Monday, July 10, 2017

When your Church is the object of lulz

The Vatican released guidelines on the use of gluten in communion hosts.

From an "insider" this wasn't new or surprising. These really aren't new guidelines and they've been how things are for the parishes I've worked for. There has to be the presence of some gluten in the hosts. I'll give my brief take on why in a second.

For me, the real interesting thing is to see what happens when this kind of news hits the wire. Somehow it's deemed worthy of public interest, right at the crossroads of growing instances of gluten allergies, the public perception of Catholic culture and the perceived tension between reason and belief. In other words, are the really arguing about what kind of bread you can use for an antiquated ritual that most of society actively avoids?

The above screenshot is a sampling of reactions from Facebook, where most people selected the "ha ha" response and clarified that reaction in the comments. It's a joke...unless of course you happen to believe it.

It's a window into what constitutes culturally acceptable forms of cultural and religious mockery.

It's an unwillingness to not understand a culture on its own terms, something we're asked to do everywhere else in the world.

It's inadmissible evidence when someone cries "global Christian persecution" in those places that have more to face than cruel but often inoccuous Internet snark as we do here. We'll likely be fine but the people who we try to advocate for will suffer for the last acceptable cultural prejudice in the West.

It's a problem because if we're trying to teach other to be respectful even in our disagreements, then it has to count for everyone.

As to why I think the guideline regarding gluten free hosts is fair, I think there are a host of considerations.

Here's one: the "Incarnational", the nexus point of Christian reflection. The Incarnation is the belief that in Christ, the holy and eternal deity took on human flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Eternity entered history. The sacramental life of the Church is entwined with what Jesus did at a particular time and place in history. Those actions were received by His apostles and perpetuated by them in their successors. There is a clear continuity of practice in our traditions and that helps us maintain our identity.

The use of bread in the Last Supper ties us to that historical moment and, in turn, ties into the Passover celebration of the people of Israel, which was the backdrop of the Last Supper. It ties the universal celebration of the Catholic Mass to our origins, a span of approximately 3,600 years.

Modern culture and modern art rely on traditional symbol systems and often subvert them. But while most traditions that survive may reinterpret signs, they rarely substitute them. The principal behind the bread isn't just bread. It's solidarity and and tradition.

What if someone feels excluded from the Mass by not receiving the host? Here, there are guides who can see the opportunity for growth. The point of the Communion Rite is intimacy with God. That's what the sacraments exist for. It's an expression of solidarity with God and with others. Here, there are people who can help widen our perspective. I think of Simone Weil, who refused baptism throughout her life as an expression of her own unworthiness and as a way to express solidarity with the marginalized so beloved by Jesus. Or St. Mark Ji Tianxiang who, though unable to receive the sacraments for reasons beyond his control, showed great love and reverence for Christ's Presence in the Eucharist precisely through his not being able to receive.

There are certainly more than these but it brings up a final point: we do not know how to talk meaningfully about religion in public discourse.

Secular culture cannot understand a spirituality that transcends our own immediate experiences. The cultural aspects and it's impact on presumed secular values are what tend to matter most.

Christians, in particular, struggle to speak as to be understood. We tend to have a tin ear as to how what we say and how we speak is received by the larger culture. When we are not understood we are too quick to shuffle that misunderstanding into a persecution narrative. Over time we communicate in our own cliches and fail to check our own presumptions. We figure that he battle is won by lingo or sharp rhetoric. We want "likes" from the likeminded rather than the understanding of someone unlike ourselves.

We also struggle to want to understand the culture instead of declaring it irredeemable and hopeless, something that's indispensable if we want to open up our doors to it and they to us.

Friday, April 14, 2017

A Clumsy Good Friday

So how are you supposed to "do" Good Friday properly?

I'm Catholic so I have a wealth of prescribed devotional practices ready to go: no meat today, one full meal, Stations of the cross, acts of sacrifice and penance...

...they're all good and they all "work" but lately this is what I've been doing.

I just think of how I handled the deaths of the people I love the most and I kind of go from there.

So so how does Jesus fit into that?

I believe that the historical figure of Jesus was the actual Son of God. I believe that He was the Almighty reaching into His creation and working with us directly. The stuff He taught is how I try to live my life. Some of it throws me into a paradox loop and I get confused. All of it strikes this chord that I honestly believe is the resonance point of being and existence. It just hits this frequency like that note that can shatter glass.

With that, I feel very close to Him (as do about 2 billion other Christians). I feel that in Him I know and am known by God. My "relationship" with Him isn't like my relationship to my family so conversations seem a little one sided until these moments where my own awareness and my known-ness is very powerful that it takes me out of regular life. Devotional practices might enhance it but there's a point where can distract me a little too. It's like all of those prayers and devotions serve to draw you into they mystery and aren't ends to themselves but can draw you back in when you get lazy or lost.

But Good Fridays are a bit different than remembering the death days of people I've loved. The latter is always weird and morbid and I honestly don't even like to do that anymore. With Good Friday I already know the ending. It's part of the basic statements of belief recited by Christians for centuries: "on the third day He rose again from the dead".

So on Good Friday I mourn something that I know will be okay. Maybe it seems weird but it's basically the plot of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead in John's Gospel. Jesus knows Lazarus is dead, knows that He is going to bring him back to life, and yet goes to His tomb in sadness, agitation, and tears. Then He raises Lazarus from the dead.

