Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Homily I Would Have Given for St. Bartholomew's Day

It’s a presumption, I know, as a layperson, but sometimes the discourse is such that attempts at charitable interpretation are hopeless, and the best preservation of grace and sanity lies in the construction of an alternate narrative.

St. Bartholomew, or Nathaniel (as he is called in the Gospel of John) was a friend of St Philip.  According to popular legend, he evangelized Asia Minor, parts of India, and Greater Armenia (the region which is today occupied by Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Northern Iran). While in this region, he is said to have converted a local king and many of his subjects, and subsequently been flayed alive for his efforts—a martyrdom which is depicted in many works of art.

The Church gives us indications of how to think about St. Bartholomew on this feast: indications in the propers of the Mass and the readings.  The first reading from Revelation shows us “the holy city Jerusalem”—not the earthly city, which St. John and St. Bartholomew knew well, but the City of Heaven.  It is an odd image, to the modern mind.  We often think of the city as a place of immorality, poverty, artificiality, etc., in contrast to the beauty and freedom of the country.  But, while cities have always had those downfalls, they were for much of human history the best places to live, where human beings could enjoy comparative protection from the natural variability of the weather and the seasons.  Equally importantly, the city was a place where human beings could enjoy the society of their fellow human beings.  For much of human history, then, the city was the place to be if you wanted to flourish economically or intellectually.  At its best, the city gave writers from Aristotle to Aquinas an image, an image which they used to suggest a society of virtuous men, bonded together in friendship, a friendship that was directed toward the virtuous pursuit of the common good, the thing that is good for everybody, the thing that everybody ideally would have: namely, the contemplation of God and ultimately, the vision of Him face to face.

That’s what the city in Revelation represents: a community of friends all directed towards their divine Lover, God himself.  And by calling this city “the heavenly Jerusalem” John suggests a continuity between this God-ordered city called heaven, and the institutions we know on earth.  Just as the everyday Jerusalem had gates for trade and travel, so the heavenly Jerusalem will have gates—but gates by which no one who has entered will ever seek to leave.  Just as twelve men were (indirectly) founders of the earthly Jerusalem, and enabled all their mortal descendants to enter into it; so twelve apostles founded the heavenly Jerusalem, and enable all of their spiritual descendants—all those who hear the Gospel—all of us—to enter it.

St. Bartholomew, then, like the other apostles, is a kind of conduit, a drain (if I may use the image!) for God’s grace to flow down onto us.  The one saying we have from Jesus about Bartholomew (or Nathaniel) calls him “an Israelite without duplicity” or “without guile.”  Guile, the mindset where you’re always thinking of keeping your own mental advantage over others, gets in the way of recognizing Jesus.  It’s not likely that Bartholomew would have recognized Jesus as “the Son of God” if he had been overthinking the situation, making excuses for how Jesus could have known where he was.  But St. Bartholomew’s lack of guile meant that he not only recognized Jesus, but was able to bring him to others.  St. Bartholomew had, in other words, a disposition to speak the good news of Christ directly, without watering it down or putting his own spin on things.  Compare that to what we often here these days—from the news, the media, politicians, the entertainment industry—even, sadly, sometimes from the pulpit—and you’ll appreciate what an amazing and wonderful thing it is, for a preacher to be, like St. Bartholomew, “without guile,” to be (again, pardon the image!) an unclogged drainpipe.

But there is another “drainpipe” or “conduit” (if you will) mentioned in the propers for today’s Mass.  The collect refers to it.  During the collect we pray: “Strengthen in us, O Lord, the faith, by which the blessed Apostle Bartholomew clung wholeheartedly to your Son, and grant that through the help of his prayers your Church may become for all the nations the sacrament of salvation.”

Here the Church, still governed by the bishops, the descendants of St. Bartholomew and the other apostles, is described as the new conduit, the “sacrament” that brings salvation to all the nations, just as St. Bartholomew and his fellow apostles aimed to do.  We do this, as St. Bartholomew did, by living as Christians in the world, but also by preaching of the coming of Jesus, and of our eventual life with him in the heavenly city.  We preach this not standing on a street corner (at least, not necessarily)—but by being ready and indeed eager to speak of the faith to everyone whom we meet—yes, even if they end up flaying us alive (fortunately, in our country, at least for now, the flaying is usually only figurative).

And the really good news that we should be sharing with everyone is that we don’t have to wait for heaven before we can begin our contemplation of Jesus, and our friendship with the saints.  We get a taste of these things right here and now.  The post-Communion prayer says: “May the pledge of eternal salvation which we have received ... bring us help for this present life, and for that which is to come.”  The “pledge of eternal salvation” here isn’t the Church, or some promise handed down from St. Bartholomew and company—it’s the Holy Eucharist, Jesus Christ the God-Man Himself, under the appearances of bread and wine, which—in just a few moments—those of you who are properly disposed, and in the state of grace, having been to Confession recently—will come up here to receive.

