Wednesday, August 13, 2014

I finally saw the new Star Trek films - and they were worse than I could have ever imagined

I like Star Trek.  A lot.  I'm one of those nerds who can tell you which episode number certain lines or plots are from - or at least which episode title.  I regularly make profoundly awful Star Trek jokes to anyone who might happen to understand them.  I once spent $700 on a Star Trek costume which I am now condemned to wear every year for Halloween without the possibility of reprieve or parole for the rest of my natural life in order to justify.  I even constructed that last sentence as a quote from one of the movies.

Yet I refused to pay for or even watch the new J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot films for five years.  They were changing my Star Trek.  How dare they.  My objections ranged from the superficial and ad hominem (TOO MANY LENS FLARES) to the deep and almost philosophical.  In any case, after my own personal 5 year mission to stay as far away from these films as possible, I finally broke down and finally watched both the new Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness.  My conclusion?

These films are worse than I ever expected.

Yes, I was predisposed to hate these things, but hear me out.  After 5 years of refusing to have anything to do with Abrams' Trek, advancing in my life in general, and getting engaged to the most wonderful woman alive, I was able to gain enough perspective on just how important this stuff really is to look at the films objectively.  I resigned myself to the fact that they were going to destroy the second most important planet in all of Trek Lore.  I decided it was OK that they gave everything a different aesthetic (iBridge!).  I accepted that they were going to make a lot of piddly changes to established canon.  Taking all of this as a given, I decided to watch the films expecting nothing more than Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the crew flying around space and saving the galaxy. In the end, I'm convinced that these films are terrible both as a Star Trek reboot and even simply as films.

First, the characters are simply wrong (this will be the longest point, since its the most important).  Now in one sense, this complaint is one of hanging on to my old beloved Star Trek.  Yes, I am comparing these "new" characters to the old.  Yet at the same time, the identity of the characters is what makes it a Star Trek at all.  Even the filmmakers made this point in explaining why they decided to make this new incarnation of Trek.  The characters were what made Star Trek, they said, but there was too much established canon to be able to tell new and creative stories with them. They wanted to keep the characters - which were the heart of Star Trek - and ditch the reams of established story limiting what they could do with them.  While I disagree that this was a problem, fair enough.

The characters, we were told, had reached such iconic cultural status that they could be rebooted and retold and re-presented.  They were compared to Batman, Superman, and other such characters of such immense and permanent cultural significance that their stories were retold and retold and retold.  Again, fair enough.  Yet this means that the characters are that anchor which keeps Star Trek as, well, Star Trek.  There are many differences between the gritty Batman films of the early 90s, the new Christopher Nolan reboot, and the campy 1960s Adam West version, but the characters are the anchor.  In each, Bruce Wayne is a charming wealthy playboy who lost his parents to a killer at a young age.  He is entrepreneurial, ingenious, and a loner to all but his faithful servant Alfred.  As Batman, he his charm turns to grit.  Even in the goofy 1960s rendition, there is a still a tough, square-jawed attitude that West takes on as Batman - which is what makes the ridiculous lines that he delivers so deliciously campy.  Can anyone imagine a version of Batman in which the Caped Crusader were cowardly, a Wolverine who was patient, or a Captain America who was unjust?  Of course not.  It is the personality of these characters which ties them together through each incarnation and identifies them as who they are.

Yet Abrams' Star Trek and it's follow up Into Darkness get the characters almost universally wrong.  The James T. Kirk of 79 television episodes and 7 films was controlled, pragmatic, and confident.  Christopher Pine's version is wild, impulsive, and portrays a facade of arrogance while harboring nothing short of helplessness under the surface.  The original Kirk was a man of order and command structure, obedient to the chain of command and respecting of the rules and regulations.  He took liberties from time to time, to be sure, but for the new Kirk it is not the liberties but the obedience which happens only from time to time.
Nimoy's Spock was a half-Vulcan you'd never know had any humanity in him until well over 80 hours into his total screen time, logical to a fault, adamant to follow the regulations.  Quinto's Spock is - even before his planet is destroyed - bubbling over with emotions just under the surface and so given to them that he, as an instructor at Starfleet academy, has apparently been having a clandestine relationship with a cadet in Uhura.  The portrayal of Scotty in the new films is nothing short of an insult to the memory of James Doohan.  I don't blame Simon Pegg, who does a brilliant job with the character he was asked to create, but with whoever decided that Scotty should be an utter buffoon, asking for sandwiches in the midst of a blistering assault and bouncing around engineering as he makes repairs more like Batman's Joker than the dignified, proud engineer of the old Trek.

Yet here lies perhaps a clue to just what went so abysmally wrong with these new characters.  The original Scotty certainly had his moments of humor, and he did provide some dignified comic relief from time to time, but, as I said, dignified, and refined - nothing like what Pegg's character offers.  The original Kirk also had his moments of being out of control with emotions, or impulsive, or ignoring a regulation - but these were rare.  Spock's humanity came to the fore on some rare occasion when he was moved by some powerful force.  These behaviors and personality traits were always within the crew of the Enterprise, but they came out only when provoked or pushed.  This is what made them whole and complete characters  - because they had depth and complexities to their personalities, just like real people.  We all have a personality and a manner which is with us most of the time, and deep within flaws, eccentricities, and extremes which come out in specific circumstances.  We all have a family member or friend who is a kind and generous person most of the time, but can become impatient or aggressive when pushed just right.  We have all known a gruff, distant person who on some rare instance shows a tenderness and sense of humanity we did not expect.  This is how real people are, and these complexities are what make great characters.

Upon being hired to direct the new Trek, J.J. Abrams said that he didn't much like Star Trek or know about it.  The truth is, it very much feels like someone watched through the original series and films to learn about the characters but came away understanding only the extremes of their characters without taking the time to grasp the core of their personalities.  The result is that the characters in the reboot seem like caricatures of the original, which ruins it from the perspective of a reboot.  It's like watching some surreal version of Batman where the Joker is almost entirely sane, as if someone took those rare moments of sanity that he could be moved to and built the entire character as though it were all he was.  It also means that, leaving aside the identity of these films as a reboot of established characters, they just aren't very good films to stand on their own: the characters have no core, no depth.

