Saturday, October 22, 2011

Fr. Robert Barron's "Catholicism:" The Return of the Magnum Opus.

Fr. Robert Barron's “Catholicism” (both the book and DVD set) marks the return of the magnum opus. Such grand and all encompassing works have been out of fashion since World War I. Before the Great War blasted pictures of countless piles of young men gassed on the front lines or drilled with gun-fire as they emerged from trenches, Western Civilization viewed History as a progression of moral certitude and technological advances. Put simply: Man was getting better. When I was in college I cherished works such as James George Frazer's “The Golden Bough,” Thomas Bulfinch's “The Age of Fable,” and H.G. Well's “The Outline of History.” These books were old and usually beautifully bound. They felt weighty in the hand. They made big promises. And they delivered. All of Man's History spread out before the reader. These books were revelations. For all of my History and Art History courses centered on the minutia. Course syllabi focused on narrowly defined historical issues. The over-specialization in the Humanities resulted in fragmentation.
This fragmentation is a direct result of the post-modern theories of deconstruction. Age old truths were disregarded. Everything that we took for granted before could no longer be trusted. One of the most bizarre examples I encountered during my studies at UC Berkeley were several professors who tried to cast the French Impressionists as leftest revolutionaries. They constantly dissected paintings of fields and flowers for any sign of political manifestation. Their methods stripped these paintings of any beauty. It became all about polemics. The broad strokes of Western Civilization become relegated to small scratches. Historical figures, works of art, great books became isolated. One bright light in my college career was Camille Paglia's “Sexual Personae.” Although I disagree with many of her conclusions, I applaud her methodology.
Fr. Barron is a devotee of Thomas Aquinas; and herein lies the roots of his greatness. For Thomas Aquinas wrote the pinnacle of all magnum opus: “The Summa Theologica.” Delving into it's volumes for the first time is like taking a wild cosmic trip into the mind of a genius. One needs a guide just as Dante had for his journey through Hell. On Aquinas, Barron wrote:

At a time when religious conversation far too often devolves into shouting matches and ad hominem attacks, Thomas calls us back to reasoned discourse. At a time when religious passions have run amok and have resulted in terrible acts of violence, Thomas calls us back to hard thinking about God. At a time when adepts of different religions often gaze at one another suspiciously, the Thomas who happily dialogued with pagan philosophers, Jewish rabbis, Muslim sages, and Christian heretics, calls us back to an attitude of broad-minded respect. I think actually that the Church's turning away from Aquinas in the years following Vatican II was a dreadful mistake. We lost something of massive importance when we set aside his balance, his deep intelligence, and his sanity.

As Barron so beautifully points out, Aquinas is incredibly relevant today. Instead Aquinas is often replaced with such intellectual pip-squeaks such as Kung and Schillebeeckx. Aquinas' “Summa” is big like Catholicism. Our religion never became fractionalized into petty nationalist groups such as many Orthodox sects. Like Aquinas, Barron embraces our universalism. He is not afraid to praise the Church's greatness. Fr. Barron is in direct line from Aquinas – through the great writers of the 19th Century. He has brought back the great sweeping History that only the late Kenneth Clark had kept alive. The same goes for Fr. Barron's “Catholicism” DVD series; nothing this glorious had been filmed since Michael Wood's magnificent “The Art of the Western World.” As Wood's before him, Fr. Barron's documentary looks at the totality of History. The effect: we see ourselves not as detached entities drifting through a meaningless world, but as interconnected souls who are still a part of God's master plan.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Lost Boys: The Quest for Manhood in Three American Films - Rebel Without A Cause, Chubasco, and The Eagle.

