The Game of Telephone & The Gospels

I sometimes would see people invoke the game of telephone (where kids sit in a circle and whisper things in each other’s ears, and then the last person says it out loud and everyone laughs at how much it changed) to try to show how unreliable human testimony is, and therefore how unreliable the gospels are. This is, to put it honestly, stupid, and I explain several different reasons why it’s stupid.

Thoughts From an Aging Sex Symbol

One of my better videos, now two years old, is Satanic Banality:

In it, I mention that celebrities can only sell the image of the bad life turning out well for a while, and when they wise up they lose their relevance. Which reminded me of this article by Raquel Welch, back in 2010. As the kids would say, here’s the nut graf:

Seriously, folks, if an aging sex symbol like me starts waving the red flag of caution over how low moral standards have plummeted, you know it’s gotta be pretty bad. In fact, it’s precisely because of the sexy image I’ve had that it’s important for me to speak up and say: Come on girls! Time to pull up our socks! We’re capable of so much better.

But in 2010, so far as I can tell, Raquel Welch no longer had any influence, so it didn’t matter. That’s the resilience of an engine which feeds on ignorance and spits out wiser people as spent fuel. When they were ignorant, the machine gave them their power. Once spit out, their knowledge is powerless.

(Except in individual cases; saving souls tends to be a personal business, not done over television screens.)

When Atheists Pray

In a video in which a former MMA fighter accepts a challenge from a self-defense coach to fight, the comment section was, as you might imagine, lapping up the drama like a man who just walked through the desert a lemonade stand. One comment stood out to me, though:

I’m an atheist, but please God, make this happen.

In his excellent video on prayer, Bishop Barron said that studies show that everyone prays—even atheists. And indeed, they do. But it’s curious to consider when they pray, since they’re not exactly known for regularly saying their bedtime prayers. (What follows is, of course, guesswork and painting with a broad brush.)

The second biggest time, I suspect, is in cases of danger. And of course there is the prayers asking to be spared from danger. But more interesting is a reason given by the blogger Richard Fernandez, who went by the pen name Wretchard the Cat at the time. He was explaining why there are no atheists in foxholes. It’s not because people are scared. It’s because they need forgiveness.

And indeed, forgiveness is one of the two great problems that atheists face which they cannot possibly solve. As a creature in time, they cannot change the past; this means that things done wrong cannot be put right. God, being outside of time, can apply a balancing payment at the very instant of a misdeed; people can only try to make amends and try to forget. But amends do not fix the original problem, since it remains what it ever was. Only God can change the problem in the moment of its existence, since only he was there and not causing the problem.

The other great unsolvable problem which atheists have relates to what is probably the more common type of atheist prayer: hope. An atheist has precisely no reason to hope. The only way to live life, other than in despair, is in hope. We are too finite—too weak and short-sighted—to live in any way other than despair and hope. But to live in despair will probably just end in suicide; though to quote Chesterton it might be suicide using the tools of pleasure, rather than the tools of pain.

The type of prayer that hope produces is generally that of asking for life to work out according to an intelligible rational plan, or as it is more commonly known, asking for stuff.

Which brings us back to the quote with which this started. Everyone knows, on some level, that for the world to be good it must be ordered according to a rational will. It’s curious how much of the time, in a rich society, one can not think about that fact.

The PETA Ad That Encapsulates Modernity

It is, unfortunately, not really safe for work, or for children, and in a more extended sense, for people with eyes. And yet anyone who lives in the modern world will probably see worse on a frequent basis. Accordingly I’ll put it in the “click to read more” section so that only those who think it wise will look at it.

The text of the tweet presenting the add is:

“Traditional” masculinity is DEAD. The secret to male sexual stamina is veggies. 😉

The ad itself shows a number of men with large vegetables tied to their crotches in ways that visually suggest part of the male anatomy normally hidden beneath clothing. The first guy looks remarkably like a stereotypical rapist, there are one or two more men I’d never be willing to associate with and would strongly suggest any woman I know avoid too; there are also some normal-looking men, even a few over 50. They are mostly gyrating their crotches to make the tied-on vegetables swing around in ways that suggest that incarceration for public indecency is imminent.

Technically the idea that traditional masculinity is dead comes from the tweet rather than the ad, which limits itself to promoting vegetables for sexual stamina. That said, it’s a great symptom of modernity that “traditional masculinity” is equated, not with character traits such as strength, endurance, competence, loyalty, bravery, and so forth, but only with the procreative act (which one assumes will generally be neutered so as to avoid the actual procreation). It does follow, though, that when a man is nothing but a passive receptacle for sensations he will be conceptually reduced to his most sensitive body parts.

(As a side note, the ad is fascinating in that it’s theoretically promoting vegetables but is so creepy that it would be more effectively pro-vegetarian if it was nominally promoting meat.)

Probably the most notable aspect to it is that the general taboos against showing hardcore pornography in most public places keep the ad from simulating with vegetables the theoretical benefit being proposed. In consequence the attempt to suggest the proposed benefit is forced to become a solitary activity. This makes it not only creepier, but also a great symbol for modernity—it is a video of men celebrating themselves for things which are naturally ordered toward community. In modernity the individual becomes atomized and alone. As such, he becomes entirely sterile.

He can create nothing. All he can do is long for past glory and pretend that he has it.

Continue reading “The PETA Ad That Encapsulates Modernity”

Secular Celebrations Have to Suck in the Modern World

I’ve occasionally seen atheists who crow about how Christmas is a secular holiday as well as a religious one. This has always struck me as odd because the secular celebration of Christmas is awful and has been for a while. C.S. Lewis has an essay about it, and he died in 1963. Why (some) atheists are proud about something that people start complaining about in late November, I don’t know.

But thinking about it, it occurred to me that in the modern world, or at least the modern (rich) west, secular celebrations have to suck. This is because they literally can’t be about anything. Let me explain.

Traditionally, festivities were used to make real (by experience of pleasure) the hidden reality being celebrated. Whether it’s the glory of something in the past, the glory of something recurrent, or the goodness of God, people would eat foods they couldn’t always eat and play games they couldn’t always play to feel the reality of the goodness being celebrated.

The modern west, however, so totally indulges all of its senses that this is no longer possible. Even the few people who don’t eat a diet which is primarily candy (mostly in the form of candied foods), they have access to a rich variety of delicious foods. It’s very common that special meals are things like Turkey, Ham, and other stuff which was once sumptuous but is not generally the worst meal you’ll have all month.

People would decorate to please the eyes, but with modern printing, TV, phones, etc. we look at bright colors and pretty images all day long. Looking at the same decorations for a few hours is a sensory downgrade from normal.

People used to use expensive perfumes to stimulate the senses, but perfumes have become so cheap that they’re everywhere. Scented candles would be a dime a dozen except for inflation.

People would sing songs and play music to stimulate the ears; we listen to music so much it fades into the background. I literally had to stop and listen to discover that the grocery store was playing “Christmas” songs. (The scare quotes are because most of them are really winter songs.) Most of the time I don’t notice that music is even playing.

The modern west is so saturated in sensory stimulation that we ignore most of it as noise. This leaves us unable to use sensory stimulation for celebration. (This is probably why drinking to excess is so popular—most people spend most of most days sober, so being drunk is at least is a change, if not exactly a good change.)

This is not a problem for religious holidays, because we still have something we’re actually celebrating. On Christmas I will go to mass and be happy. Even the pointless sensory stimulation that we will carry on because it’s tradition can remind me of “the reason for the season”, and that is good.

But a purely secular holiday has no such advantage. There is no secular reason for secular Christmas, and none of it works. It’s a bunch of bother to have a worse time than normal. (Atheists will also say it’s nice to spend time with family, but if they actually liked it they’d do it more than once or twice a year.)

This is a real problem for atheists and will only get worse as technology gets better. This is going to have an effect on our culture, though I’m not sure what that effect is. Perhaps atheists will be bred out of the population before it has much of an effect. Still, I think that this is going to be influential. (Another possibility is that secular celebrations will become purely traditional not because anyone likes them but for the satisfaction of a connection to the past.) It will be interesting to see.

Gaudy Night

I recently finished re-reading Gaudy Night, by Dorothy L. Sayers. It is the second to last of her Lord Peter Wimsey novels and, in fiction at any rate, may reasonably be considered her magnum opus. (As a warning, this is not a review but just the jotting down of some thoughts. It is meant for those who have read the book or who don’t mind spoilers. If you’re neither person, you would be best advised to put his post down and go read Gaudy Night. As the standard joke runs: go do it now. I’ll wait.)

Reading Gaudy Night is always a mixed experience for me. On the one hand, it’s a a triumph of a book. It’s got some of the most vivid, living characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction. It’s got an excellent plot which is excellent both as a mystery and as a story of the characters who are caught up in the mystery. It has an excellent setting. It is very well told. It has fascinating and important themes. It handles the long-running romance between Lord Peter and Harriet Vane with great skill and brings it to a very satisfying conclusion.

So, what’s the problem?

The problem is related to why the atheistic children of atheists can’t tell good stories. This might sound strange to the people who know that Dorothy L. Sayers was a very well educated and intelligent Christian woman. There are better examples of it, but her book The Mind of the Maker, for example, is none the less a good example of the fact.

The problem is that there are limits to how good a story even a Christian can tell with atheistic characters. The atheistic child of atheists is far more limited because he simply has no good stories to tell. Atheism is the supposition that life is not, in fact, a narrative, but merely a meaningless set of coincidences. Such a person can suspend his disbelief, but he will simply have nothing to suspend it for. His parents will not have told him any really human stories, and being an atheist himself he will not have encountered them, either.

A different, but related, problem faces the Christian who is writing a story entirely about atheists. It is that all good stories must flow out of the characters in them. Characters who do not generate the story but to whom the story simply happens are not characters but mere props, possibly of the seen characters and possibly of unseen characters. And the most you can get out of atheistic characters is seeing the problems of life.

Atheists cannot have answers to any of the problems of life for the very simple reason that atheism does not allow for the possibility of meaning in life. (They will whine to you about “the meaning they give their life”. It is nothing but awkward when an adult tells you about the games of pretend they like to play. I mean that literally, by the way. The meaning an atheist chooses to give to life exists only in his mind and goes away as soon as he stops creating it. This is no different than pretending to ride a giant seagull named Harry.)

All themes raised in a book with only atheistic characters—or where the only non-atheists are fools—can thus never say anything about the themes it brings up except to point out that some false answer or other is not true. This can be valuable but it cannot be satisfying. It’s going to dinner and being told that the ham is poisoned. It’s good to know. One leaves just as hungry as one came, though.

One of the great themes of Gaudy Night is that principles hurt people. But it leaves unexplored—or only implicitly explored—that a lack of principles hurt people even more. And, more to the point, that it is only principles that make living worthwhile in the first place.

For example, when Annie was complaining that the lie her historian husband had told never hurt anyone, no one pointed out to her that the only reason he had even had his job in the first place was because he was trusted to tell the truth. If they were to abandon the principle that the truth mattered, he’d have lost his job, instead of by being the wrong man for the job, but by there being no job at all.

Instead they talked of how the truth is more important than personal attachments. And so it is; anyone who loves father and mother more than Christ is not worthy of him. But this is a Christian idea—as is, really, the university. I don’t mean that students coming to wise men to learn is Christian—one obviously finds that throughout time and place. Rather, the idea that all of the truth is sacred is a uniquely Christian attitude. You simply don’t find it outside of Christianity; everyone else takes the far more reasonable position that there are big truths and little truths and the latter are inconsequential compared to the former. Most people hold that here’s one truth of overriding importance and everything else should give way beside it. It is not the love of some truth that Christianity elevated. To love some truth is simply to be human. It is the elevation of little truths that is uniquely Christian. Christianity is unique among the religions and philosophies of the world for raising up the lowly. All sane men agree that life is a hierarchy; the unique contribution of Christianity is not the obvious fact that the lower should serve the higher, but rather that the higher should stoop down to serve the lower. The very strange thing about Christianity is that the Son of man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

And this is what is uniquely Christian about a university. It is the attitude that facts which don’t matter, do matter. Which is why in our own time the universities are disintegrating before our eyes. Some take refuge in engineering; others take refuge in pretending that their incredibly minor disciplines are central to life. Most are simply taking advantage of the shade while the building is still standing. But anyone with eyes can see that the thing won’t be standing for many more decades.

In Dorothy L. Sayers’ time the conclusion was not yet so obvious, but the problem was certainly visible. The thing which prevents Gaudy Night from being a complete triumph is that, in the end, no one answered Annie. They didn’t answer Annie because no one had an answer. They didn’t have an answer for her because they didn’t have an answer for anyone. Atheists have no answers. It’s why they always feel so daring when they ask questions. They know, on some level, that merely asking questions will take a sledgehammer to the foundations and it will be discovered that the whole edifice is painted cardboard.

In the end, I think it’s very symbolic that the problem was dealt with “medically”. They had no arguments, they had only force. But they didn’t even have the courage of their convictions to use the force; they had to pay someone else who would soothingly pretend that they weren’t using force.

In a sense this conclusion was merely true to life. The events of the story take place in its year of publication: 1935. World War II was four short years off, but you could hear it coming in Gaudy Night. The project of living a Christian life without being Christian was coming to a close. Which ultimately makes Gaudy Night a book about failure. It’s a very good book, and a very important book. But this limits it. Failure is, in this world, only a prelude. The true story of life is, ultimately, about victory.


If you like Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, consider checking out my own murder mystery, The Dean Died Over Winter Break.