Category Archives: Culture

The Media and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

“If it bleeds, it leads.”  If there is a single maxim that guides the main stream media in their reporting, then it is this.  The principle itself is based on a simple calculation: the more carnage, death and human depravity in a story, the higher it appears in the reporting hierarchy.  We, of course, are all quick to condemn the media for this.  But not so quick that we don’t watch it first.  The main stream media is a business, a big business at that, and guided by the law of supply of demand.  It is all based on ratings and with so many ways to monitor what we are watching, they know exactly how much is consumed.  In other words, they lead with the blood because we watch it.  The more we watch, the more we get.  Inundated by it, we feel powerless to keep from watching.  We watch while covering one eye.  But like all things we feel powerless to avoid, it is illuminating to ask why we do it.

Rather than strictly psychological, the answer is more theological in nature.  Its genesis is found, well, in Genesis.  Returning to “the beginning” of mankind, we find man and woman in Eden made in the image and likeness of God.  In His likeness, Adam and Eve are practically unlimited, able to eat from every tree in the Garden except one.  Unlike God, they have a single limitation; they cannot eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Their test then will be whether they are willing to accept this limitation or not.  The Serpent, the inventor of “if it bleeds, it leads,” leads with “You shall not die” and tells the story of how Adam and Eve can be like God if they will simply take from the tree and eat.

The Knowledge of Good and Evil

Even if the tree itself is symbolic, the limitation itself is real.  In order to understand our bloodlust we must first understand exactly what the tree represents.  Adam and Eve attempted to know evil without experiencing it.  That is, they tried to know it from the outside without participating in it from the inside.  This capacity of knowing evil while not experiencing it is something that only God can do.  Only God is all holy and can be unstained by it.  As Blessed John Henry Newman puts it,

“You see it is said, ‘man is become as one of Us, to know good and evil,’ because God does know evil as well as good. This is His wonderful incommunicable attribute; and man sought to share in what God was, but he could not without ceasing to be what God was also, holy and perfect. It is the incommunicable attribute of God to know evil without experiencing it. But man, when he would be as God, could only attain the shadow of a likeness which as yet he had not, by losing the substance which he had already. He shared in God’s knowledge by losing His image. God knows evil and is pure from it—man plunged into evil and so knew it.” (Parochial and Plain Sermons, Ignorance of Evil).

This is also the sin of Lot’s wife when she is turned to a pillar of salt.  Overcome by the curiosity to know the evil of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah without being touched by it, she quickly finds out that to know it, is to share in it.  But Scripture is most clear on this when we examine the accounts of Our Lord’s Agony in the Garden.  It is the God-Man and only He Who can know evil without actually participating in it.  So great is the protest of His human nature that He sweats blood.

One might rightly ask at this point how it is that merely watching “bad news” has anything to do with the knowledge of good and evil.  It is in seeing this particular aspect of it that we can begin to separate ourselves from it.  Why is simply hearing about “bad news” not enough and why do we crave the details?  Why are we unsatisfied with a report such as“13 people were killed in an attack today” but have to know how it happened (video even if it contains the “graphic material” is especially wanted), who the perpetrators were, what their motivations were, etc.?  It is because what we learned theologically is proven empirically (or else it wouldn’t be the main part of the consumer news cycle).  In short, it shows we cannot just know about evil, we want to know it like Adam knows Eve, that is experience it fully.

What the Tree Offers Us

This doesn’t mean we want to pull the trigger but just don’t have the courage.  For most of us its meaning is more subtle than that. It means we want to experience the pleasure attached to the evil even if we do not actually commit the act.  It is what the Church calls the glamor of evil, the primal curiosity that brings pleasure from evil acts.  We can call it virtual reality evil—all of the thrills with none of the bills.  It is what keeps us from looking away at bad car accidents, watching Youtube videos of accidents, going to the movies to see the latest “psychological thriller” and the reason why serial killers gain celebrity.  The Devil really is in the details.

The illicit pleasure is not the only effect or really even the worst.  This habit of dwelling on depravity is soul deadening.  It causes us to view evil through a carnage calculator that relativizes it against the last one or against the greatest acts of reported slaughter.  We slowly become immune to evil and see it solely for its entertainment value.  I once saw a lady drive into a storefront and no one went to help her even though there were 20-30 bystanders each with his phone in hand recording the accident.  Not only does it make us slow to love, but also suspicious and fearful of our neighbor.  When bad news gets significantly more play time than good news, we become masters of suspicion and avoid other people, assuming the worst of them.

Returning to man’s Retake in the Garden of Gethsemane we find the strength to overcome the ubiquity of bad news.  Our Lord was the one who “resisted sin to the point of shedding His blood” (c.f. Hebrews 12:4) not just to show us His divine power put to win for us the grace to remain pure of heart amidst so much evil.  We should become cautious and discerning viewers of the news, even sites and channels we would consider reputable.  Avoid getting drug into the details and focus only on headlines.  All too often there is nothing we can do personally to combat a particular evil and so knowing the details is simply curiosity rearing its ugly head.  Get in the habit of asking yourself why you need to know anything more and you will quickly realize that you don’t.

When St. Paul wrote the Christians in Philippi he knew they too were living in a culture where evil had been glamorized he had what is the most practical of advice, “whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things” (Phil 4:8).  We would do well to focus on these things as well, turning away from the bad news so that we can more fully embrace the Good News.

