Thursday, June 22, 2017

Thomas More

Today is the feast day of Thomas More, my confirmation saint.
Thomas More is perhaps one of the hardest saints to actually convey to modern Americans, both Protestant and Catholic. In his own day, in his own society, he was a legend even while alive--and in death, his name, smeared and blackened by all his triumphant enemies, lived on in honor, the lost promise of a better world. Yet the world he lived in and the world he worked for are alike foreign to those who live today.
For we live in the world that was built on his defeat--the world that could only exist if he were crushed out of existence, removed from the world. His lifeless body, and his head impaled on the Traitor's Gate, are alike fitting symbols of our civilization.
Thomas More lived during one of the turning points of Christian civilization. During his lifetime, the world of Christendom turned and turned and turned again, engulfed in massive and uncontrollable change. The printing press was spreading knowledge and lies alike like wildfire--unprecedentedly prosperous societies were beginning to see the perils and possibilities of that wealth--newly strong and centralized governments were testing their limits and their power--national feeling and loyalty was rising--religious fervor was reaching its height on the backs of a newly sophisticated and informed laity--discontent among the poor was becoming ever more real and dangerous. In this, Thomas More was very far from a reactionary, or even a conservative--he was one of those on the forefront of change, one of those who worked tirelessly to build a new, better future, unlike all that had come before. In himself, in his words and his writings and his deeds alike, he embodied one path forward, one solution to the ills and challenges of his age.
This was recognized by his peers, each in their own way: Erasmus frankly worshiped him, his family, his way of life, as the humanist's dream. Henry VIII saw his utility as an advisor and governor as plain as day, and made use of it for his own ends--and when the King turned from hero of humanism and Catholicism to its bitter persecutor, he saw just as plainly the danger of Thomas More as his enemy. Even after his death, the wily Emperor Charles V emphatically declared that he would rather have lost the third largest city in the Empire than give up such a giver of counsel. When the Catholic Bishops of England wished to respond in print to William Tyndale's raving pamphlets, they sought as their champion not a recognized religious scholar, a priest or monk or bishop, but this overburdened layman, statesman, and father. The common people of England revered him long after his death as a contradiction--the only honest statesman and judge, the friend of the poor and the oppressed. These examples could be easily multiplied.
But who was Thomas More, and what was the vision he embodied? Put simply, it was Christendom--Christendom one people, one nation, made up equally of Italians and Englishmen and French and Hungarians, and all others who confessed the name of Christ--it was an educated, pious laity, male and female, embodying in themselves the best of the monastic virtues, and bound by a thousand ties to one another and the institutional Church--it was the revival of scholarship and learning in all of Europe, a learning aimed at the cultivation of virtue as much as the increase of knowledge--it was justice for the poor, their defense against the rapacity of the powerful and the greed of the rich--it was a sense of humor, an earthy realism and dignity in marriage and children and celibacy alike, a richly embodied and human life in which the human and the divine lived together in close contact, with God always having the primacy. It was humanism--in the truest sense of the word.
Of course it failed--or rather, it was murdered, all across Europe, over many painful centuries. Thomas More saw the great disaster as it happened, with a burning clarity, and fought it with all his strength. He hated Protestantism with a fury greater than anyone in Europe at his time--for he saw in it, quite rightly, the seeds of ultimate betrayal and defeat of everything in which he believed, everything for which he had lived and fought. The breaking up of the one body of Christendom into warring nations and tribes and races and factions, divided by religious adherence and private judgment and tribal loyalty--the plunging of the life of the laity into a chaos of divided loyalties and private interpretations, void of the monastic