Are You Not Entertained? (Or, How Fr. Z Beat Me at Our Own Game)

There is nothing subtle about what happened to my blog this weekend. It exploded.

Against all norms — i.e., weekends are supposed to be quiet and forgettable — and expectations, my post on Fr. Z took off and indicates that July 2013 will be a record month.

My pragmatic feelings about this are wholly positive. The end of summer teaching term brings a pay gap. I could use the spare change that the extra web-traffic generates on the Patheos payment model.

But I have other feelings about it, too. Mixed feelings. I’m feeling defeated.

+++

Long before philosophy, I fell in love with homiletics and apologetics. Preaching, testimony, scripture and exegesis, music ministry — all the tools of the Charismatic Renewal, combined with the oral tradition of the Catholic Liturgy. Even drama and extemporaneous prayer. This is what I was raised in. In a strict and devout home, I even related to my parents and peers in that rhetoric and style. It was the equivalent of everything from social capital to permission to do things. The politics of piety.

In my public Jr. High school, I found a natural niche in competitive forensics. I did okay at poetry recitation but I excelled in impromptu speaking. In High School, I became a serious and dedicated Lincoln Douglas debater, splitting my time with persuasive extemporaneous speaking in the Texas U.I.L. league and domestic extemp in the National Forensics League.

Forensics was my secondary education. My curriculum was totally devoted to the craft of debate. Everything I did related back to it somehow. At one point I was failing art class because I skipped class to work on my cases in the library. My debate coach had to ask my teacher to pass me so I could compete at State.

I fell in love with philosophy not because of the pure ideas, but, instead, because of the power these ideas had to win arguments. It was like magic. This paired well with my aforementioned upbringing in the Church and I used it there to become a rather effective catechist and lay minister while still in high school. I courted every argument I could find. Especially over religion. The son of an evangelist, I was on a collision course with “great things” in the Church at a very young age — at least that’s what everyone told me.

As I’ve grown, I have in many ways remained the same. I am still fond, too fond, of debate. I remain a better orator than I am a writer. I once wrote entirely through my mouth and ears, but I found that my rhetorical strategies didn’t transfer all the time. So I’ve dedicated significant time to becoming a better writer, to balancing this side of the communicative equation.

I’ve analyzed the irrational, intuitive, and performative aspects of debate: the presentation of the argument, the value of story and allegory, the pathos of emotion and passion. The efficacy of restraint. I seen the limits of debate, too. I’ve hurt people. I’ve seen myself become a monster, thirsty for the blood, humiliation, and shame, prideful of the fear I saw in the eyes of those who knew not to cross me. The loneliness.

This is not melodrama; it is real. The theatrics have, over time, built a long line of wild stories that sound funny today, but still ring hollow in my heart. I’ve yelled at people and belittled them. I’ve also made myself impossible to listen to. Unbearable.

One of the committee members on my dissertation committee advised me to never reveal my debating past, that I should keep it secret. “Otherwise,” he said, “no one will hear you, because they won’t trust you.” Being a debater means being tricky and witty and controlling yourself just enough to lose control at the right spot. Timing is everything. It also means lying routinely — even when you are telling the truth.

My mother was the first one to tell this to me. “This isn’t a debate; you can’t debate your way out of this.” Everyone close to me has learned when to ignore me, even it they do it lovingly. Even I have learned that lesson.

+++

My greatest struggle as a teacher is to give my students reason to trust me without losing their ability to distrust me. I try to keep a sub-narrative going, where I give a running commentary  that subverts or lightens the content I am presenting as Gospel truth, which often has the reverse effect. It sometimes gets tangled with the main narrative and become terribly confusing. When class is done, I’ll look at the board behind me, filled with tattered and misspelled words, abbreviations, lines and circles, and nonsense and I laugh while, deep down, I feel empty, crazy, and insecure. Who am I fooling?

Of course, even as I type this heartfelt confession, you should suspect that I am about to make a move. Don’t let your guard down. I’m not doing this with good intentions. Self-disclosure is my jab. It softens and distracts the opponent and prepares them for a knock out.

There is no escape.

+++

Over time these reflections have also softened my younger edges and caused me to fall in love with philosophy for better reasons. I am bored by things that once seemed exciting. The cheap wins and the verbal gymnastics. I am more genuinely uncertain. I can invite criticism without feeling like it is asking for a sparring partner. I’ve changed my style to reflect a meandering, jagged process of thought, not reducible to an externalized argument. I prefer to try and sound funny, if I can. Woody Allen.

I usually keep a syllogism in my head when I am trying to argue for something, and I have a sweet tooth for dry, Anglo-analytic philosophy. I value their sense of clarity, but I distrust their self assuredness.

