Tuesday, February 26, 2013

There's Something About Mary: 13 Practical Reasons Mary Deserves Special Veneration

Just about every deviation from Christian orthodoxy (which includes other religions) inevitably involves some form of denial of the Incarnation. What I mean is that in general it is a doctrine that is accepted in principal, but not in practice. The doctrine of the Incarnation is simply the belief that God became flesh in every way except sin. This, however, is not the most challenging part for Christians. What seems to challenge Christians of varying stripes is just how much God becoming flesh has changed our flesh. A prime example of this is in the Catholic teaching on Mary and the veneration of saints. For many Christians, this is a dangerous notion because it seems to imply that we should devote our spiritual attention to someone other than God. Yet this is precisely where the Incarnation challenges us most, for it is one thing to believe that there is a God in heaven that is all-powerful, and quite another to believe that "what is bound on earth is bound in heaven." Case in point: the Virgin Mary. The only ones who fears this Lady's role more than the ancient serpent are my Protestant brethren. This is certainly a sad state of affairs, and it is true that in some instances well-meaning Catholics have only contributed to the problem by seemingly substituting Mary for Jesus. In any case, my goal in this post is to demonstrate in a most down to earth fashion why it is little more than common sense to give special credence to the Virgin Mary. If we truly believe that the Incarnation happened, then we must also accept its subsequent implications. Protestants will allow that she is special, but then just as quickly say that she shouldn't be treated any different than anyone else. They see the need, but fear the consequences of giving her a special role/title. Thus, they ultimately treat her as though she were just another cog (though a very special cog) in the wheel of salvation. Below I have provided 13 reasons why I believe that Marian piety is not simply acceptable, but is in fact the only appropriate response given the uniqueness of her relationship to Jesus.

13. It is misogynistic to believe otherwise. Up until the medieval period women were not viewed as having an active role in the creation of human life. At best, they were believed to be little more than glorified incubators. Unless we want to go back to that view of life as opposed to accepting what the Incarnation revealed long before biology, we should reject this view of Mary's pregnancy (and any other women's pregnancy). What an insult to motherhood! Indeed, how much more are mothers than simply pods for birthing babies. The world would be a cold horrible place were it not for this magnificent maternity. I cannot do justice here to the level of importance that a mother brings, not only in the womb, but also during the early stages of childhood development and beyond. So please, do not suggest for even a second that Mary was little more than a holy incubator, interchangeable and useful only to the extent that she was a warm body for Jesus to use. Say that about anyone else's mother and expect to get jacked in the jaw. Say that about the mother of Jesus and expect a different reaction? I wouldn't bet on it.

12. Mary loved Jesus more perfectly than any other human being. If the goal of the Christian life is to love our Lord perfectly, then certainly Mary has no rival. Maybe you could argue that she had an unfair advantage (being his mother and all), but remember that love cuts both ways. Because she loved him like no other, she also suffered for him like no other. There is no record of her receiving the stigmata, but I would hardly be surprised if a doctor examined her heart only to discover that she had mysteriously incurred wounds similar to that of the crucifixion. Mary is the biological and spiritual mirror of Christ, bearing in  her own body what the flesh of her flesh and bone of her bones bore on the cross. For this reason, the prophetic words of the high priest Simeon seem like anything but pious platitudes; "And a sword will pierce your own soul too." Such is the nature of perfect love that it would be less painful for Mary to be crucified than to watch it happen to her Son. And indeed, other than divine love, no greater love is there on earth than a mother's love for her child. Ultimately, this Marian crucifixion reveals that if we are to take up our own cross and follow Jesus as he intends, we too must do so with a Marian heart.

11. She said "yes" to your eternal life when she could have said "no." God put a remarkable amount of power into Mary's hands. It was left up to her as to whether she would cooperate with God's plan for our salvation or not. Interestingly, this may be another reason to argue for her holy and Immaculate Conception, both because you wouldn't want someone inclined to selfishness to be in a position to make such an earth-shattering decision, and secondly, because it would make her decision all the more perfect and selfless if she herself, like Christ, hadn't been obliged to make it (notice that the angel's greeting to her does not seem to be contingent upon her response; "Hail, full of grace. The lord is with you..."). At the moment when Gabriel addressed her in this way, she became the representative and intercessor for all of mankind. There is not one person that ever lived, or ever will live, that she was not speaking for at that moment. This is why we call her the new Eve, the new mother of all the living, for without her consent, none of us would be living with the hope of eternal life. It is easy enough to make Mary's decision seem inevitable, but being that she was free to reject the plan, we should not be so quick to presume it. Is there no special gratitude for the lady who humbly agreed to bring my light and my salvation into the world? In ordinary life, when someone does something nice for me, I do not ask God's permission to thank them, I just do it. Why should this unparalleled act of kindness go ignored? I would argue that to do so is a tremendous offense against the virtue of gratitude.

10. Mary is the perfect herald of the Gospel. Anyone who preaches the Gospel sincerely is doing the will of God and keeping his command to preach to all nations. One of the reasons saints are canonized is because they have accomplished their preaching more powerfully and eloquently than most others (both by their words and their actions). Yet there is only one individual in history, other than Jesus himself, who has preached the Gospel immaculately. You may ask yourself when and where Mary did her preaching. Indeed, there is no record of her globetrotting with the good news of Jesus Christ. Yet in one sense she did it better than all of the saints combined. By giving birth to Jesus, she truly delivered the immaculate homily, a sermon so utterly sublime and perfect that at her anointed words the Word became Flesh.

9. If Jesus is our brother, then Mary must be our mother. If we accept the Biblical notion that Baptism makes us all brothers and sisters in Christ, then would it not also make sense to say that Mary is our spiritual mother? This leap of logic seems all but confirmed by the events at the cross wherein Jesus tells John; "Behold, your mother"; and then tells Mary; Woman, behold your son!" (notice he doesn't just say, 'hey, take care of ma, would ya?'). Once again, if we take the implications of the Incarnation seriously, then how can we just dismiss this idea as too literal? If we do that in this situation we may as well declare that the Incarnation itself was merely an allegory which had nothing more than a symbolic effect on human nature. The alternative is to recognize that the Incarnation really did change our relationship with God, and that what happened in the flesh really happened- not just in the flesh- but in the spirit as well.

