A Good Exhortation without Enough Focus

The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian NationThe Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation by Rod Dreher
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Generally speaking, I liked this book. But in full disclosure, I liked the book at the beginning a lot more than I did at the end.

The opening of this book is an examination of the current state of Christian life, especially in the United States, but also throughout the world. Mr. Dreher talks about the culture war and the sharp division between politics and religion, not because of a “wall of separation,” but because those two spheres are rapidly growing incompatible. This part of the book almost perfectly encapsulates my impression and understanding of the current political climate for morally conservative Christians.

From there, though, the rest of the book is a little scattershot. Don’t get me wrong; it’s full of very good advice. Almost everything he says about taking the Benedict option is on point. It both convicts and encourages us to do what we can–or what we must–to remain faithfully Christian in a nation that separates itself from us. But in many ways, the book came across lacking a driving focus.

First, a minor grammatical issue: almost as soon as Mr. Dreher promises to use little-O “orthodox” to refer to morally conservative Christians, he uses capital-O “Orthodox” to do so (e.g., pages 78 and 82). By context, it’s clear he does not mean Eastern Orthodox Christians, but simply orthodox Christians. Little things like this are distracting for me, but probably will go unnoticed for most.

Throughout the book, Mr. Dreher refers to his contemporaries by name; to be honest, I don’t follow politics, religious news, blogs, or commentary closely enough to know who any of them were. But for Mr. Dreher, a quick name-drop will do, leaving me to wonder who this person is (or was, in some cases) and why their opinion is relevant on this subject. Even when he introduces people well, he may refer to them again several chapters later with no introduction at all. It can be difficult to follow.

Mr. Dreher’s sense of ecumenism is appreciated, but ultimately a little stilted and awkward. He encourages camaraderie among Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic Christians, as well as Jewish and Mormon faithful, for the sake of opposing an anti-religious political sphere–but he simultaneously points out the philosophical progression from nominalism to Protestantism to modernism to postmodernism and the nihilistic philosophies that drive a wedge between political and religious life in the US. He also glosses over his own conversion, first to Roman Catholicism and later to Eastern Orthodoxy. I’m not complaining that he seeks the truth while recognizing the need for working together, but as I mentioned above, in the book, his ecumenism seems stilted, like he was about to say more, but cut himself off.

Late in the book, there’s a chapter on sexual mores that seems completely out of left field. I think the point was to encourage us to teach our children about traditional marriage, but it seems completely out of context for the Benedict Option (who is reading this book with an eye toward cooperating in its plan but thinks they don’t need to raise their children in the faith?). It’s also an opportunity for Mr. Dreher to make some curious claims that he doesn’t justify (e.g., that the Church, or part of it, has been cruel and unjust in the way it opposes sexual sins).

There’s also a chapter on technology. In many ways, I agree with it–Mr. Dreher rightly calls out the problems in the (post-)modern approach to science and technology, i.e., that our society often pursues something because we can without ever stopping to ask whether we should. But Mr. Dreher conflates this with all technology, leading to an encouragement of a lifestyle that seems almost Amish in its denial of modernity. It’s true that technology poses significant risks to the devout Christian life, especially when it is abused–but much of technology is also useful for the faith.

I think this is a good book, but it misses a few marks that might have made it a great book. I think we should heed some of Mr. Dreher’s advice, and strengthen our communities of faith as the storm approaches–once it’s here in force, it may be too late to batten down the hatches.

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Swimming the Tiber 39: The Buffet Line

To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: the Amen, the witness–the [one] faithful and trustworthy–the beginning of the creation of God says these [things]:

[I] know thy works, that [thou] are neither cold nor hot. Would that [thou] were cold or hot! Thus, because [thou] are tepid and neither hot nor cold, [I] am about to spitlit. [I] must have spit; Jerome: [I] am beginning to spit thee out of my mouth. Because [thou] say that, “[I] am wealthy and [I] have been wealthy and [I] have no need,” and [thou] do not know that thou are the [one] suffering and piteous and a beggar and blind and naked, [I] advise for thee to buy from me a golden [thing] having been burned out of fire in order that [thou] may be wealthy and that [thou] may wrap white clothes [around yourself] and [that] the shame of thy nakedness may not be revealed, and [I advise for thee] to anoint thy eyes with clay in order that [thou] may see. As many as I love, [I] test and teach; be zealous, therefore, and repent. Behold, [I] have stood at the door and [I] knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, [I] will go in unto him and [I] will dineor make a meal with him and he himself [will dine] with me. The [one] conquering, [I] will give to him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat with my father on his throne. Let the [one] having ears hear what the spirit says to the churches.

– Revelation 3:14-22 (my translation)

To be tepid (or lukewarm) is to be neither here nor there; to sit on the fence; to pick and choose what we shall follow from the mouth of the Lord. Woe to the church in Laodicea, and to all who resemble them, who do not choose one side or the other–who warrant neither tenderness nor correction, but say to themselves that they have no need of anything! We should want to dine with him and he with us, but if we consider ourselves good enough, he must spit us out. What more would we let him do in our lives? How else can he grow us, strengthen us, empower us, if we say that we have enough?

I am reminded of the professor who introduced himself to his class by saying, “There are two kinds of students that I can do nothing with: those who already know everything, and those who think they do.”

