God and the Double BBQ Sandwich

God and the Double BBQ SandwichIt is no secret that America is polarized. This is a fact that is manifested in so many different ways. Traveling down the highway to Chicago, for example, I came upon two successive billboards that I thought were striking examples of our divided culture.

The first billboard caught me by surprise: it consisted of an electrocardiogram of a heart that suddenly stops beating. The caption read: When you die, you will meet God.

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As we were passing through the snowy night, I was unable to catch more details of this billboard. I do not know who put it out or what I was expected to do. It really did not matter because for a brief moment I thought about what the Catholic Church calls the “Four Last Things” – Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. Think of these things, Scriptures says, and you will not be lost eternally. The simple phrase served to trigger in me a gentle yet fleeting reflection upon the meaning of life. I am sure I was not the only one to make this quick reflection.


The billboard is clearly polarizing since it is directed toward that strong vein inside the American public that is turned toward things religious, spiritual and eternal. It is a sector of the American public that lives amid the fast, superficial and materialistic aspects of our pop culture yet is not entirely comfortable with them. These Americans are drawn by God, family, honor and country. On the other hand, this billboard would not appeal to other Americans who would tend to disparage the message as backward and unenlightened.

BBQ_sandwichThe second billboard came immediately afterwards and struck me by how contrary it was to the former. It consisted of a massive BBQ sandwich with the caption: Happiness is a double BBQ sandwich.

There is nothing wrong with a double BBQ sandwich or even deriving pleasure from eating one. However, the message behind this billboard is clearly materialistic yet more subtly polarizing. There is no invitation to profound reflection. Rather there is the quick insinuation that happiness can be easily bought by obtaining the immediate object of our desires. In this case, gratification equals happiness. According to the same logic, life should be a long succession of gratifications.

This billboard represents a second, more commercial, vein found in America that I call in the book, Return to Order, the perception of the nation as a co-op. This perspective holds that individuals unite themselves together in society as a means to facilitate each one’s inebriating pursuit of happiness.

How Do We Return to OrderUnder this view, an appreciation of America is tied to its ability to make everything fun and everyone happy. Like a co-op, those who hold this position expect returns on their social union in the form of constant and instant gratification. Happiness consists of participating in the excitement of a party economy that they hope will keep on going.

Of course, we cannot generalize and say that all Americans fit neatly into one category or the other. Sometimes the two can be found in differing proportions inside the same person. Other times, the same person might gravitate toward one or later the other. We might also observe collective swings of the national mood towards one or the other category.

As our crisis deepens, this fascinating interplay of perspectives, this dramatic clash of mentalities becomes the material for a great debate now taking place in America over our future. This discussion is found everywhere—even on highway billboards.

There are many categories that people have used to characterize the nation’s polarization. There is red and blue, conservative and liberal, or retro and metro. Perhaps it is the case to add yet another: God and the double BBQ sandwich.

 

Cobbler Shop Economics

cobblersI had just bought a pair of shoes at a large shoe outlet and within six months the heels were completely worn down. I lost the receipt and probably would have had a little trouble getting a new pair. So I decided to visit the local cobbler with the shoes and a piece of leather carry-on luggage with a broken latch. I only expected him to fix my things but I also came out with a lesson in economy.

The cobbler shop is just off the main street in a small Pennsylvania town nearby. It is an unassuming building where you can walk in from the sidewalk and the bells on the doors announce your arrival. The cobbler lives in semi-retirement upstairs. He is open on afternoons to any who need his services and to all his friends who just want to come around and talk.

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Upon entering, the first thing you see is a counter with an old-fashioned cash register and all sorts of leather products with an order known only to the cobbler himself. There is something warm and familiar about the whole scene, which is permeated by the smell of leather. On one side there are some shelves where you can buy a strange array of unclaimed items. Visible in the back is the workshop and stitching machines where the actual cobbling is done.

cobblerThe cobbler is an older gentleman with a round face who greets me with ease. We exchange some small talk and then enter into the business at hand. I present my shoes and he looks at them and delivers his diagnosis.

“Worn heels, I guess I could put a pair on for you,” he says. He takes out a small square of paper and writes my phone number on it, makes a hole in the paper and threads one of the shoe laces through it. He gives me no receipt to show that he has my shoes. I must trust him, and I do.

