How can you be Church militant if you refuse to train to fight?

In light of the academic and cultural debacle playing out at Franciscan U, I’m reposting an essay I wrote in 2014. It addresses only one aspect of the creeping academic cowardice that threatens, once again, to overwhelm the American Church — to turn the Church militant into the Church Ostrich, squawking indignantly at anyone who wants to get up out of the sand and engage the world, the flesh, and the devil.

At FUS, we see this cowardice not creeping, but swarming and wielding pitchforks. Short version of the nonsense: A well-respected FUS professor assigned The Kingdom, a work of fiction imagining the early Church, to a group of five upper-level English majors. The book, which merited a mixed review by the conservative journal First Things, included a blasphemous and graphically profane passage describing the sexual thoughts of one fictional character. As far as I can gather, part of the professor’s goal was to help some select, mature students learn how to evaluate and respond to literature which isn’t specifically designed to edify the sheltered — i.e., most of literature. He wanted, it seems, to train his students for their imminent battles, both intellectual and spiritual.

But the group that calls itself Church Militant somehow got wind of the assignment and organized a mob, allegedly horrified that any Catholic would read such things . . . and also excerpting the most profane and blasphemous portions of the book and disseminating them far and wide. Strange behavior for an organization that believes no one should read such things. But this isn’t about logic, this is about moral panic. The professor has been stripped of his chairmanship, and Church Militant is calling for him to be fired. The school president wrote a craven letter apologizing for the putative offense and promising reparations and tighter oversight of curriculum.

Coincidentally, social media churned up an old and ludicrous Crisis article warning readers away from Flannery O’Connor because ugliness and violence just don’t pair well with religious ideas.

Counterpoint:

So it seemed like a good time to remind folks that we’re Catholic, dammit, not cowards. If Catholics can’t muster up the intellectual courage and brainpower to answer the world, then the world is doomed. You can be well-educated without reading The Kingdom, but you can’t win any wars if you keep firing the drill sergeants training your kids for the battle.

We are the Church militant — not the fourth-rate media outrage machine that goes by that name, but the real thing, the part of the communion of saints still on the battlefield. We’re supposed to put ourselves on the front lines. How can we fight the world, the flesh, and the devil if we shrink howling away from any kind of toughening and training? How will you fight if you refuse to meet the enemy? How can you fight the devil if you don’t even have the guts to talk about a book?

It may or may not have been wise for the professor to assign that particular book, but it chills my blood to see yet another Catholic institution knuckle under to the demands of a knothead mob. You parents who want to protect your kids from evil: This is what the evil looks like. It looks like vicious cowardice dressed up as righteous indignation. We’ve seen this before. The ones howling “blasphemy” are always the same one panting for another crucifixion.

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When I was about eight years old, I decided that, just once, I was going to read a story that turned out the way I wanted it to turn out.  So I wrote it myself. It was about a little girl who went to a fair, and she got to go on all the rides as many times as she wanted, and all the vendors thought she looked like such a neat kid that they gave her tons of food for free, and then she played a bunch of games and she won prizes every single time. Then she went home when she was ready to go home.

Even I knew that this was the worst story ever. Even though the little girl was tired at the end, nothing had happened. The story was devoid of conflict, which is the tension necessary to make the gears of the story mesh. No teeth, no engagement, no movement, no vroom-vroom-vroom.

My own daughter just learned this fact this morning. She was home “sick,” so she and the toddler and the dog were watching My Little Pony, which is actually not terrible. It was the episode where Shining Armor is marrying Princess Cadance (that’s how you spell it. I looked it up, everypony), and in Part II, the bridesmares turn crazy and evil. My daughter says, “How come there always have to be jerks?”

Hooray, something I went to college for! I can answer this one. I explain that when everyone is just nice and friendly and helpful all the time, it’s too boring. It may be fine in real life, but when you’re telling a story, there’s no story there.

“Oh,” she says, “Like in Care Bears.” Yes, exactly. Which is why, even I do not let them watch Care Bears. (Or, I don’t ban it outright, but I encourage a heavy atmosphere of hostility and derision around the entire franchise. This is one of the huge advantages of having a big family: all you have to do is brainwash the older kids, and if you’ve done your job thoroughly, your propaganda takes on a life of its own.)

