Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

Magic is one of those muddled issues for Christians where contradictions and hypocrisy rear their ugly heads. In my previous post, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Hell Burns, magic was placed in the ugly category with nudity, sex, and violence. The reason the category is “ugly” and magic is included in it is that it has to do with questions of material in art – especially film and television – to which there does not seem to be a clear answer. In her review of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the issue of magic receives this treatment. Unlike nudity, sex, and violence, however, the answer concerning magic is not that hard. “As Christians, we know that NO magic is good magic or so-called ‘white magic,’ or ‘natural’ magic like Wicca. Sorcery is not make-believe. It’s real, comes from ‘below,’ and is never to be used, even for ‘the good.'” I say the world needs more magic.

Gandalf

In his book, Looking for God in Harry Potter, John Granger explains that there are two kinds of magic: invocational and incantational. Invocational magic is that which calls upon other “powers”: think the occult and other forms that invoke the assistance of a demon. Incantational magic on the other hand does not call upon anyone, but is a magic in tune with the world. Keeping this real distinction in mind is fundamental for addressing the issue of magic in stories and the spiritual influence of those stories on their audience.

When Harry Potter burst onto the scene there was an outcry among Christians that it was Satanic because of the prevalence of magic – all the main characters and most of the supporting characters were witches and wizards, and students went to a school of “witchcraft and wizardry”. Magic in itself is identified as evil because magic is condemned in Scripture, the books were condemnable due to their use of magic, and allowing children to read the books and watch the movies would endanger them by opening them to the occult. Concerning the debates between Christians who condemn the books and Christians who affirm their good qualities while saying we need to teach our children the dangers of the occult, Sr. Helena says,

I’m somewhere in the middle on this, because HP presents the use of magic BY young people in such a modern and compelling way, that it seems to me extra precautions need to be taken. However, if I were a parent, I would definitely accompany my child through this cultural phenomenon (allowing them to read/watch), not because it’s “inevitable,” but because I would want my kids to be equipped to reach the culture, their peers with the Gospel, and that would mean engaging WITH the culture.

She then goes on to list some of the virtues found in Harry Potter and lessons it teaches. The problem is that there is no need to view the books and movies with suspicion due to magic, nor to turn them into mere tools for engaging the culture. The books can be read for enjoyment, enrichment, and, yes, even growth in our life in Christ. Would such a statement as Sister’s be said of The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia? Many of the Christians who denounce Harry Potter because of its magic are avid readers of both Narnia and the Ring trilogy. Those who affirm Lewis and Tolkien, but reject Rowling as dangerous have never been able to explain why the former are good and the latter is dangerous when magic is so prevalent in all of them. They are not able to do this because they agree with Sister’s statement given above – “that NO magic is good.” But to believe this while upholding Lewis and Tolkien is hypocrisy. Fortunately, Mr. Granger does answer the question and he answers it quite well. Rowling’s work can be enjoyed in the same way as Lewis and Tolkien’s precisely because the magic is incantational, not invocational. So let’s get into why this distinction is so vitally important and truly does make a difference.

First, the difference between incantational and invocational magic is not of the typical categories of white versus black magic. In schemes that use so-called white and black magic, they are of the same type. Invocational and incantational magic are of two completely different types. Second, invocational magic is condemned in Scripture and is intrinsically evil. It calls upon demons so as to work their various machinations. It calls upon persons (not just impersonal powers) beyond our world. It is also important to note that invocational magic is quite “real, comes from ‘below,’ and is never to be used, even for ‘the good.'” In every instance of magic being used in Scripture, it is this type of magic. Incantational magic on the other hand is not condemned in Scripture for a very simple reason – it’s not real. But even if incantational magic were real would it be condemned by Holy Writ? I do not think so for incantational magic is sacramental.

Incantational means literally ‘to sing along with’ or ‘to harmonize.'” (Granger, 5) So what exactly is being sung with or harmonized? Creation. As human beings we already do this. We participate in God’s creative act in multiple and varied ways. We use the stuff of creation to do extraordinary things. Some do this for good and to the glory of God; others abuse the good and act in opposition to God. The determining factor for good or evil is not the creative stuff which we use, but in how we use it and the purpose for which we use it. The thing (creation) in itself is good as God declared it to be. Incantational magic is part of creation. In the various mythologies in which it is present, be it that of Lewis, Tolkien, Rowling, or any other of the fantasies from Christian writers throughout the centuries, magic is done by way of forces already present within creation. Just as we can harness various forces today such as gravity, so too could Gandalf, “a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor,” harness that mythical force in his battle against the Balrog. This is where we begin to touch on the sacramentality of incantational magic.

