Confession: How I Lost My Faith After Reading Rachel Held Evans

Bleep-blop-bleep-bleep-blop and the internet was born in my lifetime.

Bleep-blop-bleep-bleep-blop and the internet was born in my lifetime.

I’m around 35 (!) and I can’t say whether I qualify as millennial. But fear not, recent studies suggest millennials remember much less than senior citizens. So let’s pretend that I am one, because they won’t know the difference anyway.

I also don’t remember when I wrote my first essay, but it was with a pencil, because my parents couldn’t afford to have me throwing away paper (we lived in the projects of Detroit). By the time I graduated from college I was using “church” as a verb and couldn’t afford a cell-phone like the rich kids.

I’m old enough to have listened to Nirvana and Pearl Jam on the radio. The popularity of their music convinced me my contemporaries must be as lost in the cosmos I am. My tastes were decidedly classical: from Bach to The Beatles. I’ve only come to appreciate Vedder and Cobain after turning thirty.

You probably have read the Rachel Held Evans piece I reblogged yesterday by now. You probably realize I can’t continue in the same parodic vein, replicating almost every sentence; at some point a parody that parodies every sentence of a sincere statement that reads like a parody becomes serious. And who wants that?

Rachel Held Evans: worried Evangelicals are getting high.

Rachel Held Evans: worried Evangelicals are getting high.

From what I gathered: Held Evans seems to be most worried about Evangelicals leaving the fold for the high traditions such as Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Episcopalianism, and Lutheranism. Why this should be a problem is beyond me.

But she doesn’t seem to notice the “high traditions” are also bleeding membership. You can check the statistics at your preferred statistics caterer. Former Catholics are now the second largest religious group in the United States, only behind practicing Catholics.

I’m convinced (and I’m not the only one) that Catholicism is blowing its Catholic Moment because it has idolized assimilating to America. This applies to the Republican-Catholic party at prayer as much as it does to the Brikenstock-wearing priest from the Newman Center who is always talking about the “spirit of…” and asked you whether you were Opus Dei.

These two groups are a few of the many signsposts in our strange land. They point to the futility involved in accommodating to the Americanisms of any epoch. By the time the identity politics of any given generation trickle down to the liturgy those identity politics are out of fashion and lead to even more people trickling down and out. This eternal return then leads to more fruitless discussions about why the young are leaving, more accommodations, and so on.

This is the reason why the main takeaway from the Rachel Held Evans piece, “But I would encourage church leaders eager to win millennials back to sit down and really talk with them about what they’re looking for and what they would like to contribute to a faith community,” is such a throwaway.

My generation (and the generation of students we teach in college classes) is totally clueless. If you ask us we will tell you that we are lost in the cosmos. We have failed at manufacturing our own meaning, because meaning cannot be manufactured like the consumer services and trends mentioned at the start of this (and the Held Evans) piece.

This I believe: I’ve lost faith in myself. I’ve lost faith my generation. They’ve lost faith in themselves (and in me). Leaders in the Church should face up to the real situation, to our collective loss of faith in ourselves (deconstruction was but a symptom not a cause and the best analysis still remains the hybrid masterpiece that is Lost in the Cosmos):

“You live in a deranged age - more deranged than usual, because despite great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing.”

Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos: “You live in a deranged age – more deranged than usual, because despite great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing.”

If church leaders will not provide us with authoritative responses to what’s going on in our deranged and eviscerated public square, with the right (ortho-)spiritual exercises, with the most fruitful paths to follow, with a new Philokalia, or the old one, then it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there:

We also have a Top 10 list of books about heaven and hell here just in case you believe it’s darker than Zimmy thinks. You will also find a recent post, with a curious title, about the robust presence of faith in the contemporary literary scene here.

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The Prolegomena to Any Future Newman

Milosz on my mind. (Speaking at the Milosz Year 2011 conference in Krakow)

Milosz on my mind. (Speaking at the Milosz Year 2011 conference in Krakow)

Below is an excerpt from an interview with Nick Ripatrazone featured today on his blog The Fine Delight:

Artur Rosman’s site, Cosmos The In Lost, has become a daily read for me: sharp, smart, well-written essays ranging from Catholic theology to art to culture to literature, all delivered with a sense of humor missing from most other religious discussions. The panoply of subjects doesn’t result in slim reading: rather, the opposite. Rosman is able to introduce, elucidate, conclude, and educate; to open conversations rather than close them; to make me reconsider my assumptions about contemporary Catholicism in America and Europe. Here are some of his thoughts on the site, Milosz, Warhol, Nowosielski, American Catholicism and its political stains, and more.