The Catholic Church has a fairly significant problem in that her members do not always obey her. But this isn’t news and we already knew that. And many people reject the Church because so many people–so, so many–start political or moral comments with, “I’m Catholic, but…” It’s a flawed approach for the flawed people of the Church. We pay lip-service to the Church, like we’re strong adherents to her teaching, and then we spout off our own opinions.

Newsflash, America: The Catholic Church isn’t Democrat. She isn’t Republican. She isn’t Libertarian. She isn’t from the Green Party. She isn’t a capitalist. She isn’t a Communist. She isn’t deeply into mercantilism or monarchies. And more than likely, she doesn’t teach what you personally believe; you’re not her mouthpiece, and neither am I.

And that’s okay. As long as we acknowledge it. Because that’s the way it should be. You and I don’t speak for the Catholic Church–nor should we. She isn’t a democracy at all. We don’t elect representative bishops who then elect a representative pope who makes representative changes to doctrine. Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen is quoted as having said in 1953, “Moral principles do not depend on a majority vote. Wrong is wrong, even if everybody is wrong. Right is right, even if nobody is right.”1 The Catholic Church does not bend to the times; she does not “catch up to modern society.” She has a top-down hierarchy, with God at the head, and his timeless teachings on faith and morals do not change to suit the whims of whatever our culture has dreamed up for today.

So how do people disagree with the Church? Well, if you look long enough, you’ll find someone who disagrees with her (yet still claims to be a part of her or even represent her) in every single aspect of her teaching. The most common, probably, are related to the morality of one’s sexual life: “How dare a bunch of old men tell me how to spend my time in private and what to do with my own body?” etc. Almost as common is the morality of economics: “I don’t appreciate the Church telling me to give my money to poor people; it’s charitable of me to give them advice, to pay my taxes, to make sure taxes are cut for companies that might try to employ them,” etc. Or the morality of ecology: “I bet the Church agrees with me that using up this forest for my paper factory is just good stewardship,” etc.

But it always, always comes down to this: someone holds an opinion that they deem more important or more accurate than the teaching of the Holy Catholic Church established by Christ himself. Either the Church is wrong (and should therefore change to match my opinion), or she is simply not my highest priority. Both positions rely heavily on the superiority of self; “I have evaluated the scientific evidence and therefore I deem this behavior moral”; “I believe with all my heart that this behavior is okay, so it doesn’t matter what those old fogeys preach from their ivory tower”; etc. The final arbiter of every decision is not God, but Man–and me in particular. It is Protestantism hidden inside Catholicism, the Enlightenment wrapped in revelation.

But why do people do this? Why call yourself Catholic and then prove by word and deed that you disagree with the Church so vehemently? These are the arguments I’ve seen, followed by my counterpoints:

  1. It’s perfectly normal to ask questions. It’s fine to have doubts. I don’t think anyone should have blind faith, or believe in something without testing it out.
  2. The Church is slow. It will catch up eventually.
  3. I’m following my conscience.
  4. I adhere to Church teaching in so many other ways; it’s unreasonable to expect people to adhere to all of it. No one does that.

In response:

  1. It is perfectly normal to ask questions and have doubts. I wish I could be more like those with the spiritual gift of faith, never needing to question why, but I feel obligated to trust my own reason the most, so I must work through every doctrine, every proclamation, until I understand the teachings of the Church. But this doubting must be done with an eye toward agreement, not schism. We work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2), a sense that is informed by a holy fear of God’s wrath (Hebrews 12:21) and power (Mark 5:33). If we fail, or fall short, and we choose to stay that way, we are not merely “in disagreement,” but we are in schism, and what stands at stake is not polite conversation at the dinner table but our immortal souls.
  2. This suggests that you are moving in an inevitable direction, but not all schisms are that way. Is the Church about to catch up with Henry VIII? This “divorces should be allowed” thing has been going on at least that long, and the Church still hasn’t “caught up.” Maybe we’re close to Martin Luther–a declaration that members of religious orders should be allowed to abandon their vows should be right around the corner. Perhaps we’re close to catching up with Pelagius and about to say that original sin isn’t a thing; you know, because we’re all basically good and capable of being moral on our own. Maybe we’re about to catch up to Arius and say that there was a time when the Son was not. Any day now.
  3. Well, at least you’re not defying your conscience. But that doesn’t mean you’re always right. (See the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraphs 1783-1794.)
  4. The saints did that. Many of the faithful do exactly that. Adhering to one teaching does not absolve you of the responsibility to adhere to the rest; you cannot say, “I believe in the eternal nature of the Son, so I’m allowed to believe in modalism.” Faithfulness is not a balancing act of orthodoxies and heresies, but a strict adherence to orthodoxy.

I think the most basic reason for this disagreement is a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Church works. It’s typical of Americans because we cling to this notion that democracy is the best of all possible governance, but the Catholic Church does not rise up from the people and their opinions. Rather, it was handed down to us by God himself, in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ, through his chosen apostles and most especially Peter. The Catholic Church teaches the Word of God, not the word of Man. But many who were baptized Catholic make no effort to accept this framework.

