Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Have We Forgotten?

[Note from Barb: This is something I wrote in the weeks following 9/11. It seems appropriate to repost it now amidst the background of the 9/11 Mosque debate. I think it would have seemed insane to me then, that we are having this debate now. And I would have been right.]

"No One Here Is Working Today"

Annoyance: “This better not be a wrong number.” Negotiation: “Better a wrong number than bad news.” And finally amazement: So many thoughts can crowd the human mind so fast. Then, all of these get jumbled around in suspended animation until the voice on the other end settles things.

“Sorry to wake you. Turn on your TV. There has been a terrible accident in New York.” Susannah, a friend from the office was doing her part to rouse the West Coast. Hanging up, I flip on the television. If only I could have back a few more of those minutes before horror invaded and changed everything.

It is still early into the horror of 9-11, but I am already afraid of forgetting. The certainty that time deadens every sensation seems itself to be one more blow to add to the terrorist sucker-punch. Then, I am afraid of never forgetting. The thought that civilization could be forever altered by hate is a devastating concession to the negative. Civilizations should be substantially altered by the good – by the inventiveness of the human mind, or by a growth in understanding.

One of the towers of the World Trade Center billows smoke. Katie and Matt try to make sense of it for me. I’m not sure it’s worth waking up my roommate over. Someone’s stupidity and a lot of people end up dying. The 1993 WTC bombing flashes through my mind. “What is it with those buildings?” Mental note: Never accept a job in a landmark. Another plane trolls into the back of the other Tower. I see it before Matt. Because he doesn’t comment, I start to wonder if it really happened. Maybe it is a helicopter circling around. But then Matt starts to stammer. It has happened again. This is no accident.

9-11 has been called this generation’s Pearl Harbor. This comparison has to do with the shock that invaded American society, and then became a battle cry to marshall a nation. The resemblance stops there. How I envy the Greatest Generation their Pearl Harbor. The enemy was known. The task was clear. The end was in sight even by sunset on that first terrible day. America knew victory would be costly, but victory itself was never in doubt.

Still in our pajamas an hour later, my roommate and I watch quietly as both towers tumble down in quick jerks and starts. They look like dominoes. A lesson from childhood invades. As long as they are lined up, every domino will fall down. And they do. The perfect symmetry of the astonishing towers renders their complete collapse a certainty. I have an appointment this morning to edit together a video of ‘haunting moment’ film clips. I know with certainty that the Towers collapsing will haunt me till the end of my life. Calling to cancel the session, I find strange comfort in the dull grief of the receptionist who takes my message. “No, no one here is working today.” Could anything be so irrelevant as Hollywood? Will I ever again find a movie haunting?

The Hour of Heroes and Saints

Our street borders on the usually bustling region of the city known as the Hollywood hamlet. Tonight, there is an eerie stillness. Several pedestrians pass me on the sidewalk. Each time we avert our eyes from each other. We have all been surprised by grief and it is embarrassing to have been caught unawares. We were all buying and selling and going about our business, and meanwhile groups of people have been hating us and in their simmering anger have been plotting our deaths.
I have heard people say that 9-11 shattered our sense of security. Rather, 9-11 shattered our illusion of security. There can be no security in a world in which there is sin.

I reach the corner impressed by the deathly quiet. I turn and face the row of restaurants expecting to see them all empty. But no, the street cafes all overflow with people. Solemn people. Grieving people. Frightened lonely people. Some few speak in hushed voices. As I pass along the sidewalk, hundreds follow me with their eyes. They too are out desperately seeking distraction.

Just up ahead, a young woman appears on the corner holding a lit candle. Must be an actress. Too thin. Too blond. A passing car lays on its horn in a sign of support. Before long, hundreds more stragglers join her vigil. They sing “God Bless America” crying and staring into the passing traffic. More and more cars add their horns to the strange cacophony. Once again I weep. But I am glad too. I suddenly feel close to these strangers.

My whole life I have never been able to bear “God Bless America” without tears. I have always thought it a curious quirk because I am not sentimental. Now, every hymn about God or country brings with it the sensation of holding back waves of emotion. It is so pathetic. “He had compassion on the crowd for they were like sheep without a shepherd.” I am so tired of weeping.

For the fourth time in two days, an Evangelical Protestant friend calls me with a variation on a single question. “What are we to do? What does the Catholic Church say?” I put my own confusion on auto-pilot. Somebody needs what was invested in me years ago. I draw on my Great Books education, once again grateful for my long-suffering professor’s insistence that thirteenth century philosophical principles are eternally relevant. I lay out for them the standards that the Church labels “Double Effect.” They are comforted.

Even in the horrible darkness inflicted by a brutal sucker-punch, Americans are still concerned to do what is right. Very striking in the aftermath is the universal desire of our people to respond with justice to injustice. There are few if any voices of revenge, and these are silenced immediately by the grief that has given to all of us a new gravity. This is not the time for reprisals.

For all her failures, the Church is still regarded as a voice of moral authority. Especially by those outside of her embrace. My non-Catholic friends call me because, as one put it, “I know the Catholic Church must have some teaching for times like this.” And he was right. We are allowed a proportional response. We are allowed to remove instruments of evil from children who would harm others through them, even if some die while we remove those instruments. We are not allowed vindictiveness. We are not allowed hate.

God only permitted this because in the span of eternity, He could handle it. He can weave out of it more good than evil in the long run. I have had a treasured bookmark since I was in the fourth grade. Mrs. Pierce, my religion teacher gave it to me and I have managed to hang onto it throughout the years. “The hour of crisis is also the hour of heroes and saints.” There were only a handful of evildoers. There are so many hundreds of heroes.

Will God Return to Us Now?

My friend Sylvia is a reporter and a friend of NYC’s Chief of Police. He told her months later that they knew by noon of the attack day that there would be no survivors to find in the rubble of the World Trade Center. The rescue efforts were a ruse instigated by Mayor Giulani to give the city time to get counselors in place and to let families adjust to the possibility of loss. I remember that Sylvia, who had lost a network news job in an Insider-like scenario, was as grateful as I for the lie.

I imagine 9-11 is better compared to Bull Run, or Gettysburg or any of the bloody battles of the Civil War. The enduring source of dull pain comes from the certainty that the enemy is not fighting for territory, but for ideology. It must have felt very futile to many Americans to fight over an idea like personhood. You can’t change a person’s mind by winning a battle. As long as one person is unconvinced, the evil lurks and has power. The Civil War did not resolve the issue of racism as the evils of Reconstruction and segregation proved. Legally, it took over a hundred years to realize the victory of Appomattox. How long both black and white America will suffer the long-term effects of slavery is anyone’s guess.

“The Pentagon? What is that about?” For the hundredth time this morning I am confused. “Alright, I’ve had enough. What the hell is going on?” I look at my roommate for answers but she has none. Neither does CNN, FOX, MSNBC or any of the networks. Waves of anger shake off the grip of shock. “Who did this? Why don’t they take credit for it?” We keep making trips to the refrigerator like movie fans at an all day horror marathon. Food is comforting.

Theoretically, an ideology could be stamped out by literally wiping out all of its adherents. Hence, the suggestion raised by some pundits that we should carpet bomb Afghan mountains. But who are we kidding? Who are the adherents of this kind of hatred against sky-scrapers and airline passengers? My sense is that they are many. I’ve been educated through the years by periodic news footage of Islamic boys dancing and chanting with rage at strange effigies and burning American flags. The impotence of their demonstrations has often struck me as obscene. Naked rage like any human nakedness should not be exposed in the marketplace.

Ideology can only be overcome by conversion. Conversion takes a long time and patience. You only bother to convert someone who is worth it to you. It is so much easier just to kill them. If only we could kill them all. But I am horrified by the thought even as it flashes across my mind. We wouldn’t kill them all even if we could. We are not them.

A reporter interviews a priest in front of the rubble. The priest’s black garb is strangely gray with the pulverized dust of the Towers. There are particles of thousands of people in that dust. After a few preliminary questions, the reporter forgets his training and his humanity spills out at the foot of the rubble mountain. “How could God let this happen, Father?” The priest is moved by the man’s grief and touches his arm. Just then, God interjects. Four firemen carry a wounded man on a stretcher in the background. The priest points at the pile of rubble, “This isn’t God.” He points at the rescuers and their burden, “That is.” The reporter weeps in a strange kind of relief, “Yes. You’re right. Thank you, Father.” I weep too. What has happened here?

I resent every effort to glean lessons from 9-11. We don’t sit at the mouth of hell for instruction. The only lesson is to convict us that there is a mouth of hell and that were it not for the presence of a greater good, we would all be swallowed by the darkness.

Prayer everywhere. Prayer on Capitol Hill. In a display that was unthinkable just a week ago, now Daschel, Kennedy, Lott and Armey linked arm-in-arm sing “God Bless America” on the Capitol steps. The President calls for national prayer services. Thousands of neophyte believers stream into the Church where I work for a time of prayer at noon on the 14th. The minister directs them to sing a song in one of the hymnals. In front of me, a row of leather clad professionals from the studio down the hill look at each other in confusion. “What is a hymnal?” I am weeping again.

Has God abandoned us? The bizarre spectacle of our public officials suddenly leading us all in prayer reveals the truth. We are not used to prayer in public. We have abandoned God. Will He return to us now? Are prayers issued in fear and terror heard? Will God be fooled? Ah, but He knows we are sheep. The Shepherd does not sneer at the sheep who bleat in fear during a storm.

It is finally night and the cameras in NYC relent in their ceaseless combing of Ground Zero. I need to distract myself until morning when we can count on more televised pictures to fill the hours. Walking outside, the loveliness of the warm L.A. evening strikes me as unfair and inappropriate. Just then a police helicopter surges overhead sweeping the street with a bright light. For the next several weeks, the helicopters are constantly overhead. Everyone who works in Hollywood is absolutely sure the industry is on a terrorist hit list somewhere. Lots of people in entertainment are weathering intense survivor guilt. “It’s our fault they hate us.”

God Bless America Indeed

Some last impressions of the time that I wish to never forget.

The President walks out alone to the mound at Yankee Stadium. Before the eyes of the world, he stands vulnerable. Takes his time, and sights the catcher and pitches a perfect strike to open the World Series…

Those firemen and policemen stay in Tower One even after Tower Two collapses. They continue to race upward. The gravelly last words of one such hero pours out of a brother’s walkie-talkie, “There are still people up there. We can’t leave them.”

The passengers on Flight 93 become aware that they are being used as human missiles. They take a vote.

To the last Americans. De Toqueville had written two hundred years ago about this strange propensity of Americans, “They think that any problem can be solved if only they get together and take a vote.” They decide to die so that other Americans will be spared.

Freedom makes heroism possible. The essence of heroism is in exercising a choice. The hero’s choice is to prefer another’s life to his own. Aristotle wrote that because the state exists to allow men to become virtuous, freedom with all of its pitfalls must be preferred, because there is no virtue without choice. We had become cynical about our countrymen, but the events of 9-11 have surprised us all. We are still more than decadent. Our instincts are still to save life, to give to those in need, to draw together in times of tragedy, to do the right thing even when those who oppose us operate under no such limits.

One last recollection. It is late in September. Fairfax Boulevard is typically frenzied with traffic and pedestrians. Approaching a crowded cross street, I see a plastic car flag flapping through the air, landing in the middle of the intersection. And then a miracle happens. The car ahead of me stops in front of the green light. Hazard lights flash and then a middle-aged woman emerges grim and resolute. She makes her way toward the flag, walking in the center of the intersection. All the cars slide to a stop. Windows are rolled down and a gathering applause fills the air. The woman picks up the flag and pivoting around to all of us, she waves it high in the air. Car horns add quick pulses to the applause as she walks back to her car. As traffic starts up, I am weeping again.

Flags are our new vigil lights. Every flag that waves is suddenly a prayer that America will recall the blessings of God. Freedom, not license. Community not diversity. Prosperity to make virtue possible. Speech to utter the truth. Opportunity to advance human potential and achievement. God bless America indeed.

Fawn, Pander, Blather

It seems hugely anti-climactic to end my two year movie review silence for the likes of the new Julia Robert's soft-focus orgy Eat, Pray, Love. (Hmmmm... I'm a bit out of practice. Have I just tipped my hand a bit here as to how I felt about the film?)

