Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Marriage, Suffering, and God

Mindy Selmys, who writes a blog anachronistically titled Catholic Authenticity despite having announced some months ago that she was leaving the Catholic Church, has written a blog post that has been shared around a good bit in which she both recounts her experiences of divorce and cohabitation and also makes an argument that the Catholic Church should change its teaching on the permanence of marriage. Readers of this blog may recall Selmys from a series of three posts I wrote about a year and a half ago, arguing against her series of posts laying out a case for dissent from the Church's teachings on contraception. Those posts actually followed a very similar basic argument structure (following the Church's teaching is hard, therefore God clearly doesn't want us to do it because he loves us), and my response to them can be found here: Part one. Part two. Part three.

Selmys's post on divorce draws heavily on her own personal experiences, but also seeks to make a broader point. The personal narrative describes how Selmys separated from her husband due to the escalating alcohol abuse which he had committed throughout their marriage. This separation left Selmys to serve as a single parent to their seven children, which was incredibly hard. After about a year, during which she and her husband attempted counseling but he refused to stop drinking, she decided their separation needed to be permanent, and (providentially, she feels) at the same time a long time male friend of hers offered to move in with her. Having this man move in relieved her of many of the burdens of single parenthood, and her home life seemed to improve.

Interspersed with this narrative, she makes an argument that the Church ends up encouraging women to remain in abusive relationships, because the Church's teaching that those who are validly married cannot remarry while their spouses are living (even if they have legally separated for good reasons) makes women feel as if they need to remain in abusive relationships in order to have the basic support of another adult in the household. The following is the core thread of her argument, skipping most of the personal detail:

Men, and particularly Catholic men, tend to approach the question of remarriage in terms of sex. In cases where a marriage is abusive, you are of course allowed to leave – indeed, it may be morally obligatory if there is a threat to the life and well-being of the children. But in such cases a woman (statistically, it is usually a woman) is expected to live in continent singleness, devoted to the vows that she made to a man who mistreated her.

This isn’t seen as a problem because “nobody ever died from lack of sex.” Nevermind that an adequate morality cannot treat death as the only relevant negative outcome; the more pressing issue is that for a mother having a partner is not primarily about having someone to rock the bed with.

When the Church says to women “You may divorce – but you may not remarry” they are, in effect, saying that you have two choices: make it work with your abusive spouse, or commit to single parenting until your children are grown. If the woman in question has been faithful to the Church’s teaching about openness to life – or if the abuser has used repeated pregnancy as a means of keeping his spouse dependent on him – then this can create a situation that is genuinely unmanageable.
This means that women, finding themselves trapped between a rock and a hard place, end up returning to marriages that are physically or psychologically unsafe – not only for the woman herself, but also for the children. There were several times in the year that my ex and I were separated when I almost caved and brought him back home. The relentless pressures of trying to manage alone were enough that it seemed like maybe it would be a good gamble to hope that things would be different this time round.

By telling women that they can’t find a new partner, can’t build a safe and functional family life, Catholic teaching creates a situation that works in favour of abusive spouses. The institution of marriage comes to be privileged over the actual good of vulnerable women and children. The symbolism of the cross ceases to be centred on liberation from sin and death, and becomes instead an indefinite sentence to suffering where the only possible resurrection lies in the hope that the abuser will reform himself. This empowers abusive people to hold their families hostage and employ the vows of marriage as a bulwark against the necessity of repentance.

I don’t think this is what Christ intended.

It’s now a month since my new partner moved in, and in that time we’ve built a home life that is not only manageable but actually happy. My children’s mental health has improved. The house no longer looks like ground zero of some domestic disaster. I can rest when I’m sick, secure in the knowledge that there is another functional adult managing the household. Alcoholism no longer has a place in our family, or a strangle-hold on my hopes for the future.

According to the Church, this is a mortal sin. I am barred from communion, and so is the man who stepped up to help me pick up the pieces of a family fragmented by addiction and abuse. While the current Pope is trying to create space for people in situations like mine to exercise conscience, for priests to use their judgment so that victims can be protected and included, conservatives continue to fight tooth and nail to make sure that abused and neglected spouses are left without options.

This condition of slavery to another person’s sins is not, I think, what Christianity is supposed to produce. It privileges the law over the actual good human beings, and prevents God’s providence from being able to deliver us into new life.

I think there are several clear problems with the line of thinking that Selmys presents here. However, before getting into those, it's important to note that it is indeed moral (and under certain circumstances morally necessary) for a Catholic to separate from her (or his) spouse in order to escape abuse or for other grave reasons. It's also important to note that in many cases a marriage which has been rooted in abuse and deception will prove not to have been a valid marriage in the first place, and that in such cases the annulment process will give that Catholic canonical permission to marry by finding that no valid marriage was ever in force.

Turning to Selmy's arguments, perhaps the most troubling element is an implicit assumption that a woman must exchange sexual favors for help in taking care of her family, and that the Church should thus step back and let her get on with the transaction. Having a partner, she argues, is not primarily about sex. It's about having someone to help with keeping the household together. But of course, the Church does not teach that it is wrong to have someone help you clean and put the kids to bed and drive people about town. Indeed, it seems clear that it would be a work of mercy to help a frazzled single mother in these ways. What the Church says is a sin is to have sex with someone to whom you are not married. Selmys takes it as a given that no one will want to help a mother who is separated from her husband unless he is getting sex in return for the help, but instead of identifying this demand for sex as the problem, she instead blames the Church for seeing the sex as a sin.

And to the extent that she's trying to make a practical argument -- there are also very good practical arguments for not moving in with another person almost as soon as you decide that your old relationship is not salvageable. People do not tend to make their best decisions at such moments, and this kind of serial cohabitation is, statistically, where a lot of child abuse actually comes from. In a sad number of cases, mom's new boyfriend does not treat mom's kids well. So there is a practical wisdom in not encouraging people to engage in serial sexual relationships in order to get help around the house.

Another problematic aspect of her thinking here is the way that she addresses God's will. It is very hard to live as a mother whose husband has abandoned the family, she argues. Therefore, God must want her to start a sexual relationship with a new partner so that she will not undergo this hardship. Now clearly, God does want the best for us. God created us that we might be eternally happy with Him in heaven. And yet, in the world that God created and the fall corrupted, there are a great many evils that we suffer. Does God will that the widow grow old without the companionship of the husband she hoped to spend her later years with? Does God will that the orphan not see his parents? Does God will that the mother of a dead child be deprived of the chance to see her offspring grow up? God certainly allows suffering, even if suffering is a result of the world not being as God intended it to be. And in that God is all powerful, we cannot even say that the fall is truly contrary to God's will. God keeps the world we live in, with all its suffering, in existence by the active exercise of His will.  He allows the fallen world to be what it is, rather than bending toward some sort of forced happiness.

Some of these examples of suffering -- suffering that also leaves people alone and abandoned-- may seem more impersonal: people die, people become sick, people have disabilities. These sources of suffering are often not the direct result of some other person's action. From one point of view, that may seem to make them more directly God's fault. In the case of a spouse suffering from the abuse of another, the suffering is caused directly by another person. Why does't God step in and allow the victim of abuse another go? But then, why Didn't God prevent any given source of suffering: that cancer, that car crash, that miscarriage?

God allows the sufferings of this world to happen. He allows a husband to abandon his responsibilities to wife and children and devote himself instead to alcohol abuse. He allows a partent to abuse his or her child.  He allows us to wrong each other.

If we cannot imagine that God would allow suffering in this one area, how can we imagine that the rest of the world is the way it is?  I can't see that the problem of theodicy which Selmys poses is more problematic than any other.  Indeed, in that it is so clearly a result of one person hurting another rather than the hostility of the world itself, it seems less hard to explain than many.

We will not heal the suffering of this world through piling more sins on top of the sins that are already here.

From God's perspective, from the perspective of the happiness we are meant to enjoy eternally, euthanasia will not solve the suffering of sickness. Eugenics will not solve the suffering of disability. Abortion will not solve the suffering of poverty. Adultery will not solve the suffering of abandonment. Sin, in short, does not solve suffering. It may paper it over for a time, but if we are to believe God's revelation to us about how we are to live, these seeming shortcuts to happiness in fact do nothing but perpetuate suffering in different ways. 

