Monday, August 25, 2014

The Secret to Happiness is...

With all due respect to the artist "Pharrell", happiness involves far more than just listening to some catchy little pop number that makes you feel happy… or at least it makes you feel happy the first five thousand times you hear it, until you really do begin to wonder whether or not the devil wrote it simply as a means to torment you. Do you remember the song Mmm Bop? Shiny Happy People? "Don't Worry Be Happy"? Oh yes, I think you do, and I think you know exactly what I mean. And what about all those times when as a youngster you were given free reign to eat all of the candy in creation if it pleased you, only to find out that what started out as a candilcious dream, has ended in a candy-coated nightmare? Does any of this ring a bell to you?

At any rate, when I was in the fifth grade, and Atari was at its height, I asked my parents if they would buy me the game "PacMan" for my birthday. Mind you, this was the very same PacMan that had completely won the hearts and minds of the ordinary American, so much so that there was even a #1 song called "PacMan Fever" on the radio at the time. In my mind, having this particular video game was the very definition of what it meant to be happy. As a matter of fact, had I known the words of the prophet Simeon, I may have uttered them at the mere thought of receiving such a "beatific gift"; "Lord, now you can let your servant go in peace, for my eyes have seen salvation."

Finally, the day of my birthday arrived, and as I began to open my birthday presents, I quickly found myself shuffling through all of the "lesser gifts" (if only to get to the grand prize). But as I tore through all of the wrapping, I never stopped to notice that I was slowly running out of gifts. I felt like a contestant on the Price is Right who had just made a costly miscalculation on the Showcase Showdown. The next thing I knew I had finished opening all of my gifts, and the gift that I had so long coveted was no where to be found. So you may be wondering how well I was able to disguise my dismay? Disguise? Are you kidding me? Who said I even tried? I cannot say just how visibly displeased I looked, but I know this much, if memories serves me correctly, I did very little to hide my disgust. Poker has never been my game, and I was certainly in no mood to play it on this occasion. "How could they do this to me?! I deserved that game, and instead of giving me what I wanted they give me this stupid crap. This is the worst birthday ever!"

Yet just as I began to disqualify myself indefinitely from any future gifts, my mother, in her classic style, pulled from the cushions of the couch one final rectangular box, one that she apparently "forgot" about altogether (I am not sure why a forgotten gift would be under the couch cushion, but that was part of the surprise). Yes, in spite of my poor attitude, she nevertheless handed me the much coveted prize; the one and only, PACMAN! Oh the shame of my ingratitude! I was deeply embarrassed, but what I felt even more intensely was the great joy of getting exactly what I wanted. I pulled the wrapping from the package, thanked my mom and dad, and ran to plug it into the console.

Did it meet my expectations? Was it the video equivalent of the beatific vision? Let me just says this right now: if Atari PacMan is what heaven is like, then we are all in BIG trouble. Oh my goodness, it barely even resembled the original. Sure there was a PacMan like creature on the screen eating pellets or whatever they eat (they looked more like giant hyphens to me). But nothing else on the screen really resembled (at least in a satisfactory way) the arcade version. The most "exciting" moment in the game occurred when you ate all of the "pellets" and successfully cleared the board. So what did you get for this fabulous accomplishment? Are you ready boys and girls? You got to repeat the same level over and over again, with the additional reward of receiving a new "PacMan" each time (indicated by the spectacular green dot below).

My point is this: I was bored with that stupid game within about an hour of receiving it. All of that energy and nonsense over something so frivolous and fleeting, and what for? Still, you may be tempted to point out that in the end I did ultimately show gratitude for what I got. But the truth is I was only thankful because I got exactly what I demanded from my parents. And even then my sense of gratitude was extremely brief and superficial. Yet what this incident revealed was something far more important than my ultimate displeasure with a toy.

The First Law of gift-giving is that nothing is deserved. Indeed, the moment that something is demanded it ceases to be a gift. The man who deserves everything enjoys nothing, while the man who deserves nothing, awakes to find that the whole world is covered in wrapping paper. Hence, the secret to happiness is gratitude- not the kind that comes from getting precisely what is asked for- but the kind that is constantly marveling at how much has already been given. Do not go about praying the loathsome prayer of Veruca Salt (i.e. "I want it now"), rather pray to see with gratitude all that is presently in front of your eyes, and then proceed to thank God for the very eyeballs through which you saw it all in the first place. Do this and the whole world will be granted unto you.

Sin gives us a terrible astigmatism, a far-sidedness that renders us blind to the goodness that is right in front of us. I think this is why God spends so much time praising the poor and the child alike, for the poor man recognizes that anything added to life is a luxury, and the child sees the world in a spirit of wonder because everyday some new marvel is thrown at him. The question is how does one develop this disposition if one lacks it? The best way to accomplish this (on a practical level) is by moving away from an impersonal and generic gratitude for things, and towards a more "particular" kind of praise, a litany of thankfulness that focuses on praising the particular. From the most obvious, to the most odd things- we must take the time to single them out and praise them. I think when people pray to God they believe it has to involve either asking Him for something, or saying something profound. This manner of prayer about which I speak is so simple anyone can practice it. Merely think of all the things you are grateful for, but be as specific as possible. For example, you should not only thank God for the existence of your father, but you should thank him for your father's laughter (if it pleases you); you should not only thank God for your spouse, but for your spouse's nose (as I do); thank Him not only for the trees and sky, but also for the dirt roads that wander who knows where, and the rusty mail boxes attached to mysterious homes built on the side of mountains. A man who praises such things will never run out of reasons to be grateful to God. This is the creative work that must be undertaken if one is to truly be happy.

