Thursday, August 30, 2012

A Video That Hitler Would Have Hated...

A video that has recently become quite popular on YouTube, and was even featured this past week on ESPN, details an Ohio boy with cerebral palsy who competed in a 400 meter race against children without any similar limitations. At several points in the race, it looks as if the boy will not make it and perhaps even stop on the track. But spurred on by his gym coach and a spontaneous gathering of fellow students, he manages to persevere and finish the race long after the others. You would have to be hard-hearted not to be moved by such a spectacle- either because of the struggle the child had to endure, and/or because of the support he received along the way. Yet why do I even need to bring this up? Is this not a response which is "self evident?" Does not a sentiment like this come naturally to the human race? The simple answer to that is no.

The truth is you don't need to be Adolph Hitler or Friedrich Nietzsche to despise what is being celebrated in this video. Indeed, the pagans of the ancient world would have found such a spectacle more than a little curious. The sad fact is a boy like the one depicted in the video below- far from being recognized as a symbol of courage- would have been perceived (if he had even been allowed to survive infancy) as a drain and a disappointment, a life devoid of any real virtue or meaning. Consequently, scenes like this should remind us that had Christ not come, a video like this would have been absolutely inconceivable. After all, let's face it, the boy is not Usain Bolt. In fact, he can't run to save his life. Forrest Gump is an olympic medalist in comparison to this kid. Going strictly on appearances, this event is little more than an exercise in futility, an undignified and useless struggle to finish last- an outcome, by the way, of which there was never any doubt.

And yet, here are all these people moved and inspired and walking along with him, not because there is any great accomplishment in coming in last place, but because it is part of the air we breathe as Christians. So long have we been psychological Christians that we no longer marvel or even recognize how Christ has changed our perceptions of power and success. Of course, people still measure success by the standards of the world (which is fine because we do live in the world), but what Jesus introduces is an altogether unique barometer for measurement. What I am referring to here is the somewhat mystical recognition that the most impressive virtues in life are not necessarily those that come most naturally to us (like good looks, or innate athleticism), but rather those that come least naturally to us, like running a race in a body barely built to crawl. It gets us no where to compare a kid like this to Usain Bolt, for his success is not to be measured by sheer speed, but by an interior strength. What moves us to tears does not consist in his ability to break any records, it consists in his ability to persevere and bravely run a race that he is guaranteed to lose... by a lot. Ultimately this story embodies the mystery of Christian triumph- a riddle hinted at by St. Paul in his letter to the Corinthians; "Run the race so as to win...They (the pagans) do it to receive a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one" 1 Corinthians 9:24-25.

If we were to be honest with ourselves and see things as heaven sees them, we might realize that the boy with cerebral palsy is not just some poor sap that was fortunate enough to be king for a day, but a symbol of our own fragile humanity. We are all, as it were, palsied and limited beings (especially as fallen human beings), and we all need the help of our divine family- otherwise uninhibited by the aforementioned malady- to spur us on and encourage us until we cross the finish line. Indeed, our unique gift to God is not that we should all be a bunch of Adonises or Greek gods; our gift to him is that in spite of our blatant and almost shameful vulnerability, we demonstrate a profound unwillingness to be conquered. Therefore, we do not win this particular bout by sending our opponents to the canvas, but rather by- in the spirit of Cool Hand Luke- perpetually lifting ourselves off of it.          

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

What I Learned from Marilyn Manson

One upon a time, there was a young man named Brian Warner who transformed himself into a disturbing character named Marilyn Manson. I say "once upon a time", because let's face it, no one really cares much about what Manson is up to anymore. He has gone the way of all shock artists, for there are only so many ways to offend someone. It is like someone who gets progressively immodest; they can only remove so many articles of clothing before they run out of clothes not to wear. Perhaps another problem for him is the fact that he can't sing to save his life, while someone like Lady Gaga can at least carry a tune. At any rate, it has been a long time (in pop culture reckoning) since anyone paid much attention to Marilyn Manson, but let us go back for a moment and give credit where credit's due.

When people think of Manson's music they generally think of the shocking and sometimes horrifying imagery in his music videos. But whether you consider his performances blasphemy or a work of evil genius, you certainly can't come away from it without feeling one way or the other. Therein lies the problem with shock art, and modern art in general. It is not designed to inspire the soul so much as to deliver a rush of adrenaline. There is no room for subtlety in such a genre. Indeed, you can no more muse over a video like "The Beautiful People" than you can ponder the mysteries of giving someone the middle finger. As a result, such public displays are doomed to get swallowed up with all the rest of the cacophonous "look at mes" that seem endemic to the airwaves.

I will admit that of all the bands that have successfully "tried to channel Satan" only Tool has terrified me more than Manson. Congratulations! Due in large part to his remarkable "talent" for creating such hellish imagery, many have regarded Manson and his music as the epitome of what evil must be like. Would that evil were that predictable; "...and no wonder, for even Satan masquerades as an angel of light" (2 Corinthians 11:14). I wish the devil always presented himself in such an unappealing manner. If that were the case, 99% of people with good sense would turn and run in the opposite direction. No, the insight of Manson really does not lie in the fact that he drags everyone through a veritable madhouse of disturbing imagery- it rather comes from something not directly related to the songs themselves.

