All posts by Kevin O'Brien

A Few Pointed Observations on Vagueness

I’ve been dealing with a challenging situation for the last two weeks, so I have not been posting.  Now  we appear to be past that, but I’ve got a major creative project that I hope to finish by Ash Wednesday, so I’m going to keep this post brief – then I plan on bugging my readers with frequent posts and videos and even podcasts during Lent!

I will be your penance, dear reader!


Meanwhile, a few observations … with bullet points (my favorite).

 

  • What is all this excitement about lack of boundaries?  Certainly we must take in refugees, but why is it that liberals don’t recognize the basic function of borders and boundaries, not only physical boundaries, but intangible ones?  We live in a world without form, without definition.  Ask someone to define something and you are called judgmental and bigoted.  But the easiest way to be victimized in this world is to blur the edges.  For instance we sinners often tell ourselves things like the following …
    • I won’t look at porn, but these pictures of naked ladies or this lurid story won’t count as porn – why be so judgmental?
    • I won’t have another drink, but I can open the bottle, smell it, taste it, even have a few sips, can’t I?  You wouldn’t call that “having another drink” – unless you were some sort of intransigent bigot!
    • If you cheat on your wife with someone you love, that’s not really “cheating” is it?  I mean, love has to win, doesn’t it?  And pretty much every good feeling is love, and how dare you try to define what love actually is!  Bigot!
    • My god, your god, his god, her god … who cares?  God is beyond definition!
  • One of the great tools of heresies in the past (especially during the first seven or so centuries of Church history) has been using words in a deliberately ambiguous way, so that Party A can say, “I have a dog” and mean a four legged animal that barks, and Party B can say, “I have a dog” and mean a four legged animal that meows.  Both parties can be happy because each party can use the same word in a way that suits them, subjectively.  And in such “fifty shades of intellectual gray”, we can all get along – and get exactly what we want, which is a rose by any other name.  Lack of definition is the great tool of the devil, and the engine that propels the Irrational.  And if our age is anything, it is the Age of the Irrational.
  • The good that John Senior and others did with the Integrated Humanities Program at Kansas University all those years ago continues to bear fruit.  If you meet the former disciples of the program, you can see that education in the True, the Beautiful and the Good can be a life-changing experience and will lead students to God … and to joy.
  • With that in mind, the art of any good education is education toward Form – toward a recognition of where one things ends and another begins: an awareness of boundaries.  This is especially true in Moral Education and in recognizing the built-in limitations of our relationships.  (Or, as Chesterton said, “Art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere.”)  Try to make a friend (or a job or a creative endeavor) something other than what it is and you will be miserable.  Actors learn this lesson again and again.  An acting gig is a great blessing, but it is just an acting gig: it is not the salvation of our souls, our big break, the chance finally to be loved, the thing that will make us permanently happy.  Maturity is, in many ways, simply recognizing the boundaries that are built in to the moral and physical universe and making the requisite sacrifices to live by them.
  • One paragraph from a sermon by Bl. John Henry Newman is worth twenty volumes of theology by Hans Urs von Balthasar (and I like von Balthasar).  Why?  Because Newman knows the simple truth.  Neither knowledge of God nor love of Him means anything without the painful daily self-sacrifices that cooperate with His grace to conform us to His image.
  • Don’t waste your money on a turkey sandwich if it’s that awful processed deli half-water turkey.  The only real turkey is real turkey, sliced from a cooked bird.  Otherwise, just get a hamburger.  At least a hamburger is real beef – or real horse-meat – but at least it’s real something.

How to Write a Really Bad Play

This is from a post on my old blog …

Since I’m currently a judge in a one-act Catholic play writing contest, I don’t want to say too much about the plays I’m reading.  But I have seen enough to know how to write a really bad play.

And I’m passing that advice on to you, dear reader!

  • Make sure your script contains NO comedy whatsoever – nothing the least bit funny, or if something almost-funny sneaks in, make it very predictable and stupid.

 

  • Put a homeless man in it so the audience has someone to feel sorry for.

 

  • Set the play at Christmas or in a foxhole during a war or in an abortion clinic.  Or better yet, at a makeshift abortion clinic in a foxhole on Christmas Eve.

