Saturday, December 29, 2012

What I Learned from Cockroaches About Love (A Christmas Story)

I am often told by people that call themselves "spiritual" that Christianity is wrong because it associates fear with God. And while this is an understandable critique (especially for those who allow it to paralyze them), it is more than a little naive to regard fear as useless altogether. The world is a dangerous place and sometimes it is quite rational to be afraid of things. Cliffs, for example, should inspire a reasonable concern as to their whereabouts, lest one should find one's self falling over one. Hence, it should be abundantly clear that fear is not always and everywhere a bad thing. As a matter of fact, in the Old Testament we learn that "fear of the Lord" is the first stage of wisdom. Some may be inclined to dismiss such a "stifling" injunction in favor of John's more popular "God is love." But before we do so, let us first consider the value of each in their own right.

"What wisdom could there possibly be in fearing the Lord"? First of all, it should be noted that Scripture does not say that "fear of the Lord" has the last word on wisdom, only the first. In other words, fear is to be regarded as a necessary first step in the process of coming to know God and ourselves. It is the necessary recognition that God is God and we are not. For when someone or something is undeniably greater than you, common sense dictates that you acknowledge that fact. You don't have to like it- but you do have to deal with it. And if God is indeed all-powerful, then it is only rational to acknowledge that He holds all the cards, and we none. Call it humbling, call it a dictatorship if you like, but do not call it unreasonable for a man to tremble before so menacing a Force.

In Isaiah chapter 6, the prophet is caught up in a vision in which he finds himself standing before the throne of God. In the midst of this he exclaims: "Woe is me! For I am a doomed man; because I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people with unclean lips" Isaiah 6:5. If one of the greatest prophets in the Old Testament cannot stand in the presence of God without feeling as if his face is going to melt off (like the Nazi's in Raiders of the Lost Ark), then what chance do the rest of us have? Some might call it humility, others realism, but in either case it cannot be regarded as logically unsound to recognize one's vulnerability in such a position. It should also be pointed out that when people choose to humble themselves in Scripture, God tells them; "Be not afraid", but when they are patently full of themselves (e.g. the Pharisees) he tells them, in essence, 'Be afraid; be very afraid'.

Yet this is not an exhaustive explanation of Biblical fear. As suggested before, the New Testament introduces a new kind of divine trepidation, one that is even more terrifying than the former. The birth of Jesus Christ did not alter the definition of fear, but it did reveal a surprising new feature. Thanks to the Incarnation, fear now has the face of a child. It is easy enough to feel overwhelmed in the presence of a metaphysical giant, but who would have suspected this bizarre turn of events- the idea that men would come from east and west to fall prostrate before an infant child in the backwater of Bethlehem.

It was revolutionary in the truest sense of the word. Everything that had previously been considered upside down, was now right side up. Indeed, a new order had been established, a kingdom wherein powerlessness turns out to be mightier than power, and where God's foolishness turns out to be wiser than the wisdom of men. But the foolishness of God is vindicated. For what merit would it have been if God had simply crushed humanity with his giant hand (or a meteor)? Such a victory would have been even less impressive than Lebron James postering a five year old. What God did instead is the very definition of paradox- he won a great victory because he found a way to triumph even in defeat.

Before I married my wife I was a bit squeamish about cockroaches- especially the idea that one might be crawling over me in the middle of the night. Shortly after our wedding, I was awakened one night by a blood-curdling scream. I honestly thought someone had died. I leapt out of the bed and quickly discovered the horrible menace that had provoked her. I turns out she was traumatized because a cockroach had just crawled across her face and had disappeared somewhere underneath the covers. On that day I ceased to be afraid of cockroaches, and instead developed an even greater fear... fear of my wife's fear of cockroaches. To put it plainly, when one finds one's self sincerely in love, their greatest concern is not their own peace of mind, but rather that of their beloved. Granted, I also feared that those roaches might disturb my own domestic bliss, but that nevertheless doesn't diminish the fact that love inexorably changes the locus of one's concern.

The cross is a prime example of how love tends outward. Jesus was not the only one crucified on Good Friday. Apart from the two thieves, there were two others who were pierced through as a result of this event. Indeed, such is the nature of perfect love, that the greatest punishment is not to suffer personal malady. Rather, the greatest punishment is to watch the flesh of your own flesh in Godforsaken agony. Hence, a trinity of perfect love was crucified that day: God the Father, God the Son, and the Mother of Sorrows, Mary.

