For Christmas 2007 I received my first IPod, one of the old silver metallic models with a decent little screen. That model came to be called the Classic, and as late as a year or so ago I saw it for sale at my Apple store for $249 but with 160 GB’s of storage. (My current model has eight, I believe, probably an enticement to use the Cloud more. It is my understanding that the Classic line was finally disconnected.
The first program I installed, after an inordinate amount of spending in the classic rock section of I-Tunes, was the book dealer Audible.com. I had begun walking four miles per day, and I had a 30 minute commute to my office, so here were two hours in the day available for serious listening. Like most listeners, I guess, I went for popular titles, but I began to wonder if there were possibilities for theological or spiritual reflection.
When I signed on about seven years ago, the entire Audible library numbered 80,000 books. Once you subtracted the Stephen King titles, that was not a large selection. Christian/Catholic titles were few—and rather eccentric. The first Catholic title I purchased was an interesting but unlikely one: Curran versus Catholic University: A Study of Authority and Freedom in Conflict. I have always wondered how that work ended up in an Audible production, as it currently rates south of six million in Amazon sales. Later I added some lectures by the Evangelical theologian Karl Barth and a biography of Mother Angelica. As of today, in my 170+ purchased Audible books library exactly five are specifically Catholic/Christian titles
There are no doubt a number of useful “listens” for Catholic students and catechists in the Audible library, but mining them is tricky and time consuming unless you know exactly what you are looking for. The same problems we spoke of last weekend apply to Audible, that it, separating the wheat from the chaff. Just for the fun of it, I took my chances and hit the “browse” button to see what a cold search would bring up.
First of all, on the home page Audible does not list “religion” as one of its main categories. You have to hit the “more categories” selection, which takes you into an Alice in Wonderland array of nearly every aspect of human existence, real or projected. Scrolling considerably down that page I came to “Religion and Spirituality.” Home, you say? Not quite. This category is subdivided as well, so I scrolled down to two sections that appeared promising, “Religious Thought” and “Christianity.” Religious Thought contained 2698 entries as of today; Christianity reports 5719 titles. I used the type-in search entry for “Catholic,” and found about 120 entries. The first four were as follows: Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, Devotion to the Sacred Heart, the Catholic Catechism, and the Catholic Guide to Depression. I was a little depressed with this buckshot ensemble myself.
In the 7+ years of Audible membership, I have found the service to be highly informative and generally quite entertaining. For general listening purposes its library is quite good. I have worked out to Game Change, Too Big To Fail, Steve Jobs, The Caine Mutiny and The Guns of August, not to mention highly entertaining works about the Yugo, Google, and Facebook. One of my few novels came to me on Audible, Challenger Park, a story of a modern astronaut family in a Catholic setting (a great summer listen, to tell the truth.)
However, the Audible library, information data base, and format do not make it my first choice as a source of theological formation. I should say that Audible is not cheap; a subscription is currently $14.95/monthly, which entitles the member to one credit or one book. After that you pay market value, which I have found at times to be three times higher than Kindle. For a while this led me to purchase only “longer books,” but there is some kind of glitch in the download such that current IPods can only run 25 hours of a book, a troubling issue when some readings run 30-60 hours. The young techies at Apple seem perplexed by this.
The Audible purchase site provides little information on the vetting of authors and publishers. You can check a potential purchase over at Amazon, but this is troublesome and time consuming, and you still may not get the information you need. It is probably wiser to do your browsing on Amazon, which gives you the option to buy the title from Audible, if available. A bigger problem for those of you in “learning mode” is that recorded books in general do not work footnotes or bibliography into the oral text, and there is no way to recover this valuable information unless, as with Audible, you pay an extra $11 for “whispersync” service—the book goes to Kindle and Audible simultaneously. So, it would be very hard to use a book in a listening app for further catechizing ort when preparing class, for example, unless you have taken voluminous notes.
I have not had the opportunity to check other providers of narrated books in the Catholic market. I get advertisements for e-books almost daily, but the narrated books must be more costly to produce. I will continue to research the market. There is no shortage of devotional material available on Audible, but my sense is that you may save money by connecting with podcast services from legitimate and credible sources.
