“A people shaped by the practice of the works of mercy will be a people capable of seeing through those who claim to need power to do good, but in fact just need power” – Hauerwas, commentary on Matthew (p212)
Category Archives: Culture
If you’re a parent, and you’re sending away to college kids who’ve never been asked to do a task that was too hard, or been given a responsibility they didn’t believe they could bear, or have never been asked to suffer a single moment for the sake of another—you haven’t succeeded. You’ve failed. – Michael Graham on Courage
Imitation can be as good as the real thing, when the real thing is itself bankrupt – Rita Koganzon on Honesty
Both of those from a good read – The Seven Deadly Virtues
“To those who know a little of christian history probably the most moving of all the reflections it brings is not the thought of the great events and the well-remembered saints, but of those innumerable millions of entirely obscure faithful men and women, every one with his or her own individual hopes and fears and joys and sorrows and loves — and sins and temptations and prayers — once every whit as vivid and alive as mine are now. They have left no slightest trace in this world, not even a name, but have passed to God utterly forgotten by men. Yet each one of them once believed and prayed as I believe and pray, and found it hard and grew slack and sinned and repented and fell again. Each of them worshipped at the eucharist, and found their thoughts wandering and tried again, and felt heavy and unresponsive and yet knew — just as really and pathetically as I do these things. There is a little ill-spelled ill-carved rustic epitaph of the fourth century from Asia Minor: — ‘Here sleeps the blessed Chione, who has found Jerusalem for she prayed much’. Not another word is known of Chione, some peasant woman who lived in that vanished world of christian Anatolia. But how lovely if all that should survive after sixteen centuries were that one had prayed much, so that the neighbours who saw all one’s life were sure one must have found Jerusalem! What did the Sunday eucharist in her village church every week for a life-time mean to the blessed Chione — and to the millions like her then, and every year since then? The sheer stupendous quantity of the love of God which this ever-repeated action has drawn from the obscure Christian multitudes through the centuries is in itself an overwhelming thought.”
— Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy (1945)
I sleep well. So, when I woke up in the middle of the night a week or so ago, it was somewhat odd, but it happens. Normally it presages one of two things. Either something large, at least to my small world, is about to happen, or it is a call to prayer I can’t refuse. Sometimes it is both. But that evening, I woke thinking about pair of poems. Actually I awoke thinking how simply unpoetic my name is – Mark Brown. Poetically it’s a spondee, a one footed projection of stress. And while I might be tempted to repent of pride and narcissism for thinking about the poetic nature of my own name, that really wasn’t it. One of the poets that I find constantly readable is Dana Gioia who early in his work was a leader in something called The New Formalism. All that really meant was that while the rest of the world was lost in formlessness, he went back and said something like “hey, these things called meter and verse and rhyme and formal images; they are actually very important things; we should stop forgetting them”. So, when you wake up in the middle of the night thinking about your name as a spondee, it’s not actually about me. I’m just scanning a verse poorly.
Enough about me, I’d like to actually give a deep read to the two poems running through my head that night. First is this one by Dana Gioia called Accomplice.
In dusty fields I harvested the vine
And sweated at the lever as the grapes were pressed.
My aching hands still clutched their vagrant wages,
Sleeping in the cold barracks of the dispossessed.
But now at dawn, beyond the reach of reason.
I wake in the chateau between your tangled sheets.
My sunburnt arm across your naked shoulder,
The mute accomplice of our mutual defeat.
My scansion or scanning of the meter is rough, and I think the poet is taking a few liberties, but the meter is iambic pentameter with several substituted feet and some compressions taking place. By compressions I mean things like reason in the first line of the second stanza normally has 2 syllables, but in the poem I think you read it like reas’n. Or like lever in the second line of the first stanza is probably lev’r. To me that sounds like my Midwestern tongue constantly running over second soft vowels and final sounds. The first line is the easiest setting the da-DUM pattern of iambic feet. And here is where my spondee enters. How my ear reads, wages is the only spondee (doubled stressed) part of the first stanza and defeat is the only spondee of the second stanza. While the poem might be called accomplice, the stressed words are wages and defeat. Any interpretation would need to wrestle with those words in the midst of the poem.