You might wonder what this spirit of gratitude would look like in practice. Simply watch the following viral video, and you will get a good glimpse of what true happiness and humility look like. Unlike me on my 11th birthday, this child expects nothing (as should be obvious by the way he reacts to receiving a cutting board), and so when he receives something which is truly beyond his wildest imagination, he genuinely responds as one does when winning the lottery. Yes it is true, the man (or child) who sees the world with a grateful eye, does indeed feel as if they have won the lottery, no matter how much he has materially.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Comedy and Pornography: 2 Sitcoms, 2 Approaches.

From a comedic standpoint, pornography is not the easiest subject to turn into a punchline. Sure, you can make a passing joke about some pornographic movie (as Seinfeld did with "Rochelle Rochelle"), or you can include some predictably preachy storyline about a parent trying to explain sex to a child based on some racy photos that they may have run across. What you generally do not see, however, is an entire television episode dedicated to the topic. The primary reason for this, I think, has to do with people's general ambivalence towards the subject matter. While a good deal of sexual humor is thought to be perfectly acceptable, comedy about people watching hardcore pornography has not yet become the norm (thank God for small favors). Hence, due to the general awkwardness (and perhaps shamefulness) of the subject, the topic is rarely explored, much less turned into a hilarious plot line for a popular sitcom. Yet in the 90's, long before internet pornography became fully entrenched in our current ethos- two popular sitcoms chose to tackle the issue. Be advised that some of the discussion, as well as the accompanying video clips, are relatively frank in nature.

One sitcom that chose to devote at least part of an episode to pornography was the popular hit comedy Friends. The pornographic subplot goes something like this: Joey and Chandler are sitting around watching TV, when all of a sudden they come to the "glorious" realization that- for whatever reason- a pornographic channel has been added to their basic TV cable package. Elated by this discovery, the boys basically sit around and watch "free porn" for the entire episode. This has to be a new low in the history of western civilization: humans watching television watching others humans watching pornography on television.

I have a confession to make. When I was around twelve years old, back when HBO was in its heyday, I would try to find the television station that was designated for the network- hoping beyond hope that I could see it through the snow and/or the the twisting and squiggling lines on the scrambled screen. Yes, in those days I had a tremendous curiosity about movies that my parents wouldn't permit me to watch (I know this is shocking). Consequently, when the cable company accidentally gave us HBO for a couple weeks I was extremely excited. As a matter of fact, I even got in trouble one night for getting up around 2AM in order to watch Escape From New York; first, because the title sounded cool, and secondly, and most importantly, because I wanted to watch an "R" rated movie! That was the end of HBO for me.

In any case, while I can remember that adolescent instinct, it's important to note that at the time, I was actually an adolescent! Joey and Chandler have no such excuse as they sit in their Lazy Boys unapologetically watching something far more graphic than anything I could have imagined. So what is our reaction supposed to be to this storyline? Well, according to the show's laugh track, we are supposed to find this behavior hilarious. Yes, the idea that a pair of grown men would sit around engaging in a "pornathon,' while their lady friends are standing around in the background protesting as mildly as possible, is supposed to have us in stitches.

Fortunately there is a definite moral to the story. For throughout the entire episode, Joey and Chandler are compelled to keep the TV on for fear that if they turn it off they will lose all access to the station (or so the their wizened plumber tells them). Nevertheless, by the end of the episode Chandler demonstrates an incredible amount of courage, a bravery that few would even dare entertain when he wonders aloud whether or not he can actually kick the habit and turn the TV off. What happens next may in fact move you to tears...          

Obviously the previous statement is meant to be more than a little ironic, for the only reason the writers of the show had Chandler turn off the television is as a comedic device to make us laugh when he turns it right back on again. Indeed, wherever there is any suggestion in the episode that there may be something wrong with watching pornography, the writers immediately turn it into a punchline. Based on the ending, we are left with the distinct impression that watching a little/ a lot of pornography is probably no more harmful than a little bawdy humor among guys.

Usually in these types of shows there is at least some kind of lip service paid to the potential moral  dangers involved in watching lurid material. Quite the opposite here- by the end of the episode, the men are practically mocking the very notion that there should be any dilemma at all. They do everything but say: porn is good for you. What is equally bizarre is the fact that the women seem just as unaffected by their perverse behavior. How creepy and weird is that when you think about it? Films that most people wouldn't even want another living soul to know that they watched, are treated here with a kind of shameful serendipity. This sequence of events basically sums up the whole moral worldview of Friends. All sex is permitted (and basically hilarious), so long as it doesn't involve any obvious sexual violence, like getting raped and/or murdered.

Freaks and Geeks is another example of a sitcom willing to bravely go where no other comedy has gone. Sadly, in spite of its huge cult following, Freaks and Geeks ran only one year. Essentially the show is a kind of Wonder Years a decade later (it takes place in the early 80s). What is particularly exceptional about the show is its writing, for it really does capture some of those interesting and profoundly awkward conversations that tend to take place among adolescent youths- and miraculously, it does so without becoming excessively nostalgic or maudlin.

