Wednesday, December 3, 2014

No Condemnation in Christ, Part 2: Life in the Spirit

In my last post, I began a series on Romans, Chapter 8, a chapter about our redemption in Christ, full of rich messages that, in Christ, we are not condemned:
"Hence, now there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  For the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has freed you from the law of sin and death.  For what the law, weakened by the flesh, was powerless to do, this God has done:  by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for the sake of sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the righteous decree of the law might be fulfilled in us, who live not according to the flesh but according to the spirit."   
-Romans 8: 1-4  
It's interesting that Paul says, "so that the righteous decree of the law might be fulfilled in us."  This sounds like an echo of Christ's own words, "Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish, but to fulfill."  This is an important parallel.  So many people, especially among our separated brethren,  misread Paul's passages on mercy to suggest exactly the opposite of Christ's words:  That Jesus did come to do away with the Law.  Some even go so far as to suggest that this means Christians, once "saved," can never be "unsaved" no matter what they do, nor how far they may seem to have turned away from God afterward.  Not so, neither according to Jesus nor to Paul.  Instead, Jesus fulfills the Law.  And since Christ lives in us, that means that, as Paul says, the Law is fulfilled in us.

 But how is it, then, that we witness our own sins, and the sins of other Christians, everyday?  If the Law has not been abolished, how can we be called righteous when we clearly violate that Law?  Much less how can we say that it is fulfilled in us?!  Let's read more of what Paul has to say:
"For those who live according to the flesh are concerned with the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the spirit with the things of the spirit.  The concern of the flesh is death, but the concern of the spirit is life and peace  For the concern of the flesh is hostility toward God; it does not submit to the law of God, nor can it; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.  But you are not in the flesh; on the contrary, you are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you.  Whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to Him.  But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the spirit is alive because of righteousness.  If the Spirit of the One Who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one Who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through His Spirit that dwells in you.  Consequently, brothers, we are not debtors to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.  For if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live." 
-Romans 8: 5-13
It seems that Paul's answer to the conundrum is that we live, in some sense, a dual existence.  We live in the flesh, which though made by God (and thus, as the Church teaches, not inherently evil) is tainted by Original Sin and, even after that sin has been washed away, scarred by its effects, something known to Catholics as "concupiscence," the tendency to sin and to find it easier to commit sin than to resist it.  Yet once we enter into Christ, our living in this flesh becomes, as it were, circumstantial.  We still occupy these flawed and tarnished bodies, but our primary existence is in "the Spirit," that is the Spirit of God, of Christ.  And I would argue that once we are in Christ even our bodies, although they bear the marks and tendencies of sin, find their truest identities in the anticipation of what they will one day become:  Transformed, glorified by this same Spirit in which we live, as Christ's body was glorified after His Resurrection ("the one Who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also").

That is why we now live without condemnation; now this new state of being does require that we "put to death the deeds of the body."  And how do we do that?  One, by being concerned "with the things of the spirit," by striving to walk in God's ways, and by that "righteous decree of the law" mentioned earlier.  Two, by repentance--including, when required by the Church, sacramental confession--when we sin, by which time and again we "put to death," by the Spirit, the deeds which we have done in the body.  When we confess to God and, when our sins are mortal, in the presence of His priests, God's Spirit literally puts our sins to death, and so they have no hold on us.  If we lived only on our own power, in our own flesh, it would be impossible to please God, especially once we had violated His Law in even the smallest way.  But because we live in Christ, and by His Spirit, then when we sin we are only one true repentance away and, at worst, even if we have committed the most heinous of sins, one sacramental confession away from being restored to that righteousness which is in Christ, so that the Law is fulfilled in us despite our faults.  Penance, purgatory, and all the rest is, as they say, "details:" Important details, but none of which stand between us and life in the Spirit; when we live repentant in Christ, we are already there.
"For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God.  For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry 'Abba, Father!'  The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are sons of God, and if sons, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him." 
- Romans 8: 14-17
We are not slaves, that we should live in constant fear that, because of our unworthiness, we are only ever a hair's breadth from the wrath of our Master.  Instead, just as Christ called the Apostles, and us by extension, no longer slaves but His friends, so too does God call us no longer slaves but His sons--a word that, in scriptural theology, applies to both male and female equally, for it implies not our biological gender but our rightful heirship--and sons walk in the security and righteousness of their Father.  In our case, if we are willing to embrace the suffering that comes with "putting to death the deeds of the body," we are heirs of that same righteousness and peace which are the inheritance of Christ.  Let us walk in that peace with great consolation.

Note:  That's not all!  Before this series is over, we will have covered the entire chapter.  So stay tuned for future posts in the series!

Monday, December 1, 2014

No Condemnation In Christ, Part 1: Introduction

As a person who struggles with same-sex attraction, and who has had my share of faults related to that struggle, guilt comes easily to me.  I don't mean contrition, the good sort of sorrow over one's sins.  No, I mean a deep sense of shame, of feeling as though I am somehow the lowest of the low.  I have stumbled across those, for example, who actually believe that homosexual sins should be punishable by death, while "conveniently" insisting that other sins--namely, the sort of sins "normal" people (read:  People like themselves) might commit--are somehow different, and are God's alone to deal with.

Recently, I watched a video by a guy who quoted 1 Timothy 1:8-11, which does indeed mention homosexual sin in the same context as murderers and kidnappers.  The guy used this to justify punishing homosexual faults with the same severity, by law, as one would punish those others.  In fact, as I read his Facebook page, I saw indications that he wasn't opposed to the death penalty for homosexuality.  He actually used the inclusion of kidnappers and murderers in these same verses to insist that the verses don't simply condemn all sin equally, because after all we don't let kidnappers and murderers go without severe temporal punishment; so why, he asked, should those who commit homosexual acts "get a pass?"  He conveniently glossed over the fact that this same passage mentions those who are "sinful" in general terms, and mentions those who are guilty of "whatever else is opposed to sound teaching," which would pretty much include all sin.  So the irony is that the very passage he used to say that homosexual sins are more deserving of human punishment--apparently up to and including the death penalty--than other sins, also mentions sin in general.  So if the inclusion of homosexual sins in this passage, alongside murder and kidnappers, is proof that homosexual sins should be dealt with just as harshly as those by man's laws, then so must anything sinful, anything which is "opposed to sound teaching."

There's a saying about this somewhere...

The tendency of Pharisaical types to single out my sins as being somehow so much "worse" than their own wreaks several orders of havoc on me, especially when some go so far as to suggest that people who commit my sins ought to be killed, in contrast to other sinners who do indeed evidently "get a pass" on such a grim fate.  It causes me to feel that, because I'm unlucky enough to struggle with a more "taboo" sin, God condemns me more harshly than He condemns others.  Yet I admit it:  I do deserve death for my sins.  My sins are a stench to God's nose, a deep affront to Him.  In a society where there was perfect justice, not tempered by mercy, I would and should be put to a painful and horrible death for the misdeeds I've committed.  Not only my sexual sins; my lies, my gluttony, my selfishness, my lashing out in anger.  From the least to the greatest, these are all atrocities.

After all, even the slightest sin of mine, or anyone else, contributes to the pain and suffering of Christ as He was tormented and killed, so in a way every sin is an act of sadistic violence against God the Son, and therefore on level with (and beyond!) the despicable deeds of someone who kidnapped and tortured someone before killing them.  Because that's what all sin in the past, present, and future has actually done to Jesus .  That's precisely why no one who has ever sinned has the right to look down on any other sinner, no matter how "vile" the other sinner's deeds may seem.  So some part of me, when I encounter Pharisaic rhetoric, thinks I should simply admit that they're right.  The fact that they don't recognize the depravity of their own sins is their own tragedy, their own blindness, but their condemnation of me, at least, is perfectly justified.  And where it relates to my same sex attraction and related failures, that fills me time and again with a deep sense of shame that I can barely contain.  And actually--although this is the topic for a different post--I don't necessarily oppose the idea of a government where my sins would be criminalized, if this criminalization was tempered by mercy and compassion (which, as you might have guessed, certainly rules out Mr. Pharisee's longing for putting us to death!), for I know within me, at least intellectually, that the way I have sinned against God, nature, and the dignity of masculinity is nothing short of criminal.

That's why I thank God, though, that in Christ I am not the sum total of my sins.  In Christ I am redeemed, so that "if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me."  Repentance is necessary, yes.  Penance is necessary, yes.  And it might even be just for my fellow man to punish me for my sins, if it's for the good of society.  I would even give my very life to return to a Christian society, so maybe accepting some law against my own behavior would be a way for me to put my money where my mouth is.  But even if it came to that, I am not irredeemably corrupted when I sin, because in Jesus Christ there is no sin that puts me beyond redemption, so long as I do not give up the good fight.  Some sins may rightly put me on the path to punishment at the hands of men, but they do not rob me of the ability, in Christ, to be redeemed.

