Monday, May 21, 2012

...But the mood of the conference was best summed up in the title of the keynote address, by the political philosopher Michael Walzer: “The Strangeness of Jewish Leftism.” What was once a proud inheritance now seems like a problem in need of a solution. For many Jews, it remains axiomatic that Judaism is a religion of social justice and progress; the phrase “tikkun olam” has become a convenient shorthand for the idea that Judaism is best expressed in “repair of the world.”

In his speech, and in his new book In God’s Shadow: Politics and the Hebrew Bible, Walzer offers a contrary vision of traditional Judaism, which he argues “offers precious little support to left politics”—a truth that he recognized would surprise those who, like himself, “grew up believing that Judaism and socialism were pretty much the same thing.” If a leftist political message cannot readily be found in the traditions of Judaism, it follows that the explosion of Jewish leftism in the late 19th century was actually a rupture with Jewish history, and potentially a traumatic one.


Walzer’s reluctance to associate Judaism too simply with leftist politics, or indeed with any politics, represents a break from his earlier thinking. In his influential 1985 book Exodus and Revolution, for instance, Walzer argued that the Exodus narrative had provided a template for generations of revolutionaries and progressives in Western society, offering a model of how to escape an oppressive past and create a better future. The contrast with his new book could not be sharper. In this work, Walzer reads the Bible with an eye to its explicit and implicit teachings about politics and finds that its most eloquent message on the subject is silence. “The political activity of ordinary people is not a Biblical subject,” he writes, “nor is there any explicit recognition of political space, an agora or forum, where people congregate to argue about and decide on the policies of the community.” ...

...Much of In God’s Shadow deals with the ambiguous status of the prophet in the polity of ancient Israel. When contemporary liberals and leftists want to anchor their beliefs in Jewish tradition, it is to the prophets that they most often turn: the scathing denunciations of Amos and Jeremiah, the messianic vision of Isaiah. “We have a picture in our mind of the people described by Amos,” Walzer writes. “They are, so to speak, the local bourgeoisie,” and Amos speaks for the Israelite proletariat.

But if you look at the actual content of the prophets’ message, Walzer points out, its political bearing is not so clear. “Theirs was … a fiercely antipolitical radicalism,” he writes, which had little to say about the power structures of Israelite society. Indeed, one of the themes of In God’s Shadow is that the writers of the Bible were so uninterested in politics that they included remarkably little information about how the Israelites were actually governed on a day-to-day basis—almost everything we can say about the functions of kings, judges, and royal officials is speculative. When the prophets called for justice, they didn’t mean a redistribution of power but a society-wide submission to God: “God’s message overrode the wisdom of men.”

The same thing was even more dramatically true when it came to international politics. Jeremiah, for instance, was active toward the end of the Kingdom of Judah, at a time when that small nation was caught between the empires of Egypt and Babylon. Much of the last part of Kings is made up of the attempts of successive Israelite monarchs to ally themselves with one of these imperial powers against the other. But, as Walzer emphasizes, the prophets simply refuse to accept that this geopolitical problem is a problem at all. If the Israelites trust in God and obey him, all will be well; if God is determined to punish them, nothing they do will avert his justice. “All that he and his fellow prophets have to say in the global arena is ‘the God of Israel, the God of Israel,’ ” Walzer writes, “implying that diplomacy and defense are unnecessary so long as faith remains firm.”

The long-term effect of this usurpation of the public sphere by God, Walzer concludes, was the growth of Jewish messianism. “The secret source of messianic politics is a deep pessimism about the self-government of the covenantal community. … Israel was more often the subject of absolute judgment than of conditional assessment and counsel.” And while Walzer does not say so explicitly, it is easy to imagine what his denigration of messianism means for the modern Jewish radical tradition, which has so often prided itself on holding out for a messianic transformation of human society. If the Messiah is what we demand when we can’t or won’t engage in politics, then the Revolution, too, must be seen as fundamentally antipolitical, a dangerous dream that rests on the abdication of human judgment. The rejection of Revolution as a concept is perhaps the dividing line between liberals and leftists, and Jews increasingly find themselves on the liberal side of that line.

The left’s rejection of Judaism, Walzer concluded in his speech at YIVO, was both “necessary and profoundly wrong.” Necessary, because traditional Judaism did not offer a basis for a social justice movement; but also wrong, because the severance with tradition rendered the Jewish left culturally disoriented and spiritually impoverished.

While a number of speakers at the YIVO conference invoked Isaac Deutscher’s concept of the “non-Jewish Jew”—figures like Trotsky or Rosa Luxemburg, who rejected on principle any definition of themselves or their goals in Jewish terms—both Walzer and Ezra Mendelsohn warned against the idea that identity could be so abstract and universalized. Walzer called instead for a renewed critical engagement with Jewish tradition, including a return to the Jewish calendar and Jewish lifecycle events.
more--and obviously this is an interpretation, which by its nature leaves out some things and emphasizes others, but I found it pretty fascinating and I think many of my readers will want to grab Walzer's book. The Groom's Family, I'm looking at you....
MORE on the problems of meta-emotions!
It is significant for our understanding of the nature of the religion of Israel among the religions of the world that meaning for her is derived not from introspection, but from a consideration of the public testimony to God. The present generation makes history their story, but it is first history. They do not determine who they are by looking within, by plumbing the depths of the individual soul, by seeking a mystical light in the innermost reaches of the self. Rather, the direction is the opposite. What is public is made private. History is not only rendered contemporary; it is internalized. One’s people’s history becomes one’s personal history. One looks out from the self to find out who one is meant to be. One does not discover one’s identity, and one certainly does not forge it oneself. He appropriates an identity that is a matter of public knowledge. Israel affirms the given.
-Jon Levenson, which I found here

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Bernard always had a few prayers in the hall and some whiskey afterwards as he was rarther pious but Mr Salteena was not very adicted to prayers so he marched up to bed. Ethel stayed as she thourght it would be a good thing. The butler came in as he was a very holy man and Bernard piously said the Our Father and a very good hymm called I will keep my anger down and a Decad of the Rosary.
-Daisy Ashford, The Young Visiters, found in the comments here!

Friday, May 18, 2012

THE NAME OF THE MIRACLE OF THE ROSE: I was kind of startled that the "Why do you identify as 'gay'?" question didn't come up in Denver. Possibly that's just because I talked way too long, so the q&a was cut short. Anyway my impression is that lots of people, both straight and not-so-much, really want to know about this question. I don't know if I understand the question too well since it isn't one which has ever exercised me--but here's where my thinking is right now, on what some people may be hearing when I say I'm gay and what I'm actually saying. (A previous post on this subject, written in a sort of galumphing-drunken-elephant style, is here.)

First, I think for some people taking on a gay identity is seen as setting up a competing community to the Church, which commands our loyalties in the way only Christ should. It's seen as surrender to something other than Christ. I'm sympathetic to this since I do think our surrender to Christ must be total and unique, and it's obvious that other communities and identity groups can compete with that surrender. The most obvious example for me is nationality: It's clear that one's self-concept as an American can compromise one's identity as a Christian.

And yet when somebody says he's Greek, the response of the non-Greek Christians around him isn't immediately to respond, "In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek!" and to assume compromised faith on his part. There's an understanding that national identity both must and can be taken lightly, considered as a part of one's situation rather than a warped lens through which the Gospel is distorted. (The majority of people to whom I describe myself as "gay" view that identity the same way. They don't actually perceive any contradiction--they might see an added and maybe weird difficulty, but not an internal contradiction--in saying that I'm gay and celibate.)

Second, "gay" describes a community (or really, a big, contradictory, feisty tussle of communities) and a relationship to that community, and if you don't have any notable or positive relationship to that community then that is a fact about you which presumably would lead you to identify differently. My sense is that people who have had very little experience with gay communities, or whose experiences have been largely negative, are a lot more likely to identify as "same-sex attracted" and resist identifying as gay. My own relationship to queer communities has been important to me, largely positive, and characterized by belonging, and that's what I mean when I say I'm gay.