8. In God's house, or any house, you better give momma her due. A student asked me the other day if as a Catholic it was necessary to have any kind of relationship with Mary. I think what she was asking was whether or not it was really necessary to pay her special attention? I told the student, 'I don't know, but if you come to my house and fail to treat my mother with the proper respect, you can expect to be shown the door'. I responded perhaps a little brusquely, but I was trying to make a point. All of these signs of respect on earth, especially as a consequence of the Incarnation, are translated into the divine realm. Throughout Scripture hospitality is considered paramount. How much more gracious should we be when we are not the ones receiving a guest, but rather are the recipient of said hospitality? A mother often answers the front door when guests arrive. Do we just walk right by her and ignore her entirely, or do we regard her with a kind of holy respect and reverence? One of Mary's special titles is "gate of heaven". I suspect in her case a similar rule applies.

7. Other than the Father, no one else has begotten the Son except Mary. I must admit, I understand the concern of some Protestants when they observe the exalted status of Mary, because when you look at it a bit closer it seems that the role God gave her is something bordering on blasphemy. What I mean to say is that God, who is all-powerful, made himself impotent and dependent on a woman as if she were the all-powerful one (perhaps this is why Calvin viewed humanity as a little more than a puppet of God). At any rate, when you look at the role God gave Mary, you cannot help but notice the stunning novelty of her vocation. She is the only one, other than God the Father, in all of eternity to give birth to God. Yes, it is a sentence worth repeating, and it is a sentence that should make all men tremble with gratitude and awe at the unimaginable humility of God.

6. Mary is the only one who is a biological member of God's family. In other words, Mary was baptized by virtue of her vocation, whereas we must be baptized with water and the Trinitarian formula in order to enter the family of God. In this sense then (by virtue of the Son she was to bear) Mary was baptized from the first moment of her conception.

5. To fail to honor Mary and the saints is a violation of the 4th Commandment. Just as Scripture says that Jesus was obedient to Mary and Joseph (after the little temple incident), so we must honor our own parents, both spiritual and biological. In the old Testament, even the prophetic super stars invoked their fathers in faith in order to appeal to God; "As you promised of old to Abraham our father..." In the same way, as Catholics we honor our spiritual mothers and fathers who have brought Jesus Christ to us down through the ages. And yes, in the order of time we really do have to "go through" them to get to Jesus. Neither the Bible nor the historical Church ever upheld a notion of Jesus disconnected from our spiritual ancestors. The point is we honor them because they have finished the race and we have not. They are champions, and we are still yet competing. This alone deserves our respect, but even more important than our respect, our acknowledgement, that without their "yes" to God, we would never even know who He is. Consequently, how much more does Mary's "yes" deserve our "thank you", for without it, all other attempts to bring Christ to the world would be immediately rendered void. She is our spiritual mother par excellence.

4. Mary shares a special communion with God. If one only considers the significance of the role of Mary from the Nativity on, then one misses part of what is most remarkable about Our Lady's vocation. The truth is if we are to heed the laws of biology, then we must say that Mary, by virtue of an unspeakable grace, had the capacity to bear the immaculate God from the start. Like a New and glorious Eve, she is quite literally flesh of his flesh and bone of his bones. In fact, in her, "Eva" becomes miraculously transformed into "Ave". As for the rest of humanity, we enjoy communion primarily through the Sacraments; she, on the other hand, was married to his flesh from the very first. If this were not the case, then how is it that the One who gave her flesh is now the recipient of hers? It is true that someone might accuse me of being too earthly minded when I say this, but I can only follow the logic where it leads. Thus, if it is shocking to declare that Mary looked like Jesus, then how much more shocking is it to say that Jesus looked like Mary, had her eyes, and perhaps even her smile? Call it blasphemous if you like, but just remember that it was God who committed the blasphemy first.

3. If Gabriel, the Messenger of God felt compelled to give Mary an exalted greeting, then who the heck am I to do otherwise? No one who is Christian would deny that the Archangels are some of the most terrifying and powerful angels among the angelic host. Was it not St. Michael who put a whooping on the rebellious and similarly powerful Archangel Lucifer? Thus, when an angel who can undoubtedly squash you like a tsetse fly, treats you as if you are the "cat's meow", it is only reasonable to take note. According to Scripture, Gabriel addresses Mary with these startling words; "Hail, full of grace (highly gifted), the Lord is with you." There is a lot going on in that small phrase, but then again messengers of God are not much for small talk, nor do they heap praise where it is unwarranted. At the Jordan after Jesus' Baptism the Father only says; "This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased, listen to Him!" That certainly isn't a Hallmark moment. God says what needs to be said when communicating to humanity. Therefore, if an unimaginably powerful spirit from another realm gives a nobody from Nazareth a greeting generally afforded to only the highest dignitaries (i.e. Hail Caesar, All Hail the Queen, Hail Hitler, etc.), then maybe, just maybe, I should not be so audacious as to deny that same reverence to that person. Remember, the words of angel are the Words of God Himself. This type of exalted greeting is extended to no other earthly figure in Scripture. As a matter of fact, most of the time angels seem rather cold and terse to their earthly charges, even when it is good news. With Mary, the Angel is not only reverent, he is downright exuberant. Furthermore, he is compelled to state something else rather unique; "The Lord is with you." This statement suggests a completed action in the past- as opposed to the typically used "may the Lord be with you" which suggests that the blessing is contingent upon whether or not God concurs. In this passage there is no doubt that God concurs!

