Reading the Old Testament

Growing up in a household that was more culturally Jewish than Christian meant that unlike most westerners I was more familiar with the Torah than the Gospels. This isn’t saying much, as I never made any serious attempt to read the Bible until I was a teenager. But even in my undergraduate years my biblical readings were largely confined to the Old Testament.

The OT has also attracted me for other reasons: it is rather labrynthe. The codex form it inhabits almost belies the dense intertextuality and interweaving of voices. Historical narrative sits alongside legal codes, poetry, etc. It spans a massive length of time. I have always had a liking for texts which seem to contain a whole world within them; hence my interest in Tolkien, Gene Wolfe, the epic poets, Joyce, etc.

From a Christian perspective, the OT as a unit is incomplete. It’s meaning is indeterminate without the New Testament, which unveils the meta-narrative of the whole shebang. The religious experiences of ancient Israel take on cosmic import for all of humanity. And there’s a bit of a paradoxical movement here:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (Galatians 3:28-29)

The relativization of ethnic lines doesn’t make ancient Israel superfluous or of mere historical curiosity; rather, everyone else is grafted onto that history.

Reading the Old Testament is to enter into a world that is rather foreign and, well, old. Even with all familiar symbols and tropes that have been handed onto us from it, it still often seems unfamiliar and obscure. I have occasionally entertained a thought experiment: if we ever get around to colonizing space, it would seem that future Christians reading the Bible would have an even harder time of it. What would it be like to read about the moon, or a gazelle, for instance, without a good idea of what they looked like? They too would take on the same sort of mysterious hue that so much of the imagery has for us.

And it occurs to me that this doubles as an apologia for the continuing importance of Biblical scholars – someone needs to be well versed enough in Earth lore to explain it to non-terran humans.

If I’m able to conceptualize my academic discipline in a science fiction setting, then I think I am doing OK.

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Tolkienesque meditations

With the upcoming semester only a few days away, I have been doing what many geeky Catholics do for refreshment of spirit: re-read Tolkien. I finished The Hobbit yesterday, and completed Book One of The Lord of the Rings about an hour ago. Some miscellaneous thoughts:

- Tolkien, more than any popular writer I can think of, has been something of a slow-burner for me. When I first started reading him as an adolescent, I found his stories and worldbuilding interesting and moving, but unfortunately told with a rather dry, Donnish cough. In comparison, people like J.K. Rowling and Stephen King were cases of love at first sight. It took time for me to see the merits of his style (which is actually far more economical than most people give him credit for) and of what seemed at the time to be his very quaint, old fashioned worldview.

- I knew for a long time that he was a veteran of World War I, which killed most of his friends. But it took reading some of his letters to see glances of some of the suffering, alienation and anguish he went through, even as an older man, in spite of his often hobbitish aura. But this is true for all of us – we all have more profound wounds than are often visible to others. The glimpses into his prayer life are also moving:

Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament….There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth, and more than that: Death: by the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste (or foretaste) of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man’s heart desires.

- The Hobbit is a children’s book, but I can think of some reasons for why if it were published today it would cause a minor moral panic – too violent, too scary, too much smoking and drinking, (heck, it even makes a rather memorable joke about decapitation and golf) etc. The Hobbit is not a safe book, but it is unsafe in almost all the right ways. We will meet pitiful, dangerous people like Gollum, and sadistic tyrants like Smaug. The real thing is often far more frightening than these creatures, but, to paraphrase Chesterton, the value of these stories lies not in telling us that dragons exist, but in telling us that they can be overcome. Tellingly, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a school that includes The Hobbit on its curriculum. Part of that is likely the old Genre Fiction Is Not Serious Lit attitude. But the paranoid crank in me would like to see this as another example of how elementary school and high school are systematically designed to stifle your child’s imagination, moral or otherwise.

- No, I will not allow myself to go on a bitter rant about elementary school and high school here.

- The society of the hobbits is very conservative and borderline anarchic (political offices are for the most part limited to the honor of the title). Of course, it is also a pre-industrial, pre-capitalist society. As has been mentioned a couple of times on this blog, I tend to view both capitalism and the modern state with a high degree of cynicism and suspicion, while not really seeing how they can be done away with either; I am also doubtful of all the idealistic schemes on offer. Reading the early chapters of LOTR reminds me that I should take more time to understand better where the anarcho-monarchists, distributists, et al. are actually coming from. Tolkien himself seemed to venture in that direction a bit.

- There is a parallel universe where Hayao Miyazaki directed The Hobbit movie. Maybe one of its inhabitants can lend me a DVD.

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Authority in the Church

A recent commenter asked if I could shed some light on the nature of authority in the Catholic Church. While Ecclesiology is not my strongest suit (I am actually pushing my studies in the direction of Old Testament studies), here is my attempt to provide a quick precis of this topic. If I make any errors here, I of course defer to the Church.

