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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

A Wimpy World War III

Everyone seems to think World War III has started. Newt Gingrich, President Bush, Sean Hannity – the opinions are coming fast and furious. Unfortunately, the assertion seems to be more bombast than substance. While the conflict against Wahabbi Islam and its variants span the globe, it is not at all clear that it approaches anything like a world war.

World Wars I and II saw the institution of the draft and/or the mobilization of millions of men in dozens of countries on several continents. The smallest battles in these wars injured or killed hundreds, the big battles saw tens of thousands of casualties. In both wars, huge sections of major cities were either seriously damaged or entirely destroyed.

In both wars, governments nearly succeeded in destroying entire populations: in World War I, the Turks committed genocide against the Armenians, in World War II, Germany committed genocide against gypsies, Jews and Catholics. Both wars resulted in the functional disappearance of empires (Austria-Hungarian and Britain’s empire, respectively).

In both world wars, the economies of the combatants were so fully engaged in producing war material and maintaining men in the field that strict rationing was enforced on the entire civilian population of virtually every participating country.

It is important to remember that the designation “world war” is a purely 20th-century phenomenon. The Napoleanic Wars, for instance, were certainly fought at various locations around the world (including the Pacific) and certainly involved the whole of Europe, the northern coasts of Africa, the Middle-East and Asia. Those wars mobilized millions of men and involved the destruction of significant urban areas Despite this, Napolean is not considered to have started a “world war.”

Similarly, we can point to various times in Britain’s history where she was simultaneously involved in several wars to maintain a world-wide empire (the American Revolution, for instance, was but one brush-fire in a much larger series of British conflicts), but she is not considered to have started a “world war” either.

So, does the current conflict rise to the level of “world war”? It’s hard to see how it would.

Certainly one can point to armed conflict in at least a dozen countries around the world, but that’s about the strongest argument that can be made. Muslims are not fully mobilized for war, nor is a significant percentage of Muslim men involved in armed conflict. Even the most successful Islamic assault, September 11th, had less than two dozen enemy combatants directly involved. Most of the incidents involve groups much smaller than one dozen.

The “battles”, if one wishes to call the various terrorist incidents by this name, are not particularly deadly. In most cases (September 11 being an unusual exception), casualties do not even reach a thousand injured, in fact, they generally don’t get much above one hundred or so. There is no war-time rationing. Indeed, quite the opposite is the case.

Apart from the two occasions where American forces actually invaded a country (Afghanistan and Iraq), there have been no serious pitched battles between combatants. Instead, the terrorists have inflicted a level of violence much more similar to that inflicted by mob-run gangs who fought each other and police during Prohibition.

Cities are not razed, most are left entirely untouched. Even September 11 involved the total destruction of less than a dozen buildings in New York City, an urban area that contains hundreds of thousands of commercial buildings. Most attacks consist of train bombings or individual suicide bombers, barely noticeable events on the military violence scale.

Islamic terrorists seem to be set up much more along the lines of organized criminal gangs than they are armies. Indeed, given the level of intra-Muslim violence, it is not unreasonable to draw comparisons between gang warfare and the current level of Islamic violence.

In short, if this is World War III, then world wars are definitely getting pretty wimpy.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Burying Statues

It is an old tradition (with a small "t") that burying a statue of St. Joseph in the yard of a house that is for sale will make it sell more quickly. It's based on the medieval practice of "torturing the saints" - doing cruel things to the image of a saint in order to "force" the saint to help you. Story after story to this effect has gone around parishes and the Internet for decades.

I'm here to break the chain.

When we were preparing to move to Texas, we contacted a realtor to handle the sale of our house in Peoria.

When she came in, she said, "This is a very nice house."
"Yes," I replied, "How's the housing market?"
"I really like the built-in bookshelves," she replied.
"Yes," I answered, "How's the housing market?"

There was a pause.

"Houses are selling well in certain parts of town," she said.
"Is this neighborhood one of those parts?" I asked.

There was a pause.

"Well.... you may have noticed several houses in your neighborhood for sale over the last year..." the words started tumbling out in a rush, "Well, no realtor in the city has sold a house in your neighborhood for over a year."

Veronica looked at me. I looked at the realtor, and looked back at Veronica.
"St. Joseph," she said.
I nodded.
The realtor laughed and said, "Oh, burying a statue, are you?"

Veronica and I shook our head and said in unison "NO!"
"I'm Catholic, which means I'm not superstitious. That's just foolishness," I answered.
"We pray a novena to St. Joseph," added my wife. "He'll take care of us."
"And we don't have to torture his statue." I finished helpfully. "A whole chain of events has come together far too quickly and efficiently to be anything but a God-plan. God wants us in Texas. Everything points to it. He'll take care of this. And St. Joseph is the man through whom He will do it."

So, we cleaned, we painted, we got some friends to help us plant new flowers, we spruced up the front garden and we prayed our novena.
After two weeks of hard work, we were finished.
We put the house on the market.

It was under contract in eight days.


But there was one fly in the ointment.

The buyer wanted a radon test of the air in the basement.

We had absolutely no reason to think it would pass the test.
The house was built in 1923, with little airflow in the basement, there was every reason to think the radon concentration in the basement would be higher than 4.0, which is the radon concentration in the ambient air outside the house.