The happiness that God offers is not a "get out of consequences free" card, but rather the chance to grow in virtue despite a unvirtuous world, and to be happy with Him one day in heaven.  That is the release from suffering towards which we should all strive.

Friday, February 15, 2019

The Great American Heresy is "I'm a Good Person"

There was a story that made the rounds recently about the parents of a young man who had committed suicide and their fury about the homily which a Catholic priest had preached at their son's funeral. I'm not here to discuss the issue in depth. I think both sides could have acted better. However, the reason I bring it up is due to this very apt quote in a surprisingly good Slate piece discussing the controversy: “He basically called our son a sinner.”

I think this is an example of a very common problem that our modern society has in talking about sin. We often talk about someone as being "a good person" or "a basically good person", and by contrast we at times accuse someone of being "a bad person" or in one colorful example I saw lately "a totally trash human being". From these categories of "good person" and "bad person", people then reason backwards to categorize actions. Was this thing done by various "good people" that you know? Then it can't be a bad action.

So for example, "You say that getting an abortion because of fetal deformities is wrong, but my friend Sally had to make that tragic choice, and she's one of the most loving and caring mothers I know." or "You say that gay marriage is wrong, but Eddie and Steve are one of the most loving couples I know and they do so much for their community."

There's another (and equally mistaken) form of this reasoning that travels the same rhetorical path in the opposite direction, starting with the belief that some action is wrong and from there concluding that anyone who commits that act is clearly a "bad person". Thus: "He pretends to be a good person, but I heard about how he left his first wife. Total trash human being."

Both of these, I think, miss an important moral reality: The same person is capable of doing both good and bad things, and often individual people are highly complex mixes of virtue and vice. Just because someone is loving and kind and fun to be around does not mean that person is not capable of doing something which is in fact very wrong. And just because someone has done some very wrong things does not mean that they can't also be loving and kind in other ways. To say that someone is a "good person" often means little more than "I like that person", and it is no kind of an argument that any one thing done by that person is right or wrong.

To say that something that someone has done is wrong is not to say that that person is bad or worthless or vicious. It is simply to say that that action was wrong, a sin of which the sinner should repent and for which he should amend. We should drop the categories of "good person" and "bad person" from our moral reasoning. All they do is lead us astray. We are all good in the sense that we all are made in God's image, and that God desires us to know, love, and serve Him and be happy with Him one day in heaven. And we are none of us good, in the sense that we all commit acts that are wrong and hurt both others and ourselves.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Consumer Friendships

I've been thinking lately about the right balance between the desire to find like-minded people and the important of cultivating friendships with specific people even when they are not like-minded.

One of the fascinating things about the internet has been the way it has enabled people to form friendships of interest and intellectual friendships across long distances. Are you passionately interested in Victorian English Literature and also in social justice issues and also a deeply committed orthodox Catholic? Somewhere out there you can find the other people scattered across the globe that share your interests and would love to talk about the intersection for those three things. You may end up with close friends whom you've rarely if ever met, because they live thousands of miles away.

In one sense, this is a wonderful release from the often lonely existence from having interests and beliefs that are outside of the norm in your area. One of the things I remember growing up is our family having no like-minded friends at all in our local parish and school. We would at times drive over an hour simply to meet up with a group of Catholic families who mostly shared our beliefs and interests. That kind of isolation is very hard on people, and the ability to make these friendships long distance should not at all be discounted. Indeed, many of my own close friends are people I've met through this blog and through online interactions in general, and even many friends who were originally "real life friends" at some point in our lives are now long distance friends that we keep up with via the internet, because moves across the country have since separated us.

And yet there's an extent to which this ability to find like minded people out of the vast expanses of the internet can lead to increasing selectiveness, breaking off with people or groups because although you share one interest, you clash on another. To take an example that seemed particularly extreme to me: My mother, who collects and sews clothes for 18 inch dolls, told me at one point about how one of the doll discussion groups that she belonged to had split bitterly along political lines.

At first it seems strange that if the purpose of the group was to discuss dolls, that politics would matter in the makeup of the group. Sure, it might come up once in a while, as people discussed their reactions to historical dolls, or their desire for dolls representing particular ethnic groups or disabilities, but you would think that the interest in dolls would override.

And yet, if the internet can connect you to hundreds of other people sharing your hobby all over the world, and if some of those people are easier to get along with because they also share your politics, while others make you uncomfortable at times because of their contrary politics, you can see how a split might seem desirable.

In contrast, the smaller density of like minded people in a local group requires that one compromise on other issues. For instance, in my town there's a group for people who are learning or trying to maintain their speaking and reading ability in German. There are less than a dozen people involved in the group. And as a result, although it contains both several very progressive members and several Trump supporters, as well as others who are more reticent on politics, people mostly live with their differences and even joke about their divisions. There aren't other students of German in town to go hand out with, so people need to find a way to get along or else resign themselves to not having any communal study at all.

In this sense, the sheer variety of the internet makes it easy to treat friendships as a sort of consumer commodity, specifying exactly what we'd like out of our friends in every detail. Catholic SciFi fans set up a separate group to discuss fandom as Catholics, and then that group in turn splits as different types of Catholic SciFi fans decide they'd rather have their own group with only their own sort of fans. Woke doll collectors congregate separately from conservative ones. I definitely see the attraction. To the extent that I often use interest-based groups on the internet as a way to learn about a subject and to relax, I hardly want to have them invaded by strife with people I dislike or who loudly express their dislike for people like me.

And yet, I don't think that the tendency to pick people out like consumer goods for the maximum comfort is a particularly good one. We need, at least at times, to have ties that bind us to people who disagree with us in many ways, so that we learn to form friendships across those divides and so that people on both sides of the divides are reminded that the others are real people.

Friday, February 08, 2019


Why so silent, Darwins? I hope this surprisingly informative sketch will clear things up for you:

One child confirmed, one more definitely showing symptoms, two more with white spots on their tonsils, and one without white spots on her tonsils but man, are they grotesque. The kids took the flashlight and checked down my throat for good measure.

"I can't even see your tonsils, Mom!" said one, awed.

"Wait a minute -- Mom doesn't have tonsils!" said another.

(True enough: I had them out when I was eleven, but I'd forgotten that until I was saying "aaaah".)

Mono can only be spread through saliva, which doesn't really help us in a house where people pick up any cup off the counter to drink. It can also stay in your system for up to six months. In the meantime you can be feverish and sleepy. I'm watching carefully for signs of lethargy, but so far everyone's attitude status is salty.

Alas, I wish I could blame my own weariness on mono, but it's simply the result of having seven children spread across a range of very eventful ages, from baby who's beginning, at nineteen months, to behave like a big two-year-old, to the eight-year-old who needs special dyslexia tutoring with me, to the oldest who needs extra coaching on passing the maneuverability test. There simply is no time to do the things I want and need to do. Remember that textbook I was writing? I've been thisclose to ending a chapter since November. I need daytime writing time, and I need it away from distractions, away from diapers and sippy cups and drama and dance and dyslexia and dinner time and parking cones and SAT prep and braces and glasses and mono.

And there's no treatment for mono but waiting it out, which is too disgustingly on the nose for me to even comment on.

Allow me to close with this advice: pull the car up through the cones until your mirror is even with the second set of cones, turn the wheel 180 degrees in the direction you want to go, then when your mirror is even with the center cone, turn 360 degrees. Stop when your bumper is even with the center cone. Reverse. When your mirror is even with the center cone, turn the wheel back 360 degrees. When your mirror on the side you initially turned to shows both cones, turn the wheel 180 degrees to straighten out. Back out of the cones. No, straighten up. Straighten the other way! No, you've bumped it already. Let's pull around and try again.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

The Cool of the Evening

Fiction for your Wednesday: The Cool of the Evening, by Sally Thomas. Sally is a poet, and this story is full of beautifully resonant images, especially if you've spent any time in the South.