Unlike Chandler and Joey, the kids in the following scenes are in their adolescence, as opposed to being in a perpetual state of it. The episode begins in sex ed class, where their P.E. teacher (who is incidentally played by the notorious Biff character from Back to the Future) is attempting to provide detailed instruction about the female anatomy. The whole thing of course is completely uncomfortable, and it becomes readily apparent in no time that the main character, Sam, knows next to nothing about the female body. As a result of his understandable ignorance, an upperclassman offers to "help" him in these matters. Seeing Sam and his friends in the hall, that "older friend", played by James Franco, approaches them and hands them something hidden under his jacket. It turns out that it is a pornographic film. What ensues next is probably the most creative and accurate portrayal of the reaction of young boys (depending on their experience) when confronted with the reality of such graphic material. And it's not exactly what you might expect:      

I recommend watching the first thirty minutes of the episode to get a sense of the whole thing, but if you want to focus on the most important scenes, begin watching at the twenty two minute mark and conclude with the scene in the lunchroom (around the 29 minute mark). I cannot stress enough how accurately the writers capture the way young men respond to such "material". It would have been so predictable for them to take the easy way, either by becoming too moralistic, or by being too flippant, as was the case with the episode of Friends. But instead of taking the easy way, they chose something far more artistic, something far more in keeping with what happens in real life.

I am happy to say that I have never been particularly attracted to pornography, even at those times in my life when I was furthest from God. Nevertheless, I do remember a "friend" of mine in eighth grade inviting me over with some other boys to watch just such a video at his house (this was the type of kid whose home was permissive enough that you could smuggle such things into his house). First of all, I am sad to admit that I did not have the moral courage or sense about me at that time to refuse to watch what can loosely be called a film. My sense of curiosity was frankly stronger than any moral scruples I may have had. But whatever the case, the power of those graphic images (tragically) have never left me completely. And all I can say about that video, is that it was absolutely disgusting. If you have even the tiniest sliver of chivalry about you, you cannot put yourself in front of something like that without feeling a little sick. The truth is I had almost forgotten that distinct and awful feeling until watching this episode. But it was, in any case, a useful reminder for me.

Yet what is captured in this episode is something far more brilliant and nuanced than the plain fact that pornography is perverse. One of the three friends in the scene, Neil ( i.e. the one who clearly seems to be more at home with this type of material than the rest), wants to have a "viewing party." He argues that watching the entire video is the best way to properly educate one's self about sex. It seems to be a reasonable plan, doesn't it? In order to know about sex, you need to watch lots of people having it... right? This is the classic deception that is perpetrated by the modern world (or any world for that matter). We are constantly being told by magazines, by social media, and by our friends, that in order to be grown up in regards to sex, we need as much "hands on" experience as possible. This is the so-called tree of knowledge, which in layman's terms might be called vain curiosity; "I just want to know/ I just want to see/ I'm just curious about..." Under the guise of a genuine search for knowledge, we allow terrible things to enter our imagination, things, which in some cases, never leave. This is the most common error of any young man or woman: the notion that factual knowledge and personal experience is the necessary equivalent of growing up. Experience = Wisdom.

And yet the wages of this mistake are spelled out perfectly in the scenes that follow. The more these kids watch the film (especially Sam and Bill) the more their body language tells you everything. So much so that by the time they finish watching they are almost completely turned away from the screen (and least in terms of their body language). And Bill comments, rather poignantly I might add; "Are we going to go to hell for this? I don't want to go to hell." Unprompted by any parental guilt trip, the truth is they just feel physically as well as spiritually disgusted by the whole thing. Indeed, it is quite a humorous statement on the surface (as far as "hell" can be humorous), but at the same time it speaks volumes to the deeper sense of "yuck" that is felt within the soul by the simple act of viewing this smut.

In fact, so incredibly effective is the prior scene in communicating this sense of disgust, that by the time you encounter these boys in the next scene, you may just be feeling the same way that they do about food. The feeling cannot simply be ascribed to religious guilt, after all, they haven't even mentioned God up to this point (except for Bill's offhand remark), rather what they are experiencing is a kind of physical and psychological nausea related to the images. Here we encounter some of the paradoxical nature of sex and intimacy. For while we may find ourselves attracted to these images in general, when all is said and done we may equally find them repellent. Why? Because something in our spirit (if it hasn't already been destroyed) rebels against the idea of reducing sexual intimacy to little more than a bodily function. And when you get right down to it, who wouldn't be grossed out by watching a movie that has as its primary focus the glorious exploration of bodily functions?

This ultimately helps explain the final scene in the sequence, for the girl that Sam has a crush on approaches his lunch room table and asks him if he would like to help her with some social event. Unable to look her in the eyes, he immediately begins to exhibit the same body language as he did when he was watching the pornographic film. It is as if he cannot even look at her at all. Why is this the case? They do not explain it in the show, but if you understand anything about what that film did their collective psyche, then you realize that after watching it, Sam cannot even begin to look at his beloved without the threat of those terrible images attacking his immaculate image of her.

Eventually, through a series of events, Sam is ultimately able to discuss the issue with his sex ed teacher. Once again, the show chooses subtlety over moralism, wisely preferring not to reveal the actual contents of the conversation, but rather presenting the upshot of the exchange instead. While the details of the conversation are intentionally fuzzy, the teacher presumably tries to explain the larger truth of a healthy sexuality (though the audience is largely left to imagine what that conversation might look like) juxtaposing that with the disgusting, and frankly weird, ideas that were introduced to them through the film. Obviously there is more to say on this subject (like what do you say and do about all of the even more ubiquitous soft-core pornography that is out there), but I would argue that Freaks and Geeks addresses the issue exactly at the level at which it was disposed to do so.

