Review: Heroism and Genius: How Catholic Priests Helped Build—and Can Help Rebuild—Western Civilization

The thesis of Heroism and Genius: How Catholic Priests Helped Build—and Can Help Rebuild—Western Civilization is that the whole structure of Western civilization, every major institution, all of its intellectual, entrepreneurial, and cultural accomplishments can be traced to the work of innumerable priests over the past 2,000 years, both famous and faceless.

I have to admit that Fr. William Slattery provides a compelling case that the history of the West, in ways both surprising and unsurprising, owes nearly everything to the Church. But that’s my small quibble. In almost every example given, while the contributions of the ordained clergy of the Church was vital, the contribution of laypeople was just as vital.

Fr. Slattery does acknowledge this early on:

Allow me, however, to clearly underline what this assertion about the key role of priests does not mean. It does not assert the untenable claim to some type of monopoly on achievements: priests obviously hold no property rights on all the heroism, nobility, and genius of a thousand years. Many Catholic laypeople contributed enormously to building the new civilization.


Allow me, however, to clearly underline what this assertion about the key role of priests does not mean. It does not assert the untenable claim to some type of monopoly on achievements: priests obviously hold no property rights on all the heroism, nobility, and genius of a thousand years. Many Catholic laypeople contributed enormously to building the new civilization.

I don’t disagree with a bit of that, but I don’t think this book necessarily builds the case for it either. On the other hand, whatever the book’s subtitle or thesis, what it does do is provide a look at the remarkable contribution of the Church in the Dark Ages, Middle Ages, and Renaissance to building a better world that we continue to benefit from today.

What Heroism and Genius does best is to strip away the accumulated cruft of centuries of “black legends” concocted by the Protestant reformers as well as Hollywood inventions that collectively created this image of the time between the fall of the Roman Empire and Martin Luther’s 95 theses as an unrelieved slog through the muck and mire of superstition that left 95% of the populace as virtual slaves serving privileged and backward-thinking robed masters. In fact, as presented by Fr. Slattery, the Church—in her priests, bishops and laypeople—advanced the cause of humanity in great leaps.

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A Night Out with Alton Brown’s Eat Your Science Tour

I’ve watched every episode of Good Eats, both seasons of Feasting on Asphalt, and the one season of Feasting on Waves. I’ve got the cookbooks. I listen to the Alton Browncast. I even pepper my everyday conversation with references to unitaskers and refer to stuff that isn’t fit for eating with “That is not good eats.”

I am an Alton Brown fan.

So when I heard six months ago that the current leg of his touring show “Eat Your Science” would be coming through Boston this weekend, I knew what I wanted for my birthday. So I picked up a couple of tickets, put the date on my calendar and waited.

It was a rough week this past week. On Tuesday, I got to sit with a dying friend for what is probably the last time. On Thursday, I had a very long day working a banquet for my day job, spent all day Friday editing audio, video, and photos from the event, and then had a board meeting on Saturday morning. I was wiped. But by Saturday afternoon I was energized and excited for the show.

Leaving the kids with grandma, Melanie and I headed into the city for dinner and the show. We were going to get sushi at this trendy new place, but it was packed so we headed across the street to one of the best known Vietnamese places in Boston, Pho Pasteur. That was indeed good eats.

For the show itself, the entry lines were long and nearly every one of the 3,000 seats was filled. We had a small glitch going through security as I had forgotten to leave my Leatherman multitool at home1. I thought I was going to have to choose to lose the tool to get into the show or potentially miss the beginning to run back to the car. Luckily, the head of security had pity on me. After all, it’s an Alton Brown show and I was carrying a multitasker.

The show itself was a lot of great laughs. It’s not a cooking demonstration show. Alton is the first to admit he’s not a chef. Think of it more like a cross between a stand-up routine, a magic show, and an episode of Whose Line Is It Anyway?

The first part of the show featured a bit exploring what Brown would do if he were the god of food, including ending the reign of Sriracha as a trendy food with a song called “Sriracha” sung to the tune of “Maria” from West Side Story. He also started an interactive bit in which he would make all the rats in the world taste like bacon that was supposed to include participation from an audience member, but the woman acted all weird and he ended up having to abort. There was also a very funny story involving breaking tortilla chips, a late-night visit to the refrigerator and an old blind dog.

Next was another audience interaction in which a woman was brought up from the seats to pick a terrible cocktail recipe at random, which would then be improved by the application of science and liquid nitrogen. This one worked out much better.

After intermission, most of the time was talking about popcorn, including one of Alton’s signature mega-cooking constructions, in this case a massive rocket-shaped hot air popper. This also included an audience member and was very funny. Finally, there was a Q-and-A featuring questions gleaned from audience members over Twitter.

