Friday, April 21, 2017

Book Review: Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week by Benedict XVI

Jesus of Nazareth Part II: Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection by Benedict XVI

Benedict continues his deep analysis of the Gospel texts to understand who Jesus is and what faith in Him brings about for believers. This book follows Jesus from His Palm Sunday entrance into the holy city of Jerusalem through the resurrection with an epilogue about His ascension. Naturally, other relevant texts from the Old Testament and the New Testament are referenced and explained in light of Jesus's passion, death, and resurrection. The songs of the Suffering Servant from Isaiah and a surprising number of the Psalms have fuller and deeper meaning. The book is steeped in Holy Scripture.

The book is also very aware of recent scholarship about Jesus. Benedict frequently references the work of the historical-critical method without going into depth about the method. Rather, he uses their work to investigate who Jesus is and what faith in Him brings about for believers (i.e., Benedict sticks to his purpose!). Benedict has an awareness of academics and often references their work, not to engage in controversies, but to grow in understanding. He also references the Church Fathers and the great theologians from history such as Saint Augustine of Hippo and Saint Thomas Aquinas. The book never bogs down in scholarly conundrums or technical details.

Benedict stays focused on certain details and often admits that more can be said about the events and details than he presents. Such a claim is amazing considering the depth and originality of his own analysis. Consider his discussion of Jesus's trial with Pilate, where John quotes the crowd as demanding Jesus's death and saying that His blood will be upon them and their children. Historically, this text is used to justify anti-Semitic violence and hatred, a fact Benedict acknowledges. But he goes deeper and says that "the Christian will remember that Jesus' blood speaks a different language from the blood of Abel (Heb 12:24): it does not cry out for vengeance and punishment; it brings reconciliation. It is not poured out against anyone; it is poured out for many, for all." [p. 187, emphasis in original] The crowd is just as worthy as anyone else to be redeemed by His blood, even if they did not immediately intend it. Benedict also says the crowd was probably full of Barabbas supporters waiting for the moment when they could get their condemned man out of trouble by taking advantage of Pilate's Passover amnesty. The crowd certainly didn't represent the Jewish people as a whole. Benedict does go into detail when discussing events and issues when he deems it appropriate. Naturally Jesus's death and resurrection are so fundamental to Christian history and faith that endless details and meanings can be brought out of them.

This book is a wonderful presentation of Jesus in the definitive moments of His mission for us, that is, to reconcile mankind to the Father and to open up a greater intimacy between God and His creatures. Readers will find much to inform and inspire them to strive for that intimacy through greater knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Chester Springs Creamery/Milky Way Farm

On our Easter break trip to Pennsylvania, we visited the Chester Springs Creamery and Milky Way Farm. We arrived in the early evening (around 6:30 p.m.) and the place was full of people. The weather was warm enough for ice cream but not so hot as to make the outdoors uncomfortable (either through temperature or insects).

View from the parking lot

Farm buildings

The back of one of the buildings

We decided to visit the animals first before trying out the ice cream parlor. The farm has a lot of the standard animals--sheep and goats and pigs and, of course, cows.

A wise-looking goat

Recently-shorn sheep?

"I'm ready for my close up!"

Pigs also lying down on the job

Baby animals hanging out together

Cow-nga line?

Ready for milking?

The creamery was the highlight of our visit. They make their own ice cream on the farm from their cows' milk, so it is the freshest of the fresh.

Exterior of the ice cream parlor

Milky Way memorabilia

We lucked out and managed to get in line when it wasn't too long. Four or five stations were serving customers, so the line moved quickly. The cones are sold by weight, so the more flavors you ask for, the more you will pay!

A long line for ice cream

The ice creams are all named after cows. I had Bea's Banana Chocolate Chunk, which was very yummy and creamy. Happily I had a cold so I couldn't share with anyone!

Bea's Banana Chocolate Chunk

A window lets visitors see where they create delicious ice cream. We were there on Sunday so no one was working. We may have to go back...

Where the magic happens!

The shop also has a book rack with kids' books. My sons took advantage while the adults took their time enjoying the delicious ice cream.

