Saturday, April 12, 2014

Isn't It Ironic: The 10 Most Ironic Songs of All Time... Not Called "Ironic"

Irony is much easier to point out when we stumble across it than it is to define in the larger sense. In fact, so difficult is it to explain that oftentimes we wind up worrying out a response to the question, without ever coming up with a satisfactory conclusion. The best example of this (in my opinion) is Alanis Morissette's more than a little bold attempt to write an entire song about irony. Indeed, what could possibly be better than writing a song about paradox wherein you provide countless examples which are not actually paradoxical at all? I want to believe that this is a stroke of genius, and that Ms. Morissette really thought to herself; "It is too difficult to come up with a bunch of genuine examples, so instead I'm going to create a masterpiece of humor and irony by creating a song without any irony at all." Probably not what she intended, but you never know. The point is irony is a little bit bi-polar and thus very difficult to pin down. It usually involves two truths that don't ordinarily hang out much together, but for one brief moment do. Sounds like the beginning of a good barroom joke.

1. Alanis Morissette - Thank You

In this hall of ironic mirrors, I thought I would begin with an Alanis Morissette song not called Ironic. Once again, she must be a genius, because clearly she is capable of putting ironic things in a song, but she chose to do it in a song which doesn't go by that name. It figures. Anyhow, this particular piece appeared on Ms. Morissette's second album, and seems to be a kind of ode to personal and spiritual liberation (though in the video I think she liberated herself a little too much). In an interview, she discussed the popularity of her first album, and how she feared what life would be like when she stopped touring. Would she be able to endure the silence? Would she be able to write any more music? However, instead of finding misery once she got off the road, she actually discovered that facing her personal demons was ultimately the key to true peace; "Thank you India/ Thank you terror/ Thank you disillusionment/ Thank you frailty/ thank you consequence/ Thank you thank you silence… The moment I let go of it, was the moment I got more than I could handle/ The moment I jumped off it was the the moment I touched down". I remember the first time hearing this song and thinking how weird that she begins the chorus by thanking "India." What an odd non sequitur, and yet not only is the rest of the chorus the same, but all of the examples she uses seem to be rather odd things to "thank." Thank you "nothingness", "disillusionment", and "terror?" What's she going to thank next... Burundi, 9/11, and Charles Manson? By itself, what she is suggesting either seems to be a contradiction, or something flat out depressing, and yet observed against the larger context of what she is getting at, there is a profound wisdom here, a recognition that while she was able to gain the world through pop success, she felt as if she herself were losing her soul. And conversely, when she "let go of it", she actually "got more than she could handle" pressed down, shaken together, and overflowing in her lap.

2. John Waite - Missing You

File this under the "Me thinks the lady/dude protesteth to much" category of songs. This theme appears quite often in love songs, but I chose John Waite's song because I think it is the most emotionally compelling of the bunch. Anyone who has ever felt the pain of unrequited love can relate to the opening line; "Every time I think of you, I always catch my breath…" There is a very distinct pain that comes with feeling intense emotion for another, and knowing that, for whatever reason, that same emotion and commitment is not reciprocated. Indeed, the mere mention of that person's name can cause heartache in you. What Mr. Waite (and others) are trying to communicate here is a desire to put all of the pain behind them; to accept the cold reality that no matter what they do they cannot "bridge this distance". The relationship is never going to work and that's all there is to it! "I ain't missin' you at all, since you've been gone away. I ain't missin' you, no matter what my friends say." There's something of the Tell-Tale Heart in this common narrative, the idea of the buoyancy of the truth. No matter how deep the secret is buried, and no matter how much we can "lie to ourselves", the reality will eventually bubble to the surface. Hence, Mr. Waite seems very aware of the fact that this "message that he's sending out" is not only ironic, but tragically so, one in which he spends the entire time trying to convince everyone how insignificant this person is to him, while simultaneously talking about her incessantly and obsessively… "you don't know just how desperate I've become." We do now.

3. Howard Jones - No One is to Blame

If the song "Hotel California" had a sequel about what life has been like since the guests arrived, this song would be it. Ironically, when Howard Jones wrote this song, he too was in California; "You can look at the menu, but you just can't eat. You can feel the cushions, but you can't have a seat. You get a view by the pool, but you can't have a swim. You can feel the punishment, but you can't commit the sin." Part Twilight Zone, part Dante's Inferno, what you have here is something straight out of the hell of ironic punishments. It is not uncommon (unfortunately) for one married man to say to another; "I can still look at the menu…" However, in this Howard Jones piece that particular sentiment is given a sulfurous undertone, for who, when hungry, would want to exacerbate their appetite by looking at a menu, especially one from which it is impossible to order. At the Hotel California, the prisoners want to be prisoners, and "checking out" is permitted, but "leaving" is not. Well, if that is the overall condition of the souls in hell, then this song must be  a description of what their day to day life looks like; "You can build a mansion, but you just can't live in it. You're the fastest runner, but you're not allowed to win… You've got the last piece of the puzzle but you just can't make it fit. Doctor says you're cured, but you still feel the pain. Aspirations in the clouds, but your hopes go down the drain." This ironic punishment, in classic Dantean style, consists of the basic failure to see the paradox in life itself. Our desires clamor for something, but because of our fallenness, they can lead us the wrong way down a one way street. Subsequently, as we pursue these misguided impulses, we run into one of the greatest conundrums of all, which includes being filled with desires that either cannot be satisfied, or more perplexing still, are satisfied, but still only serve to make us more unsatisfied.

4. Passenger - Let Her Go

Confession: I dislike this song… intensely. That said, it is very popular, and more importantly, it employs irony. It is easier to describe health when you can contrast it with sickness. And as St. Thomas Aquinas once pointed out, you cannot in any positive sense ultimately describe God. In other words, it is easier to say what God is not, rather than what He is. Thus, the song "Let Her Go" is an apt example of this intellectual, as well metaphysical, difficulty. We learn about goodness from encountering it, yes, but we also learn about it from its absence; "Well you only need the light when it's burning low/ Only miss the sun when it starts to snow/ only know you love her when you let her go…" One particular paradox that also happens to be a platitude is the expression "you don't know what you've got until it's gone." We've come to accept this saying as commonplace, but what it suggests is quite arresting. How can it make sense to say that we can recognize something better when it's gone, but not at all when it's right in front of us. This would seem to be a contradiction, but for one small matter… it just so happens to be a fact. The only thing that can explain this in a satisfactory fashion is the doctrine of original sin. When we possess something for a period of time, no matter how great it might be, presumption informs us that it can never be taken away, and so it is taken for granted. Only when the thing is taken away from us are we once again able to appreciate how necessary it is. For example, when you live in a culture that guzzles gallons of water a day it is easy to view this magical substance as negligible, but when you are dying of thirst in the desert, you realize that it is in fact everything. Thus, it is oftentimes a tragic, if necessary, element of redemption that these things must first be taken from us so that we, like the prodigal son (or any son for that matter), may one day receive them back again for the first time; "Only know you've been high when you're feeling low/ Only hate the road when you're missin' home/ Only know you love her when you let her go… and you let her go."

