Not Seven But Seventy Times Seven

March 9, 2011

Today is Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, the liturgical season during which all Catholics are obliged to go to confession.

I used to find this requirement rather perplexing. One ought to go to confession whenever one has committed a mortal sin, of course, but why must one go once a year, no matter what? Since most of us commit enough sins to necessitate confession multiple times per year, this is less a practical question than a theoretical one. What is it about confession that mandates it happen more than once?

I think part of my confusion stemmed from thinking about confession the same way I thought about baptism–as marking a complete break with one’s previous life. This is, I think, what baptism offers: a second chance, an opportunity to start fresh. And second chances are easy to comprehend. They tell a clear story–“I was a pagan, now I am a Christian.”

But third, fourth, fifth, tenth, hundredth, chances are harder to make sense of. And this is where my problem with confession lay. If every time one goes to confession, one is wiped clean, how can one have any coherent sense of identity? One can only be baptized once. To be baptized a second time is to say that the first baptism wasn’t sufficient, that it was a false baptism. Similarly, it seems, confessing a sin that one has confessed before negates those previous confessions, makes them false. To be wiped clean once is to tell a story, “I was a pagan, I am now a Christian,” but what is it to be wiped clean over and over, other than to say, “I am nobody, and every time I start to become somebody, I must erase that new identity”?

That was my old (subconscious) understanding of the sacrament. But the Lenten requirement got me thinking. If confession must happen every year, it is in a sense always happening. How could something that changes who one is be always happening? Only if it marked not a reversal, but an adjustment. It is more akin to the (continual) fires of purgatory than the (one-time) waters of baptism.

This is, of course, an obvious truth; but it is one that because it is obvious is easy to ignore. Once I realized it, I understood much more clearly the sacramental nature of confession: it mediates between the present and the eternal. It is, in a way, more sacramental than baptism even. Baptism, as a one-time event, can be used by any being whose life could be divided in two. Confession can be used only by being whose lives are not just “before” and “after,” but who exist truly in time, progressing gradually along the path to salvation.


Bottum on America and Religion

August 23, 2010

Interesting article on the First Things website today: The Bible in the Public Square. I particularly like this paragraph:

The United States as it naturally wants to be—what we might call the platonic ideal of America—contains a tension we must be careful not to resolve. From its founding, the nation has always been something like a school of Enlightenment rationalists aswim in an ocean of Christian faith. And how shall the fish hate the water wherein they live? Or the water hate the fish?

I don’t have anything particularly insightful to say about it, so I won’t waste your time. Go read it! I don’t know if I agree with it or not, but the issues it raises are certainly worth thinking about. Personally, I’m always fascinated by attempts to get at the “essence” of “America”…


Stargate: SG-1 and What Sci-Fi Can’t Do

August 10, 2010

I noticed today that my three most recent posts have not been posts at all, in fact, and have instead just been links to other sites. I’ll attempt to rectify that now, and more so, with a rather epically long discussion of the show I’ve been watching most recently – Stargate: SG-1, which ran for 10 seasons and spun off two series, Stargate: Atlantis and Stargate: Universe, as well as two direct-to-DVD movies. I haven’t seen any of it but SG-1 itself and a few episodes of Atlantis, but I think I have a pretty good idea of what the Stargate universe is like.

Before I begin, though, you should read this article: Seeing the truth of the world through science fiction. It’s a good description of what some say sci-fi aspires to, and what I myself have said sci-fi is about on occasion. It reveals to us our own limitations, our inability to find the Ding-an-sich, and the necessity of the attempt to do so. It helps us to understand ourselves. Or, at the Teal’c look-alike at the end of the comical SG-1 episode “200” says,

Science fiction is an existential metaphor that allows us to tell stories about the human condition. Isaac Asimov once said, “Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinded critics and philosophers of today, but the core of science fiction, its essence, has become crucial to our salvation, if we are to be saved at all.”

This is what some say sci-fi tries to do. But… is this really what sci-fi is all about?

SG-1, as I said, went on for ten seasons. For the first eight of them, the central theme of the show was the struggle against an obviously evil race of technologically advanced beings who impersonated gods from ancient mythology. In the last two seasons they go up against a race of evil energy beings of arbitrarily great power who demand everyone worship them. Are they gods or not? What is a god, exactly? How do you decide what deserves worship? These are all interesting questions one would feel compelled to explore coming up against either the Goa’uld or the Ori. All of them are alluded to. None of them are ever really addressed in any meaningful way.

Instead, the show, and the characters, assume that the Goa’uld and Ori are not gods, that they do not deserve worship, that they are instead hostile forces bent on destroying human civilization as we know it. As it turns out, these assumptions are pretty much correct. The Goa’uld are evil, the Ori are evil, end of story. But this isn’t demonstrated by the fact that they’re claiming to be gods deserving worship when they’re really corporeal beings (the Ori aren’t even corporeal… kinda), it’s demonstrated by the fact that they’re mass murderers. The question of whether the claim to be a god in and of itself is ever justifiable is never addressed. This is the question that the “existential metaphor” actually raises, but for the most part it is ignored, though always in the back of the viewer’s mind.

