This past year had it all, including an extra dose of the bad and the ugly: global upheaval, contentious elections, devastating natural disasters, every sort of scandal, acts of terror, war on terrorism, attacks on marriage, the passing of a president, the strange death of a terrorist kingpin, controversial movies and books, and much more.
Considering how dark and difficult the year has been for so many people, I am very thankful for the blessings God has granted my family and me. In May I began working for Ignatius Press, the publisher of my two books. I was asked to develop, design, create, edit, and manage an online magazine, IgnatiusInsight.com, as well as oversee the Ignatius Press web log/blog, Insight Scoop.
It has been a challenging and rewarding experience. I have learned quite a bit, including that there is much more to learn, whether it be about web design, editing, writing, or deciding whether or not to post a semi-coherent piece on the blog at 3:12 in the morning (my rule of thumb: if in doubt, don't do it). The most rewarding part is hearing from readers about how the articles, interviews, and resources on the web site have helped them understand and appreciate the Catholic Faith moreafter all, that is the goal of our work. So please send me a note anytime with praise, criticism, comments, and questions.
In addition to my work on IgnatiusInsight.com, I spent much time the second part of the year dealing with what I eventually dubbed The Coded Craziness: the phenomenal, exasperating success of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. The thorough critique of the novel that I co-authored with Sandra Miesel, titled The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code, was published in June 2004. I gave dozens of interviews and talks, appeared on FOX, CNBC, and EWTN, and heard from numerous readers.
Frankly, I thought that The Code Craziness would fade away in the summer of 2004; instead, it only increased. At one point in the fall I was interviewed, mostly on radio programs, every day for two weeks straight. I traveled to Hawaii, Wisconsin, California, New Jersey, Washington, Texas, Delaware, and some places in between. My plans to write another book by the end of the year went out the window. And with a major motion picture based on the novel coming out in May of 2006directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanksit looks as though Sandra and I will be talking about the topic for many more months. Meanwhile, The Da Vinci Hoax is being translated in French and Spanish; I will also continue to post regular comments about The Coded Craziness on the Insight Scoop blog, so be sure to visit.
What follows is not a journalistic or systematic look at 2004. Nor does it pretend to be a penetrating examination of global events, Church life, or matters metaphysical. My goal is much more modest and personal: to share a few thoughts about things that I heard and saw this past year and offer brief comments, some serious and others not so serious. Here goes!
"It's only a novel!" If I've heard this comment once, I've heard it a bazillion timesand that's only a modest exaggeration. It is, as you may have guessed (especially if you're a regular Insight Scoop reader) the leading comment made in response to The Da Vinci Hoax and my other critiques of The Da Vinci Code. I suppose it's understandable coming from non-Christian fans of Brown's novel, but when it comes from Catholicsincluding at least one priest, who said those very words to me just five minutes before I gave a talk on the topicit's perplexing.
Many do "get it." Francis Cardinal George of Chicago comes to mind. Other bishops and many priests have addressed the matter and taken it seriously. But a recent story in The Guardian quotes Archbishop John Foley, head of the Vatican's pontifical council for social communications, as saying the novel is "blasphemous" and "insidious" while indicating that the book isn't considered important by the Vatican, adding: "I could punch holes in it all over the place." Well, I sure hope that a theologian and scholar can "punch holes" in the novel (and that's exactly what Sandra and I do in our book), but that's somewhat beside the point since the vast majority of Catholics are not theologians, historians, and scholars.
It cannot be assumed that most people know much about biblical scholarship, the "gnostic gospels," the early councils, or the artwork of Leonardo da Vinci. Its better to assume that they have questions and need answers. It reminds me of the famous saying that so many teachers use: "There are no stupid questions." The Da Vinci Code has sold eighteen million copies worldwide and people have questions. We can either answer them or say, "It's just a novel." Guess which one I choose
"By death He conquered death!" This past summer my three-year old daughter was asking me questions about Jesus, including "Where is Jesus?" As I explained that Jesus is in several placesheaven, our hearts, His Church, the Eucharistshe got a big grin on her face. Suddenly she blurted out: "Daddy, by death He conquered death!" She was repeating the wonderful hymn sung in the Eastern churches during Pascha (we attend a Byzantine Catholic parish): " Christ is Risen from the dead! By death He conquered death, and to those in the graves He granted life." Needless to say, Daddy was impressed, and marveled.
"The Catholic Church attacks gay marriage" Such are the usual headlines and sound bites that stream endlessly from the beast more and more often referred to as MSM (Mainstream Media). There are all sorts of creative and completely objective (ahem!) variations on this statement: "Church launches crusade against gay rights" and "The Pope attacks gay marriage" and "Catholics launch anti-gay campaign." Media bias? What media bias?
One evening there was a knock on my door. It was an earnest college-aged girl seeking signatures for a petition. "As you might know," she sincerely informed me, "the Religious Right is trying to take away the right of gays to be married." Really? You mean that "gays" were the first ones to establish the institution of marriage and now we nasty "straight" people are trying to steal it from them? From which newscaster, college professor, or New York Times pundit did you learn that? Needless to say, such notions and the headlines that shape them aren't going away, nor will this vital issue be debated and discussed in the public square the way that it should be.