Which brings us back to the truth behind that "terrifying" child; that fundamental mark of God's revelation to humanity; that power even more intimidating than omnipotence. In the most unusual way, Christmas changes the significance and meaning of fear. Now when we tremble, it is not simply in the spirit of Isaiah before the throne of God, but rather with the awe and reverence of a mother who has just given birth to a child. And now when we cower our heads at the feet of some great mystery, we do not do it only in the spirit of Moses who begged to be shielded from the countenance of God, we do it with the fear of a father gazing into the face of his baby girl for the first time. Fear and love are now one in the Incarnation, and though heaven and earth may pass away, this will not. I cannot say exactly what caused Isaiah to despair in the presence of God, but the story of the Nativity convinces me that it involves more than a case of divine intimidation. Something tells me that the reason that those six-winged seraphs shielded their eyes from the glory of God, has much less to do with His overwhelming omnipotence, and everything to do with His unbearable beauty. And so we must marvel at so great a Christmas mystery, a dread that comes not principally from the fear of facing God, but from the fear of losing Him.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Ironic Atheist Billboards: Can You Spot the Irony?

For each of these I recommend the exercise of first trying to spot on your own what is ironic about each of these anti-religious billboards. Then afterwards see if my observations match your own. I am sure you will discover many things that I missed:

1. Keep the Merry! Dump the Myth

Irony: Santa Claus is in part a mythologized version of St. Nicholas, who I understand was generous, but was neither rotund, nor always jolly (he apparently punched the heretic Arius at the Council of Nicea). As for having a sleigh and wearing furry red attire, not so much either. On the other hand, Jesus of Nazareth does appear to be a real historical figure (whatever you think about his identity), and the events depicted above do appear to be real and historical. Thus, what our dear "American Atheists" seem to be saying is in fact the opposite of what they intended. Atheists are always talking about guarding reason against those dreadful and dangerous fairy tales, but here it appears they are the ones upholding the myth, while Christians are defending the reality.

Secondly, a very practical point. If you dispose of the source of your celebration, then there can hardly be any substantial reason to celebrate. It's like saying "Keep the body, but cut out the heart." Now an atheist might say that pagans celebrated the winter solstice long before Christians, and that Christians merely plagiarized it. No one is saying that pagans had no celebrations- the question is, what provides more cause for celebration, the movement (or behavior) of a celestial body, or a raucous and jubilant birthday party that goes on for days and days?

2. There's Probably No God...

Irony: When I first looked at this billboard I thought that perhaps Dunkin Donuts sponsored it due to the colors, but I cannot confirm that. The first irony here is the phrase "God probably doesn't exist." Assuming that this sign comes from an atheist group, I have to marvel at their lack of faith in, well, their lack of faith. If I said to a fellow Christian that God probably exists, he would in all likelihood tell me, and rightly so, that I am a poor Christian, or at best, that I lack faith. Thus, I say the same to this atheist; "You sir, are a poor excuse for an atheist, and if you belong to a club of them, then you should be excommunicated.

The second irony is the implication that someone who believes in God simply goes around burning with anxiety about doing the right (or wrong) thing. This therefore proves that religion is altogether a bad proposition. I might argue, however, that it is better to burn with anxiety about doing the right thing than to feel nothing if you don't. Serial killers and mass murderers are quite content with their handiwork. Sociopaths are unmoved by their trail of misery. Is this the type of "enjoyment of life" that an atheist prefers?

3. This Season, Celebrate Reason!

Irony: The biggest problem for atheists is that they never get around to first principles. Contrary to what they assert, they are the ones who believe in castles in the air, for it is they who would argue that everything exists without any original "ground" of being. So, for instance, in the rhetorical statement above they declare that the story of the Magi is false because it is a myth. What never occurs to them to ask is where these myths come from? And secondly, do these so called myths have any basis in reality? I for one do not have trouble imagining that a set of Magi/astrologers followed the stars in order to find some truth. Is that not what astrologers do? For that matter, is that not what scientists do? The atheist cannot prove that it didn't happen, so he does the only "rational" thing... dismiss it without further investigation. "Why isn't it true? Because it's a dumb fairy tale!" Very academic if you ask me. But the real irony here is the notion that our time would be better spent "celebrating reason" as opposed to Jesus. While we're at it, why not throw a party for oxygen, or what about the vitreous humor. I can already hear the kids brimming with enthusiasm! I am all for celebrating "reason," "oxygen", the "brain", or whatever else causes one to marvel, but what seems to me the very opposite of reason is the notion that we should use reason to prove that there is no reason at all. In other words, if reason is really worth celebrating, then should it not lead us to something that we can truly rejoice over (like hope and/or meaning). Instead we are told that we should exult over the fact that we are little more than an accident, a mutation, a mistake, a tiny speck of nothing floating for a milli-second in a cold and loveless universe, on a planet which is utterly indifferent- if not hostile- to our presence. Yeah, that's worth celebrating!

