On St. Joseph’s femininity

The other day, Taylor Marshall tweeted, um, a bunch of things. But stay with me! This post isn’t really about him. I just don’t know how else to talk about what I want to talk about, except by starting with what he tweeted.

First, apparently understandably distraught over an interview with McCarrick’s first victim, he tweeted some foul garbage about how gay it is that seminarians had a gingerbread house-building contest. Seriously, he did the f*ggy lisp and all, and included a name and photos of the men engaging in this “effeminate and puerile” activity, because that’s how you act when you’re a serious Catholic theologian and scholar.

It was wildly gross and offensive (and since he asked, can you imagine Basil and Gregory tweeting at each other?), and insanely insulting to gay people in direct contradiction of the catechism.

But it also threw into high relief how poorly so many people understand what it means to be masculine. Many of his followers apparently believe that any time you’re not studying Latin or logic, building fires, chopping something, or shooting something, you’re a whisker away from of sliding into that dreaded horror, effeminacy.  In order to save the Church, we must stop having . . . gingerbread.

His tweet was thoroughly trounced by many others, so I left it alone. But then he followed up with something that really nagged at me:

“The womb belonged to Joseph and he set it aside for Christ. The tomb belonged to another Joseph and he set it aside for Christ.”

 I guess what happened is he read Fr. Longenecker’s tweet about wrapping Jesus’s body, and thought, “Whoa.  Joseph-Joseph . . .  womb-tomb!” and, despite not being Dylan Thomas, he went with it, rather than doing a quick heresy self-check. When readers responded to that phrase “The womb belonged to Joseph” with revulsion and dismay, he dug in with this:

He clarifies that Mary ruled over Joseph’s body, as well as vice versa: that there is mutual self-gift in marriage. He meant, apparently, that Joseph gave over his reasonable expectations that he’d be able to have sex with Mary, because he was willing to make a sacrifice to God of that privilege. And this is true enough.

But the trouble is first in the way he phrased it. Saying Mary’s womb “belongs” to Joseph is just . . . gross. Things belong to us; people (including their organs) do not belong to us, not even if we’re married. If you want to hear how absurd and unseemly it is to phrase his idea as he did, say instead: “The penis belonged to Mary, so she went outside and peed with it.”

I’m sincerely not trying to be crude. I’m trying to point out that a womb is an almost indescribably personal, intimate thing for a woman, and it’s bizarrely wrong to say it belongs to her husband. It doesn’t. It is hers. A woman rightly gives herself to her husband, over and over and over again, but he never owns her, no matter how much it may feel that way, no matter how many times she gives herself to him.

And there we have the second, much more serious problem with Marshall’s thought. Joseph did not, in fact, consent to give Mary’s womb over to the Lord. How could he? It was hers to give, and she gave it at the Annunciation. Joseph only found out about her decision after the fact. He didn’t give anything, because there was nothing for him to give. The consent had already been given by the time he found out she was pregnant.

Joseph’s choice wasn’t to give or not to give; his choice was either to get rid of her quietly, to get rid of her noisily, or to accept the situation with love, trust, and awe, because God told him not to be afraid to accept it.

And that is what he did. There was no transfer, no consent, no free will offering originating from Joseph. Mary was never going to be “his,” because she had already given herself to God in a real, radical way.

If Joseph gave Mary to God, then what did Mary’s “fiat” mean? Not a hell of a lot. More like when a child is allowed to sign a document that needs an adult’s signature to be official. No, it was Mary’s choice to make, and what she said to the Lord changed the course of . . . everything.

But Joseph’s whole deal reminds me of the concept that “we are all feminine in relation to God.” I’ve been wrestling with this idea my whole adult life, and most days, the best I can do is set it aside and do whatever job’s in front of me.