The audience lets the show get away with ignoring this because they’re not worried about the existential questions raised; they’re more interested in the complex mythology being built up around the show. We don’t really stop to think about the nature of godhood; instead, we learn about the society of the Jaffa, and the different Goa’uld System Lords that pose a danger to the Tau’ri, and the different technologies the Ancients left behind to be discovered. The philosophical questions are never at the fore. My conversations with by brothers are never about whether humans or robots, or what it is to be a god, or even whether or not it was ethical to do what a certain character did in a certain situation; instead, we talk about whether there was really a scientific explanation for what happened, or what we think the bad guy will do next, or what a piece of technology discovered in the episode is really capable of.

In other words: if we want to say that the philosophical, existential queries being posed are the important part, and the rest just a way of communicating those queries, then the show is clearly a failure, because what we focus on is invariably the fluff, not the substance. I don’t judge SG-1 by its philosophy (if I did, it would fail) but by its characters, its plotlines, and its worldbuilding/mythopoeia — only the last of which is distinct to science fiction.

Now much of this ability to mythopoeticize comes from the long-form narrative modern television takes. SG-1, like many modern shows, has story arcs running through and even across entire seasons, with various alien civilizations introduced, fleshed out, fought with, defeated, over the course of years of in-world time and dozens of hours of on-screen material. This allows for the material to be explored in great detail, every possible factual question about the in-show universe can be asked and answered — but doing so brings us no closer to unpacking the “existential metaphor.” That metaphor is just as thoroughly explored in a single episode of The Twilight Zone. But I don’t watch The Twilight Zone nearly as much as I do SG-1, or BSG, or Buffy, or Angel. (Those last two are fantasy, but in this post I’m talking less about sci-fi specifically than speculative fiction in general.) I do truly believe that, while The Twilight Zone is in many ways brilliant, it is not as good as these others — but this judgment is clearly not based on the shows’ relative ability to metaphorically moralize.

What, then, can’t science fiction do? It cannot, except in a very limited sense, actually offer those existential metaphors that its proponents so often say is what redeems it. The fictional world sci-fi presents to us can indeed offer to us a metaphor worth considering — but after the initial presentation, it is not giving us with that metaphor, it is ornamenting the world used to create it and creating complex mythologies around it and making us care about people and civilizations that have never existed and will never exist. That activity of ornamentation is something very different, and it, not the existential metaphor itself, is what lies at the heart of sci-fi and fantasy.

To put it a different way; sci-fi is at its heart concerned not with black and white, but with color. Existential metaphors are black and white. They reveal stark truths about the nature of the human condition. They are also amazingly simple. We are reading The Road in my American Literature class right now. It’s a sublime book. Perhaps it’s a work of science fiction in some vague almost meaningless sense, but at its heart it is no different from his other work, none of which can be called sci-fi, or from even more obviously non-sci-fi fiction. Yes, I suppose it’s set in post-apocalyptic America. But it’s not at all interested in exploring the new make-up of the world, in politics or society or biology. Those are all dead. It is interested in Life and Death and Love and arriving the essence of those things. And it takes place in a world devoid of color. (The Twilight Zone, I note, was shot in black and white, and I seriously doubt a color version would have been an improvement.) It contains elements of sci-fi – primarily the descriptions of how people survive in this post-apocalyptic wasteland – but apart from that there is no world-building going on, no interest in the exterior world — rather the exterior has been reduced to the interior.

Science fiction, on the other hand, is interested primarily in color. Specifically in colors never before seen. Sci-fi isn’t black and white; it tries to show us colors that don’t exist except in our imagination. Consider H.P. Lovecraft’s The Color Out Of Space. A meteor crashes that is made of a material that is not red, blue, green, yellow, nor any color known to man. It sticks around for a while, causes problems, then vanishes. That, not The Road, is science fiction boiled down to its essence — an encounter with the never before seen. Though of course since part of the essence of sci-fi is its baroque density such a boiling down fails to really illustrate by example. This is not to say that works of science fiction can’t be serious, nor that sci-fi cannot reduce the world to black and white. It is rather to say that this is not the essence of sci-fi.

So what exactly is my point? Why does it matter what the essence of sci-fi truly is? Because the nature of sci-fi’s essence determines how we defend it to those who discount its true worth. I want us (“us” meaning those of us who love speculative fiction) to realize that the usual defense of it, that it functions as a metaphor for real life that can reveal things not easily seen in ordinary fiction, does not really hold up under scrutiny. Something else is going on.

What that is, I’m not sure exactly. As I said, I think it has something to do with discovering new colors. But is that really worthwhile? Is that a legitimate endeavor? It may just be ornament for ornament’s sake, beauty for beauty’s sake, the act of subcreation as an exploration of the power of the human imagination. That sounds to me incurably romantic, and I’m not sure it makes for a good defense. But exploring this question will have to wait for another day. I’ve already gotten too far off-topic from my original idea for this post, which was to rant about how naive SG-1 often is. Perhaps another time.