4. Choice on Earth

Irony:  This is not technically an atheist billboard, but I felt that its anti-Christmas theme was somehow apropos of the general idea of this post. Some forms off rhetorical irony are so sinister that you wonder if the person is not simply mocking you with it. In any case, the result of this one is the logical equivalent of comparing a child being born to a child being dismembered. But I suppose in an upside down world the death of a child really is something to chirp about (as you can see above). When it comes to Planned Parenthood, nothing shocks me anymore. Along with their "choice on earth" campaign, they also offer a very special holiday gift certificate- kind of like the ones you get from Barnes and Noble. However, in this case you do not use it to acquire books, but rather, in the spirit of Christmas, you march yourself into one of those magical Planned Parenthood clinics and avail yourself of a previously payed-for abortion. The biggest irony of all is the fact that there would be no "Choice on Earth" campaign were Planned Parenthood to have had their way in the first place, for they would certainly have counseled the Mother of our Lord to do the only right and responsible thing (especially considering Joseph's dubious paternity, as well as their unfortunate financial circumstances), thereby canceling Christmas forever.

5. I Do Not Find in Christianity One Redeeming Feature

Irony: Really? You do not find one redeeming feature in Christianity? What about Redemption? After all, you do make good use of it in this statement. It has been reported that Jefferson never actually said this- and that in truth it is little more than historical fantasy. If this is the case, then it would only add to the irony, what with all the wishful thinking and mythologizing that must have gone into it.

6. I Can Be Good Without God


Irony: It has always struck me as more than a little odd when people try to put a happy face on something that would not necessarily inspire true happiness. For instance, it's like having a picture of a smiling woman saying "I had an abortion and I'm quite pleased about it". Something just doesn't connect. In this case, the disconnect comes from the fact that in this billboard we have a smiling man, who is apparently doing so because God isn't there. For this reason, atheism seems to me a little like worshipping a doughnut hole. Woo-hoo, unicorns don't exist! Why am I grinning from ear to ear? Because I just found out that there are no such things as fairy Godmothers or guardian angels! Let's take a picture of me smiling about it. I guess what I'm saying is that it just comes off as a bit disingenuous. As for that accompanying phrase "I can be good without God" it reminds me of that song "Missing You" by John Waite; "I ain't missing you at all..." Are you sure about that, 'cause you sound like you're protesting a little too much....

The second irony has to do with the lack of coherence in the atheistic argument. I would never argue that an atheist can't be kind or friendly. The question is what is the basis of this kindness. If it's a natural inclination to be kind, then I would simply say that they do it, not for goodness sake, but because it makes them feel good. But even if they do do it for the sake of pure altruism, why do they feel compelled, as pure Darwinian primates, to defend it in the first place? This would seem to militate against the view that the only virtue in evolution is survival. The other question is on what basis does one even call something good if one is an atheist? Goodness cannot be empirically verified, therefore it would seem to me that it can only be explained in one of two ways: as a superstition, or a religious sensibility.

7. All Religions are Fairytales


Irony: Yes, I would have to agree... if by fairy tale, you mean that all religions (or at least most) seek to affirm what appears to be the deepest longing of the human heart (i.e. immortal gladness). Interesting rationale: because our hearts long for something, that therefore proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it doesn't exist.

8. Sadistic God; Useless Savior

Irony: 4 quick comments on each of these accusations; 1) Is it "simply reasonable" to begin your criticism of Christianity with an ad hominem attack? "Christianity is sadistic and evil". That's not an argument, that's an accusation. What if I were to say, "All atheists are stupid!" ? Would you regard that as a rhetorically astute statement? Of course not! The truth is the bottom of this billboard should not read "Atheism: Simply Reasonable"; it should read, "Atheism: Simply Emotional";  2) I am pleased to see that atheists are using a common Catholic argument to point out the problem with denominationalism (i.e. 30,000+ "versions" of the truth). I wholeheartedly agree with this criticism;  3) It is always comforting to know that atheists place such a high value on love, and equally disconcerting to know that Christians, whose God is defined as such, are the true source of all the hatred in the world. That's right, Jesus' command to "love your enemies" is the real reason violence persists in our world today. Maybe we should amend the Scriptures so that instead of it saying that "God is love", it should say; "Atheism is love!" 4) I'm sorry, I have to admit that if a clear image of Jesus appeared in my morning toast, I would have to call it a miracle... or at minimum, remarkable. Maybe that makes me credulous, but I have to go with the numbers here.    