Don't Mail That Check!Read Now
I had an outline of today’s blog ready for the flesh on the bones, but another more timely issue dropped into my lap for “Books and Apps” Saturday. Having taught a fair amount over the past two weeks, I received emails from students for further resources, which is rather common. But one request in particular caught my eye: a participant asked my opinion about plunking out a large amount of money for an online institute of Catholic study. I am so grateful this student had the good sense to do some vetting, and so my entry today is really an elongated explanation of my responding student.
I was happy to follow the link provided, and I studied the website carefully. To be honest, I was aghast. This website was nothing more than one individual charging big bucks for a computer template piece of paper. Here is a quote directly from the website: “For less than $1 a day, you can receive the benefits of a higher education—without having to spend years or thousands of dollars to get it.” This has a familiar ring to it, as in “lose weight without dieting or exercise.” Moreover, it tells me something of the author’s limited vision of theology, catechetics, and faith formation: that the sacred sciences can be reduced to a snappy set of answers with which to win bar disputes. As the webmaster himself advertises, “Do you wish you had the intellectual edge so you could provide logical and well-researched answers to the questions of your family, friends, and neighbors?
So how about credentials? Well, they are provided by the instructor, who provides an impressive title to his/her doctoral thesis. Although using the title “doctor,” no information is provided as to the school of Catholic theology where the doctorate was obtained, and frankly, there is no indication that the dissertation was actually approved by a review board of professors.
Peer review or professional standards do not seem to be a major concern for the instructor. Again, I quote, “No, we do not want to be accredited or recognized by the U.S. Department of Education for three reasons; (1) Accreditation is usually sought so that federal loans can be granted for tuition assistance. But our tuition is already so low. We don’t need federal assistance. Caesar can keep his money.” (Italics mine.) (2) Accreditation for Catholic education institutions usually requires observation and visitation by non-Catholic accreditation officers who evaluate the faculty, library and curriculum. We don’t feel the need to meet a stamp of approval from those who don’t recognize our educational goals. For example, accreditation offices would require us to set learning time limits and enforce exams and term papers. That’s not our style.” (3) The instructor states that accreditation is expensive, time consuming, and “a waste of our time and a waste of your time.”
The author is mixing apples and oranges. Accreditation of higher learning is private, not public, and the regional accrediting boards are the nation’s major guarantee of quality assurance and students consumer rights, among other things. Every parent of prospective college students needs to know whether his or her child is choosing a regionally accredited college; here in Florida we fall under SAC’s. In Maryland it would be “Middle States.” The webmaster’s penchant for avoiding professional peer review of his lectures and published content is contrary to Catholic teaching principles, where educators at every level—new catechists to doctors of theology-- fall under some form of authoritative review. Theologians who publish articles and books make their works available for public professional review—nearly half of the erudite Theological Studies journal is devoted to rigorous book reviews of the sacred sciences.
There is one more critical point on the website, and that is the repetitive use of the term “apologetics.” There is indeed a venerable branch of Christian theology called Apologetics which dates back to c. 150 A.D. and the writings of St. Justin Martyr, and has through the centuries defended Catholic faith and practice from outside attack. In very recent times, though, the term apologetics has come to mean (1) defense and/or vigorous assertion of traditional Catholic teaching in the face of perceived erroneous interpretations of Vatican II’s teachings, or (2) a corrective to modern theologians, bishops, thinkers and educators who work to elaborate the Vatican II teachings in educational, preaching and writing. Apologetics today is set against the “heresy” of modernism. I find that extreme present-day apologetics sometimes demonstrate a lack of charity within the Church and a certain pride and arrogance about who is the most orthodox or real Catholic. Participants in this online program can earn two certificates, one in general theology and one exclusively in apologetics. I have never seen a study curriculum of this sort.
So, we know what to watch out for. But how to find and access the learning websites that enjoy both the good housekeeping seal of the Church and the respect of the best of professional Catholic theologians and educators? How about if we discuss that tomorrow on the Sunday page? It will be worth your while.