The world itself is a sacrament. Creation was not just pronounced good; it was also sanctified through the Incarnation and Paschal Mystery. Just as man is made of the stuff of the earth, so too did the Son of God take on the stuff of the earth when he took our humanity onto Himself. The truth, goodness, and beauty of creation point to God, draw us to Him, and become a point of encounter with Him. It only does this though if one looks upon it in wonder. Wonder over the creative work of the Lord is something that we have been losing for centuries in the West. In the materialist worldview, creation has been de-sacramentalized. It is not creation; it is simply something that is, a thing that could have been or not have been, with no purpose, no ordered end, or meaning. In the utilitarian worldview, creation is something to be harnessed and used simply as we see fit. It is a mere tool to be used for whatever ends we desire. At the other extreme, mankind is looked upon as a cancer that needs to be cut from the world. From this perspective, the world itself is seen as something other. One view idolizes man, the other idolizes nature.

We need to regain a sense of wonder, a wonder of the divine, of the work of redemption, and of the work of creation. In a previous post on the importance of the fantastic and grotesque in literature, I spoke of the way in which fantasy literature helps restore “a true sense of the natural wonder of God’s creation.” G.K. Chesterton expresses this well in Orthodoxy when he says, “[Fairy tales] make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.” In addition to these little changes pertaining to material, size, creatures, etc., a strong component of fantasy literature restoring a sense of wonder is the presence of magic. As mentioned above, this magic is part of creation. In his essay, “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien says that “it is man who is, in contrast to fairies, supernatural; whereas they are natural, far more natural than he. Such is their doom.” Harry Potter uses incantational magic and its use of such magic inspires the kind of wonder that Chesterton and Tolkien speak of. When watching Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, there is a childlike wonder and happiness one experiences with Harry and Jacob as they are introduced to the magical world, one that is not beyond their own, but is quite naturally part of it. Sr. Helena expresses reservations about magic being done “BY young people in such a modern and compelling way,” but that is exactly the point – it is the connection with the real that elicits wonder in the real.

Narnia lamppost

In addition to fostering a sacramental view of the world, there is also a moral dimension to these stories and magic. In all of them, there is a connection between the world and people. The presence of incantational magic in fantasy literature does not just address the material worldview, but also the utilitarian. The good guys are good, the bad guys are bad, and it is precisely through the various uses of magic and power that this is shown. There are consequences to how and for what purpose magic is used. People’s choices really mean something and carry weight later in the story. There is trial, redemption, rebirth, pain, and all the other joys and sorrows that mark human life. In a materialistic, utilitarian world where aborted babies are sold for profit and research, people are used for immoral experiments, insurance companies offer suicide pills instead of treatment, and men and women sale their bodies for consumerism, perhaps we could do with a little more of the wonder and inspiration of magical stories such as Harry Potter.

 

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

I was recently introduced to the blog of Sr. Helena Burns, fsp, Hell Burns (I do love a good sense of humor). Sr. Helena specializes in the theology of the body and reviews films through that lens. I have many of the reviews linked below. Check it out.  Unfortunately, in the final analysis, I do not think Sister and I can be friends; she did call Blade Runner 2049 a “blistering disappointment” after all. Joking aside, Sr. Helena provides much thought-provoking commentary which can be divided into the good, the bad, and the ugly.

the good

THE GOOD

The following are links to reviews that I especially liked: Ex Machina, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Revenant, Silver Linings Playbook, Warm Bodies, Here Comes the Boom, The King’s Speech, Sherlock Holmes, and District 9. There were other reviews she wrote that could easily be added to this list, so the list I have included here is an exercise of restraint on my part. It also presents a diversity of movies and her surprise toward some of them. Nothing else to say on my part. Why add to what has already been said well?

the bad

THE BAD

After reading her review, I’m not sure what was blisteringly disappointing about Blade Runner 2049, and the issues raised deserve a little more consideration than they were given. I found the movie to be thoughtful and respectful of the story that came before. A driving question in this film is what makes us human. While the materialist framework for the question was wholly inadequate this did not bother me for two reasons: First, it was expected. Second, the inability of a materialist to truly work with the kind of questions being posed reveals the inadequacy of the position itself, prompting a broader consideration of the question. Regardless of what one thinks of the movie, in an age of writers/directors making prequels and sequels that utterly ignore the story that has been entrusted to them, 2049 is a rare light of filmmaking humility rather than the self-aggrandizing egoism that pocks the Hollywood landscape.

I am completely dumbfounded by the review of Noah. Sister simply gushes over this movie, calling it “the best Bible movie ever made” and “the ultimate example of ‘cinema divina.'”