2. We should give her special reverence because the Bible does. Apart from the Archangel addressing her with the greeting "Hail Mary", there are other passages in Luke (and other Gospels) which very specifically point to Mary's special role. Mary herself even says in her magnifying prayer of praise to God that "all generations will call me blessed." Apparently Catholics are the only ones who got the memo on that one. By saying this Catholics are not doing something wrong, rather they are fulfilling a prophecy of Scripture, a prophecy that Mary's cousin Elizabeth only re-iterates. Upon seeing Mary, Elizabeth declares; "Who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me? Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!" Is it wrong for me to imitate a pious woman's actions in Scripture? Are these not God's words to men? Then why should I be ashamed of using them? As for those who insist that Mary is only the mother of Jesus' humanity and not the Mother of God, I have to object on two fronts. First, Elizabeth plainly gives Mary this title (assuming that the term "Lord" here is interchangeable with "God"). Secondly, reducing Mary to being simply the mother of Jesus' physical form is a theological idea so utterly foreign to Christian thought that it was condemned as a heresy at the council of Ephesus. That is not to say that Mary was there in the beginning with the Word, but only that if we take the reality of His humanity seriously, we must say that in the order of time she did give birth to God whole and entire. To claim otherwise is to declare that Jesus is/was something less than fully human, and that within him there is a kind of divine/human schizophrenia.

1. Without Mary, our Faith would look oppressively male. The more we diminish the role of Mary, the more we tend towards two extremes. One type of extreme would have us diminish the importance of sex altogether and so embrace spiritual androgyny. Another extreme would be to embrace a vision of faith that is hyper-masculine. The Church's approach is to avoid both of these pitfalls by embracing an image of Faith which elevates both the masculine and feminine elements of humanity. The point is how can we say that Mary was the center of Jesus' universe as a baby (and vice versa), and then say 'thank you, but don't let the door hit you on the way out?' If motherhood plays such an integral role in a child's development, not to mention throughout the child's life, then how could such a sublime role be jettisoned and ignored in the afterlife? Is one really prepared to say that heaven is little more than a Muslim paradise for men? As for Mary, what makes her particularly divine is the fact that she herself doesn't grasp after divinity. Mary's motherhood is divine precisely because it is so down to earth. The book of Revelation spends some time speaking about this remarkable Woman. It seems, according to this prophetic writing, that there is only one clear and obvious individual that is fit to don those mystical and magnificent shoes. May this marvelous motherhood of Mary be ever exalted- not only for "all generations"- but for all of eternity.

Monday, February 11, 2013

What a Girl Wants: 8 Songs on the Feminist's Dilemma

In the consistent push for the equality of women in society, there have obviously been any number of significant changes in the way that the fairer sex is treated. But the question that no one seems to ask is whether "equality" is really the right word for what we should be trying to accomplish on behalf of women. In other words, should the goal of the feminist be to convince society that- except for that pesky burden of fertility- women are really just men in woman's clothing (we used to call this something different, but I digress). What I am getting at is that the problem of equality involves more than just pretending that women are men. The real question is does a woman have a distinct vocation from a man, or are her anatomical differences little more than skin deep. To be clear, I am not speaking here about the kind of vocation that is imposed from the outside by societal norms, but rather the kind that is imposed from the inside by the individual's conscience. My intention is not to debate whether or not women should be at home or at the office all day, but instead to observe the complexity of this issue through the vehicle of music. What I found most fascinating about the songs I selected (the majority of which were written by women), was that they seemed to express in a most eloquent fashion the genuine ambivalence that seems to haunt the footsteps of the liberated woman. The "prison bars" of traditional family life have finally been dissolved, and now you might expect pure and unadulterated joy on the part of this woman- but what these artists describe is something a little more complicated.

Restless - Alison Kraus and Union Station

Alison Krauss is probably the furthest thing from Gloria Steinem when it comes to music, but Ms. Krauss may nevertheless have something to teach us all about what it means to live the life of an independent woman. Women are naturally independent. By virtue of their femininity, they possess a sense of identity within their very being, whereas men seem to struggle a bit more when it comes to finding their voice. Yet this does not mean that women have no need of men. Indeed, it may be a great mystery to us all as to why any women could need the help or aid of a man, but plain observation confirms this instinct. I could have chosen one of any number of songs by Alison Krauss because there seems to be a relatively constant theme in her music (which is the struggle between her desire for romance and her personal ambition). Musicians are in some ways like Franciscan monks. They are troubadours who are trying to woo the world. The problem from a musician's standpoint is that they often try to maintain some kind of monogamous relationship alongside this other form of romance. In this sense the Franciscan is much smarter, for he recognizes the impossibility of holding the two in balance. Thus, it is no wonder that there are so many stories of infidelity when it comes to musicians on the road. As for a woman, the dynamic takes on an even more complex form. Being on the road away from family and friends may allow one to fulfill their desire for personal success, but there is in any case a simultaneous kind of loneliness which accompanies that success; "I just can't stand being alone, I'm going to have to change that someday. There's a restless feeling in my bones and I know at times it just won't go away..." Here you can see clearly the dilemma. It's not just a "feeling", it is- as she describes it- "in her bones." She wants to share a life with somebody, but she has another lover to whom she feels even more obligated. Consequently, it seems she is stuck in a whole series of romantic relationships that can't ever really go anywhere. This provokes her to say in essence "I've got to change myself so that I don't need to be with someone." Notice that she doesn't say that she is going to have to change her career to suit a relationship. "The one thing I know is when I turn out the light, visions of you dance in the night..." No doubt she's "restless" because she's committed to two lovers, though it is clear in the end which one she's more committed to. It must be particularly lonely when a woman is on the road by herself, for generally speaking (to her credit) she doesn't seem to seek the same kind of hedonistic consolations that many male artists do. The larger point is not that Ms. Krauss is wrong for being conflicted, but only that she reveals what is at the heart of the feminine struggle. With her mouth she can declare all day long that she is an independent woman, but a woman is more than an ideology or a philosophy, she is also a biology and a psychology. And so if she chooses not to settle down that is undeniably her choice, and may she ever have it. However, it should at least be acknowledged that in spite of all this talk of liberation, a woman cannot wish away her need or desire for real companionship, nor can she completely annihilate her urge to be united to a husband. We are not made for complete autonomy. In fact, it is apostasy to the soul to demand it. In any case, Ms. Krauss offers a frank and honest testimony of this need, not by explicitly telling anyone her political views, but by speaking from the heart. She is simply and honestly acknowledging what the Gloria Steinem's and the Madeleine O'Hares of the world will only say when no one else is around; "It is not good for woman to be alone."