When he's been asked about his name, Marilyn Manson generally says that his reason for choosing it has to do with his embrace of extremes. In other words, culturally speaking, who could have less in common than Charles Manson and Marilyn Monroe? He has also stated that he developed the name because it sounded like the phoniest stage name he could come up with. His point in all this was that everyone makes up their own identity according to their taste, and furthermore, they do this with lies that are largely driven by our ego and our desire to elevate ourselves (sounds like a bit of projection to me). Ironically, as is pointed out by Mr. Warner, not only is his name a total fabrication, but even the famous names that he has lifted are to a certain degree fraudalent (the birth names of the two people in question are Norma Jeane Mortenson and Charles Maddox).

However, amidst all of this mind-numbing relativism (which is really just warmed-over nihilism), Manson has tapped into a bit of a theological goldmine- even if he himself does not recognize it. By constructing an image of himself around two characters that are polar opposites, he actually uncovers a truth about evil which is far more subtle and thought-provoking than donning black makeup and wearing colored contact lenses. Marilyn Monroe represents the glamour of the world. She is, if you will, a mask, or a "masquerade" for evil. While I place no judgments on the soul of Ms. Monroe, I do think it is fair to say that her public persona was a pleasant, though undeniably superficial, construct. Indeed, the Monroe persona was created, not out of some deeply held conviction about life, but rather as a means to garner as much attention for herself as possible. Yet beneath that veneer of glamour and glitz, she was a shell of a person, a lonely soul, a "candle in the wind", who found temporary solace in the practice of wearing this particular guise.

By contrast, Charles Manson was the reality behind the mask. Am I saying that Monroe was really a monster deep down? No. What I am saying is that the glamour of the world, apart from any real virtue or goodness, is the perfect host organism for the work of the devil. Thus, superficial beauty- that is, beauty without any real virtue or substance behind it- is not only empty, but it is the perfect occasion for mass deception. People weren't drawn to Hitler because he was a scary white dude with a tiny mustache and a keen hatred of the Jews. To the contrary, people turned the other way when he tried to exterminate the Jews precisely because he was [to them] an attractive and charismatic leader who told them in a believable way exactly what they wanted to hear. And as unappealing as Charles Manson may seem today, the reason he was able to convince people he was a mystical guru, has less to do with the Swastika on his forehead, or his bizarre vision of an end times race war, and everything to do with his own very special brand of groovy mind control flower power.

Thus, we are led to an example which I think utterly epitomizes this strange dichotomy (which I would argue is in truth a kind of complimentarity). Just as Charles Manson with his so called "commune of love" added a chilling counterpoint to the hippie drug culture of the time, so also the concert at Altamont, in California, added a haunting contradistinction to the relatively peaceful and idyllic scene at Woodstock. Now granted, everyone at Woodstock was probably peaceful and well-behaved because they were simply too high to do anything else, but nevertheless the atmosphere- at least on the surface- was a very different one. Fast forward to later that year at a concert in Altamont, with a guest list which included, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and the Rolling Stones. At first glance, one might presume that this would be a relatively sedate affair (pun intended). It was not to be. Now it is true that if you look at the footage of the audience, there seems to be no shortage of young people looking about as aware as a poached egg, but what you will also observe in the video is an unusually large contingent of men in Hell's Angels jackets, on or near the stage. One of the primary reasons for this was the fact that the Rolling Stones, on the recommendation of The Grateful Dead, had opted to hire this gang of bikers to be the security for the concert. At the time this must have seemed like an incredibly "far out" idea, but in retrospect it was anything but. Earlier that day there had already been a violent incident in which a few "Angels" took to beating some of the audience members with metal rods- who they deemed were too close to the stage. And so as night fell, and the Rolling Stones took the stage, there was already a tension in the air. Arrayed in his black and red cape- Mick Jagger stepped up to the mic and began to sing Sympathy for the Devil to a crowd virtually enveloped in darkness. It is not hyperbole to say that all hell broke loose. And despite trying to calm the crowd down with such soothing words as; "Just cool out babies... cool out..", none of them seemed to be pacified. I mean who wouldn't feel a greater sense of ease during a riot if Mike Jagger told them from some safe location; "cool out babies... just cool out!" Amidst all of the confusion, a man can be seen at the edge of darkness being stabbed to death by one of the Hell's Angels. The footage is worth watching if only to observe the eerie disparity between the intensity of the "Angels ", and the alarmingly vacant doe eyed look of many in the front row. Clearly the Stones didn't know exactly what was going on in the fracas, which makes it all the more chilling when Jagger declares to the crowd; "Something strange always happens when we start that song..."

Years later the "complimentarity" of the two faces of evil was made even more plain, when in 1999 Woodstock attempted a sequel. During this incarnation of Woodstock, however, both of the aforementioned events would find their ultimate expression. It is certainly worth noting, that the kids at Woodstock '99 were the offspring of those who attended the original. And in the spirit of the original, they too brought with them their own brand of free love and drugs. Religious people are sometimes mocked for their naivete about the world, but there is also a kind of naivete among secular folks as well. Just as the hippies of old thought that the way to encourage peace and love was to preach hedonism, so their posterity commited themselves to a similar Gospel, but with a considerably different outcome. And just as Mick Jagger couldn't figure out why something "funny" always happened when he sang a song about the devil trying to garner sympathy for himself, so Fred Durst couldn't figure out why so many people began to rape, pillage, and burn things down after he sang a song about doing all of the above. Ah, the dreadful innocence of it all. Yes, there is another face to doing whatever "floats one's boat", and for some, depending on their particular temperment, simply sedating yourself doesn't do the trick. What does seem to float certain boats is to bash other human beings in the head with a metal rod in the style of the Hell's Angels.