virtues and all asceticism save that of ambition--the breaking of the precious link between knowledge and virtue and faith, the triumph of mere technical skill, of the boorish, prideful scholar unbound by any loyalty save to himself, defining life and cosmos and bringing forth wars and schisms based on his own private gloss on Romans--the successful revolution of the rich over the poor, the victory of endless rapacity over settled life, and the gradual destruction of every institution and every refuge of the weak--the triumph of self-seriousness and dull self-importance, the plunging of humanity into the hellish wasteland left by the reinforcing terrors of Puritan dread of the body and hedonist indulgence of it, the breaking of the fragile bond uniting the human and the divine. All this he saw with painful clarity--and he saw truly.
Of course, he lost the battle--lost it totally, without hope of recovery. In the end, he was hounded to his death by all the people and institutions in which he had seen the seeds of a better tomorrow--butchered like a criminal by the people and the King he had served so well and so faithfully.
When he died, few people, if any, really understood this death--for on the face of it, he died merely for a strict adherence to the doctrine of Papal primacy. When Thomas More died, the people of England, from the top on down, were still fervently Catholic--indeed, they were among the most pious in Europe, all but immune to the charms of Protestantism; and they would remain so for decades to come. Still, it is likely that few, if any, of these really understood why Thomas More had to die. After all, squabbles between Pope and King were among the basic stuff of Medieval life; people were used to the idea of the two falling out, and equally used to them coming back together in the end. They were realists, and the painful idealism of Thomas More must have seemed like inflexible madness, or at least pious stupidity.
In the end, though, they were far less happy than he. They bent their necks to a burdensome imposition by the government, expecting full well that all would soon return to normal--and instead had the agony of watching their religious and communal life mutilated, plundered, banned, and tortured for come. They did not recognize the times in which they lived--they did not see what Thomas More had seen. For it, they suffered worse than almost any people in history have suffered.
Still, even for the humanists, the scholars and thinkers across Europe for whom Thomas More had been a hero and a model, his death was not widely understood. Worse, it was incongruous. He was Thomas More, the humorous, ironic jester and reformer--a man of his world and of his day, a statesman and a lawyer and an impeccable writer of Ciceronian Latin. He was no saint, and no martyr--far from it. His death as part of a petty squabble over a royal annulment was at best a meaningless accident, at worst an unforgivable embarrassment.
Still, these humanists too would live to see the death of their dreams--and what they did not know of Thomas More was much more important than what they did know. They did not see the hairshirt hidden beneath his rich robes--they did not see him, late at night in his chapel alone, scourging himself with a rope for the sins of the world--or down on his knees in front of the Blessed Sacrament, for as long as any woman in his neighborhood remained in labor, not rising until the child was born. They did not know the burning flame of faith in the Cross that defined the deepest, most intimate part of his existence. It was this--his trust in the the failure and shame and torment of God in the flesh--and not any faith in the future, or learning, or society, that inspired his deeds.
So in the end, Thomas More went to the scaffold merrily, joking with his guards and the executioner, full of joy as always at the humble dwelling of God with man. He died, in every earthly sense, a failure--yet he died full of confidence and peace.
This confidence was not in the victory of his cause on earth--far from it. It was a confidence precisely in defeat, in failure, in ultimate loss in the face of history. It was this that made him free, and those who killed him pitiable slaves.
His God was the Crucified Christ--theirs some passing idol of this world. Thus, he was happy until the end, victorious even in defeat and death. He is happy still.
Saint Thomas More, pray for us.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Silence: An Exercise in Film Criticism and Cultural Jeremiad

