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.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Fraternal Correction

Every so often, someone who has read something that I’ve written writes to me and asks advice. For the most part, my correspondents are the family members of people who have come out of the closet as gay or lesbian. Concerned mothers, husbands, sisters, fathers and so forth want to know what they should do to lead their loved ones out of homosexuality.
It raises a difficult point: how exactly does one interact with the sins of others, especially of those who are closest to us – and about whose faults we therefore have the least objectivity. The more that you love someone, the more that they have the capacity to hurt you, and the more that hurt is going to influence and colour any help that you try to provide. On the other hand, it always seems like the love that we have for those close to us places us in a special position of responsibility.
I don’t think that there are any easy answers here, but there is one consideration from St. Thomas Aquinas that I think sheds light on the problem. In his discussion of the obligation of fraternal correction, he makes the particularly valuable and interesting observation that if you have good reason to believe that your correction will only make the person who you are trying to correct worse, you shouldn’t do it. This is an obvious corollary of the virtue of prudence, but one which easily escapes notice when the sins of a family member start to get up your nose.
Generally, the first time that you bring an issue up, you’re not going to know what sort of effect your correction will have, so you ought to have the humility to observe the effects, and to evaluate them honestly. Let’s say that you read Bible passages about the sin of homosexuality to a gay relative; what effect does this have? Does it cause them to seriously reconsider their life, or does it make them more inclined to reject God out of a feeling that God has rejected them? If the latter, it’s probably not a good tack to take. Or if you present them with facts and statistics about the incidence of HIV/AIDS in gay communities, does this have a sobering effect, or does it lead to the sort of moral and personal despair that so often fuels the more compulsive (and therefore dangerous) manifestations of homosexual desire? Does pointing out the effect of their lifestyle on other family members, including yourself, bring them closer to repentance, or closer to closing the door on the family forever?
Obviously, a person decides how they are going to respond to correction, but there’s no use in saying, “Oh, well, if they had more humility/were more reasonable/would only listen, then we would be able to get somewhere.” If someone is not willing or ready to hear something, there’s no point in saying it. Often, if you insist on being heard, you will only convince the other person that you don’t respect them, that you’re priggish, and self-satisfied, and probably hypocritical. We’ve all had this experience: you’re told that something that you’re doing is wrong, and on some level you know that it’s true, but you think that there’s something unfair, unjust, or discompassionate in the way that you are told. Instead of humble self-examination and contrition, you immediately go into high-defensive gear. You start making excuses to justify the behaviour, resort to tu quoque arguments in order to disarm your accuser, and, if things get really out of hand, throw yourself all the more ardently into your sins just to spite the son-of-a-bitch who had the temerity to pass judgement on you.
This is what St. Thomas warns us against, and for good reason. It is the obligation of anyone who corrects their brother to make sure that they’re actually doing good to the other person. It’s very easy to tell ourselves that we’re in the right, and that we’re acting out of love, when in fact our motives are much murkier. Perhaps we are angry at the other person, or feel hurt by their choices. Maybe we’re embarrassed (what will the neighbours think?), or want to establish ourselves in a position of moral superiority. Often these things influence our attempts at correction without us even being aware of them, which is why it’s so important to pay attention to the other person. If you fix your eyes on the person you love, not only will you be able to correct for the sins and failings that you bring to the discussion, you will also be less likely to fall into them. You will see what does good, and what does harm, and you will be able to correct yourself, improve your methods, and, if all goes well, eventually find ways of conducting a dialogue that is genuinely fruitful and edifying.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

'Suffering' from SSA

What do you call someone who is a man and has sexual attractions towards other men, or is a woman and has such attractions for another woman? This is the center of one of those big language-political debates, and most of us can’t even hope to be on the forefront of politically correct usage, even if we wanted to. In the Catholic world, the “correct” term is generally “same-sex attracted,” which is allegedly neutral and which also, to give it some credit, occasionally appears in scientific literature by pro-gay advocates.
Now, I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with “same-sex attracted,” or “same-sex attraction” as terms for homosexuals/homosexuality (apart from the fact that they’re clinical and totally non-euphonious.) The problem is that they very often appear in compounds with the verb “suffering from.” Catholics who are trying to appear balanced, sane, compassionate, non-offensive, etc. will say that so-and-so was “suffering from same-sex-attractions.” I myself have been described in this way. The problem is that no one suffers from same-sex attractions unless they are already more or less firmly in the Catholic/Christian camp. People who desperately want to be chaste and/or heterosexual, and who find this difficult, really do suffer. But when you apply that terminology to the LGBTQ community in general, you sound like an idiot – or worse, like a patronizingly nice member of some paternalistic sect.
The problem is that the verb “to suffer” already contains a very specific judgement about the nature of same-sex attraction. Someone who makes racy CGI videos celebrating the Sapphic sisterhood, or who buys a homoerotic casket in which to be buried next to his Eromenoi, doesn’t see her/himself as suffering from anything. The moment that you use that kind of language, you’ve already shot yourself in the foot in terms of dialogue – you’ve revealed a profoundly discordant paradigm, one that conveys that you simply don’t understand, and that you’re probably not willing to.