Monday, May 28, 2012

Old Folks, a Run-Down Hotel, and the Anglican Church


Dame Judith Dench in "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"
I was hoping to see an independent film, something without all of that Hollywood predictability, so the family and I all went to see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel - a movie starring some of the finest British film actors, a very minor tale about old folks forced to live in a crummy hotel in India, whose young manager has great aspirations, and whose guests are all trying to make the best of a bad situation. 

And all I kept thinking was, "This is exactly like the Anglican Church - a network of stoic, well-intentioned Brits with a great deal of civility doing their best to carry on amidst the ruins of a formerly great thing, despite an atmosphere of despair and the ongoing drain of moral relativism."

The movie has its quiet charms - lots of funny lines, excellent acting; it's a movie with a heart and an above-average character study, though at its best it's not much more than that.

But at its worst, it's really just The Big Chill for old folks.

If you remember The Big Chill - it was a very popular chick-flick from the early 1980's that was all about narcissistic hippies who were shocked to find themselves aging, but who solved all of their problems by coming up with their own morality - and if you liked it, then you'll like this movie.

But I hated The Big Chill.  Granted, I only saw it once, thirty years ago, but it was one of the first mainstream movies to make light of drug use and to promote "open marriage" as a good thing.  The selfishness of the characters involved was taken for granted, and never examined.  It was a horribly self-indulgent movie with a message - Make Your Own Morals and Be Happy.

SPOILER ALERT FROM HERE ONE OUT. 

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel carries the same message.  We are force-fed sympathy for a "gay" male character, whose happiest moment in life was an act of sodomy committed at the shore of a lake in India many years prior.  When this character dies in the movie, he is given a Hindu burial ceremony by his gay lover and the gay lover's wife (who's tolerant of the whole thing, naturally) and cremated at this site, a site which "for them" was "holy", we are told by the film's narrator, without a trace of irony.  Anal intercourse has now become the means to make people and places holy.  How advanced we are!

Then there's the very predicable resolution of the unhappily married heterosexual couple, who get caught in a traffic jam on the way to the airport a good fifteen minutes before the end of the film, so that anyone who has seen enough Hollywood movies (and was hoping to avoid another one) can see that the wife will end up getting to the airport and back to England without the henpecked husband, who will naturally get to stay behind and have sex with Judi Dench - which for some reason he thinks is a good idea.  Although the shrewish wife is one of the more interesting characters in the story, she functions in the plot as a witch who is holding back the happiness of her husband of 40 years, who can only be happy with Dame Judith.

Then there's the situation comedy depiction of the fornication of an old man - and fornication can be many things, but it's not a spiritual "mountain top" - which is how the character and the plot sells it to us in this movie.  Naturally, all this old guy needs is one good roll in the hay and his life of loneliness and despair is cured, and his future look bright, despite what must be looming death, judging by how old the poor coot looks.  (Perhaps the extra-marital sex does so much for him in this movie because it's with someone other than Judy Dench.)

And yet in the midst of the film's story, marriage is strangely both elevated and despised. 

On the one hand, the young manager must stand up to his mother to marry the woman he loves (and had been sleeping with).  I find it interesting that his battle to marry this girl is shown as a good thing, and the resolution is not complete until he claims her for his own.  Thus marriage is important.

On the other hand, the end of a 40-year marriage is shown to be a better thing than whatever love and sacrifices held the couple together for so long; the aforementioned sodomy by the lake makes the very spot itself sacramental and a fit place for one of the gay lover's ashes to be spread ("Goody!  I will find eternal rest in the lake where Punjab first performed oral sex on me!") and the cohabitation of fornicating seniors is seen as quite fitting.  Thus, marriage is not important.

All in all, as I say, it's the Anglican Church in microcosm.  For the movie, the run-down exotic hotel in the story, and the Anglican Church itself have the following in common - aesthetic sensibilities, an emphasis on propriety, and utter yet quiet hopelessness. 

The message of our secular age and its decrepit quasi-Christian sects is that our only hope for happiness is in the existential assertion of our own rules to live by, our brave attempt to keep on keeping on despite our depression, and fleeting moments of sexual indulgence, the only thing that resembles a "mountain top" experience any more. 

This is what we are told, both overtly and covertly, by pop culture all around us.  This is what we are told will make us happy.

In American films we are told these things will make us perfectly happy.  In more sophisticated British films, we are told these things will only make us marginally happy at that.  That's because we're more like the young naive hotel manager; the Brits are more like the old folks in the movie, doing their best but vaguely tired and spiritually sad.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Why Bad Christian Art is Anti-Christian


Bad Christian art is not only bad; it's anti-christian.  Let me explain.  This may be a bit of a rant, but let me explain.

You will notice a theme running on my blog and at the Ink Desk - it is the attempt by my fellow writers and me to express and explain the bizarre separation of the Church from the culture that surrounds it - a Western culture that the Church gave birth to, a culture that now rejects both God and man - as it fundamentally rejects the man Who was God.

For instance, I am about to unroll a new website, dedicated to opening the eyes of readers and audiences to the Christian - indeed Catholic - elements in the works of Shakespeare.  With the help of Joseph Pearce, authors and literary critics worldwide, we hope to have a web presence that will counter the bad literary criticism that has been prevalent for quite a while - a view of Shakespeare that makes him and his art a mirror of our own times - in other words, something rather sick. 

But the immediate reaction of most modernists is that Shakespeare could not possibly have been Christian, and certainly not Catholic - his plays are far too well written and far too much fun. 

The idea is that a Christian - even a Catholic - and his art must be judgmental, contrived, shallow and artificial, connected only marginally to real people and the real world.  It is an idea that many of our fellow Catholics endorse.  Examples of which include ...

  • Appallingly bad liturgical music that no almost no normal people enjoy, and that leads no one to a God that is real.
  • Parishes and Catholic schools that are all about a kind of make-believe, with no sense of concern for the human spirit, much less the Holy Spirit.
  • Bad Christian fiction and bad Christian plays and bad Christian movies.
The latter of which I want to take a moment to discuss.

Now, again, as someone in the business of producing Catholic dramatic art, I am fully aware that much of what we do at Theater of the Word Incorporated may perchance be "bad  Christian art" - but it's one thing to be bad accidentally and another thing to be bad on purpose.