No Scrubs - TLC

Ironically, one of the unintended consequences of the liberation of women is their subsequent degradation. One of the staples of women's liberation is the availability of contraception and abortion. From the perspective of a feminist, this leaves her career/life options open; from the perspective of a man who is simply looking to hookup, this means she's open for business. The comedian Chris Rock once put it even more impolitely than that. He said essentially that men like women who are pro-abortion because we know that they are probably easy (I cleaned it up). In the olden days a father might have said to his son; "If you're ready to have sex, then you better be ready to be a father." Today, a father and mother simply say, "if you're going to do it, make sure you're protected." The pill may have given a woman more "options", but it certainly hasn't made men respect her more. With the advent of the contraceptive pill, the burden is no less on women than it was before, the only difference is now the man can simply wash their hands of the whole incident. Indeed, he is practically free to say "I didn't intend for that to happen," or (at best) "here's some money for an abortion." Unfortunately, this contraceptive mentality has given rise to a whole generation of "scrubs:"; that is, men whose only aim it is, not to start a family, but rather to hook up with women. Or as the lecherous 20-something Matthew McConaughey said in Dazed and Confused; "Great thing about this town is I keep gettin' older, but the girls stay the same age..." This is not to say that the scrub has not always existed, but who can deny that this self-serving creature has proliferated of late? Anyhow, the scrub comes in many forms, but a common characteristic can be seen in how he perceives women. He sees them not as an equal or as a companion, but as a tool for his satisfaction (hence the express "to objectify"). She is a sport, and he a playboy, which may explain why Sports Illustrated has a swimsuit issue. The band TLC details in rather amusing fashion the behavior of this perpetual adolescent, describing him as someone who lives with his mother and is "hanging out the passenger side of his best friends ride, tryin' to holla at me." If the pill keeps a woman "autonomous", than the unfortunate side effect of this freedom must certainly be that it keeps men from growing into responsible men. Hence, by failing to demand greater respect from men, women ultimately find themselves more dissatisfied with their relationships than they ever were before. Why? because (surprise) they don't feel as respected. Without the demands placed on a man by a woman's chastity, he will inevitably fall into the trap of seeing women, not as a beloved companion, but as an object to be used and degraded.

You're the One That I Want - John Travolta and Olivia Newton John

Early in the movie Grease there is a song called Summer Nights, which details  a summer romance that took place between a girl named Sandy and a boy named Danny. What the song also details is the profound difference between how a man views romance and how a woman does. Though Sandy is the furthest thing from a feminist, she nevertheless demonstrates why there is often such a communication breakdown between men and women. When Danny recounts their summer together, he seems to emphasize how far he went with her, while she emphasizes how he made her feel. He is interested in conquests (or so he pretends to his boys), and she emphasizes how well he treated her. Respect is important to men (especially coming from their peers), but unfortunately at the same time it often inspires a kind of machismo which creates tension in a relationship. And if a man is ruled by this mentality, he will often leave a trail of broken hearts with little regard for those who has hurt. Rizzo is a classic example of what happens when a girl is treated (and allows herself to be treated) this way. At some point she despairs and insists that "chivalry is dead" and that any talk of true romance "sounds like a drag." Anyhow, throughout the film there is a tremendous friction between these two ways of looking at things. Danny wants Sandy to "loosen up" a little, and Sandy wants Danny to show greater respect for her and her old fashioned values. Both are presented as two equally extreme positions. Danny is going too far because he is attempting to coerce Sandy into a sexual relationship, and Sandy is  going to far because she is too prudish and behaves a little bit too much like a high school version of June Cleaver. Sandy is black and white, and Danny is in color. In some ways this situation perfectly represents feminist's dilemma. On the one hand, she does not want to live in Pleasantville with Sandy- where she will probably wind up in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant (or at least that is how she envisions it), nor does she want to have an ignorant ape like Danny use her for the purposes of bragging to his buddies. Fair enough. But the solution of the movie, as embodied by the song "You're the One That I Want", is a cold compromise indeed. For the solution is little more than a sleight of hand, a parlor trick perpetrated to give Danny what he wants, while pretending to do the same for Sandy. The lesson of this song and the movie is if Sandy will only put out, then Danny will respect her more; if she is more aggressive, like a man, then Danny will bow to her authority. This may be true up to a point, but not in the way that makes a woman really happy. Simply watch the video and see how Danny bows down to her new persona. It is not the bow of chivalry, rather it is the shameless prostration of a dog in heat. Yes, the sexualizing of Sandy may get him to "heel" for the time being, but it will not be long before he becomes a "dog" in another sense.

If I Were a Boy - Beyonce

In many ways this next song picks up where Grease left off. I call it the Rizzo effect. Indeed, once a woman compromises herself and loses herself sense of self-respect, she finds herself in a terrible position. Realizing that sleeping with a man does the opposite of what she hopes it will do, she is immediately confronted with two options. She can recognize the folly of her decision and re-commit herself to living her ideals, or she can harden her heart and resolve that there is no turning back. This is the problem oftentimes with feminism, would that it were an attempt to mimic what is most praiseworthy in men. To the contrary, it often mimics the worst that men have to offer. If men are callous and superficial about sex, then so should women. If men are corporate cutthroats, then women should be to. If men are cold and calculating, then women should follow suit. If I Were a Boy successfully illustrates this struggle in the heart of every women; the battle between feminine vulnerability and the desire to avoid being hurt; "If I were a boy, I think I could understand, how it feels to love a girl. I swear I'd be a better man. I'd listen to her. 'Cause I know how it hurts..." On the one hand, she muses that if she were "a boy" she would know exactly what it is a women needs. It is as if the lyricist is pleading; "Why don't you care enough to do these things. If you loved her you would try to 'be a better man'." In the next breath she takes a different approach; "If I were a boy, I'd turn off my phone, tell everyone it's broken so they'd think I was sleeping alone..." These words express a kind of despair, viz. "if I can't get you to hear me, then I will simply become what I hate." There seems some question in the song which approach she will settle on, but in the ends she concludes with something of a whimper; "But you're just a boy, you don't understand..." I would argue that that the lyrics of this song describe in painful detail at least one of the reasons some in the feminist camp develop a relative disdain for men, and in some cases even turn to relationships with women because they "do understand." I would never deign to argue that such disdain is acceptable, but considering the absolute failure on the part of some men in this regard, I "do understand" the temptation to despair on the part of these women. I suppose it is more than a little ironic that a woman must await the love and understanding of a creature that seems adept at neither one nor the other. For a happier conclusion to this story, I recommend watching Beauty and the Beast.

