Review: The Fine Delight: Postconciliar Catholic Literature

The Fine Delight: Postconciliar Catholic Literature
by Nicholas Ripatrazone
Cascade Books, 2013
202 pp., $16.20

The year since the initial release of The Fine Delight has been a year of self-definition for the Catholic literary community. In a series of now well-known essays, writers Randy Boyagoda, Paul Elie, Dana Gioia, and Gregory Wolfe have sought to articulate the place Catholicism currently holds within contemporary literary culture in America. As the conversation they sparked continues, Nicholas Ripatrazone’s landmark study of Catholic literature after the Second Vatican Council, The Fine Delight, continues to grow in relevance.

In a spirit of rapprochement between secular and Catholic literary communities, Ripatrazone identifies the unifying element of postconciliar Catholic literary artists as being, not necessarily adherence to the Magisterium in matters of belief or praxis, but a deep and abiding existential pull toward the person of Christ and a fascination with the body of the Church He founded. His intention does not seem to be to downplay the importance of shared belief or of moral consensus in other spheres of life, but instead in the matter of literature to spread the umbrella of the term “Catholic writer” as wide as it can go, in a spirit of small-c catholicity, or universality. This approach encourages reading contemporary literature through a lens of faith in a way that does not primarily categorize or evaluate authors or characters on the basis of their relationship to the Church. Instead, Ripatrazone prioritizes the development of a historical understanding of the effects of postconciliar society, within and outside the Church, on art and on daily life. The result is an enriching study of Catholicism in literature in the last fifty years, encompassing both writers commonly embraced by consciously Catholic readers (Hansen, Mariani, Dubus) as well as those less commonly so embraced, but still susceptible of fruitful reading through a Catholic lens (DeLillo, Eugenides, Morrison, and McCarthy, among others). This latter category includes some authors who, while having rejected a Catholic worldview, retain a Catholic aesthetic that continues to shape their writing. Such works should be, and are beginning to be, more widely and fruitfully engaged by those who are serious both about orthodox Catholicism and about literature. Ripatrazone’s first chapter gives strong support to this movement, as he gives readings of some contemporary novels through a Catholic lens.

Ripatrazone’s work also seeks to make serious Catholic writers of literature better known in the broader literary culture. The heart of The Fine Delight is formed by three central chapters; in each one, Ripatrazone highlights one of three authors whose work embodies an intersection of the highest literary standards with faithful Catholic belief: namely Paul Mariani, Ron Hansen, and Andre Dubus. Each of these central chapters delves into a close reading of its particular study in a way that, true to the book’s name, will delight those who already appreciate these authors and captivate those who have not yet encountered them.

Another aspect of The Fine Delight that deserves particular praise is Ripatrazone’s ability to acknowledge ideological divides while avoiding ideological partisanship. Ripatrazone accurately chronicles the drift of the literary community in these divides (largely leftward, though with significant exceptions), without himself seeming to take sides for the most part. Such advocacy would be beyond the scope of a literary study like this, and Ripatrazone does little beyond giving ear in later chapters to “interrogations” of Catholic tradition raised by some of the subjects of his study. The ability to peacefully engage such “interrogations” without losing clarity about the content of Catholic teaching and the boundaries of Catholic thought will only grow in importance in the future.

In The Fine Delight, we have a thorough and thoughtful piece of scholarship that encourages this ability to be an informed, engaged Catholic reader of texts that stand in a wide variety of relationships to the concept of the “Catholic writer.” It celebrates the Catholic contribution to contemporary literature, not in a triumphalist vein, but with reason and patient exposition that will appeal to readers both inside and outside the Church.

Review: St. Peter’s B-list: Contemporary Poems Inspired by the Saints

St. Peter’s B-list: Contemporary Poems Inspired by the Saints
Ed. Mary Ann B. Miller.
Ave Maria Press, 2014
288 pp., $13.85

I ncluded in St. Peter’s B-List: Contemporary Poems Inspired by the Saints is Edward Hirsch’s poem, “Away from Dogma,” a poetic imagining of three of philosopher Simone Weil’s notable encounters with God. The poem’s speaker describes how, during the second of these episodes, upon Weil’s visit to the Basilica of Saint Maria degli Angeli in Assisi (where that town’s Saint Francis once prayed), Weil

. . . was there a short time when something absolute
and omnivorous, something she neither believed
nor disbelieved, something she understood—
but what was it?—forced her to her knees.

It strikes me that these verses resonate within the whole of this excellent anthology: the description of God as “neither believed/ nor disbelieved,” yet somehow demanding active engagement, seems representative of the experiences and struggles of so many of the contemporary voices speaking through these poems.

Despite the diversity of the speakers (cheeky or sorrowful, believer or non-), there is a cohesiveness to the collection that rivals that of a project by a single poet. Editor Mary Ann B. Miller has chosen almost exclusively narrative and lyric poems, conversational in their tone, and contemporary in their imagery and circumstances, which are united first and foremost in the speakers’ imaginative—and often incidental—engagement with Catholic saints.

Miller is upfront about these editorial criteria in her introduction: “I have chosen poems that are not historical poems,” she writes, adding, “These speakers do not address the saint directly, as if in prayer. They remember the saint in the midst of daily activity while demonstrating varying degrees of belief in or practice of the Catholic faith.” The poets are not necessarily Catholic, but “the content of these poems contains a basic underlying assumption that is essentially Catholic: the voices in these poems reflect belief in and hope for, often in spite of themselves, eventual union with God.”

The result is a rich and frequently challenging portrait of contemporary men and women wrestling, in and through their reflections on the lives of the saints, with questions of beauty, suffering, justice, and the divine—and a remarkably successful portrait, at that.

It’s a treat when the richness of an anthology makes it difficult to choose just a few representative excerpts. In “The Priesthood,” by Mary Jane Nealon (who contributes a number of very good poems to the anthology), we encounter a woman reflecting on her girlhood longing to become a priest (“person in charge of ceremony,/ magician of body and blood,/ absolver of thieves like me”), as well as her relationship, as a Native American, with Saint Kateri Tekakwitha—and then on the evolution of this relationship, along with that of her understanding of the priesthood, colonial history, and God, as she matured. It’s a frank yet empathetic portrait, neither vindictive nor pious, with sharp imagery conveyed through clear language.

In Eliot Khalil Wilson’s “Elegy for the Patron Saint of Letting Small Fish Go” (one of my personal favourites from the anthology), a hospital patient contemplates, with deep compassion, the young burn victim who shares his ward, and asks why this child had to suffer and die. His questioning is manifest (in beauty and heartbreak) in a litany of made-up childhood patronages:

The saints of tree forts, pocketknives, and stadium food.
The saints of waffles and eyebrows and box turtles.
The saint of jam.
The saint of his own bed.
Where were you saints of wheelies and rodeo clowns and rockets?

It’s a deceptively light-hearted poem that left me with a lingering sense of sadness, and impression of vibrant color.

There is, too, the delightful musicality and wit of Martín Espanada’s “The Saint Vincent de Paul Food Pantry Stomp,” in which a patron of the titular food pantry, after stomping on someone’s dropped dollar bill, reflects that this occurred

all beneath the plaster statue wingspan
of Saint Vinnie,
who was unaware
of the dance
named in his honor
by the maraca shaker
in the salsa band
of the unemployed.

Equally, as befits the diversity of the speakers, some poems present examples of profound faith. Brian Doyle’s “Santa Caterina,” for example, includes a father’s argument for the
authenticity of Saint Catherine of Sienna’s mystic conversations with God:

Here’s why I believe that indeed yes, a young woman in Italy once
Conversed at length with the One Whom No Name Can Encompass
[. . .]
. . . Sometimes I pretend
Not to hear you, he said to her, but I do hear you. Boy, I know these
Words. Never lower your voice in crying out to me, he says—never
Stop knocking at the door. I know this guy. He’s a dad. His children
Drive him nuts and he would die for them without hesitation.

With few exceptions, the poems in this collection are first-rate. Some readers will no doubt decry the lack of formal diversity represented by these (almost exclusively lyric and narrative) poems; I would argue, however, that in this case the formal cohesiveness serves the project as a whole. Furthermore, Miller has achieved a satisfying degree of textural variation through the inclusion of a few formally experimental works like Mary Ann Samyn’s “Bernadette in Transit” (a tapestry of blank spaces and syntactic fragments), as well as more abstract poetic reflections like Maged Zaher’s “A trap for St. Augustine.”

Fr. James Martin, S.J., in his afterword to the anthology, makes a (fairly poetical) claim for why St. Peter’s B-List represents a welcome contribution to ongoing conversations around faith and literature: “The most important truths about God,” he argues, “are not reached with definitions and proofs but by poems
and stories.”

Given the quality of the poems in this collection, anyone invested in contemporary Catholic literature should find plenty of reason to celebrate.

Book Review: House of Words

Reviewed by Joseph O’Brien

House of Words
By Jonathan Potter
Korrektiv Press, 2010
94 pp., $15
ISBN: 1439258031

“Nature is a Haunted House—but Art—a House that tries to be haunted.” Penned in a letter to her sponsor and editor T.W. Higginson, Emily Dickinson zeroes in here on what the human imagination is about when it sets down to create—although “create” is not quite the word we want in this case. [Read more...]

Degrees of Cool Part I (or, “red in tooth and claw”)

Some of my favourite critics from recent years are Roger Ebert and Harold Bloom – not because I’ve always agreed with where they ended up (or how they got there) so much as for their wizardry. Taking any movie or book they could spin out marvellous reflections about the bigger issues of life – regardless of whether it was a footnote to Samuel Johnson’s two-hundred-year-old biography or Spider-Man 2. It’s a big part of why I’ve come to love writing reviews.