A Moving Image of Eternity

July 25, 2010

There is an excellently over-the-top article about baseball on the First Things website today. It begins with a discussion of baseball as a representative product of American culture, a topic I find quite interesting. I also particularly liked these two paragraphs, especially the term “the oblong game” (meaning all games of the football/soccer/basketball/hockey variety):

All of this, it seems to me, points beyond the game’s physical dimensions and toward its immense spiritual horizons. When I consider baseball sub specie aeternitatis, I find it impossible not to conclude that its essential metaphysical structure is thoroughly idealist. After all, the game is so utterly saturated by infinity. All its configurations and movements aspire to the timeless and the boundless. The oblong game is pitilessly finite: Wholly concerned as it is with conquest and shifting lines of force, it is exactly and inviolably demarcated, spatially and temporally; having no inner unfolding narrative of its own, it does not end, but is merely curtailed, externally, by a clock (even overtime is composed only of strictly apportioned, discrete units of time).

Baseball, however, has no clock; rather, terrestrial time is entirely subordinate to its inner intervals and rhythms. And, although the dimensions of the diamond are invariable, there are no fixed measures for the placement of the outfield walls. A ball that would be a soaring home run to dead center in St. Louis falls languidly short in Detroit, like a hawk slain in ¬mid-flight. A blow that would clear the bleachers at Wrigley Field is transformed into a single by the icy irony of Fenway’s left field wall, while a drowsy fly ball earns four bases. Even within a single park—Yankee Stadium, for instance—there is an often capricious disproportion between the two power alleys.

Over-the-top as all these claims are, there is something of truth in them; any beautiful thing (and baseball is beautiful) is so because it resonates with something greater than itself.

For the first time in several years the Texas Rangers appear likely to go to the playoffs and perhaps make it past the first round. It could be an exciting season.


He is Risen, Alleluia!

April 5, 2010

After a long Lenten season, Easter has arrived.

Last night I went to Easter Vigil mass at my local parish, St. Luke’s Catholic Church. It was a quadrilingual mass – English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin. The music was terrible, and the acoustics weren’t that great. It was also over-crowded, so we had to sit in the area behind the altar and thus couldn’t see most of what was going on. All of this is par for the course when going to Christmas or Easter masses at St. Luke’s.

And yes, the un-aesthetically-pleasing aspects of the mass bothered me, as they always do. (I would prefer to go to the Cistercian abbey across the street from UD, but no, my parents like going to the local parish…) But as this was all going on last night I started thinking about it, and realized something kind of interesting. That the mass was so poorly performed brought to the fore an aspect often overlooked – that it is a performance. And realizing this made me start to consider just what kind of a performance it is.

Now, the obvious comparison is of the performance of drama, and indeed, they say that plays originally grew out of the liturgy. But liturgy is radically different from drama, because in a play, the actors are engaged in a fiction, and the play fails if they fail to suspend our disbelief. The mass does not attempt to suspend our disbelief in a fiction; rather, it attempts to make real our belief in a theological truth. Thus, that the mass is a performance, in the context of liturgy, means something entirely different than if it were a drama. It is not a performance put on by the priests and altar servers and choir for the benefit of the congregation, trying to convince them of their belief; it is a performance put on by the priests and altar servers and choir on behalf of the congregation, enacting what they already believe.

I admit, all too often I have found myself disappointed that I have not been emotionally moved by the experience of going to mass, forgetting that this is not the point. The point is to affirm our belief and to participate in the holiest of sacraments. So long as we hear the readings, recite the Creed, celebrate the Eucharist, neither of these is made more difficult by the mass being poorly said or sung.

This is not to say that good music, good sermons, good architecture, etc, are not important; they are. But their goal is not to transport the congregation into mystical raptures, and they have not failed if they do not do so.


Ashes to Ashes

February 17, 2010

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. For Catholics, it marks the beginning of a period of penance, ashes being a Biblical symbol of mourning and repentance.

Interestingly, when the priest places the ashes on your forehead, he intones, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” What is the connection between dust and ashes? Dust is  a reference to earth, to our being made from clay with life breathed into us by God, while ashes are what is left over from a burnt-out fire. There’s interesting things going on here with the elements; earth, air, water, fire.

All of this is symbolic of human mortality, but also suggests that we also transcend our morality. I am reminded of a song by Dream Theater called “Wait for Sleep”. It’s about a girl lying in bed thinking about God and faith. Near the end of the song, the question is asked, “In with the ashes / Or up with the smoke from the fire?” I think this question can be taken different ways, but I interpret it as asking, is the fire of life destructive or purgative?


Feast Days

December 8, 2009

It is once again the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which celebrates Mary’s (not Christ’s!) conception, which was without original sin even though she came before Christ’s crucifixion redeemed humanity.

The trans-temporality of this occurance fascinates me. It suggests to me that something else I would like to say is possible; that original sin itself is in some ways trans-temporal, retroactive so to speak. That would allow us to retain a temporal fall while explaining how the world was fallen (and I don’t buy the argument that it wasn’t fallen – sabre-toothed tigers killed and ate wooly mammoths) when it ought to have been prelapsarian.

But asserting a retroactive fall might be going too far. I’m not sure, really. Anyway, it’s three in the morning, and I need to write a paper. Happy feast day everybody.


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