The main flaw of the piece may proceed from the nature of the source material itself. The movie was preposterously, stylishly, Hollywood big-budgety, and insultingly banal. And while a scriptwriter always has the duty of making the source material better, still, sometimes, that is an impossible task. I mean, this is a book with a title that could be found scrawled as a caveman grunt on a Stone Age wall: "Me man thing. Me eat, do rain dance, have sex." (Call me judgmental, but I'm taking the tack that the "love" and "pray" presented in the movie are largely not. They're kind of pagan perversions of these activities. They did get the "eat" right, though, which has everything to do with the fact that that part of the film was in Italy, where they truly are geniuses with food. All the evidence is to the contrary that India and Bali are geniuses with the Deity and self-donation respectively. )

And, I'm not just complaining that the resolution (I can't bring myself to write "answers") that the movie offers is lame. The very questions that the film proposes to be asking are banal.

Eat, Pray, Love is not a journey of a woman in search of her soul. It's really the travelogue of tax deductions of a New York writer in search of a book.

So, granting that the "big questions" weren't really the preoccupation of anybody making this movie, it remains to ask, "Why?" Hummmmmmmm... What was really driving the making of Eat, Pray, Love? Let me meditate for a minute. Hummmmmmmmmmm....

Still thinking here. What were they thinking? Hummmmm......

Are you tracking with me?

This movie is possibly the most shameless star vehicle since Julia's self-aggrandizing stint in Ocean's 12 in which she played her goddessness self. She pulled a similar thing in Notting Hill, "I'm just a girl. Standing in front of a boy. Asking for him to love her." waves of intense nausea) but that movie had enough other stengths to salvage the project as a whole. (Please Julia, go to healthy irony school. Or, in other words, the anti-Iraq war crowd called. They want their earnestness back.) It was embarrassing to watch so much Hollywood talent go through this ultimately masturbatory exercise in celebration of the god Celebrity. Particularly painful because of the lack of irony that took in a movie purporting to be about a spiritual quest.

At its core, Eat, Pray, Love relates the tedious pilgrimage of a selfish, immature narcissist (don't think of that as a redundancy as much as an emphasis) who manages to evade true spirituality (in the sense of sacrifice and repentance) true connection with other persons (in the sense of sacrifice and repentance) and plot points (in the sense of sacrifice, and well, repentance.... Note to self: There's a great new talk on the core of the successful transformational story arc there....).

Thoughts that ran through my head while viewing.... "Her poor husband!"......"We have seen this scene already. Three times."....."When people reject the good God, they always make themselves a bad one."....."I never thought of chanting loudly as a way of drowning out the voice of your conscience.".... "She's a succubus."......"Did she just say that awful bad dialogue or was I dozing?"......"Need pasta."....."Something is wrong with a religion that leaves you toothless and unable to use a copy machine."...."Getting your friends to write checks is not a selfless act."....."Her husband should be glad he is rid of her."....

Should I talk about the false religion exemplified in the line from the film, "God is in me AS ME." No, God is in you to draw you to Him. We are not the Godhead. We aren't even headed for losing our identity in the Godhead because he loves us as individuals. When Oprah interviewed Julia for the movie she asked her, "So, what's your favorite food? What's your favorite pray?" as though every kind of prayer is fine as long as it makes you feel, what? Heard? Validated? Sated - the way the movie characters sate themselves with food and sex? My dark side had me imagining Julia answering, "Oh, well, I like to torture little animals while playing the soundtrack to Tommy." And Oprah would surely have responded with her wide eyes, "And does that work for you?"

See, your "favorite pray" is not neutral. It is good if it leads you to lay down your life for your friends. It is bad if it leads you to "forgive yourself" for abandoning your son, or your husband, or if it leads you to justify fornicating with a virtual stranger, or into concluding that basically you can do whatever you need to do as long as it floats your boat. God, please tell me I will live to see this Boomer lie scorned in the popular culture!

This movie is plodding, repetitive, and anti-climactic. There is an artificial inciting incident - the main character's festering narcissism erupts and makes her regurgitate her marriage vows - there is no character establishment - they seemd to think we woud be on the character's side because she is Julia...note to producers: ref. Mary Riley - there are no sub plots - there is no imagery - there is no suspense - there is nothing surprising - there is no ending, the audience torture just stops. Thank God, but really, inexcusable.

