Scott Hahn’s “Angels and Saints”: Taking a Fresh Look at Aquinas

Detail of St. Thomas Aquinas from the St. Peter Martyr Altarpiece by Fra Angelico (1427-1428) San Marco, Florence

Detail of St. Thomas Aquinas from the St. Peter Martyr Altarpiece by Blessed Fra Angelico (1427-1428)
San Marco, Florence

In his new book Angels and Saints: A Biblical Guide to Friendship with God’s Holy Ones, well-known Catholic theologian Dr. Scott Hahn examines both the theology of the angels, the communion of saints, and the lives of a number of these figures.  He does so, appropriately enough, by looking to the Scriptures as a touchstone: Dr. Hahn, as you may know, is the founder and president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. As the next stop on the blog tour celebrating the release of his latest book, it falls to me today to share some thoughts about Dr. Hahn’s chapter on St. Thomas Aquinas – and be sure to check out the previous and forthcoming stops on the blog tour as well.

It is hard to imagine how one could write a single chapter encompassing everything there is to know about St. Thomas Aquinas.  For starters, he is among the most prolific writers in Church history and, as Dr. Hahn notes, Aquinas kept several secretaries at a time writing to his dictation on a near-constant basis.  Fortunately for the reader, Dr. Hahn does not attempt to give us the equivalent of a ten-page summary of the Summa Theologica, in examining the life of this great Doctor of the Church.

Instead, Dr. Hahn takes and runs with the very interesting argument, so often overlooked by those who focus on Aquinas as a philosopher, that Aquinas would probably have considered himself to be a Biblical theologian.  As an example, Dr. Hahn points to Aquinas’ “Treatise on Law”, believed by many to be heavily dependent on Aristotelian thinking.  While it may seem that the Angelic Doctor, as Aquinas is affectionately known, frequently quotes Aristotle in this work, in fact Aquinas quotes from Scripture almost seven times more often in the text. Dr. Hahn then goes on to examine a shift in the law, as described by Aquinas, from the Old Testament law to that of the New Testament, as the fall of man through our first parents leads to prescription, followed by salvation, as God and man rebuild their relationship.

What particularly struck me, in reading Dr. Hahn’s reflections about St. Thomas Aquinas, was the succinct explanation of Aquinas’ understanding of how the created and material point to the infinite and spiritual, one that resonated with me a great deal as someone interested in the study and appreciation of Western culture.  “Thus, nature and history are more than just created things,” writes Hahn, “they have more than just a literal, historical meaning.  God fashions the things of the world and shapes the events of history as visible signs of other, uncreated realities, which are eternal and invisible.”  Dr. Hahn goes on to quote Aquinas himself, who wrote, “As words formed by man are signs of his intellectual knowledge, so are creatures formed by God signs of His wisdom.”

Throughout his latest work, Dr. Hahn points to the Biblical basis for the relationships which Christians enjoy with the angels and saints.  He goes beyond simply giving biographical summaries on these individuals, into providing examples of how each of them led lives closely tied to the Scriptures.  Whether you are learning about them for the first time, or they are old and dear friends, you will come away from this book better-informed about what Christians believe about the angels and saints, as well as having a deeper insight into their lives.

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Looking at Audrey Hepburn and “The Devil”

Last night while making dinner I watched the musical “Funny Face” (1957), starring Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire.  Not being a fan of Astaire – which amounts to heresy in some quarters – I had always avoided it.  Being a fan of Hepburn’s however, I decided to at least give it a chance.

I was struck from the first by how much the recent film “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006) took many of its cues from this earlier film.  In a way it’s not surprising, since Hollywood has been pushing Anne Hathaway as the new Audrey Hepburn for some time now.  Admittedly, this is a comparison somewhat unfair to both actresses.

Yet notice how Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson) in “Funny Face” comes charging into her domain as editor of a prestigious fashion magazine, past a pair of secretaries, to the terror of all around her.  Her sanctum sanctorum looks almost exactly like that of another “M.P”,” Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) in “Prada”, complete with almost the same view of Midtown Manhattan.  There’s a discussion in both films about how important the choice of a particular color can be for world commerce.  There’s even a scene where Jo Stockton (Hepburn) runs away to hide in the darkroom of Dick Avery (Astaire), not unlike a similar scene in “Prada” between Andy Sachs (Hathaway) and Nigel (Stanley Tucci).