Modern Woman - Billy Joel

This song by Billy Joel rather effectively points out that it is not only women who feel a sense of uncertainty and ambivalence in this age. Men have always struggled when it comes to the question of how to behave around a woman- but now he really hasn't a clue. "Should I pay for the dinner, or will she think that I am being too presumptuous? Should I open the door for her, or will she think I am patronizing her?" If men didn't get it before, now they are really in for it. This fickle dictatorship of mixed signals not only leads to the complete neutering of men, it leaves them utterly confused as to what role they should play. The woman doesn't seem to want him to treat her in a special way- or maybe she does; "Do I look like some sort of cripple to you? I can pull out my own chair, thank you!" At least in the former state of affairs, women wanted to be treated as queens, and if you failed at it you at least knew what you failed at. Now not even she is sure exactly how she wants to be treated, only that if you get it wrong, you should be prepared to deal with the consequences. Billy Joel puts it this way; "She looks sleek and seems so professional. She's got a lot of confidence, it's easy to see. You want to make a move but you feel so inferior, 'cause under that exterior is someone who's free. She's got style and she's got her own money. So she's not another honey you can quickly disarm... You've got your plan of attack but that won't attract a modern woman. And you're an old-fashioned man she understands the things you're doin'. She's a modern woman." Obviously there is nothing wrong with the idea of a woman who isn't a doormat and knows exactly what she's looking for, but oftentimes this "modern woman" is not only confident, she's downright superior. Moreover, there seems to be in her too much of a readiness to be offended. "Her long cool stare", as Joel puts it, does not so much arise out of insecurity as it does from her Vasser education, the place where she first learned about the evils of patriarchy. Hence, this particular woman is not fueled by a history of bad relationships, rather what motivates her is a steady dose of self-serving ideology. Yet before she goes about burning all of her bras, and dancing on the grave of chivalry with delight, it might be instructive for her to know the original purpose of chivalry. What chivalry is not is a patronizing and paternalistic attempt to demonstrate that men are stronger and thus superior to women. To the contrary, this is precisely what Christian chivalry corrected in the pagan world. In fact, it was because of the Christian conception of women that so many of them converted in the early Church. No longer would a young woman be sold at 12 years old to some creepy old dude so that dear ol' dad could get paid (just to give one example). Chivalry is a way of recognizing the dignity of a woman without annihilating masculinity. It allows men to use their strength and vigor to elevate women, not to denigrate them. Thus, wherever you see men behaving like misogynists, do not consider this typical Christian behavior, for it was Christ who laid the groundwork for the end of all such despicable treatment. This is not to suggest that there is no tension between the sexes when it comes to their particular roles. But better a tension than a warmed-over androgyny.

That's the Way I Always Heard It Should Be - Carly Simon

If Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind were a song, this is what it would sound like. If it were a black and white movie it would be Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe. "That's the Way I Always Heard it Should Be" is a depressing slice of Americana, wherein all of the idealism which characterized the previous period (or so we were always told) gives way to a darker reality, one that was there the whole time, but went unspoken. Anyhow, this Carly Simon song really does reveal the practical disenchantment that so many have in this day and age when it comes to the ideal of marriage. With so many marriages "hanging on in quiet desperation" (if they even hang on at all), it is somewhat of a natural impulse to give up on the institution altogether. It is for this reason that so many have turned to cohabitation in order to compensate for the general loss of faith in that thing called the vow. Indeed, there is such a profound sense of distrust, not just in the idea of marriage, but between the sexes in general. The fact that 40% of children are born out of wedlock today shows what a profound reluctance there is on the part of couples to enter into any kind of permanent commitment. Such is the dilemma for Ms. Simon who looks around at the marriage fatalities of friends and family and questions whether this is the way things really ought to be. Adding to the melancholy of the song, is the fact that Ms. Simon's own romantic history is one that seems to echo all of her concerns. She sees a catalogue of reasons to run in the opposite direction from traditional family life, but her heart is resigned- despite the seeming inevitability of failure- to give itself to this godforsaken cause; "My friends from college their all married now; they have their houses and their lawns. They have their silent noons; tearful nights. Their children hate them for the things their not; they hate themselves for what they are... But you say its time to move in together. And raised a family of our own you and me. Well that's the way I've always heard it should be. You want to marry me. We'll marry." The saddest thing about this dark and pessimistic view of  marriage is that in her case it is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yes, there is plenty of misery out there to channel, and if you want to feel vindicated by your own sour view of the world, then you will find plenty of examples. But the mistake of Ms. Simon, and all those who have given up on traditional romance, is that they have an entirely flawed view of what love and romance is in the first place. They forgot that the fairytale has tragedy as well as comedy. They thought happily ever after meant that a happy marriage would be something like a reflex. They accepted as dogma every single pop song and Hallmark card. But these sorts of good intentions alone will not translate into a good marriage. The best way to guarantee failure and disillusionment in marriage is to imagine that your spouse exists entirely for the sake of making you feel the way you did when you first met them. There is a lot of blame to go around on both sides of the gender isle on this one, but what is most certainly part of that blame, is the almost exclusively worldly and superficial understanding of what the marriage vow means. If you are not getting married in order to learn how to die for someone (namely your spouse), then you have mistaken marriage for something else. Without true sacrifice, love is a lot like a Lionel Ritchie song: pleasant-sounding, but about as binding as his marriages.

