One of the best things about fall in New England is visiting pumpkin patches and picking apples. We did a little of both the other day.
I had forgotten how amazing the simple pleasures are.
The World Series banner wasn't up yet.
Given the trend these days for people to change their employment paths every few years, it's hard to imagine someone staying on in the same job for half a century. But Normand Gingras has enjoyed every moment of the five decades he has served as organist and choir director at St. Anne's Church and Shrine.
Despite his years of formal European music training, Gingras still sets aside time each day to practice on the grand pipe organ in the choir loft of St. Anne's Church that he oversaw the installation of more than 40 years ago. And at 80, he wouldn't even think twice about going out of the house without his signature jacket and tie.
He's traveled around the world, and makes regular jaunts to New York's Metropolitan Opera. So does he ever think of retiring?
"Why, if I can still do it? I don't know what I'd do with myself," he says.
He says he will keep on playing at his requisite five Masses a week and numerous weddings and funerals throughout each year as long as he can continue to ascend the 40 steps leading to his perch high above the pews with ease.
Of all the elephants galumphing around our culture’s living room, none is more significant than the change in our rhetoric of death. By this I mean the metaphors and similes by which we speak of the dead.
You have only to listen to a funeral homily, squirm through a eulogy, or read “verses” offered in memoriam to realize that there has occurred a seismic shift in our cultural imagination. Heaven now lies before us devoid of geography. Death has ceased to be a drama.
I’m not suggesting that our fascination about “spirits” and the “spirit-world” has diminished. Far from it. The trend of TV shows about angels, etc., reveals that this fascination with the “beyond” flourishes. Mary Roach’s Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife remains a bestseller. You have only to drive through a suburban neighborhood to see how Americans have transformed even Halloween into a bizarre kind of dia de los muertos.
To name the specific elephant in question, let me be blunt: However fascinated most Americans are in the “afterlife,” the fact remains that those grand themes, once the raison d’etre of mainline churches and pulpits — that is, death, judgment, heaven and hell — have vanished from the very religious communities that first articulated them. They are just plain gone. Preachers and theologians, politicians and toastmasters may trot out the occasional words — but now for ornamentation, not out of any necessity.
To understand just how dramatic this shift in our rhetoric, consider three examples. When a dying John Donne crawled into his pulpit in 1631, he preached a sermon entitled “Death’s Duel.” What makes it one of the greatest sermons in the English language is its rhetorical force. It is an explosion of metaphors and images of incredible specificity. Donne rendered life as a perilous journey and death as our foe “even from the womb.” He left his congregation in no doubt that each individual’s appointment with death is the most serious engagement in life.
When John Bunyan’s stalwart Christian of The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) finally reached sight of the Celestial City, he finds himself plunged neck-deep into a river of dread. “And . . . a great darkness and horror fell upon Christian, so that he could not see before him.” There was no immediate entrÉ into heavenly bliss. Heaven was a city to be won after arduous struggle, not the predetermined destination of a cruise ship.
As late as 1865 Cardinal Newman could publish The Dream of Gerontius, a dialogue between a dying man, angels and the demonic, which became something of a Victorian bestseller. Far from being a pious bit of Catholic triumphalism, he rendered death as no less than “this emptying out of each constituent / And natural force, by which I come to be.” The poem expresses a dread of death worthy of Dante or even Jean Paul Sartre.
Contrast these with the following contemporary tropes — gleanings typical of American pulpit: “Tom may be gone, but he will live on in our hearts.” “Aunt Bertha is in a better place.” “After years of hardship, Uncle Fred is finally home.” “We don’t know why Sally was taken from us so young, but someday we will.” Or, my own favorite, proclaimed over a woman who had made the lives of her children and grandchildren absolute hell, “For Edith the great symphony of life continues now among the stars.”
I have no doubt that many people have found comfort in such statements. The significant thing, though, is that compared with the specific rhetoric of a Donne, Bunyan or Newman, these tropes refer us ultimately to ... well, uh ... nothing.
They point to a landscape without topography or content. They imply that a human life is not so much a drama to be acted with the utmost ethical seriousness but a pleasant odor that will eventually dissipate. The only traditional image that seems to have hung on is that when we “pass” we enter into a bright white light. But within this light ... who can say? (Frankly, heaven for me has always been autumnal and filled with deep shade.)
But why should it matter? We forget. How a society renders death and the “beyond” says everything about how it renders life and the here-and-now. The ways in which we picture what happens to the dead determine the ways in which we picture our own lives — the ways in which we engage in ethical reflection.
A life pictured as a cruise that will encounter the occasional storm is very different from one whose destination is pictured as fraught with demands, uncertainties, and the abiding shadow of possible moral failure.
The reason that most mainline churches have ended up focused on politics or sexual expression or “an aesthetic experience,” is simple. Without a rhetoric of the “beyond,” what else is there to talk about?
And the reason that sustained ethical reflection is scarce among most theologians is obvious. Now that life’s drama has no final act of any depth, life itself cannot but be pictured as one discrete scene after another.
Sadly, our modern dilemma is that we cannot return to a lost rhetoric without making it artificial. Those well-meaning preachers and speakers who try to “follow an antique drum” have come to seem to me about as “genuine” as a costumed guide at some colonial theme park.
No doubt we may rediscover the rich and mysterious topography of the “beyond.” But if we do our rhetoric will be decidedly different.
Poets and novelists, painters and artists, as well as the itinerant mystic, are always stumbling into it. Just don’t look for it to come from the American pulpit.
I remember a couple of years ago watching the show Project Runway, a reality show about upcoming fashion designers competing to win on the runway. At one point the judges, all models and fashion industry executives, were gushing about a particular dress coming down the runway, “Now, any woman with any figure could wear that! It’s beautiful!”
Any woman? Excuse me? The dress was of thin white silky material, with a short, pencil-straight skirt, sleeveless and backless, neckline plunging down to the navel, and the sides of the (braless and hanging) breasts exposed. It had less material than a slip. How could anyone in their right mind believe for one moment that any woman could wear such a dress?
Then there was the episode where designers were asked to design things for other contestant's mothers – and how painfully clear it became that most of them had no clue about how to design for a woman under 6’ and over 120 lbs. One of the mothers was reduced to tears of humiliation by the ugly design her “designer” created. I could relate. I’ve worn those same tears.
In watching the show over a couple of seasons (I enjoyed the creativity of it, though not, for the most part, the designs), it occurred to me: many top fashion designers are gay men. Having been close to many gay men in my life, I know that they for the most part don’t, shall I say, find a woman’s body attractive. Among some I’ve known, quite the opposite. Some refer to women disdainfully as “breeders,” with clear contempt for our reproductive capacity.
It occurred to me, as I watched the tall, skinny models make their way down the runway, that they bear a certain resemblance to adolescent boys. Gay men do like adolescent boys. So perhaps gay fashion designers, who in many respects drive the fashion industry, are not really designing for women, but for boys, consciously or no – leaving real women in the lurch, feeling inadequate, deprived, ugly, because of our shapely, curvy, soft, unpredictable bodies, designed for giving life. And that does not even begin to address what contraception, abortion, promiscuity, and pornography have done to our view of a woman’s body, its meaning, purpose, and dignity as image and likeness of God. Feminism was supposed to free us from such degradation - but it has not. It is worse than ever.
In a declaration released yesterday afternoon, Holy See Press Office Director Fr. Federico Lombardi S.J. denied recent reports that the Vatican or the Italian Episcopal Conference have bought the Italian football team Ancona, which plays in the third division.
Ancona football club and the "Centro Sportivo Italiano" have recently signed an agreement involving the application of an ethical code in the administration of the team, alongside a new model of economic management, the promotion of a sporting culture among the fans, and support for social initiatives in the Third World. For its part, the "Centro Sportivo Italiano" has undertaken to seek sponsors for the club.