It happens pretty often that, as I start writing an essay, my mind drifts to a book I’ve read or a new song that embodies some of the questions/struggles I’m trying to put to paper – then, boom, it’s shanghai’d the entire piece and I have to market it as a review. Writing stuff here has been no exception – but the first few (deep, down) things I’ve posted here, interestingly enough, also ended up followed a pattern that (at first) wasn’t intentional at all.

The first piece was about a wonderful poem called “The Antenna,” which is a beautiful reflection written by an Anglican minister about the human capacity to hear God’s voice – also engaged with is the subsequent interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Company (normally known for eschewing genuinely controversial topics in the name of extreme political correctness). Next came Noah, a dark, brooding film about the eponymous patriarch directed by a man more known for art films/psycho-sexual thrillers about ballet dancers than biblical epics. And, finally, Vampire Weekend’s unfortunately-named “Modern Vampires of the City,” which starts with an average trendy-postmodern-vs.-The-Almighty vibe before breaking down into incredibly tender, heartbreaking moments not just of sympathy with God, but of sorrow over His solitude and abandonment by those who claim to love Him.

What’s one thing they all have in common? They explore some of the dicier territory when it comes to faith, doubt and the search for truth.

What else? Each one of them’s been ridiculously successful in their fields. “The Antenna” won the Montreal International Poetry Prize – the biggest cashpot for a single poem in the world. “Noah” made mega-cash at the box office without alienating either mainstream audiences or the faith community. “Modern Vampires of the City” was hailed as the best album of 2013 by a handful of critics and made the top-ten list of other dozens. All of a sudden, it seems, honest discussions of faith aren’t happening in some dark, oppressive Boston alley anymore. They’re even a tad, dare I say it, edgy.

But wait, hold on a sec. When did religion start getting……..cool again? How did that happen?

buddy_christ

Yo.

Humour me for a moment with a tangent. In a recent issue of The Paris Review, the director Werner Herzog (who, in addition to being one of the most important directors of the past forty years, played a bit role in a bizarrely poignant movie portraying a bushplane pilot to a number of nuns who decide to engage in some miraculous, parachuteless skydiving) published some of his notes while directing Fitzcarraldo (I’ve never heard of it either), a movie from the 80’s shot entirely in the jungle. They’re about nature, mostly. It’s a terrifying read:

 

“The voices in the jungle are silent; nothing is stirring, and a languid, immobile anger hovers over everything.”

“A still day, sultry. inactivity piled on inactivity, clouds staring down from the sky, pregnant with rain; fever reigns; insects taking on massive proportions. The jungle is obscene. everything about it is sinful, for which reason the sin does not stand out as sin.”

“Our little monkey was wailing in his cage, and when I approached, he looked and wailed right through me to some distant spot outside where his little heart hoped to find an echo. I let him out, but he went back into his cage, and now he is continuing to wail there.”

“…in this setting, left unfinished and abandoned by God in wrath, the birds do not sing; they shriek in pain, and confused trees tangle with one another like battling titans, from horizon to horizon, in a steaming creation still being formed.”

“Fog-panting and exhausted they stand in this unreal world, in unreal misery—and I, like a stanza in a poem written in an unknown foreign tongue, am shaken to the core.”

 

Continue reading the rest and you’ll only find more descriptions like this – full of a kind of horror that’s pretty much Lovecraftian* in scope and suffocation. Contrast this with any of the Romantic poets from the late 1700’s and you’ll get quite a different impression of the natural world: “Come forth into the light of things, let nature be your teacher” or “Nature never did betray the heart that loved her.”** Yup – the attitudes are pretty much night and day. Okay, and so what? Why does it matter?

Because people didn’t always feel that way about Mama Nature. Nowadays you don’t need to look very far to see the influence of the Romantics: sensitive freshman walk around with copies of Walden, weekend holidays in the woods are marketed as retreats from the spiritual desert of the city, and a little over half of the people you’ll meet in any decent hostel can probably quote most of Into the Wild.**

If you take a look at books and documents from more than a two hundred years ago, though, you’ll find a second narrative in play: nature as enemy. Read any of the accounts of various settlers and colonialists and there’ll be a plethora of references to nature being the opponent, a source of death/disease/danger, a constant threat to children and new human life – as the force, basically, which had to be fought if survival happened to be on your to-do list. Think Victorian African adventure stories. Think the Wild West. Think Antarctican expeditions.

And so why was there such a big change in the way we could appreciate nature? Because it was tamed.

bvt40

bvt4m

The Romantic poets in the English tradition wrote their stuff in response to mass industrialization – read: for one of the first times in history, the majority of the people were leaving their farms and moving to the urban centers. Constant animals didn’t threaten their livelihood (or, in some cases, lives) anymore. People didn’t have to freeze their collective buttocks going to the outhouse. Advances were made in constructing/outfitting rural outposts for the sake of industry. Basically, a lot of people started not having to scrape their living from the land, and so nature ended up abdicating the title of Public Enemy Number One. Factories, rather than forests, dominated the skyline.

Interestingly enough, a lot of the literature in the following years started to suggest the city as the one to be struggled against. The Romantic poets were a big example of this movement, but you don’t need to stop there – just think of the urban dangers in Dickens’ London, for example.

From that point on, nature largely appeared in pop-consciousness as a place of refuge from the corrupting elements of the city (CONCRETE = EVIL, DAISY CHAINS = GOOD), a place of spiritual solace rather than toil and extreme loss. This may seem a natural sentiment for us today but we have to remember that, mere decades before, most people had to scrape their living from an incredibly ungenerous-seeming soil. So why was there such a quick turnaround? Partially, I think, because people ultimately had cozy warm homes to get back to – they could experience the positive elements of the natural world without facing the same consequences their ancestors had to deal with. They could put the great outdoors into a figurative little box and visit it when they needed a bit of refreshment, a kinda break from it all.

Basically, people could appreciate nature when it stopped being such a threat to their daily existence, their status quo. Herzog’s notes shook me because they’re a reminder that the jungle is no Hallmark card, regardless of what Disney’s The Jungle Book or Tarzan would have us believe. “Red in tooth and claw,” Tennyson called it.

Where things start getting sticker is when the same process of cultural rehabilitation starts happening with people. Another example: think of the popular image of the First Nations and Aboriginal peoples in North America – in the past they were cast as villains in stories of White European settlers, as the enemies of progress and the terror of poor, defenseless settlers just trying to get by without getting scalped. Movies like Pocahontas, Dances with Wolves and even Avatar could only be made years after the “threat” had been eradicated.

When a culture is at war with another culture, our ability to assess each other with objectivity, compassion or nuance kinda goes out the window:

'Destroy_this_mad_brute'_WWI_propaganda_poster_(US_version)

japan

Cold-War-Ads-How-Communism-Works

So where is this all going? Well, I’m wondering if maybe religion is currently able to be tentatively approached by the pop-culture machine because now, as compared to before, it isn’t perceived as such a challenge to the status quo anymore.

Tune in to the upcoming Part II for more shots in the dark of why this is, why it’s significant and what it might for the creation of spiritual art in today’s world.

*

*H.P. Lovecraft built his posthumous fame on stories about massive god-monsters whose tendency to wreak madness and destruction on all universes known and unknown is postponed only by oh-so-temporary bouts of beauty sleep.

**these are both quotes from Wordsworth, but you don’t need to read very far to find some similar sentiments from Coleridge, Blake, Byron or the Shelleys.

***which is a fantasticly well-made film, even if it takes liberties with the true story of its protagonist. But one can only handle the cult of Christopher McCandless for so long before one’s patience runs its course.

 

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.

“Ya Hey” Part II (or, you don’t even say your name)

Onward!

So, to briefly recap from last time (this is a continuation of “Ya Hey” Part I, found here [so read it {things'll, you know, make a hecka lotta more sense if you do}]), we’re talking about the poorly-named Vampire Weekend’s poorly named album Modern Vampires of the City which, in addition to being the worst-named record of 2013 (I mean, seriously), was hailed by media kings Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, PopMatters, Slant Magazine and some guy named Robert Christgau as the year’s best. More specifically, we’re getting round to track ten of twelve: a glorious little ballad called “Ya Hey.”

The fact that it appears near the end is no accident, as there’s been a buildup to it through the entire first 80% of the album. As mentioned before, songs like “Unbelievers,” “Everlasting Arms” and “Worship You” have songwriter-vocalist Ezra Koening with his back up against the wall, hackles raised in a white-collared, impeccably-arranged bout of rage/confusion/longing/ultimate defiance against the Triune God. He is, needless to say, a tad anxious of trusting Him.

funny-pictures-cat-bubble-bath-trust

But why? What doesn’t he trust God to do? To take care, maybe – to be more than ‘good.’ Merciful, perhaps. To hold everything together. “We worshipped you” he deadpans on the thusly titled song, “only in the way you want it / only on the day you want it…energetic praise you wanted / any kind of praise you wanted” – followed closely by a plaintive afterthought: “won’t we see you once again?” The flippant is always paired with longing for the God he perceives to be absent or indifferent. “Who will guide us in the end?” he asks, closing out the song with the twin senses of disappointment and desire.

Koening’s lyrics always stand with a double edge – but, compellingly enough, where most indie protests appear pastoral (with a barely concealed hostility lurking in the background), Koening’s bitter words can’t ultimately throw off the sense of tenderness he carries towards his Accused. And, having finished the first nine songs (some among which bristling with a few Adonai-directed barbs) he finally drops the mask.

And the gloves. The wisdom teeth are out. Track ten begins with the intimacy reserved for lovers:

“Oh, sweet thing
Zion doesn’t love you
And Babylon don’t love you
But you love everything”

There’s no criticism here, no laying into the seemingly neglected responsibilities God owes to His people. All of a sudden the roles are reversed: whereas the tension before was always on what He is or isn’t doing for humanity, here we have the eternal, undeserved Love of God contrasted with the petty inconsistency of human commitment.

But he goes for the throat here: anyone could have remarked on the staggeringly minute levels of love lost on the part of Babylon towards the Creator…but Zion? He’s not just talking about the historic Hebrew people here, he’s talking about us, with our liturgies and hymnals and mission statements and seven highly effective habits and love languages – we’re the ones, in Koening’s estimation, without love. Which is something that deeply, deeply resonates with me.

And besides, we’re taught that no one is good but God alone – that no one truly Loves but God alone.

“Oh, you saint
America don’t love you
So I could never love you
In spite of everything”

And here’s where Koening’s deeply complex relationship with God really starts to set off some sparks. There’s no doubt about where he says he stands – whether he’s an atheist, agnostic or something in between (¿athnostic?) he’s certainly not a card-carrying congregant of your typical Christian church. He claims unbelief but then, like a man in the confessional, admits that his inability to love somehow stands “in spite of everything.” In spite of what? From the position of a confused postmodern, he admits of reasons to love God back: God’s own love, to start. And His presence in the muck of our indifference. And the sentiments only deepen:

“In the dark of this place
There’s the glow of your face
There’s the dust on the screen
Of this broken machine.”

Koening recognizes that even though he can’t muster the case to ultimately believe (especially in light of all the things that don’t make sense to him), he still can’t shake the sense of the hidden God behind it all. A benevolence behind the curtain. Nothing solid enough to tell what (or where) it is, but suggestive enough to keep him up at night wondering what holds it all together. The words make me think about the engine in an aging television, the core of a tiny planet, fossilized fingerprints from way, way too long ago.

All of it builds to his most personal confession yet: “And I can’t help but feel / That I’ve made some mistake…” he sings, and the bitterness of the earlier songs falls away and Koening is left standing with nothing but his vulnerability. He reaches across the divide towards territory he’s not at all comfortable with, to a paradigm that’d change everything in his life, one that’d justify the suspicions he can’t dismiss about the world. He sees it. But those looking for a happy ending will be disappointed as he continues: “…but I let it go.”

Out of the whole song, this is the line that haunts me most. Here we have this guy, a smart, articulate dude who not only has the desire and the empathy to feel for a God he can’t trust to exist, but writes to Him with such tenderness. A guy who admits the possibility that he’s wrong and that maybe in the end there’s a God whose loneliness is worth mourning, whose Love is worth trying to return. He feels it. It confuses him. He lets it shake him. But he let it go, saying “Ya hey.”

Which, as Michael mentioned, is pronounced Yahweh.

Koening is bought to the brink but still can’t step over the edge into the actual Everlasting Arms. And those believe watch on as he continues: “Through the fire and through the flames / You won’t even say your name / Only I am that I am / But who could ever live that way?”

We can!” some might say, but we’re not Ezra Koening – and we don’t know his conditions for belief. It’s a kinda strange passivity we’re left with – we’re the audience to an angst we believe we have answers to, but he’s a world away. So then maybe we think of our own little worlds and the people close to us who, for their own reasons, can’t come to believe – reasons that, to them, are all too legitimate. Maybe we want to plead with them to open their eyes and just see the God we see. Maybe we want to cry out with Koening at the God who stays hidden – at the God who, at times, allows things that make it so hard to find Him. And maybe, even as we open our mouths to complain about one thing or the other, we let ourselves feel small in the face of everything. Mysteries upon mysteries. And the chorus circles round as it continues, repeats. Repeats.

 

                                                                      Ya hey

                                                                      Ya hey

                                                                      Ut deo

 

 

                                                                      Ya hey

 

 

burning-bush

 

 

 

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.

“Ya Hey” Part I (or, beat to the punch)

I woke up last Monday morning and found, to my dismay, that fellow DT blogger Michael Renner had written a few words about Vampire Weekend’s latest album, Modern Vampires of the City. Which would normally be excellent, but the problem for me is that I’ve spent the week cooking up my own response to the album but was beat to the punch – even though, as Michael said, both of us are about a year late in listening to the thing. Shame on us. Luckily for me though he mainly wrote about the album’s relationship to Brideshead Revisited and only touched briefly on the song that took me so aback: “Ya Hey.”

wpid-final-poster-for-breaking-dawn-part-2-116435-470-753

NOTE: as the words “Vampire Weekend” and “Modern Vampires of the City” conjure up terrible connotations of angsty-though-well-intentioned teeny-bop chastity metaphors, they shall for the rest of the article be called “the band” and “the album” respectively.

I think what kept me from listening to the album for so long, even in spite of the BEST-OF-2013 hype, was the fact that the vibe of their earlier two albums kinda turned me off. Yes, musically they were a lot of fun but they ultimately came off as a bit show-offy, especially with the constant throwaway references to various trappings often enjoyed by upper-class, cultured New Englanders – which, to be honest, doesn’t quite do it for this Canuck. The fans of the band don’t really help either – the ones I meet are often those guys at the party all trying to make the most ironic comment around the (cheap) wine table (Note: Dappled Things isn’t the first mag I’ve worked for – I’ve been to a number of these parties).

That being said, when I finally gave it a spin I was impressed. It’s pretty short and easy to listen to – the album clocks in just under the forty-five minute mark and has enough variety in each song to make it seem much shorter (in the good way). But what makes it so surprising is how much territory the band covers over such a small period of time – adulthood, the nostalgia for/boredom of youth, loneliness, wisdom, unemployment, compromise, connection and religion. If it all sounds too heavy, no worries: the music and delivery make the album a pretty constant (if melancholy) delight. There’s no space for defeatism here.

Out of the twelve tracks there are four or five that directly address religion, or, at least, religion in America.

Because America is The World

Because America is The World

Given that vocalist-cum-songwriter Ezra Koening and the rest of the band are caught up in the political atmosphere of contemporary America, the songs on the album are all in the inevitable context of what some people refer to as the “culture war.” AKA, the rabidish opposition between two sides vaguely identifying as conservative and liberal, the apparent leaders of which mostly appearing to snap at “wishy-washy” attempts to communicate usefully or explore the common ground spontaneously emerging in the airwaves, government or blogosphere. With these songs, Koening and the band can’t help but pitch a tent in that middle space, complicating both urges to accept and reject God.

Take “Unbelievers,” for example – it’s the jauntiest song I’ve ever heard about prepping oneself for the possibility of hell. And no, I don’t mean the Rolling Stones/Lady Gaga “hell’ll be a big par-TAY!” kinda afterlife – “we know the fire that waits unbelievers / all of the sinners the same” sings Koening, “girl, you and I will die unbelievers / bound to the tracks of the train.” This isn’t a defiant “whatever” to God (though it will endlessly be misinterpreted as such), mostly because through the whole thing there’s a sense that he’s constantly processing the stakes behind his worldview. And he’s definitely leaving room for doubt, especially as a few minutes later he’s asking if there’s enough holy water around, if there’ll be anyone who’ll “save a little grace” for him. The unbeliever. There’s already a powerful divide in his heart between the unbelief he can’t help occupying and a desire for faith – a desire just strong enough for him to dream of tasting the reality he can’t fully bring himself to believe in. And that’s only track two.

I’ve a feeling that most people who don’t trust God do it mostly because they don’t trust His servants – and, even though that’s a pretty blatant ad hominem argument, it’s a fairly understandable position given our track record. But I get the sense that Koening doesn’t trust God because he feels he just can’t trust Him. He hums “the ‘Dies Irae‘ as you played the Hallelujah” in “Everlasting Arms” (the title of which, along with “Worship You,” sounds like a highlight from a praise & worship session), wondering how God can expect us to rejoice not only in the face of suffering and death, but also the shocking, sickening, potentially unredeemable horror that is hell. Which is, as far as I’m concerned, more than forgivable. And the beefs don’t end there: “I took your counsel and came to ruin” he sings, mentioning how being in His arms sometimes feels like “being locked up, full of fear, trapped beneath a chandelier that’s going down.”

That being said, throughout his whole tirade of resistance one gets the impression that he can’t escape the sense of God’s presence – but, in the end, he “thought it over and drew the curtain.” He hums “hold me in your everlasting arms” both ironically and pleadingly, “leave me to myself” but “don’t leave me in myself.” This doesn’t sound like someone in denial so much as someone who’s agonized over the choice without being able to come up with a compelling enough case to make the leap of faith. And he’s pissed.

If his anger was the bulk of his response to God, though, it would be pretty run-of-the-mill for modern rock. But the yelps of unbelief, the desire to be left alone, the constant “calling for the misery to be explained” fall away when he finds himself face to face with YHWH in “Ya Hey.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“Oh, sweet thing / Zion doesn’t love you / And Babylon don’t love you / But you love everything”

 

(Hey! Check out Part II!)

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.

Hope For The Biblical Picture

noah

Having settled in my not-entirely-un-pew-ish seat, stolen various unhealthy morsels from my friend’s platter of popcorny goodness, tried to force the 3D-glasses to stick to my face, slouched myself to optimum comfort and mutually agonized over whether the film would be in Romanian with English subtitles or English with Romanian subtitles (don’t ask), the lights went down and verses from Genesis came up, buffed by dramatic percussion and violins.

Noah is a bizarre movie” reads the opening line of almost every review* you can find on the damn thing and you can’t really blame them. Genuine spiritual angst lies underneath the big-budget special effects: you have unresolved monologues on the nature of justice and mercy, armies of angry neighbours, golem-ish stone angels (sorry, can’t help the reference), a porous border between the sacrificers and sacrificed, wise old men, messages from God that confuse even His own prophet – oh, and sin. That awkward, uncomfortable, dirty-dirty word. In short, this is Darren Aronofsky being given the reins of a Hollywood blockbuster and the multi-million dollar budget that goes right along with it. Spoiler: almost everyone on the planet dies. Take that, Michael Bay.**

Some background could be pertinent.