First of all, it is worth distinguishing between Apostolic Tradition and just plain tradition. The former relates to the substance of the faith as handed to the Apostles by way of divine revelation. As such, the actual truths expressed in it have been a closed book since the death of the last apostle (no further revelations will add or take anything from it). However, what is implicit within these truths can be articulated in a more explicit fashion if need be – this is what is usually called the development of doctrine. Doctrines regarding the nature and ministry of the hierarchy fall under this category.

The latter, lower case ‘t’ traditions, are disciplines and practices which have developed in the Church. They do not belong to the faith as such (and so are subject to alteration), but are still important. A good example of this would be priestly celibacy and the college of cardinals.

So while we should not expect to see a perfect correspondence between the practices of the primitive Church and what we currently recognize as the Roman Catholic Church. But this is not in the sense of there being a rupture between the two – looking at the beginnings of the Church is more like looking at childhood photos of someone who is now an adult. There is a continuity of substance between the two. And I do think that we should expect there to be such a continuity in the Christian tradition if we want to take the notion of the Holy Spirit guiding the Church seriously.

The bishops of the Church are seen as the successors of the Apostles, with the Pope being specifically the successor of St. Peter. So their role in the Church should be understood in light of the mission and ministry of the Apostles.

And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after supper, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22:19-20)

Christ, in his divine nature, works miracles with the words he speaks. In this instance, his alteration of the Passover ceremony into a symbol of his sacrifice actually becomes that sacrifice – his body and blood, separated in his passion, become sacramentally present under the species of bread and wine (of note, this is the one miracle which the Apostles do not see – they are asked to believe in it on the authority of Christ’s own testimony). And in this action we specifically see Christ executing his office as high priest, offering up a sacrifice to God on behalf of the people. But Christ links this with a commandment for the Apostles to do the same “in remembrance of me”. This makes the Apostles themselves into a sacrament: they represent Christ’s priesthood, and, in repeating his actions at the Last Supper, make that priesthood present, and the same miracle happens. This sacramental character also extends to other aspects of Christ’s ministry, such as the forgiveness of sins, but the primary and essential purpose of the priesthood is to perpetuate the Eucharistic sacrifice until the end of time. 1 Corinthians 11:23-32 offers good evidence of the importance of the Eucharist to the Church in the immediate decades after Christ’s ascension.

As only the Apostles were invited to the Last Supper, this ministry can be seen as a vocation given specifically to them as opposed to Christ’s disciples more generally. Hence it is not simply a a living out of one’s baptismal state in a leadership position – it is, like marriage, an ontological addition to one’s status as a Christian.*

(it is perhaps worth pointing out that in the very early Church there was no distinction between priests and bishops. It was only after the Church grew to the point where the local bishop could not realistically minister to everyone in his diocese that the practice of imparting men with this sacramental character who could act in the stead of the bishop arose)

The hierarchy also has a teaching authority – what is called the Magisterium. Already within the New Testament we see that controversy arose over issues that were not explicitly addressed by Christ (for instance, the necessity of circumcision), and a need was felt to distinguish what was authentically Christian from what was not. At the Last Supper, Christ promised that the Apostles would have the guidance of the Holy Spirit (John 14:16-17), with Pentecost confirming this promise. It would, I think, be strange if the gift of the Holy Spirit did not entail that the Apostles had received the charism to adequately address issues which can potentially threaten the unity of the Faith and the Church, especially given Christ’s priestly prayer for unity (John 17: 22-23)

This charism means that, although individual bishops may go astray in their personal beliefs, as a collective whole, the hierarchy will not fail in matters pertaining to faith and morals. Now, given that the bishops are not a hive mind in perfect accord with each other, there needs to be specific mechanisms in place for arriving at definitive answer to major disputes. This is the role that ecumenical councils and the Pope’s ex cathedra statements play.

If the Church is not going to go astray, the highest court of appeal needs to be infallible. The Church has historically looked upon the dogmatic definitions promulgated by ecumenical councils as representing the last word on the matter. An ecumenical council should, ideally, involve all the bishops. But this has for the most part been a practical impossibility, and, after the schism between east and west, things have gotten even hairier. So there does need to be someone with the authority to say that such a council represents the universal Church, as opposed to, say, a particular region or jurisdiction. And it follows from that that this someone needs to have a universal jurisdiction in order to have the authority to make such a pronouncement.

This person is, of course, the Pope, the Bishop of Rome. Every council that the Church has declared to be ecumenical has had the Pope either convoke, be involved with, or ratify it after the fact. Not all of these factors need to be present in any given case – the first seven ecumenical councils, for instance, were largely an eastern affair with limited participation from the Latin Church. It does not have to be the same pope who, say, convokes a council and approves it. What is important is the reciprocal relationship between the teaching office of the pope and the council.

