Friday, April 29, 2011

The pope makes stuff up

So what else is new?
[Pilate] took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it. Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children.
These lines from chapter 27 of the gospel of Matthew are notorious in history for their use as warrant for the persecution of Jews. The supposedly inerrant word of God has put self-condemnation in the mouths of the Jewish people who called for the death of Jesus. Anti-Semites thus justified their characterization of Jews as “Christ-killers.”

The Roman Catholic Church did not scruple to join in the persecution of the Jews, although popes like John XXIII and John Paul II took particular pains to disavow this less savory aspect of past centuries. Benedict XVI is eager to follow in the footsteps of his distinguished predecessors. While John convened the Second Vatican Council (which declared that the Jewish people were not to be held responsible for deicide) and John Paul paid his respects at the Great Synagogue of Rome, Benedict intends to outshine them both. He figures to do so by rewriting the plain language of Matthew's gospel. One has to admire the German pope's boldness.

Of course, “rewriting the Bible” has long been charged against the popes of Rome by those who disagree with the centuries-old accumulation of Catholic dogma and tradition. It seems unkind to single out the papacy for this practice, given that all branches of Christianity regularly indulge in it. As an unchurched materialist, I don't feel any particular need to choose sides. However, Benedict's new gloss on Matthew 27 seems exceptionally egregious and worthy of note.

The pope's reinterpretation of Matthew is included in the second volume of his treatise Jesus of Nazareth, recently published in the United States by Ignatius Press. Robert Moynihan, editor-in-chief of Inside the Vatican magazine, waxed ecstatic in an article in the April 2011 issue.
What is new about the Pope's interpretation of the cry “his blood be on our heads” is that Benedict makes explicit an argument, a truth, that I don't think any other Christian teacher has ever proposed so strongly in this way: not that this cry (“let his blood be upon us”) was not uttered; not that the Jewish crowds did not say this; but that they did not have any comprehension, not the slightest inkling, of what they were actually crying out for: that they would have upon them or over them a protection of innocent, sacrificial blood, the blood of this sinless, rejected king, who, though rejected, would not, in the end, be a curse to them, but a blessing, not their condemnation, but their salvation.
Did you follow that? According to Moynihan, the pope is arguing that the first-century Jews were inadvertently calling for their salvation—asking to be bathed in the blood of the Lamb. Of course, that's not usually what someone intends when calling for a person's blood, but what a nice thought to contemplate the happy circumstance of accidental salvation.

Contemporary Christians who avoid the sin of anti-Semitism usually deal with Matthew by acknowledging that it's improper to blame the entire Jewish race for the blood-lust of those who screamed in favor of crucifixion. They still treat the gospel as a historical account, but try not to read too much into it. Benedict has instead decided to read more into Matthew than anyone has ever done before, finding a novel slant on bloodthirstiness. As Moynihan puts it, “This is a profound religious and mystical insight on the Pope's part, and, as far as I know, completely original.”

Damned right.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

God is cruel to be kind

Self-deceiving believers

In the movie version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the perfectly-cast Burl Ives delivers one of Big Daddy's iconic lines: “Didn't you notice the powerful and obnoxious odor of mendacity in this room?” I recalled this line while sniffing the powerful scent that wafted from my car radio. The source was the last installment of “Why I'm Catholic,” a production of Immaculate Heart Radio that featured Elizabeth Campisi as its host. In this valedictory episode, the host herself was sharing her poignant Christian journey.

It made for compelling radio, but not in the way that Campisi intended. Her narrative was stunning in its lack of self-awareness and authenticity. She processed her life experiences through the blender of her na├»ve religiosity and poured out a formless goo that she insisted was an inspirational example of God's love working in her life. Her God might be a bully and abuser who shouted “Now look what you made me do!” but that was okay with Elizabeth. She knew all along that it was really her fault, and wasn't God nice to let her crawl back into the fold after wandering away like a lost lamb? Surely God tormented her only when it was necessary for her own good.

I listened with a sick fascination as Campisi earnestly shared her testimony with her radio audience. She truly did not know what she was doing or saying, but perhaps her Catholic listeners shared enough of her God-filtered vision to see things the way she did—or had persuaded herself she did. I downloaded the audio file of this episode of “Why I'm Catholic” and subjected myself to the whole thing again. My initial impression was confirmed. This is a person who can fool herself into almost anything, as long as it can be presented as evidence of God's divine goodness.

Join me now as we examine the irrational celebration of life's random perversities as they are recast into God's loving reproofs. Here are Campisi's own words:
My journey as a Catholic can be summarized as a broken person seeking wholeness who day by day someone who is asking God to restore to the person he created to be to know his will and to follow it.

