Sunday, October 19, 2014

Why I Am a Catholic, Part V: The Impossible Is More Believable Than the Improbable

"And what makes you think that?"

"It's not entirely clear to me yet," replied Dirk with a frown. "Most of the ideas I have at the moment have to do with things that are completely impossible, so I am wary about sharing them. They are, however, the only thoughts I have."

"I'd get some different ones, then," said Kate. "What was the Sherlock Holmes principle? 'Once you have discounted the impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.'"

"I reject that entirely," said Dirk, sharply. "The impossible often has a kind of integrity to it which the merely improbable lacks. How often have you been presented with an apparently rational explanation of something which works in all respects other than one, which is just that it is hopelessly improbable? Your instinct is to say, 'Yes, but he or she simply wouldn't do that.'"

"Well, it happened to me today, in fact," replied Kate.

"Ah, yes," said Dirk, slapping the table and making the glasses jump, "your girl in the wheelchair* -- a perfect example. The idea that she is somehow receiving yesterday's stock market prices apparently out of thin air is merely impossible, and therefore must be the case, because the idea that she is maintaining an immensely complex and laborious hoax of no benefit to herself is hopelessly improbable. The first idea merely supposes that there is something we don't know about, and God knows there are enough of those. The second, however, runs contrary to something fundamental and human which we do know about. We should therefore be very suspicious of it and all its specious rationality."

-- Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, p. 132

+     +     +

Earlier in the series, I've explained my brief time as an atheist, and why I returned to theism. What it amounts to is that, rightly considered, theism means a belief that existence has a basis, and that this basis is not random chance or mere abstract forces, but an Intelligence that can impart not only order but consciousness to the rest of existence; that, further, this Intelligence is good, is indeed the origin and standard of goodness, and that It is capable of turning even the horrific evils that we see in the world to good purpose.

But there's a catch in there. Granted an Intelligence that caused the minutely articulated order of the universe, is there any particular reason -- other than what we'd like to believe -- to suppose that this Intelligence is, in any meaningful sense of the word, good, rather than malignant or (more probably) indifferent to man? Is there a reason to be a theist as Jews, Christians, and Moslems are theists, rather than (in Nietzsche's phrase) believing that the divine is beyond good and evil, or adopting a pantheistic view characteristic of Hinduism and many forms of paganism?

There are philosophical reasons for this, notably St Thomas' argument from degrees of goodness; but I'm not sure I'm competent to explain the arguments, and in any case they aren't what persuaded me. I took a sort of shortcut.

As I was sitting, a newly (re-)minted theist, in that church service, watching the Communion plate passed from person to person, I considered the story of Jesus -- not as sacred Scripture but as simple history.

Now, people will tell you that the Gospels are terrible history, that we have no idea what the originals were like because they've been recopied and recopied like a game of telephone, and so forth. This belief is given credence by the skepticism of some New Testament scholars and popularizers (some of them clergymen), like the Jesus Seminar, Reza Aslan, or Bart Ehrman. And it is pretty much the opposite of true. Not only is there practically no serious scholarly dispute about the contents of the New Testament in its original manuscripts,** they are literally the best-preserved documents from the ancient world in existence. There is no competition. The mere number of manuscripts useful for translation is staggering: the Iliad, which has the next best manuscript tradition, survives in about two thousand manuscripts, while the New Testament survives in more than five thousand. A man who applied the popular skepticism about the New Testament consistently to ancient literature as a whole would have to be content to know nothing before 1450.*** I could go on; if you're really interested in the subject, I warmly recommend Bruce Metzger's The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration.

But of course, the fact that the New Testament has a good manuscript tradition doesn't say anything about the veracity of its portrait of Jesus. Granted that what the evangelists and apostles wrote is substantially what we have today: were they telling the truth?

Looking at their subsequent careers, which mostly involved being harassed, ostracized, hounded from place to place, and in most cases ultimately murdered, I have difficulty with the proposition that they were carefully lying. What for? They got less than nothing out of it. And saying that they were reporting things relayed to them as if by a game of telephone doesn't do any good: we are talking about eyewitnesses here, or, at the furthest remove, people who have themselves spoken to eyewitnesses, as St. Luke says in the introduction to his own work. The kind of details you find in the Gospels -- St. John's particularly -- are too exact, and in many cases too incidental, to be the work of an irresponsible rumormonger. This isn't the kind of thing that can be dismissed as having been built up by  accumulation and exaggeration over time (especially not when set beside the gossipy Gospels, purporting to recount other incidents in the life of Christ and especially His childhood, that the Church dismissed as forgeries and which do read like imaginative frauds); it's there right from the beginning. They might possibly have been insane, though if they were, it was an oddly unanimous type of insanity, and one that inspired a movement that was (among other things) a lot more humanitarian than most lunatics manage to be.

So what kind of Jesus do they depict? A fascinating personality; one that fascinates largely by being rather confusing and cryptic. Attractive -- but not always clear, and often not even comforting. He was given to making remarks that were not only bewildering, but extremely off-putting: as when He said that He spoke to the people in parables not (as I believe we like to think today) because they were engaging and accessible, but for exactly the opposite reason: that seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them. Or when He says to the man he has just announced as His high steward, who has spoken up to object to the idea of His being seized and executed, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offense unto me. Or when, as often happens, He heals someone of an affliction, and then sternly warns them not to tell anybody.

