", said our Lord.

Third, cult leaders tend to make grandiose predictions which, when they do not come to pass, are explained away by their followers. Take, for instance, Charles Taze Russell, the founder of the Jehovah's Witness, who claimed that the world would end in 1914. The Jehovah's Witnesses get around this by explaining that the end of the world began in 1914. And there are many other examples from other cults.

This must remind us of what C.S. Lewis described as the most embarrassing verse of the Bible-- Matthew 24:34, in which Christ seems to claim that "this generation" will not pass until he has returned. (This is a complicated topic, and not one I intend to return to in this post-- there are plenty of other Catholic and Christian sites where this apparent problem is discussed, and resolved to my satisfaction-- I am merely mentioning it as part of a prima facie case that Christianity has cult-like characteristics.)

Aside from all that, there is the general fact that Christ repeatedly enjoins us to "doubt no more, but believe". He chides his disciples for their lack of faith. Doesn't this seem just like a cult leader? Shouldn't belief be a rational response to sufficient evidence, not a virtue in itself? In everyday life, aren't we put on guard by someone who keeps repeating "Trust me"?

If that weren't enough, I have to admit that the psychological dynamics of cults seem all too similar to those of mainstream religious believers.

One thing that seems apparent from reading about cults is how much of their appeal comes from a sense of togetherness, of bonding, of belonging. The people in Jonestown were barely given enough to eat, lived in primitive and overcrowded conditions, and were worked to exhaustion-- and yet many of them described their community as a paradise, and were willing to die rather than see it broken up.

I can testify that this sense of bonding, of belonging, of self-transcendance, is definitely something I find in Catholicism. It is a source of great joy to me that the liturgy in which I participate, and the prayers I recite, and the Bible that I read, give me a sense of profound togetherness with Catholics all around the globe and all through the centuries. There is even a sense of self-sacrifice and self-abandonment in this; we rejoice to climb out of the ego, and assent to a creed that is not of our own making, to submit to a morality that seems so much more solid and objective than the moral fashions of the day or our own moral intuitions.

Again, cults thrive on the opposition of the world. The more relatives or friends or colleagues seek to persuade the cult member that she is being duped, the more she congratulates herself on her loyalty, and the more she takes the hostility of the wider society as a confirmation of the cult's specialness. Is this not a similar situation to that of Christians, and especially Catholics? Don't we use "the world" as a pejorative term? "Blessed are ye when they shall revile you, and persecute you, and speak all that is evil against you, untruly, for my sake: be glad and rejoice, for your reward is very great in heaven. For so they persecuted the prophets that were before you."

So, having identified all these similarities, why do I remain a Catholic?

First off, I would say that deception itself implies authenticity somewhere. You wouldn't have fake banknotes unless there were real banknotes in circulation. Jim Jones was known as "Dad" by his followers. Does this prove that fatherhood is itself a fraud? Hardly.

The mind is notoriously capable of perceiving patterns that aren't there-- for instance, seeing a face on the moon, or finding hidden messages that Paul McCartney is dead in the cover of a Beatles album. But this capacity only exists because the mind is built to perceive patterns that are actually there. The religious urge is rooted deep in the human soul. It can be abused and perverted by cults (and by ideologues). But how does this prove that the religious urge is evil in itself, or has no proper fulfilment?

Secondly, I would posit as the biggest difference between the Catholic Church and a cult that the Catholic Church is constrained by its own traditions. The Pope cannot wake up in the morning and decide that abortion is OK, or that lying is permissible in a good cause, or that plural marriage is to be instituted. The teaching of the Church has developed painstakingly over centuries, and the Church has never contradicted its own defined doctrines. Making an act of faith in the Catholic Church is not writing a blank cheque, or signing away your conscience, because you can be sure that there are some things the Church will never teach or demand-- for instance, that evil should be done in order to bring about a greater good. (This is why the concept of heresy, which is so often portrayed as being rather sinister and manipulative, is actually a very important safeguard.)

(I hope I may not be misunderstood in making this point. I am not saying that the Church's dogmas and doctrine are to be valued as a kind of protection for Church members from their own leaders, who would otherwise abuse their power. I don't actually believe they would. But I do believe that, for someone who is trying to discern a clear difference between the Catholic Church and cults, the existence of a definite body of dogma which cannot be contradicted should be reassuring.)