But there really are no terms which don't in some way mark out a community. "Same-sex attracted" is identity-jargon too, delineating a specific way of understanding one's eros: a new way, a way which would be as difficult to explain to St. Aelred (for example) as "gay."

I've written before (from a somewhat different perspective than the one I have now) about my coming-out process: that click of recognition, the key turning in the lock. I thought at the time that my alienation was explained by my sexual orientation. "Oh, so that's all it was!" That turns out to be only partly true--my alienation stems really from the Fall, not from being queer, but queerness is one way I've experienced a heightened or stylized version of that universal alienation. That experience was really important to me--and, ultimately, important to my conversion to Catholicism. Explaining it without "self-identifying" as queer would feel really artificial and strained.

Similarly, look, I was a pretty self-centered kid. I don't know how much progress I've made there, but I know that gay and queer communities were among the places where I learned to try to listen to other people, admit my own faults and blind spots, and generally be more giving and less awful. I've said before that I was a better girlfriend to girls than to guys and I expect that's related to my self-identification as well: "Gay" names a place where I became a somewhat better person. I want to honor the people who put up with me.

My sense is that if you're Christian and you've had experiences like these, you're more likely to self-identify as gay, and if you haven't, you're more likely to self-identify as same-sex attracted. (Although for a contrasting perspective, see here.)

Also, notice the real but limited role played by sexual desire in this description. "Because I'm gay" I've been sexually drawn to women; but also, "because I'm gay" I've felt intense difference from those around me, felt recognition and a sort of exhilaration when I found writers and musicians and artists who described queer experience, felt a need to be of service to women, and been a part of various communities which shaped me. Collapsing all of these elements of my "gay experience" into wanting to have gay sex seems to me to be a misunderstanding of eros--and a willful erasure of every possible element of gay experience which might form part of a positive path toward Christ and conversion. It seems like a demand that the path from the gay community to Christ must be a path of rejection rather than reunderstanding.

Christianity has always confronted specific communities which were held together by elements which seemed inimical to the Gospel. One major response has been to identify the "unknown gods" in those communities, the places where their own self-understandings indicated a longing for Christ. The community could then be baptized rather than rejected or destroyed. One reason I really loved Frederick W. Roden's Same-Sex Desire in Victorian Religious Culture is that he talks about the ways in which the cultures and communities which eventually transformed into "gay culture" had intrinsic affinities for Catholic faith. It's obvious to me how my eros could be baptized, and I've written about that stuff a lot here.

Third, I persist in thinking that the tangle of experiences we've decided to call "being gay" is interesting. I've said, cattily, that I oppose gay marriage because I think homosexuality is interesting rather than banal. A lot of the "don't identify as gay" stuff seems to me to be an attempt to gloss over real differences in experience, to pretend that homosexuality makes no important difference in one's life path as a Christian in contemporary society. That seems to me to be an effort to understand gay difference and gay experience as banal. ("I'm not married, so I have to be chaste too! Our situations are just the same. So why are you acting like you're different and special?" No. Our situations may have important lessons for one another. Your situation may be harder than mine in various ways, e.g. I don't sit up nights wondering why I haven't found a nice girl to marry me. But solidarity requires acknowledgment of difference, not suppression of it.)

And finally, "gay" is a blunt term, a quick tabloid kind of term, garish and in-your-face. I like that in a girl!
"DAN SAVAGE WAS RIGHT": My friend Joshua Gonnerman in First Things.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

THE DEATH-HAUNTED ART OF FRIENDSHIP, PART II: At Catholic Lane. This time, sacrificial friendship in the Bible and in our everyday lives:
How often in Scripture we find violence mingled with love, like water mingled with wine: in the Song of Songs, the watchmen beating the lover as she searches the city for her beloved; in Genesis, Abram’s knife poised over Isaac’s breast. Yet it is friendship that features most prominently in this strange dynamic of love and violence. It is most explicitly and insistently linked to death and sacrifice.
A FANTASY OF SALVAGE: My review of Tim Powers's new novel, at Crisis:
Zombie voodoo pirates. Time-traveling Mossad agents. Djinn in the Cold War. The dark fantasy novels of Catholic author Tim Powers can seem like pure high-concept, and his newest book—a sequel to The Stress of Her Regard, a.k.a. What If the Romantic Poets Were Sort of Vampires?–has the same instant audience appeal. Christina Rossetti fights vampires! A hard-luck ex-prostitute who’s too stoic for her own good might finally find happiness with an animal-loving loner! Tough women, sensitive men, London by gaslight, sinister rituals, and even Boadicea back from the dead: Hide Me Among the Graves seems custom-designed for a cold, rainy weekend curled up under a comforter with the cats.

And yet this thrilling, compassionate book is much more than its concept. Powers excels at a fantasy of salvage: a human-scale, kitchen-sink drama in which characters take what seem like small steps into darkness, only to find themselves in far over their heads. The way out requires terrible physical and emotional sacrifice. The great, heroic actions in these novels are often acts of renunciation, earning no glory.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

GUYS AND LADIES: My post about Damsels in Distress, at AmCon.
THIS IS THE DENVER POST STORY ON MY TALK. Very nice! And I love that their blog is called "Hark!"
IN SCHEMES BEGIN RESPONSIBILITIES: I have a post about the Great Brain books, over at Acculturated!
A SUMMARY OF MY TALK IN DENVER is up at the Spiritual Friendship blog.
About midnight, while Paul and Silas were praying
and singing hymns to God as the prisoners listened,
there was suddenly such a severe earthquake
that the foundations of the jail shook;
all the doors flew open, and the chains of all were pulled loose.
When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open,
he drew his sword and was about to kill himself,
thinking that the prisoners had escaped.
But Paul shouted out in a loud voice,
"Do no harm to yourself; we are all here."
He asked for a light and rushed in and,
trembling with fear, he fell down before Paul and Silas.
Then he brought them out and said,
"Sirs, what must I do to be saved?"

--Acts; from today's readings. This jailer is one of those startling marginal figures who duck into the New Testament, react in unexpected ways, and then duck back out of sight.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The key to the shop’s comprehensive business plan: offer as many services as possible to any conceivable customer. In the florescent-lit rooms behind espresso machines, walk-in clients can see a notary or submit a urine sample. If that’s not enough, go upstairs to have family portraits taken in the on-site photography studio.

Jimmy Jackson made use of the document-services center last week, printing job applications as he waited to testify in court. He said his brother, whose custody case was pending, had his taxes done during the trial.

“And the coffee ain’t half bad,” Jackson added.

On a normal day, jurors and lawyers mix with criminal defendants, city bureaucrats cross paths with recovering addicts from the nearby methadone clinic — and everyone comes to see Mona Pryor, whose job title as City Coffee’s operations director scarcely hints at her many roles.

“Lawyers are always coming in here to ask me to put in a good word with judge so-and-so, or asking me to introduce them to someone from the other side,” said Pryor. She is the one-woman force behind most of City Coffee’s services, with an associate’s degree in accounting and a variety of specialty certificates.
more (via Ratty)
I’ve recently released a website providing convenient access to the digitized archives of a wide range of periodicals from the last two centuries, most of which have never before been available outside the dusty shelves of research libraries.

Although many of these are generally conservative or rightwing, such as The American Mercury or Social Justice, many others are liberal or leftist, including IF Stone’s Weekly, The New Masses, Encounter, and The Reporter, while the majority are mainstream and relatively non-ideological. ...

Therefore, as a means of publicizing the website, I have announced a Historical Research Competition with a $10,000 First Prize, for the most interesting and important research discovery based on these archives.
"AGAINST THE AMERICAN JESUS": My review of Ross Douthat's Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. Also, I will be blogging at TAC's group blog, State of the Union, mostly talking about arts-and-culture. Look for more on Damsels in Distress later today/tonight.

And come see me tonight in Denver!