Beyond the individual characters, the crew as a whole also seems to have one major problem: they are entirely inept.  I realize that the plot of the first film involves a bunch of cadets being asked to step up and respond to a threat, but even by the second film the entire crew seems like they have no idea what they're doing.  From the standpoint of a film standing on its own, this gets so bad that the suspension of disbelief necessary for any kind of science fiction film is lost simply because I can't imagine any professional ship's crew seeming like they have so little sense of how to do their jobs.  From the standpoint of a film that is supposed to be a version of Star Trek, it also fails because of how little professional decorum the Abrams crew has.  In every series and film, the crew operates within a clear command structure: the captain and first officer give orders, the rest of the crew follows them and speak when asked for input.  Far too often, the new Trek comes across more like a group of friends with no clear leader all trying to figure a situation out together.  The new Trek feels too much like The Goonies in this regard.

Moving onto some issues which have purely to do with these films in and of themselves (and unrelated to any of the "old" Star Trek), I first have to criticize the acting.  I thought that it was awful.  There were some strong performances - I've already mentioned Simon Pegg playing a terrible version of Scotty, but playing it very well.  Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent as always in the sequel. Unfortunately, there were also some awful ones.  Christopher Pine's Kirk reminds me a bit too much of Danielle Radcliffe doing his very best to channel angst and grossly overdoing it.  Quinto's portrayal of Spock didn't so much feel emotionless as mechanical and bland.  Very disappointing was Urban's McCoy, especially because of how much praise reviews gave to his performance.  I may be the only one, but I did not think Urban was channeling Deforest Kelley - by any means.  His attempts at the southern doctor struck me as very overplayed.  Frankly, it seemed to me what a mediocre impression artist would do for McCoy.

Shockingly, Leonard Nimoy's acting was also bad - atrocious, even - but for this I blame the writing.  I do this not out of some kind of fanboyism for Nimoy, but only because I have seen him act more than enough to know his ability, and in watching those scenes of his in the new films, the dialogue he is asked to offer is so painfully bad that I sincerely do not believe there was much to be done with it.  As I see it, Nimoy's acting is not so much a mark against the film's acting in general, but against it's writing.  In particular, his monologue in the first film is so poorly written that it rings more of a child playacting with action figures than a script reading in a major motion picture.

From this note, I will segue into my final issue with the films: the plots and writing simply simply do not have the internal consistency or coherence to be rated as anything beyond mediocre.  In what world does a cadet undergoing a hearing for possible expulsion get promoted to first officer - even temporarily?  What's worse, in what circumstances does he then get designated permanent captain, not only of any old ship, but the fleet's new flag ship?  Sorry, Sulu.  Sorry, Chekov, Spock, and every other officer in the fleet: you have to work your way up the chain of command, but not Kirk.  This plot point alone is sufficient to render the film more middle-school fan-fiction than anything to be taken seriously.

There are other problems.  In the first film, Spock maroons the first officer on an entirely frozen planet as an act of discipline - and nobody in the entire crew seem to have a problem with this (remember the point about the entire crew seeming to have no idea what they were supposed to be doing?) Of course they mustn't have very strong feelings about it anyways, seeing that as soon as Kirk returns to the ship and this time it's Spock who is cast off, they all readily accept this once cadet-then suspended-then stowaway-then first officer-then marooned-now captain's full authority.  A "now captain" who had insisted on staying away from the enemy, knowing how overmatched the Enterprise was (think God versus Daddy long legs) whose plan has now changed to attacking headon - for no discernable reason whatsoever.   I won't spend any more time here because I know I am not the first to make many of these points, or many of the others that could be made.  Suffice it to say, the plots of these films are bad - very, very, very bad.

It really is too bad.  I was truly, honestly ready to like these films.  As I said, Star Trek is one of my favorite fictions to get lost in for a little bit, and even if it really is a little different from the way it used to be, a good Star Trek movie might just be a lot of fun.  The problem is that these aren't good Star Trek movies, or even good movies, by any stretch.

I hope the new Star Wars don't follow this example.

No, Matt Walsh was Not Wrong about Suicide

Incomplete, maybe, but not wrong.

Matt Walsh is a prominent Christian blogger whose posts have become fairly ubiquitous as of late.  Virtually everything he writes garners countless shares and likes and otherwise approving internet gestures - that is, until he made a post in the wake of Robin Williams' apparent suicide.  This time, his thoughts were met with a great deal of backlash criticizing him for insensitivity, being dismissive of the reality of mental illness, failing to show compassion, and countless other things.

What did Walsh say?  You can read the link for yourself if you like, but I will give a quick summary here.  Walsh makes 3 main points:

  1. We should be careful about downplaying the negative and speaking so positively about prominent suicides, using words like "freedom" and "peace" because it could encourage others contemplating suicide to see it as a positive choice.
  2. When we talk about depression and mental illness, we should not make it strictly medicinal and clinical but should also address its spiritual components
  3. We need to remember that ultimately, suicide is an action that occurs by choice; someone has to make a decision to take an action to end his or her life.  We need to remember that there is a choice involved.
His first point is, I think, a fairly profound one which had not even occurred to me.  I don't think most people really have a problem with it, but I also don't think they are giving it as much attention as it deserves, because it may be his most important practical bit of thinking on the entire subject.

His second point is also fairly innocuous.  A few people objected to a caricature of this point, as though Walsh was suggesting that a trip to church or 5 minutes with a Bible would cure clinical depression, but most folks are reasonable enough to see that that is not what he meant.

It's really that third point that has stirred up so much dust.  Depression and mental illness are incredibly tragic afflictions which can cause tremendous suffering in a person's life.  Over the centuries, they were very misunderstood - especially depression - and only in the past several decades have we as a society really begun to understand them.  It is a very sensitive subject, because even today it is not uncommon for a person's depression to be dismissed or for a person with depression to live an isolated life, suffering alone in a world that seems not to understand or even care.  

Most importantly, depression is not something which comes via choice.  Nobody decides that they want to be depressed, and overcoming depression is not as simple as deciding that "life is what you make of it."  Clinical depression is an affliction like a virus or cancer - it comes upon a person uninvited and begins to destroy them from the inside.  It has therefore struck many people as ignorant, uncompassionate, and coldly dismissive for Walsh to say that suicide is a choice.  He even goes so far as to call it a selfish choice - which sounds to many people like a judgment on these people who are struggling with such profound and inescapable pain.

