Saturday, April 15, 2006

Afternoon Opera, Italian dinner, and Love...

No, I did't just go on a romantic date. But the title of this post does capture much of my experience several Sundays ago (April 9th to be precise) that I wanted to share with you.

First, Opera...

After an inspiring Palm Sunday Mass and a quick bite to eat at home, I was off with the Dawson Society (a group on campus that promotes various cultural activities) to experience my first live opera. More specifically, we saw an incredible rendition of the Italian opera Tosca at the Benedum Center in Pittsburgh.

To be honest, I wasn't sure what to expect initially. In retrospect, I think a part of me was slightly intimidated by the seeming upper class nature of opera, as though perhaps I just wouldn't get it. Looking back now though, what a foolish thought! Especially in light of later learning that opera is much more widespread in Europe and an event for all people. For some reason however, in the U.S. opera is not as common and much more expensive (thankfully, my ticket was paid for).

Sung in Italian with English "supertitles" (a new word to me) projected above the stage, the music of Tosca was not only beautifully done, but easy to follow. If you're really interested, listen to a sample from the character Tosca here, or the character Cavaradossi here.

I must say though, that listening to the music alone won't do it justice, for it is the delicate mixture of music and acting that truly brings the story to life. And as for the story itself, it's in many ways your classic love story tragedy and quite moving.

If ever I can afford it again, it will be hard to pass up another one of these! Truly amazing!

Next, Italian...

After the opera, the group went to Buca di Beppo, a southern Italian family style restaurant.

Though I think their desert is outrageously overpriced and the shrimp scampi extremely disappointing, everything else I've tried on their menu has proven pretty delicious. Additionally though, I like the atmosphere in the restaurants. It's hard to describe, so I suppose you won't know unless you experience it for yourself.

By the way, before going on, I feel as though I ought to note a revelation I had recently about how much I love city life. Pittsburgh in particular is a great town! There are always so many exciting things going on. Honestly, between my experience there this schoolyear and in San Francisco over Christmas break, I could almost see myself one day living in a city. But alas, I don't think I could go that far. Ideally, I think I'll always prefer something closer to nature. Nevertheless, it wouldn't hurt to live 30-60 minutes away from a major metropolitan area. ;-)

Finally, Love...

After a delectable Italian dinner then, we headed back to Franciscan to hear the annual Edith Stein lecture, this year given by one of the leading French philosophers, Jean-Luc Marion.

Is that the classic professor look or what?!

Marion's talk was titled "Love as a Philosophical Question." Basically, it was critical of much of the history of philosophy (whether Greek, Buddhist, Christian, Enlightenement, Modern, Postmodern, etc.) for not building philosophy upon a foundation of love, which he sees as the most essential element to the human experience. Needless to say, I found his ideas very appealing. In many ways, it's an even greater emphasis upon what is highlighted in the following quote you may have read on the side column of this blog:
"To the extent that we fail to grasp what love really is, it is impossible for us to give adequate philosophical consideration to what man is. Love alone brings a human being to full awareness of personal existence. For it is in love alone that man finds room enough to be what he is." (Dietrich von Hildebrand)
There's more I could share on this topic from Marion, as well as from my favorite modern (Max Scheler) and ancient (Augustine) philosophers, but I don't want to bore people with too much "philosophy."

So that's that. A long but wonderful day of fun with friends here at school. I don't know if it's what you expected from the title, but it's what I experienced, and coupled with it being Palm Sunday, that day was by far one of my more memorable outings of late.

And a few more updates while I'm at it...

On another note, despite the briefly-lived fun of Palm Sunday, school was starting to become stressful with the loads of work building up. Plus, in some ways, it doesn't help that you have Holy Week, which is naturally of a somewhat somber spirit (even if joyful in other respects). Fortunately, in light of this stress and sorrow, I found myself greatly rejuvenated and refocused by the Easter celebration (which--another revelation--I've been reaffirmed experientially in Easter being by far my favorite holiday).

So, to these last few busy weeks of class, I say, bring it!

Lastly, in between all the hustle and bustle, some friends recently introduced me to a great band ( Iron & Wine.

You may have heard some of his(their?) music before. If not, well, if you like "Indie Rock" and "Folk," or that "acoustic" sound, then you may like this guy. One of my favorite songs is the "Trapeze Swinger."

Alright, back to the grind!