Friday, May 11, 2012

"THE DECLINE OF DECADENCE": I wish I had seen Damsels in Distress before its closing night here in DC, so I could tell you all to go see it! It was terrific--funnier and more wide-ranging in its satire than Metropolitan, I thought. In When Sisterhood Was in Flower, Florence King's obvious love for the '70s feminism she satirized made the satire itself sharper and brighter. WSWIF:70's feminism::Damsels:"Beauty will save the world."
...The paradox is that although war is waning in the classic configuration of brigades fighting an enemy on foreign shores, we are not rid of its specter, burdens, threats, costs and restrictions. What should we make of wartime that has the appearance of peacetime?

Mary Dudziak’s new book, War Time: An Idea, Its History, Its Consequences, is a crucial document. Dudziak, a legal historian at the University of Southern California, argues that we are experiencing “not a time without war, but instead a time in which war does not bother everyday Americans.” Her smooth foray into legal and political history reveals that in not just the past decade but the past century, wartime has become a more or less permanent feature of the American experience, though we fail to recognize it. She doesn’t say so explicitly, but we are experiencing a reverse Orwellian situation, in which the state, rather than elevating war to perpetuate itself, obscures war to perpetuate itself.
"SO WHOSE 'SWAN LAKE' IS IT?" Original Petipa choreography for the position they talk about on page one is obviously much better, yes? (Also: NYClean, so you can read the article.)

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Perhaps if I wanted to be understood or to understand I would bamboozle myself into belief, but I am a reporter; God exists only for leader-writers.
-Graham Greene, The Quiet American

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

"THE CHILDREN'S SUBLIME." My piece on Maurice Sendak. The New York Times obituary was also quite good. RIP.
I'LL BE IN DENVER! On Monday, May 14, at Theology on Tap, doing my thing. Here's a rundown from the Denver Catholic Register. I hope to meet some of you there!
All aridity of spirit results from sublimations that are badly assumed, from the forced maimings of a vocation that was poorly understood, from a disguised, paralyzing refusal.
-much more here
But the right to revise traditions is not everybody’s right; it has to be won by learning their moral truths as deeply as they can be learned. Those who have difficult vocations to explore need the tradition to help the exploration. The tradition may not have the final word, but it is certain they will never find the final word if they have failed to profit from the words the tradition offers. And if it should really be the case that they are summoned to witness on some terra incognita of “new” experience, it will be all the more important that their new discernments should have been reached on the basis of a deep appropriation of old ones, searching for and exploiting the analogies they offer. No one who has not learned to be traditional can dare to innovate.
-Oliver O'Donovan, Church in Crisis: The Gay Controversy and the Anglican Communion

This is a little heavy for me, a bit stolid, especially if it's taken outside the context of Christian Tradition-with-a-capital-T. Traditions can arise from misunderstandings, accidents, and jokes, and yet over the years they can come to illuminate various truths and signal belonging. But O'Donovan's point is basically true and our lives would be vastly more beautiful if what he recommends were standard practice. ...Quotation via CC.

Friday, May 04, 2012

...Think about what you’re putting on the air. There’s no law that requires you to accommodate the police every time they want to flex their muscles on the evening news. In one of the videos linked above, the news team shoves a camera into a woman’s face as she’s stepping into the wagon. The reporter then shouts questions at the woman—this just after the reporter points out the possibility that the woman she’s humiliating and zooming in on may be a sex slave.
10 BEAUTIFUL BUILDINGS INSPIRED BY FAMOUS BOOKS. A lot of these are terrific--and can I just say that I love that the Hobbit one is a motel? My only disappointment is that it isn't somewhere in Lolitaville, USA.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

...They tortured men at military bases and detention centers in Afghanistan and Iraq, in Guantánamo, and in U.S. Navy bases on American soil; they tortured men in secret CIA prisons set up across the globe specifically to terrorize and torture prisoners; they sent many more to countries with notoriously abusive regimes and asked them to do the torturing. At least twice, after the torturers themselves concluded there was no point to further abuse, Washington ordered that the prisoners be tortured some more.

They tortured innocent people. They tortured people who may have been guilty of terrorism-related crimes, but they ruined any chance of prosecuting them because of the torture. They tortured people when the torture had nothing to do with imminent threats: They tortured based on bad information they had extracted from others through torture; they tortured to hide their mistakes and to get confessions; they tortured sometimes just to break people, pure and simple.

And they conspired to cover up their crimes. They did this from the start, by creating secret facilities and secrecy regimes to keep what they were doing from the American people and the world. They did it by suppressing and then destroying evidence, including videotapes of the torture. They did it by denying detainees legal process because, as the CIA’s Inspector General put it in a 2004 report [pdf], when you torture someone you create an “Endgame” problem: You end up with detainees who, “if not kept in isolation, would likely divulge information about the circumstances of their detention.”

They managed all this, for a time, through secrecy—a secrecy that depended on the aggressive suppression of two groups of voices.

Over and over again, in Afghanistan and Iraq, in Guantánamo, in secret CIA black sites and at CIA headquarters, in the Pentagon, and in Washington, men and women recognized the torture for what it was and refused to remain silent. They objected, protested, and fought to prevent, and then to end, these illegal and immoral interrogations. While the president and his top advisers approved and encouraged the torture of prisoners, there was dissent in every agency, at every level.

The documents are full of these voices. ...

Alongside the dissenters, another group of voices surfaces in these once-classified materials: the men we tortured. Theirs are the voices the entire system of incommunicado detention and closed tribunals was constructed to censor, and it worked: To this day, few Americans can identify more than a handful of detainees by name. Fewer still know how far from the “worst of the worst” the vast majority of those we tortured turned out to be.

Torture dehumanizes. But that only extends a process of dehumanization that must take place in order for abuse to happen: It is impossible to torture those whose humanity we recognize. In joke-filled letters to their attorneys, in frank and vivid testimony in tribunal transcripts, in startlingly naive and in powerfully emotional exchanges with interrogators, images emerge not of the maniacal and monolithic and monstrous, but of distinct and recognizable individuals. To hear these voices is to begin to reverse the terrible dehumanization the documents chronicle.
more (via Mark Shea)
FRIENDS IN NEED: At the pregnancy center, we see how certain norms which are destructive for everyone, but which may make some utilitarian sense from an upper-class perspective, have filtered down to poor women. The most obvious one is the idea that marriage is the final stamp of approval on a life well lived, the last item on the to-do list, to be checked off only once you've achieved economic stability. Marrying before economic stability has been achieved is actively stigmatized, because economic independence and stability are major markers of grown-up status, and the new model of marriage is that you complete the growing-up process first rather than letting your marriage form the bedrock of your adult identity.

You can see how this causes difficulties when economic stability is a far-off goal which may never be achieved. (And which becomes even harder to achieve once you start having kids out of wedlock.) Marriage is simultaneously an immensely longed-for honor and an endlessly-receding finish line.

What I didn't notice until more recently is that destructive upper-class norms of friendship may also be changing poor communities. This study basically argues (this is from memory, so I apologize if I misstate anything) that upper-class friendships are looser, based on common interests and personal compatibility, easier to shrug out of, and less tightly-tied to mutual aid, while working-class friendships are nosy, impose sometimes burdensome obligations, and are based mostly on proximity or similarity of life situation. Looser friendships offer independence, but are prone to atomization and alienation; tighter friendships foster generosity, but are prone to gossip and to resentment when perceived obligations aren't met.

I've been struck recently by how many of my clients are ashamed to go to their friends for help: both material or financial help, and emotional support, the love in time of distress which might be thought of as one of the key purposes of friendship. I've written before about my own struggle with the temptation to keep my troubles to myself and not seek help because I don't want to burden others, so I totally sympathize with this dilemma. But as I'm trying to teach myself, love in a time of need is what you have friends for. St. Aelred's emphasis on transparent honesty with one's friends may be considered an antidote to the shame we feel at exposing our own needs and weaknesses.

