Saturday, February 14, 2015

Stuck on a False Narrative



As you may of noticed, I haven't exactly been hitting the keys over the last couple of months. But I'm back, and have a few thoughts on 50 Shades of Grey and why faith doesn't seem to matter to so many people.

50 Shades of What Ever 

Unless you've been under a rock of late, you know that the film adaptation of the best selling book 50 Shades of Grey was released in theaters this past Friday. In the week or so leading up to the movie's release I saw posts galore on Facebook from (mainly) women of faith decrying the film for exploiting and degrading women. Some of these posts were people writing in their own words the feelings of disgust they felt at the movie and the books, others were links to Catholic or Evangelical sites covering the story and expressing their outrage at the film in logical, orderly prose.

It reminded me somewhat of what happened when The Da Vinci Code came out a decade ago. In that case a sort of cottage industry grew up of authors writing books and putting together videos exposing the historical and theological errors of the Dan Brown pot boiler. The phenomenon came and went, and I'm not sure people were swayed one way or the other by the catholic response. Those who were inclined to believe the narrative of a purely human Jesus who secretly married and had children and a corrupt Church covering up the truth proposed by the movie were not going to be moved by the arguments made by believers, and those who know the truth weren't going to go see the movie to begin with. As for the great middle who went to see the movie as pure entertainment, not knowing or caring about the controversy, they very well may have been swayed to believe the narrative presented by the film. But not because we didn't make good enough arguments or present history accurately enough, rather because we didn't come back with a competing, and just as compelling narrative.

Fr. Barron, in a video on C.S. Lewis, points out that Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien set about to use their fantasies to present a competing narrative to the prevalent secular materialist mind set that had already taken hold in the mid twentieth century. While both men may not have used that language, they understood the power of myth to shape minds and world views. In recasting the story of creation, fall and redemption in the form of an adventure story they were attempting to "evangelize the imagination," to use Fr. Barron's words. The problem today is that we lack this creative imagination. We have ceded the arts to the postmoderns, relying strictly on dry argumentation to get our point across.

The answer is not to give up on scholarship and traditional apologetics, but to use those tools while reclaiming our seat at the creative table as well. There are traditional Christians trying to make movies and write literature, but they range from noble failures to out and out artistic train wrecks. Films like 2006's Bella and (to a lesser extent) Gimme Shelter from two years ago give me hope, but we have a long way to go. What separates those two movies for me is that, while both were made from a faith based perspective, neither took for granted that the viewer was a believer. Both had pro-life themes, but didn't villainize the other side. Both tried to change the narrative while acknowledging that theirs was not the dominant one. Too many faith based films take the truth of their position and the sympathy of the audience for granted. What this leads to is a sort of cinematic echo chamber where we end up talking to ourselves rather than cinema being an avenue to engage the culture and effectively challenge the prevailing narrative. Until we do that we should expect more Da Vinci Codes and 50 Shades coming at us unabated.

The Grand Narrative Scapegoat: Humanae Vitae

One of the great cultural narratives that shades how many Catholics view the world is that the great exodus out of the Church began with Paul VI's 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which reaffirmed the traditional Christian teaching on artificial contraception. The narrative goes that Catholics left the Church over this issue, and those that remain simply ignore the restriction on contraceptives. Unless we become more "realistic" about this and other sexual matters, like homosexuality, we will continue to see parishes empty out, or so the narrative goes. The narrative is not completely wrong (I've met people who say they stopped practicing their faith over the teaching on contraceptives, and I know gays who struggle with the issue of faith and sexuality). This narrative though is incomplete, and a tad outdated.

