When Truth is Disturbing: Another Look at Wuthering Heights and the Purpose of Literature

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Flannery O’Connor

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte, drew me in immediately, pulling me through every lurid page. Yet I felt oddly uncomfortable about how much I liked it as it is populated by selfish, angry, dysfunctional characters, only one of whom possesses much of a moral compass.

Like a good Catholic (I say that sarcastically), I tend to want to spend to time reading things that will edify or offer some great insight or meaningful lesson to take away, which I usually look for in Christian themes or uplifting messages. But this is exactly the attitude that Flannery O’Connor excoriated in her 1965 essay, “The Catholic Reader and the Catholic Novel,” in which she skewered the legions of “pious trash” that Catholics have written and that Catholics read. O’Connor argued that good art or literature has to be good in and of itself–that is, it must also be true. Something that disregards basic truths or doesn’t testify to them fully will inevitably be bad–no matter how pious.

She says, quoting Aquinas, “a work of art is good in itself…this is a truth that the modern world has largely forgotten.” When she cites him, she (and he) mean “good” in the metaphysical sense–that is the worth of the art comes from itself, not just from its relation to ideas we approve of. Goodness is one of the transcendentals; the others are truth, unity and beauty. Goodness, in this sense, is its desirability in so far as it exists, its ability to attract and move the will. It is a property co-existent with being, one that is not dependent on our feelings about it. To my judgement, “goodness” in a work of art will correlate with one or both of two things: its beauty and its truth.

In written work, with the exceptions of certain poetry, the value defaults to coming from truth. Then the value of being a Catholic writer or a Catholic work doesn’t come from having “uplifting” themes, but from being true, of offering real insight into reality and human understanding. Many secular works succeed at this; many Christian ones fail.

But, Catholic belief should be an effective instrument that contributes to a work’s goodness. Far from a shackle, O’Connor says, “dogma is an instrument for penetrating reality.” She further explains: “It is one of the functions of the Church to transmit the prophetic vision that is good for all time, and when the novelist has this as a part of his own vision, he has a powerful extension of sight.” Thus the Church’s understanding of the span of natural and supernatural realities is a magnificent insight that aids the artist or viewer in seeing and composing a true picture of the world.

Nevertheless, she says, the artist must still use her own eyes. The Church offers an extension of sight, not a replacement. O’Connor cautions that “When the Catholic novelist closes his own eyes and tries to see with the eyes of the Church, the result is another addition to that large body of pious trash for which we have so long been famous.” Just like grace does not exclude free will, the Catholic vision still demands the vision of the writer him or herself. Her insight is that Catholic literature is really anything that is true, but that something that pursues the whole scope of reality will inevitably be better. I think here of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

Having established that good art is true. That leads me back to Wuthering Heights. Someone as wretched as the abusive Mr. Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights still offers us a great catholic value; Healthcliff shows us a dark side of humanity, an anti-hero whose love, while real, is distorted and disordered and plays out to the harm of the generations, the cast of characters whom he taints.

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Book Review: C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength – The Real of Religion

that-hideous-strengthThat Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis opens with a grumbling wife and goes onto weave in realities of marriage, science, the supernatural, morality, magic, politics, violence and animals, all under the auspices of exploring, through story, what a well-lived life looks like. The answer it settles on is surprisingly warm and domestic.

This was the first of the Space Trilogy (which began with Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra), which grabbed me from the beginning and pulled me right through the pages; it is far more character-driven and less allegorical than the others, while equally thoughtful. It is one of those life books that encompasses so many experiences, states in life and realities that it is grand and revelatory such that every page seems to reveal more to me of own soul. Another book I have read like this was The Once and Future King by T.H. White, which was my book of the year for 2015. I loved it so much I couldn’t decide what to write about it, so I never wrote anything, a tragedy.

Anyway, the themes addressed in That Hideous Strength were manifold, though very pointed and specific, such that I wouldn’t be surprised if many readers did not connect with this book because it does feel located in a very concrete time and place, with very precise philosophical concerns–those of C.S. Lewis–a small university in a quiet, English town and the rising onslaught of scientific materialism. While I find the academic setting relatable and generalizable, not all readers might agree.

Here is a short list of themes worth noting; their breadth is the pleasure of the novel: Continue reading

8 Things that Make a Good Day

To tell the truth, I often agonize over how to spend my time: what is the right balance of work/play/socializing, etc etc etc. But there is something that helps me. The moral philosophers from Aristotle into the present day always ask what is the good–that which promotes man’s flourishing?

So I ask myself: what is good? What is flourishing? I think monks flourish. It’s no secret that I admire the avowed religious life very much.  But I think everyday lay people in cities and countries can flourish too. So what’s that like?

But what are the actual daily activities that comprise a life well spent?

  1. Loving relationships-spouse, friends, children, parents, churches, organizations, civic life. The people we love tie us together and are worth spending time with and enjoying.
  2. Cooking and eating – food is part of life, and a good part. Cooking it, enjoying and it and sharing it combine an connection with the source of food and sustenance, enjoyment and community, a chance to share partake in those relationships mentioned in 1.
  3. Enjoying art – music, books, visual art, etc. Beautiful things, natural or man-made, invite us to appreciate life simply as it is and sometimes to contemplate the source of the beauty. Man-made art adds a layer of human reflection to contemplation.
  4. Maintaining the goods of our lives – our homes, our tools, our clothes, aspects of our communities etc. It shows care and gratitude to repair and clean the things that contribute to our lives. It keeps us grounded to provide for own physical needs and that of others.
  5. Creating – contributing our gifts to something new and meaningful, be it pottery, gardening, painting, writing, carpentry. This work also contributes to our community and engenders mutual flourishing
  6. Exercising – Care for the body that allows us to live and move is so important
  7. Being in nature, even if it’s just the yard or garden, or gazing at the sky from our city balcony. Watching and interacting with creation is both an appreciation of beauty, and it reminds us of what it real and the forces of the earth which are more powerful than we are.
  8. Spirituality – in addition to appreciating the beautiful and loving one another, to attempt to and to commune with God, the source of all, restorer of all and our own maker, is the simplest grounding there can be.  (PS there is a short-cut, the sacraments, the Bible and the Catechism)

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Recalling my first Ash Wednesday, an uncomfortable day

[This essay first ran on Ethika Politika. Full article available there]

My first Lent, I wandered around campus wondering if anyone would notice the smudge on my forehead. I was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia and had recently stumbled across the Catholic Church, her teachings, and her seemingly outrageous claims to truth. Encountering both the man who would become my husband and then the Church Fathers had led me to the troubling realization that maybe everything was not relative: that perhaps man’s darkness was real and that there was a real salvation, that perhaps God did exist and that truth, goodness, and beauty were more than romantic ideals.

A disinterested rationalism ruled the day on campus, the idea that all traditions and practices are something the educated person stands apart from, that she observes from a distance and perhaps with curiosity. This was well-known to any “critical thinker” and to the newly, ardently atheistic coeds in my residence hall. Actually to take part in a tradition, to claim it for oneself, is the only modern-day heresy there is.

Though intellectual commitments are often frowned upon by universities, they are inescapably human. All of us are born into complex networks of family, national, ethnic, religious, political, and other relationships that modern man tends to dismiss, viewing humans only as atomized, disconnected units. It turns out that claiming a tradition is not so radical after all.

Full Article Here:

https://ethikapolitika.org/2016/02/09/lents-bodily-exposure/

What was your most memorable Ash Wednesday experience? Or even just a time that you saw someone wearing ashes. I’d love to hear from you!

The Metaphysical Good of Children

girl-199x300From the Truth and Charity Forum: The Metaphysical Good of Children

“Too often we think children have value based on how the parents feel about them. Melissa Harris-Perry, host on MSNBC said in 2013, “When does life begin? I submit the answer depends an awful lot on the feeling of the parents. A powerful feeling – but not science.” That answer is trouble because it ignores actual reality in favor of feelings, granting to some humans’ feelings the status of ontological truth while simultaneously and incoherently denying value to other humans and their feelings. Feelings do matter, but they do not determine reality.