The exact significance of every detail of the story need not detain us, and would certainly be beyond my powers to elucidate anyway. What is important for our purposes is His claim to be God: made in no uncertain terms in the Temple itself on one occasion, and implicitly on many others, such as His practice of forgiving other people's sins -- as though He were the primarily offended party in every case -- or of referring to Himself as in some sense God's Son, as though He and God were of a kind.

Now, if you're not God, then pretending to be is as a rule a stupid and terrible decision, and turns out terribly and stupidly. And, given that He wound up being nabbed in the middle of the night by a hired mob employed by the Church,**** tried on charges of blasphemy and irreligion, and gibbeted, it could certainly be seen as having turned out terribly for Jesus. The thing is, for Him to stick to His story when He knew (as He obviously did) what the consequences would be, He'd really have to be no mere fraud, but crazy.

One of the oldest surviving icons of Christ, dating to the sixth
century, from the Monastery of St. Catherine on Mt. Sinai.

And crazy doesn't work for Him. Cryptic, yes. Weird. But not crazy. He was too clever: not just in the sense of being intelligent (which lunatics often are), but in the sense of being humorous, shrewd, and creative. And when you read the Gospels, you get the sense, too, of a mind that has a quality that madmen never have, a sort of open-air freshness and expansiveness that the claustrophobic, one-idea obsessiveness of a maniac can't imitate at all. That this open-air quality can be pretty bracing doesn't alter that.

Having thus eliminated the improbable, I found it my only logical choice to believe in the impossible thesis that Jesus was, in fact, God.

And if that's the case, then (as my old pastor said) Jesus is not like God: God is like Jesus. The Deity whom we arrived at before, the ordering Intelligence whom we would like to believe is benevolent, but of whom we can guess so little, is -- still mysterious? certainly, but -- tender-hearted, forgiving, compassionate; demanding, hard as nails sometimes, yet strangely winsome in His challenge to joyful abandon; a fascinating oddity, a compelling teacher, witty, wise, seemingly inexhaustible in His energy; in short, to my mind, the sort of God who would be worth worshiping. On those terms, I can not only believe in the simple existence of a god. I can place my faith in God.

*Earlier in the novel, the character Kate meets an incessantly muttering girl in a mental institution who, it is explained to her by the doctor, is reciting stock market prices, exactly twenty-four hours out of step with their announcement. The doctor himself takes the view that it must be a memory trick, while conceding that the girl has never been found to study newspapers, copy things down, or in fact do anything that would account for her knowledge.

**I say serious scholarly dispute because you will find people like Dan Brown who don't know the first  thing about manuscript criticism but write about it anyway. Or rather, they know the first thing about it, but not the second; a perennial problem among laymen who deal with complex and specialized fields, and over which genuine scholars are always tearing their hair, often while doing the same thing in to the experts in some field they don't understand themselves.
     You will also find those scholars who will insist indignantly that there's plenty of dispute about the original text of the New Testament, and go on to start talking about how the Archinimical family of manuscripts has a comma in II Hooligans 45.19, while the Freneticist family of manuscripts has a semicolon there instead. Though I am pedantic enough to find that sort of question interesting, I am not deeply moved by it at a philosophical level.

***I find it interesting, and odd, that people are so enchanted by the mere fact of printing as opposed to writing. It's certainly easier to make identical copies by printing, and that does help; but it is just as possible to look at an original or older copy in either medium, and neither prevents mistakes or deliberate lies being introduced at the very beginning. And electronic media like texts and memes have certainly not given us cause to believe or to hope in a higher level of literacy -- though they have admittedly given us many opportunities for charity to cover a multitude of sins.

****I use the word Church here for two reasons. One is that the ancient Greek word ekklesia, rendered "church," is the same word used by Greek-speaking Jews of that era to describe the Judaic religious community (it literally means "assembly"): it was evidently chosen by the primitive Christian community to describe itself, in continuity with Israel's own understanding of itself. The other reason is that, spiritually, Israel at that time was the Church -- i.e., God's chosen and covenanted people -- and the same pattern of behavior can be seen in the Church throughout history as was seen in Holy Week: the whole range, from Judas to St. John, exists in every age.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

In Which I Manage Not to Vent About the Synod

The recently published, ruminative report of the Synod on the Family (which can be found in English here) has been throwing the Catholic blogosphere into conniptions. This has, in turn, driven me nearly frantic. I wrote about half of a rant last night, but then wondered whether it was quite wholesome to publish it, given the internet's incredible poutrage surplus. And then, I came across the following, in the combox of Mark Shea's post on the subject, from a commenter going by the name Linda Daily:

I invite all Catholic bloggers and commenters to schedule a one-week Shut Up Synod, during which no one reads, writes, or comments on things Catholic. Spend the week in silent prayer and humble service, minding your own business, working out your own salvation, and trust that God in his heaven can guide the Church without your analysis.

Nailed it. In the spirit of said Shut Up Synod, but with the concession that I find it very hard indeed to shut up, I will confine myself to the following few remarks.

