Friday, January 29, 2010

Salesmen, Gurus, and Predators

On the one hand there’s this:

“But if a town refuses to welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘We wipe even the dust of your town from our feet to show that we have abandoned you to your fate.’” – Jesus, Savior (Luke 10:11)

On the other hand, this:

“Never take no for an answer” – Cletus P. Love, Salesman

Again, on the one hand there’s this:

“Men of Corinth, we have spoken very frankly to you; we have opened our heart wide to you all. On our part there is no constraint; any constraint there may be is in yourselves. In fair exchange then … open wide your hearts to us.” – St. Paul, Apostle (2 Cor. 6:11-13)

And on the other hand, this:

“He had slyly inveigled her up to his flat
To view his collection of stamps
And he said as he hastened to put out the cat
The wine, his cigar and the lamps

Have some Madeira, m'dear
You really have nothing to fear
I'm not trying to tempt you, that wouldn't be right
You shouldn't drink spirits at this time of night
Have some Madeira, m'dear” – Vile Old Man, Seducer (Flanders & Swann)

In both cases, my point in hopping from Bible verse to Vile verse above is to illustrate something we don’t often think of in our approach to religion these days. Religion ain’t sales. Evangelism ain’t seduction. At least it shouldn’t be. Sad to say, it often is.

First, let’s get things clear. There are two elements that make up salvation: God’s Grace, freely given; and our response to that Grace, also freely given. If there’s constraint on either party, it’s not a legitimate exchange. “Exchange” is not the right word, as that implies a contract or an agreement; and while our salvation is much more than that, St. Paul makes use of the metaphor (above) when he points out to the resistant and recalcitrant Corinthians that he has opened his heart to them and the “fair exchange”, or proper response in return, is for them to open their hearts to him.

In other words, the appropriate response to love is love.

This is obvious. And yet, fallen men that we are, how often do we respond with love to love, how often do we respond graciously to Grace? Typically, our self-will exercises its willfulness in Resistance.

The temptation for those in the Church is to respond to that Resistance in nefarious ways. When we come across Resistance to the Gospel message, our instinct is to market it, to package it, to make it palatable, and to sugar coat it; worse than that, our resistance is to break down and seduce. We don’t want to take No for an answer.

I’m not saying there should be no awareness of our audience or no attempt to package God’s message to meet them where they’re at. But we flatter ourselves. We are not as far from the old theocrats as we might think. We really don’t see the Grace of Faith as a freely offered gift from God and our assent to Faith as freely offered in return. We’re just not happy without forcing people to respond to that gift. We are loath to wipe the dust off our feet when they say no.

Let me give you a prime example. A friend of mine is having trouble with a retreat program in his diocese that prepares teens for Confirmation. The bulk of the retreat program focuses on ice breakers, humor, and small ersatz group therapy sessions in which the kids are encouraged to “remove their masks” and “share information confidentially” with one another. Now, apart from this being a bad excuse for an Oprah segment, an approach like this is fraught with dangers.

Having worked with many acting teachers and directors over the years, I can tell you that I know a lot about exercises that focus on “removing masks” and “sharing information confidentially”.

These are cult techniques used by seducers to break resistance.

In acting classes, the excuse is the actors need to find emotional vulnerability and get in touch with their true feelings, and all that nonsense. In cults, the goal is to brainwash and break the will. For sexual predators, any chance of getting your victim to break down in some way and put her vulnerability in your hands is key. A vile old man uses Madeira; Stanford Nutting, ex-seminarian, uses “sharing techniques” and peer pressure.

Let me be clear. In actual psychotherapy such techniques may be valuable. They may even be valuable in acting classes. And the folks who run this Confirmation retreat (and who at least nominally proclaim orthodox teaching) probably think these techniques of breaking down Resistance are essential to “getting through” to the teens. In fact, the head of the retreat said as much to my friend.

But at what price?

These are the techniques of salesmen, gurus and predators. Why must we break the Resistance of 14-year-olds? If they want to respond to the Grace of Confirmation and prepare for it, great. If not, to hell with them. Let ‘em text and pod themselves to oblivion. They will eventually either grow up and seek Jesus or remain Secular Narcissists like Obama and the majority of their peers.
Our job is to shout from the housetops, to offer the waters of life, not to force it down their throats.

We wonder why so many priests mal-formed in seminaries from the 1970’s and 80’s are perverted pedophiles? It’s because somehow these techniques of breaking Reistance, these techniques developed and perfected by salesmen, gurus and predators, used to break the will of adults in cult sessions and children in bedrooms, became all the rage – even within the Church, and even when preparing kids for Confirmation.