Reading at the creamery

The Chester Springs Creamery is well worth a visit. They offer tours and a summer camp, among other educational opportunities, so it's a great place well worth supporting.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Movie Review: The Fog (1980)

The Fog (1980) co-written and directed by John Carpenter

California coastal town Antonio Bay is celebrating its 100th anniversary. Back in 1880, the founders were able to set up thanks to some gold from a ship that wrecked in a heavy fog. The tale is told by a crusty old guy to a bunch of pre-teen boys at a midnight campfire, setting up the story and the ominous atmosphere. The night before the celebration, a lot of weird, paranormal things happen in town, including the disappearance of one of the town's fishing boats. Viewers see the fate of the boat---a vicious attack by mysterious figures in a glowing fog, so we know not everyone is celebrating. The local priest discovers a journal written by his grandfather (who was the priest back in 1880, so maybe they're Anglican?) which reveals the truth about the shipwreck. The owner of the boat was a wealth leper named Blake who wanted to form a leper colony at Antonio Bay. The locals were unhappy about the plan and used a shoreline campfire to fool the boat into crashing on the rocks. They then recovered Blake's gold from the wreckage and founded their own town. Clearly, Blake and his fellow lepers are back for vengeance.

The set up of the movie is very interesting and makes for a good spooky story. The visuals are effective and Carpenter's music score still creates tension even though it sounds rather dated today. Somewhere around half way through the film, random and non-sensical things start to happen to the characters. There are jump scares that don't make sense and a lot of random menacing fog (which looks good but not good enough to carry the film). About three-quarters of the way through I realized the filmmakers were just throwing in scares to be scary regardless of continuity. The film lost all of its emotional and narrative punch and wound up being very disappointing.

Not recommended, even for Carpenter fans.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Book Review: Fairy Tail Vol. 6 by Hiro Mashima

Fairy Tail Volume 6 by Hiro Mashima

The big conflict between Gray and Lyon is resolved along with the defeat of the no-longer-ice-encased demon Deliora. Even all that action and excitement still doesn't resolve the Galuna Islanders' problem of turning into demons at night. So the Fairy Tail team winds up trying to destroy the moon anyway! The end of the story does feel a little bit like the writer coming up with anything to get out of the corner into which he'd painted himself, though the time-controlling magic guy is an interesting development. Erza brings back the Fairy Tail wizards, expecting some intense punishment from Master Makarov for going AWOL. When they return to the city of Magnolia, they discover the guild hall has been attacked by the Phantom Lord Guild, leading right into a new big battle. The wayward wizards get off with minimal punishment as they prepare to go to war with Phantom Lord.

This volume again mirrors the anime series, except that two filler episodes (one fun Twilight Zone episode and another with Happy's backstory) are not represented. The manga came first, so the bonus episodes are extra material. The manga does have the usual supplemental material (fan art, explanations of in-jokes and cultural references, and a preview of Volume 7).

Monday, April 17, 2017

Baking Biscuits

More Great British Baking Show inspired goodness! The toddler and the daughter were drafted into biscuit-making duties. To be clear, these were American-style biscuits, the sort served like dinner rolls (though just as often served at breakfast as at dinner), not British-style biscuits, the sort served for dessert (like Americans cookies).

Master chefs

We used a recipe from BakeWise by Shirley O. Corriher, which necessitated the use of special flour. Like we don't already have enough "special flours."

A sampling from our cabinet

Mixing up the dough was easy enough. Flour, salt, and sugar are easy to combine with a whisk or spoon.

Sister stirring up something other than trouble!

The method calls from some "hands-on" activity--mixing in the shortening by hand.

Four hands makes it go four times as fast, right?

Cream and buttermilk are added until the dough has the consistency and look of cottage cheese.

Just right

The dough is then divided into balls and coated with some flour. They are put next to each other in the final baking pan so that the biscuits will rise up rather than out.

Ready for baking?

The recipe recommends buttering them while they are hot, which we gladly did.

More butter!

Carefully brushing on with a hand method

The biscuits did come out as a big mass of biscuity goodness. When we went to separate them, it was all too easy. And all too tasty!

Easy separation!

A happy cook!

In case you want to get the book (which we highly recommend), here's the Amazon link!

Friday, April 14, 2017

Movie Review: Of Gods and Men (2011)

Of Gods and Men (2011) co-written and directed by Xavier Beauvois

Eight French monks live a contented and contemplative life in a remote African village. They pray and work to support themselves, producing food both to eat and to sell at the local market. Brother Luc is a doctor who gives physical and spiritual aid to the local population, who seem to be entirely Muslim. The relations between the monks and the villagers is congenial--the monks move freely throughout the village, participate in celebrations, and chat with the locals. The line at the monastery for the clinic is always long. Local Islamic terrorist activity threatens the village and the monastery. The monks have to decide whether they will stay in the face of possible martyrdom by the Islamic xenophobes or leave the village in search of a safer life.