Jack Black - I can't even

She insists upon this from exercising “a Judeo-Christian read of ‘Noah’. And it almost totally works.” Um, no, it doesn’t. It honestly worries me a little that someone of Sr. Helena’s background has embraced this movie so whole-heartedly. She says, “Sadly, it seems Catholics don’t know their Bible well enough to critique this film.” I wonder, however, if such a statement is a rock which can be thrown back. The film does seriously depart from the Noah story. You see, the (ahem) devil is in the details (the details of the story not the movie). Aronofsky’s handling of the character, Noah, and his relationship with God are abysmal. So important is Noah’s character and relationship to the story that to depart from this anchor is to radically change the story, which is exactly what Aronofsky did so horribly. In her review, Sister hardly addresses the radical change in Noah himself (such as his becoming homicidal) and confuses the mentioning of God throughout the movie for God permeating the movie. It’s one thing to be mentioned a lot; it is another to actually be there. Though “the Creator” was mentioned throughout the film, His presence was certainly lacking. My own review of Noah delves into both of these issues. It also fleshes out that ever-so-important detail that Aronofsky completely rolls over. You can read it HERE.

Other film reviews that make my bad list are AvatarTwilight (as well as Breaking Dawn, Part 2), and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. (An aside concerning Twilight: For anyone who enjoys the vampire mythos, a strong sacramental worldview, and questions that drive into the human and divine, I cannot recommend enough the very fine book, Jennifer the Damned. It was described to me as the antidote to Twilight and it is.)

the ugly

THE UGLY

Sr. Helena shines in the good, but it’s in the ugly that I particularly like her. These are the reviews where we wrestle with the truth that one size doesn’t fit all. Is all nudity and sex in films bad? Is all graphic violence bad? If not, when are they good and acceptable, even if they’re not necessary? What about those films with nudity, sex, and violence that don’t seem to fit the conditions of acceptability and yet don’t strike us as morally unacceptable? What of magic? What of guidelines for parents who want to exercise responsible guardianship as the primary educators of their children? None of these questions are easy, and it is some of these questions that I would like to look at in future posts. Sister here doesn’t give many straightforward answers. In my responses, I won’t either. But the question of the portrayal of the body in art – and especially in film and television – is so vitally important today that consideration must be given at the very least. Sister Helena does this from the perspective of the theology of the body. A more fundamental question, however, may be: “Are Christians capable of a right understanding of the theology of the body when they have grown up in a culture that is both hyper-sexualized and prudish?” Capable? Yes. Easily? Not by any stretch of the imagination. And this includes those who specialize in the theology of the body. It is for this reason the questions above are so difficult.

Some reviews that wrestle with these questions that I would like to look at in the future are: The Book of Eli (question of violence), Ex Machina (question of nudity), Game of Thrones (sex, nudity, violence, and magic), and Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince (question of magic). In the meantime, I hope you enjoy perusing Hell Burns.

 

Read Full Post »

In my previous post, I took Matthew Walther to task for his incredibly poor attempt to show why Game of Thrones is bad for our souls. To be clear, I do not take issue with his not liking the show or with his thinking it is spiritually dangerous. I know good Catholics, well-educated in the faith who watch the show, and I know good Catholics, well-educated in the faith who think the show immoral. The goodness or evilness of any show or book with widespread mass appeal is certainly a question worth pursuing. Additionally, the point of my response was not to defend Game of Thrones; it was to show that Mr. Walther had utterly failed in his attempt to identify the show as obscene and, therefore, as bad for us. If someone wants to argue for the show’s obscenity, please do, but do so intelligently.

Normally, I ignore such poorly reasoned diatribes. This one, however, kept gnawing at me. Yes, it disturbs me that someone who writes something so thoughtless and devoid of Catholic life apparently has some degree of influence on the thought and attitudes of many Catholics. (I saw the article because a former peer with a master in theology thought it was fit to share on social media. I have since learned that Mr. Walther also writes for the Catholic Herald and the National Catholic Register). However, this disturbance doesn’t explain the reason for my reaction being so visceral. It was personal. His words cut to my heart. His words were an implicit attack on something fundamental to my faith: the mystery of the human and Divine, and the encounter of the two. Literature was a key factor in my truly opening up to this mystery, but literature only became so in the light of Catholic faith. And it was Catholic authors such as G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien and Flannery O’Connor who revealed this to me. When Mr. Walther attacked Faerie and the grotesque in literature, he attacked a key factor in my life of faith. My previous response was superficial. It was a sufficient response because Mr. Walther’s own piece was superficial, no depth was required to answer him. However, the problems his piece implicitly raised concerning a proper understanding of faith and literature merit their own attention. In this post, I aim to provide a starting point for consideration.

Mr. Walther takes issue with the fantasy genre and the grotesque (which he immediately labels as obscene). He bemoans the lack of realism in much literature and film today, and considers dramas that deal with “morals, manners, marriage, and money” to be the stuff of emotionally mature adults, over and against the “nerd” created dramas of dragons, monsters, and magic. Such an attitude takes life out of art and strangles faith.

