Friday, December 17, 2010

Courtship Books

I’ve just posted a review of a dating advice book that I’ve read, and I’ve been flipping through a big stack of dating and relationships advice and courtship books that I borrowed from a friend (some Christian, some secular), and I am totally disappointed. Shocked and stunned. Probably I’m going to have to write a courtship book myself. Blech.
In the hopes of staving off the fateful day, here are my thoughts, in a nutshell. Most of the books that are put out seem to assume that what you’re trying to do is find someone with whom you will be able to have a comfortable, pleasant, conflict-free, affluent lifestyle. In other words, someone with whom you may avoid the “in sickness,” “for poorer,” “for worse” parts of the marriage vows. This, to me, is totally absurd. The point at which I decided that I was almost certainly going to marry my husband was when I returned to Kingston after visiting him in Waterloo. I was thinking, “This man is possibly crazy. He is totally bizarre. He looks like just he climbed out of an ancient Byzantine grave and hasn’t had a chance to brush his hair yet. He’s probably going to fail all of his courses, and never get a university degree, and live in poverty for the rest of his life. And I love him. Enough that I think that I could go on loving him and be happy with him, in crazyville, without any money, for the next fifty years of my life!” The possibility of this sort of love, this sort of mad, count-no-costs, permanent, based-in-the-will, reckless, until-death kind of love made me absolutely giddy. The idea of a love that reflected that relationship between Christ and His Church in the sense that Christ was whipped and beaten and groaned in Gethsemene, and climbed to Cavalry, and was Crucified for the Church, and in which the Church has been ridiculed, and persecuted, and has suffered poverty, and has been martyred for Christ – what an absolutely awesome and incredible thing. Practically magic.
Now, I will admit that at the time I had just finished reading a whamo-combo of Fear and Trembling, Crime and Punishment, Seven Story Mountain, and, just to make things really surreal, The Master and Marguerita. Still, I stuck to my belief and to my resolution even after I had come down from the literary hallucinogenic mind-warp, and have now been married for nearly ten years, with a sixth child on the way. I am, to the best of my knowledge, happier in my marriage than almost anyone else that I know. I have a wonderful life full of beautiful paradoxes and seeming contradictions, like the fact that I’m simultaneously fabulously wealthy and penniless, or that my lifestyle is both absolutely lunatic and yet “heroically sane” (as David Foster Wallace says of Kafka’s humour.)
It has not been a perpetual martyrdom, or a constant self-sacrifice. Most of the really terrifying long-brooding darkness that I signed up for hasn’t actually manifested, and the blessings have been manifold and totally unpredictable. God, in His usual wisdom, has not asked of me more than He has given me the grace to do. For every three hours of Crucifixion, there have been countless days of joy and wonder. I can’t imagine a better or more fitting husband than the one that I have; we complement each other in ways that I could never have predicted, and if I had married someone more 'sensible', I never could have become any of the things that I really wanted to be.
This is why I hate dating advice books. They solemnly recommend the most dreary kind of false prudence. They recommend that you hedge your bets, consider your options, and gamble with pennies. Sure, most of the time, following their advice will eventually result in you getting married. And most of the time, the marriage will be a manageable construct of human making, lacking the wild and reckless genius of a God who founded the world on the suffering Body and Blood of His only begotten Son.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

St. Frodo Baggins Pray for Us?

Come Advent, for some reason, I always end up deeply absorbed in some sort of fantasy world. In this case, it's the world for a young adult horror novel that I'm working on, and as usual I'm confronted with the question of what, exactly, the status of sub-created persons is.
It's a problem that theologians don't tend to bother with, probably largely because they're not artists, and are therefore not especially aware of some of the stranger things that are true of the people who live in the world of fiction. The most notorious example of this is the fact that fictional people appear, at some point, to come to possess free will -- and even some semblance of moral free will. You'll have a lovely little hero, or heroine, who is supposed to be perfectly good and virtuous, or a villain who is supposed to behave perfectly abominably, and all of a sudden they'll make the decision to do something totally unexpected, even "out of character," if you conceive of "in character" in a really narrow sense. In fact, it is these decisions, often more than the plotting decisions of the author, that make the character "come to life," that give shape, definition, breadth and meaning to the narrative. Often these decisions are small things, like Sarah Woodruff's decision to stop at a dairy and have some milk in The French Lieutenant's Woman, but sometimes they're drastic decisions that pull the plot in an entirely unexpected direction. In some cases, all you can do is give up on having any sort of control and let the character go in a sort of creative free-fall, trusting that they will make choices that will produce good narrative -- which always turns out to be true.
Now, the question is, if you have a character, and you pull back and give them their freedom, what is the moral status of those decisions? The simple answer is to say that it may be "edifying" or "disedifying" when transcribed into a work of art, and so is, in a sense, moral or immoral. This leaves the moral responsibility in the hands of the author, but that sidesteps the problematic experience, which is the apparent freedom of the sub-created agent. The problem is further complicated by the fact that for every moral decision that makes itself onto the paper in the form of text, there is a whole subtext of moral struggle, wrestling with dragons and demons, quiet despair and silent determination, a whole human battlefield on which the passions and hopes and virtues and weaknesses of the character are being played out, totally out of view of the reading public, but exposed to the author (who usually doesn't have the space or word-count or audience attention span necessary to transcribe the entire matter), and often reawakened in the mind of any reader who is particularly drawn in by the world (Who hasn't spent time contemplating a favorite story, reliving and drawing out the full experience that lurks within a metaphor, a symbol, a couple lines of spare and terrifying text?).
Is there some sense in which God gives real freedom, or life, to the creatures of the human imagination -- the way that Iluvatar gave real life to the Dwarves who were created by one of his Valar in the Simarillion? Does the experience of the artist reflect an actual spiritual fact, or is it simply an ontological illusion of the subconscious mind?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Sign Value

I just finished writing a series on poverty for the National Catholic Register, and I found that some of my favourite ideas just didn't make it into the text. So I'm going to talk about one of them here.

Basically, I was trying to cover all of the major gospel quotes about money, and to give a brief summary of Church social teaching, a brief apercu on gift exchange, and some hard-hitting practical advice on how to be poor and love it, but I just didn't have the space to talk about the idea of sign value.

This is a concept that arose out of neo-Marxist thought in the late 20th Century (no, I'm not about to go Commie-pinko on everyone – it's an observation not a manifesto), basically in an attempt to account for the fact that in a modern commodity based market you can find almost identical goods being sold for radically different prices. To give an obvious example, there are the endless designer look-alike looks touted in every fashion magazine. They show you a dress, handbag and shoe ensemble that was worn by some millionaire celebrity, they quote you the jaw-dropping price that was paid for the outfit, and then they cheerily inform you that you can get almost the same thing at the local mall for a 'mere' $300.