Let's remember, brethren, that the Synod on the Family is about discipline, not doctrine. Pope Francis and the other bishops are not going to change the Church's doctrine of marriage or anything else (indeed, as Catholics, we believe they aren't in fact able to do so). It is the Holy Ghost who protects the Church's faith, He and no one else. On today's memorial of Saint Teresa of Jesus, who wrote and prayed earnestly for heretics to be recovered into the bosom of the Catholic Church and committed herself totally to its maternal care and authority even as a reformer, it is specially fitting to recollect that the faith did not come from us, and does not depend on us, and that we do not need to think, speak, or act as if it did.

"Let nothing disturb thee; let nothing dismay thee; all things pass; God never changes."

In the same vein, consider our Lord's saying: The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath. The Church's pastoral practice -- which is nothing other than how she applies the truth she teaches to the lives of men -- is meant to serve man. We don't exist as mere vile bodies for confessors and canonists to practice their theological training upon. Still less should any pastoral standard be valued for the number of people it excludes from the Eucharist, ugly hints of which I have noticed here and there.

Whether to admit divorced Catholics to the sacraments without their relationships being regularized,* or what kind and degree of recognition the Church should give to a homosexual orientation and homosexual partnerships, are all questions of pastoral and prudential judgment. Nobody (not at the Synod, anyway) is proposing that the Church simply approve of divorce and gay sex, contrary to twenty centuries of dogma. And while acknowledging that there's lots to be said against altering current pastoral guidelines on these and other subjects, I would also venture to point out that, if the pastoral practices of the ancient Church were in force today, the line for Holy Communion would get very short indeed; I'm not certain I know a single person who would be eligible (certainly not me). And, since Confession back then was public, everybody would know why.

Lastly, one hears a lot from conservative Catholics about the dangers of scandal in irregular or apparently irregular relationships, and still more of the prospect of scandal in admitting these persons to the sacraments. I would ask my beloved brethren to consider gravely the scandal that may be given by people who profess total loyalty to the Catholic faith, and at the same time seem to set themselves up as competent judges of the words and actions of the Holy See. I don't say there is never a time to do so. But you had better be damn sure of it.

I found Calah Alexander's post on Barefoot and Pregnant wonderfully insightful; Sarah of A Queer Calling has written an open letter to Cardinal Burke that I appreciated; the ever-excellent P. E. Gobry of Inebriate Me has some illuminating remarks on the Synod's report; and my goodness does Elizabeth Scalia have a lot at The Anchoress. Enjoy.

*This would chiefly mean a Catholic who has been divorced and remarried civilly, without an annulment from the Church. Such relationships can be regularized ordinarily in one of three ways: if it's possible (which it may not be), obtaining an annulment; the new couple agreeing to separate; or the new couple agreeing to "live as brother and sister," i.e. continue living together but without sexual intimacy. This last is, I understand, commonest in situations in which there are children from the new union who of course need the care of their parents.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Ten Years Out

I'd forgotten until today, but this year actually marks ten years since I came out in high school. That was a ghastly experience: I was ashamed and scared, spoke clumsily, and was reprimanded for it and told to keep silent on the subject thereafter. It was later on, in college, that I started to feel safe and confident enough to just tell people, and ultimately to simply live outside the closet.

Coming out is still a contentious subject among Catholics. Courage, which is thus far the only Catholic ministry to homosexually attracted people that has the Church's full endorsement, has been emphatically hostile to the idea of any public acknowledgement of non-heterosexual attractions.* It's probably obvious from my writing that I do not share their reticence, and I'd like to analyze the question a bit.

The author of the blog Letters to Christopher (whom I know very slightly, and rather like, our disagreements notwithstanding)** wrote a post opposing coming out just recently, in which he has the following to say:
The wisest decision I ever made about living with an attraction to men was never broadcasting it to the world by following the ritual of 'coming out.' As time passes I become more convinced that the wisest course of action for anyone who lives with same-sex attraction is to keep this information limited to a very small number of close confidants. Unless someone likes boxes placed around them which have very little to do with reality. ... [He then writes of a friend finding some of his writing online, and going aside from a bonfire they were attending, to explain to this friend that he doesn't pass judgment on him or anyone else for not being celibate.] It was a good conversation, and we eventually meandered back to the bonfire. Later I heard that when we left the bonfire there was joking that took place among some who were there that "Oh, I bet they're going out there to make out/mess around/do something." Really?
The rest of the post is in the same vein, complaining -- legitimately enough -- about the confining and often crass stereotypes of gay people that still prevail in our culture. In order to avoid being tarred with this brush, he says, he preferred not to come out.

The thing is, that's exactly the kind of thing that coming out of the closet is designed to fight. Can demeaning stereotypes be fought without coming out, in principle? Yes. Should they be fought, whether they affect you personally or not? Certainly. But principled objections, however necessary and important, don't have anything like the power of being confronted with a person whom you suddenly realize you have been treating with disrespect, and who won't fit into your preconceived categories.

I'll admit, too, that the post falls rather flat for me, in that the things the author describes having avoided up to that point by not coming out all seem, to me, to have rather the character of tasteless annoyances, essentially trivial in themselves, if maybe symptomatic of something more serious -- as opposed to an affliction which it was his wisest decision ever made to have hitherto avoided. However, there's no accounting for taste, and one man may be driven past all endurance by something another brushes off easily.

