Sunday, September 28, 2008

Danny Gospel: A book review

Was Francis of Assisi insane? Were he alive today, would he be on medication? Would John the Baptist be subjected to compulsory counseling? One wonders if Prozac or Haldol have deprived our times of a prophet or saint or two.

Danny Gospel These questions occur to me right after meeting a lovable lunatic who just might be a saint or prophet. I met Danny Gospel (and you can meet him, too) in a novel by the same name, written by David Athey. Danny is an Iowa farm boy, troupe singer, mailman, and misfit who addresses the reader in the first person, in a sort of fictional autobiography. But, no -- more like a stream-of-consciousness narrative, Danny telling his story as he is living it (as if recording every step for a reality show), and snatches of past stories as he remembers them.

Danny Gospel is not a gut-wrenching thriller or romance or any other typical genre. I'm not sure which bookshelf it fits. My first impression was that it was trite and corny, but a fun ride, and I wanted to keep turning the pages to see what nutty turn Danny would take next. The story line is quick-paced and ludicrous, like a Marx Brothers farce or Daffy Duck cartoon. But - quirky and unpredictable in a real life way, too. You've met guys like Danny: a Don Quixote / Frodo / Forrest Gump character, a wise idiot, a bumbling hero. Maybe you've been blessed to meet him in the mirror once or twice.

As I kept reading, I started to recognize something else, something deeper beneath the implausible surface. Where else had I encountered this mystical mayhem, this zany but profound allegory? Field of Dreams? The Chronicles of Narnia? Then I put the book down, and slept. And dreamed.

Of course, I can't tell you where Danny's quest leads him. Better let Danny tell you in his own words. If you like fun fiction and thoughtful fiction, I think you'll like Danny Gospel.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Pro-life strike: nudge

Pre-born sucking his thumb Speaking of cultural nudges, I must now return to a former theme, that of a Pro-life strike or tax resistance movement. It's a simple idea, reflecting human life principles in economic matters. More than that, it's a way to purify our other pro-life efforts, recognizing that we ought not materially cooperate, even indirectly, with abortion and similar practices. If a corporation sponsors Planned Parenthood, then God-fearing folks ought to eschew patronizing that corporation. And if our government makes us cooperate in the crime of abortion through our taxes, then we ought not pay those taxes.

The pitiful reality is that the idea is a microscopic nudge at present, practiced by very few. There's David Little of New Brunswick, Canada, who went to jail for this principle. And one other pro-life tax resister up in Wisconsin who has been trying to nudge and make a little noise. If there are others, they're pretty good at keeping it secret.

Heavenly Father, if this idea pleases You, then may the nudge continue, and by Your grace and Spirit, grow. Above all, may You be pleased and glorified. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Related posts
Post title Synopsis Post date
Strike Three! Background and rationale for a pro-life strike. 02/10/07
Pro-life strike Resumes the theme. Answers the "Render to Caesar" objection. 03/18/08
Pro-life strike: Why not? Develops the theme. Looks at some other pro-life efforts, presenting tax resistance as complementary to them. 04/06/08
Pro-life strike: Why Presents 4 specific reasons for a pro-life strike or tax resistance effort. 04/07/08
Pro-life strike: How Strategies, and my guess as to how such a movement might begin and progress. Some practical considerations. 04/09/08
Pro-life strike: End The tangible end goals. 04/11/08
Pro-life strike: Begin Enough talk. Let's begin! 04/20/08
Pro-life strike: its part Purifying our other pro-life efforts. Who should be a pro-life striker. Who should not. 04/27/08
Pro-life strike: Appeal Appeal to pro-life leaders to take up this effort, and lead it. 05/11/08
Pro-life strike: It's the law Examines a pro-life strike in the light of Divine Law, and of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. When civil authority should be obeyed, and when not. 05/16/08
Pro-life strike: It is the law Emphasizes the same idea. Breaking civil law out of obedience to true Law. 05/29/08

Sunday, September 14, 2008

From nudge to tsunami

More idea refinement... The distinction between "grassroots nudges" and "cultural tsunami" is not a quantum leap, but a continuum. A single individual's beliefs and behavior can serve as a miniscule nudge to the culture as a whole. But individual joins with individual until the collective weight of several individuals in concert packs a much bigger punch. And, sometimes what begins as a tiny individual effort can gather momentum as others are moved, until the effect on the culture is quite significant.