These are the two faces of evil, and as Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones so kindly point out for us, it does not necessarily come to us in the form that we suspect; "Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name. Ah, what's puzzling you is the nature of my game." The combination of these "two faces" are an odd couple to say the least, and for those less attune to the "nature of his game", all of this chicanry may slip by without being recognized as such. The song itself- Sympathy for the Devil-  is an interesting one and could do with its own analyzation, but suffice it to say for now that the Stones, coupled with their performance at Altamont, along with our original inspiration, Marilyn Manson, demonstrate in a most provocative fashion how the devil can be both beautiful and vile all in the same breath.                          


Wednesday, August 15, 2012

10 Songs on the Topic of Postmodernism

Postmodernity is not easily defined- in part because it seeks to eschew exacting definitions. If one were to describe it in psychological terms, one might compare it to a Rorschach test. In other words, when it comes to perceiving reality whatever a man perceives to be true is true. Such an individual makes no distinction between his truth and objective truth. It is probably easier to understand this creature not by what they believe in but by what they deny. The postmodern is skeptical about all long standing traditions; particularly concerning science, religion, and politics. Truth is to be found in one's own impressions of reality and not in some universal objective norm. No one truth is superior to another. In fact, the only sin in postmodernism, if it can be called that, is to call something a "sin". But as appealing as this approach may seem, this "open-mindedness" comes with its own set of problems. With the loss of absolute meaning, one feels as if life has become one giant Jackson Pollack painting, a collage of colors without any real shape or form; like one truth heaped upon another but without any rhyme or reason (see the above painting). For this reason music provides a good venue for expressing the nature of this postmodern anxiety, for it can only really be captured with broad impressionistic brush strokes, and certainly not by way of a discrete formula.

1. It's the End of the World as We Know It - R.E.M.

Even the lyrics of this song have a little Rorschach in them. Simply look up the words to this number (much less try to figure them out for yourself) and you will find as many versions as you look up. God only knows if even Michael Stipe knows what he's talking about here. Beyond that, "It's the End of the World as We Know It..." expresses the spirit of post modernity, especially in its chaotic attempt to piece together a series of disjointed ideas that conspire together to bring Armageddon. Listening to it makes one feel as if they have entered a wind tunnel where the most random objects are unceasingly being hurled at you; "That's great it starts with an earthquake, birds and snakes, an aeroplane. Lenny Bruce is not afraid. Eye of a hurricane; listen to yourself churn, world serves its own need, regardless of your own needs. Feed it up a knock, speed, grunt no, strength no. Ladder structure clatter with a fear of height, down height. Wire in a fire represent the seven games in a government for hire and a combat site..." Written in the late 80s, this ode to noise pollution was penned several years before the dawn of the Internet, but nevertheless feels a lot like an Internet news feed spewing at you every piece of bad news that the world has to offer (think Drudge Report on steroids). Indeed, one can't help but to feel a little depressed (or a lot depressed) when all of this disjointed information is hurled at you from every corner of the earth. But this is what it means to live in the post-modern age. No "truth" must be discriminated against, therefore we must all force ourselves to ingest an endless amalgam of useless information for no other reason than the fact that it's there. Stipe has his own reasons for writing this song, but whatever the case, he is certainly not alone in feeling that the world has somehow fallen off its hinges, and that, worst of all, it feels perfectly fine about it.

2. Every Day is a Winding Road - Cheryl Crow

It would be a mistake to presume that the child of postmodernity has no interest in truth. Oftentimes they are very convicted about their truth- what is repugnant to them is the idea that one truth is superior to another. They cling with stubborn loyalty to their own sentimental view of the world, without ever really grasping that pure subjectivism is a philosophical dead end. Every Day is a Winding Road outlines the emptiness and melancholia that one experiences when traveling down the road of life without an actual destination in mind. Indeed, a road trip is only fun if you know where you're going; "Jump in let's go. Lay back, enjoy the show. Everybody gets high, everybody gets low, these are the days when anything goes. Ever day is winding road... I get a little bit closer... Every day is a faded sign." Here she captures perfectly that postmodern view of life; a place where "signs" are fundamentally faded, and where you apparently get closer every day, though in reality you never quite reach your destination (sounds a little bit like hell, but that's just me). Life, according to this song, is a kind of show wherein you "lay back" and watch it as if it were little more than a mindless form of entertainment. The people all do as they please, and Ms. Crow takes it all in as if this performance were put on for her amusement. "He's got a daughter he calls Easter, she was born on a Tuesday night. I'm just wondering why I feel so all alone; why I'm a stranger in my own life... I've been swimming in a sea of anarchy. I've been living on coffee and nicotine. I've been wondering if all the things I've seen were ever real; were ever really happening..." In these revealing verses you see a woman who clearly feels isolated- despite her earlier recommendation to simply "enjoy the show." The man in the song is a "vending machine repair man," whom she meets as a result of her hitchhiking adventure. During their conversation the repair man starts talking about his daughter- and while he is speaking- she wonders to herself why she feels "so all alone" (which seems pretty obvious in light of the fact that he is talking about his family and she appears to have none). In the end, we do actually find out where this "winding road" leads, and it ain't pretty folks. The truth is if one ultimately denies the existence of a larger Reality, then sooner or later one is bound to start questioning their own. And Ms. Crow is a grand example of this, for she begins the song with relativism, and ends it wondering to herself "if all the things she's seen were ever real; were ever really happening..."