When an artist sets out to make his work didactic, to make it propaganda, and a propaganda of an underlying theology which is shallow and contrived; when an artist avoids the reality of life and the depth of conflict inherent in the human soul; when (I am told) Catholic publishers reject works of fiction that include the depiction of sin (not the endorsement of sin, but its mere depiction) and when these publishers say that there's not enough praying or overt religious content in a work; and when instead of Waugh and Chesterton and O'Connor writing masterpieces, we have authors and screen writers producing stories that are a cross between a Romance novel and a Little House on the Prairie episode (as Fr. Bryce Sibley describes the situation in a provocative article in Crisis this week) ... when all this happens, then there's a problem.

The problem on the one hand leads to the Catholic Ghetto, where devout Catholics are self-segregated, accepting whatever crumbs fall their way from the slum lord artists who themselves can't afford to feed them serious art.  The problem on the other hand creates a secular culture that revels in vulgarity and sexuality and the philosophy of nihilism and non-redemption. 

And the twain do not meet.

Notice that with Jesus the twain did indeed meet - even though it killed Him. 

Our Lord descended into the muck and mire ("Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"), calling not the righteous but sinners to repentance.  He reached down into the depth of our troubled and tortured and rebellious hearts, drawing forth the worst of human nature in order to redeem it and remake it and draw it out again as one draws good wine from new wine skins. 

Thus, the Catholic Church - which is the Body of Christ - made a redeemed culture that was the only truly human and humane culture the world has known. 

Now that culture has split. 

The secular side of the split rejects the grace that only can sustain it, and becomes the kind of culture that grows in a Petri dish or that grows on old food in the back of the fridge - a Culture of  Death. 

The Christian side of the split loses touch with reality and becomes a culture that is contrived, artificial and banal - a Culture of Sterility

In both cases, art - the signature of man - becomes anti-christian, opposed to Christ; opposed to the One who was both God and man; and thus opposed both to what God really is and to what man really is - or at least to what he was really meant to be.

***

For more reading, see my posts on Bad Catholic Art, the Catholic Ghetto, The Most Dangerous Thing in the Word, and so forth.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

His Peace She Gives Us


Dawn Eden with Yours Truly

Dawn Eden is a friend of mine and one of the most intelligent women I've ever met.  She shares with me a love for G. K. Chesterton and an adult conversion that brought her from much suffering and sin into a life of grace.  So we have some things in common, and I admire her greatly.

But Dawn is braver than I am, for in her first book, The Thrill of the Chaste , published a few years back, she quite bluntly confronts the sexual promiscuity of her past and reveals the pain it caused, exposing what we moderns are loath to admit - that such a life never brings us even natural happiness, much less supernatural joy.  It took ample courage to write that book, a courage that would be beyond most men.

Now Dawn's second book, My Peace I Give You - Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints, is even more personal and even more helpful than her first - and clearly took more courage to write.  In this book, Dawn deals with the sexual abuse she suffered as a child.  She shows how, through the wounds of Christ and through the lives of saints who were healed by those wounds, even the most dreadful and darkest parts of our lives can be redeemed.

If this book does nothing more than make clear the Church's teaching that victims of sexual abuse are simply victims - that virgins who are physically violated against their will are still virgins - that chastity is a moral virtue and not just a physical condition - then it will have done much good.  For, enlightened as we are about the sex act and about the horror of abuse - we still harbor that Calvinistic judgmentalism, that insane notion that the victim somehow sinned in his or her being victimized, that the one whose innocence was stolen cooperated in the theft.

Now this is crazy, but it's one of the main things even the abuse victims themselves struggle with. 

I will point you to an illustration of this, and then show how this same illustration can be the key to the central message of Dawn's book.  I warn you that this illustration is disturbing - but no more disturbing than the sin itself.

Somewhere, somehow, in all of my readings, I had read somewhere that it may indeed be possible that Our Lord was sexually assaulted by the Roman centurions before his crucifixion.  Scripture does not make this claim, but Scripture is silent on many things, and we certainly know that the level of cruelty and mockery and violence the Romans were willing to subject Him to - nay, delighted in tormenting Him with - would not on principle have excluded sexual abuse.  Whether He did or did not endure this, the theology is not changed - for He endured all sins for our sake, whether literally during His passion or not.

But look at the response to this hypothetical by a certain Protestant blogger.  He writes, "Furthermore, it must be said that to state that Jesus was sexually abused is tantamount to insulting Christ, for that means that Jesus sinned and thus did not remain sinless till His death." 

What an utter misunderstanding. 

Yes, it is disturbing to think of Our Lord abused in this way, and it adds an element to His passion that we can hardly bear to imagine - but to be victimized in such a way is not to sin; it is to be the victim of sin

So even in this enlightened day and age, even after all the Oprahs and Dr. Phils, that basic distinction is still not clear in our minds.

And yet this disturbing image of an additional and almost unspeakable suffering of Our Lord - whether historically true or not - is quite true spiritually.  Jesus Christ suffered everything for us and with us.  And therefore when we suffer, we are suffering everything for Him and with Him.  It is this profound spiritual insight that is the core of this book (see also Col. 1:24 and elsewhere, for St. Paul writes about this at length).

Indeed, in the final chapter, Dawn tells us about Bl. Karolina Kozka, who died defending her chastity during an assault and rape.  But, Dawn writes, "to say that Karolina, or any martyr of chastity, died defending 'her' chastity is misleading.  She was not only defending her own chastity, but also mine and yours.  And she was not only defending physical chastity, but also spiritual chastity - the chastity that Thomas Aquinas linked with charity, which brings us into union with God and one another.  Because she knew what it meant to have Christ within her, she knew that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit.  It was in defense of the sanctity of that temple - the sanctity of all our bodies - that she resisted unto death."

This is a profound insight into the nature of the Body of Christ - the Church - of which, Dawn quotes St. Joan of Arc saying, "About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they're just one thing, and we shouldn't complicate the matter."  And when we become members of this Body of Christ, (through baptism, repentance, faith, the reception of the Eucharist, and so forth) we "rejoice in our sufferings for his sake" and in our flesh "we complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions, for the sake of His Body, that is, the Church." 