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Christmas in Hell

One assignment that my students seem to enjoy quite a bit is describing "their own private hell." I am proud to announce that only occasionally do I figure into that equation. And while most of their examples are remarkably entertaining, perhaps my favorite kind is the "hell of ironic punishments." For example, Homer Simpson loves donuts. Thus, his hell would be having to eat donuts for all of eternity without ever being able to stop (the show actually used this in an episode but Homer never grew tired of it so he got kicked out of hell). As for me, I think my ironic punishment would be having to celebrate Christmas every day of the year while being forced to be jolly and sing carols in August. One song that they would play over and over again would be Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmas", with one line repeating; "Really having a wonderful Christmas time... Really having a wonderful Christmas time." Oh, they already do that in the song? Never mind then. At any rate, in my home town there really is a store called "Christmas Everyday." I believe the names of the owners are Jezebel and Beelzebub, but I could be wrong. There is one thing that the anti-Christmas atheist and I have in common: neither of us wishes to have Christmas dictated to us by Christmas commercialism. The truth is the battle is rather annoying on both sides. On the one hand you have people who want to refer to Christmas trees as Festival Trees, and on the other you have people carting out their Christmas lights in October. On one side you have people demanding that equal attention be afforded the Winter Solstice, and on the other, you have people going around saying that the antidote to this is to have people arbitrarily declaring Merry Christmas as soon as Thanksgiving is over.

In my opinion, both of these views are contributing to the diminishment of the Christmas spirit. Yes, I know, the intention of the former is better than the latter, but both, I would argue, amount to the same thing. I too dislike the fact that people are more inclined to denounce a creche rather than condemn a strip club, but how does it help the cause of Christmas to simply associate it with the rest of the chaos and tumult of the commercial season? The secular season of Christmas begins with that magnificent ode to thankfulness known as Black Friday. We then move into December, wherein it is not uncommon to see parents punching and/or scratching the other's eyes out (whichever the case be) in order to vouchsafe for their child something about as worthwhile as a Furby or a Tickle Me Elmo. After observing such barbarism, I don't blame the father of the great George Costanza for preferring Festivus to this kind of mania.

Part of the irony of all of this is the fact that the first Christmas was incredibly spartan and austere. Those mean conditions in that primitive barn (known loosely as a cave), were anything but commercially promising. There were no beautiful Christmas lights, or a thousand marching Santas saying Merry Christmas in November with giant candy canes, or even those richly adorned Christmas trees with felt snow surrounding them. Nor was there (mercifully) a radio station that played only Christmas music starting the day after Halloween. It was simply the occasion of a couple who were desperately seeking somewhere-anywhere- to give birth to a child. If we fail to understand this basic truth, the whole spirit of the Christmas season will be lost. The circumstances of the first Christmas should inspire in us, as it did in Mary and Joseph, a marvelous contemplation; a silence which is truly pregnant with the presence of God. The light of this season comes not from a manufactured mall setting, but rather from the light of the world. Indeed, all of the appetite that we still have for celebrating with song, dance, food and family, proceeds directly from the heart of that little cave. He is the light without which no subsequent light is possible. Discard the baby, and expect the rest to follow.

From the Church's perspective, the purpose of Advent is to create a season wherein there is a kind anticipatory space- a "pregnant pause" if you will- so that one can begin to look forward to (which is in essence the meaning of the word Advent) the entirety of the Christmas season. However, the world does everything in reverse. It front loads pleasure, and attempts to obliterate anything which would interfere with its program of instant gratification (my brother-in-law calls it the "cult of immediacy"). The Church, on the other hand, truly understands the rhythm and order of happiness, which is to say that the most pleasurable things in life require a necessary build-up. For example, no matter how good the chorus of a song might be, without a satisfactory verse that builds up nicely towards it, the chorus will eventually become cloying. And that is precisely what the world is all about. In an age of choruses, we are destined to be starved of any real opportunity to "look forward" to anything. My greatest fear is that we will attempt to solve this ache, not by recognizing the wisdom and foresight of a season of preparation, but by upping the dosage of the same thing- until at last, like in hell, we have killed the very thing we were trying desperately to save. This is why I say that the store "Christmas Everyday" is straight out of the bowels of hell, because it matches quite accurately the psychology of the abyss. Its philosophy essentially goes something like this; 'let's filch out all of the merry-making from the season we can, and when we're done dispose of the body.'

In this sense then, the champion of saying "Merry Christmas" is not all that different from those who most recently put up that anti-Christmas billboard in New York City; a sign which informs us to "Keep the Merry" and "Dump the Myth". Both parties are in a sense promoting the same kind of disconnect. In the case of the atheist, he is telling us to be "merry" for no reason, while the one who declares that they want to hear a proliferations of "Merry Christmas'" wants us to celebrate because it reminds them of a happier and more gentle time (i.e for sentimental reasons). And while, again, the latter is certainly more sympathetic, neither one truly promotes Christmas anymore than wearing a giant American flag sweat shirt promotes patriotism. The question is if Advent isn't important, nor the season of Christmas itself, then why not just start saying Merry Christmas everyday, or better yet, why don't we just say Happy Halloween in the middle of August, or "Happy 4th of July" on June 28th? Sound arbitrary? It is.