Mike Koelzer I have recently become acquainted with a fine example of this very thing. In 2002, Grand Rapids pharmacist Mike Koelzer realized that dispensing artificial contraceptives was contrary to his Catholic faith, and started informing his customers that he would no longer be filling prescriptions for contraceptives. Though he received many angry responses, Koelzer stuck to principle, saying, "...I was and am willing to lose the business in order to not be a part of something I don't agree with."

That was six years ago. Whether inspired by Koelzer or impelled by their own individual convictions, more pro-life pharmacists have since followed Koelzer's example, and have stopped selling prescription or OTC contraceptives. So much so that the folks at Planned Parenthood are now 'very, very concerned' over this nationwide trend, and legislatures in at least three states have passed unjust laws intended to force such pharmacists to violate their consciences in this matter. The battle is engaged; a possible tsunami in the making.

ABC featured the above in a recent story, which you may view here (video) or here (printable text version). Koelzer is now a national speaker on these issues, and in 2007 founded, where you may read more, and find links to other related sites.

In hindsight, I wonder: What was it like when nobody much was watching, when it was just Koelzer's tiny, insignificant, personal decision? I wonder whether Mr. Koelzer was tempted to cave in to his customers' ire, and return to business as usual. He might have reasoned that he was only injuring his business and his family by being so 'stubborn', and that little or no good was likely to come of it.

Or, what if Koelzer had been faithful, but nothing much did come of it? What if he had lost his business, seriously disrupted his family life, and no one ever acknowledged his principled stand? Would his principled 'nudge' still count? Would it count with God?

In this case, of course, the nudge has grown into a meaningful force. Nudges can grow into tsunamis. But maybe some nudges remain tiny, to all except God.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Cultural tsunami

Hats off to Michelle, who read my last post, took a few shots at its logic, and, I must admit, scored a point or two. (See the dialogue in the comments section thereof.) In the spirit of Prov. 27:17, that's one of the purposes of blogging: to be a marketplace of ideas, fostering the ongoing testing and purifying of ideas. So, this post is an attempt to clarify and possibly build a more thorough argument. Please feel free to offer further criticism.

A theme in that post (which may not have been clearly presented) was that politics is a reflection of the culture, that political trends are neither the root problem nor the solution, but that the underlying culture is the real issue. Defining culture as the aggregate of all the people within it and their respective values, I conjectured that culture-wide values shift minutely at every shift of every individual's values. If my soul moves up or down or right or left, the culture's center of gravity moves slightly as well. I called this "grassroots nudging".

Baldwin '08 This is not to say that political actions are unimportant, and I was compelled to defend my political support for The Constitution Party in my response to Michelle. As noted above, I welcome criticism and dialogue on political positions, too. Some of my reasons for supporting a third party are offered in the post entitled "Voting matters" (with possible future clarification or correction as deemed appropriate). But, anyway, I wrote the following in defending my current position:

...At some point, somebody has to have the courage to leave the big tent. The Democrats of the early 1800's accepted the practice of slavery. The Whigs opposed it, but did nothing. It took a third party, the Republican Party, to abolish slavery. It may take another to restore legal protection to the pre-born, and/or head off the legal redefinition of marriage.

The point of the post was that, first, there must be a cultural shift of values.

Now, almost as soon as I had written that, I realized another hole in my original conjecture. Namely, that sometimes cultural shifts occur, not just by minute degrees, but by sudden and massive tidal waves of change.