This is what the apostles and martyrs died for: not just the very good news that God became Man, and died for us, but the even better news, that He loved us so much that He could not leave us—He cannot wait until we reached His heavenly city—but He still comes down, as He came down to the Jews, and reaffirms the title the Jewish prophets gave Him: Emmanuel, God with usThis is the good news that the world needs to know—this is the glory of the heavenly city, so splendid that its light reaches down to shine on us, even here, on earth.  This is, in the words of today’s psalm, “the glorious splendor of [the] Kingdom” of God, which His friends—St. Bartholomew and, it is to be hoped, you and I, following in his steps, make known to all the world, so that we may all meet each other at last, as friends, in that heavenly and eternal Jerusalem, where together we will contemplate the face of God.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Grapefruit Debate

Enter Carly Fiorina, solo, dressed impeccably in a red silk suit with dragons front and back.  She is carrying a luncheon plate upon which perches a single grapefruit, halved.  She eats, using a grapefruit spoon, as only a CEO schooled at Hewlitt-Packard business lunches could eat.

Ms. Fiorina [staring intently into the lights]: “The grapefruit (Citrus × paradisi) is a subtropical citrus tree known for its sour to semi-sweet fruit. Grapefruit is a hybrid originating in Barbados as an accidental cross between two introduced species, sweet orange (C. sinesis) and pomelo or shaddock (C. grandis), both of which were introduced from Asia in the seventeenth century. When found, it was named the ‘forbidden fruit’; and it has also been misidentified with the pomelo.”

Rick Perry [offstage, sotto voce]: Carly eats healthier than Hilary!

Blond moderator [to her assistants]: He meant Michelle, right?

Male Moderator Who Is Not Simon Cowell [shakes head sadly]: Typical Perry gaffe.

Exit Carly Fiorina.  Enter ten men in ill-fitting dark suits.  They shuffle nervously onstage, like subordinate characters from Robin and the Seven Hoods, or possibly Kiss Me Kate.  Each one holds a grapefruit.

Blond mod. [cheerful]: Alright, gentlemen.  On your marks, get set, go!

The men stare uncomfortably out at the lights.

Blond mod. [laughing nervously]: Just kidding, right?  But tonight’s a big one for all of you.  Too bad Carly Fiorina couldn’t be here.

Everyone laughs and relaxes a little, the moderators included.

Other Male Moderator Who Is Not Simon Cowell: Alright then.  First up, Mr. Trump.  Mr. Trump, will you show us how to eat a grapefruit?

Donald Trump takes out a large saber and slashes the grapefruit in half on stage.  There are gasps of horror and admiration from the audience.  He puts one half into his mouth and chews.

Blond mod.: Are you sure about that, Mr. Trump?

1 Male mod.: Is that your final answer?

Trump nods, emphatically.

Donald Trump [swallowing]: Not only that, but I would say also that my supporters are very passionate people, and that’s because I was the first person on this stage to bring up the issue of undocumented citrus growers, and citrus pickers, and undocumented citrus in general.  And I think most Americans would agree with me that it’s high time we had someone who could deal with all this illegality, which I will do.

Blond mod.: How will you do that, Mr. Trump?

Trump: First, I will get all the grapefruits.  Then I will eat them.

Disbelief covers the moderators’ faces.

Trump: You don’t think I can do it?  Look, I’ve been eating grapefruits for years; Hilary Clinton learned how to eat grapefruits from me; in fact, if it were not for my business—

Rand Paul [having been gesturing wildly for some time now]: Look, I don’t know why you’re listening to this guy.  I can eat a grapefruit too.  In fact, my techniques are just as interesting as that—that moderate’s there.

Paul picks up his unpeeled grapefruit and takes a bite.  The moderators appear to be disconcerted.

Paul: You see, I’m a different kind of fruit eater.

Cruz: Me too!  Me too!

1 Male mod. [hopefully]: So, Mr. Bush, you’re from Florida.  You should know how to eat a grapefruit.

Bush: I’ve taught a lot of kids to eat grapefruit.

1 Male mod.: But can you eat a grapefruit?

Bush: Well …

Walker: I’ve taught people to eat grapefruits too.