One of the biggest tasks at the center, at least for someone with my style of counseling, is to help the woman find the sources of love and support already available to her in her own life and community. I try to help her identify and strengthen those connections. And I've been startled by how often people will identify a friend as a possible source of desperately-needed strength, and then admit that they're ashamed to rely on that friend. "Well, if she were in need, wouldn't you want to know?" I ask, and that helps a bit. But the tight old relationships--not only friendship but the fictive kinship relations of godparenthood and godsisterhood, and maybe even the extended-family relationships of cousinhood--seem to be weakening. A renewal of friendship would be good for everybody, but maybe especially good for the poor.
"You've turned into a log of wood," he commented. "You've not only lost contact with reality and lost all interest in world events, in your civic duties, in yourself, in your friends (and you did have friends), you've not only lost all goals in life, except for winning at roulette--you've even renounced your memories. I remember you at an intense, vivid moment in your life, but I'm certain you've forgotten the best and strongest emotions that you experienced at that time, and your present dreams and aspirations do not go beyond pair, impair, rouge, noir, the middle twelve numbers, and all that. I'm sure of it."

"That'll do, Mr. Astley. Please, don't remind me of it!" I cried with annoyance, almost spitefully. "And for your information, I haven't forgotten a thing. I have only temporarily emptied my head of everything, including even my memories, until I've radically improved my situation. Then you'll see, I'll come back from the dead!"

--The Gambler

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

UNEQUALLY YOKED IS DOING A SECOND ROUND OF THE "IDEOLOGICAL TURING TEST." Talk to her about it here! (I infest the comments box.)
FACES: A PET PEEVE. See also the comment of a friend of mine, after seeing the cover of a new book on Gay Catholic Whatnot, "Oh no--not the bandaged heart!"
LETTING GO AND HOLDING ON: As we walked back from seeing Kid with a Bike, my friend and I passed a car with a bumper sticker reading, "I believe in unicorns, good men, and other mythical creatures." I joked that it was especially appropriate for the movie we'd just seen, a Belgian drama about a boy trying to find someone to parent him. But the movie isn't at all cynical or harsh. The kid is really lost and angry, and it's hard to watch him being rejected by his father, or remoraing himself to a hairdresser just because she was minimally kind to him once. The story is hard, and even the hope in its ending comes through the boy's defeat and resignation as well as through his foster mother's tender acceptance. Very, very recommended if it's playing near you.
SING YOUR LIFE: Recently watched Kiss of Death, a bleak and sometimes grimy little noir about a small-time robber who eventually gives in to the cops and turns state's evidence so that he can go home to his daughters. The story sets out to tug your heartstrings and succeeds (the guy was only robbing jewels at the start of the movie because no one would give a legit job to an ex-con, and his kids needed Christmas presents!); it's much better at portraying misery than joy. The nuns who take in the two little girls are stock characters from the Cath-symp era of Hollywood described in Ross Douthat's new book, and the romance feels very standard-issue as well. What stands out are the casual cruelties--the district attorney and his employees mock their prisoner for being a stool pigeon, even as they're urging him to sing!--and the truly scary performance of Richard Widmark as a Joker-grinning sociopath.
THE MIND ANSWERS THE BELL LIKE A SERVANT: A quick, necessary postscript to my recent long post about conversion--and I meant to say this earlier but got blown off-course by events! Anyway it would be easy to think that if you can become Catholic for reasons as intellectual as the ones I describe in that post, your faith would remain a papery husk, a bunch of moral laws rather than a passionate relationship with Jesus Christ. That kind of faith is certainly not what I was advocating. I think people generally move beyond their initial reasons and motives for conversion; and it's necessary to do so, as we begin to step into the areas of Catholic faith and practice which initially felt the most remote to us. People who accept Catholicism as a groundwork for morality can, I hope, now revisit the music, the prayer practices, the ascetic practices, and the corporal works of mercy, and love the Lord their God with all their heart, mind, and strength.

Post title is a nod to this.
And so Morton didn’t get to see Eric grow up. When Eric was 12, he stopped seeing his father in prison. When he was 18, he changed his last name from Morton. That broke his father’s spirit. Fourteen years into his life sentence, Morton hit absolute bottom.

“The things that I was hanging on to in the world, and he was it. When that was gone, I just cratered,” he says. “When you are completely without hope, when you are completely without any avenue of escape, when you’re not sure of any reason to go on, I cried out to God. I said, ‘OK, I’m done. I got nothing.’ “

How was Morton finally freed? His wife’s brother had found the bloody bandanna the police left later that day, and he turned it in. For years, Williamson County fought Morton’s requests to have the evidence in his case tested. Prosecutors ridiculed his efforts and taunted him, saying they’d consider DNA testing the evidence only if Morton would first take responsibility for the crime.
more; and more; comments on the framing of the story and, specifically, the coverage of religious conversion and faith, here, with good comments section as well
But it's striking that the things that therapeutic, God Within religion doesn't seem to have delivered to Americans are the very things that it claims to be best suited to provide--contentment, happiness, well-being, and, above all, the ability to forge successful relationships with fellow human beings. ...Therapeutic religion promises contentment, but in many cases it seems to deliver a sort of isolation that's at once comfortable and terrible--leaving us alone with the universe, alone with the God Within.
--Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics

Thursday, April 26, 2012

WHAT A RESURRECTION REALLY FEELS LIKE: Some thoughts about a particular moment in philosophical and spiritual struggle where many people seem to get kind of stalled. I hope I can write about this without sounding like I think this describes everyone who considers himself or herself to be seeking and not finding. This is more like, "What I describe here may resonate with some of you," not, "I know why you haven't Seen the Light yet."

So: Sometimes, especially when very philosophically-minded people talk about God or their hypothetical future-tense conversion, I think they may be confusing faith and spiritual consolation. They talk as if they accept the Catholic (I feel like I mostly see this with Catholic-symps) anthropology, the Catholic view of human nature and purpose. They talk, in fact, as if they're pretty sure that the Catholic picture of human life would explain and add to their understanding of the world in a way which no merely secular philosophy could match. And yet they don't "have faith," which, the more they talk about it, sounds like it means that they haven't had a direct experience of God's presence. They haven't had an encounter with the living God, at least not when they could recognize Him. So they are stuck, wandering around with this kind of zombie worldview, thinking maybe it will be brought fully to life one day by a bolt of God-lightning.

But a felt sense of God's close, tender, sublime presence isn't faith. I think the Catholic jargon for it is spiritual consolation, but I'm certainly open to correction there! A sense of total abandonment by God, total aloneness, is entirely compatible with unflinching faith. So is spiritual anomie or boredom or simple anticipation of a more visceral encounter with God.

I'd say that if you accept the Catholic anthropology, and you accept that if there is no God that anthropology doesn't make sense, then you believe in God, even if you've never experienced anything you recognize as His presence.

One difficulty, of course, is that Catholicism, or any actual existing Christian tradition rather than the Buddy Jesus I make up in my head, is an ornate, shaggy, thoroughly weird religion. Because the Church corrects everyone, even the saints, She doesn't fit entirely into anyone's preexisting moral beliefs. So you may believe what you consider to be the biggest elements of the Catholic anthropology but not all the details, or you may entirely accept some major aspects of that anthropology and reject others. I think the goal then is to figure out which parts of your worldview do in fact require God, if any, and go forward from there.

A related difficulty is that reason and introspection necessarily intertwine here, because you're often trying to figure out which of two or more alternatives you believe in most. To take an obvious example, I had to ask myself, in converting, whether I was more sure that gay sex was morally neutral or that the Catholic Church can teach authoritatively on matters of sexuality. Bizarrely, I was more sure of the second thing!, and so I accepted the Church's teaching even though I didn't (and often still don't) understand it. On a less brass-tacks level, you might be asking yourself whether you're more sure of your God-requiring anthropology, or that God doesn't exist. If you're more sure that God doesn't exist, something is askew in your worldview. Here's George Orwell on this very dilemma, though he tries to handwave it because for once he's insufficiently hardcore.

If you do this introspection and find yourself shying away from an anthropology (or metaphysics, etc) you thought you held really firmly, that may be a sign of fear of commitment. It might not! You'll know your own motives much better than I will. But I do think there's a certain attraction in being always almost Christian: always Quizás Quizás Quizás.

