A Post-Christian World?

I have mulling over the article Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby Face Enormous Hurdles in a Post-Christian World by David Virtue for a little while.

First of all, what is a millennial? Broadly speaking, it is the generation of people born in the 1980’s, the time when I was in my twenties. I could be their father had I married young enough. Putting it another way, it is the generation of the children of my brother and two sisters, all in their twenties to mid thirties.

The big problem is generalising and trying to fit everyone into a common stereotype. We all have our own cultural references depending on family, education and then the initiatives we took in life to “be different”. Many of the things attributed to the “millennials” are also a part of the feelings on the “baby boomer” who lived through the 1960’s and early 70’s. We “boomers” were a part of post-war post-modernity and began to strike out on our own and see life differently from the pre-war generation. It is essentially the confidence (or lack thereof) in the Establishment and those in authority. At the same time, I wonder whether the youngsters are not more “establishment” than those of us who questioned everything in the sixties and early seventies before the economic recession kicked in.

I don’t think there is that much difference between many who were born in the late fifties and the generation of our children. I have no children of my own, but I notice there is less friction between my nephews and nieces and my brother and sisters who brought them up. They have all been successful in their education, occupational training and jobs. Some are married and are doing well. I suppose the stereotype “millennial” is someone permanently plugged into an electronic device and with a nihilistic outlook on life. Some people are like that, but not all by a long chalk.

Institutional Churches love to lay their own failings at the feet of our society and people who are just not interested in religion, or what they perceive to be religion. The clergy and evangelical enthusiasts are all too eager to talk of a lost generation, as if we boomers were any “better”! My own attitudes about religion were no different when I was 12, but organs and church buildings got the better of me. I was attracted by aesthetics, not by conformity to the Establishment or someone’s else’s moralism.

Going by Dr Virtue’s article, we boomers seem to have seen through the same shenanigans as the millennials. The religion of the sixties and seventies was not invented by us, but by men of the Establishment who thought they know what was good for us. We got sappy liturgies, a kind of informal language we never expected to hear in church, music that lacked the quality of the pop and rock bands who made it to the Charts, a kind of moralism than turned us right off. One of my sisters went to the Evangelical church in our town, and became a Baptist when she married. The ideology seemed impressive to me as a seventeen year old youth, but it didn’t stick for long, especially when it trashed all I loved – the aesthetic dimension and the little of the High Church I had discovered here and there. You said a certain prayer, and you were “saved” – and then you had to go and hard-sell your newly-found faith and fervour. I think that without what initially attracted me to churches, I would have been a “none”, or simply a lapsed Church of England boy. I recognise my own feelings and thoughts in the way the next generation is described.

Perhaps we boomers were more pronounced in our atheism and scepticism than people nowadays for whom it just isn’t an issue. I’m not qualified to talk about American youngsters, but Europeans are more deeply alienated from churches. So millennials can’t commit themselves? Were the boomers any better? I don’t see that much differences, except that the cultural references are different, and what we middle-aged folk rejected, the youngsters never knew in the first place. Whose fault is it?

The article makes the point that Evangelical marketing makes no impression on the youngsters. With us boomers, its effect didn’t last long, because we saw through it. It was just an ideology to grow out of, something that seemed little different from what made people go along with Hitler and Mussolini in the 1930’s. They go on trying to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, but their churches are dying, or their “turnover” of people coming and going is staggering. On the other hand, Dr Virtue accepts the blame on the church institutions by admitting that they are inadequate for their “market”.

Are our “ritualist” churches doing any better? Obviously not. I very rarely have anyone at Sunday Mass, and most English ACC places of worship are in the single figures in terms of numbers of men and women in the pews. I have always thought in terms of “availability” than aggressive marketing and getting the pews filled to justify our existence. That fact would seem to take the blame off the Evangelical marketing. Is it so essential to bring them in, or is it not better to seek renewal for ourselves as Christians and live our life and the Gospel in a contemplative and discreet way?

The raw naked truth is that virtually nobody has a handle on reaching a generation of men and women who have no denominational loyalty, no sense of sin, no apparent fear of God, and no apparent real need of God or a savior.

That observation would seem to be something we Catholics and Evangelicals have in common. I would go further – the sense of transcendence, wonder and beauty, the thirst for discovery and newness. The Catholic liturgy is only a small part of it, and it alone cannot fulfil this thirst some of us experience.

