me-2014Recently Tomas McDonald interviewed me for his blog, God and the Machine, on the subject of prayer.

On Facebook, Tom commented: “Jimmy’s reflections on prayer across time may prove that he is indeed the first ginger Time Lord.”

Here’s the interview . . .

Every Monday in How I Pray, I ask various Catholics about their prayer routines, their prayer lives, and their experience of prayer. This week I’m joined by the great apologist Jimmy Akin, whose clear and irenic explanations of Catholic teaching are always a welcome oasis in the often-fractious world of online Catholicism.

Who are you?

Ooo. One of the classic questions! You can keep asking it, over and over, peeling off layer after layer to get to the core of a person’s sense of self–and really annoy him in the process. :-)

To give you the top-level answer, my name is Jimmy Akin, and I’m a Catholic apologist.

I assume you’d like a fuller answer than just what you’d say in the introduction to the post, so what else can I say? Let’s see . . . I’m a blogger, podcaster, square dance caller, dance instructor, former private detective, former Chinese cook, comic book fan, science fiction fan, Gilbert and Sullivan fan, and a generally curious guy.

What is your vocation?

I am a widower, and I haven’t (yet) remarried, so I don’t presently have a vocation–at least in the proper sense that the Church has historically used the term.

All of the baptized have a general vocation to live in a Christian manner, but some are called to live that out in a specific way corresponding to matrimony, holy orders, or the consecrated life.

If I am ever so fortunate as to marry again, I will have the vocation of being a husband. That, however, would require me to overcome my natural shyness with the opposite sex and find a good woman who’s willing to put up with me.

What is your prayer routine for an average day?

Most of my prayers are spontaneous. I say many short prayers throughout the day, particularly when I am alone.

I have never calculated the average amount of time per day that I spend praying, but it is a substantial amount–comparable to performing more formal devotions.

How well do you achieve it, and how do you handle those moments when you don’t?

One of my common failings in prayer, like many people, is feeling that if I don’t say it “just right” then I need to say it again. This is a scruple, and like any scruple, it needs to be resisted.

I combat it by remembering Jesus’ statements that God already knows what we need and that we don’t need to go on stammering in prayer like the Gentiles do, thinking they need to wear down the deity with their prayers.

Though I observe my own rule imperfectly, I try to observe the rule, “Say the prayer once and trust God with any imperfections.”

I also try to keep my prayers from becoming purely formal by moving beyond the words and focusing on trusting God. I think of St. Paul’s remarks about how the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words, even when we don’t know how we should pray.

I think about the Centurion whose servant Jesus healed. Most people would have wanted Jesus to come and heal the servant in person, but the Centurion realized this was not necessary. He had faith that Jesus could do it from a distance. There is something similar with prayer.

For most of us, most of the time, we are reassured by using words, but prayer isn’t ultimately about giving God information. He already knows what we’re going to say. The words are a help to us, but not to him. They are, therefore, not essential. What’s important is not finding the right words but opening yourself to God and placing your faith in him. I think that exercising this kind of faith in God pleases him in the way that the faith of the Centurion did.

Do you have a devotion that is particularly important to you or effective?

When I have something really important that I need to pray for, I say the Memorare.

I also have a special devotion to Our Lady of Fatima, and I find the Chaplet of Divine Mercy particularly moving.

Do you have a place, habit, or way of praying?

I pray everywhere. Especially on airplanes.

When I pray, I try to recognize that it isn’t just me or the specific people I am praying for who are facing the situation I am praying about. There are people all over the world who are facing the same situations and who need prayer just as much.

As a result, I try to “universalize” my prayers when I can. If I hear an ambulance go by, I will often say a quick prayer “for all who are involved” (meaning, the injured, the emergency medical technicians, and everyone affected by the situation). I then try to add, “and for all in similar situations.”

Do you use any tools or sacramentals?

If I am praying the Rosary or the Chaplet of Divine Mercy by myself, rather than in a group, I commonly use mp3s to help me keep from getting distracted.

What is your relationship with the Rosary?

I don’t pray it as much as I’d like. When I do, I visualize the places in Israel where the mysteries occurred, and I imagine the Virgin Mary standing there. Visiting Israel and seeing the places where the mysteries occurred really deepened my experience of the Rosary.

Are there any books or spiritual works that are important to your devotional life?

My personal spirituality is bibliocentric, so the most important book for my devotional life is the Bible. It is when I’m thinking about and wrestling with the meaning of the biblical texts that I have the most spiritual insights.

What is your most recent spiritual or devotional reading?

The Gospel of Mark. I recently went through Mark verse-by-verse, and there are certain moments in Mark that just leapt out at me, full of meaning and resonance with situations in life.

Who couldn’t feel for the woman with the issue of blood (undoubtedly a gynecological problem) who was ritually unclean and thus forbidden to touch anyone, yet she secretly touched Jesus with faith that she would be healed. When he demanded to know who had done this, she was undoubtedly terrified–wondering if he might “take back” the miracle she had “stolen” by not asking first. Would he even put a curse on her and make her situation worse than it had been? But when she fessed up, he blessed her and sent her on her way. This reflects how God is willing to be merciful to us even when we approach him imperfectly. Our imperfections are not stronger than God’s mercy, as long as we seek him.

Similarly, who could not feel for Peter when he breaks down in tears after having denied the Lord–a reflection of the healing tears we all experience at times when we realize we have betrayed the Lord.

Are there saints or other figures who inspire your prayer life or act as patrons?

I don’t know how much I think in those terms. I think a lot about what God wants me to do and how he would have me approach a situation–in prayer or otherwise. In doing that, Jesus Christ is the obvious first point of reference, but the question “What would Jesus do?” can sometimes be misleading, and we can often deceive ourselves about it.