In her essay, “The Grotesque in Southern Fiction”, Flannery O’Connor speaks of the drive within our society that stories be realistic. The literary critics of her time meant the stories should accurately depict what is typical, the ordinary day-to-day life. Readers should be able to identify with the protagonist from their own ordinary experiences. The literati also said that stories should have social impulses, speaking to our times with its own particular social and psychological questions. There is a place for this. To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman are examples of wonderful literature that meet the critics’ criteria. Flannery O’Connor, however, is not that type of writer. She states that she is often accused of not giving an accurate depiction of life in Georgia. The reason, of course, is that she is not trying to, at least not on the surface of the matter. She depicts a deeper realism in her writing – a realism that is perennial, which goes beyond the mere psychological and particular social conditions of the time. Her realism is the divine penetration of humanity. It is exactly at this point that the grotesque enters into Flannery’s writing. (See my previous post for examples of this). We are fallen and we live in a fallen world. There is a darkness that has entered our hearts and the world. How else is the penetration of the Divine into this darkened world and our darkened hearts to be depicted other than as the quiet whisper that in its omnipotence works through our sin, not despite it? Flannery O’Connor’s stories are the literary illustration of John 1:5, a testament of hope.

Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O’Connor: Story-teller of Divine Hope

(Click HERE for a reading of the complete essay by Ms. O’Connor, herself).

This use of the grotesque in literature is not limited to a specific genre. For instance, it can be used in fantasy, that genre to which Game of Thrones belongs and on which Mr. Walther appears to look down. While the grotesque is capable of fostering an encounter with the Divine, the fantasy genre is capable of unfurling the magic of creation before us. A wonder of the mystery of creation is as important as a proper understanding of the encounter of the human and Divine for a right faith. And this must be an actuality of the heart for right faith to be rightly lived. J.R.R. Tolkien had a breathtaking awareness of the unfathomable depths and richness of creation, and he says much concerning the connection of fairy-stories (of which fantasy is a type) to the mystery of creation in his essay, “On Fairy-stories”. This rather long essay has a plenitude of rich fertile material. There is much in it that relates to a few things Mr. Walther tossed in the air. However, as I stated in my previous post, it is not for us to juggle that for which he is not willing to take responsibility. As tempting as it is to dive into the sea of wonder found in Tolkien’s essay, we must abbreviate our examination of the connection between fantasy and creation.

Often times people think of elves and other such folk as supernatural. This is wrong. In contrast to fairies, it is man who is supernatural; fairies are “far more natural than he. Such is their doom.” And in a fallen world doom it is. The dwindling of Faerie, the diminishing of elves and other such creatures belonging to the fairy realm, is not unusual in fantasy. This is the way in The Lord of the Rings and Hell Boy for example. Their dwindling always corresponds with the increasing of man. In this we see the evidence that Faerie is far more natural than man and man is far more supernatural because in this we see the truth revealed by God in the early chapters of Genesis. After the Fall, man continued to increase and multiply, and progressively became more corrupt and ruined God’s creation in the building and spreading of cities. As we move further from God so to do we move further from creation; as we rebel against our Creator, also do we rebel against the stuff from which we were formed. But this is not natural to us. Despite all we do the inclination of our hearts our primal desire is for communion with God and with all living things in Him. Fantasy assists in achieving the satisfaction of this primal desire by drawing us back to nature, to a world more real than the “real world”. How?

Fantasy is that form of art that expresses the “notions of ‘unreality’” (those imagined things not of our world) with “the inner consistency of reality.” When this is done successfully it has an “arresting strangeness.” The arresting strangeness is fantasy’s advantage and disadvantage. It is disadvantageous because people do not like being arrested. They do not like to be jolted from their stupor and monotony, whether it is the monotony of the same thing every day or the monotony of finding a new thing every day. But it is precisely the arresting strangeness of fantasy that brings us out of our world and brings us into the real world. Indeed, this jolt allows us to escape. Escape is not desertion. It is not a coward’s run from Walther’s tried and true “morals, manners, marriage, and money.” No! It is a recovery of that which was lost, an amazement at that which has been familiar, and this results in conversion, of which, Evelyn Waugh said “is like stepping across the chimney piece out of a Looking-glass World, where everything is an absurd caricature, into the real world God made; and then begins the delicious process of exploring it limitlessly.” This recovery of a true sense of the natural wonder of God’s creation, this stepping out of a Looking-glass World enables us to see the beauty of the world. It also enables us to truly see the ugliness that we have done to it. Fantasy may very well be an escape, but only to open one’s eyes. Articulating this is difficult, so I will simply share my own experience:

There is a factory just south of my alma mater. I do not know what kind of factory, but being in steel country I always assumed it was that. It is quite large and quite ugly. The darkness of night does not hide it for it has many lights throughout, and there is a tall narrow tower at the top of which burns a flame. There was a clear view of it from my dormitory and the residents called the factory “Mordor” and the flame, of course, was the “Eye of Sauron”. The names, however, fall short for the place is in actuality a good deal uglier than Mordor and the flame less interesting and potent than the Eye of Sauron.

