Naming Sin: Flannery O’Connor’s Mark on Bruce Springsteen

Damian J. Ference

Not so long ago Bruce Springsteen made a surprise visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland to take in an exhibit dedicated to his life’s work.1 The exhibit, which took up two entire floors of the museum, was filled with artifacts from Springsteen’s life, including guitars, clothing, hand-written lyrics, and walls of photographs. One of the photographs was of an eight year-old Springsteen, standing with hands folded in front of the high altar at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Freehold, New Jersey—Springsteen’s first communion picture. [Read more…]

Seek MySpace

John Murphy

I first heard about Facebook in my university’s computer lab. I was plugging away at a final paper for Nomadic Art of Eurasia when I happened to overhear a conversation between two girls sitting behind me. Actually, there was very little happenstance about it. You see, I’d harbored a mild crush on one of them since freshman year, but in typical wallflower fashion had never done more than cast moon-eyed looks across the classroom. [Read more…]

A Visit to the Tate

Bo Helmich

This spring, on the final afternoon of a sojourn in England, I wandered the banks of the Thames, coming at last to the Tate Britain, home to one of the largest collections of William Blake’s art. Was it irony or grace to find his work there, in the heart of the city whose sins and afflictions were so grievous in Blake’s time? Gone now are the infamous “dark satanic mills” of England’s early industrialization; gone (or at least hidden from sight) are the “marks of weakness, marks of woe.” Prosperity has largely replaced poverty, and the streets no longer feel “charter’d”—controlled repressively by the English crown.

After two weeks of rain I had happened upon that rare English joy: a sun-washed afternoon—a magic time for strolling and browsing, for hopping on and off red buses more or less at random, for happily spending all eight kinds of coins that the Brits carry about in their pockets. On such a day it would have been a shame to go indoors were it not for the promise of great art, and the inspiring assurance one receives as a gift from the old masters. [Read more…]

Saving Berlin

K.E. Cybulski

The Haus der Wannsee-Konferenz is disconcertingly beautiful. Healthy maple trees frame the shining white façade of this almost century-old German villa as well as its lush gardens. A short walk down the road leads to the shore of the Wannsee itself, a lake bespeckled during the warmer seasons with sailboats and swimmers. Wannsee is lovely, which can be unsettling. How can such beauty grace a town with so ignominious a past? [Read more…]

A Private Matter

Katy Carl

“There’s a woman downstairs who wants to talk to Penny, but Penny isn’t here. Do you have time to sit down with her?”

Jim peered into the cubicle where I sat scrolling through e-mails and the morning news bulletins. Two weeks away from the end of my newspaper internship, I had grown fond of what our grizzled cop reporter termed “butt journalism”—- hooking up to the internet and telephone and letting the information come to you. Field interviews remained a thrill, but increasingly I liked a story you didn’t have to leave your chair to complete. [Read more…]

The Moral and Legal Obligations of Catholic Judges

Frank-Paul Sampino

On Thursday, August 26, 2004, U.S. District Court Judge Richard C. Casey issued a ruling striking down the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003. Legally speaking, it was an unremarkable and entirely expected result. Four years earlier, the Supreme Court had ruled in Stenberg v. Carhart that a similar Nebraska state ban was unconstitutional. But Judge Casey’s opinion attracted attention for different reasons – not least of which is that he is a devout Catholic. [Read more…]

The Dying Would Walk in Circles

Rachelle Rea

I grew up hearing over and over again the same few stories about her. She died young—those three words end every tale. She possessed a French beauty that the family says I inherited. Although the three black and white photographs that hang on our living room wall make me wonder about the latter, the former remains forever set in stone in a New York cemetery. Beneath that stone lies the first Rachelle, the great-grandmother I never knew, the one who lost the fight with tuberculosis.

I thought of her last summer, but not while in that New York cemetery. Instead, I sat in a bus ambling down a Costa Rican mountain road. I stared down at a building that sprawled across half the valley. Crumbling golden stone refused to gleam in a futile protest to the sunless day. Square gaps in the stone resembled a checkerboard and echoed of long-gone windows. I leaned past the friend beside me as we jolted over the road paved decades ago, my eyes straining for a better look out the window—my first glimpse of the sanatorium.

For years, I dreamed of going on my first mission trip, of exercising daring, of leaving home and tacking brave onto my identity. I never dreamed of going to a sanatorium. Yet that afternoon forever linked the two experiences, because after spending a week in a small village, my mission team packed up our bus, journeyed halfway down the mountain, and parked in that valley. We needed to travel two more hours to arrive at the capital city, but we decided to stop anyway. Surely we could find some fun in the abandoned edifice turned tourist
attraction. Surely.

