Recently I spent five wonderful days in the diocese of Leeds in the Yorkshire district of England. I was the guest of Bishop Arthur Roach, who had invited me to give a series of talks to his priests and lay leadership. While I was in the area, I was taken to see two of the greatest of the English cathedrals, Durham and York, and I was duly impressed by their stateliness and spiritual power. But the York and Durham Cathedrals were not the most beautiful things that I saw on my journey. Bishop Roach took me to the far more modest cathedral of Leeds, led me to the main altar and then invited me to examine a treasure.
These past several weeks, I’ve had to take a number of plane trips, and this meant I’ve had a fair amount of time for reading. I managed to get through a lengthy book that I had been eager to read: Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution by Alister McGrath. Dr. McGrath is a professor of theology at Oxford University and one of the most prolific authors on the religious scene today. His latest book is a very readable exploration of the history of the Protestant movement from its origins in the sixteenth century to the present day, as well as a study of the major themes of Protestant thought and practice. In the course of his text, we find rich discussions of Martin Luther’s master idea of justification by grace through faith, and of John Calvin’s doctrine of double predestination, and of the general Protestant option for the primacy of the Word of God. But the issue to which McGrath returns again and again, almost obsessively, is that of authority. Who, for Protestants, finally has the authority to offer the correct interpretation of the Bible?
A wise professor of mine, Msgr. Robert Sokolowski, once commented that, with the rise of Protestantism and modernity, an integrated Catholicism blew up and its twisted pieces now litter the contemporary intellectual landscape. As I survey today’s cultural scene, I often think of Sokolowski’s observation: one can see Catholicism everywhere, but often in odd and distorted form. A very clear instantiation of this principle is Roland Emmerich’s new film “2012.” The movie’s premise is that massive sun bursts have led to the overheating of the earth’s core, resulting in major earthquakes, catastrophic eruptions, and continent-shifting tectonic shifts: in short, the end of civilization as we know it. A small group of scientists and politicians, who knew of the coming disaster, have organized a rescue operation—a flotilla of “arks”—so that a remnant of humanity, high culture, and the animal kingdom might be preserved. As the movie unfolds, we see the world implode, while a plucky family tries to make its way to the boats.
In the course of my ministry as a teacher, lecturer, and retreat master, I hear, perhaps more than any other question, the following: “how do I know what God wants?” Put in more formal theological language, this is the question concerning the discernment of God’s will. Many people who pose it tell me that they envy the Biblical heroes—Moses, Jeremiah, Jacob, David, etc.—who seem to have received direct and unambiguous communication from God. I usually remind them that even those great Scriptural figures wrestled mightily with the same issue. And then typically I draw their attention to Job, the person in the biblical tradition who anguished most painfully over the matter of discerning what in the world God is doing.
You’d have to be living under a rock not to have noticed the prevalence of vampires in today’s culture. One of the most popular television shows in recent years was “Buffy the Vampire Slayer;” Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles continue to be widely read; HBO is currently running a series about vampires called “True Blood;” Wesley Snipes starred in a trilogy of vampire films called Blade; and one of the most successful movies of late is “Twilight,” the story of teen mortals and teen vampires in love. How do we explain the seemingly endless fascination with the undead?