The eighth chapter of St. Paul's letter to the Romans has many beautiful reflections on this reality.  So consider this post an introduction to a series of posts that are going to reflect on that chapter, in sections.  I'm actually not alone in this project:  Both I and my friend and fellow blogger Daniel, at the blog Mercy Street, have conspired to tackle this series together.  You can read his own first post on the series here.  For now, suffice to say that, as the first verse of the chapter says, "there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus."  While that doesn't mean that we can "sin it up" without repenting, it does mean that we are delivered from being irrecoverably broken by our sins.  And that's pretty good reason to feel worth something, not because of my own worthiness, but because of the worth Christ has given me.  By His Grace, I am not so rotten or despicable after all, even though without His Grace I would most certainly be.

I hope you'll join me, dear reader, as I plunge further into this beautiful chapter in future posts.

Monday, November 24, 2014

An Envy of Vice?!

I often find myself torn between two opposite types of envy.  The first type is obvious:  I envy saints, those whose holiness seems to radiate and pour forth into the lives of all whom they touch, especially those whose faith is so strong that Christ grants miracles through their prayers.  What a powerful witness!  But then there's the second type:  I envy the sinful, those whose lives have been weathered through the harsh effects of misdeed, those who have more "worldly" experiences than I do.

The first type of envy is bad because, well, it's envy.  But at least it makes sense.  As a Christian, I am supposed to desire the greatest of gifts, and the saints often exemplify those.  The second type, however, is just bizarre.  To be clear, though, I don't think I tend so much to envy unrepentant sinners, but those who have either changed or who are trying to live right.  For example, I wouldn't envy the common Hollywood celebrity, who proudly sins without admitting that it's even wrong.  But if I had come to personally know my patron saint, St. Augustine, during his lifetime, I might have somehow envied some of his past vices that I haven't shared, such as his past transgressions with women.

I suspect that, in some sense, it's because of my unhealthy fascination with being experienced and world-wise, especially as a man.  In fact, this would explain why I'm not typically envious of religious believers with pasts that are not so much affirmed by the majority of the world.  I would not envy a man who told me he had once been a transsexual--even though that's culturally acceptable, it's not popular enough, not something that the common man in our culture struggles with.  The same would go for sinful tendencies that are still illegal and/or taboo among the typical  man in our culture.  I'm not as fascinated by those.  In some sense, my own dissatisfaction with my own cross, same-sex attraction, is partly for the shallow reason that it's something only a small percentage of men could relate to directly, so I don't feel like it makes me "one of the guys."  If I confided my failures in this arena to the average guy, I don't think he could sympathetically say "I've been there too, man."

But, going back to St. Augustine as an example, to have had trouble with chastity when it comes to women is an experience to which many men will relate, if not a great majority, religious and non-religious alike.  In some sense, then, this one area where I have been largely pristine (my wife is indeed the one and only woman with whom I've had physical sexual contact) can oddly make me feel isolated from the world of my fellow men.

I want to make it clear that I am very, very glad of my victories in chastity regarding women. Sometimes--and this isn't a good thing--I'm inordinately proud of it, want to shout it from the rooftops and brag about it, to say:  "Look, as much as I've messed up, sexually, here's one thing that at least I've done right!"  And I have no interest in ever physically being with any other woman besides my wife, to the point that I'm not even sure I would want to remarry if, Heaven forbid, I were widowed, let alone have any illicit relationship with a woman!  And this whole "sexual immorality with women" thing is just one example of what I'm talking about.

My point is that when it comes to experiences, in general, where the majority of my fellow men have transgressed and I have not, it may make me feel special, but it also makes me feel isolated somehow.  If most men have gotten drunk, then even though I have no personal interest in getting drunk at all, I will feel a pang of regret that I can't relate to them when they confide or admit their regrets to me.  I've never been there.  And perhaps, if getting drunk at least once is that common, I would feel like those men are somehow better equipped to relate to our culture than I.  Another one in our culture, even among religious types, is temporary rebellion against the more traditional values of one's parents, whether openly or quietly.  Most people have gone through that kind of phase, most especially during the teenage years.  I never really did.  I've messed up a lot, but never in a manner that seemed overly defiant, nor covertly dismissive of my parents' values.

So I fret that, in some sense, I'm "missing" something that others have.  At heart, I think that's what it's all about.  I'm always afraid of "missing out" on something, of being unable to relate to others.  My drive to know what it's like to be my fellow man can often leave me insecure about any differences between him and me, even differences where ostensibly I'm at an advantage.  This has led, in the past, to an incredibly uncomfortable tension, where I want to maintain the moral high ground but at the same time don't want to feel so "cut off" from relating to the vices common to my fellow men, and so I've been reduced to tears as, honestly, I didn't know what I wanted.

The solution?  Well, I can't prescribe my own solution, but I think it's obvious.  I must put my eyes on Christ.  He, by Himself, is a majority when set against others.  I must wish to rise above my own faults and failures, by His Grace, let alone those faults and failures I've been blessed to evade, so that I can be more like Him.  He should be the One to Whom I am obsessed with resemblance, to Whose experiences I wish desperately to relate.  The saints eventually reached a place in life where they wanted to share in Jesus' life, wanted to know what it was like to live in His shoes, rather than in the shoes of my fellow mortals.

We all have vices we must rise above.  It wouldn't be good for anyone to envy me of my vices, no matter how they simply wanted to know what it was like to be me, even if my vices were more "in vogue."  So it's also not good for me to envy the vices of others, no matter how much it may mean they have something "in common" with the majority of my cultural peers when I don't.  I should never look down on anyone else for their vices, because I have vices of my own that are not the least bit better.  But nor should I ever feel like I'm "missing out" on anything because of the absence of their vices in my own life.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Who Killed Marriage and Sexual Morality? We Did...

In our current cultural climate, the latest battle about marriage has been a high-profile one:  You'd have to be living under a rock, if you're a citizen of most nations in the modern west, to not know that there is an agenda afoot to say that marriage must be redefined so as to include two people of the same gender.  Conservative Christians everywhere are rightly alarmed by this turn of events, as both Scripture and the Church teach that sexual relationships outside of marriage, between one man and one woman, are sinful. Yet the problem started long ago, perhaps even more long ago than many of my brothers and sisters in faith may realize.

Civil marriage has long been a joke, compared to what it once was.  Now, I must say immediately that as a Catholic, I concede to the wisdom of the Church's tradition (small "t," meaning it's time tested wisdom but not something that's an infallible Dogma) that civil marriage is important to society.  I therefore reject the libertarian notion than society would be just fine if marriage were left solely to private ceremonies and to churches, without any state involvement.  However, at the same time I recognize that civil marriage, as it exists in my society today, is a pale shadow of the institution that the Church extols as being desirable for society.

We must consider what the purpose of civil marriage is.  It's absurd, beyond all reason, to suggest that civil marriage is about romance or feelings of love.  The governments of the world did not originally conceive of giving married couples special status or tax benefits for the sake of honoring their proclamations of love.  If that's all marriage was about, the libertarians would be perfectly right:  It would be ridiculous for the government to get involved.

Like a state-sanctioned valentines day card.
Only a lot more expensive!
Besides protecting people from violence, robbery, etc., and maintaining a system of justice and order, governments also serve a function of supporting an atmosphere most conducive to a thriving society.  So if the government has any role in marriage, it would only be toward those ends.  It's clear, with even passing thought, that family is the basic building block of society.  Family is a natural example of order and community:  A father, a mother, and children, with children being under the authority of the parents if they are to thrive and grow.  From there, we have extended family, who have always thrived best--historically--if they worked together with the other "nuclear" families, in mutually beneficial relationships.  In this way, family is a society, and it's the only one that would occur in nature, without needing an artificial structure.  So it makes sense that, if the government has any stock in sanctioning marriage, it's for the preservation and promotion of family.

How, though, might civil marriage do that?  Well, for one thing civil marriage would have to promote family somehow, namely by promoting procreation.  But in order to do this, there must be more than just the sanctioning of sex.  Men and women have never, throughout history, needed any incentive to have sex with each other, and until recently, that meant that procreation was pretty well assured.  But procreation by itself does not a family unit make.  In order for there to be a family, at least in the sense of being the basic building block of society, then those who come together to make children must stay together and be with those children.  So in order for a government to have any real reason to be involved in marriage, civil marriage must in some sense enforce that togetherness, but if it's going to do that, it must also be an attractive enough prospect that people would want to engage in it, when they could just "shack up" and have the freedom to leave whenever they want.  So we find that the purpose of civil marriage is first to offer some sort of reward--or ease--to make people want to enter into it, and then to enforce the longevity of that relationship somehow, to hold the man and woman to the agreement they've made.