Of course, this article is about the role of the new Archbishop of Canterbury and the new Pope. From where I am in life, they don’t attract me to anything. Pope Francis doesn’t make me inclined to leave the ACC and become a Roman Catholic layman, dismantle my chapel and start driving to Rouen or Paris for Mass. I don’t feel the slightest inclination to go back back to the Church of England either. Archbishop Welby strikes me as a sincere fellow, but someone who runs on big money and high social status. Does my bank manager make me want to do that kind of work and fit into the business mould, as is assumed of well-to-do urban young people?

One thing that puts most of us off churches (I am only connected with something very small and marginal) is the clericalism of many of the clergy and “committed lay people” in the “mainstream”. Many aspects of life today, in the Church and in secular life, remind us or George Orwell’s vision of a dystopian world in 1984 (he wrote the book in 1948 and swapped the last two figures around): new-speak, double-think and political correctness. What alienates us from churches is this very invasion of our personalities, our freedom as children of God and inner lives with crude moralism. I’m a priest, and inside feel no differently. I relate to very little, and can only thank my Bishop and brother priests in the ACC to whom I can relate.

David Virtue makes the point of what he thinks will draw people back, or not “back” but somewhere else. “Storefront” churches. That is exactly what our churches in Canterbury and Manchester are, though Canterbury is a real church with a shop front built onto it. Perhaps we are looking for something that resembles a family more than an impersonal institution. We want to know if people are telling us yet more lies like the politicians, or whether their message rings true.

Pastors of these churches I talk to have to work through layers and layers of fundamentalism, fear, abuse, and rejection before they get to first base with the faith. The few they reach are drops in the bucket, but they are drops.

What an indictment? Fundamentalism, fear, abuse and rejection. We are looking at man’s sinfulness and the way the lack of empathy overshadows the Gospel message, no matter how true it is. We tolerate and make allowances for human weakness in others, but we just cannot cope with evil. We find the same lack of empathy in the militant gay lobby and the other various “politically correct” agendas of our brave new clericalism. These things are absolute barriers, even for priests, many of whom have fallen away from their vocation or retreated into contemplative life.

The natural reaction is to ask ourselves how it will all end. A chastisement from God involving the death of millions of sinners? Does God want our death or our conversion? Are we going to convert under the coercion of Big Brother’s Thought Police, or upon experiencing something that fills our soul with wonder and joy? I think it is likely to be the latter. I have to admit yearning to see the collapse of today’s corrupt structures so that something new can emerge from the ashes. Who is to be the judge? Who decides who lives and who dies? Where is our notion of self-sacrifice instead of mors tua vita mea? This is something we each have to address in our self-righteous arrogance.

I don’t know about the future of institutional Churches, but we ordinary guys have to think of our own spiritual health. This is why many of us turn to sport and exploration, to seeking expressions of spirituality that are less (or at least seemingly so) corrupted by human sin and lack of empathy. We need to rediscover our innocence and our own “new world”. These are the things that concern us as persons and our quest to transcend materialism and determinism. Inclusiveness is often highly selective!

True, the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, as of humility and modesty faced with any force stronger than ourselves. There is the old quote:

A man who is not afraid of the sea will soon be drowned, for he’ll be going out on a day when he shouldn’t. But we do be afraid of the sea, and we do only be drownded now and again.

from The Aran Islands by J. M. Synge. How appropriate!

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14 Responses to A Post-Christian World?

  1. iamblichi19 says:

    I read the Virtue article, another old fogie complaining about “kids these days!” Man this stuff goes back to the Fathers (hell, Plato, and probably before him) and I really have a hard time taking him seriously at all.

    Islam isn’t taking over, it’s 600 years younger than Christianity so it has the vitality of 1400AD Christianity.

    But I’ll tell you this for sure — you won’t attract Millenials with frothing homophobia, “psychological plague” or not!

    VirtueOnline is irrelevent.

    • Thank you for your comment. I agree with you about the fact that we are subjective in our evaluation of society. All all depends on our own cultural references and not which generation we came from. I don’t think we “boomers” were any different in 1968-72 or thereabouts from youngsters nowadays. Every generation has had its battles to fight, including our parents and grandparents. I have been quite isolated from urban life for a long time, and my own cultural references are quite archaic, so I must be something of a fogey.