Why this poem captivated me is that I think it breaks all kinds of polite society rules. It is an incredibly subversive poem both within itself at a level 1 and level 2 (words and paragraphs) and I think at level 3 (bringing in other known facts from outside the formal work).
In stanza one the woman is working, harvesting the vine. She is the definition of fruitful. She has a vocation. Yes, that vocation brings aching hands and cold sleeping quarters and a place with the dispossessed. But, that vocation also brought wages. This woman has nothing of what our society would say is the good life. She sleeps cold in the barracks. Her bedroom is not the boudoir; her bed is not the heat of passion. She does not have privacy as she is in a barracks. Her work is not about self-fulfillment. It is about work, sweat and levers and pressing and aches. She doesn’t even have a home or a place. Her aching hands clutch vagrant wages. This woman has nothing of value in our society, but she is the one with wages. She is fruitful with just a hint of hidden power as her hands hold the level that presses the grapes.
But now, like the evangelist Matthew’s Look! Behold! This same woman is given everything. But unlike Matthew, it is a much different dawn she awakes to. She wakes in the chateau. The caesura or mid-point of the line is just after that, giving a little pause. No longer in barracks, that rough word replaced with the rich French loan. The privacy affords tangled sheets, and how they get tangled. But now that hint of hidden power is gone. Her sunburnt arm lies across the naked shoulder. Her dark against the naked light. The effects of living in the sun and working placed against the skin of one who follows self-fulfillment. And instead of clutching wages, she has nakedness. Instead of pressing the grapes, the arm lies still.
No longer ensconced in a solidarity, even if it is one of dispossession, the world is silent. Everything that once testified to worth, now mutely speaks defeat. Interestingly it is described as mutual defeat and accomplice. The last line leaves me with the question why is this a mutual defeat? Would not the world normally view such a scene as a conquest? It should be said here that I’ve assumed a gender that is nowhere supplied. It might be just as likely that the sunburnt arm is male and the naked shoulder female (or male?). How is this scene, where everything our world values is given, called a defeat? How have hard wages become a conspiracy of loss even in the midst of a chateau? It is beyond the reach of reason.
I think you can see how the poem is deeply subversive of the controlling cultural values just looking at the poem itself. Level 3 type readings are usually highly suspicious. We have enough trouble reading ourselves let alone inferring about others off scant evidence. So, I only mention this because I think it is supplementary to the work itself. Everything in the high sanctums of literature is about gender and inequality. This poem playfully plays with both. The main character, who I have taken as a female, isn’t actually specified. My reading would probably be deemed misogynist in the academy. That gives the final scene an unresolved question: is it a pale rich male taking advantage of a poor brown female or is it a strapping brown male used as stud by a bored pale female? Who is taking advantage of whom? Or when we do such things are me mutual accomplices? Likewise the modern academy would think the dawn of sex is an unadultered good thing as long as it is consensual. Yet this poem finds it barren, a defeat, the loss of the lever. On top of this I would add the insult that a GOP era NEA chair appropriates to himself the voice of a brown person. A former executive at a fortune 500 company, as the poet is, presents himself as the voice and experience of the dispossessed. You can hear heads exploding over the gall of the oppressor doing such things. Yet, the poet is also the son of a Mexican-American, which would normally grant one racial privileges. Yet if you look at his photo that doesn’t seem just. We are straying into the weeds of level 3 now, but I think it helps us see the point.
And that point is that the wages of the world, sex, money, finding yourself, are actually spiritual loss. It is the dispossessed, the person who loses themselves in their vocation, who find fruitfulness and wages. It is a mutual defeat because oppressed and oppressor need each other. They do it to each other trapped by the surroundings of the chateau which itself will fall into the wine presses. The poem begs us, lost in the status of the world, to look with fresh eyes on what is of true value.
Leaving Accomplice behind I wanted to turn to a second poem that struck me as asking some similar questions. Face Down by Mary Karr is not the subversive poem that Accomplice is, but it desperately begs us to look with fresh eyes upon the world for true value. Instead of slyly making comparisons of our false pieties, it flames at how we abuse each other. It replaces the mute accomplice with a haunting presence and a silent picture. What is that need that we all so desperately need like smack? That need we try and fill with everything the world will give us?