The thing is, Walsh doesn't call depression a choice.  He doesn't call depression selfish.  He says that suicide is ultimately a choice.  If you happen to be a person who took umbrage at Walsh's comments, this may not sound much better.  After all, suicide is something which is an end result of depression.  They're tied so closely that declaring the former a choice might seem to dismiss the impact and debilitating nature of the latter.  Indeed, there is a certain truth to this.  It's one of the reasons that, as mental illness has come to be better understood, the Catholic Church - which still considers suicide to be a grave sin - has taken a significantly softer approach to suicides, declaring that, "Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide."

At the same time, Walsh's point is an important one.  The truth is that suicide ultimately does involve a choice.  The degree to which someone making that choice is actually himself, actually has full control over his faculties, or actually has full control over his own will is certainly in question in the case of any suicide.  With only a few exceptions, a person has to be very "far gone" to take the incredible step of taking his own life.  Those criticizing Walsh are pointing out that in a sense depression really is like cancer - its a disease which comes in and afflicts a person in a way in which they have no control.  On the other hand, Walsh points out that in another sense, it is unlike cancer: a person with depression ultimately needs to move his arms and hands and legs to take make a noose or take the pills or pull the trigger to end his life.  Cancer kills passively, while ultimately suicide requires some personal action.

The truth is, both sides of the issue are radically incomplete without the other.  Walsh's blog post certainly does not emphasize that aspect of suicide by which it stems from a clinical disease that causes great and incredible suffering.  On the other hand, his critics certainly don't emphasize that ultimate moment of suicide in which a person physically uses some instrument to end his or her life.  They are both inextricably connected, and any view of the issue which does not see both sides of it does a great disservice to those suffering from depression.  

As I come to the end of my own thoughts on this issue, I would ask you to consider the countless suffering souls who have not taken their lives but have considered it.  To them, staying alive is still a choice.  They are choosing every day to fight through their depression and to remain here.  They know that at any moment they could pick up a bottle of pills or find a bridge and end their lives, but - as much as they may at times want to - they have not. For some, this is a choice made out of faith.  They believe that suicide is wrong.  Perhaps they believe in redemptive suffering, and that by persevering their pain has value, like Christ's suffering had value.  They know that they still have a choice to remain alive, and that belief may be the only reason they are still here.

Don't take that choice away from them.  Don't downplay that choice.  

For others, they may not be people of faith.  They may simply believe that suicide would leave their families and friends suffering, or guilty, or both.  It may be for only that reason that each day they decide to stay alive.

Don't take that choice away from them.  Don't downplay that choice.

Yes, depression is an incredibly terrible thing.  The pain and suffering that someone who ends their life is going through must be overwhelming and unimaginable.  We should be doing everything we can to reach out to and to help people going through this kind of thing.  Yet without any prejudice to those whose depression has led to their death, we also need to remember that point at which there is ultimately a choice, and in that support those who are making that choice day in and day out.  

Don't take that choice away from them.  Don't downplay that choice.

It seems to me that in their effort to stand up for those suffering from the horror of depression, that choice is being downplayed.  Don't.  It's the only thing that countless people still have left.

Monday, August 11, 2014

She waited until her wedding night and wished she hadn't

During the past week, this article  by a Samantha Pugsley has appeared twice in my Facebook news feed - once via someone who agrees with the author, and once via someone who does not.  Given my relatively small circle of contacts, this is almost surely a sign that the article has achieved some level of virality.  Reading the piece, I was left saddened - both by the sufferings of the author herself, and by the conclusions she drew from her experience.

I think its important to begin by saying that I do not doubt that Ms. Pugsley's particular religious upbringing was responsible for her negative psycho-sexual experiences later in life.  Certainly it is true that a religious upbringing is better for a person's emotional and psychological well-being; there is sufficient research to make this fairly indisputable.  However, that does not mean that every particular church, religious educator, teaching, or other aspect of every individual's religious formation will always be good or follow this general rule.  Research also demonstrates the benefits of having both one's mother and father during childhood over single parent homes, but this does not mean that there are not some specific cases of fathers or mothers who are abusive, uninvolved, or otherwise detrimental to a child's emotional health.  In the same way, while religious upbringings are in general beneficial, there may be some which are harmful.

Indeed, there is sufficient evidence in Ms. Pugsley's article to suggest that her experience was one such negative case.  We don't know whether this was the standard practice at her particular church or if her involvement was an exception, but we do know that she took a pledge of sexual abstinence at the age of ten.  This is the first troublesome point.  While many churches and religious programs at some point offer teenage boys and girls the opportunity to make a chastity commitment of one kind or another, it usually happens after the kids have entered high school.  Some may even have something of the sort as early as 13 years old, but of course the difference between the average psycho-sexual development of a 10 and 13 year old is so great as to make the thought of such a pledge at the two ages incomparable - and even so those programs offering it at 16 or 17 would constitute the vast majority.  In any case, the point is that for a 10 year old to find herself making such a pledge is troubling, by no means a norm of any sort, and so early in her development that I would be surprised if it did not cause problems.

While this is the most egregious concern, there are others. The article also suggests that this pledge was for girls only, and that boys were to be held to a different standard.  Ms. Pugsley says that she was taught that it was a wife's obligation to fulfill her husband's sexual desires.  Sexual abstinence before marriage was linked almost causally to happiness after marriage.  Very tellingly, she also describes the state of her sexuality as something which seemed an ever-present concern throughout her years at this church, almost as though it were some profoundly important end all to itself which consumed the thoughts and conversation of those around her - almost as though her sexuality encompassed all that was important about her.

None of this is healthy, and none of this is consistent with how most Christian communities view sexuality.  Most notably, human persons are almost universally viewed more holistically.  One's sexuality is important - indeed some Christian theologies see it as touching the deepest core of a person - but it is nevertheless viewed as one part of many which make up a person's identity and value.  It is also a means - a means to communion between spouses - and not an end to itself. Taken together, these reasons are why Christians reject the argument that sex before marriage is important to gauge sexual compatibility between two prospective spouses.  According to most Christian theologies, a person should love his or her spouse wholly and entirely - mind, body, soul, spirit, etc. etc..  Sex is a wonderful means by which that love can and should be expressed between spouses, but it is an expression of a love that goes deeper and touches far more of a person than two bodies ever could.  A person's libido and sexual interests will always change over time, and the love that two spouses have must be rooted so selflessly in the whole of the other than should some perfect sexual chemistry that they at some point possess change, the love will not.  In other words, sex is an expression of a love that encompasses the whole of a person and should be at the service of that love - not the other way around; if a man (or woman) needs to make sure the sex is going to meet some certain standard before making a commitment, then there is a serious question as to whether he (or she) truly loves the whole of the other person.

There are other inconsistencies.  Whereas Ms. Pugsley seems to have been taught that standards are different for men and women, Christianity all but universally calls both men and women to chastity.  Speaking as someone who works in youth ministry and sees many materials intended for young people, I can assure you that a program which does not challenge men to an equal - or even higher - concern for chastity is a rare and strange thing indeed.  The notion that a woman has some particular obligation to fulfill her husband's sexual needs in marriage is perhaps more common than this, but still rare in Christian thinking.  Indeed, even the Bible itself contains a passage encouraging Christian spouses to be sexually generous with one another - male and female (1 Corinthians 7:5).

The most significant line of Ms. Pugsley's piece reads, "My virginity had become such an essential part of my personality that I didn't know who I was without it."  However this came to be, it is the wrong idea and an incredibly damaging one.  To this poor girl, her virginity had become so ingrained in her mind as that which gave her value that she did not know how to handle it when she finally consummated her marriage.  In most Christian communities, children are taught that they are valuable because God made them.  They are taught that God loves them.  They are taught that everybody sins, and that when we do God still loves us.  They are taught that our sexuality is a gift from God that we should cherish and guard and give lovingly to one person in marriage - but that this truth comes second to those mentioned above.  Wait until marriage, and guard your sexuality, not because it is bad, but because it is good.  If you should falter - in sexuality or in anything else - God's forgiveness is there for you.

Of course, there are those Christian communities which make sex into something shameful, and chastity into something defining.  Our author ended up getting this message so strongly all along the line that it was ingrained into her and eventually "blossomed" into an incredibly painful experience of marital sexuality.  The message that I want you to take away here is that it is not the notion of pre-marital abstinence that is bad or harmful - even for religious reasons.  Rather, it is the twisted and perverse approach to pre-marital abstinence that some may teach which can be harmful.

Consider the difference between two messages to pass along to teenagers (and not 10 year olds).  We could teach that remaining sexually abstinent before marriage is a central aspect of our faith, that those who do so are of incredible worth, and that God wants us to guard our virginity.  On the other hand, we could teach that God wants us to guard our sexuality and abstain until marriage because we each have a profound value and deserve all the best that our sexuality can offer in uniting us more closely to our spouses.  Clearly, the two approaches, while advocating the same ultimate decision, do so for radically different reasons which make all the difference in the world.

I am very sorry that Ms. Pugsley got the messages that she did over the course of her childhood and teenage year.  I am very sorry for all of those young women (and men) who do learn such perverse views of sex from their churches.  I'm sorry for what they have been through in the name of Christ, and it's very unfortunate that their experiences are leading to a rejection of the idea of pre-marital abstinence itself.  More importantly, though, I am sorry for the formation that they did not receive.  I'm sorry that they were not taught the Christian view of sexuality as a profound gift from God which is given to us to embrace.  I'm sorry that they were not taught how valuable they are in themselves.  The truth is that for every person who had the awful experience of Ms. Pugsley, there are many more who had a good experience with pre-marital abstinence.  Research shows this fairly clearly.

I would call upon those who are predisposed to reject pre-marital abstinence to look beyond the occasional article like the one under consideration here and investigate more fully the research into pre-marital sex and the greater breadth of more common religious teaching on the subject.  I would encourage those who are predisposed to supposed pre-marital abstinence to look more deeply into articles and cases like Ms. Pugsley's to make certain that you are not encouraging the sort of harmful and even un-Christian approaches which lead to cases like hers.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

On Observing Fasts and Seasons

Each year as Catholics around the world begin the discipline of Lent by fasting and abstaining from meat on Ash Wednesday, many non-Catholic Christians question the legitimacy of this as a permissible Christian practice, either outwardly or privately.  Citing a few verses from St. Paul., the claim is made that we ought not to participate in such a practice.  Here we will briefly address this concern.

Two passages in particular which are raised in objection to the practice of Lent, of fasting, and of abstaining from meat.  The first is from Colossians 2:16:
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath.
 The second is similar, from Galatians 4:8 - 11:
Formerly, when you did not know God, you were in bondage to beings that by nature are no gods; but now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days, and months, and seasons, and years!I am afraid I have labored over you in vain.
We see here two primary points of contention.  First, St. Paul would seem to be rejecting the notion that Christians ought to observe (in the Greek, literally, "celebrate") seasons or special days.  Second, he says we should not be concerned about eating in a particular way.  For good measure, we could add in 1 Timothy 4:3, which rejects the teachings of "liars" who "require abstinence from meats."  What are we to make of this?

First, we can eliminate the concern that St. Paul really is rejecting the notion of observing particular days or seasons fairly easily by noting that Jesus Himself and the early Church observed them.  Most notably, he observed the Passover - indeed He turned it into a uniquely Christian celebration, commanding that we "do this in memory" of Him.  He also observed Hanukkah (see John 10:22 - 29).  Once He had ascended into Heaven, the early Church also kept account of particular days.  We see them meeting together for Pentecost in Acts chapter 2, and in Acts 20:6 - 7 we see that the disciples met on the Lord's Day (Sunday) to "break bread" - that is, to fulfill Christ's Passover command to "do this in memory of me."

The question of abstaining from meat and fasting is even clearer.  Jesus Himself teaches that His followers "will fast" (emphasis mine) in Matthew 9:15.  He famously gives instructions about not appearing disheveled "when you fast," indicating that it is not a question of if they should fast, but only of when and how.  He tells us that some demons can only be driven out by fasting (Mark 9:29).  The apostles themselves fasted on and around Pentecost - a "day" and season" - in Acts chapter 2.

As for abstinence, the New Testament authors provide instructions to abstain from meat for one reason or another in several places.  The apostles issue a command to "abstain from meat offered to idols" in Acts 15:29.  St. Paul offers counsel about circumstances in which it is good "not to eat meat" in Romans 14:21.