He looks at my carry-on with the broken latch. That proves a bit more difficult. He opens up a little cabinet and pulls out some latches. None of them will work. And so he ponders the situation for a while looking at it this way and that.

“Snaps,” he says pensively. “I could put on some snaps.” He shows me how he would attach them to the bag to make it easy to open. We discuss the matter and come to an agreement. I must return some time next week.

Leaving the cobbler shop, I thought a bit about what had just happened not from the point of view of foot ware but from the perspective of the economic studies I have long pursued.

Here was an example of economy without that frenetic intemperance that you find in so many parts of modern markets. There was nothing of that frenzied sense of immediacy where you must have everything right away, regardless of the consequence. I did not sense that machine-like treatment that makes so much of modern economy cold and impersonal, fast and frantic.

Instead, my visit had that human element that made the experience warm and personal. I was a valued customer not a number. He became my cobbler. I appreciated the trust that was the basis of our transaction, and which is so essential for any free market. Above all, there was a notion of honor. You could feel the sense of craftsmanship, quality and pride in his work. He would stand behind his work as he has for decades. He does not need to advertise since he lives off his good reputation.

Some might object that the cobbler is a figure from the past that has no role in modern economy. Today’s markets with their cheap goods have eliminated the need for such professions. When something breaks, just buy another one. There is no demand for cobblers anymore.

And yet I would disagree. At least in my area, people are looking for them. The old cobblers are dying off in the region and the unemployed new generations (anxious perhaps for more exciting careers) no longer want to commit to such a profession. I was told that my cobbler laments the fact that he can find no one to take his place in the face of obvious demand.

I am not suggesting that everyone should run their business like my cobbler. However, I am suggesting that we should return to an order where trust, honor and temperance can once again prevail.

In this sense, I cannot help but think of the economic good my cobbler has done by plying his trade. Without the cobbler, I would have been forced to buy another cheap seventy-dollar pair of shoes made in India and an expensive carry-on leather portfolio from who knows where. Instead, I spent some twenty dollars for the repairs…and the human experience. The whole affair had a calming effect upon me and the economy since it tempers that frenetic desire of buying without restraint or reflection that sooner or later leads to frenzied and failed markets.

That is what I learned from a visit to my cobbler and my accidental lesson in economy. If Subscription13there were more cobblers and fewer derivative traders, I believe the world would be a calmer and richer place.

 

The Technologically Backward and Cold Romans

The Technologically Backward and Cold RomansWe are conditioned to believe that the Roman Empire was technologically superior to the Middle Ages in every way. This was far from true. Daily life in the winter was miserable in Roman times for both slave and Caesar.

Rodney Stark explains that Roman buildings were horribly heated. They had no fireplaces, stoves, or furnaces since they had no way to get the smoke out of the buildings. More often than not, Roman peasants would start open fires inside and simply open a hole in the roof where the smoke went out and the rain, snow and cold came in. Urban Romans generally would not even have a hole as they preferred to let the smoke concentrate indoors. They avoided asphyxiation because their buildings were extremely drafty and their windows had no panes only hanging skins.

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The situation inside medieval houses was different. Stark explains that, “If the Caesars Subscription11huddled against the cold and endured the smoke coming from their kitchens, medieval Europeans – peasants as well as the nobility – soon learned to live much better. They invented the chimney and the fireplace, whereupon even roaring blazes did not smoke up the room. Nor was it any longer necessary to have drafty homes. With the smoke rising harmlessly up their chimneys, folks in the Dark Ages ate better-prepared food, breathed far better air, and were a lot warmer in winter” (Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, Random House, New York, 2005, p. 43).

The Mysteries of the Food You Eat

pretzel

“you’ve probably noticed that there’s something deeply wrong with the way much of our food is produced and processed”

If you’re an amateur cook like me, or just enjoy wholesome food, you’ve probably noticed that there’s something deeply wrong with the way much of our food is produced and processed.

In today’s mass consumer market, it’s easy to feel like a number when you ask simple questions about your food. The fact is that basic information such as where a product comes from, how it is made, and where the raw materials were sourced are mysteries not just to the consumer, but even to the general managers of many retail stores or restaurants.

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Why is this happening?

One factor is a growing abyss between producer and customer resulting from a frenetic drive to maximize profits. Another factor is a lack of moral responsibility. In today’s global market, mass standardized products are rarely suited to one’s individuality and the consumer is being increasingly forced to accept fewer options although packaging may be varied. And it’s no different in the food industry.

