How to understand the Culture of Life

Hello Everyone! I’m thrilled to be here alongside my esteemed co-hosts at The Anchoress, where the best readers on the internet congregate.

If you’ve never heard of me, or my blog, Betty Duffy, that puts you with the vast majority of people online who read blogs. Kathy reports that my schtick is organized and happy, which causes me to fear that I have gravely misrepresented myself online. Keep reading, and I’m sure you’ll encounter my miserable and disorganized side as well.

I tend to run a week or two behind the current news, so I’m still thinking about the Pro-life Rally in Washington DC. I thought a post I wrote several months ago on my blog, concerning why the secular media doesn’t “get” Pro-lifers, might be a good introduction.

I hope you enjoy it.

Thomas Frank writes the Easy Chair column in Harper’s Magazine. In September, his editorial turned a cynical eye towards an anti-abortion rally in Germantown, Maryland that took place in late July:

“…stock markets have been seesawing wildly, U.S. Treasury notes have been downgraded, unemployment is soaring, and the entire government was recently held hostage. But for some people, that particular end-times scenario isn’t satisfying enough: for them, the real crisis is still the massacre of the unborn and the horror of stem-cell research, and they regard the economic disasters of recent years as an annoying distraction. You and I may fret over the Dow, but they are out there still, fighting tooth and nail against the “culture of death.”

He chronicles a poorly attended pro-life press conference (he was the only member of the press there), and the following day, hundreds of parishioners from a nearby Catholic Church who prayed near an office complex where abortions were performed.

Frank goes out to the rally (which is a very strong word for this particular gathering) hoping to see arrests, stupidity, rifle toting crazies, the fomenting of a grass roots movement–but he’s thoroughly disappointed to find only a few Catholics praying. And to make his story even more of a let down–they’re rational people, well-spoken. He describes various players as “stylish,” “ebullient, charismatic,” even, “far-removed from the damnation-slinging, fetus-waiving protesters of twenty years ago.” He quotes Pat Mahoney, an activist who orchestrated the event saying, “We’re not coming with clenched fist demanding our own way, asserting our own position…We’re coming in brokenness and humility before the Lord.”

But Frank remains unimpressed, and somehow, boggled that anyone could pray for an end to abortion when there is an economic crisis going on.

I also am boggled. I don’t understand how literary agnostic types can write as much as they do, observing humanity in its various political, economic and religious systems, while remaining so willfully disengaged with metaphor. The missing key in a hypothetical dialog between Thomas Frank and any Christian, is the understanding of an individual’s relationship to time and eternity. Death is life. Metaphor 101.

“For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to what is seen but to what is unseen; for what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18) Economic turmoil is important to the Christian, but any related suffering will likely be a “light affliction,” perhaps even a purifying affliction, compared to the killing of unborn children.

Once you start contemplating the place of the individual in its relationship to time and eternity–even without a religious leaning–you flip to a genre that can handle metaphors. You don’t need a metaphor to understand the economy, I suppose. But people require a metaphor.

One day it dawns on you that no one loves your home as much as you do, no one loves your house, your town, your dog, your cat, your kids, the words you write, or you even, as much as you do. And truth be told, there are days when even you don’t like them all that much either. Nothing and no one can be made right.

Such existential problems arise in modern literature occasionally, in books like Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen (unfavorably reviewed here), and if the author or his characters are godless, there’s no hope, no light. Reading a book like that is like living in a pressurized container, knowing you will run out of breath if you stay there.

The Christian draws breath in prayer, and there is life in the breath. It goes beyond metaphor, though through metaphor is the best way to describe it–it is life-giving breath. It’s the love you wish that you and everyone else really possessed, just handed to you by a Benevolent Creator. It draws you out of self-pity and fear, and helps you see the world in light of eternal realities.

“He who has experienced the shock of love, returns to the world with altered face.” (Japanese Haiku)

I’ve met people who seem shallow, or uneducated, rich people and poor, who are transformed and made wise by living within the metaphor and framing their lives in response to eternal questions. Yes, this understanding often causes people to downgrade their interest in accumulating wealth in favor of helping the helpless, but it does not automatically assume a downgrade in quantitative intelligence. Rather it supports the acquisition of a poetic intelligence.

I went to a poetry reading recently, Robert Hass, whose books are some of the very few books of poetry to which I’ve returned again and again. After his reading, someone asked him about his translations of Japanese Haiku. And he discussed how haiku finds a way to speak the simplest truths in the most apt way. Often, the only way to speak the truth is to find the right metaphor, searching through nature, finding correlations, discovering the ways truth manifests in june bugs and mosquitoes, in landscapes. And when you begin looking for metaphors, suddenly you find them everywhere, and life takes on a deeper, more reflective tenor. “Once you start living in the metaphor, it’s thrilling,” he said.

If Frank could put himself in this frame of mind for just one minute, it might go a long way in demystifying the way believers approach politics, the economy, and the culture of life.

About Elizabeth Duffy
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  • Jamie Irons

    I really enjoyed this piece. Thanks!

    Back in the early 1990′s, a friend of mine, a very famous psychoanalyst died, and I wrote a poem for him, “Burden.” This was in the days before we all used email, and I sent the poem to Hass in a letter, at the time he was serving as Poet laureate. He read it while flying to Washington DC, and wrote me back, “I wish that I had written that!”

    Jamie Irons

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