 

  • Handle exposition awkwardly.  For example, in the first few lines, have one of the characters say,  “Remember when that meteorite hit our house and you bravely struggled to pull me out and save our four children and the reporter from the liberal paper made fun of you because you were Christian and -“

 

  • Give someone cancer or write an old and dying character so the audience has someone to feel sorry for.  Better yet, write in an old homeless man dying of cancer who stumbles into the foxhole on Christmas Eve and whose first monologue recalls the abortion he witnessed sixty years prior.  Then send in Santa Claus for the happy ending when the homeless man dies and goes to heaven.

 

  • Submitting your play to a Christian playwriting contest?  Use lots and lots and lots of gratuitous profanity.  Make David Mamet look like Walt Disney.

 

  • There is no such thing as character development.  There is no such thing as depth of character.  There is no such thing as a compelling plot.

 

  • There is no such thing as subtlety.  The audience must be hit over the head to get your point.

 

  • Whatever you do, don’t make any of your dialogue the least bit literary or poetical or uplifting.  Don’t read other plays and get ideas about innovative staging or structure.  Don’t take any risks.
But, beyond these points, if you really want to write bad stuff, do this.
To be a bad writer, you must be a bad reader – a reader of bad books (or no books at all), and a poor reader of life.
Somehow God has written a work (a Primary World that we call reality, “being”, existence) that is incredibly rich and meaningful.  Any attempt at literary art must approach our fictional Secondary Worlds as God approached the Primary One.
Oh, sorry.  That last comment was on how to write a good play, not a bad one.
Dang it!  I can’t even write a good blog post!

School vs. Skool

It’s hard to say what good teachers do.

But it’s easy to say what bad students don’t do.  

They don’t read the material!

A few months back, I complained to my friend Ken Colston, a retired teacher, that many of the essay answers I was getting from my Homeschool Connections students were padded, meandering pieces that made me wonder if the students had even read the material they were busy pontificating about.  “The only way to make sure they’re actually reading the material you’ve assigned is to give them multiple-choice tests,” Ken suggested.  “This will avoid the deliberate vagueness of essay answers.”

And he’s right.  And what have I learned from the multiple-choice quizzes I now routinely give in some of my Homeschool Conenctions courses?

I’ve learned that at least a third of my students in each class are simply not bothering to read the material.  “Well, Dad,” says my daughter Kerry, “Why would you be surprised?  They’re just kids.  Colin and I never read the material,” Kerry adds, referring to her brother Colin and their school careers.

But we are fallen men and what Kerry is describing may be “school”.  But it ain’t skool.  


Let me explain.

***

Last week I posted about my play Socrates Meets Jesus .  Not long after, I was contacted a former student of mine, who is now in college, and who emailed me expressing her frustration over Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, which is about the immortality of the soul.  She was making the mistake of trying to read Plato with a kind of literal fundamentalism, missing the poetry and the vision while looking for a philosophic system.

I responded by turning to Eric Voegelin, a writer who has served as a gateway to Plato for me, and I pulled these quotations from Voegelin (Order and History, Volume III).  Voegelin is writing about Socrates and his followers, but the things he says are really about any good teacher and any eager student (the etymology of the word student comes from “to be eager”, by the way) …

To create existential community through developing the other man’s true humanity in the image of his own—that is the work of the Socratic Eros …

“The Socratic Eros” is the soul’s desire for what is beyond.  What Voegelin says above is simply that a “school” is a community, an “existential community”, a group of people joined together for a higher purpose.

Image result for arthur miller
It reminds me of playwright Arthur Miller, who distinguished between theaters, which he called “buildings for rent, real estate” and theatre.  Miller says, “A Theatre is people; a collection of talented people, including playwrights, directors, actors, and scene designers, who share a common outlook upon art and life, and are permanently joined together for the purpose of producing dramatic art.”  In other words a theatre is an “existential community”, a group of people united in seeking that which is beyond themselves.
And what is the Church but a similar “existential community”, a koinonia?  True, most of our parishes don’t function as groups of people who (as Arthur Millers says about theatre) “share a common outlook upon art and life”.  Most parishes I’ve been to in my extensive travels are filled with people who don’t seem to share a common outlook upon anything.  But abusus non tollit usum – the abuse of a thing does not invalidate its proper use.  The true Church is not just a gathering of strangers who may or may not know why they’re there, but an “existential community”, a group of people living together toward a common end.

