On the margins of theology – VI

18 01 2010

The myth of Marie Laveau

“Voodoo” is a brand name in New Orleans. This past Halloween, right in front of the museum in City Park, there was a big “Voodoo” sign advertising a big concert at which performed such treasures of our American culture as Eminem. It also shows up, almost annoyingly, on many advertisements in the city. Tours of the French Quarter almost always end at St. Louis Cemetery no. 1, home of the tomb of famed “Voodoo Queen”, Marie Laveau, over which now looms one of the more crime-ridden housing projects in the city. (Really, don’t go to this cemetery by yourself, go in a group of at least five or six people. If you want to visit an authentic Louisiana cemetery without risking life and limb, go to St. Louis Cemetery no. 3 off of Esplanade in Mid-City, or to the cemeteries on Canal St.)
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Ingmar Bergman’s Magic Flute

15 01 2010

The end of the opera

On forgiveness and redemption

14 01 2010

I don’t really keep track of the news, so my own sense of urgency when it comes to posting about “current events” on this blog is almost non-existent. Brit Hume’s recent exhortation to the unfaithful Tiger Woods to embrace Christianity only caught my peripheral attention at first. But just like everyone else in this society, I too am a media junkie, and I finally broke down and looked up the controversial video clip on Youtube. My own reaction to it was quite mixed. On the one hand, someone becoming a Christian is a good thing in itself, I suppose. But what flavor Christianity are we talking about? That is a whole can of worms I will chose not to open here.

Mr. Hume thought that embracing Christianity would mean that Mr. Woods’ would then find “forgiveness and redemption”, and thus be a good example to the rest of the world. What this forgiveness and redemption would mean in the context of a kingdom not of this world is beyond me. I could not help but suspect the cultural Puritanism that has always been at work in American Christianity: show yourself to be among the predestined “elect”, and blessings will be showered upon you. I can’t pin such a subtext on Mr. Hume’s pithy media statements since they only have the depth of a transitory soundbite. But his words nevertheless take me back exactly ten years, to a place and a time where I lived side by side with other confused, broken people in similar circumstances.
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On the center of the world

13 01 2010

It is no less false that the center of the world is within the earth than that it is outside the earth; nor does the earth or any other sphere even have a center. For, since the center is equidistant from the circumference and since there cannot exist a sphere or a circle so completely true that a truer one could not be posited, it is obvious that there cannot be posited a center (which is so true and precise) that a still truer and more precise center could not be posited. Precise equidistance to different things cannot be found except in the case of God, because God alone is Infinite Equality. Therefore, he who is the center of the world, viz., the Blessed God, is also the center of the earth, of all spheres, and of all things in the world. Likewise, he is the infinite circumference of all things.

-Nicholas of Cusa, On Learned Ignorance

Divine Horsemen – The Living Gods of Haiti

12 01 2010

Two excerpts from the Maya Deren film, shot in the 1950’s. Notice the rosary is said preceding the rites shown in the second excerpt.

Maya Deren observed in Haiti that people never asked if she believed in Voudou, but if she did Voudou. This reflects the sentiment that I read of another scholar who said that the point of Yoruba religion had little to do with what we would call faith or morals, but rather with the ways that supernatural forces can be invoked and manipulated.

Such a paradigm is useful in understanding such phenomena as rootwork, hoodoo, and folk Catholicism, often at the margins of various forms of Christianity. In this sense, there is no such thing as a “folk Catholic”, but rather a person who performs folk Catholic ritual. Catholics who believe in “folk Catholicism” do not perceive it as being all that different from “normal Catholicism” (if such a beast exists outside of the Internet and the American suburb). It is often not a matter of belief that separates these people from “regular” Catholics, but a matter of practice. “Folk Catholicism” only exists insofar as it works, and ceases to exist once it doesn’t work. To the outsider, it can seem to be an attempt to manipulate the divine. The common worshipper has enough “cognitive dissonance” to not perceive it that way.

(to be continued…)

Comment on a history of madness

12 01 2010

An article once again posted from Wufila’s blog, from the New York Times. An excerpt:

No one would suggest that we withhold our medical advances from other countries, but it’s perhaps past time to admit that even our most remarkable scientific leaps in understanding the brain haven’t yet created the sorts of cultural stories from which humans take comfort and meaning. When these scientific advances are translated into popular belief and cultural stories, they are often stripped of the complexity of the science and become comically insubstantial narratives. Take for instance this Web site text advertising the antidepressant Paxil: “Just as a cake recipe requires you to use flour, sugar and baking powder in the right amounts, your brain needs a fine chemical balance in order to perform at its best.” The Western mind, endlessly analyzed by generations of theorists and researchers, has now been reduced to a batter of chemicals we carry around in the mixing bowl of our skulls.

An excerpt from my own comment:

And the final aspect I would address is the the relationship between holiness and what we would call insanity. St. Benedict Joseph Labre was certified, Grade-A loco, as were all of the fools for Christ in Russia and other places. What we would now call “shamanism” was probably presided over by people we would now put in rubber rooms. Modern civilization thinks “normalcy” is akin to godliness. Even our Christian hertiage doesn’t necessarily agree with this.

Lost in translation – II

11 01 2010

Pierre Hadot loses his religion

At this point, it would probably not come as any surprise that my favorite philosopher in the last five hundred years is an apostate Catholic priest. Pierre Hadot was born in 1922 to a Catholic family and entered minor seminary in his early teens. He advanced rapidly in his studies, having been put through the typical regimen of scholastic philosophy and militant Counter-Reformation piety in style at the time. He was ordained in the midst of the Second World War at the age of 22. Unlike others from his generation, he did not leave the priesthood in the wake of Vatican II, but preceded the mass exodus of men from the priesthood by about fifteen years. He abandoned his priestly vows and ultimately the faith in 1950 to run off with a woman who he would divorce twelve years later. His reflections on his Catholic upbringing and formation are predictably mixed, but the few times he speaks of them in his latest book to be translated into English, The Present Alone is Our Happiness, they are very perceptive in reading the mood of the Church in Europe before the Council.
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Two posts on sex (since people like reading about that stuff)

10 01 2010

The first is from Dawn Eden (“oh no! I thought you hated converts!”):

I was just astounded that someone who is not a traditionalist could actually quote the Oath Against Modernism. Most people who cite that in the Church nowadays do so in order to state how it is essentially a dead letter, that we have moved passed stuff like that, that it has to be interpreted in the light of “living tradition” etc. To have someone use it as something of doctrinal weight… maybe there’s something in the water.

In like manner, the assertion that John Paul II’s teachings are “revolutionary” implies the Church’s sacred deposit of faith is not fully contained in Scripture and Tradition, but, rather, progresses with the passage of time—like a child growing through puberty and into adulthood. That is not only an error officially condemned by the Church; it also prevents the faithful from appreciating the real significance of the theology of the body.

That being said, people still haven’t really pointed out to me any new content or spin of Wojtyla’s theories that would augment Catholic teaching on this subject in a positive way. Seems like the same old Vatican II “please sign on the dotted line… yes, I know the paper’s blank” tactics of those who want to make allegiance to Vatican II the ultimate litmus test of orthodoxy. But if you want to re-visit that debate, see the archives of this blog.

The second quote I found on Wufila’s blog comes from a radically different point of view from the Dawn Eden quote:

I began to tell reporters what I fully believe: no present church position on sexuality would be recognizable to Christian writers of two hundred years ago—much less two millennia ago. Part of the reason is that the basic terms and psychological models have changed astonishingly in the last century. All Christian writers, even the most “traditional,” assume the existence of things (like “sexuality”) and mechanisms (like the unconscious) that are neither scriptural nor traditional. But the more striking difference is the scope contemporary “traditionalists” give to sexual pleasure in marriage. Evangelical writers famous for attacking homosexuality write pillow books for Christian newlyweds advocating sexual techniques that church traditions classify as unchaste and unnatural—indeed, as acts of sodomy.

What Steinfels and many other journalists label “traditional Christianity” is, when it comes to sex, actually an all too modern selection and rearrangement of a few old elements detached from the contexts and practices that gave them meaning. The claim for tradition amounts to repeating a few old formulas of condemnation, while the other teaching drops away. This isn’t a tradition. This is violently selective repetition—an ongoing revenge on tradition.

That doesn’t convince me of the “liberal” position, but the person still has a point. On these issues, we can’t really pretend to “stand on tradition” since, scratch the surface, and tradition simply isn’t what we think it is. Dogmatically (i.e. on the books), little has changed, but the general idea of the relationship between sex, monogamy, and romantic love has changed radically in the past few generations in Western society. To pretend we are addressing these issues in St. Paul’s world is playing at the Potempkin village. While I don’t share the essayist’s desire to contextualize out of existence the traditional prohibitions against such things as homosexuality, I would neither want to apotheosize heterosexual romantic love as it exists in our society. I am perfectly prepared to say, and I think I have backing on tradition on this, that when it comes to sex and love in fallen human nature, there is no real “normal”.

Stuff white people wouldn’t pray to

9 01 2010

Found in Mexico City.


Can you imagine this on an EWTN set? I can’t either.


“Okay, the Infant of Prague I understand. But this is just going too far!”


“Oh hell no!”


An ex-voto. No explanation necessary, I think.

Found on this site

An out of character music post

8 01 2010

Readers of this blog will know how ideologically opposed I am to Beethoven and the musical romanticism that came after him. But recently I re-watched that film, Immortal Beloved, and besides, I am a romantic in spite of my best efforts to be otherwise.