Everything here is just like a simile, and almost completely alliterative.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Floating Statues

Does anyone know what is up with the floating statues? This is a serious question. Quite a few churches I have seen recently have statues of the saints that are wall-mounted well above the heads of worshippers. I'm not sure what the purpose of this is, but its effect can be. . . disturbing. Take a look at St. Etheldreda's in London:

The church is 13th century, but the statues are recent: a series of the English martyrs, and they appear very lovely and all, but I'm pretty sure it would scare the living pee out of me to try to pray in there, with all those statues staring down goggly-eyes at me. But, hey, I understand why they're there -- St. Etheldreda is a pretty remarkable place, since it's the only pre-Reformation church in England that has been returned to the Catholic Church (or, you know, handed over to the bloody Papists, depending on your point of view) so it seems understandable that they would want to connect St. Etheldreda's with the larger story of the Catholic Church in England and its persecution, right? And how better to do that than by honoring the English martyrs for Catholicism, brave men and women like Thomas More and John Forest and Anne Line and Swithin Wells and Margaret Ward and holychristIthinkit'slookingatmesweetmotherofgodmakeitstop.

They probably just didn't have enough space on the ground, is all. I'm sure that's it.

But then there's Holy Spirit, right here in Atlanta. Aw, pretty! A little stark, as these things go, but hey, compared to most of the godawful shit that gets cranked out by the Ugly Catholic Church Factory, this at least is recognizable as a church and not a converted gymnasium, or a lunar landing module. It's still got one of the weirdest and most disconcerting features of modern church architecture, which is the mildly sloping floor, though this one happens to be marble. And it's even got. . . wait, no, I think I see it, right up in the corner there! It's a statue! And I think it's. . .  well, hang on, if I squint I can probably see who it is.

Moving on to St. Michael the Archangel, right up the road from me in Woodstock:

Here we've moved beyond interesting decorative choice to frank hazard. Should St. Therese of Lisiuex on the left there take a header off her pedestal, she would smash open a parishioner's skull. This seems like the sort of thing that requires a separate insurance rider, at the very least.

The guy on the left is clearly not a very good Catholic. 
So what is it, exactly, that these churches are afraid will happen if statues are placed within reach -- or at least eye level -- of their parishioners? It's obvious: they're terrified that people will act as Catholics have always tended to act around physical representations of the saints, and render them honor. They might pray in front of them. They might kneel. They might light candles. (It's not an accident that none of these statues, in any of these churches, have a candlestand or kneeler anywhere near them.) And since the 1970s, the Catholic Church has been obsessively, neurotically terrified that something, anything, will pull focus from the altar. It's why the sanctuaries of modern churches look like a gutted spaceship, and it's why even though traditional trappings have begun to creep back into the churches (because it's really super incredibly depressing to worship in a spaceship, it turns out) there is still this concern to keep images far away from the dirty hands of the people, who might do icky things like slobber over them.

So the two principles here seem to be that a) people are stupid and distractible, and if you give them anything shiny to look at they will completely forget all about Jesus and the Eucharist and that whole bedrock of their faith thing in order to lick St. Lucy's glistening eyeballs, and b) Catholic tradition is distasteful and embarrassing. These architects and ecclesiastical designers don't actually like people, and they don't actually like their religion. And when both those things are true, this is what you build:

Of course, this is the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. It's the pet project of Roger Cardinal Mahony,* who is one of the guys who will be voting for the next Pope. You might remember him as the Cardinal who was just bitchslapped by his successor, Archbishop Gomez, for actively protecting child-raping priests, and shuffling them around to other parishes where they could, hey what do you know, rape more children.

If there is any justice, Cardinal Mahony will spend his eternity in hell having an unlubricated object shaped like this cathedral rammed repeatedly up his backside. Though I guess that's for God to decide. So maybe the good Cardinal could just stand under one of those statues in a high wind, or something.

*And while I'm on the subject, screw you if you want to make the child-rape scandal about homosexuality, or closeting, or celibacy, because there are child rapers everywhere and it's not really clear that they're thicker on the ground in the Catholic Church than anywhere else. What is thick on the ground are the enablers, and all the hundreds -- hundreds -- of men who decided that the honor and glory of the Church was worth more than the tears of a single child, and for that may they be forever damned, and that, that, is the scandal and not the sad sordid revoltingly common crime of an adult who forces his penis down the mouth of a weeping child, because that's the sort of shit we do all the time, just like breathing, and how and why God does not obliterate us off the face of the fucking universe with a flick of his finger I have no idea. Where the Church got creative with that shit was where it decided that since the Church was the Body of Christ, the literal presence of God on earth, the Church had to be protected at all times from the assaults of, you know, seven-year-olds. Because really, and who are we kidding here, who is more important: God, or some snot-nosed kid? I ask you.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

God is the Womb of the World, and it's that time of the month.

I was reading Israeli Knesset Member Ruth Calderon's remarkable speech earlier today (which you should totally go and read right now) in which she reminds her audience that the Hebrew word for womb, rechem, becomes the root of the Aramaic word for love: rechumei. Those who know Hebrew will also recognize this R-H-M root in the word for mercy, rachamim. The same root appears in the Arabic, in the opening words of the first sura of the Quran, where God is described as rachmani, and rachim -- most gracious, most merciful. So in Semitic languages, the word that describes the most intimate function of womanhood comes to mean love itself, and mercy, and the quality of God that constantly forgives, understands, and sees with compassion.

Compare this (as Dr. Calderon points out) with the Greek word for womb, hysteros. What does this word give us? Hysteria. The word most profundly connected with womanhood gives us a word used to mean mindless, manic emotionalism. The roots of misogyny in Western culture are deep, so deep that we often fall into the error of thinking misogyny is ineradicable or worse, inevitable. A historian friend of mine once said that it was hard for her not to yield to despair, because in many cultures she had studied, race was a plastic concept, and there were in fact many in which racial discrimination was rare or unknown, but in every single culture she had studied, throughout every time period, sexism was present: our original sin, humanity's one incurable hatred. And yet that tantalizing rechem holds out another possibility, a world where hatred can be untwisted into respect.

I think this linguistic tug in opposite directions has enormous relevance for Christian history, built as it is on the bridge between Semitic and Greek understandings of the world. I think this opposition holds great promise, too. For if we say that Christianity is an essentially Semitic cult wrapped in Greek dressings, we are saying that the denigration of women common to Greek thought is not, in fact, native to Christianity, but is an uneasy import.

There's a prayer that devout Jews say every morning, a series of blessings in which God is thanked for clothing the naked, for straightening the bent, for opening the eyes of the blind. Blessed be God, who has made me Jewish; Blessed be God, who has not made me a slave. And then comes the kicker: Blessed be God, who has not made me a woman. (Yeah, chew on that one.) And what do women pray, while the menfolk are praying this terrifyingly offensive prayer? "Blessed be God, who has made me according to his will." But, see, here's the thing. There is an old tradition that explains the prayers thus: men thank God for their greater challenges, and for the opportunity to prove themselves, since they were born as men, and thus far from the will of God, whereas women thank God for creating them closer to his will, since women are, as everyone knows, naturally closer to the Divine nature. Sure, it's easy to dismiss this as a gloss on patriarchy, but what a gloss. It's almost impossible to imagine anyone but far-left feminist theologians saying something like that, in the Christian tradition. And yet this is Orthodox Judaism, not normally known for being all squishy when it comes to women's equality. I mean, women are literally back-of-the-bus in the traditional parts of the Jewish world. . . and yet this. 

Greek linguistic misogyny is the new wine poured into the old Semitic wineskin, and it won't work: indeed, it hasn't worked. As far back as the fourth century of the Christian era, sternly misogynistic theologians were trying to write Mary out of salvation history by turning the Incarnation into an entirely male affair, and Mary into a pliable, irrelevant vessel. But it didn't work: the end was the proclamation of Mary as Mother of God, and her enshrining at the center of Christian faith and practice. Christologists for over 1600 years have understood that to adequately explain the nature of Jesus is to begin with his mother, and that you cannot have one without the other.

Despite that, the campaign to marginalize women and their spiritual gifts has not let up, and it seems it never will, in our particular corner of the world. But to no final avail, because Av HaRachamim, Father of Mercy, Womb Father, is the older idea of the Divine that lies under and behind our prim and narrow words, and the Womb of the Universe will in the end not be mocked by our small constraints and petty hatreds. The gates of hell shall not prevail.

Here, have a Salve Regina to wash down all that word study, sung by some kick-ass female voices. (I mean they literally can kick your ass, because they're Dominican nuns, which means after they kick your ass and tie you up they will explicate for you the reasoning behind your ass-kicking, and then counter-argue their own explication, while you are still picking your teeth off the floor.)

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Too White For This One

I have a friend who wants me to write about Emory University President James Wagner and his gaffe this week, when he wrote about the three-fifths compromise as an example of two sides coming together to find common ground -- and not as, you know, an example of two sides coming together to define black people as three-fifths of a human being. This immediately became something of a meme, at least in Atlanta's scholarly community, where people spat their lattes when they read Wagner's column in Emory Magazine.

If you liked that, then you're going to love next month's "Warsaw Ghetto rationing as an example of sensible austerity." No? What about "Trail of Tears as an example of low-carbon impact travel?" 

But anyway, my friend wants me to write about this, and I'm not gonna. I'm not gonna because I think a whole blog post about how someone is an insensitive asshole would be kind of boring, but also because, well, I'm kind of a white chick. Objectively, I can recognize that what Wagner said was shocking, but I can't feel it viscerally. I'm not physically connected to that pain. I don't get the righteous privilege of offense at Wagner's statement, because I didn't grow up knowing that my ancestors, my own great-grandparents maybe, had been regarded as sub-human not just by a few bigots and ignoramuses, but by an entire country that had gone to all the trouble to enshrine that belief in their Constitution. (How much of a person are they, exactly? Two-thirds? Nah, that seems like a little much. Better shave a little off the top there, make it three-fifths.)

One of the things I always used to tell student writers was that speakers matter. Context matters. Words are not random missiles fired off into dimensionless space, and they don't arrive buried in our backyard like golden plates for us to interpret wearing our own special magic goggles. (Yes, a Mormon joke, get over it. Textualists get to make fun of Mormons like scientists get to make fun of creationists.)

Context matters. The classic example of how boggling this is to adolescents is when one of their black friends uses the n-word. How come I'm a bigot if I use that word, but he can say it all he wants? they ask resentfully. The idea that meaning can depend on who is speaking, and not just on what is said, is a hard one for them (and for many adults, if we're being honest.) If I address a middle-aged black man as "boy," that word carries instant freight: the hard tonnage of history, and the persistent infantilization of black men by white people. But if that middle-aged black man's grandfather calls him "boy," those same three letters mean something completely different. A term of contempt becomes a term of endearment.

The corollary to this principle is that hearers matter, just as much as speakers. As a woman, I'm always going to hear nuances and resonances of sexism that a man might not hear -- not because he's a jerk, but just because he hasn't had the lived experience of sexism that a woman has. Ask him if a given statement is sexist, and he might shrug and say in all honesty, I dunno, seems all right to me, while the woman next to him has steam shooting out her ears. Same thing with racial issues; I'm never going to be able to hear what a black person might hear, and all my angst-ridden liberal sympathies won't make it so.

A basic rule of life: if you're gay, you get to decide what's homophobic and what's not, and I'm not going to argue back at you how no, you just don't understand. Jews get to say what's antisemitic and what's not, and disabled persons get to decide whether my cripple joke was super funny or just offensive. (For the record I don't have a cripple joke.) The rule is that the group in question has a right to define how they are spoken of, and this code of linguistic deference has another, older name: courtesy. IT'S FUCKING COURTESY, DOUCHEBAGS.

So I'm not going to tell you why what Wagner said was ass-deep stupid. I don't get to tell you that he spoke from the kind of knee-jerk white privilege that finds other people's pain terribly remote, and oh-so historically interesting, don't you see. I don't get to tell you that his words reduced black people to the objects rather than the actors of history, or made them into fascinating little chess pieces flicked about by the finger of dispassionate white folks working out their larger and much more important political compromises.

I don't get to say any of that, because it's not mine, and because black people are saying all that this week better than I could anyway, and you should be reading them on this issue, not me.

So there you go: 800 words, all to tell you how I'm not going to talk about it. (Insert sexist joke here.)