I should note that this isn't how I personally became Catholic. I did a lot of this "working on my underlying worldview through philosophy until I realized that the Catholic Church was scarily plausible," and then I prayed for a couple of weeks, and then I had, in fact, a strange and tipsy spiritual experience which was essentially an encounter with God the Creator. I had a felt experience of objects in the world as words spoken by God. This was what I needed in order to get serious about starting RCIA. It was a fairly ramshackle and humiliating spiritual encounter (probably past the legal BAC, going all T.S. Eliot over a stain on a Yale bathroom wall) but it was an experience of the created world as infused with God's presence.

So I do know that faith is more like a spectrum than an on-off switch, and someone can be moving toward deeper faith due to philosophy while still hanging back from full commitment because of uncertainty and a lack of felt experience of God. That's basically what I did for a time. But I want to clarify that you can have genuine faith even in the absence of an "encounter"-like experience. I mean, your thoughts are also things you experience! Your practice of philosophy is experience. God may be encountering you through your friends (since philosophy is always best practiced among friends) rather than burning a bush at you or something. Let yourself believe what you believe, even if you don't feel like a Christian.

To close us out, here's a poem by Denise Levertov, which I think speaks to the situation. Via Wesley Hill.
O TELL ME THE TRUTH ABOUT LOVE: I find that a lot of people, both gay and not, ask me questions which boil down to, "How should I understand gay relationships which are obviously loving?" This can be phrased as, "How do you feel, as a Catholic, about my relationship with my boyfriend?" (although I don't know why my personal feelings should really matter!) or "How should I view my brother's partner?" or, something I addressed in that Commonweal piece, "How should I understand the love which was a part of the gay relationships I had before becoming Catholic?"

The first thing I think of with this question is the quotation I posted last week, in which Jesus, looking at the rich young man, loved him. If we approach our own gay (meaning, here, sexually-active) relationships or those of others with this look of love, a love which is both personal and challenging, what do we find?

What we find will be different for different relationships. But here are some thoughts from my Commonweal piece:
Loving one another can be an echo of the love we receive from God; it can be the child of that love; it can be preparation for our own awestruck love of God. (I would argue that my erotic and romantic love of women has been all three of those things, at different times.)
I went on to say, "But our human experience, including our erotic experience, cannot be a replacement for the divine revelation preserved by the church. We must be careful not to let it become a counternarrative or a counter-Scripture." A chaste love relationship founded on love of Christ, perhaps even adorned with promises like the ones described here and here, is even more beautiful and sublime than the best sexually-active gay relationship. Perhaps you're being called to this other person because he or she is a part of your life's vocation, in which case chastity will exalt your relationship, not diminish it. Perhaps not--perhaps you're being called to hospitality, service, searing devotion to God, a radical vulnerability and availability made possible precisely by your lack of obligations to partner or children. Note that neither of these alternatives is easy! "Exalted" doesn't exactly imply "easier," and sublimity is almost the opposite of satisfaction--accepting one of these alternatives will probably increase most people's sense of difficulty, their sense of struggle or need for surrender to God. But we don't get to choose how God calls us; we only choose how we respond to that call.
LITTLE SHIVERS: Short movie reviews, mostly of B-horror.

Pontypool: Canadian town's destruction by zombie virus chronicled by its weird local radio station. This does a really good job at making the threat scary without showing you too much. If you like the high-concept summary, "Language is a virus which makes people zombies," you will probably like this; if the premise leaves you cold I'm not sure the movie will work for you. I really liked it. The one jarring moment is the racist Lawrence of Arabia adaptation by local schoolchildren (?). I could come up with some reason for this--art can drive us apart and strengthen our worst impulses--but that seems too heavy, so really, I just don't know why that was there.

The Howling: Ultra-sleazy '80s flick about werewolves at a hippie resort. Does exactly what it says on the tin, plus extra sleaze. Sort of awesome in an "I don't actually recommend this" way.

Oleanna: David Mamet, a college parable which is about feminism/political correctness on the surface, class and how education and language reify power disparities underneath. (Language is the villain again!) When you describe it like that it sounds like something I'd like, but the two characters are both horribly grating and one-note, and the actors recite lines rather than finding a way to inhabit Mamet's aggressively-stylized dialogue.

The Dark Hours and Creep: I'm linking these two for reasons I'll get to in a moment. At first glance they seem pretty different. The Dark Hours is a stylized, very art-directed home-invasion horror/psychological thriller, very slightly comparable to Black Swan if that's a recommendation for you, starring actors I'd never seen before. Kindertrauma reviewed it here. Creep is a movie about some kind of killer or creature living in the London subway system, with basically normal visuals, starring Franka Potente.

Both movies' protagonists are privileged white women whose social/class power over other characters becomes a major issue in the narrative. Both women are shown from the beginning in fairly unflattering moral lights: Creep's buzzy city chick is a bit self-centered, whereas The Dark Hours' psychiatrist is openly cruel and arrogant.

Creep gives you glimpses of working-class, hard-luck, or homeless characters, and gestures at their backstories in ways which make them seem like they could be interesting. But the movie itself really doesn't seem to care about them. They exist basically as props in the main character's journey... which, since it's a journey where she gets to learn about How the Other Half Lives, means that the movie (and especially its big ending visual) comes across as fairly cheap and self-praising. Poor people exist to teach rich girls life lessons about how poor people exist!

The Dark Hours forces a much tighter audience identification with its main character, not only by keeping us firmly within her POV but by constantly challenging us to figure out which of her distorted perceptions is closest to reality. That's part of what made it work much better for me than Creep. It's also crueler to her--she doesn't learn her lesson--and the psych patients under her control have their own agency instead of just reacting to her decisions. (I mean, they appear to have agency, anyway. Like I said, you can rarely be sure what is real.) This movie was tense and very sad, and succeeded in making me care about its awful main character. You can also take it--especially the final "game" between the doctor and one of her patients--as a ferocious satire on psychiatry; or, conversely, as a window into how healing and honesty can look like brutal, absurd nonsense to a damaged mind. It's a movie which works on a lot of levels, the simple ones of fear and visual interest and the complex ones of shifting meanings.
Recently I asked my sober priest friend Monsignor Richey how I'd know if I was making any spiritual progress. The pious urge to pray many hours a day? I was thinking. Guru status? He pondered for a moment. "If crazy people aren't afraid to come up to you and talk... that's a pretty good sign," he said.
--Heather King, Parched

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Paulina was surprised. "Why, but you too are clinging to a straw! A couple of weeks ago, you explained to me at great length that you were absolutely sure to win at roulette, and then you rushed away because I stared at you as if you were insane. Or perhaps you were joking then? No, I remember very clearly that you were absolutely serious, and it didn't sound like a joke at all."

"That's true," I said dreamily. "Even now, I am still convinced I'll win. ..."
--Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Gambler, tr. Andrew R. MacAndrew

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

CATCHING UP: Three articles I wrote have been published recently! I reviewed Adam and Eve After the Pill: Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution; also reviewed a really good novel, The Inverted Forest (link is subscribers-only for now); and reviewed two shows of war photography (also subscribers-only). Definitely recommend the photography--at the Corcoran through May 20--and The Inverted Forest.
LOST IN THE COSMO: Bracketing any questions about the actual tv show "Girls," I note that this review basically says, "The great thing about this show is that it treats sex as banal! The bad thing about this show is that the women aren't happy."
(I sometimes think of Ezra as the Yosemite Sam of poetry. "Ya varmits, I want ya to read Ovid and Dante." I think of T. S. Eliot of the Elmer Fudd. "Be vewy, vewy quiet, I'm saving Western Civilization. Heh, heh, heh."

--here (via Jesse W again?)
GIGER BAR. Awesome. Via Jesse Walker, I think.
"THE SIX BIGGEST FEARS OF PEOPLE WHO ARE BAD WITH KIDS." Oh hey, someone else who thinks children are great but does not actually want to hold your baby!
I STILL LIKE "THE HAGGIS AND THE FEAR" BEST! But Vicki Boykis's "pessimist's guide to Scotland" is now available as an e-book. Go check it out!
Listening to a sermon on Mark 10 yesterday, I was struck by a juxtaposition in Jesus' encounter with the rich, young ruler in Mark 10:17-31. Specifically, after the young ruler has announced--quite sincerely, I think--that he has kept all the commandments from his youth, Mark tells us in his typically direct language:

Jesus, looking at him, loved him...