But so much of being a woman is being asked to accept things after they have already been decided, rather than being asked if you want them to happen or not. Yes, of course we decide many things, and make many choices. But women also very early confront the idea that things happen to them which they are not truly free to change or avoid. Ten times I have labored to give birth, and ten times, when the true agony set in, I have changed my mind. I decided I didn’t want to do it after all. Didn’t change a damn thing, thank God.
It’s not that women are passive. It’s that humanity in general is far more helpless than it realizes. It’s mankind in general that’s the damsel in distress; mankind in general that sits weeping in a tower, waiting for the savior to come. Women’s lives show this reality in high relief, largely because of our biology, and so women tend to realize much sooner than men that none of us is really in control of their lives. On a good day, we’re in charge of slightly changing the trajectory of little chunks of life as they fly past us. Freedom very often consists not in choosing what will happen to us, but in choosing how to respond to what happens to us.
And that sounds very much like what Joseph knew. He listened, a lot. He decided, out of love, not to fight things that had already come to pass. He worked with the system as long as he could, and when it wasn’t working, he gathered his family and ran away. He was willing to play a supporting role. He decided not to insist on taking what he could reasonably argue was rightfully his. And he was silent. In other words, Joseph’s behavior in the Gospels is like what we today normally think of as feminine — trusting, waiting, nurturing, self-sacrificial, chaste, modest, and quiet. This may account for how weirdly effeminate he looks in so much religious art, and it probably accounts in part for Marshall’s weird attempt to put Mary’s fiat in Joseph’s hands: Because he doesn’t behave in a way that checks off boxes in our modern understanding of masculinity.

We get St. Joseph wrong because we grasp that he is not what we commonly think of as masculine; but correct our mistake by assigning to him what we wrongly think of as feminine, or by refusing to face how wrong we are about what it means to be feminine. Mary’s behavior is what we should think of as feminine; but it’s so hard to grasp that we saddle her with a simpering passivity, turning her into a virgin too fragile to deal with men, rather than a virgin strong enough to deal with God.

Hell if I know what it all means, except that most of what we commonly think of as masculine and feminine is garbage, which probably accounts for why so many people think it doesn’t mean anything. In other context, my sister Abby Tardiff said this (and this was just part of a Facebook comment she dashed off, not some polished work of prose):

[S] ex and gender have to be understood first as cosmic paradigms. So, “feminine” doesn’t mean “like a woman.” It’s the other way around. A woman is someone who embodies the eternal archetype of femininity. But she won’t do it completely, because she’s an instantiation [a representative of an actual example], not the archetype itself. She’s a particular, not a universal. Also, her instantiation of the feminine will filter itself through her personality, through tradition, through society, etc. For these two reasons, you can’t pin down any one characteristic that every woman has. Any time you try to say what characteristics women have, you’ll find exceptions (often me).

However, if you start from the archetype, and say (for example) that the feminine archetype involves the taking of the other into the self, then you can conclude that every woman is cosmically called to do this as well as and in whatever way she can. So the point is not to say what women are like, but what their vocation is.

Taylor Marshall and his ilk are rightly angry that McCarrick and others have so smeared and ravaged human sexuality with their crimes and perversions. But Marshall’s brutal, puerile urge to squash all men and all women into small and clearly defined boxes of masculinity or femininity is, in its way, just as disastrous. More than one abused woman has told me that, early on in her marriage, before the beatings began, her pious Catholic husband railed at her for not being sufficiently archetypically feminine, as if any one woman could or should be. As if he had married womankind, rather than an actual person. This is the trap Marshall et al fall into: They want individual human beings to be the embodiment of all of their sex (“all seminarians must be masculine”); but since no one can or should achieve that, they reduce an archetypal reality to a few small, individualistic traits, and then rage at anyone who doesn’t reduce himself to those traits, as if they’ve failed at being human.

It’s a way of making sense of the world, and it’s intensely depersonalizing. We do not love by making what is large small, and we do not love by railing at what is small for not being as large as the whole universe. But people who behave this way don’t think they’re being cruel to individual people; they think they’re being noble by upholding ontological truths. But first they have to squash those ontological truths into bite-sized pieces.

Dressed up as respect for God’s creation, this way of thinking turns men and women away from our vocation, which is, in our particular ways, to be open to God: To be feminine in relation to God.