The Catholic MemoryRead Now
About twenty-five years ago I discovered an ancient Holy Saturday sermon, dating back to an early time in the Church when some form of memorial service existed to commemorate Christ in his tomb. The sermon can be found in today’s Holy Saturday Office of Readings (second reading) from the Liturgy of the Hours. I found it one of the most moving and unusual Church literary pieces I had ever come across, and I make it a point to read it every year on Holy Saturday.
The unknown homilist imagines the Lord’s “descent into hell,” a phrase from recent translations of our Creeds. He begins by noting “a great stillness on earth today” because “the King is dead.” “God has died in the flesh,” he goes on, “and hell trembles with fear.” The homily goes on to report that God goes about hell “to search for our lost parents…to free from sorrow the captive Adam and Eve, he who is both God and son of Eve.” Adam beholds the Lord in terror, but God takes him by the hand. “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.” The sermon goes on at some length as God explains to Adam what is happening, and then bids him to come forth from this foul place for “the kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.”
This homily is an artist’s rendering of our basic theological truth, the eternal love of God for his created people and the extremes to which he would go to share with his fallen children the everlasting banquet of heaven. As literature this piece shares its place with the best of its time, religious and secular. Theologically, this unknown author, writing in Greek possibly fifteen centuries ago, nonetheless would feel right at home with Pope Francis and his intention to designate next year as a year of mercy.
Thus I was significantly moved by a remarkable essay of our own time, yesterday to be exact, from a source we don’t normally associate with religion, The New York Times. The essay is called “The Memory of Catholicism” (April 3) and is product of The Times’ remarkable columnist of religion and ethics, Ross Douthat. Ross was the youngest person ever appointed to the Times editorial board where today, at age 35, he sits at the table with the venerable David Brooks and Thomas Friedman. He converted to Catholicism after tenures with Protestant and Evangelical Churches. I have been reading him regularly for some years now and reviewed his book Bad Religion for Amazon on June 10, 2012. The development of his penetrating wisdom into Catholic history and identity is a joy to behold.
In yesterday’s essay Douthat, after a lengthy but intriguing introduction, looks at the long history of Catholic literature, notably its poetry and novels. (My wife observed that she had never heard of many of the books cited, aside from perhaps Dante. “Ross’s point exactly,” I nodded. Touche.) He explains what while there is an official history of the Church, its non-technical literature has been equally important in conveying the continuity of the core of Catholic belief and practice. He observes that a Catholic of 2015 can pick up a sermon of a Church Father, an ancient Holy Saturday sermon, or the classic The Diary of a Country Priest and find something with which he or she is familiar. Or as the author puts it, today’s reader may feel like he is in a different country, but he still feels at home.
Douthat, who takes a dim view of Catholic trends post World War II, expresses great concern that this thread of literary continuity is dissolving into thinner and thinner strands. In an interesting metaphor, he worries that Catholics will soon no longer have the opportunity to step into “the Catholic time machine.” He does not exactly elaborate on why this is happening except for a somewhat weak assertion that liberals want to bury the past. I can think of two more concrete possibilities: (1) the decline in American schools, and culture generally, of the liberal arts priority. America does not cultivate a love of classical literature, and it has no time for the study of history. (2) In the Catholic milieu, the publishing market—and we might add the wider range of all Catholic art—is glutted with fluff. Even our best Catholic publishers turn out an inordinate amount of literature that amounts to highly subjective person experiences with Jesus, essentially aping the self-centered priority of American culture in general. Nor does Catholic pastoral practice cultivate history: I made a note of the copyright dates of music sung at our Holy Thursday and Good Friday parish celebrations this week. With three exceptions dating to the 1980’s, the music was written and published between 2006 and 2014. I will win the lottery before the ageless wonderful Good Friday tradition of “The Reproaches” is ever sung in my church—though every missalette in the U.S. contains the directive to do so.
The Triduum is the ultimate moment of remembrance—the once in history event that promises more than we can ever hope for. Can we celebrate these days with no tradition and deadened memories? I think not.