3. 1979 - Smashing Pumpkins

"1979" is a song about nostalgia from the perspective of a postmodern alt-rocker. But this is not your grandmother's trip down memory lane- for it involves romanticizing behavior that would seem down right strange to prior generations; "Justine never knew the rules. Hung down with the freaks and ghouls. No apologies ever need be made..." There is an element of the goth thing in this song, a kind of romance with darkness- not in the sense of loving Satan, but in the sense of celebrating the art of looking dreary and disinterested. While giving off a generally emotive feel (one of their album titles was Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness), they seem to enjoy thumbing their noses at any and every convention in society...except their own; "Shakedown 1979. Cool kids never have the time. We don't even care... to shake these zipper blues. We don't know just where our bones will rest... to dust I guess- forgotten and absorbed in the earth below." Not only do they not care about the "rules," they seem practically indifferent to the prospect of even death itself. What Corgan spells out here is the motto of a generation that has never really experienced anything resembling a normal family life, nor anything even resembling a solid religious foundation. Thus, the theme of rootlessness runs deep among the Gen-Xers. There is also among this group a visceral distaste for anything that smacks of phoniness. Unfortunately, in the process of avoiding said phoniness, the "freaks and ghouls" that Corgan speaks of wind up striking a predictable pose of their own.              

4. Born this Way - Lady Gaga

If Marilyn Manson and Madonna had a baby it would look like Lady Gaga. Gaga is a woman that expresses all of the exhibitionism of the "material girl", with all of the grotesqueness of Manson. But that is not why Gaga is on this list. In a way, her entire persona is the culmination of everything that we mean when we say postmodern. In fact, I would argue that Gaga is postmodernity incarnate. As witnessed by the trajectory of her career, she clearly wants to avoid any exacting definitions. Is she feminine, androgynous, or a drag queen? I suppose it depends on the day that you ask. Indeed, she is like a living piece of modern shock art that exists not so much to move the heart as to offend the mind. Or maybe she is a human Rorschach test, like some living shape shifter? From her point of view, a person is ultimately genderless and should be able to define themselves in whatever way that pleases them at any given moment; "Don't be a drag, just be a queen...No matter gay, straight, or bi, lesbian- transgendered life. I'm on the right track baby, I was born to survive. I'm beautiful in my way because God makes no mistakes. Don't hide yourself in regret, just love yourself and you're set..." This is practically a catechism for understanding the post modern mindset. In the positive sense- these words remind me of a Flannery O'Conner short story about a hermaphrodite who declares adamantly, "If you're laughing at me, then you're laughing at God. He made me this way! I'm a temple of the Holy Ghost." The post modern person is certainly not off-base in celebrating the dignity and worth of every human being- regardless of their peccadillos; the problem arises when they confuse the peccadillo with the person, or the "drag" with the "queen." The postmodern certainly appears to have a natural affinity for the outcast (a thankful holdover from the Christian Faith), but caring for the outcast means leading them out of the shadows- not surrounding them with more. This is the basic error of the postmodernity. They have such a heart for the misfit's lonely circumstances, that they forget in the process to free them of it. Unfortunately, Gaga's only advice in this regard is the typical psychological claptrap about "feeling no regrets and loving yourself for who you are". Thank you Lady Gaga, but I liked it much better when Whitney Houston said it back in the 1980s.

5. Do the Evolution - Pearl Jam

This song (and its accompanying video) could best be described as Planet of the Apes meets Watership Down. With its blurring of the lines between man and ape, it paints a grim picture of the evolution of man; "I'm ahead, I'm a man. I'm the first mammal to wear pants. I'm at peace with my lust. I can kill 'cause in God I trust. It's evolution baby!" Humanity is headed off a cliff because it is rife with hypocrisy, arrogance, and an insatiable thirst for power. From a technological point of view, the good news is man has progressed far beyond his wildest imagination; the bad news is he is using that "progress" to destroy himself. If this all sounds familiar, it should, for it mirrors the story line of just about every science fiction novel ever written. Science fiction is a genre generally dedicated to the cause of fighting/outsmarting the terrible Frankensteinian beast that we've created; the one that incidentally has no regard for moral or ethical concerns. The hero of the story is often of the Noir variety, meaning, his ethics are a bit blurry, though he knows one essential thing; he does not approve of all of this technological totalitarianism. Vedder is very definite in his condemnation of certain ideas, but what he's not so clear about is why he is so definite. Yet technology is not the only thing he criticizes in this song- for he critiques man as well.  On the one hand, he wants to remind humanity that he/she is little more than an ape, and on the other, he is genuinely disgusted with man for behaving  like a degraded animal. I know, it's a logical contradiction, but this group does not hold themselves to the standard of logical consistency; passion is their only truth. In any case, perhaps if humanity did act more in accord with his self-proclaimed dignity, men like Vedder might not be so inclined to call the human race a bunch of glorified monkeys.