Here's the problem: there is evidence that the exodus from organized religion in the United States, among both Catholics and Protestants, started as early as 1965. Contraception is one issue that drove people away, but other issues were and still are facing the Church as well. We are struggling now with the issue divorced and remarried Catholics and how they are to be cared for, as if this is a new issue effecting Sunday attendance at Mass. But, while the divorce rate exploded after 1970, statistics show a steady increase in the divorce rate through the 1950's and 60's before taking off in the 70's.  It's easy to say that the drop off in Mass participation is a result of the Church's "intransigents" on these and other issues of sexual morality. But how do we explain that from roughly 1975 on the percentage of the U.S. population identifying themselves as Main Line Protestants dramatically fell off the table. Our separated brothers and sisters long ago liberalized their teachings on human sexuality (the Church of England modified their teaching on contraception in the early 1930's, and today only 36% of British men in a recent survey identify themselves as Christians). Many ecclesial communities have also adopted women clergy, and in some cases have accepted openly homosexual prelates into their ranks. Yet none of these innovations, some of which have been called for by progressive Catholics for decades, has done anything to stem the tide out of their pews. Why is it that we think following such policies will work for us when they haven't worked for others?

In insisting on this widely accepted narrative we've missed the forest for the trees. The changing mores on human sexuality reflects a deeper philosophical change in the culture. Accepting Christ means saying no to something else. It's Jesus who puts the conditions on us, not the other way around. He told the rich young man to give up his riches, but the man couldn't do it, going away sad. But we can take out "riches" and plug in any number of material things or willful desires: it could be that beach house we have or always wanted, it could be a relationship with a person we genuinely love, it could be freedom of movement or it could be the choice of career. It could mean sacrificing sexual activity. The injunction to pick up the cross and carry it everyday will always be at the heart of the Gospel message, and that is the stumbling block, not divorce, contraception or acceptance of gay relationships as normative. Those are symptoms of a larger problem.

We live in an intellectually fractured age. We live a strange mix of a sort of functional libertarianism that still wants big government when it wants it, but otherwise individuals want to be left alone. We care passionately about the rights of sexual minorities and animals, but care little for the poor and marginalized. We reject organized religion but are seeking some spiritual connection by way of yoga, eastern mysticism, self help gurus and, increasingly, the occult. Most believe in some sort of afterlife, but don't see the importance of funeral rites or prayers for the dead. How we celebrate funerals, apart from the formal prayers and liturgical gestures, no longer reflects a hope in the life to come, but is strictly a remembrance of what has ended. I'd say we've become like the ancient Egyptians, who buried loved ones with coins and food for the journey over the river of the dead, but this practice at least looked forward to a life to come. In our case I've seen bottles of scotch, cartons of cigarettes and even scratch off lottery tickets placed in caskets where rosary beads use to be. Everything is about the here and now, and the creature comforts the dearly departed once enjoyed, not the eternal joy we hope for him now.

We could clear the decks of all traditionally held sexual mores, apart from rape which seems to be the only universally accepted restriction on sexual activity, and people still would not return to church. Why? Because the problem isn't sex; it's the prevailing spirit of secularism, materialism, consumerism and radical individualism: a collective world view of which the sexual revolution is a symptom.

If Humanae Vitae didn't exist we'd have to invent it, because without that narrative we'd have to face the fact that we tried to read the signs of the times after the Council, but failed, or more accurately only partially succeeded. We certainly failed in understanding what the entire concept of being able to read the prevailing narrative meant. We thought we were being called to spot trends, latch onto fads and ride political waves. We became locked onto micro movements and missed the big picture. If there was a big take way, it was for us to join in on the secular humanist parade as opposed to offering a counter narrative of Christian humanism. Unless we step back and see the big picture of what being a disciple of Christ is all about we will continue to stumble through history blind. Unless we really understand what the Christian narrative is at it's core, and express it, and really live it, radically, we should not hope that the tide will be turned any time soon.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Jingo Propaganda, Patriotic Salute or Cautionary Tale?: "American Sniper" // Movie Review