The drama of the story is that decision. The monks live in community, meaning decisions are often made by voting. Personal differences and preferences make unanimity hard. The local government offers protection, but will the military be a help or a hinderance to the work of the monastery? Jesus has called us to love both friends and enemies, something both hard and dangerous. The terrorists come to the monastery on Christmas eve to take the doctor to their wounded soldiers an hour away. Brother Christian (the head monk) refuses, causing a tense moment and, later, a hard discussion for the monks.

The depiction of the monks' life is beautiful. The balance between work and prayer is shown throughout. They live in simplicity and modesty. They suffer from human frailty and do their best to support one another. They serve each other and the locals with humility and grace.

The film is a quiet but powerful masterpiece.

As often is the case with excellent films, Scott and Julie at A Good Story is Hard to Find Podcast discussed this film on episode 58 back in 2013.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Book Review: The King's Good Servant But God's First by James Monti

The King's Good Servant But God's First: The Life and Writings of Saint Thomas More by James Monti

This biography of Saint Thomas More tells his life story using his writings and many of the early biographies, along with the most recent scholarship (the book was publish in 1997, so "most recent" is relative). The book covers everything from birth to death, along with some comments about More's historical impact in an epilogue. The author focuses on More's own writings, examining them in detail.

The historical parts of this book are quite interesting and give a detailed look at Thomas More's life. His early life and his exploration of a possible vocation as a Carthusian monk were new and very interesting to me. His rise in English government, all the way to Lord Chancellor under Henry VIII, is presented in a scholarly and interesting way. More's final years, when he was one of the few high ranking Englishmen to refuse the Oath of Supremacy (acknowledging Henry as the supreme head of the Catholic Church in England), is covered in fascinating detail. His trial and death for treason against the king have an even greater depth than as seen in A Man for All Seasons.

A good third of the book's approximately 450 pages goes through More's writings against the English Protestant thinkers of his time. Reading through an analysis of tract after tract of arguments defending the Catholic faith in amazing detail becomes a bit daunting. While the discussion fills in details of More's life and his character, it is dry and less engaging than the more historical parts of the book. I wish I had skimmed more.

As one might guess from such a deep excursion into More's theological writings, the book is unabashedly Catholic in its admiration of More. He certainly is a model Christian--humble, pious, generous, humorous, and intelligent. His wit shines throughout his life and his final days were filled with prayers that his friends and family and even his persecutors might meet again in Heaven "where we shall be merry for ever and ever." [p. 457, quoted from Roper's The Lyfe of Sir Thomas Moore, Knighte). More's embodiment of both intelligence and happiness is highly admirable. He had such a disposition because of his deep devotion, his profound faith. His love of Christ, especially in the Eucharist, gave him a more profound understanding of the importance of things in life. He kept his silence about why he wouldn't take the Oath in hopes that he would evade martyrdom but trusted that, if it came to that end, he would be given the grace to die a good death. That he certainly did.

I'd recommend the book with a strong caveat about the large amounts of literary and theological analysis that can slow things down.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Book Review: Brendan and Erc in Exile Vol. 1 by Amadeus

Brendan and Erc in Exile Volume 1: The Truth is Out There written and illustrated by Amadeus

Brendan is plagued by disturbing dreams where he attempts to ascend a mountain and capture butterflies. He goes for coffee with his friend Erc to discuss the meaning of life. A random stranger overhears them and convinces them that they have immortal souls that will only be satisfied by pursuing knowledge and virtue. Erc is a down-to-earth hedonist and is not so interested in that sort of happiness. An intellectual/virtuous life doesn't look like fun, especially when compared to eating junk food and drinking beer. But Brendan and Erc are on a new path which takes them quite far. Brendan and Erc work as interplanetary mailmen so they have some interesting experiences along the way. They meet new people and grapple with new ideas.

Plato is famous for writing dialogues where two or more characters discuss ideas in a quest for truth. This book reads just like one of those dialogues, framing philosophical and theological quandaries in a personal context. The dialogue format, especially in comic book form, makes the ideas more concrete and more relatable for the readers. For example, they discuss how the soul is related to the body by using a robot metaphor. Having the metaphor displayed visually as well as verbally helps to communicate the idea and gives it more persuasive power. As with most dialogues, the plot is minimal and tailor-made to support the arguments made. The plot in this book is good enough to keep  readers engaged even while occasionally being contrived.