Of course, the commands about abstinence from meat are not universal, but are related only to particular circumstances, and this is in fact a key point in helping us to understand precisely what St. Paul means in the original passages in question.  Clearly, it is acceptable that the apostles prohibit meat in certain circumstances, but it is never done as a universal rule.  Moreover, there are no circumstances or qualifications attributed to those who St. Paul condemns in our citations above.  What we might suspect here is a case wherein St. Paul's condemnation is of those who would prohibit the eating of meat as a universal rule.

In fact, there were two particular groups in the early Church who did just this.  The Judaizers insisted that Christians must, in addition to following Jesus and His teachings, keep to every ceremonial law of the Jews, from circumcision to the prohibition against certain foods.  This is understandable, given how important these practices were to the Jewish identity.  The Lord even had to perform a miracle to finally convince St. Peter that it was acceptable to eat those foods that had previously been forbidden (see Acts 10).  St. Paul spills a fair amount of ink in his epistles arguing against this early heresy, and the passages quoted above are examples of this.  The other group in question is the gnostics, who believed that Jesus came to lead us to the purely spiritual and free us from all matter, which was taught to be evil.  They therefore prohibited eating meat, getting married, and other such practices which they deemed to be too closely connected with matter and perpetuating it.  St. John also argues against the gnostics in his epistles.

Fasting, abstaining from meat, and keeping particular days of celebration or reflection are entirely within the realm of sound Christian practice.  Each of these was either expressly commanded by Jesus or the apostles, or was taught to us by the example of the early Church.  This should be no surprise.  Our human nature demands time of celebration and times of reflection.  We work best as people who sometimes indulge, and other times deny ourselves.  It's how we work, and the One who created us knows this well.  He, through His Church, has given us the call to live in this way because He knows it is good for us.  Thus, we observe Lent and we celebrate Easter.  We set Sundays aside to give extra time to God.  We pray particularly at night, before bed, and in the morning, before our days.  We do these and countless other practices which help to keep us, in our human nature, walking with Christ.  He made us this way, and if anything, we can be thankful that He has given us disciplines and practices which tie our humanity so closely to Him.

God bless!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Don't Give Up Facebook For Lent

For the past few years, I've spent the week or so before Ash Wednesday waging a battle against the rushing tide of Lenten Facebook sacrificing.  This is, of course, because for the past few years this particular sacrifice has become more and more popular.  In years past, I've primarily argued that people should carefully consider whether or not giving up Facebook would really benefit them or if its simply the "easy" or "trendy" decision, much as giving up chocolate or sweets so often is. 

However, this year I am going to come out and assert what I have felt more and more each year that this has gone on: giving up Facebook for Lent is more than simply too easy, it would actually a bad thing for many people - perhaps even for most of those who would be spiritually dedicated enough to consider doing it.  It may even be Satan appearing as an angel of light.

You can look through my previous year's article for the reasoning more in depth, but the main point was that it's an easy sacrifice to make, but its only truly meaningful for some.  The person who truly, literally can't stay away from Facebook for more than 5 minutes might really get something out of it, but the more common person who logs in a few times a day and/or spends most of his "Facebook time" reading articles that he found linked on the site is not only failing to get the same impact, there's a good chance that in giving up Facebook he failed to make some other sacrifice or commitment which would have been more meaningful to him. He's also missing out on all of the good that the social network provides (like those articles).

And good there is!  What do I get out of my daily time on Facebook?  I get inspired but the posts of other spiritual friends to live my faith more fully.  I get challenged by them to stick more closely to Christ than I would otherwise.  I get to see the joy of the Lord in their lives as they do everyday things like go to work, make dinner, or raise children.  I get to learn practical tips from them about how to best do everyday things like go to work, make dinner, and raise children.  I get an embarrassment of riches in dozens of wonderful articles to choose from to deepen my knowledge of the world and, in particular, my faith and spirituality.  

I get to see when friends are asking for prayers.  I get to see when friends need prayers, even when they don't actually go ahead and ask for them.  

I get all of this, and so much more.  Oh, and I get to provide all of this for my friends so that they will have it, too - even those I rarely get to actually see in life.

However, this is not why I would call this particular sacrifice a bad thing, at least not in and of itself.  I call it bad because it's a retreat.  This is ironic, because for many who give Facebook up its intended to be a retreat: a retreat like one spends in a weekend or a week at the monastery to get away from the world and closer to Christ.  Far from this, I'd suggest that giving up Facebook would be, for most, a retreat in the worst sense of the word.  It's a retreat from making Christ a part of our everyday lives in the way we're called to.  

Would anyone, a thousand years ago, have considered avoiding the village square during Lent?  Surely not.  It's there, in the presence of those people the Lord has put into our lives, that our faith is meant to be most on display.  10 years ago, Facebook was a small niche of the internet for a select few college students to goof around.  Today, its a universal forum for business, socialization, fellowship, event planning, outreach, and virtually everything else we do as human beings.  It's the one place where, in our busy world, everyone meets in some way on daily basis.  

It's the village square of our day.  It's a part of everyday life, and we are called at all times, and especially during Lent, to make Christ a part of that everyday life - not to quit parts of our lives because we can't get ourselves to bring Christ into them.  We're called to engage people with the gospel - not stay away from people because we can't get ourselves to engage them.  

If you truly need to get away from Facebook for your spiritual betterment, then by all means, do it.  If you can't help but waste 5 hours a day refreshing your newsfeed, playing Farmville (do people even do that anymore?), getting nothing useful done and ignoring your prayer life, then by all means make the sacrifice.  It would probably be good for you.

But if you're not addicted in this way, and if Facebook is for you, like most, a part of an otherwise healthy everyday life, then don't give up Facebook for Lent - no, work on properly ordering Facebook for Lent!  Do you use it to bring Christ to others?  Do you ever click on any of those spiritual articles that go up?  Do you stop and pray for friends you see having a rough day?  If so, keep at it.  If not, start doing so.  Don't just take my word for it.  Listen to the pope!