All in all, it was a great show with lots of fun and lots of laugh, showcasing Alton’s showmanship, his rapport with his audience, and his great improv skills.

It was also a great night out for me and Melanie, with just a few downsides. The Wang Center’s seats have about 16 inches for your knees, which was torture on Melanie, plus the seats were about 16 inches wide, which was torture on me. And up where we were sitting it was crazy hot and humid, especially since we dressed for late October, not midsummer. Getting home also took forever, probably because of everybody going out for Halloween weekend, but that wasn’t terrible since we got to have good uninterrupted conversation in the car.

On the whole, however, it was all worth it to see Alton Brown, who I’ve watched and followed for years and admire for his approach to food, but also to how to live like a gentleman. The next time he’s on tour, I hope we can see him again. Next time we’ll spring for better seats though.

  1. It is, after all, part of my daily carry.

Why I Am Catholic (and You Should Be Too): A Book Review

There are lots of books that outline all the reasons one should give up atheism or other religions and become Catholic and with good reason: Because the path to the Catholic faith has its origins in many places and wends its way through a myriad of obstacles, challenges, and objections.

Brandon Vogt—one of the smartest, engaging, and energetic young Catholics out there—has written a new book, “Why I Am Catholic (and You Should Be Too),” that offers his own take on why one should consider the Catholic faith, a take that is aimed directly at the “nones”, the large and growing percentage of mostly young Americans today who tell pollsters that they have no religious preference, and does so in a way that should appeal to a younger audience, characterizing becoming Catholic as a way of “joining the Rebellion”, rather than giving into a massive institution.

I’ll admit it’s a weird decision. It goes against the grain. It’s radical. It is, in a word, rebellious.

In this concise, yet compelling book, Brandon outlines the reasons why anyone seeking the truth should become Catholic, using arguments both old and new. Brandon is an engineer by training and a philosopher by avocation so it’s no surprise that the book and its arguments are laid out in a logical progression, from whether God exists, to the necessity of religion vs. pure spirituality, to the supremacy of Christianity over other religions, to the Catholic Church. Read More and Comment

Why Did Leia Seek Out Obiwan Kenobi Now?

As I was falling asleep last night, after having watched a Star Wars Rebels, I had a sudden thought: Why now? The new movie Rogue One will end where Star Wars: A New Hope begins, with the delivery of the Death Star plans.

But my question is this: Why was Princess Leia delivering the plans to Obiwan Kenobi. From the trailer for Rogue One, it’s very clear that it is the Rebellion, lead by Mon Mothma, who sends Jyn Erso and her team to retrieve the Death Star plans. So why aren’t the plans delivered back to Mon Mothma? At the beginning of A New Hope, Leia’s ship—which was presumably at the battle where the plans were stolen—is racing back to Alderaan. As the opening crawl writes:

It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet. Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy…

So, intercepted by the Imperial Star Destroyer, Leia instead makes for Tatooine. Why? In her hologram, she tells Obiwan that she was sent by Bail Organa to get him to help in the Rebellion.

General Kenobi, years ago you served my father in the Clone Wars. Now he begs you to help him in his struggle against the Empire. I regret that I am unable to present my father’s request to you in person, but my ship has fallen under attack and I’m afraid my mission to bring you to Alderaan has failed. I have placed information vital to the survival of the Rebellion into the memory systems of this R2 unit. My father will know how to retrieve it. You must see this droid safely delivered to him on Alderaan. This is our most desperate hour. Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.

And thus my question:

Why now?

Update: Having watched Rogue One after writing this, my question has been answered to some degree, but not completely.

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Tolkien: The Movie

New Line Cinema has announced it will be making a new J.R.R. Tolkien movie. No, not one based on his books, but based on the author. It will be a biography.

Middle Earth is described as following Tolkien’s "early life and love affair with Edith Bratt," as well as his service to the British Army during the First World War. The film, to be written by Angus Fletcher, is reportedly based on years of archival research on Tolkien’s life.

I don’t know Fletcher, but I know that if they don’t treat his deep Catholic faith with respect, this won’t be worth watching at all. His faith animated him through the mot important moments of his life.

A Review of Designated Survivor

“The biggest terrorist attack since 9/11.” That’s how the new ABC show Designated Survivor describes the attack that sets up the premise of the show and it’s illustrative of the weaknesses of the show.

(There are only minor spoilers in this review, but read at your own discretion.)

First, I want to make it clear that I do want to like this show. Melanie and I always have one show at least that we watch together and now that Person of Interest is over we’ve picked DS.1 As for that line? In this fictional attack, a bomb in the Capitol Building during the State of the Union kills the President, the Cabinet, Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Joint Chiefs in one fell swoop… except the designated survivors of Sutherland’s character, Kirkman, who was the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and a congresswoman. They say in the show that about 1,000 people died, which in absolute numbers is smaller than 9/11’s 3,000, but we’re talking about the decapitation of the governments of the world’s hyperpower. I think that qualifies as bigger.

