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Searching for beauty in the dissonance

The Theology of the Body and Music – A Desire for God

I was invited to speak for the Newman Centre at U of T’s Mentorship Series in October on St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. I’ve been leading a faith study on the theology of the body at Newman since 2015, but for this short one hour talk, I did something new for me — I played some of my songs reflecting on themes in the theology of the body.

I process through songwriting — an attempt to stop time with the lyric, and to model the harmony of creation with music — and to orient the desire of the human heart towards a desire for God. This talk includes a couple songs I have yet to record as well.

The Newman Centre uploaded video, and I’ve transcribed the talk below:

Introduction: A Paradigm Shift

How many of you grew up in a Christian home? How many of you would say you had open, honest, healthy dialogue about God’s glorious, stupendous, wonderful, magnificent plan for erotic love? Right.

Most of us, I think, have an experience learning about human sexuality in a kind of “corner’ of our religious though. I think about it through my experience attending curriculum night when my son was in JK a few years ago. He was taking me around the classroom, and he was showing me all the things — all of the stations, he was like, this is the pretend kitchen, this is the blocks thing, we’ve got sand over there, he’s showing me everything — and there’s this one table that he didn’t say anything about, and I said, “What’s that over there?” And it’s got this Ikea leaf over top, and a rock and a candle, and he’s like, “I– I don’t know what that is…” It was the prayer table.

Right, and, that “off in the corner” kind of thing — I mean I think that’s the way in which a lot of people in our society and in our culture think about religion, as some kind of side topic or something. But I mean, I think if you’ve grown up with or grown into the faith then we have an understanding that religion is a kind of ultimate, like, it exists at an ultimate level that kind of explains everything. Yet, human sexuality and our understanding of marriage still usually exists off in a corner, as sort of one area of our thinking. I mean, marriage is a sacrament, it’s one of the sacraments, so there’s some bridge, some connection to our religious thinking, but for John Paul II, his theology of the body — which was a giant Bible study on the theme of human sexuality, of being created in God’s image and likeness, male and female — is a lens for understanding the entire catechism, a lens through which, a perspective through which he understood the whole faith.

I think that makes sense. It makes so much sense to me now. But I didn’t encounter this idea until 11 years ago, when I first really heard the message of the theology of the body. That’s part of the reason that I spent 8 years doing a Master of Theological Studies — I’m done, but technically I don’t graduate for a month, so I don’t know if that means I’m done or not — but that’s why I spent 8 years of school studying theology, that’s why I went to the Theology of the Body Institute three times to take course. I just couldn’t get enough.

My wife and I, a couple years before we were married — this was part of our journey towards marriage — we attended one session on the theology of the body during World Youth Day 2008 in Australia. We were like, okay, we’ll go one night and we’ll kind of learn about this stuff. We went all three nights. And then, Christopher West — one of the more popular presenters of the theology of the body, who makes John Paul II’s dense theology accessible — he was coming to Toronto a year later, and it was like, great, I’ll go to this weekend thing, an intro to the theology of the body, I’ll get my fill and then I’ll be able to move on, and focus on other things, after I know all this stuff. And I left there with a sign-up sheet to go take a week-long course at the Theology of the Body Institute, and I came back from there and went to the Regis College open house, and that’s been my journey over the last 12 years!

I want to share a bit of that paradigm shift, that different way of seeing human sexuality and the human body, that changed my life and changed my faith, and give you a bit of that perspective.

The Theology of the Body has been called the “John Pauline lens for the entire catechism,” and I think that makes sense, because if you go to the catechism, right at the beginning of Chapter 1, it begins, “Man’s Capacity for God,” and the first section is “The Desire for God.” Right at the start of Chapter 1, it says:

The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 27

And then, quoting from the Second Vatican Council, it continues:

The dignity of man rests above all on the fact that he is called to communion with God. This invitation to converse with God is addressed to man as soon as he comes into being. For if man exists it is because God has created him through love, and through love continues to hold him in existence. He cannot live fully according to truth unless he freely acknowledges that love and entrusts himself to his creator.

Gaudium et Spes, 19

And I want to dive deeper into love and into communion, because our experience, being created male and female in the image and likeness of God, isn’t just some corner of our human experience. St. John Paul II saw that as central to the human experience, and insofar as it’s central to our experience of desire, it’s central to our experience of desire for God. Insofar as we long for communion and love, that is an experience placed there in our lives by God as a sign meant to lead us towards Him.

This was a promo video from the Made for More event that Christopher West and Mike Mangione put on all across the world. They were in Toronto back in May. I think it’s a great summary of that John Pauline lens, that perspective that we have been created this way for a reason, and if we think carefully about our human experience, that placed deep within us is that desire — and even human desire, Pope Benedict said, every authentic human desire is ultimately a desire for God.

Orienting Our Desire… (eros)

When we say “love” in English, we use that word in a lot of different ways. Right, we say, “I love pizza. I love my friend. I love my wife. I love philosophy.” We use this word in a lot of different ways. The Greeks, they had four words for love that I’ve found very helpful thinking more carefully about love.

  • storge: a kind of affection, or love of the familiar, the kind of love you feel after spending a lot of time with someone, getting to know them
  • philia: the love of friendship, the kind of shoulder-to-shoulder love of journeying through life together
  • eros: erotic love, romantic love, desire, that desire for union with another
  • agape (or caritas in Latin, “charity”): selfless or altruistic love, willing the good of the other as other, choosing to act in someone else’s best interest, that kind of love — the word most commonly used in the New Testament for love

Benedict says, in his encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (caritas / agape), he says that God’s love for us is “totally agape,” but he says it’s also totally eros — that God loves us with eros.

Now, I’ll unpack that a bit in a second, but of those four loves — storge (affection), philia (friendship), eros (desire), and agape (selfless love) — which of those four are not a part of our childhood experience? Eros. Eros isn’t something that we experience as children. Now, of those four loves, which is the most powerfully felt, which pulls on us and tugs on us the strongest in our experience? I think that’s also eros.

As children, it makes sense that our understanding of the faith would not include eros. It would be hard for it to include eros because it would be hard for us to understand a love that we haven’t experienced. But I think as adults, it’s crucial to be able to integrate our experience of eros with our understanding of the faith.

So, Benedict says God’s love for us is agape, but it’s also eros. He says that God loves us with eros. Now, think about what we learn about God’s love in Scripture. Scripture starts with a marriage, it ends with a marriage, right at the centre you have a book of erotic love poetry. All through the Old Testament, one of the most common analogies used is the spousal analogy — God as a lover longing for union with his beloved, the people of God. Christ’s ministry starts at a wedding. His call for us to “love one another as I have loved you,” how did Christ love us? As we see in the New Testament — as we see in the Gospels, as we see from St. Paul — Christ desired union with us so strongly, He gave up his body for his bride, the Church. He laid down His life in order to bring us back into communion with God.