1. Cosmos The In Lost is a rarity: a smart, entertaining blog about Catholic theology, literature, art, and culture. When and why did you start the site?
I started the blog out of desperation. I’m presently writing a doctoral dissertation on the poetry (and theology) of Czeslaw Milosz. This has proven to be tortuous when coupled with a several year writing block. I thought having to write posts almost daily might cure me. The blog-writing is fun; we’ll see about the dissertation.
2. What attracts you to the writing and thought of Milosz?
Milosz was right in the middle of everything. He saw the worst (and the best) of the 20th century firsthand. What’s more, as a poet and thinker with a profoundly Catholic imagination he wasn’t afraid to talk about the neuralgic points the faith still needs to address more clearly for our generation: scientism, totalitarianism, consumerism, and the problem of evil. I like to think of him as the prolegomena to any future Newman . . .

The Ideological Winters of American Catholicism

"Excuse me. Are you the Judean People's Front?"

“Excuse me. Are you the Judean People’s Front?”

The average American parishioner is more faithful to the Democratic and Republican platforms than the Credo. Alasdair MacIntyre pithily noted this (classical) liberal creep in his classic Whose Justice? Which Rationality?:

“Liberalism is often successful in preempting the debate . . . so that [objections to it] appear to have become debates within liberalism. . . . So-called conservatism and so-called radicalism in these contemporary guises are in general mere stalking-horses for liberalism: The contemporary debates within modern political systems are almost exclusively between conservative liberals, liberal liberals, and radical liberals. There is little place in such political systems for the criticism of the system itself, that is, for putting liberalism in question.”

Our political picture isn't red or blue, it's more like grey.

Our political picture isn’t red or blue, it’s more like grey.

If you want proof the unity of opposites (on the classical liberal spectrum) then go no further than the recent ecclesiological suggestions of Ross Douthat and Anthony Paul Smith.

First, pay careful attention to the wording of Smith’s latest bit of writing for a general audience:

“To simplify the big and messy thing called Catholicism, let us just talk about one major split: between the official church leaders charged with safeguarding its teaching and the estimated 1.2 billion everyday believers around the world.”

Now compare this with the takeaway from Douthat’s February takedown of the Neuhaus Catholic Moment:

“Nothing that happens in Rome over the next few months is likely to convert the Acela Corridor’s donors and strategists and think tankers to a more Catholic-friendly worldview. The next pope may be more effective than Benedict, or he may be clumsier; he may improve the church’s image in this country, or he may worsen it.

But if there is another Catholic moment waiting in our nation’s future, it can only be made by Americans themselves.”

There are many heads, but only one Ύδρα.

There are many heads, but only one Ύδρα.

Are we seriously supposed to entertain the possibility that a fight where the laity slays the hierarchy is the only tactically viable maneuver for the Catholic Church?! This sounds like suicide through competition to me. It echoes the fight between the People’s Front of Judea against the Judean People’s Front in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian.” The film is a comedy for those of you who missed it.

Michael Sean Winters, in a recent repost of a long-lost article, proposes the work of David Schindler as one possible way to do an end-around the whole classical liberal Hydra represented by Smith and Douthat: 

“The usual view of contemporary Catholic theology sees two camps the liberals who succeeded in opening the Church to the world at Vatican II and who have been in decline in the era of John Paul II, and the conservatives who think the Church went too far in the 1960s to accommodate the world, and support what they see as John Paul’s restorationist program. Schindler argues for (if you’ll pardon the expression) a third way. In his analysis, the liberals want more accommodation with the world and conservatives want less accommodation with the world, but they are still arguing about the rules of engagement. And both fail to appreciate the radicalness of the scriptural claim that ‘in [Jesus] everything in heaven and on earth was created.’

For Schindler, the Christian must always consider the claims of faith first, and those claims extend to the entirety of his or her life. Classical liberalism claims that in the realms of the ontological and the sectarian, the polity has no preference: a Christian is free to pursue his faith and any citizen can make whatever truth claims about the universe that he wishes. To use Murray’s distinction, the Bill of Rights are not ‘articles of faith’ but ‘articles of peace.’ But, Schindler asks, are there not truth claims, religious truth claims, already implicit in this putatively ‘neutral’ state?

Specifically, Schindler argues that Thomistic dualism is the sine qua non of liberal political regimes and, therefore, the neutrality of the liberal state is a sham. Murray’s “articles of peace” formulation assumes a logical priority for freedom before truth, and inevitably issues in a ‘privatization’ of religion. Since the Church is prevented from approaching the world ‘as Church’ (welcome, but please leave your dogma at the door!) it is reduced to the role of an ethical authority. This role, in turn, shapes the Church’s self-understanding so that what results is not only the secularization of society that the neo-conservatives decry, but also the secularization of religion itself. Being ‘Christian’ is reduced to being kind.”

The classic text where Schindler makes these arguments.

The classic text where Schindler makes these arguments.

