“Something Other Than God”: Jennifer Fulwiler at the CIC

In a dynamic, engaging presentation last night, blogger, author, and radio host Jennifer Fulwiler gave a powerful presentation on her journey from atheism to Christianity.  While using the framework of her book, Something Other Than God, which chronicles her conversion, Ms. Fulwiler also managed to touch on a wide range of subjects, from the cultural differences between the Texas Bible Belt and the East Coast, to raising children in a culture which is increasingly hostile to Christianity.  Along the way, the attendees at the Catholic Information Center here in DC were given much to laugh about, and much to think about, over the course of the evening.

It’s hard for me to imagine the kind of atheism that Ms. Fulwiler grew up with.  She noted that when she was little, her father used to read books by Carl Sagan to her, alongside the more typical Nancy Drew stories, and she recalled being a 4th grader and hiding all of the Bibles in a bookstore in the “Fiction” section.  Her atheism was so intrinsically a part of who she was, that as an undergraduate she transferred from Texas A&M to the University of Texas at Austin, because she couldn’t stand the highly Christian environment of the former.

Ms. Fulwiler took the time to speak about the “new” atheism, without lingering upon it too much, since this was her story rather than theirs.  She did however make a very salient point, which is that even though a lot of the new atheism is based upon a shallow understanding or even misunderstanding of the teachings of Christianity, Dawkins, et al., had done one thing well: they were great at marketing and branding.  For young people in particular, being a new atheist can be a way of signaling to others that, “I’m smart,” and wanting to fit in with a group of one’s peers.

I could relate to her childhood fascination with the study of fossils, and her desire to be a paleontologist, something which I, too, experienced.  But whereas I saw the fossils as evidence of the wonder of God’s Creation, Ms. Fulwiler saw them as depressing shadows of herself.  If she was no different from one of these long-dead animals, who would exist, have a series of chemical reactions, and then disappear, then what was the point?  Her book develops her thought process from this nadir.

One key point which I suspect may of us in the Gen X/Gen Y crowd related to during Ms. Fulwiler’s presentation was the theme of the shallowness of not only many people’s understanding of their faith – whether that faith be Christianity or atheism – but also her critique of the American education system our generation grew up in.  Our grasp of subjects is only supposed to be deep enough for the purposes of regurgitation, rather than developing the ability to think and reason, and for the achievement of test score results.  As a result, when in college she began to counter the arguments of Christians with questions like, “If God exists, why then is there suffering?” feeling rather smug and an original thinker for doing so, she was completely unaware of the fact that people of Faith have been attempting to address these questions in philosophy for over 5,000 years.

In eventually coming to believe in God, Ms. Fulwiler pointed to the realization she experienced that atheism did not have the lexicon to explain the human experience, particularly after her first child was born.  This triggered a willingness to give prayer a go, to start reading the Bible, and to engage in conversation online with atheists and theists alike, as she searched for answers to her questions.  It just so happened that those whom she engaged with online who had the answers that made the most sense to her, in countering the arguments of her fellow atheists, were the Catholics.

During the Q&A portion of the evening, I was particularly struck by one concept which Ms. Fulwiler has put into practice.  She noted that when you are trying to make God and the Sacraments the central theme of your life, you tend to live very differently from those who do not, even fellow Catholics who are not quite there yet; there may be parishes full of Catholics, but there are Catholics and there are Catholics.  To that end, particularly in the present malaise, she noted that it was very hard to constantly be swimming upstream against the culture, and the importance of periodically trying to take a break and just be around other devout Catholics who are also trying their best – not to debate theology or the like, but to form communities and enjoy each other’s company.  This is something which she herself has done on rather a large scale for Catholic women, as you can read about on the site for the Edel Gathering.

On a personal note, it was also great to finally meet Ms. Fulwiler, after having been “Tweeps” (Twitter friends) for some time.  She was just as gracious and smart in person as I expected she would be.  I’m looking forward to reading her book, and for those of you who may get the chance to hear her speak in your area, do go: you will not disappointed.  And be sure to check out her new weekly radio show, over on the Catholic Channel at Sirius XM.

Jennifer Fulwiler

What Makes A Church Beautiful?