I would not have recognized the degree of ugliness if not for the fantasy that came from Tolkien’s mind and his act of “subcreation.” Without him and his work, I would have merely accepted the factory with mild disinterest. That the names fall short, draws our attention to another truth of fantasy: It cannot be more beautiful or more ugly than the world in which we live, but the otherness of it gives us the eyes to see our world. It does this because it is a story that images the Story.

This last point brings us back to the grotesque. The Story, which is the history of the world and its salvation, is quite gruesome, filled with much that is obscene, and quite disheartening. Then there is the unexpected joyous turn. Yet how difficult it is to see that joyous turn today when we are tossed and thrown in the storm of human degradation. It is no accident that the wanderer of the Fairy realm and the grotesque story-teller of Divine Hope were also able to say:

Tolkien on Eurcharist

O'Connor on Eucharist

Amen.

 

 

Read Full Post »

On July 11, The Week published a piece by Matthew Walther on why Game of Thrones is bad for you. Starting out, one gets the impression that Mr. Walther is an ass. Reading on, one begins to realize that there may be serious deficiencies in his understanding of the Catholic faith and its relation to culture and art, a deficiency that ultimately makes him a liability in the crisis of faith and culture.

He begins by being incredibly insulting to a particular group of people who have done nothing to merit such treatment other than, apparently, offending him with their existence. These would be “nerds” of the D&D and LARP variety. “Two decades ago, watching [Game of Thrones] would have gotten you shoved into a locker.” He isn’t surprised that the show exists or that it has many fans because “nerds have always overindulged – that’s what being a nerd means.” No, what he finds astonishing is that of the show’s 23 million viewers most of them are “adults, seemingly well-socialized, emotionally well-adjusted tax-paying contributors to our GDP.” (I guess nerds aren’t these things). He then asserts, “Popular culture in the English-speaking world is in the grips of a downward nerd-driven death spiral.” As proof of this, his exhibits are comic book movies, the average age of video game players, and that most Americans between the ages of 23-40 have only read Harry Potter and “a fable about talking animals they were assigned in middle school.” (I am in this age range and have no idea what fable he is talking about). Five paragraphs in and he has not yet said why Game of Thrones is bad for us (aside from simply stating that it is “ultra-violent wizard porn – and boring ultra-violent wizard porn at that”), and I’m scratching my head wondering what nerds ever did to him.

Aside from being an ass, there are a great many problems with Mr. Walther’s opinion piece: one is his penchant for throwing things in the air and then walking away. His labeling of Game of Thrones as “boring ultra-violent wizard porn” is just one example. He doesn’t offer any evidence for the veracity of that label. He continues to do this throughout his piece: label, accuse, state, walk away. There are times when it would seem that he offers evidence to support what he says, but all he does is give information without any consideration of its meaning. (We will be looking at one such instance). This makes his piece rather difficult to respond to. He throws many statements in the air leaving the responder to juggle them in a chaotic mess. Well, no one is obligated to reply to every little thing he throws up but isn’t willing to take responsibility for himself. This reply will limit itself to just one accusation and let the others fall.

Mr. Walther wants to convince his audience that Game of Thrones is bad for them, that it is bad for their souls. Halfway through the piece we finally come to his first and only reason given for holding this: “It is obscene.” For evidence, he offers his own thoughts after watching the second to last episode of the sixth season. They are not much. He merely points out many horrible characters and things that they have done: e.g. incest, pushing a boy out of a window, burning a girl in sacrifice to a god, a woman so tall and broad that bestiality jokes are made about her, a drunken abusive king, a man eaten by the dogs he cruelly treated, and a young woman who had been routinely raped by the man who was eventually eaten by his dogs. Of course, these examples are just the tip of the iceberg. In all of this, Mr. Walther says nothing about any of these things. Yes, they are horrible, but he gives no context. Does he offer a complete picture? Are there good characters, admirable characters? What of character development? Is there a purpose? How does all of this play into the overarching story ark? Is there any kind of foiling? What of conversion, redemption, self-knowledge, ascendency? After watching six seasons, he should surely be able to speak of these things, but he doesn’t. He merely lists some horrible people and horrible acts they have done. It seems that the act itself and the horridness itself is enough to make a story obscene and bad for your soul.