1 Male mod.: But can you eat a grapefruit?

Walker eats his grapefruit, but everyone is ignoring him, because Christie and Paul have gotten into fisticuffs.  The moderator blows her whistle and Christie retreats, caressing his grapefruit and murmuring “My precious, my precioussssss …”

Paul [genuinely disgusted]: You see that man?  He’s so addicted to grapefruit, that he would put a camera in every kitchen to make sure you’re eating it humanely.

Christie: Oh yeah?  Well you have no idea what’s involved in eating a grapefruit, you incompetent amateur.

Paul: Oh yeah?  Well speaking of amateurs, YOU hate George Washington.

Christie: George Washington you say?  What, Washington?  Let me tell you about Washington; I was THERE in Washington when it was crossed by Delaware.

Paul: What makes you think Delaware’s in Washington?  [Turning to the audience:] Guys, this fool never took Geography.  He probably thinks grapefruits come from Maine.

Christie: And YOU never worked in an orchard.

Everyone starts talking about how their father picked grapefruit in an orchard, except Trump.

Trump: I would deport your fathers for picking grapefruits in an orchard.

Cruz: I would take back every grapefruit Obama ever ate.

The crowd goes wild.  The other candidates stare at Cruz, some in awe, some in distress that they didn’t think of it first.

Rick Perry [still offstage]: That’s my line!

But no one hears him.

Blond mod. [desperately hoping to change the subject]: Mr. Rubio, you came here tonight saying you didn’t like grapefruit.  But I see that you’re eating one.  How can the voters trust an obvious liar?

Rubio: Uh … you gave me a grapefruit to eat, and so I’m eating it.  But I don’t like grapefruit.

Blond mod.: But Mr. Rubio, you ate a grapefruit in the Democratic senator’s office last week.

Rubio: Yeah, he asked me to come over for lunch, and served me a grapefruit.  I was hungry, and grapefruit was better than nothing.

2 Male mod.: But Mr. Rubio—


All the other candidates look relieved that they didn’t get such a tough question.

John Kasich [with a compassionate tilt of the head]: I am actually opposed myself, personally, very strongly, to grapefruits.  But just because they’re not our traditional fruit of choice doesn’t mean we can ignore hours of Supreme Court testimony about their nutritional value.  And so I would give a grapefruit to a prisoner who asked for one—in fact, I’ve done so many times in the past, and if I were president I would do it again, and hope everyone here would help me to do so, out of the goodness of their hearts, because that’s what being American is all about.

Mike Huckabee [sternly]: Grapefruits are not a social experiment.  The purpose of a grapefruit is to be food and employ people.

Paul [shrugging]: I just don’t want my grapefruits registered in Washington, that’s all.

Rubio [vivace, stumbling over his words just a little]: I just think it’s swell that we’ve got all these nice grapefruits here tonight, and Hillary doesn’t have any.

Blond mod. [rolling her eyes]: Mr. Carson, you’re looking a little uncomfortable.  Do you have a word for us?  Something about what makes your dining style different from these other gentlemen’s?

Ben Carson [sheepishly]: I was wondering when you’d ask me.  Well, let me tell you.  I’m the only one who’s separated Siamese grapefruits, and the only one who’s eaten a grapefruit while it’s still on the tree.  And furthermore—as a surgeon, I know that all grapefruits are, basically, the same fruit—they have the same amount of Vitamin C—whether you get the ruby red kind or the golden yellow kind.

Huckabee [more in pity than in anger]: It seems like this evening has focused too much something very red and yellow, which is only half here and just dripping juice all over the stage.

Trump glares.

Huckabee: I mean, of course, the rest of Mr. Trump’s grapefruit, ladies and gentlemen.

Carson: In conclusion, I would just say that if elected, I would make breakfast—including grapefruits—great again.

Rubio: It’s a beautiful morning in America.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Gritty Little Women

There’s a new adaptation of Little Women being made, a movie series described—gleefully, ruefully—as “gritty” and “dystopian.”  The four March girls, now half-sisters living in Philadelphia, apparently will uncover a conspiracy while trying to bump each other off.  Katniss Everdeen meets steampunk, much?

Given the great many things going on in the world today, I haven't the energy to be actually upset by this turn of events; the word is amused, and that not even in a sardonic, bitter way.  This serendipitous happenstance of a commentary on modern culture is too perfect to be anything but funny.  And it’s not like the fate of our country, or the lives of some women and children, are dependent on this.  I doubt, moreover, whether the series will actually ruin the experience of Little Women for anyone.  Those who’ve read the book or seen one of the three previous excellent movie adaptations (I prefer the first, but that’s just my love of Hepburn coming out) will hardly have their experience spoiled by something so dramatically different.  Those who see the series as novices are not likely to be the sort whose potential reading would be made less probable by it.

But I can understand those who feel offended on behalf of their beloved classic.  Parody—and this, however deadly serious its aim, will be a parody—has a way of making the original work look small.  It’s hard to take “Born This Way” seriously after “Perform This Way,” or any political debate after SNL’s provided their version thereof.

And here you thought I wouldn’t touch politics, after Thursday night.

Still, some things and some people are big enough that one can laugh at their mocking, and then return to enjoying the original with impunity.  In such cases, it is generally something peripheral to the work which is being parodied—its fans, its interpretation, perhaps even details of its composition or style which are more dated than the work itself.

Paging Jane Austen and Shakespeare.

I suspect Little Women is in this category.  There are things about the work which are dated, which may (even in the youngest and most innocent of noses) raise a snort.  The scene where Jo swears Laurie to a life of temperance and lemonade is my personal favorite.  But that doesn’t detract—or shouldn’t, for the broad-minded and mature critical reader—from delighting in the overall story, and even in the overall atmosphere of the book.

There are passages of preachiness, to be sure.  Alcott herself seems to have been unhappy with the enterprise, purportedly calling (at least part of the series spawned by) Little Women “moral pap for the young.”  She also wrote, under the pseudonym A. M. Barnard, stories whose mere synopses make Dickens’s most lurid dramas sound comparatively mild.

In case you’d forgotten: those straight-laced 
Victorians were really good at luridity.
I mean, they invented the original of THIS.

Based on these facts, it may be tempting to assume that Alcott would have been all about the new adaptation.  Quite possibly, if Alcott’s hesitant belief in incarnation were true, she would be among the series' greatest fans.  But that is hardly a reason for applauding the adaptation, any more than Alcott’s disapproval would be a reason for shunning it.

There is a long history in literary criticism—

(Well, as long as modern scholastic literary criticism is.  That is to say, about a hundred years.)

—In literary criticism there is a long history of arguing over the author’s intentions, and how much they count towards interpreting a work.  T.S. Eliot and his descendants among the New Critics famously disregarded practically every scrap of historical or autobiographical evidence to hand in favor of close readings of the work itself.  The New Historicists, and notably founder Stephen Greenblatt, inspired in part by Marxist-oriented readings and directives for the composition of fiction, favored bringing in as many historical events, documents, and trends as possible, plausible and otherwise.  Both sides have done decent (as well as indecent) work on Shakespeare.

I know that’s all TMI.   
But this is what happens when you retake up blogging 
while studying for Ph.D. comps.

Both methods have their merits, and any modern critic who disparaged one in favor of the other would run the risk of being a fool.  If, then, one chooses to consider the new Little Women series an “interpretation” of the original, denying the relevance of Alcott’s life, extraneous writings, and attitude toward her work is puerile.  In judging of the “legitimacy” of the series, Alcott’s intention (in a broad sense) carries some weight.

But if we are to speak in terms of intention, there is another one that matters besides Alcott’s: that of her readers.  For the other great literary debate of the twentieth century was between those critics who considered meaning to be a thing attached to a work itself, and those critics who felt that to one degree or another the “meaning” was something created in an interaction between the reader and the work.  Painting with a very broad brush, one might call the first group formalists, or critics with formalist tendencies (and this would include the New Critics mentioned above) and the second group adherents of reader response criticism.  Taken quite broadly this second group, enablers (if not actual practioners) of literary deconstruction, included such luminaries as I.A. Richards, Roland Barthes, Stanley Fish, and … C.S. Lewis?

He didn’t know where Derrida would take this.   
Really, he didn’t.   
Also, the Narnia chronicles are … only half pagan?

There are then three possible ways to read a work: according to the author’s intentions, according to the structure and premises of the work itself, and according to our reaction to the work.  One reason I’m not terribly upset about Little Women being dragged through the mud is that my response to it is so powerful that I doubt whether anything could ruin the image that response has created.

Historical, structural, responsive.  And then, there is one more possibility: the way of reading a work that isn’t really a critical method, because it is at the bottom of all critical methods; the way we usually talk about a book or movie that we’ve seen.  “That wouldn’t happen.”  “It wasn’t believable.”  “I know her character would say that, but I don’t think it’s true.”  Call it realistic criticism, if you will; or common sense, or philosophy.  The realist critic asks: Does this work present reality in a honest way?

Of course, to answer this question, one must have some sort of metaphysical or experiential presuppositions about the way the world is.  Is the world a gritty, dystopian place?  Or a wholesome, moral one?  That question stacks the deck rather unfairly against both sides: neither alternative is (I think) entirely true.  But that doesn’t mean that I haven’t got some more complex theory up my sleeve.