Yes, that looks different for men and for women, and it looks different for for one particular women compared to another, and one particular man compared to another; but in some very broad way, this is the true feminine, what both Joseph and Mary did.

I saw it myself yesterday, dozens of times, at Mass, at the Eucharist, men and women. They walked up to the front with all the burdens and glories of their particularities, and then opened up to receive God. How? Because He alone can take ontological truths and make them, as it were, bite-sized. He has made small what is larger than then universe, larger than masculine and feminine. Love makes itself small. Never to make others small.

Our vocation is to be open like Mary and open like Joseph, and neither one of the two of them look like anything I’ve ever seen before on this earth, except in brief flashes like at the altar rail. Hell if I know what it means. My kids were asking me about the Second Coming today, and all I could say was everyone who thinks they know what they are talking about is in for a surprise.


I think Taylor Marshall May Actually Be the Walrus

Look, I know Taylor Marshall is a good guy.  He is a courageous and clear spoken advocate for the faith (a little bit of “NFP is for when you’re schizophrenic or in a concentration camp” kookiness notwithstanding); and he has that wonderful, alt-universe-Johnny-Cash face:

But this aggression will not stand, man:  Marshall asks,  Did the Beatles Promote Abortion?

Marshall zeroes in the covers for the albums Sgt. Pepper and Yesterday and Today as evidence of the Beatles’ sinister influence.

Let’s look at Sgt. Pepper first.  Now, I will concede that the title song itself is neck deep in the hyper-self-aware, absurdist, non-specific smug condescension that dogged the second half of the Beatles’ career.  It’s technically a good song, but if I never heard it again, I would shed no tears.  Ditto for “She’s Leaving Home” (a “STFU, Paul” moment if ever there was one.)  “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” — meh.  But the rest of the songs are all good, some of them great.

But Marshall (oddly, for someone commenting on musicians) doesn’t mention the music.  Instead, he dutifully lists the names of all the people who appeared on that wretched cover:


Ah, the cover.  I’ve read a bit about what it’s supposed to represent, but I think what it really comes down to is a bunch of young guys who started playing in sleazy bars when they were teenagers, and abruptly got pushed around so much by their own talent that they needed to show the world that they’re done being cute.    I remember doing edgy, baffling montages like this when I was about 17.  You want to be taken seriously, and you’re hanging out with a bunch of arty types, and you feel like Making a Statement, even though you don’t exactly have anything specific to say, beyond, “I’m smart! Not like everybody says… like dumb… I’m smart and I want respect!”

Only the Beatles had more money to spend, so this is what they came up with.  That’s the statement they’re making when they stick together Shirley Temple and Oliver Hardy and Aleister Crowley:  hey, lookit us!  It is not, as Marshall says (italics his),”a collage of intellectual poison” — although Marshall struggles manfully to describe everyone in the most sinister terms he can muster, including:

  • Mae West (occultist, actress, sex idol)
  • W. C. Fields (comedian/actor, alcoholic)
  • H. G. Wells (socialist, eugenist, [sic] author, advocate of the “World State”, open critic of Catholic Church)
  • Marlon Brando (homosexual, actor)
  • Lewis Carroll (author, alleged pedaphile) [sic]
  • Marlene Dietrich (bisexual, actress, singer)

“Marlon Brando, homosexual, actor?”   “Lewis Carroll, alleged pedophile?” I ‘m sorry, when you come up with descriptors like that, you gotta turn in your “I understand stuff” card.  I’m relieved, at least, that he didn’t come up with anything bad to say about Johnny Weissmuller.  I love Johnny Weissmuller.

The fact that Weismuller is included here, along with Shirley Temple, Tom Mix, Dylan Thomas and Fred Astaire, says one thing to me:  “Things!  And the other things!  We’re awesome and edgy because look at all the things, oh man!”  But in Marshall’s analysis, this is “an assembly of occultists, political socialists, eugenists, homosexuals, and sexual provocateurs.”