      That being said, human nature doesn’t change over the centuries. Only the cultural references and fashions change and revolve. I don’t know David Virtue, but he does seem to be something of a “single issuer”. I prefer not to enter the homosexuality debate because it is and should be a question of persons and their private lives, not politics. I don’t want such debates on my blog because they always degenerate.

      I would agree about the question of Islam. They become secular on contact with western secularism and consumerism, just as when the Iron Curtain came down and the people from the old Communist countries discovered something new. It is human to look for something better in life, and that sense of “nostalgia” is the key for helping people to become aware of the quest for transcendence.

  2. Patricius says:

    I was born in 1988 so, speaking as a “millenial” (though I can by no means speak for most people of my generation, I am a minority within a minority), I can say with total confidence that I am most put off my two things about church: the liturgy provided and the society of social climbers and other riff raff (and not the good kind of riff raff, like me); people with so many social inadequacies and emotional problems that they are drawn to a church as to a social clique so that they can pronounce their disapproval of vices like homosexuality in a sense of triumph over the rest of humanity whilst keeping in good with the parish priest (as a means to achieve social status, of a middle, mediocre class kind, I suppose). Not that churches do not represent a cross section of society. Not that all church goers are social climbers! Years ago I attended a prominent Anglo-Catholic church where homosexuality was an open secret among most congregants. On one occasion another young man was flirting shamelessly with me, only to rush off upon realising that I had neither a degree nor a decent job. This was in stark contrast to being thrust from the sacristy of a RC church when my homosexuality became common knowledge. Of course, living a chaste life had nothing to do with that; it was just a ruse because the pp couldn’t stand my views about the papacy. I guess that’s the reason most people don’t take me seriously anymore. Perhaps they feel that, like Bilbo, I have finally “cracked” and gone off into the Blue. No wonder my posts nowadays are greeted with deafening silence!

    • William Tighe says:

      I give you my best greetings for the New Year, and thank you for the Christmas card which you so kindly sent me.

    • Thank you, Patricius, for your comment. Indeed, you are someone apart! Evidence of that is that you think about things and see things that become more obvious now than thirty years ago. One thing I have noticed in life is that people feel more secure in any common interest group, particularly churches and groups representing different political and social opinions. I found the same thing on joining a forum of dinghy sailors. I was staggered to find that people interested in boats can be just as nasty as the pro-gay or anti-gay lobby, for or against abortion, the old Mass, anything. For our own psychological health, we need to affirm our independence, yet keep a certain amount of contact with other people so as not to become a recluse.

      As I mentioned on this thread, I don’t want debates about homosexuality, whether from a moral point of view or its place in society. Clashes of positions are never good on a blog, between people who don’t know each other, and therefore sling ideologies against each other. I recommend discretion in one’s personal life, keeping our heads down and working out for ourselves what is important to focus on in life. It isn’t easy.

      I suggest that blog posts are interesting when people feel they can relate to them. Don’t go too much into your personal life, because those who don’t know you won’t relate to them. That’s why they will be read and not commented on. I enjoy reading your blog.

      • Patricius says:

        The point I’m trying to make about homosexuality is that it has nothing whatever to do (in my case anyway) with one’s character, which is something that cannot be imbued to another person. I am by no means a stereotypical homosexual, still less a stereotypical lapsed Catholic. Most lapsed Catholics can’t be bothered with the Papacy for reasons that are more to do with official RC teachings about contraception and the pope’s relevance to their lives; my disposition is wholly theological. I am not a stereotypical homosexual because, while there is an element of the Charles Hawtry (so I am told) about me, I think that homosexuality is a terrible disease and that living a homosexual lifestyle is a disgrace. Therefore I have distanced myself from both the Church and men of my own kind (I certainly have no time for lesbians) because I have no friends among, or indeed anything in common with, either group.

        You speak of psychological health in terms of relationships with other people, or at least connexions to them. In which case my choice to abandon all social fora, except my blog (which I now use to write any old rubbish that comes into my head), was a terrible mistake. But I’d rather have no friends at all than too many profiles at which to shake a stick; that’s really all facebook (for example) is, apart from being a platform for self-promotion. Dogs are better company than a computer screen. But I suppose my choice to resume the blog was an attempt to throw a rope from my island to the mainland.