When I saw the plans released yesterday for the new Christ Cathedral in Orange County, California, I was put in mind of the so-called “graduation ceremony” in “Star Wars”.  You’ll recall that’s when Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Chewbacca received medals from Princess Leia for their services to the Rebel Alliance, inside a grand, but colorless ceremonial hall, like the one about to be foisted upon the good people of the Diocese of Orange County.  While seeing this animation of the completed building might make Seymour Skinner give out an award for best diorama, when it comes to ecclesiastical architecture, such an association is not an enviable one.  For it seems that, once again, the Church is not practicing what it preaches, when it comes to encouraging the beautiful in our contemporary society.

The most important question to ask in entering any Catholic church is, “Where’s Jesus?” The answer in this case is, “Somewhere over there.” In this absolutely vast sanctuary, which seats about 2700 people at present, there was apparently no room for the Son of God, at least not in the Real Presence of the Blessed Sacrament.  Instead, the Tabernacle sits like a gilded Tardis, surrounded on four sides by asymmetrical pews, in a side chapel.

There are other curious details, as one might expect given the commentary of the liturgists in the film linked to above. Nearby, one can see what is termed the baptismal “font”, really a pool in the shape of a cross, where I imagine the celebrant will be tossing in the infants and crying, “Swim for it, little pagans!” The narthex of the Cathedral will feature a giant, decapitated head of Jesus, copied from the 13th century mosaic of Christ Pantocrator in the Hagia Sophia.  Without the symbolism of the original, showing Jesus seated as the judge and ruler of the whole world flanked by His Blessed Mother and St. John the Baptist pleading on our behalf for mercy, the image is thereby stripped of its purpose and theological meaning, to become little more than a massive decorative accessory.  This is not Jesus as Holy Icon, but Jesus as Andy Warhol icon.

It seems that the diocese completely missed the lessons to be learned from the construction of the present Los Angeles Cathedral, a.k.a. the “Taj Mahoney”.  Spending an estimated $52 million on a project which will result in something that looks like an airport concourse rather than a church is a colossal waste of funds.  If buying the former Crystal Cathedral was a mistake to begin with, which I believe it was, then we are about to witness a very expensive attempt to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.

What is irritating beyond anything else however, is not really the building itself.  One can hardly blame the late Philip Johnson, himself a former Nazi sympathizer and an atheist of the Nietzschean variety, for not having built a structure designed for Catholic liturgical use, when it was originally commissioned by a Protestant televangelist.  Rather, this entire project is a prime example of the “Do as I say, not as I do” philosophy espoused by some in leadership positions of the Church.

We are constantly being told by popes, prelates, theologians, and Catholic commentators that we are supposed to be encouraging “beauty” in the world, because beauty brings people closer in contemplation to the Divine.  Every time we are told this, in books and articles, in television programs, interviews, retreats, and addresses, the people in the pews nod and agree, thinking that at last, things are finally going to get better.  We hear and read their words, and fully expect that those with the authority to make decisions about things such as church buildings will be presenting us with beautiful reminders of the Faith.

Except more often than not, they don’t.

We keep shoving the Blessed Sacrament off to the side, as if we’re embarrassed by it.  We keep commissioning religious art that belongs in a 7th grade religion textbook, if anywhere at all.  We keep printing cheap missalettes full of hymns with theologically unsound lyrics, and Mass settings that sound like themes to Saturday morning cartoon shows.  And it’s all terribly, horribly, ugly.

This artistic ugliness is all of a piece, of course, along with trite homilies about recycling or how our pets will go to Heaven, being told in the confessional that it’s almost impossible for anyone to commit a mortal sin, and nudge-nudge, wink-wink attitudes toward cohabitation and contraception at virtually every Pre-Cana weekend I’ve ever heard of.  For some, unknown reason, when decision-makers are presented with the opportunity to do something beautifully and uniquely Catholic – like building a new cathedral – they fantasize that they are presenting an alternative to the present culture.  When really, as we can all see plain as day, they are just aping the ugly externals of that very culture, albeit in a dreary fashion.