Third, the difference between the Church and suicidal cults could not be greater. The Church, of course, denounces suicide as a mortal sin. Not only that, but the Church has consistently insisted that martyrdom, while it is is noble and even necessary in certain circumstances, is never to be sought for its own sake. Some heretical sects, such as the Donatists of the fourth and fifth centuries, did believe that martyrdom should be actively pursued. The Cathars, everybody's favourite heretics, were also rather keen on the notion of suicide, believing as they did that all matter had been created by Satan.

I think, too, that the profundity and fertility of the Church's teaching is a clear sign that it is not, to be blunt, a scam. Listening to the tape-recorded ramblings of the Reverend Jim Jones, and trying to make sense of his faux-Marxist brand of utopianism, the contrast between such fabrications on one hand, and Christian doctrine on the other, could not be starker. How is it that the apostles, such very ordinary men, could have laid down the basic principles upon which such a magnificent (and complex) edifice of theology, dogma, canon law and doctrine could have been raised, over so many centuries? Was St. John the Evangelist simply lucky when he began his gospel, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word was with God"-- anticipating such intricate metaphysical and Christological debates? Why do the Gospels and the epistles, written by so many different hands, fit together so perfectly? Why did the Popes, down through all the ages, show such a bulldog-like refusal to condone heresy or to water down orthodoxy, even when the matters at hand seemed like the merest wrangling over terms, and even when there were very good worldly reasons to compromise?

The New Testament is a very slim work. And yet all the fabulously intricate teaching of the Catholic Church is contained in embryo within it. Not only that, but I would argue that no doctrine has ever surpassed the Christian doctrine in terms of sublimity, depth and insight into the human condition, to the extent that-- even in our post-Christian age-- writers and philosophers and film-makers and many others find themselves drawing upon it for symbols, vocabulary and categories of thought. How credible is it that a bunch of frauds from Galilee could have inspired all this?

Another argument I would make is that it is very difficult to see the great figures of Catholic history as manipulative power-trippers in the style of Jim Jones, the Reverend Sun Yung Moon, Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, L. Ron Hubbard or all the other self-aggrandising, money-grabbing cult leaders of history. (Is Mormonism a cult? I don't think it's a cult now, but I think it was a cult in the nineteenth century.) St. Paul and St. Peter and St. Polycarp and St. Ignatius of Antioch did not decide to take their congregations with them when they went to their deaths. St. Padre Pio's gifts brought him a life of suffering, mortification and obedience, not power and riches. Saint Bernadette Soubirous lived an obscure life as a cloistered nun. What personal good, in worldly terms, did her visions do her? And the list could be multiplied indefinitely.

When we read about the manipulation and madness of religious cults-- and even not-so-religious cults like the People's Temple-- there is a temptation to recoil from all religious truth claims, to cry "a plague on all your houses", to resolve to take nothing on faith and to only trust what we can see and verify for ourselves. Such an attitude, however, is naive and in the long run impossible. Ultimately, we can't help but placing faith in something, even if it is simply the received wisdom of the society we live in. Not only that, but the great enigma of life lies before us unresolved-- we have simply shrunk back from the precipice, but the precipice is still there. The galaxies above us and the galaxies within us require an answer. Our souls cry out for an eternal home, for an ultimate commitment. Cults are successful because they offer an answer to these questions. They offer satisfaction to our deepest longings. The fact that they are shown to be false does not mean life's most profound questions are unanswerable, or that the human soul's deepest yearnings must go unsatisfied. I believe that there are answers; and I believe that they are to be found in the teaching of the Catholic Church.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Classified Ad in The Irish Catholic this week

Wanted: 4ft tall crucified form of Christ to attach to 8ft high external wooden cross, beside Our Lady's Grotto.

(I'm not making this up.)

The Necessity of Poetry

I have been thinking about poetry recently, and how important it is. I post my own poems on this blog, and I do so without any apology whatsoever. I firmly believe that poetry should be a bigger part of everyday life. I believe that more people should read poetry, recite poetry, and write poetry. I don't think it has to be good poetry.

There are some people-- especially conservatives (or cultural conservatives, anyway)-- who wring their hands at such poetic populism. I'm thinking about critics like Harold Bloom, Allan Bloom and the Irish poet and polymath Anthony Cronin. The general thrust of these objections is that only great poetry is worth bothering about, that if we bother with anything else we are sapping our critical faculties, and probably contributing to the decline of Western Civilization as well.

