Category Archives: Catholicism

How God Created Direct Marketing Using the Incredible IBM 650 Series in Rural Wisconsin in the 1960s

On the theme of church and marketing, I recently stumbled across an article from the December 1961 issue of a magazine called Business Automation, courtesy of the superfun retro-modern blog ModernMechanix. It blew what little of my mind is left since I took up boxing to beat the Minnesota winter.

Provocatively titled “Faith, Hope and Computer,” the article featured a photo of an office building at the top of the page with the amusing (to me) caption:

Society of the Divine Savior Data Processing Center

Think Science & Religion are always in conflict? Think again, padres!

Written for geeks rather than believers, the article starts with a bang: “Aided by the most sophisticated use of ultra-modern electronic data processing equipment, the world’s most efficient, most effective …” — but hold on a second! Pause tape. Rewind. The “WORLD’S MOST efficient, MOST effective” [block caps and bold type used for incendiary diabolical effect] … high praise indeed, Mr. Business Automation writer (aka Donald Young).

Young backs his bold assertion up by showing us pictures of the latest IBM 650 magnetic tape system and the Addressograph-Multigraph Series 900 data processing system, with its 943 processor that features, of course, “fully-transistorized arithmetic and logical devices in modular form.” (And costs $12,000 a month to lease.) The system is blazing fast, able to read 250 to 750 cards per minute and (through a its A-M 950 offline stylus printer) output 60,000 mailing labels per hour, while an A-M 960 high-speed line printer churns out 600-900 lines per minute of customized letter appeals. (Anybody else smell an IBM press release here?)

And he slips in: this operation is “the first of its kind in the country.” In other words, the Catholic Society of the Divine Savior housed the country’s most sophisticated [something] in the early 1960’s in an anonymous office park in rural Wisconsin. Wow. What?

You saw this coming: it’s a direct marketing operation. An outfit that claims “an unbelievable 80 percent response.” You read that right. How? Well, Young says the mission’s database:

“… is not a mere directory of names and addresses, but a carefully-controlled collection of ‘personal histories’ on every one of their past benefactors. Recorded and maintained on magnetic tape, each of these histories contains 341 characters of coded information on the donor, including when he was last solicited, how long it took him to respond, the type of appeal to which he responded, the size of his contribution, his total donations during the year …” etc.

Just wait till they start including women [sexist language “joke” – ed.]. But seriously: the mission’s technique will ring a tower of bells to those of us in the direct marketing business. It hasn’t really changed at all.

The God-data-center’s director, Father Alfred Schmitt, boasts like the oiliest Google rep:

“By electronically sorting through our files, we can pick out a choice mailing list comprising names of donors whose past histories indicate that they will be receptive to the type of appeal we have in mind.”

Trigger-based marketing! CRM! Dare I say it: segmentation modeling! It’s all there, fifty years ago. Right down to the illusion of personalization: both the monthly reminders to non-respondents and thank-yous to donors are put out by “automatic typewriters which produce ‘personally’ typed ‘thank you'” notes, which are then signed by … well, actually, “Father Alfred’s ‘personal’ signature is affixed to each letter by one of three Autopens.”

Aside from the scale and speed, this is a fully modern Direct Mail (DM) empire with what’s got to be the world’s-best-ever response rates (26% for a first touch!). Why, only yesterday I was on a call for one of our clients where we discussed the pseudo-personalized content of our monthly reminder e-mail and which one of the client’s execs would “sign” it.

In direct marketing, as in so many other things, God was there first 🙂

Aquinas Is Here All Week, Folks!

Happy New Year, pagans! May the new moon bring you wisdom beyond your years — which it most certainly will if you continue to enjoy The God Project Dot Net. But enough about our incredible humility. Where is Thomas Aquinas when we need him?

St. Thomas Aquinas

Being funny. His nickname was “The OX,” because, when he played tic-tac-toe with the theologians at Paris, “OX” was his favorite combination. Hah! Gotcha. It was because of his gi-normous height x width. We also get the impression he was tOXically stubborn, inflOXible and flummOXingly arrogant. Geniuses often are, we hear. Good for them; they deserve it. Mozart called his “Magic Flute” the “best opera ever written.” So there.