So here is your first clue that Marshall is not going to offer an especially perceptive analysis of the Beatles.  His list reminds me of someone who wants to prove that the American flag has its roots in Freemasonry because, as all scholars know, that odious color blue is so closely associated with Masonic ritual, duh. Never mind the red and white because holy cow, how can we overlook the obvious significance of blue?  Blue!!!

Moving along.  Marshall describes the cover for The Beatles: Yesterday and Today:

Marshall says,

The four Beatles are wearing white doctor’s coats covered with flesh and decapitated babies. John looks mildly pleased. And Paul looks happy, even delighted. Ringo looks depressed (“Am I really doing this?”). George Harrison looks straight up evil. I feel like George is giving me the bird with a dead infant’s head.

This is just gross.

Okay, I’m with him there.  It’s also naively executed.  They were trying a little too hard to be ever so shocky-wocky, leaving us feeling like Ringo looks.  Marshall continues:

Pause. What did this represent in 1966? John Lennon said it was a commentary on the Vietnam War. But I don’t see what physician smocks with dead babies has to do with the war. Yes people are dying in each, but still. Kinda weird.

For what it’s worth, the Parliament legalized abortion in the UK with the Abortion Act  of 1967 on 27 October 1967. Abortion was being hotly debated in the United Kingdom when this photo was taken.

Or, they are wearing butcher’s coats, and it is a commentary on the Vietnam War — something along the lines of “killing is bad; and yet we are rock stars.  Isn’t this edgy as crap?”  Oh, and Harrison looks “straight up evil” because that’s his face, circa 1966.  He had bad teeth and was not yet coked to the gills.

Marshall concludes:

My conclusion is that there is something really dark about the Beatles. It’s not just a happy “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da Life Goes On” quartet. There is something sinister here. This album cover just screams it. It’s not normal.

I used to think that the great “evil minds” infecting the 20th century were men like Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Michael Foucault. However, I think the biggest wrecking ball of Western culture might have been resting in every American’s record collection (or iPod) – John, Paul, Ringo, and George!

Okay. I actually agree with him, if not his analytical technique: as with 99% of musicians, playwrights, painters, poets, novelists, sculptors, and bloggers worth reading, there is something really dark about the Beatles, and some caution is a good idea. I encourage my kids to listen mostly to the earlier stuff, where their technical brilliance can be enjoyed unimpeded with the navel gazing muzziness that came later.  We have discussed how people in Hell are probably holding hands and singing “Imagine” right now; and I have taught them to identify the sitar, when played by a white man, as the sound of bullshit.

But . . . oh, I don’t even know what to say.  I’ve said it so many times, and I don’t know if there’s any way to persuade people who don’t already see it so clearly.  We’re Catholic. Our main job isn’t to apply “censor” bar across everything that doesn’t come straight from the Baltimore Catechism.  We take what is good. We’re supposed to beexperts at identifying what is good.  We’re not supposed to be screaming meemies who bite our lips and blush every time someone dips into a minor key.  We’re supposed to use sifters, not dump trucks, when sorting through culture.

My daughter says that most of her friends only know two Beatles songs:  “Yellow Submarine,” and “Eleanor Rigby.”  Lord, what a shame.  No musical education is complete without:

  • And Your Bird Can sing
  • Blackbird
  • Back In The U.S.S.R.
  • Can’t Buy Me Love
  • Drive My Car
  • Got to get you into my life
  • I feel fine
  • I need you
  • I’ll follow the sun
  • Paperback Writer
  • Revolution
  • You  never give me your money
  • You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away
  • Something
  • Ticket to Ride
  • Taxman

So much heartache, so much loveliness, so many moments of pure music, written by people who are in love with music.  Did the Beatles confuse its fans and popularize bad ideas?  Sure. But they used their God-given talents to produce music which elevated the world in a real, valuable, irreplaceable way.  Everything that is good sings the praises of God, and the Beatles were good.  Really good.  As long as they were together, they worked in the service of the muse, and they produced something great.

I really do like Taylor Marshall, but I don’t like the world he seems to want to live in.