Thursday, December 15, 2011

I Can Talk!

My husband has had me in public speaking boot-camp for the last couple of weeks. He's trying to train me not to say “umm...”, or “you know” about issues where my audience could not possibly know, and to eliminate my tendency to giggle awkwardly at my own jokes. And, glory be to God, there has been some improvement. Therefore I am introducing to the world a series of talks on homosexuality that I've been developing. If anyone reading is aware of an organization that might be interested in having me speak, please write me and let me know. My e-mail address is melinda@vulgatamagazine.org.

Yours Queerly – Through the story of my conversion and marriage, I explore the issues surrounding gender, sex, attraction and identity. This talk contrasts the stereotypes of “ex-gays” that appear both in Christian propaganda and in LGBTQ discourse in order to understand how someone with same-sex attractions or a queer gender identity can be a faithful Catholic without ceasing to be herself.

(Ideal for youth groups and parishes.)

Loneliness and Gender – By examining of the role that socialization plays in forming sexual identities, and the advantages and disadvantages that befall the “outsider,” I discuss how Catholics can more effectively understand LGBTQ people, and how we can provide the sort of environment that supports the genuine interior freedom of people with same-sex attractions.

(Ideal for high-school classes or other venues where the audience may not be sympathetic to Catholic teaching)

Somewhat Over the Rainbow – Catholic teaching provides both a unique form of hope, and also a unique form of challenge for people who have same-sex attractions or unusual gender characteristics. This talk looks deeply at the difficulties involved in living chastely, preserving the positive aspects of an LGBTQ identity, avoiding the repression trap, and coming to love and accept oneself while living in accord with magisterial teaching.

(Ideal for same-sex attracted Catholics, their families and friends.)

Objects of Scorn, Subjects of Love – The Church is losing the culture war on the homosexual front because our efforts are directed towards homosexual issues rather than towards homosexual persons. Our hatred for the sin is palpable, our love for the sinner is mostly abstract. In this talk, I look at the ways that Catholics can avoid alienating and demonizing the homosexual person, I examine the reasons why we should want more gays and lesbians in our Churches, and I ask how we can more effectively minister to our LGBTQ sisters and brothers.

(Ideal for educators, priests, counselors and others involved in ministry to homosexual persons.)

Queers in Heaven – Homosexual tendencies and queer genders are not sinful, and are not incompatible with sanctity or wisdom. Men and women from Socrates to Joan of Arc have found unique paths to virtue, not by repressing or denying their atypical sexual identities, but rather by finding a way to incorporate their “queer” personalities into the search for truth, beauty and goodness. This talk looks at role-models for LGBTQ people that both affirm their fundamental human dignity, and at the same time provide models for chaste spirituality.

(Ideal for highly polarized audiences in which both sides of the “culture war” are well represented.)

Language of the Body – We examine the meaning of sexuality and the role which language plays in shaping the discourse surrounding sex. How can Catholics use the queer language of the postmodern world in order to convey truths about human sexuality in a way that will reach the heart of contemporary men and women? We will also look at the meanings which are inherent in the body itself, in order to understand the profound underlying logic of Catholic teaching on homosexuality.

(Ideal for a more educated, academic audience.)

Wake Me When I'm Straight

I've been thinking a lot about reparative therapy recently, and I think I've figured out why I find it hard to relate to. My difficulty begins with a deep suspicion about the social sciences: I don't think that there are accessible, fixed, “objective” truths about subjective human experiences. I don't know what happened in my past, and I can't know, at least not in a scientific sense. The information that pours in over the course of a human life is just too much: it can't all be processed, much less intercorrelated and accurately interpreted. The problem begins with primary data: when you're living, at the very moment when you're intaking information from your surroundings, you're always filtering, deciding what's left out and what's left in. That means that a large proportion of your experience isn't even accessed at the point when it is immediately present. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that when you're looking back, accessing the small quantity of pre-filtered data that you actually recorded for recall, it's still far too much to make sense of it all. Most of it can't even be reliably brought to mind, but the parts of it that can are still a mass of information far too large to be looked at simultaneously. The result is that people are constantly forced to produce narratives – sort of like editing together a single, coherent, two hour long documentary out of ten-thousand hours of footage.

Narrative construction, like essay-writing, generally begins with a thesis or a script. There's some sort of concept that will be developed, and mnemonic proof texts will be brought forward to support whatever hypothesis the mind has settled on. Several classics come immediately to mind:

1. The Conversion Narrative: After a religious conversion, the person often goes back into her past and finds the evidence of God acting in silence before she knew that He was there. 2. The “Born Gay” Narrative: The gay-identified man reaches into his childhood for evidence of early SSA. (There's actually a lesbian writer who re-wrote her autobiography after the gay-gene hypothesis mainstreamed, in order to more cleanly dovetail her recollections with that theory.) 3. The Hand of Fate Narrative: A person imagines that he is fated to fulfill a particular great role, and seeks signs and portents in the past which indicate his future glory. 4. The Emotional Abuse Narrative: After a divorce, a woman comes to construe her entire marriage as a series of degradations, manipulations and delusions. Obviously, we could multiply this list more or less infinitely, and there are countless private variations. The point is that the data of the past is organized in order to fit the psychological purposes of the present, and in order to create a coherent story that locates the individual within a teleological framework that provides life with meaning.

Psychoanalysis is basically the art of helping people to construct productive and useful narratives. The anchoring illusion of objectivity provided by the scientific metanarrative bolsters the feeling that a person is discovering the “truth” about him or herself, and this gives the process additional authority, and therefore additional psychic force. When a psychologist goes delving around in a person's childhood to find the “cause” of their present sufferings, what they're actually doing is finding evidence that will help the person to build up a coherent narrative to explain present problems. By establishing a series of archetypal struggles and images, the psychologist is able to provide the patient with a means of resolving their suffering by symbolically or actually defeating whatever bogeymen get summoned up to fulfill the role of the antagonist. So, for example, if someone “discovers” that their insecurities are the “result” of an over-critical mother, they can then find a way to reconcile with, or stand up to, or otherwise confront the spectre of that mother. If done properly, this confrontation will bring relief, and the insecurity will begin to subside.

The difficulty is that the therapist has to present a narrative that the patient is able to accept and believe in. Reparative therapy has several such narratives on tap: the “father wound”, the “sports wound”, “peer-rejection”, etc. These childhood origin stories purport to explain SSA, and to be fair, I have encountered some people for whom they are able to fulfill this role. However, as Eve Tushnet puts it, “there are all kinds of cases where family dynamics don't explain very much. And honestly--family dynamics are often a reductive and boring explanation for homosexuality.” To me, this really sums it up: the narrative of healing that Nicolosi and company put forward is boring. It's not that I can't find evidence to support it if I go rooting around in my past, it's that if this is the archetypal journey that I'm being asked to undertake then I can't be bothered. Neither the villain nor the prize is sufficiently interesting to justify the quest.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Morbid Beauty

I have an on-going difficulty with telling my conversion story, because the part of it that is the least interesting to me is the part that other people are most interested in. They want to know how I went from being a lesbian to being straight. The truth is, I don't think that I even necessarily did that: it's very rare for anyone to be exclusively homosexual (that is, to be unable to have reasonably successful sex with members of the opposite sex.) If you make a clear and unilateral decision not to have same-sex relationships, there's a certain chance that your libido will take the path of least resistance and swing in the opposite direction. In any case, I never made a conscious decision that I was going to get myself hitched to some man. I was pretty happy with the idea that I would simply not have romantic or sexual relationships as a part of my life, I had never really believed in “love” in the erotic sense anyways, and I didn't believe in orientation change. I made a decision to break up with my girlfriend, that's all, really.

My conversion didn't have much to do with homosexuality. It wasn't a big deal. That sounds really counter-intuitive, until you consider what it is that conversion is, what it entails. There I was, a little baby dyke with short purple hair and a wardrobe that I'd stolen from John Paul Sartre. I had an intense love-hate relationship with God that had been going on for years. On the one hand, I just couldn't get it out of my head that there must be some sort of ordering force behind the universe, that I was a character living in a created world and that there was an author filling in symbolic values and prodding me towards a meaningful narrative in a multipotential Free-Will Positive space. On the other hand, the image of a crucified man who was God terrified me. Literally, terrified. I looked up at the cross and I saw the total sacrifice of humanity to the most terrible suffering, the acceptance of the unacceptable, the moral contradiction which Christians placed at the heart of the world. I couldn't have it. I wouldn't. If that was the sort of universe that I lived in, then I would respectfully return my ticket.

The problem of suffering was the crux of the issue (pun unintended). I had encountered Jesus, semi-accidentally, on some Good Friday when I went to church to please my mother. The story of Gethsemene just stuck in my head, and the idea of a man, a morally perfect individual, choosing to give up His life in that way was so profoundly beautiful and unsettling. I think I cried. Not in the Church, of course, there I was too busy meditating on how I liked all of the black and purple, and the morbid beauty of the Good Friday celebration, but how, at the same time, I felt alienated by Christianity. It was later, when I got home, I dug through the junk on my bedroom floor and unearthed a copy of the Bible that I kept there so that I could go rooting around for contradictions when I had nothing to do at night. I felt as though I had been sucked into the text and I was there, standing in the garden, confronting Him. I had nothing to say. I was literally in awe. The strength, and weight, and depth of human free will, and all of its moral dimensions were there, represented in that figure. Yet He was a figure that I couldn't bring myself to accept.

I dealt with this by busily trying to construct an alternative narrative where Christ was just a man, a figure like Socrates, whose beautiful sacrifice had been co-opted by this mechanical heteropatriarchal hierarchy. I don't know. It wasn't rationally coherent. My aesthetic sense told me unequivocally that Christ's sacrifice was beautiful, and that God existed, and that the perennial human fascination with death and tears and blood pointed towards some deep magic that undergirded the world. Since beauty was basically my religion I couldn't discard this evidence. On the other hand, my defences against the reality of suffering in the world. It was about accepting God's creation on God's terms. It was about wanting beauty badly enough to accept the price-tag attached to it. It was about falling in love with the one who had made me. And once I was in love with Him, how could my lesbian lover possibly compete?reason was adamant that it was all nonsense, and the most dangerous kind of nonsense at that.

Conversion, then, wasn't about homosexuality at all. It was about laying down my rational defences against the reality of suffering in the world. It was about accepting God's creation on God's terms. It was about wanting beauty badly enough to accept the price-tag attached to it. It was about falling in love with the one who had made me. And once I was in love with Him, how could my lesbian lover possibly compete?

Friday, December 9, 2011

Creative life, communion and the gift of self

There's a question that I didn't get asked tonight on Catholic Answers Live (listen here) that I had prepared a lovely answer for, so I'm going to post my preparatory notes in a slightly expanded form:

The question is, what should a person do if they have same-sex attractions and they want to try to live a chaste life in accord with the teachings of the magisterium. This is one that I did some research on, and I'd like to express my indebtedness to Ron Belgau and Eve Tushnet (Eve has a blog that is definitely worth a look) for insights that I've pillaged from their writings.

Basically, I think that there are three basic psychological needs which are fulfilled through sex and family life in the case of married people. These are creativity, communion and self-giving. If a celibate person does not find a way to express these elements of personality in other ways, they will find themselves inevitable, and perhaps compulsively drawn to sex as a means of assuaging the hunger. Eve observes that you need to develop a strong relationship with artistic beauty, and I would add that for most people having a creative outlet is essential. Also, as Socrates observes, the road to Truth is very often, perhaps most often, via the Beautiful. The need for communion has to be fulfilled through strong friendships, same-sex friendships in particular in the case of queer people. Same-sex attraction, at least in my mind, is constituted by a disordered sexualization of an ordered desire for close communion with members of one's own sex. Finally, the role of self-giving is essential. John Paul II relates masculinity and femininity, in their most essential forms, to fatherhood and motherhood – and points out that these elements of personality can be expressed spiritually by those who are not biological parents. People who wish to live a celibate life need to make some sort of corporal work of mercy a major part of their spirituality. I would add that works which concentrate on ministering to the needs of those who are deeply lonely, outcast, alienated or ostracized by society is probably a good idea for LGBTQ folks, because let's face it, most of us have a pretty deep experience of alienation ourselves. Eve references prison ministry. I personally did ministry to the homeless. I would also add that AIDS hospices are desperately in need of volunteers, and that Catholic outreach in this area is lacking, to say that least.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Little Lost Boiz

The tone of my last few posts has been towards the bitter end of the spectrum...if I may be permitted to understate the case. I would like to make it clear that I don't resent the kind, straight Catholic ladies who are inspired by my story. It's good for people to be inspired by seeing the power of God working other people's lives. It's one of those feminine tastes that I tend to think of as sentimental, and it's a vibe that I find it really hard to get into, but I'm able to see that it's a good thing. Also, just as God's way of making fun of me, since my last post two different people with SSA have confessed to being “inspired” by my story...

Anyways, with regards to the bitterness, it's partially because I've been reading a whole bunch of stuff from the reparative therapy crowd recently. I'm not ready to try to write about that. I think there's too much anger for me to see it clearly, and I'm still in the process of researching. The point is, that it's reminded me of the connection between same-sex attraction and childhood ostracization/bullying. This is one of the few connections that is generally admitted by both sides of the debate (though, of course, there are dissenters in both camps...) The causal relationship is not agreed on: groups like NARTH say that bullying and rejection by same-sex peers causes SSA later in life, while LGBTQ groups say that homophobia causes people who are innately gay to be bullied in childhood. Anyway, the thing that really got to me is that apparently there's this diagnostic test that will allow the shrinks to pick out the gays, and one of the main things that allows them to suss us out is that we will be able to name very few, or no close same-sex friends during childhood.

So it becomes a sort of feed-back loop. All of the kids that no one wanted to hang out with on the playground grow up to be the adults that no one wants to hang out with because we're “unnatural” and “objectively disordered.” I realize that's not what the Vatican means, but it really is what's meant by a lot of Christians who aren't able to distinguish between “disorder” as a moral-theological term, and “disorder” as a psychological illness label.

Thinking about this has also dredged up a lot of stuff from my own childhood. Like there was this monkey-bar climber at school, and I remember that the popular girls used to come along and tell me that I had to get off of it, because it was “theirs.” I also know that I hurt myself on that climber, and dislocated my shoulder, and something in my brain keeps telling me that these two things are related – that I fell and dislocated my shoulder because I was being pushed off the monkey-bars by the popular girls. But I can't remember whether that's true or not, and if it is true, I'm pretty sure I never told anyone. It's really bothering me, at least in part because it draws attention to the malleability of memory, to the fact that all of our past selves are deeply self-constructed.

The irony is that some of the traits that caused me to be excluded and picked on as a kid were feminine traits. I liked to wear frilly girly dresses with puffed sleeves, or pioneer pinafores that reminded me of Anne of Green Gables. All of the other kids were wearing blue jeans, spandex bicycle shorts and hypercolour t-shirts. I also refused to watch any movies or TV shows that were violent or gross – though if I'm going to honestly deconstruct that one, it wasn't out of any feminine sensibility, but out of a belief that such programs were immoral. I liked Nancy Drew, and Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer Night's Dream, but it was hard to find other kids who could sympathize with that at ten years old.

My experience seems to fit in with Riche Savin-William's finding that children who go on to develop SSA tend to gravitate not towards gender-bending activities, but rather towards solitary activities which are not gender specific. (From The New Gay Teenager) What this suggests, at least to me, is that a big part of the difficulty facing queer kids is that our society has a needlessly narrow understanding of what constitutes “feminine” or “masculine” behaviour: that there is an excessive concentration of attention on particular masculine or feminine stereotypes, and the kids who don't fit into these one way or another get singled out as weird, sissy, or queer.

Calling All Reparative Therapy Success Stories

I'm going to be on the radio on Friday (Catholic Answers Live -- 7pm ET December 9) I fear that I might be asked about reparative therapy, father wounds, NARTH and all that jazz. I have never personally been involved with any of that, and I've heard a lot of bad press from the ex-ex-gay movement, and from various people that I know within the Catholic SSA community. I know that the reparative therapists themselves claim to have had lots of successes, and happy clientele, but I've never actually met one of these people or had a chance to talk to them about their experiences, so I feel that I'm rather in the dark when it comes to that side of the issue. I'm putting out a general call for reparative therapy clients to contact me and let me know about their experiences, good or bad. If you have been through this, or know someone who has, please send me a comment or e-mail me at melinda@vulgatamagazine.org. Thanks for the help.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

My 'Inspiring' Story

One of my readers reprimanded me for the content of my previous post "Gay Cooties." The substance of the argument was that my story is inspiring, but that being outraged by homophobia in the Christian world isn't helping my ministry. I've considered this very seriously, however on reflection I've realized that the opposite is true.

My inspiring conversion story is not inspiring to LGBTQ people. I've never once had a letter, or a comment on my blog, or a phone call, or someone come up to me after a talk and say "I have same-sex attractions and I'm really inspired by your story." I've had dozens of people tell me that my story is a real inspiration, and a testimony to the grace of God, but every single one of them, to a woman (they're almost all women) is straight. Really conspicuously not even questioning. This doesn't mean that I don't have a ministry to LGBTQ people. I have had same-sex attracted people come up to me, and thank me, and ask me questions about Catholic sexual morality, but it's not because they were inspired by my conversion story. LGBTQ people generally just think "Oh. So she's bisexual and she's chosen a Catholic marriage. I guess that's her choice." The one thing that gives me any credibility with the same-sex attracted crowd is that fact that I'm willing to stand up and tell the faithful Catholics that they're not better than the gays.

After I noticed this, I thought, "Oh. But what about the story of the Prodigal son?" When Jesus went out to preach to the tax-collectors and the sinners, He told them a story about a boy who goes and squanders his inheritance in the city, who sinks into a mire of depravity, and who then repents and returns to his father's home where he is joyfully welcomed. If that's not an inspiring conversion story, I don't know what is. So I flipped open my Jerusalem Bible to chapter 15 of Luke, and re-read the story -- but this time I noticed something that I've never noticed before. Christ does not tell the story of the Prodigal son to the tax-collectors and the sinners. He tells it to the Pharisees. The whole story with the sinner in the pig-sty is just a set-up for the part at the end about the kid who complains that his father has never given him a goat. The parable is actually the parable of the Good Son.

Now this isn't to point a finger and threaten all Catholics with brimstone. I think it's important to remember that the Pharisees ought not to be stereotyped and judged any more than the rainbow folks. The Pharisees were people who genuinely wanted to do good, to serve God, and to obey His ordinances. Several of them are spoken of very highly in the gospels, and some were converts to Christianity. St. Paul, the prototypical Christian convert, was a Pharisee. So Pharisee shouldn't be a dirty word. The purpose of drawing the parallel between faithful Christians of today, and the Pharisees of yesterday, is that just as gay-sex is a perennial temptation to queer folks, self-righteous pride is a perennial temptation for religious types. The moment that we forget this, that we start to think that we're okay, that we begin to thank God that we're not like those homosexuals down at the bathhouse, that's when it's time to look again at all of the things that Christ said to those who thought they were good.

p.s. There's a fabulous Nick Cave song called The Good Son, about this parable, and I highly recommend it to all.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Shame and Guilt and Guilt and Shame and Guilt

I am officially calmer now than I was yesterday, so I'm going to try to write something more coherent about homophobia, what it is, and what it does.

In conservative Catholic circles, the general going theory is that “homophobia” is a fictitious psychological disorder made up by people in the LGBTQ contingent in order to shame Catholics into silence. (Oddly enough, this is exactly that the same way that LGBTQ people feel about “homosexuality” being defined as a psychological disorder...) In so far as the term refers to an alleged mental illness, this is fair enough. There are cases of real homophobia, mostly, as far as I can make out, in men who were sexually assaulted as young boys or in men with strong and severely repressed same-sex attractions. This is the disorder that leads to fag-beating and other forms of violence against homosexual persons, and admittedly it's not widespread within the Catholic world. However, the term is also used in a more colloquial way. Just as people will casually refer to particular behaviours as “obsessive compulsive” even when they occur in folks who don't fit the DSM-IV's definition of OCD, people will refer to other behaviours as “homophobic” even if they are not on the level of an actual, literal phobia.

Homophobia, as it is used colloquially, refers to an unreasonable fear of homosexual persons. This can be a fear that one will become “infected” with homosexuality, that one's children will be seduced, that gays are going to destroy civilization by having anal sex, that all gay men are sexual predators, that being around gay people will inevitably scandalize one's children, etc. Basically, when straight people are more apprehensive about being in the presence of homosexuals than they would be about being in the presence of other groups of sinners who are committing comparably severe sins, this is homophobia. It is often ideological, cultural or spiritual much more than it is psychological. To put it into Catholic language, it is the sin committed by people who are tempted to neglect the paragraph in the Catechism about avoiding unjust discrimination against homosexual persons, and it is a sin against charity.

Homophobic Christians avoid contact with homosexual persons. They resist forming close friendships with gays and lesbians and may counsel others that it is “sinful,” “scandalous” or “imprudent” to associate with “obstinate” homosexual sinners. They often justify this with the belief that somehow by ostracizing, shunning or otherwise refusing to associate with gays and lesbians they are sending a clear message about the evils of homosexuality: they are showing LGBTQ people that their sins are objectively damaging to society. In doing so they believe that they are witnessing to the truth in a charitable way. They tend to be afraid that if they take part in social situations where gay or lesbian couples are behaving in a normal way, they are helping to “normalize” same-sex relationships, and that they are thus guilty of scandal.

These beliefs are dangerously untrue. I know a lot of LGBTQ people, many of them people within the Church. I've read numerous conversion stories by LGBTQ folks who converted to Christianity. In absolutely not a single one of these stories was the shame or guilt associated with being shunned and cold-shouldered by Christians a source of edification, or a spur to repentance. On the contrary, one of the primary reasons which LGBTQ people give for leaving or despising Christian communities is that they were constantly subjected to homophobic behaviours and attitudes on the part of well-meaning Christians. Contrary to the claims made by people who are ideologically committed to homophobia, these behaviours and attitudes are not generally directed at homosexual acts, but at homosexual persons themselves. The claim that by being together with a partner a homosexual person is “flaunting” their sin justifies a series of behaviours which, if we directed them towards any other people, would clearly just be rude.

More to the point, a lot of LGBTQ people have been deeply affected by homophobic reactions on the part of Christians. Often these behaviours do actually have the intended effect: that is, they cause feelings of shame and guilt in their targets. The problem is that homosexuality is deeply connected with experiences of ostracism and loneliness, particularly on the part of same-sex peers. When a person feels ashamed, guilty and isolated because of their homosexual inclinations, this produces feelings of profound self-hatred and despair. It makes people feel “dirty.” They come to believe that God hates them, and they often end up acting out homosexually, either in order to assuage their loneliness, or to take solace in sensual pleasure, or because they despair of salvation, or out of a self-destructive impulse. In other words, what homophobic reactions actually do is not call the sinner to repentance, but put the sinner in a situation where they are compulsively driven back to their sin in order to gain some sort of relief.

The same can be said for sexual sinners of all kinds which is, I believe, the reason why Christ was so gentle with those who sinned according to the flesh. He told them about salvation, forgave their sins, delivered them from persecution, and bestowed on them the dignity and self-respect necessary to go and sin no more. The fire-and-brimstone diatribes he saved for the wealthy, the complacent and the self-righteous.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Gay Cooties

I'm blogging today about something that I found on the Catholic Answers Forum. Here is the featured question from yesterday:
Re: Should I be forced to celebrate Thanksgiving with a gay "married" couple?

My sister-in-law invited her gay brother and his "husband," who are "married" -- as defined by our judicial system here in Massachusetts. There will be about twelve adults and ten children attending, children ages 13-19. I have a big problem with this being forced on me and am not going to be with my family this Thanksgiving. I feel that it is thrust upon me and confusing the children about what we believe as Catholics. I'd like to do the charitable route and go, but I feel I must stand up for what we believe and be a witness of our faith to both the adults and the kids. What do you think?

Michelle Arnold's Response:

Before I get to the point at which I basically agree with you, which I plan to do, let's first look at this from your sister-in-law's point of view.

Thanksgiving is a family holiday, one at which your sister-in-law evidently has taken responsibility to host for her husband's family -- a family that, by your estimation, will include over twenty people. Is it surprising that your sister-in-law would like to include her family in this celebration by inviting her own brother to the event? If she is not Catholic, or is not convinced of the Catholic position on homosexuality, she may even consider it rude not to invite her brother and his "husband." (Of course, it may be that your sister-in-law invited her brother and his "spouse" to someone else's home for Thanksgiving. In that case, take up the matter with whoever is hosting the event.)

My point is that someone is going to a lot of trouble to host over twenty people for Thanksgiving dinner this year, and either chose to include or chose to allow someone else to invite a family member and his "significant other." For another guest to make a fuss that two men are being welcomed over to someone else's home for one of the biggest family holidays of the year is going to appear to them to be churlish.

Now, back to your point of view. I completely sympathize with your discomfort over the idea of seeing teens given an example of "gay married life" over their turkey and cornbread, especially if the men are not willing to behave for the sake of the children as if they are merely platonic friends. By attending such an event, and appearing to sanction such a relationship, you could indeed be contributing to the corruption of the morals of children. In that light, attending such an event is hardly "charitable." I also completely sympathize with your outrage at feeling that you are not able to spend Thanksgiving with your family because one family member did not feel the need to consult with other adults in the family about the appropriateness of including this couple at a family event at which children would be in attendance. But, just because you are correct, does not mean that you need to contribute to the family drama by making a show of your disapproval.

Here's one possible plan of action:

* Call the host with your regrets. * Simply say that "something has come up" that prevents you from attending. (This is true.) * Do not allow yourself to be pressed into explaining what came up. (This will make it all the more obvious what the problem was without you appearing to be a "spoilsport.") Just keep reiterating how sorry you are that you're unable to attend. * Arrange your own Thanksgiving celebration this year. * As early as possible for next year, perhaps over Christmas this year, let your family know that you would like to host the family Thanksgiving next year. * If your sister-in-law asks if her brother and his "spouse" can come to your home for Thanksgiving, regretfully explain that you already have a "full house." * Then allow her to decide where she and her immediate family will spend Thanksgiving.

I've attempted to stir up some controversy over this in the forums but I'd also like to post a response here.

This is a category of question that I've seen a lot of times, and it basically rests on the assumption that if we agree to do everyday normal things in the presence of people who are in gay relationships, that we are somehow sanctioning their relationships. The corollary is the belief that by refusing to participate, we send a clear message about the morality of same-sex relationships and we witness to the truth about homosexuality.

When we refuse to get involved in the lives of LGBTQ people, we do send a very clear message, but the message has nothing to do with the truth. We send the message that we are bigoted homophobes who think that gays are icky. We send the message that Catholics don't want anything to do with those nasty fags, and that we're afraid that our children will catch homosexuality like a disease if they're brought into even the most casual contact with gay couples. We send a message that we really care a lot about hating the sin, but that we're not even willing to eat at the same table as the sinner.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Feminine Socialization

Maura has pointed out that the activities which I was not able to comfortably participate in as an adolescent girl are not essential to femininity, that they are superficial and culture bound. I think it's important to acknowledge that the superficial, cultural expressions of femininity are not actually irrelevant. These are the social activities that women perform in order to socialize one another. Feminine social grooming takes place at the mall, in the cafeteria, at sleepover parties where girls give each other makeovers, and so forth. Girls get together as girls and they learn from one another how to be feminine, how to present themselves as feminine in the wider culture, and how to think and identify as women. Basically, there's a set of techniques for developing the self, a stylistics that communicates and signals femininity to other people. When a woman develops a feminine aesthetic that is acceptable to her culture, it also produces a corresponding sense of comfort within her own psyche. Her femininity is constantly reinforced and buttressed within the social sphere, and this contributes in a substantial way to her ability to relate to herself and to other women in a way that is conceived as “feminine.” This whole process happens very naturally for women who are “cisgendered,” that is, who are largely or completely comfortable with the identity between their physical sex and their social/psychological gender.

There are any number of reasons why this might not happen for a particular woman. Sometimes it's a matter of social opportunities, isolation, exclusion and so forth, in which case I would say that a person is accidentally queer – they have gender confusion as a result of having been left out of the loop during the process of gender-socialization in childhood and adolescence. On the other hand, I think that there are characteristics that are related to femininity in all cultures which some women lack. Excitement and apprehension about the development of female sex characteristics is, for example, a more universal feminine experience; it's normal for a girl in any culture to have a desire for womanhood and to work that out in the context of a female social sphere where her feelings are validated, shared and possibly given some sort of ritual catharsis. That's why I think that there's some basis for gender-queerness that goes a little deeper than mere socialization. If it were just that I found the cultural expressions of femininity in postmodern North America alienating and dull, that would be a fairly superficial matter. The problem is that there are certain elements of female development and female psychology that are generally included in notions of “essential” femininity which I happen to lack.

The lack of interest in my nascent femininity during adolescence is one example. Another is the fact that I'm generally oblivious to social cues and body language. Most people who try to describe essential femininity will include the idea that women are more sensitive to other people's emotions and to the subtextual cues in social interaction. One of the classic examples in the Catholic world is of Mary noticing that the wine has run out at the Wedding at Cana. She sees this and intervenes to remedy the situation before it becomes socially embarassing. It's generally felt that this kind of awareness is one of the great strengths of femininity – and it's something that I don't have. Now I happen to know that the reason I don't have it is that I come from a family where practically everyone can be pegged somewhere on the autism spectrum. If I was at the Wedding at Cana, I wouldn't notice anything: I'd be suffering from massive information overload and would be only vaguely aware of my surroundings at all. In a social situation there's simply too much information to process, so my mind either fixates on a single person or a single activity and becomes completely oblivious to everything else, or else I sort of sink into a cloudy haze where I'm not even conscious of what I'm doing or saying. In a private conversation, I'm almost completely blind to the subtle cues being given off by the other person – this is another classic high-functioning autistic attribute. My ability to process or read other people's emotions is exceedingly primative, and I often get it wrong. I miss massive clues and I'm unaware of subtle shades of meaning. In this respect I'm more incompetent than a lot of perfectly “masculine” men. Needless to say, the inability to participate in conversation and social life in this respect serves as a massive impediment to full inclusion in the female social world. I come across as weird, masculine, “queer.” This creates a sort of self-perpetuating cycle, where because I'm inept at being included, I am excluded, and because I am excluded I become increasingly inept.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Yours Queerly

I've had a couple of commentators ask about the whole gender and homosexuality issue, so I'm going to try to cover some of what I think about that. This is an issue that weighs pretty heavily on my mind, because it comes to the heart of the question about whether “sexual orientation” is something that can be changed. The LGBTQ position is that sexual orientation is fixed, that it cannot be changed, and that if you're gay, you were born that way. The right-wing Christian position is that it can be changed, and there are numerous ex-gay ministries that are supposed to bring this change about.

I weigh in somewhere in between these two positions. I think that most people who are gay, lesbian, bi or transgendered really are queer – that is they possess distinctive traits that are either innate or fixed so early in childhood that they can't possibly be considered culpable, and that they cannot be altered. For example, there are certain formative experiences that have to do with gender-identity development that have to happen during a certain, relatively brief period in a person's life. In some cases, these events don't take place. In my case I never went through the part of adolescence where a girl looks forward to becoming a woman, where she wants to wear training bras, and hopes to get her period, and twitters excitedly with her girl friends about the cute boys in her classes. I read Are You There God, It's Me Margaret, and I felt totally alienated: I couldn't relate to this normal teenage girl who was anxious and excited about her emerging femininity. Reparative therapists tend to opine that experiences like mine are the result of failed socialization, that a lack of close female friendships cause women to be adrift when it comes to developing feminine feelings. I don't think that's how it worked for me, though: I remember the point when the other girls on the playground were discussing these things, and I remember having the opportunity to participate in those discussions. I made the decision to walk away and not get involved, because the subject made me uncomfortable, it didn't seem to concern me, and I wasn't interested in it. The point is that that discomfort and disinterest weren't the result of social ostracization: the causality was the other way. As I reached the age at which other girls were increasingly interested in distinctly feminine activities and concerns, I became increasingly unable to relate to them, and I dissociated myself quite naturally from their world. Instead of hanging with the girls and talking about the New Kids on the Block, I went and hung around with the shy, sissy flute-playing soprano boy who I'm sure has since gone on to be a wonderfully talented gay musician.

The conservative party line is that I was suffering from “gender-identity disorder,” and that presumably I could have been fixed if I'd been taken aside and taught how to conform to certain standard gender development patterns. I've seen enough testimonies from people who were put through that personality-normalization wringer to be extremely wary of this claim. I also have my own experience of trying to gender-normalize myself during late middle-school and early high-school. I made a concerted attempt to enjoy going to the mall, to watch Melrose Place to talk about girly things and to care about the back-biting politics of the high-school popularity scene. I managed to work up a couple of artificial crushes on boys so that I'd be able to participate in the whole adolescent erotic game, but the effect of it was an increasing feeling of depression, isolation and inauthenticity, accompanied by a profound compulsion to escape. A lot of the time I would get out of class, and would be time to head to the lunch room and gab with my girl friends, and I would have this intensive feeling of dread. More and more over the course of those years, my reaction was simply to flee: to get out of the building and go down to the ravine where I could walk along the side of the bubbling creek and lay in the sunlight on the big flat rock that jutted out into the stream, and where I could immerse myself in the worlds of beauty, imagination, melancholy and Truth.

Someone out there is going to object that none of those things listed above are inherently unfeminine, and I'll agree. However when the kind of beauty that appeals is the beauty of the female body, and the kind of Truth that appeals is the rationalism of Immanuel Kant or the Stoicism of Epictetus, and the imagination tends to favour either extremely masculine female role-models or an outright retreat into an explicitly male headspace, then it becomes increasingly clear that gender-identity is at stake. It's not that I'm transgendered, though I think that if I were to honestly peg myself using the LGBTQ taxonomy of sexual identities, I'd have to admit I'm gender-queer.

For obvious reasons, this is an issue that requires a much longer discussion than I have space for in one post. I'll try to return to it soon, particularly in terms of whether alternative gender identities can fruitfully be categorized as “disorders,” whether these identities are fixed or malleable, and what relationship that has with the whole sexual orientation change debate.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Loneliness and Gender

There's been more than one occasion where I've been talking to someone who has strong, even compulsive same-sex attractions, and where it is clear that the fundamental underlying issue is a profound loneliness. Many reparative therapists have argued that SSA is basically caused by a failure to connect properly with same-sex peers during childhood and adolescence. One formulation of this theory is the EBE, or “Exotic becomes erotic” hypothesis. According to this account, a person's sexual attractions are formed on the basis of a feeling of difference, distance, and therefore desire. It's very similar, actually, to the account of desire that Socrates gives in the Symposium, where he suggests that distance and lack of a thing are absolutely essential to Eros (love, desire, attraction.) So basically, if an adolescent is starved for same-sex companionship, that desire will become sexualized in the heady atmosphere of high-school hormones.

There may be something in that. Research (even research done by people sympathetic to the gay cause) suggests that teenagers with same-sex attractions are more likely to be drawn to solitary activities. The chicken and egg phenomenon of course exists – does the “difference” involved in being gay cause a person to be alienated from “straight” peers, such that they naturally turn to solitary pursuits in order to amuse themselves, or does the interest in solitary pursuits lead to social exclusion and from there to this EBE sexuality and hence homosexual attraction. Frankly, I think that it's one of those inextricably linked phenomena, where you have two factors that feed into and play off of one another, and where neither of those two factors are wholly or exclusively responsible for the result that you get.

In any case, irregardless of which side of the pro hoc propter hoc divide you find yourself on, the fact is that a lot of people with same-sex attractions are lonely – gay because they're lonely, or lonely because they're gay, it really doesn't matter. The loneliness itself is worth discussing, because regardless of which is the cause, and which is the effect, there is no question that sexual temptations of any kind are amplified by loneliness.

The difficulty is that no matter how you slice it, most people in the LGBTQ crowd really and actually are different. Not everyone, but most. It's something that I still deal with in my own life, because frankly all of the personality traits and weird gender-attributes that made me think I was lesbian in the first place are still here, and they're not going away. It means that it's difficult, in many cases, for LGBTQ people to form friendships with straight folks – and especially with straight people of their own gender. I've met a lot of lesbians who think that straight girls are just weird. For gay guys, it's often even harder because the general opinion of most men, if you get them outside of a context where they feel that they have to be politically correct, is that gay men are effeminate and fruity. This leads to emotional distrust which is difficult to overcome.

Reparative therapy tends to try to deal with this by getting people to adopt behaviours and interests that are more typical of their gender, in order that they'll be able to become more acceptable and better able to make friends. I'm not sure how I feel about that. On the one hand, there are things that are kind of like that that I do myself. On the other hand, I think it's really important to do that in a way that is “natural,” in the sense of being compatible with my own personality. What this means, in terms of Catholic outreach, is that it's really, really important for Catholics to understand that the “faggy” or “butch” behaviours of LGBTQ people aren't necessarily affectations, and they're not necessarily some sort of psychological disorder that needs to be overcome. They're differences, but it is the responsibility of those who would become Christ to the world to accept and love those who the rest of the world is inclined to reject.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Foucault

I've just started reading volume two of Foucault's History of Sexuality, The Use of Pleasure. Here's my guilty secret: I love Foucault. I'm very familiar with his place in the Catholic discourse about postmodernism, to whit, that he's a dangerous atheist who circulates incoherent ideas and tries to break down the foundations of truth and to unravel the moral fabric of modern intellectual life, and also that he's a(n) (insert slur word of your choice here) homosexual.
So what's to love?

Basically, Foucault is an historian of ideas. This means that his method is not evaluative; he's trying to examine and describe the ways in which ideas were formed, the concerns that drove people to formulate different philosophical problems, and the complex interplay between concepts and practices. I can see why readers who are fundamentally unsympathetic to sexual morality would come away from this book feeling that it's all just a matter of cultural powers suppressing the natural sexual good of human beings, but that's because they have certain premises which Foucault does not seem to share, and which, at times, he explicitly denies. The premise, for example, that because an idea develops within the social sphere and is promulgated throughout the populus by various means, some of them coercive, some of them persuasive, that the idea is therefore an impingement on individual liberty. Basically this involves doing something that Foucault himself seems opposed to: namely, attempting to take a thoroughly modernist framework for understanding the past, and using it to judge the way that people thought historically. Foucault explicitly states that this is not his intention, that in fact he perceives one of the primary goods of philosophy to be the fact that it makes it possible to get outside of one's own sphere of reference, and to have a deep, ultimately sympathetic understanding of ways that people think and have thought in other cultural contexts.
Hence my excitement about this book, which deals with the development of notions of sexual morality from ancient Greece through to the early Christian period. So far, it is about as far from an indictment of Christian sexual morality as you could hope to find, given that it is written by an atheist who practices male love. Not homosexuality. Foucault thinks that homosexuality is a product of the modern psycho-medical concept of sexuality, but that's an entire blog entry in and of itself.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Romans 2

I'm currently involved in a debate on the First Things website as a result of an article that I wrote dealing with the distinction between the pastoral and theological aspects of St. Paul's letter to the Romans, particularly the infamous verses 1:26-27 of turn-or-burn fame. You can find it here.

When I was writing the article, I only gave a superficial glance to Romans chapter 2, but I've been rereading it now with considerable interest. The psychological thrust of this letter is really interesting. What St. Paul basically does is gets his audience all riled up about the sins of those godless pagans, and then hits them hard between the eyes with a diatribe against Pharisaical self-righteousness. Look at the transition here:

“In other words, since they refused to see it was rational to acknowledge God, God has left them to their own irrational ideas and to their monstrous behaviour.”

(Paul is referring here to the “Greeks,” i.e. the Hellenic world in general, who he's been castigating for idolatry, homosexuality and various other abuses for the last 10 verses.)

“And so they are steeped in all sorts of depravity, rottenness, greed and malice, and addicted to envy, murder, wrangling, treachery and spite. Libellers, slanderers, enemies of God, rude, arrogant and boastful, enterprising in sin, rebellious to parents, without brains, honour, love or pity. They know what God's verdict is: that those who behave like this deserve to die – and yet they do it; and what is worse, encourage others to do the same.” (Rom 1:28-32)

And here's the tipping point: “So no matter who you are, if you pass judgement you have no excuse. In judging others you condemn yourself, since you behave no differently from those you judge.” (Rom 2:1) Paul's point, which he develops more fully in the rest of the letter, is that everyone is a sinner, everyone in need of repentance and salvation. The moral indignation that his readers are inclined to pour out on others ought to be turned inward, so that it can lead to a scouring of the heart.

Oddly, Romans 1:28-32 have been interpreted historically to refer to the homosexuals described in vs. 26-27, not to the Greeks referred to in vs. 18-25. This interpretation was used at various times to justify applying the death penalty to people caught engaging in “sodomy,” and the idea that these verses are primarily applicable to homosexuals is one that I've encountered in anti-gay Christian sources of more recent date. It's an argument, however, that makes very little sense, unless you want to go verse camping. The paragraphs that precede 1:26-27 make it fairly clear that Paul is talking about the Greeks in general, and particularly about the effects of Greek philosophy and paganism. Homosexuality is merely the most forceful of his examples of the depravity of the Greeks: not only are they idolaters, but they're also committing unnatural acts with one another. To assume that Paul is saying that homosexuals, specifically, are “steeped in all sorts of depravity, rottenness, greed and malice, and addicted to envy, murder, wrangling, treachery and spite. Libellers, slanderers, enemies of God, rude, arrogant and boastful, enterprising in sin, rebellious to parents, without brains, honour, love or pity,” is a stretch. But even if we were willing to make that stretch, it would make total nonsense of Romans 2:1. Presumably, if Paul's readers were willing to accept that homosexual acts were shameful and depraved, they weren't hanging around the bathhouses chatting up the catamites.

The more coherent interpretation is to assume that Paul is writing a comparative analysis of sinfulness amongst the Greeks, and sinfulness amongst the Jews, an interpretation that seems to streamline with the rest of the letter. His point is that every single adult human being has, at least at some point in his life, been depraved, rotten, greedy, envious, treacherous, spiteful, rude, arrogant, boastful, or rebellious. All of these sins render people deserving of death. No one is exempt, and anyone who thinks that he is, is deluded. The letter is a call to repentance, not for the Greeks, or the Jews, or the homosexuals, but for each and every reader, personally.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Contractual Obligation II

Okay, I think the first thing that probably women need to keep in mind when they read Theology of the Body, whether in the original or in the popular versions, is that what John Paul II was envisioning was human sexuality as it was “in the beginning.” What did marriage and sex look like before the Fall? It’s a very illuminating approach, but when you go to apply it, you have to keep in mind that what you’re trying to accomplish is the closest possible approximation to the way that things were before concupiscence entered the scene. No one, even in the best of all marriages between two Saints, is going to get all the way there. No one starts out anywhere near there.

It’s kind of like St. Thomas Aquinas et al telling people that the proper interior order of the soul involves the total subjugation of all passions and appetites to Reason. Everyone knows that that’s how it’s supposed to be, but if you try it you quickly find that it’s a project that takes a lifetime. Sure, you can get much closer than people usually are, but it takes a tremendous amount of work. Theology of the Body is the same kind of thing. Unfortunately, a lot of folks seem to fall into the mistake of thinking that if they take the Christopher West marriage prep course, and go on a few couple’s retreats, they’re going to get something that looks pretty close to what JPII is talking about. If this is your expectation, disappointment is inevitable – and it’s a disappointment that I’ve seen amongst a lot of really committed Catholics, especially Catholic women.

When Eden cannot be reclaimed, we tend to blame the other spouse – a familiar pattern to those who’ve read the Genesis narrative. If you talk to women, the problem is always with the man. If you talk to men, the problem is always with the woman. Catch 22.

The difficulty arises, I think, from the fact that when people hear about someone else’s responsibilities towards themselves, they immediately think of it as an entitlement. Men did this to women for years: they read the first Letter to the Corinthians, turned to their wives and said, “You see that, woman? St. Paul says you gotta obey me. I have a right to be obeyed.” But St. Paul did not say that men were entitled to their wives’ obedience; he said that women should obey their husbands. These are two very different statements. Also, the men tended to gloss over the part that said they had to love their wives like Christ had loved the Church. Women have now picked up on that part, and are saying to their men, “See, see what is says there? I’m entitled to have you treat me like Christ treated the Church.” Again, not what Paul said.

The key is to concentrate on making sure that you are truly giving your own gift sincerely. A gift that is given on the condition of reciprocation is not a true gift, it’s a commodity exchange. If there’s any sort of contractual obligation, explicit or implied or even just understood within one’s own mind, then the gift loses its gift-likeness. The economy of gifts follows a logic that seems like foolishness: “Give and there will be gifts for you, poured out without measure.” You can never see where those gifts are going to come from, and there has to be a real act of faith, where you throw your gift out into the darkness without any idea of how it is going to come back to you. This works in the realm of economics – if you are generous, your generosity will be mysteriously repaid – and it also works in the realm of sexuality. But you have to somehow get over the temptation (and a mighty strong temptation it is) to count the cost and tally up the revenues.

How do you do this? You have to begin by focusing on taking joy and pleasure in giving your gift to the other person. Ideally, what you’re aiming for is to take greater pleasure in the other person’s sexual climax than in your own, and to want to be satisfied yourself primarily so that the other person can have the joy of having satisfied you. Out of the gate, that might sound impossible, but it really isn’t. All you have to do is decide clearly that that’s your objective, and sink all of the energy that you would otherwise sink into fighting with your spouse to make sure that you secure your piece of the marital pie into that goal. I think any reasonably committed person could probably achieve this in under three years, which, in the scope of a marriage, is peanuts.

So that’s the impossibly demanding marching orders for the sexual via dolorosa; but here’s the carrot: as you do this, your entire way of seeing your marriage will begin to change. A lot of the time women set up conditions wherein it is functionally impossible for them to receive or perceive their spouse’s love and affection. They have a set of particular “needs” which they feel are not being fulfilled, and they fixate myopically on those things. Often the husband really is trying to show genuine affection, but it is overlooked, dismissed, or even belittled because it is not in the correct form. As soon as the we stop worrying about being entitled, it becomes possible to notice those things, to enjoy them, and, by enjoying them, to encourage them. A man will find it much easier to show affection to his wife if he sees that his efforts are bringing her joy; if he sees that she sees his efforts as paltry, insipid, or unworthy, he’ll tend to clam up and stop trying out of a sense of insecurity.

Also, if a woman is constantly, joyfully giving herself to her husband, the husband will come to feel a greater affection for her. This is just natural. As his affection grows, it will express itself naturally in a much larger number of ways, and it will feel more authentic – because it is more authentic.

Finally, once enough of the hostilities have cleared, and love and affection are being freely exchanged in whatever ways come most naturally to each of the spouses, it’s not hard at all to get affection in the form that you want. All you have to do is wait for an opportune moment and say, “My dear love, do you remember how you used to give me footrubs when we were courting? Those were amazing footrubs. I don’t suppose that I could get one now?” When a man responds to such a request, it doesn’t feel like he’s doing it out of a sense of resentment and obligation, and it doesn’t feel onerous to have to ask for what you need.

As a final note, let’s say that you do all of these things, and you do them for decades (and if you’ve got a particularly tough nut of a husband, or a particularly stubborn inner child that keeps throwing temper tantrums, it might take decades), and your husband passes away, and the reciprocation never comes? If what you’re doing is genuinely taking joy in being a gift, then it makes no difference. The reciprocation is icing on the cake. The real prize is the joy of pouring out love, and the attainment of self-mastery. Even your husband never does build you that dream swing in the backyard, you will gain freedom from the suffering of disappointment and resentment, and your reward will be great in Heaven :)

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Contractual Obligation

My post “Just Sex” opened a potential can of worms, so I’d like to go a little deeper into the relationship between the sexes, and the role of sexual responsibility in solidifying marriage. Anonymous commented that “I agree that if the relationship is working outside of the bedroom, a truncated period of foreplay shouldn't cause offense. That, however, is a big ‘if’. Unfortunately there aren't many marriages that I have seen where affection outside of the bedroom (or inside for that matter) is a priority for the husband.”

Okay, there are a couple of issues at play here. The first is the issue of male responsibility. Men do have a responsibility to provide their wives with affection both in and outside of the bedroom, and, as John Paul II pointed out to the scandal of the prude brigade, they also have a responsibility for making sure that their wives achieve orgasm. I don’t think it’s realistic to think that the latter responsibility will be fulfilled every single time a couple makes love – there are points in a woman’s hormonal life when bringing her to sexual climax could be numbered with the labours of Hercules – but the woman’s satisfaction should be a priority for the husband.
The irony is, I think it actually is a priority for a lot of men, but they just don’t know how to go about it. Having sex when your partner is disinterested, reluctant, unresponsive and unenthusiastic is humiliating. There’s a reason why all of those spam messages offering men the opportunity to have their woman “moaning for more” actually work to sell erection pills. It’s important to a guy’s self-esteem to feel that he’s actually a good lover – that’s why some women resort to faking orgasm if they’re not able to achieve the real thing. The point is, in those marriages where the woman is totally unsatisfied and feels that it’s the result of her husband’s sexual selfishness, the man is also profoundly frustrated, but he usually keeps quiet about it.
The lack of affection, and sometimes open hostility, outside of the bedroom are a response to this mutually frustrating situation. At this point, the woman will often start making excuses to have sex infrequently (too tired, slight headache, in-laws visiting, kids going to wake up soon, too much work...) which exacerbates the problem. A man who’s been waiting with increasing frustration to be able to make love to his wife is not going to be able to pull off a long, satisfying encounter. When the sex finally happens it ends up being quick and desperate: the wife goes away unsatisfied, and the husband goes away humiliated, and the whole cycle starts up again.
Here we arrive at issue number two, which is women’s tendency to resort to passive-aggressive strategies to get what we want. Let’s be honest here, most of us when faced with sexual frustration don’t sit out husbands down and explain the situation in clear, simple, honest language that a man will be able to understand. We feel like if he really cared about us, he’d know what to do. He’d read the little signs, and he’d take the time to pamper, and caress, and make us feel desirable. So when he doesn’t, we shut him out emotionally. We come to bed the way a martyr goes to the rack, we send out little barbed messages throughout the day, and we make sure that he knows that he’s in the doghouse. Ultimately, we may resort to the Lysistrata stratagem, and go on a sexual strike until we get the affection that we want.

Problem is, you can’t make someone affectionate by twisting his arm. If the husband is thinking, “Fine, I’ll rub her shoulders, and give her kisses, and snuggle up to her on the couch, because otherwise the &*$@! is never going to put out,” any woman with any emotional sensitivity will notice. The affection will feel like a demand for sex, because that’s what it is. It couldn’t possibly be anything else: the decision to withhold sex until hubby is appropriately sensitive situates the entire conflict within the realm of contractual, as opposed to covenential, exchange. If a woman says, either explicitly or implicitly, “You give me affection, and I’ll give you sex,” the affection becomes a form of payment for sex – and any form of payment is always a form of demand for the thing that is being paid for.

All right, this post is becoming book length, so I’ll leave it there for now, with a solid description of the problem, and I’ll take a stab at the solution next time.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Golden Bones

I just got the sample copy of Leading Edge magazine with my story "The Golden Bones of Grandma Bo" in it. It's the 30th Anniversay Issue (oooh!) and it also contains work by the three guys who do my favourite writer's podcast, Writing Excuses. Of my short stories, this is one of my personal favourites. It concerns a young philosopher, a ghost that won't behave, and a confrontation with Death in the form of a seven headed eel. Great fun.

Just Sex

There are two sides to the modern North American hysteria about sex. One is the side that we get to hear about all the time in the Catholic press: the hysteria about how sex is so great, so much fun, so liberating, so all-pervasively important to human life, etc. etc. That is, the hysteria that fueled the sexual revolution.
The other side of the coin, however, is the Catholic over-sanctification of sex. A problem that I’ve encountered enough times to think that it’s probably a quiet, underground endemic within the Catholic community, is the problems of Catholics – especially Catholic women – feeling that sex is somehow wrong, dirty, or dehumanizing if it is anything less than the scintillatingly personalistic vision of fleshly union that appears in the writings of John Paul II and Christopher West.
It’s just sex. If you don’t have it, it’s not the end of the world. If you do have it, and it’s rushed, mediocre, and half-asleep, it’s not the end of the world. A lot of the time, you end up with a situation where there is a strong biological imperative to make love on the part of one spouse, and a total lack of interest on the part of the other. This isn’t reductionistic and selfish, it’s just biology. (Worth noting: if you’re a young woman, and you’re frustrated with feeling that you’re just being used as a sex object to fulfill your husband’s depersonalizing sexual demands, baby, your turn is coming...)
“But hold!” my Catholic feminist interlocutor cries out, “Are you saying that I have to allow my body to be used as an object of male lust just because one day I might suffer from an excess of lust myself? Surely on that day, I shall be self-possessed and considerate and will put the flesh to death for the sake of my rarefied spiritual sexuality.”
Maybe, maybe not, but let’s examine P1 here, which is the contention that you’re allowing your body to be used as an object of male lust. There is a difference between lust and sexual desire. Sexual desire is good. If your husband has given his entire life to you, and he provides for you, and talks to you, and loves you, and interacts with you as a person on a daily basis, then his relationship with you is not reductive. (If he doesn’t, the problem is not lust but a failure, usually mutual, to relate properly outside of the bedroom.) The association of biological urge with spiritual lust is based on a false understanding of the goodness of the human body. The physical desire of spouses for one another is ordered. When a man or woman, confronted with strong feelings of sexual arousal comes to his or her spouse, they are conforming their sexuality to reason. If they go to the internet, or the brothel, or into their imagination, and have sex there, that is depersonalizing, inhuman and irrational.
It is not the desire of spouse 1, but the lack of desire of spouse 2, that is disordered. I don’t mean here that it’s a moral fault or a psychological disease, just that it is contrary to right reason. It represents a sort of acedia, or spiritual sadness: an interior resistance to something that is genuinely good. Now, I also don’t mean that you can just reason it away: many things are contrary to right reason but can’t be rationally blown off. The point is that when one spouse experiences the other’s desire as a violation, it generally means that they have an excessively elevated opinion either of themself, or of the loftiness of sex.
“Now wait just a minute. We are talking here about an icon of the interior life of the most Holy Trinity, the image of the relationship between Christ and His Church, the fountainhead of human life, and the foundation of all human community. How could a quick, cheap shag in the shower possibly be commensurable with the dignity of such an act?”
All right, let’s take a look at another bio-spiritual act: the act of eating. As Christ points out in His Eucharistic discourses, all eating is a sign and symbol pointing towards the Lamb’s Supper, the sacrifice of the Cross, the wise providence of God, and the economy of salvation. Ideally, each meal would be undertaken in a spirit of gratitude and joy, shared in community with friends and family, offered up as a thanksgiving offering to the Lord, and enjoyed in the full consciousness that here we receive the fruit of the earth and work of human hands. Yet sometimes, if you are hungry, and you are in a rush, you grab a granola bar and munch it absent-mindedly in the car. Yes, technically that is not fully in accord with the dignity of the granola bar, but it would certainly be a form of disorder, based on serious scrupulosity, if you allowed yourself to become malnourished because you refused to eat unless the conditions allowed for the perfect expression of the highest spiritual meanings of the act. If you refused to feed your children unless you were completely satisfied that their motives in eating were perfectly pure, it would cease to be a mere scrupulous disorder, and would become a serious dereliction of duty.
Ditto with sex. “The husband must give his wife what she has the right to expect, and so too the wife to the husband. The wife has no rights over her own body; it is the husband who has them. In the same way, the husband has no rights over his body; the wife has them. Do not refuse each other except by mutual consent, and then only for an agreed time, to leave yourselves free for prayer; then come together again in case Satan should take advantage of your weakness to tempt you.” (1 Cor 7:3-5)

Friday, May 27, 2011

Where Have All the Firebrands Gone?

It's been a while since I've blogged -- mostly a result of internet malfunctions and a total lack of energy caused by late pregnancy. I'm due to give birth in two days, so any prayers that you can throw my way would be very much appreciated. As a note, I know that Gerard Majella is the saint most popularly invoked by mothers-to-be in the present age, but St. Margaret of Antioch is my personal favourite pregnancy saint. She got the gig because she is supposed to have been swallowed by a dragon, and to have burst forth from its stomach after making the sign of the cross while she was in prison preparing for her martyrdom. Seriously cool.
I've just been reading through all of the comments that have been left on various posts of late -- as I noted, my internet access has been really spotty over the past month, so this is the first time I've been able to actually look at my blog. The comment that caught my eye was the one in which there is an extensive quotation from St. Peter Damien on homosexuality. Needless to say, the quotation (written in the High Middle Ages) is not in the gentlest of all possible veins... So I thought that I would try to deal with the question of why it is that I would counsel a much less abrasive tone, when so many of the Saints of earlier ages wrote so much really scathing vitriol against the Vice of Sodom.
I think the first thing to note is that the Vatican itself has undergone a serious change of tone over the past hundred years or so. Older encyclicals almost read as nothing more than a series of condemnations: "Let him be anathema who holds that..." whereas obviously the modern encyclical is written in that highly polished, extremely charitable if slightly technical dialect that we all know and love as Vaticanese. Why the change?
One reason is that there is a difference of audience. The Church prior to Vatican II was writing primarily for an audience of Bishops. An encyclical letter was one that was circulated throughout the higher levels of the Church's hierarchy. They weren't read and commented on by a popular mass media, and they couldn't be easily downloaded on-line by any curious lay-person. The papal writers were basically giving orders about matters of doctrine to their subordinates, which meant that they could simply say "This bad, this good," and expect to be obeyed.
This leads us to the second, and wider, difference: the expectation of obedience. You can speak very differently, and it is appropriate to speak very differently, to a group of people who acknowledge themselves to be under your authority than you can to a group of people who feel that they have the right to independently evaluate and weigh your claims. General Patton was an extremely popular and effective speaker when he was addressing his troops -- and a spectacular public embarrassment when he was addressing anyone else. When St. Peter Damien wrote his book, he could assume that he was writing for an audience of people who already a) believed in God, b) acknowledged the authority of scripture, c) believed in the existence of sin, and d) respected the authority of the Church. A harsh dressing down from a respected authority figure can sometimes be enough to change someone's heart; a harsh dressing down from someone who has no authority in the eyes of the audience will only provoke hardness of heart.
Thirdly, I think it's worth noting that the standards of etiquette in public discourse have changed. This is an important consideration, because I think we have to understand that cultural context changes how much a person is likely to be hurt by things that are said to them. For example, the average person living in this culture will not care at all if you throw around the most vulgar and indecent terms in their presence. The "F" word is not even a bad word in a lot of contexts (in Canada it's a form of verbal punctuation...). People call each other "mofo" as a term of endearment. These words, which would have been sufficient cause for people to start talking about shooting each other in a gentlemanly manner in order to obtain satisfaction several centuries ago, mean nothing. People are totally desensitized to them, and you have to get really, really obscene and filthy before you'll hurt someone's feelings with a swear word. On the other hand, people are extremely over-sensitized to language that seems "judgmental" or "intolerant." Obviously, in the eleventh century the situation was very different. People were used to have anathemas fulminated at them, they were accustomed to vitriol being poured out on their heads by clerical firebrands, and they had a taste for the sort of spiritual highs and lows that get produced by hellfire preaching. Instead of being a scandal, this sort of over-the-top writing about the filthiness of sin was expected -- and it was popular. People liked grisly momento mori, they liked paintings of the Last Judgment, and they liked graphic descriptions of the ruin which sin wreaks on souls. The Saints of the time could offer fraternal correction in as high-handed and fiery a manner as they wanted, and that was perfectly culturally appropriate.
It's not appropriate now. Yes, the truth has to be told, but it has to be told in charity -- and that charity has to correspond to the actual needs and condition of the human heart that is being addressed, not to an abstract "love" which considers all presentations of truth to be "charitable" because the truth is always good for the human person. The truth is always good for the human person, but it can only reach the heart of the person if it is spoken to them in a way that demonstrates understanding and compassion for their situation. And when it comes to homosexuality, that situation has changed a lot since St. Peter Damien was alive.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Sixth New Baby

So I’m having my sixth baby. I’m due to give birth in a month, but this particular baby has decided to be troublesome, so I’ve been having hardcore Braxton Hicks contractions for the past three weeks. It’s pretty exhausting. With my other babies, I didn’t have to put up with this until a week or two before going into actual labour.
I can feel the threshold of fear hovering on the horizon. It’s one of those things that I think you can’t actually avoid if you’re approaching massive physical pain. It sort of shimmers there, threatening, and sooner or later it’s going to manifest and become real. I don’t know how other people deal with this, for some reason all of the pregnancy preparation books mention it without ever doing a really great existential analysis of the problem. Some of them advise you to do cheesy imagination exercises, or yoga. Maybe the problem is just that all pregnancy manuals are written for people whose aesthetic is antithetical to my own. I’ll give you my method:
In Frank Herbert’s Dune, there’s this wonderful little Bene Gesserit prayer called the “Litany Against Fear.” I memorized this back when I was fifteen years old, and it goes like this:
“I will not fear. Fear is the mind killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will allow it to pass over me and to pass through me. Where the fear is gone, there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
Apart from being put in a wonderfully appealing idiom, it’s actually a very good pulling apart of the anatomy of courage. You start with the statement that you’re not going to be afraid, which of course is never actually true. I don’t care what the Stoics say, I’m sure that Socrates had his private little Gethsemane moment somewhere out of sight of Plato before he went out and faced the hemlock tea with a smile on his face. At the point where you’re saying, “I will not fear,” you’re already afraid. Still, you need to resist the fact, to put it in its place as the enemy of whatever you’re hoping to accomplish. It doesn’t matter whether it’s giving birth, or making a scary phone-call, or fighting a Balrog, or asking someone out on a date; the basic fact is the same. Fear is the mind-killer. It’s the thing that will totally paralyze you, and bring about the little death which, if it is allowed to take root in the soul, will ultimately lead to total obliteration. There is no Cross without facing fear, and no salvation without the Cross.
Now you get to the acknowledgement that the fear actually does exist: “I will face my fear.” The determination to confront the enemy, where it is, now, without succumbing to the temptation to wait for that distant moment when it won’t be scary. There is no such moment. You have to face the fear, and you have to let it “pass through me.” That’s the lynch-pin image here. You’re going to confront fear, and you’re going to feel afraid. The fear will be actually present within your psyche, and your body, and it will pass through you. It will awaken like the Kraken in its depths, and it will rise through you on its way to the surface where “once seen by men and angels,” it will “rise in roaring and on the surface die.” So you accept it, you let it pass through, and then it goes. And where it has gone there is nothing, only the self, strengthened and ready to face whatever trial you have to face.

Six New Books

I’m currently working on, and need prayers for, a few new book projects, as follows:
1.The Marriage Quest: A book on courtship and marriage, jam-packed with literary examples and paradigm-shifting advice on how to woo and be wooed.
2.The Wayfarer’s Guide to the Malice and Snares of the Devil: A spiritual warfare guide, in a tongue-in-cheek style. Ancient insights with a modern edge.
3.Theology of the Body for the Married Woman: A Theology of the Body book that applies John Paul II’s insights specifically to the female body, and which provides practical insights into married sexuality without sinking into schlock sentimentality.
4.A Crisis of Passion: This was supposed to be released this Winter by the late lamented Circle Books, and is now seeking a new publisher. It ports the best of Postmodern thought into a Catholic context, examines how Catholic art can speak to the postmodern generations, and answers questions like “What is postmodernism anyway?”
5.Slave of Two Masters: This already has a publisher, but I need to get it drafted over the next couple of months while giving birth to my sixth baby. It’s about how Christ’s teachings on poverty apply to lay people, and especially families, with an emphasis on how to have more fun with, and get more out of, the economic downturn.
6.Octavia: This is my pet favourite, because it’s a novel. It’s about a sixteen year old girl, the youngest of eight, whose parents like to pretend that Rome never fell. Six years ago, her best friend fell into a sinister well that was dug at the Beginning of Time in order to hide all of the secrets that had to be kept from the eyes of God. Young adult supernatural horror, with geeky Classical references.
Any comments or suggestions would be appreciated, and of course, throw St. Francis Xavier a line and ask him to shepherd these projects into print.

Life on the Rock

I’ve been baby-brained, and my internet has been down, so I forgot to put up a link to my appearance on EWTN’s “Life on the Rock.” If you’re interested, you can see me look all nervous and awkward on national television at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UQx2zScTsOk.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

God Made Me This Way

One of the most difficult arguments to deal with in the debate about homosexuality, is the “God made me this way” argument. The argument in its logical form runs something like this:

P1: I have a strong desire for a good thing: sexual love with another person.
P2: I am able to fulfill this desire only with members of my own sex.
P3: (This is usually a hidden premise) All desires for good things must come from God.
P4: (Also usually a hidden premise) God would not give a desire and then prohibit me from fulfilling it.
Conclusion: God made me gay, and it is therefore morally legitimate for me to act on my homosexual desires.

Most Christian apologetics on the matter focus on attacking P2. Protestant groups especially have tried to demonstrate that homosexuality is not fixed or innate, and that gay people can be brought around to happy heterosexuality. For obvious personal reasons, I’m suspicious of P2, but I do think that it’s fairly clear that there are some people for whom it is true; if not in an absolute sense, certainly in a practical sense. The actual problem, however, is with P4. Christianity must fundamentally reject this premise – and I’m going to argue that any belief in a good and all powerful God must necessarily rest on its rejection.

There are obvious cases where the argument would produce moral nonsense, for example:
P1: I have a strong desire for a good thing: justice.
P2: Justice can only be fulfilled in case X by a vigilante execution.
P3 and P4 as above.
Conclusion: Therefore God has given me the right and duty to lynch this murderin’ son of a barnacle.

