Saturday, October 30, 2010

Comedy and the Devil

My first hint was the fact that they were opposed to Halloween. Foolishly, I ignored this until he sat down before me with a kind of stolid contempt.

“You call yourself a Christian?” he said to me, peering. “How can you be a Christian and perform this kind of comedy?”

I had driven over an hour to meet with this man, a winery owner in rural Missouri, who was interested in booking some of the murder mysteries we offer through our secular theater company, Upstage Productions. I had sent him a promotional packet and a DVD, which includes clips from some of our dinner theater shows, all of which are PG-13 Рno real vulgarity, lots of satire, silly humor, and some suggestive moments (more with crowds that are rowdy, less with tame crowds). The owner had seen the video and was scandalized, even though the material on the video is as risqu̩ as a Carol Burnette sketch from the 1970s.

I had noticed flyers indicating that the winery was the meeting place for a local Protestant worship group, and that on October 31 they would be presenting a short drama about Martin Luther – which the owner told me was presented as an “alternative to Halloween”.

Now I think it’s important that we not fool ourselves and overlook the Warning Signs. There are Warning Signs everywhere in life, and I’m usually busy ignoring them. For example, if a man likes Joan Rivers and has seen The Wizard of Oz a dozen times and has posters of Lady Gaga on his wall – those are Warning Signs. If an actor has trouble making it to a noon audition and is rubbing sleep from his eyes and smells strongly of cigarette smoke – those are Warning Signs. If a parish calls itself a “community of believers”, has banners everywhere and a drum set that’s more prominent than the Blessed Sacrament – those are Warning Signs.

Likewise when Halloween is attacked and laughter is suspect and a person says to a stranger, “You call yourself a Christian?” – those are Warning Signs.

I could have walked out. I was certainly tempted to. But the thing that prevented me was the thought that this guy means well. He is a brother in Christ, and he is concerned for the integrity of the practice of the Faith, though from his tone and demeanor he couldn’t care less for the destiny of my soul. Yes, there’s no real charity at work in his confrontation of me, I thought, but there is at least beneath a cloak of self-righteousness a true desire to follow Our Lord and to oppose the sins of the world. Clearly, I thought, if our promotional video offends him, he should never book our shows, and if he did I would be under a kind of pressure and bitter censorship that would prevent me from doing what he’d be paying me to do, but he raises a valid point. How can a Christian perform suggestive humor? Nasty though he’s being to me, I thought, I owe him an explanation.

However, I am reluctant to write on this point, as I was reluctant to address the issue with this winery owner. The fact is that you can’t give someone a sense of humor by explaining a joke. Neither can you explain Halloween to a Halloween-o-phobe. You could try to point out that dressing up and having fun on Halloween is not the service of Satan, but the mockery of Satan and the terrifying yet ridiculous single-mindedness of his demons; it is tweaking the prideful nose of the devil. You could try to point out that Halloween is the preparation and vigil for the great solemnity of All Saints and the feast of all souls – days which honor the dead, especially those who have been blessed by Christ with holiness and a share of the Father’s Heavenly Kingdom. But rational arguments are of no avail with such people. You can no more defend Halloween to a Puritan than you can explain a joke to someone who doesn’t get it. This is because Halloween-o-phobia is not a rational thing in and of itself, but a symptom of a far deeper spiritual error. It is the fruit of the Pharisee. It is the poisonous apple that has fallen from the tree of Puritanism. The roots that produce it go deep. It is a pernicious heresy.

Now to give this winery owner and fellow Christian (though heretic) his due, he and I no doubt shared the vast bulk of the tenets of the Catholic Faith – belief in the divinity of Christ, the necessity of salvation, the danger of sin, the expiation of the cross, the immortality of the soul, and so forth. Where he differed, and what cut him off most markedly from full communion in the Church, is in his belief of guaranteed salvation to those who profess, and what flows from that belief, the pride of presumption. Behind that was the great mood that all Puritans share – hatred of fun.

Again, though, the points he made were worth addressing. He said that as a kid he used to love Red Skelton. Red Skelton could be funny without being the least bit off-color. Why do comics today feel compelled to aim at the lowest common denominator? Why are they wallowing in mire?

The same can be said for “Goths” and people who become fascinated with the occult. Indeed, Satan is a real and powerful enemy and the trappings of Halloween can often draw some in to an obsession with the realm of darkness that lasts longer than that one night, leading to a morbidity of the imagination and a true danger for the soul.

I do not deny, then, that most comedy in the popular culture of our day is rancid, spiteful, self-serving and crude, nor do I deny that Halloween can indeed be used as a cover for interest in the occult. We did, therefore, agree on much. So did he have a point when he said, in so many words, that a Christian should not find humor in the flesh or in sins of the flesh? I tried to address the question at its root.

“Sin is funny,” I said. “In our mystery Slay It Again, Sam, the Humphrey Bogart character, after Ingmar Bergman leaves him, enters into a purely physical relationship with his personal secretary, Brandi, played by a woman in the audience. We make it clear that their relationship is not a chaste one, and we get some laughs from that.”

“An affair is a serious sin! It is never funny!” the man objected.

“Well, fornication is indeed a serious sin,” I replied, “but we are all sinners. Made in the image and likeness of God, we nevertheless waste our lives on things that are unworthy of us – like fornication, and anger, and greed. Everyone in Slay It Again, Sam is searching with a passionate greed for the Maltese Chicken, a rubber chicken worth millions of dollars. They’re willing to kill each other to get it. This is funny. It’s funny because it’s incongruous. It’s not what we should be doing. It’s not what we were made to do. It shows how ridiculous we are when we try to act like little gods, when we go after only the things we want. But it was ever thus. Don’t you see? Without being able to laugh at our sinfulness, it’s far too easy to take ourselves seriously. Humor is a form of humility. We’re all in this boat together. We’re all sinners, and we might as well acknowledge that and laugh at it.”

“For that matter,” he replied, “Murder is a sin. You’re making light of murder in your ‘murder mysteries’.”

“There’s a difference between the depiction of sin and the endorsement of sin,” I answered. “If sin were never to be made fun of or examined, all drama would have to be banned, for that is what all drama is about. Hamlet revolves around murder – and also revenge and lust and so forth – all serious sins, and all examined seriously in drama. Should we never perform Hamlet? Never perform any drama – serious or humorous? The Puritans banned drama once, you know …”

But he was peering at me with an even colder stare.

I concluded. “Humor comes from God. It is a divine gift. God has a sense of humor. If He didn’t, we wouldn’t. We couldn’t. If you reject depicting the sinfulness of man and laughing at it, you’re playing right in to Satan’s prideful hands, and you are giving up a gift that only a creature with reason and will could have, a gift you should cherish, use properly, and not suppress. You are giving up a sense of humor.”

I thanked him for meeting with me and left. I knew it was both a failed sales call and probably a failed witness.

How tragic it is (and also how funny) that we are in a world where the Church is split in two – heterodox liberalists rejecting the full message of Christ so that they can indulge their flesh, and heterodox Puritans rejecting the full message of Christ so that they can indulge their pride.

May the Lord have mercy on us, and may we never back down from making fun of ourselves, or from having fun in making it.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Evolution of a Revival

With success comes danger.

Case in point: as Cardinal Newman was beatified last month in England, the left had to do something; they couldn’t just ignore Newman and they weren’t about to read him. So what did they do? They co-opted him, they made him not only a theological liberal (the one thing he never was), they also made him a raving homosexual (the other one thing he never was). The left says about Newman insipid things like, “he stood for change” or “he told us to follow only our conscience, and my conscience lets me do whatever I like”. In effect, they keep saying, “You know, he’s really one of us,” meaning that John Henry Newman is a sophisticated liberal living a life of quiet despair and going to Anglican services for the music as he sits in the pew with his arm around his boyfriend – something which even a cursory reading of Newman would tell you he’s not.

The same is happening with our man G. K. Chesterton, but it’s not the left who are making Chesterton an ugly caricature; it’s the right.

Ten years ago no one knew who G. K. Chesterton was. I did, because I was devouring his books (he was the writer most responsible for my conversion), and I noticed on what was then a still-fledgling internet that there were only a few references to him scattered here and there that one could find if one looked hard enough on search engines. There was, for example, something called the American Chesterton Society and a guy who spoke on EWTN at odd times about Chesterton, but the average intellectual or reader had never heard of him. Chesterton, the most brilliant essayist and thinker of the twentieth century, had been buried.

But, as I pointed out in an article for the St. Austin Review, this is a Faith of Resurrection, and we now see Chesterton out of his grave, jovial and ebullient as ever. This has caused a rush on shovel sales.

Many people are made uncomfortable by this laughing and living corpse talking and thinking among them, more alive now than most of the people we see on the street, and so there’s a desire to cover this man up again and pretend his resurrection never really happened. But the reburial of Chesterton is only one of the dangers his followers now face. There is another that might be the more dangerous. For Chesterton is once again in the public eye – and being in your eye is just a tad shy of being “in your face”.

And people are responding in two major ways to Chesterton being “in their face”. They are either

1. Reading him, or
2. Not reading him.

If they are not reading him, they are either

A. Dismissing him (burying him, damning him with faint praise, slandering him), or
B. Co-opting him for their own partisan agendas which bear no relation to who Chesterton really was or what he really wrote (in other words, doing to him what the liberals are doing to Newman in England).

The two tactics employed are, therefore, BURIAL or CO-OPTION. And we need to understand these tactics well and be wary of them.

For I assert that we are no longer in the Early Stage of the Chesterton Revival, a stage that consisted almost entirely of Getting the Word Out, promoting Chesterton and trying to get people to read him. We have now passed into the Middle Stage of the Chesterton Revival, a stage that consists of Defending Him, both from the attacks of those who want to get rid of him; and also Defending Him from those who want to co-opt him, who want to take Chesterton and wave him as a banner or use him as a cloak to defend their less-than-Chestertonian designs.

And so far we see these two responses of the non-readers in a left / right split.

The left are the ones who are damning Chesterton with faint praise, who are writing grudging articles that acknowledge the revival while at the same time making sure we understand that Chesterton was a shallow, partisan thinker, a rabid Catholic who was from an utterly bygone era, a judgmental boor who was a bigot in a jester’s costume. Or, as Stanford Nutting calls him, with livid indignation, “that anti-Semitic, medievalistic, misogynistic, homophobic pre-post-modernist G. K. Chesterton.”

On the other hand, the right are the ones who are trying to co-opt him. Take for example this past week’s hubbub over James O’Keefe (see my latest two posts), a young man who claims his two heroes are Saul Alinsky (who dedicated his book Rules for Radicals to Lucifer) and G. K. Chesterton, a very unlikely combination to say the least. O’Keefe’s latest stunt, exposed by CNN, the evidence of which has still not been addressed by O’Keefe without spin, distraction and fudging, has embarrassed a number of Chestertonians who feel that O’Keefe never should have been invited to speak at this year’s Chesterton Conference to begin with and who feel that the American Chesterton Society should now officially distance itself from him. (By the way, although I am one of O’Keefe’s most vocal critics, I speak as someone who actually likes O’Keefe personally and admires his sense of humor, his pluck, his stirrings of Faith, and therefore I think it’s particularly important to call him out when he messes up as profoundly as he has).

This type of problem would not have happened ten years ago and did not happen ten years ago. Back then, a young idealist like O’Keefe would have read Alinksy only because no one in his circle of friends would even have known who G. K. Chesterton was. But now Chesterton is popular again, and as such is part of the popular culture, a thing that is reeking and rotting and that tends to corrupt everything it touches – corrupting it especially with partisan politics.

And so we see that the right is attracted to Chesterton because he’s Christian – indeed Catholic. And the left is appalled with Chesterton for the same reason, for the left is viciously anti-Catholic, having openly and virulently rejected much Catholic teaching by supporting abortion, euthanasia, the destruction of the family through the degradation of marriage, and so forth and so on. But what so-called conservatives are loath to admit is that the right has also rejected much Catholic teaching by supporting torture, unbridled capitalism, unjust war, degradation of the poor, Puritanism, and (as we can see with O’Keefe and his supporters) unadulterated consequentialism (the teaching that the end justifies the means). Either way, the Church is despised. Either way Christ is crucified all over again.

And either way, Chesterton is not read. Or if read, read superficially and not understood.

Of the two reactions against Chesterton by those who do not read him, or who do not read him well, I think the latter is the more dangerous. The left can’t bury him again. He’s too big and they can’t shovel the muck fast enough. They can’t heave such a heavy thinker so easily back into the pit of oblivion. But the right can do worse than that. The right can fashion him into an ugly painted puppet on a stick who’s no more than a fat little ventriloquist dummy, moving his mouths to the words they themselves are speaking.

But either side may yet use either tactic. As the left has used the tactic of CO-OPTION on Blessed Cardinal Newman, so they may find that by co-opting Chesterton’s economics they can turn a Distributist into a Communist and thereby further their economic and social agenda; and as the right becomes more uncomfortable with the passages of Chesterton that deride personal attack and Puritanism, the right may reach for the nearest shovel in the blink of an eye, hoping to BURY the sign of contradiction in their midst before he becomes a cornerstone of something bigger and more distasteful to them. So don’t expect the twin tactics of BURIAL and CO-OPTION always to be used by the same group of people. That’s one of the things we need to be mindful of.