This longing for communion and love, this desire is central to the human experience. It’s central to God’s desire for communion and relationship with us.

I’m trying something new today, by trying to play some of my own songs, because for this Mentorship Series there was an encouragement to bring personal testimony into it. For me, I process this through music. The first song that I think I’m going to play is a song called Anaximander. Anaximander was an ancient Greek pre-Socratic philosopher. He posited that the stars were holes in the firmament through which we could see the fires of heaven. And I thought that was a just a beautiful analogy for the way in which John Paul II understood being created male and female, in the image and likeness of God, as a sign or an icon of a deeper reality of our call to communion — an icon like a window through which we can see something of the mystery of the truth.


Stay where you are, eastward from here.
I will find you, even if it takes years.
I can see you ’til I open my eyes;
There was a time when we stood side by side…

And all the stars aligned as you stepped outside
And I could see for miles into the past.
Who knows which stars still shine?
All we have are signs they’ve left us, their protests against the night

In a garden, at the edge of the town,
Ancient trees know the secrets around.
In your image, the likeness of light;
Anaximander had something right

And all the holes aligned on the firmament’s divide
And I could catch a glimpse into the fire,
To see the other side…
Holes to Heaven guide us through the night;
I’m focused on your eyes

And all the stars aligned as you stepped outside
And I could see for miles into the past.
Who knows which stars still shine?
All we have are signs they’ve left us, their protests against the night

Amidst all these stars, I see what you are…

So, I think that experience of love — that longing and that searching, that ache, that desire for union with another — has been placed there in the human heart to lead us to God. We know how that goes astray in our world, in our culture, this side of the Fall. We know that, so often, we take that desire to the wrong places.

As Benedict says, rather than that desire for union being purified by agape, by willing the good of the other, rather than being fuel to love someone rightly and fully with eros and agape, too often that eros is not connected with agape, is not connected with the good of the other — it goes in the opposite direction.

Christopher West uses an analogy that I find helpful. Let’s use our imaginations. Let’s pretend that I have a piece of paper, and it’s the most glorious, beautiful painting you’ve ever seen. Can I have some ooooo’s? Can I have some aaaahh’s? Okay, our imaginations are functioning. This is human beings, created male and female before the Fall — God’s original plan for human love.

In the Fall, we turn away from God and God’s love, and we turn away from God’s original plan. That piece of paper? It gets crumpled up and twisted. There are three options we have.

Too often, Christians pick up that crumpled piece of paper, and they go, “Ugh,” and chuck it away. “There’s something wrong with that, I want to be far away from that.”

Our culture picks up that crumpled piece of paper, and says, “Yo, check this out, take a look! Look at that! Look at that!” John Paul II says, hey, you’re right not to throw that out, but you’ve gotta untwist it. You have to take that crumpled piece of paper and untwist it. That’s not how it was meant to be. That’s not God’s original plan for human sexuality, that’s not how human beings flourish.

So, we still have the creases in the piece of paper when it’s uncrumpled, but we can see something of that original purpose, of that original intent. John Paul II says that, “the human heart becomes a battlefield” (TOB 32:3) in our journey towards chastity — which just means sexual self-control, which is just about orienting our desires toward our design so that we can reach out heavenly destiny. Too often we fail in that battle, but that battle, it’s about a choice about accepting the help from God to live out our human sexuality as it was meant to be, in a way that leads us towards communion with each other and communion with Him, or not.

… according to Our Design (Genesis)

When Jesus is asked tough or controversial questions about human sexuality — when he’s asked about divorce — He points back to the beginning. He says, “In the Beginning, it was not so.” So, John Paul II follows Him back to the beginning, and he starts the Theology of the Body by looking at our design, God’s original plan for human love, before it’s twisted and distorted by sin.

In the beginning, we see, in Genesis 1, human beings created in the image and likeness of God as male and female (Gen 1:27), and in Genesis 2 that gets unpacked. We see the objective truth in Genesis 1, the kind of statement of fact, but in Genesis 2 we see that played out in the human experience.

John Paul II points back to three original experiences in Genesis 2 — “original” not in the sense of having occurred a long time ago in history, but “original” as in foundational, at the heart of the human experience before it’s twisted and distorted by sin. John Paul II says in the Theology of the Body, “the inheritance of our hearts is deeper than the sinfulness inherited.” (TOB 46:6) We’ve got to go back to the beginning and look back to those original experiences to see how we’re truly meant to live out our human sexuality.

He breaks them down into three experiences.

The first is original solitude. Adam — adam in Hebrew is just “human”, it’s not “male” or “female”, it’s just the first human — he is alone. He experiences the solitude in the beginning. John Paul II says, first we see that in the sense that he’s apart from the other animals, there’s something different about him as a human being, there’s something different about being a human being. It’s the discovery of the original person, a human being who’s called into a special partnership with God, who has a self-awareness and a rationality and a special role in creation. The first human sees himself as apart from the other animals. The second sense of solitude is being without spouse, that we aren’t meant to be alone as human beings, but we’re created for communion, we’re created for relationship.

This being without spouse leads into the second original experience, original unity. After Eve’s creation is where you see the Hebrew ish and ishah, where “male” and “female” enter the picture, and you see that original unity of husband and wife — “Flesh of my flesh, bone of my bones… Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen 2:23) — that ecstasy, that joy, that communion, that union, the marriage and the marital embrace. John Paul II says, yes, we see the image of God in each individual human being — we can see an image of God in each other of us as individuals — but he says, “Man becomes the image of God not so much in the moment of solitude as in the moment of communion,” (TOB 9:3) as in that moment when the two become one flesh.

Because, we don’t believe in a solitary God; we believe in a God that is a Trinity, a God that is a relationship of eternal self-giving love. Where do we see that image? We see that image in our human sexuality, being created male and female. Okay, now it’s not that the divine is sexual, but rather it’s that the sexual is divine, in some sense, that our created experience of sexuality — which differs from the Trinity — tells us something about the true meaning of love, of being called to be in relationship with another. If God is love, and God is an eternal exchange of love, between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit — as I think it’s Augustine says, between the lover the beloved and the love in between — where do we see that image in the human experience? It’s in the call of the two to become one flesh, it’s in that experience of original unity.

And then finally, that leads into the experience of original nakedness, where, in their experience of original unity — which is an answer to the original solitude, that two persons are meant to come together as one — that they were naked without shame. (Gen 2:25) John Paul II says, how can we possibly understand this in our experience? He says we can look at our experience, and look at it as a kind of photographic negative, to see what our experience is like to try to rediscover something of the original design.

