There’s much to admire, but not much to enjoy, in Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest film from the Coen brothers. Joel and Ethan Coen, two Minnesota boys, have won great acclaim over 30 years of filmmaking, sharing a dozen Oscar nominations for writing, directing, and best picture. Their films cover an amazing range of genres, from dark and violent, like best-picture winner No Country for Old Men (2007), to quirky-funny, like The Big Lebowski (1998). You could say that, with Raising Arizona (1987), the Coens invented quirky-funny. A longtime favorite in my family is O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), the comic odyssey of a trio of chain-gang escapees in 1937 Mississippi.
Updated on Friday, December 6, 2013 by Frederica
For children, Christmas is a time of wonder, if not outright bafflement, because of the archaic vocabulary and syntax of Christmas carols. This produces interpretations that our devout ancestors never had in mind. Here are some of my childhood mishearings of these songs. How about yours?
* “For in thy Dock Street shineth…”
(“Little Town of Bethlehem”)
I knew what “Dock Street” meant, because my home town was a seaport. But if something was shining there, it was a little creepy.
Surprisingly, the Bible treats the heart as the place where we do our thinking—we think in our hearts, not our heads. And, as Matthew 15:19 shows, those thoughts are not always noble. In our culture we regard our ability to reason as one of the highest aspects of human personhood, but forget how often we employ that faculty in less-than-noble pursuits. The biblical Greek word for thinking actively, like when you’re thinking something through, is dianoia, and it includes selfish fantasies, plotting, and scheming:
“The imagination [dianoia] of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Gen 8:21)
“He has scattered the proud in the imagination [dianoia] of their hearts” (Lk 1:51)
[Further thoughts on the feminism of yesteryear, following “Enough of Anger,” National Review 9/30/2013]
The chapter on sexuality in Our Bodies Ourselves is not so bad; it’s actually refreshing. “We are all so oppressed by sexual images, formulas, goals and rules that it is almost impossible to even think about sex outside the context of success and failure. The sexual revolution—liberated orgiastic women, groupies, communal [sex], homosexuality—have all made us feel that we must be able to [have sex] with impunity, with no anxiety, under any conditions and with anyone, or we’re some kind of uptight freak.” These “alienating inhuman expectations” are “destructive and degrading.” The authors of this communal chapter quote Robin Morgan (“a Women’s Liberationist in New York”): “Goodbye to Hip Culture and the so-called Sexual Revolution which has functioned toward women’s freedom as did the Reconstruction toward former slaves—reinstituted oppression by another name.” In short, “We must destroy the myth that we have to be groovy, free chicks.”
You have to wonder what might have happened if feminists had continued to proclaim women’s freedom from the sexual revolution.
The authors observe that the contemporary assumption is that “‘Sex’ is about being a ‘real woman’—being that ridiculous caricature of a person that this society tells us we had better become if we are to extract even the smallest amount of security, pleasure, and self-esteem from the world. It’s a sexual achievement exam.” So it’s no wonder we feel confused. “First we’re supposed to set the sexual limits, deny our responses, and hate our looks. Then, within a few years we’re supposed to be experimental and libertine. The more [sex] we have the closer we are to being ‘real’ women. That’s a lot of confusion, and it’s no wonder that many of us still have serious questions about who we are and what we want.”
Here’s some clear thinking: “Part of the reason so many people have problems about sex is because sexual feelings are considered separate or different from other kinds of feelings we have. Sex has got to do with the body—that alien part of us residing below the neck that has needs and responses we don’t understand.” But all our feelings affect the body, whether the rapid heartbeat of fear or the headache of anger. “It’s all part of the same body that we live in every day… It can’t be mysterious or alien because it’s our own familiar house….To make sex special, different, better is to disown our bodies…[O]ur bodies are us all the time.”
Indeed, the authors say, sexuality deserves its own chapter in the book only because it is “permeated with myths and preconceptions that put the woman down, and not because sexual relations are an absolutely necessary part of a fulfilled woman’s life.” Subsequent chapters on Celibacy and Monogamy treat them as reasonable choices. But if the goal had been merely increasing sexual pleasure, “it would have been a waste of time to write this paper.” Sexual fireworks “are not that important. What is important is loving, giving, free relationships between people.”
It’s a pretty good chapter; you could clean up the four-letter words and print it in a pro-family newsletter.