Okay, but why doesn’t this happen so much elsewhere? Why do I meet more Catholics who cling to their own opinions over the Church than, say, Baptists or Pentecostals? Well, the main issue here is how the label gets applied. If you’re baptized Catholic, you’re Catholic; that’s a lifelong sacrament with lifelong grace. The label doesn’t get removed without excommunication–and in many cases, an excommunication is appropriate to people teaching heterodox views, but it’s out of vogue to excommunicate people. Protestant labels like “Methodist” or “Baptist” are chosen by the individual and self-applied for as long as they are appropriate; if a person’s faith changes, they change labels or drop them altogether. Even so, Protestant churches are full of people who only attend because they feel obligated, but who hold no shared opinions with the rest of the congregation; they’re just less likely to use the labels. Catholics are so attached to that label of Catholicism that I would not be surprised to hear someone say, “I’m Catholic, but I don’t think God exists.” This is the origin of the phrase cultural Catholicism–to be Catholic becomes so ingrained in people that they forget what it actually means. Instead, they take it on as a sort of ethnic identity; no one would bat an eye if I said, “I’m a white guy, but I don’t think God exists.”

You may have noticed that I have been careful not to use the phrase suggested by my post title, the derogatory term “cafeteria Catholics.” In part, this is because some are now championing the term because they think it makes them greater saints to defy where the Church is “wrong.” (Of course, if the Church could be wrong, she wouldn’t be the Church.) It’s also not a charitable term; most people to whom it applies really are following their consciences. But our consciences are imperfect, because we are imperfect. We should follow the Church precisely because God has given her to us for this grace, to have her at the ready to correct our concupiscence and cure us of our sin. The true danger of “cafeteria Catholicism” is not teaching error–the Church can survive that, as she has well proved–but it is the trivialization of sin and schism.

I have no doubt the Church will weather the storm as she always does, but not every soul aboard will be saved. Let us strive always to join the crew, obey the captain, and follow the will of God; every time we veer off-course, we risk losing more souls–especially our own.

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1 I’m not saying Abp. Sheen didn’t say this, because it’s certainly in keeping with what he has said, and he has said the “wrong is wrong” and “right is right” bit in multiple places. But the most specific any source gets for this quote is the year 1953, which was certainly a full year for which I was not present, much less Catholic. It’s possible he said this during a homily or a speech that was not recorded, and someone noted down the words as being particular poignant (for that they are). But these words in this phrasing do not seem to appear in printed or recorded material that I can find, so I’m being as honest as possible about the source.

Innovation and Ideation

Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of InnovationWhere Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s a lot of material to discuss with this book, and I have gone off on several tangents in my rather extensive notes. As a result, this book review is only complete here, on my blog, where the more religious comments will not distract folks who are simply looking for a book review.

First, general comments: I like the book. I rented it from the library at my office, but I am considering purchasing it because of the wealth of information it supplies–especially information that is inordinately useful for an author of science fiction. The development of ideas is a crucial study for anyone who wants to suggest what future ideas will be; I think that I have benefited well from reading this book, and especially recommend it to anyone interested in the history of ideation or its possible future (i.e., science fiction). (It’s also good reading for anyone looking to form an environment that promotes innovation–you know, the intended audience of the book.)

There are very few typographical errors; I can only recall two, but I do not have the quotes or page numbers on hand. The book is very well-written; Mr. Johnson has no trouble formulating his prose. Now on to more specific comments:

Perhaps the first thing you’ll notice when you start this book is that it spends a lot of time talking about evolution. Mr. Johnson’s argument is that ideation (the development or “evolution” of ideas) is largely similar to biological evolution (as are cultural and social development). I, personally, have no training in the field of evolutionary biology, so I can hardly comment on these issues. Many people agree with them, many others don’t. From what little I do know, he does not misrepresent the point, and it plays well into his subject matter (i.e., he’s not mentioning it to be confrontational, but rather, he has good reason to do so in the context of his book).

One of the great things about this book is that it highlights the way great story ideas coalesce–especially notable is the “Slow Hunch” chapter. Frequently, I don’t come up with the best novel idea ever in a flash. I come up with a good idea, and then I let it sit for a while and think about other things. Eventually, another idea–whether one I’ve had recently or very long ago–will collide with it, and I’ll have an even more complex, more gratifying story. For every one of the ideas I have (which I fully intend to write, sooner or later), this has happened at one point or another. I’ll think, “This song is inspiring. I should write a story that incorporates some of these ideas.” And then I’ll hear a saint’s life that lines up with that idea precisely. I’ll read someone else’s work, or postulate theories about the end times, or read a non-fiction book about French pirates in 18th century New Orleans, or devise a science fiction universe with my best friend, and things will come together to form a solid book idea. It’s great.

On the other hand, something that I think Mr. Johnson does not devote enough attention to is the formative and inspirational power of others’ literary works. His focus is primarily on inculcating an environment of liquid networks, where information flows freely and people share data, to produce the largest “adjacent possible” and lead to the greatest innovations. What he does not acknowledge (or at least not explicitly) is that a liquid network can form within a single mind, not just between neurons, but among the great minds of history. Theology, philosophy, science–all can be formed, adapted, expanded by studying people who have been dead for a century or more. He might relegate this to the contemplative life for which no one has any time anymore (a lament he makes when wishing that we could all spend our lives focused on developing ideas, as Darwin and Berners-Lee could), but even with a family, there is always enough free time to engage in study and contemplation… You just have to choose that over, say, watching another movie on cable or hitting “next episode” on Netflix or Hulu. Time is about choice, not constraint. Most people do not actually lack free will regarding their daily activities.