(more, although I was struck primarily just by this image of the look of love; link probably via Wesley Hill?)
"GRITTY PHOTOS OF JAPAN'S RED-LIGHT AND COMMERCIAL DISTRICT." (What, the one red-light district in all of Japan? It's Shinjuku in the '60s-'80s.)
"ALLAN BLOOM'S GUIDE TO COLLEGE." I did not expect the New Yorker to publish the sharpest thing I've read so far about the Closing of the American Mind anniversary!
For kids entering college fully trained in this liturgy of prudence and niceness, which I am anxiously imparting to my own young children, it’s not Bloom’s censoriousness they will resist. It’s his decadence.


Also, this phrasing is just self-parodically Straussian: "I’m not a Straussian, but I was taught by Straussians and modelled my classroom methods on theirs...."
MOUNTAIN GOATS AND ANONYMOUS 4. I really, really love some of the new songs. Early favorites are "Tribe of the Horned Heart" and (perhaps predictably) "Lakeside View Apartments Suite." Link is probably via Flavorwire.
"Hold it for me," he said quietly, in English.

Christina knew that her mother couldn't see them from the other room--and she didn't need to unfold the handkerchief to know that it was wrapped around the little statue, for she could feel the cold of the stone through the linen.

She gave him a quizzical glance, for earlier he had said that he carried the thing around with him now--and he had told her not to touch it. His expression was impossible to read behind his thick lenses, though, so she nodded and tucked it into the pocket of her frock and went back to her sketching.

But her rabbit began to go wrong under her darting pencil--the hind legs and back seemed broken now, and the creature's face began to take on a human-like expression that somehow expressed both scorn and pleading--and when she heard her brother Gabriel gasp at the sight of it, she crumpled the paper.

--Tim Powers, Hide Me Among the Graves. Tim Powers + Christina Rossetti = yes please.

Monday, April 09, 2012

CULTURAL BIAS IN INTELLIGENCE TESTING. You have to put up with some obvious leftist bias (e.g. attributing to Western "acquisitiveness" what seems at least equally attributable to social trust) and I admit I already agreed with the basic point this site is making. But the alternative intelligence mini-tests are intriguing and a memorable way to make an important point.
SPEAKING OF LATE LINKS: Make your Easter eggs look like your dad in the '70s! Via Unequally Yoked.
THIS IS HOLY THURSDAY, BUT I DIDN'T POST IT IN TIME. Where did I find it? Via Wesley again? Anyway I really like it.
Let none lament his failings,
forgiveness has risen from the tomb.
Let none fear death,
for the death of the Savior has set us free.

--St John Chrysostom, via Wesley Hill

...and speaking of WH and Easter, this made me laugh, perhaps inappropriately.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

"ANOTHER VERY GRITTY DISPLAY HERE": I meant to post this on his actual birthday, March 30, but: Happy birthday, Christopher Bowman. May your afterlife be as lyrical as "Maria" and as uninhibited as "Woolly Bully."

"The Americans never disappoint their American fans...."
I spot Chad a few minutes later, a dark-eyed waif on the sidewalk. It's been three weeks he's been gone, and he's lost so much weight. Everything about him looks burnt-out, the way refugees on TV look with farms smoking behind them: translucent skin, an uncertain balance something like shellshock. I notice he's wearing a necklace, one he wasn't wearing last time. A ring and a small cross.

I tell the driver, "That's him."

The bus slows, but the doors don't open.

"Five hundred dollar fine!" the driver shouts.


"Five hundred dollar fine for entering or exiting the vehicle at..." (here I have no idea what he says) "...designated stopping point."

"So he can get on at the stop?"

"Five hundred dollar fine!"

Chad studies me through the plexiglass of the bus's doors. Perplexed, panicky from lack of sleep, obviously trying not to show it. I do my best to motion him down the road, try to mouth, "wait there." The yellow and black paint of the stop is at just such an angle I can't point at it through the doors. I keep pointing as the bus keeps moving. It stops 20 feet away; the doors hiss open.

"Can he get on here?"

"Designated stopping point!"

Chad reaches the stop a few seconds after the bus. I can't think of anything to say but, "Hey."

We collapse into seats next to each other, he with a bag over each shoulder. His lips taste like seawater; his mouth is dry. I later learn that he took a shot, his last shot, in the bathroom at Dulles. This is quite valuable, actually, seeing what he looks like still high, on the tail-end of high -- it's a look I've yet to see on him again.

"I parked at the wrong gate," I explain. "We have to go back around."

He seems euphoric to just be able to rest.

"12 GREAT SMALL PRESS BOOKS." Some intriguing finds here.
A SWEET KID stands in a snowfall and talks about same-sex attraction and sacrifice for Christ. I like especially the shy little sidelong glances he sneaks toward the crucifix, taking encouragement from the sight of it. Via Mark Shea.
"YOU'RE NO BOTHER TO ME AT ALL." Via Jesse Walker.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

IT'S A WISE CHILD...: Saturday night I watched The Return (Возврашение), a recent Russian flick in which two boys go on a camping trip with their recently-returned, long-estranged father and his dark secrets. It's a small movie which punches far above its weight class due to the very true-to-life performances of the two boys, whose relationship undergoes multiple shifts in power dynamics over the course of the movie, and to the color-drenched cinematography. Russia looks just gorgeous here, alive and young and scary. The movie is shot in a way I realized I associate with contemporary horror movies: Everything is bleached or drenched, lots of sickly yellows and drained grays and deep, plush blues. The textures are so finely-notched that you can feel them under your fingertips.
THE BLOGGER AT "THE GROOM'S FAMILY" wants you to ask her anything about the intersection of Jews and Christianity! Personally I'd be interested in her take on Christianity in Jewish Terms, a very pomo essay collection from which I got much more theological meat than I expected.
WHILE LOOKING FOR SOMETHING FOR THE PREVIOUS POST, I found this really nice description of the cinematography in Martha Marcy May Marlene:
I could go on and on about the precise little steps the story takes in doling out, and not doling out, information, or the way the lovely camerawork always seems to be sinking forward as if we're being sucked into an abyss, or the way the background's focus is always fuzzy but not really in a dreamy way, more like a concussion, more like the world beyond the immediate senses is closed off and unreachable, or the way it clicks together piece after piece until the puzzle we're staring at in the very end is simultaneously incompressible and horribly fathomable, to but I don't want to spoil anything for anybody where this wonderful movie's concerned.

I WOULD RATHER NOT GO BACK TO THE OLD HOUSE: I have a post at the spoilerous blog, comparing the endings of Silent House and Veronica Mars season one.
Life is melodramatic, if you look at the whole sweep of it!
--one of the girls from Metropolitan, which I saw tonight for the first time

Thursday, March 22, 2012

...Because the expected answer to this question is always a type of job, it reinforces the idea that the way to find identity and value is through career. Our society is already saturated with messages that the title on your business card is directly connected to your worth as a human being. When kids are bombarded by the questions about which job they’ll eventually hold, it trains them to view adult life through the lens of their place in the workforce.

Similarly, it undermines the concept of vocation. Recently I saw a coloring book where kids could choose to decorate the picture that represented what they wanted to be when they grew up. Among the options were a nurse, a lawyer, a veterinarian, a police officer, a firefighter, and a mom. It was disturbing to see the fruits of a worldview that has no understanding of the difference between a vocation and a job, with motherhood listed alongside ways to get a paycheck. And when a child is constantly encouraged ponder her future career—with the issue posed, as it often is, as one that will define her life—it channels her discernment efforts toward whether she wants to be a musician or a teacher, rather than the more important question of whether she’s called to married life or religious life.