They went away in the old blue Plymouth, Wren and her grandparents. Her grandfather peered angrily over the dashboard as he drove. Every day they made the drive into town for the noon Mass; it was almost the only place they went any more. Mass, the grocery store, the beauty parlor. If Wren’s grandmother wanted to go somewhere, Wren’s grandfather had to carry her there in the car. Nobody in Memphis knew how to drive, Wren’s grandfather said. They didn’t tell you they were going to turn. They didn’t signal with their arm out the window. You had to look for some little blinking light, and by the time you saw it, it was almost too late. The Plymouth had manual steering, and her grandfather dragged the wheel this way and that as though he meant to wrestle the car to the ground. 
They passed the Esso filling station, the last outpost of Wren’s neighborhood, and bumped over railroad tracks. Fleetingly Wren saw the leafy corridor the track ran through, May-green, gold-lit, full of stirring shadows in the spring daylight, not a place in itself but a secret going-away to some other, more real place. Always, no matter how many times she crossed those tracks, this flash of secretness made the hair stand up on her arms. From your car at the crossing, if you looked fast enough, you glimpsed that green tunnel curving into mystery. Then you left it behind. 
Even so, Wren thought, today the secret feeling seemed to go with her. Right now, as she rode in that car, her fourth-grade class was taking their Monday spelling test. She was not taking the test. She was not wearing her blue-and-green plaid gym jumper over her Peter-Pan-collared gym shirt and black stretch shorts. She was wearing regular shorts, with yellow smiley faces printed all over them, and a matching smiley t-shirt, as if this were a vacation. She had not brushed her hair Her mother had not thought to tell her to brush it, and now it hung down her back in rough waves, with tangles underneath that would hurt to comb out. She might have dreamed school; it felt that unreal. When she was at school, all she wanted was to be not at school. But now that she was not at school, something in her longed, just a little, for the vanilla smell of the ditto sheet on which the week’s test would be printed out in purple. Meanwhile, the familiar streets of East Memphis, blinding in the early-afternoon light, were sliding by, strange to her all over again because she did not usually see them at this time on a weekday.

Saturday, February 02, 2019

Susan Pevensie and the Real World's Magic

A while ago Melanie Bettinelli had a post which I've been thinking about ever since, about Susan Pevensie and her "exile" from Narnia. If there's one element more than anything else that can get a lot of modern readers riled about the Narnia books, it's what we hear about Susan's defection. The mention in The Last Battle is in fact very brief:
“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”

“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says, ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.’”

“Oh, Susan!” said Jill. “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly site too keen on being grown-up.”

“Grown-up, indeed,” said the Lady Polly. “I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”
This is often characterized by angry readers as "Lewis punishes Susan for growing up" or more specifically "Lewis punishes Susan for being interested in sex and boys".

The idea that Susan is either punished by the author or by Aslan is a bit odd, in that the account which Eustace, Jill, and Polly give of Susan is that Susan has lost all interest in them, not that she's been somehow cut off by them or by the divine or authorial powers in Narnia. It's also kind of interesting who mentions which issues with Susan. Eustace, the youngest of the boys, says that she treats their interest in Narnia as a childish game. Jill, the youngest girl (though she and Eustace must be nearing or in their teens by now) says that Susan is obsessed with being "grown-up". And Polly, who's an adult in perhaps her sixties sees Susan as being fixated on "the silliest time of one's life".

But as Melanie points out, going to Narnia (though not interest in it) is apparently something which in the world of the books one ages out of. At the end of Prince Caspian, Aslan takes Peter and Susan aside for a conversation which Peter describes thus:
"There were things he wanted to say to Su and me because we're not coming back to Narnia."

"Never?" cried Edmund and Lucy in dismay.

"Oh, you two are," answered Peter. "At least, from what he said, I'm pretty sure he means you to get back some day. But not Su and me. He says we're getting too old."

"Oh, Peter," said Lucy. "What awful bad luck. Can you bear it?"

"Well, I think I can," said Peter. "It's all rather different from what I thought. You'll understand when it comes your last time."
Edmund and Lucy reach this same point in regards to Narnia at the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader:
"Please, Aslan," said Lucy. "Before we go, will you tell us when we can come back to Narnia again? Please. And oh, do, do, do make it soon."

"Dearest," said Aslan very gently, "you and your brother will never come back to Narnia."

"Oh, Aslan!" said Edmund and Lucy both together in despairing voices.

"You are too old, children," said Aslan, "and you must begin to come close to your own world now."

"It isn't Narnia, you know," sobbed Lucy. "It's you. We shan't meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?"

"But you shall meet me, dear one," said Aslan.

"Are-- are you there too, Sir?" said Edmund.

"I am," said Aslan. "But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there."
I'd remembered well Aslan saying that they must get to know him in our own world. I had forgotten the line "you must begin to come close to your own world now", and as an adult, and keeping in mind the fact that although the Narnia books can certainly be read and enjoyed by adults, they were explicitly written as children's books, not as mainstream genre fantasy books, it seems like an important line. One of the themes that children's books deal with is what it means to encounter the world as a child, and how our encounter with the world must change as we begin to grow up. With its emphasis on talking animals, on evils like "always winter, but never Christmas", Narnia is something of a children's world. Written in the Britain of the 1950s, where mass bombing was a recent memory and rationing of basic food and household necessities was a present reality, children's literature was seen more so than now as a way in which children could escape the dreary reality into a more brightly lit, adventurous world. This ethic is almost the exact opposite of what seems to be a common ethic regarding children's fantasy/adventure lit now: that fantasy adventures provide sheltered child readers a chance to encounter the dark and dangerous things they have no encounter with in reality.

It seems to me that often fantasy readers' reactions to Susan and her abandonment of Narnia is filtered through both their own ideas about sexual awakening and adulthood, and also an implicit F&SF fan belief that stories about other worlds are in a sense dealing with things that are more real than our own world and stories focused on the here and now. Luminaries like Chesterton, Tolkien, and Lewis have made this kind of argument in reasonable ways: that through the medium of "fairy tales" (which we can take more broadly as fantastic worlds in general) we are able to see issues painted large and thus more clearly.

Realistic fiction can indeed become so mired in the specifics of experience that it loses track of their meaning. While Lord of the Rings may have a setting which is not "realistic", its characters deal with a world that has more moral realism than Ian McEwan's Atonement or Mark Helprin's A Soldier of the Great War, even though these latter two have theoretically "realistic" historical settings.

Of course, a fantastic setting does not necessarily mean a world in which big issues are handled more explicitly. Indeed, the same ability to write a sub-creation which expresses clearly the way the world works from a Christian or more broadly moral realist perspective allows someone with a different worldview to create a word that expresses their own, different beliefs.

This touches both on why I've found myself almost entirely abandoning science fiction and fantasy as I've gotten older. I still turn back to old favorites, and read books recommended by people whose judgement I trust, but given that most F&SF writers have beliefs which are at odds with my own, I often find reading the worlds which they have created (consciously or unconsciously) to reflect their beliefs tiresome. With realistic fiction, there is at least still the basic tie to how the world works, something which I think grounds an honest writer in a certain amount of reality.

It's through this filter that I find myself thinking about Susan in the Narnia books. All of the older friends of Narnia have been pushed back upon our world. They may get together to talk about Narnia, but they live here. Aslan has told them that they must "begin to come close to your own world", and it is in our own world that they must find truth, decide what is important to build their lives around, and discover our world's Aslan. There may not be swords and endless winters and evil wolves to slay in our wold, but in a very real sense the decisions we make in our everyday lives are of greater weight than these fantasy events. We treat those around us with kindness or cruelty, we struggle to earn a living, to find a spouse, to raise up the next generation. We may not be leading armies or founding dynasties or completing quests, but the stakes are in some sense higher.

As someone who writes and usually reads these kind of stories, rather than the latest other-world epic, I sometimes hear a bit of the accusation in Susan's fate. It's in the nature of fandom -- having a deep interest in things which many other people ignore or scorn -- to see outsiders as somewhat blind and clumsy creatures. When people read Harry Potter, they not only enter into the secret world of wizards the Harry encounters, but often see themselves, fans, as the wizard elect, while outsiders who don't understand these things are the hapless muggles.

Growing up around fandom back before Harry Potter came on the scene, terms like "mundanes" or "normals" were thrown around instead of "muggles". Even as the terms pointed to a basic disconnect between fans and others, there was a dismissive edge to them that could twinge the conscience. In a sort of fan self criticism, in Babylon 5 the true believers in the PsyCorps referred to non-telepathic humans as "mundanes", just as fans referred to non-fans with the same term.

Knowing all the explanations why stories of other worlds are important, walking away from the genre feels rather like Susan's betrayal.  And yet, I think there's a better way to think about this, one which points out how both stories of this world and of others are important.

According to Aslan, the reason why the Pevensie children have come to Narnia is to come to know Aslan better: and I'd argue in this sense we should take "Aslan" broadly, they have come to know goodness and nobility and sacrifice more clearly. And yet Aslan tells them that they are not to turn their backs on our world and focus on Narnia. Indeed, at a certain point they must turn from Narnia to their own. For readers, the experience is similar. We come to Narnia in order to understand more clearly Aslan and the virtues he embodies. But while we are meant always to remember Narnia, we're not meant to try to stay there. We're meant to understand our own world and how to live within it. The problem with Susan is not that she thinks about our world. The Pevensies were told by Aslan to do that. Susan's problem is both that she scorns what they learned in Narnia, brushing it off as unimportant and childish, and also that she has adopted a shallow approach to our own world rather than finding meaning in it.  She has disobeyed the command to know our world better, and instead chosen to embrace frivolities.  It's not treated as wrong that she grew up, but rather that she hasn't grown up. 

Monday, January 28, 2019

Rent Control

In RENT's second-act anthem to hedonism, our point of view character leaps on a table and proclaims, "The opposite of war isn't peace, it's creation!" -- this, in a show where sex results not in pregnancy, but in AIDS.

Perhaps if you are one of the people in life who've always paid the rent no matter what, who've never had the option of figuring that other people will pay the bills, take the responsibility, be the adults, pay the consequences, RENT is more liberating and delightful. I don't know what to tell you, folks. That a show so acclaimed, so popular, so award-winning could be so musically banal, so unintelligible plotwise, so backasswards in message -- having a paying job is literally equated with selling your soul; you can continue to do destructive things that are actually, physically killing you as long as you justify it by saying "No day but today" -- that I wonder if I'm being gaslighted. I feel like I didn't give it a fair shake? Maybe the live production on Fox was so badly done that I missed every good point about this show? Will I find it more compelling if I watch the Broadway production? Does the music make melodic sense if I watch the movie?

Are people so desperate to see representations of their lifestyle on stage and screen that they will grasp at any depiction, no matter how bankrupt? We know how that turns out for Christian art. I would have thought that people in step with the zeitgeist could get a better shake.

I watched RENT with my three oldest daughters, 16, 15, and almost 13. They were unimpressed with the main character's poverty voyeurism, the vicious relationships, the misery of sex work, the leather, latex, masturbation, sodomy, etc. They have a friend whose high school will be putting on RENT this spring. We supposed it didn't matter whether or not the students' parents approved of their children being in the show, as after all, parents are only good for paying the bills, but is it universally accepted by theater professionals that all teens want to do on stage is sing of the triumph of sex? If anyone is possibly uncomfortable with minors on stage celebrating sex and drugs, it's simply because they're prudes, right, and not because there's something inherently dehumanizing about the selfish glorification of pleasure at all costs?

I have long held that the entertainment complex, for all its trumpeting of alternative lifestyles, actually is rather contemptuous is its depiction of gay characters, treating them as caricatures or vehicles for point-scoring. (Religious characters are also treated this way, but no one expects that playwrights or scriptwriters believe that religious people are fully-formed humans.) I think it tells you all you need to know about RENT that Angel, the transvestite character, dies of AIDS whereas Mimi, the heterosexual addicted prostitute, dies but actually comes back to life. Who must die? The transvestite. Who gets a second chance? The straight character. (Angel is also a stand-in for Jesus, whose death is supposed to be transformative for the other characters, but that too is Angel as image, not as person.)

I had heard and disliked Seasons of Love, but now I know why it's the enduring song from Rent -- it's one of the few that actually makes any musical sense. 

Meanwhile, from La Boheme, the inspiration for Rent, Mimi sings about how, even in her poor little white room at the top of a building, the thaw of spring brings her the first kiss of April.

In 150 years, sopranos will still be lining up to sing this, and RENT? It will be a footnote in theater history textbooks.

Sunday, January 27, 2019


I like musical theater pretty well, but I've never checked the 90s cultural moment box by watching Rent -- mostly because I've heard Seasons of Love and didn't find it as inspiring as I was told it was. But tonight at 8/7c, Fox is airing Rent Live, and you know I'm a sucker for live theater on TV... 

I'm going to watch it with some of my older girls as a discussion piece; one of their friends is in the chorus in her high school's production of Rent, so I'd rather them see it with me first. I feel like I'm already biased towards disliking it, but let's see if the show itself can change my mind.  Watch along with me, and let's discuss it afterwards.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Tongues and Interpretation of Tongues

1 Cor. 12:4-10 — There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but the same spirit… To one is given through the Spirit the expression of wisdom; to another, the expression of knowledge… to another, varieties of tongues; to another, interpretation of tongues… 
Acts 2:1-11 — And when the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together… Then there appeared to them tongues of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, and the Spirit enabled them to proclaim… “We are Parthians, Medes, Elamites… yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God…”

On a weekend trip to New York City, Darwin and I attended noon Mass at St. Vincent Ferrer, on 65th Ave. We arrived early and had a chance to sit in the empty church and pray. It was one of the most beautiful churches I’ve ever seen, surprisingly intimate for such a massive gothic space. And up behind the altar, an ensemble was practicing the polyphonic motets for mass. 

This group was exceptionally talented, and their practice involved fine-tuning passages and working on the group dynamic. With the reverb in the space, I could not make out the Latin words, but I could follow the melismatic flow of the vowels, or sequences of repeated phrases sung on “i-i-e”. Even uncomprehended, the sound was glorious and transporting. I could have sat in the space for hours letting the harmonies wash over me.

The second reading for this Sunday was 1 Corinthians 12:4-12, about the different gifts bestowed by the Spirit. Perhaps the most controversial item on this list is “varieties of tongues”. I grew up in a community heavily influenced by the Charismatic Renewal, a movement first started by students at Duquesne University in 1967. A hallmark of the Charismatic movement is “speaking in tongues”, a kind of vocalization that is a oral outpouring of a form of ecstatic prayer. Perhaps you’ve heard this phenomenon, which sounds like multi-syllabic babbling (unkindly spoofed somewhere as sounding like an auctioneer’s chant: “Shoulda bought a Honda bought a Ford bought a Ford…”). 

The charisms of the Spirit are many, as 1 Corinthians testifies, and “varieties of tongues” are almost the least of the list. Yet speaking in tongues is a baseline indicator of spiritual openness in the Charismatic community, and reluctance to babble is seen as reluctance to the movings of the Spirit, as blocking the free movement of God in one’s soul. And indeed, Charismatic worship relies heavily on an emotional (and often emotionally manipulative) abandonment, what Nietzsche would have termed the Dionysian side of the Dionysian/Apollonian dichotomy of religious experience. Specifically, what is called praying in tongues is supposed to flow from a sub-rational state in which you are free to make meaningless sounds as you are moved because the meaning can only be understood through the Spirit. (It can easily be simulated, of course, and as there is a certain amount of pressure in Charismatic communities to display this gift, who is to say how intertwined are the urgings of the Spirit and the conscious decision of a person to utter free vocalizations?)

Yet the tongues of Pentecost are not sub-rational. The words the Apostles spoke had a specific meaning, not just in the spiritual realm, but in human, linguistic terms. Parthians, Medes, Elamites, all the nationalities who were in Jerusalem for the feast understood the Apostles in their own language. Not only were the sounds not meaningless, they had a concrete, practical, specific immediate application. The Apostles were not speaking some spiritual language, because there is no spiritual language. Angels, of their own accord, do not speak because they have no bodies, no senses. When they are sent by God as messengers in the Bible, their words are always clear and immediately understood (if not immediately believed). 

