Flannery the Awesome

Flannery O’Connor

I got re-acquainted with Flannery O’Connor this summer. What a treat!– witty and sometimes biting, always insightful, faithful, and refreshing. She’s a good tonic.

I’m speaking especially of her collected prose here. The stories merit their own superlatives, of course: they hold an integrity of vision and execution characteristic of any work that deserves to be called “art” rather than “propaganda” or “entertainment.” For now, though, let’s just consider the prose.

Here’s a snippet from “The Fiction Writer and His Country.” Provoked by an editorial in “Life” magazine brimming with optimism about American power and prosperity, and decrying the lack of any American novelists who would glowingly “show us the redeeming quality of spiritual purpose,” Flannery says this:

What these editorial writers fail to realize is that the writer who emphasizes spiritual values is very likely to take the darkest view of all of what he sees in this country today. For him, the fact that we are the most powerful and the wealthiest nation in the world doesn’t mean a thing in any positive sense. The sharper the light of faith, the more glaring are apt to be the distortions the writer sees in the life around him.

Flannery’s faith was the light by which she saw things that those invested in American triumphalism did not see. The distortions she perceived in 1957 persist today: in the light of faith, power and wealth wielded solely for “me” and “mine” are nothing at the end of the day.

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Religious People in the Movies

Philomena Lee

Apparently “Philomena,” starring Judi Dench, is surpassing expectations at the box office. Good. If you haven’t seen it, set aside some time to take in the story of a mother searching for the son she had to give up, 50 years ago.

No spoilers ahead– I’m not going to recount the story here. One lingering reflection, however, has to do with a nun who is portrayed as especially– even cruelly– bitter and moralistic: Sister Hildegarde.

As a professional religious person, I pay attention to how professional religious people are portrayed in movies. Dithering blowhard fools is one characterization: think of the priest in “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and his invocation of the “Holy Goat,” um, er, “Holy Spigot;” or in “The Princess Bride,” when Humperdink and Buttercup stand before the priest who, nasally and with a speech impediment, begins to sermonize about “Twooo Wuv……” Then there’s the saccharine Father Mulcahy of the TV series “MASH”: innocent, pious, toothless– likable but largely irrelevant. The best I could come up with, are the nuns in “The Sound of Music,” who, aside from having some singing ability, actually engage in an act of moral courage that helps the von Trapps escape from Austria (and open a 3-star resort in Stowe).

And now we have Sister Hildegarde, a character who seems to worship her religion, rather than her God. Usurping the role of judge, Sister Hildegarde metes out a punishment that can only be called cruel. She doesn’t get the last word, however, and in this movie the last word goes to the character who is closer to the heart of divine mercy than those who appear to be the professional religious. In that way, “Philomena” is not so far removed from the Bible’s newer testament.

via Box office surprise: Judi Dench’s “Philomena” – CBS News.

The Rolling Stones at Hyde Park– It’s a Different Time

Mick Jagger

This item from The Christian Science Monitor caught my attention: a few days ago, the Rolling Stones played a concert in London’s Hyde Park.

When they played there 44 years ago, Mick Jagger was about 26 years old. Now he’s nearing 70.

When they played there 44 years ago, the concert was free. Now, some premium tickets cost around $300.

Here’s an excerpt and the link:

The Rolling Stones returned to London’s Hyde Park after 44 years with a concert that saluted both the band’s past and the fleetingly idyllic English summer. Mick Jagger even donned a frock for the occasion.

via The Rolling Stones return to London’s Hyde Park for the first time in 44 years – CSMonitor.com.

Telling Time

Merry Christmas! Um, I mean, Happy Easter!!!

Leaving a school function last Friday (you may recall that it was Good Friday), a well-meaning and thoughtful teacher greeted everyone at the door with a hearty, broadly-smiling “Happy Easter.” I thought: Well, no– not yet. That’s not what time it is. Today is a day we remember an agony, an abandonment, and a death.

That teacher could have been me 20 years ago, so I did not  feel indignant or offended. What I did feel, was an acute sense of incongruity, and the collision of different worlds: the world of the Bunny who has been in stores since Valentines Day, and the world of Jesus, whose followers have been preparing for the Feast of Resurrection since Ash Wednesday.

What is happening to the time preceding Easter– and Easter’s Christmas-ification– are the clearest signs of how Christian practice is being swallowed by the culture of commerce, limitlessness, and frenetic death-denial. That is not said in a spirit of hand-wringing; nor is it a scold. It is merely an observation.

The happiness of a Happy Easter is of a special kind. It’s a happiness– joy is a better word– beyond what words can say; a joy that lives in the same place as our deepest feelings of belonging, and of being loved. This joy comes with a price: the requirement to descend into darkness and abandonment. There is no light without the dark; no dawn without the midnight. Easter might be a lovely spring day without Good Friday, but it is not joyful in the way that followers of Jesus know that particular joy.

This world– beautiful and good as it is– cannot give such joy.

via Easter Bunny History at EasterBunny’s.Net..

Looking At Democracy

The Illinois Humanities Council and the MacArthur Foundation are sponsoring a contest for media pieces on the subject of strengthening democracy.

So where do you start?

It’s long been the view of Religion in the Balance that what ails the body politic are the fundamentals on which politics are built: an operationalized view of human nature and the end (as in purpose) of human life; how the liberty of the individual, and the responsibility of the individual to the community, are balanced; how those who have power and voice in a society treat (in word, deed, and policy) those who are relatively powerless and voiceless.

Rodney King once famously said (paraphrased), “Can’t we all just get along?” King’s plea was for the peaceful co-existence of different races, and therefore something we should all desire. In the context of democracy writ large, however, the answer to “Can’t we all just get along?” is a resounding “No”– thankfully. We shouldn’t expect, or even want, to “all just get along,” because plurality, diversity, and disagreement are our strength. Unanimity– broad, society-wide unanimity– is just another word for totalitarianism. It would be troubling if we were all getting along without conflict– it would be a sign that either we were snow jobbing ourselves through widespread self-deception, or that we were being coerced into unanimity by an outside power. Both are false, and symptomatic of a society in deep decay.

The genius of our democracy is that we hold as an ideal (if not always in practice) that we can live peacefully– and actually compromise– with people with whom we disagree: people who do not share the view of human nature that we do; people who do not pursue meaning in life the way we do; people who balance individual liberty and communal responsibility in society differently than we do. The genius of our democracy is our ability to use this difference and diversity as a strength.

Re-learning how to use conflict creatively is the most important beginning we can make, to strengthen democracy today.

Capitalism and Its Discontents

We’ve been considering different themes  in Eugene McCarraher’s “Morbid Symptoms”  (Commonweal, November 2012). The last one to mention is his critique of capitalism. Coincidentally, this month’s feature story in Foreign Affairs is an evaluation of capitalism: “Capitalism and Inequality”, by Jerry Muller.

Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, and then with the decades-long rise of China and India through their participation in the Western-dominated economic order, criticizing capitalism feels like swimming against the tide of history. Surely the way that the Cold War ended, combined with the last quarter-century of unprecedented wealth creation, prove that capitalism is above reproach?

McCarraher dowses us with a bucket of cold water. “Wake up!” he shouts in muscular prose: capitalism comes with huge costs to the material of the world, and to the spirit of humanity. How could we fail to see that an economic engine which harnesses the power of human avarice to drive it, will inevitably grind us down, diminishing and deflating our sense of what a human life means. Are we made for the Love of God, or for the market? We are socialized to live as though we are made for the market– ie, that we are commodities– and it takes an act of will to choose otherwise. Market-thinking dominates our culture; how could it not penetrate our most basic understanding of who we are, and what the purpose of life is?

Muller is less radical. He sees chronic insecurity as the inevitable result of capitalism, since the dynamism of creative destruction brings continual change. His conclusion: don’t dismantle the welfare state, but strengthen it, because too much insecurity will lead to rebellion. Enlightened self-interest would suggest some level of re-distribution of wealth, in order to increase social stability.

While Muller and McCarraher have fundamentally different points of departure, both see serious flaws in laissez-faire capitalism. The system, while ascendant, is not above reproach– and without critique and correction, it contains the seeds of its own destruction. It may be said of capitalism as an economic system, as Churchill said of democracy: “It’s the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” Which is to say that capitalism, like democracy, is not the holy grail. It is not our salvation.

The Church Called America

Eugene McCarraher (“Morbid Symptoms,” Commmonweal, November 2012) makes reference to the “church called America”– which he understands to be separate from, and significantly different from, a Christian church. In making this distinction, he identifies one of the faultlines in American culture today. That faultline is the point of collision between two continent-sized ideas: one, that God’s good will for the world is co-extensive with American economic, political, and military principles and practices; and two, that God’s good will for the world is co-extensive NOT with any state or nation, but with a person whose self-sacrificing love revealed a divine, redeeming, inexhaustable Love at the heart of all.

This gets messy. Why can’t it be both, some may say: why can’t Jesus be the Savior AND America be the light, lately arrived on history’s scene, to show the world the way of God? Why not both?

Because we are human. Perhaps there is such a thing as “American exceptionalism,” but even if there is such a thing, it does not apply to our basic fallen nature: power corrupts always; pride leads to overreach always; nothing is purely good, ever.

McCarraher is criticizing the US Roman Catholic bishops for conflating the way of Christ with the way of American consumer capitalism/militarism, but the criticism applies to all who have authority in Christian churches (hello, self): we need to draw more clearly the lines that locate the God of Christ at work in the world, and the lines that locate the god of America at work in the world. We may imagine a time when those lines corresponded, but that time is not the present time.

To say so, is to make possible a love for both God AND country, with a love that is appropriate to each.