Face Down by Mary Karr
What are you doing on this side of the dark?
You chose that side, and those you left
feel your image across their sleeping lids
as a blinding atomic blast.
Last we knew,
you were suspended midair
like an angel for a pageant off the room
where your wife slept. She had
to cut you down who’d been (I heard)
so long holding you up. We all tried to,
faced with your need, which we somehow
understood and felt for and took
into our veins like smack. And you
must be lured by that old pain smoldering
like woodsmoke across the death boundary.
Prowl here, I guess, if you have to bother somebody.
Or, better yet, go bother God, who shaped
that form you despised from common clay.
That light you swam so hard away from
still burns, like a star over a desert or atop
a tree in a living room where a son’s photos
have been laid face down for the holiday.
I was initially intrigued about this film because of the highly unusual release it received. Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein wanted 20 mins cut and some other stuff inserted. The director, South Korean Bong Joon-ho, refused. So, Weinstein dumped the film in limited release and on Video on Demand the same day. That is the release pattern of very bad movies or high critical/low production value movies, i.e. art house. Snowpiercer has A-list talent, Chris Evans otherwise known as Captain America, and it has high production value, i.e. budget of $42M. For Mr. Weinstein to dump it this way would probably mean a loss. Say what you will about Hollywood, but money usually trumps ideology. When it doesn’t, hmmm. (Note, there are other answers that put forward other explanations, like this, but they all strike me as after the fact of the movie garnering attention.) So, I got myself a copy.
At a very basic level, Snowpiercer is an effective thriller. Someone looking for The Bourne Identity 10 could enjoy this film simply from an action standpoint. But to end it there doesn’t capture all the subtle differences. I say subtle because the differences are at the worldview level. This movie invites reflection that Jason Bourne just would never countenance. Even American “art house” flicks would not invite some of the contemplation of Snowpiercer. My guess is that it is exactly the type of interpretation I’m thinking of that caused the producer to first demand cuts and additions and then dump the film.
You can almost see the elevator pitch: global warming apocalypse creates Marxist class struggle in confined space – Hunger Games meets Aliens, hence the “Fight Your Way to the Front” tagline. The movie has that form, but it is actually quite subversive to it. First, the whole global warming part is a smoke screen. Fear of global warming leads to a human attempt to geo-engineer the climate. That double hubris leads to the planet freezing and the only survivors being the passengers on the super train. The trouble is what we think we know and what it causes us to do, not on an environmental screed. Likewise the Marxist class struggle is the form of the action, but the entire string of events is turned on its head by two revelations. The final meeting with the material “god” of the train and the immediately prior action spurred by the anti-hero form the basic choice – stay within the materialist universe or reach for transcendence. The final bit of subversiveness is the presence of an actual hero and a hero’s journey. The only heroes we get today are in Chris Evans’ Captain America spandex. Mr. Evans gets the chance to play a hero outside of the spandex. His journey even includes the rejection of comfort and the embrace of sacrifice.
Ultimately Snowpiercer is bound and limited by its genre, an apocalyptic thriller. It is a piece of pop-entertainment. But where the outcome of most such thrillers is how the anti-hero secures material comfort and security, how the world is made sane again. In this one the world, the entire rigged system, is rejected and transcendence in hope is chosen. It is not explicitly Christian, the transcendence is not even religious from the viewer’s perspective, but the themes are not ones allowed in pop entertainment. Snowpiercer is smart pop entertainment. Pop entertainment that instead of stoking materialist impulses asks questions of a new world and transcendence. No wonder Weinstein wanted to edit it. That is dangerous stuff for the American mind.
For seeing that truth of itself has a bitter taste for most people, and that it is of itself a
subversive thing to uproot what has long been commonly accepted, it would have been
wiser to soften a naturally painful subject by the courtesy of one’s handling than to pile
one cause of hatred on another….A prudent steward will husband the truth–bring it out, I
mean, when the business requires it and bring it out so much as is requisite and bring out
for every man what is appropriate for him–[but] Luther in this torrent of pamphlets has
poured it all out at once, making everything public and giving even cobblers a share in
what is normally handled by scholars as mysteries reserved for the initiated.