He does discuss the value of reading when it comes to the exploration and collision of ideas (pp112-113), but this is in brief. His main focus is the exploration–moving beyond the confines of daily activity–and the lament that most people don’t have time for reading. Again, make time. Also, he praises the web for its capacity to make connections (and responds to arguments that the Internet reduces serendipity by hyper-focusing everything); this is his true ideal for reading, that people find topics randomly and search for more information, not that they pursue the ideas of the ancients. It’s a component, but not a very large one. Perhaps he would argue that it’s excellent to use literature to formulate and combine ideas, but it is an incomplete architecture that does not afford every opportunity for liquid networking, slow hunches, and random connection.

Long story short, I really enjoyed this book, and I highly recommend it for purposes of (A) creating an environment that encourages innovation, (B) studying ideation in a historical narrative and imagining what may come about in the future, or (C) better understanding viewpoints that are certainly widely held among people with whom you disagree (supposing you disagree with the content of the book). Read on for more exploration of the subjects and my many digressions on matters of religion.

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Now, to my focus on religion:

I did develop a notable complaint from a very small comment he made at one point. He suggested that monastic orders in the time between the Fall of Rome and the Renaissance “controlled” information in a manner that was too ordered (no pun intended) to allow for innovation; this is his reasoning for the apparent lack of innovation during that time frame. Ignoring for a moment that innovation did not cease during that time, I thought it important to note that these methods also protected information and innovation from the clutches of the barbarian hordes, who would surely have been too chaotic to produce innovation. Barbarians of the era had no interest in liquid networks or ideation of the scientific or classical varieties. Khan’s empire produced some fine military innovations, but nothing on the order of the Renaissance or the Enlightenment.

In the same vein, he does include the perfunctory (and essential, for such books) statement about Galileo–whose “research posed a significant security threat to the established powers of the day” (p226). I suppose he’s not wrong when he writes, “Classifying two hundred good ideas into four broad quadrants certainly makes it harder to learn anything specific about each individual innovation” (also p226). He seems to know very little about the history of Galileo.

The fourth chapter of the book discusses chaotic coincidence, or serendipity. The goal of a liquid network, and especially one firing ideas chaotically across its expanse, is to formulate new ideas in ways that ordered, logical thinking could never attain. The Catholic Church has a great history of this; Thomas Aquinas, for example, baptized the work of Aristotle in a way that no one though prudent or even plausible before him–especially since Muslims like Averroes had claimed Aristotle as their philosophical predecessor. The eternal and seminal Logos, the creative Word, the Trinity, the Incarnation, the homoousios, the resurrection–every theological and christological idea has roots in other philosophies, other theologies–in innovation and chaos. And if heresy isn’t chaotic, nothing is–this production of alternate paths and ideas among bishops and priests and religious and laity produces exactly the sort of environment that led to the strongest theological foundations of our faith. Even moral and anthropological clarifications came by these means; the fundamental understanding of human life from conception to natural death would not have been formulated without the pushback from society that claimed the acceptability of eliminating inconvenient persons. Even the scientific development of prenatal study is tied to this very issue.

Far be it from me to suggest that we should encourage heresy and abominable immoral practices, that our understanding of our faith may increase (Romans 6:1). But as with sin and grace, we should not flee these “opportunities” offered us by society; we should not sully our faith, obscure our position, or hide the fact that we disagree with what society has claimed. If the President of the United States declares that we must pay for the deaths of human beings who have committed no wrongdoing in society, let us take up the mantle of Justin Martyr, and explain to him–in his own terms, by his own logic and belief–why he is wrong and cannot do this thing. After all, Justin convinced the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius to lessen his persecution of the Christians. (We must also keep in mind, of course, that Marcus Aurelius’ empire saw Justin executed. We will not always be on the winning side when it comes to society’s persecutions.) If groups of the faithful declare that homosexuality is as viable and natural a relationship as orthosexuality (from orthos, meaning “right” – cf. orthodoxy, orthopraxy), we address their argumentation clearly and accurately; nothing is gained by going off half-cocked and rambling on these issues in interviews. And we must always remember the Church’s response to heresy, historically: excommunication. People who teach these things must be removed from among the faithful–not because we seek to stifle the liquid network, the flow of ideas, or the innovative power of chaos, but because universities don’t hire astronomers who hold a terracentric view of the universe or physicists who teach that fire rises because it’s trying to reach the source of the fire element (the Sun). There are chaotic and creative ideas, and then there are just plain wrong ideas. Heresies fall in the latter category, and must be excised.

In his discussion of exaptation (cf. adaptation; “exaptation” is the use of an object or body part for a purpose totally removed from its original function–feathers originally grown for warmth became useful for flight, for example), he explains that this principle is key in rebutting intelligent design, because it is precisely the random nature of exaptation–the accidental discovery that your blanket, when asymmetrical, provides lift and improves flight speed–that makes macroevolution not only possible, but obvious. He goes on to explain, though, that human beings use exaptation as engineers; Gutenberg combined a wine press and movable type (among other things), invented long before he came along, to produce copious numbers of duplicate texts. While fortune plays a significant part in both scientific and cultural advancements (see his previous chapter on error), exaptation occurs frequently by intention and by design.

