Saturday, August 29, 2009

Moby Dick, Homoeroticism, and God

Earlier this summer, I finished Melville’s epic concerned with a bunch of men in tight-sailor outfits, women-less and bunk-mates for 3 years at the sea, desperately searching the 139.5 million square miles of ocean for one maniacal leviathan (a leviathan with the name of “Dick the sperm whale,” who spouts "white foam"), at the beck and call of one captain who, compensating for the lose of a leg (or is he compensating for something else?), wants nothing more than to “plunge” his “harpoon” into back of this creature. I’m really not sure WHERE people find the homoerotic subtexts. Crazy homophobes, in my opinion.

I was pretty surprised by a few aspects of the novel: the complete lack of characterization; the 40% of the novel used to painstakingly explain the physicality, physiognomy, and psychology of the whale; and the rather quick ending. Despite all of this --- and despite my longing to forever mock the novel I had finally actually read --- I ended up really appreciating, and liking, it.

One of the things I was looking for throughout my read was the significance of the white whale. Despite Melville protestations that “so ignorant are most landsmen … they might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory," the book would be at the very best a “good fish tale” if there were not multiple layers of meaning to this text --- and there definitely are. What seemed to continually suit the questions I posed was the idea that Moby Dick was a literary representation of God.

By “God,” I mean the Enlightenment’s Deist God: the God Melville would be very familiar with. This is a non-personal, unspeaking creator: a God who is not necessarily involved in people’s day-to-day life, but who seems to be responsible for the way the world works, physical science, birth and death, deformities, etc.

At sea, many men lost their lives; others, like Ahab, lost limbs to the elements and whales themselves. There seems to be no reason or rhythm to who was killed, maimed, or left with widowed. Looking on with the Deist viewpoint, you could only point to or ask the inscrutable God as a possible answer. But none are sure whether or not this God, like Moby Dick, is intelligent, at least in a human sense. So often, Melville focuses on the maniacal-ness of the whale, his real attempts to destroy and maim, even if they are sporadic, nonsensical, and unrelated to people’s moral lives, i.e. people who were “bad” weren’t the only ones getting their legs eaten. Despite Melville’s continued attempts to define Moby as intending to wreck havoc, he is forced again and again to reflect on the very real possibility that this whale is not consciously evil or destructive: he is simply the most powerful whale in the ocean.

The questioning Deist (or the non-Deist) finds little answers to the evil found in the world: the physically deformed, the mentally ill, the widowed wife. Life, death, pain, suffering, and joy are distributed without explanation, preference, or reasonable cause. Is it that God is evil and maniacal, or is it that He doesn’t make sense to us humans? Is He inflicting pain on us in order to be malevolent, or is there no logical answer to His doings? According the Ahab and Melville, either answer demands the same response: the desire to rid the world of this Being in Ahab’s case; or, in Melville’s case, the literary exploiting of His maniacal/unreasoning-ness. The novel’s end says a lot about the possibility of either action, but I don’t want to ruin it for anyone.

Melville’s life and religious affiliation fit neatly within this reading. First, he was an alcoholic, enjoyed a poor and dysfunctional marriage, had one son commit suicide and another die in his lifetime, found a literary world turned away from him by the time he wrote his epic, and was incredibly close with penury throughout his entire life. If he was religiously affiliated at all, he attended some Unitarian services, but almost solely on account of his wife; he spoke disparagingly of such encounters. (Original Unitarianism was closely liked with Deism.)

Perhaps Moby was the conscious or unconscious manifestation of the sort of God Melville was most closely acquainted with --- the God Melville would have wanted to rebel against, if he believed in it, for the sake of his miserable life, marriage, monetary position, and offspring.

At another point, I want to connect Moby Dick with JPII’s Theology of the Body. That will be chapter 2…

Thursday, August 27, 2009

A Brief (Marxist) Piece About Class Differences

I was recently talking with a young man who grew up in the upper-middle class. He was relating to me a conversation he had recently with a woman who grew up in the upper class. He was amazed by this woman’s ways of thinking, her attitudes of thought. She didn’t understand the reality of many things that had been and still were part of his life: saving up money for a car, not always having money to buy things, not getting everything you wanted for Christmas, picking a restaurant partially based on its price range, etc. Likewise, she lived in a world of other realities, where different things were normal: owning 2-3 homes, randomly or impulsively buying a $3 million yacht, BMWs as presents, etc. The young man from the upper-middle class was baffled, since this woman seriously “didn’t understand what real life was like. I mean, it’s not as if she’s snotty; she’s just so out of touch with reality.”

At that moment, it suddenly hit me: If there seemed an almost insurmountable reality difference between upper-middle class and upper class, then what about between upper-middle class and middle class? Or lower-middle class? Or lower class? As someone who grew up in (I think) middle or upper-middle class, how much is there about the life and reality of the lower class that I don’t understand? Now, I “think” I can understand it, like I can understand not always having the surety of enough money for dinner. But do I really understand it?

Just as the young woman above could logically grasp the idea of saving up money to buy a car, her discussion of the matter revealed her inability to grasp the reality of it. And even if she could glimpse a semi-true understanding of it, she continued to live her life in her little “bubble.” This new, brief knowledge didn’t change the way she viewed economics, politics, etc. Her personal views of so many things --- almost all things (yes, I’m close to sounding Marxist here) --- are shaped by her material and economic setting.

I think this is true for all of us. I’m no Marxist, but I strongly hold that there are deep truths (truths with a small “t”) in certain aspects of its foundational philosophy. So much of the way we think and act, so much of our strongly held beliefs and values, are bound up in our material setting: and a major part of this setting is our class and economic standing.

I challenge myself to “walk in others’ shoes,” and not simply as a trite mind experience, but in a deep and powerful attempt to grasp the reality that is their own. Like we’ve said a lot, it’s not as if we can find an objective, outside perspective --- at least not anywhere besides the truth preached by Mother Church. But despite the shortcomings of our attempts, we can all look toward the common good as a way to break out of our subjective, material, cultural situations --- the common good as it applies to our family, friends, country, and world.

P.S. When it comes to our basic inability to see fully grasp each others’ realities, it is most often the poor that come out the worst, for the rich have the most economic, political, medical, martial, and legislative power. I think this is why good Marxist criticism often has a ring of social justice to it.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Thoughts on Music

[The following is part of an email to a friend. It was preceded by a discussion in which we disagreed. I thought I'd put it up here to see what others thought. As usual, any and all comments are appreciated. By the way, the email was titled "Sorry for the length..." You'll see why in a second.]


  1. IMPORTANT POINT: To say that some action, event, or thought universally detracts from everyone’s relationship with God is to say that action, event, or thought is sinful. This is what sin is: a rupturing of, in a minor or major way, one’s relationship with God.
  2. The Catholic Church, though Scriptures, Tradition, and the Magisterium, has declared certain actions, etc. as sinful.
    1. i.e. Choosing to murder someone, no matter the subjective or cultural situation, is always wrong, since it always ruptures a person’s relationship with God.
  3. However, when we begin to take other events, actions, or thoughts that the Church has not declared as sins, and to assign them the definition of sin, we are dealing with one of two things:
    1. actions that are specific to contemporary times, i.e. driving your car too fast or cyber bullying: the Counsel of Nicea could not deal with these; or
    2. subjectively creating new form of moralities. We are imposing ethical standards that are our own. At the very least, this is wrong; on another level, we are drifting from our Catholic faith; and on a different level, we are being bad evangelists.
  4. This is exactly what you are doing when you say that Metallica always affects in a negative way a person’s relationship with God.
    1. We could get angry or at least fed up, and rightfully so, at a Catholic who says, “Well, the Church says that’s a sin, but I don’t think so. It’s fine for me; it doesn’t adversely affect my relationship with God.” In quite the reverse form, but equally incorrect, you’re saying, “Well the Church doesn’t say it’s a sin, but I think so. The Church doesn’t say it adversely affects everyone’s relationship with God, but I think it does.” The first speaker is a cafeteria Catholic; the second is either egotistical or poorly informed; either way, he is not acting Christianly, just as the first man is not.
  5. Please note: What I wrote above does NOT mean I can’t say: “Most people are negatively affected by Metallica;” “As a parent, I don’t want my kids listening to Metallica;” “Let’s make a commitment not to listen to Metallica;” “If so-and-so asked me if he should give up listening to Metallica, I would say yes,” etc. I’m not saying I agree with all of these statements; I’m simply saying that my earlier statements aren’t contradictory to these.
  6. Final theological point: You may say, “Well, you say Metallica is usually not good for people, and I say it always is. Isn’t that close? Aren’t we almost saying the same thing?” No, and one of my most important points is this: Our different conclusions, while they look similar, have extremely different ethical foundations; and this is important to note. Your premises, stated or not, are:
    1. A genre of music or a specific band can be labeled as intrinsically wrong/evil
    2. (and this is more incorrect) We can use our opinions of things to create ethical boundaries not supplied us by Mother Church. This is wrong.


  1. I firmly believe that you hold your values about music on good faith; I also firmly believe that they are based on insufficient theological foundations, developed on account of your social background (growing up in the POH and having a conversion in and through the POH), and a few examples that aren’t good enough for a real survey, let alone a moral belief.
  2. The specific affectation of music is relative and cultural. This simply means that music’s affect on us will have greatly to do with our cultural, social, and chronological background (living in the 90’s as opposed to the 20’s).
  3. IMPORTANT ANALOGY/EXAMPLE: The Beatles: When the Beatles came out, people probably had your exact same argument: “Hey, I’m not exactly saying the Beatles are “intrinsically evil,” but they CAN’T have a positive or neutral affect on anyone --- and that’s a fact.” And guess what? There may have seemed legitimate reasons to hold to this argument: in their mind, everyone who listened to the Beatles and went to concerts did drugs, rebelled, left the Church, etc. The argument above seemed reasonable. And perhaps it may have been best to not let kids listen to the Beatles (although I’m not saying I definitely believe that). However, this same music does not have the same affect on us today. Do you see the point? It isn’t the BEATLES MUSIC that is or was evil, wrong, or HAD to affect people’s relationship with God in an adverse way. Instead, it was the affect the music had on kids of the 60’s. We wouldn’t say that the Beatles music MUST affect people adversely, even if it may have seemed that way. From a distance --- 40-50 years --- we can now see that it was the culture, the times, the society, etc. that had the poor affect. And yes, it had to do with the music --- I agree with that --- but it was the “way it affected the people then” that is important, good, or bad --- not the music itself. [If you don’t like the Beatles example, replace them with Simon and Garfunkle or the Beach Boys, for I’m sure people had the same argument against them.]
  4. Music does have positive and negative effects; it is extremely powerful. However, the way to deal with it in a Christian way is NOT to label groups or genres as evil simply because it looks like that or we really think it is or it’s a strongly held opinion; as I said before, this act is in essence UN-Catholic. We can’t make up morality.
  5. [PS: Music doesn’t fit into our Christian sense of sin --- not exactly at least. Why? Because sin comes in the form of an action, thought, or failure to act; and one of these three things ruptures our relationship with God; and it is this rupture that is evil. Therefore, music can’t be evil in and of itself. It is the act of listening to it that can be evil; and listening to it is evil only insofar as it ruptures our relationship with God.]


  1. Below are three examples. Please note that my examples don’t PROVE my argument --- just as opposing examples don’t disprove me. They are here simply to show you that my rather abstract points above make some practical sense in the world.
  2. Example 1: Jimmy from Florida. Jimmy was a sophomore at FSU; he had had a deep conversation to Christ his freshmen year. When I met him, he was developing his prayer life, going to Mass daily, etc. I remember coming home from a Spirit Night with him in his car. He threw the radio on, blasting some pretty hard music. My initial instinct was to judge or question him, thinking in my mind, “Wow, I guess he isn’t too converted yet. In time, in time…” I was extremely convicted later that I had it wrong. At the moment in his personal walk with Christ, the music he was listening to was NOT rupturing his relationship with God, despite the fact that when I heard the specific kind of music I automatically thought of druggies, prostitutes, and Satanists. As Jimmy grew spiritually that year, he ended up telling me he felt convicted to not listen to as much music. As his relationship with God changed, so did his relationship with the world. He felt called to give up some of his music, but in the same way that Tom Appert said God might call him to give up classical music. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with either; there’s nothing universally negative about either. It’s about a person’s walk with Christ.
  3. Example 2: Miller. I lived with Miller for a year. Now Miller likes some heavy crap. Without ever putting the stuff on myself, I got a decent dose of stuff WAY heavier than Metallica. Do I think it was good for Miller? That’s irrelevant, and I hope you understand that. My point is elsewhere. For me, Metallica used to raise in me scenes of rebellion, drugs, sex, violence, etc. Now, quite frankly, a lot of it seems trite, silly, cute, twangy, and immature. It doesn’t hold those long held feelings like it used to. What’s my point? Once again, it’s how the music affects you that is important, and how it affects you has to do with every single person. If I run into a Metallica song on the radio, I don’t always leave it on; but at times I do. Do I listen to much of it? Hardly any. But that’s because I feel the Lord has called me to other things, in the same way that 5 years down the road He may ask me to give up some of the music I listen to now. But I can listen to a song on the radio and enjoy it; bottom line. It’s as if we that grew up and had conversions in and through the POH have some negative nostalgia about the sound of Metallica and like bands. But that’s not objective or universal; and it won’t always last.
  4. Example 3: My Mom. Unlike your family, we talked a lot of the YA rules out, a major one being music. My Mom always witnessed to us. She told us that she had a conversion and continued listening to Simon and Garfunkle (S&G). At one point, she realized that the music was making her sad, and her sadness was not a sadness that was bringing her towards God. Even before she met the POH, she gave up S&G. At that moment, the community’s rule made absolute sense. I can’t blame her one bit for thinking it was absolutely true. However, even before the POH revamped their teaching, my Mom came to her own, newer conclusion. She realized that S&G wasn’t wrong in itself; it wasn’t wrong for her to listen to it. Earlier, it probably helped her relationship with God to give it up entirely, but that was a specific moment. Now, she doesn’t listen to S&G all the time; I’m not even sure she has a CD. But she will ask us to turn it up if we’re listening to it; and she even has her favorite S&G song as a ringer. To her, the POH’s revamping, once again, made complete sense. It wasn’t extremely unreasonably for her to claim S&G was intrinsically wrong; but at the same time, she realized it had no theological foundation; last, she realized it didn’t completely make sense, at least once she was in a different situation and life-state.
  5. I share these examples with you to counter your examples. Remember, examples don’t prove anything; they simply help convince people that certain abstract principles make sense in practical life. I urge you to consider these examples whenever you consider the few you cling to so strongly.


  1. I hope you don’t take this the wrong way. Sometimes I’m bitter in speech or writing. I don’t intend to be. This is simply a topic that I have thought and prayed on a lot. It got on my nerves that someone from the younger generation still wanted to label non-objective things with objective labels: “always wrong,” or “always harmful,” etc. I understand that some of the older generation will never be convinced; but I’m very disheartened if those of the younger generation can’t.
  2. Feel free to respond. However, if you do, please don’t simply counter with other examples. You really need to get at the heart of the theological battle at hand (see points 3-6).
  3. Please don’t take my next and last point as a snide criticism of the community. I have learned to love Christ through the POH. The POH has more men and women that love and live for God than I have ever seen. And I believe in the POH. It is my love for the POH that leads me to my last point.
  4. When it comes down to it, we need to learn from our mistakes. The community has in the past made very objective claims about non-objective things: “It’s wrong for a boy to wear shorts.” Music, while something that should always be discussed and monitored, still falls under this tendency of going outside of our ethical bounds for the sake of keeping the faith strong. However, at the end of the day, if you’re out of your ethical bounds, you’ve drifted from the faith.

In Christ,


PS At a different time, we can discuss why the POH’s teaching came about; there are plenty of cultural reasons for its inception and people’s cleaving to it.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Simple Views of Living the Christian Life

The modern world wants us to see Christianity – and living the Christian life – as something it isn’t. I think that Christians often succumb to this pressure; I know I do. It is the power of an overwhelming force, for we don’t live in a Christian world. At a certain point, it is too much to constantly debunk the false definitions, even to ourselves; at a certain point, it is too hard to fight the undertow.

A common misconception of the Christian life that I find myself accepting too often is that Christianity is simply a set of rules and laws, a list of do’s and don’ts. When I want to see if I am living a “good, authentic Christian life,” I look to see if there is anything that I do that is contrary to God’s laws, or if there is anything I have omitted that is necessary to God’s laws. If “I’m good” according to this litmus test, I’m free to feel no guilt.

It isn’t as if this test is wrong or un-Christian; but it’s simply incomplete, like saying football is concerned with kicking. Yes, this is true – but it doesn’t catch a real sense of the sport.

The Christian life is about recognizing that everything in my life – career, time, money, relationships, etc – are all God’s, not mine. I cannot claim one as my own. Every single aspect of my life needs to be ordered towards giving glory to God. The earlier test makes the Christian life simply a set of rules: if I’m not breaking any of them, I’m good to go. But the Christian life IS life; everything needs to be ordered toward humbling myself before my creator, loving others, and bringing Christ to others.

Christianity as a set of laws is more than a small misconception easily fixed. First, it is an extremely hard thing to fix; reordering your entire life when you’re not used to it is necessarily difficult. But second, and more important, looking at the Christian life this way alienates us from the true life-giving source of Christianity and true peace. It deadens the vitality of the Christianity. It is hard enough to pass a way of life along to a child; it is nearly impossible to pass along a set of rules. And this is especially true when the rules aren’t attached to “good, ol’ Catholic guilt.”

I fall often to this lie. I know I need to a) pray and b) try not to sin too much, especially big sins. I don’t give the Christian life too much thought if I’m fulfilling those two rules. However, my job, marriage, friendships, relationships family members, exercise, leisure, relaxation, etc. all must point to the reality that Christ created me, saved me, is constantly working in my life today, and seeks to spend eternity with me in Heaven.