In summation, Eat, Pray, Love is a bad movie in terms of it's storytelling and in terms of what it says. Or, um, what it doesn't say. Or, um, that is, what it says really badly. Oh, just eat, pray, pass.

Monday, August 16, 2010

A Call to Common Sense

Now that Obama has weighed in on the mosque at Ground Zero, it seems to me that we all get to.

The gist of a lot of the left leaning blogs and pundits seems to be that people against the mosque are so full of fear and hate that we are willing to void our own Bill of Rights to stop it.

I think it is, well, hateful to acuse all people who are against the Ground Zero mosque of being simply full of hate. Isn’t that just repeating the same cycle of oversimplifying and demonizing which you are decrying?

It is far too dark a picture of America to contend that the 67% of people against the mosque are just consumed in hate and fear. There is so much more going on here. Namely, pain.

My mother used to say, “If you know someone has a sore toe, you should go out of your way not to step on it.” 9/11 is still much more than a sore toe. It is still a horror.

I wish I believed that the mosque would be an interfaith community center to promote love and understanding. The truth is, the principle driver behind the mosque has refused to condemn Hamas. He seemed in one statement to excuse the attacks of 9/11 as something America had earned by her foreign policy. A decade or so ago, a bunch of Muslims told us that they just wanted to learn how to fly airliners, so we taught them how. One of the hardest blows of the 9/11 tragedy was that they used our own open society against us. Dare we trust them again to use our own 1st amendment against us? Excuse me for being leery.

In an article in The Atlantic kind of pathetically called, "What Obama Meant to Say About the Mosque" (who says the elite media don't see themselves as defenders of Obama?), this liberal writer notes in an idealistic frenzy, "What could be a more powerful counter-argument to the idea that the West is warring with Islam than the American president endorsing the construction of a mosque a few blocks away from (our) sacred site?"

This writer is making the mistake of making the Islamic world in his own image: "What could be a more powerful counter-argument to the idea that the West is warring with Islam than the American president endorsing the construction of a mosque a few blocks away from a sacred site?....See, Islamic fundamentalists aren't engaging in an argument. They are engaging in jihad. Hearing Mayor Bloomberg say that the mosque would make Muslims around the world stop fearing us reminded me of Neville Chamberlain waiving an agreement from Hitler and proclaiming that, "We will have peace in our time!"

I was terribly impressed four years ago to visit the Holy Land. Beside nearly every Christian and Jewish holy site, the Muslims have built a mosque. These mosques scream the call to prayer five times a day and make quiet meditation and celebration of the mysteries of our faith nearly impossible. There are seven in the Old City of Jerusalem alone. They go off in syncopated fashion during the day and almost made me crazy. A member of the Knesset noted to me that the mosques are a provocation, and in the minds of the Islamic faithful, they are a sign of Islam’s domination over its enemies. Part of me thinks that a mosque at 9/11 would be a way of giving succor to the millions of Muslims who hate us as the great Satan and cheered the Towers going down.

I am less interested in whether Muslims have a right to build a mosque at 9/11. (And that they might is not as cut and dry as the appeal to 1st Amendment freedoms would have it seem. There is loads of legal precedent for individual property rights being ceded to the common good. You can’t build a bar on your property if there is a school nearby. My grandfather lost our family farm so Waterville, ME could build an airport. (They never actually did.) The Supreme Court ruling in Kelo a few years back said that property rights could be voided if a town could make more taxes by seizing the land and dedicating it to another use…) But whether there is a legal right to build it, this seems to me to not be the moment. The terrible grief and horror is still too fresh. America has not even rebuilt on the 9/11 site yet. The Freedom Tower is still on the drawing board. The Russian Orthodox Church that was destroyed at Ground Zero is still waiting to be rebuilt. It seems to me inappropriate that a mosque would come first.

It is too easy and even unkind to mistake the pain of our people for hate. The memory of those innocent people falling to the ground is still too raw.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Another Nice Review

Here's a nice review of a book for which I wrote a chapter. They had some kind words for my piece:

Barbara Nicolosi’s chapter on shepherding artists was one of my favorites. She offers suggestions for identifying, teaching, nurturing, and challenging artists to pursue excellence in their field “for the general edification of the body of Christ and for the world,” because beauty and art, when done excellently, can “open a channel of revelation between God and man.”
Thanks to Arts Books.