The great Geoff Dyer said in an interview that, at a certain point, his writing “got so angry it became funny.” Aquinas gets so immodestly serious at times that the laughter rolls down like rain and thunders like a mighty, mighty wind.

The “Summa” itself is the kind of monument people write when they want to be the final word. It’s super-structured in a Scholastic form called the “Quaestio” (Latin: “Question”), proceeding from, well, Question, to various Objections (with quotes from Scripture and Authorities like Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius), to Answer and Replies to the original Objections (all with quotes). People stopped writing this way around 1400.

Back in the late 1990’s, when I was head writer for a show on VH1 called “Pop-Up Video,” the elfish producer would stomp into my cubi-kennel flourishing my latest script draft, flick the honey-brown curls out of his ferret-like eyes, and squeak, “Where’s the funny, Marty? Show me the funny!”

Here’s the funny:

In Q. 2 of Part II.2, Article 4, Thomas wonders aloud whether “it would be superfluous to receive by faith, things that can be known by natural reason.” It’s a big Quaestio, actually: Since we can learn a lot about God (as Thomas believed) just by looking at the world around us, why do we even need Scripture? Well, why?

One reason, says the Ox, is so we “may arrive more quickly” at the truth. Deep Thoughts require years of study, and “it would not be until late in life that man would arrive at the knowledge of God.” (Thomas was in his 40’s when he wrote this.) Revelation saves time.

Also, a lot of people “are unable to make progress” in their studies. Why? Well, he says, “through dullness of mind, or through having a number of occupations … or even through laziness.” Hah! You stupid, busy, lazy people! YOU need the Bible.

Tee hee.

Beating on the Tom Tom

G. K. Chesterton thought Thomas Aquinas could levitate. (His 1932 essay in The Spectator is here.) Think of it as a metaphor for the Angelic Doctor’s stature among Catholics. He was so incredibly fat that when he sat around the University of Paris, he sat around the University of Paris. Yet he could rise up in the air and talk to the Virgin Mary.

Uranus Has Two Moons

Aquinas’ “Five Ways” to show God exists have inspired a cottage industry that’s still churning after 700 years. There’s St. Thomas “Five Ways” buttons (“Good for you. Good for America.”), seasonal humor (“The Five Ways of Proving Santa Claus Exists”) and instructional videos on the Tube of You. Not to mention at least 44 eponymous high schools and colleges in North America and Europe.

Which is all bonus, as we say in Latin. Aquinas was a teacher. I mean this literally: he had students. Even as a Dominican friar, he was on the faculty at the new universities at Paris and Naples, the Oxford and Harvard of the time. And in the prologue to the Summa Theologiae, he claims he’s writing “in such a way as may be consistent with the instruction of beginners.” (ST Prol.)

Beginners? Reading 4,000 pages of unrelenting, densely-argued Latin propositions, objections, assertions, rebuttals, quotations from authority and modifications? We’re thinking they must have made beginners smarter in the 13th century.

Yet he had no illusions about the brainwaves of the kids. At the end of one of his screeds, he wrote: “If anyone, puffing himself up with bogus knowledge, dares to argue against what I have written, let him not hold forth in corners or in the presence of the [students], who are incapable of judging such a difficult subject.” (“On the Unity of Intellect,” 1270)

Touchy, anyone? The “beginners” he refers to in his Prologue are not stupid undergraduates but other professors who — much like the time-challenged staff here at The God Project Dot Net — may lack Aquinas’ trenchant intellect.

But we conjugate onward. We referred a few weeks back to the Celebrity Pagan Philosopher Death Match (Plato vs. Aristotle). By 1250 a new fighter was sea-legging around in the ring: Faith. And some members of the Arts Faculty at Paris seemed willing to give a TKO to Aristotle. Aquinas’ legacy — his life’s mission — was to show that Faith in (the Christian) God was not contradicted by Aristotle in particular, or new information in general.

He was good for science. He gave generations of naturalists and physicists theological cover to experiment. He was good for Catholicism, leaving it a legacy of tolerance for new ideas (like — did we go there? — Evolution) that certain of our Protestant and Muslim brothers and sisters, well, lack.