Sorting through some old boxes in the basement, I ran across a manila envelope stuffed with 40-year-old women’s lib literature. It was right under the Earth Shoes. Back then, I was a mother-earth-type hippie, and an enthusiastic “women’s libber” (then the prevailing term of choice). In the envelope I found an assortment of leaflets protesting the nuclear family (inherently oppressive) and warning against “female hygiene deodorant,” “the myth of the vaginal orgasm,” and other threats to womankind. There were some huffy letters I’d written to the campus newspaper, and mimeographed flyers for the campus women’s group. The pride of the collection was a 1971 copy of the classic feminist guide to health and sexuality, Our Bodies Ourselves. This was the pre-mainstream edition, published by the New England Free Press, stapled together and priced at 40 cents.
Yesterday I wrote on “What is Worship For?”, but I forgot to answer the question. I said that it is not the time for evangelism, and shouldn’t be designed with non-believers in mind. But what is it for?
Worship is for God; we could expand that and say worship is for believers to offer to God. But even once we’re clear that worship is the work of the believing community, there’s a possible confusion. We might think the purpose of worship is to give believers a good worship experience.
A pastor in the UK wrote me asking, “What is worship for?” He said that his denomination was encouraging pastors to make worship more “user-friendly” in order to attract new members, and that this initially seemed to him a reasonable evangelistic strategy. A scripture cited in support of this approach was Acts 15:19, “We should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God.” But as he read this scripture in context, it looked to him like it was written of people who were already Christian believers, and would not be required to accept Jewish practices. It didn’t address the case of people entirely outside the faith. He wrote to ask, “Who are church services for? Believers or unbelievers?”
The elements of Austenland are terrific: It has a clever premise, is based on a successful novel, has Jerusha Hess (of Napoleon Dynamite) in the director’s chair, and stars cute, likeable Keri Russell and funny, dependable Jennifer Coolidge. It’s produced by Stephanie Meyer who, whatever you think of the Twilight novels, should at least know something about marketability. But somehow the parts don’t come together.
[July 19, 2013. If you want to follow the conversation in order and read all the comments, here is the original post that Rod put on his blog; and here’s the link if you’d just like to read only what I said (the original post and followup responses).]
There were a flood of comments to the post on Rod’s blog, and the discussion went in all sorts of directions, but I had the feeling my central point wasn’t being understood—probably because my original post (a hasty email to Rod) was ranty and overstated. I hope it’s not unfair to say, but I kept noticing commenters who appeared to be ignoring the point I was actually making, in favor of a point they wished I’m made, because it would be stupid and easy to ridicule. Well, what can you do. (It kind of proves my point about peer pressure, though…see below.)
On the other hand, the point I was actually making may have been so unfamiliar and strange to them that they just couldn’t grasp it. In our culture, it’s just unheard of for anyone to criticize purely intellectual theorizing. It’s an occupation that is regarded as so lofty and admirable.
I’ve tried in various ways to clarify my point and make it more briefly and accurately that I did in the initial hot-headed post. But, well, here’s one more try. What I wanted to defend was the idea that theology must be approached prayerfully, and not as if it were an objective science.
When theology is connected with adoration of God, love of God, expectation of his love, humble seeking of the Holy Spirit’s help (the Spirit “will guide you into all the truth,” John 16:13), it is like plugging a lamp into a socket. The circuit is made, and your mind—your receptive, perceptive mind, not the analytical one—is flooded with illumination. If your insight was authentic, it will bear fruit in your life and the lives of others down the centuries. That’s why we continue to read the Church Fathers and Desert Fathers: the insights they give continue to illuminate us.
But if no connection with God is sought, if it’s just you and your high IQ, you’re left with a lamp that may well be complicated or aesthetically pleasing, but it isn’t doing what it’s supposed to do. And if you get too absorbed in studying the rivets that hold the lamp together, and arguing with other experts about the metal composition of the lamp, it can be actually detrimental to your mind. You can latch onto theological ideas that are, in fact, not accurate, and refuse to let them go. I think we’ve seen this a few times in church history.
The further point I tried to make, and maybe can’t express, is that focusing on philosophy / theology only in the abstract seems also to be detrimental to your heart. People don’t do theology in a vacuum but in a community with other theological thinkers, where there’s jealousy, vanity, hurt pride, all those things. And the climate can easily get ugly. Oddly enough, it can result in people investing great emotion into things that aren’t even logical—though they pride themselves on being practioners of the art of exacting, logical truth. I told the story of how seminarians cheered an elderly professor for “zinging” me, even though his remarks were not coherent or relevant to anything I’d written. People just don’t realize how much peer pressure, the desire for peer acclamation, influences them.