I don't buy that for a second. Poetry for the people does not mean that Gemma Higgins, age twelve and a half, becomes the equal of W.B. Yeats or Robert Frost, or that her Poem for Pebbles my Pet Bunny is put on a par with Ode to a Nightingale. That's a ridiculous idea.

Rather, I agree whole-heartedly with the famous aphorism of G.K. Chesterton: "If a thing is worth doing, it's worth doing badly." Nobody complains about amateurs tinkling on a piano, painting a watercolour, telling a joke, or making a casserole. Why should poetry be any different?

But I would go even further than that. I would say that the poetry of ordinary people has-- or, at least, can have-- a naive charm that is all its own, and that is even lacking from the sublimities of Tennyson and Keats and Philip Larkin.

Whatever the reason, I have recently found myself hungering for poetry, and just as pleased to read a certain sort of mediocre poetry as I am to read more competent work. (Of course, when I come across a really good poem, I'm pleased to discover it.)

I say "a certain sort of mediocrity" because there are some sins I find unforgiveable, whether it's in a pamphlet by the Ballymacmurphy Writer's Group or in the Collected Works of W.H. Auden or Louis MacNeice. I can't forgive wilful obscurity-- "the starry dynamo in the machinery of night", that kind of thing. Enigma, ambiguity, and elusiveness are all very well, but when an ordinary person has no chance of guessing what the heck the poet is talking about, then I honk the hokum horn.

Another unforgiveable sin is a reliance on choppy, truncated little lines. I mean this kind of thing:

lost in air
with no
compass in dreams
or desire
or disdain
I rush forward
to the uncomprehending
sun, the
blank moon.

This seems like a form of conspicuous consumption to me; a flagrant waste of paper. How can you settle in to a poem like that? It has too much of the hairshirt about it for my taste.

Then there are those poems which seem to eschew any kind of commentary or reflection or explicit human emotion, that strive to be the poetic equivalent of a film camera left running. Stuff like this:

Daybreak in Cardiff.
Mist clings to the unpeopled streets.
A sun that strains to penetrate the clouds.
A seagull squeals, and circles.
A toppled bin outside the cinema etc. etc. etc.

Then there is the poetry that draws entirely on mythology or Renaissance history or literature or Peruvian village life. I just don't think poetry can really come alive unless it draws on the poet's own immediate experience-- especially his or her everyday experience, as opposed to that three month stint volunteering in Africa. I think poetry thrives on the familiar, and its best if it is a familiarity shared by poet and reader.

Last (but certainly not least), I hate and reject poetry that wallows in ennui and superciliousness. My father complains about angst in poetry. I can't really agree with him. I think angst is a perfectly good subject for a poet, and many of the best poets have almost confined themselves to angst. A.E. Housman is a good example. I find nothing at all wrong with a despairing ditty like this one:

The stars have not dealt me the worst they could do:
My pleasures are plenty, my troubles are two.
But oh, my two troubles they reave me of rest,
The brains in my head and the heart in my breast.

Angst is only really the shadow of ardour. An angst-ridden person at least yearns for joy and fulfilment and life. But what can you do with those blasé, over-educated, irony-afflicted poets and writers who are apparently too anaemic and sophisticated to get worked up about anything? It is though they are looking at human life from a great distance, through glazed eyes. Any kind of spontaneous, hearty reaction to anything has long become impossible to them. They have read too many books, had too many lovers, thought their way through too many illusions, and all is vanity and vexation of spirit to them.

As always, it's hard to think of an example when you need one. But these lines by E.E. Cummings perhaps show what I mean (though I acknowledge that Cummings is being satirical here):

"next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims' and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn's early my
country 'tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum

This sort of malady is not confined to prize-winning poets who appear in prestigious magazines. It is a temptation to any fairly clever and well-educated person who puts poetic pen to paper.

So, putting it all together, this is what I look for in a poem. A poem where I know what the poet is talking about, and where the lines cover a decent stretch of the page's width, and that draws on familiar subject-matter, and that is not buried under layers of irony and apathy. After that, I don't really care how bad it is-- within reason. I mean, I find myself unable to relish a verse like this, which is the kind of thing I sometimes come across when I am skimming poetry volumes:

Once a month the fair comes to town
And every girls goes in her brand new gown.
The farmers arrive to sell their crops
And the little kids suck their lollipops

If the author of this (fictional) verse were to read me his poems, I would listen respectfully and think of something nice to say about them. But I'm afraid I would be unable to enjoy them, no matter how many allowances I made. Still, even in this case, I think it is better for him to write poetry than not to write poetry.

I think every moment devoted to poetry is a little victory for the human race. Actually, it's quite a big victory. Poetry rarely finds time and space amongst the more imposing business of life: brainstorming, TV watching, gift-shop visiting, car washing, cooking, cleaning, partying, dinner partying, exercising, eating out, working, working, working, working. There is always something more pressing, something more profitable, something more practical to be doing.

But I think poetry is necessary because it reminds us we are alive. It reminds us that we are humans, that we are spectators of and participants in the primal wonder of existence. There is nothing wrong with being a consumer, or a commuter, or a voter, or a citizen, or a viewer. But we desperately need to be reminded that we are more, infinitely more, than the aggregate of those roles we play.

The wonderful thing about poetry is that its subject matter is everything. It has no agenda, no terms of reference, no brief. The Trojan War can share equal billing with the day, aged four years old, when the poet watched the dust motes dancing in her uncle's loft. Doubts and hesitations and confusions are as welcome as convictions, passions and insights. The King James Bible and a sun holiday brochure can both be source texts. Writing and reading poetry should be like that moment when we finally get out of the airplane seat and gratefully revel in the rediscovered gift of space; space to stretch in, space to move through, space to think in. Except the space we are stretching our limbs in, when it comes to poetry, is all time and space and possibility and imagination.

There is a moment from Star Trek: the Next Generation (yes, I'm a Trekkie) which always sticks in my mind. It is a scene in which Geordi La Forge and Data (the android who wants to be more human) are discussing a poem that Data has written about his pet cat. (One of the things I love about the series is all the laudable, self-improving extra-curricular activities that the crew take part in, such as amateur dramatics and trombone recitals and, indeed, poetry readings. In the supposedly more adult and sophisticated Deep Space Nine, the characters tend to prefer holographic sex as a recreation. You decide which is better.) The fact that a scene like that could occur in a science fiction show struck me as almost a little miracle, and also, a delight.

I remember, too, the time I came across a book in school in which teenagers picked their favourite poems and wrote commentaries upon them. I was amazed. Here were kids talking about their own personal reactions to poems, and they were printed in a book. It just didn't fit into my perceptions of what the world treated as important. One of the kids (a girl!) said that she wrote out her favourite poem on fancy paper, drew a decorative border on it, and put it on her wall. I was flabbergasted.

I think poetry is important because I am a humanist. (Incidentally, how on earth did the word "humanist" come to be equated with "atheist"? I don't see how you can be a humanist without believing in God. I don't know how you can believe that every human being is of infinite value if you believe that man is a cosmic freak, and ultimately no more than the sum of his parts; if you believe that mankind was not intended, but simply a by-product of mindless physical processes.)

I think poetry is important because it reminds us that we have souls.

As a Christian, I think poetry is important because it has God's approval; he gave us the Psalms, along with the other poetic works of the Bible.

I wish poetry was more of a part of everyday life. I wish business meetings opened with a short poem. I wish there were poems at hen parties and bachelor parties (though there may be, for all I know). I wish party political broadcasts included heartfelt sonnets. I wish supermarkets were opened with a ceremonial poem, to be inscribed on a brass plaque at the main entrance. I wish there was poetry (as opposed to jingles) in advertisements. And I'm grateful for the everyday situations where you do find poetry, such as greeting cards and in memoriam ads and school exercises.

I think poetry is important because poetry is so easy to sneer at, so frequently sneered at. All the best things in life are easily sneered at; youthful idealism, starry-eyed romance, eccentricity, wholesomeness, sentimentality. The words "I'd like to read a poem that I wrote" is generally accepted as a signal to duck for cover. I submit that this is a mistake. I think that, if we can find time for car shows and reality TV and murder mysteries, we might spare thirty seconds to listen respectfuly to a fellow human being opening the landscape of their soul to us.

Friday, May 10, 2013


Earlier this month, The Irish Times printed a letter from me which began:

Sir, – It is frustrating to see how the abortion debate is continually sidetracked by irrelevant questions, question-begging, and obfuscatory rhetoric. The rhetoric of “a woman’s right to choose” and “a woman’s control of her own body” obviously begs the question of whether there is a second person’s body and freedom at stake.

Today, there is a letter from a Peter Dunne of Clontarf that begins:

Sir, – Maolsheachlann O Ceallaigh’s assertion (May 3rd) that the abortion debate in Ireland has been “side-tracked by irrelevant questions” such as “a woman’s right to choose” raises an interesting point.

I don't think that's really a fair paraphrase of what I wrote. And it irks me to think that, at breakfast tables and in train carriages all over the nation this morning, Irish Times readers will attach to my (very distinctive) name the impression of a purple-faced, sputtering misogynist.

Oh well.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

A Poem for Michelle

When I look at your face I think
About the flickering flames
Of an open fire on a winter’s night;
Bare branches swaying in a winter’s wind
And clean crisp sheets, and the coolness of a pillow
Against my sleepy head;
All welcoming things, all loved and dreamed-of things
All beckoning and all soul-comforting things.

When I look in your eyes
I think of every colour, every element
I ever yearned to lose myself inside.
The near-unbearably gorgeous coloured wavelets
I saw on a visit to Howth, long long ago
When I was a little boy.
The beautiful aquamarine of swimming pool water
The swirling brownness of Coke, held up to the light,
The sepia fog of long-ago photographs.
None of these things look like your eyes, in truth,
And yet your eyes remind me of them all.

When I listen to your voice, I hear
The hum of voices in some busy place
The sound of life itself; I hear the sound
Of children playing in a playground, and
The whistle of a kettle on the boil.
I hear the crash of waves. I hear the crunch
Of leaves beneath my feet.

When I am close
To you and breathe your scent, joy fills my soul.

When I kiss you
And taste your lips, it tastes like home-made bread
And a cup of tea made by someone who loves you.

When I hold you
It is like lying back in a hot bath
Or wearing a warm coat on a cold day.
Your softness is like darkness to tired eyes,
Like silence to tired ears.

When I see you
It is like seeing a window’s yellow light
Cheerful against the dark of a stormy sky
And knowing that my key fits in the lock
Inside the door that opens on the hall
That leads me to that room of yellow light
And someone there will smile to see my face
And come to sit beside me.

When I see
Your face, what I am looking at is home.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Recommended Reading

Impending nuptials grow ever more impending. Here I am in a suit shop trying on suits. (What's with the crazy hair, you ask? I tend to avoid the barber's for as long as possible, although I usually don't let it go as wild as it did here. It's shorn now. I felt a little like Rod Stewart, putting on suits while my hair was so frazzled.)

I probably won't have much time to blog (yeah, I know I said that a few weeks ago), so I thought I might be excused a little self-indulgence. I'm putting up links to my personal favourite posts from this blog-- the ones I liked writing the most, and in which I discuss the subjects nearest to my heart-- so that people surfing through cyberspace and landing here will have something to keep them chewing, if they so wish, while I'm away.

Here is a popular post in which I wonder why C.S. Lewis never became a Catholic.

Here is a review of an infamous sixties documentary about Ireland called The Rocky Road to Dublin (of course, it blamed most of the country's woes on the Catholic Church).

Here is a post about television that I put some effort into.

Here is a fun poem about why I am a conservative, and how I like old stuff simply because it's old. (Well, I think it's a fun poem, anyway.)

Here is one for Christian Trekkies. I put a lot of work into it.

Here is my own favourite post that I wrote, a hymn of praise to my favourite film of all time, Groundhog Day.

Here is another post I put a lot of effort into, about my fascination with the whole idea of debate.

Here is an account of a pre-Cana course that me and Michelle did last summer.

Why I am not a feminist.

This account of a John Waters talk attracts a fair amount of traffic.

Regarding the commercialization of religious holidays.

I liked this post, even if nobody else did.

I defend clichés.

I enthuse about daily Mass.

I defend organized religion.

I discuss my own difficulties with Christian belief.

Here is my account of how I came to my Catholic faith, from the site Why I'm Catholic.

That lot may while away some idle hours at a computer. If you still have time on your hands, here are some wonderful posts by my favourite philosopher Edward Feser. Here he wonders why liberalism rules the roost in universities, and here he insists on the need for a metaphysical basis for conservatism.

If even that isn't sufficient, well, there's always Snopes.

I'll be back!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

An Ordinariate in Ireland?

Here is an interesting idea....a Fr. O is seeking to stimulate discussion about an ordinariate for Irish Anglicans who wish to enter communion with the Roman Catholic Church, similar to the Walsingham Ordinariate which was established in England quite recently.

His blog can be found here. Have a look!