Most important of all, though, unlike the insidious and simplistic implications of the show Friends, Freaks and Geeks really does provide tremendous insight into what pornography does to the human imagination. The man who watches pornography (either hard-core or soft core) will increasingly begin to associate sexuality with some kind of dirty pleasure (as is often portrayed in magazines and in movies), and his partner's body, not with gentleness and affection, but rather as a raw material to filch and plunder. And the body language in this sequence really does represent the kind of contortion of spirit, a physical turning away of man from true intimacy. As one woman whose husband became addicted to pornography described it to me- she truly came to feel as if her husband had a mistress, and when she would ask him why he wouldn't look at her in the same way, he would tell her in earnest; "Oh, I would never look at you that way." The truth is he had so completely destroyed a healthy sense of sexuality, that he genuinely believed that he was complimenting her by telling her this! "I could never see you in such a twisted and perverse way, I love you too much!" Thus, the great tragedy of pornography as expressed in Freaks and Geeks, as well as in this woman's sad confession, is that it really does render a man impotent in the order of intimacy- so much so that he becomes utterly incapable of associating sexuality with anything other than exploitation. Two sitcoms- two very different approaches to pornography.


Friday, August 8, 2014

25 Questions Every Catholic Should Ask An Evangelical About the Bible

It is a joke so common that even Catholics make it on themselves… and then they laugh. And the punchline always goes something like this; "…Because Catholics don't read their Bible (insert laughter here)." This is less true today than it used to be, but it nevertheless remains a serious issue. It's one of those hilarious things that really isn't hilarious when you get right down to it. There are any number of historical reasons for this, but regardless, the fact remains most Catholics are generally incapable of engaging in a real Biblical dialogue with their Protestant brothers and sisters. Many are the problems that result from this ignorance. Most significantly, it creates a language barrier between two baptized persons where there should be a bridge. Secondly, it renders Catholics incapable of recognizing that they- in many ways- take the Bible far more literally (and thus seriously) than non-Catholics. What I mean to suggest is that one of the grave dangers of denominationalism is that it threatens to reduce Scripture to one giant list of parables and sayings. Most Catholics are used to being challenged by Evangelicals when it comes to their knowledge (or lack thereof) of Scripture, but in this post I would like to attempt the reverse. The following questions are like a conversation starter, an opportunity not only for Catholics to provide a justification for their convictions, but also for our Protestants brothers and sisters to do likewise.

1. How do you know that the Bible is truly the Word of God?

If you want to get right down to the heart of the dispute between Catholics and Protestants, do not begin by discussing who has the authority to interpret the Bible, rather begin by discussing who has the authority to compile a book and then call it the infallible Word of God. Quite often Christians presuppose that the Bible is holy without even considering why they believe it to be in the first place. I wrote a book yesterday, and God dictated every word of it to me. Presto. The Bible. Calling something God's word doesn't necessarily make it so. What also doesn't necessarily make it so is this; a) you feel like it's true in your heart, b) the book has been around a long time, or c) a lot of people really like the book. Only someone who has been given the authority by the Author Himself can actually determine what is authoritative.

2. Jesus had one clear "death bed" request- why don't Protestants generally keep it?

If a loved one had a dying wish, would you not do everything in your power to follow it to the letter? So how much more should we attempt to fulfill the dying wish of our Lord and Savior? Obviously people can debate whether or not they believe in the "real Presence" (a question I will take up later), but what is undeniable is the fact that the "breaking of the bread" was an integral part of the Church from the very beginning. And none of this should be terribly surprising to us, especially considering Jesus' clear mandate on the night before he died; "DO THIS IN MEMORY OF ME". However, if you still doubt that the celebration of the Eucharist was an integral part of the worship of the early Church, simply observe this passage from the Book of Acts (a book which details the behavior of the disciples immediately after Pentecost); "And they remained faithful to the teaching of the Apostles, to the fellowship, to the breaking of the bread, and to the prayers." (Act 2:42).

3. If the Catholic Church really believed that men could save themselves, then why would they have gone to such trouble to condemn that position?

One area of disagreement between Catholics and Protestants that should actually be an area of agreement is the question of how a man is saved. Yet if you were to ask representatives from both sides of the issue, you would almost inevitably come away with a very different impression; "Catholics believe that men are saved by works, while Protestants believe that we are saved by faith alone." And this would seem to be an accurate characterization, but for one minor detail- it's not. Both Catholics and Protestants actually believe that a man is saved, first and foremost, by grace. What the dispute really comes down to is whether or not we as individuals have any role in that process, and if so, what is it? All the same, the mistake that most Catholics make when discussing the issue is that they actually accept the heretical doctrine that is imposed upon them. In other words, when a Protestant calls him a heretic for claiming that men are saved by works, he actually defends that position saying; "Well, there's a good reason we believe that men are saved by works…" Ironically, Catholics have an even more compelling reason (than Protestants) to oppose "works righteousness." For it was the Catholic Church, long before the Protestant Reformation, that condemned that position in 431 A.D. at the Council of Ephesus.

4. If the Church is really "pro idolatry," then why does the Church condemn idolatry?

Many of the accusations that fall upon the Catholic Church are things that the she herself actually rejects. Idolatry is one of them. From the Catholic perspective, if you worship Mary, then you are practicing idolatry, and that's clearly wrong. If you use a saint's medal like some sort of talisman, or rabbit's foot, you are practicing superstition. Obviously there are some forms of idolatry which are much worse than others. For example, if you immolate a child on an altar in the name of Baal, then that's a serious issue. If, however, you bury a statue of St. Joseph upside down in order to sell your house (depending on your intention), then you may be bordering on a much milder form of it. The problem isn't that Catholics worship statues (which they don't), or even that they worship men. The problem is that we really do take seriously the implications of the Incarnation, and we really do believe that as a result of Christ coming in the flesh, the world of matter has been redeemed by God. Baptism has literally drawn us into one giant family of faith, and so by honoring any one member of that family, we are no more worshipping those figures than we are worshipping our older siblings by looking up to them. In fact, to honor our spiritual fathers and mothers is a genuine act of faith, a powerful affirmation that Baptism actually accomplishes what it claims to, and that the following statement from the Gospel of Mark is anything but a form of empty rhetoric; "Whoever does God's will is my brother, sister, and mother." (Mark 3:35)