“Harris-Perry added that “An unwanted pregnancy can be biologically the same as a wanted one. But the experience can be entirely different.” This statement is true in itself. However, the reality of the child’s life and goodness is determined by the biology, not the experience of the parents. Granted, we ought to be very sensitive to the feelings of such women and seek to provide as much non-judgmental support as possible. However, the requirement of support stems precisely from the reality and goodness of the child who is already in existence and growing to maturity.

“I take this view from the classical metaphysics. Metaphysically speaking, everything that exists is good in the sense that it is willed and loved by God and expresses a perfection of being. Martin Vaske, S.J. explains in his Introduction to Metaphysics, “Unity, truth, and goodness are called transcendental properties because they are true of every being as being” (179). That means that everything that exists is good in so far as it exists, and this goodness, this desirability or lovableness is intrinsic to the being itself and not dependent on the perceptions of humans. He continues, “Beings have metaphysical, or ontological, truth independently of human knowledge; so also beings have metaphysical goodness independently of our willing them” (192).”

***

“It is, of course, true that there are real difficulties of raising children, such as sleep deprivation and potential financial strain. But these are simply part of the reality of life. If we can accept that, instead of viewing this as a massive injustice, we can start to enjoy the goodness that is before our eyes instead of looking around it to view only our inconvenience. Our happiness is served when we embrace reality and work with it, instead of trying to fight against it.”

Full article here.

http://www.truthandcharityforum.org/children-are-good-regardless-of-our-feelings/

Book Review: The Gospel of Happiness by Christopher Kaczor

At times, an unnecessary tension exists between psychological research and Christian faith, but Dr. Christopher Kaczor has now written a helpful book to clear a path through that forest of tension. In “The Gospel of Happiness,” he highlights the many ways that positive psychological research agrees with practices of the faith, yet he manages to keep his distance and not blur any important distinctions, such as to claim that any of this research “proves” Christian doctrine, or make any unkeepable promises such as that becoming or being a Christian will make your life easier or happier. Who among us is perfect at this whole life thing, after all?

Kaczor acknowledges that “Freud’s atheistic materialism, and reduction of theism to a childish desire for a father figure as a savior from helplessness, exemplifies this conflict” (181). Yet this is not the end of the story. He continues: “the full history of psychology and Christian belief is more complicated and interesting” (181).

Overall, the book is worth reading, and it doing some of the exercises in the book did help me appreciate the people and things in my life more. One key is that it can only work if you are willing to let it, as in to actually try it. If you approach it cynically and assume it’s all a load of baloney, it would be hard to appreciate new things.

Without further ado, here are some of the most interesting and useful parts of the book.

For one thing, he gives a fully fleshed out definition of what happiness actually is: and surprise, it goes beyond feelings and possessions. The acronym PERMA sums it up. Yes, P is for positive emotions (joy, gratitude, etc). E is for engagement, actually participating in communities and activities that are inherently rewarding, and having experiences of flow and total engagement. R is for relationships, loving, self-giving relationships. (Love one another as I have loved you -Christ Jesus). M is for meaning, having a purpose, a connection to something higher.

And finally, A is for accomplishments. This one is interesting. It isn’t about social comparison, Continue reading

Hypocritical Christians Messing with Your Faith? 3 Reasons to Stay Calm

[This post appeared originally on the Truth and Charity Forum as part of my Faith Objections series]

“Fortunately, the Westboro Baptist Church, famous for the “God hates fags” signs, really are outliers. But generally yes, this criticism of the Church is resoundingly true; there are hypocrites among us. Even in smaller settings, I myself and my friends have run into petty bureaucracy and slights in the offices of our own local churches.

So, how can I continue to believe when the lived examples of believers so often fall short? When I myself fall short as well?

….

What are we to do then with this beleaguered institution full of fallible people, especially the Catholic Church which claims infallibility?

Three reasons that undergird my continued Faith are these 1) Jesus came to heal sinners. 2) The Church has both divine and human elements, and we human elements err frequently, but are still guided by the divine. 3) At a basic level, at least we are hypocrites; we fall short, but we have an ideal to aspire to.

Jesus Came For Sinners

When the Pharisees take offense at Christ eating meals with tax-collectors, prostitutes and other sinners, He answers them: “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). God sent His Son, Jesus, into the world precisely because we humans had screwed up; Christ is the remedy for the Fall of the human race in Adam and Eve. He came because we do sin, or perform misdeeds or hurtful actions, to use a more modern-friendly term, quite a bit. The entire role of Christ in the Incarnation is to draw us back to God because we can’t do it ourselves, though we do cooperate with our free will.

Hypocritical conduct is scandalous, and it turns people away from the Church, which is a true tragedy. Somehow though, Christ himself knew that sinners would be part of the Church. He taught, that there was a farmer, God, who sowed grain (the Church) in a field, Continue reading

Objections Series: Killing in the Old Testament: How Can It Be Just?

[This post appeared originally in my series on The Truth and Charity Forum]

One of the most troubling objections made to the Faith is regarding the instances in the Old Testament when God commands the killing of human beings who have committed no obvious wrong. There is the commandment that Abraham kill his son Isaac, though God ultimately rescues the young man (Gen. 22). There are also the commands to slaughter entire groups. In 1 Samuel, God commands King Saul as follows:

‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’” (1 Samuel 15:2-3).

abraham_sacrificing_isaacAdmittedly, this is one of the most difficult aspects of the Faith because it stems from a very natural proclivity towards valuing human life. And it bears mentioning that this is a secondary or even tertiary consideration after the question of the existence of God in general and the meaning of Scripture have been broached. To understand the Christian answer, both prior aspects are required. We believe in a loving God who is the source of all goodness and truth, even of all life and existence itself. The Catechism, drawing on the Old Testament and New, says:

“God, ‘HE WHO IS’, revealed himself to Israel as the one ‘abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness’. These two terms express summarily the riches of the divine name. In all his works God displays, not only his kindness, goodness, grace and steadfast love, but also his trustworthiness, constancy, faithfulness and truth. ‘I give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness.’ He is the Truth, for ‘God is light and in him there is no darkness’; ‘God is love’, as the apostle John teaches (1 John 1:5, 4:8).” (CCC 214)

Theologically, the answer to the question about the supposed murders lies in the application of natural law, “If murder is always wrong, how can God command it?” Natural law is man’s guide to goodness through reason, which St. Thomas Aquinas says is “promulgated by the very fact that God instilled it into man’s mind” (ST I-II, 90, 4). By it, we know that killing innocents is wrong; this is also the fifth of the ten commandments.

However, the Natural Law has both primary and secondary precepts, the latter of which God can rescind according to specific circumstances, the former of which He cannot as it would create a contradiction in His unity (Summa I-II, 94, 5). As God is the source of the bindingness of laws, it belongs to Him to make these laws valid. In the case of killing innocents, killing is forbidden because God both creates and destroys all human life; it does not belong to man to take this upon himself. Because God is the true author of life, He can delegate that authority, to beyond that.

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5 Benefits of NFP [Why We Don’t Contracept, Part II]

All natural, together

All natural, together

For those who keep themselves open to life, there is Natural Family Planning (NFP). NFP is a method of monitoring a woman’s natural fertility cycle to discern ovulation and identify periods when conception is likely and unlikely to occur. It’s pretty easy actually.

There are many positive things about NFP.

1)      It’s natural in the earthy, outdoorsy sense. This tickles the hippie turned earth-mother in me. NFP doesn’t require ingestion of any artificial hormones to trick the body. NFP respects a woman’s health and bodily integrity. It’s green. It’s organic. And the hormonal birth control pill is ranked by the World Health Organization as a carcinogen in the same category as smoking tobacco. NFP helps women stay in tune with their bodies.  That is also useful for noticing reproductive health issues.

2)      Couples who use NFP have to communicate and stay on the same page. NFP respects a woman’s natural fertility and requires honest and open communication between husband and wife. Women are not just sexually available to men all the time. With fertility always a possibility, husbands and wives treat each other as full persons with the potential to create life in every act. There must be profound trust and respect. (Obviously, many couples respect each other and communicate without NFP. The point is just that NFP is a boon to respect and communication, not a hindrance).

3)      It works! Continue reading