Sex, Violence, And The Superbowl

Not being a fan of watching professional sports apart from tennis, I didn’t watch the Super Bowl on Sunday. I did however manage to catch Lady Gaga’s performance during the Halftime Show. It was a high-energy blend of art pop, hair metal, and 1980’s-style excess, recalling diverse performers such as David Bowie, KISS, and Madonna. Whatever you may think of her, if you understand music and dance, you appreciate that Lady Gaga certainly knows how to put on a show.

Among the commenters in my timeline, some expressed disgust at the messages of sexual immorality which Lady Gaga put on display. Others thought that this was no big deal, because there were other, more positive messages about family and patriotism which she conveyed as well. I don’t think it’s worth my time or yours to turn a pop star’s performance into an academic thesis, but I do think it’s worth considering whether there are a couple of hard truths that we can learn, from thinking about how we apply standards of morality to entertainment, not only with respect to sexuality, but also with respect to violence.

The display of both sexual behavior and acts of violence as mainstream entertainment is not something that came into existence in the 1960’s. Take opera, for example. Here are the plots of three of the most popular operas ever written, with apologies for the admitted oversimplification:

– A hooker seduces a man into leaving his fiancée, then runs off with another man; her jilted lover later tracks her down and murders her. (Carmen)

– A hooker is forced to leave her current lover for a more powerful one, whom she eventually murders before committing suicide. (Tosca)

– A man marries a hooker, leaves her in order to commit bigamy, and the hooker kills herself. (Madama Butterfly)

Stepping off stage however, it’s interesting to note that many who criticize musical entertainers, are the same people who give a pass to sports entertainers. Professional football is a semi-controlled form of genuinely violent entertainment, perhaps preferable to the gladiator fight to the death, but which still almost inevitably involves serious physical injury. Moreover, when it comes to sexual behavior, whatever a singer may be doing on stage, at the end of the day it’s still play-acting. Hardly anyone ever dares to publically criticize a famous athlete who is notorious for committing serial adultery in real life, however. It seems as though our culture has developed quite a double standard in this regard.

What is lacking both in entertainment and in real life is not the knowledge that our own bad behavior eventually comes back to bite us. We still intrinsically know this, and we have not yet fallen so far into secularism that we are so entirely unaware of such things. Yet the solution to a libertine society filled with hypersexual and violent entertainments is not to join the Amish in cultural retreat: “Utopia”, after all, is a work of fiction.

Instead, what we need to cultivate is a greater sense of balance, particularly as consumers of entertainment. We can both foster our appreciation for genuine talent, creativity, and skill, while at the same time criticizing and refuting when necessary those behaviors and philosophies associated with it which only lead to destruction. To ignore the former is to display one’s ignorance; to refrain from the latter is to pretend that what we do here has no significance in the hereafter.

Perhaps it’s unfair to ask that we even attempt to seek such a balance today, when pagan attitudes toward sexuality and violence are regaining their former footholds. At least for now, the woman in the spangled shoulder pads surrounded by drones, and the man in the plastic shoulder pads under his football jersey, are merely entertainers on a stage. The vanity that has brought our society to levels of self-destructive behavior not seen in centuries is not going to disappear simply of its own accord. It’s time we wake up to that fact, and balance both a genuine appreciation of our entertainers with our legitimate criticism of them, when warranted.

Dangerous Instruments: Your Online Life And Your Creative Legacy

I get email inquiries all the time from visitors to my side project, CatholicBarcelona.com, which is an online guide in English to all of the historic churches, monasteries, etc. in Barcelona. People want to know which sites are closest to their hotel, or if I can recommend a particular Sunday Mass, or where they can get married. A common question involves requests for Masses in other languages.

Some months ago I received an email from a lady whom I will call “T”. T had recently moved from her country to suburban Barcelona, but she had started to look into becoming a Catholic before she had left her home country. She wanted some suggestions on joining a parish, and also whether I knew of anywhere that she could receive instruction on Catholicism, through the program commonly known as RCIA, the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. I gave her a couple of recommendations and wished her luck, assuming I would never hear from her again.

Then yesterday morning, I received an email from T, some four months after I last heard from her. She told me that not only had she joined the parish I suggested would probably work for her, but one of the priests there was giving her private RCIA instruction. She is thrilled and hopes to come into the Church next Easter.

Now at the end of the day, what is happening in T’s life is the working of the Holy Spirit, not me. If she hadn’t found the information she was seeking through me, she would have found it somewhere else. However I wanted to share this story with you for an important reason.

There’s no question that the connections we make via online media can be toxic. All you have to do is read the comments section on just about any blog to realize that there are a lot of bitter, unhappy people out there, who not only espouse crazy theories, they are more than happy to share them with you. Twitter and Facebook, at times, can seem little more than a flame war, while even the most seemingly innocuous Instagram account can take on a different tinge, when you look not at the images being posted by that user you’re following, but at the images that they are “liking”.

I‘ll be the first to raise my hand and declare that I’m as big and bad a sinner online, as I am in real life: the Seven Deadly Sins and I have been shacked up for quite a long time. It’s easy to think, when we look at someone’s online presence, “Wow, what a hypocrite/whackjob/jerk!” Except that if we turn the mirror around, I expect most of us will find ourselves doing the same things.   

Online media is not intrinsically evil, it is merely a tool: a means, not an end. It can be a tool of darkness, absolutely, for it can create all kinds of evil things. Yet it can also be a tool for good. We all, myself included, need to take a step back from time to time and ask what sort of online instruments we are.

Certainly we are all rusty, dangerous instruments when we chose to do evil. The fellow downstairs is more than happy to use us to injure others, if we let him. In the process, we end up injuring ourselves, becoming weaker and duller until we eventually snap and get tossed in the garbage.

Yet if we put ourselves in God’s hands, even in our sorry and decrepit state, by choosing to work the way that He wants us to, we can be as beneficial and healing in our online relationships as a well-wielded scalpel in the hands of a gifted surgeon. That is where, as the saying goes, the struggle is real. And it is a struggle all of us, myself included, need to be reminded of, when we are doing anything online.

Whether you are writing a blog post or tweet, sending a direct message or chat, or uploading an image or document, in creating online content you are creating a body of work that speaks not only to who you are as a content creator, but also about whom you are taking as your creative advisor. You can be an instrument for creating good, or you can be an instrument for destructive evil. Don’t let that choice go by, unexamined, in your online activities.

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"Against The Common Good" by Francisco de Goya (c. 1814-15)

Shorter Pope Francis: I’m All About That Bass

This is a wonderful opportunity for me to gain your attention through the use of an – admittedly terrible – pun, but now that I have done so, I hope the reader will indulge me and allow me to explain my choice of title a bit later in this post.

The release of the much-anticipated Papal Encyclical “Laudato Si” today did not disappoint. In it, as there should be, is plenty of material to make everyone feel uncomfortable, in the ways we live our lives and in the ways we treat one another. It also reveals both a weakness and a strength of the present Pontiff as a thinker and a writer.

While a significant portion of the document reads like a journal article assembled by a group of graduate students, the more interesting turns and jabs in the Encyclical are not what most of us expected – certainly not this scrivener, anyway. To not be able to anticipate, as one reads, how Pope Francis is going to reach some of the conclusions he does, many of which were quite surprising, makes this more readable for the average person than most papal encyclicals. What one comes away with is the impression that whatever his views on the environment, the economy, and human relationships, the Holy Father believes that the malaise we see at present comes not from a single political philosophy or economic practice, but rather from a particular attitude, one which has severely damaged Western civilization in particular: selfishness. This encyclical is perhaps the greatest indictment of the “Me” generation, and all of its policies and excesses on both the right AND the left, which we have seen to date.

While major news outlets are falling all over themselves to quote the Pope’s writing on those aspects of ecology which they themselves support, they will at the same time be ignoring those portions of the encyclical which directly attack their views. Take for example that sacred cow of the left, “reproductive health”, i.e., the right to poison oneself – and indeed everyone else’s water supply in the process – with artificial hormones and other chemicals, so that one does not have children, alongside the right to kill unwanted children if they are conceived. The Holy Father offers no quarter to those who attempt to justify such policies based on environmental arguments:

50. Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of “reproductive health”. Yet “while it is true that an unequal distribution of the population and of available resources creates obstacles to development and a sustainable use of the environment, it must nonetheless be recognized that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development”. To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption.

Similarly, for those who believe that grinding up human embryos for pharmaceutical research, or aborting children who will be born with birth defects, are moral examples of the ends justifying the means:

117. When we fail to acknowledge as part of reality the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities – to offer just a few examples – it becomes difficult to hear the cry of nature itself; everything is connected. Once the human being declares independence from reality and behaves with absolute dominion, the very foundations of our life begin to crumble, for “instead of carrying out his role as a cooperator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature”.

Also:

120. Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties? “If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of the new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away”.

And:

136. On the other hand, it is troubling that, when some ecological movements defend the integrity of the environment, rightly demanding that certain limits be imposed on scientific research, they sometimes fail to apply those same principles to human life. There is a tendency to justify transgressing all boundaries when experimentation is carried out on living human embryos. We forget that the inalienable worth of a human being transcends his or her degree of development. In the same way, when technology disregards the great ethical principles, it ends up considering any practice whatsoever as licit. As we have seen in this chapter, a technology severed from ethics will not easily be able to limit its own power.

Admittedly I did not engage in an exact word or paragraph count, but as I was reading the Encyclical it struck me that Pope Francis – that supposedly permissive, squishy-on-morality pope – spent more time castigating moral relativism, abortion, contraception, and embryonic stem cell research, than he did addressing the issue of climate change. Oh, and Mr. Limbaugh, for your edification, should this find its way to your desk (emphasis mine):

144. A consumerist vision of human beings, encouraged by the mechanisms of today’s globalized economy, has a levelling effect on cultures, diminishing the immense variety which is the heritage of all humanity. Attempts to resolve all problems through uniform regulations or technical interventions can lead to overlooking the complexities of local problems which demand the active participation of all members of the community. New processes taking shape cannot always fit into frameworks imported from outside; they need to be based in the local culture itself. As life and the world are dynamic realities, so our care for the world must also be flexible and dynamic. Merely technical solutions run the risk of addressing symptoms and not the more serious underlying problems. There is a need to respect the rights of peoples and cultures, and to appreciate that the development of a social group presupposes an historical process which takes place within a cultural context and demands the constant and active involvement of local people from within their proper culture. Nor can the notion of the quality of life be imposed from without, for quality of life must be understood within the world of symbols and customs proper to each human group.

So now, finally, I can explain my choice of title for this piece. Much to the annoyance of those of other tongues who try to learn it, the English language has many homographs, i.e., words which when written appear to be the same, but when spoken have completely different meanings and pronunciations. Some examples are “wind”, “project”, and “lead”. Such is also the case with the word “bass”, which has several meanings: I shall focus on two.

In the natural world of course a “bass” is a type of fish. Given his strident advocacy in this Encyclical about caring for God’s creation, the Holy Father is all about that fish. He is also all about the birds, and the flowers, and the trees, and those slimy “things which creep upon the earth” from the Book of Genesis in the Bible.

However “bass” is also the word we use to describe a deep and powerful voice, most often exhibited by men. We often associate it with men of significant socio-political stature, or who are advanced in years and wisdom, or even with God Himself. One can hardly imagine the voice of God the Father, when heard at the Baptism of Christ, as being that of a tenor in sotto voce, even though we can also recall the voice of God in that “still, small voice” heard by the Prophet Elijah.

Pope Francis himself does not have a particularly powerful speaking voice, in part due to his only having one lung. And yet some of the language which he employs in this encyclical is of a rather profound, basso profoundo, take-no-prisoners quality. It comes as quite a surprise from someone who has been characterized since the beginning of his papacy as some sort of mamby-pamby, soft-spoken NPR host.

Take a look here:

67. We are not God. The earth was here before us and it has been given to us.…Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations. “The earth is the Lord’s” (Ps 24:1); to him belongs “the earth with all that is within it” (Dt 10:14). Thus God rejects every claim to absolute ownership: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Lev 25:23).

He’s quoting the Book of Leviticus at the end there, for those who do not know the abbreviation. LEVITICUS. Not a light-hearted romp through salvation history, that book – which should make some of us – myself included – very, very nervous.

Or this example:

75. A spirituality which forgets God as all-powerful and Creator is not acceptable. That is how we end up worshipping earthly powers, or ourselves usurping the place of God, even to the point of claiming an unlimited right to trample his creation underfoot.

Now perhaps it is just my point of view, but this does not strike me exactly as touchy-feely, wishy-washy, your-truth-and-my-truth stuff. In fact it is almost an echo of the preceding quote: God is God, and you most emphatically are not. Start acting like it.

For me though, the best example of how Pope Francis really is all about that bass appears in Paragraph 229. I would not have expected such a statement from such a pope, particularly given how he has been portrayed by the media on both sides of the political aisle since his election. In its directness and lack of sophistication, it is not going to convince any of the Holy Father’s more intellectual naysayers. In its rejection of the kind of solipsism which has become the sine qua non of Western culture, and indeed in its outright chastisement of what has happened to that culture, it is the kind of statement which one sometimes wishes one’s bishops would have the courage to say, and yet so often we are left having to say it for ourselves, as lay people:

229. We must regain the conviction that we need one another, that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world, and that being good and decent are worth it. We have had enough of immorality and the mockery of ethics, goodness, faith and honesty. It is time to acknowledge that light-hearted superficiality has done us no good. When the foundations of social life are corroded, what ensues are battles over conflicting interests, new forms of violence and brutality, and obstacles to the growth of a genuine culture of care for the environment.

Someone observed on my Facebook wall this morning that J.R.R. Tolkien, the deeply Catholic author of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings”, would have loved this Encyclical. I would add, so would Pope St. John Paul II, Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta, and many others, who devoted their lives to advocating compassionate care for the world they were born into, and the people who live in it. Like them, Pope Francis is right to draw attention especially to the oppressed and the unwanted.

Now I must confess, gentle reader: I am still not a fan of this Pope. I find him tacky, unfocused, overly pedestrian, and lacking in grace. Yet this encyclical is quite a worthy shot across the bow of the moral relativism we ALL espouse to justify our selfishness. You cannot make short-term profits on the backs of the poor, any more than you can save the whales while killing the babies, and thereafter morally justify your actions in the eyes of God. As quoted above, when our society is so corrupted and falling apart that everything is relative – the profit motive, sexual morality, and yes, creation itself – then we have a very serious problem as a species. If this Encyclical made you uncomfortable, as it did me, then good: now go off and do something about that.

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