(Before someone starts a pixellated Death Match of our own here, yes, I know about Pius IX and the infamous “Syllabus of Errors.” These things take time, amigos.)

To Aquinas, it was obvious that if there is a God, It created everything. Get it? Everything! Including natural phenomenon, the human mind, the ability to question, French idiot professeurs, philosophy, even contestants in the Pagan Death Match. “Since therefore grace does not destroy nature but perfects it,” he says, “natural reason should minister to faith ….”

For Reason to contradict Faith, he believed, made about as much sense as for my Moon to contradict Uranus. The source is all one, all God, which does not self-contradict. Truth is not a threat to truth. What a radical beginning.

Five Alive

Thomas Aquinas was so fat, the story goes, his Dominican brothers had to cut a place for him into the communal table so he could sit closer to the food bowls he so obviously didn’t need. He was Italian, second son of nobility, and a mondo-maxi-zoom-dweeby genius whose career coincided with the rediscovery of Aristotle, known only to Muslim philosophers for 600 years after the fall of the Roman Empire.

Thomas Aquinas

"I've taken the liberty of preparing my own dinner menu"

My revered father, Dr. Ronald, was a Catholic boy in Cape Town, South Africa, in the days when the mass was said in Latin. He met Pope Pius XII in Rome after Italy surrendered in World War II. And when I mentioned The God Project Dot Net to him, his response was rat-a-tat: “You have to talk about Aquinas.”

To Catholics, Aquinas is the philosopher, a voice louder than Augustine’s, more comprehensive than Paul’s, second only to that of Christ himself (as explained by the Holy See). Non-Catholics are less impressed: following Luther, Protestants have caricatured Aquinas as a crypto-Pelagian hypnotized by a pagan pseudo-atheist who believed the universe was eternal, God didn’t care much about us, and the human soul could die.

Aquinas wrote even more than he ate, and his big book was the Summa Theologica, a 4000-page masterpiece of meticulous step-by-step argument on all things Christian. Of these many, many Latin pages, only two (2!) are devoted to proving the existence of God. That’s 0.05% — a solid click-through rate for an online display ad but hardly a ringing indication of what’s really on Aquinas’ mind.

So let’s say it again: Pre-modern “proofs” for the existence of God were not written to convince modern atheists, and they won’t. They were written because philosophers like Anselm and Aquinas had enormous respect for Greek wisdom — Sophia, or “Reason” with a capital “R” — and they wanted to convince believing Christians that their faith was rational. It’s like Aquinas heard the scientific train wreck a-coming and slapped on his goggles to weld up a fortress of faith.

He even admits (ST PI Q1 A8): “If our opponent [i.e., atheist] believes nothing of divine revelation there is no longer any means of proving the articles of faith by reasoning.”

So Aquinas breezes through an answer to questions he poses himself: “Whether it can be demonstrated that God exists?” (Article 2) and “Whether God Exists?” (Article 3). In good dialectical fashion, he first raises some contraries that sound remarkably modern:

  • A “demonstration produces scientific knowledge; whereas faith is of the unseen”
  • We “cannot know in what God’s essence consists” because humans aren’t smart enough
  • We can know God only “from His effects,” which are “not proportionate” — meaning, nowhere near enough
  • “There is evil in the world. Therefore God does not exist.”

His response: “I answer that, The existence of God can be proved in five ways” — leading into his famous so-called “Five Ways” to show that God exists.

Can you wait?

Merry Xmas, Pagan Mistranslators!

At yesterday’s Advent mass in Catholic churches across the planet, the first reading was from Isaiah, who is speaking to King Ahaz:

“The Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.” (Isa 7:10-14)

Lady Gaga

"I hate Santa!"

Ahaz is afraid a Syria-Israel alliance will defeat his country, Judah, in battle, and Isaiah makes this prophecy to reassure him. In this period, Jews had two kingdoms – Israel and Judah – and Israel eventually capsizes to the Babylonians.

