Graphic abortion images have their place, but they don’t belong at the March for Life

Are you going to the March for Life, either in DC or in your state?  If so, are you planning to display graphic photos or videos of aborted babies?

If so, I’m begging you to reconsider.

I understand why people use them. Many Americans are still somehow ignorant about what abortion really is — what it really does to real babies.  They believe the lies about a “clump of cells” or “fetal pole activity,” or let themselves get confused in a cloud of euphemisms about “choice.” Many pro-lifers remember seeing those bloody images for the first time, and can recall being shaken out of a vague, fuzzy support for the pro-life cause into the realization that this is a life-and-death struggle — real life, and real death.

These images have their uses.

But a public place is not the place to use these images — ever, I’m convinced.  These images are like a terrible weapon which should be used with fear and trembling, and only as a last resort.  Ideally, they should only be used in the context of a relationship. Why?

Those are real babies.  Christians are almost alone in affirming the dignity of the human person.  The human body is sacred and always worthy of respect.  When we use pictures of real babies as a tactic or a tool, we are allowing ourselves to forget that these are children with an immortal soul, and who have a name that only their Father knows.  They have already been killed.  Let us treat their poor bodies with respect.

There will be children at the march.  Do you let your little kids watch slasher films or play gory video games?  No?  Well, those things show us actors with fake blood, pretending to be tortured and killed, or computer-generated images.  It’s bad enough when it’s fake. Why would you let your kids see the real thing?  The pro-life cause is about protecting innocent life, and that includes protecting the innocence of young children.  Violent images stay with us for a lifetime, and they damage us.

There will be post-abortive women at the march.  Imagine their courage in being there at all.  Then imagine what it does to them to see, once again, the dark thing that keeps them from sleeping at night — the thing that often keeps them in decades-long cycles of self-loathing and despair.  We don’t ask victims of rape to look at videos of rape in progress.  We don’t ask holocaust victims to look at huge banners showing the piles of emaciated bodies.  As pro-lifers, we must remember that every abortion has two victims:  the child and the mother.  We must never be on the side that hurts mothers.  Never.

Women who have miscarried will be there.  Thousands of the women at the March are mothers — mothers who have already given birth, mothers who are pregnant as they march, and mothers who have miscarried, delivered dead babies.  For many of them, the grief over a miscarriage never goes away entirely.  Many women stay away from any public march for fear of being subjected to these images so similar to the thing that caused them so much pain.  Motherhood makes a woman’s heart tender.  The pro-life movement should be a shelter that protects that tenderness — because the world needs it desperately.

Public image matters.  Some people’s only contact with obvious pro-lifers is with people who shout and condemn and terrify.  It’s just basic psychology:  if you want people to listen to you and have sympathy for your cause, don’t come across as a lunatic.  You’re not a lunatic — but to people who don’t already agree with you, you sure look that way if you’re out in public with an oversized photo of gore flapping in the wind.  Yes, your cause is worthy.  No, you’re not helping it.

They’re not an unanswerable argument that pro-lifers imagine, because people see what they want to see.  When the apostles begged the Lord to send the dead to persuade people to repent, He said that if they didn’t listen to the prophets, then they wouldn’t be impressed by the dead coming back to life, either.  Many pro-choicers speak as if it’s a foregone conclusion that pro-lifers use photoshopped images — that the tiny, mutilated feet and hands and heads are a hoax that’s been thoroughly debunked.  It’s a lie, of course.  But people believe it all the same, because they want to (and pro-lifers don’t help their cause by being sloppy about things like identifying gestational age on photos).

Desensitization is a real danger — even among pro-lifers.  It’s just how humans are made:  see something too often, and you stop really seeing it.  I thank and bless those who work so tirelessly for the pro-life cause, including those who had to spend time up close with the heart-rending remains of babies, rescuing them from dumpsters and photographing them.

But to those who use these images routinely everywhere, indiscriminately, I beg that they to stop and consider that, like policemen or like soldiers, they are human, and are in danger of becoming hardened out of self-preservation. People who have become hardened must never be the public face of the pro-life cause.  If you, as a pro-life activist, see a bloody image and you don’t flinch, then it’s time to take a break — move into a different segment of the ministry, perhaps one that emphasizes prayer and reparation.

*****

These are all arguments against using graphic images indiscriminately, in a public place. Does this mean they should never be used?

Absolutely not.  Bloody and shocking images have their place.  Pro-life activists are right when they say abortion depends on silence and darkness, and that truth must be exposed.  Too many people who are pro-choice because they somehow still don’t know what fetuses actually look like, or what happens to them when they are aborted– or because they’ve simply slipped into a comfortable shelter of euphemisms.  These lies, this comfort must be stripped away.

So when should you use graphic images?  When a teenager shrugs and says, “My health teacher says it’s not a person until 25 weeks.”  When someone who works in the front office of a clinic says she’s doing a gentle, compassionate work of mercy.  When your boyfriend wants you to get rid of “it” before it becomes a real baby.  When a college girl likens unborn babies to tumors or parasites.  Then you can respond to the actual situation, to the actual person.  Then you can take out the picture and say, “Is this what you’re talking about?” And let the poor, dead child speak for you. 

I believe that everyone should see an image of an aborted baby once in their lifetime.  And I believe that, like any traumatic image, it will stay with you.  Once or twice in a lifetime is enough. 

Abortion is violent.  Abortion is cruel.  Abortion inflicts trauma and pain on the vulnerable.  Abortion is dehumanizing to mother and child. As pro-lifers, we should have no part in any of that.  Let use those graphic images with care and respect, as a weapon of last resort. 

***
Photo used with kind permission of the photographer, Matthew Lomanno, from his photo documentary of the March for Life 2014.

 

In praise of litanies

When my spiritual life needs a shot in the arm, I sometimes turn to litanies. Many Catholics only encounter litanies on All Saint’s Day, perhaps leaving Mass with the impression that a litany is a prayer for when you have a short amount of time and a giant crowd to propitiate, sort of like a spiritual credits page that scrolls past in tiny print to fulfill your contractual obligation. St Key Grip, pray for us! All rights reserved, Amen.

But there are so many more litanies, and more kinds of litanies, than the litany of saints — which, by the way, is itself so much more than a list, and which has been prayed in one form or another for over 1500 years. The Litany of Saints was first recorded in the time of Gregory the Great around the year 600. According to one source,

“In 590 Pope Gregory was moved by the occurrence of a great pestilence that followed an inundation, and ordered a Litania Septiformis (‘sevenfold procession’): clergy; laity; monks; virgins; matrons; widows; and the poor and children. It was in one of these Litania Septiformis, in celebration of the end of the plague, that the Litany of the Saints was introduced.”

I’d like to see that! Imagine processing down the streets invoking the names of all the blessed — many of whom would have been martyrs — proclaiming to the world that you’re grateful to them and to God that you’re still breathing. That really brings home how personal the communion of saints truly is.

Of course the form of a litany is older than the Catholic Church. Every year at our Passover seder, we recite the sort of wellspring of all litanies, Psalm 136, and it is very good indeed to say the words that the children of Abraham have been saying faithfully for thousands and thousands of years: His mercy endures forever. I love how it slides so casually from the cosmic to the specific. We say:

“To him who alone doeth great wonders: for his mercy endureth for ever.
To him that by wisdom made the heavens: for his mercy endureth for ever.
To him that stretched out the earth above the waters: for his mercy endureth for ever.
To him that made great lights: for his mercy endureth for ever:
The sun to rule by day: for his mercy endureth for ever:
The moon and stars to rule by night: for his mercy endureth for ever.”

and then later in the same prayer:

“To him which smote great kings: for his mercy endureth for ever:
And slew famous kings: for his mercy endureth for ever:
Sihon king of the Amorites: for his mercy endureth for ever:
And Og the king of Bashan: for his mercy endureth for ever.”

Poor Og of Bashan! That’s all I ever knew about him, but I’ll never forget him. Even Og could have the mercy of the Lord, if he wanted it.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: By Byzantinischer Maler um 1020 – The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=148590

What’s for supper? Vol. 199: Exit, pursued by lion’s head

So! Next week is Vol. 200 of What’s for Supper. You know what that means, don’t you?!?!?!

I don’t know. It means what it means. If you have any neat ideas for how to mark the occasion, I’m at least partially ears. In the mean time, thanks for playing along for two hundred weeks! I have all these tabs open with upsetting stories about troubling new violations of bioethics and stuff like that, and I love having a little section of the internet where we can just talk about dang ol’ food.

Here’s what we had this week.

SATURDAY
Lasagna, garlic bread

I wasn’t sure what to make when I got home from shopping, so Damien was all, “Hey, how about if I shop for and make my special homemade lasagna?” You know, I argued a little bit, but eventually I let him. You have to let husbands have their way sometimes, for the health of the marriage. This is called “dying to self,” and it’s delicious.