There’s a scene in Michael O’Brien’s book Father Elijah in which a priest is sent to a retreat center where the participants are made to wear antlers and dance around a fire naked, to get in touch with the great Earth mother. Funny, but truth is stranger than fiction. Worse things than this go on in such sessions, and the goal, as is obvious to anyone looking at it from the outside, is not really “breaking Resistance for the sake of your conversion” but “breaking Resistance for the sake of your sleeping with me, giving me your money, or worshipping me.”

God save our kids from the abuses of such techniques.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Bad Catholic Art

There is an ugly flipside to all our talk in these posts about reclaiming the culture. And that is the sad fact that many people who make an attempt to create a culture or a work of art from a Catholic perspective are somehow dishonest about it. This is a difficult phenomenon to describe, so bear with me.

I have been to Catholic seminaries and retreat centers where, whether the mood is liberal or traditionalist, things are poorly maintained. The roof is leaking, the heat doesn’t work right, trash is piled up in places, bugs are crawling on walls, and to look around you you’d think that you were in a meth-lab infested trailer park. There is a neglect that is allowed to grow like a cancer. Usually the retreat attendees or the seminarians don’t complain. But something is icky.

In addition, there are Catholic media outlets that broadcast programming that’s not even up to amateur levels. One apostolate that specializes in audio material allows the audio they distribute to be occasionally inaudible or so poorly edited that a recorded speech will simply stop before it’s finished, leaving the listener hanging when the tape ends, so to speak. Now, I can understand an apostolate that specializes in evangelizing through audio recordings having poor graphic design or cheap packaging, but if all you do is audio, why can’t you get the audio right?

And my company, the Theater of the Word Incorporated, does drama. It’s no secret that most Catholic or Christian drama companies do horrible work, ponderous, self-congratulatory, boring. Why is this?

I think it’s because it’s a ghetto out there. We really are in a meth-lab infested trailer park. Because the culture at large is so secular, and increasingly so anti-Christian, the market for the cultural work Christians do is more and more limited to the select few, the true believers, the fringe. So our artists end up working in a vacuum, where the market that exists for their work is a contrived one; and the patrons of Catholic art so forgiving and desperate that they take very literally Chesterton’s quip that a thing worth doing is worth doing badly – even though obviously a thing done badly is not worth patronizing, whether it be a book, a play, or a movie.

If, for example, there were a real market for Catholic audio material, a company that put out shoddy work would be drummed out of business both by competing companies and by the public’s unwillingness to endure shoddy work. Since the market is just the ghetto, the persecuted few who are happy for whatever crumbs they can gather, such a situation can continue.

Therefore Catholic artists suffer from the same fate as secular “high artists”. A secular “high artist” is one who produces art for a contrived market such as the dilettantes who claim to admire abstract painting. We all know that “high art” is sterile because it isn’t popular, nor will it deign to be. Likewise, since what passes for Catholic art is not popular, our artists never face the music. They too adopt a certain disregard for what they do, and it shows up in neglect. They never have to confront the reality of what real people really want in art, or even in entertainment. And so they put out stuff that’s simply bad.

And why do we put up with this? Bad Catholic drama or music or television should be condemned as much as bad Catholic architecture, a thing people are willing to notice and complain about. Why should we not build shopping-mall churches? Because we’re doing it for the Lord, and we should be doing our best. Why should we not produce bad Catholic stories and poems and plays and movies and sculpture? For the same reason.

But the problem is once you start a downward spiral, it’s hard to break free. Whatever came first, we now have parishes that won’t pay what it costs to book a good theatrical performance because they don’t value the quality of a good theatrical performance because the producers themselves don’t value the quality, and even if they did they might not be able to afford to produce it for a market that won’t pay for it. Much of the bad Catholic cultural material that’s out there is free, and you get what you pay for; you can also only realistically give as much as you get paid for – so the neglect continues and festers, with both producers and consumers to blame.

Is there a way out? There is, and it’s they key to the new evangelization. People are still people, and they still respond to good art. The market has languished, but the need is still there and the demand may yet return, if both the producers and the consumers, the actors and the audience, the artists and the patrons, wake up to the need for the good, the beautiful, and the true, not the shoddy, the trashy, and the contrived – and demand the seriousness of commitment on both ends that will produce it – a seriousness usually measured by money.

Indeed, while the love of money may be the root of all evil, the disdain for money is akin to a Gnostic revulsion at the flesh. We will know that there’s a revival of Catholic culture when producers start spending time and money to produce good material, and patrons start spending time and money to enjoy it.

In short, it’s time for the poor mouthing to end – on both ends.

Saturday, January 23, 2010


Last week my actors and I had a great time in Evansville, Indiana with Bill Baer, creative writing professor at the University of Evansville and founder of The Southwell Institute (Bill is third from left in the photo below.)

I told Bill about my latest post re. HBO and The Sopranos and he told me the story of how his brother helped create and develop The Sopranos, but was never paid for it, and eventually sued the producer of the series.

This made me tell the story of how I'm pretty sure I helped create The Simpsons, TV's longest running cartoon situation comedy.

This is all true and I am not making any of it up.

The story begins in the late 1970's, when I began writing and drawing a comic strip about a real-life St. Louis family that I knew as acquaintances. I turned them, in my strip, into a horrifically dysfunctional group of people, giving them bizarre and vulgar adventures in the rich St. Louis suburbs. The family consisted of a father named Homer, whom I made bald and stupid, a mother with a tall bee-hive hairdo, a spoiled brat son, an unahppy daughter, and later a baby girl.

I only showed these cartoons to my closest friends, as I knew that, since the characters were all called by the same names as their real-life counterparts, it would not be fair to the actual family to parody them publicly.

Then, in the mid-1980's, The Riverfront Times, St. Louis' atlernative weekly newspaper, ran a feature article by Matt Groening, who at the time was drawing a syndicated cartoon called Life in Hell about a rabbit with one ear.

Groening's article said, "If you're a cartoonist and you think you have no talent, don't despair! Look at me. I'm drawing a comic about a stupid rabbit with one ear and I'm syndicated all over the country!" He encouraged folks to keep drawing, and the Riverfront Times followed up by announcing a Comic Strip Contest, the winner of which would have his work published in the paper.

I therefore wrote an introduction to my comic strip about Homer's dysfunctional family. In the introduction I claimed that I had begun drawing this strip in the 1930's, and that the real-life St. Louis family of the same name had been an attempt by some buffoon to copy my work by living it out in real life! Copyright infringement, you see. Life imitating art.

I submitted the typed intro and a copy of my cartoons under the pseudonym "Freeman Ring" and waited to find out if I would win the contest - of which Matt Groening himself might very well have been a judge (I honestly don't recall, as it's been so long ago).

You see here my drawing (from the mid-1980's) of my character Homer and his wife in bed. Their baby has just been abducted, and the mother sits awake in fear, while Homer sleeps soundly.

At any rate, a few weeks went by and the phone rang.

"Is Freeman Ring there?"


"This is so-and-so from the Riverfront Times. I just wanted to tell you that there's no way your strip can win the contest. It's way too vulgar and the characters are a real-life prominent family in St. Louis. But everyone at the office has read it and we think it's the funniest thing we've ever seen in our lives."

I did not celebrate, as Homer's wife is doing in this drawing of mine from c. 1985. I simply thanked him for the call and went on with my life.

Within a few years, guess what? The Simpsons began appearing on TV. Now although Matt Groening claims his characters are named after his own family members, including his father, whose name is actually Homer, it did seem odd that a cartoonist who was doing a strip about a one-eared rabbit suddenly began drawing a cartoon about a dysfunctional family whose father was a bald stupid guy named Homer, whose mother had a bee-hive hairdo, whose son was a trouble-maker, and which was rounded out by an unappreciated daughter and a baby girl. Oh, and a crabby cat - like the one in my cartoon family.

It's also rather odd how the early sketches of The Simpsons bear a true resemblance to my own drawings.

Now of course it's possible that Groening came up with The Simpsons entirely on his own, that he never saw my comics, and that the Homer and bee-hive issues are just coincidences. Perhaps he was not in fact a judge for the contest and the staff at the Riverfront Times never passed my drawings on to him.

It's also possible that I invented the Simpsons.

Our friend Bill Baer said, "It's almost certain that you did." Perhaps this is what Homer would be thinking in my portrait of him (left), had I not drawn it c. 1981.

The problem is, my characters are based on real people, a rich St. Louis family that's probably even more disturbed than I made them out to be in my stories. Thus, if I sued Groening, the money could very well end up going to the real-life "Simpsons", and probably not to me.

In the meantime, I continue to work in relative obscurity - the unsung host of The Theater of the Word on EWTN, unrecognized as the only man to play every part in a Shakespeare play (on an Ignatius Press audio book), and ignored as the true creator of The Simpsons.

By the way, I'm taking donations to make my next mortgage payment.

And that, my friends, is show-biz!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

HBO from A to F

By popular demand, here is an article I wrote for my Upstage Productions Murder Mystery Newsletter in May of 2000. I am not making it up.

As I’ve boasted in previous newsletters, we were invited to perform for what I was told were a group of “top HBO producers” at the Belhurst Castle in Geneva, New York in April. The HBO folks wanted me to do a parody of “The Sopranos”, their fascinating, violent, vulgar, and addictive hit drama series, which features what we kindly call the “F word” as a mainstay adjective. And so I set to work writing a parody of the show and faxed it off to HBO.

They called me in March. “We really are happy to be working with you on this project,” they told me, “but we feel your script is a little … vulgar.” This is because in the first act, Tony introduces Uncle Junior, his 87 year old uncle, and Uncle Junior uses the “F word” literally 17 times in his first speech. To which Tony replies, “Uncle Junior, ever since you got cable, you been a real pain in the ass!”

So when the HBO chick told me my script was “vulgar”, I predictably replied, “Well, so is your show. And this performance is for your top producers, who put together shows like this, right?”

“Well,” she explained, “these are our top TELEMARKETING producers. These are the top salesmen of HBO subscriptions across the country.” – a different kind of “top producer” entirely. And so the “top producers” were really the “top losers”, as it were.

So I rewrote my brilliantly vulgar script, cleaning it up in the process, and we hit the road last month to make these telemarketers happy (by interrupting their dinners, in a sense – how fitting!)

The show was, I am proud to say, well received by the audience, but not by HBO, who, I’m afraid, were not the easiest people to work with. Nevertheless, we got an “A” , not an “F”, and not even an “F word”. Funny how they dish it out, and the subscribers are expected to "dish" it in, but they can't always take it.

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Nice Creed

Stanford Nutting, ultra-liberal ex-seminarian is re-writing the Nicene Creed for us. He would like to know what you think of what's he's come up with so far.

We, the people, believe in one god, the non-judgmental parental figure almighty, maker of no heaven, no hell below us, above us only sky, of all things seen and unseen in the spirit of Vatican II.

We, the people, believe in one lord, Jesus Christ, the “I’m OK, You’re OK” of god, eternally accepted by the non-judgmental parental figure, god from god, light from light, fill-in-the-blank from fill-in-the-blank. Accepted, not rejected; of one in being with all deities. Through him or her all things were made OK. You’re OK, too.

For us human beings and for our acceptance he or she came down from no-heaven. By the power of sexual urges, which are always a blessing in any form, he or she was born of the Virgin Mary, whose right to choose we respect, and became a human being.

Stanford is waiting for the Holy Spirit and / or Gaia the Earth Mother to inspire him to write more.

Adventures at St. Somehwere

This is Stanford Nutting, ex-seminarian. Stanford dropped out of seminary in the 1970's (it wasn't liberal enough for him) and became an adjunct at the local community college. Stanford believes, "Nothing is a sin, and everything is nothing, and nothing is everything ... and that's OK."

This is Bill Johnson, Stanford Nutting's idential twin half-brother. Stanford is a rad trad, or radical traditionalist. He thinks the Catholic Mass should not be celebrated in Latin, as Latin is a "vulgar corruption of the Liturgy from the Fourth Century at least, and that's far too modern for my taste!" He encourages a return to the Mass in Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, or even Ur-Sanskrit, the language that was spoken "before the Tower of Babel".

This is Tommy, Stanford Nutting and Bill Johnson's nephew. They are his co-sponsors for Confirmation. Tommy is desperate to be Confirmed, as Confirmation - according to Tommy - is "graduation from Church". When asked to name the Seven Sacraments, Tommy replies "Texting" and begins to drool.

This is Fr. Mike, along with Tommy and parishioners from Father's parish, St. Somewhere, a suburban parish located ... Somewhere.

Father Mike's adventures as a parish priest - adventures with Stanford, Bill, Tommy, and others - his attempts to imitate Christ among them, when many of them don't particularly care for Christ, his attempts to show them the sacrificial way in a world that derides sacrifice and shouts at the top of its lungs about the great gods of Sex, Money, and Power - Father Mike's struggles with all of this are featured in our live stage play FAITH OF OUR FATHER.

We could have produced a solemn drama about the Cure of Ars or about Melchizedec or about the vocations crisis - but instead we're doing a comedy about daily life at St. Somewhere, for this is the Year of the Priest, and our poor harried priests need all the help they can get - especially in the form of laughter. NOW PLAYING AT A PARISH NEAR YOU!!!

Check out our online calendar to see a list of our upcoming shows. Hover your mouse above a venue name to see the title of the show, and click on the venue name to be taken to its website. Unless otherwise stated, most of our Janaury shows are in the archdiocese of St. Louis. But our shows tour and can come to your location as well!