An even more extreme example is the phenomenon of crushed or broken packaging. If you have two items that are literally identical – same brand, same product, same factory of origin, etc. -- and one of them has a box that has become ripped or discoloured or otherwise marred in transport, the one with the pristine box will be "worth" at least 25% more in the marketplace. Sign value is a theory that accounts for this by dividing the value of goods into two components: the use value, which is the actual functional value that will be derived by the user or purchaser; and the sign value, which is the value that is conveyed by the good functioning as a sign – of prestige, of affluence, of strength, of beauty, etc. In the case of the crushed box, buying something that is in less-than-perfect condition (even if the product itself is not effected) is seen as "cheap," it signifies poverty and a willingness to "settle for less." Thus the damaged package has a negative sign-value that reduces the commercial value of the product. In the case of the $300 look-alike ensemble, there are two different levels on which sign-value is functioning: it is functioning, in the first place, to massively inflate the value of the original celebrity outfit, which may literally have thousands of dollars added to the value by the presence, for example, of a designer label or a particularly trendy kind of cut crystal. In this case, the celebrity purchaser is looking for something that will carry with it the sign-value of designer prestige, uniqueness, and cutting-edge fashionable novelty. The buyer of the look-alike, however, is not actually buying the same outfit with its value scaled back to reflect its actual usefulness: they too are paying a mark-up for sign-value, in this case the sign-value of looking like the celebrity.

Anyway, I was going to discuss how sign-value functions within gift economies, where value is not measured in objectivized monetary terms. Within modern commercial economies, there is a strong impetus to imbue products with sign-value in order to increase profit margins. This generally involves artificially assigning a sign-value and reinforcing it through advertising media. In gift exchange, however, the gift has a natural sign-value. It signifies the relationship in which it is given, the love and sacrifice that went into making or providing it, and the occasion on which it was given. In many cases, the gift has literally no use-value; it is only a sign – as in Oscar Wilde's famous quip that all art is quite useless. The interesting difference here is that the sign-value of gifts increases as the gift is given and given again. In traditional cultures, many gift items would become the purveyors of a story or legend, they would take on magical traits, conveying new and amplified meanings as they moved through traditional cycles of giving. Much the same thing happens with family heirlooms, which perpetuate and accumulate meaning as they are passed from generation to generation. With market commodities, generally, the opposite happens: what carries the sign-value of prestige, novelty, wealth, and status today will carry the stigma of poverty, grubbiness, out-of-dateness, and fashion-cluelessness tomorrow.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The God of Sinners

One of the strange things about our faith is Christ’s declaration that there will be more rejoicing in Heaven over one repentant sinner than over 100 righteous men. Now you can wash this over some way or other by saying, “Oh, well, everyone is a repentant sinner if they’re in Heaven,” which is true, but I don’t think that it really gets at what Christ is saying here. The implication, the pretty clear and strong implication, is that the person who humbly makes his way through his life, tending the fathers fields, doing what the father says, never even asking for a goat so that he can have a party with his friends, doesn’t cause as much rejoicing as the one who goes off, squanders his inheritance on street boys and gypsy dancers, sits around in gambling houses laughing his head off at raunchy jokes, and then, through a sea of pig-shit and suffering, finally makes his way back to the father’s house.
Why? From a literary perspective the answer is pretty obvious. Try sitting down one day with those first long, drawn out, tedious chapters of Les Miserables, where Hugo is just going through and recounting all the good deeds and charity of the Bishop of Digne. Yawn. No one is interested until the wild-eyed theif shows up and yoinks the poor Bishop’s silverware in the middle of the night. Or leaf through a book of the lives of the Saints. There are literally hundreds of Saints whose lives read something like, “She lived in obedience to her parents throughout her childhood, and wanted to enter the convent at the age of thirteen, but she had to stay home and look after a sick sister, so out of filial piety she put aside her dreams and stayed home until she was 22. Then she entered the Order of X, and founded 700 orphanages, and cared for the sick and dying until she died at the age of 45 holding a crucifix and smiling on a picture of the baby Jesus.” I’m sure that there’s more to the stories of these women: I’m sure that there are fabulous interior exploits, and struggles with sin, and all sorts of juicy literary grist that was hidden from the world. I’m sure they’re not actually boring. But let’s be realistic here, the average reader, if they’re going to bother with the lives of the Saints at all, wants the ones with sin and blood. The ones where the heroine was the most horrible sinner in the world, and then went out and blackened her skin for fifty years in the Egyptian desert, doing penance and fighting with demons. We want the descent into darkness, and the miraculous conversion, the soul rising up out of the depths of Hell to seize the light with all its strength.
Does Heaven want this as well? Apparently. Why? My best guess is that God has a finely tuned sense of narrative, and sees the wonderful symmetry in having the entire salvation history of the race acted out, like a fractal equation, writ small, writ large, writ in blood and in tears, in the individual lives of each of His human creatures.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

21 Icons of Mystery

I’m trying to write short stories featuring the Saints as part of a new project that I’m working on that pairs fictional vignettes with spiritual exercises, wrapped up in the slightly dark, solitary aesthetic that used to be so popular in Medieval Christianity, but which has fallen by the wayside in recent years. It’s a somewhat daunting task, because I’m horribly scrupulous and apprehensive. Generally, when I write fiction I stick to the “speculative” genres: mostly fantasy and horror. In those genres, you get to make up your own world, which follows rules that you establish yourself, and you don’t ever have to be afraid about getting in “right” -- except in so far as it has to ring true and follow the inspiration.
Writing with Saints is a different matter, because there’s some sense in which I’m always worried that I’m maligning them by making the portrayals insufficiently rich, unique, beautiful, etc. It’s also a difficult task in general: most of the time, when people try to insert Mary, or the Saints, or Jesus into fiction it comes out horribly maudlin, sappy, sentimental, trite, and flat. It is, however, possible to do it well. Probably the best examples that I know of are Flaubert’s Temptation of St. Anthony, and his short story, “Julian the Hospitator.” Bulgakov’s Master and Marguerita is interesting because it provides, simultaneously, one of literature’s best portrayals of Pontius Pilate, and one of it’s weakest and most banal images of Christ (probably this was at least in part necessitated by the desire to be publishable in the Soviet Union.) Dostoyevski’s “Grand Inquisitor,” from the Brother’s Karamazov, is the best literary depiction of Christ that I know of, though he pulls it off largely by having Christ remain silent while the Grand Inquisitor rants.
Anyway, that’s the task. Prayers are appreciated. I could also use leads on good female Saints to include the project. What I’m looking for are women with interesting lives that will provide good fodder for the imaginative mill. They should be Saints that aren’t already well-known to most Catholics. Ideally there should be some good source material available in English, though older Saints whose lives have been almost entirely reduced to legend can work as well. Seven spots remain.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Land Flowing with Milk and Honey

I’ve recently moved from the city to the country – about two and a half weeks ago, I think. The expectations that one has moving into a new home are interesting; my real estate agent noted, wisely I think, that when people buy a new house they’re not really looking for a house, but for peace. And you really do feel that way on some level: you will move, and you will have a new life, and somehow all of the difficulties of the past will evaporate like frost in the morning.

Naturally, intellectually you know that this isn’t true, but on some deep archetypal level, the feeling remains. It is, I think, a pointer towards the desire for heaven. The Jewish people, when they were wandering around Sinai searching for the promised land, seemed to have that sort of experience. It was going to be a land flowing with milk and honey, where they would live in peace with their children, blessed by God, a people no longer homeless and enslaved.

Of course the actual promised land was a land teeming with Canaanites and other undesirables. No sooner had they taken possession than they were plunged into an endless series of wars, conquests, persecutions. When things went well, they became bloated and proud and turned away from God, which in turn occasioned more chastisements, more wars, more conquests...

Yet the image of the promised land remains compelling. No one, except perhaps for the extremely dry and cynical atheist, reads the accounts of the pilgrim people in search of a home and thinks, “Yeah, sure. Milk and honey. Just you wait and see, bubba...” There is some level on which we can all sympathize, on which we know that yes, the land will not actually be a perpetual stream of uninterrupted earthly joy, but it is still worth hoping for on those terms. The unfulfillable promise is not actually a lie, it’s just a sign of a higher reality.

Besides which, there is usually a certain amount of milk and honey to go with the Canaanites. My new farm has not caused my children to cease from fighting amongst one another or sulking disgracefully when they lose at games. It has not rid my husband of his choleric temperament, or me of my melancholic one. Rain occasionally falls, and I worry about money, and feel insecure about my writing, and all of the usual trials. Yet out my window, there are trees stretching as far as I can see, and down around the corner and I can go and sit by a pond framed with a blazing fringe of autumn sumac. Flocks of birds descend to sing in the branches of the massive pine in my front pasture, and even on rainy days, there is more light pouring in through my windows than there ever was on a clear day in Toronto.

Not heaven, obviously, but I’m still happy to give it a nine out of ten on the milk and honey scale.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Lunatics in Heaven

One of my favorite Saints is a little known woman named Christina the Astonishing. She was a mystic schizophrenic who flew up into the rafters during her own funeral, then ran around hiding in bizarre places in order to escape from the smell of human sin. She tends to get dismissed as a madwoman.

I like her because she broadens the definition of a Saint. The purpose of canonization is not to present the faithful with a small group of uniformly pious, bland, safe personalities in order that we may all become cookie-cutter images of saccharine devotion. There are madmen and women singing the perpetual Holy Holy Holy before the throne of God. It would be totally unrealistic, not to mention unfair, if there weren’t. The canonization of a crazy person doesn’t suggest that in order to become holy, we ought to be crazy – and I don’t think that anyone reading St. Christina’s life is likely to be inspired to climb into ovens to escape the stink of human corruption. It’s clear that the woman is totally insane; what she offers is not an image of piety that the ordinary, sane Catholic can imitate, but an image of sanctity that expands and demolishes our prejudices.

There is a widespread tendency for Catholics, and all Christians really, to believe that sanctity and sanity are somehow co-extensive. You can have any sort of physical ailment in the world and still be a Saint – it is simply considered a legitimate cross. Mental illness is a different matter. Amongst the ultra-conservative, it is liable to be seen as a manifestation of demonic possession, or at least interference, whilst the liberal are more likely to take a kindly, but ultimately condescending view of persons with mental illness, as poor, suffering souls who ought to be treated with compassion and led up the ladder to the higher levels of self-integration and fulfillment.

The truth is, a lot of Saints suffered mentally as well as physically. Some were crippled with anxieties. Others were plagued with a guilt that was more pathological than theological. Some suffered from severe sexual hang-ups. Some were obviously obsessive compulsive. But so what? Heaven is not the in-club for the high-fliers on Maslow’s pyramid. It’s a place where the crippled, the lame, the leprous, the crucified, the tormented and the mad are lifted up, their sufferings redeemed, and their earthly trials transformed into a sublime and inconceivable beauty.

St. Christina the Astonishing, pray for us.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Contextual Sound-bites

I've had a rather odd response to a piece I wrote for the National Catholic Register. A large proportion of the comments seem to be based on a basic misunderstanding of what I'm trying to say -- which is in a lot of ways neither here nor there, except that it points towards a larger problem with the ways in which we contextualize, or fail to contextualize, things that we hear or read.
To put things in context: I'm the sort of person who despises sound-bites. I rarely read anything as short as a magazine article, or a single blog entry for that matter, because I'm always very much aware of the fact that in any brief piece of writing -- particularly one that has been edited down to fit a publication's word-count limits -- you're looking at a truncated snap-shot of the author's thought. Anything that can be said in less than 1200 words is an oversimplification.
Anything that can be said in a single book is also an oversimplification. Even Marx's Kapital is probably an oversimplification, though I'll admit that I never had the scholastic fortitude to tackle it. I'm generally pretty uncomfortable saying "so and so says such and such" if I've only read one of their works -- I like the maximum possible range of contextual information in order to make coherent sense out of a writer's words.
Yet, you can't get away from it. A lot of readers read and think in single sentences or phrases that are taken literally, for their surface value.
Probably it's a matter of different neurologies: brains that are designed to process information in different ways. A form of legitimate human diversity -- but one that makes communication fraught with frustration. To me, it is simply impossible to write or communicate at all unless you can assume a certain amount of context: if you're writing a Catholic article, for a Catholic audience, you don't need to go over the obvious (i.e. "same sex marriage is not the same as opposite sex marriage" or "scripture is inerrant.") These are axiomatic-type statements, givens, things that are generally assumed as part of the discourse. Obviously, if you were writing the same article for Secular Humanist Monthly, you couldn't assume those things. You probably couldn't even argue in their favour, but that's beside the point.
Having the givens given means that you don't have to write yet another version of that tedious "The Natural Law Argument against Gay Sex" article that we've all read seven thousand times. It means that you can go a little further afield. It saves our publications from all becoming like Women's World (I have conducted an informal study and have come to the conclusion that only seven articles have ever appeared in Women's World. Ever. The only thing that changes is the superficial hook -- e.g. the same "how to lose weight by eating less food, less sugar, less fat, but still having a small desert on Sunday" article might be called "The University of Texas Miracle Diet" or "Eat Cake and Still Lose Weight" or "Joli-Rhian's Super Diet Secret." Also, the models' hairdos wax and wane with the fashion seasons.) It means that you can assume a common foundation and build from there.
But it only works if you can assume the common foundation. This is my problem with the Catholic sound-bite folks. They seem to be like heresy sharks swimming about the internet, looking for isolated statements that aren't sufficiently complete in their orthodoxy. "Hey! This writer seems to have said, earlier in the article, that she believes in the Catholic position on homosexuality. But here she is quoting a gay source without using scare quotes or words like "putatively" or "allegedly" or referring to the sinister "gay agenda." Surely it means that she is actually arguing in favour of homosexual "marriages." Better correct the error before someone is scandalized."
The problem becomes worse -- exponentially worse -- if you use literary devices. Humour. Sarcasm. Irony. Tongue-in-cheek pseudo-quotation. Storytelling. Example. Parable...
Sigh. Where's Derrida when you need him?

Monday, August 30, 2010

Boys Not Wanted on the Voyage

Does a child need to have two parents, male and female, or suffer dire psychological consequences? This is the question at the heart of the same-sex parenting debate, and as usual the studies go both ways, largely depending on who funds them.
The big difficulty, though, is with the diagnostic tools available: how do you go about measuring psychological development? What do you count as important? What is a good trait in an adult child, and what is a fault that suggests a lack in the parenting style?
For example, a study by Stacey and Biblarz compared different studies of lesbian parents and found that there was no significant difference in development, achievement, happiness, success, etc. however, there was a difference in the sexual development of children raised by lesbian parents. Girls were more likely to pursue same-sex experimentation, and to have a more promiscuous lifestyle, whereas boys raised by two mommies were more likely to be sexually reserved than their opposite-sex parented peers.
Other studies have come to different conclusions. Most notably, Gartrell and Bos's recent study which suggested that lesbian parents actually raised children who were more psychologically well adjusted than opposite-sex parents. The methodological problems with the study are significant, but one of the difficulties that doesn't get noticed is with the highly reputable diagnostic tool used in the study. According to this particular diagnostic standard, not only lesbian parents, but also single mothers, raise more adjusted children than traditional families. What this strongly suggests is that the diagnostic criterion for psychological health, at least according to this standard, are basically a measure of feminine influence. In other words, the more feminized a child is, the more "healthy" they will appear to be, whereas masculine traits are seen as a form of dysfunction.
This is not surprising. Ours is a culture that essentially values docility, even-temper, sensitivity, and obedience. This is particularly true when you consider that any psychological evaluation of adolescents will tend to rely on the school as an "objective" reporting vector. Yet what is it that a school environment demands of its pupils? Certainly not the masculine virtues: courage, honour, strength of resolve, justified resistance, and the impulse to protect the things that one cares for, are likely to appear in a school setting as "risky behaviour" "rebelliousness" "sullenness" and so forth. It is no surprise that boys are more likely to be diagnosed with behavioural problems and put on drugs by the school system: masculinity is not wanted here.
Anyways, the point is that "scientific" studies of parenting styles are anything but. They are necessarily political. They depend on someone's ideas of what an ideal parenting outcome is -- of what a "well adjusted" human being looks like.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Hate the Sin, Love the Sinner?

One of the commenters on a post below mentioned the "hate the sin, love the sinner" approach. I'm not sure if I've addressed this directly before, so here we go:
I don't think that this is a good way to look at gay/Catholic relations, for the following reason. The word sinner has two meanings:
1. Any human being who is not the Blessed Virgin Mary or Jesus Christ.
2. A person who commits some conspicuous sin, and who is definitely more sinful than me.
The problem is that in the "hate the sin, love the sinner," distinction, the second meaning is almost invariably meant, or at least implied. Most Catholics don't go around saying "Hate the sin, love the sinner" about any other group -- and it leads to a kind of behaviour that singles out homosexuals. There's also the fact that the emphasis is generally on "hate the sin."
I think that there was a point when this was an important development in gay/Christian relations -- when it represented a sort of awakening of the Christian conscience, and was a positive move away from the "turn or burn" approach, but at this point it's largely receded into right-wing waters, where it's used to justify a pretty chilly attitude towards actual gay and lesbian people. The sort of "Oh yes, of course I love the sinner. But it's because I love the sinner that I hate the sin so much..." preamble to a diatribe against the evils of gay sex.
So I would say that "hate the sin, love the sinner" is probably not a great formula. Something more like, "Love your (homosexual) neighbour as yourself." Of course this includes the fact that self love, at least for a Catholic, includes trying to avoid sin and grow and in virtue -- but it also includes the fact that a gentle, realistic and understanding approach is usually the most helpful in overcoming sin, whether in ourselves or in others.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Mixed Media Emotions

I've just finished watching an episode of Cold Case. I don't like Cold Case -- I was watching it because the crime/detective dramas that I actually like weren't on, and I'm a total mystery junkie. Anyways, this particular episode featured an autistic child whose parents were murdered, and it ends with a particularly sappy, over-blown scene of the autistic boy getting to move in with his big sister to a room decorated with the kind of fish that he likes, and this kid (who can't act very well -- but then, the general poor quality of the acting on the show leads me to suspect that the director may be partially responsible, or that hamming is a deliberate marketing choice) is trying to do an imitation of that wide, blissful, smile that autistic children have when something in their inaccessible world is going just right for them. (Usually, you have no idea what this something might be. Sometimes you can tell -- he just really, really likes the pigs that live in the elephant grass in Planet Earth, or finds Women's Olympic Hockey hilarious.) Overlaying this beautiful cathartic moment is some sort of dreadful rock music in the alternative-goes-easy-listening genre. And I'm angry. I actually went and got a drink of water in the other room to escape this situation, because there's this complicated and absurd set of emotional reactions that I have, and I don't know quite what to do with them, or how to interpret them.
(What does this have to do with homosexuality? Not much -- But with evangelism in this particular culture...we'll get to that.)
The emotional feedback loop generated by a bad, kitschy piece of television:
1. A real emotion is evoked. A positive, personal, beautiful emotion -- the way that I feel about my son.
2. A fake positive emotion is thickly laid overtop. A sappy, clappy, emo-porn sentimentality: a programmed emotional reaction designed to create a certain kind of pseudo-experience in people who haven't had the actual experience.
3. I'm having a Baudrillard moment. I have an emotional reaction, but I can't tell how much of it is my real emotional reaction and how much is the simulacrum. The map is consuming the kingdom. The simulation is effacing the real. (If this doesn't make much sense, and probably it doesn't, read Simulation and Simulacra. That won't make much sense either, but the reference will be clarified.)
4. An intellectual reaction: I recognize that what I'm reacting to is the kitschification of something that is important to me.
5. I want to rebel. I don't want to have the feeling now. The original feeling is mine and it doesn't belong to the realm of kitsch, or to televisual manipulation. This is a usurpation, and I want to be impassive as a form of interior resistance.
6. Although I am capable of suppressing the real feeling if I want to, the combination of visual effects, swelling music, and other media tricks is now forcing me to have the fake feeling.
7. I'm really, really angry. Angry with myself for being manipulable in this way, angry at the show for manipulating me. Just mad.

Now, the thing is that I don't think everyone is familiar with this kind of internal conflict when faced with the cultural artefacts of the media age. Conservative Christians, (if TV programming is anything to go by) generally seem to be willing to put up with unbelievable quantities of sap without feeling that their existential guts are being dredged through razor-sharp saccharine. Liberals, too, seem to be able to handle this -- provided that the sap is properly liberal.
But there are a lot of people of my generation who just won't put up with it at all. Who have been cheated by the emotional pop-corn machine too many times, and who are constantly on guard. Who will react negatively to the portrayal of any strong positive emotion, for something resembling the reasons that I give above. (Oh, here's a glbt tie in: there are a lot of these people in the gay and lesbian sub-culture -- cf. the difference between something campy, like Queen's "It's a Miracle", and something bubble-gummy like John's Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance.")
The point is that the Christian message in its honey-sweet form is repulsive to people who have this sort of ironic defence system. It produces a very short-lived interior glow that is almost immediately replaced with a creeped-out feeling, rejection, and anger. Worth keeping in mind when you go evangelizing in the information age.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Gay Wedding Receptions

Okay, first of all, news-reel:
In about 6 weeks I will have a house. At the moment, I'm living in my mom's house/cottage, going back and forth between the two, and I only have internet access at the house (hence my recent lack of blog-posts). My new house is the most beautiful place in the world; a century farmhouse near Tweed Ontario that used to be run as a Bed and Breakfast/Alpaca farm. In any case, come September I should be back on-line and blogging again properly.
My book, A Crisis of Passion should be coming out soon from Circle Books, I'll keep people posted on that. It's technically about the relationship between art, postmodernism and the Catholic Church, but it tends to slide in all directions, covering a lot of issues that have to do with the way that culture is shaped in the postmodern world, and how Christians/Catholics can bring the gospel to people in this crazy, media-saturated, Culture of Death/Threshold of Hope period in history.
I've had an interesting response to an article that appeared in a recent issue of Faith and Family magazine . I suggested that one way of negotiating the tricky issue of what to do if you're invited to a homosexual marriage ceremony/celebration of a homosexual union. I pointed out that you shouldn't actually go to the ceremony, because being at a marriage means standing witness for it and so that would contradict Church teaching, but that you might ask if your friend/relative would still like you to attend the reception, as a way of showing your desire to continue to be involved in their life and support them. It sparked a certain amount of debate, mostly based on the idea that by attending the reception you are celebrating a sin, implying your support therefore, and potentially causing scandal.
Here's the trouble: there are two potential ways of scandalizing people, i.e. leading them into sin/confirming them in their sins. The first is by setting a bad example -- and this is what those who disagreed with me argued a Catholic would be doing by going to a gay wedding reception. The second is by making a good example in such a disagreeable way that people are repulsed. To me, when you respectfully explain why you can't attend the marriage ceremony, you've made your point. You've stood up for truth. There's no ambiguity here. (Obviously if you did something absurd, like skip the ceremony but show up for the reception without discussing it in advance, that would be different, but it would also be socially awkward and rude.) What you're trying to do, however, is find a way of negotiating that situation so that the truth is tempered by love; so that your doctrinal position does not come across either as a contemptuous snub, or as raw homophobia, or as personal rejection. One commenter actually brought up the objection that there would probably be multiple gay/lesbian couples at the reception, and that you might see them being physically intimate with one another. At risk of offending the squeamish, I'm inclined to suggest that when Christ went into the den of the prostitutes and tax collectors, it probably wasn't a real nice clean discreet joint. In fact, the Pharisee's main objection is that reputable types didn't go into places like that. This was in an outpost of Ancient Rome, shortly before the reigns of Tiberius and Caligula. The brothels would certainly have serviced the Roman soldiers posted to the Judean backwaters, and most of the prostitutes were probably on drugs. Yet Christ went. Why?
He went to show that our God is not the kind of stand-offish, snobbish, reputable God who is not willing to go into places like that. He was not afraid of the rumours that might circulate -- and which did circulate. (St. Thomas has a lovely little argument about how the Pharisees, in such circumstances, were not scandalized by the actions of Christ, but that they scandalized themselves.)
Now, I'm not saying that if you don't go to a gay reception, it means that you're a Pharisee. But I do think that if you're in a relationship with a homosexual such that it would be appropriate, supportive, and charitable for you to do so, that it can certainly be an expression of Christian love and not a cause of scandal.

p.s. I've been taken to task for using "marriage" and "wedding" without scare quotes to refer to homosexual ceremonies. The reason for this is simple: everyone knows what I mean. It's pretty obvious that I'm an orthodox Catholic, and that I don't think that homosexuals can be validly married. Scare quotes, to me, are just childish.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Scapegoating Gays?

The UK's Pink News writes today that the Catholic Church is scapegoating homosexual candidates for the priesthood in the new guidelines that have emerged for screening priests in the wake of the recent child sex-abuse scandals.
This really isn't a new issue. The Vatican's 2005 directions basically exclude "gay" men from the priesthood -- a decision that has caused significant controversy, and which remains controversial. The controversy is not merely political, but also practical: the precise meaning of the Vatican's directive has been given widely different interpretations by different groups within the Catholic Church. In some dioceses, the directive has been interpreted very strictly, so that any applicant to the priesthood who admits to same-sex attractions is immediately given the boot. In others, a more liberal approach is taken.
The interpretive dilemma rests on the exact meaning of the term "deep-seated homosexual tendencies," which is sort of the lynch-pin of the discernment process. A candidate who has had homosexual experiences or feelings, but has overcome them, is allowed to receive Holy Orders: "such tendencies must be clearly overcome at least three years before ordination to the diaconate." So the question is, what are deep-seated homosexual tendencies?
Courage seems to take the interpretation that this is related to a compulsive tendency towards homosexual sex -- that "those responsible to discern candidates for admission to seminaries and eventually to priesthood should consider that there will be some persons with ssa [same sex attractions] who are chaste and lacking in deeply rooted homosexual tendencies." In other words, a man may experience homosexual attractions but have the sort of affective maturity required to fully live the life of chastity to which priests are called.
This, to me, makes a great deal of sense -- but I'm not sure that it's the obvious interpretation of the directive, or that it is the way that it is interpreted in most places.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Where has all the vitriol gone?

The Vatican is planning to open a "Court of the Gentiles" ministry to reach out to atheists -- but not, apparently, to atheists of the Dawkins/Hitchins stripe. (See article here)
The question that this raises, why are polemical atheists being excluded from the dialogue?
On the one hand, this makes a great deal of sense: there is the caution against casting your pearls before swine to consider, and Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, the president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, has good reasons for refusing to give a platform to atheists who don't argue so much as sling abuse. (See the Intelligence Squared debate for an example of what happens when you put a polite, mild-mannered Churchman of good will up against Hitchins...we're talking a pretty literal "lambs to the slaughter" type scenario.) Basically what happens is that the nice Archbishop, or Monsignor, or other Vatican representative gets up and makes a pleasant speech in civilized Vaticanese, and Hitchins steps on their face. So far as the "Court of the Gentiles" idea goes, I assume that the Vatican is excluding the polemicists in order that their dialogue will remain a dialogue, and not turn into a three-ring mud-slinging tournament.
Yet there is undoubtedly a need for men like Dawkins and Hitchins to be addressed -- and to be addressed in terms that are appropriate to the way that they debate. The Vatican can't do it, because the Vatican must always be civil and rational in her discourse. The Church, however, has not generally lacked polemicists of its own. From St. Jerome roaring at Helvidius, to G. K. Chesterton's finely tuned lambasting of George Bernard Shaw, we have a strong record of high-class vitriol. And it is certainly high-class vitriol that is needed against the polemical atheists. The problem is that, for some reason, our apologists argue either with kid-gloves or with protractors. Straight, boring, rational apologetics are worse than useless against buck-shot polemics and false analogies. The logician will always lose against the rhetorician -- not because his arguments are worse, but because they take too long to deliver, and they are relatively dry and uninteresting.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Of Billboards and Alpacas

Hello. It's been a while that I've been away -- while I was finishing the Crisis of Passion manuscript, we decided that we were going to move, so I've spent the past three weeks running around trying to paint my entire house and get it ready to show to potential buyers. Moving is the pits, but what can you do?
This has nothing to do with homosexuality, but does have to do with the broader "culture wars" issue, so I'm going to talk about my decision to leave Toronto.
You see, I've written about the fact that Catholic people who are actually living the Catholic faith can't afford to be insular: if you form a sort of righteous archipelago and isolate yourself from mainstream culture and live in a sort of Catholic la la land where all of your friends are Catholic, and all of your children's contacts are Catholic, and you are too pure and holy to associate with the folks on Church St. (the centre of TOs "village," for those who aren't familiar with my local geography), then that's no good. My new book has, as one of its major premises, the idea that we should not be afraid to interact deeply and meaningfully with postmodern culture. Yet here I am, at the first possible opportunity, packing up my homeschooling family to run away from the big city and live in some small town with a well, and a septic tank, and (hopefully) some chickens. A town with a homeschool community, where I can grow organic tomatoes and engage in black market barter with local farmers.
Is this hypocritical? I don't think it is. I might be self-deluding -- there's always a risk of that -- but I don't think so. You see, the issue is not where you live, but what you fear. Am I afraid of the city? Well, admittedly, I'm afraid of city driving, and I don't like the pollution, and I'm going to be frank here, I am motivated, at least in part, by the desire to raise my children in a place without ubiquitous advertising. Fear, and particularly a fear of the culture, is not, however, a primary motivation. I'm going out into the country because I really, really, really want to raise goats. I want my kids to be able to go out everyday and play in their elfland forts. I want to be able to go down and sit by the water on my own land and see the stars in the sky at night. I want to tend heirloom tomato plants, and watch all of those wonderfully ugly, malformed calabashes ripening in the sun. These are the things that I dream of, and I think that's valid.
The difficulty, at least in my opinion, is when Catholics go out and do these things, either because they are afraid that their children will be contaminated by Britney Spears and Queer As Folk, or because they yearn in their hearts to nurture baby alpacas, and then think that everyone needs to live this way. That Catholicism/Christianity and rural life are somehow synonymous, that the true Christian eschews the worldly and evil city and rejects the culture utterly, shunning it as the Pharisees shunned the lepers.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Happy Holy Week, all.
I've been away for a bit, and will probably continue to be away, largely, until the end of April. I have a May 1 deadline for finishing the manuscript of "Crisis of Passion," which is my book on post-modernism and art.
I wish everyone the best over the coming days. May your meditations on the Passion and Resurrection be particularly fruitful this Easter season...

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Catholic schools and kids with two mommies

I've just been reading Jimmy Aikin's blog at the Register about a controversy that has arisen with regards to the admission of children with same-sex parents to Catholic schools.
Reading through the comments, you get a pretty clear lay of the land: there are those who accept the Church's teaching on same-sex relationships, and who think that the Archbishop's decision was completely justified, and there are those who obviously do not accept the Church's teaching, and who think that it's cruel and evil discrimination. So I'm going to weigh in as a Catholic who accepts the Church's teaching on same-sex relationships/marriage/sexuality/etc. but who thinks that the decision to bar these children from Catholic schools is a little...well, Pharisaical.
If the school also kicked kids out because their parents were divorced, or cohabiting, or whatnot, then it would at least be consistent -- but the Archbishop is clear that this is not the case: "Many of our schools also accept students of other faiths and no faith, and from single parent and divorced parent families." The reality is that any opposite-sex couple, no matter how far they deviate from the Church's teachings about marriage, is given the glance-over by mainstream Catholic culture, and any same-sex couple is lambasted -- even if they are actually closer to the ideal of Catholic marriage than their opposite-sex counterparts.
That last clause might sound counter-intuitive, but lets examine this issue: let's say that you've got, on the one hand, a lesbian couple -- we'll name them Barb and Di, just for fun. Barb IDs as bi, she had a male partner before she and Di got together, and she got pregnant. She's Catholic, and she doesn't believe in abortion, so she has a child. Now she and Di have decided that they are going to get married, in accord with the laws of their state. They are monogamous and fully committed to a life-long relationship, and they are trying to raise their child, to the best of their ability, in accord with the teachings of the Catholic Church. They attend Mass, and apart from their sexuality, they are faithful, practicing Catholics. (Yes, such people really do exist.) On the other hand, you have a couple -- Sue and Ted -- who got divorced three years ago. Sue has put her kid into Catholic school to please the grandparents. Neither she nor Ted believes in the Catholic faith. They don't go to Mass. Sue has had several live-in boyfriends since she and Ted split up.
Now, as far as admission to Catholic schools are concerned, Sue's kid is in, and Barb's kid is out. There's something seriously wrong with this picture. It's called a double standard.
The argument that Barb and Di are causing scandal simply doesn't wash. Anyone who is a friend of Sue's child will know about the divorce. They will know that every couple of months, Sue has a different man living in the house. There will be scandal. Every bit as much scandal as the lesbian couple is causing. But no one will say anything, because Sue's situation will be considered "private" "delicate" "none of our business," whereas Barb and Di's will make good copy for the week-end edition.

Monday, March 1, 2010

I'd really like to be your friend...but I think you're going to hell...?

The most interesting question that I had from a conservative Catholic at Notre Dame came after the talk was over (the LGBT people dominated the actual question period, which I was very glad off -- they had declined to participate in the panel discussion that followed my talk, which I understand, so I was glad that they had a chance to ask their questions and put their voices into the dialogue as well.) It also came to my husband, not me; basically, someone wanted to know how you could go about forming a relationship with someone who is gay, lesbian, bisexual, etc. How do you start a conversation or even begin to like one another if they know from the outset that you disapprove of something that they hold to be so fundamental to who they are? It would seem like a death blow to a fledgling relationship.
And so it is. You can't start a friendship by saying, "look, I really disapprove of the way that you live your life, and I think it's sinful, and I'm really lovingly concerned that you are going to perish in eternal fire. I don't mean that in a mean way." You start a friendship with something that you can agree on. Most of the gay and lesbian friends that I have made were somewhat surprised when they realized that my Catholicism was actually orthodox. They assumed that it was cultural, or whatever, until we were already friends. Which is not dishonest, or tricksy, or whatever: think about it, when you make a friend with someone, anyone, how do you start off? No one, or at least no one with even remotely functional social skills, starts a friendship by trying to argue about the other person's personal life. That's just disfunctional. Later, if it becomes appropriate within the relationship, you can bring these issues up respectfully. But you have to start with the things that you agree about, the things that you like about one another, the bases for a relationship and for a genuine, concrete, personal love.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Queer Protest

I promised that I would talk about the problem of protests. At the Edith Stein Conference, the LGBT group on campus organized a protest in the form of a reading of queer poetry. The poetry was, from what I heard of it, embarrassingly bad -- but that is more or less the standard for political poetry and spoken word "political actions". Okay, I was about to start ranting about political action as a form of post-modern art, and the problems therewith, but I'll try to stay on topic. The point is not that the poetry lacked literary merit, but that it was "scandalous" -- not in the strict St. Thomas Aquinas sense, where something is scandalous because it leads others into sin, but in the colloquial sense in which something is scandalous because it produces that strange sensation, a combination of discomfort/embarrassment/contempt, which most of us describe as being "scandalized" by the behaviour of another. It was quite a surreal scene: a Catholic college, a Catholic conference, a cadre of nuns, several small children running about in the JPII-Theology-of-the-Body generation style, and a group of queer identified students reading vulgar poetry about how often they masturbate. Obviously, it had exactly the effect that you would expect: most of the Catholics present thought that the poetry was obscene, and it helped to cement the idea that gay culture is totally obsessed with vapid, meaningless and self-indulgent sex.
So why have such a protest? The LGBT community generally goes out of its way to insist that it is not obsessed with sex, that it's about all sorts of more important things, like family, and love, and so forth. Isn't this kind of thing intensely counter-productive?
Well, yes and no. It's sort of the mirror image of the right-wing Christian holding up a sign at the Gay Pride parade that reads "Leviticus 18:22." It's a kind of protest that is absolutely guaranteed to fail as a means of convincing anyone of anything -- but it's not really about that. I suspect that a great deal of what is called "protest" is largely concerned with the formation and galvanization of identities. The audience for the protest is not the person or group being lobbied/protested, but the group of protesters who are learning and forming their identities through the conflict that protest always suggests. War is a fabulous tool for cementing patriotism and national identity, and anything that smacks of confrontation always has this effect as well. It's the same throughout the political spectrum: when we used to go down to the local porn shop to scream "Porn is the theory, Rape is the practice" during the "Take Back the Night Rally," it wasn't really in the expectation that we would stop the selling or buying of pornography in Brampton. It had to do with who we were as feminists, with teaching ourselves what we thought and felt about demeaning sexual portrayals of women. When Pro-Lifers gather faithfully at the "March for Life" every year, it's not because there is any worldly chance that doing so will actually cause Parliament (in Canada) to make abortion illegal. It's because it's a chance for the Pro-Life community to network, to declare our identity to the wider community, to re-affirm our dedication to the protection of the unborn/unwanted in society. It doesn't do anything in the strict sense of changing other people, but no one cares, because that's not actually the point.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Edith Stein Conference

I’m just getting back into the saddle after the Notre Dame gig – I spoke last Saturday at the Edith Stein Conference. I have too much to say about the experience to put it in one post, so I’ll be blogging about it over the next couple of days. I’ll begin with a basic run-down of what happened, and later give some reflections on different aspects of the affair.

Basically, I drove (or rather, my husband drove and I entertained Barbara, who is just short of nine months old, in the back-seat) down to South Bend on Friday. We were stopped at the US Border, and we were terrified that they wouldn’t let us through because my husband’s passport expired last September. As it turned out, they didn’t care about (didn’t notice?) the expired passport, but they were worried that I might be getting paid by Notre Dame and that the IRS might not be getting their cut. I refrained from quoting Canada/US tax treaty law at them (never be snarky to a US Border guard) and assured them that I was not being compensated for more than my travel expenses. Eventually, they let us through.

We arrived at the conference Saturday morning around lunch-time and I wandered around feeling profoundly stressed out and terrified. I had written about four different versions of the talk, and I wasn’t happy with any of them, most of them were half-finished and they were on all of these scattered sheets of paper that were in a totally disorganized jumble in a notebook. That wasn’t why I was terrified though; I was terrified because speaking in front of a group of people inevitably means contact with other human beings who I don’t know, and I am painfully shy and socially awkward. The last time I gave a talk at a University I literally ran away afterwards, as quickly as possible, in the hopes that no one would chase me down and try to converse with me.

In spite of the fact that my stomach was tying itself into the sort of elaborate knots that will earn you a girl-scouts badge, I managed to eat a small bowl of chili, and then headed over to the auditorium where I was going to speak. In the front hall of said building, there was a demonstration, a “reading of queer poetry” to protest my appearance. The poetry was embarrassingly bad, and thoroughly scandalized the mostly-traditional-Catholic audience who repeatedly described it as “obscene.” (I will return to the matter of ill-thought-out protest actions later.) Anyways, the point was that they were handing out little bits of paper that said why they were there, and what they thought I was going to say that they were so upset about. To me, it was a God-send, because I immediately realized that I could use their protest leaflet as a superior outline for my presentation.

I went to a back room and started restructuring while the organizers fluttered around apologizing for the protest and wondering whether they should call security. I tried to explain that having the protest removed would be very bad for queer-Catholic relations on campus, that no harm was being done, and that I wasn’t frightened of the protesters, which is true. Protesters I can understand. I’ve been a protester. It’s the Catholic audience that scares me. I’ll explain that later.

So I gave my talk. The focus was on how Catholics can/can’t reach out to homosexual people. The basic premise of the talk was “I don’t love gay people, I love...” fill in the names of individuals who happen to be gay identified or same-sex attracted. Basically the whole “you can’t hate the sin vociferously from every mountain top, and only love the sinner in the theological abstract” schtick. It seemed to go down well with the LGBT crowd – several of the protest organizers came up after the talk and thanked me for having come, which I think is as good as could be hoped for.

Tomorrow, I’ll probably blog about the protest thing.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Glad To Be Your Effigy

Well, today I showed up as a controversial blip on the gay-rights radar. It's a strange experience, to be hailed as a new and emerging threat, one of those sinister "ex-gay" speakers that the LGBT folks like to get hysterical about. Strictly speaking, I have had a sort of analogous experience in the past: I once had the opportunity to be portrayed as a loopy post-electric shock conversion therapy victim in a made for TV movie after I spoke at a local school-board during one of those "can a gay kid bring his gay date to that Catholic prom" scandals that periodically crop up. Anyways, apparently I am sounding the death knell of Notre Dame's academic credibility by going to speak at the St. Edith Stein Conference coming up Feburary 12th. It's nice to know that I have that kind of power... Mwa ha ha.
On a more serious note, it highlights another element of the culture wars that I think is particularly seductive and therefore, in many ways, particularly dangerous. It's nice to be hated. That's a very counter-intuitive statement, but there is a sense in which it is true; it's somehow exciting to feel that one is part of an epic conflict of some sort, that I really am the kind of person who could reasonably be vilified in a gay-rights hit piece. The feeling that now I'm making waves, that the enemy feels threatened, and all of that nonsense. Of course it's nonsense, but it's attractive, and I think that it's a lot of what keeps the culture-war home-fires burning. It adds a nice soupcon of adversity and confrontation to the day, provides a bit of an edge, but in a way that is ultimately safe. Or rather, in a way that is ultimately destructive because it undermines genuine dialogue and prevents healthy communication on the cultural level, while being perfectly safe for the front-line combatants.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Readings in Post-modernism

I've just started the drafting for my new book, "A Crisis of Passion," which is about post-modernism, art and the Catholic church. It's strange, because when I started to do my research I thought "I like post-modernity, but I don't like the post-modernists." Now, after several months with my nose in various books, my position is almost precisely the opposite: "I like the post-modernists, but I don't like post-modernity." (The basic difference? Post-modernity is the state of the world as it is, in so far as it is "post modern" or "after modern." It's this sort of being-in-epistemological-and-cultural-limbo feeling that permeates current society. The post-modernists, on the other hand, are philosophers like Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, etc.)
That may sound like heresy, but it comes from a particular way of reading -- one that I picked up while I was working on Sexual Authenticity. The way I used to read -- and I get the impression that a lot of Catholics read this way -- was to accept more or less anything in a book that had some sort of real or implied doctrinal sign of approval, and to scrutinize, with the greatest possible care, any book that had a questionable status, trying to root out heresies, implied errors, wrong ways of thinking, etc. In short, the book had already been judged before it was understood.
When I was researching Sexual Authenticity, however, I had made a promise in my proposal: this was going to be the first Catholic book on homosexuality that relied as much on writings from within the gay world as on Catholic sources. This meant that I had to read a lot of books about homosexuality written by people who identified as gay, and I had to read them with an eye to understanding, so that I would be able to explain and not merely condemn. What emerged from the project was a way of reading books for their truth instead of for their errors.
I've carried that over into this new project, so now when I'm reading Foucault, it's not a matter of trying to work out how to refute the great heresies of the great post-modernists, but rather of trying to see what is true in his work, how that truth appeals to people, and how it can be used by Catholics who are trying to interface with culture.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Jesus Camp

I just finished watching a documentary called "Jesus Camp," which is, as might be guessed, about an evangelical/pentacostal camp for children in the United States. I feel largely ambivalent about the film for a number of reasons. It's a strange beast: the content of it is the way that children are raised/educated/indoctrinated/(whatever word you want to use depending on your paradigm) in the evangelical movement, the bias of the film-makers is obviously liberal, and the whole thing sort of functions as a snap-shot of the culture wars with all of the sloppy thinking, hypocrisy, and general weirdness that accompanies that part of American cultural life.
On the one hand, my natural sympathies do largely lie with the film-makers. I am inclined to see the Jesus camp in much the same way as they do, to perceive this over-emotional, speaking-in-tongues, altar call, public-confessional, intensely Republican spirituality as weird as slightly disturbing. On the other hand, I think that the way in which the film was made is fundamentally disrespectful: no liberal film-maker would ever go into a tribe in another country that had different beliefs, different methods of child-rearing, different ceremonials, different values, etc. and film it in such a way as to induce mockery/horror/disdain/prejudice for the people of that faith and culture. I understand that because the Bible belt is in the States, and the people making the film therefore feel politically threatened by it, that the psychology of the thing is fundamentally different, but at the same time there is a deep hypocrisy here that is profoundly disedifying. The people who they are interviewing and filming are incredibly sincere, and they are trying to hand on their culture, such as it is, to their children, and the experiences that the children are having of faith are genuine experiences, etc. On the other hand, there is something embarrassing about the footage, a feeling that the people who are being filmed should have more audience awareness, that because they do live in post-modern America they should at least be aware that the film crew that has shown up to film them is going to be showing the footage to an audience with liberal biases, that the things that they are saying are going to be cast in a specific light. But then, on the other hand, can I fault people for failing to be ironic? For lacking a sufficient cynicism? For doing their best to convey the Gospel in a way that is sincere? Is it just because I am jaded and post-modern that I think that their way of doing it is inexcusably cheesy and slightly creepy?
It's strange, because it raises questions about the way that we feel about these things. On the one hand, when I see a film of people on the other side of the planet dressing up in strange white garments and spinning in circles in order to get euphorically dizzy and thereby to attain some sort of other-consciousness that they feel brings them closer to God, it has some sort of aesthetic appeal based on the exotic. Yet, on the other hand, if it's too closely related to my own religion -- if it's a form of Christianity and not a form of Islam -- it seems uncomfortable and embarrassing.

Friday, January 8, 2010

I just made one of those unfortunate encounters with google search where, in the process of looking up some entirely innocent query you stumble upon a piece of urban slang describing a sexual perversion that would never even have occurred to you might exist -- the sort of acts that you like to think only appear in de Sade's "100 Days of Sodom."
Now, I have not read all of the "100 Days." I think I made it about as far as day thirty, and then I couldn't stomach it any more. I read it in high-school, guided by a sort of morbid curiosity. "Hmmm," I thought, "I wonder if that's really as bad as it's supposed to be." After all, there's a movie that presents the Marquis as a courageous humanist, and his less obviously depraved works get quoted as profound and revolutionary social thinking in History of Western Civ. type text-books. One could almost get the impression that it's not all that bad, and there's a lot of smoke from very little fire -- an impression that is complemented by the fact that other "risque" works from the period (Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Salambo come to mind) are not scandalous at all to a modern audience. With de Sade, however, this is not even remotely the case.
Reading de Sade as a teen-ager was disturbing not merely on a superficial level -- it was not merely a matter of what he wrote about being obscene -- but also on a philosophical level. I was an extreme sexual liberal: whatever you chose to do in the privacy of your own bedroom was your business and not anyone else's, ever, for any reason, unless it caused direct harm to another person. So, for example, incest would be allowed if it were undertaken by a sterile woman and a family member, or by two same-sex family members, but not if offspring might be born to carry the genetic consequences. De Sade, however, put forward sexual perversions that somehow went beyond the pale; my feminist sensibilities were absolutely outraged, and I didn't care if he had somehow managed to get women to agree with the things that he wanted to do to them, because the acts were fundamentally degrading. There seemed to be a line there at which it was clear that the acts themselves meant something, regardless of consent, and that that meaning was inadmissible, that they were signs that signified a particular attitude towards women (or, alternately, towards the passive male partner in a gay relationship) that simply could not be countenanced. It suggested that there really was a need for boundaries, that sexual morality wasn't simply a matter of arbitrary control over the body, or fear of sex, or religious repression. It also suggested that the road of sexual perversion would, over time, depart more and more from anything that could possibly be construed as alluring, seductive, desirable or even human -- that it was a path that ended not in a universal love-without-limits, but in a sort of bestial hatred for the object of sexual attraction, an intense need to master or be mastered, to conceive of sexuality as a kind of conflict in which all of the rituals by which the conquered enemy is humiliated become somehow appropriate.