It's was difficult for me to walk into director Clint Eastwood's latest film, American Sniper, and not have the controversy it has inspired embed preconceived notions in my head. Progressives criticize the movie as jingoistic propaganda, glorifying the misadventure that was the Second Gulf War, and militarism in general. Conservatives counter that such criticism is rooted in the liberal Hollywood establishment's hatred of the military and, by extension, patriotism. I do believe that some of the left wing backlash against this wildly popular film has to do with Eastwood's President Obama mocking "empty chair" routine from the 2012 Republican Convention. And this is not the first time Ol' Clint has been caught in this type of political crossfire. Over forty years ago Dirty Harry, in which he played the iconic title role, was accused of promoting fascist sensibilities. After watching  American Sniper for myself, I think both liberals and conservatives have the movie wrong. While the ending coda does wrap itself in the flag, most of this film shows the effects of war, and it's demand to be a human killing machine, on on the people who participate in it, and their families at home. Far from being a recruitment tool, this is a hard look at the hell that is combat and it's consequences.

American Sniper follows the story of the late Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), a would be Texas cowboy who joins the Navy SEALS after the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. Early in life he's taught by his strict father to neither be a submissive sheep nor a predatory wolf, but rather a protective sheep dog. This protector instinct serves him as he becomes, during four tours in Iraq, the most lethal sniper in American history.

In real life, during interviews, Kyle never wavered in the belief that he had done his patriotic duty, and his only regret was not protecting more American and allied lives. But in the film, based on his autobiography and made with the cooperation of his widow Taya Renae Kyle (played here by Sienna Miller), we see a man more conflicted. His words constantly speak to duty, honor, God, country and family. But after his first taste of killing, which involves a harrowing choice, he angrily snaps at his observer for an enthusiastic congratulation, belying a deep seated understanding of the ugly, if in his mind necessary, assignment he is on.

The internal conflict Kyle experiences, along with a certain disconnect he has with those around him who are not quite as convinced of the correctness of the mission as he is is the real story of the film. At one point the mother of a close friend who is killed in combat reads a letter from her son expressing his disillusion with the Iraq War during the fallen soldier's funeral. When Taya questions Chris on the ride home about the letter, he says, in essence, that it was his comrade's lack of faith in the mission that killed him as much as the enemy bullet. She looks at him like she can't believe that Kyle actually believes that. While he insists that he is the same man, and that war has not effected him, his time between tours shows him to be edgy, hyper sensitive to his surroundings and at times withdrawn.

Once State side for good Kyle totally misreads a situation at a child's birthday party, resulting in an embarrassing overreaction. He goes to visit a VA psychologist, who informs him that he's been credited with over 160 kills in roughly 1,000 days of deployment in Iraq. Still not acknowledging that these things have had any effect on him, the therapist brings him to the floor dedicated to the men maimed by battle. Eastwood uses actual veterans in these scenes, showing the real life results of IED's and roadside bombs. This begins Kyle's work, giving assistance to his fellow veteran who returned with external scars to go along with the internal ones both bear.

In many ways it's too bad that American Sniper was made as a biopic. Much has come out since the film's release questioning it's accuracy, especially as it relates to the real Chris Kyle's integrity and honesty. I'll put aside the whole debate over whether snipers are hero's or cowards: they're a standard part of military strategy used by all sides since people figured out how to use gun powder to propel a bullet. They're no more cowardly then members of an artillery unit or a missile operator. But the film does portray our hero as exactly that; other than being a bit clueless at times, he possesses all the noble qualities one would want in a soldier and a son; while I never found the movie to be a rah rah affair, there is a sense of patriotic hagiography in the treatment of the Kyle character. If they took things a step farther and made it a straight fictional account I think the very clear, cautionary aspects of the story would come out in greater relief, and people wouldn't be engaged in the besides the point debate over the real Chris Kyle's legacy.

I walked away from American Sniper grateful to the men and women who serve and for the sacrifices they and their families make, much like I did after seeing Saving Private Ryan. But, like in that earlier film, I also saw a picture of war and it's aftermath on minds and bodies that brought home that war is a tragedy of epic proportions for all involved. Whether the cause is just or not, once the dogs of war are loosed confusion reigns and even good men find themselves doing despicable things, if only to survive the experience.