Spiritual and Religious

“I am spiritual, but not religious.” It has become the fastest growing religious affiliation.  So popular is it, that it now has its own acronym—SBNR.  Its appeal is that it supposedly frees its adherents from the trappings of organized religion so that they may become more “spiritual.”  What it means to be more “spiritual” remains a mystery because any formal dogma or Creed would signal its death knell.  Usually it is about “connecting to God within.”  Although the popularity of SBNR has grown, it is not something new.  In fact one could say it is the second oldest religion in the world, beginning when Lucifer decided that he too would spend eternity as spiritual but not religious.

Ultimately the fall of Lucifer and his minions was a permanent refusal to have any obligations towards God.  The eternal cry of the demons is “non serviam”—“I will not serve.”  They desire to be like God, but shun religion.  Although their fall was instantaneous, many of the adherents to SBNR slide in the same direction—many not realizing what they are agreeing to when they recite the SBNR mantra.

What is Religion?

Without a doubt, some of the issue has to do with vagaries surrounding the word religious.  The English word religion is derived from the Latin religare, to tie, fasten, bind, or relegere, to gather up or treat.  First and foremost, religion is the moral virtue that consists in giving to God the worship and service He deserves.  It is part of the virtue of justice which consists in rendering to each his due.  Because He is the Creator of all things and has supreme dominion, God in a singular way has a special service due to Him.  This service is worship.

Herein lies a source of confusion, namely why God creates us and then commands that we worship Him.  This is worth investigating because it is often an obstacle for the SBNR congregants.  We offer worship to God, as St. Thomas Aquinas says, not for His sake but for ours.  We cannot give to God anything He doesn’t already have.  Instead He creates us as rational creatures not just because we manifest His goodness or glory, but because we, among all visible creation, have the capacity to appreciate it.  In other words, we worship to both show our appreciation and to grow in the pleasure that His goodness brings to us.

The SBNRer may willingly concede that they do owe something to God in terms of worship, but they prefer to connect to God privately “in their souls.”  This ultimately stems from a denial of what we are as human beings.  As body/spirit composites, we are capable of both internal and external acts of religion.  In a certain sense the internal take precedence, but these internal acts can never be wholly free from the external and must be guided by them.

As human beings, our bodies and our spirits act in unison with each other.  That which is in the mind, must first have been in the senses.  You cannot perform a wholly interior act without also affecting the exterior.  Just the very thought of God or Jesus, invokes an image in our material imaginations.  We worship both from the inside-out and the outside in.  Our external acts of devotion effect our internal acts of devotion.  One is more likely to have increased devotion in their heart to God kneeling (an external sign of supplication) in front of a Crucifix than if they are staring at a blank wall sitting on a bed.

The implications of this are obvious.  There are some external acts that are better than others at increasing devotion.  This is certainly true in the subjective sense—we all have our favorite environments in which to pray—but it is also true in the objective sense.  God is equally present in the bathroom as He is in the chapel, but it is the chapel that has been consecrated (i.e. set aside) as a place of prayer that is objectively better than the bathroom.  This is why praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament is called Adoration.  You can adore God anywhere in spirit, but in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament that Adoration occurs in “spirit and truth.”

SBNR and Organized Religion

As you probe more deeply into the motives of the typical SBNRer, you will find that really what SBNR means is that “I am spiritual, but I loathe organized religion.”  They view religion as something wholly personal and subjective.  But if it is really true that we owe God worship and that certain forms of worship are better than others, then a loving Father would teach us what those forms are.  The history of mankind outside of, first Judaism and then Christianity, has been man groping for these forms.  Some of the forms were innocuous like offering incense to the local god, while others commanded human sacrifice.  God commands definitive forms of worship to keep us from falling into two equally dangers traps—one of defect and one of excess.

There is the trap that once we realize that worship is really for us, we will worship in a way most pleasing to ourselves.  This has not only led to the Non-denominational denomination with their mega-churches and “praise and worship services” worthy of a pep-rally, but also the pop music masquerading as liturgical music in Catholic churches.  The second trap is that of excess.   The truth is that no form of worship will ever feel adequate because no merely human form of worship is.  So we keep upping the ante so to speak leading to some of the religious atrocities we still see in certain cults and Middle Eastern religions.  We need God to tell us what is acceptable and what is not.

God does not merely tell us, but He comes and shows us.  Through the sacrifice of His Son, He shows us the most pleasing form of worship—the one act that is enough.  He gives us the power to make that sacrifice our own—both through Faith (subjective) and through the perpetuation of that same Sacrifice in the Sacrifice of the Mass (objective).  The One True Religion is the one that offers that Sacrifice because it is not just any organized religion but the Religion organized by the Holy Spirit Himself.

The Catholic Response to SBNR

SBNR is really a protest movement against religious tolerance. Properly understood, religious tolerance assumes that there is a true religion and that we are willing to tolerate some people who hold only part of that truth. Tolerance respects human freedom to discover the truth. But religious tolerance has come to mean that all religions are equal. If all religions really are the same, then why should I have anything to do with any of them? But, if one of them is different because it is true, then it does matter. As the One True Religion is only the Catholic religion that can lead the SBNR away from sliding down the Luciferian slope.

This claim to be the One True Faith may seem arrogant, but it is no more arrogant than the claim that 2+2=4.  It is a statement of truth and it is a truth that has been handed down to us.  I am not the inventor of my religion, but its grateful recipient.

The Inventor died to give this religion to me.  Before dying He deeded it to its caretakers.  As proof, notice the first time that Jesus mentions His suffering on the Cross—it is only after setting up the Church upon Peter the Rock that He tells of His redemptive death (c.f. Mt 16:18-21).  Those same caretakers wore martyrs’ crowns rather so that the Faith was passed on to me.  Thousands upon thousands of martyrs and confessors boldly preached that religion so that I would have it.  Now it is my turn and your turn to pass it on to the next generation.  We cannot hide our light under a bushel.  We should not apologize for being Catholic, but we should apologize for not being Catholic enough.  Only we can show SBNR what it means to truthfully and joyfully be spiritual AND religious.