5. If there is only one Mediator between God and man, then why did God give us guardian angels?

One of the major concerns that Evangelicals express regarding the Catholic doctrine of "intercession" is that it appears to threaten the absolute sovereignty of God, or at minimum, rob Him of the honor that he is due. They contend that if you say that something other than Jesus can assist you on the road to salvation, then you are robbing God of his glory. First, it should be pointed out that Catholics also believe (as is consistent with the words of Scripture) that Jesus Christ is the sole Mediator between God and man. We also believe that there is no other Savior besides Jesus Christ. And we also believe that God is God, and man is man, and that without God we are nothing. Assuming that all of this true, should this therefore lead us to the conclusion that God rides solo in his work of Redemption? Everything in the Bible cries out against this position. Even our Lord, during his terrible agony in the garden, was assisted by an angel, who was sent from the Father in order to "strengthen" him. God initiates everything of course, but he nevertheless invites all of his creatures to share in His marvelous plan. Presumably God could effect the same outcome without giving us a guardian angel to assist us, but for whatever reason he chooses to invite all of his creatures (not just angels) to share in his saving power.  

6. If the plain words of Scripture are so obvious, then why are there so many denominations in existence today?

The unity that seems to exist among Protestant denominations is less about doctrinal unity than it is about a shared rejection of papal authority. For most non-Catholic Christians, Scripture is the sole source of authority, and while this may seem like an expedient measure to create a consensus among Christians, in truth it has only served to exacerbate and proliferate the divisions. If there is no one who is infallible, then everyone is. This would seem to be in direct opposition to our Lord's will, when he prayed to the Father; "that they may all be one" (John 17:21).
7. The majority of Evangelical Christians subscribe to five "solas" (i.e. Scripture alone, Grace alone, Christ alone, Faith alone, and glory to God alone). How is this not a logical contradiction?

A nifty and concise summary of the Faith is a great thing, but there is always a danger whenever you attempt to reduce something that is intellectually rich and complex to something which is little more than a clever catch phrase (see TULIP). Originally there were only three "solas" (not to be confused with the three tenors), then two more were added to the mix in the past century… which is why it is unwise to create a neat and tidy formula for something which defies a simple explanation. You start with one "sola" and the next thing you know you have five, and then everyone's wondering why you are still calling it "sola".

8. Where in the Bible does it teach Sola Scriptura? I thought we were supposed to believe in "Christ alone"?

It is interesting to note that among the five "solas", only one actually mentions the Lord by name (and that wasn't introduced until the 20th century). Thus, even the Bible can become a form of idolatry, especially when an individual separates it from the One about whom it is written. Yes, if you love the Bible (i.e. Scripture alone) more than you love Jesus Christ, then you too are an idolater.

9. Where in Scripture does Christ actually command his apostles to write Scripture?

I'll give you a hint... he doesn't. However, what Christ does command (other than the Eucharist) is this; a) that we make disciples of all nations; b) that we baptize them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit and; c) that we teach them to obey everything that Christ has commanded" (Matthew 28:19-20). This is of course not to diminish the weight of the infallible word of God, but rather to point out that it is the teaching, and not merely the writing itself, that leads us to salvation.

10. Many Evangelicals claim that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is easily discernible by reading Sacred Scripture. If this is the case then why did it take in excess of four hundred years to define it?     

The Blessed Trinity is the central mystery of the Christian Faith, and yet it was not fully defined (as far as it can be "fully defined") until several centuries after the resurrection of Christ. This doesn't even include the fact that the Creed, which sought to clarify the Church's teaching on the divinity of Christ, was also not fully formulated until some three hundred years after the resurrection. And we haven't even begun to discuss how long it took to determine the canon of Scripture. If you consider the fact that some of the greatest minds (as well as believers) that the Church has ever known tried their best to tackle these great mysteries (with the help of the Holy Spirit), and it took them this long to do it, then how reasonable is it to conclude that the Bible is some self-explanatory textbook? The Bible for Dummies, really? The Church is rather like a seed that is continually developing, all while maintaining its original integrity. It is not merely some dusty antiquated archeological exhibit, but rather a living breathing growing reality capable of speaking to, and bringing about the transformation of, every age and culture. This interpretation of the Faith would in any case seem inevitable if you study the historical development of Christian doctrine.

11. Why do so many Protestants have a problem with priestly celibacy- especially considering the fact that Our Lord so clearly taught it?

In keeping with the remarkable and revolutionary words of the Gospel, St. Paul seemed equally adamant about the value of priestly celibacy. In fact, not only was he himself a celibate, but he recommended it (while not disparaging the good of marriage) as the preferred way to follow Jesus with an undivided heart (see 1 Corinthians 7:8). Yet, as suggested before, this recommendation was not merely some Pauline idiosyncrasy, by rather an extension of what Jesus had already said in the Gospel of St. Matthew; "For there are eunuchs that are born that way from their mother; and there are eunuchs that are made that way by other men; and there are also eunuchs that made themselves that way for the sake of the kingdom. He who is able to accept this, should accept this"(Matthew 19:12). Agreed.

12. Jesus states that those who divorce and remarry (with a few notable exceptions) enter into an adulterous relationship. Why is it that so many Evangelicals essentially ignore this clear injunction?