The obvious way that modern civil marriage has managed to make itself meaningless is no-fault divorce.  Sure, the government still makes civil marriage attractive by offering benefits and tax breaks, along with special rights that spouses have to one another.  These things attract people to marriage.  However, there's no longer any enforcement to hold the marriage together once it's entered.  If the going gets tough, either spouse is free to file for a divorce, which will be granted, for absolutely no reason whatsoever.  There need be no serious problem.  It could be as simple as "I just don't love my spouse" or "I've fallen in love with someone else."  The irony here is that now, the government is indeed giving people incentive to come together in a relationship that will possibly create children (more on that, very soon in this post), but then these people are free to go their separate ways at any time, for any reason, destroying the stable and basic "society"--the family--into which those children were born.  As long as divorce can be so easily and certainly obtained, civil marriage isn't doing its job of safeguarding the basic building block of society, and those who suggest that there's no point to civil marriage have good reason to think so, and it's also understandable why some think civil marriage is such a joke that accepting state-sanctioned gay "marriage" couldn't really do it anymore harm.

Not really much more you can do to it...

Yet there's a more fundamental error, and a more popular one.  You see, at least many Christians can recognize that divorce is wrong.  Perhaps they don't believe this strongly enough to clamor for the abolition of no-fault divorce--though they should--but at least they often enough believe it on some level, at least among those who take the Bible seriously at all.  But the more fundamental mockery of marriage is one that only a very select group of Christians, aside from Catholics or Orthodox (and sadly, even many so-called Catholics miss this fact) oppose.  This mockery is the belief that marriage and procreation do not go hand in hand.  That is, that it's acceptable to get married with little or no intention of having children.  It's a belief that followed, naturally enough, on the heels of our modern world's acceptance of birth control, whether by pill, barrier, or finishing the sex act in some unnatural way.  The fact is, I have met few people, if any, who support birth control as morally acceptable yet who believe that it is the moral duty of any fertile married couple to have at least some children.  It seems to me that, without fail, those who accept contraception as morally permissible also believe that it can be acceptable for someone to get married while having no intention or openness to having children at all.  If Christian, these types admit that children should only be had within marriage, but they do not tend to concede that marriage should only be entered if there is an intention--if naturally possible and without significant health risks--to have children.

The problem with this, and the way that it relates to gay "marriage" today, is that it squarely undermines one of the basic purposes of civil marriage at all, not to mention the point of sex (and therefore of marriage, period, civil or otherwise).  Even if no-fault divorce were banished tomorrow, marriage is still a nonsensical institution if it does not require some intention to have children.  Consider, the evil of no-fault divorce is that it allows couples to break up the families they may create.  If, however, procreation is not considered a normative duty of marriage, then it's hypothetically acceptable for every married couple to deliberately refrain from creating a family in the first place.  After all, the government has no interest in safeguarding a private two-person relationship, in and of itself.

The gay "marriage" activists really won their battle the moment that people--sadly most Christians among them--began to accept that having children isn't a mandatory duty of marriage.  Because if being open to procreation isn't inherent to marriage, then here is no reason to restrict it to men and women, who are made special only by virtue of the fact that, in nature, they can make children.  In fact, the gay agenda won the moral debate, as well, against most of their conservatively religious opponents, when those same opponents--decades ago--accepted contraceptives in any circumstance at all.  After all, unless God is incredibly arbitrary, then it's nonsense to suggest that He frowns on two men (let's even suppose they're "married) having sex together, yet accepts it when a husband and wife have sex together despite that this husband and wife--through use of contraception--are essentially doing the exact same thing that the gay couple is doing:  Having sex that is strictly for pleasure and emotional closeness, with no possibility (at least, that's the hope of the contracepting couple) of leading to children.  If God opposes sex between two men or two women, then logic dictates that it has nothing to do with the shapes of their bodies being "wrong", and everything to do with the fact that their sex act is a deviation from the natural law, in which sex is ordered toward making children.  But sex with a condom, or sex "on the pill", or other forms of sex that unnaturally thwart procreation, are just as much a deviation from that law as sex between two people of the same gender.

So when gay people demand that the state sanction their marriages, or insist that gay sex is not a sin, they have a point in the face of the hypocrisy that would suggest that unnaturally sterilized sex between a man and a woman is okay, but sex between two men--due to its own inherent sterility--is not.  God sees no difference between the two.  God does not forbid "gay" sex and allow "straight" sex because of the shape of the body parts involved, or because one set of parts "fits" together better; that would be incredibly circumstantial and shallow, especially since it involves what is and isn't sin, which is deadly to the soul.  If it were just a matter of which parts fit together better, it would be like telling someone he was endangering his immortal soul for daring to wear stripes with plaid.  No, if God forbids "gay" sex, it stands to reason that it's because it is inherently sterile by its very nature.  Christians always believed this, until the last century or so.  But if that's the reason, then it makes no sense to say that God condemns homosexual sex due to being so unnatural, but to then accept the similarly unnatural act of sex with contraceptives.

Repent of your abominably mismatched fashion sense,
or be cast into the Lake of Fire!
So ultimately, if we want to defend not only traditional Christian ideas of marriage, but also traditional Christian ideas of sexuality, we're going to have to look farther back than the fight over homosexuality.  The erosion of marriage and sexuality began long ago, and many Christians have gladly followed the philosophy where it all started (acceptance of contraception), and a great number have even accepted the evil that farther eroded them (no-fault divorce).  As long as these things are accepted in Christian circles, we will never have real credibility when opposing this newest affront to sexual holiness and the true meaning of marriage.

Monday, November 10, 2014

A Quiver Full of Noisy, Crying, Bickering Arrows

Note:  Do not let the title of this post, nor the related reference, mislead you into thinking I'm a member of the "Quiverfull" movement.  I do not subscribe to the idea that every couple is called to have as many children as physically possible, nor do I subscribe to many beliefs peripherally associated with the movement.

 I have always wanted a big family.  While it's true that Catholicism condemns the use of contraceptives (including contraceptive methods of completing the sexual act) as grave sin, that's not the reason behind my wanting a big family, as if I actually only wanted a kid or two if not for my religion.  For one thing, to explain to those of you who don't know the Catholic teaching, the Church allows Natural Family Planning, a selection of methods of determining when the wife is fertile or not, so that IF there is *serious reason to avoid having children at a given time the couple can simply refrain from sexual contact during the wife's fertile phase each month (or for some couples, the phases immediately surrounding it).  So my desire for a big family is not due to some mandate that I simply should have one, as there are many Catholics who may well have serious enough reasons that they aren't called to that.

For another thing, I've wanted a big family since long before my conversion to Catholicism.  I had barely entered puberty, really, when I first started dreaming of having a family of six children.  In hindsight, my dream was small compared to some families I've seen, but certainly large by the standards of our prevailing culture, with its "ideal" prescription of precisely 2.5 children per household.

It's hard, though, to depict child #2.5 in a visual.

Over the weekend, my wife and I visited my best friend and his family.  He lives two states away, and it was actually the first time we'd met in person, despite being friends for a year and a half, and close friends for quite a big portion of that.  He and his wife have five children, all of the age of eight (though close to nine) and under.  Incidentally, the couple are young enough to have more, if they find themselves called to it.  For now, though, their hands are rather full already, and it was easy to see why.  Their children were, down to the last of them, incredibly sweet and respectful toward us, but they were not--just as my friend had warned me--low energy children, by any stretch of the imagination.

The room was always abuzz with noise and activity.  Children got into arguments, hit each other, cried, screamed, yelled, chased each other, tried to get into things they weren't allowed to do, had to be called on multiple times and sometimes physically made to cease whatever they were doing, and more.  Now, these friends are incredibly skilled parents, so each solitary instance of chaos--at least, if the chaos had mischievous or disobedient causes--was almost immediately taken care of by them, and in general the children ultimately humbled themselves before their parents with impressive consistency (another testament to these friends' parenting).  But energetic children can have short attention spans, so before long something new--often different, to the kids' credit, from whatever they'd just been told not to do or had been disciplined for doing--would come up, and the parents, already travel-weary from the long drive to the hotel where we were all staying, had to be on top of it all over again.

Several times, both my wife--intimidated as she was by the scene--and my best friend's wife would turn to me and jokingly (sometimes maybe only half-jokingly!) ask whether I was yet scared out of my own ambitions toward having a big family.  My answer each time was, without hesitation, "No."  Their resolution, of course, was to "try harder."  Because my wife's a total dear that way.