The Biggest Fan?

Perhaps because of the number of players from Catholic Latin America, Major League baseball is the most outwardly religious of all the professional sports. Players regularly make the sign of the cross before stepping into the box and point to the heavens when they get a big hit. But most players and fans, when pressed, will say that God does not really care about the score of a baseball game. Despite the consensus, this assumption should be addressed. It reveals God as distant Father that is too busy running the universe to care about the outcome of a baseball game rather than Him in whom “we live and have our being”(Acts 17:28)
One might reasonably ask what kind of father does not care whether his son wins his baseball game. It might be that the father cares solely because his son does, but nevertheless a loving father ought to care whether his son wins his baseball game or not. But, it might be objected that the interlocutor is projecting man’s fatherhood onto God’s Fatherhood rather than the other way around. Only God is truly a Father and a man is a father only by way of analogy. For example, everyone would agree that a man who stands idly by while his child runs into the street and gets hit by a car is a terrible father. God’s Fatherhood on the other hand is not diminished when He allows the same thing to happen because His Fatherhood extends eternally. In other words, God’s Fatherhood is more than man’s fatherhood and not less. If a human father cares for his children’s happiness more so would God the Father care. We shall return to this point shortly.
In truth, the person who says that God does not care about the score of a baseball game is reversing the analogy. He is projecting the “trophy mentality” that is so prevalent among parents and coaches today onto God the Father. There is no award for excellence, only for trying. We do not care whether you win or lose and therefore God does not either.
But there is a deeper issue at play here. This type of mentality reveals a deep-seeded dualism that infects modern man. The modern dualist believes that the world is made up the two opposing realms of the secular and the spiritual. There is no real overlap between the two worlds and the gods of both realms act independently of each other. The end result is that modern man is disintegrated and lives his life in a completely compartmentalized fashion. One needs only to look at Sundays as evidence. The ritual of watching football (and usually a lot of it) honors the secular god “weekend” while we go to Mass in the morning because “giving God one hour of my week is the least I can do.” The best of us try to try to keep one foot in each realm but the secular god eventually wins out because he is literally in our face all the time. He finally wins out when we concede “God does not care how we worship Him.”
It was mentioned above that if human fathers care about the happiness of children than God cares even more. This comment deserves further explanation. To the modern mind, happiness is synonymous with contentment. It is seen subjectively as a temporary feeling that is dependent on external circumstances. That the word happy comes from the Old English word for “chance” is a perfect illustration of this. Classically understood though, happiness is a translation of the Greek word eudaimonia which defines happiness as a condition of the soul that finds its ultimate fulfillment in the beatific vision. God, because He wills our eternal happiness, cares about all those things and events that contribute to our beatitude.
What the person who says that God does not care about who wins a baseball game is really saying is that the result of a baseball game has no bearing on the sanctification of mankind. This is to suggest that there are things (or at least this one thing) that are neutral to our salvation. This is a slippery slope. If it really is neutral then the game can be played in any manner the participants and spectators see fit. If the behavior of many of the players and the baseness of the advertising we will see this Sunday is any indication then empirically this seems to already be the prevailing thought. The truth is that grace perfects nature and, not only does it never destroy it, but it also never ignores it.

Cubs Win
It also seems to reveal a denial of God’s Providence. At first glance this seems reasonable. After all, anyone who watches any sporting event is struck by how prominent a role “chance” plays. From a ball that bounces off the pitcher’s leg and ends up in the hands of the first baseman to the weather, chance is often the difference maker in a game. The truth is that a belief in chance and a belief in a Provident God cannot coexist.
What we call chance really is based on one of two things. The first is when we speak of chance that is really based on some unobserved causality. For example, a receiver slips and the defensive back intercepts the pass. The replay later reveals that what we would chalk up to chance is really due to the fact that a sprinkler head was left above the ground.
The second explanation of chance results from two or more lines of causality, neither of which is governed by chance, but act independently of each other. One of these agents of causality is God as the cause of all that is, although there may be other agents as well.
With a proper understanding of the notion of chance, we can now begin to see what someone might mean when they say God does not care about baseball games. God’s Providence imposes necessity on some things and contingency on others. It might very well be the case that God imposes contingency on the results of the baseball game. This however does not mean that it falls outside His Providence. It only means He imparts the dignity of being a cause to His creatures. To the matter at hand, the result of the baseball game may depend upon the freely chosen preparation of the two teams. Nevertheless it does not fall outside His Providence. Everything is part of His plan, even if there are different causes, and this includes who wins a baseball game.
In closing, and to be fair to those who say this, I think it bears mentioning one possible meaning to a statement like “God does not care who wins baseball games.” Like all things governed by His Providence, it is not an absolute end. He uses a baseball game as a means to His overall end of uniting mankind with Himself. That doesn’t mean only that He plots out how a Cubs victory in the World Series can bring about some other good (or the Apocalypse), but also that sports (and I think this is what makes them so attractive to us) point to higher things. St. Paul uses sports (and specifically winning) to both enlighten and motivate his Corinthian audience. The joy of winning can be a sacrament pointing to the joy of winning THE race. And that is enough for God to truly care about the outcome.