Does this mean that “The Devil Wears Prada” is merely a rip-off? Well, no: and actually, I found “Funny Face” to be a pretty boring film.  “Prada” on the whole is a better-acted movie, and has a more compelling storyline.  There again however, the comparison is somewhat unfair, because there’s a big difference between a fluffy old Hollywood musical, and a contemporary dramedy.  Yet the fact that one can even make such a comparison, between the classic and the contemporary in cinema, is important.

If we are to understand where our culture comes from, we need to continually be educating ourselves on how to perceive the roots of the past in the fruits of the present.  Contemporary musicians like Chris Thile and Alison Krauss for example, look back to Bach or the Civil War era, even as they work with modern artists from different genres like Justin Timberlake or Robert Plant.   The modern-day city of Washington, D.C. features monumental buildings and urban planning elements that reference England, France, Ancient Greece, and Rome, four cultures which had a significant philosophical impact on the Founders.  Even the “Star Wars” saga would not have been possible without George Lucas being very much aware of the medieval legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

Thus, even if “Funny Face” in the end isn’t a particularly good movie, the lesson here is a good one.  When we can perceive how one film references another, then we can begin to understand how not just movies, but all of Western culture – from art to music, literature to architecture – is often doing the same thing.  A vibrant culture is an inventive one, that doesn’t slavishly copy the past. At the same time, it should also acknowledge the contributions of the past, to maintain that sense of where we come from.  Training our eyes to look for these types of connections then, will make us better-appreciate the richness of the world around us.

Audrey Hepburn in a scene from "Funny Face" (1957)

Audrey Hepburn in a scene from “Funny Face” (1957)

Britney Spears and the Power of Cheese

The other night during my “special guest star appearance” at the local pub quiz – sadly, I don’t get to play as often as I used to – our team had a bonus round question which I found difficult to answer.  The question was, “Who was the only music artist to have had 14 music videos retired from Total Request Live?”  The answer ended up surprising me, although not in the way I first thought that it would.

I should explain for those who do not know, that back when MTV still played some music throughout the day, Total Request Live was a countdown-type program.  A music video voted by viewers of the show onto the countdown successfully for a month was eventually “retired”, i.e. callers were no longer allowed to continue voting for it.  This kept the turnover of music videos going, while demonstrating a particular artist’s level of popularity.

There was much debate at pub quiz as to who had achieved said popularity with MTV viewers back in the 2000′s.  Various acts were suggested around the table, but one fellow in our group insisted that the answer had to be Britney Spears.  I repeatedly rejected this, explaining that I doubted I could name more than four or five Britney Spears songs in total, let alone fourteen that were so popular that they would have been formally “retired” by MTV.

Despite my doubts, in the end the team decided to go with this answer, which turned out to be the right one.  Surprised that it was correct, I took a piece of paper, and began to write down the names of whatever Britney Spears songs came to mind.  It turned out that I could not name four or five.

In point of fact, I could easily name ten.

We don’t always realize how insidious the entertainment industry is in our present culture, until we notice the impact it has on what we might call the “background” in our lives.  Music, film, and television are all-powerful forces, even if we think of popular entertainment as nothing more than an outlet which we turn to as needed.  We may not realize it, but these works really do find their way into our subconscious, so that suddenly, we can find ourselves thinking of the lyrics to a song, or a scene from a film, and making a neural connection between that piece of entertainment, and something decision or challenge before us.

Thus, it’s important to think about the nature of the material that we are taking in, because of the lasting effect that it can have.  We don’t always stop to consider the consequences of such a decision, even as we allow such things to surround us throughout the day.  The music we mindlessly sing along to during our morning and evening commutes to work, for example, if we analyzed it, we would likely find lacking in redeeming qualities,  It often doesn’t match up with how we live our lives, or the people and ideas we hold dear.

Now of course, I’m certainly not going to say that you can’t ever enjoy some cheesy pop.  If I did, that would be both short-sighted and enormously hypocritical of me.  Not only does Britney Spears’ tune “Toxic” just so happen to be one of the best-crafted, catchy pop-dance songs ever written, but also because I do enjoy a good evening of singing pop karaoke from time to time, where I belt out songs by pop acts like Billy Idol, Weezer, and Lady Antebellum.

What’s important, it seems to me, is to recognize that you need to be consuming substantial entertainment, not just living on processed cheese.  If you supplement your entertainment diet with great works of music, film, art, literature, and so on, to counterbalance the easily disposable stuff, you will be better off.  You don’t have to give up the easy stuff altogether.  Just be sure to go for the real stuff, as well.

Detail of "Still Life with Cherries and Cheese" by Joseph Plepp (1632) The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

Detail of “Still Life with Cherries and Cheese” by Joseph Plepp (1632)
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg