Notes From Across the Atlantic
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Notes From Across the Atlantic

Notes From Across the Atlantic

David Mills FAITH MAGAZINE September-October 2013

David Mills is the Executive Editor of First Things

Alien Life

A friend, having attended a lecture on exoplanets (planets circling stars not our own) at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, reported that the lecturers were quite concerned with, nay excited by, the possibility that some of these planets might contain life. It’s an interesting question why the search for alien life so animates so many people in the sciences, and so many of the people we might call “sciencey”.

The American Museum of Natural History here in New York had an exhibit last year called “Beyond Planet Earth” and almost every part of it was directed, in slightly breathless prose, to the possible discovery of a microbe here or there. Whoever wrote the exhibit seemed to think that the main purpose of exploring space was to find life, even if all we find is a germ deep beneath the ice of one of Jupiter’s moons.

But where does this get us? It’s a lot of money to spend to find a microbe. Why not just go exploring because that’s what man does or because we might find things we need out there? Landing on Mars is cool enough even if it’s a completely dead planet.

We suspect that this search for alien life is driven not so much by intellectual curiosity as by the desire to feel that we’re not alone in the universe. The religious believer knows we’re not alone, even if man is the only sentient species on all the millions of planets that probably exist.

And if God didn’t exist, the fact that somewhere out there are other beings in the same situation we’re in wouldn’t really be comforting. We’d still be alone in the universe.

Luther Socks

Some clever German entrepreneur is selling “Luther Socks” in anticipation of the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation in 2017. On them appear the words “Here I stand”.

Fr Francis Duffy

The northern part of Times Square is officially named “Duffy Square” after Fr Francis Duffy, who as a chaplain in the First World War would go out under fire to help his men and became the most highly decorated cleric in army history, winning the French Republic’s Croix de Guerre to boot. He was played by Pat O’Brien in the movie The Fighting 69th, a regiment still based, as it happens, in the Lexington Avenue Armory nearby.

A statue of him in army uniform standing before a large stone Celtic cross sits in Times Square in front of the TKTS booth. Duffy died in 1932. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia unveiled the statue and dedicated the Square in 1937.

Dan Brown

An easy target but it may amuse some of you: a writer in The Daily Telegraph pretends to be Dan Brown thinking about his critics as his book Inferno appeared.

The critic said his writing was clumsy, ungrammatical, repetitive and repetitive. They said it was full of unnecessary tautology. They said his prose was swamped in a sea of mixed metaphors. For some reason they found something funny in sentences such as:

“His eyes went white, like a shark about to attack.” They even say my books are packed with banal and superfluous description, thought the 5ft 9in man. He particularly hated it when they said his imagery was nonsensical. It made his insect eyes flash like a rocket.

Another writer in The Telegraph offers the eight worst lines from the book. This one, for example, from chapter five:

Emerging from the darkness, a scene began to take shape … the interior of a cave … or a giant chamber of some sort. The floor of the cavern was water, like an underground lake.

He responds:

A giant chamber – perhaps like a cave! And a giant cave with a watery floor – why, you’re right, that is like an underground lake. Uncannily so, in fact.

The Ancientness of the Mass

The New Yorker staff writer Joseph Mitchell often went to church in Catholic churches. As he writes in an excerpt from a memoir recently published in The New Yorker, he began to be haunted by the thought of “the ancientness of the Mass – that it and its antecedents very likely go farther back into the human past than any other existing ceremony…. I began to feel that the Mass gave me a living connection with my ancestors in England and Scotland before the Reformation and with other ancestors thousands of years earlier than that, in the woods and in the caves on the mudflats of Europe.

“This was deeply satisfying to me … and I began to develop a respect for the Mass that has little or nothing to do with how I may happen to feel one way or another about organised religion.”

Not quite the attitude we’d hope for, but maybe a man who felt closer to his ancestors through their religion might eventually come to accept that religion. Mitchell’s essays, mostly reporting, are collected in Up In the Old Hotel, and much recommended. As are, while I’m at it, those of his New Yorker colleague St Clair McKelway, many of which are collected in Reporting at Wit’s End.


Faith Magazine

September - October 2013