Where Have All the Cowboys Gone? - Paula Cole

The Lilith Fair festival, which reached the height of its success in the late 1990s, was meant to be a celebration of everything female. Its name comes from an apocryphal account of Creation, wherein Lilith, Adam's first wife, rebels against his authority. Thus she is regarded, from a the author's standpoint, as a sorceress and an enemy of God. Proudly bearing this standard, the ladies touting this tour (which included the likes of Sarah McLaughlin, Jewel, Meredith Brooks, and the Indigo Girls to name a few), used it as a platform to advances various feminist causes (one of them of course being abortion). Another one of the performers on the tour was a woman by the name of Paula Cole, who boasted hairy armpits, a classically trained voice, and a quirky style. Her breakout hit Where Have All the Cowboys Gone is a prime example of her unique delivery. I say this all by way of introduction so as to disavow anyone from saying that Ms. Cole is some sort of clandestine conservative. She is/was not. In any case, the song itself is a strange lament about the absence of what used to be called a "man's man". Today I suspect that phrase might have a slightly different connotation. In essence she argues that she would be glad to "do the dishes", "the laundry", "cook dinner", and "raise the children" if he will only go out there and put in a hard days work, which apparently includes "working on the tractor". One might even be tempted to call the lyrics misogynistic were it not for the fact that it was written by one of the Lilith ladies. Ironically, the very movement that demands that men stand down from their patriarchal post is the same one, at least in this case, who decries the Bieberization of all men (do you think that it is merely a coincidence that practically every other commercial today is about a man's failing testosterone?).

But let us not make light of what Ms. Cole is proposing here, because I believe that it possesses some real insight into how a man might find his way back into the heart of the ice princess. What she reveals is not so much that women do not want men to be men, but rather the problem as she sees it is that men aren't being men at all. The difference between the expression "be a man" and "boys will be boys" is as different as the difference between heaven and hell. It is the difference between Christ and Satan. One gives his entire being physically, emotionally, and spiritually for the good of his spouse, while the other is the immortal adolescent, too wrapped up in himself and his own personal pleasure to devote himself to anyone or anything. In the immortal words of Ms. Cole; "I will do the laundry if you pay all the bills..." If men will preoccupy themselves with trying to serve their lady in all that they do, the woman naturally wishes to do the same. What so often causes dissatisfaction in relationships is that men are either doormats, or serially inattentive. The truth is if men were genuinely chivalrous, then women would be much more inclined to serve, but as it is men often become more and more remote as the relationship progresses, which is the ultimate source of frustration for any woman. At one point in the song, she laments the fact that she is "wearing her new dress, but you don't even notice..." This may seem like an insignificant detail, but it further explains what foments the "battle of the sexes". A man must above all other things make his woman feel like his love for her is unlike any other affection he has. By contrast, a man can inspire despair in the heart of a woman if he makes her feel like just another face in the crowd, one who goes "unnoticed." The cheap compromise  is the Bieberized man. Because they can't have a man who will make them feel like a queen, they get a marionette-man to do it for them at their behest. But a woman's heart will betray her every time. And Ms. Cole is no exception, for she tells her audience in essence: "I just can't take this cold compromise anymore! If you go out there and break your back for me, show me a little concern, I will do all those things that women like me have sworn off since the dawn of feminism."

Simple Kind of Life - No Doubt

The first big hit from the band No Doubt was the song, "I'm Just a Girl". And if there were ever a "girl power" soundtrack, this would certainly be on it. Anyhow, the song expresses rather sarcastically how girls are often treated as if they are fragile little creatures. The video and the lyrics suggest that she wants to tear down this silly wall of conventions that stand between her and those "those little things she holds so dear". Fast Forward five years to the release of their second album, which included on it the hit single "Simple Kind of Life". This is notable because in some ways it expresses the exact opposite sentiment of the former song. In a short period of time she went from "girl power" to grieving the fact that she had gotten everything she wanted. She had received all the kingdoms of the world and all she really wanted was "to be a girl"; "And all I wanted were the simple things, a simple kind of life. And all I needed was a simple man, so I could be a wife..." It shouldn't surprise us too much that our ambitions often work to take us to the moon. But the problem with reaching the moon is a very practical one. The moon is much prettier from a distance. Being on the moon in reality, however, is a cold and lonely condition; "I always thought I'd be a mom. Sometimes I wish for a mistake. The longer that I wait, the more selfish that I get. You seem like you'd be a good dad." The modern woman is divided within herself. She wants to be able to go on living a life governed by her ambitions, but she also wants desperately to have a family. Thus, we get the Stefani solution. 'I want a baby, but the conditions on the ground don't seem optimal for this... at least not in the conventional way.' From nannies, to surrogacy, to IVF babies, to three parent scenarios, to pet children (the last one serves as substitute for children altogether), such is the mentality of the one who wishes to have it both ways. Whether or not this person can provide a stable and happy environment for their children is secondary to filling this need. Whether there is no father involved, or the father is only superficially involved in the process, is beside the point. The point is the woman got precisely what she wanted and satisfied that aching need in her heart. If she had to break a few eggs to do it, so be it. I would not be so presumptuous as to tell any woman not to pursue a noble career. What I would presume to say- as a psychological fact- is that if she divides her heart between her marriage her children and her career, she is likely to feel a deep sense of regret about the whole thing. This is not to suggest that men are off the hook by any means. Marriage is in itself a kind of submission for them, one that often brings an end to many a fancy he might have about himself. Add children into the mix, and now there are two parties that he must put before himself (which may include working a job that makes him completely miserable). In today's world we have practically made mandatory the regret about which Stefani speaks. We have said that a woman must have a heart divided, otherwise she might miss out on something. Yet if peace of mind and heart is really what a women wants (as opposed to running herself ragged trying to be all things to all people), then she must learn to defy the fickle fashions of the world. She must be in the truest sense an independent woman, rejecting the notion that she must live according to "all the latest trends." She must make a distinction between what she aches for in her heart of hearts, and what may be desirable to the touch, and pleasing to the eye, but which is nevertheless inessential. Such a decision may not include getting married or even having children, but what it most certainly should not include is a division of the soul wherein one never actually commits to anything, but rather continually finds themselves fluttering from one project to the next.              

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Armageddon It: 7 Films on the End of the World

Recently, I wrote a similar post about songs which address the topic of the end times. In this particular entry I will explore movies that do the same. However, the approach that I will be taking in this case will be slightly different. Instead of focusing on the various attitudes that surround such apocalyptic events, here I will focus more on how those catastrophic events offer insight into those aspects of human existence that are often overlooked or neglected because we presume that they will always be there (like our family). Thus, what we find in this type of cinema is just the opposite of our every day life: a world in which nothing can be taken for granted, and in which that which was presumed is taken away entirely. Yet my intention is not to focus on the misery of these circumstances so much as to observe how these films in various ways show us what is ultimately at the heart of man.