A few minutes later, the priest read the famous passage from the Gospel of Matthew describing how Mary “was found with child through the Holy Spirit.” Joseph was going to divorce her “quietly,” because they had not bonked, and he made the logical assumption. The passage ends (cue echolocator):

“All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel ….'” (Matt 1:18-24)

Scripture don’t get no clearer, sistas: Isaiah prophecies in 780 BCE … Jesus’ birth fulfills 780 years later. However, let’s mention here a well-known mistranslation issue much beloved by Atheists, who certainly have a point. (Richard Dawkins mentions it in The Selfish Gene.)

Here’s the ish: All the New Testament writers spoke and wrote in Greek and referred to the standard Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible known as the Septuagint (or LXX). The Septuagint uses the word “parthenos,” which means “virgin.” Whew. Trouble is, in the original Hebrew, the word used is “almah,” which means simply “young woman.” Not necessarily virgin, just young.

So we have centuries of tortuous Christian doctrine about how Jesus can have been physically born from a woman (Mary) who was nonetheless genitally intact, when all the original prophecy requires is that she be youthful. In a Vanity Fair piece last year, Christopher Hitchens claimed no Catholic really believes in the virgin birth, and he may be on to something.

It gets worse. “Name him Emmanuel?” Huh? Matthew translates the word “Emmanuel” as: “God is with us.” The “God” part of this translation is the particle “El,” at the end. In the 1930s, an excavation at Ugarit in Syria uncovered a library of stone tablets written in Akkadian. They showed these pagan Canaanite enemies of the Jews worshipped a God called … “El.”

We Catholics are in a world of hurt: Mary may not be a virgin, Jesus is named for a pagan God … what’s next, pop stars biting the heads off Santa dolls?!

* If you want to know more about “El” – and a lot of other things – I recommend James Kugel’s fascinating How to Read the Bible, p422-424. I’m half-way through and it is rocking my kasbah.

Are Catholics Cannibals?

Happy Advent, friends!

In the spirit of giving thanks, we will pause in our investigation of the latest Oprah book scandal to answer an even more troubling question: “Are Catholics cannibals?”

CannibalMuch attention was given recently to a Pew Forum survey of Americans’ religious knowledge – or, rather, total ignorance. One headline went:
“More than four-in-10 Catholics do not know that their church teaches that the bread and wine used in Communion actually become the body and blood of Christ!” [exclamation added!]

Forget that most Protestants don’t know Martin Luther started their heresy, um,Reformation. It’s the spectacle of millions of Catholics gnawing bloody-mouthed on the cold flesh of a dead man that really got the blogs atwittering.

Turns out, the quiz was wrong. Ten-in-10 Catholics deserve to be regraded. Why?

Reminds me of when I took my test to become a citizen of this free-speaking nation in the 1990’s, and my evaluator gave me a 15-question oral exam that included the question: “What was the cause of the Civil War?” Hmm. “Well,” I began, “historians are divided, but the preponderance of evidence points to the South’s belief in the primacy of state’s rights over….”

Noticing my evaluators’ bug-eyed confusion, I stopped. “Slavery,” I lied. Correct!

Pew’s quiz refers to the doctrine of “transubtantiation,” formulated in 1215, sharpened in 1551, and widened slightly in the 1960’s. It’s perhaps the single most confusing doctrine in Catholicism – which is, frankly, saying a lot.

Here goes: Catholics do indeed believe the bread and wine are transformed during the sacrament of the Eucharist. Into what? According to the Council of Trent (1551): “A change is brought about of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ….”

Key word here is “substance.” It’s not what you think. It’s an Aristotelean distinction, formulated most clearly by Thomas Aquinas, between the “accidents” (what we can see, feel and taste) and the “substance” (what we can’t see). The “thing” we’re swallowing is still bread, even if its “essence” is somehow Christ’s body. So we’re not really cannibals. Whew.

This doctrine has always bothered Catholics for the simple reason that it doesn’t make sense. Descartes said it wasn’t any more odd than digestion itself, which involves bread dissolving into bodies, right? Huh?

And in fact, by 1965, Pope Paul VI had watered down the eucharist into not much more than a symbol, or pointer, to the unholy, hideous blood lusts of the undead who walk the Mall of America by night and feast on the flesh of the – oh, wait, I mean the risen Christ.