In a way, he’s unintentionally arguing against himself. It is an easy leap to go from saying that human beings design via exaptation (which involves many inventors with small pieces of the whole picture), to saying that Creation is the inventive process of a single eternal designer; the intermediary steps, so lauded by atheists as evidence of error in an inerrant God, would be the necessary movement through the adjacent possible. Intelligent design, though despised by so many on both sides of the origin argument, at least seems to stand on its own in the face of scientific principles. Whether it is right or wrong, of course, I cannot say.

Inevitably, this reminds me of one of the great failings of the Protestant approach to theology–the notion of individual, indiscriminate spiritual guidance. Is it possible that the Holy Spirit can speak to anyone, anytime, about anything, with perfect clarity? Absolutely. Does it happen as often as people claim it does? Probably not. I noticed this phenomenon most acutely on a social media network recently; someone had linked to an interview about a book by a prominent non-Christian on the identity of Jesus. The issue that came up was the discussion (by the author of the book) of christology and Christian theology. There was an argument in several comments that the author lacked the appropriate education and training, because his educational field was almost entirely unrelated to that subject; their suggestion, of course, was that his estimation of Christian theology was weak in its very foundation, because he had only had rudimentary training in the field. To this, their opponent in the argument echoed (with no small amount of incredulity), “‘Appropriate’ education?”

The implication here is that there is no such thing as “appropriate” education in theology. Anyone, apparently, can muse about the nature of God, and cannot be wrong. This is a fundamental flaw in argumentation. I cannot write a thesis on neurobiology without study. I cannot write a thesis on neo-Keynesian economics without study. I cannot write a thesis on symbolism in 16th-century Italian mannerism without study. Yet, for some reason, I am not only allowed but encouraged to write a thesis on theology, christology, soteriology–without a whit of preparation? Without reading one iota of the vast array of works which came before me? I must simply “feel” what is “right” and jot it down, and I shall be hailed a visionary, one of the elite, an academic master?

This is foolishness.

If I must attend school and study brains before I can do a lobotomy, if I must attend school and study finances before I can advise the President on his economic policies, if I must attend school and study art history before I can become the world’s leading expert on old paintings–then I must attend school and study theology before I can lead the faithful to a right understanding of God. And it occurs to me that if I want to be the best leader of the faithful, I must study under the most erudite, the most intelligent, the most well-versed teachers–those who have dedicated their entire lives to this singular pursuit, giving up all else but their love of God and neighbor.

But I digress. As I will do again very shortly.

Some of Mr. Johnson’s comments and suggestions sound suspiciously like leftist politics, but he reinforces repeatedly that he is not advocating political leanings at all, nor is he advocating the abolition of intellectual property laws. The “fourth quadrant” (non-market, non-individual innovation) allows for financial gain and free innovation; the flow of information benefits society, and a person attains individual benefits via recognition, attribution, financial reimbursement or salary, and more. The only thing incompatible with innovation, according to Mr. Johnson, is top-down bureaucracy, where the Leaders tell the Peons what to do, when to do it, and how to get it done.

This has notable implications for religious institutions. On the one hand, Protestant churches are all about individual liberty–even the ones that have their own top-down hierarchy, like Anglicanism or Presbyterianism. After all, without individual interpretation of Scripture, those denominations would never have come to be–and we know from our political science studies of these United States that individual liberty is to be prized above all else. So Protestantism seems to be at the forefront of innovation in the spiritual sphere, clearly outclassing Catholicism, which–from the outside, at least–appears to be ruled by a tyrannical monarch who has set himself up as God’s mouthpiece, especially when there are so many stories in the news about how “Catholics want this” or “Catholics don’t want that,” and it’s just the mean Pope and his crony bishops who keep it–i.e., abortions, contraceptives, universal ordination, universal matrimony–from “Catholics.”

But it is among Protestants that we see the divergent, chaotic, self-serving arbitrariness that is the very opposite of Truth. (To be fair, insofar as the Catholic Church has allowed a freer sense of liturgy, prayer, and faith, especially since the Second Vatican Council, those same elements are present therein, although rarely to the same degree.) People journey in every direction, seeking their own benefit and their own good, without consideration for reality, genuine weal, or Truth. I don’t want children, because I would have to quit work and stay home, and that would make things difficult for me right now. It’s okay to contracept, because God taught us to be good stewards, and more mouths to feed would be inconvenient and challenging. It’s unfair that anyone should be kept from any position in any field for reason of personal identity, rather than technical capacity, and gender does not alter technical capacities for anything. It’s unfair that someone should be told that they cannot marry the person they love, because marriage is about joining two people who love each other, and sexual orientation is obviously as natural and random as hair color or height. Theology is irrelevant and should be replaced with an emotional bond between us and Christ, who is our friend and brother, because “theology” is what stodgy old white men talk about, and we need to be relevant to modern generations.