I still don’t have an actual recipe, but here is his description of how it’s made:

For the meat sauce: You take some cut-up onion and garlic and cook it in olive oil with a few red pepper flakes. Then you add the meat [we had ground beef] and brown it up. Then add a can of tomato pasta and a can of whole tomatoes crushed up a little, and a splash of red wine.

For the cheese mixture: You put a shit ton of shredded mozzarella in the [three tubs of] ricotta cheese, a bunch of garlic powder, salt and pepper and oregano, and some cinnamon [couldn’t find the nutmeg]

He cooked up a few boxes of pasta and layered that with the meat sauce and the cheese mixture and lots and lots of sliced mozzarella and parmesan and chopped Italian parsley. Then he sprinkled parmesan cheese and olive oil on the top, and baked it. 

SUNDAY
Carnitas with guacamole

Jump to Recipe

Pretty mediocre carnitas, to be honest. I started the meat in the slow cooker somewhat late in the day, so it didn’t get very tender, and then I had a kid shred it and I seasoned it okay, but then I overcooked it, so it was dry and chewy. Boo.

Avocados are still 69 cents, so I made another big bowl of guacamole, but it, too, was nothing to write home about. I couldn’t find the cilantro. The refrigerator is out of control. I can’t find anything. I also forgot to buy tomatoes, and made the dubious chose to use canned diced tomatoes. I was just kind of guacamediocre, I guess. You don’t even want to know how long I thought about which was funnier, “guacamediocre” or “mediocamole.” I decided they were both stupid and maybe we can just move along. 

Here’s my guac recipe that’s really good if you actually follow it. 

Jump to Recipe

MONDAY
Chicken burgers, fries, carrots and broccoli with hummus
Chinese food for adults

So I was supposed to review Jojo Rabbit but, like a dummy, I missed the local viewing. So I threw some frozen food in the kids’ general direction we drove about an hour to Amherst, MA, which turns out to be a pretty neat little town.  We picked out a Mandarin Chinese restaurant Formosa, that looked, let’s face it, quiet. We didn’t want a place that looked fun or cute or neat or awesome. We wanted one that looked quiet. It turned out to be a pretty serious Chinese restaurant! By which I mean there were a lot of Chinese people eating there, and there were lot of intestines on the menu, and, like, salted fish heads.

Now, Damien and I really diverge, here. When we are away from home, he wants to know exactly what he is in for, so he ordered crab rangoon, miso soup, General Gao’s Chicken, and white rice. I, on the other hand, feel like this could be my one and only chance to open a whole new door to a whole new world and what if I’m afraid to take a chance and I miss it!!!!!!!

This has never worked out well for me, not even one time. I always end up with a giant portion of something weird and upsetting. Nevertheless, I went ahead and ordered Lion’s Head Sizzling Pot. I mean, how can you not? It said it had shrimp in it, and it was called LION’S HEAD SIZZLING POT. 

The waiter tried to talk me out of it, and showed me two other items which were also called Lion’s Head; but I pushed back pretty hard, and I got my Lion’s Head Sizzling Pot. It turned out to be . . . I really can’t call it a bowl of soup. It was a tankard of soup. A tub of soup. A basin of soup. A CASK of soup. I could have soaked my feet up to my calves in this dish.

Note not only the diameter of the dish, but how far away from the table the spoon is.

It had soft, grey pork meatballs the size of softballs lurking around in it. There were veritable rafts of scrambled eggs adrift in the bowl. Also some kind of leafy greens, maybe bok choy, although it seemed leafier than that; comb-shaped bamboo shoots; vast logs of tofu, squares of ham, chewy, bulbous, dark brown mushrooms, vermicelli, and a few lonely shrimp. It was kinda bland, to be honest. I ate as much as I possibly could and barely made a dent in the volume.

They packed the leftovers up for me in several containers and I exited, pursued by Lion’s Head.

Jojo Rabbit was interesting, but boy oh boy, I have thoughts. Review should be up soon in America if they like it. 

TUESDAY
Spaghetti and meatballs

Damien kindly offered to make dinner again, as I was freaking out about something or other. He makes very fine meatballs. I don’t seem to have a picture of them, though.

Here’s my meatball recipe

Jump to Recipe

He likes to pan fry his and add lots of diced onions. My recipe is less exciting but way easier, as they are made in the oven. (Whispers: ***It doesn’t really matter. If you put them in sauce the end up tasting the same.***)

Dora also invited a friend over and they made knishes, reasons unclear. Not that you need a reason to make knishes! I’ve just never woken up on a Tuesday morning and thought to myself, “Hey, I know what!” and ended up with knishes. 

WEDNESDAY
Ginger garlic chicken kabobs, string beans, pineapple

New recipe! I more or less followed Damn Delicious’ recipe, so I won’t make a new card just yet. This was pretty tasty and easy, although the fresh ginger I bought vanished without a trace, so I had to use powdered. I must say, it was plenty hot without fresh ginger. It’s a zippy, warming dish, and attractive. I over cooked it a bit, oops. 

It’s an easy marinade (oyster sauce, ketchup, honey, chili garlic sauce, dijon mustard, garlic, and ginger). I let it marinate for about five hours, then stuck the chicken on skewers and put them on an oiled broiler pan right under the broiler. I turned them once, slathered on some reserved marinade, and cooked the other side. Sprinkle on some sesame seeds and scallions, and there it is. 

Surprisingly filling. 

THURSDAY
Gumbo, brown rice

I more or less followed this recipe from The Spruce Eats.

I actually started prepping this Wednesday night, because I took a look at my Thursday schedule and did not like what I saw. So I cooked chicken thighs in the instant pot, browned up some sausage, and then sautéed the shrimp in the sausage pan; and Clara diced a bunch of celery, peppers, and onions.

(Shh, don’t tell anyone, but I bought Italian sausage because I live in NH and I don’t know anything.)

I thought I was sooooo smart, and cooking day was going to be soooo easy because of the prep work we had done. I’ll tell you what, this dish was still a pain in the ass to make. I was stirring that freaking roux for an hour, and it never did get “chocolate brown.” And it turns out I don’t have any cajun seasoning in my pantry (by which I mean two old taped-together clementine boxes on top of the microwave) because I live in NH. So I made some cajun seasoning, but by this point, I was feeling awfully cranky about the whole project, and there was really no way this gumbo was going to taste good enough to make up for the pain in my ass. 

I mean, it was good? Sometimes it’s hard to tell how good something tastes when you’re already full of resentment. 

Damien and I ate it, Corrie and Moe tried it, and the rest of them went straight for frozen pizza. And I mean frozen pizza, as in they did not cook it. They are complete degenerates and I don’t know why I bother. And yes, I brought this entire debacle upon myself by choosing to make gumbo for no reason at all. My Saturday morning ambitions do not always mesh well with my Thursday afternoon realities. 

I had delusions of making some french bread, since it turned out so well last week.

As the day flew by, I downgraded my ambitions to beer bread. But it turns out I was out of flour. This is not because I live in NH; it’s because I forgot to buy flour. Anyway, I’ll put the beer bread recipe card at the end and Imma make it soon. Beer bread is great! It only uses one bowl, and it comes together as quickly as any quick bread, but it’s much more bready and less cakey than most quick breads, and it has a wonderful yeasty, honeyed taste, and the knobbly cobbled crust is very nice. The secret is a ludicrous amount of melted butter.

Anyway, this was all in my imagination. In real life, I made a big pot of brown rice, which the kids also did not eat. Benny tried to comfort me by remarking on how chewy it is, and how funny that is. 

FRIDAY
Mac and cheese

I don’t have a recipe, really. Just make a white sauce until it looks like enough, then dump in a bunch of shredded cheese and plenty of pepper and SOME HOT SAUCE. Then you mix this with the cooked macaroni, pour into a buttered dish, top with buttered panko bread crumbs, and bake until you can hear it. 

My kids eat it with mustard. I told you they were degenerates. 

Okay! Don’t forget to comment with ideas about what to do for Vol. 200! If it were the summer, I’d make a whole week of greatest hits, or a whole week of reader-suggested recipes. But it’s not. 

4 from 1 vote
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Slow cooker carnitas

Serve on tortillas with sour cream, guacamole, beans and rice, salsa, cilantro, or whatever you like.

Ingredients

  • 1 pork shoulder
  • 1 can beer (or soda)
  • cumin
  • chili powder
  • salt and pepper

Instructions

  1. Put pork shoulder in slow cooker with beer. Cook on low for five hours or more, until pork falls apart when poked. 

  2. Preheat broiler. 

  3. Shred meat, mix together with spices, and spread in a thin layer on a shallow pan. Broil for a few minutes until meat is slightly crisped.  