"The Vatican and the Italian Episcopal Conference have nothing to do with this project," declared Fr. Lombardi. "There are initiatives which have positive and commendable aims and, if the declared intentions can be effectively achieved, this is certainly a good thing," he said adding, however, that this does not mean that this is an initiative of the Vatican or of the Italian Episcopal Conference.
The Holy See Press Office Director went on: "The Church must not be attributed with responsibilities she does not have, although she may view positively the commitment of lay Catholics in various fields, including that of sports."
Members of the Ancona football club will participate in tomorrow's general audience in St. Peter's Square but this, Fr. Lombardi made clear, does not mean "that the Pope has sponsored or taken responsibility for the working of the team."
Kidman Says Religious Content of 'The Golden Compass' Has Been "Watered Down" What, you expected something different? Nicole Kidman has spoken with Entertainment Weekly (and by extension The Sydney Herald), seemingly to quell a firestorm that I didn't even know was raging -- concerns that New Line's The Golden Compass will upset Catholics. Kidman strongly suggests to EW that the film adaption of Philip Pullman's blatantly anti-theistic His Dark Materials books will not retain material that would upset religious folks. She says the religious message put forth in the film version of The Golden Compass "has been watered down a little," and she goes on to say that "I was raised Catholic, the Catholic Church is part of my essence. I wouldn't be able to do this film if I thought it were at all anti-Catholic." So in other words, 'nothing interesting to see here -- move on.' This movie just continues to fall lower and lower on my 'to see' list.
...The Amber Spyglass, just won the prestigious British Book Award for the Children’s Book of the Year (the first book won in 1996), and is currently just behind Rowling on the New York Times children’s bestseller list.
Pullman conceived of the series after writing down its first words, “Lyra and her daemon.” The idea of daemons (pronounced “demons”) has ante cedents in the daimon or spirit that Socrates claimed as an aid in his judgment, and in the tradition of guar dian angels. A daemon is a part of the human soul that takes the visible form of an animal, or many animals-the daemons of children change shape constantly, but settle down at puberty into just one shape as a person’s character becomes more definite. So the helmsman of a boat might have a seagull as his daemon, while Pantalaimon, Lyra Belacqua’s daemon, begins the series as a moth but shifts into a mouse, a dragon, an ermine, a mountain lion, a cat, and just about any animal shape you can think of. It is extraordinarily painful for daemons to go far from their people (it feels like your heart is being torn from your breast), and when Lyra sees at one stage a boy without a daemon, she is revolted:
"The little boy was huddled against the wood drying rack where hung row upon row of gutted fish, all stiff as boards. He was clutching a piece of fish to him as Lyra was clutching Pantalaimon, with her left hand, hard, against her heart; but that was all he had, a piece of dried fish; because he had no daemon at all. The Gobblers had cut it away. That was intercision, and this was a severed child. Her first impulse was to turn and run, or to be sick."
This device of the daemon, which is one of the great inventions of fantastic fiction, frames Pullman’s whole trilogy. The reader comes to love daemons, especially Lyra’s Pantalaimon, and one can easily imagine thousands of children (and not a few adults) wishing they had one.
The Golden Compass really begins when street urchins and servants’ children begin disappearing all over Europe (in the parallel world in which the action takes place). Word spreads on the streets that the Gobblers have stolen them, and are performing terrible experiments on them way up in the Arctic Circle. A mysterious substance called Dust seems to be involved, but the Church has forbidden any discussion of Dust, for it falls in the realm of philosophical speculation rather than theological research, and because it may have something to do with Original Sin. When Lyra’s best friend Roger and another boy are taken by the Gobblers, Lyra becomes determined to rescue them, and her adventures begin. There is a prophecy about Lyra that she will determine the fate of the universe, although she must do so without knowing what she is doing.