"Hope is on the way!" So said John Edwards at the Democratic convention in Boston. Clever. And completely meaningless, even for a political slogan, which is really saying something. Sure, Bush mangles words and even entire sentences. But I dont know that hes yet adopted a carefully scripted and mangled phrase as a campaign centerpiece. And yet his critics insist they know a frightening secret about the President
"Bush is stupid/a moron/an idiot/etc." I learned at an early age that when people say, "So-and-so is stupid," they are most often saying much more about themselves than they are about their desired target. This sophisticated, clever approach to dealing with President Bush (and one used repeatedly by folks from Hollyweird) is quite funny, especially since it means that their cause and candidate were defeated by a stupid, moronic, idiotic, know nothing loser. Sorry, but truly stupid people don't become president of the United States. Yes, they might be liars, criminals, power-hungry jerks, and cutthroat paranoiacs. But they aren't stupid. As for those who use this line of "argument," they should try another approachif theyre smart.
"I'm praying for you." From the silly to the sublime. In my travels I get to meet a lot of wonderful, devout Catholics from all walks of life. I really enjoy talking to different people about the Church, their concerns, their questions, and so forth. But most meaningful to me are those dear people who take my hand, look me right in the eye, and say, "Carl, I want you to know that I'm praying for you. Keep up the work you are doing." It's humbling, powerful, and very realthe reality Christ's life made evident through the touch and words of His people. Thank you for those prayers and words of encouragement!
"The Passion of the Christ is anti-Semitic." Months before Mel Gibson's masterpiece appeared in theaters the rumors, rumblings, and lies began to shape and snake through magazines and the internet. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth about a potential second Holocaust, blood in the streets, and an explosion of violence by the mysterious (and difficult to locate) Religious Right.
Demands were made of Gibson that no one would dream of making of Spielberg, Scorcese, or even lesser directors. The historical accuracy of the film was questioned by an industry that works tirelessly to rewrite and revise nearly every major (and many minor) event in the history of mankind. The "pornographic" violence was denounced by people who live to produce actual pornography and gratuitous displays of cinematic violence. Meanwhile, that brilliant light and sage, Andy Rooney, railed that Mel Gibson was a "whacko" and a "real nutcase" and he "dreamed" that God said to him, "What in the world was I thinking when I created [Gibson]? (A better question is, "What was CBS thinking when it allowed Rooney to rant like a mad man on prime time?" Not that it will ever be answered )
"The Passion of the Christ" is not only a powerful work of Catholic art, it shone a bright light into the ugly, Christian-hating belly of Hollyweird and the self-proclaimed cultural elite. Quite fitting for a movie about the Man who said, "The world cannot hate you; but it hates Me because I testify of it, that its deeds are evil" (Jn 7:7).
"For me, that was just three or four steps too far." Speaking of Jesus, how about this comment from novelist Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, who was referring to his decision to not include in the mega-selling novel the claim that Jesus survived the crucifixion. Yes, that really would be too much, wouldn't it? After all, the novel already insists that the marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene is "part of the historical record," that Jesus was not divine, and that no one believed he was divine until Emperor Constantine "made" him God at the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. No need to go "three or four steps too far" when you've already walked so far into the fringes of conspiracy theory nuttiness and esoteric whackiness that you don't even know where you're going.
"The most profound difficulty of our age." Those are the words of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, writing in Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions about relativism, or "the dogma of relativism." The book is a difficult, but rewarding work, and Ratzinger's critique of false tolerance and relativism desperately needs to be heard and understood by Christians. "To lay claim to truth for one religions particular expressions of faith appears today, not only presumptuous ," writes Ratzinger, "but an indication of insufficient enlightenment." In other words, if you believe that Christianity is unique and true, the world will declare you stupid. Sounds about right.
"See, Mother, I make all things new." Being of stoic Scandinavian stock, I told myself that I would hold fast while viewing "The Passion of the Christ" and, if I had to cry, would do so in minimal, silent amounts. But, like so many others, when it came to the scene of the grieving Mary running to the side of her fallen, bloodied Son, I was overwhelmed. That scene was an example of how the film masterfully presented MaryMother and Disciplefully devoted to the life and mission of her Son, even while being nearly overwhelmed by the violence and agony of the Passion. Incredibly moving and, dare I say, theologically rich and historically viable.
"That'll be $3.75." I'll end on a lighter, more temporal note. I'm a coffee snob and a compulsive consumer of the roasted bean. Which is perhaps why it took so long to realizeno, to admitthat paying nearly four dollars for a venti, no-whip, extra hot, half-caf mocha is not just ridiculous, it's probably morally repugnant. So for Christmas I managed to obtain a nice, but not overly expensive, espresso maker. I'm not good with numbers, but I calculate that it will pay for itself in some three or four months. It will keep me away from the temptation of equally expensive, fatting pastries. And it will allow me more time to stay at home and work on IgnatiusInsight.com, which I hope will make many people happy.
"There is an appointed time for everything," writes the author of Ecclesiastes, "And there is a time for every event under heaven." The past year fades away and a new one begins. May Gods will be done and may we walk in the light and truth of His mercy and grace.
Carl Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.
He is the co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code and author of Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"? He resides with his wife and daughter in a top secret location in the Northwest somewhere between Portland, Oregon and Sacramento, California.
More of his articles and columns can be found on his personal website, www.carl-olson.com.
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