Online at Yield and Overcome Since 2007 — Fighting the Good Fight In These Parts Since 2011

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Book Break: The Relative
Un-Importance of Being Earnest

Jodi and I used to watch a lot of Seinfeld. In relatively small doses, the show struck us as amusing to flat-out hilarious, although occasionally there was an episode that made us cringe or second-guess our choice of entertainment.

When the series finale rolled around, we were there with much of the rest of the country to see how it all would end. The last joke, it turned out, was on us: using courtroom testimony as the vehicle, the final episode chronicled, back-to-back-to-back, what rotten, superficial human beings Jerry and the gang were during the run of the series, then ended with a joke about how they'd already had the final conversation before. Jodi and I looked at each other with the grim realization that we had wasted a tremendous amount of time over the previous several years, to no redeeming end.

Like Seinfeld, Oscar  Wilde's play The Importance of Being Earnest seems to me to be adamantly about nothing. Of course, like the TV show, the play has to be about something, but it sets the bar so low that it is essentially a three-act setup to a single joke, the punchline of which is a pun. Like a good sitcom episode, it is funny and short. (I read it in an evening.) I would like to say it's witty, but I'm not sure it's clever enough for that. It seems to me to be an exercise in style, primarily, with little substance beneath it.

Several years ago now, I read Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. That is a great story, and proof enough  in my book that Wilde was a great writer. At the time, I wrote, "It's a great story full of people you can't stand, living in a world of false beauty. … Part of the genius of this book is the sinking feeling that there really are people like these, and we may even know some of them." That line holds true for Earnest, except the word "great" and the phrase "of the genius." While I don't regret reading it (especially given its brevity), I sincerely wish there would have been more to it.

Friday, July 18, 2014

A New Calling

Blogger's Note: For those few of you who still follow this blog and don't attend St. Michael Catholic Church, the article below was published at our pastor's request as a self-introduction to the community in last weekend's parish bulletin.

As of this week, I have been your new faith formation director for one month. The transition feels fresher than that, and I feel just as green, in many ways, as on the first day in the office. As I’ve said more than once, it’s like I’m a first-time parent again: like I have been entrusted with something precious and fragile and sent home with lots of advice and no clear idea of what to expect next.

Okay, it’s not as bad as all that. My wife Jodi and I have been parishioners here for 11 years now; two of our children (Trevor and Lily) have been born and baptized here, and our older kids (Brendan, Gabe, and Emma) have been altar servers and active in the youth group and other activities. Jodi and I were youth leaders at our previous parish—St. Michael’s in Remus, Michigan—and have been LIFT catechists, liturgical ministers, Natural Family Planning and God’s Plan For a Joy-Filled Marriage witnesses, and CRHP witnesses here. I also served on the Faith Formation Advisory Committee during the transition to LIFT, so I understand what we’re trying to accomplish and know how hard Carol and Kathy have worked over the years to build our core program.

Nevertheless, this is a big shift for me. I was baptized in the Faith but not raised in it, and I became a husband and father before I became a confirmed and practicing Catholic. Until last month, I had spent my entire professional career in journalism and communications. Jodi and I have talked for several years about the possibility of me working for the Church someday, but never imagined the call would come this soon. And it is a call. This past Monday’s reading from the prophet Hosea described the Lord leading His people to a desert place and speaking to their heart—and professionally, this past year was desolate and lonely, until former colleagues, friends, and family all began to urge me to pray and to think about what I was being called to do.

I prayed. I did my best to listen. And I’m here…now what?

We visited some of our former youth group “kids” in Michigan earlier this month, one of whom was recently featured in the Diocese of Grand Rapids magazine for her beautiful pro-life witness. In the article, Natalie jokes about how much she could accomplish if God would just give her a clear to-do list. Instead she—and we—are called into a relationship and an ongoing conversation with God, in which we get to know Him day by day, enabling us to better hear, understand, and respond to His desires for us.

That’s where I find myself now. We have a beautiful parish and community, faith-filled priests, strong core programs, devout and dedicated catechists, and a rookie faith-formation director who is on the job, but still praying and listening. We have a firm foundation and so much potential—and I look forward to hearing from and working with you as we continue to become a people living for Christ.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Book Break: The Search for God and Guinness

Stephen Mansfield's book The Search for God and Guinness is a fun read on many levels. It's a solid biography of a family, a beer, and a brand that are recognized the world over. It tells the story of a man and his sons (and their sons, and their sons...) who obsessed with the quality, production, and distribution of their "extra stout porter" to the point that they pioneered innovations in brewing, packaging, distribution, marketing, and quality control, and who care so much for their workers and their native Ireland that they pioneered onsite healthcare and wellness for employees and their families, as well as education and cultural benefits, housing and childcare, and more.

Most people assume the Guinness family was Catholic, but that is not the case -- though they worked hard to benefit their Catholic workers and neighbors. Many, if not most, of the Guinness men either became involved in the brewery or became Protestant ministers -- and it's in the discussion of theology and the tap that the book becomes problematic for me. In writing about the history of beer and brewing, Mansfield credits the Catholic Church and numerous patron saints of brewing, and mentions that abbeys and monasteries throughout Europe produced good ale until the Reformation, at which point many of the abbeys and monasteries closed. However, he then goes on to credit Luther and Calvin for defending the idea that it is not sinful to take pleasure in God's creation, thus preserving brewing and the enjoyment of beer.
"As Reformation ideas captured hearts and minds throughout Europe, priests and nuns renounced their vows, Roman Catholic cathedrals became Protestant churches, and monasteries closed, thus decreasing the production of beer. While this decline in brewing would not have deterred Martin Luther from his reforming work, he certainly would have grieved the loss of any fine brew, for he was among the great beer lovers of Christian history. ... He was German, after all, and he lived at a time when beer was the European drink of choice. Moreover, having been freed from what he considered to be a narrow and life-draining legalism, he stepped into the world ready to enjoy its pleasures to the glory of God. For Luther, beer flowed best in a vibrant Christian life. (Page 28)"
"Like Luther, Calvin worked hard to hammer out a consistently biblical worldview. He wanted all of his life to be submitted to the rulership of Jesus Christ and yet did not want to miss some grace or provision of God because of flawed theology or religious excess. He and Luther had seen too much of that in their pre-Protestant lives. ... This robust Reformation theology, which taught enjoying God's creation and doing all that is not sinful for the glory of God, filtered into the centuries that followed the reformer's work. (Page 31)"
"Clearly, then, though the Reformation diminished the production of beer temporarily by closing many of the European monasteries where beer was brewed, it also served the cause of beer and alcohol well by declaring them gifts of God and calling for their use in moderation. (Pages 32-33)"
Mansfield's tone when discussing the Reformation is by and large heroic, to the point that it sounds as if these men were defending beer against the Catholic Church. These excerpts represent the worst of it, but this pro-Protestant tone pervades the text even though it has little to do with the story at hand, making an otherwise enjoyable read strangely slanted. Nor does Mansfield acknowledge the obvious question raised by this assessment -- how does this Protestant view of beer differ from the Catholic view that fostered so many medieval abbey ales?

Long story short: If the summary above appeals to you, this is a library read, not one to add to your collection. As a biography of a beer and a brand, I enjoyed it. As religious history, I did not. Interestingly, Mansfield appears to be a bit of an equal-opportunity "faith profiler" of current and historical figures, having wrote 16 books, including The Faith of George W. Bush, The Faith of Barack Obama, Pope Benedict XVI: His Life and Mission, and Lincoln's Battle with God. I didn't know this before I embarked on the Guinness book.