Nevermind that your child is a complete and unique human being, as scientific studies continue to conclude with each passing year. Nevermind that limiting the self-gift of love cheapens your marriage and robs both you and your spouse of the divine blessings that matrimony offers; nevermind, too, that a little self-control goes a long way toward good stewardship when your family is actually imperiled. Nevermind that gender obviously alters technical capacities–there are general tendencies that deter women from accomplishing certain tasks, and general tendencies that deter men from accomplishing certain tasks, true, but more than that, no man is capable of bearing a child. (The hypothetical notion that medical science may one day produce a surgical procedure that would allow men to do so not only smacks of transhumanism, but demands a severe and unnatural process all for the sake of pretense.) Nevermind that marriage is not about joining two people who love each other (it has more do with a sacramental union of two individuals with God in an active love so strong that it must propagate itself, though even that is an insufficient description); and nevermind that not all natural orientations and inclinations ought to be followed. (It is the typical Christian argument to liken a natural predisposition toward homosexuality to the same toward gambling, or greed, or violence, but consider even personality quirks–it is unacceptable in common society to have a short temper, to be audibly proud of one’s accomplishments, to ignore the plights of others, and so on. All of these behaviors are “natural,” yet none of them are considered good and healthy, except by those who propose denying ethical strictures of all kinds.) Nevermind that theology is essential to a proper understanding of Christ and His identity–an identity which one must believe upon in order to be saved; most importantly, how can you love that which you do not know, and how can you know that which you do not study? Theology is the study of God, and leads us to knowledge of Him, and that knowledge engenders in us a deeper love than any emotional experience can. We need to teach this to modern generations, not pander to their whims.

Granted, not all Protestant communities espouse these beliefs, and many still oppose them, but the trend toward self-interest is essential to the Protestant way of life. Every time someone disagrees with his church leaders, he goes and starts a new church, placing himself (or someone who agrees with him) at the head of it. This is how there came to be so many denominations, most of which denounce all the others as heretical. The allowance for individual study and interpretation, without a method or mechanism for correcting the mistaken, produces generation after generation of “Christians” who believe some of the most outlandish moral theology heard since the Gnostics and Manichaeans and mystery cults of the first half-millennium Anno Domini. Many Christians remain steadfast in the faith, but many fall away, into hedonism, into paganism, into agnosticism and atheism and nihilism. This is the challenge of the modern Christian: how to support individual liberty, individual study, and individual interpretation–thereby allowing the sort of “fourth quadrant” thinking that Mr. Johnson has–without allowing such egregious errors as abortion and euthanasia.

The difference between theology and more measurable studies in this regard is evidence. In science, when you claim that the earth is flat or there are four (or five) elements, your observations (or those of your intellectual descendants) will prove you wrong. Theology, however, is not easily observed, and like linguistics, semantics, and other “softer” studies (i.e., the humanities), most observations can be twisted to fit an ideology that you already hold. What distinguishes theology even from the humanities is that such twists of belief are often not supported with logic, or reason, or explanation, but with divine revelation. But, “It’s this way because God says it’s this way,” only works for Apostles and prophets, and as Scripture makes it clear, both can be misled. How many times, in the Old Testament, was one prophet opposed by many others? Elijah, Jeremiah–how many more? Do you think that every one of those misleading prophets was motivated by greed, or self-interest? Isn’t it more likely that some of them were simply misled themselves? After all, God and His angels are not the only ones seeking our attention on spiritual matters. Unless we have been given the spiritual gift of discernment, how can we be sure whether a spiritual insight is divine revelation or demonic manipulation? (And no, just saying, “I have the gifts of prophecy and discernment!” does not qualify you to declare your own beliefs as incontrovertible law.) As for the Apostles, recall the case of Judas Iscariot–he walked with Jesus for three years, just like Peter and John and James and the rest, and yet he fell prey to greed. Some posit that he was also attempting to force Jesus’ hand, to compel him to take up the mantle of warrior-Messiah. Regardless of his motives, he was clearly misled, and he was about as close to Christ as any man could come.

Is it reasonable, then, to claim that you, Random Person, are infallible in matters of faith and morals?

Or does it make more sense to bring your innovations, your studies, your interpretations, before the Holy Church, the Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ, subject to His will and guidance, and seek to grow your understanding by open and honest discussion of the ideas with others? The one who reads the Bible, determines an individual interpretation, and writes a book declaring it to be the truth is like someone claiming to invent a new technology in a vacuum, as though no one else had a hand in it; and beyond that, this same person is now claiming that no one could possibly improve upon his invention. It makes no sense. The Church does not oppose the development of ideas. Despite the infamous tales of Galileo and Hus and Luther, their ideas played instrumental roles in the formation and reformation of the Church. Galileo’s science, which followed in the footsteps of Copernicus’ work, was never condemned by the Church (despite what modern representations suggest), but was actually encouraged and supported, especially by Jesuit scientists of the era. Hus and Luther proposed radical alterations to the practices of the Church, and while it may be said that their situations were mishandled by bishops and the papacy, it cannot be said that they had no effect. The so-called “counter-Reformation” was accompanied by broad reforms of Catholic practice, including the abolition of several things Luther opposed directly. Luther, however, could not contain his vitriol, and quickly moved from, “These are problems in the Church,” to, “The Pope is a heretic and a villain, and his Church is a farce,” and other things far too vulgar to print here. (His infamous description of the Book of James is but a small taste of his irreverence.)