Most of the sources that I've read that oppose coming out don't seem to have the faintest notion of why people come out in the first place; the only explanation that I've ever seen given is that the gay movement uses coming out to lock people into a false identity and gain political support. In support of this, it's been asserted, guides for coming school people to hear only two responses: absolute acceptance or unconditional rejection.*** The only thing to be said about this is that it is not true, as a perusal of such guides will show; and that I find this view a little hysterical in the first place, in that it evaluates LGBT people only as enemies of Catholicism (which plenty of us aren't), and not as human beings with human motivations. I would have hoped that the Catholics who rightly speak so much of not reducing ourselves to our sexuality, would not do such reducing for us.

Now, I'm sure there are people who have come out for Machiavellian reasons, and that is worth addressing. But to suppose that no one comes out for any other reasons appears to me to be, even in the restricted sense I give the word, homophobic. Being gay does not make you crazy or evil; neither does disagreeing with the Catholic Church; and frankly, as someone who used to be active in LGBT advocacy, we spent more time making fun of Christian paranoia than of Christian morals.

So why would somebody come out? And, more particularly, why would a Catholic Christian come out? The USCCB (from whom I do not lightly differ) gently discourages it; to say the least, I should surely have a reason to be out of the closet. And it's worth pointing out, in an essay defending coming out, that there are perfectly legitimate reasons to stay in. It's nobody else's business if you don't want it to be, and "I don't want to" is therefore an adequate reply to any urging to come out.****

For me, the question was academic, in that I was already out before I became a Catholic. But why continue to be out, as it were? For several reasons; the chief of them being that when I was processing all this as an adolescent, I was terribly alone and frightened. I had no one. Whom could I know was safe and wouldn't reject or expose me, perhaps cruelly? Whom could I trust to know what they were talking about? Moreover, if the Catholic doctrine of homosexuality is true, then shouldn't it be open to those to whom it most urgently pertains to talk about it? If it isn't, if they're keeping secrets, how can I trust them? I don't want anybody to have to feel alone like I did; and my e-mail over the past year and a half suggests to me that being out has been worth it for that.

Another reason is the one I've already cited, homophobia. This, I am sorry to say, is largely the preserve of religious people nowadays (in this country, anyway). That prejudice wants correcting. And it can be corrected, without any dilution of Catholic teaching; I was told by a guy I went to college with that he had been kind of homophobic into the beginning of college, but that the example of a classmate who was gay and also a practicing Catholic changed his mind and convicted him of his unfairness in that regard. And Christian leaders can talk about avoiding discrimination all they like, but people can usually only come to recognize and repent of discriminatory tendencies by being confronted with a person; and as long as Christians oppose and condemn coming out, assurances that they aren't prejudiced are going to ring hollow.

Which brings me to a third reason. I believe that the discouragement of coming out, whether gentle or hostile, is a source of scandal to those outside the Church. Fifty years ago this may not have been the case, since the dispositions of society were much more in accord with Christian sexual mores, and for people to come out looked like shamelessness and an attempt to normalize perversion. Well, in a world where "Two Girls One Cup" is a thing,***** I'd say the normalization ship has kinda sailed, and as for shamelessness, I don't think it's either reasonable or healthy to be ashamed of something you didn't choose. Today, the only thing that discouraging coming out looks like, to those outside the faith, is discomfort with knowing that someone is gay, because gay people are icky and you don't want to get any on you.

And for people to believe that the Catholic Church is homophobic is a terrible stumbling block. There are people who will believe that regardless, because they classify all opposition to gay sex as homophobia. But others will test Christians against whether we not only take this view of gay sex, but treat LGBT people as second-class citizens. And if we are serious about making the distinction between disapproving of gay sex and being bigoted against gay people, we have to go above and beyond to prove that we sincerely love gay people; and that means -- it is an embarrassment to have to say this in so many words -- that we have to be okay with knowing that somebody's queer.

Admittedly some people are more obvious about it than others.

But for me personally, and I think for many of us, one of the deepest reasons for coming out of the closet can be put in a single word: authenticity. As I said before, being gay is a very personal thing, and no one is obliged to share that information with the world. But conversely, being gay is a very personal thing, and life consists entirely in being a person interacting with other persons. The doctrine of the Trinity means that relations between persons -- that is, Love -- is the fundamental nature of all reality. 

And being gay affects how you relate to people. Not always in the same way -- LGBT people aren't stereotypical any more than straight people are stereotypical. But it always does: "Sexuality affects all aspects of the human person in his body and soul. It especially concerns affectivity, the capacity to love and to procreate, and in a more general way the aptitude for forming bonds of communion with others."****** Everyone wants to know and be known for who they are; and, while sexual orientation may not constitute a person's identity, it is still in a very real way a part of who we are, because it dictates how we relate to people and what sort of relationships we long for, regardless of what our beliefs are about those possibilities.

Pretending to be straight can be suffocatingly inauthentic, and inauthenticity is always isolating, because you're being loved for a part of yourself, or even a fake self, instead of the real you. I was never lonelier than when I was closeted, and no matter what assurances I was given by others that they would love me no matter what, it was only by verifying for myself that a gay man was someone they could love -- which, in rare cases, did prove to be too much for them to handle -- that I was able to begin really receiving love.

Note that I've said authenticity, not honesty. Honesty, that is, telling the truth, can be combined with avoiding the issue in a multitude of ways; which is one reason, too, that I prefer the word gay to same-sex attracted in most circumstances, as I've seen the latter used as a shorthand for "I am going to avoid the implications of my attractions as long as I possibly can, and probably hurt myself and others while doing it" rather too often to like it. Authenticity, by contrast, suggest a way of being: being the same person to everybody, and loving others as that person, because to love is to give oneself. Which is far more important than the mere publication of facts about oneself. That sets me free in daily life to just be who I am, and try, as that person, to love others as best I can, in the grace of God. This above all: to thine own self be true, / And it must follow, as the night the day, / Thou canst not then be false to any man.

That's why I don't regret the decision I made a decade ago: because I told the truth, and now, I'm not scared any more. So, for National Coming Out Day: Hi, I'm Gabriel Blanchard, and I'm gay. Pleased to meet you.

*I must admit that my knowledge of the apostolate is limited in that I have never yet set foot in a Courage meeting, because I don't get the impression I'd be welcome even as an orthodox and practicing Catholic, since among other things I'm out of the closet and use the word gay. There are other reasons I haven't visited -- for instance, it is in my experience quite surprisingly difficult to find a chapter.

**I have, at the cost of slightly awkward phrasing in a few sentences, avoided naming this person, out of respect for his own dislike of coming out. Obviously I don't share his approach, but coming out (or not) is after all a very personal decision, and it's none of my business to make it on his behalf.

***This is based partially on the essays on the subject that used to be posted on Courage's website, and also on the general tenor of many Catholic writers on the subject. The said general tenor can be found on the internet if you care to go looking for it, and to violate the First Rule of the Internet, but Courage has altered its website, and doesn't appear to still be hosting the essay I quoted in this post. If that's the case, I am very pleased.

****I would recognize two exceptions, one practical in nature, one principled. The first is in speaking to a spiritual director; if they aren't fully informed of your nature, their counsel will be correspondingly less accurate and useful. The second is in seeking marriage: a spouse has a right to know about this; indeed, I'm given to understand that an undisclosed homosexual orientation is grounds for an annulment in canon law. Whether I'm rightly informed about that or not, information that is thus directly relevant to a husband and wife's life together cannot justly be withheld or distorted.

*****If you don't know what this is, for the love of God, don't Google it. If you must know, look it up on Urban Dictionary, and then cleanse your eyes with fire. Trust me, you'll want to.

******Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 2332. Sexuality here does not exclusively mean sexual orientation, but the whole of being a human person, an assertion that we are not simply souls that "have" bodies to which sex is incidental, but that we are by nature body-and-soul together, and that gender-sex is part of who we are.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Review: "The Accidental Marriage" by Roger Thomas

Roger Thomas' debut novel, The Accidental Marriage, is the story of Scott and Megan, a gay man and a lesbian living in San Francisco, who conceive a child together and find themselves on a path to a very different friendship than they hitherto had. Megan is pressured into conceiving by her wife, Diane, and Scott, being a friend, offers to donate sperm so the child can be conceived by artificial insemination; when this fails to work, the two conceive the child naturally. Diane finds out, and their relationship comes to pieces, so Scott takes Megan in and the two decide to marry so that Megan can be covered by Scott's insurance. The friendship slowly begins to assume the feeling of a home, even as Scott starts to find himself being edged out of his job --

And I have an anti-spoiler policy, so I won't say any more about it than that.

The Accidental Marriage is being published by Ignatius Press, and will be available as of October 7th.

The Strong Points

Some of the dream sequences in the novel, particularly the opening one, are well-written; Thomas manages to capture the atmosphere and logic of dreams, and to use some foreshadowing, convincingly. There are also a few rather charming exchanges, such as this one (from page 86), a little while after the two lead characters have set up housekeeping together:
     "Sounds good," Megan said with a smile, then put down the paper and looked soberly at Scott. "With respect to cleaning, I'm happy to continue what I've been doing, but I have one condition."
     "What's that?" Scott asked.
     "Aim better."
The Weak Points

I am genuinely sorry to say that this was among the worst books I've ever read. It is fatally flawed at every level of its construction.

To begin with, the novel is about a gay man and a lesbian. Yet there is literally nothing about the characters that makes them persuasive as gay people. We are told, several times, that they're gay; that's as gay as it gets. I don't mean that gay men and lesbians need to be caricatures, but there is no hint, at any point, of any real emotional or even merely sexual interest in men on Scott's part, nor in women on Megan's. The closest we come is, in the last quarter of the novel, an awkwardly composed flirtation that cannot quite bring itself to use the term "gaydar"; and even this scene has no real erotic sensibility. The pairings the book starts out with -- Diane and Megan on one side, Scott and Greg on the other -- barely make it into the book at all, except as hooks upon which to hang extremely demeaning ideas about gay relationships (Diane is domineering and abusive, of course, and Greg cheats on Scott and comes home drunk and high when he comes home at all, of course); but presumably these people and the relationships they formed with the central characters were important to  them at some point. Why don't we see any of that? Without it, neither the characters nor the situation they're in can be accepted by the reader; unless the reader is willing to suspend any and all disbelief on the strength of "They're gay."

Regrettably, this really seems to be the author's view. A number of comments throughout the novel (such as the speech of the lesbian character about how she had been saved from a life of literal sex slavery, for no stated reason other than "because lesbians") suggest a total ignorance of gay culture, accompanied by buying into grossly offensive and dehumanizing stereotypes. The most bizarre manifestation of this to my mind is that, except I think for our heroine and the quickly-discarded boyfriend of our hero, every homosexual character in the novel is presented at least once as being hostile to and contemptuous of procreation and of babies. Even if someone has no queer friends, I'd have thought that the fight for adoption rights and the actual phenomenon of gay adoptions, whatever one's moral view of the matter, would have been adequate evidence that this was not a typical feature of LGBT-identifying people. But this is only one instance of an astonishing unrealism that honestly leaves me wondering whether Roger Thomas has ever gotten to know even one gay person in real life.

Now, gay culture is not something anybody is required to approve of, whether as a whole or in any specific aspect. And for that matter, it's perfectly permissible to write about something with the aim of revealing its badness. But if you're writing a realistic novel about gay characters -- and one set in modern San Francisco, no less -- being conversant with gay culture is not an optional extra. It is the chosen matter of the work, and the author who refuses to acquaint himself with it is not being decently modest or subverting tropes, but revealing his own bad craftsmanship and failure to do the work of writing.*

Even tired queer stereotypes would make more persuasive characters than Scott and Megan do; the US version of Queer As Folk, which played the gay tropes for all they were worth (at least in the male characters), managed to get rounded and convincing characters out of it. The Accidental Marriage reads as though the author isn't even aware of the basic stereotypes of mincing fashionista males and tough, tomboyish females, and the sad result is to come out with characters that lamely fulfill vague, generic masculine and feminine cliches: the man lives in a mess and is only concerned about his career, while his female friend is able to turn the mess into a clean, flower-decorated apartment and cook him real meals instead of the fast food he has hitherto been relying on (the portrait of Megan seems to contain a really distasteful helping of sexism -- she is depicted as helpless and confused nearly every time she isn't cooking, cleaning, or taking care of the baby) ...

If a descent into cheap gay stereotypes was what the author wished chiefly to avoid, he had a magnificent chance to play with, complicate, and subvert those stereotypes, since they will inevitably be in the reader's mind anyway, and in so doing to make really three-dimensional characters. But he dodged or missed the issue and its concomitant opportunity, and the lack of living energy in the central characters and most of the supporting cast is the cost.

And that brings up a still more fundamental problem with the characters. They not only aren't convincing as a gay man and a lesbian; they aren't convincing as people. They have no distinctive style of speech -- almost any line in the book could be transferred to any other character, and the reader would have no sense of wrongness. They have no interests; for instance, we are told (again told, not shown) a few times that Scott loves his car, but there is no actual activity related to it to suggest this. Even what brought the two of them together as friends is never adequately explained: the backstory of their friendship is a slightly more elaborated version of "They met one time," and there's nothing that the friendship is about, nothing the characters have in common in either interests or circumstances, until the baby is conceived.

There are other problems, largely thematic, that I find frankly disturbing. Though the novel never uses the word "ex-gay" or its variants, it reads like a manifesto. The question of the genesis of homosexuality is not directly discussed, but both Scott and Megan share their life stories, and, what do you know: he was shy, his father abandoned the family, his mother smothered him, another boy suggested he might be gay and then he experimented with it; she never knew her father, she was chronically afraid of men her whole life because of the way they treated her mother. No acknowledgment of the problems of post-SOCE marriages, which are going to plague the titular marriage whether they identify with the ex-gay movement philosophically or not, is made at any point. The plot itself feels only partly as though it arises out of the characters, and more as if the author, confident (and perhaps laudably so) in the truth of Catholic moral teaching, has contrived a story that exhibits that truth, and suppressed any element of either character or plot that would interfere with that story's smooth development.

Perhaps worst are the a handful of discreet sex scenes between Scott and Megan. None contains the smallest suggestion that the characters feel anything but what a heterosexual couple would feel, either bodily or psychologically; the last of them (though I am quite confident that this thought never entered the author's mind) has an extremely weird feel to it, so much so that my initial reaction to reading it was to find it -- well, to be honest, it made me think of rape. The fact that "corrective rape" has been a conventional "cure" for homosexuality, and continues to be in certain parts of the world, contributes to the nauseating tinge of the passage -- all the more tragic in that, from its placing and content, it is clearly meant to be (no pun intended) a moving and emotion-laden climax to the novel.

The underlying problem, I suspect, is that the author wished to write an edifying novel. But a novelist must begin by wishing to write a good novel. If he does not do that, it will not be edifying either; indeed, it will constitute an embarrassment to its own aims. Shoddy craftsmanship is the almost inevitable consequence of such writing; it is to literature what Docetism is to the Incarnation: insincere and, therefore, artistically false and irrecoverable. Any edification that a novelist achieves will be brought forth by the general cast of his mind, not by dominating the story and its characters, as it were, by force. Dorothy Sayers, herself a devout Christian and an author with a firm grasp upon the theological nature of the creative process, explains this essential flaw, so common in idealistic authors of fiction:
A writer cannot create a character or express a thought which is not in his own mind. (It will be remembered that we are dealing with an ideal writer; it is always possible for a man to put on paper sentiments and characteristics that are not sincere expressions of himself but merely derivative. Even then, though the manufactured stereotype betrays itself by its falsity, it remains a true expression of an intrinsic spiritual falsity within the writer.)  ... For if a character becomes merely a mouthpiece of the author, he ceases to be a character, and is no longer a living creation. Still more, if all the characters speak with their author's voice, the whole work loses its reality, and with it, its power. ... Incidentally, this is the weakness of most "edifying" or "propaganda" literature. The Energy is active only in one part of the whole, and in consequence the wholeness is destroyed and the Power diminished. You cannot, in fact give God His due without giving the devil his due also.**
There is, sadly, a great deal more to be said about the book's problems; but this has already become unmanageably long, so I will conclude my critical portion here.

Is It Worth Reading?

If you are gay, I beg you not to read this. I would be personally embarrassed as a Catholic for your impression of us to be affected by this.

If you are a Christian who doesn't know any gay people very well, I again advise against reading this book. It has no real knowledge of LGBT people or culture to offer you. As an alternative, if you want to get to know some queer-identifying people, I suggest watching a movie by a gay filmmaker, reading a book by a transgender author, looking at paintings by a lesbian artist, or even, if all else fails, talking to us.

It's a cruel thing to say, but the only thing I could honestly recommend this book for is how not to think or talk about gay people. Its good intentions are plain enough; but they are not enough -- they do not make a good novel. And it is by its own goodness as a piece of art, not by its capacity to be used as a proof-text volume for Catholic moral teaching, that a novel must be judged. If Jesus made tables as a carpenter, we may be sure that He made them with great holiness; but we may be equally sure that He was, for that very reason, chiefly concerned to make a good table. Piety is not a substitute for craftsmanship, and to exchange the two corrupts them both.

*In saying that this grossly homophobic lens seems to be Thomas' perspective, I don't wish to take away his character. There are such things as failures of communication, and I'd be very sorry to believe that he espouses half the opinions that an unfriendly reading of his novel would suggest. What I am saying is that, taken as any ordinary reader that is not personally acquainted with him is likely to take it, it comes across as being shockingly bigoted. I would far rather attribute this to ignorance than malice, and see no special reason to suppose the latter.

**The Mind of the Maker, pp. 39-41. Sayers uses a trinity of terms, Idea, Energy, and Power, in specialized senses in this book: the Idea is the fundamental concept of the artistic work (of whatever kind); the Energy is the creative activity -- meaning not only the act of putting words onto paper, but the craftsmanship and the decisions that take place under the condition of revealing the Idea; and the Power is the interaction of the book with its audience: first with the original author, and then with everyone who reads it. The three are directly analogous to the Divine Persons of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and the correspondence between the activity of artistic creation and the original Creation by the Holy Trinity, in both architect and the things made, is the chief theme of The Mind of the Maker. I would strongly recommend this book to anyone who wishes to study either the creative process or the Trinity.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Five Quick Takes


My current series has been getting difficult to write lately (turns out struggling with faith is hard -- who knew?), so I'm taking a bit of a breather before I continue. Since today is Michælmas -- the Feast of Saints Michæl, Gabriel, and Raphæl the Archangels, and therefore of one of my special patrons -- it seems like a fitting day to take off, and I have done.

Michælmas is rather special to me as an Anglican Use Catholic. Our calendar preserves a lot of elements that are no longer observed in the normal Roman Rite, or whose importance has been reduced; the Octave of Pentecost is one (Pentecost observed over a span of eight days instead of one, like Easter and Christmas), and this is another. The veneration of the angels doesn't seem to hold the same stature in Catholic spirituality that it once did, unless my observation is incomplete. I find the whole doctrine of angels fascinating, especially as a fan of both magical realism and sci-fi; the Second Choir seem especially apt to that kind of exploration (and C. S. Lewis essentially did just that in much of the Cosmic Trilogy): the Dominations who direct the Virtues, the Virtues who govern natural forces and bodies, and the Powers who observe and direct human history, all seem to me eminently suited to be understood, in terms of fiction, along the lines of transdimensional intelligences whose functions literally structure and energize the universe. Tell me that's not pretty cool.

They always seem to want to give him kinda girly hair for some reason, but still.
Michael the Archangel, Guido Reni, 1636.

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I think that, among American believers today, probably the most aggravating part of being gay is the way people turn you into a mascot.

Honestly this just encourages me. A clear grasp of fundamentals is the first step in not being a raving dumbass, after all.

Some -- many -- don't, of course. But whether you're being rebuked for other people's sins, or fêted for imagined victory over sins that still plague you, all based exclusively on whose "side" you are perceived to be on, it's deeply disrespectful. It treats you as the symbol of a people-group, usually in such a way as to (seemingly) absolve the person thus using you of having to actually get to know gay people, or Catholics, or gay Catholics, or Side B folks, in general. And, not infrequently, they show no interest in actually getting to know you in particular either. A lot of Catholics talk about the need not to reduce people to a label but rather to respect their holistic human identity, but frankly, I feel far more dehumanized by being treated as an example than I do by a guy who isn't interested in anything but my body -- and whom I can't really judge in the first place.

It makes for a lot of mixed signals, too. I particularly feel this way dealing with Catholic groups and people who are opposed, even hostile, to coming out of the closet -- yet will say in practically the same breath that the Church needs people to model chastity. So, just don't let on that your example could be in some way relevant to the people you're (apparently) a role model for, is the desideratum?

You hide your face magnificently! Everyone will relate to the anonymous and therefore unverifiable
life you're "sharing"! Next up: How to speak so quietly that people give up trying to talk with you!

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A huge mass of books were available at my parish yesterday after the liturgy -- from where, I don't know -- but they formed some rather intriguing combinations. Along with such excellent Anglo-Catholic works as Creed or Chaos? and The Mind of the Maker (both by the brilliant Dorothy Sayers) and a large quantity of prayer books, were the comparatively thematically irrelevant, like Cyrano de Bergerac, and the quite unexpected, like The Vampire Armand. It makes me wonder what people going through my library would think, seeing everything from The Prophet to Assuming the Position on one shelf. If, as some postmodern authors say, books talk among themselves, I imagine that library was a novel experience for them all.

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Another reason the problem of suffering has got me more worn out than usual is that, last month, I read the justly famous novel Silence, by the Japanese Catholic author Shūsaku Endō. It's a magnificent, and at the same time a brutal, read. In barely fictionalized terms (based on and incorporating several historical figures), it depicts the persecution of the Church in Japan in the seventeenth century. 

Kanagawa-oki nami-ura ("The Great Wave off Kanagawa"), part of the Thirty-Six
Views of Mount Fuji woodblock series, by Katsushika Hokusai, composed around 1830.

Christianity had been well-received at first, when St Francis Xavier visited the island nation in the latter half of the sixteenth century; indeed, he said that they were some of the finest people he had yet encountered, both in general and in terms of receptivity to the gospel. But imperialistic rumblings from the European Catholic powers, combined with increasing nationalism (and corresponding centralizing and xenophobic trends) under the Tokugawa shogunate, led the Japanese government to outlaw the faith, and to go on to carry out one of the most cruel and effective campaigns of religious extermination the Church has ever seen in her history. Two things that made it so effective were that it focused upon priests more than ordinary believers, knowing them to be the linchpin of the operation, and that it directed its efforts less toward martyrong people -- they found out early on that that was received as a glorious victory by the Catholics -- than towards making them apostatize, breaking the spirit of the infant Japanese Church and tearing up the roots it had formed.

You can't do that to Christianity of course; and, I would argue, you can't do that to the Japanese, either. Deprived of priests for more than two hundred years, forced to trample upon icons of Christ and the Virgin to absolve themselves of suspicion, the Japanese Catholics maintained the faith in secret: passing on the teachings, reciting the prayers, and living in hope for the day when, they said, the fathers would return. And return they did: in the middle of the nineteenth century, when Japan was reopened and Christianity was legalized, the kakure Kirishitan or "hidden Christians" emerged, thirty thousand of them, with their prayers preserving fragments of the Latin and Portuguese the first missionaries had taught them, still clutching scraps of cassocks and rosaries kept safe from the authorities for generations; nearly all were received once again into the heart of the Catholic Church. It calls to mind Tolkien's stirring words from the tale of Eärendil in The Silmarillion: "Hail, the looked for that cometh at unawares, the longed for that cometh beyond hope!"

Mosaic of the Virgin and Child, in the Church of the 
Annunciation in Nazareth, donated by Japanese Catholics.

It's one of the most beautiful and astonishing stories in history, in my opinion. But Endō's novel is about the tragic beginning, rather than the eucatastrophic ending. It details the story of one priest, Sebastian Rodrigues, who has secretly entered Japan to sustain the Christians, and is struggling with his incomprehension in the face of God's silence, His inaction, while His children are suffering so mercilessly. Part of this is expressed in one of the "hard sayings" that is easy to miss: Jesus' words to Judas before the betrayal, "What you do, do quickly." That He should urge Judas on in this, one of the worst sins in history, is an intolerable thought to Father Rodrigues and ... ah, you have to read it.

Martin Scorsese has announced his intention to adapt Silence for the silver screen. If they fuck this up, I may just spontaneously combust, out of pure artistic wrath, right there in the theater.

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I still haven't come up with a good reward for my patrons -- thank you all, by the way, I truly appreciate your generosity to me -- and I only have till the first before I start feeling bad. (Your cards were not charged for August, owing to a mistake I'd made in the set-up, which is why there was no reward this month.) I wish I could draw like Edward Gorey and make fun little gay Catholic anarchist pictures of things, in the style of The Gashlycrumb Tinies, but my odds of managing to do that between today and Wednesday seem, eh, slim. Well. I'll think of something.

A is for AMY who fell down the stairs
B is for BASIL assaulted by bears
C is for CLARA who wasted away
D is for DESMOND thrown out of a sleigh ...