Friday, March 31, 2006

What happens when you Google yourself

(That sounds kind of kinky.)

Apparently I am the main character in an upcoming British novel, Rainbow's End:

Juliet Crawford is a brilliant and beautiful young orchestra conductor, living in Edinburgh, and dreaming of success. When she is offered the chance of a lifetime to get ahead with her career, with the incredible possibility of permanently leading a prestigious American orchestra, she decides nothing will stand in her way. But it is there that she meets the handsome young Czech conductor Karel Haken. As the attraction between them builds to a crescendo, she knows their ambitions will always push them apart. Does she dare to love him despite everything?

Do I dare to suggest I vaguely resemble the woman on the cover of this page-turner, with her sultry eyes, luscious eyebrows, and dark wavy hair?

No. My nose is much bigger. But I have been known to stick flowers up it.

What I've been reading

I’ve been doing a lot of reading since Christmas. These are, as far as I can recall, the non-academic books that have occupied me. As you can tell, a lot of them have to with the Civil War. Justin and I finally bought the DVD set of the Ken Burns documentary, since we watch it every time we visit his grandparents in Chapel Hill anyway. The CD of music from the documentary is also worth owning. I list the books more or less in the order I read them, although I don’t remember exactly.

A History of the American People by Paul Johnson. I had been getting an itch to read a comprehensive history of the United States, since I had filled my brain with everything I needed to know about American history my junior year of high school and then dumped it all out after I took the AP test. The more I’ve traveled around the country, though, the more I felt I should have a good general sense of this country’s history, a sort of scaffolding to hang everything on, which is why I look back so fondly on my high school and college world history courses. So I read this, which took like a month, because it’s about a thousand pages long. This is the cranky reactionary version of U.S. history – Johnson, an English Catholic, is exuberantly fond of American resourcefulness and religious enthusiasm, but expresses definite opinions, for instance his utter lack of swooniness about JFK. I owe American history to read Howard Zinn’s version, I guess, but this was a good start.

Lincoln by David Herbert Donald, and
Lincoln by Gore Vidal.

Yes, two Lincolns. The first is a biography of Abraham Lincoln, the second a novelization of Lincoln’s presidency (I love historical fiction, and Justin has also recommended to me Creation and Julian, which are also really well done, even if, in the latter case, you don’t want to blame the downfall of Rome on Christianity). I love Abraham Lincoln. I know a lot of people do. I love his bizarre appearance, his quirky and anecdotal sense of humor, his humility, and in a lot of respects his utter unsuitability for the presidency – a one-term Congressman from Illinois whose main qualification for the Republican nomination in 1860 was that he was not any one of his opponents. And I love that he was not perfect – that he suspended civil rights, chose inept, indecisive generals, alienated pretty much everyone at one time or another, had a crazy wife and little hellion children – and yet lived up to the demands of a difficult age.

Sons of Mississippi by Paul Hendrickson. We both read this right before our Southern road trip, which meant we got a little more freaked out than was probably strictly necessary when we couldn’t find the highway out of Greenwood, Mississippi. The author takes a photograph from Life magazine of seven Mississippi sheriffs preparing to enforce the law (!) by blocking James Meredith’s enrollment at Ole Miss (one is holding a billy club) and finds out where those sheriffs and their sons and grandsons are now, what their attitude is toward race, and so on. Like Mississippi Burning, it provokes sadness as well as anger, but it has the advantage of being somewhat redemptive at the end when you get to the younger generations. Sort of. And now that I’ve been to Mississippi…I think, at least on the surface, things aren’t as frightening as you’d think from this book. On the other hand, I have never seen such an obvious divide between the white side of the tracks and the black side as I did in Greenwood.

Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz. This was a fun book. Much of it is about Civil War reenactors, but in the broader context of modern fascination with and attitudes toward the Civil War/The War Between the States/The War of Northern Aggression (one bookstore in Charlottesville categorizes Civil War books based on what they call the war).

The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea by Mary Renault. Novels about Theseus that offer plausible historical explanations for the most fantastic elements of the myth. Renault wrote a bunch of these novels about the ancient world. Now that I know they exist, I am finding them in used bookstores all over the place. She is one of those independent, well-traveled women of the early to mid 20th century whom reviewers tend to find surprisingly learned and “masculine” in tone.

Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War by Harry S. Stout. I haven’t finished this book yet, because I find it somehow dissatisfying – and it’s long, although that’s not normally a deterrent. I don’t know if it’s because 1. I suspect he has an agenda, even if it’s not explicit and he denies it, 2. it is not the most elegantly written book and could probably say what it needs to say in much less space, 3. I already know the Civil War cost far more lives than necessary even if it was unavoidable and that there were a few who opposed it at the time (either because they were pacifist or they weren’t that bothered about slavery), so reading a discussion of both those propositions is not very interesting, or 4. I’m not convinced that a “moral history” is really achievable, because it will inevitably presuppose a moral perspective that itself has to be defended before it can be used as a framework for viewing the war, and anyway a chronological discussion of moral issues relating to the war might not be the best approach. I do believe it’s important to know that the Civil War was brutal, quite contrary to the romantic ideas people had about it at the time and have had since, that most casualties served no purpose, and that few people gave adequate thought to why they were fighting or whether their goals could be accomplished without so much human tragedy. But picking through every single extant sermon and church newspaper on both sides of the war, month by month, just isn’t doing it for me.

