The Problem With Waiting, Part 2

book in churchContinued from yesterday.


Gioia seems to be suggesting two conditions necessary for a resurgence of Catholic literature. The first is the arrival of a “few innovators” who will provide a “cultural catalyst,” and the second is that the “Catholic writer recover confidence in his or her own spiritual, cultural, and personal identity.” Reasonable enough, right?

However, if I understand him correctly, due to the “vast impoverishments” in the arts and the Church caused by the “schism between Christianity and the Arts” things are looking pretty bleak for a renaissance anytime soon. [Read more...]

The Problem with Waiting, Part 1

books, candleI don’t have much time. I’m sitting in a coffee shop less than a mile from my house and place of employment feverishly re-reading Dana Gioia’s recent First Things essay “The Catholic Writer Today” and pounding out these words. But in an hour I will need to pack up my laptop and books and make the walk back—my morning course “The Elements of Fiction” starts at 9:50 am.

There are two ways of making the walk, one practical the other prosaic. The practical one is the most direct and takes me along the shoulder of a busy two-lane county road whose berm is piled with old snow. The prosaic takes me into the woods behind the elementary school adjacent to this coffee shop. There I can pick up a well-blazed trail lined with towering pines that drifts away from the road and eventually leads to the cul-de-sac at the end of the subdivision where I live. [Read more...]

Francis and the Via Negativa Part 2

Continued from yesterday.

In retrospect, my reaction to Pope Francis’s election makes so much more sense when I consider that during my tenure at the college my artistic guiding lights were St. Francis and the painter Francis Bacon. About as far from a saint as one can imagine, Bacon is infamous for showing us things that perhaps we would rather not see: nightmarish self-portraits, unnerving studies of screaming popes, and writhing and wrestling biomorphic forms.

But Bacon was not interested in merely horrifying us. He was painting, as he said in an interview, to “excite himself”; spreading paint in a way that was expressive of his anger, his lust, and his love of painting. In a rare explanatory moment, he revealed to an interviewer that his numerous paintings that reference crucifixion were not religious but “an act of man’s behavior to another.”

Some moralists have said that his paintings are corrupting and harmful, but I’ve always felt that they do no more harm than if one took to hanging around a butcher shop or meat packing plant. To me, his paintings, like all great art, make us confront essential questions about the human condition.

My rather vague and unrefined view of Bacon was tested when, in 2004, at a conference at Notre Dame on the future of art in a Post-Christian world, I attended a keynote delivered by the eminent philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre titled “What Makes Religious Art Religious?”  Using examples of paintings by El Greco and Mark Rothko, he made the claim that what makes a painting religious is not subject matter but when a “religious intention is communicated to the viewer.”

Over the course of about forty-five minutes, MacIntyre thoroughly supported his thesis, and then impressively fielded questions bent on picking apart his thesis for another thirty minutes.

[Read more...]

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.

[Read more...]

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...]