5. Rupert Holmes - The Piña Colada Song (Escape)           

This song is the epitome of the kind of romantic schlock that came out of the 1970's. A guy living with his lady for far too long (according to him) decides he's bored and wants a little adventure. So where does he look? In the personal ads of a newspaper of course! Are you seeing rainbows and unicorns yet? If you do, be forewarned, these are the type of unicorns that will murder you with velvet pillows; "I was tired of my lady, we'd been together too long. Like a worn out recording of a favorite song. So while she lay there sleeping, I read the paper in bed. And in the personals column, there was a letter that read…" Familiarity has bred contempt, and so as Mr. Holmes puts it, he and his "old lady" have fallen into the same old pattern of dullness. However, in the process of reaching out to another woman in infidelity, he actually discovers the secret to fidelity. You see, they both had placed an ad in the newspaper for the same reason; "So I waited with high hopes, then she walked in the place. I knew her smile in an instant, I knew the curve of her face. It was my own lovely lady, and she said; "Oh it's you"(sounds like a ringing endorsement). And we laughed for a moment, and I said "I never knew… that you like Piña Coladas/ And getting' caught in the rain/ And the feel of the ocean and the taste of champagne/ If you like making love at midnight in the dunes of the cape/ Then you're the lady I've longed for, come with me and escape." One of the great threats to any enduring relationship is the challenge to stay both interested and interesting. In other words, you have to both care about the thoughts and dreams of your "old lady," while simultaneously seeking to grow as a human being yourself, otherwise you become that painfully awkward silent old couple, staring at each other across the gaping abyss with absolutely nothing to say.

6. XTC - Dear God

If you are looking for a little atheist irony, the song "Dear God" certainly provides it. I have often wondered whether atheists- like Sasquatch or the Missing Link- actually exist. "Dear God" certainly lends credence to this sneaking suspicion to the fact that they don't. For it is a song which essentially both denies the existence of God, while simultaneously repudiating that non-existent Creator for all of His supposed failings; "I won't believe in heaven and hell/ No saints, no sinners, no devil as well/ No pearly gates, no thorny crown/ You're always letting us humans down/ The wars you wage, the babes you drown/ Those lost at sea and never found/ It's all the same the world around/ And if you're up there you'd perceive/ that my heart's here upon my sleeve/ If there's one thing I don't believe in it's you!" Apparently only God is responsible for bad things- we of course are completely innocent of it. The truth is the angry atheist does believe in God, but he is a lot like the child who is infuriated at his parents, and so will only allude to them as if they were some inanimate object unworthy of their gaze. And yet for something so unimportant as they intimate that God is, it is incredible the level of passion and derision they bring to the table on account of this non-existent being. I may dislike some individuals more than others, but I have no feeling whatsoever about a vacuum. A blank canvas only mildly displeases me. In fact, there is probably nothing that anyone could do to get me to invest my rage against the open air (though the wind annoys me at times). Even the thought of Thor or Zeus provokes very little emotion in me. Consequently, the the truth is, the writer of this song does believe in God, he just so happens to not "believe in him". In the same way that there are some people who I do not trust, or "believe in", so also the lead singer of XTC believes that God exists, but nevertheless does not believe that he is worthy of his admiration and respect.

7. Carly Simon - You're So Vain

Apparently Carly Simon wrote this song about Warren Beatty (though some have disputed this claim). At any rate, one thing is certain, Ms. Simon wrote it about someone who she believed lacked humility. The irony here is very simple. Ms. Simon is calling out someone for their arrogance, and declaring that they "probably think this song is about them". The obvious point to be made is if this individual is aware that the song is about him, then it stands to reason that he knows it is about them. By using the word "think", the implication is that there is still some mystery as to the identity of the person who she is writing about (even to the individual himself), but clearly there isn't because the guy "probably" thinks it's about him! There is a weird kind of "who's on first" humor here. Even though she doesn't come directly out and name the person, we know that it is about the person either way because she is indirectly referring to him. Which begs the question: why does the song pretend that there is any question about the identity of this guy at all? This is a classic case where irony actually hurts your brain.

8. Garbage - I'm Only Happy When it Rains                   

Ah, 90's grunge/alternative/metal spares nothing as it relates to self-loathing. From a Christian perspective, humanity is made for immortal gladness... not immortal sadness. However, according to the lead singer of Garbage, what brings her true happiness is when you "pour your misery down". Certainly this is meant on some level to be sardonic, but there is nevertheless truth to the suggestion that artists often make a living on the sorrow they have experienced (or are experiencing) in their lives. From Sting to Alanis Morissette (I have heard them both say it), many artists actually fear unmitigated happiness, for indeed many of their best songs arise out of that aforementioned misery. Of course, depending on how one looks at it, this can either be a positive or a negative form of irony. If one looks at it in the right sense, they recognize that there is something potentially redemptive about their suffering, something which may ultimately lead to true wisdom and happiness. On the other hand, if they seek out misery, that's is an entirely different story altogether. Strangely enough, some individuals (including myself at one time) create an idolatry out of misery, and instead of making true happiness their aim, they worship, and actually come to prefer melancholia.

9. Maroon 5 - Misery

One of the greatest mysteries about suffering is just how often people sing about it. Now when I say they sing about it, I am not referring to what may be referred to as "misanthropic death metal", which is really not a form of singing at all, but rather the sound of music choking on itself. What I am referring to is the type of singing which is the mark of hope even amidst the most adverse of conditions. For example, why did the African slaves sing despite being put in chains, and how did St. Maximilian Kolbe turn a starvation bunker in Auschwitz into a church replete with song? This is a mystery that the soul and heart understand even while the mind cannot completely comprehend it. Yet we see such displays all the time, and think nothing of the irony that attends such behavior. One of my favorite examples of this is Maroon 5's song Misery. There are any number of songs I could have selected to express this idea, but the upbeat nature of the song is so at odds with the title that it epitomizes this idea in a way that few others could. Adam Levine may have been in "misery" when he wrote this song, but if his misery in any way reflects the spirit of the song it is an incredibly appealing form of poverty. When I am in misery, I generally want to nap and/or curl up in the corner in fetal position, but his Misery apparently makes him want to cut a rug, and in the meantime inspire everyone else to do the same. Hence, it is one thing to sing a sappy self-pitying ballad, and quite another to declare that no one can comfort you, all while comforting everyone else in the process.

10. Michael Bublé - I Just Haven't Met You Yet

If Howard Jones teaches us about the type of irony that one finds in Hell (the place where "no one ever is to blame"), then Michael Bublé introduces us to a more heavenly brand. Most human beings spend their entire lives attempting to accrue as much material wealth as possible. Therefore, it might strike us as a little bit odd when someone declares that they want to "give so much more than they get", as Michael Bublé does in this song. It is one thing to give because you feel it is your duty, and quite another to do so because it is your absolute joy and pleasure to do so. Indeed, so pleased is Mr. Bublé to toil on behalf of his beloved, that he behaves, not as one who is being burdened with some task, but as one who has won the lottery. Interestingly, recent studies have shown that there is a definite correlation between happiness and giving. In fact, according to these findings, the more sacrificially one gives the happier they tend to be, lending scientific credence to that old "quaint" old Biblical saying; "it is better to give then to receive."        

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A Secular Soundtrack For Lent: 7 Songs on the (Surprising) Beauty of Penance

A recent study revealed that people who confess wrong-doing whole-heartedly are far more psychologically at peace than those who only make a partial confession. As for those who confess nothing at all and feel no guilt at all for their crimes, well, we have a special name for them: sociopaths.  At any rate, this study seems (in large part) to militate against the popular idea that regret is a bad thing (as Sinatra once suggested), and that guilt is primarily for those who are too weak to rise above their religious upbringing. I do not deny that there have been those who have used it as a weapon to control, or as an excuse to do nothing. Yet when it is seen in its full glory and beauty, and when it is exercised in all its sincerity, it is one of the most beautiful things on the face of the earth, which is one of the reasons (I would argue) that movies like A Christmas Carol and Groundhog's Day are so beloved in our culture. We hunger to see a stony heart weep with compassion, and for this reason even when men are on death row, or public figures who fall from grace, we not only want to see justice done, we also ask a very simple question: did they express any remorse? Thus, during Lent (in particular), Christians of many stripes search their own hearts and lives for that sweet sense of guilt, not the kind that further imprisons us, but the kind that reminds us that we are not dead inside, the kind that aches for that grace that comes with forgiveness. All the same, this healthy hunger to cry out in sorrow for our sins is not merely consigned to Catholics alone, or even just Christians in general, but rather includes individuals who are anything but religious in their leanings. Hence, below I present to you a kind of secular soundtrack for Lent, a list of songs from musicians who- may or may not have been inspired by the metaphysical- but who nevertheless feel the need to express solemn regret in the hope that one day their sorrow may be turned into Easter gladness.

