Book Break: Technopoly

Now for something completely different: I haven’t been writing nearly enough and am way behind on books I’ve read and would like to share. Most of the books I share are fiction, spiritual, or both. Technopoly by Neil Postman is neither.

This book came to me as an unexpected Christmas gift from our son Brendan’s friend Nick, who was his roommate at University of Mary and is now a seminarian for the Diocese of Milwaukee. Brendan has always been a curmudgeon and skeptic regarding technology; Nick, not so much, until he started reading more deeply on the subject. Then, he started spreading the word, including by giving our family a lightly used paperback copy of Technopoly.

One of the concepts that intrigued me as a young anthropology major was the idea that, at a certain point, our ancestors began to compete technologically rather than biologically, meaning that, at a certain point, our ancestors crossed a threshhold and were no longer strictly beholden to their biology to survive—the fittest was not necessarily the fastest or strongest hominid, but may be the cleverest one, with the best tools.

I’m certain that, soon afterward, our ancestors saw another defining characteristic of our species: Our solutions to problems often cause other, unforeseen problems. Indeed we can see this in the anthropological record, with evidence of hominids using “tools” to club each other to death beginning nearly half a million years ago.

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Extended Book Break: The Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis

I was blessed, on my trip to Michigan and back in the past few weeks, to listen to The Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis in its entirety. The version available on Audible, narrated by Geoffrey Howard, is approximately 24 hours of continuous listening, and worth every minute. The three books of The Space Trilogy were certainly inspired by classic science fiction of the last century, but combine these influences with fantasy, mythology, horror and Christian theology.

  • The first book, Out of the Silent Planet, is the most sci-fi of the three, delving into interplanetary space flight and exploration, extraterrestrial life-forms and more. A British linguist named Ransom is shanghaied onto a spaceship bound for a nearby planet known by its native inhabitants as Malacandra. He escapes his captors to discover multiple rational animals with very different appearances, skills and abilities, and cultures, who nevertheless live together in good-humored and mutually beneficial peace. Slowly Ransom abandons his earthly notions of power, control, and desire and strives to help the natives against the other Earthlings who seek to exploit them.
  • The second book, Perelandra, is a science-fantasy tale also involving interplanetary travel and extraterrestrial life to frame a retelling of the temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden. Ransom agrees to travel to the planet Perelandra on an urgent mission, but with no idea what that mission is. He encounters a lone humanoid woman who lives in harmony with the world and creatures around her and is searching for her man. An old adversary arrives from Earth to tempt the woman into disobeying the higher powers she knows on Perelandra, and Ransom must again fight against his fellow man as well as demonic activity to save a pristine world from importing Earth’s sin.
  • The final book, That Hideous Strength, is as long as the first two books combined and takes place entirely on Earth, specifically, in England. It continues Ransom’s tale in a story combining dystopian fiction, Arthurian legend and horror to critique materialism, modernism, politics, education and contemporary ideas of gender and marriage. It follows a young sociologist striving to get ahead in his career by joining a new and increasingly powerful national scientific insitute, while his wife, who is struggling with bad dreams that appear to predict the future, falls in with a small band of local resistance led by an eccentric old linguist who is rumored to be contact with powerful extraterrestrials who are pure spirit and are preparing for a final battle over the fate of the Earth.
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Last Call: A Christmas Dialogue

This year’s Christmas poem is a conversation and a modest attempt at Shakespearean style. The inspiration popped into my head several weeks ago: an imagined meeting of the World, the Flesh and the Devil, who are sharing a pint of “Christmas cheer” at the end of a seemingly successful year of sowing strife and division. The line that came first to mind was from the Flesh: “The spirit is weak, and the flesh is always willing.”—which survives in a modified form.

For whatever reason, I remain taken with the idea of Satan struggling to accept that he has been defeated by an Infant and His Mother. A few sparks from literature and pop culture also came to mind, for example, C.S. Lewis’s “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” Scrooge’s promise at the end of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol to discuss Bob Cratchit’s situation “over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop,” and the exchange between Captain Jack Sparrow and Gibbs in the Tortuga tavern in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

It may be easier to print and read in this format. Apologies to the Bard—I hope a few of you enjoy it. Merry Christmas!

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Scene: A dark corner of a noisy tavern, lit by melted candle stubs and a large, crackling fire. A table with three chairs and three tankards. Two figures are seated: the World, slight, anxious and in constant motion; the Flesh, immense and languid, with eyes that rove around the room. A third figure, the Devil, well-dressed with a commanding bearing, approaches, and the first two rise.

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Be Present to the Present

Note: This post also appears in the St. Michael and St. Albert bulletins this weekend.

Last weekend I visited my parents in Michigan. It’s a 12-hour drive; my sister and I spent two days helping to sort through and organize 50 years of accumulation in their basement—then I drove 12 hours back home. It was a good weekend, in large part because I mostly avoided my phone and computer to focus on where I was, what I was doing and—most importantly—who I was with.

That is no small thing for me, because I slip easily into thinking about tomorrow, next week, the future. I am a planner by nature and struggle with uncertainty, but providentially, I listened to a wonderful audio version of C.S. Lewis’s book The Screwtape Letters on the way to my folks’ place. The book is presented as a series of letters written by a senior demon named Screwtape, who is offering advice to his nephew, a junior tempter trying to lure one particular human soul to Hell.

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Never Just a Number

Note: This post appeared in the St. Michael Catholic Church bulletin for Sunday, October 18, 2020.

In case you haven’t notice, election season is in full swing. Pollsters, pundits and politicians are slicing and dicing the American people to predict what is likely to happening on Election Day and afterward. Republicans versus Democrats. Liberals versus conservatives. We are counted and calculated by culture, color and creed—to what end?

My son’s theology teacher recently gave me a copy of a book I’ve meant to read for years now: Society and Sanity by Frank Sheed. I started it last night, and for a book written in the 1950s, its relevance even in the first few pages is staggering. Sheed opens his book by making a simple and eloquent case: In order to create a society in which we humans can live together in peace, happiness and freedom, we must know what it means to be human.

We need a clear understanding of what we are and why we are before we can clearly conceive of our happiness and how to achieve it.

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