Some may argue that I am being too much of a Grinch, and that it is fine to gorge one's self on the season even when it is not yet the season. This kind of logic reminds of those who say that Valentine's Day should be every day. First of all, that is an extremely exhausting thought, and secondly, it may be true up to a point, but my guess is the one who expresses this "Valentines everyday" approach is probably the last one to celebrate it any day. We are human beings, and while animals don't need calendars, we do. Just as time orients us- so also the seasons and feast days allow us the opportunity to enjoy each one in their proper order with the appropriate focus (as opposed to the maddening suggestion that we should celebrate all things at all times). So let us celebrate the impending season as it was attended, not in the spirit of Veruca Salt, but in the spirit of the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose anticipation must have been filled with an incredible sense of longing, and whose jubilation- no doubt- went on for days and days after the actual Nativity of her Son.




Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Ghost of Jacob Marley in Popular Music

Memento Mori is a Latin phrase which means "remember death". Traditionally. one hears these words (or the translation thereof) during the Liturgy of Ash Wednesday as ashes are applied to the forehead; "You are dust and to dust you shall return." This may seem like a gloomy thing to write about during a season whose purpose is to bring light as opposed to darkness, but I would argue to the contrary. It is precisely in contemplating your own death that you do consider what is most life affirming. The first line in the story A Christmas Carol goes something like this; "Jacob Marley was as dead as a doornail. For anything good to come out of this story you must first understand this." The point of this morbid opening line is to emphasize that the power of the story hinges upon the realization that death is irrevocable. Once you understand this then you can begin to understand what is at stake in how we live our lives. Yet the force of the story is not merely in the fact that Scrooge experiences the consequence of his sin, but rather in doing so, he, who was formerly a monster, has finally discovered how to become a man. Indeed, it is as a result of being confronted with his own (imminent) demise that he learns how to live for the first time. And we, fellow Scrooges, also rejoice in embracing this tale- if only for a moment- that we too might exorcise some of our own personal "humbug". Thus, far from being a depressing tale, it turns out to be the epitome of the Christmas spirit, which is to say that it is not until one realizes how close he is to perdition, that he can even begin to appreciate having been offered the gift of salvation.

Time - Pink Floyd

The classic album Dark Side of the Moon is a concept album which explores the many roots of insanity.   The aptly titled song Time explores one of these "roots". Filled with various clock-like noises, the song  emphasizes the way in which time always seems to slip through our collective hands; "Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day. You fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way. Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain. And you are young and life is long and there is time to kill today. And then one day you'll find ten years have got behind you. No one one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun. So you run and run to catch up with the sun but it's sinking racing around to come up behind you again..." The point is whether you waste your time, and "ten years have got behind you," or you try to keep up with the sun, it's always "racing around to come up behind you again." This certainly isn't meant to be a comforting song (after all, the album is about madness), but it does describe rather succinctly the unfortunate condition of man. Certainly the man who lives well is to be lauded, but in either case, as Ecclesiastes says, "all is vanity", and no man, no matter how virtuous, can escape death. However, there is a hint of consolation which comes at the end of the song; "Home, home again, I like to be here when I can. And when I come home cold and tired, it's good to warm my bones beside the fire. Far away across the field, the tolling of the iron bell, calls the faithful to their knees to hear the softly spoken magic spell." Pink Floyd would never be accused of being a religious band, but they do seem to suggest in these closing lines (and in the song that follows) that there is only one true solution. We are all running out of time whether we like it or not, and by facing this we are confronted with the fact that we cannot cling to this world. Consequently, we are forced to contemplate eternity and all the important questions that are to be wrestled with concerning God and the afterlife.

Hurt - Johnny Cash      

The last album that Johnny Cash produced before his death was an album of covers. However, in doing so he didn't necessarily select songs that anyone might suspect. Among the list of songs he tackled were Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage" and Trent Reznor's "Hurt." In the case of the latter, the result was incredibly satisfying. Understandably, Trent Reznor was skeptical that his industrial style would mesh well with an aging country legend. But after hearing the finished product he was amazed and essentially declared it to be the definitive version. Not only did the rendering of the song work, but the subsequent video that accompanied the piece was extremely powerful as well. In essence, the video is shot as a kind of retrospective taken from Cash's life in music and movies. His life is literally flashing before his eyes, and as a result a flood of guilt rushes over him, or at least the words suggest it; "What have I become, my sweetest friend. Everyone I know goes away in the end. And you could have it all, my empire of dirt. I will let you down, I will make you hurt." Bubbling with pent up emotion, the song builds and ultimately becomes even more poignant as one realizes that this was the last video he ever shot. Making it even more powerful are the intermittent flashes of Christ crucified interspersed with the the aforementioned images. The song itself never fully comes out and says it, but it really does serve as a kind of penitential hymn (though perhaps without any discrete absolution). One other important idea suggested in the lyrics is the recognition that all our possessions (in light of mortality) amount to "an empire of dirt". Once again, this may be unsettling- and a little "too Ecclesiastes" for some." but it does shine a spotlight on the impermanence of worldly success. Indeed, when placed in the context of our death, one quickly realizes the absurdity of devoting so much attention to something so transitory.