This is a difficult teaching by anyone's standards, but it is also something that Jesus undeniably said, which begs the question: why is this clear teaching of the Bible so roundly ignored by many Protestants?    

13. If two Protestants come to a contradictory position on some essential teaching of the Faith, how do they determine which position is correct?

No this is not the beginning of some barroom joke, but rather a dilemma which is no doubt rife with countless ironies. For example, in the Gospel of John it says; "Truly, truly I say to you, that unless one is born of water and the Holy Spirit, one cannot enter the kingdom of God." Whatever you believe about the significance of this passage, getting the interpretation correct would seem to be imperative. Some Christians say that the larger context reveals the necessity of sacramental Baptism, while others claim that the physical act itself in the end is unnecessary. Presuming that both parties are sincere and well intentioned, how does one determine the right course of action without a definitive authority? Do we simply assume that the "road to heaven is paved with good intentions?"

14. If the Eucharist is purely a symbolic gesture, then why does St. Paul issue such a stern warning; "So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord... That is why many of you are weak and sick and some among you have even died."   

In John Chapter 6 we discover that some of Jesus' disciples decide to "return to their former way of life" because they would prefer not to "gnaw" on Jesus' flesh and drink his blood. In other words, those who listen to Him are fundamentalists, for they take everything that he is saying literally. However, most fundamentalists today choose not to take him literally, even though it is patently obvious that everyone in that Gospel passage did (including the apostles). Lending further credence to this interpretation is the fact that Jesus does nothing to correct it. Yet even if you believe there is some interpretative wiggle room here, simply consider the words that St. Paul spoke to the early Church about it (see above). Thus, if the Eucharist were purely a symbol, and Jesus were simply being metaphorical here, then why, as St. Paul so forcefully puts it, would someone be guilty of desecrating the very flesh and blood of God- if in truth they were only receiving a glorified cracker in the wrong manner?

15. If the first letter to the Corinthians says that the greatest of virtues is love, and Matthew 25 tells us that we will be judged based primarily on our charitable deeds (or lack thereof), then how can one argue convincingly that faith alone, and not both faith and works, is at the core of what saves us?

As stated before, what ultimately saves us is God's grace, but then the next question arises: what is our part in the salvation process? Well, unless you believe that men are a little more than a bunch of glorified robots without any discernible free will, then you must acknowledge that we have a part in our own salvation… by the grace of God. The only question then becomes how does that process shake out. Is it a one-off acceptance of Christ, or is it more like a wedding vow, which requires continual care and effort so that the initial vow continues to deepen and grow as opposed to withering? Scripture certainly trumpets faith, but it also clearly celebrates faith in action. Faith precedes a "faithful action" in the order of things, but that nevertheless does not mean that the only important thing to emphasize is faith, as if it could exist as a solitary thing. Can you find plenty of passages that discuss the importance of faith? Of course! Can you find plenty of passages that emphasize the value of works. Of course! Hence, why pit them against each other as if two Biblical virtues could be enemies? Indeed, these two virtues are no more meant to be at odds than are two book ends, two arms of a body, or two wings of a bird.

16. Apart from St. Peter in the Gospels, where else in Scripture does God change someone's name?

Many individuals mistakenly believe that God changed Saul's name to "Paul" after his conversion, but there is a very practical reason for his "name change" (and it has little to do with a divine mandate). Paul was preaching primarily to Gentiles, and so he used the Romanized version of his name in order to set them at ease in his presence (Paul was a Roman citizen as well as a Jew). It is quite possible that the Zebedee brothers, James and John, may have received a nickname from our Lord (viz. the sons of thunder), but that was more of a humorous description of their "thunderous" nature. In any case, having a nickname isn't equivalent to a name change, for a nickname is generally meant to be (more than anything else) a playful descriptor. In truth, the only time we see such an exceptional intervention in the Old Testament is with the Patriarchs. The first such name change occurred with our "Father in Faith", Abraham, whose name was formally Abram. This change had nothing to do with God's personal taste in names, but was rather about God revealing Abram's vocation. Names are in a certain sense related to our identity. Thus, in this singular act, God was revealing, not only the destiny of Abram, but the destiny of a people which would one day come to be known as Israel. He who was formerly childless, now, according to God's promise (as expressed through his new name), was to become the "father of many nations". In a similar fashion, the apostle Simon had his name changed as well. And he, like Abraham, was promised an enduring legacy. Certainly at that moment, neither one of them could have suspected what all this could mean, and yet, in spite of their limited understanding, and spite of their personal failings, God's incredible promise still seems manifestly alive in the person of the successor to St. Peter (who himself is the truly the father/papa of many nations).

17. If Christ wasn't truly intending to establish the papacy by changing Simon's name to Peter and giving him the keys to the kingdom, then what in fact was he doing there?

The modern consequence of Biblical fundamentalism is not greater fidelity to Scripture, but a temptation to reduce everything in Scripture to the broadest and vaguest kind of symbolism. "Who is Jesus speaking to here? Oh, he really means this passage for all Christians. That whole rock thing is a reference to Jesus being our Rock like in the Old Testament, and the 'keys to the kingdom' are meant to suggest that Christians are being given the keys to all of the mysteries of the Faith." Of course there is certain truth to all of these statements (and many like them), but there is also the more immediate meaning and context of a passage. Whatever else you believe about Simon's name, one thing is undeniable, his name, and no one else's is changed to "rock". Some claim that Jesus really changed Simon's name to "pebble" to indicate how insignificant Peter was and that's why he did it. Ouch! The question is why would he do this right after he had just praised Simon for recognizing his divinity. "Wow, great job Simon! No human has revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father! You worthless useless shaving of sediment, you! Yes, it is possible to twist and turn your way out of the former explanation. It is possible to claim that the rock and the keys are just pleasant little metaphors, which ultimately amount to nothing. But if we take Scripture seriously, and if we examine both Old and New Testament together, and if we acknowledge the remarkable resiliency of the papacy, it would seem that the most rational course for us to take would be to recognize that Peter was given a special role/office among the apostles. Yes, the other apostle have authority as well, but Matthew 16 seems to impute something special to Peter, while taking nothing away from the others.