+++

When I wrote my response to Fr. Z’s post on Saturday, I tried to create a very narrow line of reasoning, one that would avoid the usual nonsense that is typical when Nazis are a part of the conversation. I figured it would be a rather boring, clunky, and unappetizing post, that would only be useful as a small tool with the capacity to call him out for what he did wrong, but not more than that.

Fr. Z removed the photo and the prose I took issue with, which I find gratifying and encouraging. But the fanfare and the shower of comments and fireworks is what I am left with. And the traffic, for which I am grateful.

I don’t like everything I write here, but I think that, from time to time, I manage to show some things that are worthwhile to think about. I try to avoid polemics but I embrace provocation, for the sake of starting a discussion that is usually rooted in an inner struggle I am going through. For instance, the whole “hating Catholic stuff” routine: the root cause of that line of thought comes from the experience of not being able to critique anything that was within my range of religious affiliations, a long time spent trying to bend my intuitions to conform to the version of the Catholic Church I had grown up in until I couldn’t do it anymore. The honest affection that brought me.

More on that some other time.

The point remains that this weekend’s post was one of the worst bits of prose I’ve composed and certainly one of the more petty issues I’ve taken up. I don’t take it back because I think it still stands intact, with perhaps a few minor clarifications. I think am right; the proposition I defended is true. But it is only analytically true. It does not follow to think that analytic truth is the same thing as the Truth. I should have been more clear about that.

Nonetheless, readers flocked to the post. I had a great time in the comment boxes, something I rarely get to do. At one point I was watching a late-night  TNT rerun of Gladiator while dipping through comments and it hit me:

“Are you not entertained? Are. You. Not. Entertained. Is this not why you are here?”

This question was not only directed at my readers, it was pointing right at ME.

There was at least some dignity in being a gladiator. A debater. A monster. But here I found myself no different than the vulgar hoard, clamoring for more blood. I was entertaining myself and, in the process, stimulating the depraved, objectifying process of entertainment.

Let me be clear. Fr. Z is a shock jock, mostly. His readership is vast and touchy. They like to be provoked and react with speed and fury. But they are no different, really, than any of us. We’re just the parasitic counter-narrative. Perhaps I am worse. A wanna-be.

I need the traffic and the popularity because it makes this whole enterprise viable. So I am not going to quit or stop or shame myself into not stooping again to take a shot at a Google search term or a headline or a hot topic that I don’t really care about. There is value in writing about things you don’t want to write about.

But let’s not mistake this for something else. Let’s be honest and painful about it. Let’s not become self-deluded about the fact that for many of us, the Catholic Church is just another pet interest we use to consume news and information and feel indignant about. God works in mysterious ways, but we needn’t pretend that this mystery is always sublimely scented in roses and holy oil. Sometimes muddy water smells like excrement.

Fr. Z won and he will continue to win because he is no less guilty than any one of us. Perhaps there are some saintly bloggers out there. I’m not one of them. And I suspect that they have almost no readers.

It seems that my readership is growing and with it will come the duty of entertainment and discipline of being unserious and fussing a lot — even if it is fussing about fussing.

So be it. You win, Fr. Z. I’ll join you. May God have mercy on our souls.

Come now, everyone! Comment and play and make merry and tell me how terribly wonderful and stupid I am. Amuse me! Amuse yourself and the people you do not know!

Let the games begin!

 

 

  • http://pegponderingagain.com/ Peg Demetris

    I don’t think your stupid. Nor do I think Fr. Z is stupid. How does one bring up conversation without pointing to something that makes him question? Even when it cause us to question ourselves? Which is exactly what your post did. You “questioned” and Fr. Z “questioned” himself and answered. I see no “entertainment” here. I see dialogue in a very quiet way.

  • Petro

    I had fun too. But it’s an empty fun.

    It’s like masturbation. You release some tension. You placate some urges. The momentary rush of endorphins energizes you for an instant. Moments later, after your heartbeat begins to return to normal, you find yourself cleaning up a mess, wondering why you did it in the first place.

    If you do it too much, I think you’ll find yourself chafed, disappointed in the state of affairs, and longing for the real engagement that can never be substituted for by base ejaculation.

    Here’s hoping that you reflect on the value of sustaining that intellectual tension and using it for the true love it was really meant for.

  • Heloise1

    I wasn’t amused in the least. I was, however, sadden by the whole issue. Not for you or Father Zz, not even for the Bishops. What struck me after watching the clip of the Bishops dancing was the joy of the young people who worked hard to celebrate and include the Bishops in their program. I tried to imagine what I would say to one of these youngsters who had been hurt and had their offering besmirched.
    I carried it to God last night and this morning He sent me His answer by turning my heart to my favorite novena.
    The prayer for the First Day contains the plea:
    Let our hearts be steeped in the spirit of childlikeness.
    And there you are! Father Z needs to be the intention I bring to this novena. May the Holy Spirit awaken in his heart a childlike appreciation for young people and their joyous celebration of faith.