1. R.E.M - So. Central Rain (I'm Sorry)

This R.E.M. song was written when the band was out on the road touring and trying to get in touch with family and friends back in Georgia. Apparently they were prevented from doing so by a torrential downpour. Many have had frustrating experiences like this, especially when attempting to navigate a long distance relationship; "Did you never call? I waited for your call. These rivers of suggestion are driving me away." Yet within the song there is not only the frustration of a relationship that is falling apart, but a profound sense of regret and sorrow that seems to go with the feeling that the "conversation" has grown "dim". Thus, with a full-throated pathos he cries out in the chorus; "I'm sorry... I'm sorry... I'm sorry!" Were Michael Stipe to mumble everything else in the song (which he essentially does), it would still communicate the same frustration that it is so successful in doing. Indeed, the aching chorus tells you everything you need to know. 'I feel helpless, and frustrated and mad about this situation, but more than anything, I'm sorry, for whatever part I have in this, and I'm sorry that we're drifting apart and that there's nothing I can do about it.' As mentioned in the intro, genuine repentance is far more satisfying than a half-hearted one. Imagine if the chorus were instead; "I'm mostly sorry! I'm mostly sorry! I'm really sorry for my part in this, but you know you're to blame too!". Such an approach is neither lyrically satisfying, nor psychologically so. Of course the other person shares some blame for the relationship, but all we can do is take responsibility for our own part.

2. Audioslave - Like a Stone

A lot can be said about this song, and like any good rocker who writes a song about something implicitly religious, (Chris) Cornell has been somewhat vague as to its exact meaning (which incidentally, I think is for the better). At any rate, what he has said about the song is that it is about a dying man, who is alone and bereft of all worldly comforts- with the exception of a book "full of death"- which also promises eternal life if he's good (I will let you draw your own conclusion about which book he is referring to). The song is in essence a prayer, an S.OS. to "anyone who will take him to heaven", whether it be "the gods or the angels", he simply wants to go to the Father's house. But as interesting as all of this is, what I find most original and fascinating are the lyrics at the very end of the song; "And on I read until the day was gone, and I sat in regret for all the things I've done. For all that I've blessed, and all that I've wronged. In dreams until my death, I will wander on… In your house, I long to be…" I can certainly understand one having regrets over some form of bad behavior in the past, but why would he regret the things that he has "blessed"? The only thing that would make sense here is if he is experiencing guilt over blessing things/behavior that he should never have blessed in the first place. If this is the case, what a beautiful and insightful sentiment. First of all, he recognizes that in order to be completely reconciled to the Father (or at least be able to enter his house), one must make a full and honest account of one's faults. Secondly, not only should one grieve the wrongs that one has committed in malice, but likewise the wrongs that may not have been malicious at all, but were nevertheless (in retrospect) injurious. Considering the power and influence a musician has, both personally and artistically, such a reflection, whomever it is imputed to, seems highly understandable. There may not be much in this song that is particularly uplifting on the surface, but to be able to sing your sorrow and express your longing offers a solace and hope that would harden into despair were it not able to be directed upward.      

3. Hoobastank - The Reason

I would regard the words to this song to be an act of contrition… though admittedly an imperfect one; "I'm not a perfect person/There's many things I wish I didn't do. But I continue learning/ I never meant to do those things to you…" I say "imperfect" because when one admits a wrongdoing, one should never begin by saying in essence "I'm only human, I'm bound to fail, you know." This may be the case, but it just sounds like you're trying to make excuses for yourself, and when you're trying to come clean, that's just about the last note that you want to strike. You also want to avoid the implication that breaking someone's heart is part of your learning curve. For no one, especially someone you care about, should be regarded as a kind of scrimmage for your life. That said, what the artist does express beautifully here is a desire not only to undo the wickedness he has inflicted upon the aggrieved party, but even more importantly, to express his desire to change; "I'm sorry that I hurt you/ It's something I must live with everyday/ And all the pain I put you through/ I wish that I could take it all away/ And be the one that catches all your tears. That's why I need you to hear… I found out a reason for me/ To change who I used to be/ A reason to start over new… And the reason is you." Being sorry for your crimes is not enough, and regret alone by itself really gets you no where- but genuine repentance, coupled with an intense desire to make amends? Now that is quite literally the recipe for a beautiful drama!

4. Bruno Mars - When I Was Your Man

If the former song offered somewhat of an imperfect act of contrition, this one is an example of how to lay it all out there. There is not one lyric in this ballad that even suggests that the accuser is doing anything but accusing himself. It might sound strange to say, but in keeping with the psychological study that was mentioned in the beginning, the more one blames one's self, not in a whining sense, but with full recognition of the good that he has sacrificed because of his failings, the more satisfying the apology is for the one confessing and the one hearing the confession. Why? In part because so few people in this world ever go out of their way to accuse themselves, that it borders on remarkable, not to mention romantic. Nine times out of ten we are blaming someone else. So to hear a man make no excuses for his himself, and better still, expect nothing in return for his admission of guilt, is something rare indeed; "My pride, my ego, my needs, and my selfish ways/ Caused a good strong woman like you to walk out of my life. Now I'll never, never get to clean up the mess I made/ And it haunts me every time I close my eyes… And though it hurts, I'll be the first to say I was wrong…." He concludes the song by declaring that he hopes that the man she does end up with "buys her flowers and holds her hand", and essentially does everything that he should have done "when I was your man". Now whether or not this is a ploy to get her back it is difficult to say, but if it is, it is the right ploy, because the man who admits his guilt unreservedly is difficult to fault. Yet what is more impressive to me is not simply that he recognizes that he was wrong, or even that he didn't realize what he had until it was gone, but that in expressing his sorrow for his failure, there is a genuine sense of purity and innocence in his regret. According to this "confession", what he will miss more than anything else is the opportunity to hold her hand, buy her flowers, and take her out dancing- because that was something that she genuinely loved to do. Consequently, by being brought low, he has learned the most important lesson about love and romance. When one loses someone precious, one is not generally inclined to cry out because of the loss of some sort of sexual gratification, but rather at the loss of those little things which in some mysterious way are far more glorious.

5. Linkin Park - What I've Done        

Sometimes referred to as "Nu Metal", this band reminds me of a heavier and more somber version of Blink 182. Fortunately, in spite of the whiny vocal stylings, this song is very effective in communicating its central message. In essence, the song, with one minor exception, sounds like a kind of secular Penitential Rite, complete with a Kyrie; "In this farewell there's no blood, no alibi, 'cause I've drawn regret… from a thousand lies. So let mercy come and wash away… What I've done. I'll face myself, to cross out what I've become… Erase myself, and let go of what I've become… For all I've done, I'll start again, and whatever pain may come, today this ends". Though the lyrics are uneven in places (and at one point he even sounds like he's trying to absolve himself), there is enough here to suggest that the artist recognizes his need for absolution. Giving greater force to this admission of guilt, the music video provides flashes of certain historical horrors perpetrated by mankind as a whole. Thus, the video broadens the scope of sin from the individual, to the collective, from the sin of one, to the "sin of the world". But mercy and forgiveness can only enter in after one admits their guilt. And so it is that the "penitential rite" begins with the act of facing our most "grievous" faults, and ends with a Kyrie and a "clean slate".

6. Pearl Jam - Sirens

Some may not like the musical direction that these former "grunge-gods" have taken, but it is nevertheless interesting how different the message is these days. Once upon a time Eddie Vedder could rarely go a minute without raging over some political or social issue. Now, it seems, he has grown more reflective and introspective. This is not a slight, but merely an observation. Whereas before he seemed relatively content with pointing the finger at various political figures and/or Ticketmaster, now he seems to be pointing it at himself. Like some modern day For Whom the Bell Tolls, Sirens, is a song about the virtue of Memento Mori (i.e. facing our imminent death). However, if we were to leave the story there on Ash Wednesday, this would indeed be somewhat of a hopeless grunge sort of ending. For example, Alice in Chains once had an album called "Dirt", and on that album there was a song called Them Bones; "Some say we're born into the grave… I feel so alone, gonna end up a big old pile of them bones." Yet what's profoundly different about the song Sirens, is that Vedder's reflection does not end in the grave, but rather inspires a kind of Easter hope, in spite of the "approaching sirens"; "Hear the sirens covering the distance in the night/ The sound echoing closer will they come for me next time. For every choice mistake I made, it's not my plan, to send you in the arms of another man. And if you choose to stay, I'll wait, I'll understand… Oh, it's a fragile thing, this life we lead. If I think too much, I can get overwhelmed by the grace, by which we live our lives with death over our shoulders. Want you to know that should I go, I always loved you.. held you high above too. I studied your face, and the fear goes away…" Notice that as he reflects on death his thoughts do not remain "in the dirt", but quickly shift to regret, repentance, and then most importantly, gratitude. The secret joy of penance is that once we repent we actually begin to see things as they actually are, that is, we see how truly lucky we have been all along, and are thus prompted by this to recognize how much "we have come up short of the glory of God." Vedder expresses almost an identical sentiment in the also recent song Just Breathe; "Did I say that I need you… Did I say that I love you… Oh, if I didn't I'm a fool you see, no one knows this more than me… As I come clean..." Indeed, when one takes the proper posture of repentance, one can even call one's own self a fool with a certain pleasure, for in spite of the sorrow that goes along with failure, there's also the joy of recognizing that we have been saved from our blindness and stupidity. And so both songs appropriately end with a kind of beatific vision; "I studied your face and the fear goes away… the fear goes away"; and "Hold me 'till I die… Meet you on the other side…"

 7. Fallen - Sarah McLachlan

If the story of the Prodigal Son/Daughter were turned into a pop song, there hardly could be a better match than this one; "Heaven bent to take my hand and lead me through the fire. Be the long awaited answer to a long and painful fight. Truth be told I tried my best, but somewhere along the way, I got caught up in all there was to offer, and it cost me so much more than I could bear." Like Mickey Mouse in Fantasia, we believe that we can manage the magic, we can dabble in sin, we can dip our toes into the waters of the abyss, and not be pulled down by the riptide of concupiscence; "We all begin with good intent (the road to hell…) when love was raw and young. We believe that we can change ourselves, the past can be undone. Though we carry on our backs the burden time always reveals. In the lonely light of morning, in the wound that would not heal, it's the bitter taste of losing everything that I'd held so dear. I've fallen, I have sunk so low. I messed up… Better I should know. So don't come round here and tell me I told you so." Who knows what Ms. McLachlan is specifically talking about here. Truth is, it really doesn't matter, for the story is the same regardless. Man takes God's gifts, re appropriates them for his own purposes, squanders them in such a way so as to heap misery upon himself (in spite of the initial pleasure that may have gone with the sin), and thus finds himself slopping around with the pigs in dire need of redemption; "Heaven bent to take my hand, no where left to turn, lost to those I thought were friends, to everyone I know. Oh, they turned their heads embarrassed, pretend that they don't see, that it's one misstep, one slip before you know it. And there doesn't seem a way to be redeemed…" God in his patience and love is so merciful that he actually still waits for us in spite of the fact that we, like Ms. McLachlan, exhaust all of our options, and then, and only then, turn to him for help. And what symbol of Lent could be a better example of that patience and mercy than the sign of the Cross? Indeed, the joy of penance is not merely that we can receive forgiveness for our sins and failings (which is impressive enough), but that in spite of the fact that we have rejected and spurned our Savior and God, he awaits us with an Easter embrace. Yet in order to truly partake in this Easter celebration, there is one prescription that cannot be omitted, one remedy that incidentally coincides with the logic of every one of the aforementioned songs. In order to reach the true hope of the resurrection, one must first travel along the Via Dolorosa of repentance.                        

Monday, March 3, 2014

Homophobic Slurs? Why Race and Sexual Identity Are Not Analogous

In recent weeks there have been several new stories that left my head spinning, and yet in some mysterious way brought greater clarity to it. First, there was the story of Michael Sams who came out of the closet as the first (future) openly gay NFL player. Whatever happened to the idea that we should "stay out of people's bedrooms"? Well, apparently no one made any provision for what we should do if people wanted us in there.

Then there was the infamous Ted Wells Report, which attempted to highlight all of the apparent ugliness that took place in the Miami Dolphins locker room last year. Apart from the repugnant language and the racially insensitive comments, the public was introduced to a relatively new category of verbal assault: the "homophobic slur". Mind you, this taboo did not exist ten years ago, and one might even wonder from whence precisely this terminology came. Formerly calling another man a homosexual would have been considered offensive to the individual himself. Now it is practically an honor to be regarded as such (as can be seen in the Michael Sams case). By contrast, if one should elect to use such language in a derogatory fashion, one will likely be accused of something akin to racism.

The Civil Rights movement is based on the notion that every human being has infinite value and worth, regardless of any superficial characteristic, whereas the LGBTQI movement argues that individuals have value precisely because of the way that they define themselves sexually. The real question is: can these two issues be regarded as fundamentally equivalent, and if they can, what does that suggest for the civil rights movement going forward? Perhaps the best place to start is by examining the expression itself. In other words, what exactly is a "homophobic slur", and does this phrase accurately reflect the nature of the offense? The word slur usually refers to some kind of insult based on race, religion, or ethnicity, while the word phobia suggests some extreme form of paranoia and/or psychological disorder, whereby one exhibits bizarre behavior on account of an irrational fear (i.e. an agoraphobic never leaves their home for fear of all the menacing crowds that may accost them). What we have here (at best) is a marginal connection between these two words, a cobbling together of a phrase in order to stigmatize anyone who might disagree with it. Indeed, I cannot think of another example of a phrase which simultaneously seeks to accuse an individual of both a psychological disorder and racism at the same time… while exhibiting neither one trait nor the other.  

Alec Baldwin (featured above) was recently dismissed from MSNBC for directing a "homophobic slur" at someone in the media during his wife's recent trial. Interestingly, host Martin Bashir on that same network was permitted to resign of his own accord after suggesting that he would like to "defecate on Sarah Palin". 

What is equally suspect about the purported connection between race and sexuality is just how little the analogy works once all of the implications are played out. For example, if sexual behavior were really anything like race or ethnicity, wouldn't that suggest that all forms of sexual behavior would need to be treated as equally valid? Furthermore, if the analogy really fit, wouldn't it stand to reason that there would be some sort of nasty equivalent on the other side of the issue? Yet who has ever felt themselves to be the victim of a "heterosexual slur", and if they were, who among them would feel the need to defend themselves from it? That is not to say that it cannot be done, only that in order to accomplish such a feat, it would require an exorbitant amount of effort.