In his just released book, Return to Order: From a Frenzied Economy to an Organic Christian Society, author John Horvat explains that this frenetic drive is the result of an increasing desire in society to throw off all restraint, and to gratify disordered passions. He calls this phenomenon frenetic intemperance and demonstrates the myriad ways this vice affects society and throws our economy out of balance. And, although this approach to business can build huge fortunes it also has the capacity to bulldoze values and people which stand in its path.

I recently felt this frenetic bulldozing drive to maximize profits on my own skin.

While it may not be surprising to know that a SUBWAY sandwich could contain a combination of meats from several different countries, all sorts of chemicals,1 and that those “fresh” meats have been sitting in storage for many weeks,2 it should be surprising that high-end restaurant franchises are also progressively becoming outlets where it’s impossible to get answers about their food.

I experienced this with a colleague at a recent visit to The Cheese Cake Factory.

After having a $22 farmed-fish dish, I was curious about how and where their cheese cakes were made. As a well-dressed man walked by I asked him, “Do you work here?” “Yes,” was the answer. He was actually the general manager. I then asked him whether his cheese cakes were baked in a bain-marie (water bath).

“No,” he replied, “our cheese cakes are made in a factory, either in South Carolina or California and are shipped frozen.

“I understand sir,” I answered, “but a bain-marie is actually a water bath which makes what’s baked have a creamier texture.”

“No, they’re baked in an oven,” he said.

“Of course they are,” I rejoined. “A bain-marie alone cannot bake a cake, but if you use a bain-marie while baking the cheese cake, its texture becomes creamier.”

“Ah OK, I didn’t know,” was his reply. “I’m not sure but I don’t think so.”

Just fifty years ago, this would have been an unlikely exchange with the general manager of any restaurant. Worse yet, I had this same conversation with a different manager five minutes later. And, although he had heard of a bain-marie, he did not know the method employed to make his cheese cakes.

Upon arriving home, I was determined to get an answer to my question. But, nowhere could I find anything on The Cheese Cake Factory’s web site about how their cheese cakes are made.

What I did find, however, was even more surprising: They claim to make their menu items fresh from scratch daily – the opposite from what the general manager claimed.

The website reads: “We prepare our menu items from scratch daily at our restaurants using high quality, fresh ingredients.” And cheese cake is the signature item on the menu – of course.

So I decided to write a letter explaining my experience and asking for answers. But, not before running into another road block.

Before allowing anyone to leave a simple comment The Cheese Cake Factory requires all customers to submit:

1.Full name
2. Complete residential address
3. E-mail address
4. Phone number
5. Date of visit
6. Time of visit
7. Location visited

It’s now been weeks and I’ve heard nothing in response.*

This experience was my eureka moment confirming just one of Mr. Horvat’s theses in his groundbreaking work Return to Order.

In a real consumer-driven market, the consumers’ needs are of primary concern. On the contrary, in a market possessed by frenetic intemperance the drive to maximize profits issues forth a feverish war to expand production and profits, thereby making mass standardization a necessity. If the customer wants to know something beyond the producer’s standardized straitjacket formulae, he may find himself bulldozed under.

* Below is my letter to The Cheese Cake Factory:
Dear Sir/Maam:

I asked both your managers (Arlington, Va.) whether you bake your cheese cakes in a bain-marie (water bath). Neither knew how to answer this elementary question, the general manager not even knowing what a bain-marie was (forcing me to ask the question three times).

They strongly believed the cheese cakes were not made with a bain-marie, but what they did know is that they are made in a factory off site in another state altogether. I found nothing on your web site about how the cakes are baked but I did find this:

“We prepare our menu items from scratch daily at our restaurants using high quality, fresh ingredients.” Perhaps a little disingenuous?

This contradiction is a profound expression of the growing separation of the producer from the consumer; nay, the growing separation of the producer from even the producer. Your managers didn’t even know what process was used to bake your banner product: cheese cake.

The rule of money over the rule of honor? I’m quite sure I know the answer to what your managers didn’t know. I just don’t know why you would say “your menu items are prepared from scratch daily” when it’s not true.