Our ability to reason is as damaged as anything else, after the Fall. I think where people get confused is that you can set up a syllogism and it makes perfect sense within its own universe. The problem is that the terms don’t correspond to reality. They omit many, many subtle factors. This is why great thinkers disagree so vehemently, when the logical sequence of their arguments makes perfect sense within their own biodome world.
The bent toward purely theoretical theology is something that surprises people who come from an Eastern Christian tradition. This never took hold in the East, but theology was always conditioned by communion with God. (As Orthodox theologians participate and write in Western settings, they tend to assume the prevailing terms of culture, though.)
Many believe this change got under way with St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th c. I heard somebody say that you can notice such a difference btw St Augustine (4th-5th c) and Aquinas. Augustine does theology within a mental setting of prayer and adoration; with Aquinas, it became an objective science, based on the fallacy that you can talk about God while he’s out of the room. And, as I pointe out, at the end of his life, Aquinas had a vision, and afterward abandoned his theological writing. He said that all that intellectual labor now seemed to him like straw. His words should be framed on the wall anytime anyone does theology.
Fr. Tom Hopko addressed the falleness of reason in more direct words than mine; see the accompanying post.
[These remarks were transcribed from an audio recording of a Q & A period following a talk by Fr. Tom Hopko, Dean Emeritus of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary in NY, at a conference for Eastern Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, at the Sheptytsky Institute in Ottawa, Ontario, July 2008]
Moderator of panel, to Fr. Tom Hopko: You were quite dismissive of Veritatis and Fides et Ratio. Do you feel that philosophy should have a very, very marginal place in theologizing? If so, I would suggest that one of the problems we have, when trying to get people to read the Fathers as well as the scriptures, is the amount of philosophy in writers like Gregory the Theologian and Maximos the Confessor. If this is what the patristic revival is supposed to get us reading, after of course we’ve dealt with the scriptures on a daily basis, then we’ve got a problem. I just wanted to throw that out because I’m inclined to be much more favorably disposed to certain kinds of philosophizing within a theological tradition. It’s appropriate to point out that Splendor Veritatis and Ratio et Fidem, whatever you think of the encyclicals as such, they’re coming out of that tradition where philosophy is considered to be an appropriate, worthy handmaid.
Hopko: That’s a huge topic. I don’t think there is such thing as philosophy or theology. There are people—who think, who act, who interact. Frankly, I do not believe that the Eastern fathers chose Platonism and built a theology upon it; they were just people in their culture, speaking and acting and defending the Gospel.
I think part of the problem that we have today is, if we’re going to say that Philosophia is the ancilla theologia (handmaid of theology), which seems to be defended at least in Ratio et Fide, then you have a hard time saying why can’t you use Marxism as your philosophical foundation, why can’t you use Heidegger. When you choose Aristotle, you immediately have a problem with all of the Church Fathers. Gregory the Theologian said the philosophers are constantly in labor and never give birth. And he also said that we speak, “according to the fishermen and not according to Aristotle.”
The Fathers were cultured people of their time. If you’re a cultured person in a society, speaking to cultured people, you’re going to speak a certain way. But that doesn’t mean that they selected a philosophy, taught it for three years, and then built a theology on top of it; it doesn’t mean, as even—I think it’s one of those, Ratio et Fides, I believe—says, they were also restructuring and refining the words that they were speaking.
For example, Nicaea said that if anyone confesses that the Logos is another hypostasis (essence) or ousia (being) of God the Father, let him be anathema. If that’s the case, all the Cappadocians are anathema. And so is all subsequent ecumenical theology, because they did make a distinction of hypostasis and ousia after Nicaea. So the words were more fluid.
The other thing that bothers me, forgive my response, is bringing in the Magisterium all of a sudden. Well, it’s not a joke—it’s not a secret, I should say, and it is even something of a joke—but the Eastern Orthodox, as you know, have no Magisterium. That’s one of the big differences, because to us the Magisterium is just another theological position, despite holding a certain authority in the Roman Catholic Church. So the cop-out every time seems to be referring to the Magisterium.