We are told in the epistles that the Spirit speaks through us through inexpressible groans and longings, because we do not know how to pray as we ought. And it is true that prayer is turning the heart toward God, and so an outpouring of sound and syllables, directed to God as an act of worship, is prayer. But I do not believe that the Charismatic form of prayer which manifests as singing or chanting of inherently senseless syllables is the Biblical gift of tongues.

There are different spiritual droughts in different eras, but it is incredible that God would have withheld a gift important enough to merit a mention in Holy Writ until 1967.  Even before I heard the mass readings this week, as I sat and listened to the singers behind the altar fine tune phrases and start and break off at the prompting of the conductor, it struck me that in some ways the gift of tongues is much like hearing beautiful music without fully understanding what is being said. There is meaning behind the sound, if only you could understand it, but even so the structure and the rhythm and the talent of the singers conveys something significant. It is not an individual babbling, but a highly complex, highly intelligent communication. You can feel the underlying coherence, even if you cannot understand exactly what is being said. It is super-rational, not sub-rational — when the meaning is revealed to reason, suddenly new layers of comprehension are available to the mind and to the senses.

After communion, the ensemble sang the piece I’d heard them rehearsing earlier, and now I had a worship aid that I could consult for the title of the piece, the Latin words, and their English translation. The text was about the wedding of Cana, which had been the gospel reading, and the repeated, interwoven vowel pattern of “i-i-e” I had heard earlier now resolved itself into “bibite”: drink. The head waiter of the wedding feast drank the wine poured from the water jars, the guests drank and were satisfied, Jesus pours out his blood for us to drink, I drank in the music which until then had carried all beauty and emotion of this moment without revealing its meaning. And I praised God for the gift of tongues given to me through the singers, through the conductor, through the composer, through a language I didn’t understand myself. 

Small surprise that in 1967, as that gift of being able to worship in a language not understood was being withdrawn from the American church, people should long for renewal and for the ability to lose oneself in sound and praise. Small wonder that as the liturgy became basic and comprehensible and banalized, people should still long for the emotional release of waves of sound, human voices rising and falling in ecstasy. We have a human need to pray in a way that overwhelms our senses, and the human need to have that experience interpreted to us so that it becomes even richer and fuller and more significant, because worship is not an individual act but a communal event. Like the gift of tongues, worship is something that has an underlying meaning and structure which is immediately apparent, if not fully understood. And once it is interpreted, it stirs into flames which come to rest on each of us. “Were not our hearts burning within us?” asked the disciples who walked with Jesus on the road to Emmaus, as he interpreted the scriptures for them. That gift of tongues is, I think, not just the physical gift of making vocal sound, but the burning of our hearts within us as we hear something that is too much for us to comprehend immediately. And may God send us interpreters so that our individual burning becomes subsumed in the larger fire of the Holy Spirit.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Stopping the Outrage Cycle

MrsDarwin and I spent the weekend on a jaunt to New York City, a chance both to see in person some friends we'd been in a book discussion group with online and also to get away alone together for a couple of nights now that the baby is weened. The periods during our marriage when there has been no nursing baby have been fairly short, and so we always try to make sure to use those opportunities to get some time along together.

This meant that I had a certain distance from the social media vortex that kicked into gear as everyone spent twenty-four hours arguing about whether a snippet of video from the intersection of the March For Life and the Indigenous Peoples March represented MAGA hat-wearing Catholic high school boys mocking an aged tribal leader, or a leftist counter-protester provoking a reaction and then perpetrating a scam with the assistance of the media. For a fair-minded description of an entire hour-plus video providing context to the video snippets that were shared on social media, you can read this post at Medium by a liberal Democrat who cares about the facts of the situation.

My purpose here is not to dissect this particular event. In terms of the outrage cycle, it is utterly typical. Someone is accused of doing something which confirms all of the other side's political prejudices about their opponents. Everyone shares around versions of the story, with links and memes sweeping through social media over the course of just a few hours. People assert that to keep quiet is to be Part Of The Problem, and everyone needs to denounce the other side because this is exactly the sort of awful thing they do. Then somewhere out in the more excitable reaches of the internet, which are legion, someone digs up the personal information of the people involved. They post this so that people can more conveniently express their outrage. Half the time they finger the wrong person, but regardless, soon all the people at the center of the outrage are being sent death threats, having their jobs or schools called and asked to get rid of them, etc. By a few days later, the specifics of the case are forgotten by everyone except the couple of sacrificial victims who have had their real lives savaged by the online mob, while everyone else goes back to the constant hum of political antagonism which is the cosmic background radiation of our political climate -- both sides more sure that the other side is made up of villainous haters who treat others badly.

The reasons that people find these stories so satisfying to read and spread are themselves toxic, as the C. S. Lewis quote that everyone is now, the day after, sharing around describes:

"The real test is this. Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally, we shall insist on seeing everything—God and our friends and ourselves included—as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred." Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis

There are two layers of lesson important to take from this. First off, in this specific case, there was an injustice done to a group of young people and one young man in particular, as people whose desire to see right wing pro-lifers look like arrogant racists shared around a story which turned out to be false in virtually every detail. A good lesson from this would be: Stop. Wait. Check your biases. Is this story “too good to check”? Can it be confirmed or will it fall apart within twenty-four hours as other sources and witnesses come forward. Are you really doing the world any great disservice by not sharing and commenting on the story the minute it comes before you, in its raw, unproven form?

It would be good if this particular case, in which many basically fair-minded people have had cause to admit that the first reactions they shared were wrong, caused people to at least slow down and wait until a story is confirmed before passing it on. But I would to propose that our online culture needs a much larger change in behavior. Even when a story is confirmed, I think it’s worth asking ourselves why it is that people are so busy sharing stories of small incidents of hate from across the country.

When someone shares the story of how a synagogue they never knew about before that day was defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti, or how an illegal immigrant in some far away state committed some heinous crime, we aren’t helping the person injured and we’re seldom changing the minds of those around us. We’re re-enforcing our conviction that the people on the other side are bad. If you know nothing about your neighbor who voted the opposite you did, but paint him with the brush of incidents you read about online about the behavior of “MAGA rednecks” or “Social Justice Warriors”, you are adding to the radicalization of the country. And even if you might think it a good thing if many people were more radically on your side, you need to realize that this controversies always cut both ways, pushing some people more radically to your side while pushing others more radically to the other.

That is bad enough, and I would argue that we should reconsider a lot of the sharing of bad stories that we do simply in order to show how bad the other side is, because it causes us to caricature people in this way. But I think we also need to consider just what kind of beast it is that we’re feeding by sharing these videos and retweets and hot takes. Inevitably, when one of these stories takes off, the real people involved in it are hunted down by online vigilante mobs who post their home addresses, swamp their social media pages, send them threats of violence and death, contact their family and schools and employers, and generally try to destroy their lives just in order to satisfy some primal need for a pound of flesh to be taken from the guilty. These mob punishments are arbitrary, sometimes ill aimed, and usually far more severe than the offense would warrant. It’s typical for the “responsible” social media users to decry the fact that these things happen. “Of course, doxing someone is always wrong.”

So fine, we murmur the pieties. But I increasingly think that we need to consider the fact that doxing, threats, and the destruction of people’s reputations in ways far exceeding any kind of justice are the inevitable result of these outrage firestorms. We need also to consider that there are content sites and social media accounts that make their money and their reputations (and thus owe their existence) to instantly running with any story capable of stoking outrage. The likes and shares and clicks are lifesblood to them. So when we share and like and retweet and comment on the outrage of the moment, we are feeding the outrage beast, encouraging those accounts and media outlets to share faster and check less and distort more in their eagerness to reap the most outrage clicks. And that outrage beast is not just encouraging us and our friends to hate ‘the other’, that beast is also the carrier mechanism for the even more vicious behavior of threats and harassment and personal destruction. Even if we ourselves say we reject the doxing and the threats, by helping to spread the outrage we inevitably help to make the threats and harassment worse.

The solution is to stop feeding these social media fires more oxygen. You’re not saving democracy and decency when you instantly share the latest outrage link or like someone’s hot take on it. You’re chipping one more flake off the foundations of our common civilization and fanning the fire just a little more.

This doesn’t mean that you need to ignore bad behavior or say nothing about how we can do better. Write your take about how MAGA hats have no place at a pro-life march or about the right way to respond to a ‘pro-choice escort’ screaming obscenities in your face. But break the outrage cycle. Don’t share the latest “oh my gosh, did you see this terrible person” story. Don’t thoughtlessly quip that someone should be fired or expelled or made to know what it feels like, because there’s someone out there online who is going to act on that chorus of suggestions.

I know that I am only one small voice against the whirlwind here. The very structure of the technologies that I’m going to share this post on reinforces the behavior that I’m saying we should avoid. But we don’t have to have any realistic chance of stopping all the bad online behavior to curtail our own. Even if it seems like just as many people are sharing toxic takes next week, if we don’t we ourselves will be better people, less poisoned by the need to characterize others, and we will each be doing our own small part to make things better.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Advertising Masculinity

I finally succumbed to the viral marketing attempt and watched the Gillette ad about toxic masculinity that everyone's been talking about. (embedded below)

It's an interesting example of the attempt to prove that there's no such thing as bad publicity, in that it doesn't talk about all about razors and was probably guaranteed to annoy a lot of men (who in theory would be their target audience, unless this is actually mostly to push their "lady razor" segment, which given its prices may be more valuable.)

I suppose at some level they're trying to create an association of "good men = men who use Gillette" but they don't put much work into that association and I think their message is also probably going to be hampered by the fact that the most memorable parts of the add are the "men are the WORST" images of packs of feral teens and long lines of men behind grills saying in sync "boys will be boys". The images in the second half of men intervening and demonstrating good behavior are not the most memorable images in the spot.

The structure of the ad makes "men are bad" seem like the most memorable message. If they wanted to go with more of a "men should do right" message I think it would have been more effective to have some sort of a throughline to hang the "men doing right' message on. Their final image is of a boy seeing his father intervene to stop bullying. If their throughline was, "I learned a lot from my father..." and showed him stopping bullying, telling him cat-calling was unacceptable, keeping a promise, whatever. And then they could even have wrapped up with the dad also giving the lesson, "Get a shave. You look scruffy." which would have tied it back to the actual product.

Friday, January 11, 2019

The University and the Flash Mob

Franciscan University of Steubenville, my alma mater, proclaims in the proud words of president Fr. Sean Sheridan:
How do we educate and evangelize a culture in crisis? And how do we equip a generation raised in that culture to become intentional disciples of Jesus Christ.  
As president of Franciscan University, those are questions I think about every day. They go straight to the heart of our mission and the challenges we currently face. 
Recently, Franciscan University has come under fire from critics of our University community who have accused us of compromising our Catholic mission and witness. These critics could not be more wrong. 
Today, as always, Franciscan University is committed to forming joyful, intentional disciples who can proclaim Jesus Christ to the world. Today, as always, Franciscan University remains academically excellent, completely faithful to the teaching of the Church, and passionately Catholic. And today, as always, Franciscan University wants to serve God and the Church by educating and raising up a new generation of humble, holy, faithful Catholic leaders equipped to evangelize the culture.
Academic excellence is the first quality proclaimed by Franciscan, as well it should be. The purpose of a university should be academic excellence, else why should it exist? And how does a university combine academic excellence with passionate Catholicism and a goal of educating and evangelizing a culture in crisis?
Recently at FUS, an upper-level class tried to combine these aims. Five students under the direction of Dr. Steven Lewis, the chair of the English department, studied books that compared and contrasted modern views of Catholicism and faith, including works which exemplified the "culture in crisis" which Fr. Sheridan has committed the university to evangelizing . One of these books was Emmanuel Carèrre's The Kingdom (2018), of which First Things says:
The genius and the apostle are alike, according to Kierkegaard, in that both bring new ideas into the world. But there’s a crucial difference. Geniuses are ahead of their time, and, consequently, the knowledge they bring forth always “disappears again as it becomes assimilated by the human race.” Thus we take it as a given in the twenty-first century that the Earth revolves around the sun, and the Mona Lisa is printed on shower curtains and beach towels. But the apostle’s message is eternal, outside of time. Because of this, it can never be assimilated. The topsy-turvy logic of the Gospels—in which the last shall be first and the meek will inherit the earth—remains permanently paradoxical, never to be absorbed by ideas of progress. Every incursion of eternity retains the power to shock. 
In many ways, Emmanuel ­Carrère’s latest book, The Kingdom, is about just this irreducible strangeness of ­Christianity: a church in which the low are made high, and the least qualified candidate for any job—the stutterer, the outcast, the murderer—is invar­iably the person whom God chooses to help build his kingdom on earth. Carrère himself is one such unlikely candidate. Born in Paris in 1957, he has achieved success in France as a novelist, biographer, and writer for film and TV. As this truncated CV suggests, he has a penchant for combining genres. The Kingdom is itself half autobiography and half fictionalized account of the early Christian Church. The autobiographical portion centers on Carrère’s early to mid-thirties, when a bout of writer’s block plunged him first into crisis and then into Catholicism with a convert’s zeal. For three years, he attended Mass daily, prayed and observed the sacraments devotedly, and filled twenty notebooks with his own commentary on the Gospels, until the time he now refers to as his “Christian period” came to an end.
Dr. Lewis taught this class once, and then opted not to use The Kingdom again. While it was unquestionably a study of a modern mind grappling with Catholicism, it also contains a scene in which Carèrre, watching late night pornography, indulges in an explicit, blasphemous, banal meditation on the Blessed Virgin Mary participating with the actresses. It's sordid and paltry in the way that people who think they are so edgy often are. In a way that the culture which needs evangelization often is.

The website Church Militant, which specializes in a kind of tabloid Catholicism, learned of this incident post facto, and rolled it into a larger exposé on the liberalization of Franciscan University. This article, despite containing no background information about the course, no details of its enrollment, and no interviews with Dr. Lewis, did offer for readers' breathless consideration an explicit section of the book, with only the sheerest cosmetic editing of offensive words. (I won't link to it, and if you're inclined to google it, you should know that Church Militant derives income from people clicking through to their site.) The reason given for sharing this material with the entire internet was to protest Franciscan University's use of it in a class, to lament the outrage to the Blessed Virgin, and to demand the firing of Prof. Lewis and an apology from the administration for having exposing young minds to such filth in an academic setting. Included were anonymous speculations about planned left-wing coups to destroy FUS's Catholic identity, with Prof. Lewis's class being one example of such a direction. (Current faculty member Bob Rice, not speaking anonymously, offers some analysis of these claims.)

I am not sure that the standard practiced by Church Militant would pass muster with Franciscan University's freshman journalism classes, but as a method of sparking pious outrage, it is very effective. A day or so after Church Militant's article was posted, Fr. Sheridan offered a new statement on how a Catholic university should operate:

The existing policy on academic freedom will be revised. Reading material will not be at the discretion of tenured professors, the University's own hires, but at the sufferance of internet lynch mobs who can barely finish one outrage cycle before leaping on a fresh cause. Shortly after this statement, Prof. Lewis was removed as chair of the English department. Not content with the scalp, Church Militant is demanding the whole head, insisting that Prof. Lewis be fired. And the online outrage machine will move on, will demand that Something Be Done about the next cause, and the partisans will be suffused with the righteous thrill of action until the day the machine comes to devour their diocese, their parish, their apostolate, their reputation.

There can be, and should be, debate about how to best understand and engage with a intellectual culture which is often hostile to Catholic moral teaching and practices. Not every student needs to prepare to evangelize the culture in the same way. We need faithful theologians, doctors, nurses, elementary teachers, theater artists, classicists, engineers, computer programmers, biologists, and journalists. And we need Catholic intellectuals. Students from FUS, going on in academia, preparing for graduate studies, will soon be confronted with programs, professors, reading material, and other students who will challenge their faith and their critical thinking skills and clarity of communication.

And make no mistake, even pompous intellectuals who pride themselves on being edgy enough to compare the BVM to porn stars deserve to be evangelized. God considers no person beyond the pale of his love. And so perhaps a few people studying how to evangelize the culture through literature and academia might be called to study that particular culture, to better counter it, and introduce it to God's love in words it can hear.

The point is, if we want magazines like First Things to provide intellectual and spiritual context for us, or reviewers who can intelligently dissect art house films and show the culture how those works are flawed even on their own terms, where do we expect those Catholic intellectuals to come from if our Catholic universities are too tender to train them? Must every professor of literature be a convert who came up on the mean streets of Harvard or U. of Chicago?

If FUS wants to recruit a higher caliber of student, if it wants alumni capable of determining how a crank website is trying to manipulate its readers, if it wants to maintain the morale of its teachers and attract quality talent, perhaps it will consider a stronger brand of intellectual and moral fortitude in the face of a internet flash mob who by next month will have forgotten that this fracas ever took place. 

Quick Takes

1. Swedish Death Cleaning and the Anorexic Home. A good take on the recent trend of de-cluttering and tidying up.
Four years ago, when Marie Kondo’s four-million-selling The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing was first published in English, the initial reaction to its extreme form of home minimalism was predictable enough. To her readers, Kondo’s endearingly animistic ethos (famously, she writes that rolling up one’s socks is cruel to the sock, that socks should be lovingly folded, so they can rest after a long day “trapped between your foot and your shoe”) and punishing principle of nothing extra, was a welcome reprieve against the excesses of home-related consumerism. Even though it was an instant best-seller, the book came across as a cult object, countercultural in the way that becoming a monk is countercultural. With Kondo, the key to a happier, more fortunate life is to throw nearly everything away, even useful things, keeping only the very few items that “spark joy” when held. In Kondo’s world, one might only need four teacups and two dishtowels. After so much bullying Nespresso-and-thread-count lunacy, the sort of thinking that could make a temp office worker making $15,000 a year believe a dual climate-controlled wine locker (available at Wal-Mart for less than $400) is a “home essential,” entering Kondo’s ladylike realm of precious spareness, where you always know where your keys are because there is nothing else on your hallway table, ever, could feel like tip-toeing into a quiet patch of sanity. You had been choking under an avalanche of stuff, and look! All you’d ever needed was a single river rock in the palm of your hand. 
It can sound healthy enough, even sensible, with living space shrinking, and open-plan architecture (which does away with those useful clutter containers called walls) still inexorably on the rise. But the problem of a Marie Kondo in a shopaholic consumer society is that even the best-intentioned minimalism turns into more consumerism, just of a more demanding, neurotic sort. The relentless paring down is a convenient and ongoing clearing of the stage for some fresh, as-yet unmet, un-acquired object which—unlike those other familiar ones grown boring or distasteful with time—has the box-fresh ability to give jollies. And neurotic it is; Kondo herself admits that her need to organize and strip down does not come from a place of great mental health. She writes how, by the age of five, she could not help but compulsively clean not just her personal spaces, but those of her siblings and parents as well; how she was once traumatized—to the point of crying at the very memory—by a shampoo bottle that had developed a slimy bottom in a humid bathroom. “From the fact that I spent my recesses alone, tidying, you can guess that I wasn’t a very outgoing child,” she writes. “Because I was poor at developing bonds of trust with people, I had an unusually strong attachment to things.” No amount of quasi-religious your-socks-have-feelings pillow-talk can turn “It was material things and my house that taught me to appreciate unconditional love first, not my parents or friends” into anything but a good reason to seek therapy. Photos of Kondo’s own apartment show not just a white sofa and rug, but white everything, an anorexic space meant to be viewed as the apex of serene livability that no average person could—and, I would add, should—possibly feel comfortable living in.

2. The Weird Mouths of Finch Chicks. 

3. Brandon with a fantastic post on Structures of Fantasy.
In her excellent Rhetorics of Fantasy, Farah Mendlesohn identifies four major forms of fantasy literature, by looking at the way in which the fantastic enters into the story, which might be roughly characterized in the following way, using Mendlesohn's labels:

(1) Portal-Quest: The characters enter by some means into a fantastic world.
(2) Immersive: The story occurs in a fantastic world treated as the real world.
(3) Intrusion: The fantastic enters into and disrupts the real world as something foreign to it.
(4) Liminal: The fantastic enters into the real world as if it were part of the real world.

I think we can generalize this a bit, and a notation would be handy in doing so. So let's take a standard set-up, the contrast between the mundane and the fantastic:


There are a few things that need to be recognized about this distinction. It will be important for later that the contrast between the mundane and the fantastic is relative, not absolute; the mundane is the 'rest state' or 'reference point' in the narrative. 'Mundane' here is not a synonym for 'real' and something obviously real can be fantastic relative to someone else. (And both are common parts of human experience. If you fall asleep and dream and then wake-up, you've from mundane to fantastic to mundane again. If you walk through a dark wood and get creeped out, you're in a fantastic state relative to your usual state.) Despite its possibly counterintuitive sound, the fantastic is also the more fundamental of the two notions -- nothing in a narrative is recognizable as mundane except in contrast to the fantastic, but the fantastic in a narrative is fantastic directly to the hearer or reader. While it's tempting to talk about 'the mundane world' and 'the fantastic world', in many situations we are not talking about worlds, but just states or contexts.

The notation we have so far doesn't of itself constitute any sort of story at all; it's just the contrast between the mundane and the fantastic. To get a story we have to do something to that contrast. There are several things we can do.

A mundane element can move into a fantastic context.

A fantastic element can move into a mundane context. 
A context recognizable as mundane can turn out also to be fantastic. 
A context recognizable as fantastic can be treated as mundane. 
These correspond to Mendlesohn's four major kinds of fantasy (portal-quest, intrusion, liminal, and immersive, respectively). However, again, I want to understand these at a more general level; this is not an empirical classification, but a kind of narrative movement. To these four, I think we need to add a fifth: 
It can be deliberately ambiguous whether we are dealing with the mundane or fantastic. (This is often how writers try to handle Christmas stories in movies and television shows -- everything is mundane and not fantastic, but there's that one strange thing, so that maybe you were dealing with the fantastic all along? That department store Santa couldn't have really been Santa Claus -- and yet....)
4. The kids went on a Harry Potter binge over Christmas, reading all the books and watching all the movies. Of course, we had to watch these as well:

5. It's also a good time to watch this... or did we lose an hour, and so there's no time?

6. Now you can own Ruth Bader Ginsburg's crocheted collar in metal lace form:

7. Amy Welborn writes about the Prosperity Gospel:
You might see and hear some of this: 
Through faith, I came to understand my purpose and look at the success I’ve found because of that. 
Through faith, I came to see and accept how beautiful I am, and what true beauty is. 
Because of faith, I feel great about myself and affirm my life as amazing and accomplished. 
This is hard, this is tricky, and I hope I can tease this apart correctly. Because I’m sure this might be striking you as just wrong. Because isn’t that  part of what faith is? In accepting Jesus as Lord of my life, aren’t I opening myself to a re-orientation, a proper understanding of myself and my relationship to the world that’s going to bear this fruit? 
True. All that is fruit of a relationship with Christ. 
Plot twist: But it’s really not that important, either. 
And it’s certainly not the center of the spiritual life, as traditionally understood. It’s irrelevant to the core of it and, in the end, is a distraction, and – if used as a selling point evangelization tool, only part of the way to that core.
 8. And Bearing responds with a post about consolations as a form of Prosperity Gospel:
Consolations are, in the writings of the saints and in the writings of the magisterium, the opposite of affliction.   These are free gifts of happiness, contentment, felt blessings, confidence in the presence of God, strong feelings of conviction. All bestowed by God on some of the faithful, and occasionally understood to be withdrawn from them by God, as a means of increasing their (or someone's) growth in faith. 
Numerous saints have warned Christians against mistaking the consolation for something it is not. It is not (necessarily) a reward or a punishment; it is certainly not a reliable indication of the holiness of the individual, such that holier people receive more or fewer consolations; and while we may hope for consolations, we are expressly warned against making the consolation the end that we seek. 