Working out his project seems to be the only viable alternative to this:

Coetzee Demolishes Greek Harmony With Christian Agony

I tried to find an example of the "Unitarian with an attitude" bumper sticker I once saw in Portland, OR. This is what the search turned up. True story.

I tried to find an example of the “UNITARIAN WITH ATTITUDE!” bumper sticker I once saw in Portland, OR. This is what the search turned up. True story.

The best religious novelist of our time isn’t, as far as I know, a Christian believer. J.M. Coetzee completed his doctoral dissertation upon another Christ-haunted writer Samuel Beckett. He also is clearly influenced by the philosophical and theological writings of the Catholic (other than Bruno Latour) most-discussed in the secular academe. Of course, I’m talking about René Girard, whose work I’ve alluded to elsewhere.

Coetzee did attend a Catholic high school, plus he has both Dutch and Polish ancestry. Poland was not always the Catholic stronghold it is nowadays–Poles can thank the Germans, Russians, and the Jesuits for that. Actually, during the 16th century Poland was home to not only nearly all the Jews expelled from the West, but also of the Radical Reformation (so perhaps Coetzee has radical Calvinist or Unitarian roots?). In fact, it’s the only place where the Jesuits were successful at combating the Reformation. As the old joke goes:

Q: What is similar about the Jesuit and Dominican Orders?

A: Well, they were both founded by Spaniards, St. Dominic for the Dominicans, and St. Ignatius of Loyola for the Jesuits.
They were also both founded to combat heresy: the Dominicans to fight the Albigensians, and the Jesuits to fight the Protestants.

Q: What is different about the Jesuit and Dominican Orders?
A: Well, have you met any Albigensians lately?

Mann saw through some of the intellectual fashions for Greece, but his not enough.

Mann saw through some of the intellectual fashions for Greece, but his Röntgen didn’t cover enough.

WHERE WAS I? In my mind J.M. Coetzee is the greatest Christian (why not Catholic?) novelist of our time, because his characters constantly mull over the significance and practices of Christianity. They make the Incarnation strange again by inviting the unsuspecting reader to look at it from new angles. But don’t let me be the judge; judge yourself.

Let’s start with a passage from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. I’m almost certain the passages you’ll read from Coetzee later are a polemic against this great German modernist writer. The Magic Mountain is a prime example of post-Christian attachment to an idealized Greece, even if some of the rough edges are briefly highlighted, instead of totally glossed over. The oneric section of the “Snow” chapter begins with the idealized beauty we usually associate with Greece:

“Youths were at work with horses, running hand on halter alongside their whinnying, head-tossing charges; pulling the refractory ones on a long rein, or else, seated bareback, striking the flanks of their mounts with naked heels, to drive them into the sea. The muscles of the riders’ backs played beneath the sunbronzed skin, and their voices were enchanting beyond words as they shouted to each other or to their steeds. A little bay ran deep into the coast line, mirroring the shore as does a mountain lake; about it girls were dancing. One of them sat with her back toward him, so that her neck, and the hair drawn to a knot above it smote him with loveliness. She sat with her feet in a depression of the rock, and played on a shepherd’s pipe, her eyes roving above the stops to her companions, as in long, wide garments, smiling, with outstretched arms, alone, or in pairs swaying gently toward each other, they moved in the paces of the dance. Behind the flute-player—she too was white-clad, and her back was long and slender, laterally rounded by the movement of her arms—other maidens were sitting, or standing entwined to watch the dance, and quietly talking. Beyond them still, young men were practising archery. Lovely and pleasant it was to see the older ones show the younger, curly-locked novices, how to span the bow and take aim; draw with them, and laughing support them staggering back from the push of the arrow as it leaped from the bow. Others were fishing, lying prone on a jut of rock, waggling one leg in the air, holding the line out over the water, approaching their heads in talk. Others sat straining forward to fling the bait far out. A ship, with mast and yards, lying high out of the tide, was being eased, shoved,and steadied into the sea. Children played and exulted among the breaking waves . . .”

The black book of Greek religion.

The black book of Greek religion.

Mann briefly spoils the lazy dream with the nightmare of homo necans we usually ignore:

“Scarcely daring to venture, but following an inner compulsion, he passed behind the statuary, and through the double row of columns beyond. The bronze door of the sanctuary stood open, and the poor soul’s knees all but gave way beneath him at the sight within. Two grey old women, witchlike, with hanging breasts and dugs of fingerlength, were busy there, between flaming braziers, most horribly. They were dismembering a child. In dreadful silence they tore it apart with their bare hands—Hans Castorp saw the bright hair blood-smeared—and cracked the tender bones between their jaws, their dreadful lips dripped blood. An icy coldness held him. He would have covered his eyes and fled, but could not.”