In like manner, one could say that “schools” are “buildings for rent, real estate”, while a “Skool” (to parody Miller’s use of “theater” with an R-E at the end) is “a people: a collection of students who are joined together for a higher purpose”.

Voegelin speaks of Plato on the desire for immortality, which can take the form of people wishing to procreate and have heirs, so that they have physical beings who outlive them.  But there is a desire for “spiritual procreation” as well …

Those in whom [the desire to procreate] is spiritual rejuvenate themselves through procreation in the souls of young men [or young women], that is, through loving, tending, and developing the best in them. That is the force that animates the world of the Platonic dialogue. The older man, Socrates, speaks to the younger man and, through the power of his soul, awakens in him the echoing desire for the Good. The Idea of the Good, evoked in the communion of the dialogue, fills the souls of those who participate in the evocative act. And thus it becomes the sacramental bond between them and creates the nucleus of the new society.

Of course that’s not just any good teacher and eager student, that’s (ideally) a writer and a reader, an artist and a viewer, Christ and the Apostles.

Socrates and the Modern World

I am hoping to book a performance of my play Socrates Meets Jesus (based on the book by Peter Kreeft) in New England this summer, and so I’m posting the video below of our performance of the play at the Chesterton Conference in Massachusetts.

Some of my Homeschool Connections students really like this play.  For one thing, it’s funny.  And for another, it answers the question, “What would the world’s greatest philosopher make of the claims of the world’s greatest man, Jesus Christ, who was born 400 years after the world’s greatest philosopher died?”  And even more intriguing … “What would Socrates make of the Silliness of the Modern World?”

One of the most depressing things about our present time is the lack of Eros, of the aspect of Love that desires and takes seriously what it desires.  This seems like a strange thing to say.  Isn’t our culture awash in the “erotic”?

But Eros is more than the hyper-sexuality we have all around us, which is sex cut off from purpose and even from feeling and passion.  Eros is about desiring that which is beyond us; it’s about our basic interest in life and in the “sting” of life.  The characters in my version of Socrates Meets Jesus are (like most modern people) “hypo-erotic” – they have casual sex, but they don’t really care about anything, even the things they spend their lives studying or doing or professing.

As John Lennon wrote …

Everybody’s talking and no one says a word / Everybody’s making love and no one really cares

That’s what life is like now.  “There’s always something happening, but nothing going on,” and “Everybody’s crying, but no one makes a sound.”

So this play is not just “Socrates Meets Jesus”.  It is “Socrates Meets Despair”.

The Ineffectual Sacrifice of Julius Caesar

Here’s my latest piece on the Christian Shakespeare website …

I am thrilled to be conducting acting workshops this summer for the cast of Julius Caesar.  This great political tragedy of Shakespeare’s will be performed in September at the Flint Hills Shakespeare Festival in St. Mary’s, Kansas.

In preparation, I recently listened to a tremendous audio performance of Julius Caesar by the Arkangel Players, which featured a particularly well done funeral oration scene.  This production is available through Audible for ten bucks, and I highly recommend it.

Here are a few things that strike me about this play.  Some of what I say may unintentional mimic the theory of mimicry or mimesis of Rene Girard, who saw in Julius Caesar a tale of imitation and scapegoating, expressed by an act of sacrificial murder that not only failed to purge the political

problem in ancient Rome, but only made it worse.  And while I think Shakespeare is indeed showing us the conspirators engaged in a deliberate act of human sacrifice that carries with it a kind of ritual import, he is also showing this against an implied background of Christian theology that Girard and many moderns miss or fail to emphasize properly.

Shakespeare’s original audience would have known a meta-setting of this play that transcends the setting in ancient Rome that is explicit in the drama.  They would have known the secular authority of Rome as occupiers of first century Israel, and the role of Caesar Augustus (Marc Antony) in establishing the Pax Romana, which began at about the time of the earthly life of Our Lord and his first disciples, and which served as a secular echo or foreshadowing of the far deeper Peace offered by the cross of Christ.

This alone ties the play to Jesus and His Passion, as does the entire problem at the center of the story.  How are men to be free?  How is ambition in its most dangerous form, the desire of man to be God, to be checked?  Can a political solution – especially one of violent murder and conspiracy – solve a problem that is much more than merely political?

… to read the rest of the piece, click here!