**

This reciprocal relation suggests that the charism of infallibility is also enjoyed in some manner by the pope – that he can, in highly specific circumstances, unilaterally define dogma. Here is the text from the First Vatican Council, where this gets defined:

Moreover, that by the very apostolic primacy which the Roman Pontiff as the successor of Peter, the chief of the Apostles, holds over the universal Church, the supreme power of the magisterium is also comprehended, this Holy See has always held, the whole experience of the Church approves, and the ecumenical Councils themselves, especially those in which the East convened with the West in a union of faith and charity, have declared. For the fathers of the fourth council of Constantinople, adhering to the ways of the former ones, published this solemn profession: “Our first salvation is to guard the rule of right faith [...]. And since the sentiment of our Lord Jesus Christ cannot be passed over when He says: “Thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church’ [Matt. 16:18], these words which were spoken are proven true by actual results, since in the Apostolic See the Catholic religion has always been preserved untainted, and holy doctrine celebrated. Desiring, then, least of all to be separated from the faith and teaching of this [Apostolic See], We hope that We may deserve to be in the one communion which the Apostolic See proclaims, in which the solidarity of the Christian religion is whole and true”/ Moreover, with the approval of the second council of Lyons, the Greeks have professed, “that the Holy Roman Church holds the highest and full primacy and pre-eminence over the universal Catholic Church, which it truthfully and humbly professes it has received with plentitude of power from the Lord Himself in blessed Peter, the chief or head of the Apostles, of whom the Roman Pontiff is the successor; and, just as it is bound above others to defend the truth of faith, so, too, if any questions arise about faith, they should be defined by its judgment”.Finally, the Council of Florence has defined: “That the Roman Pontiff is the true vicar of Christ and head of the whole Church and the father and teacher of all Christians; and to it in the blessed Peter has been handed down by the Lord Jesus Christ the full power of feeding, ruling, and guiding the universal Church.”

[...]

For, the Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter that by His revelation they might disclose new doctrine, but that by His help they might guard sacredly the revelation transmitted through the apostles and the deposit of faith, and might faithfully set it forth.

[...]

So, this gift of truth and a never failing faith was divinely conferred upon Peter and his successors in this chair, that they might administer their high duty for the salvation of all; that the entire flock of Christ, turned away by them from the poisonous food of error, might be nourished on the sustenance of heavenly doctrine, that with the occasion of schism removed the whole Church might be saved as one, and relying on her foundation might stay firm against the gates of hell.

But since in this very age, in which the salutary efficacy of the apostolic duty is especially required, not a few are found who disparage its authority, We deem it most necessary to assert solemnly the prerogative which the Only-begotten Son of God deigned to enjoin with the highest pastoral office.

And so We, adhering faithfully to the tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith, to the glory of God, our Savior, the elevation of the Catholic religion and the salvation of Christian peoples, with the approbation of the sacred Council, teach and explain that the dogma has been divinely revealed: that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when carrying out the duty of the pastor and teacher of all Christians in accord with his supreme apostolic authority he explains a doctrine of faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, through the divine assistance promised him in blessed Peter, operates with that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer wished that His church be instructed in defining doctrine on faith and morals; and so such definitions of the Roman Pontiff from himself, but not from the consensus of the Church, are unalterable.

But if anyone presumes to contradict this definition of Ours, which may God forbid: let him be anathema.

Note the language of the bold parts. The language of teaching a divinely revealed dogma, and anathematizing the opposing position, is key that the doctrine is being offered as infallible.

As can be seen in the document, the fact that the Bishop of Rome should enjoy this authority is traced back to Jesus’ statements in Matthew 16:17-18.

It is worth noting a couple of things here: first, a doctrine does not have to be defined by a council or pope for it to be binding on Catholics. For instance, the Resurrection of Christ was never defined, because Scripture is extremely explicit about it,and it has never been a seriously disputed issue within the Church. To go back to what I said earlier, the development of doctrine here is about articulating what has already been divinely revealed in a more explicit fashion, if there is a necessity for it.

Secondly, there are non-infallible exercises of the magisterium (i.e the “ordinary magisterium). The most prominent example of these would be papal encyclicals. However, because these do represent the official teaching of the Church, a Catholic should not publicly dissent from them without good cause – and that cause should come from a concern for preserving the Faith, rather than from private agendas.

Lastly, the Pope and Bishops have an authority of governance. The Pope has the authority to set Canon Law and is, in essence, the boss of all the bishops. The bishops themselves exercise a legitimate authority within their diocese. While priests naturally are to be seen as spiritual fathers, they are there on the sufferance of the bishop, and it is to the local Bishop (and pope) that we are expected to be obedient. We can, of course, disagree with what current disciplines and still remain in good standing, but that we still obey what is asked of us is critical. To make an analogy with civil law, people can reasonably disagree over what the legal drinking age should be while still obeying how the law currently stands.

To wade further in this direction is to take me into the realm of Canon Law, of which I am not competent to say much about. I will perhaps add that obedience to the local bishop goes back to the early Church. To quote the letter of St. Ignatius of Antioch to the Ephesians in the second century,

Thus it is proper for you to run together in harmony with the mind of the bishop, as you are in fact doing. For your council of presbyters, which is worthy of its name and worthy of God,is attuned to the bishop as strings to a lyre. Therefore in your unanimity and harmonious love Jesus Christ is sung.