That’s a huge problem for a guy like me. Because we just fight it out. That’s why in my talk this morning I mentioned the Fathers who fought with each other over theological ideas. There was no appeal to a Magisterium; they just fought it out.
The other thing I didn’t like was the use of the term “autonomy.” There is no “reason alone” that you can appeal to, that you can build a theological system on, from the basis of scriptural texts.
When I was a young guy at a Jesuit college, the Jesuits used to say that you could be an atheist, but if you’ve got the right data, the right reasoning, and the right philosophy, you can do Christian theology and yet not even be a believer. That’s impossible for a guy like me.
At the same time, what is autonomy but the nous? The ratio, human reason, is fallen too! There is no “reason alone.” People are filled with hang-ups and passions and prejudices, even when they’re philosophers—as you may have noticed.
So I think the problem is if you choose a philosophia and then it somehow gets blessed by the Magisterium, and then you have to follow it, and then you teach the students who come—I just can’t handle that. I don’t know what to do with it. A guy like Maximos or Gregory, sure they were using Platonic concepts, and essence and energy are pure Aristotle. But you don’t have to be an Aristotelian to understand these ideas.
If I said to my mother—I always use my mother as an example. I talked about my mother so much at the seminary that they called her the Tomotokos. But if I said to my mom, “What is that?,” she’d say “That’s a tree.” I’d ask what kind of tree it is—I don’t know, a palm tree. “But why do you call it a tree?” “Well I don’t know it looks like a tree, it acts like a tree.” “But it’s different from that tree, right?” “Oh yes, it’s different.” I’d say, “Mom, you just talked about hypostasis, essence, and energies. You know it’s a tree because it acts like a tree, but a hypostasis because it is that one and not that one.” That’s it. They were just using the tools at hand.
Returning to autonomy, there just isn’t any “reason alone” that you can appeal to. Because, according to our Eastern theology, the mind is fallen too. We’re not Calvinists, with some idea of radical depravity. We know the image of God can’t be totally obliterated. But it is fallen, it is screwed up, and unless it is illumined and saved by the Lord, it cannot function properly. And if you’re not following a holy praxis, your mind’s not going to work right. So, who are you appealing to, when you’re appealing to their mind? Who is that person, with a non-fallen mind?
In the scientific realm, it’s no problem. A friend of mine who worked at MIT told me that the guy who worked in the next booth always listened to pornographic radio while he worked. Well, all he was doing was studying fruit flies, so that didn’t matter much. But he couldn’t be a theology teacher; he couldn’t have a mind that was working right, in the realm of God, if he’s listening to pornography, because his mind is defective.
Now, St Paul in his letter to the Romans says that there is always that heteros nomos, that other law, working in our members, so there is no autonomy at all to human beings. If we are under the law of the Holy Spirit and life, then we’re free, and we are able to be self-determinate, we have exousia and we can act. But if not, we’re not just human, we’re actually in the hands of evil powers. The other heteros nomos is the nomos tis harmartia kai thanatou, the law of sin and death. So there’s always this other law working in our members. Our Eastern Christian tradition would say that there is no “reason alone” or philosophy which you can first adopt, and then build theology upon it, to be sanctioned by the church and blessed by the Magisterium, and then guided by when it happens to be wrong. You can’t have it both ways.
This would be the big thing, because I think that, well, we Orthodox would say that there is no Magisterium at all. There is the community of the faithful, there is the Holy Spirit, there is the preaching of the gospel, we work it out. We even think that the Magisterium can be wrong. Then you have a big problem; when is the Magisterium speaking, and when is the Magisterium not speaking?
A guy like me would say, if you’ve got that power from God, why are you messing around with an ordinary Magisterium? Just make the decrees. The ordination of women, for instance. If you’ve got it, use it.
So it becomes very confusing. That’s why I say, when a guy like me reads that I have big problems. That was my point.
Of course there are all kinds of good stuff in those documents. There are all kinds of scriptural teachings and quotes and truth. That’s actually part of the problem for me, because I can’t understand how he can say this and also say that. I don’t see how it hangs together. But the big problem of “reason alone,” with theology as a donum superadditum, an added gift, where you can appeal to—I don’t know, a Muslim, because he’s got a mind—I just don’t think that’s the Christian faith. I don’t think that that is how Christians look at humanity. I just don’t. Anyway, better stop on that one.