Francis and the Via Negativa Part 1

As the smoke—black at first, but slowly giving way to white—escaped into the sky above the Sistine Chapel, I was driving somewhere between D.C. and Richmond. There would be a wait, the NPR commentators said, while the newly elected pontiff was taken into Saint Peter’s and prepared for his grand debut on the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square, the Loggia of the Blessings.

So I waited—I had nothing better to do—and listened as they pattered on about what might be going on behind the grand façade of St. Peter’s: Would the new pontiff be African?—unlikely. Would he be American?—definitely not. Conservative?—of course.

No one anticipated, not the devout, and especially not the critics and cynics what the Church has earned for Herself: that this new pope would take the name Francis, and that his voice would sound so radical and new. It shouldn’t. He’s only speaking the Gospel, saying what other popes have said before him, but from his mouth and combined with his actions, it no longer seems like some distant ideal.

I’ve remained Catholic, though there is so much to be disappointed in and angry about, from sex scandals to liturgical music that’ll make your ears bleed, in large part because I want to be a part of the same church as St. Francis of Assisi. But I’ve long wondered if the average American parish would welcome the poor man from Assisi, or if my conception of him is pure bohemian romance.

I know I’m not alone in romanticizing Francis—even the angriest lapsed Catholic and the most secular of humanists will proudly host a Francis birdbath in his garden. Our new pope has wisely chosen the name of the last beloved emissary of the Catholic Church to the masses.

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A Good War Is Hard To Find

A few nights ago, after Jess and the kids were in bed, I finally bit the bullet and watched Kathryn Bigelow’s film Zero Dark Thirty. I’ve been dreading it. Avoiding it.

As I settled into the couch and pressed play on the DVD remote, metallic thunder began rolling and echoing through the woods around our house. The cats bolted from the couch where they had been sleeping into the basement and the living room windows rattled—perfect foreshadowing for my mood, a leaden feeling borne of the understanding that watching Zero Dark Thirty would likely dredge up a lot of feelings and thoughts that I have been working hard to repress.

My book A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America meditates on American attitudes toward violence in the aftermath of 9/11 and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. The occasion for the book is the photos of abuse taken by military police and shared via the web, photos that tipped us off that something larger and more coordinated than a few sadistic individuals satisfying their dark needs was happening outside the photos’ frames.

In all, I spent about eighteen months immersing myself in the research and literature on violence, torture, and photography. I have never and may never again read so much in such a short period of time. Time was of the essence. The publisher wanted it immediately, so I devoured histories, sociological and psychological case studies, Marxist intellections on the inexpressibility of pain­—how torture can “unmake” the world around us. I read prison narratives, and novels, I watched documentaries, and read journalistic accounts of war and atrocity from the Peloponnesian War to the on-going War on Terror. [Read more...]

David Foster Wallace Kills My Darlings

“You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”

–C.S. Lewis

To be an artist is to be constantly dissatisfied. Many acclaimed artists have said this, and though not acclaimed, I identify. I have habit of sitting on projects for too long, afraid to let go until they’re absolutely perfect, a habit that usually doesn’t lead to perfection but preciousness, an inability to let go.

In an attempt to be more at ease with doing as Faulkner commanded and “kill my darlings,” I’m doing a similar thing when I read, looking out for the precious progeny of the author.

David Foster Wallace, whose many detractors feel he should have killed a few hundred more darlings in his loose, baggy fiction, speaks to this double vision in his 1988 essay “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young,” collected for the first time in his posthumous book of essays Both Flesh and Not. [Read more...]

The Moveable Feast of Memory

There are moments when you take stock of everyone and everything around you because you want to remember them for the rest of your life.

However impossible that actually is, you do it anyway. I think of it as civil disobedience against entropy, against whatever physical and chemical principles dictate the half-life of sense and memory.

I had a moment several nights ago, March 27, the debut of my friend Tearrance Chisolm’s play “In Sweet Remembrance.” It also happened to be a full moon. [Read more...]

Becoming Uncool in the Pursuit of Truth

This morning, prepping for a class I’m teaching called Writing about Film and Music, I stumbled across a YouTube clip of the legendary Brian Eno, producer of U2’s 1987 The Joshua Tree, talking about his role in the making of that iconic album:

I got the sense that [U2] was capable of making a real marriage between the two things I was talking about, between something that was self-consciously spiritual to the point of being uncool—and uncool was a very important idea then, because people were being very, very cool, and coolness is a certain kind of detachment from yourself, with a certain defensiveness, actually, not exposing something, because it’s too easy to be shot down if you’re exposed…

Later, Eno says that U2 was never a critical darling, because they were perceived as wearing their “hearts on their sleeve.”  Recall the way Bono has used arena stages as a bully pulpit for his various causes: El Salvador, Northern Ireland, Iraq, and gun violence. I confess I’ve always loved this about Bono, though I know it makes lots of people squeamish. [Read more...]