To be clear, I am not saying that individuals haven't been treated terribly on this account, or even that it is acceptable to denigrate anyone based on their differences (it is not acceptable). What I am attempting to point out is the distinction between protecting individuals based on their humanity, as opposed to protecting them based on a sub-category rooted primarily in their sexual preferences and/or moral outlook. To put it another way, if any one of these individuals no longer chose to associate themselves with the LGBTQI community, they would immediately forfeit any right to the aforementioned special treatment. Hence, it is their behavior and/or self-styled identity that gives them special clearance, and not their humanity.

Do not question the veracity of the great and powerful OZ, for though he lacks any real substance, his voice is booming and threatening! 

Also in the news recently were several other stories which further highlight the dangers of conflating race with sexual identity. One of those stories involved Facebook working with the LGBTQI community in an attempt to come up with fifty-four new possibilities for defining one's gender on the social network (androgyne, Cisgender, Gender Fluid, Bi-gender, Neither, Pan-gender, Two Spirit, Male to Female, MTF, etc.). Another story involved a woman suing for over $500, 000 because her fellow co-workers would not call her "they" as was her preference (this brings new meaning to referring yourself in third person). And finally there was the story about a lesbian couple who thought it wise to give their twelve year old son hormone blockers in order to prevent the onset of puberty (they did this so that Tammy/Tommy would have more time to decide his gender).

Consider how fast and how far we've come in such a short period of time, and ask yourself if this is really where we want to go. Indeed, how morally confused do we have to be to look upon a situation like this one and regard it as little more than a "controversial" issue (as a FoxNews article described it). A child is raised by a lesbian couple and grows up a little confused about his sexual identity, and so what is the solution? Pump him full of puberty repressing drugs so that he doesn't develop naturally. This is a blatant form of child abuse/Munchhausen by proxy, but since it involves a matter of sexual identity you can apparently get away with anything.

12 year old  Tammy/Tommy speaking on CNN with his two mothers about his "controversial" treatment

It is fundamentally arbitrary to treat someone poorly based on their skin color, freckles, hair style, or some other superficial quality. But to discriminate among the many desires that flood the human heart during one's lifetime seems to me to be the very definition of what it means to be human (as opposed to an animal). Simply being black, ginger, freckled, white, albino (or whatever else) in itself cannot be the source of immorality; but what we do with our bodies, can, and always has been, a source of judgment. Why? Because misusing our bodies can result in great harm to ourselves, to others, and now as you can see, to the subsequent life that results from it. Freckles cannot sexually assault you, but persons acting with a skewed sense of morality can.

By opening the Pandora's box of gender identity, we are now able to define ourselves in any way, shape, or fashion... and then win a lawsuit if anyone challenges it. "You say I can't go into a woman's bathroom? Let's ask my lawyer what he thinks about that!" In this brave new world of moral subjectivism, we are no longer defined by our nature as men and women anymore, but rather by our own  private fantasies. Some will always be confused about their sexual identity, and I do not doubt that for them it is a great trial, but now out of a misplaced sense of compassion for the few, we have opened the door to a far greater confusion for the many. If I were to witness a transgendered man or woman being treated poorly, I would defend them, but not because they were transgendered per se, but because they are made in the image and likeness of God, and therefore worthy of respect regardless.

When African Americans fought for equal rights in the 1960's and Martin Luther King gave his "I have a dream" speech, he was not trying to create a new humanity- he was trying to restore an old one. Yet according to Facebook, California, Virginia, and a mounting number of other states, this original identity (viz. man) has become outdated and obsolete, and anyone not on board with this cultural shift may as well be an anachronism. But whatever your position on this issue, one thing is certain: if we continue to go down this road of gender proliferation, our destiny can hardly be all that different from the disintegrating Marty McFly at the Under the Sea Dance. For humanity is literally disappearing right before our eyes- and all because we have come to deny the very two people who gave us our existence.


Friday, February 14, 2014

If Catholics Called Things By Protestant Names (Part 1)

One of the biggest challenges when attempting to explain Catholic doctrine is the language barrier. In other words, many of the terms that Catholics use to describe their beliefs seem down right strange and unbiblical to some. And although there any number of doctrines that Protestants accept that are not explicitly named in the Bible (i.e. the Trinity and the Incarnation), many would argue that these are at least easily inferred by reading the New Testament. Yet whether or not there is a double standard here, the perception is there regardless. Thus, what I am endeavoring to do in this particular post is to "walk back" some of the theological language in an attempt to give it a more Biblical sounding phraseology. I should mention however that Biblical language itself arises out of an encounter with Jesus Christ, and therefore should not be confused with some sort of divine glossary. Scripture is an encounter with Christ, not a catechism. Consequently, what I am seeking to do here is precisely what the early Church did long ago, which is to take the experience of the followers of Christ and give it a vocabulary that is deeply rooted in the totality of Biblical tradition. Incidentally, I should mention that for some of the examples provided below, there is more than one alternative.

1. The Immaculate Conception-----------> Mary's Immaculate Redemption (Example A)

What often scares off Protestants about this particular doctrine is the impression that they believe it gives (viz. that Mary was in no need of a Savior, and that her glory arises out of her own goodness). However, with the phraseology provided above, my is hope is that I can dispel some of these misconceptions. First of all, it is essential to understand that at the back of all Marian dogma is the work of Jesus Christ. Hence, what we say about her salvation is really just an extension of what we say about our own. To put it another way, just as we believe that one day we too will be completely "immaculate" and without sin, so also the Blessed Virgin Mary. The primary difference between the two is that Mary received this benefit from the first moment of her existence, whereas we will receive it much later on. Mary was the first in line to be "saved", because, quite literally, she was the first in line to receive him. Therefore, let us not begrudge the mother of our Lord this singular grace, because had she not received it, then neither would we.

----------------------------> The Predestination of Mary (Example B)

If you tend towards a more Calvinistic reading of Scripture, then this formulation may be even more pleasing to you. What action on the part of our Sovereign Lord could better epitomize his ability to accomplish all things than choosing a woman from all of eternity, forestalling her from the stain of original sin, and then perfectly/immaculately redeeming her on account of her Divine Son. Is this not more emblematic of God's power than simply maintaining our universal rottenness, with an admittedly shiny veneer? Yet if God can forestall the effects of sin in one case, then why not in any case? How is it more powerful to impute snow to a dung heap, than it is to take that which should be a dung heap and immediately transform it into something that is without spot, wrinkle, or blemish (Ephesians 5:27)? If God is really all-powerful, and his grace is in fact "irresistible", then would it not seem more than a little disappointing to express that power and omnipotence by simply creating the appearance of goodness in us? What would be far more impressive is to reverse the effects of sin altogether (Benjamin Button style), restore our lost innocence, and make us entirely new creatures. And so who in God's creation could possibly be a better candidate for this "immaculate makeover" than she who- from the first moment of her conception- was capable of bearing God's image?

2. The Assumption of Mary------------------------> The Rapture of Mary

The term "rapture" does not appear anywhere in Scripture, but rather was a concept that was developed much later on (just to re-enforce an earlier point about how such terminology comes about). That said, in recent decades this idea has received renewed interest, especially on account of the popular "Left Behind" series. In Latin the word simply means to be "carried away", or "taken up", but in some Protestant circles it has practically become the lens through which the present age is to be interpreted. The premise of this end time theology goes something like this: if you wish to be "taken up into heaven" and thus avoid the coming "tribulations" (i.e. when everything hits the fan), you must believe in Jesus Christ coupled with this doctrine, lest you risk being "left behind". As it corresponds to the doctrine of Mary's Assumption, I am not precisely sure where the objection lies. What the dogma essentially states is that at the end of Mary's life she was taken up body and soul into heaven, or to put in more evangelical Christian terms, Mary was "raptured". In the Old Testament already we hear of this phenomena happening in the case of Enoch and Ezekiel. Does it make more sense that these Biblical figures would be assumed/raptured into heaven, but not the woman who was the only one in history to share the same DNA as God? Understandably, the objector will point out; "Well, Scripture describes this event in the case of Enoch and Elijah, but not in the case of Mary." But this is not entirely the case. In the book of Revelation, John (who lived with Mary until the end of her earthly life) sees a woman (bodily) in heaven that fits the description of the Virgin Mary (Revelation 12:1). This woman may be regarded in other ways, but it is undeniable that she first and foremost fits the description of the mother of Jesus Christ. Even the accompanying symbolism in this passage, and those prior, seem only to re-enforce our prior suspicion about this Lady (i.e. Mary is the New Ark of God). All this to say, what was being done in days of old is apparently being done in "days of new". For according to Scripture, the remarkable grace that was afforded Elijah, Enoch, and now Mary, will eventually be granted to all of the faithful- not by their own power of course- but by the power of our Lord who will eventually "assume" all of the faithful into heaven. So let us call it the Rapture of Mary if it pleases, but do not say that it is unfitting that the mother of our Lord should be the first after Christ (though apparently she wasn't) to be "caught up into the clouds to meet the Lord in the air." 1 Thessalonians 4:17

3. Priestly Celibacy --------------------------> Pauline Virginity (Example A)

One of the major misgivings that Protestants have concerning ministry in the Catholic Church is the fact that priests, with a few notable exceptions, are not permitted to marry. And while this is not a complaint merely consigned to Protestants (for many Catholics feel the same), it does seem to be a sticking point for some when it comes to being able to relate to the Church's ecclesial way of life. I have heard on any number of occasions my Protestant brothers and sisters complaining; "… but then how can they possibly relate to the needs of their congregation" or "without being married, how can they help counsel married couples?" I do not deny that these are valid concerns, and while I would like to address each of them, one by one, I must restrain myself and not go off on a tangent about doctors not needing to have cancer in order to treat patients with it, or jurists not needing to be guilty of crimes in order to judge them properly (in fact, I think the reverse is often preferable). And I certainly must avoid speaking at length about how not every priest or Protestant minister needs to be a professional counselor in order to give good counsel to married couples. No one's experience is precisely the same, so if that is the measuring stick of usefulness, then no one is useful. Are priests sometimes too detached from family life, yes. Are biological fathers sometimes too detached from family life? Do I really need to answer that? Anyhow, what we are discussing here most importantly is whether or not there is sufficient Biblical evidence to uphold this radical teaching of the Church. I suppose I could appreciate this complaint more if not for the fact that St. Paul, the one to whom Protestants look the most (other than Jesus Christ), were not himself a celibate. While of course never disparaging marriage, St. Paul did quite openly express his desire that the Corinthians might live in the same unmarried state as he (1 Corinthians 7:7). Imagine if a Protestant or Catholic pastor today said something like that to his congregation. "I understand that for some of you it is best to be in the married state, but oh how I wish that all of you would prepare yourself for the coming of the kingdom by living as if you were brother and sister..."

---------------------------------> Kingdom Celibacy (Example B)

But even if St. Paul had taken a wife, there would still be one passage from the Gospel of Matthew that would be utterly unavoidable in this regard; "For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and those who are made so by others, and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept it should accept it" (Matthew 19:12). Apparently accepting a teaching such as this was not only difficult in our time, but in Jesus' as well. Notice the final example that Jesus provides. This "eunuch" is not merely one because of some unfortunate accident, but rather because he has chosen it freely as a means to give greater glory to God. Such a lifestyle choice would seem- in a most radical way- to mirror that of our Lord's, who himself was a "eunuch" for the kingdom. Where in Protestant theology is there room for such a laudable sacrifice? In the Old Testament there are various instances of individuals avoiding sexual activity as a sign of purity and devotion to God, but one specifically that stands above the rest. In the book of the prophet Jeremiah, God tells Jeremiah "not to take a wife". Historically, this drastic measure was related to the fall of Jerusalem, but meta-historically this prophetic sign points to a new order of things. As all prophets are in some way suggestive of the person of Jesus Christ, so also Jeremiah. And while Jeremiah is not the Savior, his behavior is meant to point to Jesus. Hence, the follower of Christ is not only called to deliver the same message as Christ, but to conform his life, inasmuch as he is called, to that very same lifestyle. And so how does Scripture describe that kingdom lifestyle? According to Jesus himself, it is a lifestyle which invites its inhabitants (at least in the above context), to "be like the angels in heaven... who are neither married nor given in marriage" (Mark 12:25). One may find this teaching "difficult" to countenance (as Jesus himself was quick to admit), but what we cannot say is that it is an invention of the Catholic Church.

4. Confession -----------------------------> The Sacrament of the Altar Call (Example A)

Ironically, the term "altar call" which, again, is not expressly in Scripture, is in some ways better suited to a Catholic milieu. After all, Catholics really do have altars, and they really do see those altars as places eminently suited for sacrifice. In any case, what unites the various versions of the "altar call", is the fact that, in whatever church they take place, they generally tend to involve three things; a) the admission of sins; b) a commitment (or re-commitment) to the vows of Baptism; and c) the desire for some semblance of peace and reconciliation with God. The fundamental difference between the Protestant version of "confession" and the Catholic one (at least outwardly), is that Protestants are actually quite old school about how they carry out the ritual. For instance, in the early Church if one needed a "come to Jesus" moment they too expressed it in front of the whole congregation. Thus, the individual today who goes up to the front of the congregation, confesses their worst, and then is mowed down by a touch of the hand and a dose of the Holy Spirit, is not all that different from those who did so in the early centuries. Yet in spite of every good intention, the Church recognized the danger and abuse that can occur when one so openly exposes their guilt (let us please avoid the Church of Oprah, thank you). Subsequently, the Church thought it eminently advisable to make such "re-commitment ceremonies" much quieter so as to bypass all of the potential for public theatrics. Indeed, making the "altar call" private was not only helpful in terms of avoiding blatant hypocrisy, but also in terms of inviting a more frequent opportunity for a personal "come to Jesus", irrespective of whether or not the preacher called for it on that particular night.

-----------------------------------> Baptismal Renewal (Example B)

One of the most common concerns that Protestants express when it comes to the idea of going to Confession is the scandal of having to confess one's sins and failings to another man. Interestingly, most do not object to speaking about private (or embarrassing) matters when it comes to a trained physician, or psychiatrist, but are nevertheless outraged to have to so when it comes to God's trained physicians. Perhaps we ourselves lack the necessary fear and concern about our spiritual lives that we apparently possess when it comes to our physical bodies. At any rate, to be fair what it may come down to (I think) is not so much faith in the physical capability of a doctor to heal, but a lack of faith in a human authority to forgive sins (only God can forgive sins). And the truth is, if we really don't have to humiliate ourselves in the process, then why do so at all? Yet whether or not we accept the Sacrament of Confession per se, all Christians do accept the idea that God's forgiveness, at least in Baptism, cannot take place ordinarily without the aid and mediation of another human being. In other words, yes, other human beings can (and do) communicate the Lord's forgiveness to us in the Sacrament of Baptism. If you are a mainline Protestant and you believe that the sacrament of Baptism has effect, then you too believe that another human is capable of "absolving" you and "reconciling" you to God. Even if you do only believe that Baptism is a symbol without effect, you still had to have had someone communicate the idea to you in order to accept Him it into your heart. Is it biblical to say we need other human beings in order to be reconciled to God? Well, according to St. Paul it is; "All this is from God, who reconciled us to Himself in Christ, and who gave us this ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18). Strangely enough (or not so strangely) "reconciliation" is one of the titles that the Church gives the Sacrament of Confession. All the Church is really saying here is that after you receive that initial "absolution" in Baptism- then that same Baptismal grace can be restored to you, especially if you, like the Prodigal Son, completely fall away from the Faith. If there is a ceremony for the forgiveness of sins in the first case, then is it really so unreasonable that there should be a ceremony for those who need to turn again to the Lord? What is the point of Christ telling the apostles that they can forgive sins (or not) if their part in the "ministry of reconciliation" is purely symbolic? And if a man can administer the forgiveness of sins in one case (Baptism), then why is it so ridiculous to suggest that he could do it in another?

5. The Communion of Saints ------------> The Fellowship of the Saved (Across Time)

The word saint should not be regarded as a dirty word. To the contrary, to be holy and pure (which is what the words means) is the very criterion for entering heaven (Revelation 21:27). But for various reasons, some of which are primarily historical, some Protestants tend to shy away from words like; "communion" and "saints". Nevertheless, both of these terms are undeniably Biblical. I think the fundamental reason for this discomfort has a lot to do with how these terms are generally employed. If a Southern Baptist hears the words "saint so and so", they will in all likelihood associate it with what they would regard as idolatry, and if they hear the word "communion", the first thing that may come to mind is the "hocus pocus" of the Mass. By contrast, if we substitute a word like "fellowship" for "communion", and "saved for "saints" we may be able to allay some fears about our motives here. And that's all well and good (you may say), but the deeper difficulty lies well beyond the language barrier. What is really at issue is the Catholic belief that this "fellowship" may, and in fact does, extend beyond well beyond the confines of this life. The fear is that if you begin to impute a certain power and attention to anyone other than the "sole Mediator between God and man" (1 Timothy 2:5) you will somehow take the focus away from God. And I do not disagree that this could be a real problem. However, just because something could go wrong doesn't mean that the idea itself should be effectively abolished. If that were the criterion, humanity should have been annihilated long ago. The primary problem with declaring that everything in heaven (besides God) is essentially passive is that it is decidedly unbiblical. Indeed, every time we do get a glimpse of heaven in Scripture, the creatures that dwell there are anything but a bunch of tame puppets. The truth is Scripture give us more of an insight into the unusual activity of God's heavenly creatures than it does of God Himself.

6. Intercession ----------------------------> Angelic Intercession (Example A)

Another doctrine that tends to make Protestants a little queazy is the doctrine of intercession/intercessory prayer. Once again, Jesus Christ is the sole Mediator between God and man, so why complicate matters by throwing in other figures? The problem with this mentality, however understandable it may be, is that it rooted in a false understanding of authority. Yes God is the ultimate Authority over everything, but in his generosity he permits his creatures to share/participate in that very same authority (lower case) all while preserving his own. Why? Because God is not an autocrat, he is rather a Communion. A prime example of God "sharing" this intercessory power can be seen in the activity of the angels. In the Old Testament we encounter what are referred to as the armies of God (called hosts). No, these are certainly not those gluttonous little chubby cherubs that you see on Greeting cards. To the contrary, they are front line warrior who battle against powers and principalities. We are also fortunate enough to hear tell in the the Old Testament (and New) of the Archangels; Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. These angels are sent on a variety of errands, which involve, but are not limited to, delivering apocalyptic messages from God Himself to God's people. Included in all that, are numerous other spirits, too mysterious and unusual to be adequately defined here. In the New Testament we continue to encounter a whole array of angels. For example, we are briefly introduced by Jesus to the creatures known in theological terms as "guardian angels". Their particular assignment is to guard specific human beings. Thus, each individual has their own personal body guard assigned to them by God. And while their primary duty is to safeguard those to whom they have been assigned, they do, from what I hear, take personal "requests".

----------------------------> Our Guardian Ancestors (Example B)

All of the Synoptic Gospels recount Jesus on the mount of Transfiguration engaging in a conversation with both Moses and Elijah. But just because Jesus came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets, does not mean that he is through with them. We are not like Kleenex in God's eyes. Sure, God could raise up a patriarch from the very stones in the street, but for whatever reason, he never chose to do things that way. Even in the New Testament, it is clear that the disciples and the early Christians were naturally inclined to revere the patriarchs and prophets of old, even if they recognized Christ as the Savior. To ignore these great titans of the faith (as with the saints in general) would be a form of breaking the 4th Commandment. Indeed, just as we would not have life without our physical parents, so also we would know nothing about salvation without the help of the Patriarchs, Matriarchs, and the prophets of old. And whether or not you accept that they can in fact intercede for us now, it is undeniable that they already have done so in a most profound way. For how else would we know about the Faith without them? Yet for those who are still holdouts on this issue, let me suggest the possibility that many Protestants already implicitly accept the idea of intercession, albeit in a rudimentary fashion. For example, how many times have you heard a Protestant (or anyone for that matter) refer to a deceased loved one as some sort of angel in heaven "watching over them", or a blessed spirit "smiling down"; or even, dare I say it, a saintly figure who invites "a little bit of heaven" into your home. I suppose anyone can accept the idea of a saint in heaven interceding for them, so long as the saint happens to be biologically related to them. Well, good news, in Baptism our relationship shares an even deeper familial bond!

------------------------------> The Offering of the Elders (Example C)

In the book of Revelation, we hear of all sorts of unusual creatures performing any manner of inscrutable tasks; from opening divine scrolls, to hurling down dragons to the earth. And yes, we  also hear about the activities of saints and the elders bringing the prayers [of the people of God] to the mighty throne of God; "…the four living creatures, and the twenty four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one was holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God's people" (Revelation 5:8). If this is not a form of intercession, I am not quite sure what would be. The point is if Heaven is anything like the Bible describes, then standing around watching God do everything will be the last thing it will entail. Even when God does speak in Scripture it is usually through another. In fact, God the Father only speaks three times in the Gospels, and two of those times include the admonition; "listen to my Son!" And what does the Son say and do (who is also God, incidentally)? He gathers a group of apostles and tells them to go out and imitate him; "As the Father has sent me so I send you... those who listen to you listen to me" (Luke 10:16). The only clear example that Scripture provides of creatures worshipping "day and night" appears in book of Isaiah and Revelation. In Isaiah, the prophet has a vision involving the seraphic angels who worship ceaselessly before the throne of God. Yet in spite of all this truly awe-inspiring worship, that is not the only thing they do. Apparently they are also charged with being guardians of the throne of God. Why does God need a fiery six-winged seraph at his throne in order to guard it? I don't know, ask Him. Of course it is true that everything done in a Godly manner is (or at least should be) a form of divine worship, but the picture that we get here suggests that even in the next life it will involve far more than passively prostrating ourselves. The truth is many Protestants already implicitly acknowledge the point that I am trying to make here (even if it all sounds very Catholic), for they themselves will recite guardian angel prayers without a second thought about it, they themselves will at times declare that a deceased loved one is watching over them, and they themselves have no problem admitting that in certain circumstances they feel the loving presence of one who is no longer accounted a member of the human race. All this to say that if God doesn't mind sharing his mission and power with us (as is so clearly demonstrated in Scripture), then why are we bending over backwards to prove that God flies solo? Could he? Yes. Does Scripture suggest that he does? Generally speaking, no.                                  


Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Richard Sherman, Rene Descartes, and Elton John Walk into a Bar...

The recent uproar over the post-game interview between football player Richard Sherman and sports journalist Erin Andrews has spawned a wide-ranging discussion about "thugs" and race. And while that may be interesting on some level, what I found more interesting about these events was the manner in which an athlete can spin something to make it redound to his benefit. Seeking to capitalize on all this drama, a company that sells headphones ("Beat" by Dr. Dre) asked Sherman to appear in their recent ad campaign. In these commercials athletes are confronted with a variety of hostile environments. However, instead of responding with a similar kind of vitriol, they simply don a set of headphones and tune it all out. The one which features Richard Sherman has him taking questions from reporters after a game- which at first is congenial- but when one of the reporters asks him about his "thuggish" behavior, it quickly goes south. Visibly displeased, he responds by putting on a set of headphones, turning his back, and tuning everyone and everything out. The commercial ends with the words "Hear what you want" flashing on the screen:

The song that you hear in the background at the conclusion of the advertisement includes a sample taken from the Elton John classic "Your Song", which is cleverly re-purposed by the artist Aloe Blacc in his song "The Man". Put it all together and what you get is a strange marriage/confluence of characters in the same "barroom" at the same time. Descartes walks into a bar and declares "Cogito ergo sum" (I think therefore I am). Elton John walks in and begins a discussion about first love. Richard Sherman walks into the bar and proposes a sort of marriage between the two ideas. What comes out of the meeting is the very epitome of what is wrong with the modern world today. Descartes argues that the only thing that we can know for certain both begins and ends in our head. Elton John disagrees with this sentiment, and points instead to the sublimity of love, and how it permits us a sort of freedom and transcendence from the isolation of our own thoughts. Hearing this dispute at the end of the bar, Richard Sherman comes by and offers a most unfortunate solution.  

Only in our day and age could a group of individuals even fathom writing a love song dedicated to being madly in love with one's self. Thus, instead of the chorus being; "… And you can tell everybody, this is your song. It might be quite simple, but now that it's done. I hope you don't mind/ I hope you don't mind that I put down in words… how wonderful life is while you're in the world", we are regaled with the lines; "And you can tell everybody, I'm the man, I'm the man, I'm the man"! I suppose that means that "Your Song" should be "My Song", and Descartes' "Cogito" is now to be translated as; "I think, therefore I'm the man". And the truth is with all the technology around us today, we really can have quite a raucous time lost in our own head. Put on your headphones, check your Twitter, carefully craft your public image, and yes, "only hear what you want to hear". That terrifying phrase is all too reminiscent of the little boy from the movie The Sixth Sense who when whispering about dead people says; "They only see what they want to see." This is not to say that everything in the world that is said about us should be listened to (God forbid), but the problem is that we have completely gone to the other extreme. Now as opposed to obsessing over what others think of us, we obsess over what we think of us. It is the Zen of narcissism. Worship yourself, listen to nothing which contradicts that narrative. If it does, immediately declare yourself a victim of misunderstanding and injustice. And whatever you do, make sure that there is enough noise to distract you from thoughts of regret and doubt. Salvation by pride alone. "This is my world," obey your thirst, and whatever you do don't listen to anyone who doesn't immediately affirm you. Below is a video that is similar to the above commercial, though I think it more accurately depicts the consequences of only "hearing what you want to hear":

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Two Most Abused Phrases over the Past Ten Years

Apart from calling your opponent Hitler (or just a Nazi) in a debate, perhaps the most tired and abused of all phrases in recent years (especially in the context of culture and politics), have to be the expressions "inappropriate" and "hate speech". Ironically, what I have noticed is that when they are misused they are often misused for opposite reasons. For example, ever since the late nineties (and probably before then), individuals have begun to describe the most despicable acts, not as sinful, or even shameful, but rather as "inappropriate". My interest here is not to get political, or distract from the real issue, but it would be futile for me to deny that the first time I ever heard betrayal described as "inappropriate" was during the Clinton administration. And indeed ever since then I have heard any manner of crimes described in like fashion. From student-teacher sexual relationships, to "inappropriate" pictures on the web, to lying, stealing, cheating, and just about everything short of genocide (though the term "ethnic cleansing" would seem to be in that same tradition), very little it would seem falls outside of the broad scope of that particular word. This attempt to downplay wicked behavior has now become so ubiquitous that it has traveled well beyond the political sphere and into the realm of every day life. One wonders how long it will be before some sympathetic soul, not seeking to judge, and highly attentive to every detail of someone's misbegotten childhood, will go so far as to excuse the behavior of some fine young cannibal, under the guise of extending a Christ-like mercy to them. "It is true that this young man has had numerous issues which led to these unfortunate excesses, and that he has behaved in the most inappropriate and anti-social manner, but can we really blame him for this when you consider the hardships of his childhood?" Look, I do not deny that an unpleasant childhood can, and often does, lead to abuses later on, but we certainly will never clean up those "issues" by completely sanitizing them. The goal is to extend mercy, while not excusing, and thus perpetuating, the evil.

The second most abused phrase in the media today (and elsewhere) is the term "hate speech". As before, I do not deny that there are people out there who are filled with bile and hate, and that they should be condemned for said behavior. What I object to is the idea that everyone with whom we strongly disagree should necessarily be put in that category. Having a strong opinion on something, even one that is shared by many others, does not make the opposing view irrational on its face, nor does it make your view infallible. Yes, in spite of your passion and conviction on these matters, you still must (in the spirit of equality) give reasons for your views on it. In other words, you may not declare something is so simply because your blood boils to have to consider your opponent's position.

The most popular example of this today concerns the debate over homosexuality, and whether or not opposition to the homosexual lifestyle amounts to hatred. It may or may not be the case that those who object to it should be regarded as fiends, but can we at least have a real intellectual discussion before we go about uncritically condemning everyone? There must be some reason that society, up until recently, felt very differently about this issue. Shouting someone down does not an argument make. Nevertheless, being on the wrong side of this issue today can get you immediately branded a "hater," and for whatever reason many people find that kind of labeling perfectly acceptable. Is it fair to regard people who reject "homosexual marriage" as tantamount to those who burn crosses and wear white hoods? Let's discuss it and find out. Is a man's sexual behavior to be regarded in the same way as his skin pigment? Let's debate it.

But whatever the case, the way to resolve this issue in the larger sense is quite simple. Let the words correspond to their reality. The word "inappropriate" is suggestive of behavior (like some off-color joke), that may be "appropriate" in one set of circumstances, but not in another. Hence, equating a joke in poor taste, or an outfit that is unsuited for a particular occasion, with the act of adultery and betrayal, would seem to be more than a little bit of a stretch. The phrase "hate-speech" implies a kind of physical threat- coupled with language that tends to reduce the other individual to something which is considerably less than a human being. What should not be included in this definition is a mere disagreement (even an intense one) over the nature and purpose of sex and the family. In this particular situation, no one is looking to denigrate individuals as such (unless you are like the Westboro Baptists). What the disagreement is centered around is the proper understanding and expression of our human sexuality. People are always going to exaggerate in one way or another in an attempt to make their own position seem more palatable- the problem is these days we no longer recognize that we are in fact embellishing. We have made an idol out of Mercury, and Mercury, as I suspect you know, is quite mercurial. And so no one really knows what is "is" anymore- other than the fact that it just so happens to always agree with their position. If I am caught doing something shameful, I deem it "inappropriate". If you are doing something disagreeable, I deem it "hate". Let us restore these words back to their original meaning, not so that everyone can agree with me, but so that everyone can recognize that there is another Truth that exists beyond that of our own.