All this does not mean that there is not a place for rebuking the poor behavior of bishops and popes. But we do have a grave duty to obey the legitimate exercises of their authority.

I think this covers all of the bases I wanted to touch upon. Unfortunately I don’t really have a good go-to book to refer to for people interested in digging their teeth more deeply into these topics (but I welcome any recommendations)

*With regard to the question of the maleness of the clergy, I refer to this helpful article by Sister Sara Butler (pdf)

**It is perhaps worth pointing out that this is a particular theory of the definition of ecumenical councils which has its origins, I believe, in Robert Bellarmine, and which enjoys a popularity in Catholic thought. As far as I can tell, there is no magisterial list of ecumenical councils. I do find it to be a useful model, and like how it segues nicely into discussing the infallibility of the Pope.

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Is celibacy the new ex-gay? or: how I learned to stop worrying and love the clickbait

The Catholic Church’s explicit teachings on homosexuality are actually rather slim – meriting only three paragraphs in the Catechism. (2357-2359) And, naturally, those paragraphs have been picked apart to death by just about everyone who has an interest in this stuff and a blog.

But trying to apply them to my own life has been something of a complicated affair. When I first made the decision to live a chaste life – understanding that that decision meant in my case that I would have to be celibate, I drifted towards an approach which was problematic to say the least: if I was going to be celibate, I would just ignore my desires and sexuality. Sweep them under the rug entirely. I would live as if I was literally a eunuch.

While this sort of white-knuckle approach did accomplish in the short term the goal of continence, there was a problem in that this was actually a kind of repression – an attempt to avoid the messy work of actually integrating my sexuality into my rational self. I was setting myself up for falling hard, and for becoming a sort of living caricature of a celibate man.

So I changed my tack on that – something which coincides with my increased willingness to talk about these things on here, not only because of who might be listening in, but also because my thoughts on something often need to be written down before they can coalesce or develop.

And my attitude towards the identity game has shifted around a bit. After my conversion, I wasn’t quite sure what to call myself, as I had clearly made a break with the gay community, but also didn’t see myself as one of those ex-gays.  This is a problem that seems to be particularly acute for Christians on my boat as, lacking much of a vocabulary ourselves, we tend to just pillage one side or the other for words to use, resulting in the inevitable misunderstandings. I banged pretty hard on the “only use SSA” drum (something which is well-documented here), but I came to view that approach as a bit pointlessly pedantic. I don’t really have anything against the term – it’s just that I don’t think what is at stake is worth policing people over how they articulate themselves. These days I just use whatever turn of phrase will cause the least offense/confusion to whoever I’m talking to.

All this is a way of saying that these past years haven’t been static for me, and that they have taken place in strange territory which, although certainly not new, has never been mapped out much in public before now. I find it difficult to fit it easily into a lot of the narratives floating around.

Which is tricky, because we like easy formulae. When I was a university freshman, I was actually interviewed by a local gay newspaper about coming out. When I read the article, I remember being irked about how the interviewer tried to read between the lines of what I said – “he paused, recalling previous incidents of bullying/homophobia”. It went something like that. There is something of a formula for the “coming out story”, and what happened here was an attempt to fit my life into its contours, even though it didn’t fit. And there’s a similar formula for the “conversion story”. Both tend to have an easy template: paint the previous life as black as possible, and make the new one as rosy as you can – or, if continuing difficulties must be admitted, they must quickly be deflated. “But I’m fighting the good fight.” But, dammit, peoples’ lives tend to be more complex than that. Mine is, at least.

I think I’ve mentioned a couple of times on this blog about the increasing visibility of Side-B Christians/Celibate Gay Christians/Same-Sex-Attracted Christians who practice chastity/chaste friends of Dorothy/orthodox Christians who are fabulous/I can spend all day doing this and you can’t stop me. Irene Monroe, in a HuffPo article, recently claimed that celibacy is the new ex-gay. The gist of it is that, with the recent implosion of the ex-gay world, the line of acceptability in the conservative Christian world has been redrawn from “become straight” to “be celibate”. This completely ignores the fact that people like me have been doing our thing long before Exodus closed up shop, but whatever.

I have noticed that, in conversation with a lot of non-Catholics, mentioning that you are celibate is a bit like casually mentioning that you have a cocaine habit. “Gee that doesn’t seem healthy or natural and you’re gonna explode or something”. And sometimes the sex abuse scandal is roped in, which carries the uncomfortable implication that men who don’t get laid inevitably degenerate into predators. Monroe’s own article seems to balk at the idea of celibacy.

I am led to conclude that most people outside of Catholicism/Orthodoxy don’t get celibacy, and have likely never talked to an actual celibate about what it is like. Admittedly it is not an easily identifiable characteristic. Perhaps someone should make a Celibate Pride Flag (what colours would a Celibate Pride Flag be?). Of similar but more visible circumstance is married couples who don’t contracept. I read a lot of storries of mothers with 4+ children being “tsk tsk tsked” by peers and passerbys. It’s seen as weird, creepy, unhealthy, un-american, etc.

So it is worth attempting to articulate what celibacy is like, at least as I am currently living it out. And it needs to be understood in terms of God, because celibacy is all about God (as is marriage). Many of the critiques and misunderstandings come from a secular perspective – or from a Christian perspective where marriage has been changed from a vocation to a default state that everyone should have.

Indeed if you do not believe in God – if you think that the bread and the wine at Mass remain bread and wine, then celibacy can seem like a rough deal, one which can perhaps be stoically endured perhaps, but not joyfully embraced. I see myself as reappropriating my desires for intimacy and union, not towards women, but towards God. The negative of abstinence serves to make possible a kind of relationship with God that would not be possible. It’s not a better relationship than a married person might have – just a particular one which fits my own life and which I think God wants me to have.

I do not always understand it. I do not always like it. I am not always faithful to it. But every sort of adventure must have its mysteries, trials and pitfalls, and I do think my spiritual life is something of an adventure. And this is also a love story. It’s not the love story I would have wanted for myself a decade ago, but it is the one that I want to define my life now, the one where I find joy and peace.

Take God out of the picture and all this falls apart. So naturally a lot of secular people are going to misread what is going on.

This doesn’t mean that I am attempting to live out a relationship with God as though I were a disembodied soul with no sexuality. That would put me back in the situation described earlier. But how relating to God and others as a man works out is another post in its own right.

So, to get back to the title of this post: no, I don’t find celibacy to be the new ex-gay. It’s a unique beast in its own right.

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Theologians and their composers

When I was a teenager I would often go on extended walks with a piece of classical music playing on my walkman (remember those?). That doesn’t happen much these days – there are a lot more distractions inhibiting me from, say, getting lost for hours inside a Wagner opera while making myself an easy target for a mugging.

Recently Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry uncorked an old debate by claiming the superiority of Beethoven to Mozart, and lamenting that while a lot of modern theologians appreciate the latter, the same is not true for the former. This reminded me that I had not listened to an entire Beethoven piece in quite some time. So I uploaded his String Quartet Op.131 in C sharp minor onto my ipod and went for an evening stroll.

The quartet is one of Beethoven’s last works.  The usual four movement template is eschewed in favor of seven movements that meld into each other, with sonata form featured in only the last movement. The heart of the piece is the fourth movement – a long, mellow theme-and-variations where Beethoven shows just how plastic form can be in his hands. It’s a very difficult, abstract piece that, aside from the intensity of the first and last movements, suggests little of the stereotypical image of Beethoven the Romantic.

Beethoven’s music stands more on its sheer inventiveness and expressivity than on gracefulness and form. And that is what Gobry hangs his case for Ludwig’s superiority on:

No, Mozart is not the greatest. Mozart is not the greatest, because for all his attempts to move beyond, all his pathos, he remains the classical composer par excellence. Mozart is the Parthenon. Mozart represents art understood as submission to, and fulfillment of, form.

No. This is not the full truth of art. The full truth of art must have as its primary impulse the expression of human subjectivity (an expression of subjectivity which only through its embrace of itself can then point to universality), even as it incorporates, uses, and in its fullness, transcends, aesthetic rules. And here we are talking about Beethoven. Mozart expressed the fullness of humanity within the classical rules. Beethoven expressed the fullness of humanity by transcending (through incorporating) the classical rules.

I am, I admit, more fond of Mozart than Beethoven, but that is largely for a reason which is secondary to this debate: Mozart was an opera composer. Sure, Beethoven had Fidelio, but he wasn’t committed to wedding music and the stage in the way Mozart was. Opera, oratorios, ballet – these things are near and dear to me.

Or maybe it isn’t secondary. I tend to prefer the idea of the artist as a maker of sublime things to that of the artist as self-expressive. Objectivity over subjectivity etc., and an emphasis on order and harmony – emotions may be high in an opera or ballet production, but there is always something apollonian in the careful co-ordination, perfection of technique and attention to detail required here. People are absorbed into their roles – it is almost liturgical.

I wonder whether the possible theological ‘discounting’ of Beethoven is a side effect of how Beethoven is one of the first artists where great art becomes linked with revolutionary ideas, and the art itself takes on a sort of salvific character – I’m looking at the 9th in particular. It isn’t music that is about to get down on its knees. Then again, Mozart’s Die Zauberflote is pretty heavy on the masonic imagery, so maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree.

One question: how much does the music (or art more generally) that a theologian appreciates inform us about their theology?

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The Tombs of Atuan

(Yes, I know I am really behind on my Shadow of the Torturer series, but I want to write about this while it is still fresh in my mind)

I’ve mainly known Ursula K. Le Guin more for her science fiction than fantasy, but this year I’ve been filling in the gap by reading her celebrated Earthsea cycle. I’m in the middle of The Farthest Shore at the moment. One thing I am grateful for about her style is that, unlike most fantasy author’s, Le Guin is not given over to prolixity – these stories are short and to the point.

The second book, The Tombs of Atuan struck me as being a surprisingly subtle examination of religion, politics and power, or at least more subtle than it initially appears. It tells the story of Tenar, who assumes the role of Arha, a high priestess of gods called the Nameless Ones. But what seems to be a position of immense power is actually a sort of spiritual and physical enslavement; Tenar is kept in a cloistered existence more or less against her will, serving powers which do not seem particularly loving.

It is possible to see this as an indictment of the cruelties of religion as such, but note a particular speech given by Ged Sparrowhawk, Earthsea’s hero par excellence:

“Did you truly think them [the Nameless Ones] dead? You know better in your heart. They do not die. They are dark and undying, and they hate the light: the brief, bright light of our mortality. They are immortal, but they are not gods. They never were. They are not worth the worship of any human soul.”

She listened, he eyes heavy, her gaze fixed on the flickering lantern.

“What have they ever given you, Tenar?”

“Nothing,” she whispered.

“They have nothing to give. They have no power of making. All their power is to darken and destroy. They cannot leave this place; they are this place; and it should be left to them. They should not be denied or forgotten, but neither should they be worshiped. The Earth is beautiful, and bright, and kindly, but that is not all. The Earth is also terrible, and dark, and cruel. The rabbit shrieks dying in the green meadows. The mountains clench their great hands full of hidden fire. There are sharks in the sea, and there is cruelty in men’s eyes. And where men worship these things and abase themselves before them, there evil breeds; there places are made in the world where darkness gathers, places given over wholly to the Ones whom we call Nameless, the ancient and holy Powers of the Earth before the Light, the powers of the dark, of ruin, of madness…

In addition to giving  the Earthsea mythos a bit of a Lovecraftian spin, this is an indictment of the pagan mindset: to take one aspect of creation and elevate it to the level of a god will result in evil and perversion, because there is always a dark, cruel side, to that one thing, and because to elevate a finite thing from its proper place in existence creates a distortion – other things, perhaps essential things, become sacrificed on the altar of your god when they conflict with it. Of course, I think Le Guin would agree with Schopenhauer that all worship is a form of idolatry, and there we part ways in thought.

The closest thing the novel has to a human antagonist – Kossil, High Priestess of the Godking – represents political power, in particular a Hobbesian form of it:

“Long ago,” he said, “you know, little one, before our four lands joined together into an empire, before there was a Godking over us all, there were a lot of lesser kings, princes, chiefs. They were always quarreling with each other. And they’d come here to settle their quarrels. That was how it was, they’d come from our land Atuan, and from Karego-At, and Atnini, and even from the Hur-at-Hur, all the chiefs and princes with their servants and their armies. And they’d ask you what to do. And you’d go before the Empty Throne, and give them the counsel of the Nameless Ones. Well, that was long ago. After a while the Priest-Kings came to rule all of Karego-At, and soon they were ruling Atuan; and now for four or five lifetimes of men the God-kings have ruled all the four lands together, and made them an empire. And so things are changed. The Godking can put down the unruly chiefs, and settle all the quarrels himself. And being a god, you see, he doesn’t have to consult the Nameless Ones very often.”

It is implied here that the emergence of the God-King empire is one of sheer might imposing its will on what would otherwise be a state of war, similar to Hobbes’ self-declared Sovereign. The deification of this sort of rule is a logical consequence of the fact that its authority derives only from its own brute force. And Kossil herself represents the human cost of a cynical mindset that views relations with others entirely in terms of power.

Ged Sparrowhawk is able to save Tenar, not through forcibly removing her from the situation, but by placing himself at her mercy. His helplessness forces her to confront both her ability to make free ethical decisions, and to love. Only with this realization is Tenar given the tools to achieve her own freedom.

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The Assumption of Mary

assumpti

For a Thomist like myself, to be an intellectual being and to be a spiritual being are two sides of the same coin. And it is our peering into the timeless, shadowy world of universals that gives us our first inklings of something eternal and immaterial. But while our rational capabilities may lead us to believe that there is a supernatural order behind our natural one, it does not illuminate the way much further. God, especially, remains a mystery. To quote Aquinas, we do not know what God is.

One of the reasons why, I think, I am rather fond of the Feast of the Assumption of Mary is that it is one of those moments that suggests that this eternal otherworld which we call heaven is something far, far removed from the sort of inert Platonic realm of forms which it can sometimes be pictured as.

The doctrine, and feast, is about how, at the end of Our Lady’s earthly life, she was taken up, both body and soul into heaven, like Elijah and Enoch in the Old Testament (and like her Son, obviously). Although it was only solemnly defined as dogma some sixty-four years ago by Pope Pius XII, the belief and the celebration of it go way back.

So the Virgin Mary is not just ‘alive’ in the sense of the persistence of her soul, but  physically alive in a glorified manner that is freed from the pesky constraints of space and time. More real than we are.

This world, with all its wonders, contains even more wonderful things behind the veil, and there are always those uncanny moments in our lives where something seems to shine through the fabric.

But, for all its momentousness, it is also a rather quiet, personal, event, happening at the end of a normal human lifespan long after the most dramatic stuff had happened. It was the end of what must have been a period of longing, the Holy Family reunited in heaven. We rejoice for her sake, but also because it offers a suggestion of our own personal reunion that we hope for. Revelations says that God will “wipe away every tear”. Perhaps someone could find the image to be too sentimental, but in a life as bitter as this one can be, I find the sentiment to be rather poignant.

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I will never be this hardcore

This week is shaping up to be a busy one, so in lieu of actual content, here’s a video that has shown up in my Facebook feed, consisting of some fellow beating The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time in just over 18 minutes. Back when I was a kid and Ocarina of Time was pretty new, I had a lot of fun reading about all the glitches people were discovering and exploiting as a part of my continuing minor fascination with video game mechanics. Years later, it turns out that some people have gone very deep – perhaps too deep – down the rabbit hole. You could probably get a PhD or two using the time and effort required to figure all this out:

 

 

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7 quick takes (1/8/14)

See? I can do this too

See? I can do this too

 

1

Evidently somepony has compiled a medley of all 44 songs used in all 4 seasons of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. I can’t tell you how much this music has become absorbed into my DNA.

2

In addition to going through Gene Wolfe’s Shadow of the Torturer, I’ve also re-read his early novel, Peace. Although Shadow was my first, I think that Peace is my favourite work of his. It appears to be the reflections of an old man on his life in a small midwestern american town, but there are strange things going on:

Dr. Black sits at a heavy mahogany table. To his left, against the wall, is a big rolltop desk. As I enter, he stands, says hello, musses my hair (which angers me), and lifts me to the top of a leather-covered examination able at one side of the room.

“Open your mouth, son.”

“Doctor, I have had a stroke.”

He laughs, shaking his big belly, and smooths his vest afterward. There is a gleaming brass spittoon in one corner, and he expectorates into it, still smiling.

“Doctor, I am quite serious. Please, can I talk to you for a moment?”

“If it doesn’t hurt your sore throat.”

“My throat isn’t sore. Doctor, have you studied metaphysics?”

“It isn’t my field,” Dr. Black says, “I know more about physic.” But his eyes have opened a little wider – he did not think a boy of four would know the word.

“Matter and energy cannot be destroyed, Doctor. Only transformed into one another. Thus whatever exists can be transformed but not destroyed; but existence is not limited to bits of metal and rays of light – vistas and personalities and even memories all exist. I am an elderly man now, Doctor, and there is no one to advise me. I have cast myself back because I need you. I have had a stroke.”

3

The method of loci backfires on Joey Prever:

It’s a good day, but it’s not a day for finishing posts. A month ago, my therapist cocked her head to the side and asked me in all honesty, “What do you mean by ‘same-sex attraction’?” and I found out that the answer wasn’t simple. I’ve been working on a doozy of a writeup ever since. I hope I finish it some day.

Ever hear of the Method Of Loci? It’s a method of mnemonics where you build an imaginary castle (or house, or shack, or whatever) in your head and associate various concepts with various objects and locations inside that castle, in order to remember them better. It works great and is lots of fun, but in an effort to organize my thoughts for this article, I accidentally built a mental replica of my room and populated it with the proposed contents of the piece.

So in my mental room, my therapist is sitting at my desk and gazing quizzically at an issue of Maxim. In front of her on the table, there’s a copy of First Things with a desk pendulum swinging on top of it. Next to the desk, Alan Medinger’s Growth Into Manhood has been pulled out of the bookcase and is on the floor, leaning against a bottle of hand lotion. There’s other stuff in there, too, but there is a limit to my candor. It’s like my own private version of The Cell.

4

Speaking of memory, have you ever become self-aware of the act of introspection, to the point where the capability to do so felt kind of weird?

5

I have been reading Gerard Manley Hopkins for the first time. The Jesuit priest and poet is growing on me, although his aesthetic philosophy of ‘inscaping’ still eludes me. The Penguin volume I had also contains a substantial amount of his prose writing. I found this in one of the journal entries:

One day in the Long Retreat (which ended on Xmas Day) they were reading in the refectory Sister Emmerich’s account of the Agony in the Garden and I suddenly began to cry and sob and could not stop. I put it down for this reason, that if I had been asked a minute beforehand I should have said that nothing of the sort was going to happen and even when it did I stood in a manner wondering at myself not seeing in my reason the traces of an adequate cause for such strong emotion – the traces of it I say because of course the cause in itself is adequate for the sorrow of a lifetime. I remember much the same thing on Maundy Thursday when the presanctified Host was carried to the sacristy. But neither the wight nor the stress of sorrow, that is to say of the thing which should cause sorrow, by themselves move us or bring the tears as a sharp knife does not cut for breing pressed as long as it is pressed without any shaking of the hand but there is always one touch, something striking sideways and unlooked for, which in both cases undoes resistance and pierces, and this may be so delicate that the pathos seems to have gone directly to the body and cleared the understanding in its passage. On the other hand the pathetic touch by itself, as in dramatic pathos, will only draw slight tears if its matter is not important or not of import to us, the strong emotion coming from a force which was gathered before it was discharged: in this way a knife may pierce the flesh which it had happened only to graze and only grazing will go no deeper.

6

I have been trying to get back into the habit of keeping a journal, which I fell out of towards the end of my undergraduate career. Pouring through old journals is always an interesting and somewhat unnerving endeavor. It is almost as if I didn’t write some of these things. But then it is also amusing to find myself kvetching:

December 15/10. 12.48 am. In any case, I am quite dissatisfied with the low-rent paganism I find around me.
But I shouldn’t get too caught up until the exam is over.

7

Sorry, out of ideas.

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Reading The Shadow of the Torturer – Chapter VI: The Traitress

SYNOPSIS: Severian delivers books to the Chatelaine Thecla, currently being held by the Torturers. Thecla is the sister of Thea (who has absconded with Vodalus) and is being used as a bargaining chip by the Autarch. Severian instantly becomes infatuated with Thecla, and Thecla, desiring some company, requests that he keep her company.

ANALYSIS: Thus begins the first of Severian’s rather troubled relationships with women.

Perhaps it was her great violet eyes, with their lids shaded with blue, and the black hair that, forming a V far down her forehead, suggested the hood of a cloak. Whatever the reason, I loved her at once – loved her, at least, insofar as a stupid boy can love. But being only a stupid boy, I did not know it.

Her white hand, cold, slightly damp, and impossibly narrow, touched mine as she took the tray from me.

Again, the Exultants are hinted to have a somewhat alien appearance. Although we briefly saw Thea in the first chapter, and Valeria as a girl in another, Thecla is the first major woman to show up in a book which so far has focused on an all-male guild.

What makes Thecla take particular note of Severian is that he, unlike the journeymen, does not wear a mask. The mask for the torturers seems to be less about concealing identity than it is about projecting an image of themselves as fearsome executors of justice – the persona of the torturer overtaking the individual man. It is a sort of hiding in terms of withdrawal from normal human society. A masked man is unreadable and remains closed to others. Severian’s unmasked state makes him susceptible to being drawn into a human relationship with Thecla.

Most of them [the exultant families] have nobody at court – can’t afford it, or are afraid of it. Those are the small ones. The greater families must: the Autarch wants a concubine he can lay hands on if they start misbehaving. Now the Autarch can’t play quadrille with five hundred women. There are maybe twenty. The rest talk to each other, and dance, and don’t see him closer than a chain off once a month.”

The rebellion of Vodalus has already suggested that the relationship between the ruler of this world and the aristocracy is not always a happy one. This sort of hostage situation confirms it, and also acts as a hint regarding the incognito appearance of the Autarch in this book.

I have come to understand that the Increate, in choosing for me a career in our guild, was acting for my benefit. Doubtless I had acquired merit in a previous life, as I hope to have in this one

Gurloes makes what I think is the first real reference to the theological beliefs that people in this world have, which at times seem Judeo-Christian, at others more like Hinduism.

Gurloes was one of the most complex men I have known, because he was a complex man trying to be simple. Not a simple, but a complex man’s idea of simplicity. Just as a courtier forms himself into something brilliant and involved, midway between a dancing master and a diplomacist, with a touch of assassin if needed, so Master Gurloes had shaped himself to be the dull creature a pursuivant or bailiff expected to see when he summoned the head of our guild, and that is the only thing a real torturer cannot be. The strain showed; though every part of Gurloes was as it should have been none of the parts fit…sometimes he went to the top of our tower, above the guns, and waited there talking to himself, peering through glass said to be harder than flint for the first beams. He was the only one in our guild – Master Palaemon not excepted – who was afraid of the energies there and the unseen mouths that spoke sometimes to human beings and sometimes to other mouths in other towers and keeps.

I find this description of Master Gurloes to be somewhat poignant, perhaps because when I was younger I tried very hard to escape from myself and become the image of what I at least thought was ‘normal’ and what people would want me to be, because it seemed the only way to get away from being alienated from others. But, of course, what I learned was that this is actually a surefire way to just feel even more alienated. I remember attending many parties, and, in spite of all the ‘fun’ I had, feeling all the more lonely after leaving it.

Some of the technology of the spaceship appears to be functional. I assume that the “unseen mouths” are just the voices of the ship’s computers.

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