There’s a famous saying among Bible scholars: “By their Lives of Christ you shall know them.” This saying arose after people noticed that, whenever a scholar wrote a Life of Christ (a biography of him), the portrait he painted to Jesus tended to reflect the scholar’s own predilections. People tend to read themselves and their preferences into Jesus, and this is a tendency that needs to be resisted, so other reference points are valuable as well.

One reference point for me is Pope Benedict XVI. His thought and manner of proceeding have had a profound influence on me, and I often find myself looking at spiritual questions in light of what I think he would say about them. Often this calls me to take a more charitable and compassionate view of them than I might initially be inclined to.

Have you had any unusual or even miraculous experiences as a result of your prayer life?

Yes. When my wife, Renee, was dying, she had not been in touch with her father for twenty years–not since she was a little girl.

I was praying for her, and I was hoping that she would reconcile with him before she died. At one point we were driving to a medical appointment, and she said, “Do you think I should get in touch with him?”

“I think he would want to know,” I replied.

So we placed a call to his home in another state and left a message on his answering machine.

He called back something like an hour later. It turned out he was not at home, but a guy he had housesitting had heard the message and called him–and he was visiting a nearby town in Arkansas, where we were!

The odds of him being so close, and getting the message when he wasn’t at home, and being able to come and be reconciled with her so swiftly in the short time she had left was a true blessing and something that I have always regarded as an amazing act of Providence and an answer to prayer.

There have been similar divine “coincidences” that have happened at other points in my life. They don’t happen often, but when they do, it is profoundly meaningful to me.

I would like to see _________________ answer these questions.

Stephen Greydanus. He and I have discussed prayer often, and I know he will have interesting things to say.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I’d like to talk a little bit about ways of prayer that we don’t often think about.

Usually, we are focused on specific people and the situations they are facing, but there are so many people out there who either have no one praying for them or, even if they do, who would welcome our prayers.

Sometimes I pray for everyone in the world who would like my prayers. I also pray for those who would accept them (even if they wouldn’t have asked for them), and for those who need prayer (even if they wouldn’t want prayer at the moment).

When I am in particular need, I employ a variation on this, not only asking all the saints and angels to intercede for me, but also asking God to apply to my case the prayers of those who are praying for people out in the world, generically.

I also ask God to apply the good will of those who would pray about my situation if they knew about it. It strikes me that if a person has good will such that they would pray about something if they knew about it then there is an implicit kind of prayer contained in the person’s good will, and when I’m in need, I sometimes ask God to apply this to my case. I then immediately flip this around and pray for everyone in similar need out there.

Another type of prayer we don’t often think about is prayer across time. This is something C. S. Lewis talks about in his writings on prayer. While we may be bound by time, God is not. From the eternal now in which he exists, seeing all of history at once, God can hear my prayer from one point in time and apply it to any other point in time, whether past or future. As a result, it is legitimate in principle for us to pray for people in the past and the future.

The only case I can think of where it would not be legitimate is when we know the outcome of a particular situation and what God allowed to happen then. Thus I should not pray that a soldier who I know died in World War I should not die (since I know God allowed him to), but I might pray that, in the last moments of his life back in 1918, he turned to God and was saved.

Further, we have no idea what realms exist in God’s creation. There could be beings in need of prayer in countless times and places that we have no idea about, but they are all part of God’s domain, and so sometimes I add a qualifier to my prayers, asking that God will apply them to those “across all times and worlds”–anywhere in God’s domain–where they might do good.

I’ve even thought about composing a memorizable prayer to Jesus Christ, Pantokrator Kosmou (Greek, “Ruler of all the cosmos”) incorporating this concept, though thus far I haven’t done so.


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popefrancisThis version of The Weekly Francis covers material released in the last week from 6 November – 22 November 2014.


General Audiences



Daily Homilies (fervorinos)

Papal Tweets

Note: There are still a large number of documents that have not yet been translated into English.

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Men who came to Jesus: The Roman SoldierThere is a persistent claim that the early Christians were pacifists—in the strong sense of being opposed to all use of violence—and that it was not until the time of the Emperor Constantine that this began to change.

After Christianity became the official religion of the empire, the Church embraced the use of military force, with St. Augustine playing the part of the enabling villain, who came up with the idea of the just war.

This story plays with well-worn tropes: the fall from original innocence into corruption, the idea that Constantine corrupted the Church, that the Christianization of the empire was a bad thing, etc.

You may notice that these same tropes are often used in anti-Catholic apologetics stemming from the Protestant Reformation. That’s not surprising, since these tropes were needed to justify separation from the Church at the time of the Reformation.

It’s also not surprising that, relying on these same tropes, the denominations that historically have been strongly pacifistic stemmed from the Protestant community.

Most Protestants, of course, are not pacifists and recognize the legitimate use of military force, and there is a good reason for that: Protestants are the majority in many countries, just as Catholics are in others, and so they have been confronted with the task of ensuring the safety of their nations.

No nation can be safe if it is unwilling to use military force to defend itself. If, in the present, fallen state of the world, a nation were to suddenly renounce the use of military force and beat its swords into ploughshares, it would suffer a dire fate.


  • It would be conquered by its external enemies,
  • Its internal, criminal element would overrun it and turn it into a failed state,
  • Its more sensible-minded citizens would stage a coup and re-establish a government willing to use force to defend the nation, or
  • It would depend for its defense on another country that is less scrupulous about the use of force, making its safety and freedom dependent on the whims of that foreign state.

Any way you go, pacifism is not a stable, self-sustaining enterprise. It’s a dangerous world out there, and pacifists depend for their safety and security on the generosity and good will of non-pacifists.