The Domination System in “King Lear”

Joanna Michal Hoyt, a Quaker who lives at a Catholic Worker Community in upstage New York, has written a very insightful essay on King Lear which I have just published on the Christian Shakespeare website.  She examines the play in the light of what she calls the Domination System (power politics) vs. the Beloved Community (the earthly vision of the Kingdom of God).

Here’s the link – http://christianshakespeare.blogspot.com/2016/06/show-heavens-more-just.html.  It’s well worth reading!

The Faces of Fantasy

Here’s a reminder that Joseph Pearce’s latest television special on JRR Tolkien (featuring yours truly playing the part of Tolkien himself) will air on EWTN at the following times …

Tuesday, May 17 – 03:30 AM Eastern 

Saturday, May 21 – 11:00 PM Eastern

These times might be a bit awkward for many viewers, but rest assured that EWTN will release this special on DVD, which will be available from the Network’s Religious Catalogue.

Meanwhile, here’s a glimpse behind the scenes from the making of The Faces of Fantasy … 


The Vocation of the Artist

This is from Etienne Gilson’s Choir of Muses, translated by Maisie Ward.  My emphases in bold.
***

The writer does not choose, he is chosen.  It is another question whether he will have the courage to obey the call, but he has still heard a call even if he rejects it …

He who hears it feels he is a “clerk” in the meaning given to the word in the Middle Ages [i.e., a cleric], that is to say a chosen being, set apart in virtue of a personal destiny, consecrated not from any initiative of his own to the service of a good which will be his portion and his heritage. … “Still painting?” said a friend to the painter Bonnard on finding him at his easel.  “Of course,” the artist answered, “what would you have me doing?”  What else indeed could one have him do?  What else could he want to do himself?  Michelangelo was made to sculpture or to paint, just as Dante was made to write.  Were they to succeed in something else they would still be failures. 

 You must take nothing with you, cling to nothing, so as to be held by nothing, keep yourself, like the saint, wholly free for the one thing necessary.  … [There is a great similarity between] writers serving their art and Christians serving their God.

“I hold myself unworthy,” Ramuz wrote (on October 10, 1902), “of functions so high.  I do not view them as a livlihood, but almost as a priesthood.”

… In the contemplative’s world, said Pascal, everything is hiding a mystery; in the artist’s, the thing hidden is not God, but each thing is the sign of something else, which it already in some measure is, which it is art’s function to bring wholly to be.  

 … [Rodin says], “Real artists are the most religious of men.”

Poetry even at its purest is not prayer; but it rises from the same depths as the need to pray. 

***
So, fellow artists, writers and actors, called as you are to your art, be faithful and know that you are bringing people to God.

Identity, Act and Destiny

Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?  Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.  A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.  Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them. (Mat. 7:16-20

Loren Copp.

The Riverfront Times ran an article in December that was very sympathetic toward a St. Louis businessman who claimed to be helping troubled teens, Loren Copp.  Copp, it turns out, has now been arrested on child abuse charges, and the evidence against him is said to be a video of him having sex with a 12-year-old girl, a girl that he had taken under his wing and was “caring for”.  The RFT is now reporting that Copp’s supporters, including his attorney, have suddenly abandoned him, in light of the evidence that has led to his arrest.

And, of course, there have been lots of red flags over the years.  A commenter at the RFT’s website notes …

This man has had numerous, I mean numerous, lawsuits and allegations, throughout Illinois and other places. He has ruined businesses, not to mention many people’s lives. He has been the source of divisiveness, while proclaiming that he is an agent for unity. Yet, he continues to want to paint himself as the picture of the compassionate martyr. In previous comments from other articles, someone stated that the truth will come out. Well guess what? The truth is coming out. 

Comedy is about the truth coming out, about masking and unmasking, about our real Identities being revealed under the pretenses we put forth.  That’s why comedy, in the literary sense (apart from mere laughter), is so satisfying.

Therefore what interests me about this story is that even in this age of phenomenalism we recognize Identity; we recognize a unity behind the scattered bits and pieces of evidence, an Actor behind the actions, a real face behind the false one.  “Ye shall know them by their fruits” means that Identity precedes Act.  We are not just people who do random things.  Each of us has an Identity, and from that Identity we operate.

