Persecution and the Thunder of Social Media

Today is the Feast of St. James the Greater, who among other things is one of the patron saints of Spain.  His role in the creation of that country occurred well before the age of social media.  Yet a debate which took place in Britain’s House of Lords yesterday, regarding the nexus between social media and increasing violence in the name of religion, should give us some food for thought as we reflect on the message of Christ which St. James himself witnessed.

It is believed by some that after the Resurrection, St. James (or Santiago, as he is known in NW Spain) preached in Spain in the first century before returning to Judea, where he was arrested and later executed by King Herod.  It is also believed that much later, in the 9th century, he appeared in a vision to Christians fighting against the armies of the resident Moors, helping the outnumbered Christians to win the day.  As a result, Santiago subsequently gained the sobriquet, “Matamoros”, or “The Moor-Slayer.” This is not, obviously, a term which finds much support today, but during this period known as the Reconquista (“Reconquering”), it had a tremendous impact.

Today its territorial empire is mostly gone, but the linguistic and cultural empire which Spain established still remains.  Ironically, while the Christian faith which Spain spread across the planet continues to grow elsewhere, in Spain herself the state of the Church is at present uncertain.  What is needed in Spain, and indeed throughout Western Europe, is an entirely new form of Reconquista: not one of violence, but rather of witness, winning souls in the way Christians live their lives and how they treat others. To that end, social media can and should be a significant component.

Yet all of us, not just Christians in Spain, need to take to heart what Lord Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, said in Parliament yesterday. Noting current examples of religious violence such as the attacks by ISIS on Christians in Iraq, mob rage against Jews in France, and sectarian Muslim-on-Muslim violence in Africa, he cautioned that fiery hatreds are increasingly being stoked via digital means.   “[W]e recognise the power of the internet and social media to turn any local conflict into a global one,” he noted, later going on to state that it is “the worst, not the best, who know how to capture the attention of a troubled and confused world.”

Lord Sacks is absolutely right, of course, in that the online world can be a vicious place.  He who screams the most obscenities or makes the most outlandish statements about annihilating entire groups of people ends up getting the most attention.  What’s more, the media prefers to cover the rantings of fanatics, both religious and anti-religious, rather than the ordinary people suffering because of their faith.  I find it embarrassing, for example, to note how often secular news reporters trim their fingernails disinterestedly, or play political favorites, rather than report on persecutions of Catholics.  And while we may all point to Pope Francis as someone who not only has the will, but the popular reach to bring words of reason and charity to millions of people through online media, more of us need to be doing our part to peaceably aid in this effort, rather than stirring the pot.

On his Feast Day then, we have a good opportunity to reflect upon what happened when St. James became a bit too hot-headed in his own faith.  In St. Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus realizes it is time to end His public ministry, He and His disciples begin to make their way down from Galilee to Jerusalem, passing through the region of Samaria along the way.  Jesus sends messengers ahead of Him, so that any village He may pause in will be ready for His arrival.

Word comes back that one of the villages has refused to welcome Jesus, because His destination was Jerusalem; given the enmity between the Samaritans and the Jews at that time, this was perhaps not surprising. St. James, however, is absolutely livid at this news.  Along with his brother St. John, St. James asks Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from Heaven to consume them?”  In doing so, the Sons of Zebedee are echoing the call of the Prophet Elijah in the First Book of Kings, in his battle against the priests of Ba’al, and indeed the earlier destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Book of Genesis.

However instead of giving His approval, as St. James might have expected, Jesus rebukes the brothers for their suggestion.  We are not told how He did so, or what He said, or how the “Sons of Thunder”, as they were later nicknamed as a result, reacted themselves.  Perhaps the two of them were still fired up with zeal from what they had seen at the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor a few days earlier when, along with St. Peter, they witnessed a glorified Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah, two prophets who were quite capable of calling down fire and brimstone when warranted, even upon their own people.  In this case, that kind of holy retribution was not to be.

Whatever St. James himself learned from this exchange with Christ, and he must have learned something to die a martyr’s death a few years later, the first of the Apostles to do so, we can learn from his experience ourselves.  Taking Lord Sacks’ cautions about social media to heart, if I am honest about it, I, too, have been guilty of calling down fire online, a temptation which I suspect many of my readers who use social media have also succumbed to from time to time.  So without dampening our enthusiasm for spreading the Gospel then, or defending our faith, perhaps my fellow Christians may want to take a lesson here, from the life of St. James, the man whose memory we honor today in the Church.

Detail of "St. James the Greater" by Alonso Cano (c. 1635) The Louvre, Paris

Detail of “St. James the Greater” by Alonso Cano (c. 1635)
The Louvre, Paris

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When Experts Fail: The Sacred and Profane in Art

An article published yesterday in The Art Newspaper regarding some important frescoes in Rome piqued my interest, and at the same time made me raise an eyebrow as I did further reading.  So I’m going to take this opportunity to explain a little bit, gentle reader, about why too often the media and even supposed art experts themselves, are sources whose pronouncements need to be taken with more than a pinch of salt.  Too often such sources do not really seem to understand how a supposedly profane work of Christian art is, in fact, actually representing a very sacred concept.

We do need to be a little bit careful about using the term “profane” in this context.  By “profane”, we don’t mean something irreverent or scandalous, as we would when using the word, “profanity”.  Rather, in the study of art history there is a general delineation between sacred art, which deals with religious subjects, and profane art, which deals with secular subjects.   It can get confusing however, when something which at first glance might seem to fall into one category is, in fact, of the other.

Take for example Raphael’s magnificent 16th century portrait of Pope Leo X flanked by two of his cardinals, now in the Uffizi in Florence.  This is a secular work of art, even though it portrays a religious figure.  The intent of the painting is not to glorify God, but rather the sitter.  Being a Medici, Leo had excellent taste, but as was generally true of his family he was also rather prone to indulge in greed and excess.  Since this was definitely not one of the saintly popes, this was not an image designed to lead the viewer into some contemplation of things beyond the material world.

On the other hand, something which seems to be a work of art depicting secular subject matter may, in fact, have a deeper, spiritual meaning.  It’s here where oftentimes the present-day art community gets things terribly wrong.  If you have ever suffered through the exasperation of an art museum tour of Catholic art with a docent who is clearly not a Catholic, let alone a Christian, who authoritatively and incorrectly describes various aspects of theology or Church history, then you know what I mean.

Thus, the aforementioned article, about the restoration of a decorated 13th century hall in the Santi Quattro Coronati convent in Rome, is a bit of a head-scratcher.  The headline declares that this is the most important “profane” medieval fresco cycle in Italy.  The problem is, we are looking at a 13th century work of art with 21st century eyes, when we call this decoration “profane”.

If we think of the people of the Middle Ages as somehow being in the dark, “Dark Ages”, then we simply do not understand the era in which they lived.  Around the time that these frescoes were painted, the city of Paris had seen the dedication of the glorious, light-filled Sainte-Chapelle, a marvel of structural engineering even to this day, and nearby St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Albert Magnus were teaching philosophy and writing books which we still study, over seven centuries later.  Elsewhere, Jordanus de Nemore was publishing his hugely influential findings on a variety of mathematical and scientific subjects, from the study of weights, gravity, and forces, to treatises on advanced algebra, geometry, and the measurement of spheres.  There was a far more sophisticated, thoughtful, and innovative civilization in Europe in the Middle Ages, than is often recognized today.

This fresco cycle then, while seemingly profane, is in fact full of sophisticated allegories and important lessons about living the Christian life.  In portraying people engaged in work during different months of the year for example, accompanied by the respective Zodiac symbol for each month, the message was easily understandable by the people for whom these frescoes were painted.  The importance of trying one’s best to follow the Divine Order of things was encapsulated in this general type of art, typically referred to as “The Labor of the Hours”. It was a popular theme during the Middle Ages, from paintings to sculpture to book illustrations.

In some sense, a fresco cycle such as this is an embodiment of the concept of the relationship between God and Man contained in the familiar verses of Chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes.  Man must recognize that God is God, and that Man is not God, but rather a created being – even if a beloved one.  All of Creation exists and is sustained through God’s Will, and it is the duty of Man to seek God’s Will and carry it out, wherever he may find himself in life: young or old, healthy or sick, rich or poor, nobleman or peasant.

Someone who does not understand this particular concept, put even more succinctly by Christ in his command to “Take up your cross and follow me,” is not going to get why these images, which seem to be profane, are, in fact, sacred.  In a way, such persons are rather like the pagans of the early days of Christianity, who would think nothing upon seeing the image of a fish scrawled on the ground, passing by unaware that it was a symbol for Christ.  Unfortunately, too often those who do not really understand sacred concepts, or have their own socio-political agendas which they are seeking to push, look at art like this and simply interpret it for an unsuspecting public however they like, sometimes to the point of laughability.

That’s why it’s important to bring examples of bad reporting like this to your attention.  Here, where the art is clearly sacred rather than profane in nature, we have a good example of why questioning the source is, as always, hugely important.  If we do so, then we can not only better understand our Western heritage, abut we can also make our way down the road toward reclaiming it, from those who, whether intentionally or through ignorance, are trying to turn it into something it is not.

Detail of "October" by Unknown Artists (c. 1246-1250) Convent of Santi Quattro Coronati, Rome

Detail of “October” by Unknown Artists (c. 1246-1250)
Convent of Santi Quattro Coronati, Rome

 

 

Flying the Banner

Last evening at the Catholic Information Center here in D.C., Father James Bradley gave a wonderful talk on “The Way of Beauty; The Way of Happiness”, as part of the TOT (Theology On Tap) Talks organized by the Young Adult Ministry of the Archdiocese of Washington.  Pointing to examples from areas such as art, music, and architecture, Father Bradley challenged his listeners to consider the impact of beauty in our lives, and how it points us to the transcendent.  He asked the deeply important question of whether contemporary acceptance of what was formally considered ugly or demeaning, as being equal or superior to what was formally considered beautiful, is leading us away from God.  You can listen to the audio of Father Bradley’s presentation when it is archived on the TOT page later today.

While the reader may, with good reason, assume that I would have quite a bit to say on this question, I instead want to focus on a comment which Father Bradley made in the course of his presentation.  He noted that when engaging with those who do not accept the Christian worldview on topics such as beauty, we often find ourselves getting nowhere by making apologetic arguments based on doctrines and principles which have been rejected by those who disagree with us.  To put it another way, if I might, when your neighbor absolutely insists that your cat is not a cat, but rather a dog, then all of your insistence to the contrary is not going to make much of a difference.

Father Bradley asserted that when discussion proves impossible, it is through example that we can make said difference.  How we as Christians live our lives can draw people to reconsider their entrenched positions about those very important subjects on which we disagree.  If we are seen as people of joy and love, engaging in acts of kindness and charity, and surrounding ourselves with beauty in all things, we are more likely to be able to engage with those who refuse to meet us on common intellectual or philosophical grounds.  In other words, it is time for us to recover not only the thought, but the actual practice of being a Christian in a time which increasingly rejects Christianity.

An early document written roughly a century after Christ’s Resurrection, known to historians as The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetesmay give us some idea of the sort of thing I mean.  In this letter, the unknown author writing in about 130 A.D. describes how Christians are both a part of the world, yet at the same time set themselves apart from that world by the manner in which they choose to live.  Note how the distinctions which the author draws between the practices of the wider of society of his day, and the Christians of his time, seem eerily reminiscent of some of the practices and ideas of the present age:

[Christians] dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh.  They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven.  They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life.  They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers.

I wonder how many of us who today call ourselves Christians, could consider this early assessment of what our ancestors in the Faith were like, and still recognize ourselves in such a description. We have forgotten that ours is not simply another philosophy among many competing philosophies, but rather a complete way of life, one which is supposed to be manifest to the world, not donned and doffed like a pair of favorite socks.  One sees this type of Christianity throughout Western Europe for example, where apart from christenings, weddings, and funerals, the vast majority of Europeans never darken the doorstep of their local church; this phenomenon is sadly becoming all the more apparent in this country, as well.

As Christians are paid increasingly less attention in the marketplace of ideas, we see that simply the removal of our voices from the din has not been enough for those opposed to Christianity.  We must be made to conform to the zeitgeist, whenever possible; when this is not possible, then we must be silenced.  Given this, and if we consider the historical roots of Christianity such as in the passage given above, then Father Bradley’s reasoning that our lives must themselves be the argument for Christianity at all times, but particularly when words fail us, makes perfect sense.

Certainly, it would be far easier to simply take down the blood-stained banner of the Resurrection, and fly instead the white, surrendering flag of relativism.  Yet to do so would be to deny Christ, something which no Christian wants to do.  The Early Church understood, despite the difficulties which they faced in getting themselves heard, that when our words are ignored, a living Faith through our actions can speak volumes, especially in a highly mutable society.  It’s high time that we recall and re-embrace this lesson for ourselves.

Easter Banner at Golgotha Monastery Orkney, Scotland

Easter Banner at Golgotha Transalpine Redemptorist Monastery
Orkney, Scotland