Prior to the Christianization of the Roman empire, many Christians were not faced with the responsibility of defending the public and ensuring public order. As a result, some authors of this period had the luxury of entertaining pacifistic ideals without having to worry about keeping people safe.

But were they all in this condition? What about those Christians who were in the military?

What about the era of the New Testament itself? What attitude toward military service did it take?

Is the idea of a uniformly pacifist early Church accurate? Or does it distort what actually happened?

Here’s a video in which I take on the subject.

Click here to watch the video in your browser.

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mark-and-johnThe Church Fathers on John’s Gospel

Clement of Alexandria gives the following account of when and how John’s Gospel was written:

[L]ast of all, John, perceiving that the external facts had been made plain in the Gospel, being urged by his friends, and inspired by the Spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel [preserved in Eusebius, Church History 6:14:7).

He notes that John was written last, that John was urged by others to write, and that he wrote his Gospel in a deliberately different style than the others, which had already presented “the external facts” about the life of Jesus.

A similar account is found in the Muratorian Fragment, which says:

The fourth of the Gospels is that of John, [one] of the disciples. To his fellow disciples and bishops, who had been urging him [to write], he said, ‘Fast with me from today to three days, and what will be revealed to each one let us tell it to one another.’ In the same night it was revealed to Andrew, [one] of the apostles, that John should write down all things in his own name while all of them should review it [Muratorian Fragment 9-16].

This account at least seems to agree that John was written last (though the reference to it being the “fourth of the Gospels” could be a reference to its canonical order).

It definitely agrees that John was urged to write it, and it indicates that John seems to have been initially hesitant to do so, not agreeing until there was a divine revelation. This hesitation might have been due to the existence of the other Gospels, which already recorded the basic facts of Jesus’ life.


John’s Gospel on John’s Gospel

The idea that John wrote to supplement the other Gospels and that he did so with some hesitation may be reflected in two passages in the Gospel itself:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name [John 20:30-31].

This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written [John 21:24-25].

The reference to the many other signs that Jesus performed “which are not written in this book” may be taken as a reference to other books—the other Gospels—in which they are written.

It could also reflect a hesitancy to write further about the author’s experiences with Jesus, because that would result in too long a work.

The latter understanding seems to be reflected in the second passage’s statement that, if all of Jesus’ deeds were written, “I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”

There may even be a reference to the elders who urged John to write when the second passage identifies the beloved disciple as the author and then says, “and we know that his testimony is true.” That statement may be the collective voice of the elders intruding into the text and endorsing John’s testimony.

All of this is disputed.


Isolated Evangelists?

In the last several decades, it has become fashionable in biblical scholarship to say that the Evangelists were all writing for individual communities and that their Gospels were not intended to be widely circulated, so they wrote with little awareness of each other’s work. According to a common view:

  • Mark wrote first and so didn’t know the work of any other Evangelist.
  • Matthew knew Mark but not Luke or John.
  • Luke knew Mark but not Matthew or John.
  • John didn’t know any of the other three Evangelists’ work.

Of course, like everything in biblical scholarship, each of these claims is disputed.

thegospelsforallchristiansBritish scholar Richard Bauckham published a major assault on the idea that the Gospels were written for narrow, isolated communities in a book that he edited and co-authored with several other individuals, entitled The Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences (New Testament Studies).

It’s awesome.



Did John Know Mark?

One of the essays that Bauckham contributed to the book is entitled “John for Readers of Mark.” In this piece, he argues that John not only knew Mark but that you can show this because John seems to have used Mark as a template or an outline.

In other words, John sequenced his own narrative in and around the elements in Mark’s narrative so that the two Gospels fit together like puzzle pieces.

If this view is correct, you should be able to make a table using parallel columns to show how the two Gospels fit together.

Bauckham did not provide such a table, and though he provided impressive arguments for his proposal, he did not go through the entirety of the two Gospels or test the proposal against the ideas that John might have used Matthew or Luke rather than Mark.

I decided to continue Bauckham’s investigation along these lines.


How Mark and John Fit Together

First, here is the table I came up with of how the two Gospels fit together (italics and parentheses indicate material that is in a different sequence in one Gospel than the other):





1. Prologue


2. John the Baptist, Jesus’ Baptism, & Testing


3. Early Ministry I


4.       Clearing the Temple



5. Early Ministry II


6. The Official’s Son


7 Galilean Ministry I


8. Sending the Disciples


9. Fate of John the Baptist


10. Visit to Jerusalem


11. Disciples Return


12. Feeding the Five Thousand & Walking on the Water



13. Galilean Ministry II



14. Judean Ministry I



15. Transjordan Ministry



16. Judean Ministry II


17. Travel to Jerusalem


18.    Anointing with Oil



19. Triumphal Entry



20. Clearing the Temple



21. Before the Supper



22.    Anointing with Oil



23. The Last Supper



24. Extended Discourse


25. After the Supper



26. Before Annas


27. Before Caiaphas



28. Peter’s Denial



29. Before Pilate



30. Crucifixion & Burial



31. Resurrection Narrative

(or 16:1-20)



Did John Use Mark as a Template?