My suggestion is that in seeing American Sniper, put out of your mind that this purports to be a "true story." It is better seen as a personality study rather than a biography. I found that Eastwood's adaptation is balanced, nuanced and penetrating, in that it tells you what Kyle thought, but doesn't take for granted that he's right, or that he even necessary believes himself. No, it doesn't get into the politics deeply (I don't think that George Bush's name is mentioned once), and I'm sure that its lack of an out and out condemnation of the war is what rankles some progressive critics. But I think only the most obtuse on both sides will think that this film glorifies war or the Iraqi conflict.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

An Unjust War: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies // Movie Review


The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies was released several weeks ago, so I got to this one late, but I'm afraid not late enough. I should have held out for the video release, if even that. This third and, thankfully, last installment of Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Hobbit is an unnecessary anticlimax, the first fifteen minutes or so of which should have been stuck on to the end of movie two. Five Armies resolves the heart of the story rather quickly, then meanders for another two hours rehashing themes from the earlier movies without really developing them any further.

Not having read the book I'm not sure how much this battle between the five armies (though I could only count four) really mattered to the resolution of the story. I always understood that the dragon attack on Laketown was the story's climactic event, and if not, it should have been for the sake of the movie. Everything in the first two films leads us to this encounter, and after that is resolved (rather quickly) the rest of the action, and there is plenty of action, seems tacked on.

Briefly, Five Armies takes up exactly where last year's The Desolation of Smaug leaves off; with Smaug the Dragon flying out of the mountain to get his revenge of Laketown. I'm not sure it's a spoiler to mention that after his attack our not so friendly neighborhood dragon leaves the story and the dwarfs get their mountain back. But Thorin the would be dwarf king, unsatisfied with the positive turn of events, is obsessed with hoarding the mountain city's vast stores of gold and jewels, as well as getting possession of a magical stone that will legitimize his claim to the throne. The human inhabitants of Laketown assemble in battle formation, wanting their promised cut for helping the dwarfs, along with an army of elves who want the return of precious jewels that are a part of their heritage. This standoff is ended, and foes become allies when an army of evil orcs descends to take the treasure for themselves.

My guess is that, at this late date, if you are a true believer you've seen Five Armies already, and nothing I write will change your mind about the film one way or the other. And this is not a bad movie, per say. But I see a justice issue with this film that out weighs any of the production's artistic merits or lack there of. I understand that Hollywood is in business to make money, and that sequels represent a sure fire way for doing just that. Adapting books for the screen has long been a Tinseltown staple because, as the thinking goes, a built in audience is ready to buy tickets before the film is even made. With the rise of young adult novel series like Twilight and the Hunger Games we have a perfect storm of adapting known commodities coupled with the promise of sequels along the way. But lately we have seen studios milking the practice, turning trilogies into four part series, and in this case making three movies out of one, relatively sort, novel. Much like the latest Hunger Games from a couple of months ago, this had nothing to do with director Peter Jackson having more to say, or some great themes of J.R.R. Tolkien that needed to be translated to the screen to complete the journey. This was about making money, and bilking the public, fan boys in particular, pure and simple. I do not begrudge anyone making a buck, as long as it's an honest one, and Thorin is not the only one here afflicted with dragon sickness, its main symptom being greed.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Robert Barron: Mark's Gospel and the Victory of God





Back on the first Sunday of Advent we began a new liturgical year. Basically it means we begin again, starting with Christ's incarnation, our yearly meditation on the mysteries of the faith. After Christmas Time, we will have a brief period of Ordinary time before entering into Lent. We do this every year, but the big difference will be that we move from hearing Matthew's Gospel on most Sundays to getting readings from Mark. There are exceptions, like today, the Feast of the Holy Family, we heard from Luke, and in Lent and Easter we will hear a lot from John. But for most of 2015 we will be working our way through the Second Gospel. Here Fr. Robert Barron gives a rather detailed analysis of the first words of the Gospel of Mark, and why they are so radical.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

What's So Difficult About Believing in the Virgin Birth?



