A few weeks ago, I attended a day-long training to become a home visitor for our local conference of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. The most compelling part of the training was the section on what poverty looks like, from the perspective of the person living through it. This segment of the training was led by a man who was born and raised in some of the roughest areas of Chicago and Minneapolis, who was hired by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul as a teen and loved and accompanied for years, through numerous trials and triumphs. Today he is a college-educated husband and father, a successful manager and talented speaker on the state and national level, and a Vincentian for life.
The training was thought-provoking and convicting; it, along with learning more about my own ancestors’ struggles with poverty before I was born, led me to want to dig deeper—which in turn led me to another unread book on my shelf: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair.
Sinclair was an influential muckraking journalist, author, activist, and political candidate at the turn of the 20th century. The Jungle is his fictional but detailed and realistic account of power, corruption, and poverty during this time, particularly in the stockyard district of Chicago. The book follows one immigrant family from Lithuania, who moves to America on the promise of plentiful work for good wages, and finds a corrupt system of capitalists and politicians of every stripe, at every level, keeping prices high and wages low, controlling everything from housing and food supplies in the neighboring slums to law enforcement, inspections, and elections—and driving workers to desperate measures to avoid death by illness, exposure, or starvation.
In 2016, I was blessed to travel with my son Gabe and STMA Catholic Youth Ministry to World Youth Day in Kraków, Poland. Southern Poland is a wonderful place for a Catholic pilgrimage; so many ancient and modern saints lived and died in so small a region that every day it seemed we visited another sacred site in another blessed city. The big three, of course, were 20th century saints: St. John Paul II, St. Faustina Kowalska, and St. Maximilian Kolbe.
In the case of St. Maximilian Kolbe, we were blessed to visit his religious community at Niepokalanów as well as the concentration camp where he gave his life at Oswiecim (Auschwitz). I say blessed truly, but not in the typical sense of the word. On a sunny summer day, Auschwitz is still and green and peaceful as an cemetery, but still more somber and hushed; the fences, ruins, and the dreadful sign above the gate, “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Will Free You), bear silent witness to the cruelty of which humanity is capable.
As we left the camp, we passed a small booth selling items commemorating the place—most prominently, a book entitled Hope Is the Last to Die by Halina Birenbaum. Born Halina Grynsztajn to a Jewish family in Warsaw, she survived the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto during Nazi occupation, followed by four prison camps in succession: Majdanek and Auschwitz in Poland, and Ravensbrück, and Neustadt-Glewe in Germany.
I bought the book, as the most appropriate way to recall the place and what happened there. I finally found the courage to read it this Lent.
Growing up, many of my heroes were “the strong, silent type”—men of few words and decisive, often violent, action, who always knew the right thing to do and had the ability to carry it out. Small, bookish, and emotional, I admired men like that, even though I was not that type myself.
Since I didn’t grow up in the Church, I knew only a few Bible stories. The heroes of those stories seemed larger than life—even the shepherd boy, David, who slew Goliath, has already been chosen by God, anointed by Samuel, and filled with the Spirit of the Lord before he ever took the field against the Philistine.
I knew the story of the birth of Jesus, but I didn’t think of Joseph as a hero.
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.
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.