In The Subtle Knife, book two of the series, we meet Will Parry, a boy from Oxford in our world, who also is destined to play a major role in the history of the cosmos-he finds and bears a knife called God-killer that can cut a passage between worlds. He and Lyra meet in Cittigàzze, an Italianate city in yet a third world. Will is looking for his father, an explorer who Will thinks has travelled into a different world, and Lyra’s alethiometer (a truth-telling device, the golden compass of the first book) tells her she should help him. Lyra wants also to help her father, the mysterious Lord Asriel, who is preparing to overthrow the Authority (“God, the Creator, the Lord, Yahweh, El, Adonai, the King, the Father, the Almighty-those were all names he gave himself,” an angel tells Will). He can do this, he thinks, because what the Church calls God is really only the name for the first angel, who tried to trick all the other creatures into submitting to him. Some of the angels rebelled centuries ago, but lost, and now Lord Asriel is rallying the remnant of those who favor truth over the Authority’s lies to overthrow the Kingdom of Heaven and replace it with the Republic of Heaven.
The Amber Spyglass adds to the mix a fourth world, where the mulafeh, elephant-like people who roll around on wheels made from the giant seeds of giant trees, are starting to die off from the raids of giant swans and because the giant trees are dying as Dust leaves the world. So by the end of the series, Lyra and Will have to overthrow the Authority, rescue the dead (did I mention they make a trip to the realm of the dead à la Dante?), save the mulefah, heal the breach between the worlds, prevent the Gobblers from intercising children’s daemons, and establish the Republic of Heaven, all the while remaining in a state of innocence so that they can either relive or renounce Eve’s choice in the Garden of Eden.
Pullman has set himself an ambitious task, trying to tell a complex yet realistic tale about the death of God and the true nature and destiny of man. He has the talent to have pulled it off, but unfortunately, his atheism gets in the way. For unlike John Milton and his other hero William Blake, Pullman is a Richard Dawkins-type materialist, and his atheism fatally flaws The Amber Spyglass, and therefore, retroactively, the whole series. Pullman, who raised more than a few eyebrows with an article in the Guardian excoriating C. S. Lewis’ Narnia stories for their tendency to lapse into preaching, falls prey to that same bad habit himself. Indeed, to facilitate his preaching, he breaks many of the rules of fantasy-writing in this third volume, and although this probably makes his novel more appropriate for children, it seriously weakens it as art.
Atheists can write perfectly good and realistic fiction, because there is nothing about being an atheist that prohibits a person from understanding human motivation and the physical world. But being nonreligious does deprive you of the one thing an ambitious fantasy author needs: a plausible cosmology, a myth that tells us how things got to be the way they are. The great religions all provide this. One could even hold, as did Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, that a religion is just a story of the world, which in the case of Christianity (they held) happens to be true. A Christian fantasist in his act of subcreation can borrow heavily from the true mythic world created by the Christian God; the fantasist might change some of the names and other details, but the basic infinitely rich story has already been told.
The Christian myth has such a powerful hold over our narrative imagination that it is probably impossible to write a believable epic, especially one about the Last Things, without relying on it extensively. Pullman challenges the most fantastic and yet most persuasive parts of the Christian myth-Creation, the Fall, Sin, Death, Heaven, Hell-and one credits him for gumption. If his alternative were more compelling, I would recommend parents keep their children away. (Pullman has just signed to do a “reference work” called The Book of Dust which will lay out the creation myth in full, and thus probably won’t be appropriate-or interesting-for children.)
As is, I can fairly characterize His Dark Materials in this fashion: imagine if at the beginning of the world Satan’s rebellion had been successful, that he had reigned for two thousand years, and that a messiah was necessary to conquer lust and the spirit of domination with innocence, humility, and generous love at great personal cost. Such a story is not subversive of Christianity, it is almost Christian, even if only implicitly and imperfectly. But implicit and imperfect Christianity is often our lot in life, and Pullman has unintentionally created a marvelous depiction of many of the human ideals Christians hold dear.