Counter Culture

The website of moral theologian Christopher Klofft

Real Men

1414505574_bruce-jenner-olympics-zoomSeveral people have asked me what I think about the Bruce Jenner situation.  “Situation” may seem like an odd word choice here, but that’s what it is: it is certainly more than just what he has chosen to do with the last portion of his life.  It is a situation; a moment in time in which we have an opportunity to see “what we’re made of” as a culture.  And what it reveals is interesting on a lot of levels.

I’m not going to comment directly on Bruce Jenner’s decision to take drastic steps to be like a woman.  This has been covered well in many places, no matter where you happen to find yourself in regard to his decision.  If you are looking for some good commentaries on it, I recommend Matt Fradd’s straightforward piece (for which critics decided to crash his website for a time) and Matt Walsh’s piece, especially as how this version of transgenderism should make all actual women sit up and take notice.

Actually, before I continue, I can’t resist just stating the objective truth: Bruce Jenner (or whatever name he chooses to call himself) is still a man, no matter what he has done in terms of dress, makeup, cosmetic surgery, hormonal adjustment, or even internal reconstructive surgery.  He remains a man biologically, and I assert that he also remains “male,” for those who want to insist on a (wholly made up) absolute divide between the categories of “sex” and “gender.”  There are elements of his presentation and attitude that are “female,” such as his manner of dress and behavior perhaps, and his hormones are now confused by pharmaceutical adjustment, but in no objective way beyond his own self-understanding is he female.  This is not just the case with Jenner; this is the case for all persons who take active steps towards “transition.”

Transgenderism is a complicated phenomenon, and even though I have no problem stating that human beings are born specifically men or women, the experiences of people who experience gender dysphoria are no doubt extraordinarily difficult.  It is important that we hear their stories, not in order to justify their incorrect assumptions about themselves, but so that we might share with them the love due to all human beings.  The pastoral challenge of transgenderism is to find the mean between the extremes of unconditional acceptance of their poor choices and erroneous perspectives on the one hand, and a mocking disdain or dismissal of their experiences on the other.

Aside from the specific instance of this “celebrity” undergoing this transformation (and showing it in an embarrassing display on a magazine cover), what is more interesting to me is what this says about our culture.  There is no question that we have profound misunderstandings about the meaning of sex in our culture and much more still needs to be said about this (and with the Synod this fall, there will be no shortage of commentary on it).  But the rise in our culture’s open acceptance of transgenderism speaks to me not only about a misunderstanding of the meaning and purpose of sex, not only about the logical consequences of radical illogical subjectivity, but also something more.

A number of different studies consistently reveal that the incidence of male-to-female (MTF) transgenderism outnumbers female-to-male (FTM) by anywhere from 2:1 to 4:1.  As some of this data is obtained from statistics regarding so-called “reassignment” surgery, and MTF surgery is easier, some conclude that this disparity is irrelevant.  But other studies reveal that this is the case even apart from reassignment.  Many reasons are offered to explain this, but I think there is one that is often overlooked: we are still experiencing a crisis of masculinity in our culture.

Back in the 1990s, there was a recognition that, with the rise of certain strands of feminism, the distinct experiences of men were being lost.  In response to woman being the forgotten “other” in contrast to man, a full 180 degree shift had occurred (at least in some quarters) in which men were understood as little more than “everything bad.”  This attitude is still around, even if it is not a fair representation of authentic feminism.  As a response, the men’s movement began, starting with Robert Bly’s Iron John and subsequently supported by a number of excellent writers.

iron_johnThe movement strove to find a distinctly masculine voice for the fears and challenges of being human.  Despite all the tough guy imagery and rhetoric of so much of modern Western culture, men learned to express their doubts and fears, especially their insecurities about their roles in their families and jobs.  Men learned to better express themselves not in opposition to women, but in an authentic, complementary masculine voice, for the betterment of relationships between men and women overall.

Like many good movements, it was not immune to parody and the image of a group of middle-aged men sitting shirtless around a fire in the woods, beating on a drum while they cry on each other’s shoulders became a common representation of the movement in sitcoms.  By the early 2000s, the movement lost its moment in the fast-paced pop culture spotlight and now, when it’s not the subject of a joke, it is forgotten.

The issues brought up by the men’s movement haven’t gone away.  I would argue that it is more difficult to ascertain an authentic masculinity now than it was 20 years ago.  And the reason for this difficulty can be laid squarely at the feet of our pop culture idols.  The image of the idiotic dad, the sexual predator, the emotionally dead power-player, and the violent gangster are all alive and well and often celebrated in our most successful TV shows and movies.  Many men find themselves confused about how they are “supposed” to act, especially in relation to women, and so many retreat to either acting as the testosterone-fueled idiots they are expected to be or timid and afraid to say the wrong thing at the risk of causing offense.

If men don’t know how to actually be men, real men, how can we expect for marriage to make sense? Why should we expect to see feminism actually bear meaningful fruit in our society?  And apropos to current events, why should we be surprised that a man who has endured seven years of televised nonsense surrounded by four of the most self-absorbed women the world has ever seen say finally, “Hi, I’m Caitlyn”?

Women’s issues are important to the future of the Church and the world.  But so are men’s issues.  And as long as we refuse to see that there are important, essential differences between the two that make us better when we recognize them, we can’t hope to see the Kingdom among us.

Towards this end, I invoke nothing less than the greatest man ever, Jesus of Nazareth, who conveniently also happens to be the God who spins planets off his fingertips, in communion with the whole Church Triumphant, the greatest collection of men and women the world has ever known, with the greatest woman at the head of the charge.  Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us! Immacuate Heart of Mary, pray for us! All you holy men and women of God, pray for us!

Women’s Bodies – Valentine’s Day 2015


In this week’s Entertainment Weekly, frequent Vanity Fair contributor Leslie Bennetts wrote a piece entitled “Sex, Lies, & Fifty Shades.”  I’m not going to use this space to tell you why you shouldn’t waste your time seeing the movie Fifty Shades of Grey this weekend or that the success of the book has been a dramatic example of how badly we misunderstand intimate relationships.  There are plenty of articles and blogs out there on that subject already.

Instead, I want to comment on Bennetts’ analysis of why she thinks this story has been so successful.  In her five-page article (uncharacteristically long for EW), she provides a fairly standard presentation of the script that women have never had control of their sexuality until the recent past, how S&M sexuality is not about feminine guilt over freedom, and how the shape of feminine sexual expression is undergoing transformation.  She’s not writing an academic piece, but still, her arguments are so riddled with unsubstantiated presumption as to call into question the value of the article as a whole.  Still, let me present you with a few key points.

First, she unapologetically calls the book “pornography,” which is honest, but which is also contrary to many of the book’s fans that I’ve spoken to (generally 21-year old female college students).  This is important: by owning this descriptor, we are admitting that we are comfortable with the complete mainstreaming of pornography into massive commercial success.

But after this, we get to the statement of her thesis and it’s a very important one.  She writes, “The real reasons for the popularity [of the book]…are rooted in what it actually means to live life in a female body.”  She goes on to explain that the “transgressive” thoughts of modern women do not necessarily translate into what they actually want to do in the real world…as if our thoughts have no effect on how we live in our bodies.  In fact, she sees S&M sexuality as a willful acceptance on the part of a woman to express traditional gender roles writ large, which is a pretty horrible way to look at men.

Then Bennetts describes how Anastasia turns the tables on Christian by her sexual submission by ultimately demonstrating her control over him *and* she experiences mind-blowing orgasms while her lover inflicts humiliating pain on her.  “The princess saves the prince.”  This is a hideously ugly way to look at male-female intimacy: instead of love and self-sacrifice defining their relationship, happiness is mired in games of power and control.  But everyone is happy and consenting, so it’s all OK.  Forgive my rationality: how can anyone not see how broken this is?

The final part of her article is a sobering anecdotal litany of bodily transgressions she and her friends have experienced that have never been reported as crimes.  Her point: women experience bodily violation in all sorts of ways far beyond what constitutes illegal behavior in our culture.  She says this is the sad truth about living in a woman’s body in the 21st century.   And I can’t disagree.

So she comes to her conclusion: no one should pontificate about the meaning of women’s bodies because our traditional paradigms of male-female dynamics are still present in something like Fifty Shades of Grey.  Her point is that we don’t know what the real future of female sexuality is, but the success of the book reveals women’s new open-mindedness for the future.

Do you see the problem? Bennetts identifies that it is difficult to be a woman’s body in the world today, but she also asserts that S&M sexuality is merely a confirmation of traditional gender roles and that we may be at the tip of the iceberg of transgression against traditional ideas.  Her conclusion is confusing when it is not contradictory.  She fails to see that her starting premise regarding the meanings of body and relationship are seriously flawed.

The meaning of women’s bodies leads us to another event from this week: the release of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.  Hannah Davis, the 24-year old cover model, is seen on the cover pulling down her bikini bottoms so far that we can practically see where her future children will come from.  What’s the narrative of a woman’s body here? Is it fun in the sun, enjoying the beach weather? Nope.  Instead, the model’s facial expression and bodily action makes her not a subject of aesthetic appreciation, but instead an object for sexual use by another.

What’s even worse is that the Photoshop job done on this young woman makes her “revelation,” as it were, not as an adult woman, but rather as possessing the secondary sex characteristics of a prepubescent girl.  So not only is she reduced to being an object for sexual consumption, but she is further infantilized in the process.

So what is the meaning of a woman’s body? Neither 50 Shades of Grey nor Sports Illustrated give us a satisfying answer to this question, as each presents women as either objects to be used or as subjects who need to subject themselves to the fantasy that by their humiliating de-personalization, they will find happily ever after.  Until we take women’s bodies seriously in the fullness of their revelation, which should not neglect their distinctive capacities to give life and love, we’ll continue to be confused.  This Valentine’s Day, if you are in a romantic relationship, show love and respect for the fullness of your beloved’s personhood, in the awesome, wondrous way in which they image the Creator.  Happy Valentine’s Day everyone!

New Year’s Resolutions for our Popular Culture


Since everyone is getting ready to make New Year’s resolutions, I thought I would do the same.  But I’m not going to make them for myself (actually I am – but those are too boring to be fodder for this here illustrious blog).  Rather, I’m going to make some suggestions for New Year’s resolutions for our popular culture, especially as it pertains to my particular interests as a sexual ethicist.

And, just like real resolutions, even if these would ever be considered by our culture, they will no doubt be forgotten around, oh, the end of the week.  So here we go.

My first suggested resolution for the culture: Celebrity women, please stop doing photoshoots of yourselves topless and somehow describing this as empowering.  Keira Knightly, women’s bodies may be a battleground as you assert, but certainly not in the way that you seem to think.  It is not empowering to show your breasts to us; it is objectifying.  I assure you that the people who seek out your empowering photos do not have your personhood in mind.

The second resolution relates to the attitude found driving many movies and TV shows right now.  Unfortunately, the architects of American pop culture believe that their consumers are all disillusioned single 25-year olds with loads of disposable income.  This is the only explanation I can find for the editorial stances of any website or magazine focused on movies and TV.  Attitudes towards life always skew toward the cynical and reduce anything noble, virtuous, or even just “traditional” (whatever that might mean) to a caricature.  Fortunately, while this cynicism is widespread, it is not universal.  So, second resolution: let’s see less cynicism.

The year 2014 brought us some high profile stories about sexual assault, an act that Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World said “poisons humanity” (GS 27).  Unfortunately, attitudes toward those accused of sexual assault vary widely, in large part depending on whether one likes the celebrity or not.  There is a certain unconscious mercy behind such attitudes, but this is undone by the brutal abuse heaped upon the celebrities we don’t like or don’t care about.  Third resolution: let’s understand the act of assault as a horrific offense against the human person that always must be condemned, and try to remember that our attitude towards the offender should not be based on whether we like their work or if we agree with their politics, and that we are all in need of mercy and forgiveness.

The proliferation of pornography and the increased “pornification” of our culture continues unabated.  The sociological data and the anecdotal stories of damage caused by porn continue to mount.  Yet not only does there seem to be little interest in changing this attitude in our popular culture, but the prevalence of porn continues to set explicit or implied standards of what people should look like, act like, or what expectations in relationships should be.  So for my fourth resolution, let’s resolve to take the sexual objectification of people across media more seriously.

Fifth resolution: As a culture, let us understand the actual prevalence of same sex attraction in our culture.  It remains, as it has for decades of measuring such data, around 3-4% of all persons.  Yet, people believe amazingly incorrect numbers in this regard.  The result is a skewed perception of the experiences of persons with same sex attraction and concern for their representation.  Yet there are plenty of other statistical minorities who do not get nearly the same attention.  How about we start with faithful Christians who are not ludicrous stereotypes.

Sixth resolution: perhaps our culture could re-think what we mean by terms such as “transawareness.”  This term has come to mean that we need better media representation for a phenomenon that occurs in fewer than 1 in 400 people and furthermore, that awareness readily implies unquestioned acceptance of the subjectivity of gender.  With our current climate of greater openness about matters of sexuality (a phenomenon that, in itself, is not all bad), perhaps fruitful conversations could be had about the struggles of persons who consider themselves transgender, including the hurtful cultural circumstances that both mistreat such persons as well as foster inaccurate assessments about the meaning of gender and how we should treat it.  Instead, we choose to have no conversation at all, and assume that as long as a person asserts some vague notion of “happiness,” their subjective self-definition is entirely sufficient in itself.

And on the subject of gender, I have often wondered why we can have heated debates about the so-called “war on women” (and many similar issues – see unnecessary topless photos and porn, above) and then in the next breath say that a person’s gender is entirely subjective.  If this latter point is true, then we need to stop caring at all about the meaning of being a woman.  Or a man.  I finally realized that which perspective you held depended on who you are, who you were talking to, and what you wanted.  Because in our popular culture, our personal sense of self-satisfaction is always most important.  My seventh and last suggested resolution is that we lose this irrational inconsistency so we can actually know what conversation we’re supposed to be having.

And there you have it.  The common thread among my proposed resolutions is that they all demonstrate a failure to understand the meaning of being human – a problem as old as Adam and Eve, yet distinctly magnified in the past 250 years, and possessed of a laser-sharp focus right now – and an inability to communicate the truth about ourselves and our relationships.  The result is a vast host of people broken not only by their sins (as we all are), but further beat down by a confused and abused culture.  This does not have to be this way.  I’m honestly not expecting a change overnight, or even in the whole of the year 2015.  But can’t we at least resolve to do better? I pray that we can.

The book was better

Exodus Last night, I saw Ridley Scott’s new Exodus: Gods and Kings, starring Christian Bale as Moses.  It is inevitable that when a person of faith sees a biblically-based movie made by non-believers that there are going to be critiques.  Here are mine.  Needless to say, there are ample spoilers throughout this post, so you have been warned.

Since most of what I’m going to say is critical, let me begin with a couple caveats.  First, I am not saying this was a bad movie.  I was very engaged, the spectacle of the plague narrative was phenomenal, and I found the loving dialogue between Moses and his wife Zipporah (sadly never mentioned by name) to be beautiful.  If I have any problem with it simply as a movie, it is that it was about a half hour too long; some of the material in the beginning of the movie could have been compressed or omitted with little effect.

Second, I am a theologian, not a Talmudic scholar.  The filmmakers claimed that they researched Midrashic sources while making the film, so some of the material may have some basis in sources unfamiliar to me.  I’m going to be commenting on the film solely from the perspective of the Biblical text of Exodus.

The film spends far too much time getting through the first two and half chapters, which one must admit is a lot less exciting than what happens later.  This film follows the tradition of both Cecil B DeMille’s The Ten Commandments and Dreamworks’ The Prince of Egypt in establishing Moses and Ramses (who is never identified as Ramses in the Biblical text) as step-brothers with a close relationship as Egyptian royalty, despite nothing of the sort found in the text.

Some early characterizations are important.  Moses is portrayed as a militaristic war hero and Ramses is portrayed as weak and ineffectual.  But it is the portrayal of the Hebrews that is especially important.  The Hebrews are seen as seditious and on the verge of rebellion.  This is an important change.  In the text, the Hebrews don’t like being slaves and cry out to God, but they have also become far too comfortable with it.  When Moses first attempts to liberate them, they don’t want it, and when they finally do get liberated, they complain about the hardships of actually being free.  For the direction of the whole Bible, it is important to realize the lesson that Exodus teaches us: human beings will tolerate slavery when it appears easier than the burden of actual responsibility.  In Scott’s film, the Hebrews just need someone to organize them more effectively.

Moses is a man who does not know his past.  This is fine, as it is unclear in the text exactly how Moses understood himself, though it becomes clear that he eventually understood that he was a Hebrew.  What is more ridiculous in the film (in fact, perhaps its biggest failure) is the characterization of Moses as a skeptic, not just about Yahweh, but about the idea of faith in the supernatural in general.  Such a modern approach to our place in the universe is untenable for a film set in ancient Egypt.

This leads to the important burning bush scene, which is handled well enough.  The portrayal of God’s messenger (and according to an interview with Scott, it is supposed to be an angel, not God Himself) as an 11-year old boy is fine, though I’m not sure why the filmmaker went this route.  I loved hearing the name “I AM.”

Moses leaves his wife and son behind in Midian in order to highlight the radicalness of his new call.  By contrast, in the book of Exodus, Moses’ family goes with him on his return to Egypt (and he’s also, according to the text, 80 years old at this point, by the way).  When he arrives back in Egypt, he mobilizes a Hebrew resistance and teaches them to fight.  This is time wasted in the film, as it ultimately fails and adds little to the story.  Its sole purpose seems to be to set up Moses’ conversation with the angel, in which the angel says that armed rebellion isn’t working fast enough.  Moses rightfully questions why God has waited 400 years if he wanted “fast.”  In the film, this is a fair question, and one that is never adequately answered.  But in the text, God never explicitly explains why he waits 400 years to liberate them; God simply acts in the “kairos” for their liberation – the proper time – not because of some implied time table.  In any case, this conversation is the set-up for the plague narrative, which is the angel’s answer to Moses’ question about what he intends to do to speed things up.

The plagues are wondrous and horrifying to behold on screen.  This is when the film really came alive for me.  Little is spared in showing how terrible these plagues were in affecting the people, and they are unambiguously miraculous.  I have an issue with the rather gory first plague, the water turned to blood, which the film instead attributes to a massive crocodile invasion.  I think if God actually sent an army of bloodthirsty crocodiles, the first plague would have been recorded in the tradition as “giant crocodile invasion,” not “the water will be changed into blood.”  But the rest of them are all accurately and gruesomely portrayed in accordance with the text.

One detail is missing here and one detail is inadequately developed.  In the text, there is a constant dialogue between Moses and Pharaoh during the plagues: “Let my people go!” This serves to establish the tension between God and Pharaoh, it serves to show God’s restraint in not wanting to ravage the Egyptians by giving the Pharaoh a chance to relent, and it shows the Pharaoh’s stubbornness in letting his own people suffer for his pride.  None of that is present in the film.  Instead, God just unrelentingly beats on the Egyptians while they (somewhat humorously) try to explain away what is happening to them.

The plague narrative is also to be understood as a battle sequence between Yahweh and Pharaoh because Pharaoh imagines himself an equal to the God of the Hebrews.  In the film, Ramses does proclaim that he is God, but he says it out of frustration and desperation, and only once.  It is fine that he shows anxiety, given what is happening to him, but the declaration seems made out of confusion rather than out of pride.

Now we arrive at the preparations for Passover, which are described much more briefly than the Biblical text, omitting even the Passover meal itself, the detail that the lamb to be sacrificed must be unblemished, or that the Hebrews need to be ready for flight on this night.  Instead, we just get “paint the doors with lamb’s blood.”

The Passover itself is tense and horrifying and any parent watching it will feel the horror of the scene profoundly.  This is especially so with Ramses’ own son, who is the recipient of one of the most affecting lines in the film.  The movie shows well the dramatic effect of every first born son dying in one night.  But rather than seeing this as the inevitable consequence of Pharaoh’s failure to relent after prolonged forceful negotiations between God and Pharaoh, God just looks like a bully.  This is unfortunate.

The flight to the Red Sea is portrayed well as a journey of a few days, rather than the few hours it reads like in the Biblical text.  The parting of the Red Sea is less dramatic than I would have liked, but the return of the waters after the Hebrews cross over totally make up for it.

Throughout the film, Moses is portrayed as a war hero, and there is much emphasis on a sword given to him by his step-father.  It is instrumental in the parting of the Red Sea.  But there is no sword in the Biblical text – rather, there is a staff that is wholly absent from the film.  I think the change is significant.  The film shows Moses as a warrior: at war with Ramses and the Egyptians, the Egyptians’ enemies, and even with God Himself.  As such, he wields a sword.  But in the text, he leads God’s people with the staff of a shepherd, caring for his sheep.  I think the difference is important.

The film concludes with an adequate if undramatic scene of the Ten Commandments (blink and you’ll miss the golden calf) and elderly Moses on his way to Canaan with an equally undramatic ark of the covenant by his side.  The end of the film is appropriately hopeful.

As I said at the beginning, it might seem that I am being overly critical of the film, but given the importance of the source material, a film like this deserves special fidelity that it doesn’t always receive.  It is not a bad film.  For people unfamiliar with the text and disinclined to read it, see the film, enjoy the spectacle – but then go read the original to see what this is really all about.  God and Moses both deserve it.

How to Get Away with Immorality

600x800“How To Get Away With Murder” is a successful new show this season, conceived by one of the protégés of Shonda Rhimes, who has established a very lucrative career writing fast-paced soap operas about people who actually lack the human ability to enter into and maintain functional relationships (c.f., Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal).  This new show has come to attention for a number of reasons, one of which is its frank portrayal of sex between men.

The showrunner, Pete Nowalk, has stated in an interview that one of his goals in writing the show’s sexually promiscuous homosexual character (Connor) is “to destigmatize gay sex on TV.” He goes on to say:

“Visibility leads to acceptance…I am a little surprised how much of a reaction it’s getting. Maybe it’s because I’m a gay man.  We have another gay writer on staff and we’re just writing what we know.”

Two important observations need to be made here. The key line in the above quote is “visibility leads to acceptance.”  This is simply not true.  Visibility does not lead to acceptance; it leads to apathy and desensitization.  And this leads to the second observation: while the starting point for my present reflection is the so-called “destigmatization of gay sex on TV,” what I am saying about apathy and desensitization applies to all portrayals of immorality on TV and films, not just gay sex.

If visibility leads to acceptance, then the fact that I regularly witness countless acts of violence on TV and in movies leads to the conclusion that such acts should be morally acceptable, even celebrated, because, after all, this is the way life really is. But that’s not true and no one defending violent content in media would seriously try to defend this.

The accumulation of violence on screen doesn’t lead to greater social or moral acceptability. It leads to our desensitization about seeing such things until we don’t really care that we’re seeing it.  Pete Nowalk intends for greater social acceptability with his frank portrayal of gay sex.  Chances are, people will eventually say that his efforts and the efforts of others like him have been successful in bringing the culture to a greater acceptance of homosexual persons.  But it hasn’t.  All that has actually happened is that we have become deadened to any sort of reaction to immoral actions on screen (and please remember that what I’m saying here applies to all portrayals of immorality on screen, including heterosexual and homosexual immorality, as well as brutal violence).

If Nowalk’s intention is to encourage greater respect for people with same sex attraction and a greater appreciation for them as more than stereotypes, he needs to stop doing them the disservice of characterizing them primarily by their sex lives. While we have largely moved away from the harshest stereotypes of persons with same sex attraction, Hollywood foolishly thinks that letting the audience see them having sex humanizes them.  Seeing people engaged in sexual activity on screen (regardless of who is involved) doesn’t humanize the characters; it reduces them and de-humanizes both the actors and the viewers.

Maybe I’m just demonstrating myself to be hopelessly idealistic and old-fashioned. Maybe I need to see more so I’ll accept more.  But I doubt it.  We have mistaken apathy for approval and desensitization as open-mindedness.  We deserve richer portrayals of human beings than focusing on who they’re sleeping with.


jlA few weeks back, I had wanted to comment on the celebrity hacking scandal. There are a lot of interesting elements to these unfortunate events, but when I finally found some time to write, I thought the moment had passed.  That was before the newest issue of Vanity Fair came out.  In it, there is an interview with Jennifer Lawrence – her first public statement since her pictures were among those hacked.

While she is rightfully outraged and hurt about this violation of her privacy, she also includes this very unfortunate statement in her interview that explains why her naked pictures existed in the first place: “I was in a loving, healthy, great relationship for four years. It was long distance, and either your boyfriend is going to look at porn or he’s going to look at you.”

For a popular, talented, young woman, these are exceptionally sad words.

Utterly ignoring the celebrity status that made her a target in the first place, this attitude essentially absolves men of responsibility for their own chastity and relational maturity. This attitude says that men need sexual pleasure – and if they can’t get it from you directly, they need pictures to help them get it for themselves.

Jennifer Lawrence has been “pornified” with the theft of her personal photos. This is a crime and she is a victim.  But the cruelest irony is that she had already pornified herself by believing that taking these photos was necessary to be in a “loving, healthy, great relationship.”  It was foolish of her to take these photos in the first place; it was an objectively poor moral choice.  But the fact that she took them (along with similar photos evidently taken by scores of other famous people) speaks to far greater problems within a culture that has ludicrously overemphasized the pursuit of sexual pleasure.

To love another is to see the other as a person made in God’s image and to respond to that image with the desire to make a gift of ourselves to the other. But the reduction of the other instead to a mere vehicle for one’s selfish sexual pleasure is not loving.

A healthy relationship recognizes the challenges that arise, such as long distance and time apart, and responds to them in a reasonable way, so that both partners can draw strength from the bond of love, rather than demonstrate their dependency on only one aspect of the other.

A great relationship is one that inspires the man and the woman to realize how graced they are to love and be loved; they share the power that comes from that love with all the people with whom they come in contact, and this, in turn, betters all of their relationships.

A relationship that requires one to debase oneself as a mere object to satisfy another’s biological urgings, especially with the rationale that if one doesn’t, he will just objectify someone else for the same purpose, is neither loving, nor healthy, nor great.

Perhaps in time, Jennifer Lawrence will regret these words. Earlier in the article, she admits that saying anything about this incident has been very difficult for her, so maybe this came out worse than she intended.  But it seems reasonable to conclude that this is at least her explanation for why these pictures exist.   She is also no doubt not at all alone in applying this rationale to this poor choice.

We need to reclaim the truth about our sexuality. We need to understand this great gift and its purpose to bring forth and sustain life.  We need to believe that it is possible to see ourselves as more than mere animals (I could also comment about Maroon 5’s new song and video of the same name, but that will have to wait for another time).  If we would only commit to this as a culture, even greater joys await us as we continue to build up the Kingdom.

Sorry for the delay

A quick word of explanation for my prolonged silence. I have no good excuse except that it was the beginning of the school semester.  I hope to correct this and work back towards a regular posting schedule.

Also, please check out the October issue of Catholic Digest. I am featured in an article addressing the issue of the hook-up culture on our college campuses.

Augustine, the 21st Century Student

Today is the Feast of St. Augustine, patron saint of (among many other things) theologians.  So I thought it would be worth briefly reflecting on the life of this great figure.  In particular, I invite you to look at Augustine’s own description of his life and thought as presented in his great spiritual autobiography, the Confessions.

Up until the actual account of his conversion experience in Book Eight (whoops! Spoiler alert!), we get a picture of Augustine’s life, education, career, and psychology, especially in regard to his existential questioning and his struggle with morality, specifically sexual morality.  Augustine was born into an upper-middle class family and was raised by parents who did not share the same values throughout most of their lives.  They even disagreed on what important values to impart to their son.

What they didn’t disagree about was their desire to see their son be well-educated and get a good job.  Even when their son joined what we would now call, at best, an alternative self-help movement and at worst , a cult, Augustine’s parents showed concern for his professional success and his social propriety.

In his own mind, Augustine was always a thoughtful student.  There were subjects he loved and excelled at (rhetoric) and ones he could do without (Greek).  He raised important questions about the meaning and purpose of life and the nature of God and the universe and his place in it.  However, when those questions actually threatened to impinge on his normal way of life morally, he was quick to retreat to the intellectually safe position that, “these questions are hard – who can possibly have an answer to them?” And so his morally sketchy way of life could be preserved.

Teaching at Assumption College, a college founded by the Augustinians of the Assumption, I have had the opportunity to see young, pre-conversion Augustine many times sitting in front of me in the classroom.  Many of our students come from similar backgrounds: financially not wealthy, but not exactly struggling either, raised by one or two parents who care much, much more about their child’s professional success than his or her formation as an excellent human being.  These parents know that these children do not always make the best decisions about important things, but they cross their fingers and/or say a prayer and hope for the best.

The students for their part are generally curious enough to raise at least some basic interest in the so-called “big questions” about life, the universe, and everything.  But when confronted with the challenges posed by these questions to their decision-making on the weekend, many of them choose to think less hard.

The difference between the best of Assumption’s students and the rest are in those with whom the comparison to young Augustine is most apt.  Education in the liberal arts should encourage us to grow beyond our families of origin.  It should prepare us to be productive members of society.  But first and foremost, it should give us the environment in which we can grow into excellence as human beings.  When confronted by the challenges raised by the big questions, does one grow and adopt a more mature way of living? Or does one decide that intellectual pursuit of the most important questions is an interesting way to get through class time, but not really important to one’s day-to-day life? I submit that those who can’t take these conversations beyond the classroom will also not take them beyond the doors of the college.  The result will be well-trained professionals who can continue to make the machinery of the world continue to grind forward, while the heart and soul of humanity continues to erode.

St. Augustine, pray for us.

Art, Insanity, and the Nature of Everything

A couple weeks ago, I had a fascinating conversation with an artist friend of mine about the nature and purpose of visual art.  It was particularly interesting to me because, while I have some competence in understanding literature and music, I am not as confident when it comes to the visual arts.

I took many things away from that conversation that I am still considering, but one point especially jumped out at me on that day that I wanted to share.  The point I am ultimately making in this post is hardly revelatory to my typical audience, but I think it bears repeating nonetheless.

While discussing art, I mentioned that there is a subjectivity to art; this subjectivity is noted in the method and intention of the artist, and to a certain degree in the effect of the art on the viewer.  This subjectivity even applies to the skills and means by which the artist approaches his or her work – and that’s where my friend corrected me.  He described how, in fact, there is a greater objectivity to visual art than most people ever account for.  Simply put, there is such a thing as objectively “good” art and the subjective intention of the artist cannot make objectively bad art into good art.  Rather, one can have a mistaken notion of what constitutes good art, or one can learn to make good art and develop one’s skills towards that end.

Is this accurate? Isn’t there any truth to the cliché phrase, “I don’t know art but I know what I like?” Sure.  But what you like may be wrong.  An analogy from music may be apt here.  I can bang away at random keys on a piano and call it music, but it simply isn’t.  If the “artist” in question is my five-year old son, I may find the noise endearing, but that has to do with my affective relationship with the artist and nothing to do with the “art” itself.  If the same “music” was being produced down the hall from my office while I was trying to write, I assure you it would not be in the least endearing.  And so it is with visual art as well.  I may be moved by a piece of art, I may enjoy a piece of art, but that doesn’t make it good art and in truth it may ultimately reveal my own lack of knowledge of the truth.

Music has rules that guide it (and anyone who doesn’t think music is science as well as art has never studied the mathematical foundations of music).  Language has rules that guide it, so one can discern between actual communication and mere gibberish.  Literature has rules that guide it to distinguish between a good story and a bad one.  And so does visual art.

Now I arrive at my rather simple point: the objectivity of visual art, recently revealed to me in more cogent form, combined with the objectivity of music, the objectivity of literature and language, the objectivity of the natural sciences, all combine to present a ridiculously strong case for the objective structure of reality, put in place by an Intelligence who did so with a design in mind.  As human beings, we can learn the “rules of reality,” as it were, or one can essentially be insane, even if one appears functional according to the dysfunctional standards of post-modern humanity.

And, if there is an objective structure to reality, that extends not only to the “physical” universe (though it is odd to speak of art and music as “physical”) but also to the moral universe.  For a mathematician or a physicist to marvel at the complexity of the universe and its structures and then conclude that they are free to make choices however they want according to their subjective feelings and desires is the very definition of delusion.  So many people live according to a variation of the above cliché: “I don’t know morality, but I know what I like.”  The key difference here is that people don’t acknowledge their lack of knowledge about morality; instead they assert that their feelings are already truth…”for them.”  (The same wrong-headed thinking applies to the whole of theology for most people, but I’ll stick to morality for now).

My friend’s revelation about the objective nature of art was a new thought for me, a new concept by which I was able to better understand the nature of God’s tapestry as a whole.  Even when something seems like it might be purely subjective, what it might actually be is an invitation to go deeper and come to a better understanding of what it means to be a part of this awesome design.

No, Zedd, you’re wrong

Anyone who knows me also knows about my unapologetic love for electronic dance music.  One generally doesn’t listen to this kind of music for its deep, introspective lyrics (though I’d argue that a few songs are deeper than one might think upon first listen).  Most of the time, the lyrics have to deal with the romantic joys and tribulations in that most superficial of Edens: the dance club.  I appreciate that the earnestness of the lyrics often adds an air of gravitas that in fact just isn’t there, as if the fate of the world hung on this one romance.

“Stay the Night” is a song by Zedd, featuring vocals by Hayley Williams of Paramore, released earlier this year.  It is a typically simple dance track lyrically: there might be 80 words in the whole song.  But for these songs, bridges and choruses matter the most, as these are the words that the listener is going to hear over and over and get stuck in his or her head.  And lyrics stuck in your head matter, as a steady diet of certain kinds of lyrics (good or bad) inevitably wash the brain and move the spirit of the listener.

Leading into the chorus, Hayley sings, “I know that we were made to break/So what? I don’t mind.”  Here is an acceptance, not of our creation in God’s image, but rather of the inevitability of our failure, especially in relationships – the specific area in which we are most God-like, as God Himself is Relationship.  Not only does Hayley concede that our relational failure is inevitable, but she welcomes the damage.  These simple words actually reveal a sadly all-too-common reality in modern relationships: one does not enter into relationship in order to become most fully human through the gift of self to the other and the reception of the same.  Rather, one enters into relationship to find some temporary satisfaction for the God-sized hole in the self.  People come together to share dysfunction, not to realize their full humanity.

Then we come to the chorus itself, repeated about a zillion times: “Are you gonna stay the night? Doesn’t mean we’re bound for life.”  As the answer to her own self-perception of her lack of value, she seeks meaning in the temporary pleasure of sex.  As a college professor teaching sexual ethics, it breaks my heart to know how often this occurs.  She wants to feel something because she has no idea who she is, or who she is capable of being if her heart and mind were in line with the will of her Creator, so she seeks meaning in a supposedly meaningless act.

But there’s the rub: it is not, it cannot be, a “meaningless” act.  The act of sexual intercourse, regardless of the participants, the status of their relationship, or the intentions with which they enter into it, is an act which always means exactly what the Creator intended it to mean: the union of man and woman as one flesh to fully image God in His life-giving, love-giving capacity.  It is the full gift of self to another, open to new life, and capable of sharing in God’s creative power.  To not mean that, to engage in that when it is not  the revelation of the sacramental image of the permanent union of Christ and His Church, is profoundly disrespectful to both the Creator and to the persons involved in whose image we are made.

Seeking meaning and purpose through sex is a misguided quest for God.  When we finally come to recognize our brokenness, then we should take hope that our Healer has made Himself present to us, by giving us His very flesh and blood so that we might have life and have it more abundantly.

Probably not my last word on electronic music.  Maybe next time I’ll evaluate something I think is a lot more positive.

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