18. If Scripture tells us that Mary is "most blessed among women", and that she is "the mother of our Lord", and that she is a woman that all generations will call "blessed", then who is being unbiblical by not honoring her in these ways?

Clearly there is more to the debate than these particular passages. However, what is also clear is that Marian devotion, or at least the seeds of it, are rooted in Scripture. In other words, if even the angel Gabriel can say the Hail Mary, then I think it's OK for us too. The truth is Marian devotion can be better understood by the instincts of the heart rather than from a forensic reading of Scripture. Anyhow, even from a strictly manualistic point of view, there is plenty of justification for a rudimentary devotion to her. In the order of time, as clearly articulated by the joyful greeting of Elizabeth, Mary really is the Mother of God/the Lord. To say that Mary is only the mother of Jesus' humanity is to fall into an old heresy concerning the nature of Christ (i.e. Jesus does not have a split personality and he is not Sybil). Of all the woman that have walked the earth, she is the greatest, and should be honored as such by all. We honor our own mothers as great- well Mary is the Mother of all mothers. In the Gospel of Luke, she even prophecies that all generations will call her "blessed". Now an evangelical Christian may not want to direct their prayers to Mary, but they should at least be willing to fulfill this Biblical prophecy by calling her; "The Blessed Mother", or at least, "Blessed Mary". We give people titles all the time who are far less worthy, and we can't give the mother of our Lord one that is right out of the Bible?      

19. If everyone in heaven is destined to receive the gifts of redemption (i.e. destined to be without sin, assumed into heaven, and in complete communion with God), then why should it be so difficult to imagine that the woman who bore the Redeemer, would be the first to receive them? 

Because Mary was the first in whom the Lord was born, she was naturally the first one to be born into Him. Redemption, as it were, was woven into her DNA from the first; a truth fully evidenced by the fact that our Redeemer received His DNA directly from her! You can deny it of course, but then what you are denying is the full implications of the Incarnation. Biology is, at least in this case, theology. Indeed, the two were woven of the same cloth. Thus, if God ultimately wipes away everything that separates us from him, then are not the doctrines of Mary ultimately a living sign (in the person of Mary) of what our reconciliation looks like. Indeed, She is the perfect image of a humanity reconciled to God.

20. Where in Scripture does it say that God's judgment (for good or ill) involves no amount of suffering or punishment on our part?

When Catholics and Protestants debate purgatory, they often assume (on both sides I might add) that purgatory is a lot like a middle ground between heaven and hell- or at best some bland waiting room at the doctor's office. I would argue that it is more like going to the doctor- who then gives you your rehabilitation assignment (think football player recovering from an ACL/MCL tear). Rather than some murky middle ground between heaven and hell, purgatory is more like the experience of God's purifying love/judgment. And whatever you think about the evidence for it in Scripture, what there is absolutely no evidence for in Scripture is a vision of judgment that has you sitting back and enjoying a replay of your life, all while consuming a giant bag of popcorn and receiving a pat on the back. There is plenty of Scriptural evidence, however, for something like a "refiner's fire" turning the dross of our sins into the pure gold of the spirit. Perhaps that "fire" successfully refines you in this life, but whatever the case, Scripture offers no evidence that when you meet God face to face, that that experience will simply involve God either smiling or frowning and yelling "NEXT!" Does one really believe that they will suffer nothing on judgment day upon seeing the real effects that our personal sins have had on the fate of others?

21. Where in the Bible does it state that our sins should be confessed only to ourselves?

The usual question goes something like this; "Where in the Bible does it say that you need to go to a priest to confess your sins?" And then you go around and around because the other individual isn't satisfied by your response. Yet ironically there is far more evidence in Scripture for the latter than the former. Pretty much every aspect of the faith involves some kind of confession, and the early Church's witness bears this out. Whether it was people going to the Jordan to confess their sins to St. John the Baptist, or it was St. Paul talking about believing in your heart and proclaiming with your lips. As with most things in these Scriptural debates it is not an issue of either/or but both/and. It is the external as well as the internal, the human as well as the spiritual. In the letter of St. James, the writer declares "confess your sins to one another" (James 5:16). "Confession" is everywhere in the New Testament. Of course one can experience all of this in the recess of their hearts, but of its nature, confessing is clearly an action of the lips, and not just a movement of the heart. The proclamation of the lips brings to completion the action that was initiated in the heart. Even if you read these texts on confession in the most minimalistic fashion, you should still come away recognizing that an outward manifestation of repentance is absolutely imperative. Yet, Scripturally speaking, when it comes to the more serious sins, there is necessarily a greater demand on our part. After all, God knows just how dishonest we can be when we are the arbiters of our own absolution. How much more humility is required for a man to go to the Church and call himself out in front of God's minister (who is both God's representative and the representative of the faithful)? Biblically speaking, the most obvious instance of Christ instituting this sacrament comes to us from the upper room after he is raised from the dead; "Whose sins you forgive are forgiven. Whose sins you retain are retained." Apart from the usual arguments for why this passage seems convincing- is what I would be inclined to call the genuinely odd second part of the statement. Indeed, if this weren't Christ instituting the sacrament of Reconciliation, then why would he even mention "retaining sins" (i.e. withholding forgiveness)? Indeed, where else in Scripture does Christ tell an individual that he or she can withhold mercy or forgiveness (only God can do that right)? "How many times should we forgive sins? 70X7."