6. Across the Universe - The Beatles

If the postmodern man practices the Christian faith at all, then his idea of Christianity is likely to include a wholesale rejection of the institutional church.  Institutions can't be trusted, but we can of course trust ourselves (or so we think) in any and all things to make the best choice. At any rate, the brand of Christianity that usually arises from this  mentality tends to be a kind of theme-park Christianity, a place where the whole family can be entertained, and perhaps even enjoy a latte in the meantime. If Starbucks were a denomination, this is probably what it would look like. Religion, like everything else today, must be engineered in order to suit our general disposition. However, many in our postmodern culture are not inclined to follow Christ (especially not the commercialized version of him), so they turn to the East. A prime example of this embrace of eastern philosophy can be seen in the Beatles religious excursion to India. With the longstanding help of their beloved guru Maharesh Mahesh Yogi, they were able to create a delightful syncretistic Christian-Hindu mish-mash and insert it into their music. One Beatles song in particular that was inspired by this encounter in India was Across the Universe. Throughout the piece Lennon seems almost as if he were mumbling nonsense in his sleep. Indeed, the words along with his vocal styling meander in a kind of aimless morphine-like haze. And yet the chorus accidentally, I think, clears up any confusion about what this song might be about; "Jai Guru Deva. Om. Nothing's gonna change my world. Nothing's gonna change my world..." The postmodernist is willing to be "spiritual", what he avoids like the plague is "religion." He likes the former because it involves making your faith in your own image, while loathing the ladder because it binds you to a set of  principles and ideas that you yourself did not create. Hence, the utterances of Lennon make perfect sense in light of this, for he and others have looked to the east in order to find a way to feed their natural hunger for mysticism (especially the trippy kind), while simultaneously rejecting any religious ideas that might, God forbid, threaten to "change their world."

7. Another Brick in the Wall Part II - Pink Floyd

There is not a single song from the Pink Floyd repertoire that doesn't suggest postmodernism. Their first album, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, is a sunny celebration of child-like simplicity. With songs about Siamese Cats, Scarecrows, Borrowed Bicycles, and Gnomes, you get the sense that Pink Floyd is playing in the sand box of childhood merely to have a good time... and in a way they are. But this is not a return to childhood in the natural sense. Children have the freedom to let their minds and imaginations wander without restriction, for their parents' inevitably inculcate boundaries (like someone on recess duty). Both principles must inevitably be in place for a child to develop normally. Thus, if a man who is no longer an innocent child unleashes the power of his imagination- without any recognition of its appropriate limits- he is in danger of becoming one of two things; a psychopath or an invalid. For the original lead sing of the Pink Floyd, the latter was his fate. Tragically, he lost himself in a misguided attempt to recapture childhood- which can't merely be attained by behaving as you please and turning your brain into a lab experiment by using drugs. Another Brick in the Wall highlights (at least as its visualized in the movie) how ugly this complete rebellion against structure can ultimately become. It may all begin in the land of gum drops and marmalade skies, but it ends, as the video suggests, in a riot of destruction. For those who "don't need no education" it is not a tremendous surprise that their march to "freedom" concludes in flames. Indeed, it is hard not to see a little of the Lord of Flies in all of this. The words of the song have the feel of kind of mass hypnosis; "We don't need no education. We don't need no though control... Teachers leave them kids alone". It is at once a rebellion against the education system, and a repudiation of the education itself. Hence, if the man is wicked, then so must his message be also! Where does that leave us then? We are left with kids who speak in barbaric speech, who lack the basic skills of logic and reason, and who engage in anti-social behavior, but at least, like good modern barbarians, they are quite capable of burning everything to the ground.

8. Smells Like Teen Spirit - Nirvana

If there were ever a song that was the perfect offspring of Another Brick in the Wall Part II, then it would be this one. While Another Brick in the Wall states; "We don't need no education", Smells Like Teen Spirit shows what someone sounds like when they don't "get no education." Lyrically the song "smells like" a parody of Cobain's own generation; "Load up on guns, bring your friends, it's fun to lose and to pretend. She's over bored, self-assured. Oh no, I know a dirty word. With the lights out it's less dangerous, here we are now, entertain us... A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido...yeah." In the grunge subculture, to be cynical and sick of everything is just about the coolest thing you can do. You don't even need to say anything- you only need to sneer. As a matter of fact, even as he delivers the words, one gets the feeling he has grown bored even with the act of articulating his boredom. Hence, by the time he reaches the chorus it sounds like he's just making stuff up as a kind of mockery of speech... which only becomes more evident at the end of the song when he literally is uttering nonsense. His final words are "a denial...a denial", which eventually morph into "ayaya ayaya ayaya" (I'm not sure about the spelling there). By concluding the song with this kind of gibberish, he offers us a brief picture of what complete "denial" looks like. In any case, it is not a surprise that the grunge scene was so brief for where does one go with their imagination once they've scorned everything in the landscape?            

9. Fake Plastic Trees - RadioHead

In the spirit of post modernism RadioHead seeks to walk a fine line between form and formlessness (both musically and lyrically). If their song Creep is an homage to being an outcast and a "weirdo," then the song Fake Plastic Trees is an homage to another popular theme for the post modern critic: the phoniness of the modern world; "Her green plastic watering can, for her fake Chinese rubber plant, in the fake plastic earth... That she bought from a rubber man, in a town full of rubber plans, to get rid of itself. It wears her out..." The cold mechanization of everything is leading to a world that is inundated with "fake plastic trees." Yet what he is getting at here is not merely the phoniness of the outer world, but the phoniness of the inner world of man. There seems to be among many postmoderns a healthy phobia of things that are counterfeit (which explains in part their penchant for environmentalism). Perhaps the greatest evil from their point of view is leading a "fake plastic" existence. Of all the post modern critiques on society, I am most sympathetic with this one, for in this regard I too am inclined to be a "weirdo" and a freak if only to avoid the "fake plastic" conventions of society. If you want to know one of the reasons this crowd doesn't take religion seriously, it is in part because the previous generations passed on to them reflexively, without ever really understanding or believing what they were passing on. It is for this reason, among others, that organized religion is verboten in their community. From their perspective it is little more than one "fake plastic tree" on a planet that is overrun with them.            

