All posts filed under: Featured

The Solemn Joy of Lent

T he beginning of a new liturgical season calls for a new Spotify playlist: 40 Songs for the 40 Days of Lent. Curating this list has presented a unique challenge: there is a lot of really beautiful music out there that would lead one deeper into Lent, but much of it is very somber. Taken in context, this is not a bad thing; it is certainly appropriate for music to reflect the penitential austerity of the season, but it seems unlikely that anyone would want to listen to an entire playlist of funereal minor music. Lent, after all, is not a season without its joys, and these are not simply restricted to Laetare Sunday. Even in the midst of our penitential practices, each Sunday we still witness with growing anticipation the dismissal of the catechumens and candidates for full communion, knowing that it will not be long before they will gather alongside us around the Eucharistic table. Even as we acknowledge our sinfulness, we rejoice as we hear the Gospels: we marvel in awe at …

Can Schmitt’s Political Theology Be Redeemed?

A sure way to establish enduring significance as a thinker is to combine sophistication with carefully constructed ambiguity and, if necessary, outright contradiction. The odd combination of precision and ambiguity is something of a goldmine for interpretation and debate. To exponentially amplify it, the thinker just needs to be involved in some form of notoriety that makes a determinative interpretation all the more significant in order to illuminate what went wrong. One need only look at the complexity of Heidegger’s legacy to see how public and important such discussions can become. The notoriety licenses all manner of analyses—Is his or her work entirely undermined by such transgression? Does their thought lead to failure or is some contextual explanation a possible exoneration? The contrast of intellectual achievement and moral failure strikes us viscerally by touching on one of our most basic fears: that markers like high intellect and education cannot always protect against violence and hatred. Like Heidegger, Carl Schmitt is such a thinker of great sophistication, ambiguity, and notoriety. The famous German jurist and political …

Celebrating 200 Years of Catholic Theology’s Oldest Journal

While scrambling to finish an article on German theology last month, I found myself rummaging for a quotation from the inaugural, 1819 issue of the Theologische Quartalschrift, the house journal for the Catholic faculty of theology in Tübingen. Then it struck me that the ThQ had turned two hundred, and I would be remiss if I could not find a way to fete this loyal and reliable companion. But is it decadent to care about a journal? American theologians are more likely to connect journals with prestige than with place. Few faculties properly house a journal. My own institution, Saint Louis University, housed Theology Digest from 1967–2010, but by the time I had arrived in 2007, few of the faculty published in, read, or even browsed it. The Digest seemed more an eccentric side project of one dedicated faculty member than a point of pride for the rest of us. Its loss was mostly felt in the journal swap that our library could no longer participate in. Nostalgia for journals is more likely to arise …

The Eclipse of Sex by the Rise of Gender

A  colleague once expressed to me her dismay that a student in my gender theory class seemed unable to articulate the difference between sex and gender. I found this oddly affirming: this student had rightly picked up on the fact that those two terms do not have fixed meanings in gender theory, and certainly not in the culture at large. Why? Because, in a nutshell, we are deeply confused what it means to be a body, particularly a body who is sexed. This widespread confusion is reflected in the slippery usage of the terms “sex” and “gender.” Are these interchangeable synonyms? Or, do they reflect a dualistic split between a sexed body and gendered soul? Do they signify the interplay between biology and society in human identity? Depending upon the context, the words sex and gender can evoke any and all of those meanings. We no longer know who we are as sexed beings, and this is mirrored in our language. Perhaps more importantly, the meanings we hitch to those two words reflect (whether intended …

What Social Media Does to Time

Social media feeds present the myth of endless and therefore purposeless time. Twitter is a prime example. Picture the top of a Twitter feed where a new tweet appears, then the next, then the next. If you scroll down, you know what you will find: more tweets. What happens to all those tweets down below? They slip-slide away, into the past: down, down, down. Theoretically, they are all retrievable but with the passage of more and more time, they are each more and more covered over by the mist of movement. Where is the present on social media? It appears that the present is back up on the top of the feed, where new tweets come, passing for an instant as the present thing. That present thing will momentarily become a past thing as a new thing comes over the top. But imagine, if you will, not a single user’s Twitter feed but all Twitter feeds collapsed into one. How quickly does a tweet pass through the present? It is probably just about at the …

Catholicism’s Decisive Shift Toward Africa

To any astute observer of Catholic social history, it should be clear that today the largest “geographical exodus” has occurred since perhaps Apostolic times. These were the times when the Catholic Church’s center moved from Jerusalem to Rome, as recorded in Acts of the Apostles (Cf. Acts 1-28). The large geographical exodus that I am alluding to here is the relocation of the Catholic Church’s center from Europe to Africa. This is not to mention the Asian and Latin American Churches, which have become the modern-day equivalent to Constantinople and Alexandria. What makes this shift so interesting from the vantage of the West is that the geographical center has gone from the “First World” to the “Third World.” However, it also simultaneously appears that in today’s world, borders have become merely symbolic and arbitrary, pointing to nothing beyond themselves. At best, it seems that these borders are simply a relic of a colonial past in America, and an ancient cultivated narrative in Europe. Today’s world seems to be slowly converging into a “common home,” as …

Prisons Are a Biblical Abomination

A few weeks ago my five-year-old daughter encountered poetry for the first time. I read to her a collection that had been one of my favorites, by Shel Silverstein. She was curious, sometimes perplexed, and generally enchanted by the revelation of the musicality of words and ideas. Then, we reached one poem that grabbed her like no other. She was in equal parts attracted and repulsed. She wanted me to read it over and over again. “People Zoo.” “I’m here in a cage that is small as can be / (You can’t let wild people run around free).” The narrator was “grabbed” by animals and “locked” in a cage. Other animals walk by and stare, laugh, or harass. “Do a trick,” the animals scream, but the narrator refuses. The poem closes by extending the reader an invitation to visit this zoo—but disguised as an animal, lest the reader end up in “Cage Two.” People kept in cages represent a world turned upside down. It was plain as day to my daughter: this is an abomination. …

Who Is an African Without Ancestors?

SPOILER ALERT: SPOILERS AHEAD! For each child that’s born a morning star rises and sings to the universe who we are We are our grandmothers prayers we are our grandfathers dreamings we are the breath of the ancestors we are the spirit of God —Ysaye M. Barnwell of Sweet Honey In the Rock, “We Are” I. Who is an African without ancestors? One of the great challenges of diasporic African life is a constant memory of the loss of home, lineage, and spiritual patrimony. The South African Bantu word ubuntu which translates most literally into something akin to the abstraction “humanity,” is also said to embody the proverb, “I am because we are.” Lasting effects of the Atlantic slave trade have included a cultural dislodging from a holistic worldview tied to land, language, religion, and history. Living in culturally Western societies, whether in Europe, or Latin or North America, has meant that the cultural and aesthetic values that undergird said societies will often be neutral to the flourishing and validation of black life at times, …

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 …