The Life You Save May Be Your Own by Paul Elie. As long as Stout’s book, but far more interesting – it took me about three days to read – is this sort of literary polybiography of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, and Flannery O’Connor, American Catholic writers in the post-WWII era. They never met, except for a brief meeting between O’Connor and Percy, but shared a common perspective, associated with a common community of fellow writers and publishers, and corresponded with one another. America took a while to develop its own literary tradition--there aren’t really any great American novels before the mid-19th century--and a Catholic literary tradition took even longer, because Catholics came to America in large numbers relatively late and initially distinguished themselves by nationality. (It is notable in this context that O’Connor was the only one of the quartet who was not a convert, though of course that warms my heart in a way.) And of course all mid-century writers had to grapple with postwar existentialism and general sense of malaise. Without being explicitly sectarian, Elie lets the unfolding life stories and words of these four writers demonstrate how they conceived what modern American Catholic literature would be. I want to go back and re-read O’Connor and Percy, whose Wise Blood and Love in the Ruins respectively baffled me when I first read them ten years ago. After this I read Percy’s The Moviegoer and found his style more engaging than I had before.

Still working on Q by Luther Blissett (a pseudonym) which is one of those books whose book jackets claim it’s “a novel of ideas” like The Name of the Rose but which I don’t like quite as much, and The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris, which as I noted I’m reading again. Also the letter to the Hebrews.

Catholic music: meh

Think for a moment of what your favorite three or four hymns are. Then read this news from the (Catholic) National Pastoral Music Association:

"On Eagle's Wings," the musical reworking of the 91st Psalm by Father Michael Joncas, topped all other songs in an online poll asking which liturgical song most fostered and nourished the respondent's life.

Our choir sings some of the chirpiest music out there, and yet we mutter whenever we're asked to sing this for another funeral mass.

I guess I should be fair and say the survey didn't ask for "hymns," which most of the top choices are not. But. When I first started going to Incarnation, I was less than enthusiastic about the music. I joined the choir because I thought I'd enjoy singing more if I did harmonies (I'm an alto), and we do sing some really beautiful music--I was introduced to Rachmaninov's Vespers through the choir, we occasionally sing "real" music by Mozart and Rutter, and I genuinely like some of the contemporary stuff that traditional Catholics mock (like Bernadette Farrell's "Restless is the Heart"--flutter!--although that's not really suitable for congregational singing). Nevertheless, I sometimes wonder if I'd be happier singing at a parish with more traditional music, organs and Latin and whatnot.

When I was choosing music for our wedding, I deliberately selected two hymns I've only heard at Protestant churches: "All Creatures of our God and King" (which is in our hymnal, but in some awkward reworking of Draper's translation; I insisted on the traditional words) and "Be Thou My Vision" (whose lyrics are attributed to St. Patrick, but I've never ever seen it in a Catholic hymnal--what's up with that)? We also sang "The Servant Song" (apparently by a Protestant, #16 in the survey) for the sign of peace. The choir also sang "Restless is the Heart" before the processional, as well as another song Chris, the worship director, picked, and "Bogoroditse Devo" (Rachmaninov). And "God of Love" by Dan Schutte for the psalm, which I sort of wish I'd replaced with another thing because I don't even remember now how it goes, but whatever; our guests were mostly non-Catholic and non-Christian, so I wanted songs that wouldn't make them too uncomfortable...but I didn't care if "All Creatures" etc. were too particular; they're good. And by good I mean they've stood the test of time; I don't know if most music we sing now will. But I guess there's my snobbery, and there's what other people find moving, so there you go.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The word of God incarnate

I'm rereading The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris, which I read with my old book club buddies in Seattle about five years ago. I have started, rather clumsily, praying the Liturgy of the Hours in the evening and in the morning when I get to it, which is kind of a challenge for me, not because I don't have time, but because I don't really like having a schedule and have avoided doing things at set times insofar as is possible. But in another way I'm drawn to the senes of regularity, to the idea that I am doing something millions of other Christians are doing at more or less the same time (although I doubt I do morning prayer as early as most people in my time zone) so that our voices are lifted up as one to God, and to the way the liturgy of the hours aims to fulfill Paul's admonition to "pray without ceasing." I do have a sort of professional motive for doing this too, because I figure it will help me get into the minds of the church fathers, who prayed the psalms daily, except much more intensively and probably more effectively. But I am learning. Anyway, I thought her book about the time she spent as a layperson living in a Benedictine community would help me reflect on the liturgy of the hours as I pray it.