Aronofsky, like most hefty products of our gradually post-Christian culture, is God-haunted.*** His repertoire wouldn’t necessarily go over well when discussed over a church fundraiser but that’s part of what makes the whole thing so compelling. Take Pi, his first film, which is completely obsessed with the connection between God, mathematics and deterministic patterns (expressed via a paranoid man’s journey of escape from both wall-street toughs and a Kabbalah-lusty orthodox Jewish community (shot in glorious black and white)). Then there was the nightmare that is Requiem for a Dream with its dark, incessantly bleak fall into the intensely personal circles of hell belonging to a cadre of addicts.

2007’s The Fountain returned to the search for God and starred Hugh Jackman as a man whose search for a cure to his wife’s cancer just barely conceals an obsessive quest to cure death once and for all. In the film, Jackman also happens to be a 15th-Century conquistador. And maybe a spaceman hurtling towards a dying star in a bubble with the Tree of Life (which may or may not also be his wife).

Yup. I love it to pieces.

Yup. I love it to pieces.

His later, more popular works focused on the sacrifices of art – 2008’s The Wrestler and 2010’s Black Swan both circled around two performers (one on the rise, the other at the end of his rope) and their mutual self-destruction as they try to get at whatever truth, goodness or beauty lies on the other side of uncompromising commitment to art. These are deranged explorations of obsession, repressed sexuality, drug escapism and creative neurosis. And this is the man who returns, in the end, to the Bible for inspiration. Needless to say, there will be no hint of “Precious Moments” in this incarnation of the patriarch.

But this, I argue, is precisely what we need – we’ve become so used to expressing the stories of scripture in ways that pare them down and make them about as compelling/fierce as a colourful circus of tame lions. What keeps me out of most Christian bookstores are the shelves upon shelves selling ceramic statuettes of cute angels, cute apostles, cute parishioners and even cute trinities. We’ve allowed the Bible to pass into pop-kitch.

I don't want to know where this water came from.

I don’t even want to know where this water came from.

It’s easy to think of the rainbows and returning ravens and pairs of animals, but Aronofsky reminds us of the screams of the drowning, the uncertainty in the face of painful mission, the drunkenness (and resulting butt cheeks) of Noah, the range of innocence among the condemned. And again, the sin – the film was originally written as a French graphic novel titled “Noah: For the Cruelty of Man.” Violence and madness and sex and betrayal and divine wrath. These inescapable parts of our spiritual heritage.

Given some of the intense subject matter in the film I was pretty surprised at the positive response from most religious groups, both Jewish and Christian – it’s a sign that we’re moving into a place as a culture (and Christian subculture) that’s getting over the need for and constant falling-back-on black-and-white artistic metaphors of the spiritual battle.

Here's looking at you, Frodo.

Here’s looking at you, Frodo.

But it’s also a huge opportunity for connection – I mean, how are we supposed to relate to the non-orthodoxly God-haunted? What kinds of conversation can we expect ourselves to start wading through?

This is a big deal. While there’s never been a dearth of spiritually-inclined, challenging film out there (The Seventh Seal being a fantastic example), once Charleton Heston put down his tablets there weren’t a whole lot of mainstream movies that’ve had the guts to start asking big questions of the Christian tradition.

Except this one.

Except that one.

It’s pretty interesting, though, to contrast these two films – actually, what happens when Noah goes up against The Passion in the ring? If we start asking the question, “which film is better?” or “which one is more culturally important?” we can start getting into some pretty deep, murky waters. Just how different are these two works of art?

In a word: very.

In thirteen more words: it’s basically the same difference between “How Great Thou Art” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” One is a piece of worship and/or devotion while the other seeks to address, chronicle and ultimately validate humanity’s mess of a search for God in the midst of a batshit, shattered world. We can shout until the cows come home about which one is “better” and completely miss out on the fact that each film has an entirely different, and essential, mission.****

The Passion is an earnest, straightforward exploration of the salvific mission of Christ, told with a barely-held-back fire that occasionally breaks through the elegant cinematography (Satan writhing in hell, anyone?). It’s purpose: to praise God and convict us all of both His mercy and the price thereof.

But what about Noah? What’s this flick trying to do?

I remember us walking out of that Romanian picture house, wondering what exactly we’d just seen or what kind of ironic remark would put everything back into place but we didn’t have anything. The fierce earnestness took everybody aback and no one quite knew how to react. What does this story have to do with us, now? What does it mean when a God says He loves but destroys? When He saves one family but leaves a girl stuck in a bear trap to be trampled to pulp by marauders? When His messenger begins to think the completion of God’s will requires doing something gut-wrenchingly, proto-Abrahamically horrible? When he is prepared to do such a horrible thing? When his weak, agonizing inability to do it was God’s plan all along? When by saving even just one portion of the human race, the cycle of sin sets right back on it’s track? The same pain, the same cruelty, over and over again. Until Christ. And even afterwards.

