Saturday, September 29, 2012

Love always, Jesus, Mary Mags and all the little bar-Jesuses

Becky Bratu of NBC News uses the flap over the dubious “Jesus’ Wife” fragment as the springboard for  the question: What’s wrong with the idea that Jesus was married? 

And what follows is anything but pretty; you get the feeling that, having “dumbed down” the technical issues for the non-specialists in the audience, the experts left themselves with equally dumb responses.  Either that, or they all learned their material from non-Christians who had themselves forgotten the historical, traditional Christian beliefs after years of reading Jesus Seminar-style deconstruction.

Before going further, I need to reinforce something I wrote last week in The Impractical Catholic:  The most misleading aspect of the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife”, which yesterday the Vatican authoritatively rejected as a “clumsy forgery”, is the common representation (even among some of the detractors) that the Gnostics were a Christian sect.  The people referred to by scholars as “Gnostic Christians” — a phrase as self-contradicting as “pastel green redness” or “masculine womanliness” — were Gnostics who had adopted characters and terms from the Christian story and crammed them into the Gnostic cosmology.

Cosmology, in a sense, drives theology.  The differences aren’t just that the Gnostics liked women and Christians didn’t (which is a false distinction anyway); in the Gnostic universe, the Creator is a demiurge, a lesser emanation of the real First Principle, and a bit of a fool for not recognizing it.  Jesus is not human at all, but rather another demiurge who can put his humanity off at any time, like a cheap costume: no hypostasis here.  Because the cosmos of the Gnostics is built differently from that of the Christians (and the first-century Jews from whence they came), any similarities between the two are purely on the surface.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The futility of minimal goodness

When men are pure, laws are useless; when men are corrupt, laws are broken.
—Benjamin Disraeli, Contarini Fleming, Part 6, Chap. 3

Yesterday, of course, was the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Cycle B).  The theme running through the readings was of strife, envy and jealousy; the only counter to these problems is to humble oneself and become a servant to those whom one wishes to rule.

However — and this might be grounds for censure — the selected Gospel text (Mk 9:30-37) isn’t the one that occupied my attention at Mass.  Rather, another one floated into mind, a text that has had a lot of personal meaning:

[The Lord said,] “Will any one of you, who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep, say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and sit down at table’?  Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and gird yourself and serve me, till I eat and drink; and afterward you shall eat and drink’?  Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded?  So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’” (Lk 17:7-10).

It’s worth noting that the Greek word translated in most versions as “servant”, doulos, has the primary meaning “slave”.  In fact, that’s how the New American Bible had it translated when it was originally published.  It was re-translated back to “servant” with the 1986 revision, which is a pity; translating doulos as “slave” brings a lot more to the theological party.[*]

“We are worse than useless slaves, for we have done no more than what was required of us.”  That’s how it went, if my memory doesn’t play me false.  Doing the bare minimum is not a guarantee of a passing grade.

Or, at least, that was the initial impression.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Open letter to African-American voters

This is the first time you’ve ever faced such a crucial decision. The election of a black man, Barack Obama, to the office of the Presidency was a milestone despite the fact that his father did not share the same history as most of your families do — to be blunt, direct descent from men and women enslaved by white Americans. While the election did not cure all the ills besetting the African-American community, certainly it was grounds for hope for the future … at least, at the time.

However, election is only half the loaf; the other half is re-election. As the Associated Press reported Sunday, “There’s no question which candidate is expected to win the black vote. In 2008, Obama won 95 percent of black voters and is likely to get an overwhelming majority again.” A second term for Obama would demonstrate once and for all that the first election wasn’t a fluke, that racism no longer has the power to deny the person of color any elective office.

But there’s some question among you whether you can conscientiously vote for a president who supports gay marriage. As the Rev. A. R. Bernard of the African-American Christian Cultural Center put it, “When President Obama made the public statement on gay marriage, I think it put a question in [black Christian leaders’] minds as to what direction he’s taking the nation.”

At the same time, many of you are reluctant to support a Mormon, Mitt Romney, in Obama’s place at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And so many of your church leaders are asking you to stay home rather than vote this November 6th. I disagree: it’s not enough to just not vote for Obama.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Choices, parties and Catholic social doctrine


Philosophy?  I’m a Christian and a Democrat, that’s all!
—Franklin D. Roosevelt


I’m pretty sure most of you have caught the news that John Carr, Executive Director of the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, has retired.  WaPo has a story on Carr’s influence and legacy in Washington politics that’s fairly laudatory … at least until reporter Michelle Boorstein turns to consider his as-yet-unnamed replacement.

Boorstein writes:

At a time when Catholics are watching their community become increasingly polarized along political lines, Carr is considered a dying breed: a Catholic moderate with a foot firmly in both camps.  He worked for the White House Conference on Families under President Jimmy Carter and was a Democratic candidate.  He has also zealously slammed the Obama White House for its mandate that employers provide contraception coverage to employees.  At a good-bye event this week at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops headquarters, Carr’s voice sounded angriest when he bemoaned the Bush-led Iraq War.
Catholics are becoming more divided over whether they focus on church teachings against war and poverty or the ones against abortion and gay marriage.  Catholic progressives are particularly worried about Carr leaving as Church officialdom in recent years has put greater and greater emphasis on defending the unborn [like Carr did anything to prevent or minimize it?  Carr is a pro-life Democrat!].

Okay, here’s the million-dollar question:  Why is there a division?  What makes anyone think that to be against abortion and gay marriage is to be for war and rampant poverty, or vice versa?

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Matthew 7:1 and mainstreaming pathology

Publicity still from Yellow
According to director Nick Cassavetes, incest is “super-weird” ... but ultimately no real problem.

Cassavetes, whose new movie Yellow centers on a sexual relationship between a brother and sister, says his movie “is about judgment, and lack of it, and doing what you want.  Who gives a s*** if people judge you?  I’m not saying this is an absolute but in a way, if you’re not having kids — who gives a damn?  Love who you want.  Isn’t that what we say?  Gay marriage — love who you want?  If it’s your brother or sister it’s super-weird, but if you look at it, you’re not hurting anybody except every single person who freaks out because you’re in love with one another.”

This is wrong on so many levels, it’s hard to know where to begin.  Superficially, Cassavetes would seem to have a point if — and only if — we grant that people are entitled to be psychologically damaged so long as they’re not cutting throats or torching houses … that is, so long as they’re only hurting themselves.  This is nonsense on the face of it; it’s as if we were discussing a right to contract bubonic plague or an entitlement to leprosy.


… I don’t mind taking a stand on the side of inherent, human truth when twisting it confines people to psychological pathology and leaves them forever in pain.  So, here you go:  Sisters and brothers who have sexual affairs are not well.  They need help sorting out and overcoming psychological suffering and terrifying traumas that visited them long ago.I’m here to help them, in part by telling them that, even if they are in denial about the underlying suffering fueling their symptoms (incest), they will have to confront it, eventually.