10. Black Hole Sun - Soundgarden

When talking about postmodernism, it is quite difficult to avoid apocalyptic images. There is an element within it that says; "there's no going back... so I guess the only solution is to go forward into the darkness". Avril Lavigne has a song (yes, I'm going to quote Avril Lavigne) that expresses this tragic orphan-like rootlessness that many of this generation feel; "Isn't anyone trying to find me? Won't somebody come take me home? It's a damn cold night, trying to figure out this life. Won't you take me by the hand, take me somewhere new, I don't know who you are, but I'm with you." Ms. Lavigne finds the world around her cold and unwelcoming and thus wants someone to "take her home"- the problem is, as she indicates, is the fact that there is no one reliable enough to do it. Thus, she opts to put her complete trust in a stranger in the hope that he might lead her to a better place (father's hide your daughters). This is the condition of our postmodern generation in a nutshell. It senses something is amiss out there, but tragically it sees no dependable alternative. Perhaps if this younger generation saw in us a more credible witness of virtue and friendship it might actually be more open to a message that promises to "take them home". The song Black Hole Sun outlines the despair that can often accompany us when we see no positive solutions; "Black hole sun won't you come and wash away the rain". But amidst the surrounding darkness of this song, there is also a glimmer of hope in it; "In my shoes, a walking sleep. And my youth I pray to keep. Heaven send Hell away, no one sings like you anymore." In another song written lyricist, Chris Cornell, he strikes a similar note of hope; "And on my death bed I will pray to the gods and the angels, like a pagan for anyone who will take me to Heaven- to a place I recall, I was there so long ago, the sky was bruised, the wine was bled and they led me on...In your house I long to be." Despite the gathering gloom that seems to permeate the postmodern mindset, there is also an opportunity here, one that was clearly hinted at in the above verses; a distant, but indelible, memory engendering truth and perfection, an ideal that a "fake plastic" world could never deliver. What I am speaking about her is not merely some false image of innocence like the kind generated by the hippie drug culture. Not at all. What I am referring to is an innocence at once more pure and authentic than anything the secular culture has to offer. Yet what is being suggested here is not an encounter with some vague childhood memory, but rather a remedy for the ache that haunts all of humanity, a yearning so powerful that it can induce a dreary rock star to forget himself if only for a moment and call out for someone... anyone to take them "home."


Monday, August 6, 2012

How to "Suck" at Criticizing Religion

Certain ideas have remarkable staying power. For example, back in the early aughts there was a very popular book called the Da Vinci Code. Some dismissed it as trashy fiction, while others regarded it as some heretofore unheard of archaeological discovery. Little did they know that this story about Jesus not really being who we think he is is anything but original. In fact, this image of a rather mundane and unexceptional Christ gets recycled about once every twenty years or so. In the same way, the recent viral sensation by the "Oatmeal" has a similar appeal. The title of the cartoon is called "How to Suck at Religion", and like the Da Vinci Code, what it seeks to do is to repeat common criticisms against religion (particularly the Catholic Church) and then treat them as if they were incredibly novel. I suppose for a generation less familiar with religion it is original and hilarious. But whatever the case, the Oatmeal, and those who make similar arguments, are not saying something new, but rather repeating like unthinking zombies the same tired canards over and over again! Nevertheless, I have come, not only to criticize, but to assist these tragic zombies in making their case. I come to liberate these individuals from their parrot-like existence. Just as the Oatmeal has sought to educate me and others about how best to practice "intelligent" religion, I wish to do the same for them. In other words, the arguments in this little anti-religious tract are so weak, that I am actually going to give them real arguments so that he might genuinely critique religion as opposed to reviving the same anachronistic points. Why? Frankly, I just can't take the ignorance anymore. If I'm going to have an intelligent debate about these essential matters, I just want to make it somewhat challenging. As it stands, the arguments so typically made by publications like the Oatmeal are engaging for those who are only willing to see wickedness in the Church. Fortunately, from a Catholic perspective, we believe in a scholastic approach; one that stresses the importance of understanding your opponent's point of view so that you can better understand your own. Strangely, those who call themselves rationalists and intellectuals don't seem as willing to challenge themselves in the same fashion, preferring instead to pit themselves against the weakest religious arguments, and then smack them down as if they have accomplished something. What follows is my attempt to make this a little more of an entertaining bout.


1. Don't do this: Create a "straw man" (or in this case, a stick man) argument that makes your criticism seem almost gratuitous. If your opponent is as stupid as you seem to think, then why are you debating with him in the first place? It is a little bit like beating up your grandmother and then patting yourself on the back for it.

Instead, maybe try this: If your opponent's position is worthy of debate, then first present their argument as they themselves might present it, not as the most the ignorant clueless person on earth might envision it. This is what we call the "benefit of the doubt", something I know that you would not deprive of those with whom you are debating. To do otherwise makes it look like as if you are not so much trying to make a good intellectual argument as trying to bully someone into agreeing with you. And being someone who is trying to give you the benefit of the doubt, I am going to assume that's not what you're doing.  

2. Don't do this: Bring up the Galileo case as evidence that the Church is against science. Apart from the fact that the dispute was more about politics than science, I have other reasons for trying to offer some positive alternatives to this weak invective. First, if you keep bringing up Galileo, it makes it look like that is your only example of the Church being anti-science. And if this is the only arrow you have in your quiver, then such examples begin to look less like a pattern and more like an unfortunate deviation. Secondly, make sure you have your historical facts straight (i.e. Galileo was never thrown in a dungeon or tortured, nor did the Church deem the heliocentric theory a heresy), otherwise it looks like you are desperate to make your opponent look bad, which doesn't bolster your argument.