In this we find an incredible lack of depth in Mr. Walther’s thinking (or at the very least an incredible lack of skill in arguing). If this is all it takes to make something obscene then Sacred Scripture is obscene. The Holy Page is filled with genocide and other mass killings, child sacrifice, prostitutes, rape (both heterosexual and homosexual), polygamy, fratricide, heads being crushed or driven through, adultery, murder to cover up adultery, betrayal among brothers, slavery, gaining through deception, and all sorts of other uses and abuses. Need I go on? By Mr. Walther’s standard I’d have to conclude that Scripture is obscene and bad for our souls. We would also have to conclude that some of J.R.R. Tolkien’s and Flannery O’Connor’s works are obscene and bad for the soul. The Children of Hurin by J.R.R. Tolkien is filled with death and sorrow culminating in the suicide of the stories protagonist. This dark story includes incest and death at the hands of a friend. Flannery O’Connor’s stories are filled with the grotesque. Characters who are truly vile such as the man who indiscriminately murders an entire family (the little children included) or the man who marries an intellectually disabled young woman only to leave her in a diner far from home, who will be lost, confused, and hardly able to communicate when she wakes and finds herself alone. Then there are the people who could have prevented a man from getting crushed to death by a tractor, but say nothing and simply watch it happen because he didn’t fit in. An argument could probably be made that Flannery’s works are far more disturbing and depressing than Game of Thrones, and, yet, while she is grotesque, she is not obscene. Flannery O’Connor is one of the greatest Catholic authors of the 20th century. Her works are imbued with the mysteries of faith. But by Mr. Walther’s standard I’d have to conclude that her stories are bad for our souls.

Death of Jezebel

Is this gruesome scene from a medieval Bible manuscript or a comic book adaptation of “Game of Thrones”?

Game of Thrones may very well be obscene and bad for us. However, Mr. Walther has utterly failed to show this. He has failed so miserably that an argument for or against the T.V. show cannot be made in response to his article. All one can do is respond to his reasoning… or lack thereof. From reading Mr. Walther, we can’t really know anything about Game of Thrones, but we can know something about The Week: they employ an editor who thinks unreasoned rants are good journalism.

To be continued… HERE

Read Full Post »

Over at Bensonian there is a post from little more than a year ago on one’s personal canon and life author.  I thought it a fun exercise and decided to put my own together. The following list did not have a lot of thought go into it. It is made more from memory, impressions, and awareness of what I seem to go back to. My personal canon in no particular order:

  1. The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien
  2. The Ballad of the White Horse by G.K. Chesterton
  3. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
  4. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
  5. The Spirit of the Liturgy by Joseph Card. Ratzinger
  6. Flannery O’Connor, short stories
  7. Hugh of St. Victor, works
  8. Five Theological Orations, St. Gregory of Nazianzus
  9. The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton
  10. Ezra-Nehemiah

My life author is Cormac McCarthy.

And you?

 

Read Full Post »

Early in his pilgrimage through Hell, Dante (the character) is given a warning. It is a warning he does not heed and consequently a lesson he does not learn. If commentary on canto V of Inferno is any indication, it is also a lesson that we, the audience, have not learned and the consequences of this lesson-not-learned are reverberating throughout both the city of the world and of God.

Making his way from the first circle to the second, Dante and Virgil must pass by Minos, the infernal judge who determines which circle of Hell (and, consequently, which infernal punishment) the condemned will eternally suffer. He is Satan’s sorting hat.

 

Minos, infernal judge - Michelangelo

Michelangelo’s “Minos”

 

Minos gives a warning to Dante: “O thou! who to this residence of woe approachest!… Look how thou enter here; beware in whom thou place thy trust. Let not the entrance broad deceive thee to thy harm.” Being that the place is Hell, this warning of Minos seems rather obvious. But the road to Hell is very wide and turns where it will to our delight. It takes every advantage it may to play upon our mind and our heart, to sway our thoughts, our emotions, and our will. It blinds us so that we only see ourselves, and, in the swaying of our being to its infernal end, we justify ourselves.

Like all things, Minos’s warning has a context. That context is the canto in which he speaks, Canto V. After receiving this warning from Minos (and dismissing it), Dante and Virgil continue to the second circle of Hell: those who gave themselves to lust. Immediately, Dante is put to the test concerning the warning he received. Entering into Hell proper (as opposed to Limbo), he first meets Francesca and Paolo being swept in a perpetual tempest, never to have any rest. They are uncontrollably carried away in this evil storm just as they were carried away by their lust. Before meeting Francesca and Paolo, Dante describes what he saw and heard. Among what he heard were “blasphemies ‘gainst the good Power in Heaven” from the souls being endlessly tossed. He said that their reason was swayed by lust. They blasphemy the One who is Truth. As Virgil points out specific people, Dante becomes filled with pity. Heroes of old such as Achilles, Paris, and Tristan are identified as those “whom love bereaved of life”. These great men and women of old were undone by lust. It is telling though that Dante does not say that lust bereaved them of life, but rather love, and before he speaks to any of these poor souls he already pities them and is drawn in pity to them.

Dante now calls out in “strong affection” to a man and woman he sees clinging to one another in their hell. His strong affection moves them to break free temporarily from the tempest and speak with him. As they come, Dante describes them as doves with strong wings returning home to their “sweet nest”. He is swept up in the pathos of what he sees and portrays them as something they are not, innocent. When they come to him Francesca tells him their tale of woe, and he is so moved by what he hears and sees that “through compassion fainting… [he] fell to the ground.”

paolo-and-francesca 1

paolo and francesca 2

Francesca was married to Gianciotto and caught by him in an affair with his more handsome brother, Paolo. In his rage, Gianciotto killed them both. It is easy to sympathize with Francesca. She was young, her marriage was arranged, and she was married to a man who was not pleasing to look upon nor (one may infer) treated her well. With Paolo, she was able to form true affection through mutual interest and time spent together. Theirs is a sad and pitiable story. But sadness and pity do not change what is, and it is in this that Dante (the character) fell into the trap of which he had been warned.

Francesca and Paolo may not have been malicious in what they did and they may be pitiable, but none of that rights the wrong they committed. It is not truly about the wrong committed though; it is that they died unrepentant. Remember, they, with all the other souls ceaselessly driven by that devilish wind, “blasphemy ‘gainst the good Power in Heaven.” They blasphemy against the Truth. They do not call God friend (line 90) and they do not pray for Dante’s peace (line 91). Thrice Francesca invokes love: “Love, that in a gentle heart is quickly learnt… Love, that denial takes from none beloved… Love brought us to one death.” (102-105; emphasis mine) Her thrice invocation of love is a blasphemy in and of itself. By “love” she really means lust and by it thrice insults the Holy Trinity, Who is Love. Their story is a lie, told with enough twisted truth as to elicit pity from their hearer. And Dante was ready to lend his heart before ever he heard their tale.

Michelangelo foreshadows this in his representation of Minos shown above. He depicts not only Minos but also points to Francesca and Paolo through the mutilation of Minos’s genitals, the organ of lust, by the serpent. In Francesca and Paolo, we see “the entrance broad.” We also see ones in whom Dante has placed his trust. He trusts them through the lending of his ear and the sympathy of his heart.

The sins of the flesh produce great heartache and elicit great sympathy from people. We often find pitiable (and rightly so) people who find themselves in difficult situations because of the swaying of their heart toward lust. One reason we find these circumstances so pitiable is because lust is not what truly underlies them; there is more that underlies the lust such as sadness, pain, and fear. Yet these do not excuse a pitiable situation. And people in those situations should be encouraged to rise heroically to the universal call of holiness, rather than given allowance out of pity.

G.K. Chesterton said, “The next great heresy is going to be simply an attack on morality; and especially on sexual morality.” When we look at the world and its progression now for generations, when we look at the issue currently sending shockwaves through the Roman Church – that being the possibility of Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried – can we really doubt that Chesterton was right? We need to learn what Dante did not and heed, better than he, Minos’s warning.

Read Full Post »

 

Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee;
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou’art slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,                                                             And better then they stroake; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.

Read Full Post »

our-lady-of-carmel-saving-souls-from-purgatory-760x1024

Read Full Post »

This morning I came across an article on the Catholic origins of Halloween. Reading it, I was reminded that the three days of Oct. 31 to Nov. 2 are a reminder of Heaven, Hell, Purgatory (not respectively), and the four last things. A post, therefore, on the danse macabre seems rather appropriate with Halloween so near.

The danse macabre (dance of death) is a literary and artistic theme with strong roots in the late Middle Ages. Its precise emergence is debatable (perhaps the 13th century, perhaps earlier), but it was a common and powerful theme throughout much of Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. After waning during the Renaissance it re-emerged in the 19th century and continues in various depictions – including music and film – to our own day. The danse macabre is not only a reminder of our own death, but the death of all. In the eyes of death all are equal: one’s status, wealth, prestige, and talent is of no consequence where death is concerned.

4

2

albrecht-kauw-danza-macabra-1649

danse-macabre

vincent-de-kastav-1474

The two images below, separated by centuries, depict the same scene: a dance coming to its end. In the first image a soul is being lowered into their grave, their hand not grasping anyone else’s they are clearly separated now from the dance. The second image, however, has some significant differences. The first is that the person is being lowered into a hole which is definitely not a grave. The look of pain on the shrouded face coupled with a lowering into darkness is indicative not merely of a grave, but entering into hell. The person’s hand is also still holding on to the hands of those still in the dance: they are not simply going to their own graves, but will also be joining this person in eternal pain and anguish.

3

5

While images such as the first depicted above and the one at the end of this post remind us of the universality of death, some images such as the one below remind us of this more poignantly as well as of death’s perceived untimeliness.

6

In Western society (or at the very least American), the reality of death is something people actively try to avoid confronting. We don’t want to think about death and even less do we really want to think about what may possibly come after death. We comfort ourselves with all kinds of sayings: “They’re in a better place.” “God will see how good I am.” “They’re angels now watching over us.” We automatically assume that when someone dies they go to Heaven. We come up with excuses not to visit someone’s grave such as their being everywhere. And, yet, we fool ourselves because there is something so different about the grave that we dare not go! Instead of praying for them, we only celebrate them. It’s amazing to me how many people with all their faults are suddenly saints upon their death. Parents pass this on to their little ones. Children are kept from funerals because it will “freak” them out. They are not brought to grave sides to remember loved ones who have passed. This inability to confront death is then passed on to the next generation. For all our avoidance, death is all around us. It is an inescapable part of our life. It is for that reason that images focusing on the individual such as the child typically (at least for me) elicit a more emotional response.

This is also true of some images that come from another theme derived from danse macabre: death and the maiden.

death-and-the-maiden-hans-baldung-grien

The anguish on the woman’s face is palpable with hands clasped, pleading not to go down into darkness. Death has no pity here. He is rough, tugging her hair and indicating with his other hand where she must go. We do not know her story; only the sad culmination of her life.

death-and-the-maiden-marianne-stokes

Here we see a very different picture. Again, we are presented with a woman in the prime of her youth. She is surprised, obviously not expecting that her time had come, and pulls the blanket to herself – a defensive and modest gesture in response to her vulnerability. Death here is not rough. The raised hand is a calming gesture, the wing stretched to embrace her. The lantern will light the way to we do not know where. In this painting all that matters is the immediate moment of encounter with death.

There are, unfortunately, depictions of this theme that are perversions of the mystery of death rather than being a rumination. One of the reasons for this is the separation of danse macabre and death of the maiden from the context in which they originated: Christian Europe. For the Christian, death is not the end; it is not finality. Rather, it is a comma in life as it was so wonderfully stated by Dr. Evelyn Ashford in Wit. This view of death is not avoidance. It is not an expression of the sickness of society as seen above. No, this comes from viewing death in its proper context: the victory of Jesus Christ, it’s unbinding. The context is the Resurrection. But the Death and Resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ, is not a free pass. It is not something to be taken for granted and to be presumed upon. We are called to partake in the Paschal Mystery. We are called to take up our cross and be crucified with our Lord. It is through the dying of self and to the world in Christ that our physical death will bring Life. Without this previous dying our physical death will bring eternal death.

The inability of our society to confront and live with the reality of death points to just how sick our society has become. If we do not embrace death, we cannot embrace life – either here on Earth or after our departure. Today, perhaps more than ever in this country, we need images like those above. We need them urgently. We need them in our churches, our homes, and our schools. We need them to confront us with the mystery of death and what happens after. We need them to remind us of our hope in the Resurrection, rather than thinking it is something owed to us. So on Halloween enjoy the danse macabre in its varied depictions. Remember the reality of Hell and the wages of sin, and look forward in hope to Heaven. On the following day joyously celebrate that hope with all saints.

7

And just for a bit of fun…

 

Read Full Post »

Today I am assigning a Rosary project to my students. They will each need to put together a Rosary meditation using images and quotes on PowerPoint slides. It’s very simple. They choose a set of mysteries and devote one slide per mystery for the set they have chosen. Each slide has the name of the mystery, one image to depict that mystery, and one short quote. Usually when images accompany Rosary meditations they are depictions of the mystery itself. This is what I am modeling for my students and what I expect to see from most of them. However, I’m also going to show them examples of images that do not so much depict the mystery, but rather give a narrowed interpretation of the mystery. (I call this an interpretive image. This is not the best name, however, because all images are interpretive). It’s an interesting exercise. The advantage of the mystery itself being depicted is that it allows for greater freedom in what one may meditate upon concerning that mystery. The advantage of an “interpretive” image is that it brings our attention to an aspect of the mystery that we may have otherwise never thought of. The following are the examples I am giving to my students of interpretive images with accompanying quotes.

The Annunciation

mary-comforts-eve

I will make all things new.

The Institution of the Holy Eucharist

mary-and-eve

For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself. 

The Carrying of the Cross

christ-in-traffic

He took away our infirmities and bore our diseases. 

The Ascension

3

One short sleep past, we wake eternally, And death shall be no more, death, though shalt die. 

This last image more than the others requires a little explanation. It points more to the fruit of the mystery – hope – rather than the mystery itself. I was struck by the bleakness of the environment and the contrast of the girl’s interiority with it. Within her is light, warmth, joy, and life. Within her is hope.

 

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »