reflection

A Society of Shawn Spencers

–my latest over at The Mirror 

When Psych aired its last episode ever in 2014, it finished its career as one of the most popular TV shows of the past decade. Following the hyper-observant Shawn Spencer and his friends as he fakes his way around Santa Barbara pretending to be a psychic and solving crime, the show was heavy on the laughs and light on the morals. Predictably, as the central character, Shawn pretty consistently reflected the image of what many modern millennial Americans think of themselves: fun, hip, informal; independent and free-spirited and not bound by the traditional rules of operation; but basically good at heart.

But if that’s the case, then it’s also the case that Shawn Spencer reflects a lot problems common to the modern 25-to-30-something American guy. He comes from a dysfunctional family. He’s immature and struggles to comprehend how to be responsible. He’s scared of commitment. He doesn’t know how to hold a serious conversation with the people he loves. And, in his own words, he totally sucks at relationships. The climax of Psych takes place when Shawn finally brings closure to all of the many broken and problematic relationships in his life; when he takes the time to apologize, to come clean, to admit love, and to propose marriage to the woman he’s cohabitating with.

Other popular shows (from Friends to Burn Notice to How I Met Your Mother) frequently feature characters that share similar personal dysfunctions: broken home life and a terrible track record when it comes to relationships. It seems to be the standard for our generation. Want a character the millenial audience can relate to? Give him a terrible relationship with his (divorced) parents and a crippling inability to commit himself to a loving and fruitful relationship.

This repetitious stereotype of the millennials might have more truth than appears at first glance. Although men often bear the stamp of the stereotype more heavily, the women are typically no better than the men. They often give their boyfriends sex without even introducing the responsibility of fertility or even expecting the commitment of marriage. They vaguely hope for marriage “someday” or tacitly expect that their live-in boyfriends will get more mature with time, but they have no problem inviting them into the bedroom until then.

And why would they? Why would millennials seek or expect a more faithful and permanent kind of love? They simply don’t know a better functioning way to relate to one another.

The popular TV show characters aren’t so much encouraging a stereotype as they are simply reflecting a modern reality. As Shawn in Psych confesses his faults, we get a picture of his generation: a generation that sucks at “the important stuff,” at “engaging,” at relationships; a generation terrified of commitments. Generationally, millennials are putting off serious life commitments further and further or forgoing them altogether—because this generation has “commitment” issues. Hookups and cohabitation are the norm, not because this generation is particularly cowardly or lazy, but because dysfunctional families have become ordinary to them, and they don’t know to expect something better.

The fact is, most millienials have grown up in a world practically devoid of real examples of functioning, successful, committed relationships. They just don’t know at all what it looks like in practice.

Our parents and grandparents’ generations used contraception and divorce to take the responsibility and permanence out of the stable relationships which form the building blocks of society. They took life out of sex and love out of marriage and splintered and fractured the family unit in a million ways. For them, contraception and divorce made sex possible without permanence, without fidelity, and without consequences. Then, as millennial children were left behind to sort through the wreckage of these kinds of relationships, the digital revolution threw another stumbling block in their way. The widespread rise of porn made sexual pleasure possible without human relationship: sexual pleasure without any relationship to another person at all became a cultural standard.

But they know they’re not happy. They know these imperfect, even pathetic attempts at human relationships are not enough. Shawn (and his millennial fans) know the show can’t end without a happily ever after. They want love, and they want stability, and, somewhere in their hearts, they know the two need to go together.

When You’ve Lost the Culture War

Every day, I walk by the Capitol building in Washington, DC, along with thousands of other busy DC commuters.  On clear days, it stands out sharp and white against the skyline, a thing of beauty. And every day, when I pass it, I hear echoing in my head words from one of my favorite movies, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: “Look, it’s the Capitol Dome!”

(Except you have to say it like Jimmy Stewart, with a slight stutter: “L-look! It’s the C-Capitol Dome!”)

His companions roll their eyes, because it is very easy to lose one’s appreciation for being in the Capitol every day. Rookie Senator Jefferson Smith, played innocently by James Stewart, comes to DC with bright-eyed, eager enthusiasm to serve his country well and do some good in the world. Eager, that is, until he gets kicked in the gut by the gritty reality of politics in Washington. But he chooses to put his idealism into action, even if he loses the battle, rather than abandon it for the ways of the world. What happens to him is not unlike what Chesterton says happened to him in “The Ethics of Elfland.”

They said that I should lose my ideals and begin to believe in the methods of practical politicians. Now, I have not lost my ideals in the least; my faith in fundamentals is exactly what it always was. What I have lost is my old childlike faith in practical politics.

I’ve realized that “practical politicians” here in DC have long abandoned the causes I believe in. When the odd headline queries what GOP leaders will do about gay marriage, I almost laugh. I have little doubt what they will do. The culture is against them, and, fighting for the favor of the culture, they will probably comply. Recently, for the second year in a row of decisions that can only be expected in the current social climate, the Supreme Court, in the old “silence gives consent” method, tacitly legalized gay marriage in a slew of states, including the one in which I live.

What do you do when you’ve lost a cultural war? I know cultures change (at least in the last two centuries) all too quickly for perfectly accurate predictions to be made about where they’re headed or what is or is not inevitable. But during the week I sit in an office building in DC realizing that for miles and miles around me are people who, even on the slim chance they opposed it, could never raise their voices against gay marriage in any public forum without being utterly ridiculed and shouted down.

No matter how we slice it, the cultural tide, at least for now, has definitively decided that anyone who opposes “gay rights” is essentially ignorant, or hateful, and at the very least hopelessly outdated.

Let’s be perfectly clear about this: to continue to oppose the normalization of gay “marriage” in our culture is to take a stance which requires no little courage and will certainly rub some people (including well-intentioned loved ones) the wrong way. It will mean rejection and mockery. It will mean being branded as a proponent of hate despite the fact that all we want to do is help our culture seek authentic love above misguided acquiescence to gut passions.

I don’t know if there is anything we can compare this to. The rise of contraception? Maybe. But even that one is far more open to public debate in Catholic and secular circles alike. I think that this particular war is a war we have, for the most part, lost at this point in our cultural evolution. How do you battle something operating (falsely, a wolf in sheep’s clothing) under the banner of love? We simply don’t have a ready response.

All the arguers are now tired. They’ve run out of ways of repeating themselves to deaf ears. Like the disillusioned Jefferson Smith, we realize that no one is listening no matter how hard we fight. How do we change this? What will turn the tide?

The lucky thing about tides, I suppose, is that they always change. October 7th was the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, a commemoration of the Battle of Lepanto, which took place at a time when the tides were similarly lined up heavily against the kingdom of Christ. Christendom was splintering interiorly, with the Protestant Revolt, and was battered from without by Muslim forces–a situation not unlike today. But against all odds, despite the predictions of all the pundits of the day, something happened. The Battle of Lepanto was won by the Christians, armed primarily by the power of prayer. And for that era, Christian Europe was saved from utter destruction.

The consolation of living in the kingdom of Christ is that this kingdom is not my kingdom. It’s His. And He is no fool as a ruler. Ultimately, whatever is happening, however dire the situation appears to one who hopes for Heaven, we know that nothing will happen without His Providence directing it to serve a role in His ultimate plan of redemption.

So, what do you do when you’ve lost a cultural war? You keep fighting. In whatever way you can, in whatever means reason and faith dictate—and especially by prayer—you keep fighting. Speak the truth in love, even if you are met with hate. Even when it seems like a lost cause.

Because, after all, “Maybe lost causes are the only causes worth fighting for, Mr. Paine.”

 

When Love is Inconvenient

I spent ten days on a friend’s couch a few summers ago. I was interning in DC, and being from out of state, had nowhere to go between the end of the school year, the start of my internship, and the time that intern housing opened up where I was supposed to stay the rest of the summer.

photo cred: the guardian

With most of my belongings crammed in my car, I lived out of a suitcase or two for awhile, my compact life scattered around the tiny living room of my friend’s apartment.

That internship did a lot for me: helped me hone my career options, put some solid professional experience on my resume, and networked me a few references that I’m positive had serious impact on landing me the full-time job I have now. And in a partial way, I owe that to the generosity of my friend—since taking the internship would have been, oddly, considerably more difficult to arrange without her couch.

But she didn’t know any of that would happen. She didn’t have to put me up for ten days. She barely knew me, had graduated several years before I did, and the only claim I had to her friendship was that we had worked on the college newspaper together. But when I approached her with my awkward and rather desperate request, she welcomed me to her home, fed me, and put up with my mess and the fact that I had to use her shower and borrow her blankets for more than a week with not only social graciousness but real charity.

Often, when we think of charity, magnanimous but relatively easy actions come to mind. Dropping a dollar in the poor box; smiling at someone we dislike. (Which are truly charitable actions.) But while it is easy to envision ourselves fulfilling these neat, practical little acts of charity (at our convenience, when we remember, as we see the need), love doesn’t work that way.

What about those other times? When love isn’t convenient? When it isn’t easy? When it means disrupting our carefully balanced routine, dropping our hoped-for plans, putting us out of our comfort zone and even requiring that we be uncomfortable to help someone else?

Love often asks kindness when it is inconvenient; charity when it is annoying.

Love is to be there for someone who needs us when we really wish they weren’t having this crisis right now and when we feel sure we have more productive ways to spend our time.

Answering the phone when you’d rather continue what you’re doing; being patient with a child when you’re both feeling grumpy or tired. Offering assistance when it’s easier and safer to offer advice. Resisting the urge to just dismiss the homeless man on the corner with the thought, “Somebody will take care of him.”

In these ways, love asks more than we want. Charity turns its eyes to us and expects us to answer with generosity. As Paul said in the readings for today: “Love never fails.” When we succeed, when we choose to be other-centered, then that is love—whether it’s convenient or not.

Fragments Shored: T.S. Eliot and BASTILLE

In 1922, T.S. Eliot penned his now-famous poem The Waste Land, so cutting-edge in modern poetry that Regis Martin, in fact, recently called Eliot the “high priest of modernist poetry.” But if you have your ear to the ground in the world of pop music, you may be surprised to hear echoes of his sentiments coming from the indie rock band Bastille.

What do the 1920s American-English intellectual and the 2014 hipster band have in common? In a word: ruins. It may seem strange to suggest a rising rock star has an artistic gift comparable to that of a highly honored poet. Yet, there seems to be a certain uncanny similarity between Eliot and Bastille when it comes to their sensitivity to social collapse.

Eliot’s Waste Land is an eerie, confusing conjunction of rich images and obscure references, so bogglingly complex that most editions are heavily annotated with explanations. Shakespeare and Spenser, snippets of German, hints of Hindu literature, images of springtime in Europe, disjointed fractions of Psalms, and ancient Greek references are peppered through the poem alongside vignettes of modern life and details like taxis, horoscopes on demand, and contraception. Some readers complain that Eliot is simply showing off his knowledge of both Western and Eastern art and literature, making it seem almost incomprehensible to any reader less erudite than a studied intellectual like Eliot himself.

But the poem performs a valuable post-mortem on a Western world that has lost sight of its God. The keyword is fragmentation; someone once compared reading The Waste Land to sticking Chartres Cathedral in a blender and trying to make sense of the shattered fragments. The fragmentation of civilization—both in the sense of brokenness and of the dangerous compartmentalization of modern living—bears only the bad fruit of purposelessness, aridity, and an oppressive sense of ennui.

Both The Waste Land and Eliot’s doubly-depressing Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock reveal a deep sense of nigh-hopeless frustration at the emptiness of modern life, and a meticulous focus on ordinary, prosaic details to heighten the sense of lost meaning. “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” observes Prufrock glumly. The shots of the daily lives Eliot highlights are acutely depressing: after an evening of joyless sex, a typist’s lover leaves and she turns on music to drown out her thoughts.

Some snippets of The Waste Land demonstrate this fragmented picture of the living hell of the modern world:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow

Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only

A heap of broken images . . . . .

I will show you fear in a handful of dust. . . .

“My nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me.

“Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.

“What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?

“I never know what you are thinking. Think.”. . . .

“Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?”

. . . .                         The hot water at ten.

And if it rains, a closed car at four.

And we shall play a game of chess . . .

The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights

Her stove, and lays out food in tins. . . .

She turns and looks a moment in the glass,

Hardly aware of her departed lover;

Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:

“Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.”

When lovely woman stoops to folly and

Paces about her room again, alone,

She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,

And puts a record on the gramophone. . . .

I can connect

Nothing with nothing.

The broken fingernails of dirty hands.

My people humble people who expect

Nothing.

At the end of Eliot’s poem comes a hint of a happy ending, a salvation for these dead souls: an image of a king, a fisher king, emblematic of Christ, who brings fruitful rebirth and the chance to rebuild from the ruins: “Fishing, with the arid plain behind me / Shall I at least set my lands in order?” Finally, the closing lines of the poem capture its purpose: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” Witnessing the insidious destruction of the Western world in the hands of moral relativism, Eliot simply gathered up the pieces.

His insight was hardly shared by many of his contemporaries, but Eliot saw spiritual death eating away at the hearts of modern men like a rat at a corpse: cut off from the roots of faith and culture, they withered inside and sought all other remedies for their dryness—some cohesive force to hold together the broken fragments of their lives and give them meaning.

Since Eliot’s Waste Land dates from 1922, it is somewhat surprising to hear similar sentiments coming from the hipsters of today. The increasingly-popular British rock band “Bastille” can count a number of hits to their credit, including, “Flaws,” “Pompeii,” and “The Things We Lost In the Fire.” It is certainly a hopeful sign when a modern artist, writing what may be called poetry in its own way, shows enough artistic insight to notice some of the same things Eliot did.

Like Eliot, Bastille demonstrates an acute sensitivity to mundane and ordinary details and their cosmic importance to human life. In “The Things we Lost in the Fire,” which appears to recount the effects of a total and sudden loss of material possessions, the speaker focuses on the more personal, if commonplace, details that reflect a deeper loss:

Things we lost to the flames

Things we’ll never see again

All that we had amassed

Sits before us, shattered into ash. . . .

I sat and made a list of all the things that we had

Down the backs of table tops

Ticket stubs and your diaries.

I read them all one day

When loneliness came and you were away.

Oh, they told me nothing new,

But I loved to hear the words you used.

These are the things,

the things we lost,

the things we lost in the fire, fire, fire. . .

Similar thoughts can be found in Bastille’s “Pompeii.” Like Eliot’s Waste Land, “Pompeii” draws heavily on a foreign, ancient, and almost obscure reference, something that probably would not occur to most people when they sit down to write a pop song: an ancient tragedy, a city and it’s inhabitants suddenly reduced to a smoldering heap of fire and ash from Mt. Vesuvius.

The suggestive power of these images and their affinity to Eliot’s phrasing indicates that Bastille’s songwriter Dan Smith may be tapping into something more than merely hipster angst: a desperate sense of disappearing cultural and civilizational identity and an existential awareness of the brokenness that results from such a loss. A sense of fragmentation permeates their songs: Bastille can sense, as Eliot did, when the world is somehow falling apart, and their songs grope about searching for cohesion.

“Pompeii” exudes a particularly powerful sense of hopeless but ineffectual frustration at continuing communal disintegration, of abandonment and loneliness:

I was left to my own devices.

Many days fell away with nothing to show.

And the walls kept tumbling down

In the city that we loved.

Great clouds rolled over the hills bringing darkness from above. . . .

We were caught up and lost in all of our vices

In your pose as the dust settles around us

And the walls kept tumbling down

In the city that we loved.

In this wasteland, the speaker feels moral responsibility and the need to begin again: “Oh, where do we begin,” he sings, “The rubble, or our sins?” To have a sense of sin is actually a rather radical statement in the modern world. (As G. K. Chesterton once said, modernity’s response to the sin of, say, skinning a cat is to deny the existence of the cat.) After decades of expansive social engineering to justify, normalize, and even legalize sin, Bastille’s sense that we are sinful, that we actually have to take the blame for something and “begin” again afterward shows that no amount of social change can fully expunge a sense of man’s sinfulness from the human heart.

Still, Bastille’s reaction to the dire situation they face in “Pompeii” is almost desperate escapism: “But if you close your eyes, does it almost feel like nothing’s changed at all / and if you close your eyes, does it almost feel like you’ve been here before?” Even here, the speaker must admit the situation is grim, and doesn’t have an easy answer: “How am I going to be an optimist about this?” he asks, repeatedly.

Whatever Bastille’s inspiration or personal beliefs, their lyrics show hints of an authentic artistic insight which points to the same reality that Eliot outlined in The Waste Land. Like Eliot’s protagonists, they live in a postmodern problem, the Waste Land: a socially post-apocalyptic barrenness of cultural waste, things that have been lost in the fire of turbulent change, things which distance modern man further and further from what gives him meaning, his (Christian) roots.

But one thing, at least, very clearly distinguishes the psyche of the rock band from that of the 1920s intellectual:

Eliot knows the answers. Cultural renewal and rebirth from the Kingdom of Christ alone can heal the infectious wounds and deadened souls of the postmodern Western World.

But Bastille can only ask the questions, and eerily return to a sad and desolate refrain of fruitless search and denial: “How am I going to be an optimist about this? . . . If you close your eyes, does it almost feel like nothing’s changed at all?”

Blind


“Oh, no,” I thought, as I pulled into the church parking lot in search of a Mass. “Here we go again. The 60s in all their glory.”   Against the morning sky, the irregular silhouette of the brick building looked nothing like a church.

Abandon Hope, all ye who enter here.
I passed through the vast lobby into the angular church: sterile, bare, and plain. The one artistic touch was the stained glass windows, but I’m pretty sure I had seen them before–in the nightmare I had after reading Dante’s Inferno. Worst of all, behind the sanctuary the brown brick wall was broken only by a large, white square. The boring stucco outline reminded me vaguely of a parking garage. No colors, no aesthetic appeal. Just a blank backdrop.

To be fair, what the church lacked in design, the priest made up for in reverence. While I find it hard to feel I’m in a church when the decor tells me I’m in a town hall or modern art museum, by the consecration the “jaws-of-hell” stained glass windows had ceased to distract me.

But suddenly, as the priest raised the consecrated host above his head, it disappeared. I blinked in astonishment. Against the blank cream-white square of the sanctuary, the cream-white host was virtually invisible. “Behold the Lamb of God,” proclaimed the priest, as I could behold nothing but his raised hands and arms stretched up above the altar.  Just as I made an act of faith that the host was no longer bread but the Body of my Lord and God, so too I had to make an act of faith that the host was even there.  I simply could not see it.  My mind raced back to Thomas. “Blessed are those who do not see, but believe.”

Coming out of that church, I realized: when you paint your world one color, all distinctions and meanings disappear.  As I mused upon my invisible God and my blindness caused by the bad backdrop, it reminded me of another kind of blindness I encounter every day. “Why can’t they see?” I have cried in disbelief at the headlines I read this week. Radical gay-agenda activists are ranting more and more about “marriage equality,” and daily I discover that for many people, who man is and the purpose of sexuality have disappeared. They have gone blind.

What to me always has been, and always will be, an obvious and self-evident truth, is to them simply invisible. “Love is love,” they declare–a tautology disguising their ignorance of what love means. Their blindness is all-encompassing. Men can be women. Women can be men. Even children are sexualized to push the gender-destroying agenda. It is truly heartbreaking to witness their open-eyed delusion and wonder how they can be shown the truth.
LGBT activists chose a rainbow as their emblem, but I believe a blank, single color–like the wall of a parking garage–would be much more appropriate. They use one and only one standard by which to measure their actions: sexual satisfaction. Human nature, the love of God, natural order written in our heart–none of this matters to them. All that matters is the satisfaction of their sensual desires, even if they are self-destructive and unnatural. Blinded by their overriding misconception of love, they cannot see the reality of the love of God.

Ignoring the contrasts and harmonies of men and women in their God-intended roles, they obliterate distinctions between genders. They level all things by one crooked ruler, paint all the earth one color, all one theme: so it is not surprising that their ability to see the truth disappears. They deliberately discard the context in which sexuality is meant to be understood; so they cannot see what sexuality actually means.  Sex is for two inseparable ends: the loving union between a man and a woman in a permanent relationship, and the procreation of children as the fruit of that love. If you reject that–as we did in the 60s when we embraced contraception in our marriages and modern art in our churches–then the authentic context is gone and the truth disappears. Divorce, abortion, and gay marriage logically follow as steps along a blind path, deprived of the light of truth.

Soon the Supreme Court will decide whether to legalize gay marriage in the United States, and gay rights activists are pushing hard to erase all lines between men and women. Against the backdrop of their disordered desires, God’s design disappears and they can no longer see the truth; and they want everyone else to see it their way, too.
But though many will keep telling me, when it comes to differences between men and women, that there is nothing there to see–just as some tell me the Eucharist is only bread–I believe that men and women are intrinsically different. I believe God made it that way. And I believe that that is not only incredibly good, but incredibly beautiful. It may be a long time before we leave behind the inheritance of the 60s, the backdrop which robbed our churches of their designed beauty and threatens to rob our marriages of their beautiful design. But I know that even if we cannot see the restoration of truth in society, the truth is still there. The Lamb of God is still raised on high, invisible though He may be, and He still shall take away the sins of our dark, blind world.