24 December 2005

Merry Christmas

For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Saviour who is Christ the Lord. Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will to men.

21 December 2005

Seminarians Sing Lessons and Carols

Get it here! Thank Zadok the Roman here!
O East, splendor of light eternal, and sun of justice: come, and illumine those sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death.
Antiphon for the 21st of December

Mel Gibson's New Movie

Here's the trailer.

20 December 2005

War on Christmas

Hendrik Hertzberg probably ought to be given some sort of award for smugness. His article debunking the "War on Christmas" follows a fairly standard line of self-satisfied pseudo-reasoning--all those right-wingers who are complaining about the secularization of Christmas are just the most recent in a long line of people who complain about the how Christmas is under attack by the secular world. He puts up a few straw men—Henry Ford, the anti-Semite, and Bill O'Reilly, his own worst enemy—slaps a gloss of unsubstantiated historial reference on it and calls the typesetter. I got to this sentence here, "Just as Christmas itself evolved as a way to synthesize a variety of winter festivals, so the War on Christmas fantasy is a way of grouping together a variety of enemies, where they can all be rhetorically machine-gunned at once," when I realized that he was full of it.

What really bothers me about Hertzberg's article is—obviously—the sentence I have highlighted above. That on the one hand he poo-poos the self-appointed culture warriors for their unwarranted counter-attack while subtly undercutting the Christmas celebration. What absolute rot! (Frankly, I'd use stronger language, but my mother reads this blog.) Christmas was not a convenient way to celebrate a whole bunch of "winter festivals." No celebration based on such a notion would have persisted over 1700 years nor would it explain why Hannukah and New Years are still celebrated more or less concurrently. The origins of Christmas lie solely with the Church and not with any attempt to justify any pagan holidays. Not that it would matter if they had. The point of Christmas would still have been to commemorate not merely the coming of Christ, but the specific way of his coming, which is what makes Christianity what it is, that the God-head came "veiled in flesh."

People probably are being a little too paranoid about the state of Christmas. It does not seem likely that it will cease to be celebrated any time soon. While the holiday is being subjected to a slow neutralization of its essential message ("good tidings of great joy, which shall be for all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a savior who is Christ the Lord. ... Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace, good will towards men"), I have no reason to think that this attempt to denature Christmas will succeed.

It does not, however, help the cause when Christian denominations of any stripe decide that Christmas is somehow an optional celebration, especially churches committed to evengelization, especially on one of the two days a year when they might expect to actually have non-Christians going to church. Such an action as these Churches who think that they do not need to have church on Christmas on a Sunday do lend credence to the appearance that Christmas is losing its focus.

On the other hand, it seems most people I know are planning to celebrate Christmas, people who 1) know full well what its "about," and 2) who do not believe what it is about. Friends of mine who are deeply athiestic have decorated their house more extravagantly than anyone else I know and have even set up a small creche in one corner (that they have deliberately set a small photograph of Elvis Presely behind it does not entirely negate their small acknowledgment of Christmas' real meaning). And while anecdotes may not count as hard proof, I even heard my local NPR affiliate (enemy of all things Christian) broadcasting a "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" and "Joy to the World" this evening in their full gender-essentialist and God-centered language.

I don't believe that the controversy that Christmas elicits is in fact overshadowing what Christmas is all about and its message of un-looked-for redemption. Because the controversy draws more attention to it in the first place, and second of all, because underneath it there is still a steady current carols, movies, books, trees, presents, decorations, and so on and so forth which continually emphasize the miracle which Christmas celebrates. If and when Christmas really does need someone to defend it tooth and nail, I hope it will be someone other than Bill O'Reilly.

Are you going to Heaven? Take the quiz and find out!

You can take the heaven quiz here. Be careful, some of the questions are deliberately misleading. Incidentally, according to the quiz, I am not going to heaven. Oh well. Guess I'll have to find a different quiz.

Oh, and by the bye, the Messiah has returned, is in China, and has said over a million words.

16 December 2005

What Rodney Stark says about Christianity

I found this over at Amy Welborn last night. There was another post about him yesterday but it has disappeared from her site with a bunch of other posts:

Rodney Stark in the Chronicle of Higher Education - How Christianity (and Captialism) led to Science
Supposing that capitalism did produce Europe's own "great leap forward," it remains to be explained why capitalism developed only in Europe. Some writers have found the roots of capitalism in the Protestant Reformation; others have traced it back to various political circumstances. But, if one digs deeper, it becomes clear that the truly fundamental basis not only for capitalism, but for the rise of the West, was an extraordinary faith in reason.

A series of developments, in which reason won the day, gave unique shape to Western culture and institutions. And the most important of those victories occurred within Christianity. While the other world religions emphasized mystery and intuition, Christianity alone embraced reason and logic as the primary guides to religious truth. Christian faith in reason was influenced by Greek philosophy. But the more important fact is that Greek philosophy had little impact on Greek religions. Those remained typical mystery cults, in which ambiguity and logical contradictions were taken as hallmarks of sacred origins. Similar assumptions concerning the fundamental inexplicability of the gods and the intellectual superiority of introspection dominated all of the other major world religions.
I Googled Stark because I had never heard of him. He is a sociologist at Baylor University. He has several books in the works which are apparently revisions of academic approach to early Church history. To me his views don't sound particularly new. GK Chesterson was saying this kind of thing a hundred years ago (has it been that long?), but it is unusual that Stark is a full-fledged academic and can say these things--which to avoid confusion, I think is great. Anyway, I can think of a few friends who might want to add Prof. Stark to their reading lists.

Thanks Amy.

15 December 2005


My friend Metafiz over at ...Perceptions... received a host of unpleasant commentators attacking his cost of the war in Iraq counter. Please visit his blog and leave him an intelligent, thoughtful comment to restore everyone's faith in humanity.

A trip down memory lane

While some of us trepidatiously await the inevitibality of purgatory, others among us are taking the bull by the horns and subjecting themselves, knowingly, to public humiliation. One such of these is Emily Yoffe, who can now add nude art model to her resume. Having been to art school and having been in on any number of "life" (read, buck naked) drawing classes, Yoffe's story not only rings true but answers some of my questions about the kind of people who think that nude modeling is a good way to make money. Hilarious, although it makes you think twice about any invitation to a cocktail party at which Ms. Yoffe will be in attendance.

Related is her aspirations as a lounge act.

New Comment Requirements

Due to some unwanted comment spam I am moderating all comments. We will see how this goes, and if it is a real problem, then I may relax the restrictions. Fortunately, my blog is not a free country and there is no such thing as free speech here.

14 December 2005

The Turn of the Tide

David Hartline thinks that the Church (already, of course, Triumphant) is becoming once again Ascendent. He says, "While there have been many ebbs and flows in the history of Catholicism, perhaps we are now beginning a new and promising flow of faith."
It's here. Via Amy Welborn.

The How-To Book of the Mass

I was poking around the Internet a few days ago when I cam across this book, The How-To Book of the Mass. Since it promises on its cover "Everything you need to know but no one ever taught you," I was very excited. You see, despite having attended multiple confirmation classes on my way across the Tiber, they have yet to cover all the crucial details of how to participate in the mass. Most of what I have learned has just come about through regular attendance and sly glances at neighbors to see what they are doing and attempting to follow suit. So, I had hoped I had finally found a book that would give me all the answers I needed.

I haven't read much of it yet, but I think I have mixed feelings about it. Certain things I wanted to know are there (like does one bow/genuflect towards the altar or the tabernacle: as it turns out, it depends), but the text does not reproduce the text of the liturgy except in certain places, so it makes it a little hard to follow.

Perhaps I am being premature. I should probably read it to find out how helpful it will be. But there are many things that I want to see/do at mass, and don't know if the protocol for doing them is the same as in a good ol' high Anglican church. Can one make a profound bow to the processional cross? I have yet to see a Catholic do this, but the Episcops do it all the time.

If anyone else has read this and has an opinion or has read something of similar nature that they have found helpful, of course, let me know.

13 December 2005

Not sure what this means

You are Kermit the Frog.
You are reliable, responsible and caring. And you have a habit of waving your arms about maniacally.

"Hi ho!" "Yaaay!" and "Sheesh!"
"How Green Was My Mother"

"Surfin' the Webfoot: A Frog's Guide to the Internet"

Sitting in the swamp playing banjo.

"Hmm, my banjo is wet."
From Andrew Cusack. Which Muppet are you?

09 December 2005

Everyone has something to say about Narnia

Roger Ebert gave it three stars.
If you live in the same little corner of the blogosphere that I do, you have already read and commented on Polly Toynbee's wild-eyed, spittle-spraying, God-hating rant.
The Pontificator is very excited about the movie and has posted a link to this article by Frederica Matthewes-Green.

At one point Matthewes-Green writes,
Aslan's heroic act [of self-sacrafice] is aimed at the Witch, not the Emperor, and he defeats her by using information she does not have. This sounds like the understanding of salvation that held sway for the thousand years before Anselm, still preserved in the Christian East, which echoed the earlier story of the Exodus. According to this understanding, God does not require any payment for our sins, but forgives us freely, just like we're supposed to forgive each other. We are helpless in the grip of evil forces, like the Hebrews in Egypt and the beasts in Narnia. God rescues us by a mighty act, by his power alone.

And of course, MM has asked us to find ways to use the movies as a tool for evangelization.

Frankly, I am a little trepidatious about going to see this movie. The Chronicles of Narnia are among my favoritestestest books of all time. I hate it when they turn these books into movies because they have a tendency to kill the book. This doesn't happen because they do a bad job. No a bad job--like the BBC miniseries rendition--is so bad that can have no purchase in one's imagination. You forget about it quickly. But when it is well done, like Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings, it has a tendency to supplant the source in one's imagination, even when you reread them. I grant that in thirty years people will probably have forgotten all about the Lord of the Rings movies and the Chronicles of Narnia and that the books will regain their independent life (at least I hope this is what happens).

I don't want to use the movie as an evangelization tool. I think that most Christians don't because we have such few explicitly Christian imaginative outlets these days. I am glad that this movie is going to be popular. I am glad that many people will see it and be edified by Lewis' thoughts and his faith. I hope that people who have not read the book do so after this movie. For me it was one step from the Chronicles to Lewis' theological writings (and I have yet, I admit, to break into his writings on Renaissance literature), so perhaps it will be the same for these other people. And thus, the movie, whether people intend it or no, will be a means of spreading the Gospel.

I'm just still annoyed that they made it. That they have successfully mediated every part of my childhood. Anyway, the movie opens today.

Mega-Churches cancel Christmas services

"What we're encouraging people to do is take that DVD and in the comfort of their living room, with friends and family, pop it into the player and hopefully hear a different and more personal and maybe more intimate Christmas message, that God is with us wherever we are," said Cally Parkinson, communications director at Willow Creek, which draws 20,000 people on a typical Sunday.

Amy Welborn had a post
about this a couple of days ago, but when I saw it on the NY Times I guess it has become something of general interest. Basically, since Christmas falls on a Sunday this year, the churches are cancelling services so that families can stay home together. That may be all fine and well, of course, but you can't worship a DVD, even in the comfort of your own home. And Christmas is not about the imminence of family in our lives (although, those are good things) But it is about the imminence of Christ, Emmanuel, God-with-us. Long and short, go to church on Christmas!

08 December 2005

Apophis is coming! Apophis is coming!

There is an asteroid on a collision course with earth. It is called Apophis. Estimated time of arrival: 31 years. Chances of survival: 1 in 5,500. WE...ARE...ALL...GOING...TO..DIE!

If this really is the Apocalypse, just remember, you heard it hear first. Or not, if you knew about it already.

It's an interesting thought, though. If you knew you were going to die in 2036, how would you spend the next thirty years of your life?

07 December 2005

I got into an old-fashioned aesthetics debate at Shrine of the Holy Whapping

The post at the Shrine concerning Benedict XVI's call for liturgical-musical improvement has yielded some interesting comments, which I wanted to re-post mine below for my own readers:

Writes Hieronymous:
An aesthetic sense is like a conscience - it needs to be properly, vigilantly formed. Although everyone had an inherent knowledge of what is beautiful and what is ugly, just as he has an inherent knowledge of what is good and what is evil, his ability to apply it can be distorted or destroyed.

The greater task than restoring proper music to church (which is necessary, obviously. I will attend no Mass accompanied by soft-rock/pop OCP drivel) is to restore an appreciation for good music to the culture at large.

To which I responded:
I still think it is problematic to say that certain art forms are "objectively" better than others. Some are certainly more intellectually complex than others and demand a great more out of their hearer/viewer than others and these greater demands usually result in greater satisfaction and therfore greater enjoyment.

But another point is that works of art are subjective sensory experiences that we experience in a temporal way--this is integral to the definition of a work of art--and there is nothing "objective" about that at all. Each viewer will respond somewhat differently to a work of art, because each viewer is a different person.

Then again, works of art are fashioned by the artist to work on the viewer's sensory faculties in a certain way with the hopes of achieving a certain effect. Thus, the experience of Bach is different, vastly, from the experience of rock and roll. Bach is far more intellectually sophisticated than rock and roll, but rock and roll achieves vastly different effects which Bach's music cannot.

The question, then, is not what kinds of music are objectively right or wrong for the mass, but which are appropriate to the desired effect on the worshipper, namely reverence? Within that framework we should have a great deal of freedom to tweak things around.

Incidentally, I think that the only "objective" things which do take place during the mass are the sacred mysteries, but those are the very things that we can't comprehend. It is the things that "deliver" those mysteries to us that we can comprehend, and those are temporal and subjective. The problem is is that the line between what is necessary to the mysteries and what is accidental (the form which those mysteries take) is indistinct to us (not, I think, to God).

To my problematizing of objectivity, Emily (the original poster) responded:
The more I've thought about that over the years, the less convinced I am that it's true. I'm don't have time to go into detail on it, but think about the profound connection between truth, goodness, and beauty. There are objective standards for goodness and truth, so I find it hard to make the case that there isn't for beauty. Granted, it's of a different type, but I still think it has to be objective in some sense.

And I rebutted:
I rather hope you will when you have the time. But without taking up wild examples such as "modern" art, what is one to say about the differences between Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque art? On one level they all testify to what we understand to be the objective truth of Christianity, but do so in radically different ways. It is facile (I think) to say that the Renaissance was "more beautiful" than the Gothic or vice versa. It can be said that they represent that truth in different ways. Maybe different sides of the same truth. But if someone says "I think that the Renaissance produced art more beautiful than the Gothic period," they are pronouncing personal subjective judgment--a judgment of taste. To what standard could someone appeal such a statement? Throughout the history of art, people have repeatedly attempted to establish objective rules for beauty, and then these rules have been deliberately broken by others to show that they are arbitrary. But this is getting off track. It is not necessary for mass to be beautiful, objectively or subjectively. If it is, it is; if not, it doesn't fail to "take."

To my last sentence Franklin Jennings responded thusly:
While absolutely true, I don't see how this lessens our obligation to render the Liturgy beautifully.

But then, I also don't see how the fact that men cannot agree on an objective criterion for beauty should prove to seperate beauty from goodness and truth, when men also cannot agree on objective criteria for either.

And Sam with great erudition said this:
... it seems the discussion over catholic liturgical music sounds a bit elitist, classist, or at least exclusively Eurocentric ....What I mean to say is that the development of such nuanced and sublime taste in music or things beautiful necessitates exposure to the material deemed beautiful. In this way, aesthetic sense is not developed as a moral conscience. The inherent givens of goodness and truth are not as accessible to the universal church as Beethoven, Mozart, and Palestrina are....those seven, old ladies who sing their a capella, folky-mexican devotionals out of key every morning at 5 a.m. and sound terrible - but sincere; and the mountain community in Honduras who is visited only 4 times a year by a cleric where they come together and sing out in joy with unsophisticated instruments (like guitar) and less sophisticated melodies (probably the same ones of the seven, old ladies), yet the essence of reverence and holiness… indeed beauty is in the person seeking unity with God via song.

If Keats is right, and the relationship between beauty and truth is tautological, then why worry too much about the mass. What we need to do is to worship in spirit and in truth not aesthetic splendor. Or maybe there is more to it than that....

There's a lot of ideas here, which is partially why I wanted to preserve my comments here on my blog. But please see the Whapping and post there, too!

06 December 2005

Reforming the Liturgy

What with recent posts at Pontifications on a new translation of the Latin rite and one at the Holy Whapping on words of encouragement from Benedict XVI to composers of sacred music (see entry for Dec. 6), it seems like the so-called "reform of the reform" of Vatican II is gaining speed/ground (depending on which metaphorical usage you prefer).

This is a topic which clearly have some people fired up, that is to say, ire is high (read the comments on the post at the Whapping for a good example). I wonder, what should the new liturgy look like? Is there an essential expression of the liturgy that is valid versus one that is invalid (given that the normative parts of the mass are followed, etc.)? Specifically, can we say that there is a "Catholic" art form which should be utilized in the mass, versus a "non-Catholic" form which should be repudiated? If Bishops, under the supposed aegis of V2, are incorporating contemporary music and modern languages and taking down altar rails, are they attacking or distorting the substance of the mass? Opponents of the changes, of course, say yes, while proponents seem to think that they are just making it more accessible. I have heard both arguments and they both have convincing points.

If there is something "essentially Catholic" in the liturgical expression, music and language, then it means that we cannot use in church Bach, Beethoven and many of the "great" composers. Possibly we should not even listen to them in our spare time, since no doubt these would corrupt our fragile faith in God.

If on the other hand, Catholicism is able to incorporate and sanctify to its use things of secular origin (Roman architecture, for instance), then isn't it possible to sing songs that are more "contemporary" in style?

But clearly, not all of the reforms introduced have been seen as healthy, and some are apparently harmful. I for one, loathe the fact that the cathedral where I attend has taken out their altar rail and added this peninsula so that the altar may be out in the space of the people. Every time I am there I think, "They raped the building." And I really wish we'd stop singing those insipid songs by M. Haugen. (I feel vindicated by my dislike of these songs seeing who does like them.)

I personally haven't yet formed a clear position on this matter. I probably never will come up with a definitive answer for it either, and I am deeply suspicious of people who have a set-in-stone answer. The Church, as a living institution, is able to incorporate organic change (this is sometimes called growth). Some things, however, are not to be tampered with. We cannot continue to be Catholic Christians if we abandon core doctrines concerning Christ's identity and mission, most obviously.

I would, however, like to know what people think about this.

In the meantime, this is some of the liturgical music that I have been listening to:
Choir of King's College Cambridge, O Come All Ye Faithful
The Choir of Tewkesbury Abbey, Christmas Carols

Alberto Turco and Nova Schola Gregoriana, Adorate Deum

I got all these, by the way, off iTunes, where they can be had cheap.

05 December 2005

Snow in Richmond

It snowed today. Not enough to close school for the week or anything (sigh.)

Art & Art Criticism

For those of you who have been following my meagre attempt to break down the situation of contemporary art, there is a related article in this month's The New Criterion by James Panero. The article requires registration to read it, but registration is free until December 31 (after that your registration will expire and you will have to pay for access).

The New Criterion is a rather interesting publication, which is self-admittedly modernist in its orientation. I have a strong admiration for their often curmudgeonly slant, but I find their perpetuation of the modernist position somewhat difficult. The article partially addresses this concern, as you will see if you read it.

For people such as myself seeking to get away from both modernism and postmodernism, there don't seem to be many options. I think that there is a rising laissez-faire attitude where everyone is allowed to do what pleases them best and the result is often a hybrid of modernism and postmodernism. I find this position, if not outrightly intellectually dishonest, at least intellectually facile.

But here's a thought: Maybe the problem lies not with the artists, the critics and the art historians, but the patrons. More on this to come!

04 December 2005

Mater Dei, Ora Pro Nobis

Ave Maria

Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum;
benedicta tu in mulieribus,
et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Jesus.
Sancta Maria, Mater Dei,
ora pro nobis peccatoribus,
nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen.

03 December 2005

Clarifying the moment of clarity

JM, in his comment on the post below, has asked me to expand on my comment on the state of contemporary art. This may not be an expansion, but it may be at least a crystallizing of what could have been a moment of brilliance, or alternatively, total balderdash (to deploy an under-used word).

First of all, I think I need to clarify the premises of that post and what I perceive to be the premises of contemporary or postmodern art. It all goes back to modernism: Modern art is based--I think, and I grant that these could probably be further enumerated--on two assumptions, and of course, they are probably interconnected. The first of them is the strong historical sense with which modern art perceives itself. The notion that there can be "avant-garde" or "advanced" art stems from the belief that history unfolds not only linearly but with a purpose. This purpose is typically revolutionary, e.g. it seeks to overthrow the old order and set up a new one. The second assumption is that the out of the world can be elucidated essences of meaning or being. The revolutionary character of modernism is, to my mind, an outgrowth of the desire to uncover the essential order. The reigning order is seen to be corrupt, flacid, and decadent; too far removed from the primary meaning or purpose of life, it cannot be reconciled to the needs of society and must be discarded. I don't want to get too much into the sources of these assumptions. Let it suffice to say that a lot of it is rooted in the 19th century and that a lot of it has to do with Hegel.

But given these two underlying ideas--historical sense and the search for essences--we can comprehend much of modern art. If we take Abstract Expressionism, for instance, we can find these two notions everywhere. On the one hand, stylistically, there is the need to push the boundaries or envelope of technique, praxis, into where it has not gone before. There is a powerful need to do something "new" because art is understood as a historical progression towards an undisclosed end point, but that that progression has been interpreted by art historians as a series of technical inventions in art media called styles. [I ought to take out the tautology of the last two sentences, but I will leave it because it may illustrate something which at this moment eludes me.] So novelty for its own sake, regardless of what that novelty is, can be revered as artistic innovation or advance. I think that Duchamp understood this pretty clearly and his ready-mades are a prescient skewering of that novelty-for-its-own-sake attitude.

But in another sense, Abstract Expressionism was also after uncovering or revealing or making manifest some essential truth of the universe. For Jackson Pollock, this seemed to be the Jungian Collective Unconscious, which he ultimately depicted as a miasma or cloud of the primordial psychological state out of which consciousness arises. Or, we have the essentialism of Clement Greenberg, defender and critic of AbEx who believed that they were reducing painting down to its fundamental components--paint on canvas--and had therefore jettisoned any extraneous referential matter.

Postmodernism attacks these two modernist positions. It attacks, on the one hand, the historical notion by saying that there is no historical will (a zeitgeist, for instance) inexorably and impersonally fulfilling its intentions over time. In other words, history has no end goal; there is only events taking place in space and time. It also rejects the notion of essences. Things do not have any primary state of being, they only have their accidental appearance in the world, the accidences of which are contingent on space and time and therefore also changing. It rejects modernism's belief in an existential ground of being partially because it is (I guess) unprovable--or rather, because it is based on preconceived notions of how things are/ought to be rather than on lived experience; and also because such notions as essences and historicity are believed to be chauvanistic--they tend to privilege and lionize and then mythologize the time and place of the people who have conceived of the category of modern art--when in fact modern art is only one category of art among many, and in fact art itself is only one category among many kinds of equally possible human activity.

We call it postmodernism, however, because it preserves the language of modernism, abstraction or non-representationalism, in order to parody or expose modernisms assumptions. The line between them is never clear. There are some kinds of art (such as Duchamp) which seem very postmodern, and yet came long before postmodernisms formulation, while there are certain kinds of art which have been made since postmodernism which seem modernist in conception.

So what was the moment of clarity? Precisely (I hope) this: that postmodern or contemporary art has taken up a purely critical position in the world today. It has used the reductionism (or essentialism) of modernism to exlude from itself all traditional modes of artistic production--such as oil painting, unless it can do so with exteme irony--in order to isolate its critique. Furthermore, its critique has expanded beyond the bounds of mere modernism to encompass all modes of visual production--movies, pop culture, television, etc. Because it has excluded artistic production, there are very few fine artists who are equipped with what is conventionally called "talent" or "skill" because such things are irrelevant to their taking up a critical position, and, probably, would be inhibitory.

And I mean critique in its least productive sense. Postmodern art--in this context--is primarily a negation, a cancelling out. It is cynical, snide, self-aggrandizing and bland all at the same time. But I think that often it is those things on purpose. No, I am sure it is those things on purpose. Perhaps postmodern artists believe that in the context of the gallery a double negation can occur where the original banal snideness of their work is transformed into a positive affirmation of a certain world-view. But I am not so sure.

So when I said that postmodernism takes place after the end of history I wanted to suggest that it does so after the collapse of the modernist historical urge, but also in a way that sustains that historical sense within it. Postmodernism seems accutely aware of its post-historicity, which itself is a kind of historical sense of self and one that sustains its increasingly esoteric and irrelevant avant-garde identity.

But there are some serious problems with all this. First of all, I have lumped a number of artists of different stripes together while not identifying any of them or justifying my assertions with any one in particular even. A lot of this would probably deflate when contextualized with a real person.

Secondly, I purport to have a solution. My solution would be that art, to reinvigorate itself must transcend all historical notions and work for an end outside of any purely artistic goal. I imagine medieval icon painters painting not with the end of virtuoso paint application but with producing a representation of something they know is unrepresentable: the Divine. But within that, it seems, art is able to become a position of extreme humility; its insufficiency bound up with its purpose and made part of that purpose, in much the same way that we human beings serve some unknown and mysterious Divine purpose, or as weak vessels serve a known purpose insufficiently.

I say purport to have a solution, because my solution as I have conceived it is--however ideal--escapism. Barring a cataclysm of universal proportions, it is not possible anymore to detach ourselves from the historical fabric which we have constructed for ourselves. What will happen, only time will tell.

The Name of the Rose

I just finished reading Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. Wow! What a really cool book. It is one of those books which reminds me of why I love to read and how enjoyable reading is and why I ought to read more than I do. And clearly, it was a joy for Eco to write. It has also opened up the world to me again in that way in which great works of art are capable of doing. It makes the world an exciting place, a place to be lived in and enjoyed and savored precisely because it cannot be understood; because the rich tapestry of experiences and signs which make up our lives cannot be completely reconciled (and here to insert a note for myself, I wonder if this is what TS Eliot means by the "tattered arras woven with a silent motto" in East Coker; no matter, Eco would say that it is because I the reader have made a meaning from the juxtaposition of two unrelated signs). It also reconfirms in me the belief that works of art are ways (one way among many) of living life, of experiencing it in the fullness of its mystery and complexity; of life's refusal of any self-disclosure of definitive meaning.

It reminds me that one of my students told me the other day that he was trying to construct a definitive system; to understand through art the interlocking structure of the universe. That is not what he said; that is what he meant. He wanted, what was it?, he wanted to uncovers some fundamental, constitutive principle of life which would allow for the interpretation of existence--or some such thing. Or maybe it wasn't a student; maybe it was me. I have certainly thought that in the past. Now I realize--more and more--that such an undertaking is the Tower of Babel. It is hubris--overweening pride. The discovery of any such principle is in fact the accidental meeting of coincidental events. It will prove illusory and any such more fundamental conception entirely ellusive.

It is not to say that there is no such principle, but that the uncovery of it is beyond human reach. The attempt is beyond human limitations for such a fact, such a primitive ontological state lies only with God beyond temporality. Thus, I am not sure that the Christianity uncovers for us any of the secrets of the universe at all, as such it would not be a religion but a science. Instead Christianity is a mystery to guide us through the mystery and darkness of temporal being.

All I meant to say was that the Name of the Rose was so fascinating because it made me realize that there is no pressure on me from the outside to construct a comprehensive, definitive world-system. Any such system would not only be necessarily false--if only in its partiality--but would become a tomb, a restraint in which all conclusions are foregone and therefore with it the mystery and joy of life, of faith, of art, of scholarship are expelled, even if they are still paid lip service.

Let's see if I still think this tomorrow. I hope so. It is an exhilerating thought.

02 December 2005

Is that Baby Jesus as a baby marshmallow?

The crazy kids over at The Whapping have linked to the uber-hilarious Cavalcade of Bad Nativities. Irreverent isn't quite the right word because it's not stong enough.

Rant: Grinches stealing Christmas

MM has posted a call for the defense of Christmas. It seems that there are people out there--people who claim to be Christians--who are not celebrating Christmas. It seems that the main argument put up by these people is that since the Bible does not explicitly institute the feast of Christmas (nor, for that matter does it institute the feast of Easter) that therefore Christians should not engage in celebrating this holiday. If further proof were needed of Christmas' badness, these people will also claim that it is a pagan holiday that has been "converted" into a Christian one to please the crowd and that these pagan origins are still evident in such things as Christmas trees, gifts, etc.

Now, I can understand to an extent, the other reaction against the over-blown materialism that has crept up and threatens to choke out the "real meaning" of Christmas--Christ's incarnation. I say, to an extent, because frankly, I find that to be reactionary as well.

But to the first crowd, it is clear that these people are just legalists. We all know how our Lord felt about legalists because he regularly chastized the Pharisees for following the letter of the law and not its spirit, esp. in regards to the keeping of the Sabbath. But on the other hand, they are merely exercising their private judgment on a Church-instituted day of celebration. They are repudiating on the one hand sacred tradition, and on the other hand they are deeply impoverishing and limiting the expression of their faith by not celebrating it, and with gusto. We all know Our Lord loves a good feast. For starters, His first miracle was to supply booze for a party and there is a tendency in Christ's teachings to describe his coming Kingdom not as a Quaker meeting but as a wedding feast to which we are all invited and to which we must show with a good will and ready to celebrate. These people in what seems to me self-righteous pride have missed the very heart of the Christian mystery--that our union with God through the incarnation (Christmas) and death and resurrection (Easter) of his Son is something to be celebrated with pomp and joy.

To the anti-materialists, I would say that the above might mean spending some money. I for one plan on spending Christmas both giving and receiving and eating and celebrating and singing and drinking and decorating and all of those things because until Christ's coming again these are concrete reminders of what being a Christian is all about and they can't be gotten by just reading the Bible.