I was about two and a half years old, and while my mother was checking out at the grocery store, writing a check, I wandered about ten feet away to the video games at the entrance of the store, and a teenage boy that was high on some drug took me outside to the back of the store and sexually assaulted me. Thank god my mom found me within a short time and two brothers whose sister had a similar assault ran after the boy and he was arrested. Although I was only 2½ I remember every detail and this would leave a lasting imprint on my life. Obviously this incident was not of my choice. God allowed it to happen and so it was an early cross to take upon and would be the first real experience of brokenness.
This firmly establishes Campisi's theme: God is holding you in his hands, even when he is allowing a drug abuser to sexually molest you. Never doubt it: it's in God's plans.
My memories of church were going to mass on Sundays and getting treats for good behavior. There was no real sense of healing for me with what had happened in therapy or any other kind. My parents just didn't want me to have to relive it. But I clearly remembered the world around me seeming very hostile. And I developed a deep awareness and fear around the memory of that experience.
I don't know anyone who has reliable memories of occurrences from before they reached three years of age, but perhaps Campisi is an exception. Or perhaps she's reconstructed memories of the event from repeated family accounts of the tragedy.

Her family moved to Wales for several years, which Campisi naturally frames as God's way of allowing her to heal.
It was in Wales that I was enrolled at St. Clare's convent school, which was run by the Poor Clare sisters. This was where my life truly began as a Catholic. Living in Wales was the absolute portrait of beauty and innocence. I was planted in the fertile soil of the faith as I formed an immediate bond with the sisters and developed a deep trust in their friendship. One sister in particular, Sr. Aquinas, made a significant impression on my life. Sr. Aquinas was an older sister and the keeper of a little greenhouse attached to the convent, adjacent to the school. It was from her that I learned to pray the rosary and I developed a love for prayer.
Now Elizabeth is immersed in pastoral loveliness and armored with God's magic beads. She picks up the second theme of her life: a fascination with the performing arts.
It was a place where my imagination was set free to experience nature with beauty and innocence. Along with this sense of imagination came a love for the arts. It was Sr. Aquinas that recognized that I may have a interest or talent in drama, so one day she handed me a poem by Sir Walter Scott, a Scottish poem called “Lochinvar,” that was about a bold knight that was faithful in love and dauntless in war. And in full kilt attire I memorized and performed this poem for the school at morning assembly. And I remember literally shaking with excitement and joy in a way that I know now was God revealing gifts and a calling he was giving me.

I studied piano and discovered a natural gift for voice. It was in the love and discipline of the arts that I, that broken little girl, would reclaim her joy in the rediscovery of who God created.
It was time for Campisi's idyll to come to an end. God yanked Elizabeth and her family back into the nightmare of California.
After about six years of living in Wales our time was up and we were heading home to the United States. I cannot deny the fact that coming back was a complete culture shock to both my brother and I. And that hostile world that I had long forgotten was creeping its way back into my consciousness. I thought to myself, How am I going to survive? There was no more playing in the fields. There was no more freedom.
Since reality sucks, it's time to duck back into make-believe. No, I don't mean religion. (Well, actually, I do, but not yet.) Campisi jumps into play-acting.
I remember the day my mom or dad handed me a cut-out newspaper ad for a local children's theater company: auditions, “The Wizard of Oz.” A huge sigh of relief and burst of joy with the thought of being able to dive back into the arts. And that was the beginning of my life in the theater. I had now a playground where my imagination was free again to explore and create, to express and to experience the joy that I so longed for again. The theater became the only place I felt safe, like I could be myself, the only place that I could allow myself to be broken and hide that brokenness in the life of a character. It was the perfect escape. In the meantime my faith life was limited to Sunday mass and religion classes at my local diocesan school in San Jose, California.
Campisi can't go more than a couple of minutes without invoking her “brokenness.” This probably has something to do with her view of God's amusing way of bringing her back into line.
By fifteen I was performing in professional theater. I attended St. Francis High School and of course performed in their productions, which was my fast track to the social scene, as I was invited to all the parties with the upperclassmen. And it all started spiraling out of control pretty quickly. The summer of my freshman year I was jet-skiing with a friend and she accidentally collided with me and snapped my femur in half. That slowed me down for a while, but looking back I think of the shepherd that, when he goes out to to look for his lost sheep, when he finds it, the shepherd breaks its leg and places it over his shoulders so that the sheep will learn to listen to his voice and not stray again.
Isn't that a sweet image? God will break your leg to keep you close. No doubt when the cops come to investigate reports of domestic violence, he'll say he didn't mean to do it and, anyway, you provoked him. As a good little Christian enabler and co-dependent, you'll agree that you made him do it. You know he loves you, right?
I was cast in Stephen Schwarz's musical “Godspell.” For those of you who are unfamiliar with the show, the structure of the musical is that of a series of parables based on the gospels of Mathew and Luke. These parables then are interspersed with modern music set primarily to lyrics based on some scripture and traditional hymns, with Christ's passion portrayed near the end of the musical.
Elizabeth gets to sing the play's big hit song, “Day by Day.”
As I sung this song, as I did my usual escape into the character, I began to really pray. I began to really believe. I began to really love this character of Jesus, this man, this savior, and I was so moved that by the crucifixion scene at the end of the show I was sobbing with genuine adoration and love for him. What's interesting is that I was not looking for him but I could not hide from him, not even on the stage where I thought I was hidden, he knew exactly where to find me. He knew where to find me, and whose love truly awakened my heart.
Elizabeth neglects to tell us how handsome her co-star was, but she lets us know that she followed him into the local “Truck of Love” campus ministry.
After “Godspell” closed and the familiar feeling of emptiness returned, I longed to reconnect with that love I felt while singing to Jesus. So I decided to sign up for an immersion experience with the Truck of Love where I would spend three weeks hosting a summer camp for the Native American children of the Tohono O'odham reservation on the Arizona desert. This would be my longest trip away from home.... Narrowing my suitcase down to one was a heroic effort.

Our mission was to love these children. That's why we left everything behind, because that's all they needed. On this trip I learned a new kind of adventure, a new kind of freedom. It was the adventure of seeking God through service to others and the joyful freedom of poverty.
Excuse me for being rude here, but “the joyful freedom of poverty” is the sort of phrase coined by people who live in comfort. Of course, perhaps I should give more consideration to the fact that she was experiencing the rigor of living out of only one over-stuffed suitcase.
And there was one college student on the trip and every day he would pray the same intention: In gratitude for new beginnings. Those words were the seeds of understanding God's unfailing love, mercy, and grace that were planted deeply in my heart during this time. The desire to simplify my life, to serve others, and to sit with God in silence were just some of the fruits of this beautiful immersion experience.
The seeds planted in Campisi's heart are going to bloom, but we'll consider later whether the garden needs weeding.
Coming back to reality, to my family's luxurious home, fast-paced lifestyle and my usual busy rehearsal schedule was like a toxic shock to my soul. I was repulsed by our wealth and I was angered by our family's lack of spirituality and service that I experienced on the trip. Now being a teenager my perspective was a bit skewed. My parents were not bad people. We went to church and they gave generously of their time and financially and of course they encouraged me to be a good person. But our family was clearly living in the world. It seemed as if our values were set more on success than God.
Now that the scales have fallen from Campisi's eyes, it's the perfect moment for entering a convent. That will allow her to renounce the world, the flesh, and the devil at length and at leisure. She opts to stay in high school instead. A great opportunity is missed. (God will get her for that.)
To continue on this journey for truth and a real relationship with God, I found a new home outside the theater which was my high school's campus ministry. I guess you could say I found another hiding place, but I felt like I could be myself there, too. But there was something very different about campus ministry. The focus was not on self, but on Christ. I started spending my lunch times alone in the chapel praying. I wasn't praying any formal prayers like I had when I was a child. I would just sit and talk with God and many times just be silent. I wanted to feel his presence physically. I wanted him to answer me audibly. I truly believed he was there and slowly I started to believe he was within me.
Seeds. Don't forget the seeds.
I was still performing professionally and at the school, but something happened in my senior year of high school as the applications for college were being mailed and the buzz of the future was humming through the halls when someone asked me what I was going to do next year, I answered, “Well I'm either going to be a nun or I'm going to New York City to be an actress. I'm just not sure yet.” I was really thinking about discerning religious life with the Dominican sisters. And I mentioned it to my parents and it did not go over well. Not that they thought it was a bad thing, but they didn't think I would be happy and they definitely wanted grandchildren. So I fought them for a while until I decided, “Fine, I'll go to New York!”
Campisi's vocation had begun to blossom, but her worldly parents nipped it in the bud. It wasn't, like, any kind of strong vocation. Just a passing fancy. Mommy and Daddy would now shell out the big bucks for a private-school education at Fordham. (So much for “the joyful freedom of poverty”; it will not figure into Campisi's narrative again.)
Yes, I moved to New York City and took one big bite of the Big Apple. I was enrolled at Fordham University's Lincoln Center campus as a theater major, the only university my parents would allow me to attend in the city as it was Catholic—it's actually Jesuit—so at 17 years old I was handed a key to my apartment that I shared with three other freshman girls. And I would have to say that this was also the very beginning of having a conscious awareness of my brokenness, especially in terms of my identity. Being in New York City you are exposed to the best and worst of modern culture, if it exists you can probably find it in several varieties. Being a theater person in New York City played a huge role in this exploration because, as I had mentioned, I would dive into my characters as a form of escape. Now the characters and the plays I was diving into were more complex and darker in subject matter. So within a semester I realized the city was just too much for me to handle. I called my parents around Thanksgiving to deliver the news that I was coming home and they were ecstatic.
Lesson learned. Young people get to make a few mistakes, as long as they learn from them. Right? (Not that Campisi did, as you will see.)
And it seemed like the next day I was on a plane home and enrolled at Santa Clara University. The journey of finding myself which in college is the place where many people do, definitely continued. Coming home offered me little relief to what was going on inside me but there was this sense that there was much more out there for me to discover. I just hadn't found it yet. Again God met me where I was. I started praying in the mission church asking God to reveal himself more clearly to me on this journey. I cried a lot about the memories of the experience I left behind in New York City, but what was born of this suffering was beginning to understand the paradox of the cross. There were some very clear signs God revealed to me while praying. The first was that he was there with me, even in the darkness he never stopped loving me.
It's a good thing that God is omnipresent, given Campisi's tendency to wander about so. At least, though, she's learned that New York City is too rich for her blood. Thus it's puzzling when she runs right back to it.
It was the summer before my senior year of college when I got a phone call from a high school friend who was living in New York City pursuing a career in acting. She'd been cast in a show and she asked me if I wanted to sublet her apartment for the summer and it took me about half a heartbeat to say yes and I was back on a plane to New York City. The real difference in this second round was that I had already prayed and suffered about the first time. I made the conscious choice to dive deeper into that experience. I guess I was young, I was ignorant and still very broken. I was cast in a few weeks in a major production at Goodspeed Opera where I then lived in Connecticut for about four months, coming in and out of the city on my days off. I was in tight living quarters with the cast members of two different productions and made a few fast friends.
She's making friends, gaining experience in the theater, and plumbing the urban experience afforded by New York City. Campisi still feels broken, so it's obviously time to strengthen her faith. Or abandon it.
Knowing that my faith was not on track in terms of my Catholic faith, I decided to take a step back from the Church. I was still longing for God, so I started exploring Buddhism with one of my theater friends. And basically she would chant once or twice a day and invite me to join her. And I would say that longing for God would be numbed during that chanting, but I always felt empty afterwards.