But I'm not just entering a time of symbolic mourning. I'm also reflecting on the depth of a sacrifice made on my behalf. And like most kinds of important things that have been done for me, I want to find a way to say thanks or sorry or both. So I'm either left doing something prescribed or try to put it in my own words or express it my own kind of way (which, no matter how you slice it, will probably be a little hamhanded, much like a marriage proposal or asking someone to be in a band...scripted or not it's almost best to just go for it and not overthink it).

So, how do I "do" Good Friday?

I think of getting the bad news of a loved one's death. You can sit and think about it and just sort of exist until you have to make plans. Mourning for someone who is a close family member might mean funeral plans and taking your suit to the dry cleaners. But what if someone is taking care of that stuff? Do you go to work? Is it inappropriate to put a movie on? What if you're really bummed out and it helps to get your mind off of things?

Do you say special prescribed prayers for them? What if you don't feel up for it? Can you just make things up in your head?

And if you believe you still have that connection with that loves one after death? Do you talk to them all rosy and piously? Or do you keep the conversation going like before? Or are you just talking to yourself?

A note on how the Apostles dealt with Jesus from His crucifixion onward:

A lot of people who comment on such things point out the strangeness on the response of Jesus' disciples to Him after the Resurrection: "they worshipped but some of them doubted". I think that's a perfectly reasonable response to something so inexplicable: your friend died and was buried but is alive again now and He's God. They based their whole lives on the experience of Jesus rising from the dead so clearly they weren't conflicted on the reality of it. But it's a bit much to sit with and make sense of.


For me, Good Friday won't seem be utterly different than coping with any other profound tragedy as a parent:

-my kids will get up
-I'll feed them
-I'll try to explain how important the day is
-they'll want to watch tv
-they'll fight over what to watch
-I'll contemplate whether or not I should even let them watch anything at all because it's Good Friday
-I'll remember that they're still little and might compromise by having them watch the Miracle Maker or something
-I might have to switch to Thor if that goes badly
-I'll do some work
-I'll reflect on God's great love for me
-I'll make lunch

Hopefully I'm living in gratitude and with the awareness of all that God has done for me and my family, finding solace in knowing that His willingness to suffer is an expression of solidarity with my own suffering, and who transforms all death and suffering in reconciling the world to Himself. There's truth and peace and purpose just a few days from any cross and the Good Fridays of this life are there to remind us to hang on just a little while longer.

The 1989 Batman.

There is so much that the 1989 Batman gets right that in a glut of quarterly-released comic book-related movies it almost seems dated and quaint.

I guess I have a couple of nitpicks like the fact that the city scenes occupy the same city block throughout the movie: Monarch Theatre, City Hall, a storefront simply titled "Hotel", the Museum...all occupy the space of a high school track. Axis Chemicals isn't far away. Neither is the Cathedral.

Also, Batman gets ready to tell Vicki Vale that he's Batman because of a single date and a shared special something. It's like the plot of Sixteen Candles.

But that's really it. It gets so much right and it's so cool. How this movie stays so cool after almost 30 years can only be explained by one of two things: 1) it's enduring value in establishing rarely surpassed norms or 2) the almost shameful sheen I've let accumulate on anything that I connected to as a child that keeps edging out anything that could possibly take its place and viciously confirms my own hardened pre-critical aesthetic.

Or it might be a little bit of both. I don't know. but if I were to apply a little bit of criticism it'd be this:

-it strikes a real balance between Tim Burton's eccentricities, fan service and embodying the guts of practically ancient characters while still establishing itself as its own thing. That's a hard thing to accomplish but here it is almost 30 years later and it's a benchmark.

-Jack Nicholson can't help being Jack Nicholson in any movie he's in. The Shining and Chinatown are more Jack Nicholson in a costume that him hiding behind a character. But here it's a real meld. The Joker becomes Jack Nicholson.

-I didn't realize how much of a hill Michael Keaton had to climb in being a comedian being cast as a superhero (especially after the precedent set by Christopher Reeves) until much later in life but he pulled it off. He's strangely the most grounded character. Alfred, Comissioner Gordon, Harvey Dent, Eckhart, and all of the zoot-suited henchmen from the beginning of the movie are cigar-chomping over-actors out of a Howard Hawks movie. But man does he bring it down to earth, even when he's wearing the big rubber suit.

-The Joker brings a terrifying sadism to his crimes. There are moments when it becomes scary because it starts hopping into reality. Yesterday was the first time in 28 years that I noticed that his Smilex compound came from a shelved military nerve gas experiment. I used to think the photos he cut up were just out of enjoyment. But those photos were of something horrifically real being reappropriated for his own homicidal art project. The Joker is a mix of an inborn, independent, free-flowing evil and mankind's collective capacity for evil: weaponry, chemical manipulation, creating a market for passively-observed destructive art. Again, these themes emerge naturally in the way Jack Nicholson absorbs and amalgamates those themes.

- Any film (superhero or otherwise) that deals with big themes and big relationships will suffer from the compression of time that any two hour film has to accept in order to be marketable. In a movie like this, different factors compete to reconcile with believability. Big clown balloons and cigar-chomping want to play up the kitsch. A pilgrimage to a tragic past and dinner in the kitchen want to keep things relatable.

Netflix's Daredevil was a good example of how longform storytelling can make an honest attempt to make these kind of stories a little more relatable. Criticisms aside there, it's able to achieve more realistic human relationship development than 2008's The Dark Knight possibly could. That movie's great and all but watching the effect that Bruce Wayne's relationship to Rachel had on him in 2012's The Dark Knight Rises is simply unrealistic. A couple of hours would've afforded the opportunity to see that relationship as something more than a really sweet crush on a childhood friend that ended tragically.

-The 1989 Batman changed my life.