I expected it to smell. I know that hospital scent, and I expected it to greet me when I climbed down from the bus. To my surprise, the century in which the sanatorium had remained closed had treated it well—only the scent of rain that descended from the clouds hung in the air.

We discovered the doctor’s house first. I zipped up my sweater as we approached the smaller building tucked beside the main one. Plopped at the foot of the mountain that kept back the sunrise and sped up the sunset, the three-story residence of the doctor who founded the sanatorium boasted one immediate draw: an exterior staircase of twisted black metal that appeared to lead to the roof. Three of us ventured to climb it. Three of us retraced our steps when we realized it led nowhere. I followed the others into the yawning doorway, but the plain walls and empty window casings failed to interest me. I wanted to see the roof.

Finally, I found the crumbling staircase that led me there. A gray sky stood as backdrop for the majesty of the mountain, as green and lush as July demands. Although the sanatorium’s valley boasted no trees, from the doctor’s roof, I saw towering trunks burdened with emerald branches. What a beautiful view for such an ugly place marked by death. What did the doctor believe when he founded this place—that the hope he could offer would outweigh the morbid statistics? Did he ever wonder if he would die here, too?

I failed to notice all my American friends leaving. Finally, the Costa Rican pastor who travelled with us called out to me in slow Spanish so I could understand—“Senorita, senorita”—and I broke free from my reverie. I spun, pouring the thought I couldn’t voice past our language divide into my smile. “Isn’t it glorious?”

By the answering grin he gave me, he got the message.

I laughed off the worried looks of the others when we rejoined the group just in time to follow the waving tour guide into the sanatorium. Immediately, I rued my empty sweater pockets. I had no pen or paper with which to capture the thoughts arching across my mind. For a nineteenth-century building, it loomed expansive on the inside, open, airy. Three of us could fit shoulder-to-shoulder in the long hallway, though I eliminated that option because I held back, too busy observing to measure the width or even the distance of the hall.

My friends kept a better eye on me; when my sneakers snuck too close to the edge of the winding stairway that lacked banisters, the man at my side yanked me to safety with a warning look. I just grinned at him.

As we passed room after room, the fictional potential I had sought to assign to the nebulous doctor cemented into something more solid. These rooms were not just rooms, these once were places where patients, people, coughed and wheezed and weakened. My fingers reached out to rotted-away doorframes. Someone once grasped this wood to steady themselves. I leaned my face over the planks of a room I wasn’t to enter lest I fall through the rotten wood. Someone once walked on that forbidden floor.

A writer could spend days in such a place. A writer whose great-grandmother came to Ellis Island from France in 1911, married an Irish steelworker, raised two boys to toddlerhood, succumbed to tuberculosis, and never knew her inkhearted namesake could spend years in such a place. I studied each scrap of yellow wallpaper left behind by the patients and each streak of graffiti left by less-respectful visitors—all of it rang with secrets and stories lost in time. I only half-listened to the translations our team leader gave of the tour guide’s speeches. I cared little for what he could tell me of the history of the place. I wanted to know the history of the people, but still they felt fictional, nebulous.

While we walked, the clouds parted. In the center of the sanatorium, the hallway broke in half to reveal, open to the sunlight, a round slab of stone with a faded design in the middle. Sunshine wafted over us as I heard the translation of what the tour guide said then. “The dying would walk in circles. Right here. For hours.”

I shuffled out and stayed to the side. No one ventured into the center of the circle. I squinted in the sun to see the tour guide’s face, to confirm he told the truth. His bearded frown bore an honest sadness. The tuberculosis patients who came here, he said, the ones still well enough to leave their beds, would come out to this open space where the sun shone down on their white gowns and pale faces. And they would walk in circles.
I could see them. Faces lifted to the sunlight that the mountain tried to block out, thin clothing clinging to emaciated forms, shaky breathing becoming a chorus. They came from all over the world to get well in this place where the air supposedly imbues weak lungs with strength. Some did—some came, got well, went home, and lived lives. But many more—many, many more—came, got worse, never left, and died.

I noticed a difference in the long walk down the hall in the second half of the sanatorium. The wallpaper, the graffiti, the holes in the floor looked much the same, but the potential that piqued the storyteller in me on the doctor’s balcony hardened into a longing for a time machine. Whereas at first, I marveled at what I could make up, now I wanted to travel back in time and gather the stories scattered in the rain-tinged air of this place like so many scraps of wallpaper on the wind. The fiction no longer outshone the devastatingly real.

They walked in circles in the only place they could feel the sunlight. They must have known that the walk stretched out in front of them, futile, in vain. No amount of walking could get them out, but they didn’t care. They walked anyways. They kept walking even though footstep after footstep only took them around the same old circle. Even on the threshold of death. There seems something so very human about clinging to the last vestiges of life, about straggling into a sunlit circle.