 A bizarre story I recently read about finally inspired me to write this article that has been bouncing around in my brain for years. The story: in Berkeley, the town of my Alma-mater, a lesbian couple who adopted a baby boy are now giving the child hormone blockers to delay the onset of puberty because they say the child wants to be a female. Ever since I saw the classic 1955 film “Rebel Without A Cause” starring James Dean I have been thinking about the problem of manhood, especially as it relates to juveniles in broken and unbalanced homes. Also at this time, a classmate of mine at UC Berkeley introduced me to Robert Bly's interesting book “Iron John.” Though the book comes from a quasi-pagan point of view, Bly does raise some interesting questions about the passage from immaturity to manhood and the idea of initiation.
What makes “Rebel Without A Cause” so fascinating is the family dynamic between James Dean's character, Jim Stark, and his parents. From the very beginning, when Jim's parents arrive at a police station to pick Jim up after a night of mischief, we see the domineering mother constantly emasculating the witless husband. The father is completely neutered, and this does not go unnoticed by Jim. At one point Jim begs his father to stand up to his mother. He does not. Here, we see Jim completely deflate.
The film predates the sexual revolution by a decade. The role reversals in the Stark family are sometimes played through without subtly. In one scene, Jim's father walks out of the kitchen wearing a frilly apron. But what effect does the sexual role reversal in the family have on Jim. My experience as a high school teacher taught me: boys from difficult homes often turn to crime or violence while girls become sexually active. In Jim's case, he tries to prove himself at his new school by acting out. To the other wayward teenagers at the school, these initiation ceremonies: switch blade fights and drag racing, replace the affirmation and love they long to receive from their fathers. They are false paths into manhood.
But here I am getting ahead of myself a bit - for I am introducing two separate ideas: the confusion of sex roles in the home and their feeble replacement in modern society. To explain this further, the other two main characters in the film make the point explicitly. The first is Judy played by the exquisite Natalie Wood; the second is Plato played by Sam Mineo. Judy is an attractive girl in her early teens. She is hanging out with the wrong crowd. She is often flirtatious, but also angry. Her father is emotionally tied into his job and the external realities of family life: providing a home, money, cars, etc. Although she openly longs for it, Judy's father is unable to give love to his daughter. Therefore she looks for love and acceptance from other men; the boys available to her at school. But these young men are poor substitutes for her father. Like her, they are all psychologically damaged youths; unable to really give or receive the kind of healing love they need. Instead, they continually spin in a life of discontent and desire.
Plato, the other main character, also comes from an intact home, but his parents are well-to-do and often stay away from home leaving him with the loving but frustrated housekeeper. Plato fills his emptiness by idolizing the more masculine Jim. Herein lies the other turn boys often make: lacking a loving male role model at home, instead of becoming violent and taking out their frustration on others, they seek the masculine (not manhood) from other men. In modern society this quest for the masculine leads inwards and becomes narcissistic. Hence homosexual culture's obsession with youth and fashion. In the mean time, Jim falls in love with Judy, and in a weird fusion of false alternate universes, Plato imagines Jim as his father. The whole mess leads to tragedy for all involved.
Another film I would like to examine is “Chubasco” from 1967. A decade later, this film ventures into the same territory covered by “Rebel Without A Cause.” The only difference: in “Chubesco” the rather tame drag races have escalated into illegal drug use and intensified violence. But unlike the earlier film, an actual solution to the problem is put forward. The only one who can confer manhood upon a boy is another man. Ideally, this should be the boy's father. In “Chubasco” the protagonist is a fatherless boy with a nonexistent mother. The boy in the film carries around one of the biggest chip on his shoulder ever seen in movie history. Of course, the boy's attitude leads to friction with his girlfriend's father. At the end of the film, only by submitting to the older male's authority (in this case his girlfriend’s moral but domineering father) does the boy make the transition into manhood.
The third and last film I will look at is one that was released just this year: “The Eagle.” This might seem like an odd film to include with the other two as all the action in “The Eagle” takes place in Second-Century A.D. England and Scotland. On the contrary, all three film tackle the same subject matter: a boy becoming a man in a fatherless home. In “The Eagle,” our hero is Marcus: a parent-less Roman soldier returning to the sight of his father's seeming military failure. While not only growing up without his father, Marcus is also burdened with the shame of his father's sullen reputation. Alone, he sets out for Britain, beyond Hadrian's Wall, into the dark forests where his father died. The object of his quest: to regain the legion's standard – the eagle. His only companion: a runaway British slave.
One of the most interesting scenes in the film depicts the male rituals of the savage Northern Pict tribes. Marcus observes the strange ceremonies while waiting for his chance to steal back the eagle from the preoccupied warriors. The Northern tribes are war-like and barbarous as compared to the Romans, but their society is intact. The sexes know their stations and their duties. After Marcus recaptures the eagle, he and his slave head back to Roman territory. The Northern warriors relentlessly pursue them. In the end, they are no match. When all seems lost, soldiers from his father's old legion reappear out of the English forest. Only with the help of his father's comrades does Marcus regain the eagle, redeem his father's legacy, and become a man. Again, through other men does the boy become a man.
The point of this exercise: first of all I wanted to prove that certainly a man (the father) is an essential part of a family; secondly, without a father, or male figure in the home, children will grow up at best maladjusted, at worst pathologically disturbed. Lastly, these disturbances will be especially evident in male children. In essence, without a father or male to guide them, they will never transfer into manhood. Instead they become submerged in an infantile and prolonged adolescence. I see this in the absurd acceptance of the male mid-life crises and in contemporary men's fashion that attempt to cloth adults as children (i.e. shorts and baseball caps.) The effects of the modern male's failure to move into manhood can be witnessed in more enduring spheres as well: the rise of violent urban youth gangs, teenage sexual promiscuity, and the prevalence of homosexuality. Plato's tragic death in “Rebel Without A Cause” mirrors the fate of thousands of men who would later die of AIDS after their restless and tragic search for the manhood they should have attained in childhood. In the end: the disintegration and denigration of the family (a man and a woman) lies at the root of all societal problems. Spending money on the problem: for education, rehabilitation, drug education, sex education, etc...will not heal a broken mind. The wounds from childhood are painful to heal, but there is only one remedy and that is love.