    Dear Father Z:
    A note to you. This was the Bishops way of participating in World Youth Day. It was not World Middle Age Day.
    Sincerely,
    Get Off My Lawn Oldperson.

    • Illinidiva

      I thought the fact that all the bishops and cardinals were learning the dance and some even joined in during the actual performance was quite endearing. Especially since none of them could actually dance. It was a bit silly, but didn’t take place during the Mass.

  • Nance

    Fr Z is Mot a shock jock. You’re confusing him with Mark Shea. F z has a following because of his close, knowledgeable readings of liturgical texts. The substance he has offered over theyrars

    Fr Z is not a shock jock. You’re confusing him with Mark Shea who has become nothing but a hits whore (you admitted in this post that hits= $$$). Fr Z has a following earned from years of close, interesting and knowledgeable readings of liturgical texts. I paid scant attention to this controversy and his analogy was overwrought, but any fair minded person would understand his point. Bishops: don’t be railroaded into stupidity. You don’t have to be. You can stand alone. It’s okay. I have 20 ish kids. None are trads. All thought flash mobbing bishops was pathetic and strained.

    • chezami

      Nance: You seem to know so much about my interior life. Can you tell me who will win the World Series?
      God forgive you. So do I.

      • Petro

        I’m going with Detroit. And you’re probably going to hell. Cheers!

        • chezami

          God forgive you too, Petros. http://www.ncregister.com/blog/will-there-be-pains-of-sense-in-hell Note in particular the last couple of paragraphs. For your own soul’s safety do not casually, much less cheerfully, wish people into hell.

          • Petro

            I was joking, my man. Relax a little. ;)

          • chezami

            Sorry. The interwebz don’t convey tone too well. I get enough messages of damnation that I have a hard time telling which ones are tongue in cheek.

          • Petro

            I thought the cheers was enough. I appreciate your dogged persistence in responding sincerely to those who damn you though.

          • chezami

            Thanks!

          • oregon nurse

            On top of the original story of Sam and Fr. Z, Petro and chezami, have just posted a nice little followup of what bothers me so much about the Catholic blogosphere. It’s pokes and jabs and misunderstanding that leads to lack of charity. It’s catchy headlines and snark and defensiveness. It’s trolling and lurking and looking for praise and offense in equal measure. It’s trying to be Catholic while earning a living by creating uncharitable controversy that often leads to traffic that is anything but Christian. It’s shilling, and celebrity, and public confession. It’s priests behaving badly. Lately, I’ve noticed it now includes bad language used for edgy effect among some bloggers on Patheos.

            I don’t blog for a living but I spend way too much time reading and posting and I am just as guilty for my contribution to this mess. I pray for the souls of bloggers and my own that the New Evangelization does not lead us to damnation. And as much as I don’t want to, I’ll probably be back later to see if anyone has noticed the bytes I’ve just send out into the forever because it’s so addicting to be noticed.

          • Petro

            Disengagement from this state of affairs is primarily what has defined Rocha’s blog for me, and is why I read it. I think this post is a reflection on the fact that his previous post waded into the waters of the blogosphere, and was immensely popular. This popularity leads him to earn more money due to the rather twisted way most blogs pay people.

            Just two days ago, after these posts and the Pope Francis airplane talk, I reminded myself to stay off of Patheos except for this blog. The minor rush from the tete-a-tete wears off rather quickly, leaving you disappointed in yourself and wondering what you were arguing about in the first place.

            As with anything, on the internet we need to find the sources that truly give us life. We need to avoid those that take life from us or twist it. Unfortunately, I think many people don’t realize that these rules that apply to our disconnected lives apply to our wired lives as well.

          • Petro

            Additionally, it should be noted that the original idea of the New Evangelization was not about the means of the evangelization (ie. the internet/media) but about the manner of the evangelization. The thought was that we should be presenting the figure of Christ to others in order to win their hearts to Christ and Christ in His Church. This was opposed to a more dogmatic or institutional presentation of the Church to outsiders.

            That the New Evangelization just means doing the old evangelization in a cruder way on the internet is a bastardization of the original concept that just might have some of the deleterious outcomes that you mention.

  • Steve Pålsson

    Gosh, I had no idea. I’m sorry.

    • SamRocha

      Sorry for being dense, but you had no idea about what, exactly?

  • $16977560

    “Confession is good for the soul.” :)
    OK, so you are human. Poor thing. welcome to the club.
    Nevertheless!
    Stupidity, and pandering to base instincts (Yes, I Do mean Father Z), like any other form of evil, must be resisted whenever found. And, sometimes, when hunting for Boojum, we find a little Snarky. You are forgiven for the hunting of the Snark.
    “Tenshun! Right face, for’ard harch! One, Two, One, Two…
    (Does anyone but me notice the goofy clown face in Cerberus’ middle head in the nuke blast cloud?)