I grew up Catholic. I grew up with a manger scenes in the house at Christmas time. I grew up hearing the story of the Annunciation from Luke and the account of Jesus' birth from Matthew, and never questioned it. It's true that my credulity had as much to do with my natural childhood innocence as with any supernatural virtue of faith that I may have had. But even after finding out about the birds and the bees, Jesus' origin story never gave me pause to question.

I was into adulthood before I found out that there are many people who find the Virgin Birth troublesome. Some are total skeptics, but others believe in the Resurrection, in the miracles, and even call Jesus Lord and God. But that Jesus was conceived outside the regular way is a bridge too far. I have to be honest, I don't understand the doubts. The skeptics or the atheists I get. They've drunk a different kind of Kool-Aid, so there's a certain period of intellectual detox that they need to go through before we can even get to discussing something like the Virgin Birth. But that some accept the other mysteries of Jesus' life and reject the Virgin Birth is a total non sequitur to me. I think part of the problem is that many people take the event of Jesus' conception in isolation when it needs to be seen in light of the reason Jesus, the eternal Word of God, took flesh in the womb of the Virgin to begin with.

Everything needs to start with the Paschal Mystery. That Jesus died and rose again is the core of our Faith. It is the reason that 10 of the 11 surviving Apostles suffered martyrdom, and John suffered torture and exile. Countless others suffered the same fate in the first decades and centuries for their refusal to deny that Jesus is risen, like the first 11. No one died, that I know of, for refusing to denounce the Virgin Birth. But whether we're discussing this doctrine, or the veracity of the miracle accounts or the belief in the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, we always have to see these things in light of Jesus' dying and rising. If we believe that Jesus rose from the dead, then other supernatural claims we make about him shouldn't be difficult to accept, or at the very least shouldn't be dismissed as impossible.

The Resurrection is the ultimate validation that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. Whatever other things he did, they were building to that moment when the fullness of the Kingdom was revealed: a Kingdom where illness is unknown, where the power of Satan is banished, where death is defeated. And it is a Kingdom where life is unending. All this is made possible because Jesus, who was sinless, came and stood with sinners, even dying in their place, to make our Redemption possible. Could an ordinary human person have accomplish this? Even one who is blessed by God in a special way? No. Jesus' claims to have existed "before Abraham was," or that he shared in the glory of the Father "before the world began" preclude that Jesus was an ordinary man, or even a special man. This all points to Jesus as a divine person. So if we believe these claims of Jesus, then the idea that he came into the world in an ordinary, natural fashion is harder to believe than the Virgin Birth.

So, I continue to have no problem with the Virgin Birth. I have no problem with it because, from how I see it, it isn't only possible, it is essential when we take all the claims that Jesus and his followers made concerning him. If this was the only extraordinary claim made about Jesus, then the idea that Jesus was miraculously conceived would be a stretch. But taken together it makes perfect sense.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Our Lady of Guadalupe 2014



One of the great things about being a priest and being forced, in a way, to constantly reflect upon the Word of God in relation to the liturgical times of year is that new levels of meaning become apparent over time. It's not necessarily a yearly unfolding, but I can say that my preaching this Advent is very different than it was, lets say, ten or even five years ago. This year I have noticed a clear shift in my homilies, though. I've become much more focused on the eschatological meaning of these weeks than previously. I won't go into the whys right now, but it's just to say that "it is what it is." My preaching is a reflection of my prayer life, and this is where the Spirit is moving me. I will go as far as to say that I don't have any strong feeling that we have entered the "End Times." But I do believe that this has been a neglected topic, one that many Catholics have been content to let our Evangelical brothers and sisters tackle, much to our detriment and confusion for those who are only hearing that perspective and think it's authoritative for all Christianity (which it isn't). Again, a topic for another day.