Uncle Tom's Cabin For decades, the abolitionists had been praying and working against the cultural and political horror of slavery in America, slowly but patiently pecking away and "nudging" the culture in the right direction. Then Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom's cabin, and almost single-handedly raised the conscience and consciousness of the nation, finally making the political abolition of slavery a possibility. When President Lincoln was personally introduced to Stowe, it is claimed that he remarked, "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!"

All right then (Jerry cracks his knuckles), here's my new and improved conjecture: There exist multiple ways in which our world may be moved, all of which deserve our attention:

Political action: Voting, petitions, boycotts, citizen lobby groups, etc.

Cultural tsunami: Maybe Stephen Spielberg will produce a movie exposing the abortion industry. One can dream.

Grassroots nudging: Raise your own conscience bar, and, whether deliberately or not, influence others, one person at a time.

Above all, of course, pray.

(By the way, did you know that Abraham Lincoln started out in The Whig Party?)

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Grassroots nudges

As expressed in the previous post, I see hopeful signs in the Church, which is always reforming and always in need of reform (ecclesia semper reformans, semper reformanda). Grass roots Our political system and secular culture are also in dire need of reform, but, lacking divine guarantees, it remains to be seen whether reform will come to these spheres.

Reform in the Church may come from either of two directions. Our shepherds, ignited by the Spirit, may lead and teach and live with such righteousness that the flame spreads, and the whole Body of Christ is revived and sanctified. Reform may also come via the anawim (the "little ones"), the rank-and-file saints who, bit by bit, make the whole lump better by their holy lives.

Barack Obama The reader is invited to offer arguments, but I believe reform in the secular, cultural sphere will come, if it comes at all, only in this latter, grassroots way. Having severely criticized our political and secular leaders, I don't honestly think they are the problem, nor will any real solutions come from the top down. The horror is not that Barack Obama believes abortion and infanticide to be OK; the real horror is that such a man is a serious candidate for President. That leaders like Obama and Pelosi and Clinton are acceptable to voters reveals our culture to be a very troubled one - in the mainstream, not just on the fringes.

John McCain I'm old enough to remember when a divorced man would have had trouble gaining political favor. Today John McCain is seen as an example of moral rectitude, and, relatively, this is probably an accurate perception. The bar is much lower; in fact, it has dropped so low that one may wonder whether the bar even exists any more. Many and loud are the voices who applaud this development as "open-minded" and "tolerant". If someone like Obama is acceptable today, perhaps a future round of political candidates will feature a cross-dressing, pedophiliac, ax-murderer whose significant other is her horse.

The point is: our culture has drifted far leftward and far wayward in recent decades. I have serious doubts whether it will reform before it collapses. But if our culture is to reform, it will do so, I believe, in a grassroots manner. At the heart of this conviction is the following understanding of what culture is, and how it moves:

aquarium Cultural values and expectations are quite democratic, based merely upon what is considered normal by the mass of its members. Human culture is, in simple terms, the amalgam or accumulated weight of all the people within it and their respective values and personal character. Like water in an aquarium, culture is the medium within which we all live and move. If one fish gets sick, the water in the entire aquarium is adversely affected. Then, if more fish get sick from the polluted water, the condition worsens. Like a sick aquarium, goodness and decency become much more difficult in a polluted culture like our own. But unlike the aquarium water, human culture can be purified as well as polluted by its individual participants. If I raise my personal bar, that affects others around me, and the cultural bar is nudged a tiny bit upward. When I fail, the bar drops a bit.

I would find this cultural tug-of-war quite hopeless and distressing except for one thing: God helps us to cheat. That's what grace is, a way to tilt the scales in an undeserved way. Grace, so that, even when we sin, we may nudge the bar upwards by seeking His forgiveness. Grace, through the Word and Sacraments and prayer, to gain strength that we would not otherwise possess.

There's nothing wrong with employing God's undeserved grace in the effort to nudge the cultural balance, as well as in each person's quest for spiritual growth. If my guess is right, there's really no distinction, anyway: Become holier and better and closer to God, and the culture automatically improves a little. And, in this contest, it's OK to cheat.