I was waiting for enough time chanting to experience the peace. I even went with my friend to the Buddhist temple in New York City and chanted with a large group of Buddhists and after about fifteen minutes I thought about Jesus. I saw his face in my mind. I imagined myself looking into his beautiful merciful eyes and I thought, “I love you.” I walked out with my friend and politely excused myself for the evening. I knew that wasn't what I was created for.
I'm curious whether Campisi's mental image of Jesus matches the young singer from “Godspell,” but she neglects to enlighten us. In any case, God was clearly putting the screws to her again. Message received! Or not.
Unfortunately, I didn't yet come back to the Catholic Church. I was still wrestling and severing the ties with an unhealthy relationship I had also been involved with. But when the show ended, I headed back home to California with my mind set on returning very soon.

It didn't take long for my parents to figure out that something had gone wrong while I was away. My mom said she didn't recognize me and thought I had changed so much. I didn't think that I had changed that much, but then I had a moment when I was in my bedroom alone and I was miserable, missing New York and the friends I had met there, and I caught a glance of myself in the mirror and I thought “Wow, who are you?” And the best image I can describe of that was shame. Finally I realized that I had sinned because I chose to turn away from God, to follow my will, not his. And it was like the fog lifted from my eyes and I realized what am I doing? I love my God. He loves me. How could I do this? And my life turned around at that moment of repentance.
Now she plunges into several rounds of going to confession and getting counseling from priests. Campisi gets a mixed message from the priests and they do not heal her brokenness, but neither do they break her further, so she's lucky.
Well, the cross was back up on my shoulders and I was moving forward. I returned to mass with my parents on Sundays and I would attend weekday mass at the mission church as I was wrapping up my final quarters at the university. Although my parents had planned to purchase a place for me in New York to pursue theater after graduation, the deal suddenly fell through. I can understand God would want me back in a relationship with him and back with the Church, but I couldn't understand why he wouldn't want me to pursue my dream, to pursue a career in theater. After all, he gave me those gifts, wasn't it my responsibility to use them? Well, man plans, God laughs.
God sure is a jolly joker, but at least it's clear to everyone that Campisi should stop pining for a career on Broadway. Her God is not at all sympathetic to the idea. He even used his omnipotence to make a New York City condo purchase fall through for her parents. What can one do in the face of such power but tremble and obey?
One night I remember literally crying out to God and saying, “That's it! I can't do this life thing alone. You just need to send me someone you want me to be with if you want me to be married. That's it!”
God likes it when you talk mean to him.
Well, my prayer was answered. To my surprise, I met my future husband that night at a party I didn't want to go to. I showed up and when I was about to leave, he showed up. He asked me to dance and didn't leave me alone until eight months later we were engaged. I did pray for it, but I didn't expect it would happen so quickly. I wasn't ready. But my husband Greg definitely was a gift from God. The only way I can tangibly explain what happened when we met was I experienced a deep, God-given peace.