This quote reminded me of my long post on biblical studies a few days ago:

Listening to the Bible read aloud is not only an invaluable immersion in religion as an oral tadition, it allows even the scripture scholars of a monastic community to hear with fresh ears. A human voice is speaking, that of an apostle, or a prophet, and the concerns critical to biblical interpretation--authorship of texts, interpolation of material, redaction of manuscript sources--recede into the background. One doesn't forget what one knows, and the process of listening may well inform one's scholarship. But in communal lectio, the fact that the Book of Jeremiah has several authors matters far less than that a human voice is speaking, and speaking to you. Even whether or not you believe that this voice speaks the word of God is less important than the sense of being sought out, personally engaged, making it possible, even necessary, to respond personally, to take the scriptures to heart. (33)

Well, I'm less agnostic about the last bit, but I thought this was neat, the idea that hearing the Bible through a human voice really draws you in and makes you somehow more accountable to listen attentively and be confronted by the words. I have been thinking lately about how important the ministry of the word is and how important it is that it be read well. I'm a visual learner and usually retain information better from reading it than from hearing it, but I have also heard the scriptures read by some remarkable readers who grabbed me and pulled me in by the collar. That, too, is quite a vocation.

Okay, so it's not just us

There are other people whose book collections are so huge that they need more room for them than they do for their future children.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

It's official!

We own our condo!

We signed about a billion papers at our attorney's office. But at least he's nice. He's in charge of RCIA at Incarnation, so I know him pretty well.


Sunday, March 26, 2006

New Testament criticism: through a mirror dimly

One of the things that I've been catching up on is the publication of Bart Ehrman's latest book, Misquoting Jesus, and the reviews thereof. I'm going to write what I think of the book without actually having read the book, which I know is irresponsible, but a lot of what follows is as much about me and my relationship with what I study as it is about the book, so I don't really care.

Ehrman is chair of the religious studies department at UNC Chapel Hill and the author of the standard text for intro to New Testament classes both at the UW and UVA. My first exposure to NT criticism, besides amateur attempts to decipher the apparatus in Nestle-Aland, the standard Greek NT text, was through taking, and then a year later teaching sections of, the NT-in-translation course at the UW. It is disconcerting for an evangelical with a pretty high view of biblical inerrancy (I don't think I ever subscribed to the idea that God dictated Paul's letters verbatim or anything, but I was definitely more of a literalist than I am now) to confront standard twentieth-century scholarship on the text of the New Testament. So none of the Gospels were written by the people to whom they are attributed, and Paul only wrote half the letters prefaced by his name. Okay. I had not met people who could believe that and still be faithful Christians, although I have since then. And oh, it was miserable trying to teach undergrads who believed in biblical inerrancy. I had to trample on their ideas of what divine inspiration really meant. They must have thought I was an utter apostate. And merely raising the question of whether Paul wrote Ephesians (or whether John Mark wrote Mark, or something like that) caused the most interminable, hideous argument I've ever had with my stepmother, who was convinced I'd lose my faith if I went to UVA. (Much likelier that it would've happened at the UW. But whatever.) This is one reason why, although I'd started my masters program with some interest in NT scholarship, I gave that up. What a bloody minefield.

If you do anything remotely early Christian, though, everyone expects you to know something about the New Testament, and that's fine. I know I'll probably have to teach New Testament courses, and teaching New Testament Greek as a language course was one of the most enjoyable things I've ever done that didn't involve carnal pleasure. I just don't want to be a New Testament scholar. Debating relentlessly about a short collection of books that has been worked over by highly diligent German scholars for a century and a half. Not my cup of tea.

I've learned a lot from doing NT stuff, though. It's what initially got me interested in classics. My Greek NT has received a decade of loving wear. My NT studies led to my interest in church history and my questioning of whether the doctrines I had initially accepted prima facie about, say, whether speaking in tongues was the evidence that signified the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, were really supportable--and ultimately, whether a complete theology of salvation and Christian growth should place such emphasis on a few discrete texts that talk about being "born again" and being "filled with the Holy Spirit," and so on, as if all of Christian life revolved around what happened in two separate moments. I started to realize that biblical inerrancy, sola scriptura, and all that didn't really get around the fact that there are multiple ways of interpreting the Bible, and every Christian participates in an interpretive tradition, whether we admit it or not. Which was one factor that led me to choose the interpretive tradition of Catholicism, which frankly acknowledges and embraces its interpretive tradition. That's ten years in a very brief nutshell.

(And yes, I was a Pentecostal. Really, that's a whole 'nother story.)

My point is not to discuss why I became Catholic, but why someone with a similar background to mine, Bart Ehrman, should have such a different response to literary-historical criticism of the New Testament, as he describes in his book and is summarized in a Washington Post article:

He attended Trinity Episcopal on Vermont Street in Lawrence, but he and his family were casual in their faith. Lost in the middle of the pack in school, Ehrman felt an emptiness settle over him, something that lingered at nights after the lights were out, when the house was quiet.

One afternoon he went to a party at the house of a popular kid. It turned out to be a meeting of a Christian outreach youth group from a nearby college. In private talks, the charismatic young leader of the group told the 15-year-old Ehrman that the emptiness he felt inside was nothing less than his soul crying out for God. He quoted Scripture to prove it.