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

J.K. Rowling and the Magical Christian World of Harry Potter

Left: J.K. Rowling herself
Right: "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" movie poster

Staying on the subject of fiction, I want to share an article I recently wrote for a small student-run newspaper that gets put out around campus here at Franciscan University. The newspaper's called The Gadfly, after Socrates' use of the term, and it's purpose is to 'bite the sleeping horse,' raising new questions and discussion where they aren't already taking place. Basically, it's to upset the status quo, to try and get people to be a bit more open and critical in their thinking. The title of my piece is "The Christian World of Harry Potter" (slightly modified here for the blog/internet), and I'm trying to break down the wrongful prejudices so many Christians seem to have against the books. At the same time, I don't think you have to be Christian to make sense of it. More than any of my other recent posts, I'd love to get some feedback on this one (it will also likely be my last post until sometime after Easter). Enjoy!


I think most would agree that the controversy among Christians over Harry Potter has largely petered out in the last couple of years. Nevertheless, I have a hunch that strong sentiments—both pro and con—still lurk beneath the surface for many. So, naturally, I thought it'd be fun to put a new spin on the subject and stir things up a bit, hopefully for the better.

In the past you see, even those Christians willing to defend Harry Potter have typically only emphasized that there’s some good to it and it isn't intrinsically evil. What I want to suggest here though is far more, for I actually think the books are drenched in Christian imagery and symbolism. To recall a C.S. Lewis notion, I believe J. K. Rowling has created Harry Potter largely with a desire to "baptize the imaginations" of her readers, helping them to ultimately better comprehend the heart of the Christian story.

To understand how this might be so, let's first go back to one of Rowling's own interview statements from 2000 after she was asked about her religious beliefs: "Every time I've been asked if I believe in God, I've said yes, because I do, but no one ever really has gone any more deeply into it than that, and I have to say that does suit me, because if I talk too freely about that I think the intelligent reader, whether 10 or 60, will be able to guess what's coming in the books."

A remark like this ought to spark some curiosity: just what is she up to? After all, Rowling, a member of the Church of Scotland, seems to be implying two things: not only will the series eventually reveal her faith, but talk about her faith could also give away secrets to the upcoming books. Still, on shouldn’t draw conclusions too hastily, for Rowling may simply be a Wiccan incognito, right? To really find answers, we must turn back to the books themselves, searching for clues within.

In doing so, anyone with background in classical literature and Latin (like Rowling herself) will immediately recognize a plethora of Christian alchemic symbolism. Of course, I'm sure everyone recalls that alchemy was much more than a proto-science; to most who practiced it, alchemy was a deeply mystical discipline. The goals of transforming common metals to gold and finding the philosopher's stone were symbols pointing to the deeper spiritual transformation being sought after by the alchemist. Within Christian alchemic tradition, this obviously meant a transformation in Christ.

This spiritual practice fell to the wayside with the rise of modern science, but the symbolism continued to permeate Christian literature, from Shakespeare all the way down to Lewis and Tolkien. And now, I propose, Rowling has joined that tradition. Alchemic symbols in Harry Potter include the philosopher's stone in the first book (American publishers changed this to "sorcerer's stone" because they thought kids wouldn’t read a book with "philosopher" in the title!), the variety of images used throughout (resurrecting phoenix bird, unicorn, dragons, etc.), and even character names, just to mention a few.

Each book Harry also goes through a spiritual transformation from beginning to end, actually following the three stage alchemic process: nigredo ("black," dissolution), albedo ("white," purification), and rubedo ("red," perfection). Additionally, the fifth and sixth books each correspond respectively to the whole nigredo and albedo stages, implying the seventh final book will be the final rubedo stage, thus bringing the series to completion.

Throughout the novels, Harry's character is truly growing in virtue and being purified, slowly becoming more open to love, sacrifice, and seeing people genuinely, while conversely overcoming his pride, fears, and wrongful prejudices. This is especially shown at the end of each book, where Rowling seems to create a medieval Everyman morality play using symbols from the various challenges Harry faces. (Here it should be noted that the symbols representing good and evil are always traditional Christian ones.) Ultimately then, Harry provides the reader's imagination with an incredible experience of the battle between good and evil, each book ending then in an illuminating encounter with the amazing value and power of sacrificial love. If that doesn't sound Christian, I don't know what does.

Before closing though, I want to briefly answer three objections to the picture I've laid out. First, some critics may point to the "Pope opposes Harry Potter" reports from last summer. Any serious consideration of the documents, however, will show the weakness of this argument. For a detailed analysis, see the essay, "'Pope Opposes Harry Potter'? Hardly".

Secondly, about the whole magic thing, please consider the idea that maybe, just maybe, Rowling's "magic" is simply fantasy/fairytale magic. In case you didn't know, real-life witches don't use broomsticks or magic wands (Rowling has emphasized this numerous times in interviews). Additionally, the spells used in the books are quite different from the real-world occult practices that invoke spiritual powers.

Thirdly, many might protest that even the mere potential of leading people astray is cause for not reading the books. The problem here, though, is that anything can lead people astray, because anything can be interpreted badly (even the Bible!). A survey several years back revealed that most Wiccans point to The Lord of the Rings as the most influential book early on in their lives. Does that mean we ought to condemn Tolkien's work? I really hope not. Why should we let evil and error spoil the fun for the rest of us?