In spite of its top-down bureaucratic appearance, the Catholic Church as a whole allows much more freedom of thought than folks give it credit for–but at the same time, it seeks to eliminate errors among its members. Protestant denominations, on the other hand, support individual freedom so completely that they allow error and sin to pervade Christendom, lest they seem too intolerant or restrictive or, Heaven forbid, Catholic.


*You may have noticed that I previously used a horizontal rule to separate the “normal” review from the digressions. I originally had the same set up in this post, but was forced to change it due to a bug in the WordPress software that causes very long posts with the horizontal rule HTML tag to disappear. If they ever fix this–it’s been a problem for at least two years–I’ll fix the formatting to be more consistent.

Poor Editing, Unnoticed Bias

Healthcare Delivery In The U.S.A.: An Introduction To Hospitals, Health Systems And Other Providers Of CareHealthcare Delivery In The U.S.A.: An Introduction To Hospitals, Health Systems And Other Providers Of Care by Margaret Schulte
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book was, based on my meager qualifications, an acceptable (if mediocre) introduction to healthcare delivery in these U.S. of A. I will endeavor to cover its issues as efficiently as possible, but I promise to digress upon the conclusion of my review (available only in the version posted on my weblog).

First, the typos. I mean, seriously. This is a professionally edited and published book used for education in the spheres of healthcare and information technology. There is no reason whatsoever for this book to have as many typographical errors as it does. Throughout the early chapters especially, but with a sudden uptick in the final chapter also, misplaced words, repeated items on the same list, and similar issues pervade the text. The biggest issue with this is not their mere presence, but how obvious they are. No one caught “thir” where the word “third” should have been? Even spell-check can pick up on that. Less egregious, but equally surprising, are the problems in the flow of the prose. This or that paragraph is entirely disjointed from its topic sentence, resulting in a book that is often convoluted and misleading. At one point, Dr. Schulte (a doctor of business administration, not medicine) uses the phrase, “only more than 40%”; while this is a technically accurate phrase, there are so many better ways to say it. Later, she mistyped the same word twice in the same sentence – in different ways. How did her editor not pick up on any of this?

Another issue is the sourcing. Easily one third of this book is quoting something else. In the first three or four chapters, almost every other sentence seems to be a quote from Jonas and Kovner’s “Health Care Delivery in the United States”; given the apparent similarities in content and the obvious similarities in title, I felt compelled to ask myself, why am I not just reading their book? Later, she even quoted the Encyclopedia Britannica; is it just me, or is that only one tiny step above quoting Wikipedia?

After a few chapters, she starts mentioning (almost constantly) the lack of networking among hospitals. Based on my reading of the remainder of the book from this point, this is, in fact, her thesis; I suppose, then, my question is this: Why the heck didn’t she start with that?

Most of my other problems with the book were in its biases. In her introduction, Dr. Schulte expresses a sentiment common among moderns: the past was horrifying, but the present is almost peachy. I will not sit here and advocate that medicine in the 18th century even remotely rivals medicine today in terms of quality, but a simple acknowledgment of its own improvement would not be remiss. After all, progress is on a continuum; it has seen a notably rapid increase in the past two centuries, but that does not mean that anything old is inherently bad. Relatedly, when she discusses the statistics of health problems in the US between 1950 and 2000, she includes on the table the noted increase in cancer, but makes no mention of it, nor any discussion of why – among everything else improving – this alone got worse.

Dr. Schulte also seems to be quite the advocate of genetic manipulation of infants in the womb: “[Biological factors] are composed of heredity and genetics, both of which impact our propensity to succumb to certain diseases. They also affect our physical characteristics, such as whether we are tall or short, blonde or dark haired, and so on. Advances in the science of genetics offer the potential to reshape some of those characteristics through, for example, embryonic gene transplantation” (p21). In her later discussion of genomics, she takes the time to mention the danger of discrimination (based on genetic predispositions to certain diseases, for example, among employers who do not want to pay insurance companies for cancer bills), but she makes no mention whatsoever of the very real danger that we will endeavor to build a better human through those same studies.

Elsewhere, she writes of the “lack of public will to sacrifice and change priorities to achieve the World Health Organization’s definition of the individual human condition” (p13); while not entirely negative, it suggests (in context) that the problem is consistently other people with their bad policies. If society is to change, it takes all of society, not just the “problem” people. At another place, she implies rather blatantly that private schooling is of particularly low quality. In that same vein, she repeatedly advocates placing the government at the forefront of healthcare. She writes of “the increased recognition of the need for government to play a larger role in assuring medical care for the poor” (pp6-7); not, “the increased belief” or “the increased opinion” or “the increased position” – but the increased recognition of the need. Therefore, the need is an objective fact, and people were finally coming around to it. Later, she rather specifically advocates taxation of currently tax-exempt hospitals, unless those hospitals provide strong evidence that community benefit (i.e., free services by those hospitals) equal or surpass the tax exemption.

In fairness, I will admit that she mellows a bit in later pages. She gives faith-based hospitals a fair shake and positive support (in spite of her comments, mentioned above, about taxing currently tax-exempt hospitals), and provides fair treatment of midwifery (a rare thing among healthcare professionals). Eventually, she really does begin to focus on real issues with healthcare delivery, especially the quality thereof.