The floor is yours…

1 http://www.subway.com/Nutrition/Files/usProdIngredients.pdf

2 (Thailand, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Germany, Holland, Denmark or the UK) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/foodanddrinknews/7386214/Fast-food-chicken-arrives-frozen-on-the-slow-boat.html

Are People Happier Today?

bum-man-lazySociologist Robert Putnam claims young people today are much less content than in times past. In fact, younger people now tend to be sadder than older people. He writes:



“Over these same years … general contentment with life declined among people under fifty-five, while increasing modestly among people over that
age. Surveys in the 1940’s and 1950’s had found that younger people were happier than older people. By 1975 age and happiness were essentially uncorrelated. By 1999, however, younger people were unhappier than older people. The bottom line: a widening generation gap in malaise and unhappiness. … The younger you are, the worse things have gotten over the last decades of the twentieth century in terms of headaches, indigestion, sleeplessness, as well as general satisfaction with life and even likelihood of taking your own life.”

(Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2000, p. 263)

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Praise for Return to Order — Lt. Gen. Benjamin R. Mixon USA (Ret.)

Lt_Gen_Benjamin_R_Mixon_as_USAPACCOM_CO copy“This is a timely and important book as our nation faces one of the most critical challenges in its history. Overcoming the economic disaster America is facing cannot be solved simply through economic policy. Americans and their leaders must put in place policy that will restore values, work ethics, and, as the author points out so well, honor. As a career military officer, honor was the most important attribute to me and my fellow soldiers. Restoring honor to our economic landscape will put the nation on the path to recovery.”

—  Lt. Gen. Benjamin R. Mixon USA (Ret.)
Former Commanding General, United States Army Pacific

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American Intemperance in the Twentieth Century: The Installment Plan and the Making of the American Consumer

In his book, Return to Order, author John Horvat described a spirit of unrestraint that dominated culture and economy, which he called frenetic intemperance. The following article is part of a series of articles written by history teacher Edwin Benson that explains some stages by which America adopted this spirit of frenetic intemperance and its consequence in society. This article deals with the making of the American consumer, especially with the introduction of the installment plan.

Herbert Hoover, three-quarter length portrait, seated, facing slightly right, listening to radio.

“Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover said that there would be no more poverty.”

Human beings make economic decisions constantly. Where do we live? What do we do for a living? What time do we awaken? What do we drive? What do we eat? Where do we visit? What are our leisure time activities? What television shows (if any) do we watch? Do we scan through the commercials, watch them, or get up to make a sandwich? All of these, and literally hundreds of other times each day, we make decisions motivated–at least in part–by economics.

With that in mind, it should surprise no one that a fertile ground for frenetic intemperance is the economic structure of our daily lives.

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At the beginning of the twentieth century, a massive change was beginning to take place in the economic life of the average American. Prior to 1920, the majority of Americans lived in areas designated by the Census Department to be rural.[1] Of those, it is safe to say that the vast majority made their living in some sort of agriculture.[2]

That single change to more urban living created several other changes. One of the most significant changes was the fact that most Americans by 1920 had a regular income that could be largely determined in advance. To say that a farmer’s income was uncertain is an exercise in understatement. Weather and economic conditions, far beyond the farmer’s control, could make any given year one of prosperity or disaster. In comparison, the wages of a factory worker were relatively reliable. They were set in advance, and actual payment was made on a weekly, bi-weekly or monthly basis. Under normal circumstances, the wage laborer could determine monthly income with a fair degree of accuracy.

This, in turn, caused a massive change in the way that income was spent. Even in a good year, the farmer needed to save whatever amount was possible because next year could be worse. The city dweller was far more likely to spend income in excess of needs because of the ability to count on more coming in the future. Sometimes, of course, a disaster could change that picture–but it usually did not.

This change happened gradually. Those raised with a rural sense of thrift were slow to abandon the teachings of childhood, even if they did migrate to some city or town. However, the temptations were many. The well-thumbed Sears, Roebuck Catalogue–itself a revolution in retailing–gave way to department stores where products could be seen, touched, and compared to other similar products. Electricity, indoor plumbing, and central heat, unavailable on most turn of the century farms, were commonplace in cities. The automobile offered both farmers and wage-earners mobility beyond their childhood dreams.


Still, the temperate habits of childhood died hard.

