Monday, October 27, 2014

Two Kinds of Triumphalism

Ordinarily one hears the word "triumphalism" applied to historical narratives about the Church.  The triumphalist version of Church History treats the past centuries as an inevitable march of the Ecclesia Militans onward to eschatological victory.  I would like to identify two new kinds of Triumphalism, related not to reflections on the Church's past, but to assessments of the present state of things.

The first triumphalism is an eschatological triumphalism, based on Christ's assurance that "I have overcome the world" (John 16:33).  This triumphalism is informed by the theological virtue of hope, which looks at worldly distress, doubt and tribulation and sees past it to the victory already won by our Lord, who is enthroned at the right hand of the Father.  Yes, in the world we will have suffering.  Yes, there is strife and confusion, there are false teachers and antichrists, but in the midst of the grim struggle, we need not despair, because the victory is already ours.  This eschatological triumphalism ends up looking a lot like grim realism.  It expects things to go awry frequently, it sees the present world as a vale of tears which is passing away, but when things go wrong it sees this as an occasion of fortitude befitting a miles Christi.  The light set upon a hill shines brightest at night.

The second triumphalism is an ultramontane triumphalism, based on Christ's assurance that "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18).  Or rather, based on a particular reading of this promise.  The ultramontane triumphalist focuses on the immanent signs of Christ's triumph, in the integrity of the Church and especially in the Vicar of Christ.  The ultramontane triumphalist does not need to worry about persecution or fear any confusion, because he sees the promised triumph of Christ as already continuously accomplished in the prudence and perfection of the papal reign.  Everything the shepherds of the Church do is interpreted as a work of the Good Shepherd, and every act and allocution of the Roman Pontiff is interpreted through the promise of infallibility.  To stay faithful to Christ is to believe in his reign, which is made present through the reign of the Pope and the fidelity of the bishops.  To doubt the perfection of the latter is to deny the triumph of the former, and is therefore an act of despair and loss of faith.

The second kind of triumphalism is based on something correct: the Vicar of Christ is the Vicar of Christ, and his reign is an earthly sign of the triumph of our Lord, and his voice as Supreme Pontiff is the voice of the whole Church, speaking truths given to her by her Bridegroom.  And yet, like all heresies, it takes this noble truth, and warps it so as to obscure part of the faith and remove (at the cost of blindness) some of the difficulties of the present life.  Ultramontane triumphalism neglects those famous passages in Scripture, in which St. Luke tells us of divisions among the apostles, when St. Paul recalls rebuking Peter for his hypocrisy, when St. Peter warns the faithful against false teachers who will arise among them.  We follow the Pope, because he has the words of everlasting life.  We obey our Bishops because they teach us the truth and nourish us with the sacraments.  But, as St. Jerome writes,
"Not all bishops are bishops indeed. You consider Peter; mark Judas as well. You notice Stephen; look also on Nicolas, sentenced in the Apocalypse by the Lord's own lips, whose shameful imaginations gave rise to the heresy of the Nicolaitans... It is not ecclesiastical rank that makes a man a Christian. The centurion Cornelius was still a heathen when he was cleansed by the gift of the Holy Spirit. Daniel was but a child when he judged the elders."  
Ultramontane triumphalism often ends in despair, because when the imperfection and profound weakness of our shepherds is revealed to us, this kind of triumphalist sees what is a lamentable fact of the corruption and corruptibility of wayward men, as a contradiction at the very heart of the faith, and as a failure of Christ, who promised to sustain his Vicar and protect him from the forces of hell.

Perhaps worse still, though, is the reaction of triumphalists who refuse to admit the imperfections and errors of the shepherds when they arise, who would insist on not just ignoring the fault, but on praising Peter for his hypocrisy, or honoring Nicolas for his heretical notions, because their fideistic confidence in the integrity of the papal reign so overwhelms reason that they must embrace everything that is done by the steward as if it were done by the king himself.  This perversion of faith leads to a perversion of hope, and it manifests itself with disturbing frequency among English-language commentators on ecclesiastical affairs.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

On the Intrusion of the Religious
into Secular Storytelling

One of the reasons prayer and religion integrate so poorly into otherwise secular media is that God doesn't make very good set dressing.  You can try to neuter religious practice by sentimentalizing it (formerly the most common approach -- the young child offering innocent prayers), or by limiting its presence to moments of high drama and human bafflement (also common -- the protagonist crying out to God), or by demonizing it (now most common -- the psychotic zealot, the clerical predator), but seriousness about things divine logically demands a reorientation of interest away from the mundane concerns of the typical secular narrative and toward God.  (When there is eternity to be gained or lost, the passions of the flesh and the pursuit of worldly peace seem rather thin.)