      • I have lived out of towns for a long time, and I lived in a town as a laymen (ie. not sheltered in a seminary) for the last time back in 1982. Even then I was renting a room at the Pathfinder’s Fellowship in West Kensington. All I know about questions of homophobia and the gay lifestyle in our days is what I see on the Internet and in the media. I can see a distinction coming out between men who are inclined to emotional and / or physical attraction to other men, on one hand, and the “gay lobby” on the other hand.

        One gets the impression that the “gay lobby” want to inverse the roles and have things like before the 1950’s and 60’s except for the discrimination being against heterosexuals or anyone not enthusiastically committed to this particular revolution. Thus those who are opposed to “gay pride” marches, demonstrations in churches and anti-clerical behaviour and other provocations are labelled as “homophobes”.

        I was at school in the 1970’s when it was not unacceptable to indulge in anti-Semitic speech (calling someone a “smelly old Jew”) or to call gay people puffs, fairies, queers, sods and all the other words as numerous as those used to describe someone who is insane or mentally handicapped. In those days, people were homophobic enough to say that Hitler hadn’t done enough and that gays should be tortured and killed! Up north, we were even more backward than anywhere else in the country – and that was among boys from well-to-do families in the oldest public school in England!

        It would seem that there has been enough mud slinging between the battling clans (you’re obviously not a part of it) and it’s time for people to calm down, take a deep breath and live their personal lives discreetly and out of the public view. The Church has the right to give general moral teachings, but this is a matter between individual persons and pastorally minded priests in the privacy of the confessional or the parish office. Of course, that’s the ideal world.

        Indeed, one thing that would do a lot of good is to revive the notion of friendship, and even introduce a rite for the blessing of a friendship. Why not? It is one of the most sublime things that can be sanctified by divine grace and perfected. The most impressive work on this subject is the Spiritual Friendship by Aelred of Rievaulx. If marriages were more based on developing this high view of friendship than making babies in large numbers, perhaps more marriages would be truly till death us do part.

        Friendships are found where they are least expected. Sometimes at work or in college, or in a sports club or some other common interest community. Often out of the blue. Friendship is something that the inventor of Facebook has never heard of. True friends are counted on the fingers of one hand, perhaps the hand of a joiner who has lost a couple of fingers on his circular saw!

  3. Stephen K says:

    Yet again, Father, you remind us of the solipsistic character of much of our faith and religion and values, their self-referential origins, and the fact that from generation to generation we may not be so different.

    Actually, I often wonder whether it is truer to say we are so evolutionary that indeed one generation is incrementally unlike its predecessor and almost fundamentally different from the generation in 1AD, and before, or whether we are essentially alike all our predecessors. ed pacht, our dear co-reader, would no doubt say – and I would tend to agree with him – that either/or thinking is misleading and that both are true, but in different senses. I must confess I see truth in both propositions.

    I do not regard myself as cynical but hold to the view that we are either so formed into a religious culture that by the time we have any material grasp of it we are no longer totally free to choose it and so the concept of any virtue or merit in adhering to any particular faith is absent, or else we are so formed in emotional and asthetic and mental terms that ultimately our religious choices are simply reflections of what is most comfortable for us, and thus there is no special, objective merit in our religious choices. Christianity will probably die or morph into something else given enough time. Only those who think that it was the unique and ultimate divine key to the universe will resist such a notion.

    That said, if one is attached to a particular religious paradigm, then any effort to prolong or deepen it is understandable and laudable. The mission of persuasion fits in here. But one must be clear about what one is attempting to persuade others to see. It takes a huge conceptual leap to imagine human society in another million years, and if one thinks that at the end of that time one should really expect that Christianity will be a replica of Tridentine Romanism or Tractarian Anglicanism, well, I just opine that I don’t think that is sensible.

    I personally think that if human life last so long, there will be – and have to be – newer theophanies across cultures over and over again, just like there appear to have been throughout human history. Faith in God cannot be tied to particular formulations, I don’t think, and the post-modern phenomenon is essentially the replacement of such an idea with the idea that all formulations are ultimately idiosyncratic, even when they are systematically imposed for political (i.e. human) purposes.

    Thank you again, Father, for a thought-provoking post!