To motivate people to buy, another retailing revolution would need to take place. The unlikely revolutionary was the president of General Motors, Alfred P. Sloan. Sloan wanted to sell more Chevrolets and displace Ford as the dominant American low-priced car. However, by 1919, Ford had cut his manufacturing costs to the bone and could sell the Model T for less than $525, while the comparable Chevrolet sold for $735.[3] Also, the multi-millionaire Ford owned all the stock in his company and cared little about profits. Sloan knew that GM’s stockholders cared very much about profits. He also knew that he could not cut costs below Ford’s level. The Chevrolet was more attractive and more powerful than the Ford, but that strategy alone was not convincing enough people to spend the extra money.

That year Sloan came up with a solution that changed the face of American retailing. To purchase the Ford, you needed to pay cash on the barrelhead. In a country where five dollars a day was a generous wage for a factory worker, that was a tall order. Sloan would sell you the Chevrolet for $50.00 down and $20.00 a month. Now the thriftier Ford buyer looked like a skinflint while the man making payments on the Chevy appeared to be the better husband and family provider.

Sloan called his innovation “buying out of income” but it came to be more generally known as the Installment Plan. Still, it took some work to convince many Americans that debt was a good thing. According to a GM publication from the mid-1920s, “Rent, heat, light, food, are essential commodities used by the family and are paid for out of current income. … Transportation by motor car is an essential commodity used by the family and is properly purchasable out of current income because the car represents an asset of continuing value.”[4]

It spread faster than the advent of sliced bread. By 1925, GMAC–as the new financing arm was called–had financed over 1,308,000 cars and trucks.[5] By that time, refrigerators, stoves, rugs, furniture, jewelry, radios, and even the house itself could be purchased for a series of “small monthly payments.” This gave rise to a frenzy of new buying just beyond one’s income.

Subscription8.1Every new payment made daily life easier. The refrigerator was so much more convenient than wrestling with 50-pound blocks of ice. No one had to get up two hours before breakfast to build a fire in a stove that was hooked up to gas. The worn out dining set of early marriage could be discarded in favor of new furniture that could seat the whole family when they come over for Thanksgiving. Momma got the wedding ring that she had always deserved. Money previously spent on movies could be saved because the family stayed home to listen to Jack Benny on the radio. With each purchase, it became easier to justify the next.

With all that buying going on, the economy boomed. America had entered a “new era.” Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover said that there would be no more poverty.[6] Questioning the health of the economy became positively unpatriotic. Purchasing created jobs, at least for a while.

Of course, neither Herbert Hoover nor John Q. Public knew what was coming next.

________________________________

[1] https://www.census.gov/population/www/censusdata/files/urpop0090.txt

[2] For instance, in 1900 there were 5,739,657 farms serving a population of 76,212,168 or one farm for every 13.3 people in the US. In the most recent census (2010) the US had a population of 308,745,538 being served by 2,201,000 farms or one farm for every 140.2 people.

[3] http://modelt.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=11:original-model-t-ford-prices-by-model-and-year&catid=5:history-and-lore&Itemid=1, “Hand Book of Automobiles 1919”, National Automobile Chamber of Commerce, page 116.

[4] “Before You Buy Another Car”, GM publication, no date (c. 1925).

[5] Ibid.

[6] “We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land. The poorhouse is vanishing from among us. We have not yet reached the goal, but given a chance to go forward with the policies of the last eight years, and we shall soon, with the help of God, be within sight of the day when poverty shall be banished from this nation.” – Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover accepting the Republican nomination for the presidency, August 11, 1928.

The Return of the Absent Clockmaker

clock-700870_960_720

“As ‘clockmaker,’ all God had to do was wind up the original clock and leave.”

At a certain point in modern times, it was decided that God, the Creator of heaven and earth, should stay out of the business of running the world he created. Supposedly, men could do it much better without him.

All this was done, mind you, with a certain amount of tact and propriety so as not to overly offend God or those who believed in him. It was decided that God would be given the title of the maker of a clock, where the clock was a great mechanical universe. As“clockmaker,” all God had to do was wind up the original clock and leave. Men would take over from there.

 

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That is what happened at the dawn of modern times. All were suddenly consumed with the frenzied action of the Industrial Revolution. Progress and technology were installed upon God’s empty throne and people everywhere worked to transform the world by constructing huge networks of big machines and devices that would control and conquer the nature God had created. Soon giant systems, huge factories and management practices churned out an astounding array of abundant goods and services as never seen before. People looked upon what they had done and proclaimed that the future would permit unlimited growth and happiness.