7. Batman Begins

One might not necessarily think of Batman Begins as an end-of-the-world type film, but there are elements in it that are incredibly apocalyptic- if not Biblical in proportion. Gotham City is in essence a sort of futuristic version of every big city. Gotham embodies all of the glamour and wickedness that seems to accompany the reality of city life. Indeed, so bad has it gotten in this mythical city that it has practically become overrun with thugs, and no one has the will or courage to do anything about it. Even law enforcement has turned traitor and made a deal with the criminals. Probably the most interesting aspect of this scenario is not that there is some guy named Batman that wants to stop this, but that Batman- in stopping this- also has to stop another enemy. Ra's al Ghul is a mysterious figure who is part of what is called the League of Shadows. And what this so called "League" wishes to do is to demolish the city. Why? Because the city has grown too wicked to be saved, and so he and his organization feel as if the only solution is to raze it to the ground by inflicting chaos upon it. What is so fascinating about this scenario is that usually in such movies when an enemy wants to destroy something, he wants to do so for his own wicked purposes (whatever those may be), but in this story he wants to do so for the purposes of justice. I have never thought of Satan as just, but I suppose there is a kind of Satanic justice which is completely devoid of any mercy. This type of person (or spirit) never wants to loan you anything, but is always there to collect on your debts. In light of this, Batman Begins is like a combination of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, combined with the angel of death scenario in the book of Exodus. And Ra's al Ghul is nothing if not an "angel of death", all too ready to deliver his own brand of indiscriminate justice without any regard for saving anyone or anything in the city. Batman, on the other hand, is the primary intercessor for Gotham (which sounds a little like Sodom), the one standing between a fiery form of justice and a city fallen into disrepute. Thus, not only is it necessary for him to hold off this apocalyptic angel of death, but also to help return the city to order. He's not exactly Abram, but he does try to hold in tension two competing virtues, namely mercy and justice.                       

6. Signs

The genius of this film is ironically the same thing that annoyed many viewers. At first blush, the movie seems to be about some sort of cosmic battle between aliens and humans, but in the end it really isn't about that at all. In fact, what seems to be the central plot is really ancillary to the larger point. I call this "genius" because it would have been all too easy to make it strictly about fighting aliens and saving the planet, but what the director did instead is something far more thought provoking. The aliens do make a brief appearance, and using shadows and reflections the director does manage to give them a menacing quality, but the truth is the extra-terrestrials are an afterthought. And the reason they are an afterthought has to do with the fact that it is the end of the world. What difference does it make what is bringing everything to an end? Death is death, whatever the catalyst/vehicle. Thus, surrounded by all of the high drama, the movie carefully interweaves another plot line, namely what do the characters believe about God. The father, who is played by Mel Gibson, is an Anglican priest who has lost his faith, but when confronted with these catastrophic events is forced to reconsider his position. The point is it is easy to be an atheist in theory, or when emotional luxury and/or affluence afford it. It is quite another thing to be one when the finality of death confronts you. The movie presents a kind of Pascal's Wager of sorts, for the father (Mel Gibson) asks rather pointedly whether his kid brother is the kind of person that sees "signs", or whether he is the type of person that believes "no one is looking out for them." Perhaps it is not the most noble reason to consider these matters, but regardless, it is the only thing that really matters in light of the circumstances. By taking everything away from the actors and the audience, all that is inessential passes away, and all that has ever mattered takes center stage.

5. Apocalypto

Directed by the oft-embattled Mel Gibson, this film addresses the end of the world from the perspective of a particular culture. However, this seemingly strange culture, namely that of the Mayans, does spell out in some sense the recipe for disaster in any culture. In the beginning of the story, we encounter a small tribe which is quite simple, but also quite happy. In fact, it is due in large part to this noble simplicity, and their profound sense of community, that they do begin to thrive as a people. Enter our dear friend irony. As a result of their success, their society becomes more and more advanced, and as their power and influence increases, all the things that brought them their success are slowly abandoned. Soon what you have is a society that is perhaps not exactly like Gotham, but not all that different, either. Observe how impressive monuments seem to be an essential element to the downfall of any great civilization. In the case of the Mayans, their decadence can be seen not just in their monuments to themselves, but also in the values that governed their daily lives. Even their physical appearance becomes more and more ostentatious and decadent as the movie wears. This is demonstrated by the fact that as the civilization progresses, so also the volume of tattoos and piercings. Replacing true creativity and useful innovation, you have crass commercialism; in place of self-sacrifice and the common good, you have vanity and self-centeredness; and in place of a more innocent brand of nature worship, you have the darker demons of human sacrifice. The latter is a true sign of the end for any society and/or civilization. Once a society has decided that it is permissible to sacrifice human beings as a means to preserve their own affluence and youth, you may as well be counting down the days to the end. The beginning of civilization is self-sacrifice, the end is human sacrifice.

4. Children of Men

The only way to recognize just how valuable something is is to take it away permanently, especially something that everybody presumes can't or won't ever be taken away. In Children of Men, what is taken away is humanity's ability to reproduce. Today we presume that we can alter and control life to such an extent that we can practically make it cater to whatever vision we have for our lives. If we want 2.3 children, then 2.3 children it is. If we want only one girl and one boy, then that is exactly what we get. But what about a world for which there is no possibility for any children at all? Such is the world created by the novelist P.D. James; a concept so simple and yet one that few have likely ever considered. Hence, this end of the world scenario comes as a tremendous surprise, for most would expect it to be an epidemic, or an some sort of cataclysmic event, while it is simply the inability to reproduce. The novelist (nor the movie director) ever explains why this has happened in the first place, but it certainly would be an understandable form of justice to take away this power from man considering how egregiously he has abused it. Anyhow, what makes this scenario so powerful is the questions it raises that otherwise would go unaddressed. For example, what would it be like if one hadn't heard a baby cry in eighteen years? It is most ironic that many who have grown to hate that sound, would probably weep for joy were they to hear it in the above situation, and even declare as did  a character in the movie; "Blessed is he who comes..." Children are not only pleasing accessories in some materialistic game of MASH (remember that game?), they are quite literally the Sacrament of tomorrow.