"Hey, his dreams are still alive.
We're gonna need a backup plan."

Be all that as it may, I'm still quite set on having a big family, if God and my wife are willing.  In fact, seeing the beautiful family of our friends has only made me want such a family even more than before, because where there was chaos and stress there was also great life and vibrancy.  Children argued, but they also showed affection and love to each other.  The rooms that rang with their shouts also rang with their laughter and joy.  Tears were quickly forgotten and made way for simple pleasures and forgiveness.  Where tension sometimes arose, it was surpassed by times of amazing sweetness.  It was painfully obvious to me that dealing with so many children had to be rough at times, but there were so many diamonds in that particular rough that one would be a fool to think of trading it in for a smoother, but poorer, lot.

There's a passage in the book of Psalms:
"Children too are a gift from the LORD, the fruit of the womb, a reward.  Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children born in one's youth.  Blessed are they whose quivers are full.  They will never be shamed contending with foes at the gate." -Psalm 127: 3-5
 That is the gift that our friends have.  And one day, when the chaos of having young children has passed, the blessing of having that many children, or perhaps even more, will still be there, remaining long after the last child has become a responsible and more self-sufficient adult.  Yes, there are different worries and stresses that come with adult children, but the particular madness of child-rearing, the sleepless nights, the constant need for correction, the ever-present chaos and continuous work that goes into imposing order on a group of children, all of these things are temporary compared to the lifelong--and indeed eternal--treasure of having played a role in the creation of so many precious souls.  And if one is quite blessed, one will know such love from and for those souls that all the hardship and travail of their formative years seem to be nothing when compared to the reward.

As the father of two children under the age of two, I know that in the short term and in the present, it can seem that it's not worth it at all.  There are times, in our own chaos, that I sincerely believe I'd be happier without any children, when I absolutely hate being a father.  So I can only imagine it's far harder with more children, at least depending on their ages (especially, I'm told, the age of the eldest).  However, when I look at how lasting the blessings are, and how ultimately temporary this part is, I know what I want:  When my children are all grown, the last diaper changed and the last teenage hormonal phase outgrown (well, okay, tentatively outgrown), I know I will never regret having had "too many," but--at least and especially if by choice--I know for a fact that I would regret having too few.

A large family is a blessing, and one that indeed God does not give to everyone.  My wife and I are always aware that, due to certain fertility issues that are inherent to her family, we may not reach that goal.  And even if we have a somewhat large family, its size may still fall somewhat short of my old dream, and the thought of surpassing the number from that dream is barely more than an outright pipe dream.  We will learn to deal with that cross of deprivation, should we come to bear it, with faith and trust, seeing the admitted bright sides of having a smaller family if it comes to that, but none of that negates that a full house is a blessed one.

*Note:  "Serious reason" to avoid having [more] children, in the Catholic Church, is not something to be decided on lightly.  It must certainly be more serious than "I just don't want another child right now," and even more serious than the other "reasonable" standby in our materialistic, career-driven culture of "But I'm too poor to send each kid off to College!" In terms of mental and emotional reservations, there should probably be solid reason to believe that one literally cannot cope with having more children or that one seriously cannot provide for each child psychologically, emotionally, and/or spiritually if there were another added to the family.  Though it's not mandatory, these things are best determined with a spiritual director or a trusted expert at judging these things, or at the very least an outside objective party, because it's easy for us to deceive ourselves into taking the "easier" path when it's not necessarily warranted.  Reasons of physical health, it should be noted, are also perfectly valid reasons to use Natural Family Planning to avoid another pregnancy, obviously including those cases where the wife's body probably could hardly handle another pregnancy.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Need to Be "Special"

I'm a product, as much as anyone else in our society, of the implied doctrine of our culture:  That everyone must be special.  I don't mean the notion that each person is special just by virtue of being the unique person he is.  That's true, and sound.  Rather, I mean the notion that we are worth nothing unless we accomplish something extraordinary, something that sets us apart from the masses.  According to this logic, the new dream is to rise far above the norm, to do something or lead a life that would never be considered "ordinary." 

I, at least so far, lead an incredibly ordinary life that few would have heard of.   I'm not being falsely modest, here:  I have talent, I'm told; some even say my talents are extraordinary, and while I'm not qualified to judge that for myself, this post isn't about contradicting them.  But even if they're right, these talents haven't really gotten me anywhere, nor put me "on the map," not even a small and obscure map.  I sing well, but I'm no famous singer, locally nor otherwise.  I'm told I write well, but I haven't had anything published outside of whatever work I contributed to my High School yearbook.  I can draw, but my art does not hang in a museum, nor has it ever been something I might sell on a large scale.  As a father, I lead, but I do not really lead anyone outside of my family.  On the whole, there is no stranger who would see my face or even my name, and wonder "Hey, isn't that the guy who X?"  Not even on the local level, really, as I don't even have the sort of job where my name might precede me to someone who needs my services.  I know a few people who may fit such descriptions, but I'm not one of them.  As I often say:  I am an ordinary man privileged to know extraordinary people who do extraordinary things.

One thing that is extraordinary in my life is that I've been extraordinarily blessed.  My life may be ordinary, but it is also a comfortably middle class life, one that is maintained with no real effort from me.  I'm living the old style American dream (think, from the fifties, back when the dream simply meant having a nice home, in a nice neighborhood, with a wonderful family, as opposed to the modern American dream that involves being "special"), and it has fallen right into my lap, without my having really lifted a finger to obtain it--and this in spite of the fact that I was born into relative poverty.  That is extraordinary, and I appreciate it.  I am incredibly thankful to God for it, I am humbled by the knowledge that I cannot boast about anything I have, because God has literally handed it to me.  But still, nothing in terms of my accomplishments or reputation can be said to be out of the ordinary.  And it's very easy for me to get insecure about that. 

There's a quote that's attributed to Abraham Lincoln:
"God must love the common man; he made so many of them."
That's my hope.  That God doesn't need me to have stood out, nor to have accomplished something that will be well known.  I don't have to make some sort of "famous" mark in the world, or to be known far and wide.  My name may only ever ring familiar to a comparably small circle of people, all of whom have met me on a personal basis.  Mention of me may never prick the ears nor even vaguely play with the memories of strangers.  Yet that's okay.  God loves me.  He values me. 

St. Therese of Lisieux constantly extolled the virtues of being "small."  And indeed, Jesus often blessed those who would qualify as the "least of these."  He said some who are last would be first, and the first shall be last.  So maybe, I hope, it's okay to be so small, in the grand scheme of things, as to be virtually invisible. 

Yet I'm ambitious, and I fear that this ambition will rob me of whatever Heavenly reward is reserved for those who humbly accept their smallness.  My name is small, my face unknown, but my ego, sadly, is big.  So I want to be much more than I am.  I want to have fame, to have large and impressive accomplishments on my record.  I want people to know my name and my work.  I am small, but not humble; I am filled with a pride that refuses to modestly accept my lot of obscurity and anonymity.  I fear, then, that I will suffer a terrible fate:  I will have been small in this life and then be least in the Kingdom of Heaven as well.  Never first in this life, I may well be last in Heaven too.  What sort of fool hungers for greatness on this Earth, when he knows that the tradeoff for such greatness--unless he is amazingly humble about it--is that he will not be great in eternity?

I know of no salve for my anxiety except to turn my eyes upon the Lord, and to stop caring about whether I'm small or extraordinary, even in eternity.  If I focus more on loving our most precious God, and on loving man who is made in His image, then I will find that it doesn't matter if I'm famous or unknown, small or great.  Because then I will be happy, as was the Canaanite woman in the gospels, with even the mere "crumbs that fall from the table."  If I can lose myself in love of others, then I can find joy, and freedom from worrying about my "place" in this life or the next.  I'm nowhere near being there, yet.  But I pray that God will grant me the grace to get there.  Then, there will be peace.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Christian Politics

I live in the United States, where there is famously said to be a "separation between Church and State."  In fact, one of the founding fathers went so far as to call it a wall of separation, emphasizing just how distinct that those who framed our Constitution wished for this separation to be.  Yet there are a couple of problems with this separation, as it is understood and advocated today in my nation, often enough by virtual anarchists and liberals alike.  For one thing, the separation between Church and State proposed centuries ago was for the explicit comfort of the religious conscience, not as a stand against it.  People of different churches wanted to be sure that no one church could use the power of the state to make them violate their consciences, and also wanted to be sure that the state would never suppress religion.  So the separation of Church and State was always meant to be a favor to the Church (whatever church it may be); the people who were uneasy about a state religion were themselves religious.  They didn't want a separation for the purpose of religious and moral anarchy, but rather to secure the freedom of religious folks.  

But for another thing, it's simply impossible, in practice, to have so stark a separation between Church and State as both the leftists and the virtual anarchists desire, without having voters and politicians betray their faith as individuals.  

Example:  Abortion.  Let us say that a certain politician, whom we'll call Mr. Elected, truly believed, due to his faith, that abortion is murder.  There are lots of perfectly secular reasons to oppose abortion, but let's say this Mr. Elected's sole reason is his religion, because for some reason all the secular reasons alone just don't convince him.  If he really believes in his religion, then he must really believe that abortion is murder, with or without any secular reasons.  And if he really believes abortion is murder, then he must believe that it should be illegal, because protecting people from murder is one of the foundational duties of the government.  So here we have a man who, if he does not work to abolish abortion, is acting as if he doesn't really believe it's murder.  After all, even if everyone disagreed with you that killing a five-year-old would be murder, would that stop you from trying to prevent this murder in the name of "not imposing your personal beliefs?"  Of course not.  If you didn't try to oppose it, it would be stark evidence that you didn't really believe it was murder, and in the case of Mr. Elected, it would be a sign he didn't believe in his religion either.

Doesn't "Mr. Elected" sound like the name of a
mayor or something in a kid's cartoon?

So many politicians--to my horror, a great bulk of them professing to be Catholic--claim "I personally believe that X is wrong, but I won't impose those beliefs on others."  They are liars.  Because usually "X" is either something so heinous as abortion (where merely believing it's murder should be enough to make one oppose it politically), or something that the politician is actually endorsing for state sanction, such as gay marriage; and once you support the state sanction of something, you've gone beyond merely "not imposing" your beliefs and have actually gone into partaking of that "something," via your political support of its sanction.  If I, for example, were to suggest that people should be given tax breaks for lying, that goes beyond merely not imposing my religious prohibition against lying; in order to "not impose" that, I would merely have to say the government shouldn't arrest people for it, or something like that.  To "not impose" would simply require noninterference, not state-sanction.  But when I propose tax breaks and other incentives for lying, now I'm an active participant, whether through my vote or my action as a politician, in lying.  It proves that either I don't believe lying is wrong, or I certainly don't consider it a big deal.  I betray a lack of conviction, and show that on some level I believe my moral code is not a matter of fact--which my religion requires me to believe--but a matter of opinion.  

Christians are not at liberty to treat our firm convictions as if they are mere opinions.  That goes from the Christian who is a mere citizen exercising his right to vote, all the way up to Presidents, members of Congress, and Justices of the Supreme Court.  Voters and politicians alike, if they attempt to separate their politics from their faith, are attempting to "serve two masters," a secular utopia and God.  But Jesus rightly said that he who serves two masters will love the one and hate the other.  And when politicians and voters are willing to minimize their religious beliefs out of some imagined obligation to an exaggerated version of "separation between Church and State," it's crystal clear which master they love and which they hate.  

Oh, stop bein' a wise guy!

I am not saying a Christian society has a duty to set up a theocracy.  I admit that I do not believe theocracies are inherently evil or terrible if tempered with love and patience toward unbelievers, but it's just not what I'm advocating here, as I don't believe we Christians have any moral obligation to set up such a thing.  However, we do have a moral obligation to vote in ways and to pass/advocate laws which reflect that we see our religion as a reality, not as a mere opinion.  And we do have a moral obligation to refrain from passing laws and government-involved actions--and to oppose such laws and actions--that would actually violate our ethics and beliefs, or especially those which would require Christian citizens to violate their beliefs (e.g. requiring doctors to refer patients for abortions, requiring Catholic businessmen to cover birth control in their insurance plans, or requiring religious photographers to take pictures at a gay wedding).  If we truly act upon the conviction that our values are objective, just as surely as it's objective to say "murder is wrong," then our political choices will naturally follow.

Basically, there may be a separation between Church and State, in the sense that the state may legitimately refuse to force others to practice or embrace a certain religion.  But there can never be a separation between Faith and Believer, if the believer is genuine.  For a true believer, his faith must reign over his entire life, including his votes and political choices.  Politics simply isn't some "magical bubble" where Christians are allowed to act as though our religion is merely a preference or an opinion.  If our religious beliefs are true, then they are just as true in the voting booth, and no less true if we enter into political office.  We may claim, like so many dodgy politicians, to "personally" believe in our religion, but our actions--political and otherwise--will speak far more loudly than our words.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Longing to be Liked

When the disciples of the Pharisees tested Jesus by asking Him whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, they open up with the following words:
"Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.  And you are not concerned with anyone's opinion, for you do not regard a person's status." -Matthew 22:16 (emphasis mine)
This is one trait of Jesus that I deeply admire (although to be fair I admire all His traits, but that's beside the point), and I admire that trait in the people around me who possess it:  The disregard for what others thought of Him, and the resulting courage to speak the truth without caring what it might make others say or believe about Him.  Jesus was no addict of human opinion, and I have friends and loved ones who are similar; not perfect as our Lord was, of course, but still, I have the honor of knowing people who largely are "not concerned with anyone's opinion," and who therefore are not prone to dancing away from speaking truth when it desperately needs to be said but might offend someone.

I, on the other hand, have for many years now been dominated by a desire for others to think well of me.  I am a people pleaser, and it pains me to say that.  I do not generally allow this to sway me toward standing up for the wrong things, but I often don't stand as clearly or emphatically for the right things.  I might speak a truth vaguely when it would be better to speak it plainly.  Or I might say nothing at all when speaking up would be better.  So even though I rarely, if ever, compromise the truth or alter my beliefs to please others, it's all too common for me to just avoid thorny issues.  I know that, on this very blog, I've tackled many such issues, and I'm also more easily to do so on internet forums, but it's a different story in real life if I find myself faced with someone with all the wrong values, or even on my Facebook wall, where I will occasionally make a controversial statement, be bombarded with argument and confrontation from people I actually know, then go for months before I'm willing to take such a risk again.

Okay, I think I'll just stay in here for a while.

In many ways, this is bound up in my fear of confrontation and conflict.  People who dislike me are more likely to confront me disrespectfully.  If someone becomes angry at some opinion I have, forceful or heated arguments might get started up.  These habits are also tied to my tendency to take offense easily.  Because I am so easily offended by criticism or even open disagreement with me (something I'm ashamed to admit), I am afraid to speak out in ways that may make others feel criticized, both because of my empathy directing me to not make them feel a way I wouldn't want to feel and, more selfishly, the knowledge that if they are offended, they will understandably take the liberty of saying things that offend me.  It's much easier to live with an uneasy truce of sorts, a truce that says "I won't say things that offend you, if you don't say things that offend me."

Unfortunately, Christians do not have the liberty of observing that truce.  Jesus said things that offended people all the time.  He didn't worry about whether or not His saying truths that offend would incite His opponents to say things that offended Him.  And preaching the Gospel has always been accompanied with standing upon Christian values, and people have always been able to find offense in those values, as surely as Herod's wife took offense at the preaching of John the Baptist--for which she plotted his death!  So it's nothing new:  If you preach the truth, people will be offended, and they will do their best to offend you in return.  They may not have the power to have you beheaded, in a literal physical offense, but they will try to tear down what you hold dear, and you for your part will not even be left with the option of saying "Please don't do this!" when, for all intents and purposes, you were willing to poke holes in what they held dear.

It seems that Jesus and the boldest Christian evangelists were willing to say "fair is fair."  If they said things that caused others offense, they were willing to "take it" when others responded in kind.  They might not take it lying down, and Jesus in particular was quite willing to defend Himself.  But none of them, unlike me, seemed to be hurt by the very notion that their opponents would dare to "strike back."  They invited the sparring, even to the point of their own literal deaths.  That is the courage of a martyr, or of our crucified Lord.  And it is a courage that I lack, wishing to stay safe in a realm where I am considered "nice," "easy to get along with," and "reasonable," so that others may in turn be nice, easy to get along with, and reasonable toward me.

We'll even shake on it!

"Woe to you when men speak well of you!"  What a sobering reminder from our Lord, one that convicts a person like me to his core!  I believe You, Lord!  But what can I do to embrace Your cross, Your Truth?

That is my lament.  I want to have the courage to risk being unliked, to be insulted, and thought a fool.  I want to have the fortitude to welcome offense, or to be harder to offend, if offense is the consequence of breaking that "truce" I mentioned earlier.  I just don't quite know how.  I obviously know what I need to know intellectually.  It's emotions that won't follow.  And while it's often true that we just have to go against our emotions and do the right thing, by "emotions" I mean crippling anxiety, so that sometimes overcoming it is not just a matter of saying "That emotion is unreasonable, so I will not let it control me," but rather would require the same sort of effort as forcing oneself to jump into a pit full of snakes.  And I just don't know how to get past that barrier.

Perhaps some of you readers are farther along this road than I.  Perhaps you speak up, whatever the cost.  Perhaps you don't care much what others think of you, or you're able to overcome it if you do.  If that's the case, please share with me in the comments:  How do you do it?  How do you prevent yourself from caring so much what people think, or manage to find freedom from anxiety despite caring so much?  How do you force yourself to take the plunge into that metaphorical pit of snakes?  How is it that you get past your own fear of being offended, or even that you manage to avoid taking offense in the first place?

If you have any pearls of wisdom to share, then you won't only be sharing them with me, but with anyone else who reads this and who can relate to these crippling anxieties and cares.  I'm sure I speak for them too when I say you'll have our gratitude.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Losing Myself in the Shadow of Others

I struggle a fair deal with an inferiority complex.  It doesn't seem to take much to incite me to feeling that someone else is superior to myself.  If I admire another person in the slightest, in fact, then I can second-guess myself at any difference between us, sometimes even those differences where before I would have felt confident in my position or characteristic in question.  It's as though I think just because a man I like or value differs from me, my trait or opinion is somehow invalidated.

Maybe a guy I find really cool is taller than me.  In fact, my anxiety about my height--I'm 5'8", by no means short, but shorter than I wish--began when I had a best friend who was 6'2".  Or maybe a friend I admire has an interest in something that never really interested me.  Suddenly, I may find myself thinking that I should share his interest, not only for the sake of forging one more common interest, which is admirable, but because somehow I feel inferior for not having that interest.  Even with my convictions, one easy way to make me second guess a strongly held conviction, no matter how sound my reasoning, is to have a great guy in my close circle, who is relatively close to me in most beliefs, state or imply that his own convictions are more relaxed than mine in that area.

Why am I like that?

How should I know?  I'm just trying to
find a way out of this unholy bondage!

I think, in some sense, I latch onto looking up to guys I admire in a way that I failed to do with my Dad, that is, the man who raised me (remember, I never met my biological father).  My Dad was wonderful to me, and I loved him very much.  But for some reason, I never looked up to him in the way he deserved.  I thought of him as a good man, a beloved man, a man with whom I felt safe, but I just never wanted to be like him.  I didn't want to imitate him, I had no interest in mirroring his traits or filling his shoes.  I have no idea why, and it's my own loss.  The point is, though, that I think every boy needs a man to look up to, someone he wants to emulate.  It's hardwired into us, because it's by emulating one's father that one learns what it is to be a man.

Since I denied both my father and myself the experience of my emulating him, I think this process just got transferred onto friends and peers instead.  I'm not one to look at my friends like fathers mind you; unless a friend were actually old enough to be my father (and I have no close friends who are), that would feel weird to me.  However, I am prone to looking at a friend the way I might look at an elder brother.  The friend need not even be chronologically older than me; that 6'2" best friend was younger, actually.  But somehow, a friend who exudes confidence and self-assurance, who has many traits I admire, can become the next-best-thing to a father to emulate:  The elder brother that I never had, save possibly my one sibling who died as a miscarriage who may have been a brother for all I know.

Somehow, then, I'm like a little boy whose big brother is his hero, who is always clinging to his brother's words.  When his father's words contrast with his own opinions, the boy re-evaluates his own.  He wants to grow up to be as big as his brother, to look like his brother, to be like his brother, all of which are quite reasonable, since he and his brother share genetics and--just as if it were his father--he might reasonably conclude "That's what I should look like when I grow."  I certainly never had that, from a father or otherwise, as obviously I had no reason whatsoever to suspect that I would grow up to look like the Dad who raised me, not being his biological son.  Problem is, of course, that friends are also not biologically related to me.  Not to mention, I'm grown, so being psychologically stuck in the mindset of a little boy hoping to grow into the shape and form of an older male hero he admires isn't helpful:  The little boy has reason for that hope.  I don't.

One day I'll grow up to be just like you!
Right?  Right???  

Even though I could, perhaps with great difficulty and a fair amount of the "fake it to make it" mentality, alter my opinions and tastes to emulate those of a friend, the problem with that is that I would lose my identity in the quest to become more like the hero I admire.  See, a father or, to some extent, a big brother, has the vocation of forming the mind of the young male in his family.  It is the elder's job to teach the younger, to shape his worldview and, to an extent, his opinions; to introduce him to ways of forming his tastes and preferences.  That's why it's natural for a boy to be so malleable in the face of his father's or elder brother's input.  But for a grown man to give quite so much power to a friend is a dangerous thing.

It's fine and well for friends to influence each other, to form each other, but this must be a very mutual thing.  For it to be so one-sided as my insecurities and inferiority complex would have it to be only causes the one man to lose his identity altogether, to be "absorbed" by the friend he admires.  And such a man is always unstable!  Even if he perfectly emulates one friend today, what happens when another friend impresses him tomorrow?  He will go about trying to emulate everything about that friend.  And then, even more confusing to his sense of self, he will feel compelled to emulate the one friend when in his company, yet the other friend in the other's company.  He will become a chameleon, all the while feeling resentment for those very same friends, because on some level he realizes that he's lost himself, having sacrificed himself to the point of oblivion on the altar of his hero-worship.

At least it has nice flowers!

There are traits worth emulating in a friend.  But these traits are virtues, morality, faith, adherence to sound doctrine, and other objectively imitable qualities.  If I want to nurture a subjective interest just because a friend has it, on the other hand, it should be a matter of bonding with him, not because I think my own initial disinterest in the subject or activity is inferior.  And when it comes to physical traits, who am I to believe that God was having a less brilliant moment upon creating me than when he created a friend who is taller, or who has a different body type?  In fact, even on those things that are objectively admirable, it is not mine to envy the story of another who may have obtained those things sooner or with more ease than myself.  There may be faults or thorns in my flesh that God has deliberately refused to take from me, which He allows to weigh more heavily on me than on a friend, because for some reason He knows that I need a rougher path, a longer path.  So if a great friend seems to have conquered some vice sooner or more easily than I, I shouldn't waste away in despair that this means the friend is "superior," for it may instead well be that God has given the friend some extraordinary grace, to make his path "straighter," which He has withheld from me.  If so, who am I to question Him?  I can only aim to be holier, but I can't seek to measure my own progress by that of another.

The truth is, I have to find out what it means to be me, to be Joshua.  And I need to find this by turning to Jesus, and seeking His design for me.  I need to ask, "What did you create me to be, Lord?  What is it about me that gives You delight?  Please show me what I'm meant to be!"  And I need to pray, also, for the grace of loving this Joshua that our Lord willed into existence, rather than comparing him to other men unfavorably.  Those things that bring me insecurity now, I need to find out if they're things that God wants in me, and if they are, I have to learn to delight in them, for the joy they bring to my Creator.

Years ago I wrote the chorus of a song which I never finished, in a cry of desperation toward this tendency of mine, which was alive and well toward my best friend at the time, as well as some other guys I admired:
I don't wanna keep on chiding me to be someone else,
I don't wanna keep on hiding me 'til I lose myself.
I don't wanna keep pretending, deep in my armored shell:
I'm not me, but I wanna be,
I'm not them; don't wanna wanna be,
What I need is to find out who I am.
May God grant it to be so.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

A Defense of Enjoying Scary Things

Some people would say it's wrong to enjoy horror or a good scare.  I'm not talking about people who merely don't like the horror genre, who don't understand it or who find it too scary.  I mean that there are people who take a matter of taste and turn it into a matter of principle.  These are the sort who take it upon themselves as a kind of duty to instruct their fellow Christians as to the immorality of enjoying scary stories, films, or activities, and claim a moral high ground on the basis that their interests are more "godly" than the dark, demented, "twisted" interests of those who would dare to enjoy something scary.  They might even go so far as to instill, deliberately, a disdain for horror in anyone (say, a new Christian initiate or godchild) whose religious education is their duty.  Keep in mind, this disdain for horror is generally applied to even those examples of the genre that match up to the guidelines in my last post.  Just because it's scary, evidently, is reason enough to condemn it.

Now, despite the fact that I can't help but get annoyed with this attitude, I want to admit that I see where these folks are coming from, and there are probably even a few people I like and admire who have this attitude.  We Christians, the scriptures say, are to focus on "whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable" and "anything [that] is excellent or praiseworthy."  Also, "what fellowship has darkness with light?"  So it would seem, to many, that such verses preclude an enjoyment of horror or scary things.  I get it; I really do.  And although I disagree, I can respect those who come to this conclusion, despite my personal annoyance at it.

However, I would first argue that if we take these admonitions to mean that it's wrong to enjoy he horror genre, it would also be wrong to enjoy any cathartic entertainment that was anything but happy and saccharine.  Horror is not the only thing, if one is being fair, that could be called "dark."  Sorrow is dark.  So much for enjoying a tragedy.  What could be darker than war?  War films, too, must be eschewed then.  Sin is the ultimate darkness, and so any story in which characters sin is out; no matter if the moral of the story itself is sound, and merely the characters sinful, because such considerations--in the minds of such people as morally oppose horror--would NOT redeem a horror story, after all.  In not condemning these other things, nor holding them to the same strict "You should only ever think of nice things!" standard, opponents of horror show that their opposition is fueled by more than a little bit of their own personal taste.  "I find horror unpleasant and dark, so surely God must too."

I'm sure that's in the Bible somewhere...
Or maybe in a Church document?

But horror, for all its detractors, is just one more variation on what all storytelling is about:  Conflict and resolution.  The chief difference between a well-made (key phrase:  "well-made") horror film and, say, a crime drama is that in the horror the villain and conflict happen to strike a "creepy" nerve, whereas in the crime drama the more mundane villain and conflict do not do so on so primal a level.  In some cases this is literally a matter of circumstance:  That we are more viscerally spooked by a misshapen monster with claws and sharp teeth than we are by a suave crime lord with a gun has no bearing on whether or not it is immoral to watch a movie where the villain is a former but okay to watch one where the villain is the latter.  So the horror genre, in and of itself, is not materially different from any other genre--although to be sure the execution of a particular story, just as in any genre, may be in violation of sound Christian principles, but we're speaking of the inherent idea of horror here--and only differs in the particular presentation and choice of villain, conflict or setting.

In the most blatant cases where there is a double standard, stories that the horror haters may accept even have scenes or passages straight out of the horror genre.  Why is it okay to watch Frodo, from Lord of the Rings, battle for his life with the horrific eight-legged monstrosity that is Shelob, but it's immoral to watch a film whose entire plot is about a giant spider?  Let's assume that the protagonist of the latter film even survives and conquers the beast, so that it can't be argued that the latter film presents a more pessimistic or cynical worldview.  Is it really different just because the Shelob plot is a subplot and not the entire story?  Would it be, then, immoral to--for whatever reason--pop into the room just as Frodo was fleeing Shelob, but to leave the room as the battle was over?  I think most people would know how ridiculous it is to assert that the Shelob sequence is suddenly immoral if isolated, where it was just fine otherwise, yet that's precisely what is suggested when we say that it's okay to enjoy stories with scary elements, but not to enjoy scary stories.  

In fact, there are a number of merits to the horror genre.  So not only is horror in itself neutral, there can be arguments made that it has real value, at least--as with anything else--if enjoyed with the proper mindset.

First of all, an enjoyment of horror and scary things stems from the same fascination that drives us to fully appreciate God's creation.  I think we sometimes like to forget that the same God who made puppies and flowery meadows also  made hairy spiders and terrifyingly dark caves.   Are we to say that these latter things are bad?  Did God make a mistake?!  Of course not!  Then why might we condemn the person who, for Halloween, dresses up as a spider, yet embrace the one who dresses up as a historical figure?  God made both the spider and the man!  Or why condemn the man who dresses up as a fictional monster, but not the one who dresses up as an elf?  God endowed man with the creativity to dream up both creatures, the former reflecting the Divine Creativity that made the scary spider, the latter reflecting that very same Creativity which also made the graceful swan.  Is a man who appreciates the former morbid, yet the man who appreciates the latter healthy?  Did God, Who hates nothing He has made according to scripture, wish for only some of His creations, and only the creations of man which reflect those, to be appreciated by us, while the others should be hated?  I think not!

Swan!  That is all.

Second of all, many horror stories illustrate the battle between good and evil in more direct terms than a great many other genres.  So many genres portray the forces of good and bad in shades of gray, as is only natural when working with mundane subject matter.  Horror is right up there, however, with fantasy in being prone to drawing clear lines between light and darkness, good and evil.  The villain is often enough a soulless killer or a monster, representing (if only on a subconscious level) the cosmic battle between humanity and our horrific true enemy, Satan.  In the ultimate battle we fight, there is no ambiguity, no shades of gray.  We face a dragon, a beast, a creature more horrific than anything a horror writer or director could dream up.  Scripture often paints that battle starkly, without ambiguity.  Most other genres that are supposedly "okay," such as drama, comedy, or whatever else, tend by nature to blur those lines, understandably so because they deal in mundane mortal life, in "flesh and blood", and as we know, the enemies against whom we fight are not flesh and blood.  On the other hand, horror, alongside fantasy and sometimes science fiction, has the unique tendency of outlandish plots that go beyond "flesh and blood," where often enough even human villains are essentially "monsters in human form," an embodiment of unambiguous evil.  Humanity needs such stories.  This is why the old fairy tales and morality tales are often enough horror stories in their own right (somehow being "grandfathered" in so that horror haters consider them acceptable).   For this same reason, when interpreted through a Christian lens, horror stories can make particularly good allegories for the inner battles Christians face.

Third, horror offers a catharsis that no other genre does.  It is in our very being, biologically, to need an outlet for our fight or flight tendencies.  Long ago, life was largely a horror story.  Humanity was surrounded on all fronts by a mysterious and terrifying wilderness, full of creatures and threats that were unknown to us.  The feeling that we get when we watch, read, or see something scary is a feeling that our distant ancestors would have known just by their existence, an existence where fear of the unknown "monsters" waiting out there in the darkness was very practical.  And in many ways, we still have reason to entertain such fears, we just have a way, in modern society, of covering it up with a veneer of technology and complex civilization.  But our nature remains unchanged.  There are those who would like to live their lives ignoring this "scary" side of reality, but I don't think it's healthy.  In ancient times, people deliberately told scary stories to prepare each other for the genuine horrors of life, to keep each other "on their toes" via the cathartic effect those stories had.  Such stories and works serve the same purpose today.

Fourth, horror offers a continuity with our ancestors, both recent and ancient, that we lack if we smugly insist that scary tales have no place in our lives.  Just listen to the stories told by our medieval and ancient ancestors.  Many of them, if we weren't so familiar with them, would make our hair stand on end!  Just look at the artwork in some of our ancient places of worship.  Statues of gargoyles, demons, and ghouls were meant to remind people of the darkness that exists.  How ludicrous it would be if, back then, our deeply religious forbears would include such imagery in their most sacred spaces,  yet we "enlightened" ones should turn up the nose at such imagery or descriptions in our fiction or in our spookier celebrations, let alone in our parishes--oh the horror!  What a loss of continuity, a break with tradition, if we are too faint of heart to handle scary things when those who came before were willing to give such things a prominence even in churches!  Are we, with our whitewashed aversion to whatever reminds us of mortality and the existence of evil, better than they?  I can't buy into the notion that we are.

We don't make things like this now that our society is more
Christian than it was a couple hundred years ago...  Oh wait...

I'm not saying, by any stretch of the imagination, that everyone should be a fan of horror.  And I'll be the first to admit that a lot of particular entries in the horror genre these days are trash.  But that's a matter of circumstance, not inevitability.  And in fact we only further this unfortunate circumstance if we, the people with the right values, snub this time-honored genre while only those in the secular, cynical culture around us are willing to take it on.  If you do not personally enjoy the horror genre, my aim here is not to "convert" you.  People enjoy what they enjoy.  I'm also in agreement that anyone who was obsessed with horror, to the point of neglecting the "lighter" things, the pleasant things, would be morbid.  I'm not here to defend a consuming obsession.  Rather, I seek only to point out the deep error of condemning the genre, and the enjoyment of it, as being incompatible with Christian virtue.  Historically and logically, that's just not true, and the attitude is more a product of a modern, sanitized culture which desperately denies mortality and the existence of danger or evil--perhaps with a hint of Puritan influence--than of historic Christian morality, which has long made room for the horrific and the frightening right alongside its focus on the lofty and the beautiful.  It's simply not "either/or" here.  It never has been.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Christian Standards of Entertainment

With Halloween approaching, I've got my mind on the old pastime of scaring ourselves silly with horror films, stories, and--in our own generation--video games.  A love for the horror genre is in my blood, if you'll excuse the way-too-fitting use of that phrase.  Among my biological relatives, at least those on the maternal side (and that's the side I know the best), I can't think of one single person, who's old enough to tell, who isn't exceptionally fond of scary fiction.

This has often put me in a unique position among my coreligionists, or at least those who are close to me besides those in my family.  It seems like many of the people I know find the horror genre distasteful at best and outright immoral at worst.  It's as though my time-honored family tradition--and trust me, it may be the one-and-only thing that is literally common to my entire extended family--is supposed to be something I should look at as a "guilty pleasure."

YOU should be ashamed!!

I've actually fretted about this at times.  I am the sort of person who tries to avoid deliberately enjoying entertainment that is inherently tainted.  Example?  I used to enjoy the show Friends, and pretty much gave it up when I was baptized, due to the fact that a fairly central premise to the show and in most episodes was a sinful, unwholesome lifestyle being presented as something normal and acceptable.  For this reason, I pretty much avoid the comedy genre, as almost all comedic films or sitcoms these days take place in this sort of moral wasteland where making light of sexual immorality or high levels of irreverent crassness is a central theme of the movie or show.  So I am not someone who is content to just say "Yeah, this show/movie is pretty rotten to the core, but I'll just chalk it up to a guilty pleasure."  Because indeed, my conscience is active and lively enough that, even though I do engage in such "guilty pleasures" from time to time--I'm not perfect--there is major emphasis on the guilty, such that I would never defend such a thing as being okay.

So whenever I really enjoy something, as I enjoy horror, I feel the need to really think about whether or not it's morally acceptable, rather than just shrugging and saying "Oh well, right or wrong, I like it, so that's what matters."  That's just not acceptable to me.  I believe in consistency, in people being able to know where I stand on things.  When it comes to this beloved genre, I intend to make another post as to why I think an enjoyment of horror is compatible with Christian values.

But this gets me to a bigger question:  What, in general, are my concerns when watching a film, reading a story, or playing a video game?  Thinking of horror, here, has gotten me to thinking of what some of my standards are for all entertainment, regardless of genre  I'm going to share some of them in this post.  These are the considerations I try to take into account when I choose my entertainment, or at least if I enjoy something outside of these guidelines I tend to admit that it's probably something I shouldn't be doing rather than insisting there's nothing wrong with my patronage of it.  As for the topic from the beginning of this post, horror, I see no reason other than prudery that something from the horror genre that adheres to these guidelines should be treated as any more immoral than any other genre which does.

End discrimination against the horror genre!

1.  Evil Should Never be Glorified:  Entertainment of various genres often deals with evil, or evil beings and powers.  Some even explicitly include monsters and demons.  The deciding factor in whether a work is morally acceptable is not the inclusion of darkness and evil, but whether the darkness and evil are deliberately made to appear attractive or glamorous.  If there is realistic witchcraft in a film--that is, not mere fantastical magic but actual pagan or devil worship--that does not make the film immoral anymore than the book of Genesis is immoral for recounting tales of murder.  But the witchcraft should not be depicted in a flattering way.  You should not leave the experience thinking being a witch seems cool.

*2.  Violence or Gore Should Not be Glorified nor Gratuitous:  It's often true that there is violence or gore to be found in certain genres, especially horror, but also war films and others.  Personally, I think the classiest stories, films, and games use it as tastefully as possible, and I think that's key.  Violence is often a necessary part of the storytelling.  When it is necessary to show it explicitly--perhaps for impact, realism, etc.--it should never be done to titillate or to thrill.  It should not be something "cool."  Gratuitous violence is much like obscenity:  Hard to define, but you know it when you see it.  I'll admit frankly, though, that for example most slasher films probably cross the line, and in the world of video games, many war games are guilty of it too.  The violence in them is often over-the-top, intended to impress the audience by finding new and creative ways to kill victims.  To me, that's gratuitous.  The aim of violence should never be to "show off" or impress.  As a fan of slasher flicks, Dario Argento, and even the Mortal Kombat video game franchise, it pains me to admit to all this, as all of these can be easily argued to contain gratuitous violence, but if I'm going to imply that, say, fans of raunchy comedy have a duty to resist indulging this or to at least admit that their indulgence is "guilty," then I too must admit when things I enjoy are wrong.  And I believe that gratuitous violence, even when pulled off in a manner that's dreamlike and brilliantly executed, is probably wrong...

3.  Hopelessness and Despair Should Not be at the Heart of the Work:  Increasingly, films and stories take place in a universe of bleak, amoral realities.  People are pretty much animals, from the cynical sitcom to the gritty horror flick.  And even the protagonists are so strictly focused on self-preservation, hedonism, or self-promotion that one gets the feelings that no one really cares about anyone else.  Or perhaps, in more cosmic stories, evil wins, and not merely in a "bad ending," but in a way that suggests evil is really more powerful than good.  These are all messages that a Christian has no need to imbibe.  Cynicism is not a Christian trait.  We believe that good overcomes evil.  While it might be the case that tragic or horrific things happen--which is why a "bad ending" is not synonymous with cynicism--the implication that evil inherently trumps good, as opposed to isolated incidents where evil seems to triumph, is toxic.

And should be buried underground with nuclear waste.

4.  The Work Should Still be Recognizable and Complete if all Questionable Elements were Removed:  I'm not a prude who believes that Christians should never read, watch, or play anything that has questionable elements.  If that were the case, the ancient Christians would have been wrong for reading and admiring the works of pagans, which often had questionable elements.  However, it seems safe to me to pose this question:  Would the work that I'm enjoying remain intact, coherent, and meaningful if all the questionable elements--including gratuitous sex/nudity; gratuitous drug use; gratuitous violence; obscenities; perversions; irreverently sexual, sadistic, demeaning or dirty humor, etc (see, I just made a whole list of things a work shouldn't ideally contain all in this one point!)--were removed?  If the answer is yes, and if you're not enjoying the work for the questionable parts, then I would say that it's okay to watch, read, or play it, although I would say that it should be enjoyed under protest of the immoral parts:  When watching a film with others, for example, there should be no question that, if you had your way, the immoral parts of the film would not be included, and you should find little ways to protest--I always avert my eyes from gratuitous sexual nudity, for example, even if an overall film is decent and the nudity in question doesn't tempt me; I do so as a form of living my disapproval of the questionable element, and I would likewise skip over an explicit sex scene in a novel insofar as possible.  If, however, upon removing the questionable elements, the work would be a gutted shell of its former self, hardly making sense, or if a significant portion of the work's plot, themes, or presentation would be missing, then it's probably safe to say it's trash.

5.  The Work should not Pose a Near Occasion of Sin to You.  It may be that a given work passes muster in every other way, but that in some way it causes you personally too much temptation.  Perhaps it's a film that, despite having one scene of gratuitous nudity, lives up to the principle of #4.  If that one scene, however, causes you to lust, then even IF the overall film could be salvaged if that scene were removed, you yourself need to avoid the film altogether, unless you can find some way to watch an edited version of the film, although to be honest due to the principle of #4 if there's an edited version of the film that edits out strictly the morally problematic parts, I would say anyone should opt for that version.  It's just that it's especially important for someone who could be tempted to sin.

6.  Morality Should Not be Evil OR Deliberately Gray:  It's okay for a work to not answer certain moral questions.  What I'm talking about here is that a work should never teach that morality is gray, that suggests that right and wrong differ depending on circumstance, and that we the readers/audience/players have no right to judge whether an action is right or wrong.  It goes without saying, of course, that any work that actually advocates immorality, at least if that advocacy is at the core of the film or doesn't pass the test of #4, should be avoided.  This includes themes like vengeance or greed just as surely as it includes themes like sex or drugs.

7.  The Work, at Heart, Should not be Something You'd Feel Guilty Producing:  This is just an overall standard.  Taking #4 into consideration of course, if the overall work is one that you yourself would feel immoral in producing, then why should you put your seal of approval on the self-condemnation of the other souls who have produced it?  Whenever there is a piece of work where immoral elements are so integral to the work that you couldn't imagine being free of guilt if you had singlehandedly made the work yourself, you shouldn't forget that somebody out there did make it, and when you endorse the work gladly and without remorse, you endorse the spiritual suicide of those who really are part of it.  It would be like praising the drug culture and feeling like you're absolved of guilt just because you neither do nor sell drugs.

As is so often the case when I list things, this isn't an exhaustive list.  But it's something to reflect on, and a good starting point.  Now if you'll excuse me, I'll be watching one of those horror films I love so much on Halloween, with some relatives, and I've gotta get to work on deciding which one...


*Note:  My problem with gratuitous violence isn't the old scaremongering that kids who watch violent movies will go out on killing sprees.  Rather it's that gratuitous violence treats the human body irreverently, as an object.  Gory violence is very dehumanizing, and therefore when used gratuitously in a work for the sake of amusement, humor, titillation, or the "cool" factor, it presents an atmosphere in which human dignity is disrespected.  That's quite enough reason for concern among Christians, without any need for scaremongering.