By His wounds we are healed, and by our wounds we participate in Him - and He in our pain.

This is a profound and prayerful book, the fruit of much suffering, much meditation and prayer, and a great willingness on the part of the author to use her own pain to lift others out of theirs.  It is a great act of Charity.

And so in the midst of this sinful world and this crazy time, when even the President of the United States is bullying us to celebrate with the term "marriage" acts that do not express love, that can never be fruitful, and that are often examples of the most hideous things one person can force another person to do - when we call evil good and good evil, darkness light and light darkness - may be say a prayer for the courage of a woman who I'm sure would have been more comfortable keeping her pain secret, but who, in union with Christ and his saints, brings just a glimpse of it to light for His sake and ours; and may we say a prayer for all of those innocent ones now being led to an altar of brutality that only a greater altar can save us from.

As the Globe Turns



Chesterton Academy in Minneapolis recently produced my play As the Globe Turns, a comedy about a traveling troupe of Shakespearian actors. 

Click here to see all the pictures!

This script of mine, along with many other scripts by many other playwrights, will be featured later this summer on Miracle Plays, a website devoted to offering scripts for school groups, amateur groups and professional theaters - all of which will be written from a Christian perspective. 

More on Miracle Plays when the site premiers!

Meanwhile, it sounds like As the Globe Turns was a big hit.  For more on Chesterton Academy, the best high school in America, click here.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Will We Defend All of Marriage - or Part of It?


Nearly fifteen years ago, when I was Episcopalian, a leader of our local "Journey of Faith" program described to the group how she had made some sort of knitting or crochet or tapestry thing for a friend of hers when the friend had gotten married many years prior.  It was some sort of heart with the names of the couple - let's say Ted & Alice - sewn or crocheted or knitted in (I don't know how this stuff works), all framed and gift wrapped.
At some point, Ted and Alice got divorced and Alice brought the gift back to this woman who had made it for her.  "I've left Ted and I'm getting 'married' to my Lesbian lover, Carol.  Will you please pull out Ted's name and sew in Carol's?"

"And much to my surprise," our leader told us, "I found myself reluctant to do so."  She was an urban liberal who prided herself in her tolerance. 

"But," I interjected, "what if Alice had come to you and said, 'I've dumped Ted and I'm getting married to Bob.  Will you please yank out Ted's name and sew in Bob's?'  Would that have bothered you?"

She looked at me, her eyes sparkling.  "Not at all," she answered, smiling.

***

Last week I was doing battle with a leftist Chestertonian, who was making the case that Chesterton's liberalism - meaning his critique of capitalism and Puritanism - could be useful to the liberal cause.  Of course, Chesterton's defense of the family, his healthy disgust at perversion, and his love for clear thinking and dogma had to be ignored.

Likewise, I have written in the past of how the right wing was doing the same thing, only in reverse.  They were painting a picture of a 300-pound neo-con, a moral conservative, whose Distributism was embarrassingly wrong, and in their eyes, crypto-communist - and thus had to be ignored.

Either way, the whole of Chesterton gets jettisoned. 

When we make of him what we want him to be, we lose the fullness of who he is, and ultimately, over time, we lose any ability to comprehend his writings at all.  For example, the liberals have made both Newman and Shakespeare into mirror images of themselves, and in doing so, have utterly lost the ability to read and understand anything that either of them wrote.

***

This is simply heresy in action - picking out what suits us and ignoring the rest.  Of course "heresy" is not the right word to use when someone does this to an author, though "Cafeteria Chestertonians" are analogous to "Cafeteria Catholics".

But heresy in its original sense - religious heresy - is at its heart a kind of idolatry - it is taking the fullness of Who God is and what He teaches us and cutting it down, shaping it into a false god that suits us. 

False gods are always more fun.  We can offer them a kind of belief and devotion, but if things get too difficult or demanding, we can always pull back because we don't really believe in them anyway.  Since idols are artificial, they are safe.

***

And this brings me back to marriage. 

My last post, Pre-Occupied with the One-Half of One Percent , bothered me in that it implied that the battle to save marriage is lost. 

I did not mean to imply that.

But I do mean to say this.  You can't tell Alice that it's wrong to rip out Ted's name and sew in Carol's, if it's right to rip out Ted's name and sew in Bob's. 

We can't be heretics here.  We can't say, "We defend marriage and we insist that marriage is between one man and one woman" - for in doing so we are selling short, we are, quite literally, selling Christ short.  We must add, "between one man and one woman for life", though this is something that makes everybody uncomfortable - and stands as a witness against modern society in general. 

***

The question becomes is marriage of God or is it of man

When Jesus asked this question of the Pharisees concerning the baptism of John, they were caught in a conundrum, "If we say from God, he will say, 'Why, then, did you not believe him?'  But if we say, 'Of man' we fear the people, for they took John for a prophet."  So they copped out and said, "We cannot tell."

If we save not marriage but a parody of it - if we save it for what it has become in the secular world, an arbitrary social construct that serves only the convenience of one or the other party that enters into it - then we will face this problem again again as time goes by.  Because if that's all that marriage is, then the "gay marriage" boosters are right.

We must either defend Marriage or forsake it.  To defend the idol called "marriage", the parody of the sacrament, we are simply doing the devil's work.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Pre-Occupied by the One-Half of One Percent


Occupy Wall Street and related groups were indignant, and rightly so, that the wealthiest one percent of the population seems to control the government.

We would all agree that in a democratic republic, policy that affects every American should not be set by an elite, particularly if that elite is only one percent of the people.

But what if that elite is only half that size?

The (un-"occupied") Wall Street Journal reports that, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, about five of every one thousand households is a "same sex couple" household - which, apprently means not just "room mates" but sodomites and Lesbians living together as a kind of "family".

And so, even with "gay marriage" legal in many states, and with homosexual cohabitation legal in all states, only about point-five percent of households in this country are "same sex couples". Whence, then, comes this tremendous political push to cater to the whims of one half of one percent of the U.S. population?

The only conclusion that we can draw from this is that "gay marriage" is a contrived issue, politically speaking. It is the "One half of one percent" trying to bully the rest of us.