The Passion strives to be a artistic approximation of the God-Man’s last hours. Noah broaches the human paradoxes of faith more boldly, more courageously and, Entish-angels notwithstanding, more realistically than perhaps any biblical film we’ve yet come across. Even The Passion never touched the pain of our many confusions in the face of God’s wider plan, our lack of immediate consolation.

I feel sorry for the poor marketing agent at Paramount who had to deal with this conundrum – I mean, how do you sell something like this? As a Heston-grade biblical epic? A blockbuster disaster movie? An antihero-wielding bit of revisionist spiritual fuzz? A 2+ hour long commercial for Green Peace and/or WWOOF? Oprah’s next Big Thing?

Among these, it also turned out to be a quiet blockbuster – easily earning back the hundreds of millions of budget cash (here in Mother Russia it was the 10th highest grossing film of all time) while not really making much of a buzz on the blogosphere or with the Greater Cultural Arbitors.***** Why, if it made that much money, is nobody talking about it?

Because, as mentioned above, it’s a bit of an oddball – a pop-yet-morally-earnest slice of spiritual turmoil without the constant, safe reassurance of the Almighty’s presence. Or, if not His presence, then at least confusion over the exact nature of what His goodness and/or mercy requires. It’s a film that somehow tries to span both the providence and punishment of the Am that Is with the casts of Gladiator, Harry Potter and Requiem for a Dream. The average moviegoing mind is certainly forgiven if things just don’t seem to add up.

But, all the flaws of the film aside (and there are many, gosh), maybe there’s part of us that responds to someone crazy enough to engage with some of the questions we might not feel like airing either in the church or in the office. How does one reconcile genuine faith to genuine doubt? Why is God there and then seemingly not? Why are His words so hard to interpret? Are we getting this wrong somehow? It straddles our deep, powerful religious tradition while being fully able to keep close the scandalously legitimate questions of the postmodern age.

Maybe, in the end, the reason why Noah is so important is that it’s messy. Here is a Noah who’s confronted with the fact that he thinks he must do something terrible in order to fulfill God’s plan but can’t go through with it. In his mind that’s a weakness – a lapse of faith, strength and drive. But in the end it proves to be the right thing and you can see in his eyes that he can’t make any of it fit together. His family is broken just as it begins its mission to bring life back to the world. He somehow feels abused and grateful. No one can answer for the girl left in the bear trap.

The film’s not afraid to leave the pieces where they lie, to acknowledge that, sometimes, we can’t just make things add up. In the midst of a religious sub-culture that sometimes places too much of a value on having an answer to everything, we’re all left with a moment to quake in the mystery of I Am. We’re not pressured to have the easy-bake response or expected to breeze over terribly complicated questions. We’re left with mystery. The mystery is left with us. My friends and I walked into the Romanian night not knowing what to say. And a rainbow stretches to cover every possible angle of sky.

*

*This one was Matt Zoller on behalf of rogerebert.com – a bit of a minor tragedy as I’m convinced that the recently-deceased Ebert was one of the few giants of modern criticism that could have really appreciated what Aronofsky was going for here.

**And George R.R. Martin

***I stole that term from somewhere but I can’t for the life of me recall where. It’s, like, my pick for word of the month.

****I don’t know if it’s the fact that North Americans in particular (sorry to my European compatriots) have just gotten comfortable with searching for the better/best thing (noble in its own right, awful when everything becomes a competition with space for only the one winner), but sometimes it leaves our particular set of cultural lenses less likely to admit the fact that sometimes two things can be act as compliments rather than UFC partners.

***** New Yorker, I’m looking at you.

 

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.

Book Review: Reflections

Jonathan Potter

Reflections
Poems by Ruth Asch, with art work by James Tyldesley
Saint Austin Press, 2009
136 pp.; $10.00
ISBN: 978-1901157468

When I first opened Reflections, Ruth Asch’s extraordinary first collection of poetry, I did that bad thing readers are not supposed to do: I turned to the last page. The little poem, poised there on page 129, stared me in the eye, smiled, and then kicked me in my reviewer’s shin just hard enough to smart a little and make me grin at the task ahead of me. [Read more...]

Book Review: In the Custody of Words: Poems

Billy Middleton

In the Custody of Words: Poems
by Philip C. Kolin
Franciscan University Press, 2013.

Philip C. Kolin’s new chapbook In the Custody of Words begins with a Latin epigraph of the opening lines from the Last Gospel: “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.” The importance of words and language as a fundamental element of creation informs this collection. God, as creator, is the divine wielder of words. [Read more...]

Book Review: Ignatius Critical Editions

Ignatius Critical Editions
Edited by Joseph Pearce

Hamlet (William Shakespeare)
312 pp., $12.95, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-586-17261-9

Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
596 pp., $12.95, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-586-17263-3

The Picture of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde)
365 pp., $12.95, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-586-17262-6

Reviewed by Eleanor Bourg Donlon

Is Hamlet so rampant with bawdy jokes that it is simply a very long, very dirty “shaggy dog story”? [Read more...]