I then went through the table, looking for evidence for and against the proposal. Here is a summary of my findings (most of these points I got from Bauckham, but some—especially those regarding the Last Supper—are original to me):

  • John’s prologue introduces John the Baptist (John 1:6-8, 15) and can be seen as interacting with the beginning of Mark (Mark 1:1-13).
  • John 1:19-4:43 can be seen as fitting between Mark 1:13 and 1:14.
  • In John 1:19-34, John the Baptist gives an account of his own ministry and of how he identified Jesus as the coming one that reflects Mark 1:1-13.
  • The fact that John does not directly record the baptism of Jesus (a major event!) suggests that his audience already had a written account of it.
  • John 3:24’s reference to an incident that occurred when “John had not yet been put in prison” seems to be intended to clarify when the events of John 1:19-4:43 fit into Mark’s outline.
  • In Mark 6:7-13, Jesus sends the disciples on a mission from which they will return in Mark 6:30. The material between these verses is thus a time when Jesus does not have the disciples with him. This period seems to be reflected in John 5:1-47, which is a period in which the disciples are not mentioned. Further, in both John and Mark, these sections contain material recording or referring to the death of John the Baptist, with John seeming to presuppose that the audience already knows how the Baptist died (presumably from Mark’s account).
  • John 7:1a seems to summarize a continuation of the Galilean ministry that is recorded in Mark 6:54-9:50. Further, John 6:4 and 7:2 imply a period of six months spent in Galilee that John does not otherwise record and that seems to correspond to Mark 7-9. This period is the last time that Jesus will be in Galilee until after the Resurrection.
  • Mark 10:1a and John 7:10-10:39 record a period in which Jesus ministered in Judea.
  • Mark 10:1b-31 and John 10:40-42 record a period in which Jesus ministered in the Transjordan.
  • The way that the Last Supper is recorded in Mark 14:12-26 and John 13:1-14:31 suggests supplemental intent on John’s part. John omits virtually everything Mark records happening before and at the supper and provides additional material about it not found in Mark. Even when he records the one event that the two have in common (Jesus’ prediction of Judas’s betrayal) John provides supplementary detail not found in Mark. Also, the events that John narrates seem to interweave easily with the events that Mark records. The fact that John does not record the institution of the Eucharist (another major event!), which he has already foreshadowed in John 6:26-71, is strong evidence that his audience already had a written record of its institution.
  • John’s supplemental intent may be illustrated by his giving names to figures that are otherwise unnamed in Mark (e.g., Peter and Malchus in the incident where Peter cuts off Malchus’s ear; cf. Mark 14:47, John 18:10).
  • John 18:13-23 discusses the relationship between Annas and Caiaphas, provides additional detail about how Peter got into the courtyard of the high priest, and preserves an account of Jesus’ appearance before Annas, which is not mentioned in Mark. All of these may be seen as an effort to supplement Mark’s account.
  • John 18:24 refers, in a single verse, to the appearance of Jesus before Caiaphas, which is described in detail in Mark 14:53-65. This may be evidence of John taking Mark’s account as read.
  • In John 19:7, the Jewish authorities charge Jesus before Pilate with making himself out to be the Son of God. This charge is not found in John’s account of Jesus’ appearances before the Jewish authorities, but it is found in Mark’s account (Mark 14:61-64).

On the other hand:

  • The clearing of the temple and the anointing with oil are placed differently in Mark and John.
  • John records Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s denial as occurring during the Last Supper, but in Mark it appears just after the supper.

These differences could be counted as evidence that John was not using Mark as an outline, but it also can be understood in other ways, such as John providing additional clarity on precisely when these events occurred (or, in the case of the clearing of the temple, that it happened more than once). The dislocation of these events thus does not overcome the positive evidence that John used Mark.


Did John Use Luke as a Template?

I then used the same methodology—making a table of how Luke and John might mesh and then reviewing each section for evidence that John might have used Luke. Here is a summary of my findings:

  • There is a possible agreement between Luke and John if the healing of the Centurion’s servant (Luke 7:1-10) is the same as the healing of the Official’s son (John 4:44-54). If they are different events (my preference) then there is no such interaction.
  • A similar, possible interaction is the miraculous catch of fish recorded in Luke 5:1-9. If this is the same event as the miraculous catch recorded in John 21:1-14 then it could be a case of John providing greater clarity about when this event occurred chronologically. However, if these are two different events (my view) then there is no such interaction.
  • There is also one notable agreement in that Luke and John place the prediction of Peter’s denial within the Last Supper (Luke 22:31-34, John 13:36-38), rather than after it (Mark 14:26-31).

These, however, pale in comparison to the differences in sequence that make it much less likely that John used Luke for a template compared to Mark. These include the following:

  • John would have had to skip the first 132 verses of Luke and begin by relating his prologue to material in Luke 3.
  • Luke 4:14 does not mention that Jesus began his Galilean ministry only after John was imprisoned (it thus fails to set up John 3:24)
  • Luke omits the Transjordan ministry found in John 10:40-42
  • Luke does not provide an account of Jesus’ encounter with Caiaphas, so John 18:24 could not be a summary of such an encounter.
  • And—most especially—the major disruptions posed by Luke’s travel narrative and the fact that John—with a known interest in clarifying chronology—would not have passed over them without doing anything to resolve them.

It thus appears more likely that John used Mark as a template than that he used Luke.

But what about the idea that he might have used Matthew?


Did John Use Matthew as a Template?

Finally, I repeated the procedure on Matthew. Here is a summary of my findings:

  • There is a possible agreement between Matthew and John if the healing of the Centurion’s servant (Matt.  8:5-13) is the same as the healing of the Official’s son (John 4:44-54). However, these may very well be two separate events (my preference), in which case there is no such agreement.

This single possible agreement is more than offset by elements that make it less likely that John used Matthew for a template than Mark. These include the following:

  • John would have had to skip the first two chapters of Matthew and begin by relating his prologue to material in Matthew 3.
  • In John the death of John the Baptist seems to be announced while Jesus’ disciples are out on mission, but in Matthew the disciples return to Jesus before the death of John the Baptist.
  • Matthew 19:1 seems to blur together the Judean and Transjordanian ministries recorded in John 7-10.



It thus appears that John more likely used Mark as a template than either Luke or Matthew. I thus think Bauckham is right: John likely meant his Gospel to interweave with Mark’s Gospel.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that John didn’t know Matthew’s or Luke’s Gospels. He may have; he just doesn’t seem to have used them as a template the way he did Mark’s.