In our experience of nakedness and shame, we feel a kind of protection that’s necessary from exploitation. We feel a vulnerability and we wonder if the other will receive us rightly. We wonder if the other will fully recognize our dignity. Whereas in our fallen world, there is too often a link and a connection between nakedness and vulnerability and exploitation or objectification — treating someone else’s body as an object when revealed to us — in the beginning, it was not so. He says, if they were naked without shame, there must have been no fear of that exploitation. There must have been a kind of perfect nature or character to that original union, where there was no threat from the other, no need for defence. There was no need for shame. There was safety in nakedness.

John Paul II says that they must have seen each other with, what he calls, “the peace of the interior gaze.” (TOB 13:1) That is, if in our fallen world, the experience is too often seeing the naked human body as an object, the peace of the interior gaze is seeing the naked body as a subject.

The thesis statement of the Theology of the Body is that:

The body, in fact, and only the body, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It has been created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden from eternity in God…

TOB 19:4

… that the body makes visible the person. If I pick on Krishna for a second, if I say, “look at Krishna,” we can only see and relate to Krishna through his body. The body makes visible Krishna’s person. And how much moreso does the whole human body make visible the whole person.

John Paul II says, in the original experience without the fear and threat of sin, the body reveals the whole person. The body was seen not as an object, but as a subject. The peace of the interior gaze is looking at the body and seeing the other person as God sees them, seeing the body as a sign of the person.

The body makes visible these invisible realities. It’s what he calls the spousal meaning of the body, that these original experiences tell us that we are created for relationship.

Think about your body for a second. Think about your belly button. What does your belly button tell you about what it means to be human? Your belly button tells you that you came from somebody else. Go down a few inches and think about your body. What do our bodies tell us here about what it means to be human? Our bodies tell us that we were created for somebody else. A man’s body doesn’t make sense on its own; a woman’s body doesn’t make sense on its own.

That we are created male and female, in the image and likeness of God, tells us that one fundamental thing about what it means to be human is that we’re created for relationship, not just any kind of relationship, but for communion, for mutual self-giving, as John Paul II puts it — for making a sincere gift of self to the other, and receiving back a sincere gift of self in return, this mutual self-gift. That is at the core of what it means to be human. That’s why we read in the Second Vatican Council, in Gaudium et Spes paragraph 24 that:

Man… cannot find himself except for a sincere gift of self.

Gaudium et Spes, 24

That is, something of God’s original plan for human love, the original meaning of the human body, and our ache and longing and experience of human desire is, at its core, a sign meant to lead us towards loving each other rightly, to come into communion with each other, and ultimately, to come into communion with God — the kind of union that God wants to have with us.

This is my attempt to make sense of that.

In the Beginning

Stay a minute, hold me in your arms and I’ll be replenished;
You’ve no idea of the power in your stare.
Stay a minute, you hold my heart inside your hands, you don’t know it;
You’ve no idea of the longing in your absence.

But if our hearts align, barriers at the side, we might realize our worth.

In the beginning, there was nothing that could come in between us;
I had a vision of your body and your soul.
Then, in an instant, you were gone, all I had left was an imprint;
A fragment idea, a desire to be whole.

But if you hearts align, barriers at the side, we might synchronize our worlds.

How can the fire keep burning, if I can’t remember what ignited it in the first place?
Show me forgiveness and learning, let me back into the garden where we lay.
How can the fire keeping burning, if I can’t remember where it started in the first place?
Show me forgiveness and learning, let me back into the garden where we lay.

‘Cause if our hearts collide, barriers at the side, we might realize our worth.

In the beginning, there was nothing that could come in between us;
I had a vision of your body and your soul…

… to reach Our Destiny (Sign)

I find it helpful how Christopher West summarizes the Theology of the Body, saying it’s about orienting our desire according to our design so that we can reach our destiny. That is, taking our experience of human desire, and orienting it according to our design — looking back to God’s original plan for human love — so that we can reach our destiny. That is, our human sexuality is a sign of our heavenly destiny. We turn to the sacrament of marriage, and to the vocation of celibacy, to enter into this mystery.

In every sacrament, we see something of the mystery of God being revealed and made visible. Just like, through the body, the mystery of who we are, created in the image and likeness of God, is made visible, well so too in the sacrament is the invisible made visible, in some way.

He says that the vocations of celibacy for the sake of the kingdom and of marriage “explain or complete each other,” (TOB 78:2) they tell us something about our heavenly destiny. Marriage tells us something about the nature of love, that the call to love is the call to make a sincere gift of self to the other. Celibacy, for the sake of the kingdom — that’s not a rejection of human sexuality because it’s a bad thing, but a reverence for it because it’s a good and holy thing — that tells us something about our heavenly destiny.

On rejection versus reverence, I think it’s helpful to think about Lenten resolutions, and I’ll throw in another helpful Christopher West analogy in there. He says, “I like beer. I don’t like pickles. I’m going to give beer up for Lent, not pickles.” When we give something up in that way, it’s not because we reject it as a bad thing, it’s because we recognize it as a good thing. That’s the approach to celibacy for the sake of the kingdom, that is, in our heavenly destiny, communion ­— the communion of saints, the communion with God — it’s not a sexual communion. Our human sexuality, marriage, is meant to be a sign of that ultimate union and communion, which is a spiritual communion. So, the vocation of celibacy for the kingdom reminds us that marriage is not an idol, it’s not the end goal. Rather, it’s an icon, it’s a window, a window to see through. It’s a sign of our heavenly destiny.

We see this in the sacrament of marriage, especially in Ephesians 5, where St. Paul links the marriage of creation with the marriage of redemption, where St. Paul puts together that “great mystery”, which John Paul II calls the “great sacrament,” that Christ, as bridegroom, gave up His body for His bride, to bring us in communion with God, that He love us so much that He laid down His life for us, to bring us into the marriage of redemption, the heavenly marriage, that union, that communion. I’m going to let Jason Evert explain this one.

Human Love and the Desire for God: The Mystery of the Whole of Human Existence

One of the greatest 8 paragraphs that I’ve ever read in my life is Pope Benedict’s, just a weekly Wednesday audience in November 2012, called, “The Year of Faith. The Desire for God.” In it, he quotes from the catechism, where I started, “the desire for God is written on the human heart,” and he says that, in every authentic human desire, we see that desire for God and that, especially we see that…

… in the experience of human love, an experience that in our age is more easily perceived as a moment of ecstasy, of leaving oneself, like a place in which [we] feels overcome by a desire that surpasses [us]. Through love, a man and a woman experience in a new way, thanks to each other, the greatness and beauty of life and of what is real. If what is experienced is not a mere illusion, if I truly want the good of the other as a means for my own good, then I must be willing not to be self-centred, to place myself at the other’s service, even to the point of self-denial. The answer to the question on the meaning of the experience of love then passes through the purification and healing of the will, required in loving the other. […]

Thus the initial ecstasy becomes a pilgrimage, “an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God” (Encyclical Deus Caritas Est, n. 6). Through this journey one will be able to deepen gradually one’s knowledge of that love, initially experienced. And the mystery that it represents will become more and more defined: in fact, not even the beloved is capable of satisfying the desire that dwells in the human heart. In fact, the more authentic one’s love for the other is, the more it reveals the question of its origin and its destiny, of the possibility that it may endure for ever. Therefore, the human experience of love has in itself a dynamism that refers beyond the self, it is the experience of a good that leads to being drawn out and finding oneself before the mystery that encompasses the whole of existence.