All things considered, it’s not a terrible book, but there is a lot of room for improvement. It’s a little slow at times, but it covers the highlights, which is what an introductory book is supposed to do.

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And now for my digressions.

Dr. Schulte’s praise of government involvement in healthcare is juxtaposed (unbeknownst to her, apparently) with her appraisal of the implementation of Prospective Payment and the Stark Laws. In short, these two issues are perfect examples of politicians passing healthcare laws, assuming that one thing would happen, when in fact something totally different happened (thereby making them precursors to the Affordable Care Act). When Medicare started the Prospective Payment system (using Diagnosis-Related Groups, or DRGs, to determine how much money will be reimbursed to the healthcare provider), they expected to cut down on rising hospital costs. In reality, healthcare saw a sudden shift from the inpatient world to the ambulatory world (which, at the time, was not subject to the Prospective Payment system) and, simultaneously, hospitals stopped providing essential medical services (because they were paid for the diagnosis, not for the services, meaning that doing less got them paid more), which resulted in significantly lower quality of care for patients. The Stark Laws were a more reasonable assessment of the situation, but they, too, had an unanticipated consequence. These laws compelled doctors to have no financial stake in the clinics or hospitals to which they referred patients (since they would otherwise get financial benefits by referring them to those places). As a result, however, these laws proved a major barrier to the implementation of electronic health records, because without financial arrangements between hospitals and doctors, the EHR cannot meet several of the requirements of Meaningful Use (and makes medical practice and billing that much more complicated besides).

And the Affordable Care Act is the most recent instance of bad policy-making with unintended side effects, all because politicians fail to understand the way real people think. One of the requirements of the Affordable Care Act is that any employee who works more than 29 hours is to be offered benefits by his employer. Clearly, this is meant to increase the number of insured people among the population. The actual result, of course, is that employers everywhere cut their part-time employees’ hours, so they wouldn’t have to provide benefits. This leads to decreased income, which means fewer taxes paid by these people, and decreased spending (and also fewer taxes)… which harms the economy. This might decrease unemployment, since these companies now need to employ more people with fewer hours, but none of those employees are paid enough to buy their own insurance, which will cause problems once the individual mandate comes into effect. Even if Health Insurance Exchanges make insurance available for cheaper, there are going to be plenty of people who still can’t afford it – not because they’re unemployed and qualify for Medicaid, but because they are employed, but the ACA forced their employers to cut back their hours. Jobs are hard enough to find as-is – folks are not going to be able to find a second job so that they can afford health insurance. Honestly, this seems pretty intuitive to me – did no one at Congress or the White House think of this?

Digression number 2: The more I read of this book, the more I got the impression that very few people in the healthcare industry actually have real concern for the whole patient. This is notable, first of all, in the general lack of moral and spiritual considerations in healthcare, but also in the apathy toward financial hardship. Perhaps these are the result of the drilled-down focus of specialists on their tiny segment of health, or maybe it’s the perceived divorce between science and faith, or the general obsession with monetary gain superceding the whole notion of the Hippocratic oath. That oath, by the way, is inherently charitable and dedicated to the health of the patient, regardless of identity or ability to pay. This whole impression is reinforced by an article I read recently, at the New Yorker (but don’t let that color your opinion of it too much), which discusses in some detail the challenges facing healthcare today, especially in a financial sense. I don’t agree with everything the author there purports and suggests, but it does bring me back around to an opinion which is at once radical and traditional, simultaneously considerate and wildly despised: Doctors, like teachers, preachers, and politicians, should work for nothing more than room, board, and debt remittance. If you’re in one of these positions, and making money is more important to you than taking care of people, then you’re in the wrong profession.

The Romantic Prince

Prince OttoPrince Otto by Robert Louis Stevenson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After reading Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Prince Otto is a startling change of pace. From adventure and pirates and sailing and treasure in the Caribbean–to political intrigue and romance in Germany.

The book, as I understand it, was not well-received in its time, and to be fair, I can see why. It did not fit the culture of the age, with its romantic optimism and vague opposition to monarchy, but it is still an enjoyable read–provided you like dialogue and romance. It was certainly far more pleasant than other romances I have perused lately.

The characters are written well and consistently, although it seemed Stevenson was adding a new name or title to some characters every chapter. (It helped once I realized that some titles were simply the German counterparts to titles he had already used in English.) The romance between Otto and Seraphina is… complicated, to be trite, but not unbelievable. Otto, apart from a brief (and destructive) moment of monarchic ire, is dedicated entirely to serving and pleasing the wife he always knew he had disappointed. Seraphina, meanwhile, is so focused on ruling the princedom that she sacrifices her personal life in frustration with Otto’s political shortcomings; yet in the end, she realizes whither her manipulations brought her and remembers her love for Otto.

I was delighted to read allusions to Scripture several times in each chapter. They were often poignant and effective, especially if you know the context, and they spiced up a book which would otherwise have been rather dreary.

The book does have a happy ending, so if you’re opposed to that, I suspect you should avoid it. If, on the other hand, a romance is only good when it all works out in the end, this is a fine choice. Not Stevenson’s best work, of course, but thoroughly pleasant.

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