  4. Serve on tortillas with whatever additions you like. 

 

4 from 1 vote
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White Lady From NH's Guacamole

Ingredients

  • 4 avocados
  • 1 medium tomato, diced
  • 1 medium jalapeno, minced
  • 1/2 cup cilantro, chopped roughly
  • 1 Tbsp minced garlic
  • 2 limes juiced
  • 1 tsp chili powder
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/2 red onion, diced

Instructions

  1. Peel avocados. Mash two and dice two. 

  2. Mix together with rest of ingredients and add seasonings.

  3. Cover tightly, as it becomes discolored quickly. 

 

4 from 1 vote
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Meatballs for a crowd

Make about 100 golf ball-sized meatballs. 

Ingredients

  • 5 lbs ground meat (I like to use mostly beef with some ground chicken or turkey or pork)
  • 6 eggs, beaten
  • 2 cups panko bread crumbs
  • 8 oz grated parmesan cheese (about 2 cups)
  • salt, pepper, garlic powder, oregano, basil, etc.

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 400.

  2. Mix all ingredients together with your hands until it's fully blended.

  3. Form meatballs and put them in a single layer on a pan with drainage. Cook, uncovered, for 30 minutes or more until they're cooked all the way through.

  4. Add meatballs to sauce and keep warm until you're ready to serve. 

 

4 from 1 vote
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Beer bread

A rich, buttery quick bread that tastes more bready and less cake-y than many quick breads. It's so easy (just one bowl!) but you really do want to sift the flour.

This recipe makes two large loaf pan loaves.

Ingredients

  • 6 cups flour, sifted
  • 2 Tbsp baking powder
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 12-oz cans beer, preferably something dark
  • 1 stick butter

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 375

  2. Butter two large loaf pans. Melt the stick of butter.

  3. I'm sorry, but you really do want to sift the flour.

  4. In a large bowl, mix together dry ingredients, and stir in beer until it's all combined and nice and thick.

  5. Pour the batter into the loaf pans and pour the melted butter over the top.

  6. Bake for about 50 minutes until it's crusty and knobbly on top.

What’s the deal with Exodus 90? My interview with James Baxter

 
It’s a highly regimented program that requires guys to commit to daily holy hours and structured weekly meetings with other enrollees for prayer, accountability, and encouragement. But it’s the ascetic practices that get the most press. For ninety days, men who enroll take cold showers, exercise vigorously, sleep seven hours a night, don’t consume alcohol, sweets, snacks, or sweet drinks, don’t watch TV or movies or sports, and don’t play video games; they don’t make non-essential purchases, they only listen to “music that lifts the soul to God,” they only use the computers and mobile devices when necessary, and they fast and abstain on Wednesdays and Fridays.
 
The non profit program “summons men back to the foundations of their faith, stripping them of worldly addictions and reinvigorating their devotion to Christ.” The ninety days may not be long enough to conquer a lifetime of bad habits, but it’s long enough to establish a “roadmap to freedom.”
 
I’ve heard Catholic men say that the program turned their lives around and redirected them toward Christ and family when they’d let bad habits and even grave sin take over their lives. I’ve heard women say that their husbands finished the ninety days more grounded, humble, prayerful, and focused on family life than ever before. 
 
And I’ve heard men say that they were bullied and shamed into joining, and that they found the program to be just one more muscle-flexing club of swaggering and one-upsmanship, with a thin spiritual veneer. I’ve heard women say that they didn’t want their husbands to do it, but he insisted he needed to for his spiritual health, and now he won’t watch movies with her or have a glass of wine; he harasses her to get off her phone because he’s not on his, insists on special meals, and never has time to help her with the kids because there’s always a meeting to go to with his spiritual brothers; and on top of that, he’s cranky all the time because of the things he had to give up. 
 
I’ve heard holy and sensible priests rave about the wonderful spiritual fruits it’s bearing for their flock, and I’ve heard arrogant and foolish priests rave about how it’s transforming soft, effeminate guys into Real Catholic Men. 
 
I didn’t know what to think, so I called up James Baxter, the 28-year-old Executive Director and Co-Founder of Exodus 90, and asked him some questions. Here’s our conversation. 
 
How did you come to be involved with Exodus 90?
 
I went to seminary right out of high school, at age 18. A mentor started me on [this program]. He had been doing it [with seminarians] for about three years, and he said that this program had been fruitful. I discerned the Lord was calling me to secular life. He said, “What if we share this with laymen who don’t have the community of the seminary? Maybe you could get to work on that.” 
 
Was the original program for all seminarians, or some particular group with particular struggles?
 
At the beginning, from what I understand, it was just five guys, all young men who had been struggling with purity in one form or another. It was so fruitful for them, the priest started ten other groups with fifty men over the next few years. It started as an experiment, and multiplied from there. 
 
What changes were made when it was adapted for laymen?
 

To be honest, we didn’t change much [at first]. That was partly due to my ignorance, because I was newly out of seminary. I didn’t know any better. I never saw my role to change what was working, but to share what was working, with one exception: They were meeting more frequently, and that was untenable. 

Most [enrolled men] are laymen, married with children. We encourage our men to meet one time per week, in a short, structured way. 
 
Is there some particular reason this program is especially needed in the year 2020?
 
No one knows about the ascetic tradition of the Church. Few people can even say the word. We had a decision to make. We ended up redefining and re-presenting it. In 2020, it’s been important for us to re-present that important part of our faith, reframing asceticism in a positive way, not a self-demeaning way. 
 
Set the clock back 100 years, and a lot of what we’re proposing [would have been] baked into daily life. Life is now easier, quicker, faster, more comfortable. Sometimes Exodus can be framed as very intense, but it’s very simple stuff. It’s not that challenging once you get into the rhythm of it. 
 
We’d been going along just fine, with a few thousand guys doing the program. Then things broke out last year, and about 10,500 men joined between January and March. With the sex abuse crisis blowing up, men wanted a way to kind of channel their desire for greater holiness and reform in the Church, and they looked to Exodus to accomplish that. I didn’t expect that. That really drove the attraction to the message of freedom we’ve been trying to share. 
 
Is there some specific kind of man who would especially benefit from going through the program?
 

The values of prayer, asceticism, and community, with accountability and encouragement, are so important for every tradition. These values are important for every Christian. But we’re not claiming, “Do this or you’re not Christian.” We would never say anything like that. 

But if these values and principles are not in your faith, then let it begin, and you can let Exodus be your springboard. 

Are there people who would not benefit from the program or who should steer clear? 
 

It’s not for guys with scruples. When we meet men that struggle with that, it could cause them greater anxiety, and that’s not what God wants for you. 

Some guys come to it as if it’s a twelve-step program. We’re front and center that it’s not an addiction program.

My goals are not only about reaching more men, but about supporting men better, and offboarding men who are looking for something, and they found Exodus, but it’s not for them. [We want to be] getting them with a therapist, a spiritual director, support resources within their communities. 

 
What role does a spiritual director play?
 
At the beginning, the ideal was to have priests leading all these groups, but that became untenable. The director is there to keep the train going, to keep presenting the fundamental message of freedom, to offer basic exhortations. To remind everyone what this is about and to keep their eyes fixed on the Lord. In parishes, we’ve seen all kinds of interesting models.
 
Diocesan priests who don’t have great community have been really blessed using Exodus to form priestly communities. We encourage priests to do it with other priests for greater accountability and vulnerability, with men who understand their circumstances. 
 
Is there oversight to keep the experience uniform from group to group, or is there a lot of variation in how it’s carried out? 
 
Here is what makes for a successful fraternity: One, you know what you’re getting into; two, you’ve got a good fraternity of solid men, and it’s not just some machismo exercise; and three, you have the “why.” [You ask:] Is the Lord calling you? What do you want to get out of this? If you’re just going through the motions, it’s not going to take you anyplace you need to go. 
 
When I meet guys through our program, sometimes they’re disappointed by how not-hardcore I am. They expect me to be chest beating. That’s a stereotype of men generally and of ministry for men in the Church. But if you know anything about me, that’s not who I am or how I work. It’s certainly not informing what we’re trying to do. 
 
We’re not trying to be this elite group or the Navy Seals of Catholics. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The common thread is a desire for greater freedom, and that takes humility. If I’ve got idols that keep me from intimacy with the Lord and my family, I need to offer that to God so I can be a better spouse and family man. 
 
Yet I’ve heard women say that the program harms their marriage. Their husbands refuse the food they prepare, harass them not to spend time on their phones, don’t get up to help with childcare at night because they need their 7 hours, and seem to value brotherhood with the group more than family time, and that it alienates them because they can’t watch movies together, can’t have a drink together, can’t text. They also say that the required time for study, exercise, and fellowship means time away from family. Is this a problem you’re aware of?
 
Yes, I’m aware. Yes, I’m concerned. I just had my first son, and the idea of not getting up with your son at night hurts me, it pains me. I’ll be thinking about that. 
 
This [was originally] a seminary program, and the frame of marriage and family wasn’t there from the start. For example, the first program didn’t say anything about going to confession or going to the Eucharist. We presumed they would, because it was the seminary. It was the same kind of thing with marriage. 
 

So last year, we overhauled the onboarding. We have this comprehensive section about the Exodus man and his bride. One, how important it is to communicate what this entails with your spouse. If she’s not on board and it’s going to cause a rupture, don’t do Exodus!

Two, Exodus is your sacrifice. It’s not meant to be this burden you throw on anyone else. That’s basic. That’s how the Church presents penances. It’s not meant to be a show. 
 
Say your wife does something . . . say she prepared a meal and she wants you to eat meat, or she wants you to watch TV with her. You should do it. We highlighted that from the feedback we got.  
 
But if guys do struggle with distraction, or working too much, or watching too much sports, [their wives] are going to appreciate this [program]. But [if she doesn’t want her husband to do it], it doesn’t matter if her reasons are great or not. It shouldn’t be disruptive to the marriage. 
 
Why do you say this program is not for women, and you don’t endorse any program that’s been adapted for women?
 
The business folks in my life said it was a huge opportunity, and we should do that. But the whole program presumes you’re a man, and fatherhood is your destiny in one form or another. There’s nothing exclusive about prayer or asceticism or community; but we’ve written this expression of it for men. 
 
Last year this came to a head. “Where’s your women’s program?” There’s only three full-time guys on this, we’re already trying hard to keep up. We’re a bunch of men. You don’t want us writing a program for women. So we got a religious order we respected. Their whole mission revolves around feminine identity. We asked them, “Would you study Exodus, and if you think this is a model of healing for women, would you write a program, if you feel called to? “
 
Six months later, they said they didn’t believe this structure is a model of healing for women. 
 
All the women in my life are so much more rooted than most of the men are. Suffering is increasingly absent from most men’s life, but that’s not true for women. They are much more in touch with their own spirits than men are with theirs. It’s not that this is below women, but they’re kind of above this.  
In terms of the spin-offs: I’m not sure what to make of it. There are many each year. Some of them get bigger than others. 
 
My frustration goes back to what we said earlier: The Church has done a beautiful job of teaching about the complementarity of the sexes. But in application, it doesn’t get fully lived out. 
 
What happens if you start the program and you’re still in the middle of it when Easter comes? Do you just keep on being ascetic, despite what the liturgical calendar says?
 
On Sundays and solemnities, you relax a single discipline during the course of Exodus. Our encouragement it to follow the liturgical calendar. The vast majority of men come in at the beginning of the year. 
 
If most people are honest with themselves about how they celebrate solemnities, they’re not doing it well. They’re doing whatever they would like. In the past, solemnities didn’t run roughshod over ascetic practices. If what you call “celebration” looks like gluttony, then Exodus is going to be a threat.
 
It’s important to listen to why people are so much more excited about Advent than they are about Christmas. Advent is so great, but then you get tired of Christmas after you do it for six days. Some of it has to do with our religious practices getting thrown to the wind in the spirit of celebration. 
 
 
It looks like it’s pitting men against women. Did you change this because of criticism, or because you no longer believe it represents what you do?
 
That article is not on our site for a reason. I took it off. It’s not a great representation of where we are today and where we want to go. That article is from the first site, from 2016, and I guess it just stayed there. I don’t have much to say other than it’s not on our site now for a reason.
 
Over 50% of our guys are under the age of 34. That’s an anomaly in men’s ministry. When we look at what attracts young men, I don’t think that kind of [masculinity vs. femininity] stuff really speaks to young men’s hearts. They crave authenticity, a place to be real, a place to be known. This is why we’re flourishing in a way that few other men’s apostolates are. 
 
When we look at the sexes as though it’s a war, and not through the lens of complimentary, we’re not seeing them through the eyes of God. I don’t want to defend that article. That’s why it’s not on our site. 
 
And yet, for instance, Taylor Marshall’s name is on your site, and he’s known for talking a lot about rejecting feminization in the Church. He did that thing where he made fun of seminarians for making gingerbread houses. So you can see why people make the association between Exodus 90 and the kind of men’s groups that do seem to be at war with women. 
 
We rely on media partners to get the word out for us. I don’t do enough telling of our own story. If you listen to that podcast I did with Taylor Marshall, it’s [about] a presentation of freedom through the lens of his testimony. It’s for freedom that Jesus Christ set us free. He didn’t bring up anything like what you mention. 
 
People are going to try to frame the work we’re doing, because of the media partners that share our work. But I hope they listen to us
 
EDIT Jan 15, 5:28
Baxter has asked me to amend his answer. The original version as published is accurate transcription of our conversation, but I am adding his additional commentary as a courtesy, as he does not wish to distance himself from Taylor Marshall. Baxter’s addition is as follows:

Your question presumes that Dr. Taylor Marshall is on a “war with women” when he speaks about the feminization of the Church. That’s not true, nor do I believe that to be a fair treatment of him or his work or his mission in the Church today. If you listen to the interview I did with Dr. Marshall, it’s [about] a presentation of freedom through the lens of his testimony. Not many know this, but his testimony (in our first year) shaped me profoundly and how we are going about our work. In it, he shared about the movements he experienced through the ninety-day process. And we have observed them now in thousands of other men. This is why we call Exodus a spiritual exercise and not another program. There’s a spiritual depth to Dr. Marshall that matches his intellect and that has always struck me. I am grateful for him and his help in sharing our mission with men that otherwise would not have heard it.

 
Are you affiliated with Legion of Christ in any way? Is your program inspired by Legion spirituality? 
 
We are not. We have a relationship, but not an affiliation. Frankly, a lot of guys in the Legion of Christ took to Exodus in past year, and the Legion priests took notice, and supported it in their apostolate.
 
That’s what’s been so amazing to me in the last five years. We promise we’re not the next Knights of Columbus. We’re not trying to take your men away. Your men will be more free for the charism or mission you have for them. Exodus layers beautifully into preexisting apostolates. That’s why our site has a lot of partners. We don’t even list half of them. 
 
I’m frequently in contact with people who, if they knew who else I was in contact with, they would be skeptical. But there’s nothing political about us. We are entirely independent. 
 
****
****
My take: In our conversation, James Baxter struck me as sincere and forthright, and very focused on doing the Lord’s work. He answered all my questions as thoroughly as he could, and humbly thanked me more than once for asking the more probing questions.
 
I looked through some of the materials that members have access to, and they look solid, thorough, sensible, and sometimes very illuminating, and they are clear that they provide a roadmap for freedom, not a guarantee of success; and I liked that it strives to exhort men to goodness without resorting to shame as a motivator. 
 
The portion guiding men through talking over the program with their wives was okay but limited, and perhaps overly optimistic about how easily couples communicate and solve differences. I could easily imagine a selfish or immature man distorting the recommendations to bulldoze over her wishes and the good of the family.  I hope that future programs will put more emphasis on the idea that the wife may be a better judge than the husband about whether the burden on the family is too great.
 
I was very encouraged at Baxter’s insistence that the program is not for everybody, and by his awareness that they need to put more emphasis on helping men discern if the program is right for them before the sign on, and more emphasis on helping men find other programs or help if Exodus 90 isn’t right for them. This is one of the marks of a real apostolate that seeks to serve, rather than hungering for more members at any cost. 
 

Because of the rapid growth of the program, and because it’s for laymen and doesn’t involve trained leaders, the information they put out is very vulnerable to misuse, and I’m not sure what can be done about that. There will be some bad groups full of bad guys encouraging each other to do bad things; and there are almost certainly groups that are overly focused on fitness and self-improvement, rather than on sacrifice and surrender to God. I believe this happens. I also believe that some of the groups are places where the Holy Spirit does great things and really transforms lives and families. 

  The group does seem to be taking surveys and making changes accordingly, which is a very healthy sign. They are at pains not to affiliate themselves directly with anyone, left or right, and seem willing to be misunderstood if it allows a wider net to be cast. 

I loved that they refrained from slapping together and marketing a women’s version, and that, when exploring the possibility of making a women’s version, they did not ever intend to write one themselves, but instead sought out the discernment of other women they trusted. (He told me the name of the order of sisters, and they are trustworthy.)
 
I agree with the notion that modern men can very easily fall into a life without physical or spiritual challenges; but that modern women still tend to encounter early on the idea that suffering is inescapable. There are, of course, female ascetics, and modern women do live relatively comfortable lives; but I take his point that this is something that men especially need. I could use some ascesis myself, but I doubt this particular program would do much besides mess with my head. 
 
I wish they would insist that men get their wives’ permission before signing up. (For the record, I would also wish a wife to get her husband’s permission before signing up for something that would affect the family for three months.) If I understand the materials right, a husband is supposed to prayerfully discern whether signing up would be in the family’s best interest, and then do his best to explain his decision to her, and reassure her that it won’t be a bad thing. I wish they would make it very clear that pressuring your wife to agree to something serious but optional is never a loving act. They do a pretty good job of reinforcing the idea that a married man’s vocation is served by serving his family; but since it’s the kind of program that will naturally appeal to more conservative types who are perhaps less prone to listen to their wives, I think they have a special obligation to make it crystal clear, over and over (not just in the beginning and the end) that it’s unacceptable to decide to make your wife unhappy in the name of God. 
 

The marketing overpromises, and is a bit obnoxious. “90 Days to a More Holy, More Healthy, More Manly You!” says a social media ad.

“In just 90 days, you’ll
-get rid of the habits that enslave you
-find true freedom in Christ
-strengthen your spiritual life and relationships”

says the poster in the parish kit.

I mean, maybe you will, maybe you won’t. I guess a little rinky dink is just how you sell stuff, and I don’t really have a problem with that. I do have a problem with the way some guys are pushing other guys to join, insinuating (or just stating) that only lesser man would refuse to take up this challenge. That’s pretty prevalent, unfortunately; but it doesn’t seem to be coming from inside the program itself (at least not since they took down that garbagey page about men who don’t want to be impotent and domesticated). Maybe that’s something they need to swat down more explicitly. I know it drives a lot of guys away, and maybe some of them would really have benefitted from signing on. 

The merchandise and website designs are clean and rugged, but not studded with ludicrously macho imagery (swords, grenades, targets, barbed wire) like so many Catholic men’s organizations. This may seem trivial, but I think it’s significant. 
 
Overall, if my opinion counts for anything, I think Exodus 90 looks like a potentially good thing that should get better as they continue to develop it. It sounds like it can be distorted to harm people, but what valuable thing cannot? It sounds like you will get out of it what you put into it. 

Burned out on call-out culture? Try fraternal correction

One of the most wretched and discouraging phenomena of the past year or so is call-out culture and its dreadful child, cancel culture. So many decent, or even indecent but not totally irredeemable people — which includes most of us — were deemed too problematic to exist by a rapacious online mob. Both far right and far left extremists indulged themselves, and heads rolled.

I wondered how long this kind of thing could go on before people realized that it has only one end: Self extinction. You tighten your crowd into a smaller and smaller knot of what’s acceptable, and sooner or later, even the inner circle gets strangled.

But one woman whose voice seems fairly influential in the states is trying to push back against this trend. I found her words especially compelling since I doubt her views align with mine very often, so I know I’m not just sympathetic because she sounds like me.

What I liked was how she talked about people you disagree with. I liked the idea that she thought you could talk to them.

Her name is Loretta Ross, and she’s a professor at the Smith College, a progressive private women’s liberal arts college in Massachusetts, and she was recently interviewed for a public radio station, ahead of the release of her new book in 2020.

Ross, who is black, said that she used to allow herself to hate white supremacists. “I kind of felt like, if they wanted to hate me, I was okay hating them,” she said. 

But that changed when she met a former white supremacist, who himself backed out of the movement when he realized his own child, who was born with a cleft palate, did not deserve to be exterminated.

Her organization worked with him to help him un-learn his radical beliefs. And in the process, she discovered that even some radicals are reachable. Even more interesting, she is reaching people on her own side, who already agree with her but who respond to true injustices in a way that she sees as counterproductive.

Her students, for instance, were lashing out harshly against the administration of their college for not responding as strongly as they might have to anti-semitic graffiti on campus. She allowed the students to protest, and then redirected them:

“Smith at worst is a problematic ally. We’re supposed to be talking about fascists. So unless you think the leadership of Smith is fascist, can we stay focused on the fascists?” she said.

She urges her students to do more “threat assessment” and “target assessment.” It’s all too easy to lose perspective and to expend all the energy of your righteous anger on someone who is essentially on your side, but isn’t squeaky clean according to your current standards — and meanwhile, the truly dangerous aggressors go unchallenged, having taken cover in a sea of microaggressions.

I’ll have to think more about this, and I want to hear this idea fleshed out further. I do think it’s important to call people to account for inadequate responses to evil. If Smith college did have a tepid response to swastika graffiti, then that’s worth denouncing, even if Smith isn’t as bad as actual Nazis.

But the call-out culture she seems to be rejecting isn’t simply the kind that calls people to account for doing wrong or failing to do right.

It’s the kind that offers the heady thrill of publicly denouncing anyone who falls afoul of what you consider the correct point of view, simply for the sake of denouncing them.

It feels virtuous and bracing, as if you’re scouring out the corners of some filthy room to usher in health and healing. But in practice, what often happens is that people who are mostly innocent are seriously injured — or they’re so offended that they dig in, rather than examining their errors and making changes. Rather than bringing about a correction of an error, call-out culture often ends up entrenching people in their mistakes.

In other words, everything gets worse for everybody.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image via Pxhere (Public Domain)

What’s for supper? Vol. 198: In which I do not die

Sorry about the dearth of posts this week. I’ve been busily tapping away at other stuff that will bob to the surface eventually. Also I thought I was dying, which was distracting. (Spoiler: I did not die.)

On Monday I stopped being able to ignore these chest pains and unexplained swelling that sounded a lot like some very un-fun heart attack/lethal blood clot nonsense, so with my family history, I chewed up some aspirin and had a kid drive me to the ER. My heart is okay, thanks be to God. I think it is stress, which is embarrassing, but there it is. So now I have to do these fricken breathing exercises like a stupid hippie. 

Nobody said I had to stop eating like someone who’s trying to induce a heart attack, though.  Here’s what we had:

SATURDAY
Buffalo chicken with salad

This is quickly becoming my new fast and easy but not-quite-junk-food meal (which means that the family is quickly becoming sick and tired of it). It’s mixed greens topped with shredded carrots, crumbled blue cheese, crunchy fried onions from a pouch, and buffalo chicken from frozen, drizzled with buffalo ranch dressing. 

Quite a nice combination, sharp and yummy, but there’s an actual salad involved, so, santo subito

SUNDAY
Bacon, eggs, Brussels sprouts; homemade french bread

One of my favorite one-pan meals, and it’s so easy.

Jump to Recipe

You just have to cut up a bunch of Brussels sprouts and cut up a bunch of raw bacon, stir up a quick balsamic honey sauce, mix it all together, and cook it all in a big sheet pan. Shortly before it’s done, you crack some eggs on top and cook it a little longer, then top it with parmesan cheese and red pepper flakes.

SO GOOD. These flavors together are just so cozy and savory. 

Every time I make this dish, I say it needs fresh, warm bread, so this time I went for it.

I was feeling peppy after a successful faith formation class (we acted out the visit of the magi and the flight to Egypt. You should have seen that little star of Bethlehem waving and waving and waving her hands. Here’s the baby! Here He is! It was adorable) and didn’t need to do anything right away, so it was a good time. I chose this french bread recipe, which looked reasonable. I haven’t made french bread for something like ten years, and I was very nervous about the yeast. 

Someone told it’s better if the water is a little too cool, rather than too hot. So I erred on coolness and gave it almost 20 minutes to foam, and it foamed!  Hooray! The rest was pretty easy. I used the dough hook on my standing mixer to do the kneading for me, so it came out plenty smooth. And the idiots who designed my kitchen built a cabinet and countertop over the heating vent. We’ve since torn out the cabinets, but there is still a little makeshift shelf there, so I have the perfect warm, protected dough-rising spot.

So I let it rise in the bowl, then formed the loaves (I made a double recipe, so I had four big loaves) and let them rise, and slashed them after the second rise. Then I went out of the room for a minute. When I came back, one of my children was leaning on the loaf with her elbow. Just . . . .leaning on it. And it wasn’t like, “Oops, oh no, my goodness, I can’t believe I leaned in your dough!” It was more like, “Yeah, I can see spending my life here. What’s she yelling about now?” 

Anyway. I reformed the loaf, even if it’s not possible to do that with the child.

This recipe calls for tossing some ice cubes into the oven along with the bread, to put moisture in there and give it a nice crust.

I thought it came out a little soft and pale for my liking, but I didn’t want to over bake it and dry it out; so I melted some butter and brushed that on. They were so glossy and golden and lovely, I just about died, I was so proud of myself.

The taste was a little bland, which is okay, since the purpose of this bread was so sop up the spectacularly flavorful balsamic-honey-bacon-egg yolk pan drippings of the meal. 

Sorry, one last bread picture. I made bread!

I don’t feel confident enough to write up my own recipe card yet, but I’ll try this a few more times and then get that going. Yay, bread!

MONDAY
Domino’s

So this was the day I decided I was actually dying, and not from bread pride, so instead of the planned meal, we ordered pizza. And yes, I pulled off my cardiac electrodes, put my back shirt on, came home, and ate cold pepperoni pizza standing up. We die like Americans.

TUESDAY
Chicken quesadillas and guacamole 

Broiled some chicken in the oven, well crusted with salt, pepper, chili powder, and cumin, and sliced it up, then sliced up a ton of cheese, and fixed a big bowl of guacamole. The rest of the day is a bit of a blur. I think I went to bed and Damien made quesadillas. 

I do remember how remarkably perfect the avocados were, though. I bought them on Saturday and chose exactly the right day to cut them up. Aren’t they lurvely?

The guacamole was not, to be honest, my very best. I should have mashed them avocados more, cut the tomatoes smaller, and juiced some more limes. Still tasty, though. 

 

Jump to Recipe

WEDNESDAY
Bacon cheeseburgers, Doritos

Wednesday was, despite his best efforts, Damien’ birthday, and he requested that he be allowed to shop for and cook this meal. What a prima donna, right? We also had stuffed clams, because why not. (Here I would like to remind you that the doctor said my heart is entirely healthy and all my numbers are good. I only ate half a bacon cheeseburger, though, because I was full of stuffed clams.)

Now the kids are supposed to stop harassing me about being older than Damien, as we are now both 45, but they have not stopped. 

THURSDAY
Pulled pork sandwiches, tater tots, coleslaw

Easy peasy. I bought one of those giant shrink wrapped sandworm pork hunks at Aldi and chonked it in the slow cooker with some beer and hot pepper flakes, and let it cook all day. Shredded it and mixed it up with a bottle of BBQ sauce

and let that warm up while I made coleslaw

Jump to Recipe

 

which we ate by the light of the it’s-still-Christmas lights.

We also had the birthday dessert I had purchased on Wednesday but which we were all too stuffed to eat. This is what you get when you can’t say what you really want for your birthday. You get this:

No, he doesn’t especially like Raisinets.

Not pictured: Two kinds of ice cream, fresh whipped cream, hot fudge, and cherries. 

FRIDAY
Grilled cheese and tomato soup. 

Tomato soup from a can, I say! *shakes fist whats-for-supperly*

Recipe cards below!

Bacon, eggs, and brussels sprouts in honey garlic balsamic sauce

Adapted from Damn Delicious.  An easy and tasty one-pan meal that would work for any meal. Great with a hearty bread like challah. 

Ingredients

  • 4 lbs Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved
  • 3 lbs uncooked bacon, cut into 1- or 2-inch pieces
  • 18 eggs
  • oil for greasing pan
  • salt and pepper to taste

Sauce:

  • 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp honey
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 8 cloves garlic, crushed

Garnish (optional):

  • parmesan cheese, grated
  • red pepper flakes

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 400. Grease two large oven sheets. 


  2. Combine sauce ingredients in a small bowl. Mix Brussels sprouts and bacon together, spread evenly in pans, and pour sauce all over. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste.

  3. Cook until bacon is almost done (almost as crisp as you like it) and Brussels sprouts are very slightly browned, 18-20 minutes.

  4. Pull the pans out of the oven and carefully crack the eggs onto the Brussels sprouts and bacon, here and there.

  5. Return pan to the oven and cook a few minutes longer, just enough to set the eggs. The yolks will get a little film over the top, but don't let them cook all the way through, or you'll have something resembled hard boiled eggs, which isn't as good. You want the yolks to be liquid so you can dip forkfuls of fod into it.

  6. Sprinkle with parmesan cheese and red pepper flakes and serve. 

 

4 from 1 vote
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White Lady From NH's Guacamole

Ingredients

  • 4 avocados
  • 1 medium tomato, diced
  • 1 medium jalapeno, minced
  • 1/2 cup cilantro, chopped roughly
  • 1 Tbsp minced garlic
  • 2 limes juiced
  • 1 tsp chili powder
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/2 red onion, diced

Instructions

  1. Peel avocados. Mash two and dice two. 

  2. Mix together with rest of ingredients and add seasonings.

  3. Cover tightly, as it becomes discolored quickly. 

 

Coleslaw

Ingredients

  • 1 head cabbage, shredded
  • 2 carrots, grated
  • 5 radishes, grated or sliced thin (optional)

Dressing

  • 1 cup mayo
  • 1 cup cider or white vinegar
  • 1/2 cup lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • pepper to taste

Instructions

  1. Mix together shredded vegetables. 
    Mix dressing ingredients together and stir into cabbage mix. 

 

10 Ridiculous family games that need no equipment

  1. JEBRAHAMADIAH AND BALTHAZAR (also called “Master and Servant”)

Another role-playing/narrative game, but you can sit down for this one. I am not sure why my kids call this one “Jebrahamadiah and Balthazar,” except that (a) it has something to do with the Jeb! flyers we kept getting in the mail when Jeb Bush was running for president, and (b) they are weirdos.

One person gives orders, the other person explains why he can’t carry them out. The answer has to be part of a consistent narrative — you can’t just make up a new excuse for each command.

Here is an abbreviated example. The longer you can draw it out, the funnier it gets:

Jebrahamadiah! Go get me a glass of water.
I would, but I just broke the last glass.
Then go get me a cup of water.
I would, but when I broke the glass, I cut my finger, and I can’t use my hand.
Well, use your other hand.
I would, but when I was searching for a Band-aid for my one hand, I slammed the medicine chest door on my finger, and now both hands are useless.
Then call an ambulance.
I can’t, because, if you’ll recall, my hands don’t work.
Then use the speaker phone.
I would, but when I slammed the medicine chest door, some nail polish remover fell on my phone and now the speaker doesn’t work.
Then just shout out the window for help.
I would, but the neighbors saw me wrecking my phone, and he’s a big jerk, and laughed so hard that he drove off the road and now he’s in a coma.
Well, shout out the other window on the other side of the house.
I would, but when the other neighbor drove off the road, he knocked a utility pole down, and a live wire landed on the house on the other side and now it’s on fire, so I don’t want to bother them.
Well . . . okay, fine, I’ll get my own water.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: From Wikihow Play Charades (Creative Commons)

The Seed Who Was Afraid To Be Planted: A terrifying and potentially dangerous book for kids

A new children’s book, The Seed Who Was Afraid To Be Planted (Sophia Institute Press, 2019), is getting rave reviews from moms, Catholic media, and conservative celebrities.

On the surface, it’s a simple, inspiring story about courage and change; but for many kids — and for many adults who have suffered abuse — the pictures, text, and message will be terrifying and even dangerous. At best, this children’s book delegitimizes normal emotions. At worst, it could facilitate abuse.

The rhymed verses by Anthony DeStefano, lavishly illustrated by Erwin Madrid, tell the story of a little seed who’s plucked from his familiar drawer

and planted in the earth. He’s frightened and confused, but soon realizes that change means growth, and as he’s transformed into a beautiful, fruitful tree, he becomes thankful to the farmer who planted him, is grateful and happy, and forgets his fears forever.

While religion isn’t explicitly mentioned until after the page that says “the end,” the influence of scripture is obvious (the seed packets are labelled things like “mustard,” “sycamore,” “olive,” “grape,” and “fig,” and it makes references to “mansions” and “vineyards”). The seed is everyman (or everychild), and the farmer is God the Father, and/or authority figures like parents and teachers.  

It sounds helpful and wholesome, but let’s take a closer look.

Margaret Realy, author, artist, and speaker (The Catholic Gardener) reviewed the book, anticipating a pleasant read, but was alarmed and disturbed. She wrote a review on Amazon that pinpoints the specifics. Realy said:

This story places childhood abuse and neglect in the center of its theme. A small defenseless being is repeatedly traumatized by seeing loved ones ‘disappeared’ “…and no one would see that seed anymore.” Then the following stanzas speak of anticipatory trauma that he too will be taken away.

The fearful day comes, he can’t escape, and the man’s hand clasped around him. No matter how the seed cried and yelled, he was taken from a secure and loving environment to one of “horror”, “pain”, and “agony.”

The man that took him away was silent and unresponsive to the pleading seed, buried him alive, and left him abandoned.

That’s a lot for a young child to process, and nearly impossible for one—of any age—that is abused.

The pictures are dramatic and gripping, and the dark subject matter contrasts weirdly with the cartoonish faces and font:

Here is the seed, weeping after being abruptly buried alive:

The seed does, of course, come out well in the end, and it becomes a home for birds and animals; children play around it, and it bears much (confusingly diverse) fruit while overlooking a prosperous paradisal landscape with “millions of mansions.”

But this happy ending doesn’t do the job it imagines it does. Realy points out that, while the story attempts to show that the seed’s fears were unfounded and it would be better if he had trusted the farmer, it doesn’t show any of that in progress. Realy said:

Unfortunately I find the story’s transitioning through fear of the unknown into transformation by Grace, weak. The ‘seed’ began to change without any indication of the Creator’s hand, and his terrified soul was not comforted or encouraged by human or Holy.

Instead, it simply shows him transforming “all at once, in the blink of an eye”

This might have been a good place to point out that a seed grows when it’s nourished by a farmer, and to illustrate what appropriate care and concern  actually look like. The Old and New Testament are absolutely loaded with references to God’s tenderness, kindness, mercy, love, care, pity, and even affection; but this book includes none of that, and instead skips seamlessly from terror and abandonment to prosperous new life.