For we can only be prepared to save Chesterton from the oblivion into which the left is heaving him, and from the ugly painted puppet on a stick into which the right is fashioning him by recognizing that the challenge is different now, though the solution is still the same: read Chesterton, read more of him, read him carefully, read him well, and turn with all of our hearts to the very Everlasting Man G. K. Chesterton everlastingly served.

Thus the Middle Stage beings. Thus the wariness and wakefulness demanded of us by our own success.

Monday, October 4, 2010

James O'Keefe Continued

On Facebook, James linked to his rather lame defense of his sex toy scheme, which I blogged about here.

I posted this comment on his FB post in response to this defense:

James, what about the email evidence CNN claims to have that you in fact approved of this scenario and were set to impliment it until Izzy Santa blew the whistle? What "guerilla theater" skit were you going to implement if not the sex toy scheme? It's evident you wanted to meet with Boudreau personally to coax her into a video of some sort. What was that video to be, if not the one CNN is reporting? It's also odd that Santa would freak out the way she did in intercepting Boudreau unless she knew specifically what was up.

I would love to give you the benefit of the doubt, James, but CNN seems to have some solid evidence that needs more than a statement from you that merely accuses them of bad and biased journalism. Certainly, they're a biased organization, but that's not the issue here; it's not even in disupte. The question is how do you refute the hard evidence they have?

Also, if you had no plan to impliment this scenario, how is it that you haven't been able to convince Breitbart of that?

As you know, James, many of the Chestertonians and I were impressed with you when you spoke at the Chesterton conference, though even there questions were raised about your tactics, questions which I tried to help you answer. However this latest problem is not really a question of tactics but of judgment and intention. It's disturbing to your followers to try to figure out what your intention was in any kind of ambush of Boudreau, particularly the one Ben outlined in detail in the document. The plan seemed far from investigative journalism and not even good guerilla theater. I think for you to assuage your base you have to be clear about what you really had intended to do and you also need to respond directly to the evidence CNN has presented. Your online statement does not do either.

We are praying for you, and praying that you "purify your intentions" as a friend of mine put it. The end does not justify the means, and beyond that, the end must be something more than just smearing another human being out of a kind of juvenile spite. You show much promise, James, as a crusader for truth, but this, the Louisiana debacle, and even the music video seem to be very wrong-headed. You are called to something greater than what you've been attempting lately.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

What is James O'Keefe Doing?

There is awash in the world today a kind of idealism that’s loosed from its moorings. I suspect this is because the cynicism against which the idealism reacts is so strong and entrenched that it’s provoking reactions that are unrealistic.

A case in point is James O’Keefe, a young man who spoke at this year’s American Chesterton Society Conference. O’Keefe is best known as the video journalist who brought down ACORN and who exposed the racism inherent in Planned Parenthood’s abortion agenda by means of undercover videos in which he posed as a pimp or a racist, and elicited responses that were shocking enough to cause a few tremors. He struck us at the Conference as a quixotic idealist carrying on against the windmills of corruption while under assault from the mainstream media, lawyers and other nasty bugbears.

However, it was a bit disturbing when, in the Q & A session following his speech, O’Keefe was asked, “How do you justify your technique? You lie to people in your undercover videos. You pretend to be something or someone you’re not, and they react to you based upon that falsehood,” and O’Keefe answered, in effect, “the end justifies the means: I am lying to bring down a greater lie.” – which, of course, is consequentialism - poison to any society, any individual, or any attempt at reform.

I later spoke publicly before our performance at the conference, and tried to give a better defense of O’Keefe’s activities. “It’s a kind of guerilla theater,” I said, “in which, as in all theater, masking is used to reveal the truth.” In other words, as in Candid Camera we get to see how people would react in a given fictional situation, but not simply (as in Candid Camera) for cheap laughs, but as in Shakespeare, the fiction, the mask, the pretense, serves to reveal a greater truth that would otherwise remain hidden. But I was not entirely satisfied with this defense, which seemed to be perhaps a bit Jesuitical to me. For one thing, in actual drama the participants and audience are all aware of the charade and no one is victimized by being deliberately fooled. In O’Keefe’s videos, there is a kind of victimization going on, even though the victim might himself be a victimizer, and even though O’Keefe’s guerilla theater might be doing a good by revealing that.