In the end Mann doesn’t let Castorp entirely forget the horror of the temple, yet he represses into an inarticulate muteness of a “silent recognition.”  With that the novelist still makes his character side with the myth of Greek balance and beauty even if he couches it in a decidedly Christian rhetoric of love:

“Death and love—no, I cannot make a poem of them, they don’t go together. Love stands opposed to death. It is love, not reason, that is stronger than death. Only love, not reason, gives sweet thoughts. And from love and sweetness alone can form come: form and civilization, friendly, enlightened, beautiful human intercourse—always in silent recognition of the bloodsacrifice. Ah, yes, it is well and truly dreamed. I have taken stock. I will remember. I will keep faith with death in my heart, yet well remember that faith with death and the dead is evil, is hostile to humankind, so soon as we give it power over thought and action. For the sake of goodness and love, man shall let death have no sovereignty over his thoughts. And with this—I awake. For I have dreamed it out to the end, I have come to my goal.”

Greece exposed!

Greece exposed!

I immediately thought of these passages passage from Mann when reading “The Humanities in Africa” chapter in Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello. Bridget, the sister of the title character, is a nun and she has the following to say about our (unhealthy) obsession with Greece:

“‘You miss my point, Elizabeth. Hellenism was an alternative. Poor as it may have been, Hellas was the one alternative to the Christian vision that humanism was able to offer. To Greek society–an utterly idealized picture of Greek society, but how were ordinary folk to know that?–they could point and say, Behold, that is how we should live–not in the hereafter but in the here and now! Hellas: half-naked men, their breasts gleaming with olive oil, sitting on the temple steps discoursing about the good and the true, while in the background lithe-limbed boys wrestle and a herd of goats contentedly grazes. Free minds in free bodies. More than an idealized picture: a dream, a delusion.”

Not a pretty picture by Greek standards. Coetzee even notes it might be blasphemous for the Orthodox.

Not a pretty picture by Greek standards. Coetzee even notes the Eastern Orthodox might consider it blasphemous.

Bridget continues, refuses a merely “silent recognition,” and takes poor Elizabeth behind another woodshed:

‘Do you think, Elizabeth, that the Greeks are utterly foreign to Zululand? I tell you again, if you will not listen to me, at least have the decency to listen to Joseph. Do you think that Joseph carves suffering Jesus because he does not know better, that if you took Joseph on a tour around the Louvre his eyes would be opened and he would set about carving, for the benefit of his people, naked women preening themselves, or men flexing their muscles? Are you aware that when Europeans first came in contact with the Zulus, educated Europeans, men from England with public-school educations behind them, they thought they had rediscovered the Greeks? They said so quite explicitly. They took out their sketch blocks and drew sketches in which Zulu warriors with their spears and their clubs and their shields are shown in exactly the same attitudes, with exactly the same physical proportions, as the Hectors and Achilles we see in nineteenth-century illustrations of the Iliad, except that their skins are dusky. Well-formed limbs, skimpy clothes, a proud bearing, formal manners, martial virtues–it was all here! Sparta in Africa: that is what they thought they had found. For decades those same ex-public schoolboys, with their romantic idea of Greek antiquity, administered Zululand on behalf of the Crown. They wanted Zululand to be Sparta. They wanted the Zulus to be Greeks. So to Joseph and his father and his grandfather the Greeks are not a remote foreign tribe at all. They were offered the Greeks, by their new rulers, as a model of the kind of people they ought to be and could be. They were offered the Greeks and they rejected them. Instead, they looked elsewhere in the Mediterranean world. They chose to be Christians, followers of the living Christ. Joseph has chosen Jesus as his model. Speak to him. He will tell you.’

How do post-colonial departments digest mysteries such as this one? One is reminded of the divisive rhetoric emerging from deep geographical divisions within the Anglican communion. These insights also square with Girard’s repeated claim that the victim is the only universal category everyone agrees to in our age. What’s more, the victim, as Nietzsche knew (and despised), is a Christian category first articulated by St. Paul and the Gospels. It would have never struck the Greeks to put something as ugly as that at the center of their world. Finally, Coetzee goes beyond scratching the surface with novels built around characters who are victimizers. He presses the issue of forgiveness in extremis, with characters who might be as despicable as Kermit Gosnell or George Zimmerman are to some, in novels such as Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace.

All in all, it’s because of sharp observations such as these, because of a novelistic intensity unmatched since Dostoevsky, that Coetzee is the most significant living writer of theological fiction.  This is also why I couldn’t wait until the American release of The Childhood of Jesus and bought myself the UK edition.

The cover of the Polish edition, because why not?

The cover of the Polish edition, because Coetzee might really bum out the kids if they’ve been raised on Disney.

You Have no Idea How Much Nastier I Would be if I Was Not a Catholic

Christ breaking the cycle of violence.

Christ breaking the cycle of violence.

