...And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

A shape less recognisable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was...

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

"You know the world is real. And 'The Daily Show' is fake."

Right on, Ann. It's a depressing thought that this isn't obvious to your average "Daily Show" smugster.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Buddy Christ

I don't know about you, but I think the best way to get kids into the whole Jesus thang is to suggest to them that loving God is just like hanging out with the cool kids in school, only totally better, because, like, hellooo, this is Jesus we're talking about here, and if Jesus is your BFF, then you are sooooo going to be invited to all the cool parties. Just don't hang out with that nerd Satan. He probably wears a pocket protector, plays D&D, and -- shudder -- reads books for fun.

Look, I'm no paragon of piety. I'm a practicing Catholic. I go to mass regularly, and I try to live my life, and teach my children, according to Jesus's commandments. I fail often. I don't wish to derogate the depth of other people's religious commitment, but . . . come on. This "let them eat cake" philosophy of religious education that Professor Mondo deplores really is worth deploring.

Adolescents crave rites of passage; they seek challenges and initiations; they long to find a path into the adult world that they have for so long speculated and wondered about. Attempting to strengthen an adolescent's faith by telling him that Jesus is his best buddy, by grafting some anodyne notion of God onto the smug social hierarchies of teendom, is about the worst way I can imagine of engaging a teenager's mind and spirit. Adolescents don't really want to be told that Jesus is their pal any more than they want to call their teachers or parents by their first names. They want to he told something like this: "Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me." That's hard. It's not comfortable or fun or reassuring. But doesn't the path to adulthood involve learning to feel sustained without feeling reassured?

UPDATE: I forget to mention that these photos show T-shirts on display at a local Christian homeschooling supply store.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Empty Calories, Tasty Snark

I've just finished reading Terry Eagleton's Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. Eagleton is a great polemicist, and his prose is elegant and sometimes very funny, but for the most part he seems to replace Dawkins' and Hithchens' lack of theological and historical rigor with his own. That's okay, though. The book is a fast read, and it contains some superb snark. It's like a bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos for the soul; it's not very nutritious, or even very filling, but it sure tastes good.

Here's a tasty morsel:

One place where so-called spiritual values, driven from the face of a brutally pragmatic capitalism, have taken refuge is New Ageism, which is just the sort of caricature of the spiritual one would expect a materialistic civilization to produce. Rather as those with hearts of stone tend to weep at schmaltzy music, so those who would not recognize a genuine spiritual value if it fell into their laps tend to see the spiritual as spooky, ethereal, and esoteric . . .

Romanticism, as Marx himself pointed out, is among other things the flip side of utilitarianism. Those who are in every other way worldly, cynical, and hard-boiled (Hollywood superstars and the like) reveal a truly bottomless gullibility when it comes to spirituality. Nobody is more otherworldly than the worldly, nobody more soft-centered than the hard-nosed. Spiritual matters must naturally be as remote from their lawyers, minders, agents, and hairstylists as one could imagine, in order to provide some fantasy alternative to them. This is why people who are in every other respect urbane and streetwise believe that affairs on earth are being controlled from an alien spaceship parked behind a cloud. They would probably not believe this if they had only $38 in the bank. Money is a great breeder of unreality. The idea that spirituality is about visiting the sick and fighting injustice would no doubt strike these Kabbalists, necromancers, and chiropractors of the psyche as intolerably prosaic. Even their minders and hairstylists can do that.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

On Keeping House

I am, at least nominally, a housekeeper, and while I don't keep house quite as indifferently as Sylvie Fisher, one of the main characters of Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, I can't deny feeling a troubling affinity with her. When I "keep house," after all, I am undertaking a task that is ultimately futile. The house, in the end, will not be kept.

That futility -- the sense of being shadowed by ruin -- is what Housekeeping is about. It is filled with drowned and ruined houses, peopled with the ghosts of fathers, grandmothers, mothers, and children, and haunted by Shakespeare, Melville, and the Old Testament. Its very first lines are recitations of loss:
My name is Ruth. I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs. Sylvia Foster, and when she died, of her sisters-in-law, Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled, of her daughter, Mrs. Sylvia Fisher. Through all these generations of elders we lived in one house, my grandmother's house, built for her by her husband, Edmund Foster, an employee of the railroad, who escaped this world years before I entered it. It was he who put us down in this unlikely place. He had grown up in the Middle West, in a house dug out of the ground, with windows just at earth level and just at eye level, so that from without, the house was a mere mound, no more a human stronghold than a grave, and from within, the perfect horizontality of the world in that place foreshortened the view so severely that the horizon seemed to circumscribe the sod house and nothing more.