It explicitly portrays God (or his nearest representative in a child’s life) as huge, terrifying, silent, and insensible and unresponsive to terror and agony — and also inexplicably worthy of unquestioning trust.

Realy points out: 

Research indicates that up to 25% of children in the United States are abused, and of that 80% of those children are five and under (Childhelp: Child Abuse Statistics Facts. Accessed December 2019). This is based on only reported cases.

That’s a lot of kids.

Imagine a child who has been taken from a place of comfort, happiness, and companionship and is thrust into darkness and isolation by a looming, all-powerful figure who silently ignores their terror and buries them alive.

Now imagine what this book tells that child to think about himself, and what it tells him to think about God. Imagine how useful this book would be to someone who wants to continue to abuse, and who wants his victim to believe that what is happening to him is normal and healthy and will bear fruit. 

It is ghastly.

But what about kids who aren’t being abused? The statistics, while horrifying, do show that most children aren’t being abused. Can’t we have books designed for these typical children? 

It is true that some kids are inappropriately afraid of change and growth, and need to be reminded that the unknown isn’t always bad. Imagery is useful for kids (and for adults), and I can imagine an anxious child who’s afraid of going to second grade being comforted with a reminder: Remember the little seed? He was scared, too, but the new things turned out to be good and fun!

But even for these children who aren’t experiencing massive trauma or abuse, and who truly are being cared for by people who want good for them, the narrative minimizes and delegitimizes normal childhood emotions. It’s clear that the seed is wrong to be afraid, even though his situation is objectively terrifying. Teaching kids to ignore and minimize their powerful emotions does not facilitate growth or maturity; it encourages emotional maladaptations that bear bad fruit in adult life. Ask me how I know. 

The flaws in the book are especially egregious when they make the message explicitly spiritual. The final page says “From the Bible” and quotes four passages from scripture. Two are unobjectionable, but two are breathtakingly inappropriate for kids: One quotes John’s passage about a grain of wheat falling to the ground and dying; and one describes Jesus falling to the ground at Gethsemane and praying that the Father might take the cup away, but saying “Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

These are not verses for children! They are certainly not for children of an age to appreciate the colorful, cartoonish illustrations and simplistic rhyming stanzas in the book. These are verses for adults to grapple with, and goodness knows adults have a hard enough time accepting and living them. 

Including them in a book for young kids reminds me chillingly of the approach the notorious Ezzos, who, in Preparation for Parenting, urges parents to ignore the cries of their infants, saying, “Praise God that the Father did not intervene when his Son cried out on the cross.” I also recall (but can’t find) reading how the Ezzos or a similar couple tell parents to stick a draconian feeding schedule for very young babies, comparing a baby’s hungry cries to Jesus on the cross saying, “I thirst.”    

On a less urgent note, it’s also sloppy and careless with basic botany. Realy, an avid garner, points out its “backwards horticulture” which has the tree growing “nuts and fruits that hang down,” but then later “the tree sprouted flowers/and blossoms and blooms.” It also shows a single tree producing berries, fruits, nuts, and grapes, refers to how “woodpeckers pecked/at his bark full of sap.” Woodpeckers do not eat sap, and sap is not in the bark of a tree. Realy and I both also abhor the lazy half-rhymes that turn up, pairing “afraid” with “day” and “saw” and “shore.” 

But worse than these errors is the final page, which shows a beaming, full-grown tree, along with a textbook minimization of trauma:

“The tree understood
that he had been freed.
He barely remembered
when he was a seed.

He barely remembered
his life in the drawer.
his fears disappeared
and returned . . . nevermore.”

Again, if we’re talking about a kid who was nervous about moving to a new classroom, then yes, the fears might turn out to be easily forgotten. But that’s not what the book describes. When the seed is being carried away from its familiar home, it says, “I’m in so much pain and such agony!” and “He felt so abandoned, forsaken, alone” as he’s buried alive by a giant, faceless man who offers no explanation, comfort, or even warning. In short, it describes true trauma, and trauma doesn’t just “disappear and return nevermore.” It’s cruel to teach kids or even adults to expect the effects of trauma to vanish without a trace.

As Realy said: “PTSD never goes away, even with God. We learn to carry the cross well.” 

Let’s be clear: Children don’t need everything to be fluffy and cheery and bright. Some kids, even very young kids, relish dark and gruesome stories, and I’m not arguing for shielding children from anything that might possibly trouble or challenge their imaginations. We recently read Robert Nye’s Beowulf, for instance. We read mythology; we read scripture.

But when we set out to explicitly teach a lesson — especially a lesson that purports to speak on behalf of God! — it’s vital to get the context exactly right. This book is so very sloppy and careless with children’s tender hearts, that even if there isn’t some dark intention behind it, it’s very easy to imagine a predatory abuser using it as a tool.

 A Catholic publisher like Sophia Institute Press ought to know better.

What’s for supper? Vol. 197: Latkes! Jelly donuts! Sushi! Oh the sushi! and Calzones.

Happy new year! If I had stayed on track back in October, I would have hit Vol. 200 of What’s For Supper right on Christmas. Instead, here we are, starting out the new year and new decade with . . . Vol. 197. The good news is, I won’t wake up at 3:45 a.m. feeling bad about this, because I’ll be too busy feeling terrible about not doing a podcast, not exercising, why is my fat head so fat, not inculcating my kids with a love of the saints and the arts, and the fact that one of them saw a bumper sticker that said “GOD BLESS JOHNNY CASH” and disagreed. Also, one of them heard Bob Dylan for the first time and said, “Who crawled into a hole and found this guy crouching there?” but I can’t really argue with that. 

Anyway, here’s what we had this week, spanning 2019 and 2020 or whatever it is:

SATURDAY
Grilled ham and cheese, chips, broccoli and dip

I had to spell “broccoli” three times before the red line went away. 

SUNDAY
Hamburgers, cheezy weezies, more broccoli

I ate broccoli with the fervor of someone who needs vegetables like fresh meat needs salt and vegetables. 

MONDAY
Beef barley soup, jelly donuts

Monday was the last night of Hanukkah– 

Wait, did I show you my lovely latkes? I guess that was during that weird in-between week after Christmas day, during Hanukkah, before New Year’s. Weird, man. Anyway, we have some lovely latkes, which I will now show to you:

It was a Friday and we finally decided that Friday within the octave of Christmas was a very nice day indeed, but not a solemnity, so it had to be meatless. I dunno, we get scrupey sometimes. But I really wanted latkes, so I went to the store and brought home the following side dishes: Frozen cheese blintzes, which I served with blackberry jam; frozen cheesy bread sticks, which I served with marinara sauce; crab cakes with lemon wedges; almond stollen; and crackers with sour cream, smoked salmon, and caviar. This is how we preserve Fridays as a day of penance and I don’t want to talk about it. 

Latke recipe card at the end. See my latkes! See my lovely latkes!

Gosh, they were so good. Crispy on the outside and soft and mealy inside, just right. 

Okay, so I was saying how Monday was my final chance to try making jelly donuts. (It’s traditional to eat foods cooked in oil, to commemorate the miracle of the oil that lasted for eight days in the temple lamps.) I didn’t feel lucky about using yeast, so I found this King Arthur recipe for easy donut holes that just uses baking powder. It really was easy. (I did use a candy thermometer to make sure the oil was hot enough, and was very surprised at how long it took to come to 350. If I had been winging it, I would have started frying much too soon.)

You just mix up the batter (and if it seems too thin, let it sit for a bit, and it becomes more dough-like) and blop it into hot oil. It puffs into cute little balls,

which you then roll in sugar and fill with jelly. 

Actually the recipe says to put the jelly in first and then roll them in sugar, which makes no sense to me.

See, you get sugar on your jelly. It’s weird.

It also makes no sense to attempt to make jelly donuts when the most advanced jelly-squirting equipment you own is a sandwich bag, and yet that is what I did. 

They became somewhat less cute in the process, but the kids did like them, so I may make it a tradition. But I will make sure I have some kind of pastry bag or injecting tool, because yeesh, what a mess. 

Oh, the soup was good. Beef barley soup is always good. 

Jelly donuts were a strangely good match for the soup, I thought. Although I may have become deranged from breathing in hot oil. Honest to goodness, Hanukkah is going to kill me. Don’t tell my doctor. Tell him about the broccoli. 

TUESDAY
NYE Sushi party!

I took most of the kids to the vigil mass while Damien and Lena covered some political thing. Corrie was . . . she wasn’t even being bad. She was just being Ultra Corrie. Right at the elevation of the Host, she turned to me with a scratch pad picture clenched in her teeth, and, through clenched teeth, said, “This is a picture of you, dead.” Which it was. 