In his book “The Imitation of Christ”, Thomas à Kempis notes the popularity of pilgrimage to the architectural wonders of his time, back when architecture was indeed very beautiful.  Yet even then, he was not deceived by vast spaces or sumptuous materials.  “When visiting such places,” he comments, “men are often moved by curiosity and the urge for sight-seeing, and one seldom hears that any amendment of life results, especially as their conversation is trivial and lacks true contrition. But here, in the Sacrament of the Altar, You are wholly present, my God, the Man Christ Jesus; here we freely partake of the fruit of eternal salvation. as often as we receive You worthily and devoutly.”

That is what makes any church, whether a humble parish or a grand cathedral, truly beautiful.  It isn’t grand designs, or spectacular architecture, or lavish decorations. It is His Presence.  Otherwise, it’s just a building where “stuff” happens, not to use another “s” word.  Perhaps it’s time that those in positions of authority in the Church did a better job of remembering this, when they are presented with the opportunity to practice what they preach concerning what is beautiful about our Catholic Faith.

"Christ Pantocrator" by Unknown Artist (XIIIth Century) Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

“Christ Pantocrator” by Unknown Artist (13th Century)
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Revisiting the “Sisters” with Colleen Carroll Campbell

This weekend after Mass I was speaking with a friend who has a close family member suffering from dementia, a condition which began to accelerate recently following a death in their family.  Whether or not you know someone who is currently experiencing the loss of their faculties, chances are that, like my friend from the parish, one day you will.  The best advice that I could give, in addition to prayer, was for her to find out about the experiences of others.  And to that end, I recommended that she pick up a copy of My Sisters the Saints, a superb book by Colleen Carroll Campbell.

Regular readers will recall that I reviewed this book a few months ago, but I have two reasons for bringing it to the attention of those of you who might have missed it the first time.  Colleen’s book, which is now in its 7th printing, has just been released in paperback today.  In addition, it just so happens that September is National Alzheimer’s Awareness Month.  These are two very good reasons why you should consider picking up a copy.

“My Sisters the Saints” is essentially a memoir, but not quite the sort you might expect from a media personality.  For in writing about her own personal and spiritual journey, along with reflecting on the lives of those saints who have meant something special to her at different points in her life, Colleen also chronicles the decline of her father as a result of Alzheimer’s disease.  His illness is not treated as a completely separate chapter topic, to be observed, addressed, and then put to one side.  Rather, she addresses it as something that recurs like ocean waves, now stronger in their intensity, now more subdued, with quiet patches between, but endlessly crashing onto shore all the same.

In a passage from the book, Carroll Campbell notes a lesson that she learned as she grew stronger in her spirituality, even as she watched her father becoming physically and mentally weaker.  “[O]ur culture has it exactly backward when treating such people as expendable,” she writes, speaking of those suffering from debilitating diseases like dementia, or the unborn, or the disabled, or the elderly, or the otherwise unwanted.  “If productivity, efficiency, and rationality are not the ways God gauges a human person’s value,” she argues, “then they are not the ways I should measure it either.  If childlike dependence on God is the mark of a great soul, then there are great souls hidden in all sorts of places where the world sees only disability, decay, and despair.”

Chances are that someday, someone you know is going to go down this same long, dark tunnel of unknowing.  Whether the condition is brought on by a specific trigger, or whether it arises out of pure chance, the end result is inevitably the same.  Dementia, in all its forms, is more often than not a bloody, smelly, heart-wrenching mess.  We shouldn’t try to sugarcoat it and say that it’s anything but.

However, we do need to learn how to see debilitating diseases or conditions in a way that brings us closer to God, rather than making us turn away from Him.  We also need to look at these moments as pathways to becoming better imitators of Christ.  And finally, we need the experiences of others who have experienced such redemptive suffering to give us at least some sense of how to go about attempting the task.

So whether for yourself, or for someone you know who might benefit from it, please do consider reading this vivid testament of one woman’s very powerful and deeply personal experience, shared through the prism of her Faith.

Detail of "Christ in the House of Martha and Mary" by Diego Velázquez (1618) National Gallery, London

Detail of “Christ in the House of Martha and Mary” by Diego Velázquez (1618)
National Gallery, London