There, from the beginning, then, are Melville ("My name is Ruth"), the Old Testament (the litany of generations), the already dead and disappeared ancestors, and the ghosts; the absence of the girls' mother, her erasure from this opening passage, creates its own ghostly presence on the margins. There is also the house, the "grandmother's house," already trailing in its wake the specter of another house -- the "mere mound," the grave.

Housekeeping
is sometimes more of a long, beautiful prose poem than a novel, but its meditations on memory, mourning, loss, the mystery of consciousness, and the ephemera of the everyday are grounded by the story of two sisters confronting the deaths of their mother and grandmother. Lucille, the younger sister, clings to the flotsam and jetsam of conventional domesticity and self-renovation; she anchors herself in hair curlers, dress patterns, sturdy brogans, orlon cardigans, daily calisthenics, and a journal of self-improvement. Ruth draws ever closer to embracing her Aunt Sylvie Fisher's metaphysical transience. Sylvie, whose very name suggests woods and water, constantly blurs the distinction between outside and inside:
Thus finely did our house become attuned to the orchard and to the particularities of weather, even in the first days of Sylvie's housekeeping. Thus did she begin by littles and perhaps unawares to ready it for wasps and bats and barn swallows. Sylvie talked a great deal about housekeeping.

...

Sylvie in a house was more or less like a mermaid in a ship's cabin. She preferred it sunk in the very element it was meant to exclude. We had crickets in the pantry, squirrels in the eaves, sparrows in the attic. Lucille and I stepped through the door from sheer night to sheer night.

For Sylvie, and eventually for Ruth, the only way to keep house is to let it go, to remember, even if we choose to keep house, that even as we are holding on, we are always saying goodbye. That kind of elegiac sense of the everyday is too hard, and perhaps too heartbreaking, to dwell on for long. But Sylvie and Ruth are right; it's always there, like the imperceptible breeze that rustles dry leaves and bits of paper in the corners of Sylvie's kitchen, or like the "ghost children" who Sylvie and Ruth imagine are hiding just out of sight near a ruined house deep in the woods.

Ruth's final meditation at the ruined cabin in the woods is one of the book's most beautiful passages:
I sat down on the grass, which was stiff with cold, and I put my hands over my face, and I let my skin tighten, and let the chills run in ripples, like breezy water, between my shoulder blades and up my neck. I let the numbing grass touch my ankles. I thought, Sylvie is nowhere, and sometime it will be dark. I thought, Let them come unhouse me of this flesh, and pry this house apart. It was no shelter now, it only kept me here alone, and I would rather be with them, if only to see them, even if they turned away from me. If I could see my mother, it would not have to be her eyes, her hair. I would not need to touch her sleeve. There was no more the stoop of her high shoulders. The lake had taken that, I knew. It was so very long since the dark had swum her hair, and there was nothing more to dream of, but often she almost slipped through any door I saw from the side of my eye, and it was she, and not changed, and not perished. She was a music I no longer heard, that rang in my mind, itself and nothing else, lost to all sense, but not perished, not perished.
That's what it means to keep house, to be always reminded not of what we are keeping, but of what we are losing, have lost. To have before us, or behind us, or somewhere just out of reach, the knowledge that we will certainly, one day, be unhoused for good and all.

Now, if you'll excuse, I have some laundry to fold.

Question and Answer

Terry Eagleton on the Enlightenment and its discontents:

A new, prestigious image of Man was born as free, controlling, agentlike, autonomous, invulnerable, dignified, self-responsible, self-possessed, contemplative, dispassionate, and disengaged. It is this historically specific, morally checkered image that Ditchkins [Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens] celebrates as Reason itself. For him, it represents Man's coming of age. He does not see that this maturity, magnificently expressed in the liberalism of Immanuel Kant, is inseparable from a certain infantile anxiety. Agency, control, and autonomy are admirable virtues, but they are also attempts to master a world now felt to be threateningly alien. Sovereignty proves to be inseparable from solitude. At the peak of his assurance, Enlightenment Man finds himself frighteningly alone in the universe, with nothing to authenticate himself but himself. His dominion is accordingly shot through with a sickening sense of arbitrariness and contingency, which will grow more acute as the modern age unfolds. What is the point of extracting from the world with one hand values which the other hand has just put in? What is it for the human subject to stand on a foundation which is itself?

-- Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate

The one principle of hell is -- "I am my own."

-- George Macdonald

Monday, April 19, 2010

For Whom the Bell Tolls

[This post originally appeared at What's the Rumpus? It serves as a rough introduction to my new blog. The humble musings herein will explore the experience of living in this crazy, mixed-up modern world, where we seem forever to be saying goodbye to the institutions and ideas that formerly sustained us. This post offers a rather sunny take on our predicament. Subsequent posts reserve the right to be less optimistic.]

It had rained all day in Rome, and we had walked everywhere. We had visited at least eight churches, including Santa Maria della Vittoria, with Bernini's magnificent depiction of The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, and Santa Maria sopra Minerva, with Rome's only Gothic interior and Michelangelo's last finished sculpture. We had stared upward until our necks ached -- stared at the dome of the Pantheon, through which the rain fell steadily onto the floor tiles of the basilica, stared at beautiful ceilings and stunning paintings, which called us alternately to contemplate the majesty of the heavens and the humble humanity of even the saints among us. We had eaten and drunk well. At dusk, we had trudged to the top of "the wedding cake," that massive monument to Victor Emmanuel II that Romans apparently love to hate. We had the spectacular view entirely to ourselves.

Standing atop Rome in the moist twilight wasn't enough for us. We decided to cross the Tiber and explore the Trastevere before walking home. We crossed a bridge, passed through Isola Tiburina, and came out into a very small square at about 6:30 in the evening. What sounded like -- and proved to be -- an ancient bell was tolling as we crossed into the square. Who can resist the call of a tolling bell on a rainy evening in Rome? We peeked into a tiny church, San Benedetto Piscinula, where from somewhere behind the altar came the sound of Gregorian chant. We sat in the back of the church as about fifteen members of the religious organization that tends the church, the Heralds of the Gospel, entered for evening mass. They sang all of the main parts of the mass in Gregorian chant.

It was very picturesque and charming. We felt part of an old past and a beautiful and ancient tradition, until -- during the consecration of the Eucharist, no less -- we were called back to the present by the tolling of a very different kind of bell. Now, I had watched my husband silence his cell phone as we entered the church. He had apparently forgotten, however, to silence the cell phone alarm. His negligence became horribly clear when, as the priest recounted the Last Supper, my husband's phone began its electronic and very loud chirping in jingle-jangle counterpoint to the chant that had recently filled the tiny church.

There was no way that I could pretend I didn't know him. We were the only two non-Heralds in the whole church, and we were sitting next to each other. As my husband fumbled to shut the darn thing up, I suffered visions of arrest, inquisition, torture -- or at least withering stares. Not a single Herald, however, even turned around to look.

The dedicated young men who surrounded us probably ignored my husband's tolling bell out of a sense of decorum. But it occurred to me, as they finished the beautiful service, that their refusal to acknowledge the cell phone alarm -- far from signaling their rejection of the modern world -- announced their participation in it. It was as familiar a sound to them as the tolling of the ancient bell of San Benedetto. What we had experienced at San Benedetto in Piscinula was not some quaint, lifeless fragment of history entombed in the past, but a living expression of religious devotion rooted in ancient tradition.

Bernini's vision of mystical ecstasy and Caravaggio's grittier depiction of saintly vocation exist together in this insanely beautiful city. So do the tolling church bell and the chirping cell phone. It would probably have been better had the cell phone remained silent, but I'm not sorry to have been reminded that Rome represents, not the dead past, but the living present shot through with monuments of past human striving. Rome is a place where man's reach exceeds his grasp, but that's as it should be. It has us always looking up, but always tethered to the mundane and the ephemeral.

Rome is a place where people lived. Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Constantine, Michelangelo, Pope Paul V, Caravaggio, Bernini. It's also a place where people live. Scooter-drivers, souvenir-hawkers, graffiti "artists," bankers, lawyers, priests, wielders of cell phones, singers of chants.

And therefore never send to know for whom the cell phone tolls. It tolls for thee.