My post about the historical roots of resistance to the widespread and sociologically natural practice of abortion got quite a few people riled up. Luckily it didn’t result in as many stalkers, haters, and insinuators (usually about pedophilia) as my post on anti-Catholicism. I can only handle so many hatchet jobs before I get emotionally felled.

Be that as it may, the surprising reaction to the latter piece only confirmed it’s central thesis that something like anti-Catholicism is alive and even (especially?) among the exceptionally well-educated who don’t intend to offend. I was reminded of the real-world repercussions of this when Fr. Daniel berated our CL School of Community for leaving the door open given the recent threats against our parish. He went for his usual hyperbole with “Why did you leave the door open? Do you all want to get shot?”

Just to get back on track, Paganism was the topic of a previous post about how pre-Christian myths were filtered and preserved by Catholicism in ways you don’t see among both Protestants and its illegitimate twin of globalism. The topic of paganism resurfaced in the wake of the recent post on abortion and a picture I attached to it in a facebook thread:

Bloody hell except for some islands of blue.

Bloody hell except for some islands of blue.

My facebook friend Alexander Boldizar jousted back at me with the following provocation:

“Pro-abortion as antisemitism seems a bit of a stretch, like saying atheism is antisemetic — mixing race and religion. I know lots of atheist Jews. But the larger point seems consistent — as a very strongly pro-abortion atheist I have a much easier time relating to Zeus or Odin than I have to the Abrahamic God, because neither Zeus or Odin totalizes the way God does — and that totalitarian impulse in the Abrahamic God is what repels me so much about all of the monotheistic religions. And at its most basic, my support for abortion is rooted in relativism — that it’s not my place to make moral decisions for someone else.”

There is a lot to untangle in the response to this. First of all, there are plenty of pro-abortion Catholics who are unfaithful to their tradition, so there is nothing especially disturbing about there being Jews who are atheist (and pro-abortion).

The arguments of my post dealt with a faithful innovation within the Judeo(-Christian) tradition that set the Jews off from what we might presently label as the pagan groups around them.

The developments are interesting, because they arose within thoroughly violent totalitarian political structures, which used founding myths to justify their use of force against the populations. Compare the envy and violence involved in the account of creation in the Enuma Elish (or any of the creation myths of the Greeks, Romans, Hindus, and so on) to the non-rivalrous and peaceful account of creation in Genesis.

Pre-monotheistic history was worse than a bad acid trip.

Pre-monotheistic history was worse than a bad acid trip.

The biblical accounts are posterior (ain’t nothin’ wrong with that!) to the Mesopotamian myths. They retell the earlier stories in a monotheistic manner that expunges the violence of the original polytheistic sources whose relativist syncretism required the various gods to duke it out in mythical cagematches.

I wouldn’t go so far as suggesting that even the New Testament is free of positive portrayals of violence, however, Rene Girard has frequently argued the Gospels are part of a slow Jewish unmasking of the myth of redemptive violence (abortion as a legitimate solution to harms done is one such contemporary myth) whose arguments first gained their steam in the writings of the prophets.

If one wants to call the exit from the notion of violence-as-creative as totalitarian then we’ll take it, but good luck enforcing toleration.

Some might complain that history didn’t become a bed of roses after Christianity appeared upon the scene. Fair enough. Such criticism reminds me of a Waugh riposte to someone who asked him why he was still suck a jerk after his conversion. His response was, “You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid I would hardly be a human being.”

On a wider scale, there would be no critique of totalitarianism or totalizing philosophies (think: Levinas and how his critiques of totalizing are indebted to the Hebrew Bible) without revelation, because what we call totalitarianism would be as natural as water is to fish–we wouldn’t notice it. The fight that broke out between our four and a half year old and three year old while I was writing this piece reminds me how much freedom it takes to break the cycle of violence.

Anyway, a taste of the great and ever-annoying Evelyn Waugh:

All in all, the idea of Odin as tolerant and non-totalitarian grafts uniquely Judeo-Christian sensibilities onto pagan myth. We should remember, as I’ve suggested here, we don’t live in a pre-Christian world, nor in an entirely anti-Christian world, but in a post-Christian world whose unquestioned manners of perceiving reality are indebted to revelation. This fact, especially given the unintentional spread of theological categories (or as we antiseptically call them “Western values”) through globalism, is possibly the only non-imperialistic way of understanding Karl Rahner’s notion of the “anonymous Christian.” 

Sweet Viking Jesus wants us all to get along as Christians.

Sweet Viking Jesus wants us all to get along as Christians.

The idea of an Odin-Christ reminds me of Bob Odenkirk’s last name. So here’s a relevant Mr. Show clip where he plays Jesus to David Cross’ Marshall:

Catholic-Bashing: America’s Last Acceptable Prejudice (Vis–à–Vis the Fortnight for Freedom Campaign)

But don't they have it coming?