Audiences are primed to expect conflict in a story. This  makes things more interesting, it gives us a reason to care, and, even for little kids, it makes the story more true to life. For kids, it is perfectly okay to have the mess 100% mopped up by the time the ending credits roll: all the misunderstandings are cleared up, all the misdeeds are apologized for and forgiven, and all the unrepentant characters have their just desserts delivered to them in a tidy little pastry box.

That’s for kids.

Not for adults.

In adult fiction, it is okay for things to be a little messier. There is some middle ground between the sunshine-and-lollipops world of Care Bears, and the muck of unrelenting despair that passes for postmodern fiction. There is a lot of middle ground, in fact, and that is precisely where good, thoughtful, entertaining, thought-provoking fiction sets up camp: where there is a moral universe, but it’s not a tidy one.

Not long ago, I had a conversation with a fellow who had been to a Catholic liberal arts college and somehow emerged on the other end with a B.A. and the firm impression that, for a work of fiction to earn the seal of approval from Catholics, the plot must include pretty much everything you’d expect in a My Little Pony episode — especially the parts where all sins are punished and all sinners are either damned or repentant. He said that Catholics ought not to read any book or watch any movie or play where this comeuppance is not reliable and overt. Not only did he advance this point of view in public, under his real name, but he kept it up until three separate people sent me private messages warning me that he would neither eat, nor sleep, nor relieve his bladder until I gave up and admitted he was right.

And I says to myself, I says, Sorry, Shakespeare! Sorry, Homer! Sorry, Flannery O’Connor and Evelyn Waugh, Somerset Maugham, Mark Twain, Faulkner, Melville, Dostoevsky, Chaucer, Joseph Conrad, Dickens, and Thomas “Joyboy” Mann. Sorry to you all, but you have got to go, because I’m fairly sure that on page 243, right where nice little college girls and college boys could read it, someone got in someone else’s pants and didn’t drop dead of the clap before the end of the book. And on the very next page, someone used God’s name in vain and even though a perfectly good crevasse could have plausibly opened up and swallowed him without doing much violence to the dramatic integrity of the work as a whole, IT DIDN’T HAPPEN. Is outrage!

I don’t even have to write the last paragraph of this, do I? You’re not going to argue with me are you? Are you?

Yes, ideas have consequences. Yes, the things we read have an effect on us, and if we wallow in filth, it gets deep into our pores and then the next thing you know, we don’t even want to shower. This is a real danger. But it’s just as dangerous to imagine that the Catholic imagination can produce nothing better than a Care Bears episode, a lesson in manners and morals disguised as a story.

Being a Catholic doesn’t mean foreswearing everything you know about humanity. We can recognize the difference between a novel and an instruction manual; and if we can’t, that’s not the sign of some high moral attainment. That’s a sign of a feeble mind and a limp spirit. We’re not little kids at the fair, and we can deal with someone telling us, “You don’t need any more cotton candy right now.”

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Images: Shrinking Violet by JD Hancock via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Grünewald Crucifixion detail via Wikimedia (Public domain)

 

When receiving art, be Penelope, not Argos

A pox on anyone who tries to extract a message from The Odyssey. It’s not that The Odyssey doesn’t mean anything. Quite the opposite. It’s just that a work of art isn’t like a fortune cookie which can be cracked open, its message to be plucked out and read aloud over dessert. Instead, a work of art is like a deep, active pond into which you can cast your line and draw up any number of things, depending on the season, the time of day, your skill as a fisherman, and your willingness to wait.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image: “Penelope” by TheoJunior via Flickr (Creative Commons)

 

Well-behaved characters rarely make books (but here are some that do)

You know that irritating bumper sticker, “Well-behaved women rarely make history”? Well, poo. First, it’s not everyone’s job to make history. The world functions better for everyone when most people go to work, act decently, are thoughtful of others, and save the rebellion for emergencies.

Second, and more importantly, it depends what you mean by “well-behaved.” If you mean “The only possible way to change the world is to take your top off and scream at people,” then I’d have to demur (and so would the Virgin Mary).

It’s true, though, that well-behaved characters rarely carry books, and it’s hard to write a book full of people who are kind — by which I mean disposed toward helping and being generous toward others, preferably gently and good-naturedly. It’s possible to write such a book, but it’s rare.

Authors of children’s books, especially, tend to want to give their characters authenticity and appeal by making them sassy, prickly, bratty, rebellious, morose, or dysfunctional — or good at heart, but with a tremendous flaw to overcome. Kindness is often portrayed as weakness or naïveté, and not desirable as a dominant virtue.

Here are a few of my favorite characters who are not only basically virtuous, but who always, or almost always, show kindness to other people in the story.

First I’ll get the two wild cards out of the way: Dido Twite and Pippi Longstocking. You can argue with me if you like!

Dido just barely qualifies, because she learns kindness gradually — but it’s a trait that anchors her character. I’m rereading Joan Aiken’s Nightbirds On Nantucket and am just in love with Dido, who wants so badly to get back to London, but realizes that drippy old motherless Dutiful Penitence is more than just her ticket home.

Dido gradually takes responsibility for patiently teaching Pen to enjoy life, to become less fearful, to stand up for herself, and to practice loyalty. Dido and Pen’s characters both develop, and they ultimately escape their predicament, as Dido deliberately cultivates kindness and gentleness toward the fragile Pen.

(Joan Aiken is great at portraying kind but interesting, well-realized characters: see cheerful Nate in the stories with Dido, and also the resourceful and protective Simon (in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and Black Hearts In Battersea). To a lesser extent, Arabel of the Arabel and Mortimer series is also a kind and responsible kid, although she’s also just naturally mellow.)

Pippi Longstocking is outrageously kind, a trait is just as much a part of her character as her outrageous recklessness.

She spends her time alone cooking and packing picnics for her friends, hiding treasures, and organizing all sorts of surprises and adventures. She’s enraged only by bullies who prey on the weak; and she uses her own incredible strength only for good (and some showing off). When her teasing and storytelling confuse or upset someone, she is usually contrite. Without her kindness, her outsized personality and habits would be monstrous.

The Pippi Longstocking books aren’t about character development, anyway — partly because they’re episodic, and partly because they’re sort of mythical, with Pippi as a preternatural figure whose inexplicable strength, cleverness, generosity, and radical independence are entirely self-sufficient. It’s impossible to imagine Pippi growing into adulthood or marrying, because she is already a complete person. She’s not depthless, though. She does weep, briefly, over a dead bird; and once, Tommy and Annika see her alone in her kitchen at night and it occurs to them, for the first time, that it’s possible for someone so strong and cheerful to be lonely. These glimpses into her private life make her kindness more believable.

Which other books portray characters who are thoroughly kind, without reducing them to dull foils for naughty kids with more spirit?

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett plays fairly close to the line, as Sara Crewe is almost overwhelmingly virtuous in every way.

But the scene where she struggles mightily with herself to turn her long-coveted bun over to an even hungrier child is very moving, and the book is saved from absolute melodrama by the strength and suspense of the plot and by the writing itself.

Burnett’s The Secret Garden, published six years after A Little Princess, is the better book and has more complex character development. The main character and her foil are both selfish, immature, and self-pitying early on, and their conversion and development are gradual and believable. But Dickon, the outdoorsman, is gloriously kind and open-hearted, as is his whole family.

Most people would include Charlotte of Charlotte’s Web in a list of kind protagonists, but I have always struggled with this book. It includes too many hard truths and not enough comfort for my tastes; and I always thought Charlotte was much too hard on little Wilbur emotionally, even though her actions saved him in practice. Of E.B. White’s books, my very favorite is The Trumpet of the Swan,

which includes the watchful, helpful, and loyal Sam Beaver.

She’s not in a chapter book, but I can’t neglect the lovely Nyasha, the good daughter in Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe.

The unforgettable illustrations go a long way to filling out her character, but her words and actions also demonstrate unflagging kindness, patience, and civility toward every single creature she meets, from her nasty, scheming sister, to the apparently needy folks she meets in the woods, even to the snake she encounters on the throne at the end.

(In the category of fairy tales, the 2015 live action movie of Cinderella explicitly praises kindness as a virtue to be pursued. Recommended!)

Mrs. Trotter of The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Peterson?

Oh, my heart. Her kindness is a little complex. She acknowledges that poor William Ernest Teague’s education need a harder edge than she can provide, and so her kindness perhaps shades into weakness; but in a throwaway line, she stands by her basic character, acknowledging dryly to the social worker that she’s well aware the world doesn’t consider her a real mother. Oh, Trotter. The truest portrayal of a good Christian I’ve ever seen in literature, period, for kids or for adults.