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Working Off Yesterday's Technology

Our second eldest daughter has recently developed an interest in photography and video, for which she bought herself a DSLR camera. However, in the process of explaining things like depth of field, focus, f-stop, and ISO, I'd pulled out my old film SLR cameras which I haven't used in 8+ years in order to explain some concepts. She was interested enough that on her Christmas list she included "rolls of film so I can try Dad's old cameras".

The first thing I checked was whether it was possible to get film developed these days. There were two reasons I finally stopped shooting film. One was that when we bought our first iPhones, I finally succumbed to the convenience of always having a camera in my pocket (even if it wasn't nearly as good) and stopped hauling around the Pentax SLR that was older than I was. The other was that as other people started abandoning film, the surviving local photo labs in grocery and drugstores were clearly decreasing in quality. I had several roles of film ruined by poor handling, and between that and the temptation to have the picture RIGHT NOW in order to email or post it, I'd stopped using the film cameras. The answer is that yes, there are still active photo labs in 2019, both a few down in Columbus proper and also pro/enthusiast labs that do lots of business by mail.

Indeed, as I read around, it turns out that there's a mini-resurgence of interest in film photography in the last few years. Like the resurgence in turntable and vinyl records, film photography is no longer turned to by the mass public as the easiest way to get something done, but there is a community of enthusiasts, both amateurs and professionals, who are now using film cameras not because they're the only way to take pictures, but because they offer specific advantages compared to modern technology: the process of taking pictures and waiting for results is different, the grain of the film emulsion provides a different look from the product of a digital light sensor (though there are apps that can modify digital pictures to have similar looks), and medium and large format film formats objectively gather more detail than even the newest standard DSLR sensors.

There's also a combination of nostalgia and cheapness which is attractive to hobbyists. Because most people have moved on to using smartphones and digital cameras to take pictures, there's a huge number of abandoned film cameras around the country. Thus, the price for buying up old film cameras is very low. The ones which are most sought after now are generally not the highly computerized and motorized auto-everything models which were common shortly before digital photography caused the film photography industry to crash. Because of all their electrical systems, those cameras are hard to maintain in a world where there are no longer many camera repair shops servicing film cameras. Also, they provide a shooting experience not that different from a modern digital camera. The only difference is that all that technology was directed towards exposing film to light rather than exposing a digital sensor to light. Instead, the cameras being picked up used and discussed on "analog photography" sites appear to mostly be older, mostly or all-mechanical cameras of the sort that were made from the 1950s through the 1980s. You can pick up a professional quality all-mechanical 35mm or medium format camera for one or two hundred dollars, and not only have a well-made camera with few electrical parts to fail, but also an interesting, vintage-looking conversation piece. With all metal parts and mechanical controls rather than digital ones, one of these cameras could have decades of use left in it if well taken care of.

But of course, this glut of old cameras coming out of closets and drawers and onto eBay and used camera shops is necessarily a temporary phenomenon. While there are now many more old cameras than there are film photographers, if no one is repairing them professionally and no one is manufacturing new ones, the "my camera is broken, I'll buy another" trick won't work forever. And less visibly, the machinery used by film companies and developing labs is also getting increasingly old. This has caused some worried about the future of film photography to ask, even during the resurgence, is film photography really saved?

The economics of this are fascinating to me. Here there's a devoted but small following of a seemingly out of date technology, and the question becomes: Is their interest sustainable past the the point where they use up the left-over technology to which they're attached. Or can the old technology simply be made to last?

I've seen one version of this play out at a distance hearing my mother talk about the enthusiasm which quilters still have for Singer Featherweight sewing machines: a simply, metal construction, portable sewing machine made from the 1930s to the 1950s and still treasured, used, and maintained by a devoted community of fans. There are now aftermarket companies making parts to maintain singers, and repair shops working on them. But no one has come in to manufacture a new featherweight, despite the fact it clearly has a devoted fan base.

Vinyl records (about which I'll admit I know little) have apparently pushed past that threshold, and there are now companies making new records and new record players.

It remains to be seen whether analog photography fans will make this same jump. A recent kickstarter to build a new 35mm SLR camera to appear to the analog photography community did get funded last year. However it's currently delayed in manufacturing it's camera due to difficulties getting some of the parts needed in sufficient quantities from suppliers used to working with digital camera makers or supplying small numbers of parts to repair shops.

Meanwhile, in the even more exclusive space of large format cameras using sheet film rather than roll film, the Intrepid Camera Company in the UK has got off the ground selling new large format cameras.

I don't know how all this will work out. But it's an interesting discovery, and in the meantime, I'll take advantage of it to try shooting some film again.

Monday, January 07, 2019

Dead People's Stuff

When I heard that one of our local antiques stores was closing, I was stricken with guilt. I am the problem small local businesses face, the person who is rah-rah for independent shops and yet never actually patronizes them. So I hied me down on December 23, the penultimate day, to browse through the booths and see if I could find a Christmas present or two.

What I found was that the store was closing not because local shoppers were penurious, but because the building had been sold out from under them. That's a sign of the real estate market in our town -- pretty hopping among the old downtown area where we live. In the Federalist buildings of our one or two main streets, microbreweries and on-trend restaurants have sprouted like dandelions. In the former newspaper building, a co-working space is under construction, complete with some big metal framework which blocks the historic facade.

Our downtown was built in an era in which buildings were decorative as well as substantial. Some structures will never look better than the day they were constructed -- our former suburban box house was one of them. Others even decay beautifully. Every few months I drive past a huge, elegant, abandoned house, probably past the point of salvage by now, and think how gloriously it could be restored. No one's ever been inspired by vacant strip mall.

It's easy to fetishize the past, to think that if something has endured for a long time, it must be chockful of some kind of significance, if only we could tease it out. The idea of roaming through an antiques store and finding a hidden treasure has a hold on the popular imagination, because why would someone preserve something so carefully unless it were valuable in some way? Lots of reasons, as it turns out. Inertia. Guilt. Personal significance. Family history. All motives that have nothing to do with the intrinsic worth of the item itself.

All this was on display at Dead People's Stuff, as the antiques store was so charmingly named. Booths were brimful of things that had been preserved from the past. Some were originally useful -- old gloves, kitchen utensils, farm implements, cookbooks, pie safes, buttons, keys. Some were decorative. A rare few were beautiful. But most of it was just Stuff, the detritus of earlier lives. I have had to furnish a theater set, and know how helpful it can be to find a repository of odds and ends. Yet once those odds and ends are disconnected with the lives that gave them meaning, they are simply ugly junk.

Perhaps a working definition of art is something that has beauty and value in and of itself, without reference to its creation or who owned it. Or maybe that's too subjective still. I looked at the bulging shelf of Hummel figurines and saw kitsch that would be no loss to the world were it to be smashed (which was perhaps the view of Sister Maria Innocentia Hummel, who reluctantly licensed her sketches of local children [artwork detested by Hitler himself] to a figurines company to help support her convent). Others see adorable innocence immortalized in ceramic.

At my own house, on a shelf in my daughter's bedroom, is one of those figurines of girls in a big ballgown, something like a friend of mine used to get every birthday. Our dancing girl came with the house, and I would have no qualms about throwing it away, but my daughter thinks it's pretty and likes to keep it. It's neither a matter of faith or morals or space or unified design choices or my having to see it all the time, so I allow it. But to me it's Dead People's Stuff, of no worth independently.

All creation should tell of the glory of God. One of my life goals is to keep from bringing into the house anything that, should we all vanish, would just be junk someone will have to dispose of. Certain kinds of plastic toys fit that bill. Books not worth the paper they're printed on. Electronics that will be obsolete in a year or two. Cheap clothes that wear out before they're out of fashion. Craft projects that shed pieces. Hobby equipment forgotten in a closet. You can't take it with you, of course. But often, you shouldn't have gotten it in the first place.