The God of Tolerance

There is perhaps no single word that strikes more fear into the heart of a Catholic than to hear that he is being intolerant.  In fact, there is no greater weapon against killing the apostolic spirit of a follower of Christ than the fear of being labeled as intolerant.  In truth though, we have so twisted the concept of tolerance that we no longer even recognize intolerance when we see it.  The word tolerance really has no practical meaning any more.  It is time that we come to understand exactly what tolerance is and what it isn’t.  Our culture has now set up tolerance as the new god and it is time that we slay this false god.

While this may seem like hyperbole, have you heard about the Day of Silence on April 15th?  In the name of tolerance, schools throughout the country are encouraging students to remain silent throughout the day to “address the problem of anti-LGBT behavior.”  So, we have replaced the moment of silence which was unconstitutional because it could be associated with the true God and replaced it with a whole day of silence to worship the new god of tolerance.

What exactly is a proper understanding of tolerance then?  First of all, tolerance is not an end in itself.  The moment that tolerance becomes an end and becomes the greatest good it means that we can no longer say out loud that anything else is either good or evil.  Tolerance is meant to be a working principle that allows everyone to live peacefully for a time.  The word tolerance comes from Latin tolerare which means to “bear or sustain” and tollere which means “to lift up”.  In other words, it implies bearing with or carrying another person’s beliefs as a burden.  It is truly a negative thing and it is certainly not a Christian virtue.  Unfortunately, it is all too often confused with a real Christian virtue, prudence.  Furthermore, you will find no place in Scripture where we are exhorted to tolerance nor Christ telling His followers to “tolerate one another”.  His command is “to love one another as I have loved you” and he did this by guiding all to the truth.

Rightly identified, what we call tolerance now is really either indifference or agreement.  What masquerades as tolerance is really an attitude that it is OK to believe whatever you like as long as I agree with you or it does not inconvenience me in any way, especially by making moral demands on me.  This is how the new version of tolerance is really intolerance.

tolerance

An example from an encounter I had comes to mind.  A self-labeled feminist that I know came to me and asked me one day and asked me how I, as a man, could dare to speak on the issue of abortion.  In her mind it was a woman’s issue and I had no right to speak on it.  I asked her if she accepted the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v Wade.  She responded that of course she did.  She thought it was one of the best decisions that the Court has ever made.  I reminded her that there were exactly 9 men on the Supreme Court at the time and asked her how she could accept the decision of 9 men.

Seeing her reeling and recalling all the times she had called me intolerant (why she still spoke to me, I have no idea), I kept going.  I said, “So I guess what you are really saying is that a man can speak on the issue of abortion as long as he agrees with you.  Come to think of it, that is the very definition of prejudice.  Do you know what that makes you?  That makes you not only sexist, but intolerant.  To say that someone’s opinion doesn’t matter because of who they are and not on the merit of what they are saying is the very definition of intolerance”  Once I used the I-word, I got nothing but stunned silence.  She knew I was right, but couldn’t admit it.

The point is this: tolerance assumes three things.  The first is that the two parties do not agree.  A person can only be tolerant when they believe someone else is wrong or mistaken.  We do not tolerate things we like or agree with.  No one says, “I tolerated a delicious ribeye last night.”  Second, our tolerance is always extended to a someone not to a something.  For the sake of the dignity of the person and the absolute good that they are, we tolerate some of their bad ideas or actions.  Finally, it assumes that in fact somebody is right.  There is no room for the new tolerance’s only begotten son, relativism.  A tolerant person and a tolerant society is one that must believe in an absolute moral truth.

Ironically true tolerance rests upon two foundational truths that our culture rejects out of hand—the dignity of the human person and moral absolutes.  It is no wonder then that when those two things were removed from the cultural landscape, tolerance went awry.

As Christians, we should not be surprised that we become victims of intolerance under the guise of tolerance.  Our Lord too was a victim of intolerance masquerading as tolerance of the Romans.  Once we realize it is simply a weapon in the hands of the evil one, we can only heed the first words of advice in the pontificate of John Paul II, “Be not afraid.”  Be not afraid to be called intolerant because it conforms us to Christ.  It can serve as a wake-up call of sorts reminding us that the time for indifference is over.  As Archbishop Chaput said in his great book, Render unto Caesar, “The time for easy Christianity is over.  In fact, it never existed.  We’re blessed to be rid of the illusion.  We need to be more zealous in our faith, not more discreet; clearer in our convictions, no muddier; and more Catholic, not less.”

 

The Star of the New Evangelization

In his 1999 Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Pope St. John Paul II referred to Our Lady of Guadalupe as the “Patroness of all America and Star of the first and new evangelization” (Ecclesia in America (EA), 11).  In referring to her as the Star of the New Evangelization the Holy Father was calling to mind the profound effect on the evangelization of Mexico after her appearance to St. Juan Diego in 1531 and her guiding role in evangelization today.  With the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe upon us, it is instructive to look at least two ways in which we can look to her to guide us.

The first  is that Our Lady uses lay people who are specially devoted to her as instruments in the spreading of the message of Guadalupe.

At the time of the apparitions, the spreading of the Gospel to the Mexican people was largely unsuccessful.  Even though Cortes demolished all the blood soaked temples where human sacrifice to demons was going on, conversion was virtually non-existent because of a deeply rooted paganism.  Further slowing the process was a fundamental mistrust among the native peoples of the Spaniards because of abuse at the hands of the First Audience, the five administrators appointed by Charles V after Cortes returned to Spain.  Charles V also appointed Bishop Juan Zumarraga as the first bishop of the new world and the Bishop worked to protect the Indians against the harsh rule.  This brought the Bishop himself and his friars under persecution that he described as “worse than that of Herod and Diocletian.”  Eventually he was able to smuggle a message back to Charles V he immediately replaced Guzman with a Second Audience headed by Bishop Don Sebastian Ramirez y Fuenleal.  Knowing that the Aztecs were about to take up arms against the Spaniards Bishop Zumarraga begged Our Lady to intervene.  Secretly he asked her to send him some Castilian roses as a sign of her intercession.

Enter Juan Diego, a simple farmer who was on his way to Mass one Sunday.  When he passed a small hill named Tepeyac, six 6 miles north of Mexico City and the location of a former temple to the great mother god Torantzin (whose head was a combination of serpent heads and dress a mass of writhing serpents), he began to hear music and the voice of a woman bidding him to come to the top of the hill.  She told him she was the Virgin Mary and that he was to present himself to the Bishop and ask him to build a Church on the hill.  After two visits the Bishop and two additional apparitions, she eventually gave him the sign the Bishop had asked for in the form of roses and the beautiful image on the tilma (more on this below).

What makes St. Juan Diego a model for our collaboration with Our Lady’s work of evangelization is what he did after the apparitions.  He was appointed as custodian of the chapel on Tepeyac where the image was kept and he tirelessly explained the significance of the image to wave after wave of pilgrims.  He emphasized the providential location of the apparition as formerly the site of pagan temple and this had such an effect on them that they referred to the image as Teonantzin (God’s Mother).  It was His ability to re-tell his story in the Indian language that served as a major source of conversion.  In fact when many of the Indians presented themselves to the missionary priests for instruction and baptism they had already been converted.

A major obstacle to the spread of the New Evangelization has been a lingering clericalism.  Our Lady of Guadalupe shows us what happens when lay people live their vocation in the Church properly and when clerics live theirs.  Juan Diego, despite being a widower, did not become a priest.  Instead he remained as a lay person and embraced his role as the primary evangelizer of the pilgrims that came to the chapel to venerate the image.  It was only after they had been evangelized that he sent them to the missionary priests for further instruction to prepare them for the sacraments.  Like St. Juan Diego, laity need to see themselves as the primary evangelizers of culture.  We cannot abdicate that role to priests and bishops but instead must embrace it.

When the laity are living out their vocation to evangelize those outside the confines of the Church (and even those who need it within the Church), Priests and Bishops are able to focus on tending their flock through catechesis and the Sacraments.  They also will not feel the need to abdicate this role in order to change the culture.  They can comfortably focus on the formation and sanctification of the laity and support them in their mission to the world.  I dare say that Bishop Zumarraga and his friar priests understood that their role should be to support Juan Diego in his evangelizing mission and they reaped the fruit of it, sometimes baptizing up to 6000 people day—most of whom they had not evangelized.

The second lesson we can learn from Our Lady of Guadalupe is the power of images.

Like our culture today, the Aztec culture was one of the image.  In his account of the apparitions, the missionary Fernando de Alva Ixtilxochitl recalled:

“The Indians submerged in profound darkness, still loved and served false little gods, clay figurines and images of our enemy the devil in spite of having heard about the faith…But when they heard that the Holy Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ had appeared and since they saw and admired her most perfect Image, which has no human art their eyes were opened as if suddenly day had dawned on them.”

The devil in inspiring the creation of the little idols knew that the Indians found them visually appealing and he exploited that even after the destruction of the temples and human sacrifice.  That is why Our Lady did not haphazardly leave the image on St. Juan Diego’s tilma but instead every element was wrought with meaning.  The people were familiar with using glyphs rather than written language and so Our Lady offered them an evangelizing image.  Not only is it edifying for us to discover the meaning of this image but it increases our reliance upon her (for more detail on the image, see Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mother of the Civilization of Love by Carl Anderson and Msgr. Eduardo Chavez).

Guadalupe

 

  • Clouds — in the image, the Virgin is surrounded by clouds, showing that she is from heaven. The indigenous greeted people they believed came from God with the expression: “Among fog and among clouds.” which is why Montezuma thought Cortes a god at first when his ships came through the fog into the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Sun —golden rays from the second sun, behind her, signify that she is the “Mother of Light” and greater than the dreadful Aztec sun god, Huitzilopchtli, whom she eclipses.
  • Cross medallion — around her neck, Mary wears a gold medallion engraved with a cross. For indigenous people, the medallion symbolized consecration, so the medallion around Mary’s neck meant that she was consecrated to Jesus. It was also the same black Cross that appeared on the banners and helmets of the Spanish soldiers.
  • Hands — the indigenous people expressed prayer not only by the hands, but by the whole body. In the image on the tilma, Our Lady of Guadalupe is shown in a position of dancing prayer, with her knee bent in movement. Presented in the position of prayer, it would  have shown that despite the fact that she was greater than all the Aztec gods and goddesses, she herself was not God.
  • Mantle and tunic — Mary’s rose-tinted, flowery tunic symbolizes the earth, while her turquoise, starry mantle represents the heavens. The mantle also indicates that she is royalty since only the native emperors wore cloaks of that color.
  • Moon — the Virgin stands on a crescent moon. The Aztec word for Mexico, “Metz-xic-co,” means “in the center of the moon.” She is standing upon it as their mother. The moon also symbolizes the Aztec moon god, fertility, birth and life.  This was the serpent-god Quetzalcoatl.
  • Angel — an angel with eagle’s wings appears below Mary’s feet. According to Aztec belief, an eagle delivered the hearts and the blood of sacrificial victims to the gods. The angel holds up the pregnant Virgin, signifying that the child in her womb is the offering that pleases God and only those with eagles wings could go to god
  • Black ribbon — the black ribbon around Mary’s waist shows that she is expecting a child. For the Aztecs, the trapezoid-shaped ends of the ribbon also represented the end of one cycle and the birth of a new era.
  • Four-petaled jasmine — the only four-petaled flower on Mary’s tunic appears over her womb. The four-petaled jasmine represents the Aztecs’ highest deity, Ometéotl. It shows that she is carrying the true deity within her womb.
  • Flowers — nine golden flowers, symbolizing life and truth, adorn Mary’s dress. The flowers are made up of glyphs representing a hill and a river. The indigenous people considered hills the highest points of encounter between God and people. Viewed upside down, the flowers take the shape of hearts with arteries coming out, representing life, which originates from God and that sustains creation not by blood of sacrifice but shedding of His own blood.

One of the most amazing things about the image is the eyes.  In the eyes of Mary miniscule human figures were discovered.   Using digital technology, the images in the eyes were enlarged many times, revealing that each eye reflected the figure of the Indian Juan Diego opening his tilma in front of Bishop Zumarraga.  Obviously no merely human artist could have painted these.

Guadalupe_eyes

With nearly 9 million converts in 8 years (that’s an average of 3260 per day), this approach can be a very powerful force.  I have written about the importance of evangelizing the culture through media before, but I want to re-emphasize just how important that is.  Ultimately the grip that pornography has on many men (and an increasing number of women) is like the little idols that the natives in Mexico turned to.  But the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe also offered a antidote the fear from the horrific images of human sacrifices that they had all seen.  We are surrounded by violent images all day long and it creates a culture of anxiety and ultimately distraction.  As Christians we need to offer different images to the culture—one based on what is objectively beautiful not beauty that has been objectified.  Only Catholics truly know the difference.

In closing, it cannot be emphasized enough how much we can do when we give ourselves over to the hands of Our Lady.  On the day of the third apparition, Juan Diego’s uncle grew deathly ill.  Rather than turning to her to help him, he avoided Tepeyac hill and sought help elsewhere.  When he came close, she came down the hill and confronted him saying,

“Listen, put it into your heart, my youngest son, that what frightened you, what afflicted you, is nothing; do not let it disturb your face, your heart; do not fear this sickness nor any other sickness, nor any sharp and hurtful thing. Am I not here, I who have the honor to be your Mother? Are you not in my shadow and under my protection? Am I not the source of your joy? Are you not in the hollow of my mantle, in the crossing of my arms? Do you need something more?”

The gentle rebuke is for all of us.  We may be anxious about our culture, but for those who in her shadow and protection, we have nothing to fear.  It is ultimately she who will help us lead our culture back to her Son.  In fact, Pope St. John Paul II called upon Catholics in the Americas to rely on the power of Our Lady of Guadalupe to evangelize the culture.  “In America, the mestiza face of the Virgin of Guadalupe was from the start a symbol of the inculturation of the Gospel, of which she has been the lodestar and the guide. Through her powerful intercession, the Gospel will penetrate the hearts of the men and women of America and permeate their cultures, transforming them from within” (EA, 70).

 

 

On Reading Great Books

One of the marks of the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth Century was their propensity for burning books in an attempt to “cleanse” the culture of any spirit that was contrary to their ideology.  Anyone who has read or seen the Book Thief can see an example of those who acted as a cultural remnant to keep the great works alive.  Every totalitarian culture has needed this remnant to act, and unfortunately ours is no different.  Interestingly enough though, we willingly give them away and no actual book burning is necessary.  Instead we bury them under a mountain of dust.  We cannot really say why other than “reading is boring.”  But I believe there is a deeper reason at work here, one that needs to be brought out into the light of day so that we can restore literary works to the prominent role they have held in nearly every culture that has gone by.

According to the CIA World Factbook, the United States has a 99% literacy rate.  Despite this incredible fact that nearly everyone can read, so few choose to except when absolutely necessary.  I deliberately referenced the CIA World Factbook and spoke of the “incredible fact” of nearly everyone being able to read.  At the heart of the Information Age is the fundamental confusion between information and understanding.  We confuse having a lot of facts about a thing with having an understanding of it.

Most people read merely for information.  They increase their store of facts, but have not increased their understanding.  In many ways, our patron saint is Cliff Clavin who could bombard the patrons at Cheers with fact after mind-blowing fact.  But all of these facts without an overall context in which to place them leaves us fragmented.  Where do these facts fit into reality and how do they help explain it?

Cliff Clavin

Of course, reading also takes a great deal of time and attention.  If I am reading merely to increase my store of information why bother reading at all when I can simply turn on the TV?  The average time a TV new show in America devotes to each subject is less than a minute.  This gives the viewer no time to interpret what the meaning of what they just saw is and they assume that the facts speak for themselves.  If the media is wise (often like serpents) they will spin the presentation of those facts and hide the interpretation within that presentation.  The point however is that each event become merely like an episode on a sit-com with very little connection to some overall story.  By next week, the focus will be on a new set of facts.

Reading for understanding however takes in information but attempts to fit it into an overall context.  It seeks to understand so that one might explain.  You are left fundamentally changed by an encounter with a good book because you have moved from understanding less to understanding more.  You will forget facts, but understanding never ceases.

There is a second reason why we do not read and that is because we have been conditioned to be chronological snobs.  To read the good books assumes that those who have gone before us are wiser than us in some way.  There is a certain inequality that must naturally exist between a teacher through speech or writing and a student.  We tend to think that those who have gone before us were simpletons.  We don’t read Aristotle’s metaphysics and his ethics because we proved his physics were wrong.

Even if we read good books by the authors who are still with us, we don’t like the presence of this inequality between teachers and students.  We prefer to have “facilitators” and not teachers.  All of the great men throughout history however were great readers and schooled in the classics.  Read the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and see what a love of reading and learning turned him into.

Obviously it is not enough to say why we don’t read.  What makes reading an integral way for us to grow in understanding?

The most obvious reason is that we can only learn from teachers who are somehow present to us.  Books makes the great teachers who are absent present to us.  It is as if we can have a conversation with the greatest minds of those who ever lived.  I have long claimed that St. Thomas Aquinas is my spiritual father because of the conversations I have had with him through his writings.  The fact that he is a saint obviously helps facilitate that learning as well, but whether the author is a saint or not, reading allows us the vantage point of reality that is only possible when we “stand on the shoulders of giants.”

Culturally, we suffer from a form of ADD in which we cannot sit still or concentrate for any length of time.  This is because we have forgotten how to control our imaginations and memory.  The minute things are quiet, our imaginations begin to run amok.  However when we read, the mind seizes control of these two faculties to form images and recall other things related to what we are reading.  This soon becomes habitual and we have greater control of them even when we are not reading.  In many ways, reading can help to undo this effect of the Fall.

In reading this essay, one could rightly sense a certain amount of personal prejudice for reading Old Books.  The Old Books have stood the test of time not because they are particularly well written (most of them are), but because they shed light on the eternal truths.  As CS Lewis says in his introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, we ought to be prejudicial toward the Old Books because,

Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and especially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period.  The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we.  But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.

What makes Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets so enduring is his portrayal of the good and evil that runs through man’s heart.  The Divine Comedy is remarkable not just for its innovative use of terza rima, but also for the imaginative manner in which the author depicts man’s journey to his ultimate end that Dante built on St. Thomas’ philosophical vision of man.  With all the books on marriage and family being written today, which one could supplant Homer’s Odyssey in portraying the family as the center of civilization?

In closing, I can find no better summary than that of Chesterton (another giant we should mount), “It is always supposed that the man in question has discovered a new idea.  But, as a fact, what is new is not the idea, but only the isolation of the idea. The idea itself can be found, in all probability, scattered frequently enough through all the great books of a more classic or impartial temper, from Homer and Virgil to Fielding and Dickens. You can find all the new ideas in the old books; only there you will find them balanced, kept in their place, and sometimes contradicted and overcome by other and better ideas.  The great writers did not neglect a fad because they had not thought of it, but because they had thought of it and of all the answers to it as well.”

Reclaiming the Media Culture

One of the last documents that Pope St. John Paul II presented to the Church was his Apostolic Letter, The Rapid Development.  He wrote this document mainly as a means to “reflect on the ‘challenges’ which the communications media constitute for the Church, which Paul VI said ‘would feel guilty before the Lord if she did not utilize these powerful means.’”(The Rapid Development (TRD), 2).  Among his reflections he recognizes that “[T]he communications media have acquired such importance as to be the principal means of guidance and inspiration for many people in their personal, familial, and social behavior” (TRD,3) and emphasized that Christians should “not be afraid of new technologies! These rank ‘among the marvelous things’ – inter mirifica – which God has placed at our disposal to discover, to use and to make known the truth, also the truth about our dignity and about our destiny as his children, heirs of his eternal Kingdom” (TRD, 14).  I find that the approach many Christians take towards media is either one of indulgence or total avoidance.  Both are unacceptable unless we want to give up the culture completely.  If we are to continue to be a missionary Church then we cannot forget that “[T]he first Areopagus of the modern age is the world of communications, which is unifying humanity and turning it into what is known as a ‘global village’” (Redemptoris Missio, 37).

There is a tendency to somehow personalize “the Culture” and then demonize it without really reflecting on what culture is.  Culture arises out of the fact that man by nature is a social creature that is made to seek the truth.  Therefore, men seek the truth not just individually but also in community.  Culture then is a community’s answers to the great questions.  These answers become ubiquitous, touching nearly every aspect of the lives of the community.  No one, no matter how hard they try can live outside its reach.

There is another aspect of culture that is very important for us to understand which the saintly Pontiff points out, namely that culture itself, prescinding from its content, arises from the very existence of new ways to communicate with hitherto unknown techniques and vocabulary’ (TRD, 3).  In other words, culture is both parent and child in that it is both formed by and forms the community.

Now there are many particular components that make up culture, not the least of which is religion since you can’t have culture without cult.  Each of these components are meant to express in various ways the answers to the great questions but the culture as a whole has the “primary and essential task of education” (John Paul II, Address to UNESCO, 2 June 1980).

Literature and art also play a key role in any culture, but in ours these roles have been taken over by movies and television.  It is nearly impossible to have a culture that simultaneously produces both movies and TV and great literature and art.

To see why this is so, we need to understand the role our imagination in coming to know things.  Because we are material beings, those things that we come to know are known through our bodies.  As St. Thomas reminds us, “nothing is in the intellect which was not first in the senses.”  This comes about either when an object is present to us it is first experienced through the exterior senses or when it is absent to us its image is presented through the imagination.  In either case, every object of knowledge that we have passes through the imagination.  The imagination passes the images (St. Thomas calls them phantasms) through the agent intellect where they are abstracted and judgments are made.  In essence, our imaginations act as filters for what we think about.

bernadette_002

What is the point of this?  Motion pictures come at us so quickly that we can very easily lose this filtering ability.  We end up surrendering control over the imagination (by our wills).  We then cease making judgments about the images.  This is the dangerous part because the cultural norms that are present in the movie will become ours.  The judgments implicitly found in the movie will be ours.  So for example, if we see a happy gay couple over presented over and over we begin to associate the two together and eventually judge homosexual relationships as a good thing because of this association.  This ability to overwhelm the imagination is at the heart of the TV advertising industry as well.