Today is the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and serving a predominantly Mexican immigrant community, it's kind of a big deal. We had several pilgrimages leave from parish last evening, heading to a shrine about 15 miles away for a special Mass with Archbishop Cupich, returning between two and 3 in the morning. Then the traditional Mañanitas at 4:30 A.M., complete with mariachi's, and Mass at 6. Tonight we'll have the Rosary, with more mariachi singing starting at 5, with Mass, and the blessing of the roses at 7pm.

I don't mention all this to boast about how busy we are here at Bosco (O.K., maybe just a little). The main point is that with this major Marian feast, along with the Immaculate Conception on the 8th, it can be easy for Advent to get lost a bit. But I would say that actually this feast fits in just fine, especially when this theme of the End Times is taken into account. .

The Blessed Mother appeared to Juan Diego at the very moment that his society had experienced an apocalypse. Only twelve years previously the Spanish had arrived in what we call today Mexico City, and nothing was ever to be the same. Their religion, culture, economy and governance were replaced in an instant. But the indigenous peoples didn't now how to take this new religion. Sure, there was no more human sacrifice, but the Spanish conquistadors weren't exactly kind and gentle. Mary came with a message of hope for Juan Diego, who had already become Christian, and for all the people. They had experienced great change, revolutionary change in the deepest sense of the word, but they were not to worry. She was their mother, and she was bringing them Jesus Christ. The God who gives us His blood so that we may have life, as opposed to their old gods who craved human blood to keep themselves appeased.

We are in a time of transition as well. We should not expect that social orders or political institutions will last forever, not even our own. We shouldn't be surprised if in the decades, or even years ahead, epoch changing events take place. But the message of Our Lady at Tepeyac is the same: she is our Mother who loves us, who protects sum who guides us. She brings us her Son, who will make all things new, and indeed already has. While we await his coming in glory, we should not despair if there are ups, down, progress and reversals along the way. All history is moving toward one goal: the fullness of life in Jesus Christ.

Word on Fire in Mexico: At Our Lady of Guadalupe

Our Lady Guadalupe as Star of the new Evangelization from AOP

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Detailed Study of Our Lady of Guadalupe by Fr. Luis Fernando Castañeda Monter

These are rather comprehensive conferences on the story and science of the miraculous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.  These are rather long talks (I usually try to only post short clips of no more than ten minutes), but these are worth the time. These talks explain the cultural and religious background of the Aztecs and how the image fits with that.

What was most impressive to me is Fr. Castañeda explaining the symbols on Our Lady´s dress and mantle and how she used religious and cultural symbols familiar to the indigenous peoples to evangelize and catechize.  The Spaniards thought that there were "mistakes" on the image, because the symbols were so foreign to their way of thinking.  As Fr. Castañeda keeps on saying, God makes no mistakes, and the Blessed Mother makes it clear that she herself is human, but is greater than the Aztec's most powerful god.  She is sent from heaven, but walks the earth to bring the the all powerful God to them, of whom she is mother.  She is our mother too, and wants to bring her us "the one true God for whom all people live."  May our hearts be open to this great grace.

Just as a note: Fr. Castañeda makes some statements concerning cultural anthropology that may or may not be accurate.  For instance at one point he says that all Native American groups practiced human sacrifice.  I'm assuming he means the indigenous groups of Mexico and Central America.  I'm not sure even that would be true, but I never heard of Sioux or Cherokees engaging in sacrifices of the kind the Aztecs did.  Plus, I'm pretty sure that by the time of Columbus the majority of educated Europeans understood the Earth to be round.  Some certainly still held to a belief that the Earth was flat, but science had progressed enough for people to figure it out.   

These are quibbles though.  This is a very fascinating study.  Enjoy!