But don’t they have it coming to them?

[The contents of this post have been slightly modified for this repost.]

Systematic prejudice in America is rightfully in the spotlight again after yesterday’s verdict in Florida. The reaction to it reminded me of an article by Philip Jenkins, a sociologist who is America’s most even-handed commentator on religion. The article below summarizes the argument of one of his most important books The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice.

The irony is that anti-Catholicism is so pervasive in the United States that it’s invisible. The biased coverage of the priest sex-abuse scandals is one recent example that’s also the subject of another book by Jenkins, Priests and Pedophiles. 

I also dug out this article because of a bigoted anti-Catholic comment today on my Kristeva post by someone named “Frank.” I initially wanted to respond to it, but the whole thread landed in this blog’s trashcan. I realized something on the level of Chick Tracts and Maria Monk doesn’t dignify a reply.

Good riddance.

Good riddance. [Photo: St. James Cathedral Vandalized]

The whole episode also reminded me that Seattle’s St. James Cathedral was recently defaced by graffiti and that my own parish, Blessed Sacrament, is presently subject to various threats by a vandal. I don’t usually think of these things too often, because they don’t seem unusual. It’s also yet another reason why the bishops should be more reserved about clothing their arguments in American rhetoric and imagery.

It’s been pointed out by Justin Tse of Religion Ethnicity Wired that the argument Jenkins advances might suffer from some of the same nationalist shortcomings that plagued the Fortnight Campaign. This is because Jenkins seems to propose that Catholics should borrow strategies from other American victim groups and work within the American system instead of distancing themselves from it. You decide!

===========

The following article initially appeared in the May 2003 issue of Catalyst Magazine.

“Catholic-Bashing: America’s Last Acceptable Prejudice”

U.S. groups that are scrupulously PC about offending religious institutions make one major exception: the Roman Catholic Church.

BY: Philip Jenkins

For readers of Catalyst, expressions of anti-Catholic bigotry scarcely come as a surprise. Over the years, we have come to expect that media treatments of the Church, its clergy and its faithful will be negative, if not highly offensive, and Catholic organizations try to confront the worst manifestations of prejudice. When such controversies erupt, the defenders of the various shows or productions commonly invoke a free speech defense. These productions are just legitimate commentary, we hear, so offended Catholics should just lighten up, and learn not to be hyper-sensitive. Sometimes, defenders just deny that the allegedly anti-Catholic works are anything like as hostile as they initially seem to be. All these arguments, though, miss one central point, namely that similarly controversial attacks would be tolerated against literally no other group, whether that group is religious, political or ethnic.

The issue should not be whether film X or art exhibit Y is deliberately intending to affront Catholics. We should rather ask whether comparable expressions would be allowed if they caused outrage or offense to any other group, whether or not that degree of offense seems reasonable or understandable to outsiders. If the answer is yes, that our society will indeed tolerate controversial or offensive presentations of other groups-of Muslims and Jews, African-Americans and Latinos, Asian-Americans and Native Americans, gays and lesbians- then Catholics should not protest that they are being singled out for unfair treatment. If, however, controversy is out of bounds for these other groups-as it assuredly is-then we certainly should not lighten up, and the Catholic League is going to be in business for a very long time to come.

It is easy to illustrate the degree of public sensitivity to images or displays that affect other social or religious groups-but how many of us realize how far the law has gone in accommodating the presumed privilege against offense? Witness the legal attempts over the last two decades to regulate so-called “hate speech.” American courts have never accepted that speech should be wholly unrestricted, but since the 1980s, a variety of activists have pressed for expanded laws or codes that would limit or suppress speech directed against particular groups, against women, racial minorities and homosexuals. The most ambitious of these speech codes were implemented on college campuses. Though many such codes have been struck down by the courts, a substantial section of liberal opinion believes that stringent laws should restrict the right to criticize minorities and other interest groups.

But if these provisions had been upheld in the courts, what would they have meant for recent Catholic controversies? One typical university code defines hate speech “as any verbal speech, harassment, and/or printed statements which can provoke mental and/or emotional anguish for any member of the University community.” Nothing in the code demands evidence that the offended person is a normal, average character not over-sensitive to insult. According to the speech codes, the fact of “causing anguish” is sufficient. Since the various codes placed so much emphasis on the likelihood of causing offense, rather than the intent of the act or speech involved, the codes might well have criminalized art exhibits like, oh, just to take a fantastic example, a photograph of a crucifix submerged in a jar of urine.

Above all, Piss Christ is shitty art.

Above all, Piss Christ is crappy art.