For more information, call us at 1-888-840-WORD.

Friday, January 1, 2010

A Decade of Decades

Although this isn’t technically a new decade until 2011, we can still pretend, and so I found myself musing on where I was ten years ago, before the apocalyptic Y2K bug was about to bite us all.

On December 31, 1999 my actress and I were at a swank New Year’s Eve party at the Missouri Governor’s Mansion, performing an inter-active murder mystery for Governor Carnahan and his guests. This was a costume party, and the governor came dressed as Charles Lindbergh– which became sad and ironic not long after when he and his son were killed in the crash of a small plane they were piloting while campaigning for the U.S. Senate.

I think of where I was intellectually and spiritually then. At the time I was struggling with the Episcopalian denomination, and a church that had let us down. After my conversion from atheism, my wife and I for a while attended Lutheran Church Missouri Synod services, until I realized that their fundamentalism and literalist interpretation of Scripture was something I could not endure. We then flipped to the opposite extreme, and started attending an Episcopalian church not far from our home. Although their services and music were beautiful, these folks bragged at having “no doctrine”, and when they paraded their official “no doctrine”, the Episcopalian position on abortion, I was astonished. “We believe that life begins at conception AND we support a woman’s right to choose an abortion,” they boasted, passing around a mimeographed sheet of this statement, which came from some Episcopalian conference somewhere. How can a woman have a right to abort if life indeed begins at conception? How can both things be true? They can’t, but this is the vaunted Anglican “via media”, the middle way, slicing the baby in half, compromising between truth and error, violating the law of non-contradiction.

My compromise, my via media, was simply to stop going to church anywhere for a while – Lutheran, Episcopalian, or what have you. To her credit, my wife Karen would not stand for this, and she kept pestering me to find a church we could stick with. To my credit, I suggested the Catholic Church, which did not make Karen happy. “I will become Anything But Catholic,” she insisted.

Well, to make a long story short, we took private instruction and were received into the Catholic Church July 30, 2000 and after a dreadful R.C.I.A program, confirmed at the Easter Vigil of 2001.

But this was really just the beginning.

For a long time I struggled with Catholic teaching and lived the cafeteria mentality. And while I can point to an utter lack of good role modeling in the cafeteria Catholics around me, my conscience was troubled, and I knew this was no excuse. You see, the Holy Spirit had taken great pains to bring me from my self-indulgent and self-sufficient atheism into the Catholic Church. It was the last thing that anyone would ever have expected in my life. And yet here I was living just like the suburban Catholics around me, which is to say, living like a secular modernist who had never even heard of Jesus.

I do not have room here to describe my intellectual journey once inside the Church, a journey that eventually brought me to a point where my Confirmation became interiorized. I am not saying I am the perfect Catholic, but I am saying that by 2003 or so I was making every effort to live like one – with all the attendant sacrifices, failures, and frustrations. For a long while I was Catholic only nominally, and my spiritual journey did not begin in earnest when I abandoned atheism; it did not begin in earnest when I forsook Lutheran fundamentalism; it did not begin in earnest when I renounced Episcopalian liberalism; it did not even begin in earnest when I was received and Confirmed into the One True Church.

It began in earnest a few months after I began to pray the Rosary.

The family was on a trip to Duluth, Minnesota in the spring of 2002. I had been continuing to read Chesterton, Belloc, the Catechism, and other things in my ongoing wrestling match with Catholic Faith and Morals. We stopped at a beautiful church somewhere in Wisconsin, and I picked up a pamphlet on the Rosary and how Our Lady of Fatima had asked us to pray it daily. “What could it hurt?” I thought, and so I gave it a shot, ever day, with the booklet in hand, until I had memorized the prayers and could pray them without reading them. I would try to say, reflecting on each mystery, “What are the lessons this mystery teaches me? What’s going on here and how can I apply it to my life?”

And though I noticed no change in me, from that lowly point everything changed. I eventually stopped fighting the Church, and found myself giving my life and talents in the dramatic arts to the Lord. And all that I have done since then by God’s grace – all of the sins I’ve overcome, all of my creative work with the Theater of the Word, EWTN, the Chesterton Society and so forth, all of the blessings in our marriage and family life – all that can be traced back to Our Lady of Victories and her Rosary. These simple prayers were the key to this past decade. Or you might say these simple decades were the key to this past decade.

May Mary, the Mother of God, whose feast we celebrate on New Year’s Day, bless you all. And may her Holy Rosary continue to bring us Victories.