We need not, however, resort to cases of obvious immorality, because P4 is untrue even when both the desire and the fulfillment of that desire are unquestionably morally licit. This is one of the central truths at the heart of the Passion. Christ kneels down in Gethsemane, and He asks God for permission to cling to life. The body does not wish to die, human life is a good thing, it is a gift unquestionably given by God, and Jesus, as a man, wants to hold on to it. He asks that the cup of suffering and death be removed – and then adds the most profound statement of Christian faith, “But not my will, but thine be done.”
God does not give permission. He sends His own only begotten Son out to die on the Cross. He says, “No,” and Christ assents to that no, and in assenting, in setting aside His legitimate desires, brings about the salvation of the world.
Oh ho. But perhaps we are talking about a special case here. Christ was God, and He made that sacrifice voluntarily, and presumably He was in on the plan before He was even born. He chose to come into the world to suffer and die, whereas ordinary people have made no such choice. A beneficent and humane God might expect such superhuman self-sacrifice from Jesus, but He would not demand it of us.
The problem with this is as follows: whether God’s “no” comes in the form of a moral prohibition, or in some other form, its effect on the human psyche – not to mention the human life – is the same. It is a readily demonstrable fact that people frequently go to God and beg for things that are objectively just and good, and God says No. People falsely accused rightly ask God to grant them liberty, that they may not spend the next twenty-five years incarcerated for a crime they never committed, and God, through the instrumentality of twelve honest folks, says No. A soldier prays to survive the war that he might return to his family and provide for them and raise his children up to love and serve the Lord, and God says No. An African subsistence farmer prays that the locust swarm may pass to the west, so that she might be able to have food enough to produce milk for the unborn child in her womb, and God says No. Examples can be multiplied endlessly: this is the problem of Evil, and it is the primary objection to the existence of a good and almighty God.
If you don’t believe that God would ever demand profound suffering and privation of human beings, you must become an atheist. There’s no good pretending that a different kind of God exists, because this is the sort of world that we live in. It is a world in which the denial of the ability to enjoy sexual love doesn’t even make the grade on the list of grievous trials which human beings are called to endure. It is a world that could only be justified and redeemed by an act as radical as the Cross: by the absolute and unswerving demonstration, on the part of God Himself, that suffering is not a negation either of the existence of God, or of the meaningfulness of life. That, on the contrary, suffering is the foundation of meaning, that the Cross itself is the way of truth and life.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Determined to be Scandalized

About once a week, an “action alert” arrives in my mailbox from an organization called “change.org.” They’re basically a left-wing slactivism web-site; occasionally they achieve useful results, but a lot of the time they’re worked up over very little. Rather like most right-wing slactivism sites in that respect.
Yesterday’s alert really brought this into focus. Last week, the big news was that a change.org campaign against corrective rape in South Africa had produced hundreds of thousands of signatures, and sparked a furore of interest within the international community at large, causing the South African government to promise to do something about the issue. Corrective rape is basically a form of sexual violence deliberately inflicted on lesbian women, either as punishment for their homosexual behaviours, or as a means of “curing” them. Often this is done with the consent or complicity of family members, or by family members themselves. (How, exactly, a traumatic heterosexual experience is supposed to encourage someone to abandon a lesbian identity, I don’t know. But there are people who think this way – and not just in Africa. I personally know of one person who it happened to in the States, and am peripherally aware of others.) Needless to say, this is a serious human rights abuse, genuinely deserving the attention of the human community.
So yesterday, following on the heels of this victory, the change.org action alert was (roll drums, strike up the fanfare) Exodus International has released a Smartphone applet. Yes folks, that’s right, time to get out your little clicky finger and petition Apple: the evil ex-gay organization is now making it’s resources available to its members on their cell-phones. This controversy is almost equal to the pro-life Krispy Kreme donut protest (yes, it’s true, we actually successfully petitioned to have the word “choice” removed from a donut add, even though it had nothing to do with abortion) in terms of its asinine petty-mindedness.
I’m not going to bother defending the applet. As far as I can make out, all it really amounts to is that Exodus members will be able to use their phones to get information and resources that are already available on the net. It’s should hardly be a scandal. Yet the LGBTQ community is determined to be scandalized.
This is an important point. I talk a lot about the fact that Christians often scandalize gay and lesbian folks with hypocritical, judgmental or homophobic behaviours – and this is certainly true. I have talked a lot less about the fact that sometimes people who identify as homosexual are hell-bent on being outraged by anything that the Christian community does, regardless of how inoffensive it actually is. To argue that Apple is promoting homophobia, or that Exodus International is contributing to gay teen suicide by producing an applet, is not only hysterical, it stretches credibility beyond the point of the absurd.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Language Politics and Family Fun

I've just been reading some of the comments on my previous posts, and since I've taken so long getting around to responding to them, I figured I'd dignify them with an entire post since I don't expect people to be patient enough to keep checking back to my neglected comments pages.
There were several people who commented on the language politics questions of "what do you call people who are attracted to members of the same sex"? This is a complicated and controversial one. Courage recommends "people who experience same sex attraction" or "persons with same sex attractions" that's clinical, not judgmental, and sidesteps the identity issues that are tied up with the gay/lesbian nomenclature. The Vatican uses "the homosexual person," or "homosexual persons." I think that both of those are fine, and not especially controversial -- "same sex attraction" used to be a term that only really appeared in Christian/anti-gay sources, but it's started to appear in clinical research on the LGBTQ side of the fence because it's inclusive of those who are same-sex attracted but who, for various reasons, do not like the various more politicized terms. I use gay and lesbian for people who have adopted a gay or lesbian identity, and LGBTQ (that's Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgendered and Queer/Questioning -- the last term differs depending on whom you are talking to) to refer to the gay movement/culture (don't use the outdated GLBT -- the lesbians got really mad about being placed second, because it trivializes women...). Queer is controversial. I like it, and it's used fairly frequently in LGBTQ circles, but occasionally you'll run into someone who is really offended by it. I suspect that in Toronto and San Francisco, it's run-of-the-mill and non-offensive, and that in the American Mid-West it's still a slur word.
I also occasionally use more colourful terms that really only appear in gay writing about homosexuality -- "eromenoi" is the ancient Greek for "beloved," and is used in various ancient texts to refer to the younger male partner in a homosexual relationship; Sapphic is an alternate for lesbian that refers directly to the poetess Sappho; then there are more specific terms like "ladyboy" or "leatherman." Generally, it's not a good idea to use these unless you've got a really splashy idiom, or you have to write about homosexuality often enough that you get really sick of using the same terms over and over again.
So that's that. The second thing that I wanted to deal with is the fraternal correction issue. I do realize that in families fraternal correction is almost never actually offered in an ideal way -- there are few of us who are capable of being perfectly rational agents at all times. I do think, however, that the standards set by St. Thomas are a good ideal, and a lot of the time it is possible to be more reasonable than we are inclined to be. To be honest, I'm thinking about the issue to a large degree in terms of issues other than same-sex attraction that have arisen in my own family. I'm not perfectly rational in offering correction, and I know how difficult it can be, but I've found over years of non-productive fighting that if you actually work hard and train yourself to follow St. Thomas' advice, you can move towards a much more effective and fruitful discussion. Note that I'm seeing this as something that you work on over a period of years, not something that I think most people will be capable of in the minutes after their son/daughter/wife/husband comes out of the closet. That said, it's probably a good idea to cultivate a general habit of reasonableness, and to contemplate in advance the likelihood that one's nearest and dearest relations are likely to develop serious patterns of sin, which will require charitable correction. It's the same as being prepared in advance for the times in which personal temptation will be especially strong, and for the likelihood that you will occasionally fall down. If you get it into your head that you're never, ever, ever going to sin seriously ever again, then when you do, you'll be shocked and stunned and angry and ill-disposed to deal with it. If you resolve not to sin, but accept that some day you probably will anyways, and get yourself ready to repent, and accept the fact of your own weakness with humility, then when it happens, there's a lot less wounded pride to get in the way. Same deal, I think, with being prepared to deal with the sins of others, especially sins that are likely to cause hurt and grief to oneself.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

All things to all men

I’m currently listening to a boxed set of CDs of the New Testament, the “Truth & Life Dramatized Audio Bible,” to review it for Tiber River. So far most of it has been done in a style that seems to prevail in Christian/Catholic dramatizations of the Bible, but which no one that I know actually likes. It’s the kind of souped up, cheesy, over-the-top rendering of Biblical texts where Jesus sounds like He’s perpetually on the verge of breaking out into tears or being transformed into a being of pure light. It has the same emotional melodrama as a Queen anthem or a Judas Priest power ballad, but without the essential element of camp to make it clear that it’s not quite taking itself seriously.
I don’t know who it is that goes in for this sort of thing, but I suspect that the way that I read/hear Jesus would sound equally absurd or uninspiring to some other people. In my head He usually sounds like a very sane and reasonable philosopher, with just enough humour to make Him endearing. Perhaps to others, He sounds like a comforting friend, or a voice of thunder on the mountaintop, or the quiet whispering of conscience in the silence of the heart.
It raises the difficult problem of how to convey the power and personality of a figure who is literally “all things to all men.” The personality of Christ is sort of like a redeemed voice of Saruman. Every person who comes to Him with an honest and open heart, finds a radically appealing, personally compelling figure. It’s just that the exact nature of that personality is chameleonic. There is a relationship established there that is highly personal; just as He was willing to come down to Earth and take on a human form in order to unite Himself to humanity, He is willing and able to take on a form, for each of us, that will speak directly to our inmost selves. To the rationalist, He is reasonable. To the Romantic, sentimental. To the lonely, friendly. To the proud, a stern rebuke. To the self-conscious, a voice of encouragement.
For someone trying to put together a dramatization this presents a considerable obstacle. No matter how well it is done, it is probably going to alienate and disappoint a certain portion of your audience. How is this to be overcome?
I think probably the best approach is to make it as personal as possible, to recognize that I am not Christ, and cannot perfectly address all hearts at once. Mel Gibson’s Passion succeeds precisely because it is Mel Gibson’s. It’s not the Passion as conceived of by anyone else, and it’s not trying to be universal. The same is true of much of the writing of the Saints. There is almost no similarity between Christ as He appears in the writings of Hildegard of Bingen, and Christ as He appears in St. Catherine of Sienna, yet it is clear that both are writing about the same God. It’s just that they are writing about Him through the prism of two wildly disparate personalities. (Personally, I find Hildegard’s spirituality compelling and inspiring, and I find Catherine’s alternately dull and neurotic, but I’m sure that there are countless others who have the opposite reaction.) In any case, if it is profoundly personal and honest, the portrayal should succeed.