Greg was a man of faith. In fact, the first time I rode in his truck I noticed a rosary hanging from his door handle and a St. Joseph prayer-card on his dash. He was nothing I had ever known I was looking for, or a dream I never realized until we met. But I can truly say that the day we were married, when I offered myself to Greg and to God through the sacrament of marriage, I knew God's promises were true, that all things are possible.
Now that she has love and a “deep, God-given peace,” it's time for living happily ever after. Unfortunately, Campisi declines to feel unbroken. She takes off with her family on a European tour that includes a stop at Lourdes.
We also visited Lourdes where I was able to ask God in a special way to heal me of the wounds and brokenness of my past.
She asked, but it's evident that she did not receive. She attended a papal audience in Rome and read John Paul II's “Letter to Artists,” in which the playwright-pope exhorted artists to reflect the beauty of God and his creation. Naturally, this put Campisi back on the road to New York City.
And it was on this trip that I would say I fell in love with my soon-to-be husband Greg because I was finally beginning to heal and love myself and my faith and understand that God was giving me everything I could ever dream of.

I was still pursuing professional theater and very much on the road to a career in theater.
A San Jose production of “The Children of Eden” brought its author out to the West Coast. It was Stephen Schwartz, the composer of “Godspell.” Campisi says he was struck by her performance.
To my surprise, Stephen asked me if I would be interested in a role in the new musical he was writing—called “Wicked.” Of course, I thought this would be a dream come true and I said yes. I flew back to New York for the final Broadway workshop. And it just seemed like this was the door that was waiting to be opened for me. I flew out a second time to meet with a few other casting directors who were interested in me for other productions on Broadway, but Stephen sat me down for a meeting and asked me not to consider any other show. He pulled out a paper with a typed cast list and showed me my name next to the role Nessarose. I floated back to San Jose and shared the news with Greg, but I could sense the reality of moving to New York was not in his plans, so I began to pray that this door would open only if it was his will, only if it was meant to be for our happiness as husband and wife and our future together.

Well, my prayer was answered. A few months passed and I was waiting for the call to receive my final offer for the role. I had seen my name printed on the cast list. And to my surprise again, Stephen called me to tell me that the director decided to cast someone else in the role. He was very sorry and even a bit confused as we both thought that this was a sure thing. I began to understand what God was telling me.
The road was long and hard, but its conclusion was unambiguous. Surely Campisi would now understand God's message, right? If you think that, you obviously haven't been paying attention.
I fought it out with God a while longer. I kept getting calls from casting directors and flying back to New York to audition. I still didn't get it when the flight I took sometimes three or four times a week was United Flight 93 that would crash into the World Trade Center on September 11, but by the grace of God I had decided to hold off on my auditions for a few weeks when this happened.
We already know that Campisi wanders in a God-befuddled fog, but this is a mystery that passes all understanding. How could she possibly get this wrong? Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania after its passengers attacked the hijackers. It never got anywhere near the World Trade Center. In fact, its likeliest target was the Capitol building in D.C. Again, I ask how Campisi can get this wrong. Didn't she pay attention to what happened to the flight she said she used to take multiple times a week?
I gave Broadway one last shot with “Fiddler on the Roof.” Again I was in the final round of casting for the role of Hodel. This time I prayed nonstop the entire time I was there. I was finally ready to give it over to God. I just prayed that he would shine through me at this final audition and touch the hearts of the directors and writers. I let go and let God. I walked out and had great peace. My mom was with me and I had asked her to pray a rosary for God's will to be done while I was in the audition. And then we took a cab to a nearby Catholic Church. I remember saying to God, “Okay, I know this is it. I'm not chasing this dream anymore. This is your chance to have me to follow my dream, or the door will close today and I will never look back.”

My cell phone rang. It was my agent. She said these exact words: “Elizabeth, they said they loved you. You had the best voice they heard and performance of this song. And they don't know why, but they just don't think it's going to work out.”
Surely no agent has ever spoken such words to a client without their being literally and exactly true.
I got off the phone and tears filled my eyes for just a second, and then a huge burden was lifted from my shoulders. I just gave it back to God and walked away.
That part about the lifted burden? Campisi doesn't really mean it. You'll see.
Back home I went and began to work through this door closing in my life. It was a significant death to self moment and it hurt like hell. This began a dark night of the soul experience for me and of course my husband, too. Greg and I had to come face to face with the reality that we had spent a lot of time apart during the first few years of our marriage and so we had makeup time to do in terms of talking and understanding one another and the future we were trying to build from that moment forward.
Had you forgotten about Greg? Me, too. Now that she noticed she had a husband, Campisi went into counseling with him.
I don't remember the exact meeting, but there was a priest that gave Greg and I a book on marriage to help us as we began this process. It was called Marriage: A Path to Sanctity. And I confess, I never read it. It looked way too intense for me at that time! My eyes crossed just looking at the cover. But I kept it within sight, somewhere in my office or bedroom, I don't remember. But the title resonated with me in a way that I knew was truth, that there was a greater purpose in my marriage for my soul that I had yet to understand.
I've heard about judging a book by its cover, but this is the first I've heard about “resonating” with its title instead of its content. Have you noticed that Campisi is no damned good at communications? She recounts various attacks and death threats supposedly coming from her beloved God, but never learns a lesson from them. She receives a book during marriage counseling but doesn't do more than “keep it within sight.” It's an awesome talent she has, but not one she recognizes.
In terms of my career, God had already opened a window for me to escape into, even before I was ready to fully accept it. Remember I mentioned that I decided to take a break from auditioning in New York and it was when Flight 93, the flight I would take each week, went down at the World Trade Center. Well, during that break of only a few weeks, I decided that I needed to take a part-time job that would help pay for the expenses of travel and classes as I continued my theater career. Well, where did I go? I'm so predictable! To that familiar hiding place I had found comfort in high school. I was hired as the young-adult minister at a campus ministry at San Jose State working for a Dominican nun. During my first few days working at campus ministry, hit the tragedy of September 11. All we could do that week was just stare at the television screen and watch the events unfold. And the Bible I have here on my desk now, Sr. Marcia gave me as a welcome gift. When I opened the front cover of the Bible at that time, I wrote, President Bush's address, World Trade Center attack, September 11, 2001. Because as I watched the president give his address from the television at campus ministry, I had this new Bible in my hands. The first and only prayer inscribed on the left inside cover was Psalm 23:

The Lord is my shepherd;
there is nothing I lack.

In green pastures you let me graze;
to safe waters you lead me;
you restore my strength.

You guide me along the right path
for the sake of your name.

Even when I walk through a dark valley,
I fear no harm for you are at my side;
your rod and staff give me courage.

And if you remember, those are the exact words the president gave in his address that day.
No, I beg to differ again. Elizabeth, you're reading the psalm as rendered in the New American Bible, the authorized Catholic translation from which the Church takes its readings for mass services. The president's speech actually cited only the “shadow of the valley of death” line of the King James Version translation, which is the more readily recognized rendition. Were you paying any attention at all? I guess not.
As you can imagine this prayer took on a special meaning for me in my life. So here I am, hired as a young adult minister at campus ministry, and although I attended Catholic schools and considered myself as someone with a deep devotion to God and my faith, I knew nothing. Absolutely nothing about my faith. How was I supposed to lead as a young minister for these students? I wasn't. This experience was God's way of picking up his lost sheep again and placing it around his neck. He didn't break my leg this time to keep him close to him. Since this was my job, he knew I'd keep coming back, at least for a while.
Let us pause to praise the beneficent God who is no longer breaking legs. though he did unleash a bunch of terrorists on the East Coast to send Campisi a message.

Campisi continued her walk with the Lord on sound legs, but with a troubled heart. She immersed herself in Bible study, but began to be unsatisfied with campus ministry. She took a bizarre detour into professional fundraising, working for Stanford University. She was employed by an office that organized major campus conferences, including some that featured world-famous speakers like Greenspan and Bernanke. It was during this phase that she learned that Jesus was “very much an economist.” While this new insight would have been fun to explore, Campisi instead recounts that God had other plans for her. Indeed, the Lord of the universe decided it was time to lovingly smite her again.
God was not letting me go. Like the theater world and New York City, God closed the door on this chapter very quickly. I unexpectedly developed an illness and never before had my health failed me, but it was so serious that I had to leave Stanford. Honestly, looking back as I recovered a few months later and I had a chance to return to my position, I realized that God was calling me back to him. You may be wondering my husband in all this, well, this is where the real work began with us. It took my health to fail to bring me totally to my knees and surrender completely. It was another cross that brought me back to the loving arms of Christ and the loving arms of my husband.
At this point, there is no need to belabor the observation that Campisi interprets every accident, mishap, and illness as a loving reproof from God, who in Campisi's world is an exceedingly abusive lover.
Out of this state of recovery, Greg and I started to engage more actively in our faith together out of a need to connect and turn this page together. We attended mass on Sundays and first Fridays together and we encouraged each other to pray the rosary daily. Finally, on our four-year wedding anniversary, it seemed things were finally turning around. Greg and I renewed our vows privately, at the Shrine of Our Lady of Peace Church in Santa Clara, California. It was during a first Friday mass there at Our Lady of Peace a few months later that during the consecration of the eucharist I was overwhelmed with a feeling in my womb. It was so powerful that it frightened me, so I got up and I walked to the back of the church and I sensed a quiet voice within me saying, “Do not be afraid.” A few weeks later I gook a pregnancy test and it was positive.
I admit that I laughed aloud when I heard this segment for the first time. Campisi's version of the occurrence stretches credulity beyond the snapping point. She tells us she experienced a miraculous manifestation in her womb. She then waits “a few weeks” before taking the pregnancy test that confirmed she was with child. Weeks?! A credible narration would have related that she drove immediately to a drugstore and picked up a test kit at the earliest possible moment, even before the afterglow faded.

But no, she waited “a few weeks.”