Notice, he doesn’t say that the experience of human love gives us a good foundation for marriage prep, or a good dating guide. It’s not just in a corner over there, but rather it brings us before the mystery of the whole of human existence — that, especially that experience of human love, among all other human experiences, brings us, in a special, profound and holy way before that mystery.

I process this through music because I’m a musician, but I think music makes sense in this context. St. Augustine says, “singing is a lover’s thing.” He says, our hearts are restless until they rest in God. That restlessness, that ache, that longing — that’s why so many songs are love songs, because through music and through that search for beauty, we’re ultimately digging into that desire, that desire that’s been placed there in our hearts by God to lead us to Him.

I’m going to try one more song, one last song. I’m going to do something risky, and play a song I’ve never played before — because I finished half of it last night. This is my latest attempt to make sense of all this.

Break Out

I have seen all the animals
And I’ve given each a name,
But I long for someone who sees who I am
And I’ve yet to find one who feels the same.

I have wandered through the city,
And I’ve journeyed through the plains
For the missing piece, the one who calls me by name;
Flesh and bone, we’re not alone, you feel the same…

I will give you all that I am
For just one moment in your land
I was meant to live by your side
Would you be my sister? Would you be my bride?
I will give you all that I can
Won’t you be my light?

I am broken, but I want to be whole;
I am restless inside the ache.
It’s the shape of someone who knows who I am;
It’s the shape I see when I see face to face.

I have named all the negatives,
All those things that weigh me down.
Oh, please tie them up, and send them far away
Sacrifice and die to self and rise again…

I will give you all that I am
For just one moment in your land
I was meant to live by your side
Would you be my sister? Would you be my bride?
I will give you all that I can
Won’t you be my light?

I was meant to live by your side
Would you be my sister? Would you be my bride?
I will give you all that I can
I would give my life

Oh, I am just an aching for you…
Ah, I am just an ache now…
Oh, stretch me ’til I break out…
Oh, I am just an aching for you…
Oh, stretch me ’til I break in two…
Oh, I am just an ache now…
Ah, all of creation too…
Ah, take me to the morning view…
Ah, I can see right into you…

Oh, I am just an ache now…
Ah, stretch me ’til I break out…

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Don’t ignore the bells

Disclaimer: spoilers for Game of Thrones (and Breaking Bad) ahead

When engaging with fiction, we should not turn off our conscience. This seems like an incredible obvious statement to make, but it’s increasingly uncommon sentiment, especially in the age of the anti-hero.

Far too many people watch anti-hero dramas as though it’s all Grand Theft Auto. What’s the different between suspending disbelief and suspending our moral sense? We’re supposed to root for the bad guys, right? Isn’t that how this works? Whereas suspending disbelief is an act of the imagination that can draw us into new worlds through which we can engage with a compelling narrative, suspending decency is a very dangerous step. And the best artists know this, even in the age of HBO.

This first occurred to me with Breaking Bad. Someone told me that Breaking Bad was like Sons of Anarchy, which confused me because they seemed nothing alike – Sons of Anarchy is so explicitly Hamlet, whereas Breaking Bad is Macbeth. In 5×05, Walter, Jesse and Todd pull off an epic train heist to acquire more methylamine to fuel their drug empire. The audience is rooting for the anti-hero protagonists all the way through, and they accomplish the impossible train heist, which is a real feat to watch, and without anyone noticing – until they see a young kid on a bike. Todd waves, and then shoots him as Jesse screams in protest.

It was when my wife told me that a friend had remarked, “yeah, that was so awful… but, I mean, they had to do it… right?” that I truly realized what Vince Gilligan was doing. The death of this child is what ultimately sets the end of the series in motion. Jesse spirals out of control with a guilty conscience, while Walt continues whistling on his merry way. This is the breaking point, where the showrunner has to make it so undeniably obvious that the hero is an anti-hero, that the protagonist has actually become a really bad guy – and even then, the audience takes a while to come around.

Game of Thrones is full of characters who are far, far worse than Walter White, and the worst horrors of Vince Gilligan’s comparatively restrained dramas would barely cause one to bat an eye on Game of Thrones. While people line up an pick a team, pick a ruler to root for (that’s the whole point of the game, right?) it takes much, much more horrific acts in order to break the audience from their spell, like Stannis Baratheon burning his own daughter alive at the stake – a scene that Game of Thrones handles with reaction shots from the parents amidst the brutal and absolutely unbearable screaming, foregoing the usual gory visuals for an even more horrific effect. On this show, in order to make it undeniable that someone is beyond the pale, the dial needs to be turned up to 15 or 16, after six seasons of regular carnage, objectification, brutality, and a world with barely a hint of justice or morality.

Until Season 7 and 8, when the notion of a redemption arc creeps into Game of Thrones from the edge of its known world onto centre stage in Westeros. (I don’t think I would have made it anywhere near this far before turning it off, were I starting today….) From Tyrion Lannister to Sandor Clegane to Jaime Lannister, it’s almost as hard to recall the origins of these characters as it is to remember all the other major characters whose corpses litter the first six seasons. Redemption is a fascinating theme I never would have expected in this show, but my concern here is not redemption so much as its opposite – the fall.

Why were so many people so surprised when Daenerys Targaryen massacred the entire city of King’s Landing? (Most of all, I’m guessing, Elizabeth Warren.) Why did so many people find it so implausible when she ignored the bells?

They were cheering for her. That’s the game, right? Pick a team, root for the person who you want to be on the throne? People cheered for her in 3×04 when she told the unsullied to “slay the masters,” even after she had control of their army. People cheered for her in 4×04 when she crucified the masters in Meereen, even as Ser Barristan Selmy counsels her to show mercy. After the Sons of the Harpy kill Selmy, she rounds up the nobles of Meereen and feeds one to the dragons as an interrogation technique, without any concern for his particular innocence or guilt. The Season 7 execution of the Tarly men was a focal point of 8×02. And if you look to any of the times she did show mercy or chose a less violent means of conquering, it was because her advisors strongly urged her to do so – advisors who are all now dead or alienated from her. I mean, just listen to the music that gets played during half of these scenes.