    • I always enjoy your comments, Stephen, and I also appreciate your non-conventionalism and personal candour. Solipsism? That must be natural for most of us, since we understand our own thought clearly, and can only understand other people when they express themselves in a way to which we can relate. The eternal difficulty of language and communication. We see the world through our own eyes and experience it through our own senses and intuitions.

      The differences between humans of different times of history seems to be only superficial, in terms of culture, technology, fashion and so forth. Under the surface, we are simply human. If we evolve in certain ways, we regress in other ways. We have lost much of our Renaissance culture and art as we developed our technology. Some periods characterise society as more caring to the weak, and in other times, man is seen to be devoid of empathy and care.

      Christianity often has been a free choice rather than what were brought up to do by a coercive authority. We often do so out of nostalgia for the culture it produced among our own peoples. That was probably my case. I am very conscious of the notion of two “old testaments”, that of the Jewish people and also that of the Gentiles, the “pagan” Mystery Religions. Protestantism tends to emphasise the former in its strict and austere iconoclasm, as does Catholic monasticism. Popular Catholicism emphasises the latter but converges with the former in monasticism and various movements that resemble Protestant revivalism in some way. For our western civilisation, there are three main alternatives: atheism and its bleak materialistic outlook, a revival of native Paganism and an attempt to make it accessible to modern people or looking to religions corresponding with other cultures like Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. Christianity dances a two-step between tolerance and “true church” fundamentalism.

      We attempt to prolong what we hold to be dear and make it of appeal to persons other than ourselves. There is always the old problems of communication, ideology and paradigms that many of us have rejected. I share the distaste our contemporaries have of party politics and the kind of deceit and amateurish bungling that are paid for with our hard-earned tax money. I feel today as I did more than forty years ago. Authority has to earn its credibility! It is the same with churches and the clergy. Indeed I can’t imagine what Christianity will be in fifty or a hundred years, let alone a million. You and I will both be dead and our souls in another universe with or without a “glorified body”. It might go the way of the Cult of Mithra, be forgotten to all except academic specialists and archaeologists, or become the backbone of another reactionary or totalitarian ideology.

      Christians don’t like to consider the possibility of a “third testament”, as thought of by Joachim de Flore. Was Christ’s testament only a stage in history before something else, and no longer “new and eternal”? Nothing can be eternal or “everlasting” in this world under the determinism of time and change. We can ask the questions even if we never get the answers outside conventional orthodoxy. The Church body I belong to could not allow me to promote Gnosticism and the “French” version of Modernism, but we should know about both, read with an open mind and keep them on the back burner. Berdyaev once said that had Gnosticism won the day, Christianity could never have become a “religion for all” and would not have survived more than a couple of centuries. A certain influence and open-mindedness can only be a good thing. It is a little like spice in food – a little can enhance the dish greatly. To much and it burns our throat out like a vindaloo from a cheap curry joint!

      Many of us have the impression that church Christianity is like a garment we have grown out of. I still find shirts in my drawers I was very fond of twenty years ago – but I can’t put them on. It is heart-rending to throw them away or give them to a charity shop if they are still in good condition. For what it is, the Church teaches truth and wisdom, but the world of ideas (to use Plato’s term) is much greater. I am impressed about the way scientists specialised in quantum physics are discovering the immortality of the soul and a “multiverse” that is beyond our earthly experience. I come back to my analogy of the radio that receives one frequency at a time, whilst waves of all frequencies are out there and all simultaneously. We don’t know they are there until a radio tunes in to one of them. There is something fantastic waiting to be discovered – transcendence, something wonderful, a true dies natalis.

      If churches can be more open to reality being beyond their parochial ways, then they may be useful as “vehicles” to get us along the way. That is how I see the liturgy, the various texts that guide us and the priesthood we have inherited from both the Temple and the Mysteries in Rome, Greece and Egypt.

  4. Neil Hailstone says:

    Patricius

    I think there is far too much stereotyping across the whole of society in the matter of homosexuality. It is absolutely not sinful to have genuine same sex attraction and I would think that ‘terrible disease’ would not be an appropriate description. The scientific incidence is at around 1.5% of the male population rather than the very much higher figures quoted by partisan interests. Surveys would suggest that half of those refrain from sexual relations.