Natural Blues - Moby

In this particular song, the artist known as Moby, samples the song "Trouble So Hard" from American folk singer, Vera Hall. The primary lyric, which is repeated throughout, goes like this; "Ooh Lordy, trouble so hard, ooh lordy, trouble so hard. Don't nobody know my troubles but God; don't nobody know my troubles but God." In light of the genre, which is electronica, this repetition is somehow appropriate and seems to amplify the power of the message. Like "Hurt", the song and video work well together. The video takes place in a nursing home, wherein an aged Moby finds himself being shuttled down the hallway past various other elderly people who are all watching the sun repeatedly set on a TV screen. Meanwhile, the same phrase is uttered over and over (Ooh Lordy, trouble so hard...) to a techno beat. Eventually Moby arrives in the main room where the rest of the residence are gathered. As he sits in this room, he watches moments from his life appear on the main T.V. set. Yet unlike the previous video, the images that appear are primarily happy ones from days gone by. The genius of the video is not just that it takes place in a nursing home, which is novel enough, but that we get to see the young artist as he might look sixty years down the road. Hence, we are reminded that when we see the elderly, and have to listen to them chatter on about former days, or even listen to them talk incoherently, we should never mock them, for we are looking in a mirror of the future; "There, but for the grace of God go I." In the face of this inevitability, our posture should be one of humility and compassion, not haughtiness and superiority. Incidentally, the video/song ends with an angel, played by Christina Ricci, carrying the body of Moby gracefully down the hall. The last image is of a baby (presumably Moby) being held up by the angel as an offering to God.

Afternoons and Coffeespoons - Crash Test Dummies

This little diamond in the rough comes from the Crash Test Dummies album "God Shuffled His Feet". It details the story of a man who, it would seem, is dealing with, or imagining himself to be dealing with, a cancer diagnosis; "I've had my lungs checked out with X-rays. I've smelled the hospital hallways. Someday I'll have a disappearing hair line. Someday I'll wear pajamas in the daytime, and ohhhho afternoons will be measured out, measure out, measured with, coffee spoons and T.S. Eliot." There is very little subtlety in this song, which is part of its charm. It is a description of the thoughts, smells, and feelings of one who is going through the rather unpleasant (if not banal) process of getting treated for cancer. Moreover, it offers a rather ironic itinerary of what one's day might consist of were it to be "measured out by coffee spoons and T.S. Eliot"; "Times when the day is like a play by Sartre. When it seems a book burning's in perfect order. I've watched the summer evening pass by, I've heard the rattle in my bronchi." Yet as dark as this may all sound, it is comforting in a way. After all, the worst fears are often those we are unwilling to talk about. When we allow the unnamed shadows to build up in our imagination, we become even more terrified. By contrast, when that terror is confronted and named, especially with a little good humor and a willingness to make light of the situation (which this song certainly does), it then can take some of the sting out of that terrible reality; "O death where is thy sting! O' death where is your victory?" And so by expressing these thoughts and feelings we don't feel so alone anymore- as if we were the only one ever to go through this. This is the importance of empathy, to know that someone else has walked the same difficult path that you have without completely losing their bearings.

Live Like You Were Dying - Tim McGraw

Hopefully people have recovered from the fact that this song saturated the airwaves back in the early aughts because, whatever you think about country music, it is a well written song. Country music writers seem to have a remarkable knack for capturing lightening in a bottle with pithy ideas and well phrased truisms. Live Like You Were Dying is no exception. We have all thought about how tragedy can make us reevaluate our lives, or how losing someone can make you realize just how much you love them. But how do you communicate that to someone in a simple way. Enter Live Like You Were Dying. As most of you know, the song details the story of a man in his early 40's who finds out that he has been diagnosed with some form of cancer. As a consequence, he is completely at a loss for what to do. But instead of sulking about the fact that "this really might be the real end", he sets out to do all of those things that he should have been doing in the first place; "I went sky diving, I went rocky mountain climbing. I spent 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fu Manchu. And I loved deeper, and I spoke sweeter, and I gave forgiveness I'd been denying. And he said some day I hope you'll get the chance to live like you were dying." Mr. McGraw (and the songwriter) cut right to the heart of Memento Mori here. One does not think about their death for death's sake- they think about it in order to live as if every moment were a precious gift, never to be taken for granted, or frittered away. When we are young we tend to think about our lives as extravagantly lengthy, and therefore there is a lack of urgency when it comes to how we approach life. But imagine with what efficiency we might perform acts of charity and generosity were we to imagine that each day was potentially our last. Alongside this healthy attitude, there is also a more aberrant form of "living life to its fullest," which can be best summed up with the popular acronym YOLO (You Only Live Once). What is implied in this phrase is the rather flippant notion that one should do whatever one feels like, because, hey, you're going to die anyway, so what difference does it make? However, if we do believe in God (as opposed to this nothing burger) then the phrase immediately takes on new meaning. Because we live only once, we must do what we must, not because we have nothing to lose, but because we have everything to gain.                