Is it really hard to believe that Daenerys would ignore the bells? She’s been ignoring the bells all along, and this is only a surprise to viewers who themselves have become accustomed to ignoring the bells. Watching an anti-hero drama and cheering the protagonist is like attending a Shakespeare play and cheering for Macbeth, or reading Paradise Lost and cheering for Satan.

Narrative fiction, literature, brings about self-reflection and self-revelation. By engaging with literature, we learn something about ourselves. It is dangerous to engage with our conscience disabled – it is a journey without a compass. We must not become desensitized to the horrors, or explore character without conscience, or else we learn the wrong things. We should never cheer for justice without mercy, or take pleasure in murder or massacre. Or else, we, too, may learn to ignore the bells.

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The lyric attempts the impossible – to stop time

One of the sources that has forever shaped my view on songwriting — on lyric writing in particular — is the introduction to the lyric poem in this lecture from University of Toronto English professor, Nick Mount, on Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, published by TVO:

While studying English at the University of Toronto, I unfortunately never took a course with Nick Mount. Mount opens the lecture with a description of the lyric poem that resonates with me and is forever etched in my memory:

When you’re reading a novel, your attention is on the progression of time, the forward movement of the plot through its complication and its resolution. A lyric poem… is less about the progression of time than it is about the attempt to stop time. The lyric tries the impossible. It tries to temporarily stop time, to slow us down in order to allow for a moment of perception — sometimes a moment of confusion, of understanding, sometimes emotional, sometimes intellectual, often a bit of both. For me, that is the main virtue of poetry — and in particular of the lyric poem — its ability to get me to stop and pay attention to life, to everything that I’m rushing by because of time, because of the inevitable tick of the clock. And that is what a lyric poem excels atcapturing the things, the experiences, that we don’t see because they’re there in front of us all the time.

Then, channeling the famous University of Toronto English professor, Northrop Frye, Mount continues:

Frye says that the lyric poem gets written because some normal activity has been blocked, the normal progression of time, and the poet has to write about that block before returning to the world of time.

This is my experience as a songwriter explained by the University of Toronto Department of English. Furthermore, while I have yet to fully wrap my mind around this yet, I think a pair of U of T theology professors have something profound to say about this too.

Fr. Bernard Lonergan from Regis College wrote in Insight about four fundamental forms of bias that can impact our consciousness, the first of which is dramatic bias, which operates at the level of elementary feelings and passions. From Insight (emphasis added):

Just as insight can be desired, so too it can be unwanted. Besides the love of light, there can also be a love of darkness. If prepossessions and prejudices notoriously vitiate theoretical investigations, much more easily can elementary passions bias understanding in practical and personal matters. Nor has such a bias merely some single or isolated effect. To exclude an insight is also to exclude the further questions that would arise from it, and the complementary insights that would carry it towards a rounded and balanced viewpoint. To lack that fuller view results in behaviour that generates misunderstanding both in ourselves and in others. To suffer such incomprehension favours a withdrawal from the outer drama of human living into the inner drama of fantasy. This introversion, which overcomes the extroversion native to the biological pattern of experience, generates a differentiation of the persona that appears before others and the more intimate ego that in the daydream is at once the main actor and the sole spectator. Finally, the incomprehension, isolation, and duality rob the development of one’s common sense of some part, greater or less, of the corrections and assurances that result from learning accurately the tested insights of others and from submitting one’s own insights to the criticism based on others’ experience and development.

Bernard Lonergan, Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, p. 191.

Biases are the kinds of things that emerge and prevent authentic insight, and dramatic bias in particular has to do with that level of passion and feeling in one’s own psyche. These are barriers, but the sort of thing that when not ignored but worked out, can lead to insight. Furthermore, dramatic bias is dialectical, as there’s some tension between two competing things that needs to be worked out is dialogue.

As one of my Regis College professors, John Dadosky, once put it in a lecture: “Once a bias is removed, then you can get on with the business of authentic living with that area of life in which you were stuck.” This comment is what sparked the connection for me and reminded me of Nick Mount’s comments on the lyric poem, calling to mind Northrop Frye’s notion that the normal progression of time has been blocked and you are stuck and cannot return to the normal world of time until — or unless — you work out the block with the lyric poem. What is a lyric poem but that dialectical attempt to resolve the bias, to resolve to block – to get unstuck?

Lonergan, in his transcendental precepts, describes the method through which any individual transcends himself or herself to live in reality:

  1. be attentive to experience;
  2. be intelligent in understanding;
  3. be reasonable in judgment;
  4. be responsible in decision-making;
  5. be in love with God, self and neighbour.

A good artist – a good lyricist – is attentive to human experience, as a prerequisite for being intelligent in our understanding of the human experience (and, thus, a prerequisite of being reasonable, responsible and in love). Insofar as art is good, insofar as it is attentive to our lived experience and it authentically expresses that, it is the raw material for reflection that can lead to intelligent understanding of the human experience.

Is the lyric poem not a dialectical attempt at being attentive to the experience of dramatic bias? To be attentive to that experience that stops the normal progression of time and removes us from the world, so that we can work through that experience and return to the world — unstuck — with the bias removed through a dialectical engagement with the blockage?

For the lyricist, the world of time has stopped — the dramatic bias “blocks… the normal progression of time” — and the lyricist experiences a “withdrawal from the outer drama of human living into the inner drama of fantasy.” That dramatic bias is worked out in a dialogue between fantasy and reality through the lyric, so that the lyricist can “return to the world of time” and “get on with the business of authentic living.”

For the listener or reader, lyrics that are truly attentive to experience cause us to “stop and pay attention to life,” to “slow us down in order to allow for a moment of perception” — a mix of confusion and understanding, of emotion and intellect — in order to draw our attention to the dramatic biases in our own lives, the “experiences that we don’t see because they’re there in front of us all the time,” so that the listener themselves can, through engaging with the lyric, work out a similar block or dramatic bias in their own life and return to the normal progression of time (whether or not the lyricist is similarly successful).

I feel like I have a lot more work to do to wrap my mind properly around what Lonergan is saying and how this relates to lyric poetry, but… is that not what a lyric poem does? Is that not the experience and the role of a songwriter? Is that not what lyrics are for you?

That’s what lyrics are for me.

Canvases is a song about the normal progression of time being blocked and the need to “paint all of these unknown voices” before returning to the world of time — written four years before I heard Nick Mount’s lecture, while I was attentive to my own experience but before I understood it in the way I do now.

Thank you, Nick Mount, Northrop Frye, John Dadosky and Bernard Lonergan, for furthering my understanding of my own lyric poetry and experience as a music lover.