Instead, maybe try this: Ask the other individual why the Church was involving herself so heavily in the conclusions of science, as opposed to focusing on theology. Then ask them why the pope chose to act more like a political animal than the vicar of Christ when pursuing Galileo. These are real questions to be asked, questions that provoke real discussion.

3. Don't do this: Present a priest in clerics in front of a congregation condemning whole groups of people to the fiery furnace. I have been going to church as long as I can remember, and I am still waiting for that magical day when I hear a priest condemning someone to the lake of fire. I am not saying there are not those who still do this, but they are no doubt the exception. This anti-religious argument is about as current and relevant as making a joke about cruel nuns with rulers.

Instead, maybe try this: Keep your arguments current! If a joke falls in the forest and no on gets it, is it still a joke? Well, when it comes to a real debate, the answer is no. There may have been a time when this was an appropriate critique, but we do not live in those times anymore, so stop making it.

4. Don't do this: Claim that Hitler was a Catholic and therefore motivated somehow by this to exterminate the Jews. Minimal research will uncover that Hitler disdained Christianity, mainly because its central teaching demands care for the weak and most vulnerable, a virtue (or vice from his perspective) that he thought deplorable. Hitler was baptized, yes, but repudiated his faith early on in favor of a mythology about the Aryan race. The only hint of religion in the Nazi ideology was the Swastika, which was lifted from the Hindu religion.

Instead, maybe try this: I agree that Christianity espouses things that are undoubtedly good and worthwhile. But if it's as good as you claim, then why do so many Christians fall short of those standards? Or, given what was happening to the Jews during WWII, why didn't more Christians step up to the plate and help them? I mean, even Gandhi was quoted as saying in essence that he liked Christ, it was "Christians" that he had a problem with...

5. Don't do this: Suggest that the Church is against progress because she practices medical ethics. Remember the Church was the institution that inspired the idea of the hospital, which is why so many are named after saints. Thus, I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss her ethical concerns. I know it is difficult to be specific in a cartoon (which is perhaps one reason not to try to express complex ideas in a cartoon), but on the issue of stem cells distinctions are more than a little instructive. The only type of stem cells the Church objects to are those that are culled from human embryos; embryos which are called "human" for a reason. But even if you object to this criterion, it is worth noting that the kind of research that the Church is behind (i.e. any kind that does not involve creating a life in order to destroy it) has proved to be the most successful and, that's right, the kind that has been least successful is the kind that involves the destruction of human embryos.

Instead, maybe try this: Perhaps a better path to take for the one who rejects the golden rule of medical ethics (i.e. the end doesn't justify the means), is to say that out of compassion we must do all we can to mitigate human suffering. There are all of these embryos out there that won't be used anyway, so why not commit them to research. Of course, this is merely an argument from emotion and not based on consistent medical logic, but its better than the one he's got going. Incidentally, the Church doesn't call things like embryonic research heresy. Immoral yes, but heresy refers more to her dogmatic declarations (viz. Jesus is the Incarnate God)

6. Don't do this: Suggest that a parent should not instill their own values in their children. It is one thing to suggest that a few parents mindlessly parrot nonsense to their children... which they later repeat (kind of like this Oatmeal cartoon), and quite another to suggest that the whole Western world is founded upon this kind of stupidity. Now that's some remarkable cynicism. Quite the contrary, a parent presumably passes on to their child the best of what they have, which is why some parents try to give their kids faith even when they themselves have none. But even assuming it were accurate to say that Christians were mindlessly passing on their faith to their children, that still doesn't explain why they do it in the first place. Do you have such a low opinion of people that you think that they have no reason for instilling these values in their children other than perpetuating some mindless process?

Instead, maybe try this: Although each parent wishes to instill in his or her child the best of what they have, at a certain point a child must own their beliefs. Consequently, no individual should choose to devote their lives to a set of values without thinking about them critically first. In other words, you should know, at least to some extent, the intellectual reasons for believing the things that you believe. Otherwise you may indeed be a mindless zombie who accepts a mindless anti-tradition like the one so eloquently articulated in this comic.

7. Don't do this: Cite dietary restrictions in the Old Testament as proof that Christians are hypocrites. Towards the end of this particular "comic" tract the author suggests that it is silly to take a cartoon seriously. I am not really sure why a cartoon makes such insults more trivial; it certainly makes what the author is lampooning seem more trivial, but not the cartoon itself. For example, if I wrote a cartoon mocking someone's mother and then said afterwards "Lol" or "JK," I don't think that that would mitigate my insulting behavior (and rightly so). However, I will agree in this one sense: I find the religion that he has so cleverly invented for Christians as absurd as he does. Fortunately, whatever religion he is referring to is not one that I subscribe to either. Christians believe that the law of the Old Testament is fulfilled in Christ; that is to say that no food is unclean (which thankfully includes those delectable little pigs). If this were not the case, then why not cart out circumcision as even greater evidence that all Christians are a bunch of hypocrites? I would have to say that even his beloved "Dark Lord Fire Ape" would have to agree with me on this one.

Instead, maybe try this: Focus on the New Testament, because if you are really going to undercut Christians, it is not going to be by pointing to some inscrutable act in the Old Testament (which the Church has always said is superseded, or fulfilled, in the New Testament). If it were me, I would go after  the fact that Scripture doesn't overtly denounce slavery. Or maybe I would bring up the fact that women seem to be "kept in their place" in some of Paul's writings- and as important as women were in the early Church, none were given a place in the hierarchy. These criticism are nothing new either, but at least they are not so easily swatted away.