The element of “causing offense” is central to speech codes. At the University of Michigan a proposed code would have prohibited “any behavior, verbal or physical, that stigmatizes or victimizes an individual on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual orientation, creed, national origin, ancestry, age, marital status, handicap, or Vietnam-era veteran status.” “Stigmatization and victimization” are defined entirely by the subjective feelings of the groups who felt threatened. In 1992, the US Supreme Court upheld a local statute that prohibited the display of a symbol that one knows or has reason to know “arouses anger, alarm or resentment in others on the basis of race, color, creed, religion or gender.” The implied reference is to a swastika or a burning cross, but as it is written, the criterion is that the symbol causes “anger, alarm or resentment” to some unspecified person. These were precisely the reactions of many Catholic believers who saw or read about the “Piss Christ” photograph, or the controversial displays at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

Other recent laws have taken full account of religious sensibilities, at least where non-Catholics are concerned. Take for instance the treatment of Native American religions, and the presentation of displays that (rightly) outrage Native peoples. In years gone by, museums nonchalantly displayed Indian skeletons in a way that would be unconscionable for any community, but which was all the more offensive for Native peoples, with their keen sensitivity to the treatment of the dead. In 1990, Congress passed NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which revolutionized the operation of American museums and galleries by requiring that all Indian remains and cultural artifacts should be repatriated to their tribal owners. As a matter of federal criminal law, NAGPRA established the principle that artistic and historical interests must be subordinate to the religious and cultural sensibilities of minority communities.

Even so, museums and cultural institutions have gone far beyond the letter of this strict law. They have systematically withdrawn or destroyed displays that might cause the slightest offense to Indian peoples, including such once-familiar displays as photographs of skeletons or grave-goods. In South-Western museums today, one commonly sees such images replaced with apologetic signs, which explain gaps in the exhibits in terms of new cultural sensitivities. Usually, museums state simply that the authorities of a given tribe have objected to an exhibit because it considers it hurtful or embarrassing, without even giving the grounds for this opinion, yet that is enough to warrant removal. When disputes arise, the viewpoint of the minority group must be treated as authoritative. Just imagine an even milder version of this legal principle being applied to starkly offensive images like those at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. If Native religion deserves respect and restraint on the part of commentators-as it assuredly does-why doesn’t Catholicism merit similar safeguards?

Beyond the legal realm, time and again we see that media outlets exercise a powerful self-censorship that suppresses controversial or offensive images, whether or not that “offense” is intended: and again, this restraint applies to every group, except Catholics. Over the years, the film industry has learned to suppress images or themes that affect an ever-growing number of protected categories. The caution about African-Americans is understandable, given the racist horrors in films of bygone years, but the present degree of sensitivity is astounding. Recall last year’s film “Barbershop,” in which Black characters exchange disrespectful remarks about such heroic figures as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, and more questionable characters like O. J. Simpson and Jesse Jackson. Though this was clearly not a racist attack, the outcry was ferocious: some things simply cannot be said in public. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton led an intense campaign to delete these touchy references.

And other social groups have learned these lessons about self-censorship. Asian-Americans and Latinos have both made it clear that the once-familiar stereotypes will no longer be tolerated, and Hollywood takes their complaints to heart. By the early 1990s, too, gay groups had achieved a similar immunity. When, in 1998, the film “The Siege” offered a (prescient) view of New York City under assault by Arab terrorists, the producers thought it politic to work closely with Arab-American and Muslim groups in order to minimize charges of stereotyping and negative portrayals. Activists thought that any film depicting how “Arab terrorists methodically lay waste to Manhattan” was not only clearly fantastic in its own right, but also “reinforces historically damaging stereotypes.” As everyone knew, Hollywood had a public responsibility not to encourage such labeling.

Yet no such qualms affect the making of films or television series that might offend America’s sixty million Catholics. Any suggestion that the makers of such films should consult with Catholic authorities or interest groups would be dismissed as promoting censorship, and a grossly inappropriate religious interference with artistic self-expression. The fuss over whether a film like “Dogma” or “Stigmata” is intentionally anti-Catholic misses the point. The question is not why American studios release films that will annoy and offend Catholics, but why they do not more regularly deal with subject matter that would be equally uncomfortable or objectionable to other traditions or interest groups. If they did so, American films might be much more interesting, in addition to demonstrating a new consistency.

If works of art are to offend, they should do so on an equal opportunity basis. If we have to tolerate such atrocities as “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You”-recently revived as a Showtime special-then why should we not have merry satires poking fun at secular icons like Matthew Shepard or Martin Luther King? If, on the other hand, it is ugly and unacceptable even to contemplate an imaginary production of “Matthew Explains It All,” poking fun at victims of gay-bashing, then why should we put up with Sister Mary? Some consistency, please.

Let me end with a suggestion. By all means, let the Catholic League continue to report offensive depictions of Catholics and their church. But to put these in perspective, always remember to record these many other controversies, in which other groups succeed in enforcing their right to be free from offense. Only then can Catholic-bashing be seen for what it is, America’s last acceptable prejudice.

