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Bubble Buster

That Letter From Elijah

The Epistle (ancient snail mail for readers who ain’t church geeks) for this Sunday is Romans 12:9-21.  I’ll include the whole text a few paragraphs down, with some commentary, after a short personal confession:

My immediate takeaway is how short I fall of this lesson’s call to humane, common sense, non “religious” (that is, not loaded with ceremonial or otherwise churchy jargon) behavior.

So it burst my personal bubble.  My easing into the morning over coffee stumbled into full blown confession of sin.  How little of the verse I apply, and how poorly I apply those parts at which I do endeavor.

bubblesPic snagged here.

Then I got to thinking about the “bubble” accusation that we all fling around gratuitously these days: White people in suburbs live in a bubble, college students live in a bubble, the mainstream media is a big bubble of the like minded, etc. etc.

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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.

 

 

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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

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Dr. David Mosley has a wonderful little reflection over at his blog, Letters from the Edge of Elfland. The view of our time concerning the Middle Ages is skewed largely by prejudice and ignorance. There is also, understandably, a great failure of people today to interpret things medieval as the medievals did. This leads to greater misconceptions and general aversion to the Middle Ages. We interpret them through our lens rather than their lens and, hence, make assumptions which simply are not true. This is aggravated by common prejudice that the Middles Ages are the Dark Ages, a prejudice which biases people today against all things medieval. We quite readily believe what we hear about Medieval times if it is negative. As I learn more and more of these misconceptions, I am progressively seeing the beauty of this period. However, as this beauty becomes clearer, a disturbing thought seeps ever deeper into my mind concerning our own period: it is dark. The reflection linked above gives a good example of a misconception concerning Medieval thought and by extension an opportunity to contrast it with today’s thought.

The common narrative concerning our knowledge of the cosmos and man’s place in it is that of man being thrown down from the heights of glory. It is thought that man held himself in the place of honor because he had a geocentric view of the cosmos. Everything was oriented towards him for we were at the center of all things, and it was upon earth alone that life existed, of which man was the pinnacle. Then we found out we weren’t at the center of the universe. Then we found out our sun is not at the center of the universe. As scientific knowledge of the universe grew our place in it became less and less significant. Today it is not at all uncommon to hear that we are insignificant little specks in a vast and infinite universe that cares nothing for us at all. However, this thought is from a materialist perspective. Medievals were not materialists, and it is wrong to interpret them through such a lens.

Medieval Cosmos - French

Medieval man was a religious man. Specifically, he was Christian. This means he affirmed both the material and the spiritual, therefore his conception of life and his perspective of the cosmos affirmed both as well. While it was believed that the earth was at the center of the physical creation, it was also believed that the true center of all creation, physical and spiritual – its ground, source, and sustainer – is God. And while the Medievals knew full well that the physical light of day came from the Sun and the physical light of night came from the moon, they also believed that the true Light and Illuminator of all the cosmos is God. The medievals may have believed that the earth was at the center of the physical universe, but as Dr. Mosley points out this also meant they were furthest from God; they were at the bottom of the order of creation leading up to the heavenly realm. Of all the realms of the cosmos, it was the earth which was darkest and most corruptible. Our location was one of the reasons used to explain why there are such horrible people and wickedness throughout the world. Contrary to the materialist modern view, religious medieval man had a healthy understanding of his place in the cosmos: he wasn’t insignificant; he was called to glory, but was not there yet, could be easily corrupted, and could not of his own means attain that glory. There is an inherent humility in this perspective.

Medieval Cosmos - English

Ironically, it is modern man who is guilty of what they accuse medievals of having done. It is common to hear today that we are insignificant specks in a vast universe. There really isn’t anything special about us. There are most likely more advanced civilizations in the universe and in our own galaxy. It isn’t unusual to hear the hypothesis that we aren’t even the first advanced civilization in our solar system. On the surface, it appears that this thought of man being so very little has soaked into our social consciousness. And, yet, it is also quite common to be presented with a conception of man that is not insignificant at all. We have a manifest destiny to go forth from our planet, to explore, settle, and find other life and civilizations. It is not uncommon in television shows such as Dr. Who and Star Trek for man to be put forth as truly unique and special among all the species of the universe – to see man as rising above the others or beating the odds against a vastly superior alien species, or triumph in defiance of the gods of ancient mythology. (I am very much a fan of these shows, especially Dr. Who). Often times the weakness of man is mixed with this (Star Trek is a great example). In these cases, a seeming weakness is either seen ultimately as a strength or there is the secular hope of man eventually evolving or advancing past the weakness.

Like the medievals, modern man knows he is called to glory, that he is not there yet, and that he is easily corruptible. Unlike the medievals, modern man believes he can get there on his own and that his glory is his own (meaning either for himself particularly or man in common). The key here is that glory is not given nor participated in, but what we make. There is an inherent pride in this perspective. Theocentric medievals are today accused of being anthropocentric and self-referential. That, however, comes with pride, not humility.

 

 

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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?

 

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Luminous Darkness

st-symeon-the-new-theologian“The same undefiled flesh which He accepted from the pure loins of Mary, the all-pure Theotokos, and with which He was given birth in the body, He gives to us as food.

And when we eat of it, when we eat worthily of His flesh, each one of use receives within himself the entirety of God made flesh, our Lord Jesus Christ, son of God and son of the immaculate Virgin Mary . . .

He is present in the body bodilessly, mingled with our essence and nature, and deifying us who share His body, who are become flesh of His flesh and bone of His bone . . . This is the mystery all full of holy terror which I hesitate even to write, and tremble in recounting.

Thus, while from His immaculate mother He borrowed her immaculate flesh, and gave her in return His own divinity – o…

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Great post! I highly encourage anyone here to read it. I am not by any means a pacifist; I believe that one is just in defending themselves even if that defense extends to violence, and I believe that our police officers and soldiers provide a true good and do well in the just execution of their services. However, it is very easy (all too easy!) to root these beliefs in the wisdom of the world; and when one does this it puts them in opposition to God and His Revelation. So often the answer is both/and, but to truly find freedom in that answer and find rest in the mystery one must allow themselves to be challenged by God’s word and the witness of the saints. It is not an easy question nor is there an easy answer.

Dominus mihi adjutor

This post will upset some people, most of them from a particular socio-cultural-ecclesial context. However, before they give vent to the full fury of their outrage it is asked that they read this post carefully, and then read it again. Disagreement is expected and constructive argument encouraged. Abuse or vitriol will get short shrift. There is an issue to engage with here, and it is not to be camouflage for arguments ad hominem.

You will recall the atrocities committed against the Coptic Christians on Palm Sunday in Egypt. What may not be so clear in our memory is the Copts’ response.

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Eucharist - Real Presence

There is no greater presence of Our Lord Jesus Christ than the Holy Eucharist. This is because in the mystery of the Eucharist Jesus is not present in another, but rather is the Other. He is not merely present in the Eucharist, but indeed the Eucharist is Him. To look upon and receive the Eucharist is not to look upon and receive a representation of Jesus Christ, but to look upon and receive Him. There is nothing greater in all creation than this mystery.

Holy Orders - In Persona Christi

After the Eucharist, Christ is must fully present in His priests. While the Logos is in all by virtue of all being made in the image and likeness of God, and while He more intimately dwells in Christians by virtue of the reception of His Spirit, divinity, and life in Baptism, He most intimately dwells in His priests through the sacrament of Holy Orders. The priest is not simply a representative of Jesus Christ. When he offers the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, he does not do so merely as an ambassador or emissary. No, the priest acts in persona Christi. Christ is present in the priest in such a way that it is He who offers Himself at the altar.

Adoration of the Lamb - Jan van Eyck

In matrimony, Jesus is uniquely present in the husband and wife, who become an icon of the marriage of Jesus to the Church. This marriage is cosmic, bringing together God and man, as well as the Uncreated and created. It is a marriage that entails the whole of creation. Christ’s sacramental presence in the married couple is such that they become a visible image of the mystical union, the wedding feast of the Lamb, a love of mutual submission, sacrifice, and glory.

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How often we hear we need to think outside the box. In order to find creative solutions, in order to meet challenges, we need to think outside the box. This is often illustrated with the following puzzle.

Nine dots puzzle

The goal is to connect all nine dots by only drawing four lines. From the illustration above, we see that there is more than one possible solution – though they are similar – and none of the solutions include making a box. Therein, lies the rub. There is no box. How can one think outside the box when there is no box to think outside of in the first place?

The puzzle is nine dots and it is only solvable by recognizing that reality. Here we come to a very important point: In order to solve a problem we shouldn’t think outside the box; we should think within the larger reality in which the problem is present. If, analogously, the larger reality is a box then, in order to solve the problem, one must think inside the box. Not to do this is to break the system itself. In this the problem is not solved, it is destroyed.

 

Tic-tac-toe

A solution has not been found. Rather, the reality of the game has been changed.

 

 

Fish bowls

Rather than finding a solution, the system is left altogether for another.

 

More often than not, it is not the case that the system itself is the problem, but that the system has a problem within it that needs to be solved. This requires keeping the system intact and so thinking inside the box, which is more difficult, requiring much more creative thinking than the supposed outside of the box.

 

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A beautiful story and testament of love.

Blog of the Courtier

No matter how much you know about great art, there is always something new to discover. Recently I’ve become interested in the work of a Swedish painter, Alexander Roslin (1718-1793). During his lifetime he was arguably the most fashionable portrait painter in Paris, but today he is not as well-known as he ought to be. Today I want to draw your attention to a charming portrait of his wife, who was also a popular but now largely forgotten artist. The painting is not only a charming piece in its own right, but I think it captures something of the love which the two of them felt for each other, in a way which was very unusual for the time.

Roslin was born in Malmö, the city in Sweden now famous as a major international business and design center, but in 1718 not much more than a tiny provincial town of…

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