Philosophically speaking, however, it is an issue that has gripped the hearts of many - and I am tempted to say an issue that has gripped hearts but not minds, as it is an issue for which a rational case can not be made - but that's not exactly true. "Gay marriage" is rationally in-defensible only if you define marriage according to its nature; "gay marriage" is quite defensibe - and in fact, compelling - if you define marriage as having no nature, as being entirely man-made.  "Gay marriage" quite logically follows from the way marriage has been viewed since Henry VIII and especially in modern times. Heterosexuals have been deconstructing marriage for years now, and our presumptions about marriage are finally bearing their rotten fruit.

For example, Rush Limbaugh rightly defends marriage on his radio show, but actions speak louder than words. Now on his fourth marriage, he has made a vow to live with a woman forever after breaking a vow to live with a woman forever after breaking a vow to live with a woman forever after breaking a vow to live with a woman forever. He has been, many times over, "sworn on one altar and forsworn on another" as Chesterton says.  He has no more moral authority on this issue than the Kennedies.

In our culture, marriage has become, de facto, a sham - so why not acknowledge the de facto via de jure? It is not even a social custom any more. It has no purpose, apparently. So why not make of it what we will? - which is the way we approach man himself these days.

So in a way, the "gay marriage" boosters get it right. They simply apply what marriage has become (a purely arbitrary social construct) and extend the logic to what they want it to be - which is an even more arbitrary social construct, something completely severed from its true nature. But then again (they ask) what is nature and what is truth? When we, even we defenders of common sense and reason, live as if there were no nature and there were no truth, we can't really be surprised when our children, convinced of their moral superiority over us, condemn us for our hypocrisy, simply by applying the logic of our actions against us.

And when a debater on Facebook tells me that marriage has no purpose because sex has no purpose - that the only purpose of sex is selfish pleasure - how can you argue with him, when this is the way even most Catholics treat sex, in this era of Contraception? 

When we remove purpose from anything, we kill its nature. 

Contraception turns sex into something inherently pointless.  Divorce and remarriage turns marriage into something just as pointless - a mere temporary convenience, a way of making sex (which is pointless) easier to get, since you don't have to drive home afterwards. 

We must understand that this view of life - the view that nothing has a purpose, most especially our own existence - is what is fueling the Culture of Death all around us.

And we can't argue with the "gay marriage" boosters because - in one very important sense - they are too logical.

And their logic is the witness of our own moral failure.

***

ADDENDUM: It has been pointed out to me that the argument I make above, while quite accurate, might serve to discourage orthodox Catholics and other serious Christians from defending the integrity of marriage.  I make it sound as if the fall of marriage is inevitable, given the way we've treated marriage all these years.  That is not my intention; we must all rally now, when things look most grim.  But we must defend marriage as God made it, not as we would like to remake it.  For more on that, read my latest post - Will We Defend All of Marriage - or Part of It?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Stupidity vs. Pride


Here's why it's impossible to debate so-called "gay marriage".

It's not that those who support it will not admit to metaphysics, to natural law, to purpose, to objective truth.  It's not that marriage has been so degraded in our culture that it means nothing, and that "gay marriage" is just an extension of that nothing.  It's not even that a false compassion gets in the way of clear thinking.

Yes, it's all those things, but it's one thing more.

Pride.

You now have the opportunity, if you're a secular fundamentalist with no higher purpose in life, to latch on to a big one.  All you have to do is applaud those who are demanding that anal intercourse is a virtue and that the state reward them for indulging in it.  All you have to do is claim that opposition to "gay marriage" is bigotry, and BAM!  Magically you're a good person.

You can argue people past many misconceptions, but you can make no headway against a belief that serves as a handy substitute for virtue.

No amount of stupidity is ever as harmful to our souls as one ounce of Pride.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Proper Concept of Contraception


Well, the so-called Innocent Smith is proving to be, at the very least, a fine writer, who is engaging me for what he takes to be tribalism over at his blog Innocent Smith's Journal, particulary in his "A Response to Kevin O'Brien". 

One thing I very much admire in him - he is assenting to Church teaching that he doesn't quite swallow intellectually.

Take, for example, contraception.

I struggled with Church teaching on contraception after I became Catholic - not because of the teaching itself but because the defenders of the teaching make such a poor case for it.

In particular you'll hear from every corner, "The Catholic Church is opposed to artificial contraception!"  This is turned into an apology for "Natural Family Planning", which is "natural", even though it involves measuring daily basal temperature and analysing mucus.  "Why on earth," I used to ask myself, "would we oppose artifical contraception but endorse natural contraception?  Are we Christian Scientists?  Forgive my tribalism, but are we tree hugging Gaia lovers?"

It took a lot of prayer and study for the truth to dawn on me.

And the truth is this.  When people tell you the the Church is opposed to artificial contraception, don't believe them. 

The Church is opposed to contraception.  Period.  "Artificial" or otherwise.

I won't go into why the Chruch is opposed to contraception here, other than to say that once you permit contraception, no logical case can be made against any sexual activity outside of "the marital act"; in fact once you permit contraception, no logical case can be made against "gay marriage" or divorce.

What I will say is what I've said before, but what apparently is not said enough, so that well-intentioned intelligent men like Innocent Smith wander about confused, admiring Andrew Sullivan.

The dichotomy between "natural contraception" and "artificial contraception" is entirely false and wrong.  It is a false dichotomy.  "Natural Family Planning" is simply "Periodic Continence" - in other words, if you don't want somebody getting pregnant, DON'T HAVE SEX.  It's not "contraception" at all.  It's refraining from the "marital act" during fertile periods - itself a questionable procedure, but one that is at least not typically material for mortal sin, as the use of a contraceptive agent always is.

If this were made more clear, then the consistency of Catholic teaching would appear, even to those who disagree with it. 

For the consistency of Catholic teaching - the seamless garment - the fact that these are not disparate assertions of disconnected moral precepts, but elements of an organic whole - this is among the most astonishing bits of evidence of this all being much more than a merely human thing, a construct of man, a natural and fallible philosophy. 

The more a man like "Innocent Smith" examines the ratio behind his fides, the more he will see that this is an encounter not with a series of teachings, but with a Man.

Whose Fault Is It that Liberals Don't Like Chesterton?



Note the things this anonymous blogger says about Dale Ahlquist, president of the American Chesterton Society, and note the dialogue that ensues in the combox. 

The only background you need is that this blogger likes Chesterton, but tries to square that with his admiration for and defense of Obama, contraception, Andrew Sullivan and Buddhism. 

He's got his work cut out for him, but, you see, it's all Dale Ahlquist's fault.

Addendum - As our dialogue continues in the comment box, the blogger is showing more common sense and integrity than he was exhibiting in his post.  He might be a formidable Chestertonian in the making.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Germans Invade Missouri


He was a typical Mid-Western suburbanite, a nice guy, a baseball fan.  He had a good sense of humor and a touch of common sense.  I could picture him standing by the grill in his backyard drinking a beer and listening to the radio while his neighbors cut their lawns on a humid summer day. 

But there he would sit every month in his office talking to me about Schelling and Goethe and Hegel and Kant, his American common sense compromised by a hefty dose of German idealism and Prussian paganism.

You see, I did not go straight from atheist to Catholic.  I spent many years in a broad middle ground in which I was "spiritual" but not "religious" - like the vast majority of people today.  What fed my hunger for the "spiritual" were the writings of Swiss psychologist C. G. Jung, whose 30-volume collected works I had read and studied.  The Mid-Westerner I describe above was a "Jungian therapist" with whom I would meet occasionally and who would talk to me about my dreams - and about what I only later discovered was really really bad philosophy.

For Jung I knew well, and well enough that now, many years later, from a Catholic perspective, I can look back and say that he was at least an antidote to the worst of Freud and to the worst of materialism, that he was indeed "spiritual", but spiritual in a gnostic way, a man whose core teachings were either dangerous, such as the persistent counsel for men to integrate into their lives the dark side of human nature, or simply goofy, such as his bizarre fascination with UFOs as a symbol of "individuation" - a fancy sounding word that means "doing whatever you want and making a principle of it".

But I really never knew the philosophical foundations of Jung.  I knew he was a Kantian who felt a kind of pagan admiration for Norse myths, for the Arian race (though he denied he was a Nazi supporter) and for the convoluted writings of the idealists - but it is only recently that I have seen what a strange juxtaposition it is to have an otherwise healthy guy from Missouri admire and quote men who were so twisted and sick in a way that might make sense for a pseudo-intellectual mystic who spoke German but that makes no sense for a suburban St. Louis Cardinals fan.

Think I'm being too tough? 

In the first chapter of Stanley L. Jaki's brilliant book The Relevance of Physics, Jaki discusses the philosophical error that held back the development of exact science for over a millenium, the notion from the Greeks on that the world was an organism and that matter possessed some vague volitional nature.  Jaki surveys this belief, a belief that was endemic in science from Aristotle to Newton and that lingered in pseudo-science and bad philosophy after Newton, and that is making a comeback in our own day.

He discusses at length Goethe and Schelling and Hegel, who to a man endorsed this really weird neo-paganistic belief in the world as living organism and of man as god which may have given their poetic sense some charm but that fatally corrupted their attempts at science.

This bad philosophy "had trapped the greatest of German poets in a labyrinth of errors that stands as perhaps the most pathetic case of stubborn blindness and self-deceit in scientific history," Jaki writes.  Goethe, for example, believed that light could not be investigated physically, that mathematics must be kept out of physics and that Newton's discoveries were "mere twaddle".  Schelling believed that man "is the most perfect cube" (whatever that means), that man need not experiment or test his hypotheses for man can undestand all of nature a priori, man being "the integrated being, man become God".  Hegel asserted that "the time will come when these sciences will be governed by the constructs of the mind", and refused to acknowledge that there existed any more planets than he thought there ought to be. 

Obviously such beliefs prevent the practice of science and even the investigation of truth. 

But this prideful solipsism is the scaffolding that allowed C. G. Jung to construct the peculiar edifice he did.  It is, I'm sorry to say, the philosophy of the age, and you find it in the most unusual places - including your own backyard, beside the grill, with the game playing on the radio.

Here we see a typical suburban St. Louis Cardinals fan, on his boat at the Lake of the Ozarks.  This is not the guy I write about in my post.  This guy (and his dog) both have more sense.

Hey! I Found a Sensible Atheist!


My YouTube videos that elicit the most comments are the ones that deal with atheism.  Most of the comments from atheists are not even up to a level that resembles rational thought.  For example, there's this one, which advocates not only genocide but Genocide for Peace: "religionists must be gassed and turned to petroleum immediately. Once we euthanize the 5 billion failed fallen subhuman religionists then Humans can get their planet back and We can finally progress peacefully."  I am not making this up.  Click on the link above and scroll down to read it.

Typically, then, responding to YouTube comments from atheists isn't worth the time.  Even if they're right and there is no God, it isn't worth the time. 



Today, however, I noticed a comment from someone calling himself or herself "Friend of Daishonin" - meaning, it seems Nichiren Daishonin, a 13th Century Buddhist monk.  "Friend's" comment was actually sensible.  I can't really reply to him at YouTube because you're not given much room there to post (his remarks below are actually three comments strung together), so I figured I'd try to move the discussion here, and hope "Friend" hops on over. 

Friend of Daishonin writes ...

***

I became an Atheist DUE to reading a lot of material. I also read and studied the Bible as well as most other religions. The simple fact is that all of the apologeticist material I read to explain away the contradictions in the Bible was for the most part insulting to my intelligence. It all sounded like the cop outs and excuses you would hear at an Amway seminar as to how it's not "really" a pyramid scheme-it only "looks" like one. I find it baffling how Christians actually buy into it.


I will go onto say how it baffles me that Christians give cop outs as to how the Levitical laws somehow are to guide us towards repentence leading us to Jesus and just flat out ignore or minimize the atrocities that they advocate. Never ceases to amaze me. I don't claim that as proof for the non existence of god, but if that is why I believed in god and it is obviously inconsistent and immoral, why would I continue to keep believing in god? They don't have a problem with that which baffles me


Furthermore, if I call one story from a different religion than Christianity-myth, yet the story looks almost indistinguishable from the story I claim as fact, isn't that hypocritical of me? How can I live with myself knowingly lying that I accept something as true that is indistinguishable from myth? Yet point these other stories out to Christians and they make excuses. That also baffles me because it really is not that hard to understand. I suppose they are grasping for straws so to speak.
 
***
 
My reply would be ...
 
 
First, thank you, Friend of Daishonin, for posting something that makes sense, that puts forth a rational argument, that has only a few spelling errors, and that does not advocating killing over half of the human population for "peace". 
 
 
Second, if Christianity is no different from Amway, then bring some torches and I'll join you in burning down every single church we can find.  If this whole "Christ is God Thing" really is a scam and a fraud, then it's much more offensive than Amway and other multi-level marketing gimmicks which I rightly criticize here.
 
So you and I agree on the most important thing:  truth is what we're seeking.  If God is a Delusion, then the whole system built around this Delusion is at best a mistake and at worst a lie; it is horrific and shameful and atheists should become anti-evangelizers, shouting from the rooftops that there is no God and Mohammed is not his prophet (that last bit might get you killed, but truth is truth and if Christians are in error because there is no God, so are all other theists).
 
 
As to the points you make, the apologetic material you read must have been pretty weak or sub-standard, since you seem to be a person who has enough sense to think about what you read.  For good apologetics, try the compilation of C. S. Lewis' writings, God in the Dock, and if you can handle them, Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton.
 
 
You make an interesting point regarding the Levitical Laws, some of which advocate what you call "atrocities".  Apparently you've been told that the Jewish Laws lead to repentance and ultimately to Jesus, which is correct in a way, but this isn't really an answer to your objection, which is a good one.  My suggestion: read the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5 through 7), in which Jesus confronts the whole question of what the Law is and what significance it holds for us.  Ask yourself if you agree with what Jesus says about morality in the Sermon on the Mount.  If you do, then the question becomes is Jesus focusing and fulfilling the Law as He claimed He was?  Also, if Christ is the culmination of the Law, then why do Christ and His followers not follow the Law to the letter, something which infuriated His contemporaries?  Why does Jesus say that the Law is really only two things - "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself"?  If there is a God, would you agree with this statement?  Even if there is no God, how on earth can Jesus present the modern Law of Love as the culmination of what you see as the Law of Atrocities?
 
So in the New Testament alone a thoughtful reader will see that the Jewish Law is more complex than he might have suspected from a quick reading of it in the Old Testament.  For either of two things are possible ...
 
1. You are correct in your reading of the Jewish Law, that it advocates atrocities and is a horrendous thing, and Jesus was entirely deluded when he advocated Love and said that the Jewish Law was all about Love.
 
or
 
2. Jesus and His followers, who were, if nothing else, devout Jews, understood something about the Law that a cursive reading of it has not yet revealed to you.
 
For if the Law is nothing but hate-mongering, how do you explain Psalm 119?
 
 
As to the relation of myth to Scripture, it seems no one has told you that quite a bit of Scriptural material is indeed myth - or fiction.  Unlike Protestants, Catholics have always taught that the creation account in Genesis, for example, is not to be taken literally.  It is a creation myth, but a myth that conveys an essential truth.  The book of Job is probably a work of fiction - it certainly reads like one - but it is a story that conveys the most profound truth of human existence.  Many parts of Daniel in the Greek Old Testament sound much more like myth than history, as does the Greek Old Testament book of Tobit.  The Bible makes use of every literary form imaginable - myth, poetry, history, lamentation, even modern internet-style essays, like Ecclesiastes.  So, yes, a lot of it is myth, but myth can be more effective in conveying truth than other forms of literature (see my YouTube video about that here).
 
However, the life of Jesus is not a myth.  Speaking from the point of view of Literary Criticism, nothing in the Gospels has the ring of myth.  It all reads as if the writers were utterly surprised and baffled by what they are conveying.  It sounds anything but contrived - as the apocryphal gospels often do (which is one reason the Church rejected them).  You claim other myths are indistinguishable from the Christian narrative, which is a claim you would simply not make if you read the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles side-by-side with mythological literature.  A Freshman in Literary Criticism 101 would see the difference.
 
And, anyway, if it's all just a myth, well then, you've got us.  Very early on St. Paul said, "If Christ be not raised, then is our faith in vain" - and we of all men are most to be pitied.
 
 
Now, the books I recommended above deal with the claim that the Gospels are indistinguishable from myth.  So, Friend of Daishonin, take the gifts you've been given and exercise them.  I was an atheist because I was searching for truth - you seem to be the same kind of atheist.  Most of your atheist compatriots today don't give a fig for truth, but you do.  So use your generous and analytical mind and read.  Learn how to read with heart and sensitivity.  Read good apologetics.  Read good atheists.  Read the three books I recommended.  Above all read the Scriptures, and ask yourself what you think of Jesus.  It all comes down to that.  I'll grant you that religion and "religionists" can often be a mess, but Who is this Jesus and does what He says speak to you?  That is the question.
 
If He is speaking truth, then we cannot ignore what He says about God.  If His life is a life of integrity, then we cannot write off the Jews as hate-mongers.  If the book of Acts is historical (and nothing about Acts sounds legendary), then who were these apostles and what did they think they were doing?
 
Those are the questions that a mind like yours could indeed ask itself.
 
God bless your search.
 
 


Friday, May 4, 2012

Filled with Desire


Andrew Lomas, regular Ink Desk reader, poses some intelligent questions here on issues of Eros and Agape.

First, he rightly notes that Eros presents a minefield for mankind and that many who have tried to navigate it have fallen.  He mentions William Blake, D. H. Lawrence and Eric Gill.  One could certainly add Oscar Wilde to that list, not to mention Sigmund Freud, whose primary task was the reduction of Eros - indeed of everything - to sex.

But it is crucial to point out that Eros is not merely sex.  Eros includes sexual desire, but is not identical with it.  The easiest way to see this is to substitute the word "Love" for Eros.  Is love synonymous with sexual desire?  Of course not; though sex can (potentially) be an expression of Love. 

But Love has many faces or facets or aspects, and there is something about one aspect of Love that we call Eros, and that something is a hunger, a yearning, a desire to possess, a kind of howling for happiness, indeed a howling for heaven - and this aspect of Love is what makes Love dangerous, for this desire is a spiritual thing that cannot be satisfied by the flesh alone.  By contrast, mere lust is a carnal thing and as such is as ridiculous as any other bodily desire or function. 

The problem is that our bodies are not separate from our souls, and even something as merely physical as the sex act is infused with spiritual significance.  This is why lechers who turn their lives entirely over to sex are never happy, for sex-for-sex's-sake ends up becoming more and more dehumanized, perverse and ultimately an expression of the demonic.

Thus, for our sake, God gives us strict guidelines in regard to sex.  When sex becomes fornication, sodomy, masturbation, pornography or any of the other illicit expressions of it, it brings misery and pain and ultimately hell.  When sex becomes the marital act - which is to say the expression of a Love that unifies between a husband and wife, open to the possibility of procreation - then this two-flesh become one-flesh  in life-giving-love expresses the sacramentality of marriage and in a sense, as St. Paul points out, the union of Christ with His Church (Ephesians 5:32).

This is why I take umbrage with folks like Christopher West, who start out talking about Eros but end up talking about sex and who hardly ever discuss sex within the context that God provides for it - marriage and procreation; who go so far as to claim that the "spiritually mature" can forgo custody of the eyes and who tell us that a man sitting in front of a computer screen viewing pornography on the internet is "seeking God" - which is true, but in a very limited sense.  Yes, a man who knocks on the door of a brothel is (ultimately) looking for God, but in that case we must not say, "Knock and it shall be answered".

So it's a minefield.

But Pope Benedict XVI charts a very bold course through this minefield.  Read Deus Caritas Est and read my article about this in the next issue of the St. Austin Review (also see my post The Unity of Love).  In the Pope's encyclical, he asserts that Love is One, that there is a unity to love as there is a unity to truth.  Therefore, Agape (disinterested love of neighbor) and Eros (yearning and passionate love) must go together. 

This brings me to the crux of Andrew Lomas' question, which is, in so many words, "If the Church demands from us Agape - that we love our neighbor disinterestedly - then where is there room for Eros?"

That's a great question, and the Holy Father answers it in his encyclical.  I would only add this - why does Jesus tell us "blessed are they who mourn" and "blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness"?  Mourning, you see, is an expression of Eros - a heart-breaking desire for someone who's absent.  Hungering and thirsting for righteousness is likewise "Erotic" - it can be a flame that keeps you up nights, and we see it in the gleam behind the eyes of saints like Joan of Arc and poets like Hilaire Belloc.

For this is what Eros is.  It's not "erotic" in the sense of strip clubs or porn sites.  These are but the parodies of Eros.  In fact, D. C. Schindler in an essay on Deus Caritas Est writes about "the boredom, the self-protectiveness, the banality, the absence of a sense of mystery and adventure, and the general disenchantment, that characterize a 'de-eroticized' world such as that of contemporary America."

That's right, our contemporary culture, steeped in a parody of the erotic, is actually lacking Eros.  In fact, in my day one of the dangers of "sleeping around" was that you might fall in love with somebody, or she might fall in love with you.  This appears to be a danger that the young folk of today's "hook up" culture seem to have avoided - but only through the emasculation of Eros.

Pope Benedict writes, "Desire is not truly desire unless it is also generous, and generosity is not truly generous unless it is also filled with desire." 

And with this I can't help but think of the typical suburban Mass, where everything is contrived, everything seems artificial.  The music expresses anything but desire, the homilies are usually about the vagueness of good intentions, the fellowship rarely goes beyond being nice.  Yes, we might hear about Agape, about generous love - but we don't hear about desire, about mourning, about hungering for righteousness, about the Fear of God which is the Desire for God which is the first step, without which we cannot see His face.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Love, Shakespeare, and Everything In Between


What does love have to do with discipline?  What does discipline have to do with purity?  What does purity have to do with fruitfulness?

What does acting have to do with any of this?

Over the past few months, I have been writing about the connection between Eros and God, a connection that Pope Benedict XVI boldly details in his first encyclical , and which some theologians (in my opinion) misconstrue

Lately, I've written about something else that gets misconstrued - acting.  I've been writing about the tendency in acting circles to say it's all about emotion and not about what contains or directs the emotion; indeed it's all about feelings and not about purpose.  This fashion becomes a disdain for technique or even discipline, which stems from the modern notion that content can exist without form or that anything that constrains or holds us back or shapes us is suspect.

And when it comes to Shakespeare you really see this in spades.  As the photo here proves I have personal experience acting Shakespeare poorly.  I've also had enough experience directing Shakespeare to know that actors approach the Bard the way they approach all acting - gin up those feelings, baby Emote!  Emote!  If you don't feel it, it ain't real!  Thus an actor can do a very emotional performance of a Shakespearian speech without realizing at all that there's a point to this speech and a direction for this emotion. 

Shakespeare's characters do more than spout dialogue and gush sentiment - they use rhetoric.  Most of the speeches in all of the plays are rhetorical, by which I mean intellectual and emotional arguments a particular character presents to build a rational case for who he is and what he is doing.  There's a ton of philosophy in Shakespeare, coming at us from as many points of view as there are personae in the dramatis.  And one of the points of the drama is to see how the consequences of these conflicting philosophies play themselves out.

But not only do many actors overlook the rhetorical shape of the speeches they perform, they think it's wrong for anyone to suggest that these speeches - or this character - or the play that contains them - means anything other than the (usually narrow and self-serving) meaning they impose upon all of it arbitrarily and ahead of time - which is how they look at life:  disconnected fragmentary bits of emotion and experience without a point to any of it beyond whatever subjective point a person may choose to impose as the mood strikes him.

This is all rather Forced or Contrived.  But when you're taught to impose an interpretation on a character even while learning lines in the privacy of your bedroom, what else can be expected?

This all ties in to my latest post, Everything I Know about Theology and Economics I Learned from "Cracked", in which I touch upon the Cult of Sterility, or the modern devotion (sometimes unwilling devotion) to activities that bear no fruit.

In the same way that we tend to think the emotions in Shakespeare are for show and not for a purpose; in the same way we tend to think that art is for self-expression, and not for the expression of anything beyond self; in the same way that we expect sex to be barren; and in the same way that labor in an Economy of Usury becomes pointless, so all of life ends up serving the idol Priapus-Wearing-a-Condom - and through all of this we are witnessing the effects of cutting off Eros from its target.