Note: Every possible kind of spoiler exists herein. Proceed at your own risk.

The elusive, controversial American Catholic filmmaker Martin Scorcese spent roughly thirty years trying to adapt Silence, a novel by the equally elusive and controversial Japanese Catholic writer Shusaku Endo. After momentous efforts and many false starts, the film was finally released last year, to general bemusement and a box office take of roughly 16 million (on a 40 million budget). The film’s distributors, perhaps hoping to avoid controversy, promoted the film very little, and released it only in a heavily limited number of theaters for a very short run. The film was ignored by all major cinematic awards, garnering no Golden Globe nominations and only one Academy Award nomination (for best cinematography), which it did not win. Although it had its vociferous defenders, including most top film critics, it also garnered its share of controversy and vicious criticism, from a number of very different sources. For all intents and purposes, the film sank like a stone, leaving few ripples in its wake.

Still, I saw it, and I also followed the buzz surrounding the film fairly closely; and I found both the film and the responses it provoked almost equally fascinating. I read the novel the film is based on a number of years ago, and, as with Scorsese it has stayed with me ever since; and this in turn inspired me to read a moderate amount about the historical situations that inspired the novel, as well as other works of its author, Shusaku Endo. I also come at both film and novel from the perspective of a practicing Catholic who studies intellectual history academically and also (while by no means being an expert) reads a great deal of Catholic theology, present and (mostly) past. All this has given me, I think, a perspective on film and book different from the average American. It is my basic contention, then, that the film, being what it is, has a great deal to tell us about the perspectives and basic orientations of the people who watched it. And this in turn has a great deal to tell us about the current state of our society.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Attack of William Shatner, A Vulcan Televangelist, and Christopher Plummer With An Eyepatch; or, Farewell to TOS

The year was 1989, and Star Trek: the Next Generation was finishing its second dismal season.  The new spinoff, born of the unprecedented success of Star Trek IV: the Voyage Home (aka "the one with the whales") three years before, was now foundering in deep waters.  The new cast, crew, and setting, hampered by behind-the-scenes stress and Gene Roddenberry's titanic ego, had resoundingly failed to catch on with the general public, even as Trek fans continued to watch and wince.  In the summer of 1989, these loyal fans were dealt their worst blow yet: for positioned in the coveted season finale slot, the culmination of two years worth of storytelling, was Shades of Gray, a budget-saving clip-show in which an unconscious Riker is forced by an alien parasite to relive scenes from the first two seasons of The Next Generation.  Star Trek had officially hit rock bottom.

For watchers both devoted and cynical, there was, really, only one conclusion to be drawn: the attempt to recreate the success of the original Star Trek from the ground up, without the original cast and crew, was clearly a failure.

On the other hand, fans and critics alike were no doubt delighted to learn that, for all the failure and misery of Star Trek on television, Star Trek the film franchise was poised to continue.  The original cast and crew, beloved icons of American popular culture, with nearly a half-century of unprecedented success behind them, were once again poised to storm American cineplexes.  On June 9th, 1989, while the TNG creative team were desperately bailing water out of their sinking ship and trying to find someone--anyone--to steer it, the time-tested cast and creative team of the Star Trek film franchise launched proudly out of the harbor, headed for glory once again.

And promptly sank like a stone.

Monday, September 5, 2016

A Brief History of Church-State Relations Over the Last Two Thousand Years

This is a (relatively) brief outline of Church-State relations, mostly just the big phases and conflicts, focusing on the West and on the Papacy, from my own perspective, based on my own reading, and for my own purposes:
The birth of Christianity coincides almost perfectly with the divinization of the Roman Emperor. By means of the new Imperial cult, the Emperor was treated as divine or quasi-divine, and the cult of his sacred person and authority quickly became one of the basic cores of Roman and Imperial identity. The Roman Empire, as embodied by the quasi-divine Emperor, was, by this understanding, absolutely sovereign, and not capable of being challenged from the standpoint of divinity, since it was itself, in a very real sense, divine--it also had, naturally, absolute power over religious matters, funding cults and temples and regulating them for its own purposes. Even prior to the Empire, of course, civic and religious life were generally indistinguishable, with political and religious offices and authority going together in most cases.
Christians in the first centuries, though, had a complex relationship with this Imperial ideology. On the one hand, they consistently refused to pay the Emperor divine (or even pseudo-divine) honors, which was one of the primary reasons why they were persecuted. On the other hand, Christians labored to present themselves as good citizens, loyal to the Empire and especially to the Emperor himself--and they sometimes even appealed to the Emperor for internal dispute resolutions, or for aid against local persecution (most persecutions of Christians were local rather than Imperial). As the Church expanded, though, it took on more and more the status of a "society within a society," even an "Empire within an Empire"--the Church as a highly organized institution, shadowing the Roman Empire in all its major cities, participating in its intellectual life and utilizing its infrastructure, but with its own authorities totally separate from, and frequently opposed to, the general public authorities and ideologies. A bishop was a public figure, to be sure, but he was not a civic one--and he represented, in his person, a set of ideas radically different from those animating the state at large. He and the Imperial governor were not likely to get along.

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Love of God

I wish to speak of the mercy of God.

God has loved each one of us with a love that is greater than what we are, greater than what we will be, greater than hell, greater even than creation itself. For his love is himself.

God does not love us inasmuch as we are powerful, or good, or in control, or able to repay his love. God loves us precisely as nothing. For we are nothing.

Hence, there is no shame, no futility, no sin, no darkness, no confusion, no lack, that the love of God has not already embraced and enfolded.

God loved us in creating us—that is, in causing us to be precisely as beloved, as the nothingness that is beloved. By loving us, he has created us, and caused us to be. We are in his love, and only in his love.