We needed a rating of 4.0 or under in order to avoid over a thousand dollars in remediation work.

Again, we asked St. Joseph for help.

The radon test came in at 3.9.

Our statue of St. Joseph is in Plano with us and remains unburied.
It shall always remain so.

If you are selling your house, engage in the second oldest prayer tradition in Christendom (the Our Father being the oldest). Start a novena. Ask St. Joseph, the patron saint of fathers and households, to pray for you.

And don't torture his statue.

If you send this post to everyone you know and something nice will happen, and I can even tell you what that "something nice" will be.

A few of the people who receive it will remember that they are Catholics and they will stop acting like superstitious pagans.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Three Problems

Over the course of the last six months, I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the Catholic publishing world. The long and short of the problem is this: it's not clear to me that certain aspects of the Catholic publishing industry are entirely moral. The difficulties revolve around the marketing of Catholic non-fiction.

Husband and Father
As anyone remotely associated with publishing knows, the best book won't sell if it is not marketed. One of the premiere ways to market a book is to make sure the book's author is in front of as many audiences as possible talking about a subject as close to the book's subject as possible. In order to do this, the author must necessarily travel to meet those audiences. This creates the first problem.

I am consecrated by my marriage to be a husband and a father. I am not consecrated to be a preacher. Thus, even if my talks and books convert tens of thousands of people to more fervent practice of the Catholic Faith, it is not at all clear that I have done a good thing.

After all, to do one thing, I must necessarily fail to do another thing. I cannot simultaneously be at home with my four children (all under the age of seven, btw), and be in front of an admiring crowd in Kiev or Ottawa. I am not holy enough to bi-locate. Thus, to do one thing means I necessarily forego the other. But my sacramental charism is to be husband to my wife and father to my children, not to be apologist extraordinaire to the people of Ottawa or Ottumwa.

When I die, Christ’s first question will not be “How many people did you convert?”, rather, it will be “Did you take care of the wife I gave you? Did you care for the children I sent to you and your wife?” I somehow doubt He will be impressed If, by way of reply, I give Him an autographed copy of my latest book.

Creating a Cult
Indeed, He might ask me specific and rather pointed questions about that autographed book. You see, in order to flog any book, the author must successfully create a cult. Books are not sold primarily according to content, they are sold primarily according to the fame of the author. People buy authors, not books.

Now, this is not a problem if I write secular novels: mystery, history, romance, etc. But if I write books promoting Catholic doctrine, I am necessarily setting myself up as an authority, a quasi-Magisterium.

I will certainly not explicitly say I am infallible. In fact, I will explicitly say I am not infallible, but that won’t matter. My marketing will necessarily imply that I am an authority, a man who should not be questioned by mere mortals.

People buy surety, not equivocation. Whether you are Archbishop Sheen or Dr. Scott Hahn, EWTN or Ignatius Press, you must project an aura of sure knowledge and implicit holiness to sell Catholic non-fiction. Every successful author, every successful Catholic publishing house, has a cult following.

So, the problem is simple.
Only saints are supposed to have cults.
I am not a saint.
Therefore I have no business using the Catholic Faith to create a cult.
But in order to create a successful Catholic non-fiction publishing business, in order to make my house payments and feed my family as a Catholic non-fiction writer, I must create a cult.

Fear-Based Marketing
And this leads to the third problem. The most effective way to create a cult, to market a book that explains some aspect of the Faith, is to follow the example of secular marketing: I must scare people.

If you consider nearly any religious book, indeed, nearly any book or product you know of, you will quickly recognize this fact. Car, beer, clothes – all of these ad campaigns are based on fear. If you don’t buy the right product, you won’t be part of the in-crowd, you won’t be socially accepted, your life will go to hell in a hand-basket.

Similarly, Catholic non-fiction appeals to the same base emotion.

Buy this book if you really want to save your family/friends/neighbors from a life of misery. Buy this CD or your life, single or married, will never be as happy as it could be, as it should be. You won’t understand what you need to understand. You will be left behind, apart, alone.

Every apologetics book is explicitly or implicitly marketed by appealing to this fear-based dynamic. So are most of the other non-fiction books, Catholic or not.

But this message is directly opposed to Jesus’ message, to the first words of John Paul II’s pontificate, to one of the themes of Benedict XVI’s first encyclical :

Be Not Afraid.
God is Love.
Perfect love casts out fear.

Catholic marketing, like all the other kinds of marketing out there, is designed to instill fear. “First, be afraid. Second, be very afraid. Third, buy this book, this CD, this movie, give money to this apostolate, or you will always live in a terrifying world, you will always be afraid.”

As a result of these considerations, I have concluded that I should dramatically scale back my participation in this industry. I have taken a position as director of adult formation for a parish in Grapevine, Texas.

While Bridegroom Press will continue to operate, publishing books, CDs and calendars for Catholics around the world, it will no longer be my primary focus.

The travel takes me away from the family I claim to nurture, the marketing implicitly makes me out to be something I am not, and the marketing ethics seem to be diametrically opposed to the Catholic Faith I claim to profess.

I don’t know how other Catholic writers square this circle, I just know that I have to change something right now, before I walk too much farther down this path. Paul preached the Gospel, but insisted on earning his living as a tent-maker. I cannot go far wrong emulating him.