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A Prayer Table in a Classroom is like a Chief Digital Officer at a Record Label

A prayer table in a classroom is like a Chief Digital Officer at a record label — a nice way to pretend that you care when you’re really just shoving something off into a corner.

Legacy organizations sometimes hire someone who gets technology, and maybe even give them a fancy title, but in reality it’s just a token gesture as they sideline them in a digital silo in which they have no real influence over the rest of the organization.

I can’t help but think of this empty gesture approach when thinking about religion in schools. There are some ways in which a religious sense is integrated into the life of the community, but there are also many empty gestures — ways to put religion “over there” in the corner.

My son, Noah, just finished his first year of kindergarten. At a curriculum night back in the Fall, he was taking us around his classroom, basically shouting while showing us all of the things — this is where we have these toys, and this is where we do these activities, and here’s where we learn about words, and here’s the calendar, etc. I see a strange table with in Ikea leaf canopy thing over it in the corner. “What’s that?” His reply: “Umm… what’s that? I don’t know…” The one thing in the entire room he can’t identify? The prayer table.

The school board mandates that teachers set up these prayer tables in their class. What’s the point, if it’s going to be able as effective as hiring some token Chief Digital Officer and placing them off in a silo? Catholic schools should be doing better with religion than a record company with technology.

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Interview on Music Manumit Podcast

Thanks to Tom and Doug for inviting me to chat on the Music Manumit podcast this past weekend! You can listen to our discussion here about being creative about the career and business side of being a musician.

Music Manumit

mp3 audio | ogg vorbis | stream | torrent

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The cosmic significance of recess

I’m constantly frustrated by the way we approach education and youth, as though we’ve forgotten our grade school experience. Our culture looks at the immaturity of adolescent romantic drama, or social groups, and sees either an interesting social science experiment, or kids just being kids, etc. We dismiss it. We consider it to be something less important, less significant in the grand scheme of life, something you eventually get beyond when you grow up. But what could be more significant?

What we experience at recess is central to the human drama.

We long to be accepted and to be loved for who we are. We ask: Do I belong here? Am I accepted for who I am? Can I reveal what I truly feel without regretting it? Without being mocked? Without feeling stupid? Will anybody ever love me for who I am? This social pretense, is it permanent? Is it everywhere? Is there a place where I can belong as myself? Is there a person with whom I can belong as myself?

And her. I want to be near her. I want to think about her always. If only she would accept me, it wouldn’t really matter what anyone else thinks. But if only she cannot see me, what does it matter what anyone else sees? Will I always feel like this? Will I ever feel this way about anyone else again? How can I love someone else like this again? How could I live with this feeling again? Will I always have to feel this ache? Does anyone else feel this? Does anyone else understand me? Will anyone else ever feel this way about me?

What does this mean?

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HOWTO: Redmine 3.0 with Debian Wheezy, Nginx, Thin

I spent a few hours troubleshooting a problem with Thin when I upgraded from Redmine 2.5 to Redmine 3.0 on a Debian Wheezy server. I found a solution that’s worked for me. I’m not confident enough with Ruby and this setup to make a HowTo on the Redmine wiki, but I found next to nothing on this specific problem when searching the web, so I figure it’s important to post this in case it helps anyone else.

I’m running Redmine on Debian Wheezy with Nginx and Thin. I’m also running Redmine on another Wheezy server with Apache (and mod_passenger, I think). The latter upgrade to Redmine 3.0 went fine, but when I ran the same steps on the thin/nginx server, I was getting a Bad Gateway 502 error from nginx and found this in the thin logs.

!! Unexpected error while processing request: uninitialized constant Rack::MethodOverride::REQUEST_METHOD

Yet, when I ran Redmine with webrick (per Redmine’s installation instructions), it worked fine. Since it worked fine with webrick and on my other server, it seemed like the problem was at the Thin layer.

This Stack Overflow issue was the closest I could find, though it was with a different Rack application. The problem was a mismatch between the Rack version and the one required by the application.

I couldn’t find Redmine-specific examples (hence this post), but this one Redmine guide did say “Rack 1.0.1. Version 1.1 is not supported with Rails 2.3.5”.

Finally, the Stack Overflow issue linked to this issue in the Passenger tracker which pointed me towards the answer:

Your system has two Rack versions installed. One is version 1.5.0, installed by APT, and is located in /usr/lib/ruby/vendor_ruby. The other one is version 1.6.0, installed by RubyGems, and is located in /var/lib/gems/2.1.0/gems/rack-1.6.0.

Before Passenger loads your app, Passenger calls require “rack”. Because /usr/lib/ruby/vendor_ruby is in Ruby’s $LOAD_PATH, Passenger loads the Rack 1.5.0 library installed by APT.

However Sinatra requires Rack 1.6.0 or later…

This was my problem. When I installed Redmine 2.5, I ran `apt-get install thin`. It pulled in ruby-rack 1.4.1 as a dependency. This “conflict” wasn’t a problem in Redmine 2.5, which has “rack (~> 1.4.5)” in Gemfile.lock — the versions are close enough. However, Redmine 3.0 has “rack (~> 1.6)” in Gemfile.lock… hence the error I was seeing, as Rack 1.4.1 installed via apt was probably being loaded in place of the 1.6.1 Gem.

I tried to `apt-get remove ruby-rack`, but it was going to remove thin as well. (And I checked the Jessie repos, but its ruby-rack is still only 1.5.2.) I identified two solutions:

  1. Uninstall ruby-rack and thin via apt, and reinstall thin separately (this worked)
  2. Create a dummy .deb using equivs to install thin via apt without really installing ruby-rack (I didn’t bother trying this, since the first solution worked)

To install thin separately, first I removed it and ruby-rack whiling marking a couple other dependencies as manually installed and keeping the /etc/init.d/thin file…

apt-get remove ruby-rack thin
apt-get install ruby-eventmachine ruby-daemons # not sure if this was necessary or advisable, just a guess

Then, following the thin installation instructions, I was able to install the gem:
apt-get install ruby-dev build-essential
gem install thin
# Update the path in /etc/init.d/thin from /usr/bin/thin (apt) to /usr/local/bin/thin (gem)
perl -pi -w -e 's/\/usr\/bin\/thin/\/usr\/local\/bin\/thin/g' /etc/init.d/thin

I was able to start thin again (`service thin start`), but I was getting a new error for which I found the solution here: add thin to your Gemfile.

So, somewhat reluctantly, I opened up Gemfile in the Redmine root directory and in between a couple other gem lines I added the line:
gem "thin"

Then, I restarted thin, and Redmine was working again!