The Warner Archive Collection has some great family friendly films only available at this site:

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The New Liturgical Movement: Fr. Rutler and The Church of Our Savior

During my recent trip to New York City, I attended Mass at The Church of Our Savior on Park Avenue. The Pastor is Fr. George Rutler who will probably be familiar to many because of his frequent appearances on EWTN.

The interior of The Church of Our Savior was truly remarkable. I had never seen a Roman Catholic Church with such a plethora of Eastern icons. The central apse is crowned with a large icon of Christ the Teacher. Surrounding the apse are smaller icons of various Saints. Following on this theme of Eastern liturgical architecture: instead of one sanctuary lamp, there are several lamps hanging from the baldacchino over the main altar. However what was truly remarkable, the Church interior does not just slavishly imitate the past; with all great art: pays homage to history, but with a slight twist. On closer examination, I noticed that the icons were of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Kateri Tekakwitha, John Neumann and others.

Once the liturgy started I felt completely transported. But this was not an incident relaying on the so-called “smells and bells” experience associated with more traditional liturgies. As our great Pope Benedict XVI has repeatedly stressed the new “liturgical movement” should strive to incorporate what is great in both the Tridentine Rite and the new Novus Ordo. Fr. Rutler uses the vernacular for the readings and the Gospel, but also incorpated more of the Latin in the Ordinary. The mixture of hearing The Lord’s words in our own language and the beauty of the Latin was exquisite.

Finally what seemed to bring everything together were the incredible choir and organist. The choir sung both hymns in Latin and English that truly complemented and connected to the readings for that day. A small detail but an important one was the fact that the choir is located in the choir stall at the back of the church. Here in California I am used to choirs being in the front of the church (where they tend to be more a distraction.) The Mass should always be Christ centered, not a performance.
Here is a quotation from Pope Benedict concerning the reformation of the Liturgy:

“A renewal of liturgical awareness, a liturgical reconciliation that again recognises the unity of the history of the liturgy and that understands Vatican II, not as a breach, but as a stage of development: these things are urgently needed for the life of the Church. I am convinced that the crisis in the Church that we are experiencing today is to a large extent due to the disintegration of the liturgy, which at times has even come to be conceived of etsi Deus non daretur: in that it is a matter of indifference whether or not God exists and whether or not He speaks to us and hears us. But when the community of faith, the world-wide unity of the Church and her history, and the mystery of the living Christ are no longer visible in the liturgy, where else, then, is the Church to become visible in her spiritual essence? Then the community is celebrating only itself, an activity that is utterly fruitless. And, because the ecclesial community cannot have its origin from itself but emerges as a unity only from the Lord, through faith, such circumstances will inexorably result in a disintegration into sectarian parties of all kinds - partisan opposition within a Church tearing herself apart. This is why we need a new Liturgical Movement, which will call to life the real heritage of the Second Vatican Council.”

I recommend reading: “The Spirit of the Liturgy” by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Benedict XVI.)