In his January 22nd radio address on World Communication Day, Pope Francis spoke about the internet and social media. He cautioned against some of its pitfalls (which are well known to anyone who cares enough to read this post), and then said:

While these drawbacks are real, they do not justify rejecting social media; rather, they remind us that communication is ultimately a human rather than technological achievement.
As I have frequently observed, if a choice has to be made between a bruised Church which goes out to the streets and a Church suffering from self-absorption, I certainly prefer the first. Those “streets” are the world where people live and where they can be reached, both effectively and affectively. The digital highway is one of them, a street teeming with people who are often hurting, men and women looking for salvation or hope. By means of the internet, the Christian message can reach “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Keeping the doors of our churches open also means keeping them open in the digital environment so that people, whatever their situation in life, can enter, and so that the Gospel can go out to reach everyone. We are called to show that the Church is the home of all. Are we capable of communicating the image of such a Church? Communication is a means of expressing the missionary vocation of the entire Church; today the social networks are one way to experience this call to discover the beauty of faith, the beauty of encountering Christ. In the area of communications too, we need a Church capable of bringing warmth and of stirring hearts. 

Text from page
of the Vatican Radio website 

I will be quite blunt: Christ calls us to be in the world, to bring Him to it, and to make Him a part - indeed, the center! - of the everyday.  In 2014, Facebook is an incredible outlet to the world, and is certainly a part of the everyday.  Facebook does not need more Christians retreating from it, leaving it a more worldly place for some month and a half each year.  It needs more Christians being Christians for every day of the year.  Instead of making Christ a little bit more absent from the newsfeeds of your friends and family (something the Father or Lies would surely rejoice in), make Him more present this Lent, with the aim that He be more present after that first Alleluia rings out, too.

Text from page
of the Vatican Radio website 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

On Commercializing Christmas

Every year about the beginning of November, or in some cases even before Halloween, Christmas decorations, music, and other fare begin appearing in malls, stores, ads, and even the radio and television.  Ever year about this same time, these same appearances are decried as too early and manifestations of the sad and widespread commercialization of Christmas.  As that time of year comes upon us once more, I think it worth it to think critically about the entire phenomenon of commercializing Christmas.  What is it?  Where lies that line, the crossing of which constitutes a commercialization of Christmas?  How soon is too soon to bring out the holly and the jolly?

If we wish to consider things thoroughly, the first question we need to ask is whether or not its even acceptable for stores to have Christmas decorations at all.  Now there are at least 2 different perspectives from which to approach this question: the Christian, and the secular, each with its own criteria. As the Christian perspective is the one I am interested in, and because those unhappy with the commercialization of Christmas are most likely to approach things with a Christmas perspective as well, it is from this perspective which we will approach the question.  Moreover, it would not be incorrect to say that those coming from a secular perspective and unhappy with early or proliferous Christmastide fare are generally not so much concerned with the commercialization of Christmas as they are with being exposed to it more than they would prefer.

In any case, with a resounding no we can insist that there is nothing wrong with stores having Christmas decorations, music, and other tidings.  In fact from the Christian perspective it is a good thing that they do.  Christ ought to have a presence in every aspect of society, and so it is laudable that stores visibly celebrate Christmas during the Christmas season.  Indeed, when businesses do not display a certain Christmas spirit, for example by wishing people "Happy Holidays", they are rightly chided.  Christ’s reign ought extend over businesses as much as over the rest of the world.  This is the Christianization of commerce: businesses honoring Christ and His teachings, and celebrating Him.

Now, here we need to make an important distinction, for there are at two ways that a business can celebrate Christmas.  The first is in accordance with its authentic spirit.  That is, businesses can honor the season according to the bounds that are intrinsic to the season.  This involves many things, including making a renewed commitment to practicing justice in our lives, remembering the birth of the Lord, and celebrating that birth during the period of time assigned for it.  When a store or other business does these things, then it is participating in the Christianization of commerce, and that is a good thing.  Doing good for employees, offering customers discounts in the spirit of giving, and erecting visible symbols in honor of Christ’s Incarnation would mark such a Christianization of commerce.

On the other hand, a business may choose to celebrate the season in a way not in accord with its authentic spirit.  A business which uses the occasion of the Christmas season as an opportunity to participate in unjust practices, to exploit their customers, or which takes advantage of its employees would not be in accord with the authentic Christmas spirit.  Rather, businesses which, instead of honoring the Christmas season distort it to meet their own ends fall into that common moral foible of treating God’s creation as objects to be used rather than subjects to be honored. 

One common example of this would be putting up a Christmas tree in early November rather than respecting the timing defined by the season itself.  Rather than making way for Christ to bring His presence into commerce - that is, Christianizing commerce - this would an act  of distortion, an effort reshape Christ for the sake of commerce - that is, a commercializing of Christ (and so of course Christmas).  As a general rule, we are called to shape our lives and our actions around Christ and a love for His creatures, not to shape Christ and His creatures around us.  This is the essential difference between love and sin.

What then would it look like for a business to truly respect the spirit of Christmas?  Much of what already occurs, in fact.  Businesses could decorate and play Christmas music to honor the birth of Christ and to provide a festive and joyful atmosphere for those shoppers who were celebrating it. Prices could be cut and sales offered in the spirit of giving. Stores might stay open later to help shoppers who wished to buy gifts to give in this same spirit.  If businesses did indeed make extra money by virtue of these actions, no harm would be done.  Indeed, such businesses as may reap higher revenues by attracting those wishing to honor Christ would do so rightly.

In fact, I would argue that these things could even be done earlier than the Christmas season.  If someone wishes to decorate a home for the Christmas season, it may be helpful to be able to purchase decorations early. People may want to shop earlier rather than having to deal with all of the congested stores which would result from so many people shopping for gifts at once in December, and so offering sales for these earlier customers could even be an example of Christianizing commerce - of letting the generous and self-giving spirit of Christ influence how commerce is practiced. 

The problem is that these are, in most cases, not the intentions that businesses have.  They decorate early, offer sales, play music, and so forth simply to make more money.  Far from offering sales in November or erecting Christmas trees the moment the spider webs come down in an effort to aid people, they do so with the intentions of stretching Christmas as far as they possibly can, forming it into something which is beneficial for them. Thus, while there may be nothing materially wrong with businesses thinking of Christmas in some way at least somewhat early, there is something formally wrong with it, for their intentions are those of commercializing Christmas, rather than of allowing Christ to enter commerce. 

The ideal store, one seeking to participate in a Christianization of commerce, might offer sales in November, looking to help people as they prepare for Christmas, while holding off on the tinsel and holly until the middle of December.  The typical store puts up enormous trees and blasts jinglefied versions of classic hymns on All Saints day, while taking them down before offering sales the first week of January so as to clear their excess inventory and drain consumers of whatever gift cards and crisp bills they may have come into over the actual Christmas celebration.