Famous Atheists Who Weren’t Atheists 3: Warhol’s Byzantine Iconoclasm & the Mystery of Blau’s Bafflement

Modernity: you can touch, but there isn't much in there you can eat.

Consumerism: you can touch, but there isn’t much in there you can eat.

You’d be surprised how many Christian academics with cushy jobs at state schools are gloating over the demise of the humanities in the “secular” academe during the latest round of budget cuts. They think the cuts will result in fewer people getting degrees in post-colonial studies, therefore fewer students will become polluted by them (and we’ll have fewer students overall). In turn all those saved from the evils of scholarship will be taught “responsibility” in the “real world” by the dynamic McDonald’s jobs our presidents have been creating for us over roughly the last thirty-three years (Jesus!). Some will even chide you for not respecting the “dignity” of these “workplaces.”

It’s difficult to dispense with ironic quotation marks when you see armchair theologians using these catchwords. Words which were maybe meaningful, say, about a hundred years ago. What they don’t seem to know is how much the humanities have recognized they need to extricate themselves from the dead-ends of identity politics. Ironically, all the while, many seminaries are only now discovering these same intellectual trends and jumping at them as if they were the royal road to relevance.

Nihilistic artists such as Andy Warhol are sometimes the targets of these, I believe, sincere attacks.  They say it’s better that our children don’t get exposed to postmodernism if they are to keep their faith. Yet, it turns out Warhol was a faithful Byzantine Catholic who participated in Mass frequently, carried around a missal and a rosary, financed a nephew’s studies for the priesthood, and might have remained a virgin all his life.

Despite popular prejudices to the contrary these biographical details did discretely spill out into his art. He did a cycle of nearly 100 variations on the Last Supper, which the Guggenheim folks think “indicates an almost obsessive investment in the subject matter.” Or as I’d have it: devotion.

Is there anything consumerism can't absorb?

Is there anything consumerism won’t absorb? To paraphrase Robert Musil: clean hands don’t necessarily imply a clear conscience.

In my estimates, the painting above is a fine bit of iconoclasm, part of a long tradition of busting idols, going all the way back to the most riveting (and slightly embarrassing) episodes in the Hebrew Bible.  It takes the hammer to our daily idols by transposing them upon the Real Presence they cannibalize. I know it’s not the most aesthetically pleasing work of art, but neither is the process of consumerist absorption it depicts.

My line of reasoning gets even more twisted, more Rabelaisian, as I know from my own experience at a secular university. Even the most secular academic culture can bring up (and even answer) some of the ultimate questions that are at the heart of religion.  By the time I was at the University of Washington I thought I had the boring paleo-nationalism of Polish-American Catholicism behind me. While majoring in history, Slavic, and ultimately comparative religion, I was fascinated by how much my professors deeply appreciated the artifacts of Christian culture, while doing their best to disarm the way of life and beliefs that stood behind them. There was obviously something dangerous about it. This got me thinking. And to make a long story short, I ended up reverting to Catholicism at a secular university. Some of this was the result of taking classes with outstanding Christian intellectuals such as Eugene Webb and James Felak.

Herbert Blau still keeps me on my toes.

Herbert Blau’s bafflement keeps me on my toes and in the pews.

But it wasn’t only the faithful remnant who taught me about faith. Actually, people who work outside of religious studies are given more leeway than those within them. It’s because they aren’t always required to bracket off the truth content of what they’re teaching. One prime example is the recently deceased professor of theater, Herbert Blau, an American theater pioneer who was a close friend of Samuel Beckett. I’m still reeling from his passing, because I miss his encouragement and the intensity he brought to teaching the importance of ultimate questions (to students who weren’t always aware they exist).

Here is the essence of his teaching method, “I often say to my students, ‘When I know what I think, I couldn’t care less. It’s when I don’t know what I think, when I’m utterly baffled, that I really like it, because that’s when I have to keep thinking. It keeps the mind going.”

His own inability to believe, perhaps his inability to accept grace, was one of the things that baffled Blau. He was willing to talk about it to whomever wanted to listen. The seriousness with which he took these questions would blow many a catechist out of the water. His influence keeps me going in trying to understand the Catholic tradition and its significance for my own life, my family, and our community.

Perhaps the world and the academy are much more mysterious than we make them out to be? After all, we shouldn’t forget we live in a post-Christian culture where everything, even the very concepts anyone thinks in, are half baptized. Let’s be a bit more charitable toward it and call off the undertakers unless we want to saw off the branch we’re sitting on.

Couldn’t help myself:

Pope art.

Pope art.

Nota Bene: Don’t miss the Sartre and Camus installments in the “Famous Atheists Who Weren’t Atheists” series.