ETA: I like this comment!
I’m all for abolishing “what do you do?” from the grown-up lexicon. When an adult find themselves unemployed, underemployed or in a dead-end job, or even someone who owns their own business and severely struggling, it’s a very uncomfortable conversation stopper.
but for kids? Why that would wipe out the beautiful opportunities for children to respond to “What do you want to be when you grow up?” with, “An octopus!” or “A dinosaur.”
We can’t have that!
COLOR PHOTOS OF AMERICAN CHILDREN, 1940S. Via Flavorwire. Last one is my favorite.

Friday, March 16, 2012

A FOOTNOTE on Spinoza and The New Jerusalem. And Unequally Yoked has one post on it so far. (In the latter case, linking is not endorsing! I would not frame most of these issues the way UY does.)
THREE MYTHS ABOUT THE CHURCH TO GIVE UP FOR LENT. From the unimportance of monsignors to the crucial witness of martyrs. I'd say 95% of public discussion of Catholicism in this country assumes the truth of all of these myths.

(Also, if PG Wodehouse shuffled back onto this mortal coil, I'd like to think his next book would be called The Unimportance of Monsignors.)
PRAYING THE ROSARY THROUGH ART: Crisis has posted the entire series. Really, really nice choices. The joyful mysteries; sorrowful; glorious.
It was getting late
with the warm fuzz
of the wine
well worked into our minds
when the first sign
of the Kingdom of Heaven
in a back room
with only the paid help
as witnesses
and the quality
of the gift
passing unnoticed
because of our

--"The Jesus Poems: Cana," by this guy

Thursday, March 15, 2012

"THE SECRET OF NIMH": A Kindertrauma tribute!
"THE DEATH-HAUNTED ART OF FRIENDSHIP": Catholic Lane has been generous enough to let me do a whole series on this topic! The introductory installment is here. Please do let me know if there's something I should be sure to look at or something you'd especially like me to touch on.
OCCAM'S RAZOR IS THE WORST RAZOR! Some thoughts on revisiting The New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza, which has been revived at the DCJCC's Theater J and will play through April 1. My review of the original production is here, so these are just some scattered additional notes. (Oh, and here's a post about a Philadelphia production, over at The Groom's Family!)

First, the play is still fantastic, Alexander Strain is still ridiculously compelling despite playing a guy who is kind of a jackass (albeit a jackass under unbearable pressure), and they've toned down the cartoonishness of Rebecca a bit, which I doubt will pacify the people who didn't like her character the first time around.

I still don't understand why Spinoza is so in love with simplicity. Why is a belief, a God, a proposition, or an argument better because it is simpler than other possibilities? Why force a cube-shaped faith on a mountain-shaped world?

The focus on simplicity or unity, along with the strange, unsettling paeans to philosophy as a love with no beloved (or in which the beloved is totally unable to love you back), made me feel like this was all just backsliding into Platonism. Didn't we try this already?

Last time I'm not sure I noticed that both Spinoza and his Gentile Juliet, Clara, do the adolescent thing where they think they're in love with you because you deserve it so much. Everything about Spinoza's pedestal love of Clara is done so well--it's painfully endearing, it's totally wrongheaded, it's relatable, and it captures at least half of the problems with his philosophy. Plus Strain uses his voice really well, shifting perfectly from the ringing tones of the confident genius to a rougher, lower, more intimate register with Clara.

One benefit to the philosopher of having a definite, obligatory community is that he has to deal with everyone's questions, even the ones he doesn't like or see the point of. The Jewish community, because it includes so many people who are totally unlike Spinoza, can provoke and challenge him in a way that a community made up solely of his friends or equally-intelligent philosophers could not. (This, by the way, was one major failing of the "talk back" panel afterward, in which Leah Libresco very ably moderated two academic philosophy-types. We didn't get to talk back! It was insufficiently Jewish--specifically Jewish questions weren't raised at all, actually--and since the audience, full of feisty old Jews, didn't get to ask questions, the panelists were able to stick to their own preferred topics and approaches.)

Spinoza at one point comes very close to echoing this gnomic utterance of the squid!

I was weirdly reminded of this article about David Foster Wallace's use of popular self-help books and his fight against what in AA circles is called "terminal uniqueness" and which I think is called by Catholics spiritual pride. Spinoza by the end of this play has been through many shattering experiences: his father's death, his realization that he will die young of tuberculosis, and then the awful events of the play itself. But the thing is, none of the suffering or humiliation he undergoes happens because he's wrong, or in the wrong. That at least he's spared. And so in the end, when he thanks the congregation (aka us the audience) for what he's gained from what he's been put through, even this is not a gesture of full humility.

So. That's what the play made me think about. What about you?
BODY AND SOUL: What makes the difference between a tradition and a cliche?

Sucker Punch, at the Studio Theater through April 8, is your basic boxing movie translated to 1980s race-riot Britain. This is definitely not a criticism! The play is full of life and although its situations are all ones we've seen before, they feel completely fresh and new.

This is a story about the temptations of success, the pull of communal loyalty, the inevitable destruction of youthful hopes, and the waste and pity of violent, thwarted masculinity. So... it's a boxing movie, is what I'm saying. A terrific one. Predictable (the broken-down white coach has a drinking problem) yet still able to take the audience on an emotional journey. I heard actual sniffles by the end. The climactic fight scene, staged in slow-motion, is incredibly intense and physical. The actors are all fantastic--I'm pretty sure the only one I'd seen before was Dana Levanovsky, one of the stars of That Face. This is a raw, real play, and if it works familiar territory... isn't that where most of our lives are led?

I immediately thought of Wesley Hill's book (not Catholic but we will overlook that for the moment) and less-immediately thought of two kids' books I loved, The Satanic Mill and The Wicked Enchantment. I wrote about them in an old piece which is very flawed but with whose basic thesis I still agree, here. (The 2009 date is when it was reprinted--I'm pretty sure it was originally written in 2002.) Other books I'd push: Kathy Shaidle's Lobotomy Magnificat, Tim Powers's Declare, and Alan Bray's The Friend. You guys doubtless have your own candidates!
[T]here is no progress in love. It will always be a surprise.
--from Pascal Bruckner's new book, The Paradox of Love, reviewed here; want to pay me to review this?

Sunday, March 11, 2012

HONEY, IT'S LATE, TIME TO PUT THE CLOUD OUTSIDE. Via Jesse Walker. I think actually the windows are my favorite part, but the indoor cloud is great too.
In no well-regulated community, under a proper system of police, could the Virgin feel at home, and the same thing may be said of most other saints as well as sinners.
--Henry Adams, according to this guy

Saturday, March 10, 2012

INSEPARABLE: I review A Separation for First Things. Please take their headline lightly (otherwise it's pushier than I intended), and I should have proofread this piece better! But the main thing is that this is a terrific movie which you all should see if you get a chance... if you like depressing familial naturalism, I guess. Yours 'til the kitchen sinks etc etc.
MY AMCONMAG ARTICLE ABOUT THE CULTURE OF FEAR OF DIVORCE is online! Like I said, I'm basically happy with how this turned out.
If America has endured a “divorce revolution” since California passed no-fault divorce in 1969, we’ve now entered the counterrevolutionary phase. Divorce rates have fallen from their peak in the early ’80s, the deep pain often felt by children of divorce is openly acknowledged, and young Americans typically express both fear and a moral horror at divorce. They are determined not to repeat the mistakes of previous generations; avoiding divorce is a constant anxiety, even obsession.

But as with most purely reactionary cultural movements, the revolt against divorce has been much better at targeting what it rejects than figuring out what it’s for. In a strange, sad twist, the divorce counterrevolution has only weakened our marriage culture more.

Here are three things we’ve ignored as we make divorce (and divorced people) the scapegoat for broader problems of family breakdown.

THE COMMENT SECTION FOR EVERY ARTICLE EVER WRITTEN ABOUT PETA. Yes, it goes 0 to Israel in 60 seconds; and there's much, much more. Via Rod Dreher.
SCOTS WITH STICKS COME. Scots with stocks come. Scots with sticks and stocks and glocks come.