All that having been said, I would like to add one small caveat in defense of businesses.  When it isn't music, or decorations, or anything else so formally a Christmas celebration as this, try not to be too hard on them.  There are some things that stores really just need to do early, like putting out stock.  Yes, as early as the first week of November.  There is only so much warehouse space in any store, with the sales floor serving as the primary location for merchandise.  There are also only so many deliveries possible.  These deliveries must carry not only the Christmas, or Easter, or Summer, or whatever other special items the store needs, but also all of the regular daily or weekly stuff - which can be an enormous load itself.  For certain seasons, the amount of stuff that needs to be sent along is so large that it may even take two months to ship it all, and from day one that all has to start making its way out to the floor because it simply won't fit elsewhere.  This is why you start to see back to school products out in the middle of June!  

In any case, let's all do the best that we can to bring Christ into at least our own commerce.  In doing so, perhaps we can do some small part in Christianizing the world.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Yes, Marriage is for You

If you happen to have any Catholic friends on social media, there’s a fairly good chance you’ve come across a piece titled “Marriage Isn’t for You.”  There’s a lesser but still reasonable chance you may have also have seen a seminarian’s reply, although reply may not be the best word given that he doesn’t actually disagree with the original author. 

Both pieces aim to remind us of some fairly essential truths about marriage. The former is primarily concerned with marriage as a gift for the other.  Noting his own pre-wedding doubts about whether or not his wife-to-be would make him happy, the author presents his father’s counsel (emphasis in original):

marriage isn’t for you. You don’t marry to make yourself happy, you marry to make someone else happy. More than that, your marriage isn’t for yourself, you’re marrying for a family. Not just for the in-laws and all of that nonsense, but for your future children. Who do you want to help you raise them? Who do you want to influence them? Marriage isn’t for you. It’s not about you. Marriage is about the person you married.

The second piece agrees, but looks to take it a step further.  Marriage, it asserts, is about God:

True love is focused on God, and that sometimes means making people unhappy in order to draw them closer to God. Marriage is not about making your spouse smile or laugh every day. Marriage is not about being nice, it’s about loving your spouse as God loves them.  Marriage is not only about making your spouse happy, it’s about making them holy.

What should we think of these points?

The overarching message in both of these pieces is certainly a good one so far as it goes.  Marriage is most definitively not a selfish endeavor.  In fact, those entering into marriage seeking primarily their own happiness will not find it.  It is clear from the teaching of the Church and indeed the most fundamental understanding of Christian principles that in marriage one must be concerned with his spouse’s happiness before his own and, moreover, her holiness before even that. 

Does this mean that it is correct to say that marriage is either for the spouse, or even more simply that it is not for the self?  Let us consider without delay the critical point made by our first author’s father: beyond only one’s spouse, marriage is concerned with the good of the children which will spring from it.  In fact, the Church teaches that marriage is concerned primarily with the procreation of children (Casti Connubii 17, 59; Wojtyla 66).  Taking this route we would then be forced to change our phrasing so as to declare not that marriage is for the spouse, but for the other. 

Yet this very deliberation reveals a key point which heretofore has remained absent from both the referenced articles and our discussion: according to the teaching of the Church marriage has multiple ends.  That is to say, it is for a variety of purposes.  These purposes are generally enumerated two, and sometimes three in number[i]: the procreation and education of children, the mutual help or good of the spouses, and the remedy of concupiscence (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1601; Wojtyla 66; see Casti Connubii 59).  The primary end is, of course, the procreation and education of children.  Secondarily, marriage is ordered toward the goods of the spouses, and in a variety of ways.  Husband and wife support one another psychologically and spiritually, they care for one another in times of sickness or frailty, they encourage one another to move generously towards Christ.  Finally, they provide a legitimate avenue for the expression of natural desires, though this must not be understood in a utilitarian sense. 

In his discussion of these ends and their relation, Wojtyla brings us to what seems to be the key point for the purposes of our discussion.  “These aims can,” he writes, “moreover, only be realized in practice as a single complex aim” (68).  Indeed, the Church tells us that identification of one end as primary does not diminish the other ends (Guadium et Spes 50).  As Wojtyla notes in the aforementioned place, it is when taken together that each of the ends of marriage make possible the achievement of one another.  He insists in a key passage that these aims of marriage flow together from love as a whole:

With this in mind, it seems equally clearly indicated that themutuum adiutorium mentioned in the teaching of the Church on the purposes of marriage as second in importance after procreation must not be interpreted – as it often is – to man ‘mutual love’.  Those who do this may mistakenly come to believe that procreation as the primary end is something distinct from ‘love’m as also is the teriary end, remedium concupiscentiae, whereas both procreation and remedium concupiscentiae as purposes of marriage must result from love as a virtue, and so fit in with the personalistic norm.   Mutuum adiutorium as a purpose of marriage is likewise only a result of love as a virtue.  There are no grounds for interpreting the phrase mutuum adiutorium  to mean ‘love’. For the Church, in arranging the objective purposes of love in a particular order, seeks to emphasize that procreation is objectively, ontologically, a more important purose than that man and woman should love together, complement each other and support each other (mutuum audiutorium), just as the second purpose is in turn more important than the appeasement of natural desire.  But there is no question of opposing love to procreation nor yet of suggesting that procreation takes precedence over love (68).

Marriage is, ultimately, “an institution which exists for the sake of love” (Wojtyla 233).  Ultimately, “authentic married love is caught up into Divine love” (Gaudium et Spes 48), and that is the point to all of this.  Marriage exists for love, and that love is ultimately the love of God.  When we look to the ends of marriage – to the, “what is it for?” – we must ultimately look to that love which God calls each of us to for our answer, for married love is no less  than a particular expression of that perfect, self-giving love.   Both of our authors rightly apply this principle in recognizing marriage as something which is for the other – one’s spouse and one’s children – and of course for God. 

Where I would suggest that they come short would be in falling into a sort of matrimonial reactionism which pushes back against the selfish spirit of the age at the expense of applying the full breadth of the Church’s teachings on marriage and the love of God.  While it is true that many today fall into the error of viewing marriage as something which primary end is their own happiness, it goes too far to say that the happiness or the good of the self is not an end of marriage.  All that God gives to us, and especially the spiritual goods of the Church such as the Sacraments, are intended for our good both collectively and individually.  Of course in marriage one seeks the salvation of his spouse, but he also seeks the salvation of himself.  Of course in marriage one seeks the glory of God, but that does not mean that he does not also seek the good for his spouse or for himself. 