To leave, to step from the sanatorium into the courtyard, we had to duck down steep stairs and traverse a dark tunnel. I refused to go until someone turned around and took my hand. Cowardly, I know. I wonder, what kind of courage must the first Rachelle have possessed, as she watched herself waste away before either of her boys turned five, as she prepared herself to say goodbye? I caved to cowardice when it came to getting out of the sanatorium through a dark tunnel. They clung to courage when it came to never getting out and facing the darkness we all must face.

Maybe, I thought, brave is not so much leaving home for the unknown. Maybe brave is realizing that we must—and our reaction after we realize that truth.

I want to die walking, too.

Degrees of Cool Part II (or, post-Christian)

Quick recap: we were just talking (in Part I) about some recent works of art that deal with the complexities of faith in ways that were honest AND commercially/critically successful, which begs the question: what the heck? There can be a bit of an expectation among Christian artists to not be taken seriously because of untrendy beliefs in things like, you know, absolute truth and all that. I know I’ve met quite a few writers who expect major backlash to the themes in their work – a backlash that, though sometimes exaggerated, still sometimes seems very, very real.

Then, on a generous tangent, the topic turned to nature and how pop culture opinions about it changed over the past three hundred years: until industrialization, nature was widely seen as a force to wage war against rather than the soft, gentle, rejuvenating force of spiritual revival that the Romantics later painted it to be. What was the change? People, because of mass urbanization, stopped needing to fight nature to survive – and so could start appreciating it for what it had to offer their newly urban selves.

Same thing with cultural relationships: Native populations in North America were painted as savages until they were conquered – only afterwards could they be perceived by the White-European-descended culture as misunderstood recipients of undeserved tragedy.*

And looking back at war propaganda will provide lots of other examples of demonizing the folks who are seen as the threats de jour.

japan

Remember this guy?

An equally ridiculous example is the campy Catholic monarch who plays foil to England’s queen in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. In everything from the maliciously chanting monks to his reluctance to step fully from the shadows, King Philip is presented as little more than a goblin against which Cate Blanchett will say something awesome while basking in a meticulously engineered morning glow. I’m not even joking – you can pretty much all but hear him croaking “gollum, gollum” in the background. Not that Catholics are immune to this kind of simplifying criticism.

Because we're not.

Because we’re not.

When cultures and worldviews are in conflict it’s pretty easy for “debate” to amount to a round of “let’s see who can yell the loudest [with funny memes!],” and for a while in the mid-twentieth century there was some pretty hefty anti-Christian sentiment in the pop-culture and intellectual spheres. I don’t want to say there were no influential voices of faith (there were definitely the Waughs and O’Connors among plenty of others), but the fabric of cultural modernism was kinda set against Christianity in a couple of ways, for a few different reasons.

The modernists, to simplify, were finding the older Victorian and Georgian ways of life too stuffy, petty and ultimately restrictive for the full expression of the breadth and soul of human dignity, and so were searching for another way to live. Enter institutional experimentation (in lifestyle, literature, sexuality, whatevs). One of the problems of the time was that Christianity was sometimes overwhelmingly tied up in the public consciousness (of the English-speaking world, anyways) with notions of cleanliness and respectability rather than the earthy, dirty work of redemption; this “respectable” Christianity wasn’t much more than a hollow shell, a culture dressing up its manners and pretensions in a spiritual tuxedo in order to gain a bit of extra legitimacy. The moderns saw clearly enough to call out the bluff. But not far enough to realize Christianity was the baby thrown out with the bathwater.

A personal suspicion of mine is that each major cultural movement, nearing the end of its shelf-life, eventually ends up mass-producing parodies of their trademark rebellion – leading everyone else to quickly get annoyed with them and paving way for the Next Big Thing. Chesterton constantly complained about the inconsistent groups of would-be anarchists who didn’t seem to have either the conviction or courage of the bolder revolutionaries and anti-monarchists of the mid-to-late nineteenth century.

While real anarchism was always felt a genuine threat, Chesterton found the guys still hanging around in his day, threatening dynamite and all, to be impostors of the original, dangerous challenge to civilization (or something). But then-popular ideas of revolution were watered-down, mass-marketed and picked up by folks genuinely looking for something to fight for, and so were maybe more interested in the fight than in the cause behind it. Cue Chestertonian eye-rolling. But the ideological lovechildren of the pre-and-inter-war moderns would have to wait until the marches of the sixties to fully bloom in this sense.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m under the impression that there were a lot of core groups in the hippie/flower-child movements who were genuinely convicted about peace, love and sexual expression as a means of achieving freedom and dignity and such. But I’m also pretty sure there were lots of folks who jumped on the wagon cause it felt good, provided an easy feeling of cultural righteousness and got them on TV. Cue the quick decline of hippies from force-to-be-reckoned-with to day-time sitcom parodies.