The book is a great introduction to or review of basic philosophical and theological ideas for teens and adults. Highly recommended!

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

BSA Field Trip to Robinson Nature Center

My son's Bear Scout den had an outing to the Robinson Nature Center in Howard County, Maryland. The center runs a program specifically to meet the requirements of the Bears' Fur, Feathers, and Ferns belt loop. The program included classroom activities as well as outdoor exploration and information. We arrived a little bit early and had time to play on some of the indoor exhibits.

Indoor temporary exhibit (not very exciting)

My daughter tagged along since she loves nature and outdoor activities. We started with indoor stuff, including discussions of various animals that live in Maryland and how to identify their presence. Animals leave behind their bodies when they die, which means pelts can be recovered if found early enough. Bones can be found later. One activity had the scouts matching skulls to pelts.

Skull and pelt matching

Other evidence animals leave behind are footprints, sheddables like snake skins or bird feathers, and scat. Our guide said that "scat" is the scientific term for "poop," which actually didn't get as big a laugh as you would imagine with a group of eight- and nine-year old boys. The guide had some plaster molds of animal footprints as well as plastic samples of animal scat. The boys had fun trying to guess which scat came from which animal.

Deer vertebra, molds of paw prints, "scat," and snake skins

We also discussed various causes of extinction of species and several species that have gone extinct (some of which have been rediscovered!). The program then moved outside for a hike with lots of interesting information.

Finding a tree with some unfallen leaves in April!

The center provided clipboards with the various belt loop requirements on it. One requirement is to examine a leaf with a magnifying glass. My son dutifully looked at a leaf to see its details. Later in the hike, we saw some holly leaves that have a waxy surface to keep in the moisture.

Examining a leaf

The guide also had us look closely at the bark of various trees, examining the shape, color, and texture to help identify the tree.

My daughter gives a tree an up-close examination

We kept our eyes peeled for animal tracks as well. We did find some deer tracks in the mud (a good spot to find them) along the trail and what appeared to be a possum track by the stream.

Everyone check out the deer track!

Toes are wide, meaning the deer was probably running

Down by the river

Hard to spot animal track

White oaks are famous for their acorns, some of which we found near these four trees.

Maryland White Oaks

A nearby downed log was home to a very different sort of organism--some mushrooms were growing on it. The guide explained that fungus is so different from plant and animal life that it is classified as a third type of living organism. This corn-colored and -shaped fungus was not good looking enough to tempt anyone to try it. That's just as well, since we weren't allowed to disturb it anyway!

Corn fungus?

Along the trail we spotted several large shelters. The boys asked and found out that during some of the summer programs visitors build small shelters in the woods! The shelters were far off the trail so we did not get to investigate them.

A human shelter

Another shelter

The nature center seen from the woods

We walked further down the stream and discovered evidence of a beaver. He or she had eaten down a tree! The tree was still there, so the guide said the beaver was probably eating the tree as food rather than getting supplies for a dam or lodge.

Evidence of beavers

The trail also provided evidence of humans from long ago (but not too long ago). Some square- and rectangular-cut stones were piled on both sides of the creek, indicating a dam. The path also has the ruins of a mill run. Two hundred years ago the locals diverted some of the water from the stream to power a mill some distance from the stream.

Blockish rocks on the other side of the stream

The start of the mill run

More mill run

We finished our tour by looking at various ways of composting. In addition to composting the grass from various meadows, the center composts leftover food and even oyster shells! The shells are collected from individuals and restaurants and then returned to the nearby Chesapeake Bay. Oysters are a natural filter for the water but have had a diminishing population. Putting the shells in the bay (probably where they came from in the first place) enables new oysters to have an easy time finding a place to grow.

Of course, the smell of the composting isn't particularly nice, so we didn't stay too long.

Composting demo 

We had a little more classroom time at the end and then went on our way. The last thing the boys received were seeds to grow a garden at home. The guide had two types of seeds, lettuce and cantaloupe. Even though my daughter and son weren't sitting anywhere near each other, they managed to both get cantaloupe seeds. Perhaps there will be a future blog post on those if we successfully grown them!