All posts filed under: Featured

Roma’s Wounding Confession

SPOILER ALERT: SPOILERS AHEAD! Roland Barthes’s mother died. As the renowned critic and semiotician reflectively sifted through old photos, he stumbled on an image that floored him: there she was, a little girl, in a “Winter Garden” (i.e., a glassed enclosure), radiating some undefinable quality that, he recognized, would characterize her whole future life. Barthes devotes many pages of his book Camera Lucida to this encounter and struggles to analyze the dynamics at work. As an ineffable event, language ultimately fails him, but he comes closest with a paradoxical summary of his mother’s aura, miraculously and photographically transmitted: “Her assertion of a gentleness.” Lying beyond categorization, much of the power of photography lies not in information, Barthes surmised, but in the ability to poignantly “prick” and “wound” us. So, he called this effect (and others sharing a similar immediacy) the punctum of the photograph. Some have summarized his now-famous studium/punctum dichotomy to be the social/cultural meaning of a photo vs. its “personal” meaning, but this falls short. It is clear that punctum encompasses more than …

The Essence of African Traditional Religion

One scholar who has written extensively on African Traditional Religion is John Mbiti, a Kenyan whom many consider the dean of living African theologians. An important preoccupation of Mbiti’s work has been to show that knowledge of God and the worship of God have been staples of African life from the earliest times on the continent. In other words, he shows that the sense of the divine was not something introduced to Africa by missionaries or by anyone else; that the knowledge of God in African religion was not much different from the idea of God that Christian missionaries preached in Africa; and, more specifically to our purpose here, that belief in God engendered a moral response that for centuries before Christian arrival in Africa directed moral life and interaction on the continent and among its peoples. According to Mbiti, Africans came to believe in God by reflecting on their experience and through observation of the created universe. Specifically, by reflecting on the wonder and magnitude of the universe, they came to the conclusion that …

Confronting a Sinful Church

“For our good and the good of all his holy Church.”[1] Even seven years after the new translation of the Roman Missal, I will occasionally stumble over this response if I am not concentrating. However, over the past months as the disturbing reports about now-laicized Cardinal McCarrick and the horrific details from the Pennsylvania grand jury report have come to light, the word “holy” has sometimes stuck in my throat at Mass—not because I am lacking sufficient attention but for precisely the opposite reason. In the wake of this ongoing scandal, I heard from longtime Catholic friends who feel misled, angry, and/or betrayed. One friend, so disturbed by the sordid tales of systematic abuse and cover-up by Pennsylvania clergy released last August, as well as her by own parish’s inability to respond, quietly left her pew in the middle of Mass for the door. As Catholics struggle to move forward by supporting victims, pressing for meaningful reforms, and trying to hold together a faith under siege by corruption, our liturgy functions as a double-edged sword. …

The Devastating Fallout from Prenatal Testing

As we get older, we often tend to situate our lives in and around historical events, which serve as place markers and give us some frame of reference, especially when the events are personally salient. Because of my field and my personal experience, I see my life as demarcated in part by events in the history of disability in this country. For example, my son Tommy (who has Down syndrome) was born in 2007, the watershed year in which prenatal testing for chromosomal disabilities was recommended for all pregnant women by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and which also heralded unprecedented technological advances in prenatal screening and diagnosis. I was born 42 years earlier, in July of 1965. In December of that same year, a professor of education named Burton Blatt, well respected in the field of disability, asked his friend Fred Kaplan to accompany him on a tour inside four institutions for persons with cognitive disabilities in four eastern states. Kaplan agreed and went along with a camera hidden in his clothes. …

Unfulfilled Promise: The Synod on Young People

Almost right from the start, there were many people determined to impugn whatever came from the recent Synod on Young People, Faith, and Vocational Discernment. I am not one of these people. I wrote a book for the occasion, wrote numerous articles, and worked with my colleagues to host a major preparatory conference. I was in. For this reason, I was disappointed with the final document of the Synod. Like many documents assembled by committees, it lacks a consistent narrative. Yes, it is overly long, meandering with a persistent “oh-and-another-thing” quality to it. But, its length is not its sole vice. The lack of a guiding vision is apparent throughout the text. By seeing this firstfruit of the synodal process, I have come to recognize that the failure of the Synod was in its roots. In place of a vision, this document offers an affirmation of the Synod’s own process. The Synod, it says, has been an exercise in “walking with young people,” “listening to them,” and making them “co-protagonists” in the Church. The proposal …

BlacKkKlansman Scopes the Archives of the American Soul

SPOILER ALERT: SPOILERS AHEAD! Spike Lee’s newest joint BlacKkKlansman (2018) opens with an iconic scene from Gone With the Wind (1939). Scarlett O’Hara walks through a maze of wounded soldiers after the Battle of Atlanta. The film’s score transitions to Taps and the camera pans over a tattered Confederate flag. It is a grand spectacle of loss. Lee jumps to Alec Baldwin portraying Dr. Kenneth Beauregard, a white supremacist producing some species of “informational” video that touts the travails of whites; his words are vitriolic and his tone is incendiary in reaction to that tattered Dixieland banner. Dr. Beauregard is trying too hard, though, and he is a caricature just like his public awareness campaign. It is an absurdist entry into the film—the viewer can chuckle a bit and feel some relief having thought he might be made a little uncomfortable by the film’s themes. However, Lee’s opening sequence is clarified throughout BlacKkKlansman, and the question that remains through the film’s powerful, emotionally throttled end, a question meant to haunt the viewer, is stark: how …

Justice and Rights in Europe Today

In all the ways that I have indicated earlier in this six-part series, one can readily argue that liberalism, even Kantian liberalism, is not, after all, metaphysically agnostic. To the contrary, the other aspect to its ethical minimalism is clearly a materializing and reductive ontology. This observation therefore challenges the assumption that liberal societies are really neutral as to belief or to metaphysical assertion. Perhaps such neutrality is impossible, in which case one could argue that the public and established bias ought to run towards nobler, more “ideally realist” beliefs and affirmations, likely to be more romantically inspiring. Besides, as I have already suggested (in the long-term wake of the French romantic philosophers Maine de Biran and Félix Ravaisson), the liberal conviction, which holds that our “additions” of habits to nature are not fully natural and not objectively valuable for anything more than human preference, is not really livable, and does not actually accord with our tacit assumptions, even if we claim to be agnostic or atheist. But how might all this relate to contemporary …

The Addictions of the Catholic Samizdat

Imagine a film so entertaining, so captivating that it is impossible to tear one’s eyes away from the movie. The viewer is paralyzed by the act of watching, losing all control of the will. The rest of life fades away as the viewer escapes from the workaday world into the phantasms that appear on the television screen. The creation of this seductive entertainment is central to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. The film (also called “the Entertainment” or “samizdat”) anesthetizes each person who views it. The person is emptied of everything except an insatiable desire to watch the film. The film is but one form of addiction that Wallace highlights throughout the novel. But the movie is the key that unlocks Wallace’s diagnosis of a U.S.A. hooked on the pleasurable phantasms created by alcohol and drugs, by elite sports, by consumerism and the entertainment industry. “The Entertainment” is a parabolic literary device expressing our love of pleasure and self. As Rémy Marathe, a member of the Wheelchair Assassins, says about the samizdat: These facts of …

The Wayward Daughters

“All my days I have longed equally to travel the right road and to take my own errant path,” confesses Kristin Lavransdatter, a wealthy Norwegian noblewoman and titular character of Nobel Prize-winner Sigrid Undset’s three-part novel.[1] Set in the fourteenth century, the saga follows the life of Kristin, one of the most complex female characters of 20th century literature, from womb to tomb. She wrestles with the weight of sin, her refusal to reconcile her will with God’s, and the suffering that accompanies her wayward decisions. In Brideshead Revisited, British novelist Evelyn Waugh brings another multi-layered female character to life: Lady Julia Flyte, a wealthy heiress living decadently in 20th century England. Each woman is raised in a devout Catholic home and yet is caught between her own passions and her love for God. Separated not only by geography and several centuries, Kristin and Julia’s lives are very different. Kristin is a mother of many and she lives to become a grandmother. Julia is childless. But Kristin Lavransdatter and Brideshead Revisited share the same themes …

The Vast Re-Education Program of the Superbowl Ads

The zeitgeist of any new year can often be distilled by observing the snapshots of commodity culture that Super Bowl ads provide. A cursory survey of this year’s Super Bowl ad lineup includes the usual suspects. We like movies. We like cars. We like movies about cars. We like feeling safe. We like movies about not feeling safe. We like beer. Minus the corn syrup. This read is not wholly inaccurate but it is superficial. It assumes that the content of the ads is merely projecting our cultural interests and desires right back at us. But that is never the whole story. As Marshall McLuhan liked to put it, the content of any medium is the juicy piece of meat that the burglar offers the guard dog before ransacking the house. What are we missing by focusing on the products and gags that the advertisers serve up? We are missing something profound about the medium itself. Or in the case of the late television era, we are missing something profound about the tectonic shift from …