That being said, if this has peaked your interest, know that it’s only the tip of the iceberg. To really learn more, go to, or read John Granger's book, Looking for God in Harry Potter. Most of the ideas put forth in this article actually come from his work. Feel free to also email me with your thoughts, questions, and concerns. Lastly, go pick up a Harry Potter book yourself and read it with a newly open heart (i.e. turn off those "witchcraft" blinders). Perhaps then you'll discover, not an enemy of God, but a new source of spiritual growth, wonder, and creativity.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Da Vinci Phenomenon

You may or may not have heard about the copyright trial going on over whether Dan Brown, the author of The Da Vinci Code, ripped off the ideas from authors Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh's own earlier work. Well, I just found out the closing statements were made a week or so ago, and the verdict from the judge is supposed to come within the next week or so.

What I found particularly humorous though, was a question raised by some: why would someone make a copyright suit over these so-called "factual" claims in the Brown book?
[F]or Brown, as the book has filtered into the awareness of people who are qualified to refute most of its claims, he's always been able to plead fiction; "The Da Vinci Code" is, after all, only a novel. Although he begins the book with a statement that it accurately describes real documents, and that the Priory of Sion really does exist, even this leaves him with plenty of wiggle room. The book's selling point is the impression that it contains large and provocative servings of historical fact; yet when challenged on the many fallacies in his novel, Brown can always assert that, as a work of fiction, "The Da Vinci Code" can't be held to any standard of accuracy.

A cozy situation for Brown, but it became somewhat less so recently when, in the U.K., a lawsuit was filed against him for "breach of copyright of ideas and research." The complainants, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, are the coauthors, with Henry Lincoln, of "Holy Blood, Holy Grail," a bestseller from the early 1980s. Virtually all the bogus history in "The Da Vinci Code" -- nearly everything, in other words, that today's readers' find so electrifying in Brown's novel -- is lifted from "Holy Blood, Holy Grail."

This puts both Brown and the authors of "Holy Blood, Holy Grail," in a tricky position. Baigent et al. have always maintained that the "facts" supporting their theories are available to any dedicated scholar and that the theories themselves, while unconventional, have been seriously entertained by other "experts," (including some, they claim, in the "upper echelons" of the Roman Catholic Church).

Since "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" presents itself as nonfiction, it has been in its authors' interest to downplay how much of it is invented. However, if the "research" and ideas in "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" are not the original creations of the book's authors, they become harder to copyright, and the possible infringement suit against Brown might be weakened. No one, after all, has a copyright on the facts surrounding Abraham Lincoln's assassination or the Treaty of Versailles.
Whether this "tricky position" has been talked about in the courtroom, I don't know, but I can laugh about it in the mean time, right?

Additionally, in the mean time, the court case doesn't appear to be doing either book any harm; in fact, they're selling even more copies. Which forces me to ask to myself once again, what is it about The Da Vinci Code that has allowed it to continue to be so popular? And why do so many people still believe the "conspiracy theory" it lays out, despite numerous criticisms from specialists at universities all over (Christians aren't the only ones lamenting over people's naiveness in accepting ideas as fact that Brown puts forth)? I have my own theories, but I'm curious as to what others think first. That, and I'm honestly just fascinated by the whole "Da Vinci" phenomenon that has come over our culture. I think I need to just stop typing and really take it in, this truly remarkable spectacle!

Monday, April 03, 2006

Kinkade's Corruption?

If you're anything like me, then you're probably not a huge fan of Thomas Kinkade artwork. Perhaps you smell "big business" or "commericialized" or "superficial" nearly every time you see one. If not though, you ought to consider the following two articles I came across recently (thanks to Amy Welborn's blog post).

The first is from 2004, a CBS News 60 Minutes story describing Kinkade's success. Some of the statements seriously scare me, but first, let's consider the nice sounding side of the artist in the story:
"Art is forever. It goes front and center on your wall, where everyday the rest of your life you see that image. And it is shaping your children, it's shaping your life," says Kinkade.

"What I paint touches on foundational life values. Home, family, peacefulness. And one of the messages I try to constantly get across is slow it down and enjoy every moment."
Okay, not too bad so far. But let's look a little deeper now:
"There's over 40 walls in the average American home, and Tom says our job is to figure out how to populate every single wall in every single home and every single business throughout the world with his paintings," says Fleming [CEO of Kinkade's company].

"Thomas Kinkade is a multi-dimensional lifestyle brand, similar to Martha Stewart or Ralph Lauren," says Kinkade.