The false dichotomy brings to mind Jesus’ admonition of the Pharisees when he said, “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).  Surely all things are for the glory of God, and yet God’s great will is for the good of all His creation.  John’s gospel even identifies Christ’s great moment of glory with His crucifixion, that great act of selflessness offered on behalf of his creation (see John 13:31, 17:1).  Jesus Himself had no difficulty in recognizing a multitude of ends or purposes to things, even where the Glory of God was concerned. 

Recall also Wojtyla’s view of the 3 ends of marriage.  While procreation is the primary aim, it does not diminish but works in concert and lifts up the others, which all together flow from and seek to perfect love.  The problem with statements like, “marriage is not for you but for your spouse” is that they diminish the interconnectedness of all of the aspects of matrimony and thereby render even the ones they seek to uphold powerless.  Consider another passage from Wojtyla (emphasis in original):

An inner need to determine the main direction of one’s development by love encounters an objective call from God.  This is the fundamental appeal of the New Testament, embodied in the commandment to love and in the saying ‘Be ye perfect’, a call to self perfection through love.  This summons is addressed to everyone.  It behooves every ‘man of good will’ to give it concrete meaning, in application to himself by deciding what is the main direction of his love.  ‘What is my vocation’ means ‘in what direction should my personality develop, considering what I have in me, what I have to offer, and what others – other people and God – expect of me?’ A believer who is unreservedly convinced of the truth and reality of the New Testament’s vision of human existence is also aware that his own spiritual reserves alone are inadequate to the development of his personality through love (257).
One’s vocation, if it is to marriage, is a fundamental calling to self-perfection by means of all that marriage is, offers, and asks for.  Recall that marriage is a Sacrament, and so by its very nature confers Sanctifying Grace, that unmerited infusion of Divine life without which one cannot know God (see Summa Theologica IV, 42, 3 for a discussion on this point).  Marriage is no less “for me” – should I be called to be married - than is baptism.  And, like baptism, marriage by its nature must, if lived authentically, work itself out in the very self-giving love for spouse, child, and God that the original articles were so rightly concerned with.

If one is going to be married, then one had better recognize all that marriage calls him to.  That includes selfless love of spouse.  It includes a selfless generosity and openness to children.  It includes responding joyfully to the graces conferred in the marital state so that he can become a better spouse and parent, and indeed a holy one.  Marriage is, as Wojtyla and the Church have said in too many places to cite, for the mutual love of the spouses.  It is not something which can be reduced to my attitude toward the other, but must encompass our love together as husband and wife, and our shared end, which is God.  Said Wojtyla, "The only escape from this otherwise inevitable egoism is by objective good... [which] is the foundation of love, and individual persons, who jointly choose a common good, in doing so subject themselves to it" (38).  To try to break this unifying love down to that of one individual goes against the very nature of marriage, even as first and most simply laid out as that by which a man and a woman become "one flesh" (Genessi 2:24; Mark 10:8).

This all having been said, a valid question may arise as to why this has been worth addressing.  It is true, after all, that the two articles with which we began this consideration show forth good, valid points which are in much need of a bit of attention in this present age.  Too often we do view marriage as not simply being for the self in some sense, but as being primarily for the self.  No doubt, these authors have helped many with their work.  At the same time, history demonstrates well that combating one error with a broad brush which may cover over a bit too much rarely benefits the cause in the end.  In this case in particular, a person who enters into marriage wholly concerned with the holiness and happiness of his spouse and children, but entirely negligent of the Sacrament's impact on his own, can easily be a detriment to both.  Because marriage is indeed so near a topic to so many people and one which will have an impact on the lives of many, and moreover because it is so important to get marriage right in an age where so many get it wrong, it seems important to try to shed some additional light on the subject and to refine a bit those broad strokes which our original authors used to such beneficial an effect.


Wojtyla, Karol. Love and Responsibility. 1981. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993. Print.

[i] The distinction between the two delineations would seem to lie in whether one regards that end of remedium concupiscentiae to be distinct from or subsumed within the mutuum adiutorium

Friday, March 11, 2011

Do Earthquakes Like Japan's Suggest the End of the World?

Matthew's Gospel reads:

As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?”  And Jesus answered them, “Take heed that no one leads you astray.  For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray.  And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the birth-pangs. (Matt. 24:3-8)
The common interpretation is that Jesus was giving us signs to look for as harbingers of the end of the world. I don’t think that this is correct.
For one, it would be very inconsistent with His firm, explicit instructions from the same discourse not to worry about or to look for when the end is coming. In fact, in this quoted passage, He actually seems to be cautioning His listeners that reading into these kinds of events can lead one astray.
However, another interpretation of His words exists which is consistent with these messages, namely, one could understand the passage such that Jesus is telling His disciples precisely that these kinds of events are not signs of the end. Remember, He is speaking here to a group of mainly Jews living in an age and with a theological outlook wherein every negative event was taken as a sign of God’s anger. These are the people who asked Jesus whose sin was responsible for a man’s blindness, and who assumed that the fall of the tower in Siloam was yet another punishment. Moreover, He knows that within a generation the terrible disasters of Nero and the destruction of the Temple were to come. It is this people to whom He’s trying to give His message not to see the end of the world behind every falling rock or crashing tower and so be led astray.
Thus, it seems probable to me that His message was, rather than that the terrible events He lists are signs of the end, that they are just simply everyday events which will happen time and time again as the years carry on. “Over the thousands of years until my return,” He says in a sense, “there will be many earthquakes, wars, and famines. These are normal. They don’t mean the end is near.”
And indeed history has been filled with wars, famines, earthquakes, hurricanes, and other such events, and there will be more in the future. I have seen claims there more occurring now than in the past. I don't have the data to evaluate that claim, but if it is true, so what? Geology and climatology are defined by long cycles of increased and decreased activity. If we are in a cycle of increased activity, all the more reason to pray and be vigilant that we may be ready when Christ calls us by name and demands of us an accounting – but no reason to read in these things that the end is near. I dare say Christ told us not to.