Prohibit Everything, Make Something

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During the Prohibition the English writer G.K. Chesterton came and toured the United States, expecting to be in every way repulsed by the government suppression of alcohol. But what he found ended up delighting him—in a way. The efforts to quash drinking had driven many to the craft of homebrewing beer and setting up basement stills. As he wrote in Sidelights (available in Volume XXII of the Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton):

…with this widespread revival of the old human habit of home-brewing, much of that old human atmosphere that went with it has really reappeared… Prohibition has to that extent actually worked the good, in spite of so malignantly and murderously willing the evil. And the good is this: the restoration of legitimate praise and pride of the creative crafts of the home.

This being the case, it seems that some of our more ardent supporters might well favour a strong, simple and sweeping policy. Let Congress or Parliament pass a law not only prohibiting fermented liquor, but practically everything else. Let the Government forbid bread, beef, boots, hats and coats; let there be a law against anybody indulging in chalk, cheese, leather, linen, tools, toys, tales, pictures or newspapers. Then, it would seem by serious sociological analogy, all human families will begin vigorously to produce all these things for themselves; and the youth of the world will really return.

Chesterton was long a champion of DIY, emphasizing that doing things in the home helped realize the vocation of the family. My own family when I was growing up embraced this idea, and some of my happiest childhood memories are of days when my father made dozens of homemade bagels (first boiled, then baked), or of when my mother made taffy or egg noodles, or when my father brewed beer and took the time to also make a batch of root beer for the kids… CONTINUE READING

Encouragement

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An envelope arrived in the mail a month or so ago. I didn’t recognize the name on the return address, M. Kunin. Opening it, I realized who it was from: my father had jokingly written the name of the former governor of Vermont on the return address. Inside was a letter from 1985. In it, Governor Madeleine Kunin wrote to thank six-year-old John Herreid for his contribution to a display of children’s artwork at the state capital. She concluded with “I hope you will continue to express yourself by writing down your thoughts and by creating works of art.”

I have to admit that whatever art or story it was that was sent to the capital has been long since forgotten—I can’t remember what it may have been. But I did remember the letter, though I hadn’t known that my father saved it all these years. I remember feeling really proud of myself at the time, and wanting to spend more time than ever in working on my art.

Encouragement, both from parents and from admired figures, can be an immense boost for kids. I’ve read many testimonials from various authors and artists who cite things such as a note from a favorite author as being instrumental in starting them down the path to a career in art…. CONTINUE READING

The Divine Physician and the Doctor

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“…for when I am weak, then I am strong.”
—2 Corinthians 12:10

He’s back. My favorite recent incarnation of the alien Time Lord known as the Doctor arrived again this month, sonic screwdriver (or sunglasses) at the ready. Peter Capaldi’s portrayal of the Doctor is prickly, intelligent, standoffish, and alien in ways that harken back to the first decade of Doctor Who. It’s worth pondering that on a series fifty years old, sometimes a return to origins feels fresher than “new” directions, which often end up taking a show in the same direction all the other shows are going. In the opening two-parter The Magician’s Apprentice / The Witch’s Familiar, the Doctor once again faces Davros, the maniacal creator of the Daleks, in what may be the best use of the character since Tom Baker’s Doctor faced him when he was first introduced in Genesis of the Daleks (1975).

In these two opening episodes of the series, the Doctor is facing not only two of his oldest enemies: Davros and the Master (now regenerated into female form as the Mistress)—but also the question of whether his own weaknesses may be his ultimate downfall…. CONTINUE READING

Sigrid Undset and the Hard Case of Ida Elisabeth

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One of the most painful things in art is realism. Grotesquerie, exaggeration, wish fulfillment, romance: all of these allow a generalization of human behavior that may portray some truth, but they don’t cut to the bone in the same way that a stark portrayal of real, honest, human behavior does.

And that’s why reading Sigrid Undset hurts. Somehow, she has that rare ability to capture the essence of humanity on paper. Turning the pages of her books flenses away the protective layers of the psyche as the behavior of her characters holds up a mirror to our own faults, fears, hopes, and dreams. Reading her magnum opus Kristin Lavransdatter may leave the reader feeling as if he or she needs to stop every few pages just to calm one’s nerves.

Ida ElisabethIda Elizabeth is no different. Emotions will be triggered and tears may flow: from sadness during tragedy, from frustration in witnessing the destructive power of stubborn pride, and in watching the evaporation of ephemeral dreams that can never be.

Unlike many of Undset’s other works, Ida Elisabeth is set in the modern day: 1930s Norway. And it is because of this modern setting that Undset is able to give glimpses into distinctly modern views on marriage, society, death and life.

Much what the Church teaches on marriage today is not so much under attack as it is ignored and untaught. I can remember when my wife and I went through pre-Cana, the mandatory teaching session required by the Catholic Church before marriage, it was clear that perhaps two other couples in the group of twenty had a grasp on what marriage really is. And much of the presentation on marriage at the session tended to show Church teaching on marriage filtered through pop psychology: Catholic couples tend to be happier! According to this study, married couples who practice their religion have better sex lives! Have you heard of Natural Family Planning? It will improve your intimacy and communication, and make your marriage stronger!

What this approach tends to sidestep is that the modern understanding of marriage—that it is the formalization of a romantic commitment, nothing more and nothing less—has come into being via a steady erosion of ideals, made possible by focusing on hard cases. What about a marriage that is desperately unhappy? What about a case where the husband is unfaithful? What do we say about marriage then? It’s then that the pop psychology turns up empty and mercy seems far out of reach…. CONTINUE READING

Reading on a BART Train

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bartI recently found out that I am a “super commuter”, a term which sounds as if it should be referring to a superhero with the power to clear up traffic jams or remove odors from a bus or to perform some other such unrealistic miracle. However, it just means someone who spends 90 minutes or more commuting to work every day. My own commute is generally around three hours total: an hour and a half each way. It’s sometimes faster if I drive rather than take public transit, but I prefer my trains. I head to the BART station each morning at 5:45, transfer to MUNI light rail, and arrive at work by 7:15. At this time of the year, the station looks like a dark, eerie science-fiction set when I arrive before dawn and by the time I step into the street in San Francisco, the sunrise is beginning to burst into view, flooding angled light along the length of the street as if someone spilled a pail of sunlight.

On the ride, I read. (Sometimes I write, too. I wrote this on my phone during my commute.) I try to switch between light reading and heavier fare, sometimes reading books concurrently, as with a recent juggling between a heavy book by Hans Urs von Balthasar and a light book by Terry Pratchett.

Sometimes people will peer over my shoulder to see what I’m reading. Reading Christopher Dawson once led to a conversation with a Lutheran historian about Medieval politics in Northern England. Reading a book on Distributism caused a young political activist to jot down the author and title when a glance at a page had him nodding in agreement with a Chestertonian aphorism. Then there’s the conspiratorial nods you give to a fellow reader of authors such as Gene Wolfe or Tim Powers, followed by the question, “Which of his is your favorite?” …CONTINUE READING

“The road to Auschwitz isn’t so long…”

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From time to time people will ask me if there are any specific movies that Ignatius Press has released on DVD that I really think highly of. There are several, but there’s one of them in particular which came to mind in these past few weeks. It’s a chilling German legal thriller called After the Truth.

“Do you see at least a bit of yourself in me?” That’s the final line of the film, spoken to the viewer. The speaker is an eerie-looking bald man with a strangely compelling yet unsettling gaze. It’s Dr. Josef Mengele, played by Götz George in a performance which veers between skin-crawlingly creepy and authoritatively persuasive.

Set in the late 1990s, After the Truth follows defense attorney Peter Rohm (Kai Wiesinger), a man planning to write a biography of Josef Mengele, the infamous doctor at Auschwitz whose gruesome experiments on Jews, Roma, and other prisoners are regarded as some of the most heinous crimes ever committed. Rohm receives a “birthday” package in the mail containing a Nazi uniform. As he examines it, he realizes this is not only authentic, but that it is in fact the actual uniform worn by Dr. Mengele. Not long after, Mengele himself is speaking to the young lawyer.

What Mengele wants is simple. He wants to return to his native Germany, and he wants to be put on trial. He believes he has a persuasive defense… CONTINUE READING

The Wound that Heals

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The other day my six-year-old daughter said something very striking. I had asked my three children what kind of music they would like to listen to.  She told me that she didn’t want to listen to classical right now, and requested pop music instead.

“Why?”

“Because classic music is so beautiful and sad that I feel too much and get tears. Rock music doesn’t make me feel very much.”

The idea of a beauty that is wounding, that makes you “get tears” made me think of something I had read before, but it was a few days before I found it again…. CONTINUE READING

Design Process: Keep Your Eyes Open!

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As a designer, one of my favorite things to read on design sites are pieces describing the process of designing book cover or poster. But I keep forgetting to put together blog posts showing my own.

Right now I’m in the middle of designing a series of books by Fr. Robert Spitzer, S.J., on the topic of happiness. I was told to make the books look a little similar, but not too similar. The first one was Finding True Happiness, which came out this spring.

I don’t seem to have my prep sketches for this one. My initial idea was the bluebird of happiness, but after an initial start in Photoshop I realized it looked like I was designing a book about twitter. I went back to the drawing board and then came across this image of the Madonna and Child by Marianne Stokes:

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The way the thorns curved around is a very strong graphical element. Searching for other images of thorns, I found some of Arthur Rackham’s silhouette illustrations for Sleeping Beauty:

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Now I was getting somewhere. I decided to make the bird yellow. It would now be a variation on the goldfinch, a symbol of Christ and his Passion common in medieval art. Since the goldfinch lives upon the seeds of thorny plants, it provides a foreshadowing of the crowning with thorns.

I drew the image in Illustrator and brought each layer into Photoshop to add color and texture. I added in the rays of light shining downwards and used a limited color palette to echo early 20th century design.

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For the second book in the series, The Soul’s Upward Yearning, I sketched out a few ideas depicting the bird flying upward out of the thorns. But it was too similar to the first one. Then I remembered a photo I had taken a few weeks back. I occasionally walk over to the local used book store, where I will pick up some books for reading on the train to work. This time I had come across a visually arresting first edition of the Jungle Book and had snapped a picture in case the design might inspire something. It was just what was needed:

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I still needed some element to replace the bird. I settled on a flower, since plants are drawn upwards toward light. Using the Jungle Book as visual reference, I sketched out a ballpoint rough and showed it to the art director. It was given a thumbs-up, and I started drawing the layers in Illustrator, then used the same process I had done with the previous cover to add color.

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Here’s the finished illustration:

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And the finished cover:

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I still have two more books to go in the series. I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for more inspiration.

The Pope and the Animator

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“The aesthetic of the Pope’s reflections (on the tension between man and nature, the tendency of man to use technology to dominate others and the environment, and the ideal of an integral ecology) remind me of the films of Hayao Miyazaki. I think Miyazaki explores similar themes, although from a very different perspective.”

That’s what my wife Aletheia posted online after starting to read Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’. But how much in common do the views of a Japanese animator and an Argentinian pontiff really have? Let’s take a look.

Who is Hayao Miyazaki?

Japanese animation was regarded in the West for many years as exemplifying cheapness. To cut costs, American animation studios would outsource to Japan. A number of Saturday morning cartoons in the 1970s and 1980s were animated in this way, with fairly uninspiring storylines and pedestrian animation. One of the people who would help change all this was a young animator named Hayao Miyazaki. Cutting his teeth working on different series, he quickly rose to director status. Early work included the first half-dozen episodes of Sherlock Hound, an adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective stories recast with animals, featuring glimpses of what would become Miyazaki’s visual hallmark: inventive depictions of fantastic machinery set against a bucolic environment.

Totoro-12When Hayao Miyazaki was a small child his father ran a factory making parts for war planes, including rudders for the famed Mitsubishi Zero. The contrast between the beauty of flight and the destructive power of such weaponry seems to have made a large impact on Miyazaki’s perception of the world. A recurring theme in his animated films is how men and women are easily seduced into thinking they can control nature via technology. In Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, people try to use a genetically modified giant to eradicate a threat. In Princess Mononoke, the industrialist Lady Eboshi attempts to kill a forest spirit who threatens her ironworks. In both cases powers beyond man’s control are unleashed.

Another theme is how selfish choices have an impact beyond the individual, and how finding an adult path in life cannot come through acts of rebellion. In Ponyo (loosely based on The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen) the daughter of an underwater-dwelling sorcerer and an ocean goddess decides to become human; her impulsive actions cause a tsunami, but in reconciling with her parents balance is restored. In Spirited Away a young girl, Chihiro, goes from rebellious and sullen to responsible and resourceful as she works to free her parents from a curse. Parents aren’t off the hook either: Ponyo’s father must learn that controlling his daughter by force is not the answer. It’s a balance rarely seen in movies aimed at children… CONTINUE READING.

Option, Option, Who’s Got the Option?

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A lot of Catholics online are talking about the “Benedict Option”, a concept being promoted by the Orthodox writer Rod Dreher. Largely driven by a sense of disenfranchisement due to recent developments on the national political scene and further galvanized by the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, the Benedict Option is a call for Catholics and like-minded traditional Christians to focus their energies on community building. Some of the more radical Benedict Option promoters have also called for a sort of withdrawal from political action, and also call for Christian organizations to preemptively stop asking for tax-exempt status, for schools to stop accepting federal funding, and for priests and ministers to stop acting as state witnesses for weddings.

Responses to this idea have been mixed. Some takes that I’ve liked have been Tom Hoopes on what he calls the “Francis Option” and Chad C. Pecknold on the “Dominican Option.” There’s also been a backlash from those Catholics who are deeply invested in conservative politics. Some see the Benedict Option as a surrender in the “culture war”, others see it as an outright betrayal. I think that’s a rather hysterical response, but your view is that the only viable tool is politics, it’s understandable that you’d be upset if it’s spurned.

The thing is, the Benedict Option—at least as described by Dreher—has already been around for quite some time. The circle of writers gathered around the journal Communio have been calling Catholics for decades to embrace culture and community as a priority over politics. Writers such as Stratford Caldecott, Michael O’Brien, David Schindler, and Allan Carlson were writing about this in the 80s and 90s, even as other Catholics such as Michael Novak, George Weigel, and Fr. Richard Neuhaus were urging the construction of a powerful political coalition to advance Christian principles. In my own opinion, I think the former group was and is much more correct than the latter, but both were prompted by a dismayed reaction to where the cultural winds were blowing. I know many people who throw in their lot with Novak, Weigel, and Neuhaus and I respect them—and I know that they too would insist that their priority is culture and community. But the answers I see coming from that direction always end up putting politics on a higher level than anything else.

In 1996 Allan Carlson gave an address at the North American College at the Vatican on what he called the “Family Way.” He concluded with a number of points:

Allow me to close with several examples of what you could do to advance the Family Way.

First, look back to the early 20th century example of France, and organize the business leaders in your parishes to study the principles of Catholic social teaching, regarding the dignity of labor, the just wage, and the sanctity of the family.

Second, focus the “buying power” of your parish on local, family-based suppliers. Encourage parish families as well to use their consumer sovereignty to sustain local businesses.

Third, promote micro-enterprises among your flock. Using indirect structures, some parishes have even created a small pool of capital to start up family businesses.

Fourth, encourage home education. Guide traditional parish schools to serve Catholic home educators as a resource center, as a place for some common classes, and as a site for improving the teaching skills of parents.

Fifth, create parish food cooperatives. This may be easier in small towns and rural regions, but is possible in cities as well. In the “megacities” of the developing world, seventy-five percent of food is still raised in home gardens and small poultry operations found in the cities themselves. Family gardens can be maintained in our cities, as well. The parish can also link “farm families” with “city families” in the direct sale of fresh produce and meats from the countryside, to the benefit of both.

Sixth, some priests may dedicate themselves to specific rural ministries, and the restoration of the distinctive rural life. Under the inspired leadership of Father Luigi Ligutti, the National Catholic Rural Life Conference once did vital work in this area. I believe there is a new hunger among the Catholic laity, particularly young adults, for spiritual and practical guidance here, embodied in several new journals, notably CAELUM ET TERRA.

And seventh, help renew the rule of St. Benedict in our time and place. Borrowing words from M. Francis Mannion, in the journal COMMUNIO, create “particular communities of exemplary Christian existence” which “teach us how to live authentically.” Renewal of the traditional monastic model–brotherhoods and sisterhoods–will be part of this. At a more controversial level, our time calls as well for modified application of the monastic rule to small communities of families: a life of shared residence, work, charity, and worship, resting on vows of obedience, poverty, and marriage. Again, I believe there is a great hunger for this now in America, and several Catholic communities of this sort have recently taken form. A largely Protestant, yet highly sacramental community of this kind also grows in Massachusetts.

Failing society-wide renewal, more will surely follow, as families confront the mounting crisis of our age, with lives conducted in faithfulness to the natural order and to the divine commands, holding to the promise of salvation.

What he outlines here is very similar to what people are calling the Benedict Option, including the emphasis on agrarian or rural community. The same year this address was given, I left home and spent the next three years living in a lay community based on the Benedictine rule. It was a valuable experience, and I’m glad I did it. But I also saw how it wasn’t for everybody—part of the reason I gravitate toward what Hoopes and Pecknold wrote in their pieces linked above.

My worries about the Benedict Option as being promoted by Rod Dreher are these: I worry that many of the people getting involved in promoting it may be merely disillusioned Catholics who put all their eggs, so to speak, in the basket of politics and are now embracing the Benedict Option as a sort of “stick it to the man” approach. I’m also worried this will just be another thing for Catholics to chin-stroke about online rather than actually get involved in their community. In the past, I’ve not been all that impressed with Dreher’s sense of direction, which seems to be dictated largely by aesthetics. I agree with much of his aesthetic vision, so I’m sympathetic. But aesthetics aren’t a firm foundation for community. Relationship is.

My last worry is my biggest one: that the Benedict Option just becomes another way of justifying isolating oneself from all those other bad people in the world, to preserve our just and pure group. That’s a recipe for stagnation. If you really want to live the faith, we should be getting involved in the local community even as we also build Christian fellowship with the like-minded. In conclusion, here’s something Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote which sums up the approach beautifully:

Culture is a loosely-knit word. Originally it mean the cultivation of the soil, as mentioned in Genesis: to make nature’s wilderness humanly habitable, to put the imprint of man upon it. During certain cultural epochs this enterprise may have succeeded to a degree; let us remember the Georgics by Virgil. But what can be done amid this want of culture wrought by the machine. I suppose one can try to build islands of humanity, and in this project Christians could and should be leading; such actions may have a contagious effect on others and stimulate an asceticism which renounces the excessive goods of consumerism, simply to become more human. In the Eastern bloc countries, where life is almost exclusively dictated by bureaucracy, such islands of freedom are immediately recognized and sought. “When everything is blocked off,” I was told by a dear friend who lives in Erfut, “one must try to live in the interstices.” Apparently the Christians of the Apocalypse, though they did not bear the sign of the beast, had discovered or created such spaces. From islands like this, true culture, Christian culture, may spread across the earth. Many people are athirst for it.

Amen, Fr. Balthasar.