The Living Years - Mike and the Mechanics

This late 1980's hit probably brought tears to the eyes of many a son and daughter, especially those that had a difficult relationship with their parents. The reason it had such power was not simply because we could all relate to having parental problems (which most of us could in some form). Its power derives from the combination of the dispute, coupled with the fact that the son is unable to reconcile with his father because he has already died. As was the case in a Christmas Carol, nothing good can come out of this song unless you realize that the singer's father is dead as a door nail; "I wasn't there that morning when my father passed away. I didn't get to tell him all the things I had to say. I think I caught his spirit later that same year, I'm sure I heard his echo in my baby's new born tears. I just wish I could have told him in the Living Years." In a sense Mike Rutherford (the one who wrote the song) is like the ghost of Marley here saying, I can't change this, my father is gone- but you can. Make peace with your father/mother before it's too late. Don't let pride get in the way- or as John Mayer expresses it on the soundtrack to the movie The Bucket List; "Even if your hands are shaking, and your faith is broken, even as your eyes are closin'... say what you need to say." It is far better to be rebuffed by the one with whom you are trying to reconcile, than to live with the fact that you were too proud to try at all.  


Sunday, December 2, 2012

What I Learned From Charlie Sheen

In recent days, Angus T. Jones, the youngest actor on the show "Two and a Half Men", has garnered much attention for his negative comments surrounding the sitcom. Among other things, the actor, known as Jake Harper on the show, said the comedy was "filth" and begged viewers not to watch. Oddly enough,  he has not said whether or not he will continue to act on the show or receive the $350,000 dollars an episode that he purportedly makes. In any case, what fascinated me most about this form of celebrity sedition is just how out of the ordinary it is. How many actors, much less child actors, personally protest the raunchiness of a show that they themselves have acted in for years. Not many. One could perhaps bring up Kirk Cameron, but "Growing Pains" wasn't exactly "The New Normal", or "That 70's Show". For his part, Charlie Sheen, who was formerly on the show, but who, for highly publicized reasons left, compared the boy's comments to that of a religious fanatic. He claimed that Jones' remarks reminded him of the Heaven's Gate cult leader (the group who famously committed mass suicide so that they could reach the "alien ship" that was hidden inside the comet Hale Bopp).

I am not sure that comparing Mr. Jones moralistic statement to a bunch of Kool-Aid drinking crazies is fair, but then again who am I to question the wisdom and insight of a man who describes himself as a "warlock with tiger blood"? Yet whether you think Mr. Jones is an ingrate, a religious fanatic, or right on the money, he does highlight something that seems relatively undeniable concerning television sitcoms over the past thirty years. I myself was raised on the show "Three's Company" (which is Leave it to Beaver by today's standards), and I loved the characters mainly because they were attractive as well as funny. Still, there was another reason I liked it as a young man, and I am pretty sure it has something to do with the trios living arrangement. Due in large part to the fact that the show depicted two women living with one man... platonically, there was inevitably wall to wall sexual tension, and I ate it up. Let me first state that I have nothing against good sexual tension woven into a plot, especially when it is based on what goes unsaid. What I object to as an adult ('cause I sure didn't when I was a kid) is the kind of sexual tension where nothing is left unsaid. "It can't be hilarious unless there is some form of sexual innuendo" is the motto of today's comedy. What is frightening is just how progressively foul this has all become. Since the days of "Three's Company", they have practically made an industry out of this kind of libidinous adolescent male behavior. In the 80's we had "Married with Children", which at least made the immoral behavior of the characters unglamorous (Al Bundy and his daughter weren't exactly anything you wanted to imitate). However, by the time the 90's rolled around, you began to see the unabashed celebration of people who had no scruples at all.