People too became enmeshed in the production processes of this great machinery. In fact, the machine became the model for getting things done. No field of human action was exempt from change, so as to impel people to act like machines or computers. Everything was simplified, planned, and engineered to adapt to the machine and subsequently minimize individuality and maximize efficiency.

In their daily lives, people were encouraged to imitate the efficient action of machines by adopting standardized methods. This can be seen in the development of bureaucracy, teaching methods, advertising and public relations procedures. In this way, the person was transformed, so to speak, from an organism to a mechanism inside this great scheme of things. With every material need supplied, it was supposed that this new planned way of life would make everyone happy and pave the way to a bright new future.

Humans are not cogs in a machine1

“It does not function with the rigid exactitude required by a machine.”

The only problem is that the universe is not this giant mechanical clock. It does not function with the rigid exactitude required by a machine. Despite all efforts of control, natural disasters unpredictably happen. The universe does not fit into all the neat categories determined by science. A world of wonder and unfathomable mystery exists, which is full of meaning and purpose that cannot be expressed by formulae and spreadsheets.

A much more important consideration is that people are not mechanisms. They are living and unique beings. As such, they are capable of pondered choices, unending creativity, and varied rhythms not found in machines. Life is spontaneous, unpredictable and nuanced, full of vitality, poetry, and passion.

These realities clash with the clock-world where all is reduced to the mechanical properties of mass, utility, and movement in space. People find it difficult to live in a universe stripped of all metaphysical meaning, symbolism, beauty and purpose. Nothing makes sense when all is supposedly an endless flux of aimless and blind causation. In other words, the mechanical clock-universe that God did not make is unintelligible to the intelligent creatures that he did create for himself.

It is no wonder then that modern systems have not worked according to plan. Technology and science have done much to improve life but have not solved all the world’s problems or delivered paradise on earth. Machines have made life more comfortable but they have also been turned against humanity and caused much devastation. Huge mechanical wars broke out and others now loom on the horizon. Materialistic ideologies like communism and socialism have arisen with the goal of constructing “perfect systems that liberate,” but end up enslaving.

crowd-1056764_960_720

“Despite unprecedented opportunities for entertainment, pleasure, and excitement, happiness from these proves elusive.”

But worse than the failure of modern systems is the great sadness that has descended on so many of those living in the mechanical universe that God did not make. Despite unprecedented opportunities for entertainment, pleasure, and excitement, happiness from these proves elusive. This materialistic universe cannot address the profound spiritual void inside the soul of postmodern man, now causing so much frustration and desolation inside the stress of today’s hurried living.

The lesson should be clear: a more organic approach should at least be tried. Sadly, each new crisis in the mechanical universe that God did not make only begets greater mechanical “solutions,” calling for more and even bigger systems and programs. No doubt, massive government programs and economic stimulus packages will take care of everything! The right mix of more technology, progress, and luck will supposedly make people happy again.

The frustration with this system is reaching a high point in America and the world because the machines are now breaking down. More to the point, people, families and societies are breaking down. But instead of addressing the real issues, there are still those who delude themselves into thinking that solutions can be found by merely tweaking the mechanical universe that God did not make.

“Bring in the technocrats, central bankers and experts!” They cry. “The right team will fixSubscription8.1 the machines and return everything to order so we can live comfortably once more.”

Alas, a return to order can only happen if things function according to their nature. This would call for a return to a marvelous concept of the universe full of metaphysics and beauty that reflects the Creator. It would involve treating people as beings endowed with immortal souls. This would fill the spiritual void that haunts postmodernity and would give lives meaning and purpose. Then, beings created to pursue a spiritual heaven could overcome the frustration of today’s frantic attempts to construct an earthly paradise.

This can only be done by calling upon the absent “Clockmaker” in prayer and returning Him to His throne as ruler of the great and marvelous universe that He did create, and knows well how to govern with His loving Providence.

As seen on crisismagazine.com

Christmas Outside the Box

Christmas Outside the BoxAs I was reading an article on an online news site, I chanced upon an advertisement for a beautiful Christmas tree. Indeed, it was an actual Christmas tree, not a holiday, winter or sparkle tree that celebrates some unknown winter solstice festivity.

This letter unapologetically used the word Christmas and the tree actually looked inviting enough to conger up memories of Christmases past. In a nanosecond of Christmas spirit, I clicked upon the attractive image and learned about how I might acquire a similar tree for home or office.

