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January 2008

An Interesting Conversion Story

Of course conversion stories are always interesting; it’s always interesting to see the different ways and means by which God calls people. Some he commands directly, with a presence that can’t be denied or refused; others follow a trail of faint and ambiguous intuitions. I find it especially intriguing to hear the story of someone who grew up without religion and found his way to it as an adult, against what would seem to be strong odds. Such is the case with Jennifer F.:

When I was 26, I had never once believed in God. Raised entirely without religion, I was a content atheist and thought it was simply obvious that God did not exist. I thought that religion and reason were incompatible, and was baffled by why anyone would believe in God (I actually suspected that few people really did). After a few years in the Bible Belt, I became vocally anti-Christian. Imagine my surprise to find myself today, just three years later, a practicing Catholic who loves her faith (my husband and I both entered the Church at Easter Vigil 2007). This is the chronicle of my journey.

It’s in two parts, Why I Believe in God and Why I’m Catholic.

This section in particular struck a chord with me:

The more I went through the motions of believing in God, the more the world started to make sense to me. The more I started to make sense to me....I saw the psychological harm that certain actions that seemed totally innocuous in my atheist worldview had caused me; I was finally able to put a name to the deep stirrings within my soul I’d experience when listening to a profound piece of music or hearing about an act of evil....

Sometimes I think it all comes down to those deep stirrings: you have to decide whether they’re just a more sophisticated version of the pleasure and pain reflexes that all animals have, or are trying to tell you something about the real, and I mean real, world.

I might leave the word “me” off that sentence about the psychological harm caused by certain actions; I’m more worried about the harm I’ve caused other people.

(Hat tip to Mark Shea.)

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Sunday Night Journal — January 27, 2008

Ingenting: The Death Spasm of Christian Civilization

Ingenting is the Swedish word for nothing and the word which comprises what I take to be the climax of Bergman’s Persona, which my wife and I watched a couple of weeks ago. I had seen it in the late ‘60s and been both impressed and baffled by it, and was eager to see it again.

It tracks the increasingly intimate and yet hostile relationship between two women, one a mental patient who refuses to speak and the other the nurse who cares for her. It’s obviously meant to say something about the nature of self and identity, but I will be honest and say that I have no clear idea at all of what that statement might be. About ten minutes into it, after a series of disconnected, bizarre, and sometimes gruesome images accompanied by music that now seems a dated near-parody of the random whistles-and-bangs school of high modernism in music, my wife said “It’s trying too hard.”

I think that’s true, and I was, overall, disappointed in it, although as is almost always the case with Bergman’s work I found much of its imagery extremely, almost painfully beautiful. A large part of it involves close study of the faces of two of the most beautiful women ever featured in cinema, Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson. The contrast between their beauty, especially that of Ullman, who is in a sense the villain of the piece, and the desolate emotional and spiritual landscape of the film is potent.

Through most of the film Andersson’s character, Alma (the nurse) seems more the victim, and Ullman’s character, Elizabeth, is dominant, precisely by her refusal to speak, which drives the other to more and more desperate attempts to make her do so. But in that climactic scene to which I referred it seems that Alma has finally gained the upper hand, and she forces out of Elizabeth the only word she speaks in the entire film: ingenting, nothing.

The previous scene had concluded with Alma seeming to have a sort of breakdown, her speech disintegrating into anguished fragments. She has progressed from a comfortable worldly complacency to torment to disintegration and arrived at ingenting. From here she seems to recover herself and resume an outwardly normal life, but the viewer is left wondering how normal it can ever be.

