Counter Culture

The website of moral theologian Christopher Klofft

Archive for the month “January, 2019”

“You seem to have a case of…being a man.”

jesusI’m not going to talk about the Covington kids or MAGA hats or Gillette commercials; you can read more about them just about anywhere.  I wanted to reflect on something that is supposed to be a shade more academic than all that, yet I haven’t seen too much commentary on it in these past few weeks of evidently poisonous men.

It’s a real shame that it has taken this long to have concerted cultural conversation on masculinity and a bigger shame that it is being treated in this way.  Men started having serious conversations about the meaning of being a man back in the ‘90s with Robert Bly and Iron John especially, but also from a host of other writers, many of them good Catholic men.  Some of the excesses of that movement were lampooned in popular culture (shirtless middle-aged guys in the woods wearing war paint and beating drums, men hugging and crying like children because they were “allowed” to have feelings) and maybe rightly so.  But there were also many important ideas that came out of that movement, most notably a sense that what it meant to be a man had been lost and that men were confused about who they were.  Men were drawn to the movement because they knew they had something important to offer specifically because they were men, but that had become lost.

It’s even further lost now.  Many men who actually care what other people in their lives think about them have become scared or embarrassed to act like a man, talk like a man, or even express that they like being men.

(For what it’s worth, I love being a man, and I encourage my two sons to love being men also.)

That’s all by way of reflection on the past.  Now to what I mentioned in my first paragraph.  The American Psychological Association this month released Guidelines for Psychological Practice With Boys and Men (though it is dated August 2018).  It has missed the mark.  I’m not especially surprised by this: the APA has not been a legitimate source for the truth about the human person for at least 50 years.

In fairness, the guidelines were intended as an overdue companion to their Guidelines for Psychological Practice With Girls and Women, released in 2007.  But there can be no doubt that there is an ideological agenda at work in releasing these guidelines right now.

And what do they include? I encourage anyone interested to read the 36-page document themselves, though it’s a pretty frustrating read.  One encounters problems right from the outset:

  • On page 2, there is a need to define “cisgender,” “gender bias,” “gender role strain,” “masculinity ideology,” “oppression,” and “privilege.” The document’s landscape is defined by a host of ideological buzzwords before men themselves are even addressed.
  • By contrast, these same definitions are included in the guidelines for women, but only after 11 pages of description of the situation of women in the world are provided first. In other words, there is a presumption about “women” that cannot be taken for granted for “men.”
  • The guidelines strive to avoid stereotyping of women and the effects of bias on women. The first part of the guidelines for men instead state that there are competing masculinities.  This calls into question the meaning of masculinity right from the start, which is not done for women.
  • The guidelines for men question behaviors in which men act out against themselves and others, while the guidelines for women discuss behaviors that are done against women. I am willing to believe this was not entirely intentional, but there is a curious narrative here of men doing evil and women suffering evil in these documents.

In fairness, it’s not all horrible: the guidelines note that men die sooner, commit suicide more often, and engage in unhealthy lifestyle choices more regularly, and that these are serious problems facing men.  But I couldn’t get away from the very real sense that the reasons things were so bad was that it was our fault, and that if we were men who were just different than the creatures of the last several thousand years the world would be a better place.

Of course, a different view of the history of the world shows that, without those creatures, we wouldn’t even be able to have this conversation today.

Let me end by reminding us of simple theological truths.  God made us men and women, two different ways of being a body, but both equally made in the Image of God and both equally saved by the redemptive sacrifice of Christ.  But they are made different for more than just reproduction.  The simple observation that we intuitively understand our manhood or womanhood as something more than just a matter of our genitals is built in us for a purpose.  In salvation history, Mary is exalted because of her faith and because she is a woman.  The Incarnation is God-Made-Flesh for the salvation of all and he is also a man.  These are not accidents.  They are part of the perfection of the divine order.

I hope our current cultural moment might spur useful reflections on masculinity and I hope it will continue to shed light on practices perpetrated by men in the name of manhood that have nothing to do with a whole and holy masculinity.  But in the end, I hope we can all appreciate men for being men and stop trying to make them into something else.

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The Fish and the Devil

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I’m a little late to the party with some of the more recent superhero media available (it’s finally coming out so quickly and consistently that I can’t consume it all as it arrives anymore), but this past week I finally saw Aquaman with Bridget.  It was a thoroughly entertaining movie, but it does suffer from a number of nitpicks that definitely keep it out of the A-list of big-budget superhero movies.  However, my goal today is not to review the film (though I will happily discuss it in the comments) but rather to draw attention to one particular part of the film and compare it with another superhero property.  In doing this, I will do my very best to keep spoilers to a minimum by not describing the context of the issue in question any more than is necessary.

One of the things that matters the very most to me when watching a superhero movie or TV show is the dialogue used to express what it means to be a hero and why that is important.  As I have written previously, I think this is the most important element of these productions for our popular culture.  The “hero speeches” in Aquaman are fairly brief (and most of the most important one is contained in the trailer, of course).  They do the job but I can’t say I left the theater with a very strong sense of why Arthur Curry is a hero when compared to his peers Superman and Batman.  I came away understanding that being a hero is important, and he was considered a hero, but I wasn’t fully sure what that meant for this character.

When talking about superheroes and virtues, one critical issue for me is the issue of killing.  This is controversial among some comic book fans, I suppose, but by and large, I think superheroes are not good superheroes if they kill their opponents – even when that seems totally impractical (Batman and the Joker readily come to mind here).  A superhero might accidentally kill someone, or he or she might be pressured to do so in order to save the universe, but these decisions are rare and not to be taken lightly, and they should have a lasting effect on a hero.

Without getting into too much detail, there is a death early on in Aquaman, a death that could have been prevented.  When it occurred, my wife and I both said, “That’s not a good thing,” confident that it would come up again later in the film.  It did – but the discussion of it had very little to do with the objective wrongness of the act.  The hero regretted the death because it caused inconvenience to people he had come to care about and had led to other deaths.  There’s nothing wrong with these reasons for regret, but they should have been combined with the realization that we are called to a higher standard – a heroic standard that doesn’t evaluate morality solely by pragmatic or utilitarian terms.

This failure was not enough for me to say I didn’t like the movie, but like I said, there was little to distinguish this “superhero” movie from “action movie with a protagonist who happens to have superpowers.”

Bridget and I also plowed through Season 3 of Netflix’s Daredevil this past week.  It came out a few months ago, but we needed the Christmas break to have time to focus on it.

Talk about a contrast.

There is no question that this show was the best of the 11 seasons of all the Netflix Marvel shows and among the best superhero television or movies so far produced by anyone.  It’s that good.

It also happens to have the issue of killing at the forefront of the hero’s story.  I won’t spoil who does or does not kill, but there are several conversations about what killing means and what killing does to a person.  The show makes it clear that it adversely affects a person no matter how justified the act might be.  We get to see some of these effects on the characters.  Throughout it all, there is a very clear message: killing, even if done for supposedly noble or justifiable reasons, is objectively wrong and always leaves scars.

On a different note (and slightly off topic), this season of Daredevil also does an excellent job of framing specifically Catholic thought in the violent life of a superhero, providing a priest and a nun who, while unconventional in some senses, give real, human portrayals of both the truth of good and evil, God and free will, and the struggle to actually live that truth.  This is worthy of a conversation in itself, but perhaps that should wait for another time.  For now, I’ll just say that any Catholic interested in both the moral life and superheroes should see this show.

Thus, we have two different superhero presentations: one is bright, colorful, clearly larger than life, and aimed at a wide audience.  The other is dark, brutal, and sometimes difficult to watch.  Yet Aquaman fails in its portrayal of a compelling moral vision.  Given how many more people, especially young people, are going to see this movie, that’s unfortunate.  Warner Brothers is still struggling to follow Marvel’s lead in making excellent movies about their characters (Wonder Woman, so far, has been a wonderful fluke).  I believe a significant part of that struggle is the way they portray their characters.  More than trying so hard to get the “cinematic universe” that Marvel Studios has produced, perhaps they should give some thought about what it really means to be a hero in the first place.

Angels and Opportunities

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I assume that I am among the hundreds of bloggers who have New Year’s resolutions for their writing.  For my part, I am going to attempt to no longer complain about the difficulty of writing with any consistency and instead I’m just going to try doing it.  In an effort to encourage some accountability on the part of those reading, I’ll even be specific about my intentions: I am going to write on Thursdays, at least for the next several months, as I have no classes on Thursdays.  This means a post should be up by the weekend.  However, in order to also make this a real possibility for me, I am giving up my preference for writing 2000-word essays and instead focusing on shorter, more succinct pieces, at least until I develop some sort of a habit.  Let’s see what happens.

The New Year is normally a time of optimism about new possibilities, and I have certainly experienced (and personally felt) some of that optimism.  However, I have also seen some shades of cynicism about the future in greater degree than normal for only a couple days into January.  For some, there just seems to be “too much,” defined by any number of standards: political incivility, the “culture wars,” the crises in the Church, personal challenges, etc.

A few things come to mind when reflecting on this.  First, this is the way of the world.  This is the legacy of original sin.  And this is the way things have always been.  Are times worse now than they have been before? In some ways, sure.  But the very end of the world has been upon us since the Incarnation, a theme prominent in Advent and still present in this season of Christmas.

Second, “the times are never so bad that a good person can’t live in them.”  This paraphrase of St. Thomas More reminds us that we always have an individual responsibility to face up to the crises of the moment.  We can complain (and we all do), but complaint has to give way to prayer and action.

A third point is that we cannot address the crises of our times alone.  We always do this as Church, as the Mystical Body of the one who took flesh to show us how to live and how to love.  We work with and among all those who share the discomfort brought about by these end times.

In addition to the people we live and love and pray and worship with, we are also joined by an immense host.  Beyond the Church Suffering and the Church Triumphant, we work alongside the legions of beings whose very existence is ordered toward furthering the redemption of creation: the angels.

I have been very thankful for the Church’s more explicit acknowledgment of this truth in these last few months.  Dioceses across the country – including here in Worcester – have returned to the practice of reciting the prayer of St. Michael as a community at the end of Mass.  We can never forget that the whole of our natural lives is lived alongside a much deeper supernatural reality – a conflict between truth and lies, unity and division, dignity and degradation, love and hate.

The profound disagreements and discord of our times have their origin in something far more fundamental than differing opinions; ultimately, this is a conflict about the very way we understand reality.  If we get this wrong, we can only be victims.  So at the beginning of this new year, while we’re making all sorts of resolutions about being better people and holding on to all sorts of hopes for the future of our Church and our country, let’s also pray for a more lively awareness of the presence of the angels (and the demons) around us.

St Michael the Archangel, pray for us!

 

 

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