This demand for reorientation is jarring to the secular storyteller on two levels: (1) it threatens the integrity of the plot and the intelligibility of secular character arcs; (2) it forces the narrative into a conversion pattern, which cannot (by the lights of the secular writer) be done in a gratifying way without yielding to moralistic cliches.

One of the normal features of realist narrative is the absence of a clean resolution to the driving conflict in the plot.  In secular realism, this lack of resolution is undergirded by a tacit nihilism or absurdism: there is no happy ending because life itself is an unresolvable series of tensions.  But this lack of resolution seems to belong more properly to religious narratives, because the "locus refrigerii, lucis et pacis" which provides satisfaction for our struggles is not visible in this vale of tears, to which all our stories must be confined.  Like the life of St. Francis, the best religious stories end in a place of suffering and decay, with an ellipsis pointing to eternal life.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

One Line Movie Summaries

Since I have just finished eating a box of chocolates given to me for my birthday, it seems time to write up a few random movie summaries.  One line each, chosen based on random flipping through an old master-list of my Netflix ratings.


Primer -- Two tech professionals accidentally invent a time machine—or wait, they already invented the time machine, and now they're just reliving the past in order to change things. (3)

Princess Mononoke -- Young man is poisoned by a crazed forest spirit, ends up entangled in a plot to decapitate nature, falls in love with a girl raised by wolves. (4)

Prometheus -- Alien prequel that basically amounts to a really really high-budget X-Files episode: in search of our alien creators, scientists end up uncovering an ever-mutating virus which was meant to destroy humanity. (3)

Proof -- The daughter of a recently-deceased famous insane math prof proves the Goldbach Conjecture or Riemann or something, and no one is sure whether it's her work or her dad's.

Proof of Life -- Meg Ryan's husband is kidnapped by a Columbian drug cartel, and she falls for Russell Crowe, who plays the military guy responsible for negotiating his release. (3)

Psycho -- Woman steals a bunch of money and runs away from work, only to be murdered by a crazy hotel manager who dresses up like his dead mother. (3)

Pulp Fiction -- A bunch of random stuff happens to some hit guys who work for Marcellus Wallace. (2)

Pygmalion -- The original film version of G.B. Shaw's awful play about an arrogant professor re-creating a woman in his own image.

Rachel Getting Married -- Anne Hathaway plays a disturbed alcoholic whose sister is getting married in the midst of a lot of emotional drama and dysfunction. (4)

Radio Flyer -- Elijah Wood plays one of two little boys who escape from an abusive step father by building an airplane out of a wagon. (2)

Raiders of the Lost Ark -- Indiana Jones chases the Ark of the Covenant while Nazis try to use its power to guarantee military success. (3)

Rain Man -- Tom Cruise discovers his long-lost autistic brother and kidnaps him. (3)

Rango -- Johnny Depp plays a lizard whose desert hallucinations play out something like the plot of Chinatown. (2)

Ransom -- Mel Gibson tries to get his son back from kidnappers, but I don't think he does. (2)

Rashomon -- Different witnesses to a murder-suicide recount the event in totally contradictory ways. (3)

Rat Race -- A group of millionaires watch a bunch of ordinary Vegas vacationers race to win a large cash prize.  (2)

Ratatouille  -- A rat with culinary talent helps a famous chef's oafish son demonstrate that great cooks can come from any part of the population. (5)

Ratcatcher -- A young Glasgow boy sees his friend drown and, after struggling with this for a while, commits suicide. (3)

Ready to Rumble -- Two wrestling superfans go in search of their favorite wrestler in order to help him overcome something.  (1)

Rear Window -- Grace Kelly and Jimmy Stewart uncover a murder from the window of his studio apartment. (4)

Rebecca -- Something about a new wife and a crazy housekeeper too attached to her former mistress... fire.  (4)

Reds -- Diane Keaton is a liberated woman who ends up with Communist labor organizer Warren Beatty, who wrote this interminable mess of a film, and ends up sticking with him through thick and thin as they make their way to Soviet Russia to help the revolutionary cause. (2)

Renaissance Man -- Danny Devito teaches remedial english to soldiers, and gets caught up in their personal dramas. (2)

Return to Oz -- Horrifying sequel to The Wizard of Oz, involving a weird headless witch, rollerskate monsters, an evil mountain king and an insane asylum. (3)