This sort of small thinking is endemic to the show. An FBI agent says they have 50 agents working through the rubble of the Capitol looking for clues. Fifty? In reality there would hundreds, maybe even thousands. Everything they have the president doing and dealing with sometimes feels like he’s a small town mayor, not leader of the free world. Meanwhile, there’s one general who seems to speak for the entire military, who is himself a caricature of a hawk who is demanding Kirkman nuke everyone in sight, conveniently shifting from one bogeyman to the next. Last week, he was demanding Kirkman nuke Iran, until Kirkman found out they weren’t involved, and rather than act chastened, General Fire-up-his-butt shifts to some made-up al Quaeda analog the next week.

And then there’s the plainly unrealistic stuff. Kirkman’s family includes his wife, his grammar school age daughter, and the requisite long-haired and rebellious teenage son, who it turns out was dealing drugs on the side. In the midst of this national crisis in which an unknown enemy is targeting the leaders of our nation, the First Son, Emo Boy, apparently has the run of Washington, DC, wandering around the city with a couple of Secret Service bodyguards. Yeah, no, in reality he’d be locked down in the White House.

That’s the other thing. We know that this incredibly tragic and scary event that may signal a new World War has just happened in the last couple of days, but everyone is acting as if things are just a little unsettled. The new “fish-out-of-water” president feels regretful he missed dinner at 6:30 with his family, never mind he was dealing with the biggest crisis in history. The deputy chief of staff and Kirkman’s old assistant from HUD jockey for position so each one can become the new chief of staff.

In the second episode, we’re already holding the memorial service for the dead president, but what’s the hurry? It’s been a couple of days. Maybe we should wait until the dust settles and we’ve started to rebuild the government before we begin the state funerals. And then more unreality. After the service, the president and first lady wander out the front doors to their waiting cars in the midst of the crowd of other people leaving, having casual conversations with them along the way. In reality, everyone stays put at the end of the service while the first couple are whisked outside to waiting vehicles and the motorcade rushes off with the sirens blaring. Only then is the crowd released.

Plus what’s your hurry? This is a series that will presumably unfold over a few years. Why not let it do so slowly? It feels like the creators wanted to do a show along the lines of: “What about a guy who isn’t a politician and is essentially a good guy suddenly finds himself president and in control of recreating the government?2 Okay, now how do we do that? A terrorist attack!”

I guess this all sounds like I don’t like the show. That’s not true. I haven’t made up my mind yet and the six-episode rule is in effect.3 I do like Kiefer Sutherland’s president and I do like the basic question of how does the country rebuild after such a loss (if only they can stay away from the cheesy primetime drama plot lines). I can suspend my disbelief for some of the rest of the laughable devices and tropes for the next four episodes. Here’s hoping they improve by then.

  1. She was a West Wing fan and Chris Jackson at the Secret Service agent appeals to Hamilton fandom. As for me, well, it’s Kiefer Sutherland.
  2. We’ve seen this movie starring Kevin Kline.
  3. If I’m interested in a new show I will give it six episodes for the writers and actors to get their feet under them and gel together. This rule began with Star Trek The Next Generation and had its most relevant application with Fringe.

Prince of Outcasts

This is a book review for those who have read the previous 12 books of S.M. Stirling’s Emberverse series of apocalyptic fiction, but haven’t read the 13th book in the series, The Prince of Outcasts. If you have not read the series, stop right now and go buy the first novel Dies the Fire or better yet, go buy the 11-volume bundle and get the discount now. You’ll end up reading the whole thing anyway.

As for the current book, we pick up where The Desert and the Blade left off, on the coast of southern California, a great storm suddenly sweeping one of our protagonists off to the West, leaving our other protagonist on shore, trying to figure out what she’s going to tell their Mother.

Like the fourth through 12th novels of the series, this 13th installment isn’t a single contained story. The first three books of the Emberverse were a trilogy, telling a complete story about the first generation of those who survived the Change. The next three told a classic “beginning/middle/end” quest story of the next generation, but they’re not the whole of that story.

The next four after that continue the tale of the second generation, but the pacing and plot shift. No longer are we moving forward in quest-style story, but we’re jumping around in time and place, back and forth across the continent. The pace of the action slows to a crawl. And that’s the sticking point for some fans. They’re so used to a different pace that this feels too slow. In fact, one of the books feels like it’s all about just a single battle!

