The terrible lizards of times past, and those yet to come

Childhood memories are difficult to pin down, but one that still remains vivid was my early love of dinosaurs. Of course a childhood fascination with dinosaurs is not unusual, but the distinct image of “the dinosaur”- depicted universally in dinosaur-themed paraphernalia through the 80s- is difficult to explain to those born after 1991kong9. Long before Jurassic Park introduced realism to cinematic dinosaurs and well before revised scientific images added feathers and contours to make them distinctly animals, depictions of the ancient beasts vivified their Greek name. They were terrible lizards. Ravenous, dimwitted, cold-blooded, and above all primitive, “the dinosaur” existed as a nothing less than a primordial monster. Between the lethargic herbivores and unceasingly ravenous carnivores, there was nothing about the creatures that wasn’t rampant, unconstrained , and dominating. Less some animal that lived a long time ago, more a demon from a chaotic age that might not even exist in our epoch of reason without contaminating it with its own primordial nature.

One image in particular persists in my mind as an icon of what “the dinosaur” once was in the popular imagination. It is a painting of a late-Jurassic battle between an allosaurus and a brontosaurus. Depicted in a children’s book of dinosaurs, the image was nonetheless more gruesome than anything I had encountered as a young child. Even now, looking at the image as an adult, it is brutal. As the allosaur talons cut into sauropod’s flesh, streams of blood trickle down to the swamp and the gentle giant sways in agonizing throws. There even seems to be a sadistic joy in the countenance of the carnivore.

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The caption originally included beneath the picture only added to the scene’s poignancy. Stuck in quicksand, the sauropod had been overtaken by an allosaur, a predator it could have otherwise fended off with ease. Though unable to escape its doom, in death the brontosaurus had collapsed and crushed its assailant. Thus, the futility of the scenario was further underlined. The agonizingly cruel death of the brontosaurus was mirrored seconds later by the ironically cruel death of the allosaurus. There was nothing that justified the fate, it existed as a product of the futile prehistoric world.

I have found myself reflecting more and more on such futility, not the least when contemplating our country’s current political situation. Sure enough, there might be much in the way of a comparison between the image of two fighting prehistoric beasts and the prospect of a Hillary vs Trump race this Fall. Perhaps, a more apt analogy yet might be the opportunistic and carnivorous Trump sinking his teeth into the immobilized and bloated body of a Republican establishment (probably only to be later crushed under that establishment’s decaying husk). But still, a more disturbing comparison is on my mind.

At this point in 2016, a significant amount of commentary has comprised of “experts” castigating this election’s descent into coarseness and violence as “unprecedented”. More historically-minded pundits have been quick to point out that this might be better characterized as a throwback to a type of politics historically common in 19th century, but long since out fashion. While rare in our modern advanced age, the narrative goes,  2016 is a temporary lapse into a violent populist mode, likely never to be repeated again. But even as I am assured that our politics will momentarily return to their mundane pattern of stale choices and consistent growth, I am troubled once more by a vision of “the dinosaur”.

There was one way that the antediluvian  depictions of “the dinosaur” were accurate. There was a certain insight in the visions of unfeeling titans battling in the shadows of dimly-lit volcanoes. For all their manifest inaccuracies, the old pictures captured a truth neatly hidden away in our modern understanding of living creatures, ancient or otherwise. The truth is nothingimg9006.jpg less than the fact that animals, in their natural element, embody all the cruelty and callousness of the universe that spawned them.

It is easy to forget that when most of our interactions with animals are filtered through the lens of domestication, science, or art. The subtle censorship of the textbook encourages us to think of animals as dissected specimens, just as our experiences with domesticated companions encourages the view that they are anthropomorphic furry humans. But these fictions are paper thin, made obvious in any encounter with a wild animal. The cruelty of animals is one of the truest things about them because their violence is a product of the Darwinian forces that shape every moment of their natural lives.

Nature has a demonic element in its core, and it is a nature that humans share, no matter how our culture tells us otherwise. In modern times perhaps Nietzsche did the most to remind us of this base reality. But it was a fact well known to the ancient Greeks. Even the medieval craftsmen were aware of this chaotic nature in man and beast, and carried it forth in their depictions of animals and wildmen. Could the 20th century popularizers of  dinosaurs have unwittingly rediscovered this oft-forgotten truth?

This brings me back to our present political reality. Although I am not one prone to alarm, there is indeed a reason to be unsettled by auspices hinted at in the rise of Trump, Putin, and ISIS. Regardless of what we might be tempted to think, these actors are not historical anomalies, the persistence of our civilization is. And while it might be true that our present crop of strongmen are passing,

v0033596 (1)so too is the long illusion of continuous progress and ever-increasing economic growth that sustained the previous order. We are in a dying era and everyone, left, right, and center feels the foundations shifting beneath their feet.

It is fashionable to talk of the advancement of human civilization and the spirit of the age. But wise philosophers have long known that Olympian edifices are built upon the bones of the chaotic giants. In fact, the truly wise have known that the giants are not dead, but merely sleeping. When we hear the rumbling of their disquieted slumber, we might be reminded that on any given day the demons of the ancient world may rise in rage against our modern illusions. Because, whatever part of our own lives are folly, their hunger for dominance is real.

I struggle with expressing this sentiment, mostly because I am aware how unoriginal it is. As such,  I hope to close my speculation with words from the poet W.B. Yeats, who said it best of all.

Three By Chesterton

I recently recorded three of my favorite essays by G.K. Chesterton.

First “A Piece of Chalk”, a reflection on the little ironies in creation.

Second, “On Man:Heir of All Ages”, Gilbert’s perspective on the inheritance of history and religion.

Lastly, “The Medical Mistake” where Chesterton famously answers the question”What’s wrong with the world?”

That Dragon, Cancer….

Despite the unending internet controversy, I remain resolute in my stance that video games cannot be art. Games contain a fundamental opposition at their core between players and audiences that cannot be resolved. Failing some huge revolution in Western culture where we suddenly conceptualize beauty as something you can “win”, I wouldn’t expect the next Picasso to be releasing his work at a GameStop.

Still, every now and again I see a new title that makes me question my conviction. Enter That Dragon, Cancer, a small indy game being released this winter. The game is an auto-biography that tells the story of a young Christian couple and their struggle with the extended sickness and death of their infant son, Joel.

Yes, I know this sounds like a macabre subject for a video game, but it makes more sense when the entire story is told. The NPR show ReplyAll does a good job explaining:

This is by no means the first artsy viewpoint-style video game. But from what I can tell, That Dragon, Cancer takes the form one step further. It contains genuine emotion that I just haven’t seen in titles like Gone Home or Life is Strange. Moreover, there is a raw power apparent in the story. It’s certainly art, even if it’s ultimately not much of a game.

But the strangest component of this game is its apparent focus on religion. Christianity is at the heart of That Dragon, Cancer. The central layout is a cathedral, the family’s own spiritual beliefs are a driver of the plot, and the original purpose of the game was to express the emotions felt during a moment of prayer. Ultimately, I will be very interested to see how these themes are expressed in the medium of video games.

The central problem of art in video games has always been player choice. Video games put the player at the center of making decisions beyond the creator’s control. Thus there is an interplay between the two where the desire of the artist to challenge assumptions and the desire of the player to escape reality are at odds. The more the artist introduces a strong narrative and challenging messages, the more a constraints are needed to steer players away from their natural inclination towards self-affirming fun.

In the past artsy video games like Limbo and Bioshock have addressed the problem of choice by making the futility of the player’s decisions a central theme. With enough existential “Waiting-For-Gidot style” doom, a player can be artfully compelled towards an art-house ending without damaging the realism. A seemingly open world where the character’s minor decisions cannot assuage their final doom might be the plot of every French existentialist novel, but it’s also an easily programmable format for a video game.

But the subject of futility and choice also have a direct relationship to prayer. Prayer is a difficult thing to explain to most non-religious people. Do believers really believe they are influencing the will of God? Do the pious think they can bend the universe with the force of supplication? If not, isn’t the whole endeavor futile?  All these questions are fair, but very difficult to answer without extended analogy. To the religious prayer comes naturally, and there is is an ineffable flow and logic to those who practice it regularly.

During more religious ages powerful scenes of prayer in fiction were passed over with little commentary. Our contemporary age is quite different. When so few people practice devotion themselves, a depiction of such requires explanation. But is any verbal explanation adequate?

The central inspiration for That Dragon, Cancer was a prayer of a father for his son when nothing else seemed to make a difference. Certainly, the prayer neither stopped the cancer nor ceased the pain, but was it futile? Perhaps prayer might be better thought of as something that brings rational order to a reality that would otherwise seem cruel and futile. It might even be possible that this side of prayer is better expressed in a video game than in written theology.

I’ll be looking forward to “playing” That Dragon, Cancer when it comes out. However, I might have to force myself to play all the way through. A strange problem for such a typically addictive medium.

Blogging Orthodoxy 8: Levity and the Great Adventure

I while back I started a series called “Blogging Orthodoxy” which documented my Newman Center’s reading group as we worked our way through Chesterton’s grand treatise, “Orthodoxy”. This series dropped off during my blog’s long hiatus but now that I have finally gotten around to blowing the dust off all my old posts, it feels only right to finish the series.

In fact, all that remains is to put a capstone on the project and I can easily do that in the hour I have before I head out to my parish’s annual retreat. Here it goes….

Chapter 9: Authority and the Adventurer

It is hard to overstate the effect that a book like Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy” has had upon my life. Of all the books that gradually took me back through the doors of the Church, this was the lynch pin. The point at which I knew that something had to be done. Faith had to be lived. Passivity was no longer an option.

Even revisiting the book seven years later, Chesterton’s conclusion was powerful. Reading the last lines, I could feel my group intently anticipating the inevitable finale. But this time, as the conclusion came, those same words felt very different.

“His Mirth”

The words that shocked me as a non-believer fell lightly this time around. Chesterton’s conclusion was still profound but it was no longer abrasive. When once the image of the mirthful Christ had come into my imagination like an thundering army,  it was now like a returning hero being welcomed home. I could feel the same emotions all around.

In fact, there was very little discussion of this final section within the group. It felt as though nothing more needed to be said. The book had ended and we were left with a sense of anticipation. Something was about to happen. And, in fact, it did.

A year passed. Spirituality grew. Friendships formed. Our patron, an inimical Dominican Friar, was able to raise up a thriving young adult community that would be the envy of a much larger parish. Even our weekly reading session grew to become a bit of an institution among the Catholic young adults in North Seattle. Much has been learned and looking back, I find myself reflecting on where it began, our reading of “Orthodoxy”.

Much has been said about the line that ends “Orthodoxy”, and certainly the image of God’s levity is what I remember when thinking back on the book. However, among all the very spiritual images conjured by the author, perhaps the plain message of the chapter is lost; the message that, in order for our struggles to transcend our own personalities, we must first acknowledge an authority over ourselves who competent to judge us. Our lives might be adventures but only if we acknowledge One greater still who can act as an author.

At one point in my life I would have balked at this sentient. I am a natural contrarian and the concept of authority does not come easy to me. But I think that it was this lesson that I did indeed learn over my last year working with the Newman center. There is a time for trust. There is a right place for faith. Once one accepts the authority of the spiritual, the worldly struggles that were at one point meaningless and setbacks that at one point seemed insurmountable become simple features in a larger story. When one wanders aimlessly even the slightest breeze feels like a cruel and irrational blow. Once a person has the right direction even the strongest headwinds can be braved with ease.

I return to the question of authority today, as my Parish bids farewell to the Dominican Friar who had been our group’s leader and the founder of our book group. Certainly it has been the pattern of modern Christian communities to crumble once their founder is reassigned and I can sense that there is a similar fear that our community will slowly break once separated from its founder.

Far from me to be an optimist but I am more encouraged than most. The spirit that brought our community together and animated it is more than the force of one saintly soul. The authority that directs us forward is much older. The adventure that has bound us together is much deeper. We hear the great laughter Chesterton described and its prospect is as terrifying as it is terrific. We are traveling for that end alone and the force of that prospect binds us together as a community even if we do indeed physically drift apart.

And so, the task is set. The path is before us. The adventure is upon us and I believe still that we have the courage to see it through to the end.

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Off to retreat….

 

 

 

 

Weekend Link – Kafka: the Video Game

Following the blogging Orthodoxy series, I’m thinking about writing a series on video game culture. No, not the perennial and unresolvable “Can Video Games be Art?”, but rather whether video games be expected to deliver complicated moral messages. This question was renewed in my mind this week by the release of a trailer for a video game based on the works of Franz Kafka:

Leaving aside the rather ingenious coloring and visual design that the developers chose, I was immediately stuck by the utter futility of trying to communicate Franz Kafka’s take on existential doom by having players solve puzzles. Indeed, the sensation you get at the end of “A Hunger Artist” or “Metamorphosis” is the exact opposite of the sensation one gets from seeing a really vexing puzzle finally brought to completion. Perhaps the game could end by having players attempt to solve a byzantine but still ultimately intractable riddle?

Not to say that existentialism can’t properly be communicated through games (really is there anything more Sisyphean than Tetris? Not to mention the very fatalistic SkiFree) But there does seem to be a limitation in video games that makes the medium very resistant to communicating concepts of dis-empowerment. Needles to say, I don’t imagine playing the Kafka video game is going be a near experience to reading The Castle

 

 

Blogging Orthodoxy 7: An Eternal Golden Thread

Blogging Orthodoxy continues with :

Chapter 8: The Romance of Orthodoxy

I consider The Romance of Orthodoxy to be the weakest chapter of Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. At first glance there doesn’t appear to be anything that we haven’t heard in the previous chapters. To this point Chesterton has already talked at length about how a mystical love of the universe is needed to value life and how mystical skepticism is needed to reform it. He has reviewed in detail the dangers of trying to conceive of the world as purely rational and visited the mistakes humanism has made when attempting to achieve reform without understanding the concept of the ideal. With all of this already said, one might wonder why Chesterton spends his eighth chapter rehashing many of these same points. But although The Romance of Orthodoxy may seem entirely redundant, I think Gilbert does have a point. However laboriously, by the end of the eighth Chapter, Chesterton has built towards a singular question, perhaps the question for anyone reading a book about Catholicism and not Catholic themselves: Despite the fact that there may be some, possibly incidental, truths in the Faith, why actually be Catholic?

Though Chesterton answers this question mainly in his last chapter, it was this question that dominated our reading group’s discussion on The Romance of Orthodoxy. And for good reason. Our patron was certainly speaking for everyone when he pointed out that this question was the question that our modern age has saimtsfor the Catholic Church. Not Why do You believe in God? not Did Jesus really rise from the dead?  not even Why are you Christian? but Why be Catholic?  It’s a question that Catholics hear all the time. And no one ever has a really good answer.

I admit, it is a hard question because the question is inseparable from historical record. God and Jesus may be eternal and unsullied, but the Church is very much a being of history and as most people are aware, it has had quite a long one. Moreover, unlike Muslims, Atheists, and Buddhists, Catholics for, the most part, are singularly conscious of their Church’s historical misdeeds. I’ve noticed that, despite believing in the Church’s mission, Catholics tend to avoid asserting that their Church has historically bore witness to the gospel of Jesus. And, given this record, it’s probably no surprise that secular people can’t take the concept seriously either.

Even after coming to believe in God, I found the concept of the Catholic Church being a force for any kind of good in history to be utterly ridiculous. Of course I knew enough history to discount many of the common atheists myths surrounding Catholicism spun by those like Christopher Hitchens and it was not necessary to dispel common exaggerations about the relative violence of the Church to other factions in history. But nonetheless, beyond statistical nitpicking, there was human reality of the Church’s terrible role in history that had to be confronted. It may be true that the Spanish Inquisition killed only around 3000 people, but, for an institution that claims every human is the image of God, the inquisition was an atrocity more revolting than the 20 million souls trod under by Genghis Khan. And so the central question remained.

A common, and not entirely inadequate, response is that the Church itself is fallen and flawed like all other human institutions. I have to say, this perspective, while truthful, didn’t satisfy me initially. If the Church was truly the cornerstone of Christ’s teaching on earth then it must be much more than one fallen entity among many. If the history of human existence is one long line of tarnished treasures, why should one particular piece be worthy of adoration?

I began to see a better explanation when reading The Screwtape Letters where the demonic Screwtape counsels his understudy on how the Church on earth can stand in contrast to the divine Church as seen from time immemorial.

One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church screwtapeas we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate. When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer with rather an oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print. When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like ‘the body of Christ’ and the actual faces in the next pew.

Though C.S. Lewis’ target with this passage was pettiness among parishioners and not grand historical crimes, his thoughts formed in me the first inkling of a concept I later came to accept. There might be something in the Church beyond what is superficially seen in the institution. The true Church might be less like a tarnished golden chalice and more like a small golden thread, that while almost invisible against the backdrop of the soil that covers it, still leads onward towards its luminous source. And as I looked at the Church in history, there did seem to be just such a thread running through it. The Catholics referred to it as The Lives of the Saints.

Often times the word Hagiography is used loosely to condemn whitewashed and arduously positive biographies. But I found nothing arduous or whitewashed about the lives of the Saints. The Saints were flawed individuals but in their moments of grace they became something far greater than themselves and the times in which they lived. The saints were real. More real than other historical figures and more real even than the figures that occupy our contemporary StatueTriumphjpgworld. Most people, from politicians and celebrities to ordinary grocers and policeman, are carried along with the flow of history, working from within their time and place to do the best they can. But the Saint stands still, the ebb and flow of their time and culture folding around their lives like the waters of a stream against a stationary rock. In communion, the Saints stand apart from history like a series golden links. The institutional Church, as we see it today, acts simply as a container for this more glorious witness. It keeps the doctrines, the sacraments, and the records of the Saint’s coming. But in the end, it is simply an observer, in waiting, and in anticipation of something greater than itself.

At this point I have probably lost my secular audience and I’m sure someone is going to accuse me of looking at Catholic history with rose-tinted glasses. Couldn’t one take the most shinning examples of any institution and hold them aloft? How would this then justify the Catholic Church above other institutions? Again, without answering these objections directly, I would like offer a caveat. From my own experience, it is actually rare for institutions to justify themselves by pointing to a past communion of truly good people. Much more common is to look back at the powerful and argue that their evil actions weren’t really evil, or that their evil actions were necessary do to the particular situations of the age. But the Saints have no reason to be recognized but for their goodness. Some are meek and others powerful, but their common communion is only virtue. Here, there is something truly unique: a link to the past that is more divine and accessible than any other past heroism can provide. Few have the intelligence to be an Einstein, the power to be Caesar, or the wealth to be a Rockafeller, but the goodness of a Catherine of Sienna or a Saint Francis of Assisi is available to every person at every moment of their lives. We have but to reach forward and accept it.

It seems the modern world is sorely in need of just this conception of Saintly continuity. We all have an innate desire to look back and see an unbroken chain of idealism leading from the past on into the future, and of course we fasten upon the great leaders and thinkers of our history to serve this purpose. Right-wingers have their obsession with Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, while the left has their devotion to Margaret Sanger and Harvey Milk. But modern history is none too slow at finding the flaws in any of the great idols of our past. Behind every Jefferson there is slavery, Northern rose window of the cathedral Notre-Dame in Chartres, Francebehind every Sanger there is Eugenics. The great leaders and thinkers of the past are all compromised just as every empire that is old is also brutal. So modern man is left, looking back at a history of moral ambiguity, disconnected from any concept that his ancestors had anything to teach him.

I believe it is this very disconnect that enables the progressive view of history to become so popular. With a past of unmitigated misery and evil, we may want to believe in a present and future that will inevitably be better, not just in material comforts, but in human goodness. But this progressive vision does nothing but impede our ability to live as good people in our daily lives. With the idea of goodness inevitably expanding, we forget the very important reality that, in any age, being virtuous is difficult. To be good, truly good, is a task so herculean as to be almost impossible, and we discount this fact at our own moral peril.

I must now return to the question posed at the onset of the discussion: Why Be Catholic? For myself, it is because I see the Church as a historic moral teacher, not through the institution, but through the narrow paths walked by the saints in obscurity. The Catholic Church has committed many crimes, but this does not set it aside from any other historical institution. Every cause and great leader is flawed from Pericles and the Athenian Democracy to George Washington and our current Republic. I get the sense that when most people look back on their ancestor’s history they are in fact looking for some progressive thread through which to learn moral lessons. And here the institutional Catholic Church has played a prophetic role. It has discovered just such a thread in the live of the Saints. And although it is flawed as an institution, the Church may act as a sign post for the greatest moral teachers the world has ever known.

At the close of this article, I am reminded of an oft-repeated Catholic adage-“there is only one true tragedy in life and that is to not be Saint”. There is certainly truth in that statement, but if it is entirely accurate then the world is quite a tragic place. Of course, we have all known great individuals living selfless lives of grace, but they are quite rare. For the most part we plod along, not willing to fight against the current of our modern age and personal desires. The path of true righteousness is narrow. It is not a golden carpet that will roll out easily in front of us. We are not good by nature and, as such, teachers are needed. So Christians must tirelessly search for the good people in the narrow and dirty places of the world looking for the living Saints that can continue to guide us. As in all ages past, we will stumble and struggle to find this thread of true human compassion, but as difficult as the task may be it is absolutely necessary. For if we desire to be bring any true goodness, the loss of that golden thread of Sainthood may be the world’s only true tragedy.