To see the point I am driving at, recall what JPII said regarding the culture as parent and child.  We are all children of the culture whether we realize it or not.  There is no avoiding this and to simply abdicate our role as Christians in forming the culture is not an option.  What is needed is to recognize that “a vast work of formation is needed to assure that the mass media be known and used intelligently and appropriately. The new vocabulary they introduce into society modifies both learning processes and the quality of human relations, so that, without proper formation, these media run the risk of manipulating and heavily conditioning, rather than serving people” (TRD, 13).  We need to be properly formed in how media affects us and how it can still act in service of us rather than serving as a tool for propaganda.  Once we do that we can assume the parental role in the culture rather than mere children.  Personally I see three key ways we can affect the media.

1) Mental Prayer

This may seem obvious and probably shouldn’t even be mentioned but I mention it for a very specific reason.  Many people simply cannot pray today.  When they sit down to pray and meditate on the Scriptures they are so driven to distraction that they find it impossible to pray.  It never seems to get better so they give up.  The cause of most of our distractions in prayer is that we are unable to govern our imagination.  Once we gain control of our imagination, our prayer life immediately improves.

If you recall what I said above TV and movies’ effect on our imagination then you can see why this might be the case. The remedy is less TV.

Reading also is a great help.  Again if you are accustomed to a lot of TV and movies it is very difficult to develop the habit of reading.  There is a reason why the “book is better than the movie.”  We must fully engage our minds in a book.  We learn to govern our imaginations especially in reading authors are very descriptive.  Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy was the most popular book of the twentieth century precisely because of his ability to actively engage the imagination and paint a world where beauty, truth and goodness win.

Poetry is also great in this regard because of the word pictures that good poets create.  Along with his many talents, John Paul II was also an accomplished poet.  He wrote a poem on the Conclave of Cardinals that was later printed.  One would be hard pressed to watch a video that would capture what these few words do:

It is here, beneath this wondrous Sistine profusion of color that the Cardinals assemble — the community responsible for the legacy of the keys of the Kingdom. They come here, to this very place. And once more Michelangelo wraps them in his vision. “In him we live and move and have our being.” The colors of the Sistine will then speak the word of the Lord: Tu es Petrus (Mt 16:18) — once heard by Simon, son of John. “To you I will give the keys of the Kingdom.” During the Conclave Michelangelo must teach them — Do not forget: Omnia nuda et aperta sunt ante oculos Eius. You who see all, point to him! He will point him out …

–Meditations on the Book of Genesis: At the Threshold of the Sistine Chapel

Finally I would recommend reading books out loud as a family.  This is something that has completely falling out of vogue.  But families have done this for generations and it has served them well in not only forming them in the true, good and beautiful but forming a bond around the shared stories.  He who controls the stories, controls the culture.

2) Become a discerning viewer and teach others what to look for

Notice that above I said the remedy I mentioned was less TV, not to cut it out completely.  Our goal ought to be, first to become discerning viewers, but also to form discerning viewers.  We have to fight the tendency to use TV as means to “veg-out.”  We need to be active in our consumption and make judgments about what we are watching.  In order to do this we need to limit the amount of time (especially consecutive time) we spend watching.  Use the PAUSE button liberally to stop and think about what is going on.  If you are watching with someone else, pause and talk about it.  If you are seeing it in a theater then stop for ice cream on the way home so you can talk about it.  See if you can label the worldview of the producers and writers.  What did they get right?

Along the same lines, resist the temptation to use the TV as a babysitter.  Watch TV with your kids and avoid allowing them to watch it alone.  Help them too become discerning viewers.  When you see something wrong (like teenager boys objectifying girls or doofus dads) point it out.  Having a family movie night is a great way to do this as well.

Which leads to the third way we can affect the media…

3) Demand Excellence

TV and movies, like all good art, ought to reflect the True, the Good and the Beautiful.  If that is lacking turn it off.  Demand an account for the time you have spent.  God will ask you for an account for all the time He gave you, will you be able to give a good account?

Resist the temptation to voyeurism that drives the “Reality TV” genre.  These shows exploit the families that are a part of them (and has led to the downfall of more than a few) and can be made with very little monetary investment on the part of producers.  Family life should never be on display for the world to see.

An important corollary to this is to demand excellence from so-called Christian film-makers.   Often we’re so happy to see Christian media that we don’t care about the quality.  So often the movies are cliché and the characters are so smarmy that it only serves to make Christianity look even worse in the eyes of the rest of the culture.  “If Christians are that dull and fake, then why would I want to be one?” is what many non-Christians think after seeing them.  But shouldn’t Christian media be better off because of its goals and motivations?  If a movie is meant to spread the Faith then it should meet industry standards.  Think of the effect of a Catholic film like the Song of Bernadette winning the Oscar for Best Picture today.  Certainly critically acclaimed movies like Brokeback Mountain and Million Dollar Baby were instrumental in forming the culture.  There was a time when Catholics controlled Hollywood, why couldn’t this happen again?  The desire in all men for the Good, the True and the Beautiful cannot be stamped out and most know it when they see it.  If we make it, they will come.

And certainly never forget that TV and Movies are consumer-driven.  If we don’t watch it then they won’t make it or show it.

St. Francis de Sales, Patron Saint of the Media, Pray for Us!