Finally in the 10th book, the enemy that has been the focus of the previous six is confronted. What’s next?
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What’s Old Is New (and Unoriginal) Again on TV This Fall

It’s a cliché to say that Hollywood is bereft of new ideas, but I don’t think it’s ever been more true than in this Fall’s TV season. Here are all the shows that are either spinoffs or reboots or “modern, reimaginings” of old shows or movies:

  • 24: Legacy is 24 with a new Jack Bauer.
  • The Blacklist: Redemption is a spinoff of The Blacklist with one regular character and a new one introduced last season. But without James Spader, The Blacklist wouldn’t be any good and so I don’t this one to be.
  • Chicago Justice is a spinoff of the whole Chicago franchise, after Fire, PD, and DPW, I think.
  • Emerald City is a “modern re-imagining” or reboot of The Wizard of Oz, as in changing everything about the original story except the barest framework.
  • The Exorcist is a reboot of the movie. I wonder if the titular exorcists are even priests any more.
  • Frequency is a reboot of the 2000 movie that starred Jim Caviezel.
  • Lethal Weapon is a reboot of the Mel Gibson movie although the starting premise sounds completely different.
  • MacGyver is a reboot of the 80s series, complete with the bad hair.
  • Prison Break isn’t exactly a reboot, so much as it’s a restart from where it left off in 2009, with the same stars playing the same roles.
  • Archie is a live-action “modern, reimagining” or reboot of the “Archie” comic books. Yes, really. And in all the modern, reimagining shows, they mean taking what was originally hopeful and pure and making it gritty and depressing and “real”.
  • Taken is a prequel to the movies, in which Brian Mills isn’t a vengeful dad, but a young CIA agent. But confusingly set today. And without the Irish accent.
  • Time After Time is a “modern, reimagining” of Jack the Ripper.
  • Training Day is a reboot of the 2001 movie.

And that doesn’t count all the other new shows that are just new versions of old concepts. Network TV is a vast wasteland. Yes, there a few good nuggets, but really, the innovative stuff is now on certain cable channels and streaming.

So what am I interested in this season? I might try an episode of 24: Legacy and see if it captures the old 24 glory days. Speaking of Jack Bauer, I am interested in the new Kiefer Sutherland series Designated Survivor. The previews for the new sitcoms The Great Indoors and Kevin Can Wait were funny and worth a try. Plus, the handful of old shows I watch that are coming back.

Remembering the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon

It’s a great shame that Millennials and later generations, including my kids, will never experience the heyday of the Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon because I doubt its like will ever be seen again.

You can get a quick summary of the event from this AV Club article, but like a lot of internet journalism it has a profoundly cynical take on it, dismissing the telethon as mawkish and sentimental and highlighting the criticisms and awkward moments over its 5 decade run.

But the Labor Day event was a cultural touchpoint for the whole country. For 24 hours over this holiday, the entire nation would stop and pay attention and work together to raise enough money to beat last year’s amazing total. Over the length of the event, heads of major corporations and beneficiary organizations would parade out to meet Jerry and hand over giant checks: “On behalf of 15,000 7-11 employees and our customers, I would like to give you this check for 1 million dollars,” one would say and Jerry would gratefully accept, visibly moved on behalf of “his” kids and shake hands or give hugs.

But what the article misses is that it was also a very local event too. Local TV stations would participate in not just showing the telethon, but hosting local versions of it, cutting in to the national show from time to time with their own hosts and phone banks and businesses and organizations raising money. Communities would band together to raise money to bring down to the local station and drop it in a big bucket or hand over a check.

Our neighborhood kids one year organized a carnival in our backyard, where people could pay some pittance for one of the teens to tell your fortune (she was dressed up like a gypsy and sitting in a large camping tent) or play some contrived carnival game. I don’t know how much we raised—probably not a lot—but it was a memorable event for all of us.

One of my bucket list desires as a kid was to stay up for the entire show one year, all 21 and a half hours and see every act. Of course, my mom would not let me sit in front of the TV for an entire revolution of the planet and so when I could sneak back in after required breaks for food, bathroom, and fresh air, I’d gnash my teeth over missing Frank Sinatra or worse, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher.1

The last time we had such a national focus in which Hollywood and corporations and communities came together was for the 9/11 Telethon 15 years ago now. Of course, that was not fun or sentimental. We were all still in shock and grieving and reeling from the tragedy.

I can’t imagine anyone ever being able to pull off something like Jerry Lewis’ Telethon today. The culture has changed, the legal environment has changed. Our society is much more cynical. And we don’t do “gather around the TV” events like we did. Which is a shame, because for all its heartstring-pulling sentimentality and awkward celebrity moments, the Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon was something for all Americans to rally around and a unifying touchstone and we don’t have many of those anymore.

  1. I don’t know if the Star Wars actors were ever on, but my recollection is that people important to me in that way were always on when I wasn’t watching.
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