Also, the above are simply a summary of my findings—not a full study—though I did such a study in brain-crushing detail, which you can read online.


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concentric-shellsThe Principle is a documentary promoting geocentrism, or the idea that the earth is at the center of the universe.

In a previous post, I looked at how well it worked as a film. (I gave it * * 1/2 stars out of 5.)

What about the content of the film? How well does that stand up?

It depends on the level you are talking about.

At the highest level, the film contains a message that science and faith are not enemies and should not be pitted against each other.


But that doesn’t mean that the earth is at the center of the universe, which is what the film wants to suggest.

The summaries that The Principle provides about the history of astronomy also are generally accurate, though I was amazed that the filmmakers let Michio Kaku get away with saying that Giordano Bruno was burned alive “for simply saying that there are other worlds out there.”

This is not true, and the filmmakers should have provided a voice setting the matter straight. Even Wikipedia’s page on Bruno is more accurate than The Principle is on him.

The film’s discussion of recent physics is also largely fine. Even some of the critiques it offers of modern scientific ideas are good (e.g., that we shouldn’t overplay the idea of a multiverse). But again, these don’t prove geocentrism, which is what the film is interested in advocating.


“What If . . . ?” Advocacy

We should note the way in which The Principle advocates geocentrism. It does not come out and say, in a straightforward way, with the full editorial voice of the film, “The earth is at the center of the universe.”

Instead, it uses the kind of breathless “What if . . . ?” style of advocacy that you find in documentaries inviting us to consider whether—just maybe—Jesus Christ might have been married to Mary Magdalene. Or whether—just perhaps—he never rose from the dead. Or even—just maybe perhaps—he was a space alien.

Despite framing their theses in the form of questions, the viewer understands which points of view they’re advocating.

Know what I mean?

Now: What arguments does the film offer concerning geocentrism?


Alternate Interpretations

A good bit of the film just tries to poke holes in current cosmological ideas by proposing alternate interpretations rather than making a positive case for geocentrism.

This happens when they note that you could explain the fact that almost all galaxies appear to be moving away from us either by proposing an expanding universe, in which almost all galaxies are moving away from each other, or by proposing that our galaxy is at the center of the universe and everything is moving away from us.

Fine. Either one of those works.

What the filmmakers don’t point out is that these aren’t the only two options. While you could pick our galaxy as the center and see everything moving away from it, you can equally well pick any random location in the universe and use it as a reference point.

If you did that, the same exact thing would result: Almost all the galaxies would seem to be moving away from that randomly chosen point.

Since there are an infinite number of random points you could choose, you need to give the viewer a reason to pick our galaxy—and, more specifically, our planet—if you want us to suppose that we are at the physical center of things.


A Baby’s Smile? The Finale of a Symphony?

It’s hard to know what to make of some of the things in The Principle. For example, there is an opening montage in which you have multiple figures talking about whether the earth is or is in a “special” place, with many of them denying that it is.

The earth very obviously is a special place (it has life, liquid water, breathable oxygen, and it’s where I keep all my stuff), so when the film talks about the earth being or being in a special place, it seems to be using the word special to mean something like “central” or “at the center.”

But then why is Kate Mulgrew telling us that the earth seems special because nowhere else in the universe do we see a baby’s smile or the finale of a great symphony being performed?

That’s not evidence that the earth is at the center of anything. Indeed, there could be babies smiling everywhere in the galaxy and symphonies finishing all over the universe and we wouldn’t know it because we don’t have telescopes powerful enough to see them. “Absence of evidence does not equal evidence of absence.”

It’s hard to think that the filmmakers meant this to be taken seriously. Presumably, they put it in to give the viewers a warm fuzzy, without making a serious argument.


Concentric Shells?

The film seems to attempt only two serious arguments in favor of geocentrism. The first is based on the findings of physicist John Hartnett, who claimed to have discovered that there are regularities in the speeds that the galaxies appear to be moving away from us.

According to Hartnett, the galaxies seem to cluster around particular redshifts (i.e., particular speeds at which they are retreating). This can be visualized as a series of concentric shells (see illustration) with a center “somewhere cosmologically near our galaxy’s position,” in Hartnett’s words.

It should be noted that, although Hartnett himself thinks that our galaxy has a central location in the universe, he does not believe in geocentrism, and he believes that the producers of The Principle misrepresented his position in the film.

Further, Hartnett notes that even his galacto-centric interpretation of his data is not the only way of looking at it:

[T]he existence of concentric shells could be interpreted as some sort of oscillation in the expansion rate of the Universe. This view does not place any special significance on the centre of the large-scale structure being found exactly at the observer. This is because if cosmological redshift results from cosmological expansion then we only appear to be at some local centre.

Physicist Alec MacAndrew agrees. After noting that Hartnett’s data has been challenged and may not be accurate, he considers a proposal made by several scientists that the expansion rate of the universe changes over time in a way that makes the galaxies seem to cluster around particular speeds. He states:

In that case, observers will see preferential clustering of galaxies as a function of redshift, in concentric shells exactly centred on themselves from wherever in the universe they make the observation. Just like the recession of galaxies in a uniformly expanding universe always appears to be exactly centred on the observer, so universal oscillations in the expansion rate would leave a signature in the redshift data precisely centred on the observer, wherever he is [italics in original].

The argument based on the apparent speeds of the galaxies thus does not prove geocentrism (or even galacto-centrism).


The Cosmic Microwave Background

The other major argument that The Principle proposes for geocentrism is based on an analysis of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB)—a low-level radiation that fills the universe and that is commonly thought to be the “afterglow” of the Big Bang.

The argument that The Principle makes is difficult to summarize concisely and without computer animations, but it can be put this way: If you look at the sky, there are tiny temperature fluctuations in the Cosmic Microwave Background, and if you analyze these, you find features that seem to align with the plane of the solar system and the tilt of the earth’s axis. These seem to suggest that the earth is at the center of the universe.

Physicist Alec MacAndrew has written a technical takedown of the claim, which you can read here.

David Palm provides a somewhat less technical summary here. Here are a couple of takeaway points provided by Palm:

  • “Although you would never know it by reading geocentrist literature, the alignments which the new geocentrists highlight in the CMB are far from exact – they are only approximate.  It is true that any apparent alignments are interesting to physicists if they are expecting randomness.  But the inexactness of the alignments certainly does not create anything like a sound foundation upon which to build the extravagant claims of the geocentrists.  It is precarious, at best, to argue that the CMB data are actually ‘pointing to’ the earth when those alignments are off by 7, 14, even 16 degrees according to the most recent, most precise measurements.  The geocentrists are again playing fast and loose with the facts.  They demand we accept that God intentionally made the earth motionless at the exact center of the universe.  Yet, they’re content with supposed evidence that God is an extremely sloppy architect and cartographer who can’t manage to ‘point’ to the earth with a margin of error of less than 16 degrees.
  • “But it’s worse than that for the new geocentrists.  Because, as Dr. MacAndrew demonstrates, the CMB data don’t point at anything. As MacAndrew says, ‘the CMB multipole vectors give directional information but no positional information. If you were an astronomical distance away from the Earth, you would not be able to use the CMB multipole vectors to navigate to it.’  The claims of the new geocentrists that somehow the CMB ‘points at the Earth’ is completely fallacious.”


“Nothing Special”?

One of the most frustrating things about The Principle is a fallacy seemingly embraced by both the geocentrists and the non-geocentrists in the film.

Remember the opening montage I mentioned, where the question of whether the earth is or is in a “special” place kept being posed? Parties on both sides of the question seemed to be harboring the idea that if the earth isn’t in a special place then mankind is nothing special.

The geocentrists then seemed to suggest that since mankind is special, the earth must be or be in a “special” place. At one point, apologist Robert Sungenis says: “It’s tremendous to be human, so why wouldn’t we want to be in a special place in the universe, made by a special God?”

One of the problems with this argument is that what we want isn’t relevant. Another is the ambiguity of the word “special.”

The earth is a special place in ways that have already been noted: It has life, it has liquid water and breathable oxygen, etc.

The earth is also in a special place, because it’s in a location where those things are possible. If we were—say—at the distance from the sun that the planet Mercury is, that wouldn’t be the case.

Mankind is special because man has numerous qualities and abilities that are unique among all the living creatures on earth. From a theological point of view, man is also special because of his unique relationship with God.

But what does any of this have to do with being “special” in the sense of being at the center of the universe?


If God put the earth and mankind at the farthest point from the physical center of the universe (assuming the universe even has a physical center), none of the things that are special about them would change.

Just because something is special in one sense (having liquid water, having life, having intelligence) doesn’t mean that it is special in other senses (having liquid methane, having wings, being at the physical center of the universe).

This is simply fallacious reasoning.

As many have recognized.

But it’s the central—and fatal—fallacy of The Principle.


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the principleRecently the Register asked me to review The Principle—a documentary that promotes geocentrism, or the idea that the earth is at the center of the universe.

This film is much smaller than most of those the Register reviews. Indeed, at the time of this writing it has only reported $16,826 at the box office—half of which was made in a single theater on its opening weekend.

But the film is being disproportionately discussed in conservative Catholic circles, so I agreed.

Like any documentary, this one can be looked at more than one way. One perspective concerns the production values and how well it is executed. Another concerns the content of the film and how successfully it argues its case.

In this piece, we will look at how well The Principle works as a documentary film. In a subsequent piece, we will look at its content.

So how does it work cinematically?

It’s not the worst documentary I’ve ever seen.

That would be Overlords of the UFO (1976). You can watch it here. It’s hilarious.

While The Principle is better than Overlords of the UFO in many ways, the two have at least one thing in common, which is that they contain footage of people who were profoundly embarrassed by the film and who subsequently disassociated themselves with the project.

In the case of Overlords of the UFO, physicist and UFO researcher Stanton Friedman was horrified by the film’s use of footage from an interview he gave to a television station, making it appear that he was in support of the loony ideas promoted by the producers.

In the case of The Principle, multiple figures distanced themselves, including physicists Lawrence Krauss, Michio Kaku, Julian Barbour, and mathematician George Ellis (see here, for example).

Also disassociating herself from the project was actress Kate Mulgrew (Captain Janeway from Star Trek: Voyager), who read the narration for the film (see her comments on her Facebook fan page).

Setting aside the fact that multiple individuals associated with the film feel that they were misled by the producers and misrepresented in the film, how does it hold up cinematically?

Some have said that they were impressed by the production values, and these are not bad.

In addition to the interview segments, a good deal of the film is made up of stock footage and outer space photographs. These days, though, anybody can get some stock footage from Shutterstock and some Hubble telescope images, load them into Final Cut Pro, put pre-existing music under them, and produce montages of the same caliber.

There are some video effects that were produced specially for the film, and many of these do look good.

What looks less good are the two-dimensional animations produced for the film, particularly those depicting historical figures. To produce these, illustrations and photographs of well-known historical figures (Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Galileo, Albert Einstein, etc.) were redrawn or retouched and then animated in a clunky way that is basically a step above the cutout animations that Terry Gilliam produced for Monty Python.

These animations in The Principle move in ways that are unintentionally comical.

Sometimes, though, the filmmakers attempt comedy with them, but the result is disappointing and, in one case, comes off as juvenile.

This happens in a sequence in which astronomer Edwin Hubble is depicted sitting at a telescope, smoking a pipe. The animation awkwardly leans forward and back, observing distant galaxies. Then the narration indicates that Hubble’s observations were consistent with or suggestive of geocentrism, but he couldn’t accept this fact.

At this point the animation of Hubble gets an absurdly exaggerated expression of shock on its face. It falls over backward in its chair, and the still-smoking pipe spins around in mid air, defying the law of gravity, before it too plummets out of frame.

Classy, guys.

How does the film’s pacing work?

It begins with a general discussion of “the Copernican principle” (the idea that the earth is not the center of the solar system or the universe) and hammers the idea that this theory suggests that there is nothing special about mankind.

It then backs up to give a short history of astronomy and astrophysics and how they moved through different phases, leading up to the present. This segment depicts science and faith initially being in harmony, then diverging, and now possibly moving back together.

In the end it suggests that there are reasons to question (read: reject) the Copernican principle and that science and faith may have a more fruitful encounter than they did following the Galileo incident.

This is the kind of structure that you would expect in a film of this sort, but the timing in the film is problematic. With a run time of about 90 minutes, the film seems simultaneously too short and too long. Many viewers will find it confusing and boring.

It will come across as confusing because it is too short to adequately explain all the concepts it throws at the viewer.

Unless the viewer is a scientist or—at least—someone who reads science books for fun (as I do, including multiple books by Lawrence Krauss and Michio Kaku, both of whom were interviewed for the film), he will have a hard time keeping up with many of the concepts in the film.

Lots of terms get thrown around—either with no definition at all or with a definition so brief that a normal viewer will not be able to absorb and remember it.

Multipoles? Dipoles? Octopoles? Ecliptic? Isotropic? Anisotropies?

These are not terms that will be familiar to most viewers, and if you want the viewer to understand what is being said, you need to slow things down and really explain these terms so that the viewer can grasp and remember them.

The film doesn’t do that, and so significant sections of the film will come across as confusing and impossible to follow for the normal viewer.

It’s not that they don’t make an effort to explain some of the terms. In fact, there is a goofy holographic-computer-interface-dictionary-lady-who-speaks-with-an-apparent-British-accent who pops up occasionally to define a term for us, but it is not enough for a viewer not already familiar with the jargon used in the film.

With significant sections of the film being unintelligible to a typical viewer and with the film at 90 minutes running time, many will feel parts of it boring.

Thus, in a way, the film seems too long.

It either needed to cut these sections and deliver a shorter, more intelligible film, or it needed to expand its length—explain the concepts involved—and become a more intelligible miniseries.

Artistically, judged simply as an example of documentary filmmaking, The Principle might get * * 1/2 stars out of five.

In the next post, we will look at the content of The Principle and how well it stands up.

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lost-gospelIt’s getting near Christmas, and you know what that means. That’s right! It’s time for another book to be released telling us the sensationalistic “truth” about Christianity.

This time we have The Lost Gospel: Decoding the Ancient Text that Reveals Jesus’ Marriage to Mary the Magdalene by Simcha Jacobovici and Barrie Wilson.

You may remember Jacobovici from his involvement in previous biblical-archeological shenanigans like the discredited “Jesus family tomb” claims of a few years ago—in which Jacobovici similarly claimed that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene.

So what do he and sensationalist co-author Barrie Wilson have in store for us this time?


Zecharias Who?

The key text used in their new book is preserved in a set of writings attributed to Zecharias Rhetor (i.e., Zecharias the Rhetorician), also known as Zecharias Scholasticus (i.e., Zecharias the Scholar), also known as Zecharias of Mytilene.

He was a native of Gaza who lived in the late A.D. 400s and early 500s and who became the bishop of Mytilene.

He wrote a number of works in Greek, including a work on Church history that was later translated into Syriac (a dialect of Aramaic), with various editorial changes.

It is this Syriac text, brought to the British Museum in 1847, that Jacobovici and Wilson are using in their new book.


What They’re Claiming

Among other things, Jacobovici and Wilson claim that they have discovered a lost gospel that is written in code and, when properly decoded, states that Jesus was married, likely to Mary Magdalene, and that they had two sons.

None of this is true.


Not Lost.

First, the text in question is not “lost.” It is not some newly discovered work that scholars were previously unaware of.

The particular manuscript that Jacobovici and Wilson rely on was brought to the British Museum for more than a century and a half ago, and the same text has been known through other sources for centuries.

The scholarly community has been well aware of it, and translations of it in English and other languages are common.

To give you an idea of how not-lost this work is, it’s been in print for centuries, I have it in my own library, and here’s a version you can read online from a book printed in 1918.


Not a Gospel.

The work is also not a Gospel. Although some scholars use the term “Gospel” in surprising and misleading ways, a Gospel (in the literary sense) is a book about the life and/or teachings of Jesus.

That is not what this text is. This text is not about Jesus. The story it tells is not even set in the first century, when Jesus lived.

It’s set more than a thousand years before the time of Christ.


Not a Code About Jesus.

The work is also not a coded version of the story of Jesus. Instead, it’s a work of historical fiction about two figures we already know from the Old Testament: Joseph and Asenath.


Who were Joseph and Asenath?

Joseph was one of the sons of Jacob. He angered his brothers, who sold him into slavery.

Eventually, he ended up in Egypt, where he rose to prominence and married an Egyptian woman named Asenath, who was the daughter of an Egyptian priest.

She and Joseph later had two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, who became the patriarchs of two of the tribes of Israel.

You can read the biblical account of Joseph in Genesis 37-50, and we read about his marriage to Asenath in Genesis 41:45, 50, and 46:20.


Why are these two figures discussed in Zecharias’s writings?

If you go into a Christian bookstore today—be it Protestant or Catholic—you are likely to find novelizations of the lives of various biblical and historical figures.

These may be fictionalized lives of Old Testament saints, like Abraham and Moses, New Testament saints, like Peter or Paul, or saints from later Church history, like Augustine or Francis of Assisi.

Out of the same impulse, a desire to know and imagine more about what famous religious figures’ lives were like, Jews and Christians in the ancient world sometimes wrote fictionalized lives of their forebears, and that’s what the ancient work known as Joseph and Asenath is: It’s a fictionalized account of the lives of the Old Testament patriarch Joseph and his wife.


What happens in the story?

A bunch of things, but basically it falls into two parts. The first part is devoted to Asenath’s conversion to the Hebrew faith.

As the daughter of an Egyptian priest, she was raised a polytheist and an idolater, and in later ages, Jewish men were forbidden from marrying foreign women because of their idolatry and how they would tempt their husbands to worship other gods.

This raised a question: How could the patriarch Joseph have married a foreign woman—an Egyptian, even!

The first part of the novel answers this by proposing that Asenath repented of her idolatry and embraced the worship of the true God, making her a fitting bride for Joseph.

The second part of the novel deals with an adventure in which the son of Pharoah tries to get Asenath for himself, but Asenath prays to God, who intervenes to save the situation. Pharoah and his wicked son die, and Joseph becomes the regent of Egypt until a different son of Pharoah is old enough to reign.


So this isn’t a coded story about Jesus?

No. It’s a straightforward historical novel about two familiar Old Testament figures.

It addresses questions that an ancient Jewish audience would have, like how a pagan priest’s daughter could marry a biblical patriarch.

Its mention of Joseph’s and Asenath’s two sons—Ephraim and Manasseh—is not to tell us about sons of Jesus and Mary Magdalen. They are mentioned because they were the patriarchs of two of the later tribes (or “half-tribes”) that everyone in ancient Israel knew about.

And it contains a thrilling tale of how God answers prayer and will protect those who turn to him from the machinations of others—just like multiple accounts in the Old Testament.


Are there unanswered questions about the work?

Sure. Like a lot of ancient literature, we aren’t sure who wrote it or when. There is even debate about whether Joseph and Asenath was a Jewish or a Christian work, or possibly a Jewish work with Christian edits.

There are also some strange things in it—like material involving bees and a honeycomb—that some have suggested is meant to teach some kind of spiritual lesson, though it is hard to figure out.

However, the idea that Joseph and Asenath is a coded life story of Jesus is without foundation.


Are there particular reasons to think that Jesus was not married?

Yes. Among other things that could be said, Jesus points to celibacy as a spiritual ideal, saying that this gift is not given to everyone but should be accepted by those to whom it is given (Matt. 19:11-12). Since Jesus was considered himself the paragon of spirituality for Christians, it would be strange for him to propose this spiritual ideal if he himself did not meet it.

Further, Jesus depicts himself as a bridegroom (Matt. 9:15, 25:1-10, cf. John 3:27-30), but the marriage he has is a mystical one, not a literal one, for the New Testament portrays the bride of Christ as his Church, not as an individual woman (2 Cor. 11:2, Eph. 5:22-33, Rev. 19:7, 21:2, 9).

It is difficult to see how this understanding of the Church as the bride of Christ could have arisen if there were a literal “Mrs. Jesus.”

By virtue of her marriage to Jesus, she would have instantly become a prominent figure in early Christianity, and her status as the literal bride of Christ would have prevented the understanding of the Church as the mystical bride of Christ from developing.


Where can I read more?

Here’s the Asenath home page, maintained by New Testament scholar Mark Goodacre.

Here are some comments by New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham from when the pair first announced their “lost Gospel” book.

Here are some comments by classicist Bob Cargill that go directly to Jacobovici and Wilson’s claims (brief bad language warning).

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popefrancisThis version of The Weekly Francis covers material released in the last week from 10 May – 9 November 2014.


General Audiences



Daily Homilies (fervorinos)

Papal Tweets

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Yesterday I posted a video in which I discuss the question of whether those who commit suicide are automatically lost.

The answer, of course, is no, but I posted the video so people could see the reasoning behind this.

Unfortunately, I neglected to include a direct link to the video for those who subscribe to the blog by email, and I got several requests for one.

So here it is.

You can watch the video by clicking here.

If (or, more likely, when) I forget to include such a link in the future, be aware that you should be able to go directly to the relevant blog post (and video) by clicking the large headline at the top of the email (not the subject line, but the headline at the top of the body of the email).

You can also go directly to, and should be close to the top of the blog.

I mention these options since it will allow you to have instant info-gratification, rather than having to wait for me to be able to send out the link once I discover the problem. :-)


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Suicide is a delicate and disturbing subject.

After the recent suicide of Brittany Maynard, many people are discussing it, and some are asking perennial questions, like whether those who commit suicide are automatically lost.

While suicide can be a mortal sin, it is not always one, and the Church both prays for those who have committed suicide and encourages us not to despair of their salvation.

Here is a video in which I discuss the subject.

Here are is the Catechism’s discussion of the conditions necessary for mortal sin.

1857 For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.”

And here is the passage from the Catechism of the Catholic Church on suicide:

2280 Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him.

It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life.

We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls.

We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us.

It is not ours to dispose of.

2281 Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life.

It is gravely contrary to the just love of self.

It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations.

Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.

2282 If suicide is committed with the intention of setting an example, especially to the young, it also takes on the gravity of scandal.

Voluntary co-operation in suicide is contrary to the moral law.

Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.

2283 We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. the Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.

As I said in the video, let’s pray for all those who are tempted to commit suicide, for all those who have committed it, and for all those who have lost someone to suicide.

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