Thursday, June 21, 2012

Why are the Papists Aggrieved?

St. John Fisher, Aggrieved Papist

Tomorrow is the Feast Day of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, two English Catholic saints who were martyred rather than bow to the newly-founded State Church of Henry VIII.  By what is by no means a coincidence, today happens to be the beginning of the US Bishop's "Fortnight For Freedom" campaign, a two week period dedicated to prayer and demonstration against President Obama's "HHS mandate," which requires all Catholic and Christian institutions to provide free contraceptives and abortive drugs under the provision of healthcare.  I will be posting frequently about this over the next few weeks, to explain exactly how and why this is so objectionable, why it must be prevented, and why it demonstrates that President Obama should under no circumstances receive a second term of office.  For now, though, I will begin with some more general observations.

In these trying times, we see all around us many, many people both small and great who consider this entire campaign and this entire issue simply facetious, blown-up, and simply a big whopping deal about nothing.  To them, all the talk by the Bishops and by Catholics about "religious freedom" and about "religious beliefs" and "principles" is simply a pseudo-intellectual cover for the real reason why these people oppose the mandate: essentially, psychological and emotional hang-ups on the past, a fear of women and female sexuality, and an overwhelming and irrational desire to force women barefoot into the kitchen to make them sandwiches.  They honestly cannot see why in the universe Catholics will not simply get over their silly little hang-ups and rejoin the larger society, why they will not give up their emotional prejudices and acknowledge the great Principles of Sexual Freedom and Women's Rights--or at least, as the government generously allows them, simply practice their beliefs in private as much as they want, without trying to impose their prejudices on the rest of society or act as though they have any application to anyone besides themselves.  Really, Catholics have no reason to be upset at all.  Haven't we given them plenty of room, really more room than we should?  Certainly, the government finds it necessary to suppress some of their practices (like that of running hospitals and schools that don't give out contraception) that are dangerous to the health of society at large; but otherwise, they are and will be left in perfect peace, without disturbance.  What could Catholics possibly be aggrieved at?
Cardinal Dolan, Aggrieved Papist

The answer which you see more and more people coming to is simply that these people are really and truly dangerous and unreasonable, with a psychological need to impose their prejudices on everyone else, and that this entire affair is no more than a cloaked attempt to eliminate contraception from the entire nation, a War on Women.  Thus, the proper response to the Catholic campaign for "Religious Liberty" is to attempt to reasonably persuade everyone you can within the enemy camp how much it is their own interests to remain peaceable, and otherwise prepare one's defenses against the onslaught.

By what is simply a coincidence, yesterday I came across a book open on a table, and my eye was drawn to a quote from a man with very similar problems with the Catholics of his own day.  I will quote at length:

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Morn is Star Trek

In the world of hypotheticals, all the time people come and ask me: Captain Peabody, why are you a Star Trek fan?

This is an important question, and I always take it with the utmost seriousness.  Whenever I am asked this question, I immediately turn around slowly, stroke my hypothetical mustache, raise my hypothetical glass high, remove my hat from my head with my hypothetical third arm and place it over my heart, and give the solemn answer: Because Morn is Star Trek.

"But wait!  But wait!" The hypothetical reader* cries out.  "What IS Morn?!  And why is he Star Trek?"

To this, I always reply by saying this picture: 
As you can see, the first and most important reason why Morn is Star Trek is because Morn is by far the handsomest and best-looking character to ever grace the Star Trek universe, period.  On Star Trek, Morn was always depicted as quite the ladies' man, and it's not hard to see why.  That nose!  Those whispy hairs!  Kirk?  Riker?  Step aside, gentlemen!

The second reason Morn is Star Trek is because of his second stomach.  Morn has a second stomach, and using Origen's principles of Biblical interpretation, we can say that this is obviously an allegory for the dual nature of Star Trek as both television and film, and also for the dual existence of Star Trek in both the minds and experiences of those who create it, and also in the hearts of the fans: it is this latter stomach, of course, that contains a massive supply of latinum currency, thus signifying the fact that it is the fans who provide the funds necessary to keep Star Trek alive, and also that feature films tend to be more profitable than television shows.  Likewise, the fact that this latinum has caused his hair to fall out signifies the way in which the influence of money and success has caused Star Trek as a whole to lose its original virility and freshness.  Morn's relationship with his hyper-capitalist bartender Quark, of course, and his consequent drinking habit, signify Star Trek's constant need for affirmation and (more importantly) material support from the studios, and Quark and Morn's generally-positive relationship signifies the studio's general esteem for the Star Trek long as Morn pays his bar tab on time.  Morn's many squabbling siblings, of course, signify the many other sci-fi franchises and TV shows that have been inspired by Star Trek, and his difficult mother signifies the demanding sci-fi fanbase, for whose affection Morn and his siblings are forced to compete.  Like Morn, Star Trek is frequently said to be saying an awful lot of meaningful things, and yet somehow never actually manages to say much of anything onscreen.  In addition, Morn's quarters, which contain nothing but a mud-bath and a black velvet painting of a Matador, of course signify the two things that single-handedly keep the franchise going: the murky depths of popular culture, and William Shatner's toupee.