Things I don’t like about this solution or am unsure of:

  • Editing Redmine’s Gemfile sucks, because I’ll lose that change on every update and I’ll have to re-apply it. Since it’s a simple one-liner and updates are every few months, it works for me for now.
  • I don’t know yet whether those other apt thin dependencies are required or might cause other conflicts in the future… but since it’s working now, and I’m not familiar with Ruby, I don’t feel like spending more time to experiment and find out.
  • Maybe I should have looked at other options beside thin, like Puma or Passenger? But since I already had Thin working before, I just decided to see if I could salvage it rather than exploring alternatives. Maybe thin isn’t the best option in this circumstance though, but it’s working.
  • I’m assuming that /etc/init.d/thin was there and working because it was leftover from the apt thin installation (and because I didn’t `apt-get purge`). That may have been lucky that the init script happens to work (as far as I can tell for now) with the thin gem…

Hopefully this can help anyone else using Redmine(3.0)/Debian/Nginx/Thin seeing that error. I’d be happy to share configuration and fresh installation instructions once I have some confidence that this approach is sane, and in particular once I have a better solution than modifying the Gemfile.

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HOWTO: Pair a new device for the old Firefox Sync service in Firefox 30

I got into a public fight with IceWeasel/Firefox 30 and the Mozilla sync service on last month, and was meaning to publish my “fix”… but it was so hacky, I don’t know which part of it actually worked. But, since it’s somewhat time-sensitive during this sync service transition, I figure it’s better to share this incomplete hack than to not.

The Problem: Can’t Pair New Devices in Firefox/IceWeasel 30 Using the old Firefox Sync Service

I recently switched my ThinkPad X60 from Ubuntu to Debian testing. When I tried to set up IceWeasel 30 with the Mozilla sync service, it started prompting me about creating a Firefox account — something I have absolutely no interest in doing (in fact, I was planning on moving my Firefox sync to off Mozilla’s servers to ownCloud).

I discovered that, while previously paired devies would still be able to sync using Mozilla’s old sync service for a limited time, as of Firefox/IceWeasel 30, it no longer supports pairing new devices to the old sync service.

This made me really angry. If I’d set up sync and paired the device before “upgrading” to IceWeasel/Firefox 30, I’d be syncing no problem, but Firefox/IceWeasel 30 refused to allow this. It was an infuriating combination of what felt like an anti-feature, and pressure from Mozilla to sign up for a new sync service that seems worse on the privacy front (e.g. no server-side encryption, and self-hosting is experimental now because you’d also have to self-host the Accounts service…).

The Solution: Tricking IceWeasel/Firefox by editing prefs.js

Technically, this wasn’t a new device. I’d already had my X60 Firefox set up to sync before I switched from Ubuntu to Debian. So, I managed to trick IceWeasel into letting me sync again.

This was pretty reckless (but stakes very low — brand new IceWeasel profile) and I’m not sure exactly what worked and use these instructions at your own risk, etc etc.:

  • I copied the weave folder from inside my old Ubuntu Firefox profile (not sure if that mattered), plus all of the lines in prefs.js for settings that started with “services.sync.*” (this definitely mattered)
  • I tried manually editing the preferences (resetting timestamps to zero, etc.), but what ended up happening is that when I opened IceWeasel with those lines just copy-pasted in from my Firefox profile in my old Ubuntu install that I’m no longer using, it gave me the “Pair a new Device” option the first time I accessed Sync settings!!
  • It would disappear and not come back if I cancelled pairing, but I just tried closing IceWeasel, copying/pasting those services.sync.* lines into prefs.js again, and then I successfully paired IceWeasel 30 by doing it the first time it appeared.
  • I could see “tabs from my other computers” now, but my bookmarks clearly weren’t there, so I shut IceWeasel down, and changed the value of all the services.sync.*.lastSync and services.sync.*.lastSyncLocal and a couple other similar timestamps, setting them to 0 from their prior values. Then, re-opened IceWeasel, ran the sync manually, and my bookmarks started appearing! Since then, it seems everything has been working fine

I think it was something in copying the services.sync* settings that allowed the Pair a New Device screen to work the first time I reopened IceWeasel. Then, after pairing, resetting the timestamps to 0 on the services.sync.*.lastSync* settings caused IceWeasel to download everything again anew.

YMMV. I’m not sure how much my of success depended on being able to hijack an existing client sync ID from a device that was previously configured but no longer being used (i.e. my former Ubuntu Firefox profile on my X60 that I was replacing with Debian IceWeasel). And these steps are vague and unspecific because I’m not really sure what precisely worked or what may be unwise for you to try if you don’t know what you’re doing… but feel free to contact me if you want more specifics on my set up and experience and I may be able to help.

At the very least, this will allow me to continue using the old sync service for now, until I figure out what my options are re: self-hosting, ownCloud, Mozilla’s new Firefox Accounts-based sync service, etc.

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Four videos I wish mass music didn’t remind me of, but often does…

Ever since I’ve come to appreciate the beauty of liturgical music, I can’t help but cringe a little when, all too often, the music at mass instead resembles one of these videos.

1. The “Misplaced Enthusiasm”

I appreciate the enthusiasm. I do. But there’s a time and a place. As much as we may think that’s during the recessional, it’s really not.

True story: Once, for the recessional, a cantor tried to get the congregation to clap along. On 1 and 3. To “This is the Day That the Lord Has Made.” All I could think of was this video. I just about lost it.

2. Look at me! / Which one of these instruments does not belong…

In a liturgical setting, not every genre/instrument… fits. The goal of liturgical music is to create the right atmosphere, not so much to… stand out and be noticed.

3. The Wannabe Rock Star

I know you want to be a rock star. I get it. It’s just… mass probably isn’t the best place to kick start your career. Even though you’re trying really hard.

4. Behold the Wood of the Cross / Gilligan’s Island

Sometimes, a song is just such a blatant import of something straight from popular culture. For example, I can’t listen to the verses in “Behold the Wood of the Cross” without thinking of the Gilligan’s Island theme song.

Unless a grain of wheat shall fall
Upon the ground and die
It shall remain but a single grain…
Here on Gilligan’s Island!


Anyone with experience knows this is not an exhaustive list. For those who can relate… any tips for coping?

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A network not of wires but of people: David Weinberger on Pope Francis

As an avid reader of both David Weinberger and Pope Francis, it was very interesting to see those two worlds collide in Weinberger’s cross-tradition interpretation of Pope Francis’ message for World Communications Day.

First, Weinberger looks at Pope Francis’ initial characterization of the Internet:

The internet, in particular, offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity. This is something truly good, a gift from God.