3. I Am Legend

Like the previous film, I Am Legend offers a "what if" scenario, but this time it is not just babies that are being jettisoned, but all human life. The first of two epidemic films on the list, this one imagines the death of the majority of the human population on account of a cure for cancer that has gone terribly wrong. For the majority of the film it appears that the only one who survives this plague is a doctor named Robert Neville. That, however, does not include the so called "dark seekers" who were at one time human, but then became infected by the virus and so became some combination of zombies and vampires (I call them zompires). In essence, Robert Neville has to do all of his work by day because at night these "dark seekers" are roaming around looking for flesh to consume. However interesting that aspect of the movie may be, there is another element of the story which in many ways propels it. Robert Neville is alone, and the only living thing that he is able to interact with is his dog Sam and the various mannequins he interacts with (they aren't living, but he treats them as such). Each day he tries to send a radio signal in the hopes of finding some other living being. What makes the movie particularly fascinating is how it artfully demonstrates the slow mental deterioration of the Neville character. In a most profound way this psychological dilapidation reveals the truth of the Genesis passage; "It is not good for man to be alone." It also is commensurate with the related passage about how God brought man every creature but none was capable of satisfying his real need for companionship. The truth is Sam (his dog) does in a certain sense help to keep him sane, but it is also true that Neville must impute human characteristics to the canine in order for this exercise to work. In some ways, Robert Neville is like a cross between Noah and Job. Like Noah, he is one of the few to survive a catastrophe of cosmic proportion, and likewise feels it his job to restore, and in some sense, reboot humanity. Yet by the same token, he is as well a little like Job in that by suffering such a tremendous calamity he is half-tempted to "curse God and die", or as in this case declare; "There is no God!" In the end, however, as the zompires are closing in, he ultimately chooses to wager in favor of such a Deity, and subsequently finds a way to preserve humanity (he finds an antidote), even while forefeiting his own life in process. This movie is worth seeing if only for its ability to communicate the profound loneliness a man would feel were he to experience such extreme isolation.

2. The Stand                           

The Stand (based on the novel of the same name by Stephen King) is not technically a movie in the sense that it was released in the theaters, rather it was a four-part TV mini-series. It certainly was not without its flaws (for example, they ran out of money at the end of filming and the "dramatic" climax is not so dramatic to say the least). Nevertheless, the movie does deliver in numerous ways. The second movie on the list about epidemics, this one involves a terrible strain of influenza which is accidentally released at a government laboratory, leading to the death of everyone in the lab. However, one man escapes with his family and unknowingly spreads it to the outside world, ultimately killing 99% of the worlds population. The power of the opening scenes lies not simply in telling the audience that so many died, but in giving a sense of how it happened by providing the audience with several vignettes. Consequently, the audience then is able to envision similar events on a universal scale. All the while in the background, you hear the eerie yet upbeat ode to the Grim Reaper, ironically titled "Don't Fear the Reaper". This particular song accompanies all of the opening scenes, giving a certain atmospheric momentum to all of these events. What I found most insightful about this scenario (beyond the atmospherics), was who Stephen King chose to represent the forces of good. Far from formidable, his heroes and heroes were the last people you might expect to be charged with winning a cosmic battle. In fact, the leader of the group, charged by God to be their shepherdess, is an elderly black lady named Mother Abigail who is going blind. Needless to to say, her great strength lies not so much in her biceps,  as in her towering faith. Among the group there's also a deaf man named Nick who is an atheist. When told his mission, he explains to Mother Abigail that he does not believe in God, to which she responds with full throated laughter; "That's OK honey because he believes in you..." Whether King was aware of just how Biblical this is I cannot say, but what is true in any case is that the Christian story is nothing if not a catalogue of rejects and nobodies elevated in ways that, considering their circumstances, seem inconceivable. God, it would seem, is most fond of calling the last people you would expect- to accomplish the last task you would expect them to be able accomplish (think Joan of Arc). Perhaps then Harry Houdini is a little more like God than one might suspect. Even the Gospels themselves seem to affirm that this is God's preferred method of bringing about salvation (actually pretty much all of Scripture affirms it); "The last will be first and the first last." If that statement doesn't keep you humble I'm not exactly sure what would. The Stand is like the Lord of the Rings of science fiction, for it possesses not only the urgency and intensity of an apocalyptic story, but it also possesses the keen insight that if you you are going to defeat evil, you might want to send last person that anyone would suspect.

1. The Road

Without question one of the most disturbing films I have ever watched. In most movies which explore apocalyptic themes, there is some degree of consolation, whether be in the companionship, a meal, or the prospect of a commune where there is some semblance of civilization. This movie has none of the above. The Road is to the apocalypse, what the first thirty minutes of Saving Private Ryan is to war, or better yet, what the Exorcist is to possession. In other words, in these films there is no romance associated with death and fear. To the contrary, fear is immediate. One who watches this film is not permitted- with a few exceptions- to enjoy any consolation. This is a movie that will test your faith, your hope, as well as your charity, and reminds you the type of mental and spiritual toughness that would be required to survive in such a world. Yet in some ways the end of history could not have been all that different from the beginning, for in man's historical childhood he must also have been confronted with the question concerning how one truly distinguishes humanity from savagery. Apart from the mysterious cataclysmic events that propels the story (a mystery which makes the story even more believable), at its core this film is simply a story about a father's love for his son; a father who would not have the will to persevere were it not for that love. But in spite of the terrible circumstances (perhaps even because of them), we learn a powerful lesson about what it means to raise a son and teach him what it means to be a man. For me the most poignant moment in the film is when the son asks the father, played by Viggo Mortensen, if they (he and his father) are the good guys or the bad guys? In this particular case, the bad guys are represented by those who eat people to survive, and the good guys are represented by the ones who are willing to starve rather than resort to such a level of human atrocity. It reveals a strangely eucharistic message. The difference between heaven and hell is the difference between those who devour others in order to preserve themselves, and those that allow themselves to be devoured (either symbolically or literally) if only to safeguard those entrusted to their care. Such a message is not for the weak in spirit, and I have to admit that were a similar set of circumstances to befall me, it would only be by the grace of God if I myself did not turn into a mindless flesh eating zombie.