"Given my reverence for, but ignorance of, the Bible, it all sounded completely convincing," Ehrman writes.

One Saturday morning after having breakfast with the man, Ehrman went home, walked into his room and closed the door. He knelt by his bed and asked the Lord to come into his life.

He rose, and felt better, stronger. "It was your bona fide born-again experience."

...His devotion soon engulfed him. "I told my friends, family, everyone about Christ," he remembers now. "The study of the Bible was a religious experience. The more you studied the Bible, the more spiritual you were. I memorized large parts of it. It was a spiritual exercise, like meditation."

He soon became a gung-ho Christian, a fundamentalist who believed the Bible contained no mistakes. He converted his family to his new faith. Schoolmates went off to the University of Kansas, but he enrolled in the Moody Bible Institute...

For the next 12 years, he studied at Moody, at Wheaton College (another Christian institution in Illinois) and finally at Princeton Theological Seminary. He found he had a gift for languages. His specialty was the ancient texts that tried to explain what actually happened to Jesus Christ, and how the world's largest religion grew into being after his execution.

What he found there began to frighten him.

The Bible simply wasn't error-free. The mistakes grew exponentially as he traced translations through the centuries. There are some 5,700 ancient Greek manuscripts that are the basis of the modern versions of the New Testament, and scholars have uncovered more than 200,000 differences in those texts...

For a man who believed the Bible was the inspired Word of God, Ehrman sought the true originals to shore up his faith. The problem: There are no original manuscripts of the Gospels, of any of the New Testament.

He wrote a tortured paper at Princeton that sought to explain how an episode in Mark might be true, despite clear evidence to the contrary. A professor wrote in the margin:

"Maybe Mark just made a mistake."

As simple as it was, it struck him to the core.

"The evidence for the belief is that if you look closely at the Bible, at the resurrection, you'll find the evidence for it," he says. "For me, that was the seed of its own destruction. It wasn't there. It isn't there."

Doubt about the events in the life of Christ are hardly new. There was never clear agreement in the most ancient texts as to the meaning of Christ's death. But for many Christians, the virgin birth, the passion of Christ, the resurrection on the third day -- these simply have to be facts, or there is no basis for the religion...

Ehrman slowly came to a horrifying realization: There was no real historical record. It was, he felt, all incense and myth, told by illiterate men and not set down in writing for decades.

Why didn't I have the same reaction to my NT studies, even though it was Ehrman whose text introduced me to the field, and I came from a similar background?

  1. I started out as a classicist and therefore wasn't new to the study of ancient texts. Of course there aren't autographs of the New Testament books, just as there aren't autographs of Vergil or Livy, or any number of far more recent authors, for that matter. The authority of the Bible clearly has to be based on something other than the availability of originals we can't possibly possess.

  2. Where the existing manuscripts disagree, the discrepancies are usually minor. There are enough of them that we can be more certain of what the NT authors actually said than we can about any other classical texts. (Contrary to what some Christians claim, for example in the teaching materials for a church membership class I attended, this doesn't mean the Bible is inspired. It means that we have essentially what came from the pen of Paul or the evangelists, not that they weren't making stuff up. Again, the authority of the Bible can't be based on textual accuracy.) Not to mention that Ehrman makes hay out of some discrepancies which are well known to be at issue, or which other equally reputable scholars believe are less questionable than Ehrman thinks they are. Two examples: 1. Most modern translations either leave out the Trinitarian formula of 1 John 5:8 or have a note explaining it is probably spurious; 2. Bruce Metzger, author of A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament and co-editor of the Nestle-Aland, regards "by the grace of God" (instead of "without God") in Hebrews 2:9 as likely original.

  3. Why does it have to be all or nothing? If Mark did make a mistake, so what? Does the Bible have to be correct and uncompromised in (literally) every iota, or if we accept that God speaks through human beings, is there room for human personality and fallibility to maculate (a particular choice of words I'll explain in a minute) God's message? As a lot of people like to say, the four gospels are like four different eyewitness accounts of an event, which can differ without affecting the substantial truth of what happened. I don't know if I would mean quite the same thing that they usually mean when they say that, but that indicates what's at issue here. Different eyewitnesses, or different schools of Christian tradition, will not tell the same story, and will inevitably distract us by miscounting asses or angels if our eyes aren't on the real message. A fundamentalist reading of scripture can't really sustain that view, but I don't think I was ever quite a fundamentalist.

A seminary professor who also teaches NT commented, "Sometimes I wonder if we are not all guilty of asking the Bible to do too much," which gets at the heart of the matter. Either we accept the Bible as the word of God, or we don't. If it is, the point of NT study is to learn what God has to say to us, not to see if the Big Grammarian in the Sky ever dangled a participle. If it isn't, all the textual criticism in the world isn't going to make it more convincing. People with both believing and non-believing approaches study the NT as colleagues in research, and I think it's great for biblical scholarship that orthodox seminary professors work alongside agnostic public university professors. But it seems to me that, in motivation if not in content, what they're doing is fundamentally different.

We say "the Bible speaks for itself," which, if you'll pardon me, is bollocks. God speaks for the Bible, because God is God, not the Bible. The Holy Spirit speaks for the Bible, by directing church history so that particular books of the Bible became accepted and continue to be accepted as the written word of God and/or by testifying directly to individual believers that the scriptures are true.

One book that has influenced my own view of scripture is Revelation Restored by Rabbi David Weiss Halivni. Ezra (who is a figure for later scribes and rabbis) faced the question of how to interpret with reverence a "maculate" (L. "spotted") text that was on the one hand the inviolable word of God, but on the other hand contained errors and inconsistencies as a result of Israel's unfaithfulness to its covenant. Ezra's solution was to preserve such maculations in the text but circumvent them in practice (the rabbis later undertaking the task of explaining discrepancies by the continuous revelation of oral Torah). His prophetic vocation was to preserve the text, as he found it at that moment in Israel's history, as the authoritative, though flawed, version of the Torah. The religious Jew upholds the Torah as holy because it is the word of God, but made imperfect through human frailty. Halivni concludes:

The awareness of maculation in the transmission of the Torah itself, and of consequent difficulties in interpretation, instills a sense of humility, revealing human frailties and weaknesses so great that God's words were tainted by them--and indicates that whatever human beings touch has the potential for corruption. Yet despite the tainting, these words are still the most effective way of becoming closer to God, approaching his presence. We cannot live without these words--there is no spiritual substitute--but while we are living with them, we are keenly aware that we are short of perfect, that along the historical path we have substituted our voice for the divine voice. We are condemned to live this way. (89)

Until we shall know just as we are known.

The Christian Bible isn't exactly analogous to the Torah (as far as dictated revelation, oral Torah vs. Christian exegesis, etc.), but I think Halivni's thesis has some bearing on a Christian understanding of scripture. The believing NT critic, much as I do not envy him, has an important task: to be the steward of an imperfectly preserved sacred text, to seek out as closely as possible a version of the scriptures that is faithful to the revelation God gave us as part of the new covenant--God willing, by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The written word is how we know God while we await Christ's return. That may ultimately be why I'm not a NT critic: I can't bear that kind of responsibility.

Friday, March 24, 2006

My randomly generated band name

For real.

Your Band Name is:

The Power of Monks

Justin's is The Children of Weiners.

Your iPod gazes into a little crystal ball

This is a fun meme going around the blogosphere. I cheated by skipping over a couple of etudes and concertos, but other than that this is straight up. (It also demonstrates the statistical probability that Justin has way more music ripped than I do. Not that I don't like most of these songs.)

Instructions: Go to your music player of choice and put it on shuffle. Say the following questions aloud, and press play. Use the song title as the answer to the question. NO CHEATING.

How does the world see you? All That We Let In (Indigo Girls)

Will I have a happy life? Osanna in Excelsis (Bach's Mass in B Minor)

What do my friends really think of me? Cisco Clifton's Fillin' Station (Johnny Cash)

What do people secretly think of me? Satisfy You (Cracker)

How can I be happy? Swastika Girls (Robert Fripp & Brian Eno) (Eek!)

What should I do with my life? Please Don't Let Me Love You (Hank Williams)

Will I ever have children? Orange County Suite (The Doors)

What is some good advice for me? Love for Sale (Talking Heads)

How will I be remembered? Sorrow (David Bowie)

What is my signature dancing song? The State I Am In (Belle & Sebastian)

What do I think my current theme song is? Folsom Prison Blues (Johnny Cash)

What does everyone else think my current theme song is? Your Mind is on Vacation (Elvis Costello)

What song will play at my funeral?: Letter from America (The Proclaimers)

What type of men/women do you like? The Greatest Thing (Elvis Costello)

What is my day going to be like? Concentration Moon (Frank Zappa)

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Scary emails

I get a lot of junk email at my UVA address, much of which I believe is forwarded from my UW address, which has had more than a decade to bounce around the Internet and get on everyone's porn/organ enhancement/college degree/low-rate mortgage/earnest letter from Nigeria list. I need to figure out filters on the thing. This is why I much prefer gmail. Anyway, I have been getting emails from several identities in particular, and they are nefarious: Simon, Reginald, Walter. Because I associate the name Simon with a creepy stalker-nerd personality, even though I can't think of a particular Simon who meets that description. Because the one Reginald I know of will probably be the last person on earth to use email, since Microsoft hasn't come out with Outlook in Latin yet. Because I dated a guy named Walter very briefly and rather disastrously.

But the most eerie name for some reason is Rogert. It is not a real name. It is the name of a slimy gremlin alien who speaks in a monotone and can turn you into a zombie by surrounding you with all its little Rogert friends and sucking out your soul. And I want him to stop offering me Viagra.

New template

Every once in a while I get bored with my template and pick a new one. The old dark template was starting to hurt my eyes. Maybe it's been hurting yours all along!

I like how this template does block quotes, and it maintains the blue theme.

But I wish Blogger had more template choices.

My new computer

Because when you're dropping an inconceivably huge amount of money on a house anyway, a little thing like a laptop doesn't seem that big a deal.

Well, my old HP Pavilion had served me through most of my grad school career. I got it in the fall of 2000. It had a cranky, clanky hard drive that needed to be replaced in the first six months I had it, but it was under warranty, so that was all right. In recent years it has started hyperventilating whenever we ask it to do something demanding, like, well, anything, and for as long as I can remember, it has frozen rather frequently for no particular reason. I think this might have something to do with Windows ME, not to mention the computer STDs it has picked up hanging out at unsavory websites. Also the battery doesn't work worth a snot, so I always need to have it plugged in, and if it is accidentally unplugged, as often happens, it shuts off immediately. And it doesn't have a wireless card. I could buy a wireless card and a new battery, and expand the RAM to the maximum 256 MB, some point, you just have to face the fact that a five-and-a-half-year-old computer is inevitably obsolete, by several generations, and likely to give up the ghost right in the middle of an as-yet-unbacked-up chunk of scholarship.

Also we need two computers anyway if we think we can even pretend to write two dissertations at once. Justin got his Sony Vaio, which is light and cute, and I got another HP.

This is the HP Compaq nx6125, and it is a very Crawford computer. Practical, quiet, not too flashy, but it has a big brain. One gig of RAM, a 2.2Ghz processor, and an 80 gig hard drive. I used to have 10 gigs. Which seems so huge compared to my first computer when I started college, which had 80 megabytes. Last summer when Justin and I were shopping around for an mp3 player, the hard drive space was the main reason we didn't buy an iPod. As I understand it, you need to have all your music on your hard drive to use an iPod, or at least it makes life a lot easier if you do. There wasn't much point in buying a 40 gig iPod if we only had a 10 gig hard drive. So we got an iRiver, which functions like an external hard drive that plays music, and named it Sven, so that (I hoped) Justin would not later suggest this as a name for our firstborn. (I'm not sure this will work.)

But anyway, my computer. It weighs just shy of six pounds, which is not the lightest but is lighter than my old computer, and I'm not trekking the Andes with the thing so it doesn't really matter if it would exceed by a pound or two the maximum load of my llama. It is fast (Justin confiscates it to play Civ) and the fan is pretty quiet. The only thing is that the screen, although big (which I like for reading large amounts of text) is kind of dull and hard on the eyes, especially when it's running on the battery, although I haven't really tested the battery yet. In all the reviews I read, though, that was the biggest complaint, and I figured I could live with that. On A/C power it's fine, as I've had ample opportunity to prove since I got it.

And the coolest thing is we have a wireless router for our DSL, so we can both play on the Internet at once, anywhere in the house! Although that could be dangerous. Hmm.

I have named my new baby Minerva, although I have a hard time thinking of her as a "her" yet. Justin's computer is Nestor. We are geeks.

Currently reading...

...Benedict XVI's first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. Yes, I know, it was promulgated a while ago. We left behind our old DSL in Berkeley and just got it again.

Reggie, of course, translated the encyclical into Latin.

The encyclical falls into two parts. The first a detailed analysis of Christian love, its grounding in scripture and distinction from love (eros and agape in the Christian tradition are distinguished from definitions, both ancient and modern, that pervert them by isolating them from one another and prevent them from completing one another in the fullness of true caritas), and its dynamic nature rooted in the mutual self-giving between persons, both God and human beings and human beings with one another. The second part, which I am still reading, discusses the role caritas should play in modern society.

The first part is beautiful and moving. This, for example, is good stuff:

In the gradual unfolding of this encounter, it is clearly revealed that love is not merely a sentiment. Sentiments come and go. A sentiment can be a marvellous first spark, but it is not the fullness of love. Earlier we spoke of the process of purification and maturation by which eros comes fully into its own, becomes love in the full meaning of the word. It is characteristic of mature love that it calls into play all man's potentialities; it engages the whole man, so to speak. Contact with the visible manifestations of God's love can awaken within us a feeling of joy born of the experience of being loved. But this encounter also engages our will and our intellect. Acknowledgment of the living God is one path towards love, and the “yes” of our will to his will unites our intellect, will and sentiments in the all-embracing act of love. But this process is always open-ended; love is never “finished” and complete; throughout life, it changes and matures, and thus remains faithful to itself. Idem velle atque idem nolle—to want the same thing, and to reject the same thing—was recognized by antiquity as the authentic content of love: the one becomes similar to the other, and this leads to a community of will and thought. The love-story between God and man consists in the very fact that this communion of will increases in a communion of thought and sentiment, and thus our will and God's will increasingly coincide: God's will is no longer for me an alien will, something imposed on me from without by the commandments, but it is now my own will, based on the realization that God is in fact more deeply present to me than I am to myself. Then self-abandonment to God increases and God becomes our joy (cf. Ps 73 [72]:23-28). (section 17)

There is nothing particularly innovative about the first part of the encyclical, but it says everything we already knew about Christian love in a fresh and engaging way. I think even some of my Protestant friends might really enjoy it.

Oh, but it's hard on the eyes to read anything for long on the Vatican's site, though. The background is just a little too dark.

