Pluck O’ The Irish

March 17, 2009

The things you learn from watching PBS:

In St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, there is a stained-glass window paid for by Benjamin Guinness (yes, that Guinness).  Guinness actually funded a major reconstruction of the Cathedral, and I believe this window was part of that. The window offers an interesting bit of allegorical interpretation, or spiritual exegesis: “I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink”!  Indeed.

Ash Wednesday

February 28, 2009

If it is true what Soren Kierkegaard says of the poet, that he or she is one “whose heart is torn by secret sufferings, but whose lips are so strangely formed that when the sighs and the cries escape them, they sound like beautiful music” then Elvis Perkins may be the poet par excellence.  Just a quick glance into the backstory of Perkins’ debut album Ash Wednesday (XL, 2007) shows that he is one well acquainted with sorrow.  Perkins, the son of the actor who played Norman Bates in Psycho, recorded the album over a period of roughly six years.  The recording sessions (like many events in many Americans’ lives) were interrupted by the attacks of September 11, 2001.  But for Elvis these attacks hit closer to home than just his own piece of the damaged American psyche.  His mother was on American Airlines Flight 11, one of the planes hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center towers.  And as if that wasn’t enough, this happened a day before the 9th anniversary of his father’s death, a death due to complications with AIDS.

One can then understand the canvas upon which Elvis paints the maladies and madness of modern society.  In “All the Night Without Love” he imagines loneliness as someone who would actually visit gotmilk.com and portrays our existence as waiting in line to place drive-thru orders and seeking connection in athletic insole displays inviting the consumer to “touch me.”  In “Moon Woman II” he puns on the community forged by the necessity of asking someone else for a lighter and the need for human connection: “Does anybody have a light/I’m cold as a stone/And it’s dark in the night/And I’m up here all alone.”  The album suggests that the root problem is isolation, the horror of being trapped within ourselves, and it voices the longing of human community and contact.  In Elvis’ world we constantly reach out for that touch but we’re always ultimately thwarted.

And so it seems Perkins finally yields to a kind of hopeless nihilism.  On the title track he warbles “no one will survive ash wednesday alive/no soldier no lover, no father no mother/not a lonely child.”  Thus Elvis voices the truth that Christians hold concerning Ash Wednesday.  As the beginning of Lent, the journey with Jesus to the cross, we recognize our utter mortality.  Everyone is equal before the power of death and despair.  And so we mark ourselves with ashes “dust you are and to dust you will return…”  In this we recognize our fleeting attempts and characteristic impotence to build any kind of lasting community.

But that’s not where the Christian confession ends.  For after being reminded that we are dust and ash, we are instructed to “…repent and believe the gospel.”  The gospel, the good news that God, in Jesus, put skin on and reaches out and touches, connects, holds, and ultimately bleeds.  And so it seems that the good news is precisely that no one will survive ash wednesday alive, for in that dying, we are opened to the new life which God brings on Easter, a time according to the Bible when Jesus will again reach out, embrace, touch, and be touched (John 20.19-31).

Elvis ultimately comes to this conclusion as well, as he ends the album with a song called “Good Friday.”  He realizes that the connection longed for on tracks 1-10 of his album, and the connection longed for in our daily lives, are found in the giving of “the body and blood.”  He finishes with the hope that “Though this life is Ash Wednesday…It forever approaches Good Friday.”  And we can travel that far with Perkins, and on to Easter morning.

This video was brought to my attention via Rusty’s Post.

Stephen Colbert would make the short list of people that I love. Of all the late night talkers he certainly has the most ability to converse intelligently with his guests, which makes for very interesting and entertaining television (and made the writer’s strike almost bearable). One of those recent guests was Dr. Philip Zimbardo, author of The Lucifer Effect (which inexplicably has black and red puzzle pieces all over the cover). I have not read this book, but based on how easily Mr. Colbert shredded his argument I can imagine it would be frustrating to get through.

Zimbardo explains that his task was to understand how good people became evil. Colbert asks if one can’t be good by following authority. Zimbardo then says that’s exactly what authority wants us to think, but there are a lot of corrupt and unjust authorities. And the best solution that he can come up with in light of this is “mindful and critical thinking,” i.e. a hermeneutics of suspicion.

But Colbert objects, “If they are unjust, they wouldn’t be authority.” With that one statement Stephen Colbert demonstrates that he has done his homework on Romans 13 and that Zimbardo’s argument is silly. Is every act of evil committed simply because someone didn’t question their social situation? How then do we measure a standard of good and a standard of evil? From what he says, it seems Zimbardo holds to a “Situation Ethics” without a measuring rod for each situation. This kind of thinking displaces guilt and responsibility from the person and hefts it upon society. It is not that the person has done a bad thing, it is just that they have not thought critically about the evils of the unjust authority before going along with it.

As Rusty points out, Zimbardo seems to hold to a dualism between good and evil, that these concepts are equal in stature and locked in an epic struggle for supremacy. Thus humans, according to this framework, can choose between either option. But Colbert objects to this when he argues that Good and evil started in the Garden of Eden. There was no “choosing” (Bonhoeffer states this well in Ethics) before original sin; to discern a good and evil already points to, in Bonhoeffer’s words, “a falling a way from [the human’s] origin in God.” In other words, in Colbert’s terminology, the devil critically assesses God’s authority and determines it to be unjust and this does not lead him to a choice between good and evil, but to a falling away from the origin of obedience to God’s authority which is the good. Evil is not another option opposed to the Good, evil is the absence or a falling away from the Good. Colbert understands this, Zimbardo does not–and so his argument gets even sillier.

Zimbardo goes on to say that if God were into reconciliation he would have admitted that Lucifer was right and God was wrong (presumably about free will and the ability to question authority) and he would not have created Hell to send the devil and all the evil people to. Colbert again rises to the theological challenge. He demonstrates that this Hell Zimbardo speaks of is not created by God, nor is it prior to the rise of evil but is in fact the human person’s removal of self from God’s love. Again, we have a sense of evil as not a thing, but as a deprivation, an absence or falling away from an origin. God doesn’t send us to hell, we place ourselves there by removing ourselves from God’s love, Colbert states intensely.

At this point, the only thing left for Zimbardo to do (as Colbert has just unraveled the argument of his nearly 600 page book) is to smugly say “Obviously, you learned well in Sunday school.” Normally this would render anything Colbert had said in the argument as irrelevant, but not this time. Colbert responds without a pause with the statement that comprises the title of this post.

This statement from Colbert demonstrates exactly the kind of “militant” Christianity that is needed in this post-modern, post-Christian world. Allow me to explain. Read the rest of this entry »