Then we came home and STARTED MAKING SUSHI. This is our New Year’s Eve tradition, and I like it. Normally we make DIY sushi cones (which just means you take a sheet of seaweed, slap some rice in one corner, poke whatever you want on top of the rice, and then roll or wad it up and stick it in your mouth; but this year, I attempted actual rolled sushi. It wasn’t that hard, with a bamboo rolling mat, but you can see, these are a little rough.

Oops, forgot the fishy eggs! Shprinkle, shrpinkle, fishy eggs. 

Next year I’ll watch some videos first, but we muddled through. I also bought a few kits of something called sushi candy, which turned out to be plastic trays with little packets of powder marked “tuna,” “seaweed,” “rice,” etc. , and you mixed the contents with water from a little dropper and used a tiny plastic paddle to make various kinds of gelatinous heaps of gel that actually resembled tuna, seaweed, rice, etc. Then you could shape them into sushi. It was simultaneously ingenious and very terrible, which has been my experience with every single kind of Asian candy. 

I made a batch of good rice (Nishiki brand. They look like mother of pearl) and mixed it gently with a mixture of rice vinegar, sugar, and salt (I cooked eight cups of raw rice and used 1 cup of rice vinegar, half a cup of sugar, and 3 tablespoons of salt. You put the vinegar, salt, and sugar in a pot and heat, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved, then fold it gently into the cooked rice while someone stands there fanning it with a paper plate so it doesn’t make the rice mushy). The Instant Pot makes great, sticky rice for sushi. 

We had raw salmon and raw tuna, seared mahi mahi, sautéed calamari, black caviar (couldn’t find any of that neat red-orange roe), little cooked shrimpies, sticks of cucumbers, avocado, and mango; wasabi sauce, sriracha mayo, pickled ginger, and of course soy sauce. We needed more crunchy elements. Maybe next time I will do a shrimp tempura. Or even just toast up some panko flakes. You know, it takes a lot of sushi to make twelve people feel like they ate too much, but we managed. 

We did make a bunch of hot dogs just to make sure everyone had something to eat (and this accounts for the bottle of ketchup you may see in some photos! We may be uncultured swine, but we do not put ketchup on our sushi). Then, according to tradition, we watched a Marx Brothers movie. This time it was A Night At the Opera, one of the best. Boogie boogie boogie!

WEDNESDAY
Calzones, banana splits

Birthday! She was the first child born in that city on New Year’s Day. They sent a reporter and photographer to the hospital and tried to get me to say that it wasn’t a big deal because we already had a bunch of other babies. I remember saying that it was a big deal, though, so there. Sophia is still a big deal, and always will be. 

We went to see a Star War (and I am exactly the right level of Star Wars fan, which means that I had a vague idea of who most of the people were, and found the movie entertaining and nice, and then as soon as the lights came on, I forgot about everything I just saw) and then came home for calzones and banana splits. A few of them spilled their guts in the pan

But most of them retained their dignity.

Corrie helped me with the egg wash, which she called “polish.” 

THURSDAY
Nachos

The high school kids had to go back to school on Thursday, can you believe it? The other kids were still on vacation, and had an “argh, vacation is almost over and we didn’t have enough fun” sleepover. I went to visit my mom and somehow persuaded myself that I’d be back in town in time to take the little guys to the caterpillar lab thing, but I barely had time to buy extra meat and fry it up before dinner. You can see that I went all out with the exotic seasonings.

Today, caterpillar lab o morte

FRIDAY
Pahster.

And very find pahster it was. I decided I didn’t want to deal with caterpillars, and we went to the children’s museum instead. Here is a photo of Benny and Corrie, intergalactic heroes, running out of oxygen shortly before crashing into the sun.

(Ten years later, they returned triumphantly to earth with a dog they had rescued from space, so don’t worry!)

And here are your recipe cards! Smell you next week. 

Potato latkes

Serve with sour cream and/or apple sauce for Hanukkah or ANY TIME. Makes about 25+ latkes

Ingredients

  • 4 lbs potatoes, peeled
  • 6 eggs beaten
  • 6 Tbsp flour (substitute matzoh meal for Passover)
  • salt and pepper
  • oil for frying

Instructions

  1. Grate the potatoes. Let them sit in a colander for a while, if you can, and squeeze out as much liquid as possible. 

  2. Mix together the eggs, salt and pepper, and flour. Stir into the potato mixture and mix well. 

  3. Turn the oven on to 350 and put a paper-lined pan in the oven to receive the latkes and keep them warm while you're frying. 

  4. Put 1/4 to 1/2 and inch of oil in your frying pan and heat it up until a drop of batter will bubble.  

  5. Take handfuls of potato mixture and squeeze out any excess moisture. Flatten mixture slightly and lay them in the pan, leaving room between latkes. Fry until golden brown on both sides, turning once. Eat right away or keep warm in oven. 

  6. Serve with sour cream and/or applesauce or apple slices. 

 

Beef barley soup (Instant Pot or stovetop)

Makes about a gallon of lovely soup

Ingredients

  • olive oil
  • 1 medium onion or red onion, diced
  • 1 Tbsp minced garlic
  • 3-4 medium carrots, peeled and diced
  • 2-3 lbs beef, cubed
  • 16 oz mushrooms, trimmed and sliced
  • 6 cups beef bouillon
  • 1 cup merlot or other red wine
  • 29 oz canned diced tomatoes (fire roasted is nice) with juice
  • 1 cup uncooked barley
  • salt and pepper

Instructions

  1. Heat the oil in a heavy pot. If using Instant Pot, choose "saute." Add the minced garlic, diced onion, and diced carrot. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onions and carrots are softened. 


  2. Add the cubes of beef and cook until slightly browned.

  3. Add the canned tomatoes with their juice, the beef broth, and the merlot, plus 3 cups of water. Stir and add the mushrooms and barley. 

  4. If cooking on stovetop, cover loosely and let simmer for several hours. If using Instant Pot, close top, close valve, and set to high pressure for 30 minutes. 

  5. Before serving, add pepper to taste. Salt if necessary. 

Calzones

This is the basic recipe for cheese calzones. You can add whatever you'd like, just like with pizza. Warm up some marinara sauce and serve it on the side for dipping. 

Servings 12 calzones

Ingredients

  • 3 balls pizza dough
  • 32 oz ricotta
  • 3-4 cups shredded mozzarella
  • 1 cup parmesan
  • 1 Tbsp garlic powder
  • 2 tsp oregano
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1-2 egg yolks for brushing on top
  • any extra fillings you like: pepperoni, olives, sausage, basil, etc.

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 400. 

  2. Mix together filling ingredients. 

  3. Cut each ball of dough into fourths. Roll each piece into a circle about the size of a dinner plate. 

  4. Put a 1/2 cup or so of filling into the middle of each circle of dough circle. (You can add other things in at this point - pepperoni, olives, etc. - if you haven't already added them to the filling) Fold the dough circle in half and pinch the edges together tightly to make a wedge-shaped calzone. 

  5. Press lightly on the calzone to squeeze the cheese down to the ends. 

  6. Mix the egg yolks up with a little water and brush the egg wash over the top of the calzones. 

  7. Grease and flour a large pan (or use corn meal or bread crumbs instead of flour). Lay the calzones on the pan, leaving some room for them to expand a bit. 

  8. Bake about 18 minutes, until the tops are golden brown. Serve with hot marinara sauce for dipping.  

Teaching 7- and 8-year-olds about their faith

In 2019, I started volunteering as a faith formation teacher for Grade 2, which is preparation for first confession. I always had it in my head that I’d like to do it someday, and that I ought to. Then suddenly it occurred to me that now would work, so I signed up before I could change my mind.

I only have a little bit of experience teaching a group, but I do love kids this age (seven and eight). They are extremely sincere and funny, eager to please, and ravenous for information about how the world works, and most of them haven’t developed a fear of asking questions that might sound foolish. They are also very silly, very immature, and some of them are in constant need of redirection. My hat is off to full-time teachers who manage kids for many hours every day! I don’t think I could do it.

I think it’s going well so far. Here is what I have discovered about teaching kids this age:

They love body movement. When I want them to remember something, I try to come up with a bodily motion or gesture to help it stick in their heads, and they love getting up and doing something.

One especially popular one is when I shout, “Who made you?” and they shout, “God!” I shout, “Why did God make you?” And they shout, “To know him [stamp left foot], to love him [stamp right foot] and to serve him [stamp left foot] in this world [point to the ground dramatically like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever], and to be happy with him forever IN THE NEXT [point to the sky dramatically like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever].

We also learned the American Sign Language sign for Trinity when we did our first lesson on the Trinity: Three fingers of your dominant hand are showing behind your non-dominant hand, then the dominant hand goes under and comes up in front with one finger. Three persons, one God. We shall see if they remember next week. I bet some of them will.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Photo By: Cpl. Katherine M. Solano (detail) (Public Domain)