The tree, it turns out, is a high-tech artificial pre-lit tree that can be sent to your home in a box, wheeled into your living room and assembled in less than three minutes. Once assembled using its easy-to-use illustrated instructions, you have nothing left to do but activate the lights with the remote control (batteries included) and stand back to enjoy the stunning beauty of your instant Christmas tree experience.


It would seem there is no easier way to go on the offensive in today’s cultural war on Christmas than to fill all places with such trees in any of its six varieties and deck the halls with boughs of synthetic holly!

Far be it for me to criticize any Christmas tree, real or otherwise. In the present cultural climate, any tree that calls itself Christmas is a victory over politically-correct conformity. However, I cannot help but think that this pre-lit ready-to-use boxed Christmas tree with its “miracle” technology is a fitting symbol of where we have gone wrong in our culture and its celebration of Christ’s birth.

We live in a culture of instant gratification where we must have everything right away and effortlessly. This does not only involve indulging in sensual delights but also our experience of wholesome and uplifting things like Christmas trees.

In our frenzied desire for instant and effortless mass consumption 24/7, we have engaged in what I call the “frenetic intemperance” of throwing off legitimate restraints and engaging in consumption that ignores those cultural and spiritual values that normally serve to temper and give meaning to life.

We have built, it is true, a vast market system that is undoubtedly convenient, plentiful, and inexpensive. Yet, in the process, we have sacrificed that human touch that so delights and enriches us. In the name of maximizing efficiency and increasing consumer convenience, a spirit of dreary sameness descends upon the markets. The result is boxes upon boxes of nearly identical high-tech pre-lit trees that lack soul.

It is this human element that is so essential to the traditional Christmas tree. The spiritual act of creating a unique and marvelous tree still leads millions of Americans to buy real trees and decorated them with a hodge-podge of ornaments and lights. It is precisely the time spent together decorating and the extra effort involved that makes the real Christmas tree so special and memorable…and what makes the three-minute pop-up tree so utterly forgettable.

This human element also confers authenticity and meaning upon the Christmas tree because it becomes an expression of those who prepare it. It gives rise to the creativity of traditional ornaments and wholesome traditions. In other words, the human element brings about true culture and not the pre-packaged substitutes found in so many of today’s sterile shopping malls..

Of course, our problem is not just Christmas trees but a whole culture of unrestraint that has invaded all fields. It leads to rushed schedules and stress-filled lives caused by our impatience with time and space based on the idea that nothing should stand between ourselves and the objects of our gratification. Tethered to our mobile devices, we are constantly feeding a restless desire for new sensations, stimuli and thrills. When you must have everything instantly and effortlessly, there is the temptation to turn the Christmas season into one more of those sensations. We are encouraged to buy the instant Christmas tree experience rather than experience that special instant called Christmas.

Subscription13Amid such noisy distractions, there is little time to reflect upon the true peace of Christmas; it is easy to lose track of the “reason for the season”—the birth of the Christ Child. In the manger in Bethlehem, we can find the balm that will sooth our agitated souls and take solace, “For a child is born to us, and a son is given to us.”(Is. 9:6)

Christmas invites us to reflect upon those things that really matter. In a Christmas-tree-in-a-box culture, it invites us to think outside the box.

 

Freedom Is Not Choice

Freedom Is Not ChoiceThere are those who confuse freedom with choice. They do not realize that freedom is the ability to choose the means to a determined end perceived as good and in accordance with our nature. It is not the choice itself. When a person makes a bad choice or chooses a bad end, the result is not freedom but a type of slavery to the passions. Thus, a person who overeats when satisfying natural hunger or another who chooses an excellent wine with the intent of getting drunk, does not exercise true freedom but rather its abuse. The more we master our nature, the more freedom we have. Supernatural virtue gives us yet more freedom since we not only master our nature but surpass it.Subscription11

Saint Thomas teaches: “But man is by nature rational. When, therefore, he acts according to reason, he acts of himself and according to his free will; and this is liberty. Whereas, when he sins, he acts in opposition to reason, is moved by another, and is the victim of foreign misapprehensions. Therefore, ‘Whosoever committeth sin is the slave of sin’” (quoted in Leo XIII, Encyclical Libertas [1888] in The Papal Encyclicals, vol. 2, p. 171, no. 6).

The above excerpt was taken from the book, Return to Order.