UPDATE: Do not miss Reggie talking about the daunting task of translating the jargon of modern languages into Latin (not least because he was translating from the Italian, which was translated from Benedict's native German) on his Vatican Radio show The Latin Lover (see "Tender is the Latin").

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

God wills it!

(This is a special revelation to Justin.)

The latest time-waster to hit the blogosphere: the Church Sign Generator.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006


There are a number of questions scandalized Protestants ask in trying to puzzle why anyone would go and do a crazy thing like convert to Catholicism. Here they are:

1. But you believe in all that Mary stuff!
2. And you pray to saints!
3. And the pope! How can you believe the pope is infallible?
4. And how can you believe in know, that thing?
5. Why do you believe in all that stuff in addition to the Bible?
6. And why can't priests be women/married/not pedophiles?
7. Why do you have to confess to a priest? Can't you talk straight to God?

Did I miss any? Those are the biggies. There's also birth control (but I know Protestants who don't use birth control), purgatory, indulgences, an evident excess of "ritual," "so when did Catholics stop being Christians?" etc.

The first one is in some ways the hardest for me.

I really like Mary. Not in the sense that I'm a devotee of the rosary or anything like that. But I think it is cool that the one only-human human God chose to do the most important thing an only-human human has ever done was a woman, and not a particularly important woman on her own merit, but a regular person whose only distinguishing characteristic was that she was open to this great work that God was doing with her assent. Someone who experienced the parturition and the child-rearing and the passion of Jesus has known the entire range of human emotion, from supreme joy to utter grief, and the idea that she lives with God and hears our own expressions of joy and grief (well, if you believe in prayer to saints) is pretty cool.

So in a sense it is disappointing that the Church teaches that she was not, in fact, a completely ordinary person, but was distinguished from the moment of her conception by the absence of original sin. Thus Mary, who in Protestantism is seldom mentioned but is at least an accessible human being, becomes a distant, translucent, unimaginably holy person with a halo propped behind her head from the moment Anna and Joachim welcomed her into the world. The curtain of two thousand years and innumerable iconic Madonnas separates us from her again: She Is Not Like Us.

And then there is the fact that the United States has not a patron saint, but a patronal feast: The Immaculate Conception. It's December 8. It's a holy day of obligation. I kind of have to show up. The Immaculate Conception, as not quite every Catholic even knows, refers to Mary's conception without sin but otherwise in the usual manner, not Jesus' parthenogenesis. Which is why the feast day is December 8, not March 25.

March 25 is the Annunciation. I like the Annunciation. While I was in Europe in 2002, I collected Annunciations--I mean I saw them at museums and churches and bought postcards of them. This is my favorite, Fra Angelico's Annunciation at the monastery of San Marco in Florence. (This is, by the way, much worth visiting, as there are Fra Angelico frescoes in every cell. I only saw it for the last time in 2002, on my third visit to Florence, and I regret missing it until then.) (Larger version here.)

In a lot of Annunciations the angel of the Lord barges into Mary's room in a blaze of glory, and Mary shrinks back from the angel or bows her head in submission. Here, she's leaning forward inquisitively, "much perplexed," and the angel bends its knee just a bit to speak to her at eye level. Also, Mary does not look matronly, but rather young. And the angel has bird-wings with multicolored feathers, which rocks.

She is still wearing a dinner-plate halo, but for a moment Mary flits back down to earth and you think you could touch her hand, or the edge of her robe, and ask her to pray for you. And she'd say, "Isn't it amazing how God is with us? I'm still getting used to it myself."

The Incarnation (the name of my parish, whose patronal feast the Annunciation is), after all, is about God With Us. God shows up in earthly places: in human bodies, in bread and wine, in water; pops up in a song or an image that grabs us, wherein the fruit of human creativity reflects the creativity of God; speaks to us as we speak to each other. Et verbum caro factum est.

I think it'll take me a lifetime to be at ease with Catholic Mariology, but at least that's a start.

Link to those road trip photos


Click on "View photos without signing in" to the right if you're not a Kodak Gallery member and don't want to be.

Dreams of 2008

We have DSL at home again, and it's weird how quickly my browsings of the political blogs have seeped into my subconscious.

John McCain and Al Gore were running for president in 2008. Justin and I voted at the Barnes & Noble in Berkeley. The ballots were yellow half-sheets of paper with only the presidential race listed on them: the options were Gore, McCain, and Other, with blanks to check next to each name. McCain won, but it took a little while for the results to be certain (not as long as in 2000, though).

Well, we'll see about that, won't we?

Monday, March 20, 2006

A late observance of the Ides of March

(Justin's brother Soren's birthday, by the way. If you can think of a calendar date, Justin probably has a sibling whose birthday it is.)

In case you ever wanted to experience vicariously the summer of love Justin and I spent under the auspices of Reginald Foster, you should read God’s Maytag Man Takes Tram No. 8 to Caesar’s Assassination, an account of Reggie's Ides of March tour very similar to the one we did as a weekend field trip. Ah, boxed wine, Latin songs, and mangy cats. Good times. Gaudeamus igitur iuvenes dum sumus.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Another reason to celebrate St. Patrick's Day

I am just a wee bit Irish.