"You can put a Thomas Kinkade couch beneath your Thomas Kinkade painting. Next to the Thomas Kinkade couch goes the Thomas Kinkade end table. On top of that goes your collection of Thomas Kinkade books, Thomas Kinkade collectibles, Thomas Kinkade throw rugs. You can snuggle your Thomas Kinkade teddy bear."

And, he adds, "You can put all of that inside your new Thomas Kinkade home in the Thomas Kinkade subdivision."

More than 100 homes, all modeled on his cutesy, cozy cottages, have been built in Vallejo, Calif., outside San Francisco.

"This is ad nauseam, I know, to some people. But hear me out. My goodness. Walt Disney wasn't satisfied just making a movie. He said, 'I wanna invite people to step into that world,' and he built Disneyland," says Kinkade. "We view my work and my cultural identity, in a way, as heir to the Walt Disney kind of tradition."
Maybe it's just me, but this sounds insane! Ad nauseam indeed! Personally, it also seems as though the almighty dollar has gotten the best of this possibly once genuine artist (though I already had a feeling that was the case with his artwork alone as evidence). If you're not troubled yet though, let's move on to exhibit B, the second article.

This one comes the Dallas Morning News, March 17, 2006: "Thomas Kinkade accused of bad business dealings, behavior." The details are fascinating:
Thomas Kinkade is famous for his luminous landscapes and street scenes, those dreamy, deliberately inspirational images he says have brought "God's light" into people's lives, even as they have made him one of America's most collected artists. A Christian who calls himself the "Painter of Light," Mr. Kinkade says God has guided his brush – and his life – for the last 20 years.

But some former Kinkade employees, gallery operators and others contend that the Painter of Light has a decidedly dark side. In litigation and interviews with the Los Angeles Times, some former gallery owners depict Mr. Kinkade, 48, as a ruthless businessman who drove them to financial ruin at the same time he was fattening his business associates' bank accounts and feathering his nest with tens of millions of dollars.

Mr. Kinkade – whose solely owned Thomas Kinkade Co. is based in Morgan Hill, Calif. – denies these allegations. Last month, however, a three-member panel of the American Arbitration Association ordered his company to pay $860,000 for defrauding the former owners of two failed Virginia galleries. That decision marks the first major legal setback for Mr. Kinkade, who won three previous arbitration claims. Five more are pending. Former gallery owners, ex-employees and others also say Mr. Kinkade's personal behavior belies his wholesome image.

Mr. Kinkade declined the Times' request for an interview but responded to written questions. He called the accounts of crude personal behavior "ridiculous" and "crazy allegations."

As he built his brand, Mr. Kinkade came to embody its underlying themes of faith, family and life's blessings. He speaks lovingly of his family – illustrating a lighter side of the man his supporters say is genial and genuine, a "regular guy" with small-town roots. He also has raised millions for charities.
So what are some of the other accusations?
In an interview, Terry Sheppard, a former vice president for Mr. Kinkade's company, recounted a trip to Orange County in the late 1990s for the artist's appearance on the "Hour of Power" television show. On the eve of the broadcast, Mr. Sheppard said, he and Mr. Kinkade returned to the Disneyland Hotel after a night of heavy drinking. As they walked to their rooms, according to Mr. Sheppard and another person who was there, Mr. Kinkade veered toward a nearby figure of a Disney character and decided to "mark his territory."

In a deposition, the artist alluded to his practice of urinating outdoors, saying he "grew up in the country" where it was common.

Mr. Kinkade's memory was fuzzy when he was asked during the arbitration proceedings about a signing party in Indiana in August 2002. By various accounts, most of the partyers overindulged, including Mr. Kinkade and Mr. Cote. At one point, according to testimony and interviews with Mr. Cote and three others who were there, Mr. Kinkade polled the men in the room about their preferences in women's anatomies.

During that discussion, according to arbitration records, Mr. Kinkade groped one of the women at the party. Others at the party said they also saw the alleged groping.

Mr. Kinkade testified in a deposition that excessive drinking and "some normal rowdy talk" had taken place, but he denied touching the woman. "But you've got to remember," he said, "I'm the idol to these women who are there." In the recent arbitration case, he also testified that he had never claimed to be perfect.
Everything doesn't seem to be settled yet, but Kinkade is still looking much less pretty than usual. In the end, I feel sorry for the man, but I also can't deny a bit of satisfaction, since I never was that impressed with his artwork in the first place. In light of that thought, however, the big question I'm left with is this: where does Kinkade's corruption most lie? Which is the more heinous crime of Kinkade's, the actions mentioned above or the millions of prints of awful commercialized artwork that he's left us with in its various forms? Personally, I'm leaning towards the latter.

[Note to Steve: This is not to say I didn't enjoy the giant Thomas Kinkade puzzle we put together that one summer. That was actually a lot of fun.]