Strangely enough, the wild, anti-authority, sometimes brutal Roald Dahl books often have central characters who are very kind. Some of them are kind to most, but vengeful toward their parents and enemies, and this response is portrayed as delightful and just; but some wish even their enemies well, and are willing to risk their own safety for their friends. Charlie of Charlie in the Chocolate Factory is like this, and so is James of James and the Giant Peach;

and the vengeance is wrought by fate, rather than the protagonist. I haven’t read The BFG in many years, but I recall that the BFG’s main trait was kindness. In Danny the Champion of the World, the father is meant to be a kind man, but the reader of conscience can’t ignore than he is a criminal and a vengeful man.

Honorable mention goes to the very helpful Elmer Elevator of My Father’s Dragon,

who takes everyone he meets at face value, never uses more force than necessary, and even remembers to bring a birthday present home for his father.

Likewise Freddy the Pig throughout Walter R. Brooks’ extensive series of books,

who sometimes gets irritated or falls into self-pity, but is ultimately the friend everyone needs to have. The trio of cows, Mrs. Wiggins, Mrs. Wogus, and Mrs. Wurtzburger are also kind sorts, and tremendously appealing.

Finally, a recommendation from Rebecca Salazar: John Carter from A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

I haven’t read this series, but I trust Rebecca (although she warns that the series is 100 years old, and contains references to “red men” and savage Apaches and the like, and that the first three are the best).
She says: It is a cheesy pulp novel, but one of the overarching differences between John Carter and the martians is that he treats subordinates and defeated enemies with kindness, and he doesn’t just automatically kill someone because they’re an enemy.

One example of kindness in it is that the green Martian tribe Carter becomes a chieftain in have horse analogue animals that they basically subdue through force, and this they’re dangerous to their riders, but Carter treats his with kindness and tames them and the rest of the warriors are shocked by how superior his mounts are because of this.
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As you can see, my reading list needs some updating! I stand by all my recommendations, and hope that my kids will love these characters as much as I do; but I’d be happy to add to the list, especially to include newer books.
Who else in children’s literature is predominantly kind without being dull, two-dimensional, or drippy?

Dr. Louise Cowan: A Heart that Sees

Although she smiled warmly and spoke gently (and, if I remember rightly, barely cleared five feet in height!), I was somewhat abashed, not only by her chic southern elegance, but by the dark sunglasses she wore at all times. Dr. Louise suffered from a thyroid disorder which left her nearly blind, and after a series of surgeries, her eyeballs protruded and were discolored, and her face was scarred.

Another student went into her office after me. For several reasons, this girl was on the outs with the community in our small school, and she was difficult to live with.  What private sufferings she endured, I don’t know, and never cared to consider at the time. The young woman said that Dr. Louise talked with her for a while, and then took her sunglasses off, exposing the part of her that she hid from most of the world. I don’t know if they talked about literature at all, or just about life, but the girl came out radiating peace. Dr. Louise did not, I believe, acknowledge such a thing as an “outsider.”

Read the rest at the Register.

Columbia Students Lay Siege to Themselves

falling

So here’s what I say to the Columbia students clutching their carefully cultivated pearls as they face down the hot breath of those terrible, wild gods: you’re damn right it’s not safe. You’re not in control here, not on this playground. You may find yourself climbing too high and too fast, and you may reach out for that rung on the monkey bars only to find that you’re grabbing thin air, and down you will plummet, onto the hot asphalt, or maybe further, down into the underworld, where dark Hades glowers over the fluttering dead.

So what?

Read the rest at the Register. 

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Catholics, Cotton Candy, and Comeuppance

PIC Care Bear farting a rainbow

And I says to myself, I says, Sorry, Shakespeare! Sorry, Homer! Sorry, Flannery O’Connor and Evelyn Waugh, Somerset Maugham, Mark Twain, Faulkner, Melville, Doestoevsky, Chaucer, Joseph Conrad, Dickens, and Thomas “Joyboy” Mann. Sorry to you all, but you have got to go, because I’m fairly sure that on page 243, right where nice little college girls and college boys could read it, someone got in someone else’s pants and didn’t drop dead of the clap before the end of the book. And on the very next page, someone used God’s name in vain and even though a perfectly good crevasse could have plausibly opened up and swallowed him without doing much violence to the dramatic integrity of the work as a whole, IT DIDN’T HAPPEN. Is outrage!

Read the rest at the Register.