I could go on, but I think I've proved my point.  No other character in Star Trek other than Morn so completely encompasses Star Trek as a franchise.  The great thing, too, for all you English majors out there, is that there are multiple possible readings of Morn as an allegory!  There's the out-of-universe one that I've given, but also an in-universe reading, a cosmological reading (where Morn's appearance, properly interpreted, gives a rough map of the Star Trek universe), a mystical reading, a socio-political reading, an anarcho-feminist reading, a fascist-Rastifarian reading, and of course the ever-popular Swedenborgian Reading of Morn, best exemplified by Professor Bosh's magnum opus The Illusiveness of Eschatology in Lurian Psycho-Physical Sociology: The Swedenborgian Reading of Morn.

Alright, I think that is enough foolery for the moment. The real reason that Morn is Star Trek is far more mundane, and far more interesting.  See, the thing is, Morn was not supposed to be a Star Trek character.  He started his existence, in fact, as one of dozens of masks created by the makeup crew to serve as background extras for the very first episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.  Morn was never supposed to be a character at all; he was just one mask among many, designed to be shoved onto an extra and shoved into the far background of one shot, and then at some later point, probably half a season later, be again shoved onto a completely different extra and shoved into the back of another shot.  Instead, of course, Morn ultimately became the stud of a character you see today.  What happened?

In short, Star Trek happened.  First, enter Mark Allen Shepherd, an actor happening to attend a massive casting call, and then happening, by chance and head size, to be picked to inhabit the then-nameless suit and appliance.  Then, by an even greater coincidence, Shepherd ended up accidentally getting left off the call sheet, and, by an even more astronomical and uncanny chance, decided to wander onto the set to see what was going on at the exact day and time when Morn was supposed to appear.  Then, when the shot was ready, by another coincidence, he got picked out of the crowd of hundreds of extras by the director and put in the foreground of an establishing shot.  Then, Shepherd successfully performed in the suit in such a way that the executive producers noticed him among all the other extras, and hired him for other episodes.  Then, as the series continued, Shepherd was hired again and again, appearing at Quark's bar practically every single time the set was used, and becoming a constant presence on the show.  Then, the unknown alien began to be mentioned in dialogue and in scripts, had main characters talk about him, interact with him, and even give him a name and a species.  Thus, in practically the blink of an eye, that random mask and suit became Morn, a full-fledged character and a living, breathing part of Deep Space Nine and Star Trek.  Over the course of the full seven years of Deep Space Nine (the kind of series run that only very successful shows and Star Trek series get), Morn was talked about, developed, and ended up becoming, in places, a key part of the plot of episodes and the show as a whole, even getting an entire episode about him...all without uttering a single word onscreen.  We learn about Morn's demanding mother, his squabbling siblings, his second stomach, his lost hair, his criminal past, his shipping business, his weekly sparring matches with Worf in the holodeck, his popularity with the ladies, and a hundred, thousand other things.

Through all of this, Morn is, in reality, nothing more than a few pounds of latex and rubber on an actor, sitting silently at the bar, listening to Quark talk, or walking around the station...essentially, doing pretty much nothing...and yet, in the world of the show and in the minds of its viewers, he is a living, breathing, talkative, charming, amusing person, with friends, family, and a life of his own...who also happens to be a hideous alien with two stomachs.

This is, frankly, the kind of thing that could only happen on a television show, on that week-in, week-out grind of episodes, year after year, where characters can be built up out of nothing, elaborated on, talked about, and developed in a way that is simply impossible to do in feature films...and it is also, frankly, the kind of thing that could only happen on Star Trek, in that strange world where the hideous aliens that populate the background of shots not only aren't just vicious cannon fodder to be gunned down by the hundreds, but are expected as a matter of course to be thinking, vital people with lives and problems of their own, where (to quote Nick Meyer) even the aliens are human, where the audience is invited to buy into a setting and suspend their disbelief to an extent undreamed of in most fiction, where characters and situations can be taken to absurd and whimsical lengths that would never, in a thousand years, fly in any Earth-bound show, where writers and producers have (or at least had) the opportunity to have fun and let their imaginations run wild without constantly worrying about being cancelled or not appealing to the right demographics, and where (in short) the background of the world has the potential to be as rich and varied as the foreground.  There are many other characters and situations that exemplify these things as well, but for me at least, none of them do so in so obvious and so handsome a fashion as Morn.