But it works both ways.  What we do also changes who we are.  I am thinking of one friend in particular who became more and more selfish the more selfish choices she made in her life, so that, over the years I knew her, a good person became a bad one, and a young woman who could have gone either way became a mature woman who had become untrustworthy; she was no longer a good or a mixed person doing occasionally bad things, she was a selfish and bad person who consistently acted according to her character.

For, eventually, Act and Identity become one – for better or worse.  Worst case scenario: Smeagol becomes Gollum.  Best case scenario: Francis becomes St. Francis.  Our ultimate destinies, heaven or hell, then, are not so much rewards or punishments doled out to us by the Judge Judy in the Sky, but the final affirmations of who we are, the inevitable consequences of our free will and character, our Identities.  If we are “thrown into the fire” it is not just because of our bad fruit, but because we are bad trees and can no longer bear good fruit – though, of course, He is the vine and we are the branches and it is His fruit that we bear when we live through Him.

So that when St. Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ.  It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20), he is saying, my Identity has changed.  I am no longer condemned to be a bad tree bearing bad fruit.  I have been grafted on to a living vine, and I no longer am who I once was.

This simple insight is resisted everywhere we look.  We think that in order to be forgiving or forbearing we are obligated to accept what’s on the surface, to believe our neighbor’s mask, and not to recognize the hidden face underneath.  We don’t want to see the trail of accusations, failed businesses and hurt people behind a Loren Copp; we don’t want to think that there’s a unity indicated by the scattered indicia all around us, a substance behind the possibly disconnected phenomena we observe.  

Perhaps this is because we know our own jumbled souls, and we see how we can become either our best selves or our worst selves quite easily.  And in God’s mercy, our Identities are never finally fixed in sin; we can always repent and be crucified, to live as New Creations, to bear His fruit.

But bad people do bad things.  And bad things are usually done by bad people.  That great and simple truth is one of the most unpopular in our world today.

The meaning of our lives is wedded to the mystery of who we are.

Why We Must Accept “Gay Marriage”

The following quotations (with my emphases in bold) are about the effects of “phenomenalism” on our souls, the belief that individual events or details are all that compose reality.  Phenomenalism (as used by this author) means that there are no unifying principles of being, no “substances” indicated by the disconnected bits of data we observe.

In a world that has become “phenomenally obsessed”, we believe …

… what can be done should be done.  As a consequence, we must observe the transplantation and destruction of whole populations, the machine-gunning of fleeing civilians, terror-bombing and pulverization of towns, and the horrors of extermination camps.  The tools cease to be simple instruments of execution in the service of substantial purposes and gain a momentum of their own that bends the purposes to the technical possibilities.

In other words, if we don’t perceive an end or a structure that rises above mere abilities or desires, we become monsters.  The disconnected things we do become our masters.

There is the most intimate connection between the comic strip and the concentration camp.  The man who runs away from an invasion from Mars [as in The War of the Worlds broadcast panic] because the comic strip and the broadcast have decomposed his personality and the SS man who garrotes a prisoner without compunction because he [the SS man] is dead to the meaning of his action in the order of spiritual reality are really brothers under the skin.

And close kin to “gay marriage” advocates, I would add.

“Gay marriage” is simply phenomenalism applied to the family.  There always have been and always will be “gay” people.  There always have been and always will be various “paraphilias”, or what used to be called perversions.  There is no “substance” to love or sex or marriage.  They are all mere phenomena, things people do.

But the irony is that if that’s all there is, mere phenomena, then we inevitably are slaves to these disconnected acts of ours.  “What can be done must be done”.  If two men are willing to engage in anal sex and call that an act of love and marriage, then we must concede, in the same way that if we can equip drones with nuclear warheads, we eventually “must” do so.

We are forced to swallow the lie of “gay marriage” in the same way that we are forced to swallow the “global economy” or tanks in Ferguson or concentration camps or Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton or college students offended by professors and demanding that they be fired.  We just do what we do.  There is no unifying principle.  It is all phenomena, no substance.

Every thing you do with your genitals is OK.  Only mutual consent restrains you legally, and that’s only by a kind of social contract, not by any true underlying principle.

“It’s all good”.  Because there is no good.

And …

Phenomenalism has gone further toward transforming our society into the combination of a slaughter house with a booby hatch than many contemporaries are still sane enough to realize.

… these are all from Eric Voegelin, The History of Political Ideas, Volume VII.  This is a textbookhe wrote!  Imagine if all textbooks were this much fun!