Okay, okay. I got behind on my posting again, and as penance I’m going to share seven things, instead of three, for you to read as you relax with your family and friends this Christmas.
1. Michael Boyle has been putting together a masterful series of posts that he’s calling “Another Theology of the Body.” It’s something I’ve long wanted to see: a thoughtful, extensive (but still entertainingly bloggy) engagement with the ideas behind John Paul II’s brilliant and incredibly influential, but deeply flawed, “Theology of the Body.” Boyle takes the theology of the body approach seriously but, unlike traditional theology-of-the-body-ers, doesn’t shoehorn his readings of the body and its sexual nature into ready-made conclusions (Hey! Tradition is right!). What’s more, he points out that one of the best parts of JPII’s theology of the body—the idea that “sexual and romantic love is, despite some qualifiers, a good thing in and of itself”—is irreconcilable with much of Christian tradition and that, therefore, if you hold want to hold that position you have to “tear down the whole structure of Christian sexual morality and start from scratch.” It’s a must-read series, a real contribution to conversations on Christianity and sexuality, and I plan on citing it a lot from here on. For now, I want to point you to his latest post in the series, Another Theology of the Body, Part VIII: Making Peace with Sexual Desire.
2. The theme of that piece, obviously, is sexual desire, which puts it into conversation with this post by Maureen Mullarkey over at First Things. Starting from the premise that “[e]vangelization originates in compassion for the world, not disdain for it,” Mullarkey defends the goodness of sexual desire against the reductive view of the ultra-traditional Neocatechumenal Way. She talks about the “solace of sexual attraction” and—a phrase I love—the “generosity of divine intent.” And she concludes, “If the Church is to lead [young people] toward a humane understanding of the gift of sex, her spokesmen must first respect it for its intrinsic goodness, not solely for a procreative function shared with every species on the planet. Their counsel has to acknowledge sexual desire for the sweetness that it is—a fructifying promise—before it can plausibly direct it toward covenanted love.”
3. Did you know that John Coltrane was sainted by the African Orthodox Church? I didn’t, even though I mentioned him in this post last year. I did know that this year (this month, in fact!) marks the 50th anniversary of his landmark album A Love Supreme. S. Brent Plate, at Religion Dispatches, recalls the time when, having stopped going to church, he started listening to A Love Supreme every Sunday. Why? Because:
When he is pouring his breath into the saxophone in the midst of “Pursuance,” part III of A Love Supreme, distinctions between music and musician, instrument and player, and music and listener, break down. Maybe it’s a mystical experience, God reaching to us through the music. Or maybe it’s just the musical arrangement itself, some deliciously delicate balance of sounds that settle and unsettle all at once, reaching our eardrums and resonating through our bodies. I’ve since lost my Sunday ritual of listening—no, experiencing—A Love Supreme. But from time to time, when I think I might need it, or when something beyond me is pushing me in new ways, I find my copy of the album, now digital, and allow the transportation to take place. Getting lost in the music and getting found in the sound.
4. Speaking of the spiritual dimension of secular music (although I’m not sure Coltrane counts as secular), I’ve got my fingers crossed that somebody gives me an Amazon, or Barnes & Noble, or Book People gift card this Christmas. If they do (frankly, even if they don’t), I’m going to buy David Zahl’s A Mess of Help: From the Crucified Soul of Rock n’ Roll. Here’s Zahl explaining the impulse that led him to write about faith and dirty music together:
I hate to say it but that phrase “Christian approach” often implies an agenda, unspoken or unconscious, that culture is valuable only insofar as we can harness it in some way, or how it stacks up against the standards of our faith. But to quote someone I admire, I’m convinced that “any goodness, beauty, truthfulness, or enlivening candor we have the wit to discern is something for which we have God to thank.” That is, that it’s already been harnessed. So this isn’t a Christian “take” on secular music, at least as I see it. The artists I wrote about are the ones that have spoken and continue to speak to me rather than vice versa; I talk more about what I’ve learned from them than how their work filters through a pre-existing framework.
5. Let’s see… We’ve covered sex and rock n’ roll. Why not some talk about drugs? Specifically about how little of them the kids these days are doing? Call it “The Myth of Moral Decline, Narcotics Edition”: it turns out that high school kids are doing fewer drugs and drinking and smoking less than kids in the past. That’s not really surprising if you’ve been following these things over the past few years. What is interesting is that kids are using these things less while perceiving them to be less risky than kids in the past did. For example, less than 50% of 12th graders think there’s a “great risk” in smoking pot regularly, compared to almost 80% in 1991. As Olga Khazan writes, “In other words, pot is readily available, in some cases legal to have, and kids don’t think it’s harmful. Yet they aren’t using more of it.”
6. Speaking of the Myth of Moral Decline: there’s a decent point in this article at Crisis Magazine, about the way beauty teaches us “to appreciate the being of things rather than merely their utility.” Of course, it’s buried beneath stuff about men riding into battle with their lady love’s image on their heart, and sentences like this, which always make me grumble: “Who today, in the hustle and bustle of modern life, has the need for a quiet walk through woods in the early morning just as the sun begins to pierce through the fog and nature’s symphony is at its peak?” That view of modernity is posed against “Once upon a time in the Western world,” when “exposure to ‘the beautiful’ was an important element in the development and formation of men.” In particular, the author cites the Romantics of the 19th Century who “who had the capacity to be intoxicated by the beauty of nature.” Jeez, Catholic Right. Why do you always have to do this? Couldn’t you make this point without turning it into a diatribe against modernity? The Romantic poets weren’t representative of society in the early 1800s—they were countercultural back then, too. Just like, later in the century, Thoreau was considered an oddball. We humans have always needed reminding to get our heads out of the daily grind of eating, drinking, working, and sleeping so that we can appreciate the beauty around us. This is nothing new.
7. Listless, Leggy Dolls: When I grumble about the Myth of Moral Decline, I don’t mean to come off as a progressive Pollyanna, arguing that everything is always getting better and better. I just hate the reflexive worship of the past, when people were neither more nor less moral than they are today. I think there’s plenty to criticize in contemporary culture. For example: Sonia Soraiya at Salon goes after the Victoria Secret Fashion Show, not for being too sexy but—get this!—for not being sexy enough. It’s a trenchant critique of the way that sex loses its humanity when it gets attached to consumerism and, therefore, isn’t sexy anymore. “While the mannerisms and behaviors are all hypersexualized,” Soraiya writes, “the content of the show is so plastic and empty that it feels robotic.” It’s the kind of observation that ought to find purchase on both the left and the right. Have a great Christmas, everybody. I’ll try to be back later in the week with a post on Reilly’sMaking Gay Okay.