Religion

The politics of spiritual warfare

If this election season seems unusually intense, it's because for the first time in my lifetime, abortion is on the ballot in a great many states.

The chance to implement a full range of options, from absolute permissiveness to total abolition has created unprecedented volatility.

Of course, the political parties have always had different positions on abortion.  The Democrats claimed they wanted it to be "safe, legal, and rare" while Republicans were generally Right to Life.

As it turns out, both were lying.  The Democrats were always maximalists, but had to hide that to get election and a great many Republicans claimed Right to Life positions to secure their flank during primary elections.

Thus we have the spectacle of GOP politicians who formerly penned columns demanding the immediate overturn of Roe v. Wade now lamenting its demise and urging caution.  As in so many other examples of intellectual betrayal, the giveaway is that these column never feature a long, winding and lucid account of how the author's views came to change in the manner of David Horowitz or the original Neocons.

The implied reason is that the author can't do it - it's hard to explain changing your mind from a position you never sincerely held.

In such times, then, how is one to vote?

Both parties now regard it the height of cleverness to reverse their positions once elected (usually in unison) and then to lock ranks against the public.   The logic is that if both parties go all-in, the public will have no alternative.

This works for a while, and then an insurgent gets in, promises to be different and...often does the same.

So is voting pointless?

No.  I think the most important use of the vote is where proposals and lesser offices are concerned, positions like school board and city council.  These are easier to influence and - in the event of a betrayal - they make recall elections more feasible and therefore effective as a deterrent.

But at the macro scale, there is some utility in simply spending the next few years firing every incumbent in sight.  In this, one must be patient, treating the body politic like a field overgrown with weeds and thorns.  One cannot transform it into productive agriculture all at once.  It will take several seasons to pull all the stumps and rocks, eradicate the weeds and shape it into productive land that produced good crops.

Put simply, politics is yet another theater in spiritual warfare.  It is not the most important.  Each of us is the crucial battleground for our own soul.  From there, the focus broadens to the family, the parish, the community, the region and so on.  To focus exclusively on politics is therefore to ignore the decisive point.

But to ignore it is to allow the Enemy the ability to constantly intervene everywhere down the line.  It is interesting the G.K. Chesterton is once again in the news, as his wisdom very much applies. 

Having more time to read, I think I shall dive deeper into his works.


Flesh + Blood - the nihilistic forerunner to Game of the Thrones

When I was young, I subscribed to the then-current notion that people who had a problem with sex and nudity in films were a bunch of joyless scolds and that in the more enlightened environment of the 1980s, people could enjoy the work of freely consenting adults to essentially prostitute themselves.

Since then, I've learned that in the entertainment world, "consent" is a rather elastic concept.  This predated the "me too" movement and was instead founded on my own experience of working in  photography, but the revelations of Hollywood depredations reinforced my sense that this was the norm, not the exception.

Put simply, directors are often weirdos, and they will use their power to coerce actors to do things that they would not normally do under the excuse of artistic expression.  Thus, even the "good" directors who never overtly operate a casting couch can still get their jollies by forcing a fetching young actress to perform a nude scene repeatedly until she gets it "right."

I was reminded of this when I re-watched Flesh + Blood, a hack-and-slash film from 1985 starring Rutger Hauer and Jennifer Jason Leigh (and fearing Bruno Kirby, which was a bit jarring).

It is a tale of revenge and romance set in Renaissance Italy (the title card says 1501) and it is one of those remarkable films where every single character is an awful person.  The least objectionable is Tom Burlinson's young prince, but he's hardly admirable.  The tale follows the misadventures of a gang of mercenaries and their camp followers as they make their way through war-torn Italy.

In the course of their work they are betrayed by their employer, but avenge themselves by stealing his son's (Burlingson's) fiancee, played by Leigh.  In another genre, Leigh's character would have been left unmolested and a hefty ransom demanded, however, that would deprive director Paul Verhoeven of the sordid pleasures of a very graphic gang rape, and we can't have that.

The entire film is grotesque, but in the environment when it was released, it was held to be lurid but insightful and an unflinching look at the period in question.  Whether that is true is arguable, but what is not arguable is that the sheer volume of graphic violence combined with nudity (yes, the two are almost always combined) tells one a lot more about the director than the story.

Again, as a young man, I didn't trouble to think about such things, and while I found the film a bit over the top, I enjoyed the period look (particularly armor) and the various oddball engineering ideas  shown in the film.

However, the story could have been told - and I believe better told - without extended sex scenes, which as an author I find dull to describe and as a viewer embarrassing to watch.

It is useful to recall that the Hays Code was put into place to prevent Hollywood from simply creating peep shows in order to boost attendance.  The result was a golden age of creativity and art.

Conversely, the collapse of the code has seen a steady degradation of entertainment to the point where what was now shocking is mundane.  In the age of streaming porn, peep shows lose their cinematic value.  Flesh + Blood was a product of a time before we reached that point and when "adult films" were hard to find and still carried a social stigma.

The emergence of Game of Thrones as a mainstream product shows that the aesthetic of Flesh + Blood lives on, but audiences now demand more than just the naughty bits to be satisfied.


Returning to the stadium

After a three-year hiatus, tomorrow I will join the remaining alumni and once more take the field in Spartan Stadium.

The reunion of 2019, so soon after my near-death experience, brought me profound spiritual healing.  I do not know how tomorrow will go, but I look forward to see the old sights and play the old songs once more.

Tradition is a powerful force in culture.  As Americans, we are less rooted than other societies, but we still feel its pull.  That is why we have our own unique rituals - largely secular, but mystical in their power to comfort us and create a sense of continuity.

The 2019 gathering marked the 150th anniversary of Michigan State Bands, and 900 seasoned musicians took the field in a major show of strength.  Tomorrow less than half of that will show up, no doubt in part because so many older people have succumbed to illness.

And yet the tradition continues, and another link is added to the chain because it was ever so.


The Spirituality of Ghostbusters

I recently watched Ghostbusters for the first time in a long time.  It has to have been at least 25 years since I had seen it, largely because it was so ubiquitous in my youth.  In addition to be a smash hit in the theater, it did heavy duty on the TV movie circuit and of course was a popular video rental for parties.

Don't get me started on the theme song.

At any rate, I was pleased to see that it holds up pretty well and being much older, I got some subtle jokes that evaded my younger sensibilities.

Of course, I also approach the subject matter of the film vastly differently than I did as a teenager, particularly after spending the last two years listening to the Lord of Spirits podcast.  Part of why I was willing to watch it again was that I wondered what Ghostbusters looks like through the spiritual lens.

Despite its nominal topic, the film presents a very secular version of the spirit realm.  The protagonists famously use mad science to capture and contain ghosts and it is the application of technology that "saves the world."

To be sure, religious people are seen praying for them, but that's part of the spectacle.  In the end, technology - not prayer - is decisive.

That being said, it is interesting that one of the assumptions of the film is that ancient gods can be real and inflict physical harm.  Since God has often various means to achieve His goals, having the Ghostbusters thwart Goser or Zuul or whoever could be seen as a dismissive wave on the part of the Almighty.

One of the key concepts of the Lord of Spirits is that the ancient gods were in fact real entities and that the sacrifices offered produced tangible results.  As a recent episode pointed out, the rise and fall of various cults is in part explained by the success of the people who worship them.  Wars between the various city-states and later empires were at the time seen as struggles of their gods as well.  The Trojan War was famously a contest that divided the Olympian gods, who repeatedly intervened.

In our modern secular worldview, we see gods as a purely cultural matter and in our contempt for our ancestors assume that the temples and rites were no more than superstition by ignorant savages.

However, as I've mentioned before, cause and effect are not a modern invention, and given the amazing sophistication of ancient metallurgy and architecture - that is, the stuff that has survived - it is the height of arrogance to assume we know more than they do.  In fact, I think we are far less logical, since many "rational" people rather irrationally refuse to consider even the possibility of the Unseen.

It's interesting that Ghostbusters also prefigures the later "ghost hunter" reality TV shows, which clearly seek a secular answer for a spiritual problem.   After I became more aware of the spiritual realm (and the fact that most if not all "ghosts" are likely demons), I asked my wife (who was an avid watcher for a while) how many of the shows were still on.  She replied that many of the first generation had stopped and that the cast had complained that "their work" tended to follow them home.

Well, yes.  Absent a "trap" and a containment field, mucking about looking for the Unseeing armed only with an voltage meter, shotgun microphone and a thermal camera is remarkably stupid.

If only they'd watched Ghostbusters, they'd have known better.

 

 


The end of an era

By itself, the death of the venerable Queen Elizabeth II is an unremarkable event.  She was 96 and her time on earth was obviously drawing to a close. 

Yet even I felt an emotional impact, and I think it came from the sense that everything is changing.  All of the institutions, sureties, traditions and beliefs that had endured from time immemorial are being cast aside. 

What was permissible last year is now radical, unacceptable, extreme.  Times of transition are always stressful, but what if one doesn't know where the transition ends?

The late queen also was one of the last living links to World War II.  She could still recall the seriousness required in those days, a seriousness now totally lacking amongst the ruling class.  They exist only to accrue wealth and win the news cycle.  What comes after their time is not their concern.

When they die, they consider the world to have ended.

If there is a lesson in her passing it is this: all things end except for God.  Nations and people can rise and fall, wax and wane, but the Almighty is all that is truly eternal.   Over the last couple of years I've stopped paying attention to human agents and found prayer to be my best comfort.

Even so, it is impossible to watch so much that was lovely fade away without a sense of sorrow.


Labor Day in a new perspective

When did the labor movement turn against its workers?  I don't know that one can name a fixed date, but there was a tipping point during my lifetime where the old concerns of wages, working conditions and societal health became secondary to unrelated cultural issues.

Indeed, the very values of working people became anathema to the leaders of the movement founded to help them.

Concurrently, the conservative movement - which had emphasized those cultural and religious concerns - was more interesting in maximizing corporate profit than anything else.

The Dobbs decision was particularly illuminating in the latter respect.  It was a triumph of justice nearly 50 years in the making, yet many alleged conservatives issues statements that could have been written by Planned Parenthood donors (not that we can rule that out).  Some said nothing, which also spoke volumes.

A while ago I noted that the American right had decided that maximizing profit was not a question of business practices but instate a sacred duty.   Paying American workers five times what Mexican workers would take as an affront to the God of Economics and this injustice could not be allowed to stand.

I think there was more than a little Calvinism in this calculation, as evidenced by the callous "learn to code" advice given to displaced factory workers.  The resulting family collapse and drug abuse were clearly a sign that these people were morally questionable and obviously not destined for salvation.

To be far, unions brought much of this on themselves through corruption and betrayal of their workers' interests.  There's an understandable progression from endorsing a party for its economic policies and then embracing its social ones as well, regardless of what the membership feels about it.

As in any agreement, once one side realizes that it can alter the terms at will without consequences, everything is on the table.

When that happens, the reason for membership evaporates, and thus former labor strongholds transform into right to work states.

Concerns about working conditions and the concentration of wealth are not new and they have arguably gotten worse over the last three decades.  Much of the turmoil in American politics in particular is coming from the collapse of the prior relationship between blue collar workers and the various political factions.

In a lot of ways, the old Labour Parties resemble the established churches where they were born - they wear the same vestments, use the same symbols of a century ago, but they've transformed their doctrine into the opposite of what they once believed.


Fall traditions in a time of turmoil

Last night Michigan State opened its football season to a packed house.  The "tradition" of a Friday night game before Labor Day weekend is a new one, only going back a decade or so.  It was not particularly popular, but it seems to be catching on.

East Lansing was hopping last night, and that's a good thing.

I took a few moments to wander outside and listen to the echoes of the game through my quiet neighborhood.  Traffic was light as everyone paused to see whether the Spartans could hold off a second-half rally by Western Michigan.  They did, and I'm sure the local lockup has plenty of overzealous revelers as a result.

If I could describe the mood it would be one of desperately wanted to get back to normal, to forget everything outside of having a good time.  For a few hours, politics fades away and the only question that divides people is what team they're rooting for - a tribalism of the best sort.

We need more of this, and while it's inevitable that election commercials will intrude upon my football watching today, I'll have a quick trigger on the remote to keep them at bay.

I'm also relieved that public schools are finally maskless and places of teenage drama rather than temples of fear and anxiety.  Kids can be resilient, but they need a break from constant warnings of doom for that to kick in. 

It's easy to overlook these things, but when we lost them, we learned how important they are.  Hopefully the lesson will stick around.


The Shia LaBeouf Conversion

There has been quite a bit of chatter among Catholic circles about the announcement that troubled Hollywood actor  Shia LaBeouf has entered the Catholic Church.

I've always written the guy off as something of a lunatic, which certainly was born out by his previous actions.

Apparently he was making a biopic about St. Padre Pio and it was in researching the role and visiting the sites of the saint's miracles that he felt the irresistible call to the faith.

I'm reminded of other high-profile conversions that didn't 'take.'  After Hurricane Katrina smashed New Orleans, Anne Rice renounced her sinful ways and returned to the Catholic Church only to leave it shortly afterwards (if I recall she was annoyed with the Church's stance on homosexuality, which you'd think she would have known at that point).

I've watched some interview with him and Bishop Robert Barron and he sounds quite calm and indeed eloquent.  Apparently what moved him most of all was the understanding that he could be forgiven for his many sins.  Even if he later stumbles, this is a great truth that needs to be shared.

We all sin, and the Enemy wants to ensnare us in the belief that our sins will never go away and we will always be separated from God.  It's just not true, and the older I get, the more I treasure the Sacrament of Reconciliation.


Risky Business is kind of a dark movie

The 80s nostalgia tour rolls on and this week's entry is Risky Business, something of a breakthrough film for Tom Cruise.

It's very much of its time, oozing 80s moral sensibilities and also poking fun at career-obsessed Boomer parents.

Some of that sentiment has aged well, but some of it hasn't.  The central point of the film is really an indictment of affluent entitlement as well as the notion that all guys really want is consequence-free sex.

There was a concerted effort during the 80s to promote this belief and to extend it to women as well.  Thus the "hook-up culture" was born, which some wag described as a situation where men get sex without commitment and women just get screwed.

I think the greatest gaslighting in history was convincing women that this was somehow good for them.  Indeed, the current hysteria over abortion access is pretty much the triumph of this effort to brainwash women into thinking that things like marriage and kids are oppressive and the highest good is to serve as a sex toy while giving the best years of your life to some faceless corporation.

Am I reading too much into this?  Perhaps, but the film also highlights the fact that young men also want to love and be loved.  If this can be combined with sex, a powerful bond is formed, one that used to be the foundation of a successful marriage.

Tom Cruise in this film is transitioning from teenager to confident fighter pilot, so he can still project innocence and vulnerability, which leaves him completely helpless against sexual manipulation.

I think that's the female side of the film's appeal, which is not unlike Pretty Woman - the notion that a desirable man can overlook your checkered past and still love you.

The other element of the film is of course the ugliness of prostitution, which it both highlights and obscures.  To the writers of Risky Business, the pimps are the problem, not the reduction of sex to a commodity.  Again, this was part of the 80s culture, which saw conventional morality as hypocritical and limiting.  Women selling themselves for money is okay so long as they do well in the deal, and the circumstances that drive them to doing this are best glossed over.  To its credit, the film explores this aspect of Rebecca De Mornay's character, but like her character, turns away from its unpleasantness.

Like so many films of the time, Risky Business also features a good deal of nudity and sex scenes.  At this time this was a sign of its sophistication and modernity.  Certainly I was one of those who thought this was a good thing.  I was part of the target audience to whom an 'R" rating for nudity was a feature rather than a bug.

Since then, I've come seeing only two reasons for women to do nude scenes: either they are coerced, or see nothing wrong with it.  The younger me would have absolutely had a problem with coercion, but if consent was freely given, what was the problem?

The older me knows that the question of "consent" is a lot more complicated.  How many starlets have accepted a Faustian bargain, trading virtue for wealth and fame?  How many have regretted it later on?

Of course, true consent is possible, and if you think about it that's even more depressing.  I don't think any human wants to be used that way, ever.  Something has to twist them, to warp them to make them think that taking off their clothes and simulating sex for money is morally acceptable.

It's interesting that the "Me Too" movement arose just as the late 80s/early 90s generation of women approached middle age.  They didn't feel 'empowered,' they felt used.

And yes, I get that taking ones clothes off for the camera is different than the casting couch but I'm also not naive enough to think the two are wholly separate.  Some men need to touch while others are content merely to see.

To put it another way, I don't think any man who had the power to make a beautiful women take her clothes off was robbed of pleasure merely because a camera was present.

Returning to Risky Business, I also found it interesting to consider the film's premise that young men losing their virginity to prostitutes is no big thing.  Indeed, it's a good thing, and funny to boot.

Yet in my not quite half-century of life on this earth, every man I've met who patronized a prostitute (and my sample size is more than 1) has been plagued by relationship problems.  Not a single one was able to get married and stay married.  Far from "getting it out of their system," I think it creates a deformity in their minds, warping the normal, healthy bond is created when love and sex operate in unison.

There is considerable evidence that men are better able to separate love and sex than women and that men with multiple sex partners seem less adversely impacted by this than women.

I think that's true, but taking "less damage" is still worse than avoiding damage altogether.

Risky Business is still a well-made and funny film, but it has a far darker edge now than when it was made.

 


The fake pro-lifers reveal themselves

For a long time, pro-life voters have been regarded by political operatives as essentially "cheap dates."  All one had to do was declare allegiance to the pro-life movement, make some meaningless votes (that would of course be struck down in court) and count the votes and the money.

The reversal of Roe v. Wade has revealed that many of these people were never truly pro-life. 

The first test was their immediate reaction to the decision.  Many people who had hitherto boasted of their dedication to the cause became uncharacteristically silent in the moment of victory.

Others began to echo pro-abortion talking points about the need to care for mothers and infants - as if this wasn't already a top priority of the movement.  While one expects a certain amount of dishonesty among politicians, this behavior is somewhat more shocking when coming from people who hitherto identified as devout Christians.

It will be interesting to see what consequences (if any) the Catholic clergy face - particularly when ballot issues regarding abortion are now pending in several states.

For the Protestants, I expect action to be much faster and more severe.  The traditional downfall of an influential pastor or preacher is some sort of sexual or financial scandal, but this is arguably more egregious, since it implies that their faith was never genuine.  Even the most devout believer may fall prey to temptation, but what is one to make of someone who never believed what they were preaching?

This seems to be an age of clarity.  We are finally seeing behind the curtains at what is really going on.