 Morn, with his trademark onscreen silence and off-screen talkativeness, is certainly a comic character, with a number of running jokes associated with him; but, as I've shown, in the world of the show and in the mind of its viewers he is ultimately much, much more: a living, breathing character exemplifying all that Star Trek can be.

Having said all that, I will now invite you to watch Morn in action, in a scene that he doesn't even appear in no less!

And that, my dear hypothetical, is why I am a Star Trek fan.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Of Cosmos and Cosmetics: "The World" in John

I tried to give this post a better and more entertaining title, but it didn't take.  Truly, there are never enough puns for all the tasks for which we require them.

Much is frequently made, even by Biblical scholars of some repute, of the purported presence of "Dualism" in the Johannine literature of the Holy Scriptures (that is: the Gospel of John, 1, 2, and 3 John, and the black sheep Revelation).  Now, admittedly, "Dualism" in the context of religious and literary studies is a very vague term indeed, and can mean anything from a full-blown cosmology in which opposite Good and Evil deities divide the world between them (as with the Manichees, the Cathari, etc) to a perceived overuse of the number two (as with certain descriptions of the Gospel of Matthew).  In this context, being called Dualist may not be anything particularly worrying.  Nevertheless, scholarly treatment of John's writings has frequently used this perceived dualism as a stick with which to discredit his "brand" of Christianity as sectarian, exclusivist, Puritan, or even proto-Gnostic.  John, certain people accuse, is obsessed with rigid divisions between darkness and light, above and below, the church and the world, children of God and children of the Devil, to such an extent that his belief-system may be safely dismissed by all forward-thinking and progressive persons as sadly reflective of a regrettably intolerant mileu, and certainly not something to be unquestioningly or uncritically applied to the complexities and ambiguities of the modern world, which science has so definitively shown to be incapable of simple, definitive...
Ahem. Sorry.  Slipped into my "progressive 19th century Biblical scholar" voice for a second there.  You get the idea.

Now, responding to such charges is obviously a vast topic, especially since the terms under discussion are so vague and so ambiguous.  To give John's doctrines on all of the multivarious topics that fall under the heading of "Dualism" would take a great deal of time, and no doubt I will come back to the issue in future posts.  For this post, however, I will merely provide a brief exploration of John's use of a single word, the way in which I think this should be understood, and the implications for his theology.

Monday, June 4, 2012

An obvious point that bears repeating

The simple fact is that for as long as Christianity has existed, from the moment of its conception to the present day, it has with all its authority and all its might stood for a certain doctrine of sexuality and sexual morality, a doctrine that has at many times dramatically distinguished it from the beliefs and practices of the world at large.  This doctrine is itself an elaboration of the sexual morality of Judaism, which has been maintained by the Jewish people from the time of Moses up until the present day in the face of opposition from hundreds of different societies without any substantial alteration.

Likewise, the simple fact is that these doctrines have never been considered peripheral to their respective moral systems, but from the very beginning have formed some of the most distinctive, most important, and most tenaciously held tenets of their respective faiths; one of the things that most distinguished the Christian or the Jew of the first century from his pagan neighbor, and which the Christian or Jew held to most strongly and was most unwilling to part with or compromise on, was his sexual morality, his complete, holistic doctrine of what sex is and what it is for.   Thus, people who reject this morality by appeal to Christianity or Judaism are simply historically and doctrinally indefensible--they are guilty of far worse than merely taking words out of context, but of something very close to deliberate obfuscation of plain and obvious facts.

The fact is, if one wishes to dissent from this doctrine of sexual morality, one is not merely dissenting from the "current beliefs" of the Church--one is dissenting from and rejecting the entire 3000-year-plus Judaeo-Christian tradition at perhaps one of its most basic and dogmatic points.

If one wishes to dissent from Christian sexual doctrine, one is of course free to do so--but let there be no pretense about it.  You are rejecting the dogmatic teaching of Jesus, of Paul, of Peter, of John, of James, of Augustine, of Athanasius, of Aquinas, of Luther, of Calvin, and of almost every faithful Christian or Jew for the last 3000 years.  You do not like or agree with what Christianity and Judaism have to say about sexuality and sexual morality, and so you reject it.  I respect honesty far more than I do agreement.