– Desiderius Erasmus to Justus Jonas, May 10, 1521, in Correspondence, 8:203
For a long time the various church bodies shared more than they disagreed. The core of this really is the Nicene Creed. The various churches have different sacramental practices and ecclesial structures, but in beliefs, even the non-creedal churches, they believed the ancient creeds. The spillover effect of this in the West was that even if splintered the idea of Christendom was just observable enough to continue granting mutual recognition to each other’s ceremonies and rites. What this meant at a practical level was that one church never questioned the baptism of another church unless that baptism was by a clear cult like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Marriages were universally assumed to be valid. Yes, the argument could be heated and real, but they might have been so because the differences were so small.
Looking at the world today things are not as clear. What the state means by marriage is no longer what the church means by marriage. The church will have to deal with that in some manner. The first step in dealing with it is simply admitting it. Likewise within the church recognizing a baptism is tougher. It is not uncommon to find churches baptizing in the name of the creator, redeemer and sanctifier. Is that the same God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit that Christ told his disciples to baptize into? Of course there are the fringe churches within mainline denominations that substitute mother, friend and comforter. In each case the form of the triune God is hinted at, but is that the substance or is a different god and a different gospel at work in those waters?
Two generations ago if a church body expressed something it stood for the body. Today, that might not be the case. We have pretended it still held for a generation, early on it was a “no, they can’t really be doing that” while later it was more a conscious looking away like Sgt. Schulz (“I see nothing”). And that is simply within church bodies. What about the thousands of free standing “non-denoms”? You used to be able to assume they were Baptists, but today many of them are prosperity gospel-ers of various stripes. When the Nicene Creed which testifies to Christ “who was crucified under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried” is replaced with health and wealth, are sacraments valid? Can they be?
These questions go beyond the ancient questions about sacraments performed by a priest who later caved to Roman persecution. The ancient church held those sacraments valid because their source was clear. The status of the preacher’s faith does not impact them. But what about when the God invoked is Christ, but not any Christ that the church has known for 2000 years?
Again, I think we are just waking up to a world where things that have been assumed can no longer be taken for granted. The first step is admitting the changes that have happened. I wanted to share some of the articles that spur these thoughts.
This is Ross Douthat bringing up the idea that the church could decide that marriage laws in many countries no longer fit the pattern for valid natural marriage.
This isn’t the church, but “What Happens when your Rabbi decides He’s Gay”? The work is a piece of assertion and propaganda attempting to state “this is what all good people will think”, but it places the fundamental question of identity. Do I find my identity in God (Christ), or are there other things that are allowed to take precedent, like my view of my sexuality? What is the place of the law in the life of the believer?
This is the inverse of that situation, a woman who believes in the Catholic teaching of marriage but finds herself outside. Here plea is don’t accept what I am, but continue proclaiming the truth.
The last two are political and religious poles that I think help point the way forward. Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post calling marriage amendment backers “snake oil salesmen”. I think she is right. But accepting that means accepting that we the church must change how we act. And this is a call about one of the ways that parishes could be re-organized to address the problem.
The apostle Paul would write that we have no business judging those outside the church, but those inside are our responsibility (1 Cor 5:12-13). I guess I see the current moment as a Joshua moment. You do what you want, but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. That starts with subtly and civilly declining to accept and use bad definitions of sacraments. The benefit of the doubt is no longer granted.
“In an uncertain universe, some things are still for certain: Dirty plates, if you put them on a plastic rack and push them into the machine and press the button, will come out clean–every time. If you work hard at your job and do it well, even if it’s a [bleep] job, there is some kind of satisfaction in that, whether you’re stacking plates, chopping vegetables, or just setting out a plate of food. There’s this magnificent moment before a plate goes out to the dining room, for instance, when you know, and it’s just for you. You think, Hmm, that’s a pretty good [bleeping] plate. And then it’s gone.”
– Anthony Bourdain, here