Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Internet & the Size of the World

If we believe "," the earth has an equatorial circumference of 24,901.55 miles. That gives us 196,888,000 square miles of surface area. Yet every once and a while, more often it seems due to the internet, one comes across a thing that or a person who belongs in some far-away corner of all that space.

My most recent experience of this phenomenon comes via the blog Roma locuta est (note the fun url). It's kept, under his real name, by a perfectly splendid and highly talented fellow I knew (not immensely well, but somewhat) during my time in Ohio. He beautifully sang one-half of the Victimae paschali (the other half being done by the lovable Italian permanent deacon) one Easter when I was in college. One of his daughters, when about two, is reported (I didn't see this myself) to have put a couch arm cover on her head and announced, in response to an inquiry, "I'm not a princess, I'm a nun!" It's a pity he lives in Delaware and not Nashville. And the blog, by the way, is thoroughly enjoyable.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Lies, Untruths, and Historically Unencumbered Examples

Anyone for whom the internet is more than a series of tubes has probably observed, over recent weeks, a widespread smoldering fire over the moral boundaries that surround violations of the eighth commandment. The discussion, on which a veritable whose-who of Catholic American thinkers has weighed, was sparked by the "sting" videos produced by an organization called Live Action at a Planned Parenthood facility. I write here not because I have anything profound to offer to that conversation (that would require that this page have an audience), but rather because I have thoughts that I want to develop myself, and this is the easiest place in which to write them.

Several writers, notably at the Witherspoon Institute, have come out strongly with the opinion that there is no exception to the prohibition on deceptive false utterances. Many of their critics have raised the Nazi-at-the-door scenario and the necessity-of-spies scenario in response. I think the Nazi scenarios are bad examples for this exercise because they carry too much baggage, leading to uncritical assumptions and conclusions.

Thus, for this exercise, we're going to take a situation that engender essentially no preconceptions, at least among Americans: there is a Frenchman, working for the French government, who slips into Sevastapol as a spy during the Crimean War. He carries false papers and is there with the express intent of passing sensitive information to the allied armies. We will assume that the Crimean War was just. Of the following acts undertaken by the spy, which are immoral as violations of the eighth commandment?

  1. The Spy comes ashore furtively.
  2. The Spy wears Russian clothes.
  3. The Spy wears his hair and beard in a Russian fashion.
  4. The Spy carries papers falsified to appear as identification documents issued by the Czar's government.
  5. The Spy carries Russian matchbooks and other personal paraphernalia.
  6. The Spy greets a Russian fisherman in Russian.
  7. The Spy greets a member of the Sevastapol garrison or police in Russian.
  8. The Spy lends a match, from his Russian matchbook, to the policeman.
  9. The Spy, when asked for his name, gives the Russian translation of his name.
  10. The Spy, when asked for his name, gives a false Russian name that bears no relation to his own.
  11. The Spy asks directions from a Russian passerby.
  12. The Spy, when asked, produces his Russian passport.
  13. The Spy, when asked about his background, says that he is from Odessa, that his father is a clockmaker. a) Assume his father is not a clockmaker, and that he was born in Marseilles. b) Assume instead that his father is a clockmaker in Marseilles.
  14. The Spy, when asked about his business, says that he has come to Sevastapol to make arrangements to sell goods to the garrison and ship them across the Black Sea (or insert preferred business).
  15. The Spy observes the dispositions of Sevastapol's defenses.
  16. The Spy communicates his observations to the allied forces by furtive means.
  17. When asked "You're not a French spy, are you?" the Spy replies "No."
  18. When asked "You're not a French spy, are you?" the Spy replies "What a silly thing to say! By the Autocrat of all the Russians himself, I'm shocked to hear such an accusation!"
  19. The Spy, when conversing with a Russian, makes disparaging remarks about Napoleon III, when he personally admires the Emperor.
  20. The Spy attends the Divine Liturgy at an Orthodox church, where he engages in liturgically correct gestures and recites the Nicene Creed without the filioque.
  21. The Spy goes into a tavern, plies a Russian soldier with vodka, and tells him stories of his adventures (which never happened) until the soldier reveals secret military information.
  22. Thy Spy engages in #21, but drinks the Russian into a stupor and then rifles his papers.
  23. The Spy engages in a) #21 and b) 22, but without telling false stories.

I can't think of any other spy activities that involve dishonesty and aren't covered here. Which are lies?

Monday, February 7, 2011


The decline of ecclesiastical art in the Christian west---and the decline of art in the west more generally---is a well-documented, or at least a well-observed, phenomenon. The history of artistic decline, the rush to shatter rules and co-opt artistic renderings for the purpose of expression, can be found elsewhere. I tend not to regard myself as qualified to tell it, and I shall decline to attempt to do so. But it seems, based on simple casual observation, that this decline must be related to a different trend that has arisen recently in ecclesiastical art.

The trend of which I speak here is the practice of writing icons of Western saints. You can find over at the New Liturgical Movement a contributor who writes at great length about his practice of writing icons of Western saints (among other subjects). I will here step out on a limb and unequivocally declare that I do not approve of this practice. I find it wrong-headed, counter-productive, discordant, and just plain odd.

First of all, the practice is wrong-headed. The icon is the principal form of ecclesiastical art in the East. There, it has flourished, developed, and become an integral part of the lives, practices, and belief of generations of Christians. Iconographical art forms certainly existed in the West and influenced the development of Western art forms. But the traditions of Western Christians developed away from icons and into more representational forms of ecclesiastical art (icons are certainly representational when compared to, e.g., abstract art forms, but it is certainly my understanding that an iconographer does not seek to reproduce the image of his subject in the same way that a realist painter does). Whatever the merits of iconography may be, and I do not pretend to deny them those, they simply are not what the Western Church has been using for a great many centuries: they no longer form an organic part of our tradition here. The current attempt to import them is an odd exercise in unnecessary cross culterization. What would we think if the Archbishop of Louisville appeared on Sunday carrying a serpentine Eastern crozier? more dramatically, what would a Byzantine congregation think if their pastor replaced all the icons in their church with statues? The West and the East have their own traditions and their own art forms. Both produce beautiful works suited to the cultures, history, and sensibilities of their respective societies. Neither has any need of being colonized in this sort of way by the other.

Second, the practice is counter-productive. The Church in America could furnish a large European nation with its monstrous religious art. There is a vast quantity of work to be done in rediscovering and reinvigorating art in continuity with Western traditions. Going and plastering icons all over the place works at counter purposes with that necessary work. In addition, many of these icons depicting Western saints are simply not very attractive. Take this image of St. John Neumann, for instance. The icon is a flagrant copy of an older, well-known image of the immigrant bishop. But it sacrifices the original work's benefits without introducing any of its own. It may not be an absolute eyesore, but neither is it beautiful. So we take business and impetus away from artists in our tradition, while filling the spaces in our homes, offices, and churches with mediocre pieces.

Third, the practice is discordant. It is the artistic equivalent of eating Thai food on Thanksgiving or hiding eggs on Christmas. It takes a saint---a man or a woman who served God in a particular time and place in history and whose life in that time and place has been held up by the Church as a universal example for those still on earth---and thrusts him into an entirely different setting. St. John Neumann does not belong in an iconographical setting; neither does St. Patrick, any more than Our Lady of Czestechowa belongs in a baroque statue. Similarly, to connect to points made supra, I as a Western Christian do not belong in a setting filled with icons. At the very minimum, Western saints and Western Christians together do not so belong: I would not begrudge Byzantines a devotion to St. Patrick based around a rendering made in their traditions, nor would I find it improper to hang Our Lady of Czestechowa in my own home. Both of those cases would be examples of one tradition of the Church recognizing the fruits of the other. This strikes me as an entirely different proposition from the mere appropriation of a methodology indigenous to one tradition into the other, apart from any simultaneous borrowing of content. St. Patrick in a Latin church done up like some kind of archimandrite defeats all the aims of ecclesiastical art: seeing it prompts one to think first not of God, but of why in blue blazes St. Patrick is dressed like St. Cyril.

Finally, the practice is just plain odd. It flunks the smell test. A lot of ecclesiastical-art cognoscenti look with disdain at the plaster and chalkware statuary that adorned our grandparents' houses, as crass, mass-produced, and of poor quality. I will openly admit to looking with even greater disdain at modern resin statuary, which is just plain ugly. But the fact of the matter is that statuary belongs in the West, it's familiar (and even those chalkware statues, which oftentimes aren't all that bad, serve a legitimate purpose for the devotion of ordinary folk). One need not ask questions about its presence, or wonder why it instead of something else is present. The same can be said for many forms of two-dimensional artwork at home in the West as well. Icons, though, except when depicting Eastern saints, produce exactly the opposite reaction. They are, in a word, puzzling. Unfamiliar. Odd. Some of the people who produce them are undeniably odd as well. I decline to look for them, but if one is so inclined, one can find about the internet a series of icons---produced in the same unadorned, bland manner as the one of St. John linked above---depicting a wide variety of non-Catholic and even non-Christian personages surmounted by nimbi. Nobody is ever going to make a baroque sculpture of Martin Luther King as a saint. Maybe inferior icons are cheap to make. Maybe they have simply become trendy somehow. Maybe lots of good reasons can be proffered for their use in the West. But their proliferation remains odd.