And she has no idea how ridiculous her story sounds. She continues blithely to recount the birth of her first son, following it with a corker of an incoherent sentence about her second son:
And, to our surprise, Thomas Peyton was conceived and born in September of 2007.
That's a good trick, worthy of its own chapter in the Bible. I understand their surprise.

The good news, of course, is that she and Greg can now settle down to a proper Catholic family life with their two sons. All of the trauma of the past has been resolved and Campisi is finally on the path to healing and can turn away from the temptations of this world. She's learned her lesson.

Ha! Are you kidding?
It was in the silence of motherhood that I would open my heart again to trust in God's new plan for my life. Maybe I could sing again. Maybe I could use my gifts for him in some way.
Oh. My. God.

After telling us that God kept bludgeoning her into submission after numerous attempts to secure a career in the performing arts, she pops up one more time with the thought that maybe she could still be a singer. Despite what she says, she doesn't believe her own interpretation of the events in her life.

Campisi wrapped up her story with an account of her initiation into Catholic Radio and the plum assignment of hosting “Why I'm Catholic.” The program, however, did not catch on and she was using this final episode to share her own story of “brokenness” and God's schoolyard bully approach to leading her back to the Church. She excitedly shared the news that she had recorded her first album and would debut a song from it at the end of the show.

I admit that I turned off the radio at that point. I've heard that last show a number of time while transcribing excerpts, but I have yet to make it all the way through the inspirationally saccharin song she presented as the final program's finale.

Besides, I was afraid God would break her leg or something during the song and it would all end with Elizabeth croaking out, “Thank you, Jesus, for loving me so much.”

Sunday, April 17, 2011

A bag of tricks

Stop making sense!

I remember when “Massha” enrolled in my algebra class. Recognize the name? She's a character created by Robert Lynn Asprin in his Myth Adventures fantasy series. He introduced her in the third volume, Myth Directions, well before the long string of pun-obsessed novels became rather labored.

My student lacked the bright orange hair or heroic girth that characterized Massha, but she reminded me of Asprin's creation because of the way she preferred to do algebra. The fictional Massha was described as a “mechanic”—or even “no-talent mechanic”—by other characters in the novels because she used amulets and other physical trinkets to cast her spells. She possessed no actual magical talents, but relied entirely on magical devices.

The Massha in my class drove the point home time and again whenever I tried to explain a procedure and she would counter with a memorized algorithm, as if that pre-empted any further discussion. It was an occasional irritant, but she was entirely sincere in her approach. She had found success in treating math as a collection of miscellaneous tricks and she resisted any attempt to explore below the surface. As far as our Massha was concerned, that was just a dangerous distraction.

A particularly clear case arose while we were discussing the solution of rational equations. These are nothing more than equations that contain rational expressions. For example,

is a rational equation. One of the glorious principles of algebra is that you can do just about anything to one side of an equation as long as you do the same thing to the other side. In the case of a rational equation, you can use this principle to eliminate all of the denominators. Just multiply both sides of the equation by the least common denominator of all of the rational expressions! For the given example, the least common denominator is x(x − 1). Multiplying both sides results in massive cancellation and simplification:

Since algebra students seem to regard operations involving division with more trepidation than anything else, I can usually engage their enthusiasm for a process that destroys all denominators. It has its moment of messiness, but the results are clean and rational (no math joke intended). I leave it as an exercise to the reader to complete the demonstration that x = −2.

Massha was not content with my demonstration. She wanted to rephrase things in her own way, which I'm normally inclined to encourage, as it indicates the student is assimilating the knowledge. What she said, however, disturbed me:

“Do we have to show our work and cancel things or can I just do it the way I learned it? I was taught that you compare each term to the LCD and give the term the part of the LCD that it's missing. Is that all right?”

I looked back at the problem on the board. Massha knew the LCD was x(x − 1). She would consider 3/x, observe that it lacked the x − 1 and “give” it that factor. At the same time, presumably, she would drop the factor x, which it did have in common with the LCD.

“And you drop whatever it already has in common with the LCD?” I prompted.

She nodded her head. “Just do that to every term,” she said. “It's faster!”

Massha had a magic amulet from her bag of tricks. She had memorized a procedure that saved her from writing the messy cancellation step because it algorithmically led her to the same result without actually justifying it. The juice had been squeezed out of the algebraic process and the dried husk preserved the result if not the rationale.

I pondered.

“Since this is our first encounter with rational equations in this class, I want everyone to show a step-by-step justification for our simplifications. Later on, when we return to rational equations in terms of applications, I'll let people reduce the amount of work they show. For now, though, always write down the LCD and show the step of multiplying through by it and reducing.”

Massha scowled at me.

“But I already know how to do this!” she complained.

“I am confirming that your short-cut is a valid algorithm,” I replied, “but I will be holding everyone to the same standard of completeness in presenting solutions.”