Via Unequally Yoked.
IT'S A LONG ROAD FOR A BOX OF CHOCOLATES: Words from a champion... skier? Possibly a skier. I don't sport.
...All of this means it’s the ideal occasion for the “Long Road” speech. As in, it’s a long road we’re traveling, people. As parents cheering from the sidelines we can’t help but want our kids to succeed at everything they do, on every outing. We understand that real progress is often a barely perceptible crawl, and that what we really want for our kids is long term success in life, not in a silly sporting event. But still, we secretly hope for success every time. Wouldn’t it be easier to just have the good days and put off the agony of defeat indefinitely, or at least until adulthood?

I can say from experience that the fantasy of child stardom is not all its cracked up to be. The pros are, of course, an early sniff of glory and an instant endorphin hit of success. Up into my early teens I won every ski race I entered. I fell and got up, and won. My boots got stolen from the car so I borrowed a friend’s mother’s boots, and won. A big kid in ski boots stepped on my bare toes and broke them the day before a race, and the next day I won. You get the picture. Yay me.

But then one day, I didn’t win. And I kept not winning, like it was my new job, until it felt my world had crumbled. I had three close friends who resided solidly in my rear view mirror during my young days of untrammeled fabulousness. All three of them scooted past me and made their ways on to the US Ski Team while I ground my gears. They were teaching me the lesson I had taught them long ago—that sooner or later you’ll get your butt kicked, so you’d better know how to deal with it. I did not appreciate the lesson. ...

Not that true success has anything to do with “making it” in a sport or not. There is no “it”, no achievement that confers success on you. It really is all about finding what matters to you and going after it with all you’ve got. How often do we get to do that?

The long-term view is a very tough perspective for a young person to have. One kid going through an exceptionally frustrating bout of character building summed it to his parents as follows: “I know that this is making me a better person. But right now it sort of sucks.”

He’s right. And there’s no way around it. Dwelling on disappointment is neither healthy nor productive, but disappointment in itself isn’t such a bad thing. It means you have some skin in the game. Coaches and parents may seem to be discrediting the right to be disappointed, and diluting the value of a competitive spirit with default comments like “just have fun,” and “keep smiling.” I still cringe a bit when I interpret those words as admonishments. But as a quasi grown up, I get the broader intent, the reminder to keep your eye on the bigger prize, on enjoying the process. Enjoy the things you get from having the dream, making the effort and going out each day with a goal to get just a little better.

The House of Life,

An avarice
of sleep. Of bright

Had tender eyes,
the demoiselle
of dusk.

Rehearsing love,
the beads of avenir.


Wednesday, March 07, 2012

"DEAR EVE TUSHNIK...." I feel like I shouldn't enjoy this as much as I do. Via Mark Shea.
"THE GUILTY CAN FORGIVE--THE INNOCENT TAKE REVENGE!" Before the first movie in the National Gallery of Art's Robert Bresson series started, we were warned that it was uncharacteristically melodramatic. Maybe that's why I liked it so much! I find Bresson's "mature" style emotionally battened-down to the point of catatonia, and it's really hard for me to get on board with his work, whereas in the early movie Les Anges du Péché (The Angels of Sin--!!!) I was totally engaged and found the characters and their dilemmas really compelling.

The movie takes place in a convent of nuns whose special charism is ministry to women in prison. Many of the nuns are ex-cons themselves. There's fierce Mother St. John, a hard-bitten but deeply humble lady who reserves her tenderness for her cat; well-meaning Anne-Marie, a daughter of privilege with all the self-involved stupidity privilege can breed, but also with a sort of springtime sunniness of nature which evokes empathy even as you want to shake her; Therese, a convict to whom Anne-Marie feels a special and intense pull; and the Mother Superior, working to exercise leadership in a hothouse world of gossip and point-scoring disguised as spiritual direction.

Therese, wrongfully convicted of a crime committed by her lover, speaks the line I used as the post title (which is a better way of describing my problem with Silent Hill, as well!), and the treatment of forgiveness in the movie is rich and insightful. The nuns' humility, pride, complicity, sincerity all come through clearly. The movie has a few noir touches or sequences but is mostly straightforward drama. If you like Dostoevsky and also nuns, you should give this a spin.
THE BOOKS OF "AMONG OTHERS." I've read maybe 28 of these, but my real interest is in the changing--often sublimely weird--conventions for sci-fi pulp paperback covers. Via Jesse Walker.
Lent is a penitential season, but also an invitation to a closer intimacy with God. The Pentateuch presents the forty years of wilderness wandering as a punishment for unbelief, but the prophets offer a startling complementary vision of the desert as a privileged time of intimacy between God and Israel, a romantic season in which God wooed Israel as his bride (Jeremiah 2:2, Hosea 2:16).

The two aspects are inseparable; the time of privileged closeness to God must also be a penitential experience of wilderness wandering.

One night in his study with brandy in one hand and a cigar in the other, [my father] asked quietly, "Do you honestly think, my daughter, that dancing has progressed since the time of the Greeks?"

"No," I replied snappily. "Do you think you write any better than Euripides?" That ought to hold him, I figured.

He looked at me long and slow. "No, my dear," he said, "but we have Euripides' plays. They have lasted. A dancer ceases to exist the minute she sits down."

As Father spoke I understood death for the first time. I was a child of fourteen but I realized with melancholy that oblivion would be my collaborator no matter how fine my work.

--Agnes de Mille, "The Swan," in Dance to the Piper

Saturday, March 03, 2012

...On Sunday evening, Jan. 29, in Germantown, Fowler called his flock together to confess, forgive and repent corporately in a special service he called "Grace Applied."

"We have prayed so long for this service," Fowler began as hundreds of past, present and future church members and leaders filled the seats of the worship center. "Your Holy Spirit has prepared the hearts of many, many people who have a desire to be here tonight."

Fowler had prepared for the service by writing a declaration of confession and forgiveness for the congregation to read aloud together. He also set the stage with three chairs, three basins of water and three white towels.

Fowler introduced three special guests and asked them to join him on stage.

more, via GetReligion (I have no idea what the backstory is here!)
A reader writes in response to Thursday’s post, “Why Are They Here?”:

I feel that I am a faithful Catholic- attend Mass, pray regularly, try to follow the Church in all things. But I fall short on this with one issue- I do disagree about the Church’s stance on homosexuality and gay marriage. My beloved sister is a lesbian, is married (in her state and in the Episcopalian church) to her partner of 15 years. They have 2 beautiful children. I have prayed over this issue, talked to my priest, talked to my husband, read extensively. I know intellectually that what I feel goes against Church teaching. But I cannot/ do not look at what my sister is doing as wrong. I’m happy she found someone she loves to spend her life with. I love her children, and I’m so happy that they exist. My sister and her partner are raising them wonderfully.


So, in a way, I could understand where some of those posters on Jezebel are coming from. Sometimes conservative Catholic bloggers will talk about how they struggled with a Church teaching, but the post always ends with how they changed, and saw the light, and saw the truth and beauty in the Church’s teachings. But what are you supposed to do when that doesn’t happen?

more; comments are a mixed bag but there's some stuff I think my readers would appreciate there too
The memory of the martyrs has historically played an important role in the Christian imagination. It is extremely important that the martyrs not be sentimentalized. They are not always especially good, virtuous, or innocent folk. Ironically, to idealize the martyrs, or victims generally, is to rob them of their common humanity. What makes murder so terrible is not that the victims are virtuous, but that it is murder, the taking of human life in contravention of the law of God. By analogy, we might also say that what constitutes a martyr is not necessarily possession of the Christian virtues, although many martyrs have possessed these in abundance, but rather his or her witness to Jesus Christ. Indeed, William Cavanaugh argues that it is not so much a person’s subjective intention that makes him or her a martyr — motives may well be ambiguous — as simply the church’s recognition of a life that shows forth the reality of Jesus. Paradoxically, the death of the martyr serves as a confirmatory sign that the world belongs not the principalities of the present age, but to God.
--Joseph Mangina, but I found it here