    As a hetrosexual christian I would deplore discrimination against homosexuals by clergy or laity.

    As a catholic christian I believe that all should be welcome to hear the Good News and if believers to receive the Sacraments.

    In my own personal circumstances I am required to live a celibate life as are homosexual christians. Not always exactly easy I know. It can of course be a blessing and that is my overall feeling about my own celibate status now of some years standing.

    What I read about you being thrown out of the Sacristy I find shocking and utterly in contradiction of RCC teaching which is clearly set out in the Catechism. I am not a member of the RCC and seek to live a christian life in an Old Catholic jurisdiction whose Orders and Sacraments are recognised by Rome.

    I would say that the relevant official teaching which appears in the Catechism is far and away the best summary of the love, care and welcome which should be offered to our fellow christians who are homosexual. I note also the recent comments and writings from Pope Francis for whom I pray daily as the Western Patriarch.

    Personally I do not know any Christians who are homophobic. Francis is giving the Christian church a good lead in this area.

  5. Father Martin says:

    I second Mr. Hailstone’s comment. Celibacy is not easy, no matter what your age, but in a man as young as Patricius it is to be greatly admired. The priest who dismissed Patricius from the sacristy is a hypocrite of the highest order (but then Rome has always excelled in hypocracy). If Rome were to dismiss all the “gay” priests who would celebrate mass?

  6. Matthew says:

    Father, I haven’t read the article which inspired yours, but I think you are missing a fundamental point about the difference between your (baby boomer) generation and the millennial generation: the disappearance of Christian grammar. (I’m Gen-X, so in between the two, and quite another kettle of disgruntlement…). First, unlike Gen-Y/ the millennial generation, the baby boomers had some idea of what had come before the war (from their parents) and more importantly they were catechised before the late sixties. This means that if they had been ‘churched’ (almost all people in the west to some extent) they received an impression of classical Christianity – the fall, sin, redemption, and eschatological hope. In short the dogmatic structure of Christianity. This was accompanied by classical Christian imagery: figurative religious art; classical or neo-Gothic churches; the distant Pope blessing the crowd in far away Rome etc. The millennials on the other hand were only catechised if their baby-boomer parents had kept the faith in some form and then received something quite different from what their poor parents, who had suffered so much at the hands of ‘the system’ (a convent education etc), had received . So unlike baby boomers, whose knowledge of basic Christian dogma depended on whether they had paid attention in Sunday school or not, the millennial generation can be divided into those who heard something of the gospel (i.e. had been exposed to classical Christianity) from those who had never heard it, and see churches as pretty but odd things that occasionally pop up in costume dramas or form a possible back-drops for their weddings.

    • Boomers threw it all away. Millennials never had it in the first place. Yep… Possibly…

      On the other hand, as we boomers take collective memories from our families, teachers, books, films, etc., some of the millennials must be doing the same. In my family, I’m from 1959, my father from 1928, my grandfather from 1901, my great grandfather from 1859, etc. I didn’t get much catechising until I looked for it in my teens and twenties. I see my nieces and nephews getting very interested in family history.

      Do we have any millennial readers who could tell us what it’s like to be of that generation? Boomers and millennials seem to have one thing in common: we’ll have the faith if we look for it.

  7. Matthew says:

    I’ve read Virtue’s article now and there is some confusion of terminology. He is talking about his 38 year old nephew, who being born around 1976 is a late Gen-X. His character displays all the insouciance and cynicism said to be characteristic of Gen-X. You need to be ‘coming of age’ around the 2000 to be a millennial. This generation was also called Gen-Y, but the important thing demographically is that Gen-Xs are born in the birth rate dip that followed the post-war boom. The millennial generation are generation are the children of the baby boomers. If you’re born after ’61, you are probably Gen-X, if you’re born after ’78 then you are probably a millennial. My experience of the millennial generation is that they are far less cynical than Virtue thinks. They are open to anything and have no pre-conceived notions about religions or creeds. They do lack commitment and perseverance and seem to lack a plan or a guiding philosophy. They can however be very ambitious for their own careers and are generally quite ‘together’ and without angst. They deal with things – emotions, problems, relationships, children – as they come up. I would say they are a ripe mission field. But rhetorical devices will not work, and everything will have to be explained without expecting them to draw the connections that once may have been obvious.

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