Massha was unhappy much of the semester. She had a keen memory, had had algebra before (so why was she in my class?), and retained quite an array of solution gimmicks. I was happy for her (sort of), but her view of mathematics had been reduced to the rote application of algorithms. It was enough for her to do well in class, but she chafed at every requirement to justify her solutions. She would have found a kindred spirit in the algebra student who had been in one of my previous classes. When I finished demonstrating the derivation of the quadratic formula, that student rolled her eyes and said, “Oh, Mr. Z, are you explaining things again? Why didn't you just give us the formula?”

Saturday, April 09, 2011

A capital paper greets the spring

The curdled milk of human kindness

The April 6 front page of The Sacramento Bee paid tribute to spring with a peculiar headline concerning the capital city's unfortunate homeless population:

Homeless survive winter: Now what?

How do you read that headline? It seems to suggest disappointment. Oh, darn. The cold weather didn't kill them off. Now what do we do? I suspect that wasn't the intent, but it sure can be read that way.

Reporters are seldom responsible for the headlines that run with their articles, so this is presumably a faux pas that can be laid at the doorstep of a momentarily thoughtless editor. Still, it made it into print without anyone noticing and suggesting that it might need revision. (I often have lunch with a group of retired journalists who have Bee experience. They assure me that proofreading is a thing of the past at their old newspaper. Sometimes they suggest that the same thing is true of fact-checking.)

The Columbia Journalism Review may want to take note of this item for its next collection of unfortunate and easily misconstrued headlines. It's not as catchy as “Bishop Defrocks Gay Priest,” but it has a certain piquancy of its own.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Halfway there?

It happens this week

My hit-rate on Halfway There has gradually drifted up from last year's fairly steady 200 per day to this year's approximately 300. I'm not certain why the numbers creep upward, but it's fun to see that they do. It intrigues me to think that each day I have readers from around the world. They come from such places as Canberra, Singapore, Cork, Seville, Sydney, Wellington, Stockholm, London, and Fresno, to cite just a few of the exotic locations listed on Sitemeter's roster of recent visitors.

And now I'm approaching 500,000 in total visits to my blog since it was launched in 2005. (If only I had a nickel for each visit!) Given the rate of visits, the milestone will be achieved in the next day or two.

Half a million visits in six years? How long will it take to hit one million?


What a let-down! I was looking at the Sitemeter report on visit 499,998 (which was someone from Auckland) and anticipating the arrival of the half-millionth visitor when a sudden surge of hits caused me to miss the tick of the counter to 500,000. It hit 500,002 before I could blink. Damn!

But not to worry, I could check the details to see who it was. And ... drum roll ... bleah. It was just an invasion of googlebots. Visits 499,999, 500,000, 500,001, and 500,002 were all from googlebots in Mountain View. They were visiting the posts titled “Chains of gold,” “Universal Experts,” “The Obama-Heinz Incident,” and “Ten Percent of One Million.” Why? Beats me! I suppose it was all part of Google's “Don't be evil” campaign.

A real person finally showed up as visitor 500,003. Hello there, Lubbock, Texas! What kept you?

Saturday, April 02, 2011

A repeated lie

It's okay if it's for Jesus

The Institute for Creation Research likes to honor its founder, the late Henry M. Morris, by reprinting his articles in Acts & Facts magazine. The April 2011 issue recycles Morris's essay on “Defending the Faith.” According to the tag at the end, the article was originally published in January 1997. I presume the following paragraph was carried over intact from Morris's initial version:
The excellent book Of Pandas and People was written to present biology in terms of “intelligent design,” without any reference to God, the Bible, or creation, hoping that it could be adopted as a high school biology textbook. Again, nothing doing! It was merely a sneaky way of getting creationism into the schools, said its opponents, and they won.
How closely must one have followed the creation/evolution argument to laugh at Morris's claim? Anyone who has paid even a modicum of attention to the attempts by creationists to subvert public school science is aware that Pandas and People was not written as a intelligent design textbook. The original manuscripts conclusively demonstrated that “in the beginning” it was overtly a creation-science book. This was amusingly revealed during the Kitzmiller trial, when the search-and-replace revision of the manuscript was shown to have produced “cdesign proponentsists” as the undeniable intermediate form between creationists and intelligent design advocates.

We can try to be charitable about Morris's blatant mischaracterization of Pandas and People. It's possible that he took the published 1989 ID-based edition at face value and was innocently unaware of the book's true origins. It is not, after all, an ICR publication. However, what excuse does ICR have for republishing Morris's misrepresentation—deliberate or not—in 2011? Kitzmiller occurred in 2005. The current editorial staff at Acts & Facts has had more than five years to absorb its lesson. Nevertheless, they reprinted “Defending the Faith” without so much as a footnote to indicate that Morris was mistaken about Pandas and People. A decent respect by Christians for their own cherished scriptures should prompt them to pay attention to the injunction against bearing false witness.

They have no excuse.