Weinberger calls this a “remarkable characterization” compared to all of the other ways Pope Francis could have started:

Not: The Internet is a source of temptations to be resisted. Not: The Internet is just the latest over-hyped communication technology, and remember when we thought telegraphs would bring world peace? Not: The Internet is merely a technology and thus just another place for human nature to reassert itself. Not: The Internet is just a way for the same old powers to extend their reach. Not: The Internet is an opportunity to do good, but be wary because we can also do evil with it. It may be many of those. But first: The Internet — its possibilities for encounter and solidarity — is truly good. The Internet is a gift from God.

While I agree with Weinberger, there is also something that is not fundamentally new. Even just looking at past World Communications Day messages over the past quarter century, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II both typically lead with the goodness of the new technology.

“Social Networks: portals of truth and faith; new spaces for evangelization.” (Pope Benedict XVI, 2013):

“I wish to consider the development of digital social networks which are helping to create a new “agora”, an open public square in which people share ideas, information and opinions, and in which new relationships and forms of community can come into being. These spaces, when engaged in a wise and balanced way, help to foster forms of dialogue and debate which, if conducted respectfully and with concern for privacy, responsibility and truthfulness, can reinforce the bonds of unity between individuals and effectively promote the harmony of the human family. The exchange of information can become true communication, links ripen into friendships, and connections facilitate communion.”

Truth, Proclamation and Authenticity of Life in the Digital Age (Pope Benedict XVI, 2011):

“New horizons are now open that were until recently unimaginable; they stir our wonder at the possibilities offered by these new media and, at the same time, urgently demand a serious reflection on the significance of communication in the digital age. This is particularly evident when we are confronted with the extraordinary potential of the internet and the complexity of its uses.”

New Technologies, New Relationships. Promoting a Culture of Respect, Dialogue and Friendship. (Pope Benedict XVI, 2009):

“Many benefits flow from this new culture of communication […] While the speed with which the new technologies have evolved in terms of their efficiency and reliability is rightly a source of wonder, their popularity with users should not surprise us, as they respond to a fundamental desire of people to communicate and to relate to each other.”

The Media: A Network for Communication, Communion and Cooperation (Pope Benedict XVI, 2006):

“Technological advances in the media have in certain respects conquered time and space, making communication between people, even when separated by vast distances, both instantaneous and direct. This development presents an enormous potential for service of the common good and “constitutes a patrimony to safeguard and promote” (Rapid Development, 10).”

The Communications Media: At the Service of Understanding Among Peoples (Pope John Paul II, 2005):

“Modern technology places at our disposal unprecedented possibilities for good”

The Media and the Family: A Risk and a Richness (Pope John Paul II, 2004):

“The extraordinary growth of the communications media and their increased availability has brought exceptional opportunities for enriching the lives not only of individuals, but also of families.”

Internet: A New Forum for Proclaiming the Gospel (Pope John Paul II, 2002):

“For the Church the new world of cyberspace is a summons to the great adventure of using its potential to proclaim the Gospel message.”

Mass media: a friendly companion for those in search of the Father (Pope John Paul II, 1999):

“With the recent explosion of information technology, the possibility for communication between individuals and groups in every part of the world has never been greater. Yet, paradoxically, the very forces which can lead to better communication can also lead to increasing self-centredness and alienation. We find ourselves therefore in a time of both threat and promise.”

Even on other technologies… Videocassettes and audiocassettes in the formation of culture and of conscience (Pope John Paul II, 1993):

“Let me say again, and with emphasis, that the audiocassette and the videocassette are gifts of God, gifts, we may say, kept in His treasury through all the ages until our time, kept — for us.”

And even pretty early on in the days of “computer culture” going mainstream… The Christian Message in a Computer Culture (Pope John Paul II, 1990):

“Surely we must be grateful for the new technology which enables us to store information in vast man-made artificial memories, thus providing wide and instant access to the knowledge which is our human heritage, to the Church’s teaching and tradition, the words of Sacred Scripture, the counsels of the great masters of spirituality, the history and traditions of the local Churches, of Religious Orders and lay institutes, and to the ideas and experiences of initiators and innovators whose insights bear constant witness to the faithful presence in our midst of a loving Father who brings out of his treasure new things and old (cf. Mt 13:52).”

Really, what they’re doing here is following the basic pattern of Genesis — first, the goodness of creation, then, the problem of sin.

So, the affirmation of goodness can be traced back to the Church’s earliest proclamations on the Internet and computer culture, in World Communications Day messages as well as in other documents. But, there is something that seems to have shifted about the Papal characterizations of what the Internet is. As Weinberger writes:

The Catholic Church put the “higher” in “hierarchy,” so it’d be understandable if it viewed the Internet as a threat to its power. Or as a source of sinful temptation. Because it’s both of those things. The Pope might even have seen the Internet quite positively as a powerful communication medium for getting out the Church’s message.

While the first two characterizations are more caricatures, the third is not. Certainly in some messages from Pope John Paul II, you can see more of an emphasis on the Internet as a tool for evangelization (though, keeping in mind that evangelization requires dialogue or personal communication and encounter — it’s still not a broadcast approach). It might be said that Pope Benedict XVI picked up on this, but further developed some thinking on relationships, and here Pope Francis picks up and focuses on the Internet as a way of encountering our neighbours. A more thorough analysis of other writings might be required to support that conclusion, but there does seem to be something new in Pope Francis’ emphasis.

As Pope Francis writes (emphasis added):

It is not enough to be passersby on the digital highways, simply “connected”; connections need to grow into true encounters. We cannot live apart, closed in on ourselves. We need to love and to be loved. We need tenderness. Media strategies do not ensure beauty, goodness and truth in communication. The world of media also has to be concerned with humanity, it too is called to show tenderness. The digital world can be an environment rich in humanity; a network not of wires but of people. The impartiality of media is merely an appearance; only those who go out of themselves in their communication can become a true point of reference for others. Personal engagement is the basis of the trustworthiness of a communicator. Christian witness, thanks to the internet, can thereby reach the peripheries of human existence.

As Weinberger puts it (emphasis added):

For the Pope, the Internet is an opportunity to understand one another by hearing one another directly. This understanding of others, he says, will lead us to understand ourselves in the context of a world of differences […]

If we frame the Internet as being about people being human to one another, people being neighbors, the differences in belief are less essential and more tolerable. Neighbors manifest love and mercy. Neighbors find value in theirs differences. Neighbors first, communicators on occasion and preferably with some beer or a nice bottle of wine.

Neighbors first. I take that as the Pope’s message, and I think it captures the gift the Internet gives us. It is also makes clear the challenge. The Net of course poses challenges to our souls or consciences, to our norms and our expectations, to our willingness to accept others into our hearts, but also a challenge to our understanding: Stop thinking about the Net as being about communication. Start thinking about it as a place where we can choose to be more human to one another.

That I can say Amen to.

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