***

By contrast ...

"Desire therefore my words; long for them and you shall be instructed," the Holy Spirit tells us in the Book of Wisdom (6:11) - which is to say, "Seek and ye shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you."  (Matthew 7:7).

Ontologically speaking, salvation begins with God's desire for us.  But psychologically speaking, salvation begins with our desire for God.  This desire, this longing, this seeking is Purpose - it is a desire, a longing, a seeking for Something Real - for Someone Real (despite what the modern world tells us).

"For the first step toward discipline is a very earnest desire for her," we are told (Wisdom 6:17), this "her" being Wisdom, or the chief gift of the Holy Spirit, and Wisdom being nothing less than intimacy with God Himself.  "Then," the book of Wisdom continues, "care for discipline is love of her; love means the keeping of her laws; to observe her laws is the basis for incorruptibility; and incorruptibility makes one close to God; thus the desire for Wisdom leads up to a kingdom."

In other words,

the first step toward discipline is a very earnest desire for her

a longing, an earnest upward desire, an Eros starts our journey. 

Then, care for discipline is love of her

"Then" (meaning "after this"), the journey makes progress via discipline.  Our care for discipline (suffering is a form of discipline) is an expression of this love. 

Love means the keeping of her laws

Realizing that love has laws and that by con-forming to the Law of Love is what metanoia is all about ("And be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind" - Romans 12:2)

to observe her laws is the basis for incorruptibility

Incorruptibility is purity, sanctification ("For this corruptible must put on incorruption" - 1 Cor. 15:53)

and incorruptibility makes one close to God; thus the desire for Wisdom leads up to a kingdom.

"The benefit that you receive is sanctification and its end is eternal life." (Romans 6:22)

This is how God has designed it to work: desire leads to discipline leads to holiness leads to Him.

Contrary to the modern world, then, Scripture tells us that


1. Eros has a point while "safe sex" does not;

2. consenting to Discipline is an expression of Eros - which is to say you can't become a virtuoso pianist if you don't honor the fact that music depends upon the metronome;

3. this Discipline teaches us to follow the objective Laws of Love, though the modern world tells us that nothing in creation obeys any fixed law, especially human nature and certainly not love; and

4. by conforming to these Laws our Love becomes pure or perfected (contrast this with the modern notion that love is just an itch you scratch);

5. and since "perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18), we are lifted above our petty selves and brought to true happiness, which is heaven, the face of God, the purpose of our existence.

Got that?


Now I've got to get back to reading funny articles on Cracked.

Everything I Know about Theology and Economics I Learned from "Cracked"


We live in a world where the most insightful and mature politicital commentary is in Cracked

Cracked was a humor magazine that premiered in the 1970's.  It was a kind of a Mad Magazine for 14-year-old boys - which is what Mad Magazine was.  But now Cracked seems to exist as a web site that publishes some very funny and perceptive social commentary - sort of like The Ink Desk for a secular audience with a hefty dose of vulgarity.

So be warned that vulgarity abounds, but if you can read between the language, Five Ways to Spot a B.S. Political Story in Under Ten Seconds is a very incisive look at the pathetic shortcomings of political journalism in the U.S.

The author of this piece, David Wong, writes a similarly funny article entitled How The Karate Kid Ruined the Modern World.  This piece deals with the fact that doing things well requires much more work than we ever imagine - which Wong calls "Effort Shock", something akin to "Sticker Shock".  But that's not what interests me in Wong's article.  What interests me is that he's stumbled on to something.  He writes ...

I really think Effort Shock has been one of the major drivers of world events. Think about the whole economic collapse and the bad credit bubble. You can imagine millions of working types saying, "All right, I have NO free time. I work every day, all day. I come home and take care of the kids. We live in a tiny house, with two [run down] cars. And we are still deeper in debt every single month." So they borrow and buy on credit because they have this unspoken assumption that, dammit, the universe will surely right itself at some point and the amount of money we should have been making all along (according to our level of effort) will come raining down.

Now, it is quite true that people think that effort alone should be productive, and that any expenditure of effort entitles a person to inflated success.  My friend Timothy Jones writes, "Watch American Idol auditions and see that confirmed in spades. The ones I feel bad for are those who've taken voice lessons for years and simply don't know that they're awful and always will be. 'But I want this SO MUUUUUUCH!!!!'"

Which is to say that Effort Shock is real and says a lot about our own Sloth and Greed, both of which were certainly factors in the housing bubble. 

But the illustration David Wong makes is quite common.  There are many families with two working parents, each putting in considerably more than 40 hours a week, each on the brink of exhaustion, with the family as a whole getting not a positive result, but a negative result - the family falling deeper into a debt that can never be repaid - a debt with usurious interest rates, which will never be erased short of bankruptcy because the original loans (a mortgage on an overvalued house, credit card purchases) are unproductive; the loans are unproductive, no matter how productive the borrowers may struggle to be.

This is something even more dehumanizing than wage slavery.  Wages at least should be something positive, the fruits of productivity.  But when we're paid (in effect) with debits and not credits, things can only get worse.

This is all really profoundly theological.

All natural effort is pointless if the supernatural element is not present.  You can break your back as a farmer, but if the gift of growth is not in the soil, your efforts will be unavailing.  You can bust your buns learning to play a musical instrument, but if the God-given gift of talent is not there to begin with, your efforts won't get you very far. 

So it's a tad cynical to see productivity and the fruits of labor as being forever out of our reach as we furiously spin that consuming hamster wheel of sterility.  It is more right to say, "Effort-and-Productivity should go hand in hand, like Faith-and-Works or Sex-and-Babies - and when they don't, when we are robbed of the fruits of our labors, either through usury or our own lack of talent or the lack of responsiveness of the soil we're cultivating, then something is wrong."

In other words, Wong is Right, but Wong is Wrong. 

It takes more work to bear fruit than we typically expect, but there is a natural connection between Effort and Result, which we see severed all around us, from contraception to usury to laziness. 

Faith without works is dead, and works without anything to show for it is the hallmark of the modern age.