Hence, there is no more stable foundation for life and action and thought and indeed existence than the love of God. It is this, and not any necessity or chance, that is the cause of all things.

Yet this is simply the order of creation. It does not exhaust the order of grace, which is greater.

Friday, August 5, 2016

The Next Generation of Television; or, It's Tough Being the Bastard Child of a Legend; or, How Gene Roddenberry Destroyed Star Trek; or, How Michael Piller Saved Star Trek; or, One Big, Happy Family; or, Meat Loaf and Mashed Potatoes

When last we encountered the intrepid hero of our articles--the mythic property "Star Trek"--he found himself at last in a truly enviable position.  Having braved the dangerous world of big-screen cinema, he had carved out a place for himself as a fun, character-driven franchise for the 1980s.  Star Trek IV, to no one's real surprise, was an absolute mega-hit, reaching an unprecedented audience of ordinary, movie-going Americans and thoroughly delighting them with its clever character comedy about a crew of misfits and their adventures in the contemporary world.  This was a film that anyone--emphasis anyone--could understand and enjoy, from the most fervent Trekkie to the most hardened Queen fan.  Star Trek was now an indelible part of the cultural mainstream--and it was also on a roll.

Faced with such unprecedented success, the studio rubbed its metaphorical hands together, and contemplated what to do next.  That there would be yet another big-screen Star Trek adventure was all but a given--and in a future post, we will consider that film and its sequel in turn--but Star Trek now was so popular that executives began to wonder if its audiences could not, perhaps, handle even more Star Trek than this.  Perhaps it was time to diversify the franchise, and take it back to its roots.

Star Trek was going to return to television.

There was, however, one big problem with this: or rather, a whole set of cascading problems, all leading to one extremely unpleasant conclusion.  First and foremost, the cast and crew of Star Trek, now much older and much richer, were not at all willing to return to the back-breaking 14-hour days of television, nor did the studio have any intentions of not making more films in order to let them do so.  If Star Trek was going to return to television, then, it would have to be on the basis of an entirely new cast, and thus probably an entirely new crew and setting.  This, however, presented its own set of problems; for Star Trek the film series had, over time, come to rely almost entirely on the strength of these original characters and their associated actors.  Star Trek IV had been a character comedy; and what it showed was that Kirk, Spock, and company were now so iconic and so beloved that they could be plunked down in 1980s San Francisco and still hold audiences riveted.  Casting a new crew, with new characters and new actors, would be a massively difficult undertaking, and would face significant opposition, not only from the hardcore fans for whom the original cast were gods of a sort, but also from the public at large, for whom Star Trek had become indelibly linked with these particular names and faces.  Even if this problem were overcome, any revival of Star Trek would also face an extraordinary, uphill battle in establishing itself as a television show; for by the 1980s, science fiction was, once again, basically extinct on television--meaning that any new Star Trek show would have to rely largely on the large and growing Star Trek fanbase, and not the general television-watching public, for its success.  This, though, presented its own problems; for the original show's fervent fanbase had watched and rewatched and scrutinized the original 79 hours of TOS so many times, and with such devotion, that virtually every deviance from the original would be noticed and criticized.

Hence, the studio quickly concluded, any new Star Trek show would have to possess some utterly undeniable imprimatur of true Star Trekness--something that would ensure that both the general public and the most hardcore fan alike would accept it, not just as a random sci-fi or drama show, to be judged on its own terms, but as Star Trek.

Faced with this dilemma, the studio, finally, was brought to take a very difficult and very dangerous, step; they went to Gene Roddenberry, and asked him to make the show for them.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Spock Returns and Goes to San Francisco: or, How Star Trek Became A Franchise

The year was 1982, and Star Trek was back with a vengeance.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, despite being made on the cheap in a very short amount of time, had come out to rave reviews and the highest box office numbers ever.  In the world of American popular entertainment, Star Trek had officially arrived.  No longer was this odd little space property from the '60s to be the butt of jokes, tarred with its cheesy acting and the obsessiveness of its fans.  Star Trek had entered the ring of cinema--the epicenter of the mainstream, the home of the culturally respected and esteemed--and made a name for itself there.  Star Trek belonged.

More to the point, for the studio at least, Star Trek II was quite simply a success, financial and critical.  It was the kind of film every studio executive wanted to be responsible for: a hit.

Still, the studios, and Harve Bennett, were not yet satisfied.