But now we learn it’s not just O’Keefe’s tactics that are in question. He seems, in light of some recent revelations, to be a young idealist utterly overwhelmed by the forces that are preying upon him. These forces are both external – including his financial supporters who appear to be exploiting him, and his critics who are viciously opposed to him – as well as internal: he is being undone by a lack of mature judgment at the very least. His latest attempts at investigative journalism / guerilla theater are far from Shakespeare’s “the virtue of IF”, far from using a mask to reveal a truth, far from even the cheap laughs of Candid Camera, and almost below the level of Punked on MTV.

To wit: the news this week is that O’Keefe had planned on luring a female CNN reporter onto his boat and “faux seducing” her while surrounded with sex toys and pornographic magazines and filming this encounter – to what end being rather unclear. What is clear is that the script outline for this “prank”, obtained and released by CNN, reads like a bad idea for a frat house comedy night sketch.

Suddenly O’Keefe and company seem much more like teenagers with cameras than anything resembling investigative journalists. Give a frat boy a camera, and this is what you’ll get – bad self-indulgent theatrics on the one hand, and nothing resembling journalism on the other.

Of course there’s always the chance that CNN is twisting this to serve its own liberal bias and to bring down O’Keefe, but I doubt that. O’Keefe’s cohort who wrote the scenario has admitted to the plot and the authenticity of the script CNN obtained; another of O’Keefe’s cohorts who “outed” him seems to have legitimately done so out of concern for the pointlessness, perverseness and potential harm of this prank, and so on.

Meanwhile, James O’Keefe is trying to defend himself from what he thinks is a serious misunderstanding concerning his failed mission in Louisiana, in which he and some cronies disguised themselves as telephone repairmen and tried to gain access to a Louisiana senator’s phone system – to catch the senator in a lie. O’Keefe ended up arrested and charged for this one, and he is now serving out his probation. And he’s upset that when the news hit, it was inaccurately reported that he was engaged in wiretapping – which he wasn’t. Of course, this also shows a lack of maturity on his part, for if you enter government property under false pretences and in disguise attempt to gain access to the phone system of a U.S. Senator while surreptitiously filming said event ... well, that’s not much better than wiretapping. Our buddy Bill Clinton can gloat over the fact the he didn’t technically have “sex” with Ms. Lewinsky, but he’s only fooling himself when he flaunts this kind of narrow innocence, and so is James O’Keefe.

Still, O’Keefe is offended by the wiretapping misnomer, and so he wants to set the record straight. And how do you suppose he intends to do this? How does he hope to clear his name and let his viewers know the purity of his intentions before his Federal arrest and guilty plea? By producing and starring in a music video.

A music video.

Well, I think the upshot of all of this is that Distributism is a dangerous thing. It’s a great good, having electronic information technology, once controlled by a handful of megalithic corporations, now in the possession of the people. But like all great goods, it can really sting.

If O’Keefe were an investigative journalist fifteen years ago, neither the telephone scheme nor the sex prank would have gotten past the first editorial review. But now Distributism in media has given ordinary people what was once extraordinary power – the power to be your own producer and your own editor, a dangerous mix; the power to expose corruption and the power to make an ass of yourself; the power to use proper means to achieve an end and the power to use illicit means to achieve an end – in both cases for all the world to see; the power to engage an audience in a virtuous and responsible way and the power to indulge infantile fantasies that are painful and repulsive for your audiences even to hear tell of.

James O’Keefe struck us all at the Chesterton Conference as being a young idealist, and he struck some of us as being distracted, burdened and troubled in spirit – whether from the persecutions he was enduring or from some other issue which was not clear. He was astonished that so many people were telling him they would be praying for him. He was clearly on some sort of Faith journey. He has the potential to be a kind of monk, living frugally, at risk, on the edge, all for the sake of the truth.

But he won’t get there the way he’s traveling now. If G. K. Chesterton is indeed a hero of James O’Keefe’s, then we should continue to pray for O’Keefe that he focus, as Chesterton did, on what is true, on Him who is Truth, on His way, and not on all of the various temptations that can bring a budding young Christian down, from adolescent self-indulgence to using bad means to achieve good ends.

And in the meantime Mr. O’Keefe has to decide if he is a crusading journalist or a Penthouse Magazine version of “Borat”; if he is the child who points out that the emperor is wearing no clothes or the teenager who won’t turn down his crappy music; if he is serious about what he’s doing or if he’s just (like most actors I know) working out his “issues” on a very big stage – in a very sad way.