22. Where in Scripture does it condemn praying for the dead?      

It is a clear violation of Scripture to engage in necromancy. Consequently, one may never seek to conjure up the dead as a means of speaking to them or attaining occult information directly from them. This is not to be compared with an apparition of a blessed soul who visits you on some heavenly assignment. In this case, God is initiating the encounter, in the prior case it is you who are attempting to reach into the grab bag of the spiritual world and pull out what have you. But is there anything in Scripture at all prohibiting human beings from actually offering blessings for our deceased loved ones? St. Thomas Aquinas was once asked by a woman whether or not there was a literal "Book of Life" in heaven with the names of all the blessed written inside. He responded to her question by saying that he did not think that such a literal book existed, but that he saw no harm in thinking so. In a similar sense, what harm could come from wishing our diseased brothers and sisters special blessings in the next life? A young relative of mine recently prayed for the "soul" of his deceased bunny. Of course his theology is a bit shaky, but is it not a pious thought (and at worse excusable) for him to express gratitude and hope for someone (or in this case something) that had brought him great joy? Can an expression of genuine affection and love for another, especially when it involves praying for the happiness of a particular soul, ever be raised to the level of a sin? My point is we pray for those who have gone before us out of a natural instinct of love and affection. We are not engaging here some kind of twisted necromancy, or spirit conjuring (this also explains the pious practice on the part people from all persuasions who say R.I.P. when someone has died… is this not a prayer also?). We are praying that God's face shine upon them. And if they have it already, then so be it, what is the harm of sending a spiritual bouquet to the ones we love? The Jews developed this practice (see 2 Maccabees 12:46-58) centuries before the birth of Christ, and they still do it today (they call it the Kaddish). St. Paul apparently expressed this same desire when sought God's mercy for his deceased friend Onesimus (2 Timothy 1:18). The 2nd century Christians expressed this hope when they carved intercessory prayers on the walls of the Romans catacombs. Is it really a sin against faith in God to pray that His mercy would fall like the dew upon the souls of our deceased loved ones? St. Paul didn't seem to think so.

23. Where does the phrase "once saved always saved" appear in Scripture?

As far as I am aware this phrase does not appear in Scripture. Rather this belief is deduced from a series of passages like the following; "My sheep hear my voice… and I give them eternal life… and no one will snatch them our of my hand" (John 10:28-29). What we have here- once again- is a false dichotomy; Scripture pitted against Scripture, when they should be in concert with one another. It is a little like a scene from the movie Liar Liar, where Jim Carrey beats himself up in order to avoid having to stand trial. Are there passages in Scripture that suggest salvation happens at a definitive point in time? Yes; "Today salvation has come to your house…" Are there passages that suggest that it is process, and that one must persevere and "run the race, so as to win... lest we find ourselves "disqualified"? Absolutely. Therefore, how do you best express this paradox? How do you explain to someone that Baptism is the gift of being saved by God, while also explaining that, like any gift, you can abuse it and thus lose it. That is what free will is in a nutshell. Free will doesn't cease to be the moment that you accept Jesus into your heart anymore than the challenge of marriage ends the moment you decide to take the plunge.

24. How do you prove that a man is saved?

How does someone know incontrovertibly if they are saved or not? Now we have truly come full circle, both literally and figuratively. We began this list of questions with circular logic and thus we will conclude with it. When you ask an evangelical how someone can tell if they are saved, they usually point to some sort of profession of faith that they made at their church, or else some particular moment that they remember where they "accepted Jesus into their heart and professed him with their lips." By this standard I too can point to a moment wherein I accepted Jesus into my heart and professed him with my lips. However, a problem arises when you ask many evangelicals about the phenomena wherein  someone appears to be saved, but then they inexplicably go on a killing spree (or some other horrible thing). At this point, they will in all likelihood take one of two possible positions. Either they will still with Luther's original line of thinking; "No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery thousands of times each day", or they will take up the more popular (though circular) position, that the person, even while appearing so, was probably never saved in the first place. Yet if they argue the latter, then what you have is a bit of a merry-go-round type argument, which, in the irony of ironies, seems a little Pelagian. How do you know that a man is saved? Because he has accepted Christ into his heart. What if after accepting Christ he becomes an adulterer or a serial killer? Well then, he wasn't sincere in coming to Christ. Then how do you know if he was sincere or not? His life will reflect that sincerity… Repeat and rinse.

25. Where is the Scriptural basis for serving grape juice instead of wine at communion?

I am not sure how many churches still do this, but there is a practice among some evangelicals Christians (particularly Baptists) wherein their custom is to serve grape juice instead of wine at communion. This is certainly a perplexing practice, especially when you consider it in light of the overwhelming evidence for the holy consumption of wine in Scripture. After all, why was Jesus accused of being a "glutton and a drunkard" if he was simply drinking Juicy-Juice at dinner? And if Jesus was truly a teetotaler, does that mean that his first miracle at Cana involved changing water into Welch's (how disappointed the guests must have been)? And then what about the cup of wine at the Last Supper, shall we assume here that Jesus changed the wine, not into his own blood, but back into a more reputable drink? All of this to say- I can find no evidence in Scripture that Jesus Himself was averse to fermented beverages.