Saturday, August 4, 2012

Remembrances Of Times Past Dept: Culture, Fiction, and Religion

No, this won't be a disquisition on Proust. But it might strike you as just as boring and irrelevant.

Hey, free is free. Always feel free to disregard what you read here. As I've said before, I write these pieces mainly for myself.

Mainly, in fact, because I must.


My memory frequently hurls bits of the past at me, completely out of left field. I never know what's coming. Indeed, I'm often puzzled by what might have triggered a particular memory. That having been said, I don't mind these episodes. They serve as reminders that "where we are" is a goodly distance from "where we've been."

Maybe more people need reminders of that sort. Our historical memories seem to have weakened greatly over the most recent decades, though (as in all such appreciations) I could merely be flattering myself.

Today's remembrance concerns a famous novel of the Seventies: William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist. If you haven't read it, it concerns a teenaged girl who was possessed by a demon, and the efforts of a Catholic priest to bring her relief.

The novel received a lot of attention in its day, in part because of the movie, which (among other things) employed a haunting segment of Mike Oldfield's composition Tubular Bells as theme music. (The movie also propelled Linda Blair to a temporary stardom, which was fatally compromised by subsequent appearances in a couple of laughable films, including one atrocious, thematically absurd sequel.) As you might expect, young folks' interest largely centered on the more esoteric aspects of the story. Mine, by contrast, was on the presentation of the two principal clerical characters, Father Damien Karras and Father Lankester Merrin, as heroes who must brave great dangers, physical and spiritual, in their efforts to rescue the sufferer from the possessing fiend.

Note all the following:

  • No priest in the story was presented as a hypocrite.
  • No priest was attributed evil motives (e.g., pedophilia).
  • The Catholic Church was treated throughout as a serious, cautious, humane, and dignified institution that exists for the benefit of its adherents, not the other way around.

The novel was wildly popular, the movie still more so. But what sort of uses of the Church predominate in the popular fiction of our time? Are they at all respectful of the institution? Do they accept its overt mission as its true purpose for existence? Do they represent priests, nuns, and the rest of the clergy as dedicated persons responding to a higher calling, or do they impugn the motives of these who claim to have dedicated their lives entirely to the service of God and Man?

Allow me to inject two words into your considerations: Dan Brown.


A long, long time ago, I wrote:

It [my home town] was an overwhelmingly Catholic community. There were five Masses each Sunday morning, and all of them were attended to capacity and beyond. The parish priests were regarded as higher authorities than any elected functionary. When our pastor was elevated to Monsignor, we young ones were stunned that the town didn't hold a parade.

Most of the children attended the parish's grammar school, St. Catherine of Alexandria. Despite St. Catherine's huge class sizes -- classes of fifty were the norm -- standards were high, and the pressure to get in never slackened. The local public grammar school was regarded as a refuge for the children of lazy parents, who didn't care how their kids were taught; it had many unoccupied desks. Competition among the latter-grade students at St. Catherine's was intense; we all wanted to go to the local Catholic high school, Albertus Magnus, and we knew there weren't places enough for all of us.

That was the milieu of suburban New York in the Fifties and early Sixties. Religion and religious institutions were regarded as significant, even critical, components of our lives. I'd imagine that most of the country was pretty similar, albeit toward a variety of denominations according to which one predominated in a given district. Christianity of various flavors was, of course, the creed most frequently dominant, but Jewish neighborhoods were equally devoted to their rabbis, synagogues, and Jewish educational institutions. (For all practical purposes, there were no Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, Shinto, Taoist, or other neighborhoods.)

Never mind the trends in fiction; how great a role do religious institutions play in American life today? Apart from the political controversies that seem to boil around them, that is? And what about the correlation between the loss of respect for those institutions and the undeniable deterioration of American civil society, particularly in our major population centers?


These days, when you hear about a priest on the news, it's just about always a child-molestation scandal. When it's not, it's usually about a priest having made a political statement that's put other people's noses out of joint.

Say, this is Liberty's Torch, isn't it? So you're already braced for large dollops of irony, right? That's one of my trademarks. So have a couple:

  • The social segment most frequently accused of child molestation is unmarried men living with children fathered by another man.
  • The rates of accusations of child molestation against Catholic priests, clerics of other denominations, and public-school teachers are all about the same.
  • Despite the above, reportage on such accusations focuses disproportionately on Catholic priests, emphasizing their vows of celibacy.

Don't take my word for it. Look it up.

What's been particularly shameful about the involvement of priests in such execrable deeds, devastating to the victims and their families almost to the degree of murder, were the attempts by certain dioceses to cover up the offenses or buy off the accusers. But here as in the other citations above, the focus on Catholic misdeeds has been disproportionate to their representation; other social segments accused of such behavior have responded in about the same proportions.

Is this some aspect of a larger campaign against the Church? I couldn't say for certain. I do have my suspicions, though: the Church is the oldest institution in the Western world that bears any sort of stamp of moral authority. These days, people don't like to be told to watch themselves -- that God might not approve of all their varieties of personal indulgence. How can you gratify each and every one of your appetites, however tawdry or exploitative, if you have to remain mindful that God is watching, and that He doesn't dispense exceptions to His Commandments?

Along with that, consider the historical, easily understood hostility of governments to any competing source of moral guidance. As a government grows in power and arrogance, it becomes ever more hostile to any voice, however soft or sweet, that dares to contradict its pronouncements. It will seek to stamp them out, or failing that, to silence them. Historical examples are numerous...and of course, we have such a contest occurring right here in America as we speak.

Fortunately enough, direct assaults on religion and religious institutions usually backfire. Stalin may have been strictly correct when he mocked the pope as not having an army, but he discovered to his extreme chagrin that he and those who assisted him couldn't destroy the faith of the Russian people simply by forbidding it. Faith is a power above any earthly power; earthly powers that go up against it openly have always come off second best.

But faith can be undermined: by displacement from an overcrowded life; by the smearing of its ministers; and by enticements to self-indulgence paraded as "free," but whose true, high prices are back-loaded in a cleverly concealed fashion.

An indirect assault through cultural conduits is the preferred method.


Andrew Breitbart and others have told conservatives that we must re-establish a strong, vital presence in American cultural life if we want to have an effect on Americans' political views. I find this to be correct. It's directly applicable to the cultural treatment of religion, particularly Christianity.

There's a "structure of ideological production" to be respected here. It would do no good merely for believers to flood the streets and airwaves demanding to be respected for their convictions. Neither can an effort to bring religion and its various benefits and constraints back to the first echelon of our priorities be combined constructively with political activism. Ideas must be developed carefully, conveyed modestly but eloquently to other idea-mongers, and allowed to flow down into ever larger strata of discussion. This is just as true of religious and religio-cultural ideas as of any other sort.

Fiction strikes me as the place to start.

There have been some excellent recent novels that showed great respect toward faith and religious institutions, in particular delineating their beneficial practical effects on the lives of believers. Mark Butterworth's A Man With Three Great German Shepherds and John Ringo and Tom Kratman's The Tuloriad come to mind at once. (Of course, if you prefer actual trash, you could always read some of this hack's hackwork. De gustibus and all that.) More would surely be a good thing, as long as the storytelling is sound and the faith under consideration is a wholesome one.

(Incidentally, Mark Butterworth has agreed to become a Contributor here at Liberty's Torch. We should be seeing some material from him pretty soon.)

My personal concentration is, of course, on the Catholic Church. There's nothing in the world to compare to its mission: the conservation and dissemination of the Gospels of Jesus of Nazareth. The moral system He set forth is entirely benign and life-loving, and not nearly as restrictive as many badly misinformed persons (and their misinformers) believe. Given human frailties and appetites, adherence to it isn't automatic or effortless, but it is for the best.

(Yes, Catholics, Catholic clergymen, and Catholic hierarchs have from time to time sinned grievously, against themselves and against others. But whether high, middle, or low, Catholic individuals are not the Church itself. Most especially, they cannot claim to represent the Church while they flout the teachings of Christ. Besides, compare the Church to any other institution that purports to be a source of moral authority, and which of them stands taller at the end?)

The challenge is to demonstrate that moral code in operation, in good stories well told that embed important moral themes.


Just a little off-axis for a Saturday, eh? You probably expected something political, given the current multi-pronged foofaurauws in progress. And in the usual case, that's what you'd have gotten. But as I said at the outset, my memory is a strange mechanism. When it speaks, I tend to listen attentively.



furball said...

"It would do no good merely for believers to flood the streets and airwaves demanding to be respected for their convictions. Neither can an effort to bring religion and its various benefits and constraints back to the first echelon of our priorities be combined constructively with political activism."

This is exactly what gays, socialists, one-worlders and race-mongers do: "flood the streets and airwaves demanding to be respected for their convictions."

If we live with TV, we'll be defined by TV. But TV isn't our grandparents, our families and - really - our culture.

If Ann Barnhardt and others are right, we'll see a collapse of a lot of what we currently accept as normal. The faith we've put in "markets" and government will be foresworn.

Bill Maher and others can rail all they want against religion and "belief," but they have nothing to offer when the power goes out.

I was "raised Protestant" (til I was 7) but I'm beginning to see the power and blessing of the Eucharist and the Tridentine Mass.

The last few years have (for me) cast serious doubts about global markets, the financial system, government, politicians, regulators, the U.N., diversity, academia, the media, and "my fellow man."

As far as I can tell, most of the people involved in those endeavors are jerks, scoundrels, felons, thugs or clueless.

It's a darn shame that Catholics let pederasts and appeasers infiltrate their ranks. But then, didn't we all?

When we sit by and let Syria and other hideous "nations" sit on the U.N. Human Rights Commission, what were we going to expect?


TJIC said...

In the novels I'm writing now, there's a minor character who is a Jesuit priest and a physicist.

He's a good guy, a savvy advisor, and a smart cookie.

Needless to say, I'll be self-publishing.

pdwalker said...

What do you think of Declaration Entertainment and their goal of waging the culture war via movies?

Francis W. Porretto said...

PDW, the movies are an important conduit through our culture, but they're not the place to start. They're at least one level down the "structure of ideological production," and possibly two.

The best starting point is written fiction. You want persons of intellectual repute grappling with important themes -- political, sociological, religious, economic -- as presented in plausible fictional situations where the characters must have sound reasons for their reactions. From there, the themes can bleed over into movies, TV, popular music, video games, and so forth with the panache of having been found worthy of consideration by serious intellects behind them.