Take the show Friends for instance. Can anyone, even today, get that infernal theme song out of their  mind? It seemed as innocent and awful as watching a bunch of Teletubbies roaming about the countryside. Initially the show was relatively well written and tame, but as it went on (as is wont to happen), the writers depended far less on character development, and much more on preserving that oh so popular adolescent spirit. Thus, never being allowed to grow up, what else are the characters going to do in their free time but sleep around. The show quickly morphed from the aptly titled "Friends" to something more accurately described as "Friends With Benefits" (which they were never honest enough to call it). Saturday Night Live rather adroitly pointed this out in one of their commercial spoofs; "On a very special episode of Friends, finally Joey and Chandler get together. Why? Because there's no one left."

Yet the larger point is not that these shows have immoral themes, or even that they make platonic friendship seem implausible, but that they pretend that if you sleep with a bunch of people you will inevitably be as happy and bouncy as a little school girl. In other words, having recreational sex with everyone and everything is as natural and healthy as breathing and/or eating organic lettuce. The only real enemy is sexual restraint. If one should dare suggest that there is ever a bad time for consensual sex, then you might as well be the father from Footloose. I mean really, what can a little sex do to you? Isn't it empirically obvious that only happiness proceeds from a little meaningless self-gratifying sex. Never has sex been heard to inspire depression, suicide, divorce, abortion, disease, murder, unfaithfulness, recklessness, and narcissism. And anyone who brings this up might as well be a troglodyte incapable of having a good time. Now shut up and listen to this mind-numbing classic that is sure to free you from the terrible responsibility of thinking any real thoughts:    

All the same, the purpose of this post is not to rant about immorality in television (though it is easy to do), but rather to point out just how rarely we are permitted to see behind the artifice of this counterfeit and deceitful happiness. Look beyond the award shows and photo-ops, and you will rarely see anywhere near the same level of contentment in the lives of these actors. In fact, it is far more likely for an actor's life to resemble a tragedy rather than a comedy (unless, like Lisa Kudrow, one's choices in life dramatically diverge from those they embody on TV). The actor may even have enough money to- in some sense- cover their subsequent trail of misery. But the numbers in this case do not lie. Simply behold the carnage of all the comedic actors who have enjoyed their success to the point of despair and/or death. This is not to say that such despair is inevitable, but I do think that it is somewhat undeniable that if an actor plays a gigolo on TV- and then mimics that in real life- the chances of him/her living happily ever after is about as likely as someone coming out of the Mickey Mouse Club a well-adjusted member of society.

Just this week the girl who played the attractive Laurie on "That 70's Show" was arrested... again. I bring this up not to bring further shame to this poor girl, but to demonstrate the alarming disparity between the shiny happy persona presented to the audience and the cold reality that- fame, glamour, and sexual appeal- can only bring happiness to the extent that there is some real virtue and substance behind them. I know nothing of this woman's life- there may be some other explanation for her situation, but I do not think it is terribly far-fetched to say that she would not be the first actor to come out of Hollywood to discover that the tinsel of Tinseltown was a chimera and a counterfeit. Happiness in Hollywood is the exception not the rule.          

Which leads me back to Charlie Sheen. So rarely do we get to see the true face which looms behind the utopian mask of T.V. and movies. In most cases, the actors somehow keep it together enough not to lose their bearings too much. But in the spring of 2011, Mr. Sheen broke that unwritten rule; a rule which states that one is not to engage in such craziness that one utterly discredits the pernicious lies perpetrated by their characters on T.V. Nevertheless, in his case, the monster did in fact break free from its cage, and when it did it came out declaring that it was "winning". It is also stated that it was a "Vatican assassin warlock". Despite the fact that I kind of liked that Mr. Sheen made the witches in Salem, Massachusetts angry (they really were), I have to say that his "wins" seem to me, and perhaps the rest of humanity, more like "losses." The toothless bandit that you see above is the awful reality that lives behind the character known as Charlie Harper (the one he played on the show). They are the same person. Charlie Harper is the alluring mask, while the Sheen you have seen in the last year or so is the reality. But whereas the show would never present that side of things (for obvious reasons), reality and the law of physics have kindly done the honor for us. To put it plainly, the "Two and a Half Men" Charlie is the cause, and the "Vatican Warlock Assassin" Charlie is the effect. Only on T.V. shows and in eulogies does ill behavior receive such generous treatment. I do not relish the demise of any human being, including Mr. Sheen, nor do I feel that I am superior to any of these tragic figures. What I do appreciate, however, is the opportunity to catch the devil at one of his most successful games (you might know it as the old bait and switch). Like some mythical Sasquatch or Lake Monster, it is difficult to prove to people that the glamour of the world is fraudulent, but occasionally you can snap a photo of this elusive beast (albeit one that is blurred). And as the old Polaroid slowly comes into focus- one finally begins to observe the glaring evidence that those likeable characters who so often cajoled us into believing that we could use our bodies anyhow, have themselves fallen victim to their own propaganda.