The Beards: a fun video

 

As we approach colder weather, guys everywhere should consider growing a beard (or in my case a bigger beard)… maybe even one worthy of the title “Alaskan whaler”. This video should help get you psyched.

-Ben


Check Your Posture

Pride-and-Prejudice-1995-jane-austen-13601705-924-576I remember often as a kid my parents would tell me that I should sit up straight. I didn’t really see what the fuss was about and largely ignored the advice, continuing to sit with my nose in a book, or reclined in whatever position felt comfortable. It wasn’t until I saw a picture of myself with friends when I was in my late teens that I noticed how horrible my posture was. My neck and shoulders naturally bent forward. By the time I had finally become self-conscious of my posture I had to work to undo years of slouching. It has not been easy, and I have not fully succeeded by the age of 30, but I have largely overcome the effects of bad posture through a constant attention to maintaining good posture.

Do you notice how actors in movies always just seem to have good posture? Athletes, dancers, equestrians, politicians and other people in the public eye can give the impression that good posture is a natural thing that we all have. I would argue that most if not all of those people have made a conscious effort toward good posture, to the point where it looks effortless, much like a well-trained public speaker appears like he’s having a natural conversation with his audience. Because the people we see and admire make good posture look natural, we can assume that we naturally have it also, especially when we only see ourselves from the front when we look in the mirror. I have learned that bad posture sneaks up on you, and for people like me who didn’t start out right, it takes an active fight everyday to not look like a slouch.

These days I notice that bad posture is becoming an epidemic among teenagers. Young ladies can develop a hunchback appearance, perhaps from looking down at their cell phones texting all day. Young men who play guitar or video games can have the problem and not even realize it, and then it can be a serious blow to their confidence when they finally notice. Is anyone going out of their way to motivate and properly instruct young people on how to sit and stand up straight? Perhaps we can learn something from the English culture of Jane Austen when young people were given elaborate instruction on how to carry themselves in public.

We should be aware of ourselves and understand our tendencies. Tall people can feel self-conscious about their height and perhaps subconsciously slouch downward, while shorter people might naturally have better posture while making the most of their height. People who work at a computer and/or a desk need to be extra careful, but those who work on their physical fitness have an advantage. If we’re relaxed much of the time then balance muscles that support our skeletal frame are not being exercised as they should. This is as much a challenge to myself as anyone.

The best advice I’ve ever heard for proper posture is to imagine that there is a string tied to the top of your head, pulling firmly upward. This helps you to extend the spine, put your shoulders and head back, chest out, and your chin up and back slightly, without exaggerating any of those movements. Daily stretches and strengthening your core are good ideas as well. A brief search online reveals possible routines that can help.

A focus on good posture can help with self-confidence, balance, and breathing, and can serve as a reminder to bring your head up and take a look at the world around you. It takes effort, but it’s well worth it. My point is, these things might need to be explained by parents and anyone who has an impact in the lives of young people. A bit of tough love can be something they’ll be grateful for later.

-Ben 9/13/14


North American Martyrs

 

 


Brideshead Revisited Book Review

bridesheadI would like to share my thoughts on Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited. I only recently discovered it and was privileged to listen to Jeremy Irons’ audiobook narration. Admittedly, it was my curiosity regarding Mr. Waugh’s Catholicism that led me to read it, but soon I was able to see why it is widely regarded as a classic. I found myself drawing comparisons at times between Evelyn Waugh’s style and that of Jane Austen or even Mark Twain. He has a way of helping you to picture stuffy old English culture while you’re chuckling at it, as well as helping you see the most cheerful side of life through his character development and dialog, which can easily be the boring part of novels. Also, I would dare say his ability to describe so much in so few words could give Jack London a run for his money.

First published in 1945, Brideshead Revisited is regarded as Evelyn Waugh’s magnum opus. He was able to draw from his experiences in the military and in college to paint such a bemused picture of those environments that he had me laughing out loud. Although the story begins during World War II, we are soon accompanying the main character Charles Ryder in his memories of his younger days growing up in 1920’s England. He describes meeting his good friend Sebastian and his encounters with Sebastian’s family, with the story centered around the family estate: Brideshead. The character development and dialog make for great discussion with other readers, and the subtle thematic depth makes me want to read it again. As the story progressed, I found myself being amused less often but appreciating Waugh’s descriptive abilities all the more. He had apparently intended a graceful transition from a humorous story into a more poignant one as the years of the story progressed into the 1930’s toward the war. By the time the end of the book comes along, the reader is emotionally and curiously prepared for the meaningful ending.

I should probably say a few words regarding the relationship between Charles and Sebastian toward the beginning of the book. In our modern American cultural context it is easy to draw conclusions, and at the very least the author does not seem to fear the possibility of our imaginations roaming a bit. However, before allowing speculation to ruin a great novel (or watching any Hollywood versions of it), it’s important to remember the Catholic stance on homosexuality that Waugh undoubtedly agreed with. Of course we are talking about characters who are not exactly on their best behavior, but if nothing is specified there’s hardly any sense in forcing the issue. I’ve decided to take a neutral stance on this debated aspect of the book, and allow Waugh’s bemused approach to writing become my approach to reading his work.

I am tempted to venture into the theological undertones (or overt messages, depending on who you are), but I will leave that alone for now and let the readers explore for themselves what Waugh might have been up to. Suffice it to say, as it is no secret, the overall theological message of the book is one of God’s grace and His pursuit of us all.

The story has a feel somewhat resembling Gone with the Wind or Legends of the Fall in its memory of an idyllic time and place followed by a slow but steady march into decay. Personally, I much prefer to learn the lessons of bad decisions through fiction rather than real life, so I don’t mind too much, as long as the story has quality and impact.

Although there are no characters that directly resemble myself or people I know, there are enough similarities on various levels to make the book particularly interesting to me at this season of my life. I think this is worth mentioning, just in case it might influence whether someone wants to read the book more or less because of it.

Catholic characters in the story are quite flawed (as Catholics tend to be), and Waugh’s treatment of many Catholic beliefs seems to amount to a literary shrugging of his shoulders… which makes me laugh. I can relate. But the aloof skepticism of agnostics can all-too-often give way to belief in the end.

I appreciate the author’s ability to share his theology through literature. Something that really struck me was Waugh’s ability to describe cares and temptations that people face every day in a way that would impress any secular literary critic, but then turn around and give an equally moving examination of the moral perspective. There was an interesting balance in this book between a seemingly casual writing style and substantive subjects. I was delighted one moment, and contemplative the next. To me, the book served as an illustration that Catholics are not ignorant of worldly concerns and desires, but aware of higher considerations. There is depth to this novel that will continue to maintain its relevance, and I look forward to re-reading it and recommending it to others in the years to come.

-Ben 9/2/14


Order of Understanding: Insight for Catholic Apologists

In my transition from Evangelical Protestant to (Roman) Catholic, there was an orderly process of understanding that allowed me to slowly release my grip on the presuppositions and perks of Protestantism. The three steps I’ve outlined below are the foundation upon which Catholic understanding was established in my mind and heart:

  1. Truth is not relative. In other words, Jesus’ death on the cross does not mean whatever we want it to mean. If you want real Christianity, you need to venture outside the realm of preference. Important: misunderstanding Christ and His Church does not equal condemnation. However, every Christian should want to pursue the most accurate version of Christianity possible. Christians should desire the fullness of the faith. It seems rather dangerous to cling to a minimalist understanding of Christ and trust that God will look mercifully upon a refusal to look deeper. For too many people, it is simply convenient that Catholicism looks wrong to them, and an honest examination of Catholic beliefs is not on their to-do list. If someone is stuck at step 1, and they believe Christianity can be defined according to their preferences, then an explanation of Catholic doctrines can be a frustrating exercise.
  2. History matters. The accumulated knowledge of Christians throughout the centuries far surpasses my own knowledge. As someone with a degree in history I can vouch for the value of reading primary source material. Basically… if you want to better understand America, read the writings of the Founding Fathers. If you want to better understand Christianity, read the writings of the early Church Fathers. If nothing else, they offer some of the best possible commentary on Scripture that you can find. I began to really ponder how orthodox (authentic) Christian beliefs could be preserved against heresies through the centuries. The fact that heresies can be fueled by a misunderstanding of Scripture should be disconcerting to Protestants (of course an acknowledgment that heresy is bad should be part of step 1). Find a Protestant who cares about history, and you’ve got someone who can learn… and can grasp the need for apostolic succession and the value of Sacred Tradition.
  3. The Protestant concept of “Sola Scriptura” (“Scripture Alone” as the doctrinal authority for Christians) simply doesn’t work… nor is it biblically defendable. This was the death blow to my Protestant assumptions. Unity in the Body of Christ is important (again, step 1 is necessary), and Sola Scriptura causes tragic division among Christians. Sola Scriptura is not defined or demanded in Scripture itself. Perhaps even more importantly, there is no definitive scriptural way of knowing which books should be in the Bible, thereby creating uncertainty within the confines of Sola Scriptura about the reliability of the Bible’s contents.

Backed by history, and guided by the Church, Catholics are able to rely on Scripture with confidence and accuracy.

As a Protestant, I wholeheartedly embraced the first two steps in regard to secular subjects, but Catholics demonstrated how the principles could (and should) be applied to my faith as well. Also, it isn’t that I clung to the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura in opposition to the evidence… it’s just that I didn’t know any better. Finally, I was able to see that personal interpretation of Scripture is unreliable, and I began to seek solid answers to some tough questions. Watch for others like me, and be able to point them to the Church.

After the basic steps were covered, I was able to seriously consider what is perhaps the most important question I faced in my conversion process: the question of doctrinal/spiritual authority.

I think most Protestants never imagine that Sola Scriptura is wrong, and that is why they talk as though they are defending the Bible against the “men” or “traditions” of the Catholic Church. In reality they are defending their personal interpretation of the Bible against the Church that God has placed on this earth to guide all Christians. I had to learn that the Scriptures were intended to be part of the Church’s guidance and not our excuse to protest the Church’s guidance.

Blessings!

-Ben 8/30/14


Some Random Things for August 2014

I’m planning on taking the month of August off from the blog, but I want to leave you with a month’s worth of random ruminations for while I’m gone…

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As you saw previously in my book review, I encourage you to read The Guns of August this month in remembrance of WWI beginning a century ago. Feel free to share your thoughts and recommend other books on the subject.

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gondolinI just finished listening to a quality audiobook version of The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien, and it gave me a glimpse of what it must have been like centuries ago to sit next to a crackling fire while an old-timer of the village told tales of ages past. The Silmarillion is a history of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, but it’s also much more than that. It is very much like mythology, and it’s about as epic as a story can get.

Now, before you run off to grab a copy of The Silmarillion and start reading, I should caution you. Personally, it does me a lot of good to have already read The Lord of the Rings trilogy (a couple of times) and The Hobbit. Also, I’ve waded through a handful of ancient classics like The Aenied, Beowulf, and Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. Why was it helpful to have these ultimately rewarding albeit challenging books under my belt? Two reasons: First of all, Tolkien spent a large portion of his lifetime imagining and writing The Silmarillion, and in the process his style was greatly influenced by his studies of ancient stories and linguistics. It helps to have a basic foundational knowledge of his style. Secondly, anyone who reads classic literature can tell you that this sort of reading requires serious discipline and appreciation of quality. It’s not fast food we’re talking about here.

But before I come across as too much of a smarty pants, let me admit forthwith that I will eventually have to go through this book a second or third time in order to better follow what’s going on. This first time I just concentrated on enjoying it. I take a lot of comfort in the fact that if I can fully understand something at first glance, it’s not that impressive.

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As many of you already know, J.R.R. Tolkien was seriously Catholic, and this week I came across some good quotes here.

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Domenico-Quaglio-xx-Reims-Cathedral-xx-Museum-der-Bildenden-KunsteToday’s Gospel in Mass was taken from Matthew chapter 13, and it really reminds me of my personal testimony in finding the Catholic Church:

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

The concept of the kingdom of heaven has been especially intriguing to me lately. Jesus said almost 2,000 years ago “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17), and Daniel’s interpretation of king Nebuchadnezzar’s dream in Daniel 2:34-35 describes a stone that crushes a statue representing the kingdoms of the earth, and “the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.”

If I understand Catholic theologians correctly, we are now in “the thousand-year reign”. The Church is not only visible, but is also the kingdom of heaven on earth, wherein the leadership structure (including the pope) of this spiritual kingdom makes so much more sense apart from my former Protestant perspective of the invisible, underground church.

By the way, historical examples of this concept in action can be really cool to read about. Look up Pope Leo the Great confronting Attila the Hun.

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Tree of Life MovieThanks to motivation from Fr. Robert Barron’s insightful movie review on youtube, I watched the movie The Tree of Life recently. I tend to enjoy movies that I would call deep and contemplative (but my wife would call weird and depressing) and this movie fits the bill. The verse from the book of Job at the beginning is crucial to remember throughout, and it helps to watch the movie on a good quality TV and appreciate it as a work of art. Watch Fr. Barron’s video insights, and let me know what you think of the movie. I did not totally understand all of it, but like I said, I like stuff that’s deeper than my ability to understand at first glance. I was struck by the examination of fatherhood through observation, and the influence of grace as a balance to nature.

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Lastly, I’m not exactly sure how to word this, and I don’t want to dwell too much on it, but over the last few months I have been amazed at the unwillingness of many of my friends and family to truly understand why I am becoming Catholic, or examine the sources that I’ve been pointing to. Even my desire to supply books for people to read seems to have little or no effect. I wish that I could sit down with each person for as many weekends as necessary and have heart-to-heart discussions, with Truth as the final goal. I believe that I’ve found something amazing… but it seems that people frankly do not want to know. I don’t want to start sounding like Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men: “YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!” Even if someone could effectively point out to me how I might be wrong, it would be better than resignation or benign silence. I guess people don’t realize how their beliefs look really weak and all the more questionable when they are unwilling to examine them carefully.

But I know that God works in His own time. He sure took His time with me, and I’m eternally grateful to Him. I want to be gracious at all times, even if I feel a bit frustrated.

If anyone… ever… wants to talk with me about my spiritual journey… please don’t hesitate. It seems like people should want to understand…

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I hope that you all have a wonderful month! May God bless you.

-Ben 7/27/14


Is Christianity a Religion?

I sat down to write out reasons why Catholics don’t have a problem referring to Christianity as a religion (but of course the true religion), while Protestants often refer to religion in a negative way (I know I used to). What I came up with is an outline of my thoughts in bullet-point form and I think it illustrates some of the main points of contention on this issue. This is not an all-encompassing overview, but rather an off-the-cuff summary of my current thoughts on the matter.

Religion Requires Effort

  • You must learn and understand history to adequately explain and defend religion. Catholics usually see Church history as being defendable and worthy of study, whereas others seem disinclined to study or defend the past as it is apparently not only risky but also unnecessary when beliefs are entirely personal anyway.
  • Things like prayer times, holy days, fasting, sacraments, and attendance are all important aspects of religion that require sacrifice. Taking up one’s cross is not simply a vague philosophical concept for good Catholics. At its core, Christian religion involves not only cultivating a relationship with God, but also a commitment to do His will that reaches beyond our personal preferences and individual understanding.

Religion Involves Rules

  • You don’t get to decide for yourself what Christianity is if it’s a religion.
  • Many people who cannot stand rules also cannot stand religion.
  • For many, Jesus is thought of as their best friend, and their best friend would not expect them to do anything religious. By that reasoning He would surely suspend any rules in their particular case anyway.*
  • Some people go so far as to say “My god isn’t like that” and not bother to consider the religious aspects of Christianity. Oops, did I forget to capitalize something? Probably not.

Religion is Countercultural

  • Compromise, fun, and comfort are not priorities of a religion. People who seriously seek truth are welcomed, but standards are not lowered to fill seats.
  • Religion is a constant target of ridicule, and people naturally prefer to avoid the persecution that a religion undergoes. Of course if the religion is true, then it is defendable, but secular culture often does not wait around to hear the explanation.

Religion Provides Structure

  • Religion is not just handing people a Bible, it’s explaining how to understand the Bible.
  • Religious Christianity involves actual motivation and actual instruction.
  • Catholics around the world share common doctrine and liturgy in a truly universal way, and this is only possible through a structure recognized by all. The religious/structural unity that actually unites the body of Christ around the world is more difficult to understand in cultures that take individualism to a “religious” extent.

Conclusion

The word religion is potentially a misleading term. The concern among many Christians is that by using a word for their beliefs that also describes other beliefs it is somehow lowering Christianity to be just another belief system. However, Catholics know that even though the word religion does not fully express the greatness of Christianity it is not a bad word either.

I have discovered that the structure of religious Christianity is a wonderful thing to have, even at the expense of my preferences. Others might consider doctrinal anarchy a worthwhile price to pay in order to avoid expectations being placed upon them by others. Is Christianity a religion? I say yes. There are too many easy ways to avoid the religious aspects of Christianity at the smallest excuse. But there is a price. People sacrifice truth on the altar of freedom and then sit around wondering what they’re missing that could make their faith seem more real. They’re missing what could be called religion, but what I would call the fullness of the faith.

-Ben 7/22/14

*8/6/14: I should clarify that the best possible friendship with Jesus is good, but it needs to be on His terms and not our own. Jesus said, “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:14).


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