“Whoa….you know…man?”

Cue postmodernism. After the moderns were done fighting/tearing down the old systems so the new, truer morality (not that they’d use the word) could take root, their children quickly realized no new order was forthcoming. Older systems of making sense of the world seemed outdated, refuted and irrelevant, making the search for meaning itself become suspect. Enter Pynchon, Delilo and Vonnegut with their constant (and often painfully humanizing) struggles against the seeming meaninglessness of the world at large. Or, less intensely, enter punk with its global-scale sense of scepticism (ie, flipping the bird) towards any kind of meaning in hand-me-down worldviews. Or, thirty to forty years after the heyday of literary postmodernism in the 70’s/80’s, enter the mass-produced bearers of uncritical irony, detachment and cultural skepticism: hipsterdom.**

hipster-mustache-brigade1

Postmoderns, meet your destiny.

So here we are at the tail end of a number of massive, twentieth-century cultural movements trying to break free from a stuffy, Victorian set of manners perceived to be “Christian” in nature. While the conflict was going on, Christians were seen as the epitome of uncool. But now, as modernism is declawed by postmodernism, which is in turn deflated by irony-for-irony’s-sake (not to mention our persistent habit of finding meaning in situations anyway), we might be far enough removed from the image of the “evil authoritarian Churchman(/marm)” that people may kinda-sorta be able to start appreciating the nuances/subtleties of the struggle of faith. It’s not as threatening, and therefore palatable.*****

One one hand, we can interpret this as confirmation that we are pretty much living in a Post-Christian world where the influence of Christendom is a distant memory of the past. We can lament the lack of Christian influence in public affairs, government, the arts and popular media. We can groan about having to compete for attention along with all the other paradigms in the intellectual marketplace.

Or we can acknowledge that there’s a great moment of opportunity here – less and less people are growing up with the knee-jerk anti-Christian tendencies common to Christian cultures (the most powerful anti-Catholic ballads in the Anglosphere, for example, come from Ireland), and so people across the board (Christian and otherwise) are able to look at each other from the cultural divide not as entrenched soldiers, but as mutual inhabitants of a strange world who, maybe, have something to teach each other.

Maybe Christian artists have the duty now of creating art not so much for use in a cultural battlefield as a way of being true to the Good, True and Beautiful as personally experienced in Christ. At the moment, the degree of being cool might well depend on the depth of our self-expression as artists of such. And that means being true to the doubt, loneliness and frustrations of faith as well as to the high-points – as “The Antenna,” “Noah” and “Modern Vampires of the City” (uuuggh) seem to imply, people may be more willing to listen if you speak just as much about the shit as the sunshine.

*

*Interestingly enough, though, in almost every single popular movie about Aboriginal populations (or their obvious stand-ins), they are almost always saved by a white man.

**When I decided on this title I totally promised myself that the essay would have nothing to do with hipsters***

***That was a total lie****

****After finishing, I found out someone already beat me to the punch and came to the same conclusions in a fantastic 2009 article called “The Death of the Hipster

*****There are two ways this can go, though – non-threatening doesn’t just have to be interpreted as “humbled,” but “compromised” too. There is no justification for substituting the visceral experience of faith for something watered down, just for the sake of being “non-threatening.” That was the problem with Victorian pseudo-religion – which was, in the first place, part of the reason why the moderns rebelled****** at all. Who really wants to set off the whole cycle again?

******And, really, wouldn’t you? It’s good to remember that things started with a whole heck of a lotta good intentions that, if not honoured, will come back to bite us all in the collective ass.

 

Josh Nadeau currently lives in Russia and, when not teaching or writing, may be found winter cycling, hitchhiking or engaged in general shenanigans. He hopes, when he’s older, to maintain his sense of awe.

Day Trip to Sublice

Mark De Cristo

It was our last day teaching in Frankfurt. We had been there for two weeks, working the intensive English courses for newly hired German employees, eight teaching hours a day, five days a week. Too much, most teachers would say, and rightly so. But we needed the money, so we agreed, took the company car, and made the trek each morning from Berlin to the frontier with Poland, heading back again in the evening. [Read more…]

Sanctification: A Comedy of Error

Br. Bruno M. Shah

I. Playing A Part

During the first days at the seminary, the Master of Students gathers the newly arrived to discover what practical talents are available for the community’s benefit. (We blithely refer to the house’s chores as “privileges.”) Each of our sixty men has some share in the work of home—maintenance—this brother is handy with electrical equipment, that brother has a background in carpentry, this brother is literate in computers, et cetera. Well, this brother claimed that he could cut hair. And for an order that vows evangelical poverty, getting haircuts for free is what philosophers call a “useful good.” [Read more…]