Sunday, January 2, 2011

Fruits of Fiction - Cardinal Newman, Flannery O'Connor and The Unreal

The word is “unreal”.

I had been looking for this word for a long time. You see, we have a few odd linguistic quirks here in St. Louis, where I live. For one thing, we use the word “hoosier” to mean “urban white trash” – the only place on earth where you’ll find this word used in this way. And when I was growing up we used to use the word “fruit” to mean not what “gay” means now, but to mean “contrived, artificial, self-indulgent in a stupid way”. For instance, the music of Marty Haugen is “fruit”. Catholic Schools Week is “fruit”. Movies on the Hallmark Channel are “fruit”.

And for a long time this was the only word I could use to describe what was wrong in the Catholic Church.

I had come into the Church having been inspired by the writings of G K Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, and so by the time I was Catholic and regularly attending Mass and sending my kids to the parish school and especially after experiencing nine months of purgatory with our RCIA non-faith non-formation non-classes, I began to say to myself, “Why is this all so fruit?”

This really is a mystery, on par perhaps with what St. Paul calls the “mystery of iniquity”.

And again. Today the priest at Mass preached on the Wise Men and Epiphany. “We’ve all got our own star we need to follow,” he said. “What’s your star? That’s what you need to find out! What’s your inner star?” Now this is just fruit. Why would anybody sit through this, you have to wonder. The only good word for it is “fruit”.

But there’s another one. “Unreal”.

It comes from Blessed John Henry Newman, who uses it a number of times in his Plain and Parochial Sermons (most of which I have recorded for Ignatius Press Audio Books). But while Newman uses the word rather sparingly, the concept permeates the book.

Newman apparently saw his primary task as preacher one of encouraging his flock to lead a truly Christian life and thus to avoid the greatest pitfall to that, which is when both holding the Faith and living the Faith become unreal.

How easy it is to understand what this word means. How often in our own breasts do we seem to be only going through the motions when it comes to prayer or self-sacrifice or what have you. A certain inability to realize God’s grace is endemic to our fallen condition. But more than that, the true danger of Unreality is when you stop struggling against it, when on the contrary it becomes an idol. The danger is kicking out the Real and replacing it with the Unreal.

When devotion is replaced with platitudes, it’s Unreal. When the Gospel is replaced with vague pop psychology affirmations, it’s Unreal. When the pungent and dangerous virtues of Christ are replaced with “just be nice”, it’s Unreal.

And the liberalists are guilty of all of the above, but the traditionalists don’t get off free either. When externalized ritual-by-rote replaces worshipping in the Spirit and in Truth, it’s Unreal. When following rules replaces circumcision of the heart, it’s Unreal. And when art, drama and literature becomes saccharine, dull, and pedantic, it’s Unreal.

The last business is what prompted me to write this blog post, for over on Facebook a fascinating discussion ensued over a quote I put up from Flannery O’Connor (this is the post and the discussion, though you may have to “friend” me to see it here. )

O’Connor says, “It is when the individual's faith is weak, not when it is strong, that he will be afraid of an honest fictional representation of life; and when there is a tendency to compartmentalize the spiritual and make it resident in a certain type of life only, the supernatural is apt gradually to be lost." This comes at the end of an essay (quoted fully here ) in which O’Connor is toying around with literary theory as applied to the question “What is Catholic Fiction?”

And her answer is, in so many words, Catholic fiction must deal with life as it is and not as we would wish it to be. It must deal with the messy truth of sin and the awesome and uncomfortable truth of God’s grace operating in the midst of a world that’s full of sin, in hearts that are devoted to sin. In other words, Catholic fiction, and all Catholic art, must continue the work of the Incarnation.

I have myself, elsewhere, written about the Catholic Ghetto mentality (most recently here ) and this is related to the fact that once you begin to ask the question, “What is Catholic Fiction?” you are already admitting that there’s a ghetto, that the culture at large is no longer Catholic. If it were, Catholic fiction would be all around us; it would be a natural product of the soil of the society, its culture. Thus, prescinding from the question of Shakespeare’s religion, his plays are entirely Catholic, for they are a product of a late Medieval worldview not yet turned Protestant and secular, despite the official established church and politics of the day. They are naturally Catholic for they spring out of a culture that was wholly Catholic.

Of course this is a question I’ve often considered from the point of view of my production company, Theater of the Word Incorporated. As I wrote on Facebook, “So can you create Catholic Drama that is overtly evangelistic when your audience is expecting your work to be sanctimonious compartmentalized artificial non-offensive tripe, and hence (if they're normal) they will avoid it? If you call it Catholic or Christian doesn't that alone telegraph, ‘Oh, it won't be very good. It certainly won't be real. Nothing about Church these days seems very real. I'll go if I have to, but real life is found elsewhere.’”

The question comes down to Reality. Whether in theater, short stories, novels, or films, the question comes down to how best does this work of art reflect and honor the hidden truths of Reality? In so far that a work of fiction fails to do this, the work is Unreal. When the secular film The Big Chill glorifies adultery and “open marriage” and overlooks the pain and sickness that goes with such behavior (as at the end when the husband beds another woman so she can conceive), such a film is Unreal. When the Protestant film Facing the Giants indicates that with Christian Faith comes worldly prosperity and riches (the protagonist gets a nice new car once he’s confessed his Faith in Jesus), such a film is Unreal. When viewers of EWTN complain so that the network is reluctant to air anything that deals with the fact that priests sometimes struggle with their faith and their calling, such a situation is Unreal. When Puritans confuse the depiction of sin with the endorsement of sin, such a situation is Unreal. When the cartoon version of Moses (a Disney film, I think) has him kill the Egyptian accidentally, such a story becomes Unreal.

And when people in their hearts really don’t believe, then at Mass you find bad music, insipid homilies, desecration of the Eucharist, and priests devoted to the sin of sodomy. You find Catholic Schools run by female principals who have no principles and who bully parents to shut up about their kids being taught to love the great Earth Goddess in “faith” class. You find normal people avoiding church and power-hungry volunteers with miserable home lives trying to take over the lay council and run things for their own agendas.

In short, it all becomes Unreal.

This post will be mirrored at The Ink Desk


Kevin O'Brien said...

From a friend of mine who emailed me this and asked me to post it as a comment:

Kevin, so far I've read your blog piece twice; and I laughed more the second time than the first. And I'm certain I'll laugh even harder the third time I read it. Why did I laugh? Because the truth is funny when it’s being ignored. As your blog piece points out, without God’s grace we are incapable of sustaining our life-long struggle against the “Unreal”. Your quote "The true danger of Unreality is when you stop struggling against it, when on the contrary it becomes an idol. The danger is kicking out the Real and replacing it with the Unreal," is one that I will memorize and recite on a regular basis to help me in my struggle against the Unreal. As someone who preaches at Mass, I must never forget to give the people what Jesus wants them to hear—not what they what to hear. God bless you and the challenging work you create to help all the faithful grow in love for Christ and His Church. Your friend in Christ Jesus, Deacon John Beckmann. 1/4/2011

Mrs. Pinkerton said...

Kevin, you rock. I bless the day my sis (and blog partner) posted a vid of Stanford Nutting.