Eden on West on JPII on TOB

You either know what I mean by that headline or you don't.

For those who do, there is a good discussion going on over at Sr. Lorraine's blog. The discussion centers around the Theology of the Body movement in the Catholic Church, and specifically, Christopher West's interpretation of John Paul II's work in the area of sexuality. The (great and case anybody wants to know what I think of her...) Dawn Eden has recently completed a Masters thesis critiquing Christopher West's work. Because West has attained to celebrity status in the American Catholic Church, Dawn's thesis is being met with what seems to me to be knee-jerk dismissal, and even hostility.

I don't really have too much of a dog in this race. The theology of sexuality is not my area of expertise or training. But, I did do a fairly rigorous study of JPII's writings on sexuality as regards art for my work in Hollywood. Also, I have been a catechetics teacher for ten years, and before that was a member of a religious community for ten years, and before that, I did study Catholic theology and philosophy for four years as an undergrad.

I am always leery of the panacea impulse in the Church. Bandwagons and circumspection don't often co-exist. I have used West's work with my catechumens, basically because they couldn't seem to plumb and appreciate JPII's work. Maybe that should have been a red flag right there. Maybe this subject isn't one that tends towards being popularized. Anyway, here is my comment from the discussion at Sr. Lorriane's blog.

I have found JPII's insights on shame to be brilliant and helpful. Love and Responsibility is a tough work, but I was very glad that I made myself plow through it. I have used many of his ideas with my students especially in the area of the ethics of using the human body in art. Unfortunately, unaided, very few students/catechumens are able to derive anything cohesive from the work. This opened the door for West to enter in and make himself a go-between. This seemed to me to be good - until the work of mediating became a whole cottage industry and West himself a celebrity needing to push past clarifying the Pope into waters he wasn't prepared by training to navigate.

I see West's efforts mainly helpful for people who are completely new to Catholicism, or who have been poorly catechized. He seems to have mastered over-simplification of teaching to people who are looking for that in the realm of sexual behavior. I teach RCIA and I know that very often, our catechumens just want to know what the Church says they can or can't do. Christopher West is there with a helpful list.

Success has encouraged Chris to push more and more into developing an always more populist approach to the Theology of the Body. I find the results of the straining after populism in some TOB speakers to be lacking in reverence, and even crass. As St. Paul said, "Some things should never be mentioned among you." I also like Emily Dickinson here: "They speak of hallowed things aloud, and embarrass my dog."

I would also suggest that the new evangelization doesn't mean finding a populist approach to dogma. My sense of what the Pope meant by the term is that we need to find new forums for the same message.

In the interests of putting something specific out there for people to debate.....I think one of West's most troubling over-simplifications surrounds the issue of the lack of conscious control that surrounds sex. In one talk I heard him give, Chris seemed to want to eliminate the loss of control as always being akin to the sin of lust. This is an error. There is a lack of control that humans can experience that proceeds from joy. Laughter is the same kind of lack of control. It isn't sinful for human beings to desire the lack of control that comes from joy.

But even this error isn't original to West. St. Augustine had the same fear of sexual desire. He wrote that Adam had perfect control of all of his body's functions. In other words, Adam never laughed?

Finally, one of the things that has made me circumspect about West's work is the way that it has been championed by the disciples of the now disgraced sexual pervert Fr. Maciel. Regnum Christi and Legion of Christ sycophants like the National Catholic Register have been a huge part of the cheering chorus for TOB and West. This isn't Chris' fault, but he would do well to extricate himself publicly from all the tentacles of the very bad tree of Maciel.

There is room in the Church for Dawn Eden and others to question and challenge any popular movement that purports to popularize Catholic theology.
I mean to impute no ill motives to West or TOB here. Basically just inviting more discussion. (If people can't do that without insults than they should delete their comments before I do.)

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Over 1,000,000 Served!

This blog just passed that rather cool benchmark. Thanks so all of you who have stopped by.

More soon.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Turn, Turn, Turn

Here's the long version of my article on the Boomers and their cultural legacy. Thanks again to The Anchoress for coaxing this out of me.