Most of my ancestors--Jewish, Italian, and various flavors of Anglo-Celtic from the larger of the British Isles--are of humble origins and not particularly well documented. My grandmother, however, is a Trueblood, and there is a whole out-of-print book about the Truebloods in America, not to mention a bunch of websites tracing the Truebloods all the way back to seventeenth-century England. They were Quakers who settled in North Carolina (so in fact I have deeper Carolina roots than my husband), and remained so until a few generations ago.

Anyway, let me see if I can get this straight: My great-great-great grandfather, Elias Trueblood, married a woman named Elizabeth Killey, whose father was from Ireland. Presbyterian, not Catholic. But still, there you go. Green beer this year for St. Patrick's Day.

Road trip, again: the deep South

A couple of weeks ago, around the time we signed the contract on the condo, I dragged Justin to Ikea to buy a bunch of much-needed bookcases and some other furnishings. Now the second bedroom has enough floor space that we can use it, and there is space for guests to sleep, if anyone should so wish. The whole day was one of the most traumatic experiences of our marriage, not least because Justin cannot spend five minutes in any store that isn't a bookstore without breaking into hives, but it's all good now.

So Justin decided that since I got to buy a condo and furniture to put in it, he got to go on a road trip. I was too tired after the Ikea experience to debate further whether this was really the most appropriate time. That was probably just as well, because it was a good trip, although interesting in quite a different way from our Southwest trip last summer.

Here is where we spent nights, so you can kind of plot where we went from there:

Day 1: Knoxville, TN
Day 2: Savannah, TN (near Shiloh)
Day 3: Vicksburg, MS
Day 4: Meridian, MS (after a few hours' detour into Louisiana)
Day 5: Columbus, GA
Days 6 & 7: Savannah, GA
Days 8 & 9: Charleston, SC
Day 10: Chapel Hill, NC

I will link to pictures eventually.

Our sightseeing revolved mostly around historical landmarks rather than scenery as in the Southwest: Civil War sites like Shiloh and Andersonville; civil rights sites like Selma and the civil rights memorial in Montgomery; the Natchez Trace, an old road from the Mississippi to the Ohio Valley, in Mississippi and Tennessee. Justin and I have been on a Civil War kick lately, and I learned things about the Civil Rights movement I really ought to have known anyway when I was teaching American religious history a couple of years ago. This is the South with a capital S. You thought I lived in the South, and if being Southern means being within a two-hour drive of a zillion Civil War battlefields, then okay, I live in the South, but this is the real South, and I hadn't been there yet.

1. The people are really nice. People are nice everywhere, basically, except for a few places they're mostly obnoxious, but they are truly nice in the South.
2. The food is wonderful. It is not vegetarian, and it will probably kill you, but it is soooooo good. And what's so great is that the cheaper it is and the more frightening the facilities in which it is prepared, the better it is. My childhood had a severe lack of pulled pork barbecue which I was unable to remedy until I arrived at this latitude. In retrospect, it's probably a good idea we did this trip before Lent.
3. The Mississippi Delta is very flat and even in late winter is filled with lurid colors that exist nowhere else in nature.
4. Go to Charleston. Just do. If money were no object and we could live in any house in any city in the country, I think I'd want to live in Charleston. At least I think so right now.

Becoming homeowners

I have delayed blogging about this because I wasn't certain we'd really do this, but in a few weeks we're going to own our apartment, which will not be an apartment but a condo.

Here's what happened:

About two weeks after we moved in, right after we got back from Chapel Hill, we got a letter from our landlords that they would be turning our apartments into condominiums and current residents would have first crack at buying them. (Technically, as I found out, they were already condos, but the management had been running them as apartments. The same thing, in effect.) Now, obviously if we'd wanted to buy a condo when we moved to Charlottesville, we would have bought a condo. We didn't know (and still don't know) how long we'd be staying, which is why we didn't. But there were several factors that made the opportunity appealing: the management offered to pay closing costs; our kitchen had just been remodeled, so even though our condo was being offered at the same price as all the others, it was more valuable; the price, as we discovered through research and talking to realtors, was competitive with other condos on the market in Charlottesville. On the other hand, the housing market is cooling off, and there are a lot of condo conversions in town lately, so there might be a glut on the market when we try to sell it. And somehow the deal seemed too good to be true. Justin was extremeley skeptical, and this has tested our abilities to make decisions together, compromise, and survive arguments (it always concerned Justin that we didn't argue very much when we were dating, although I was pretty happy with that).

After weighing the pros and cons and trying to get enough knowledgable advice to ensure that my wishful thinking didn't play too large a role in our decision, we decided to do it. I figured the risk of losing money, even if we moved next summer, was small enough that I was willing to take it, especially since we're making a substantial down payment and won't be taking out an interest-only loan. This also gives us the opportunity to buy our first home without all the bother of moving, since we did that already, and it's a darn good thing that's one less thing to make it complicated because it's complicated enough as it is. But gratifying. It's not our dream house, of course, but it's ours.