Alma’s incoherent efforts to express her agony reminded me of another work of art which appeared around the same time, W.S. Merwin’s The Lice. Merwin is one of my favorite poets, and in a series of books in the ‘60s he appropriated some of the techniques of surrealism for the expression of a vision similar to Eliot’s in The Waste Land. Most of the poems are hardly coherent at all, but the cumulative effect of the tone and imagery produce a terrible sense of isolation and despair. This fragment is typical:

Shutting your eyes from the spectacle you
Saw not darkness but
Nothing

On which doors were opening

      (“Pieces for Other Lives”)

One of the reasons why it remains so difficult to get a firm grasp on the events of the 1960s is that more than one thing was happening. One of those things, I believe, was a sort of death spasm of Christianity as the living heart of our civilization. As we all know the faith as a formative idea for society had been in decline for a long time, but if I were going to pick one historical moment as the point where death occurred, I think it would be somewhere in the middle of the ‘60s. After that it soon became less conventional to be a practicing Christian than not to be in the culturally dominant circles of the USA and Europe.

Persona and The Lice are only two of many convulsive works of art that appeared in the 1960s, works of disorientation and despair which differ from the similar artifacts of early modernism in that they have less connection to the Western tradition. They don’t look backward, as, for instance, The Waste Land does, but rather forward, and what they see is a blank. Laurence Lieberman’s blurb on the original edition of The Lice describes it as capturing “the agony of a generation which knows itself to be the last.”

Bergman was the son of a Lutheran minister. He rejected the faith but continued to grapple with it, rejecting it very definitely in a series of bleak visions of which Persona is one of the most bleak. I did not know until a few minutes ago when I looked up Merwin on Wikipedia that he also was the son of a minister, a Presbyterian. The work of both these men seems to me at once to exemplify and reveal the truth of the death of Christian culture. It is not a pretty sight. There is darkness, there is disorientation, and in the end there is nothing. In a sense nothing came after them, in that no one much younger than they has been formed by the Western-Christian tradition in the way that they were; those who have come after are shaped by a world in which that tradition is only one of many elements comprising the mental landscape of their civilization. And even if they choose that tradition the act of choice makes their relationship to it very different—very self-conscious, among other things.

There were of course a lot of lively things happening at exactly the same time that these artists were producing their darkest work—the eruption of the counter-culture and left-wing radicalism throughout Europe and America, for instance. Not all of this was bad, and some of it represented an instinctive reaction against some of the forces that were killing the soul of the culture. Speaking broadly, though, I think much of the cultural revolution of the time can be seen as a sort of release, the children of a wealthy man going wild with their inheritance upon his death. And in this light the emergence of what we now call the Christian Right seems an understandable but hopeless attempt to cure gangrene in a limb when the patient’s heart is no longer beating.

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Music of the Week — January 27, 2008

Gillian Welch: Time (The Revelator)

For most of this album you’re hearing one voice and two guitars, sometimes only one. There’s a second voice singing harmony on the choruses; there’s a banjo on one track, and a faint drum, or maybe just a foot stomping, on another. To hold a listener’s attention for the better part of an hour with these limited resources requires some really fine songs. And this album delivers: it’s just a few songs short of greatness. The overall pace is slow, the tone melancholy, and it was a very justifiable decision to throw in a couple of more up-tempo songs for variety. But to my taste those two (“Red Clay Halo” and “I Wanna Sing That Rock and Roll”) just don’t measure up; they come across as throw-aways.

The others vary from very good to great, including the best song about Elvis Presley I’ve ever heard (“Elvis Presley Blues”), a striking two-part meditation on certain great events and (one gathers) a couple of private ones that have occurred on April 14 (“Ruination Day”), and, most improbably, a song lasting almost fifteen minutes which tells no story and is fairly repetitive musically but nevertheless never gets tiresome for me. Welch’s voice is wonderful without being outstanding, if that makes sense: I mean that it isn’t striking, like Emmy Lou Harris’s, or spectacular, like Patty Griffin’s, but it’s perfect for what she does—warm and relaxed and just slightly countrified, which is pretty strange for someone who grew up in Los Angeles as the child of two television writers.

If you read these little reviews regularly you know I place a high value on lyrics, and these hooked me from the very first verse:

Darling remember
When you come to me
I’m the pretender
And not what I’m supposed to be
But who could know
if I’m a traitor?
Time’s a revelator.

I assume Welch wrote the lyrics, but the songs are credited to Welch and her collaborator David Rawlings, who is also the provider of the other voice and guitar, making one wonder if crediting the album to Welch alone is quite accurate. But that’s their business. You can listen to samples here.

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Fun With Stereotypes

While we're on the topic of racial stereotypes:

Extra nerd points if you know the name of the publisher of the JavaScript book; award yourself one extra point if you didn't even have to think about it.

Many or most readers may need to have it explained that this is a parody of a song called "Ridin' Dirty"—I did. According to urbandictionary.com the title refers to riding around with felony-level quantities of illegal drugs or firearms.

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Comment Problems (again)

Once again comments are failing to display. They show up in recent comments and I can see them if I log in to my HaloScan account, but when you try to view them you get either nothing or only some of them. I guess I'll move ahead with my plan to switch to WordPress sooner rather than later, although with anything software-related you never know when you're jumping out of the frying pan into the fire (I speak as one who's in the trade).

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Sunday Night Journal — January 20, 2008

We Got to Live Together: A Note on MLK Day

I went to a Martin Luther King Day event at a local college last week. There were some encouraging things about it, and some discouraging things. Among the former: the deep connection to Christian faith, the warmth and charm of the gospel singers and the sweet little girls performing a “praise dance,” and the main speaker, whose theme was more or less “now it’s up to us.” Among the latter: a recitation of Langston Hughes’ well-know poem “A Raisin In the Sun,” with its implicit threat of violence in the context of a situation of direct oppression that no longer exists, and the fact that there were very few young black men in attendance, partly no doubt because there are far fewer of them in college.

Toward the end of the event ushers handed out paper and pencils to the audience and asked us to write down something that we would like to see happen toward the advancement of racial harmony. I wrote that I would like to see black and white discuss their differences openly and with good will on both sides.

Good will is what is conspicuously lacking in our racial situation (as in so many others). If “racism” can be defined straightforwardly as race-based hostility, then what we have now is a standoff between two forms of racism. I had a conversation recently with a white man who confessed that he had given up trying not to be racist. He had decided that it was silly and useless to pretend that black people in general are not going to look out for their own above all else, and he saw no reason for white people to do otherwise. He had a lot of evidence for his first point, some of which was irrational and some not—for instance, a couple of situations locally in which black people had gained control of some institution and looted it for themselves and their cronies (doing so rather recklessly, which is why they got caught).

What struck me about this is that it’s more or less the same attitude that many blacks have. They assume that whites are racist and react accordingly. Any conflict with a white is assumed to be driven at least partly by racism. I dare say most of us have seen this in action, especially in the workplace, when the simplest disagreement, something that would be worked out straightforwardly (not necessarily happily) between two members of the same race becomes a racial minefield and of course a potential lawsuit. In fact it’s probably true that almost all interaction between whites and blacks is a minefield, except in situations where the participants really know and trust each other.

Needless to say, both sides often end up wary and paranoid and behaving in ways that confirm the suspicions of the other. And there is always enough foundation for suspicion to make it seem the obvious and prudent path. The naïve assumption of the civil rights movement, that our real differences are superficial and that our prejudices therefore are also superficial gave way long ago to a recognition, not always confessed, that the two peoples are different in real and significant ways and that it isn’t easy to bridge the gap.

What can we do to break this cycle? How do we get to a place where we can approach the problem with an assumption of good will on each side? I’ve been saying for many years now that only supernatural help in the form of Christian faith and love will ever have the power to do it. But there’s one thing in the natural realm that would help a great deal: for each group to recognize how much it needs the other. Try to imagine the United States without either its white or its black population: it would be a totally different country, and one that would be missing a great deal of its richness and vitality.

In racism there is an implicit assumption that things would be much better for each group if the other did not exist. That’s a false assumption. For all its past violence and oppression, and all its present tension, the connection of European and African cultures in the United States (and in the Americas in general) has enriched both. God, as we know, can bring good out of even so great an evil as slavery, but he generally expects a good deal of human cooperation with his providence. At any rate there is no separating us now, at least nothing that would not involve violence as great as that which brought us together. We had best accept the verdict of the old Sly and the Family Stone song: we got to live together—accept it on a very deep level, and live accordingly.

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