8. Don't do this: Reduce the Church's teaching regarding sexual ethics to mere Puritanism. Once again, stay up to date, man. Do you see anyone around here wearing those big black buckled Puritan hats anymore? So stop pretending that we just hopped off the Mayflower, or that woman are walking around with medieval chastity belts. Talk to any young man or woman about their Christian Faith and the last thing most of them will say is that they won't talk about sex, or that sex is "dirty". There may have been a time where sex was shrouded in fear in certain cultures, but look around you- who is saying the stuff that you caricature here (although I must admit, I did find that bit about Nickelback amusing...)? And by the way, are you implying that there are no occasions in which one should abstain from sex? Who is the naive and foolish one here, suggesting that anything but sexual license is inevitably good? I don't think you really want to be implying something so facile about an act that has such an incredible power to create or destroy.

Instead, maybe try this: It is understandable that some want to set boundaries regarding sex. I mean if we were all to go around doing whatever we felt like, what kind of society would that be? Even so, when setting such restrictions we should be careful not to imply that sex is something loathsome, or something that we should associate with being impure. In the past, there have been people from various religious sects that do go to this extreme, and do purposely encourage this negative association. Would that they would stop this! We know that boundaries are what separate us from the animals, but nevertheless, we should still engage in a real and honest debate about what those boundaries should be. In other words, what justification does Christianity (and other groups) have for so rigidly drawing the boundaries of sex at heterosexual marriage?

9. Don't do this: Bring up some scandal in the history of the Church when you know nothing about it. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard someone throw out in a discussion- unrelated to anything you were previously talking about- some horrible scandal associated with the Church. You could be talking about the pope meeting Netanyahu in Jerusalem, and someone will say out of no where; "What about the Spanish Inquisition?" If someone wants to criticize the Church, great, just make sure your criticism actually relates to something in the conversation, otherwise it can look as if you are just trying to pull anything out of the air to make the Church look bad. Secondly, know something about the thing that you are criticizing. Reciting the words; "What about the Inquisition?", or "What's up with the Crusades?", is not equivalent to an argument. Oftentimes, all I really need to say in response to someone like this is; "What about it?" and that pretty much ends the conversation. The truth is these individuals generally know very little beyond what has been repeated to them- which consists mainly of: the Church did this, and it was bad because bad things happened. There is plenty to criticize, but to have only the most superficial understanding of what you are so profoundly against is unacceptable by any standard.

Instead, maybe try this: How can a Church which claims to want to treat every human being with the utmost respect and dignity hand them over to be tortured. How can a Church so dedicated to the family allow some of her leaders to abuse children? How can Christians who claim to love their neighbor as themselves look the other way when Jews are being slaughtered in concentration camps? All of these are real questions, which require real answers. Nevertheless, I should say that even while you criticize the Church by holding her to these high and worthy standards, you must also recognize that the mete by which you measure her is the standard that she herself established in the first place. And furthermore, when you do critique her, don't pretend that the world would somehow be immaculate and sinless without the Church. You also might want to avoid behaving like you yourself are the arbiter of all that is good and right and just in the world. Why do I say this? Because sometimes critics and historians have the hubris to pretend that they would have been above the fray had they lived in those former times.

10. Don't do this: Lump all religious ideologies into the same group. I know this makes your criticism of religion easier, but it doesn't do justice (if you are in fact concerned about that) to the wide-ranging set of beliefs. There is no idea that is more powerful than God. Therefore, it is not surprising that some will use this powerful idea for nefarious purposes. One might view God as an energy, another as a Force, another as the State, another as themselves, and another as chaos and death. The question is not whether you believe in something all-powerful; the question is what you believe to be all-powerful. The next question you should ask is whether that belief actually contributes to a society governed by virtue, or one that is rife with vice.

Instead, maybe try this: Not all religions are created equal. Plain reason tells you that there are some ideologies that are wicked (whether religious or secular), and some that seem to operate on more humane principles. What you need to look at in order to gauge this are three things;  a) what the core values of that ideology are;  b) what its role in history is;  c) how its adherents behave. Implying that every religion/ideology is ignorant simply  because it is religious, is not only terrible logic, but it fails in a very basic sense to understand what motivates and inspires human beings to act. Whatever a man values in this life is the barometer for how he behaves.

11. Don't do this: Hold the position that each man is "a bag of meat sitting on a rock in outer space...completely, powerless, and the wake of this beautiful cosmic sh-- storm we call existence..." and then try to explain to me how to practice my religion humanely. The religion of the "nice" sounds well and good, but what is it motivated by if we are all simply a big "bag of meat"? If we are completely valueless and insignificant, how can we possibly perceive ourselves, much less others, worthy of such noble treatment? I don't impute dignity to meat, I eat it. So if that's what you're going for in arguing your ideals, I would not recommend that you imply that the natural outgrowth of such a worldview is a philosophy of happiness and brotherly love.

Instead, maybe try this: "Since I believe that man is a big bag of meat, then I will be consistent with my views and say that life is meaningless and that it doesn't matter what you do. There is no truth, nor are there any ethics to contend with." If these are in fact your views, then go forth, my budding atheist, and define yourself as it pleases you. Then sail off into that sunset of oblivion where everyone, as you recommended in your cartoon, keeps their religion to themselves... except you.        

If you wish to see the cartoon, you can view it by going to the link below. But be forewarned, it may be highly offensive to anyone who reveres God, or holds religion in high regard: