Christina

By Sander Vloebergs

The interface between academic discourse and artistic imagination

In this series of blog posts I will propose an ongoing project about art and mysticism (religious experience and theology). I study mystical source texts from an insider perspective trying to bring them into relation with the artistic process. This reflection will be performed in an artistic and academic way. This current project, called Christina, is the next step in my search for similarities between the process of art making and the mystical experience, which started with a dialogue between the Visions of the mystic Hadewijch and my own experience as a theologian and artist.

Holy Women

Christina profielfoto.jpg

The current project Christina, named after the Flemish medieval saint Christina Mirabilis of Sint-Truiden focuses on the holy lives (Vitae) of the Mulieres Religiosae, the religious women (nuns, beguines and lay women) who lived in the thirteenth-century Archdiocese of Liège. These mystical women challenged the minds of artists and theologians alike, in the past but also in the present day. Touched by the divine, these women expressed their experiences using dance, song and poetry. Visions and art were the means of communicating divine inspiration.

A Network of Women

These local saints received international praise and appreciation by contemporaries like Francis of Assisi. The thirteenth century was a great era for women in the Church, because these women were often authority figures and leaders of communities. Even today, these Belgian women receive scholarly attention from all around the world. Nevertheless, this attention is almost exclusively academic. The Vitae are not very known in the artistic world, to use an understatement.

An Artistic Interdisciplinary Network

This academic art project proposes a collaboration between different artists from different disciplines using academic language to communicate ideas, to explore these unknown sources (the Vitae), to reflect on the artistic process and finally, to evaluate the end product (an artistic dance video and a network of other related art pieces). These reflections will be posted in the upcoming blogs. I believe this academic research will enrich the artistic network which – for a long time – was hostile towards religion.

The Lens of the Artist

This project aims to offer a creative perspective on the process of mystical divine inspiration by comparing this phenomenon to the artistic process and by reading the sources through the lens of the artist. I believe this artistic interpretation of the sources will enrich academic research in the fields of both literature and theology. The artist reads the text through his medium (be it paint, video, or the body) and will discover new insights, which are hidden from the academic who is trained to approach texts from an academic distance (although these spiritual texts invite us to engage in its dynamics). This project wants to offer a dialogue between theology, mysticism, and diverse art forms in order to grasp the full reality of the female mystical experience, as described in the texts.

Christina – Project

The first women, the first text we will explore is the famous or notorious Christina Mirabilis, (the Astonishing), or just simply Christiana of Sint-Truiden (1150-1224). This mythical figure blurs the lines between reality and fiction. Trapped between heaven and earth, this saint danced across the Flemish landscape and sung with her extraordinary heavenly voice. This saintly artist was believed to be capable of flying, a hybrid creature stuck between heaven and earth. Based on her holy life, the dance starts, a dance without music. This dance will be shared with other artists, who will respond with their own interpretation using their own artistic medium. This will be supported by a process of academic reflection. At a later stage, the three artists will collaborate and finalize the artistic process with a dance video – a video that will be the point of reference for other artists (from other disciplines) to submit their work and create a dialogue between the different arts internally and between the arts and (mystical) theology.

The first of a series of artistic dance videos, inspired by the holy lives of saintly women of the medieval Low Countries. Music: Peter Deboi Video: Cristiano Ferri Choreography : Sander Vloebergs

Constellations: Street Art Project

By Jared Schumacher

As one of the more ancient disciplines, theology has gained a reputation in the public imagination for being either a nostalgic or a sectarian practice.  There are clear historical reasons this prejudice has developed, and, truth be told, it is not altogether inaccurate.  However, those who see theology in line with the Second Vatican Council know it can be much more than this––it can offer fresh perspective on the signs of the times by reading them in light of the Good News of Jesus Christ.  But in order to do this, theologians must engage the creative arts and artists of their age, seeking therein expressions of the profundity of the human condition.  

Knowing that it is a theological imperative to plumb the depths and surfaces of the human soul, I was happy when asked to contribute to an art project last year. The Lithuanian street artist AWK was kind enough to encourage my participation in his recent project entitled "The Constellations", which was a multimedia installation in Penang, Malaysia. The piece was conceived to reflect on the integration and interpenetration of technology, biology, and cosmology in the Anthropocene.  It consisted of stencil work, 3D rendered images and animations projected on walls, with accompanying atmospheric audio.  My contribution was to offer a theologically-inspired "reading" of the installation, which functioned as a kind of script for the audience's encounter and interaction with the work,and was handed out during the event. 

With the permission the artist, the video and music of the project are posted here below, as well as the text of my "reading".  (NB: The video is a little over 15 minutes in length.  For the full experience, be sure to turn your speakers on. )

“Constellations”: an interpretation

Compelled by a primordial sense of wonder, humanity has long sought direction and inspiration among the stars. In ancient cosmologies, the heavens were associated with divinity, the stars with gods and goddesses to be feared or worshipped. More than physical phenomena, the greater and lesser lights were embodiments of social mythology. Heaven’s dome was the pantheon of the gods whose machinations governed terrestrial affairs. Clever minds sought to chart the course of history by the declinations, eclipses, and ascensions of the celestial spheres. The revolutions of stars foretold revolution on earth, wars contracted and suspended on the authority of heavenly warrant. In the premodern frame of mind, microcosm imitated macrocosm, and the key to that subtle analogy could only be found, with the meaning of the universe, among the stars.
A paradigm shift occurred at the dawning of the modern era. Social theorists often describe this change as a process of “disenchantment” whereby the microcosm becomes a thing unto itself, a surface laid flat. The heavens no longer “declare the glory of the Lord”; the vertical horizon is severed. As if the stars had all fallen to earth, the heavens lost their luster and spoke no more.
Some lament the loss of transcendence, while others view it as the necessary prerequisite for the next stage of evolutionary development. Divine providence is replaced by poetic license, the meaning of existence now bears the sign: “Under Construction”. Technological developments, no longer mere innovations external to the human, carry with them the future hopes of mankind; they are instruments through which man reaches for dominion over the stars that eluded his grasp in infancy. The modern was not, after all, a loss of faith as such. It was the loss of faith in human powerlessness.
The last two centuries have seen the rise of the Anthropocene, an era in which human artistic and mechanical production has achieved such scale as to influence substantially the basic environmental conditions of the habitable world. From the Industrial Revolution through to today, mankind has come into its terrestrial kingdom by achieving greater control over the cosmos in which it lives, seemingly dictating terms to life itself.
But this mastery has yet to fulfill its promise to usher in man’s halcyon days. The metanarratives of unimpeded progress, like the constellations of old, have been brought low, and a new disenchantment has arisen: modern malaise. We sit like W.H. Auden,
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth
AWK’s “Constellations” is an exploration of this bright and darkened landscape. Its foci are surfaces, fissures, and fractal articulations of the light and shadow, form and formlessness. Like all art, it is a search for meaning based on an intuition: ‘There is something here, some connection, some pattern or meaning that must be named and brought into view.’ It looks to the structures, both natural and manmade, that undergird reality, as if in search of some clue – the secret index by which the world might again become intelligible to us. That index, whatever shape it might ultimately take, must inevitably be a constellation.
At their most basic level, constellations are points of light standing out against an undulating surface of darkness. What is of interest with respect to the Anthropocene is that they are at once both natural and man-made, both real and imaginary. Without man projecting his experiences and understandings onto the heavens, what are stars but pulsating clouds of gas, the deaf and dumb carnage of some pre-historical accident? And yet, we know that we are not dreaming their deeper significance. It is the same activity of mind that sees purpose in the world which re-collects the scattered light into some cognizable form. Stars are natural phenomena, but the imaginary lines of the constellation that connect them are the product of the human ingenuity. Constellations are embodiments of human imagination seeking to render nature intelligible.
The images that compose this project were “found” scattered on the internet, a fact which provides a twofold insight: first, it speaks to the nature of art as an alternative economy, as a collaborative and interactive exchange of meaning. Second, it indicates the fact that nothing is without meaning, not even the detritus of yesterday’s dreams. The act of recycling these images constitutes a radical denial of the throw-away culture all to frequently encountered today. The windmills and solar panels stand as totems of what is possible to achieve when mankind seeks harmony with nature.
In this respect there is a subtle irony in the project’s concluding depiction of the solar panels: what hope there is for a better future for ourselves will depend on our ability to reorient ourselves to the stars. For this is the basic meaning of “con-stellation” ––with the stars.
“There will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth dismay among nations, in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, men fainting from fear and the expectation of the things which are coming upon the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken…But when these things begin to take place, straighten up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
~Luke 21:25-8.

For more on the art project, click here.

For more information on AWK, visit here.

A Composition of Compassion

By Sander Vloebergs

This blog is a theological-artistic exploration of Laudato si based on the themes of gender and pain. For his drawing, Sander Vloebergs was inspired by the classical pieta composition and the pain that runs through it.

 

Mary, the Mother who cared for Jesus, now cares with maternal affection and pain for this wounded world. Just as her pierced heart mourned the death of Jesus, so now she grieves for the sufferings of the crucified poor and for the creatures of this world laid waste by human power (Laudato si 241).

The world is in pain, Mary is grieving and the Crucified mourns for the injustice that befell the Creation of the Father. In this contemporary story about the de-creation of the world, everyone seems to weep. The excruciating pain of the dismembering of the Earth blurs the lines between the protagonists of salvation history. In this blog I want to explore the divisions between the bodies in pain. Does suffering bring the Mother, the Father and the Son closer together? Can the Father weep like a Mother?  

Laudato si and Gender

Critics like Emily Reimer-Barry recently explored the papal document Laudato si and highlighted the gender roles that are used to name God and the earth. It seems that this document balances between a stereotypical gender division on the one hand and the new emphasis on gender diversity – encouraged by the feminist movement – on the other. Reimer-Barry detects an ambivalence. On the one hand, the pope explores new ways to encourage a loving relation with God and the Earth that challenges traditional oppressing relations. On the other hand the pope seems to sometimes reduce paradoxes – who are characteristics of a dynamic spirituality – to dualities that are mutually exclusive. The dynamic interplay between powerful and vulnerable, earth and heaven, man and woman seems to come to a halt occasionally. This creates an unhealthy constellation that supports oppression and power structures. The Father-image is a good example of this ambiguity.

The pope uses the name Father to stress the mutual relationship between Creator and creation. He explains his choice in Laudato si 75: “The best way to restore men and women to their rightful place, putting an end to their claim to absolute dominion over the earth, is to speak once more of the figure of a Father who creates and who alone owns the world. Otherwise, human beings will always try to impose their own laws and interests on reality.” The Father-metaphor reminds us indeed of our spiritual and material dependence on the Creator. Nevertheless, Reimer-Barry points to the dangers of narrowing down the richness of the Father-metaphor. She writes: “This image [of the Father], drawn from human experiences of power and property ownership, is more akin to a patriarch who rules over his household than a loving companion who nurtures new life and cares for the vulnerable”. The wrong use of the image of Father could indeed make God a patriarch. The Father then becomes a ruler and is no longer a parent, He is no longer vulnerable. Vulnerability is traditionally described as a ‘feminine’ characteristic. Nevertheless we need the transgression of the classical gender divisions to come to an accurate perspective on the richness of the Father-metaphor. How can we enrich our metaphor of ‘Father’? What does it mean to be a father in the first place? (see Yves De Maeseneer's blog Child calls father to fatherhood). These reflections are not alien to the pope’s thinking.

Feminist theology encourages people to call God Father and Mother. This idea challenges the western dualistic way of thinking. God is both man and woman, He/She has female and male characteristics. Reimer-Barry regrets that the pope sometimes follows the dualistic divisions. She says: “By adopting masculine language for God and feminine language for Nature, Pope Francis carries forward a long-standing cultural metaphor that has been dangerous for women, given that it fails to recognize the equal dignity of women in shaping culture”. She continues: “In this worldview, to be masculine is to be strong, rational, active; to be feminine is to be weak, emotional, passive”. Nevertheless, the pope doesn’t make these divisions all the time. By emphasizing the vulnerable caring characteristics of the Father, the pope transgresses the gender roles. The Pope’s Father-image is grounded in a rich spirituality that recognizes vulnerability as a strength. The Father “also shows great tenderness, which is not a mark of the weak but of those who are genuinely strong, fully aware of reality and ready to love and serve in humility” (LS 242). He is not an oppressing patriarch but a caring parent. The Father is not a distant spectator of creation’s painful history. He chose to become vulnerable, to share blood and tears, to exchange Love and pain with his Mother Nature (the creation).

An Artistic-Theological Reflection

The Pieta – my drawing – spins around the point of vulnerability and compassion and creates an artistic Utopia where the Father can be the Mother and where the Creator can touch his creation. On this blank page Mary is allowed to be Jesus, crucified created matter that bleeds because of the sins of the world. Her openness for groundless divine Love brought her to the cross. Her lamentations finally died in a lifeless silence as her bones lay still in the hands of her Mother-Creator, wearing the face of the Son. In this Pieta, Jesus becomes the suffering Mother. Through the eyes of the Son, the Father weeps about the faith of his creation. He is powerless and vulnerable. In this last act of kenosis his tears mingle with the blood of the earth. When He sees the lifeless body of his creation He dies with Her and becomes nothing, an endless abyss of Love. This wounding/wounded Love moves beyond identity in the nameless ineffability where the protagonists of the passion story are transfigured into their essences: the lovers game between lover and beloved, Creator and Creation. Vulnerability allows humans to be humans, God to be God and both to be lovers. The vulnerable compassionate Father grieves for the sufferings of the crucified poor with the heart of the Mother and the eyes of the Son.  

 

 

When Mother became Mary

As part of the series on Laudato Si, this blog is meant as a theological-artistic exploration of the themes of pregnancy and incarnation, themes that suit the time of the year, the advent period. For his drawing, Sander Vloebergs was inspired by the classical icons of Mary and child and the dynamic movement of Nature spiraling around the moment of incarnation. He was inspired by blogs previously written by Julia Meszaros and Patrick Ryan Cooper. This blog is a continuation of the line of thought that started with the previous blogpost on Laudato Si : This sister now cries out to us.

Body and incarnation

Mary, blessed above all women, Queen of the heavens. Sometimes we forget that the Holy Mother is a mother just like us: blessed with the gift of life, a woman between women. She is a created being, transformed by the Life that grows in her, never to be the same as before. She becomes the Image of what creation could be, Mother Nature pregnant of the divine, a material body of Love. More than a celestial appearance, she is a fleshly manifestation of endless love and devotion, an erotic human longing to be completed.

We seem to neglect the materiality of the gift of life when we watch the beautiful icons of Mother and Son. That is why I wanted to visualize the growing life inside Mary’s womb with this drawing. In my creative world the iconic Mary becomes first of all a mother; with a pregnant vulnerable body, spinning around the source of Life. We should not forget that pregnancy and deliverance are first of all bodily phenomena that have a deep existential significance. A child grows in a body. It is this radically transforming body that interrupts the human life, it demands a play of identity as the ‘I’ transforms into a ‘we’. In a way, the bodily creation of new life goes hand in hand with an encounter with death itself as the ego dies in order to resurrect as a mother. The beauty of the tree of life is intertwined with the fragility of human existence as revealed by the crucified body. While life is cherished in the womb, humans become vulnerable, capable of being wounded in a bodily and existential way. The gift of life is a gift of death, a chance to spiritual growth.

Julia Meszaros writes beautifully in her blog on the mysticism of natural childbirth about this spiritual journey. She writes: “ For natural childbirth can serve as a metaphor (and hence a training ground) for the spiritual life, as the great mystics of the Christian tradition have described it. The natural birth of a child ‘undoes’ us; it gives us a glimpse of the meaning of human suffering; and, by driving home to us our creatureliness, it places us before God”. In her blog she puts special emphasis on the pains of labor and the thin line between life and death as this pain makes us aware that our lives hang on a golden thread. The birth pains reveal the fragile nature of human existence and the presence of life in the most vulnerable bodies. Yet those bodies show the most potential to live an authentic human life: open to be wounded and touched by the divine.

Mother of mothers

So we come to the Mother of mothers, Mary who responded with unrestricted love to the presence of God. She accepted the transformative movement of Nature (the natural pregnancy) to harmonize with the wounding Love of God in a way that changed the course of history. Yet we can’t forget that she is a creature of matter, a human body, a Mother Nature in her brightest form. About the necessity of her humanity, Patrick Ryan Cooper writes: “Without the Theotokos, the Incarnate Word would have been merely "similar to us but would not have been perfectly consubstantial" and thus the "God-man would not be my brother". Mary gives Jesus his body and offers him the gift of death and suffering that is existentially intertwined with Life itself.

She is the example par excellence of how a spiritual erotic longing for the Love of God can transform the body and how the pregnant body can change the existence of men. Mary is both active in her seductive devotion and passive in the receiving of the divine. The active dynamics that seduce the God of Love are driven by the praying openness of all humans who carry in them the gift of life. Mary is part of this cosmic movement, she is its crown jewel. In her, the prayer of the earth gets answered, and she, first of all mankind, becomes a temple where creation and Creator can touch.  Mother Mary reveals what Mother Nature can become, what every human could become. She is the mother who became Mary, Queen of Heavens.

                  

 

 

 

This sister now cries out to us: a theological-artistic perspective on Laudato Si'

This blog is meant as a theological-artistic exploration of the encyclical's core theme. For his drawings, Sander Vloebergs was inspired by archetypical images of the earth/the Goddess. The interpretation of the art works are the fruit of a dialogue between Sander and Lieve Orye, who approached the pictures with a focus on theological epistemology.

by Sander Vloebergs in cooperation with Lieve Orye

This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters (Laudato si §2)

 

A Franciscan way of knowing, kinship and love

Click to see images in a lightbox

The first words we read in Laudato Si’ are words that help us to see what is around us – the ground we walk on, the air we breath - as kin – as brother, as sister, as mother. “[O]ur common home is like a sister with whom we share our lives and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us”(§1). But not only are they as kin to us. It is through all His creatures, brother sun and sister moon, through our sister Mother earth that He is praised. In Laudato Si' we are invited to go beyond the language of science, of mathematics or biology, beyond intellectual appreciation and economic calculus, to join Francis in song, learning again to recognize our unity with all creatures around us as sisters and brothers with whom we could and should kindle our bonds of affection. Through this recognition and through this bond we will hear again the call to care for all that exists. We should learn to see again with openness to awe and wonder, learn to speak again the language of fraternity and beauty, the language of kinship and connection (§11).

Sometimes the distinction is made between a Dominican way of knowing that thrives on abstract properties and designations, a knowing that that draws on first- and third-person avowals, and a Franciscan mode of knowledge that describes the world in terms of categories that require an acquaintance with certain stories and persons in order to understand. The latter is a kind of knowing that is not reducible to a knowledge that. It involves a kind of second-person knowing. It requires us not to remain at a distance but to get personally involved with that or those one seeks to know or to recognize the personal involvement that is unavoidably there. Though Pope Francis certainly does not dismiss the Dominican, more scientific, detached kind of knowledge about the world, he nevertheless stresses with his opening words the need to rekindle a Franciscan way of knowing made possible through love. Such knowledge seems particularly needed when suffering is involved, and when a knowledge is needed that does not become a form of domination. That Pope Francis considers the earth herself as one among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor, is therefore telling: Both the suffering of the earth and the suffering of the poor is a suffering that needs to be understood beyond abstract theory and distant analysis, through the listening to and telling of stories that allows us to learn how to be in relation to the main characters of the story. Through these stories second person experiences can be told in a way that the distinctively second-person character of the experiences is kept alive. Through these stories love can be nourished rooted in a reason that is constituted by the lover's relationship with the beloved. Christians tell and listen to the story of how God so loved the world that he sent his only son. But the story also tells us that we crucified him.

Stories and images to learn to see earth as suffering kin

We also need to tell the story of how we crucified our own Mother Earth. These sisters and brothers have been and continue to be wronged deeply. The images we now often get to see in documentaries or news programs are images of damage, of lack, of chaos. It is the image of a Mother Nature who bleeds. In those images, the risen Christ seems unbearably absent leaving us only the ugliness of the wounds, the filthy scars of a broken body. Without his deified flesh there is nothing glorious about this sight. We are slaughtering our own flesh without any chance of resurrection, sacrificing her for our own idols, killing her for our own utopia. The second paragraph of Laudato Si’ gets straight to the nub of the matter. Our relation has become one of carelessness, of negligence, of objectification and exploitation. We no longer hear the world, no longer read the pages of the book of Nature as a song of praise, and so do not hear the cry as the cry of a loved one, even when we realize, in economic terms, in scientific terms, or even in our own bodies that in being careless and exploitative towards our world we are careless and exploitative towards ourselves.  

We must learn to commune again with all creation (§11), learn to burst out in song again. Though we need scientific analyses of what is going wrong, of what causes the rise in temperature and what will be its consequences, we must also take up again the telling of stories through word and image, through material creation and divine inspiration, in search of the prophetic voice of the Earth, calling out to us, reminding us of the prophesy of a Kingdom to come, of a new creation in which the groaning will cease. The three images of Mother Earth in this blog are an attempt to go beyond a dissecting language, beyond a language of problems and solutions, beyond a language that allows us to deny our involvement. These are images that search to show how the limits which are written in our bodies are repulsive to the exiles of Eden, to modern man. The crisis of limits that, as Jared Schumacher noted in his post, spilled into how we talk about and see and experience the world, has brought us from the Endlessness of Elohim to the Hollowness of Hades, believing it to be the ultimate freedom. The gift of mortality is transformed into the burden of suffering. As revenge, we chastise our Godesses, icons of Nature which wear the face of the inevitable Son.

 Trapped between antichrist and Imago Dei these images try to create an interplay between the dream of mankind and the dream of God. They are hybrid bodies raising up from the earth, touched by the divine, befouled by sin, bleeding for us. The ultimate choice is ours; to drink the life giving water or the poison of the serpent; to suffer from compassion or from hate; to enjoy the labor pains and the re-creation of the world or to torture the Earth for her blasphemy against the modern ideals.

In these images Mother Earth calls out to us, calls us, “not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it” (§19).

Pope Francis' Apocalyptic Vision & the Anti-Christ in Benson's Lord of the World

By Patrick Ryan Cooper

As a young Catholic theologian with relatively few laurels to rest upon, I nevertheless consider myself wise enough to have critically eschewed the media's partisan Doppelgänger portrait of Pope Francis, preferring instead to pay close attention to what the Holy Father himself has said and done over these utterly remarkable and unprecedented first few years of his papacy. Given the tired and woeful inadequacy of labels such as "right/left", or "traditionalist/progressive", how should we understand Pope Francis? Perhaps we should look at his library and the book recommendations that he has made as Pontiff.  After all, it was at his very first Angelus (March 17, 2013) that Francis would recommend Cardinal Kasper's work on "mercy" – and we all know the centrality this theme has taken, and how it continues to play itself out, in both the Extraordinary and upcoming Ordinary Synod on the Family later this year.

However, there is another trajectory to Francis, one that is clearly less-publicized, though arguably just as relevant and defining. Veteran Vatican correspondent John Allen  captured it in his interview (November 17, 2014) with the ailing Archbishop emeritus of Chicago, Francis Cardinal George, wherein George notes that

It’s interesting to me that this pope talks about that novel, “Lord of the World.” That’s one thing I want to ask him. How do you put together what you’re doing with what you say is the hermeneutical interpretation of your ministry, which is this eschatological vision that the anti-Christ is with us? Do you believe that? I would love to ask the Holy Father. What does that mean? In a sense, maybe it explains why he seems to be in a hurry. Nobody seems interested in that but I find it fascinating, because I found the book fascinating. I read it quite by chance when I was in high school. It was written in 1907, and he has air travel, he has everything modern. It’s really eerie because it seems as if he was looking at our time, meaning right now. Does the pope believe that?....I hope before I die I’ll have the chance to ask him: How do you want us to understand your ministry, when you put that before us as a key?[1]

On more than one occasion[2], Francis has indeed referenced Benson's dystopian novel, which today is largely forgotten (illustrated by the fact that the only extant copy available for my recent purchase was a cheap, photographic imprint edition). Most notably, this past January, Francis cited Benson as providing the key to explaining what he means by the "ideological colonisation of the family". "There is a book that was written in London in 1903, called “Lord of the World”, by Benson: I recommend it to you" Francis said to reporters upon his return trip from the Philippines. "If you read it you’ll really understand what I’m talking about.”[3] However, Francis' comments about "ideological colonisation" specifically in terms of the family are largely enigmatic. For Benson pays little attention to the state of the family (or gender theories) in his apocalyptic drama. Rather, the forced association that Francis is communicating by such references appears to have another intention: namely, as code for speaking about the "Anti-Christ" within  public media, cleverly without mentioning the word itself, as well as communicating something fundamental about himself and his papacy. So what then is Lord of the World all about?

Benson's apocalyptic novel itself takes place at the dawn of the 21st Century and it begins amid fierce tension and the threat of cataclysmic war. Then all of a sudden, a relatively unknown junior senator from Vermont, Julian Felsenburgh quickly and extraordinarily emerges upon the world political stage, brokers a peace within Asia's rival factions and thereafter Europe. Benson's prose relishes in describing the messianic enthusiasm that engulfs the various world capitals, in particular London, describing at one point how the "officials were like men possessed….disappear[ing] in the rush to the City, for it had leaked out, in spite of the Government's precautions, that Paul's House, known once as St. Paul's Cathedral, was to be the scene of Felsenburgh's reception." Amid its apocalyptic frenzy and frequent hyperbole, the humor of Benson's satirical edge should not be forgotten, for it was 'Paul's House' that welcomed with open arms none other than the Anti-Christ Felsenburgh himself. We should recall that Benson himself was the son of the former Archbishop of Canterbury and was initially ordained as an Anglican, before leaving and eventually becoming ordained in the Roman Catholic Church in 1904.

One of the central themes to Lord of the World is the manner in which evil insidiously apes the good, while aiming to show the very messianism at work with the Anti-Christ and the perverse simulacra atheistic humanism supplies as a (to use Benson's very post-modern sounding phrase) "Catholicism without Christianity". Benson endlessly exploits this familiar genre thematic, where emergency "ministers of Euthanasia" are now regarded as the "real Priests" of mercy and compassion, while he particularly excels in describing the newly institutionalized mandatory worship that Felsenburgh inaugurates, along with the former Modernist-leaning Fr. Francis, who apostatizes and becomes Minister of Public Worship. Here, the natura pura of neo-Scholasticism reveals its own horrific monstrosity, as the new elite enthusiastically revels in such worship, displaying the "deepest instinct in man", while sacralizing the feasts of Maternity (not surprisingly, on January 1st) and Life (March 25th), in addition to those of Sustenance and Paternity, for "God was man, and Felsenburgh his Incarnation!"

But the most consequential demonic doubling the novel displays is to be found in the profound physical likeness shared between Felsenburgh and the novel's main protagonist, the English Fr. Percy Franklin—who later becomes a Cardinal and eventually Pope Silvester III after the full-scale destruction of Rome and the Church hierarchy. Like the relative obscurity of Felsenburgh, Benson's outsider protagonist Fr. Percy is indeed a very striking character, who equally becomes thrust in the middle of the action, only to ascend to the throne of St. Peter after the tremendous turmoil and persecution of Rome. Immediately contrasted by his more grandiose and monarchial predecessor, Benson continuously emphasizes how the newly ordained Silvester III is in every way imaginable a "model of simplicity". Does any of this sound familiar? It certainly should, for perhaps we can better understand not only why Pope Francis has such a fondness for this book, but furthermore, we can well speculate how he himself envisions the core of the Petrine office today as Servant of Servants, in addition to his own extraordinary ascendency as interpreted by this apocalyptic hermeneutic.

And now it was come to this. Christianity had smoldered away from Europe like a sunset on darkening peaks; Eternal Rome was a heap of ruins; in East and West alike a man had been set upon the throne of God, had been acclaimed as divine. The world had leaped forward; men had learned consistency…the social lessons of Christianity apart from a Divine Teacher, or, rather, they said, in spite of Him. There were left, perhaps, three millions, perhaps five, at the utmost ten millions—it was impossible to know—throughout the entire inhabited globe who still worshipped Jesus Christ as God. And the Vicar of Christ sat in a whitewashed room…dressed as simply as His master, waiting for the end.

And yet, while pushing aside all popular and heterodox accounts of apocalyptic foretelling, what in fact could be the theological significance in describing Francis' ecclesial vision as apocalyptic, as a "field hospital after battle"? To probe such depths, we would be wise to turn to the Notre Dame theologian, Cyril O'Regan, who over the last decade has steadily challenged (contemporary) theology's predilection in maintaining its "cordon sanitaire around itself to repel apocalyptic infection".[4] Instead, O'Regan insists upon the genuine urgency to rearticulate a distinct Christian apocalyptic vision, which alone can sufficiently corral both the retrieval of Christian identity otherwise fragmented by the "corrosive effect of the Enlightenment on Christian discourse"[5] as well as the insistence upon the praxis of justice as "specifically Christian paths of actions and forms of life that may very well exceed what is demanded by secular culture."[6] Such a "necessity", O'Regan reminds us, need not be merely "defensive" and suspicious of contemporary life nor triumphalist, but it certainly does demand an evangelical robustness, for "to speak the truth boldly (parrhesia) is a Christian imperative" and such a theological discourse is by his estimate, "becoming more rather than less imperative as a form of theology".[7] In closing, I would argue that Francis is indeed shaped by this imperative in countless ways amid a fragmented and perilous contemporary moment in which religious persecution and horrific images of martyrdom appear almost daily (i.e. "ecumenism of blood"). And so, we may well call his "vision of God" and that of the Church genuinely apocalyptic as he "suggests that there is much more to do than do enough, that witness even to the point of martyrdom is called for".

            

[1]See John Allen, http://www.cruxnow.com/church/2014/11/17/chicagos-exiting-cardinal-the-church-is-about-truefalse-not-leftright/

[2] See Pope Francis Homily 18.11.2013 and his reference to the "adolescent progressivism" of apostasy and spiritual worldliness, wherein he specifically mentions Benson. http://www.news.va/en/news/pope-lord-save-us-from-the-subtle-conspiracies-of

[3] See http://vaticaninsider.lastampa.it/en/the-vatican/detail/articolo/francesco-filippine-38640/

[4] See Cyril O'Regan,  Theology & the Spaces of Apocalyptic, from The Pére Marquette Lecture in Theology (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 2009) 15.

[5] ibid., 26.

[6] ibid., 126.

[7] ibid., 127.

Body Matters – A Workshop on Christianity and the Body

By Julia Meszaros

A few weeks ago, I—like other members of the Anthropos research group—had the privilege of participating in a workshop led by the dance artist and scholar of religion Carol Webster. Focusing on the theme of Body Matters: Somatic Conversations on Christianity, Love, and Justice, Webster took us on a theoretical and practical exploration of the human body’s role in Christian life and thought. Webster began with a short lecture on how St Paul, in her eyes, negotiated the emergent Christian identity in recourse to bodily images, such as that of Christ’s body being eaten (at the Eucharist) and that of the prostitute (as the antithesis of a member of Christ). With this, so Webster argued, Paul gave the body the ambiguous role of both unifying Christians and forever ‘othering’ those who do not fit the Christian understanding of social and moral norms.

Carol Webster image.jpg

Instead of choosing the conventional route of embarking on an intellectual discussion of these bold claims, Webster then let us probe Christianity’s relationship with the body more practically, performatively and experientially. She asked each participant to physically enact (with movement and sound) how he or she presently felt. Our bodily self-expressions were then ‘shared’ in various ways: we were for instance asked to re-enact as well as physically connect each other’s movements and sounds (by having everyone enact their movements together and while touching one another), and to reflect on how we experienced these—at times uneasy and physically challenging—encounters.

Webster continually related these exercises to the relationship between our own identity and our relations with others. How and to what extent, so Webster asked, can we truly remain ourselves while being just and loving towards others—and vice versa. Her thought-provoking underlying hypothesis was that, unless we become conscious of their bodily dimension, both our self-identity and our relations with others are compromised.

While our various experiments did confront us with the fact that our human lives have a profoundly bodily dimension, Webster’s final—and impressive—exercise nonetheless made me doubt quite how central our body is both to our self-identity and our capacity to love. In this exercise, our group was asked to crowd together, such that we occupied the smallest possible amount of space in the room. Finding ourselves in one sweaty and uncomfortable pile, we were asked to reflect on whether we still felt capable of upholding our identity and of loving one another. To contrast this experience, we were then invited to spread out over the room with as great a distance from one another as possible.

As I experienced it, the first case of a crowded space certainly posed a challenge to my self-identity and capacity for love but did not seem to undo this. Love quickly became imperative for survival and took on the concrete meaning of solidarity, interdependence and mutual acceptance. My ability to find a positive bodily identity was nullified to the point that my bodily senses shut down, yet I managed to inhabit an internal place that still felt like ‘me’. My identity, it seemed, had become more spiritual than bodily but nonetheless felt authentic.

In the second case of physical alienation from others, by contrast, bodily self-expression and –identification may have been possible in theory, yet my spirit felt suffocated to the point of incapacitating me as a whole (i.e., also bodily). My physical alienation from others seemed to imply that I could neither be myself nor love others (or myself)—indeed that I was stifled and petrified at the very core of my being.

Ironically perhaps, the attempt to explore myself as body thus seemed to reveal the primacy of myself as embodied (!) spirit. This is not to say that the bodily dimension does not matter to our ability to be ourselves and love others. Far from it—my physical or bodily situation obviously had a deep impact on my sense of self and love insofar as I experienced physical isolation, in particular, as profoundly hazardous. Yet it was striking to me that I experienced my ability to be and to love as relatively divorced from my capacity for bodily self-expression. Indeed, even where any such freedom was taken away, that is, where our bodies were so close that we could not even more them, self-identity and love still seemed possible—possible on a spiritual plane.

Signifying the Human: A Failure to Face Reality

If you can see that the invention of the black condition creates the trap of white identity, you will see that what a black man knows about a white man stems, inexorably, from the white man’s description of who, and what, he takes to be the other—in this case the black cat: me.
— James Baldwin, "Of the Sorrow Songs: The Cross of Redemption"

James Baldwin often comes back to a critique of US Americans’ failure to confront the reality that they create and signify, coupled with a call to confront this reality as a process of redemption. This is, for example, clearly seen in his three-act tragedy, Blues for Mister Charlie (1964). The title of the play bears this out. The action centers on the death of a young black man at the hands of a white man who is then exonerated, a reality that is by all means a very contemporary one. Yet, at the end, the blues are sung for Mister Charlie—a term used to refer to the generic white man—because of his inability to confront reality.

Baldwin continues this critique and proposal in a 1979 essay on jazz, “Of the Sorrow Songs: The Cross of Redemption,” which is what I want to focus on here. In this essay, Baldwin puts forth jazz, and more particularly the ability to understand jazz, as a possibility for redemption within a US American context. Jazz challenges the language we use to describe reality, and more particularly the human. In a fundamental sense, it challenges our process of orientation within reality. Baldwin points to the black experience of being signified, but also, crucially, the ability to see the process of signification and to understand how it reveals something about the signifier. This is part of what is expressed in jazz, and what constitutes the universal importance of jazz, even in cases when the signifier refuses to comprehend this process. I would put forward that the reluctance of mainstream US American and Western European theology to, in Baldwin’s terms, “understand jazz,” distorts its ability to comprehend the human.

Baldwin makes a plea to open or unveil history, and sees jazz, which in the United States begins on the auction block of the slave market, to at the very least present the possibility of doing this.

Now, whoever is unable to face this—the auction block; whoever cannot see that the auction block is the demolition, by Europe, of all human standards: a demolition accomplished, furthermore, at that hour of the world’s history, in the name of “civilization”; whoever pretends that the slave mother does not weep, until this hour, for her slaughtered son, that the son does not weep for his slaughtered father; or whoever pretends that the white father did not, literally, and knowing what he was doing, hang, and burn, and castrate, his black son—whoever cannot face this can never pay the price for the beat which is the key to music, and the key to life. Music is our witness, and our ally. The beat is the confession which recognizes, changes, and conquers time. Then, history becomes a garment we can wear, and share, and not a cloak in which to hide; and time becomes a friend.

Concealing the beat of/within history prevents the redemption of US American society. Redemption, for Baldwin, comes from within, from an unveiling of the historical reality that isn't possible as long as the beat is covered over.

In his most recent book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (a review can be found here), James Cone argues that the cross and lynching tree must interpret each other. When our understanding of the cross isn't inflected by the lynching tree, we (US American theologians) do dishonest theology. We do theology abstracted from the beat. Baldwin would agree with Cone regarding the state of mainstream theology: as long as it fails to engage reality—and Cone makes a compelling argument regarding the failure of US American christologies to engage reality when they don’t engage the reality of lynching and its extension into contemporary forms—, theology functions as a part of the concealment of reality. In this process, there is no hope of such a discourse indicating anything about redemption. A signification of the human absent the beat—and I’m in agreement with Cone that such naive signification pervades theological understandings of the person—distances theology from functioning as a redemptive praxis, or, for that matter, from saying anything about God.

Girls: is there art beyond the banality of "life as it is"?

Girls.jpg

Jared Schumacher

The HBO original TV series Girls is a controversial comed-rama pioneered by Lena Dunham.  The series is controversial for many reasons, but foremost is its questionable and abundant use of nudity. At a recent press event, one reporter raised the issue directly with the creators, and the exchange created a firestorm of criticism. In brief, he asked "why the ubiquity of seemingly meaningless nudity?" Sides were predictably drawn in response between those who viewed the nudity as "brave" (one reviewer calls it "unflinching", which is the poetic synonym) and those who see it as gratuitous.

What is most interesting about how the debate took shape was that it fundamentally centered around contrary understandings of the nature and purpose of art.  The reporter who raised the question of the meaning behind the substantial, repeated, and explicit nudity himself is no prude, saying he has no problem with nudity as such, but rather with what it is being used 'to mean' in Dunham's articulation.  It is clear from the exchange that Dunham (mis)understood the question as an attack on the fact that it is her nudity, her assumption being that the questioner thought that she does not meet TV-conventional standards of physical desirability.  Her response is enlightening because, in the end, she appeals to the nature of art as "representation of reality" to justify her creative decisions:  

“It’s because it’s a realistic expression of what it’s like to be alive, I think, and I totally get it,” said Dunham. “If you are not into me, that’s your problem, and you are going to have to kind of work that out with whatever professionals you’ve hired.”

Judd Apatow (the show's producer) later backed her response in the same interview by saying that her depictions are "honest", presumably he means to true life.

Dunham's and Apatow's appeal bases 'the meaning' or goodness of nudity in their art on the condition that it accurately depicts the human condition.  But this is precisely to eschew the very difficult problem of naming either the art's or the nudity's social value or good.  I read the reporter's original question which instigated the fight this way:  "Ms. Dunham, your program is a ground- and heart-breaking portrayal life in the City, one which we as the discerning audience are tempted to call art.  But we have questions about the social value your piece brings with it in respect to its seemingly banal use of nudity.  What is the artistic reason of your usage?"  To this question, Dunham replies:  "Because life looks like this."  And she is correct.   Humans are naked on a daily basis.  Where she is wrong is in assuming that the nudity is harmless, or else innocent. Showing nudity on a screen and appealing to "life as it is" as a justification for the executive decision made to show it repeatedly cannot be innocent in the nature of the act.  It is necessarily intentional.  The original question was aimed at uncovering this intentionality.  And the answer provided is far from satisfying because it leaves unaddressed what "the good life" (in ethical terms) or the "beautiful life" (in aesthetic terms) is.  In this sense, the usage is banal.

More than any other leading lady on television at the moment, Dunham exemplifies the (new?) normal, but not in her attempt to correct warped standards of physical beauty, though she does this too. Rather, she is normal (read: average, quotidian) in her use of art as a sophisticated catch-word for the uncritical and therefore banal depiction of life.

Having watched the show myself, I can state that there is a pervading sense of the tragic about the self-styled "comedy".   It is tragic because it makes manifest the alienation of the female experience of the modern City, how its modes of life generate banality in relationship and self-understanding.  But this truly valuable insight is never recuperated into a criticism of those structures and the City which create the alienation.  In short, there is no vision of the good lying beyond or behind this observation, but rather a meaningless resolution – of the (potentially) creative tension that arises –  in "the banality of life." In short, while she may indeed accurately depict a segment of the female experience of the City by means of banal nudity, we are left wondering why it was worthy of depiction in the first place. 

In the end, it just may be that Dunham is pioneering a new use for sex and nudity in media, beyond erotic stimulation or marketing ploy: the banalization of life.  Because art is both a product of artistic presentation AND the means by which visions of the good are habituated in others (through repeated exposure), isn't the depiction of "life as it is", when unaccompanied by the fecundity of the good, a means to banality?  

This is the first in an envisioned series of posts that will be dedicated to theological anthropology and what it can learn from, or else say to, cultural movements and trends, paying particular attention to pop-cultural representations of what it means to be human in the (post)modern condition.