    • SamRocha

      I picked it for that! Glad you looked at it long enough to see it. It should make the opening lines more salient: “There is nothing subtle about what happened to my blog this weekend. It exploded.”

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    I hear you. Anyone that’s spent a fair amount of time on the internet has been there, done that, hopefully regretted it just as much. I’ve actually confessed in proper sacremental confession some of my internet argumentive indiscrections. One gets carried away. We’re all sinners who ultimately have to ask for God’s mercy. I don’t read Fr. Z. His blog seems unseemly to me for a priest’s blog.

  • gte037p

    Sam, I enjoyed your writing and your sharing of your approach to writing a blog post.

    Unfortunately though, it was a massive waste of time.

    It was a waste of time to make issue with Father Z’s asking us to stop and question following the crowd (as many Bishops in the video also did). It was a waste of time to write a post continuing on that initial line of logic which ultimately concludes with admission that sometimes your intentions for writing are motivated by money. I wasted my time reading your post. Now I am wasting my time writing this comment.

    Please make a bigger effort to keep your internal turmoil and development of lines of thought to yourself. Let’s focus our efforts on the more meaningful aspects of our faith and not quibbles.

    • SamRocha

      get037p,

      You wrote, “Let’s focus our efforts…”

      Excuse me? *Our* efforts? I am not presently soliciting authors for this blog, especially ones who show distain for self-disclosure and meta-narrative — I’m a HUGE fan of Augustine’s Confessions.

      But I’ll send you a refund right away, in the exact amount you paid to read it.

      Last thing: if you truly did enjoy the post and, simultaneously, found it to be a massive waste of time, then you’re displaying a great deal of inner turmoil, developing into very odd lines of thought. Keep that stuff to yourself next time, if you don’t mind, for your own sake.

      • gte037p

        Sam,

        Your writing is usually motivated by your faith for which we are mutually focused. That is what “our” refers to in my comment.

        There is certainly room for inter-catholic blogger banter, but your mind has much more to offer.

        • SamRocha

          I appreciate the clarification, but I also suspect that you haven’t been reading me very long. I write a great deal from my interior life and, also, on the meta-issues of writing. I’m doing a whole interviews on it, actually. It is not mutually exclusive from my faith, but you’ve got to make that connection. It here, in this post, too.

  • Jim Russell

    Hi, Sam–the blog title here says “beat me at *our* own game”. A “you may also like” entry refers to “beat me at *my* own game”–the title has changed, then? From my view, this post is extremely interesting as it seems to reference an interior struggle related to blogging as a Catholic. We don’t hear much from Catholic bloggers about the reconciling of blog “traffic” with the requirements of Catholic charity and the blogger’s call to holiness. Indeed, you’d called for Fr. Z to step away from blogging for at least a while as a consequence of the post you critiqued. Yet, now, are you accepting “defeat” in the “can’t-beat-em-join-em” sense?

    • SamRocha

      You’re a close observer/reader, Jim. Yes, I went for the common version first and them realized that it didn’t quite capture the nuance I was trying to convey. I did indeed suggest that, and I also sort of succumbed to it. But I’ve received some kind notes from others who are leading me to, again, revise what I think about this. I’m fickle, but trying hard. This week has been absolutely nuts in so many ways, most of them HUGE tempests in a TINY teapot. I’m getting my bearings. Pray for me.

      • Jim Russell

        Consider it done–and I’d like to ask readers to add their prayers too. Not only for you and your discernment, but for all Catholic bloggers who ultimately must contend with this kind of struggle…

  • Agni Ashwin

    Who am I to judge?

  • Guest

    I think the amount of time spent blogging is the bigger issue if you seek to have less clutter in our conscience, whether a writer or a reader. I think we compose pieces like this one when it is time for a break…blogs are good, real life is well…life for real

  • Lynn Loring

    I think the amount of time spent blogging is the bigger issue if we
    seek to have less clutter in our consciences, whether a writer or a
    reader. I think we compose pieces like this one when it is time for a
    break…blogs are good, real life is well…life for real

  • Adam Rasmussen

    “Fr. Z is a shock jock, mostly.” His blog is like the dark heart of the Catholic blogosphere, pumping acid and vile outward in radiating circles of poisonous bullsh*t. I would pray a Novena for the conversion of his mind, if I were into that kind of thing.

  • Cari Calfo Moebest

    I LOVE Father Z. And I will never fit into any of the “labels” anyone tries to paste on me. I LOVE being Catholic. All of it The TLM, the OF,The Eastern Church: Charismatics, Medals, sacramentals, Nouwen, Augustine, Chesterton and Belloc. Loved the “dancing Cardinals”…Suck it up. Its all good.


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