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Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Winter of the Soul: A Spiritual Analysis of the Game of Thrones Pop Culture Phenomena

     Game of Thrones, the wildly popular HBO series based off of George R.R. Martin’s high fantasy book series A Song of Ice and Fire, is a presently unavoidable part of popular culture. Praised for its high production values, including acting, costuming, setting, and cinematography, and dubbed one of the “epic sagas of our times”, the program has sent fantasy-lovers flocking to it in droves, in spite of (or unfortunately, perhaps because of) the fact that is also infamous for its X-rated content and nihilistic themes. As the series continues, the pros and cons of viewing continue to expand, and some have questioned whether aesthetic quality is enough to justify the intake of such high levels of graphic material and to be following plot developments that are spiraling further and further from any sense of moral direction.
     Having only read analysis online and watched selected clips from YouTube (trudging through the gauntlet of gory death scenes and soft porn sequences is far from being on my to-do list!), I cannot claim to be any sort of expert on the full run of the series. Indeed, what got me interested in any exploration of the series in the first place was the fandom music of Karliene, which later led me to meet the gloriously eccentric association of hopeless romantics known as “The Sanrion Shippers” over at, dedicated to salvaging the doomed marriage of Sansa Stark and Tyrion Lannister from the series. That being said, all this has enabled me to identify some of the main themes which I would like to analyze from a Christian viewer’s worldview and spiritual perspective, particularly in light of Game of Thrones being frequently compared, both positively and negatively, to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
     The premise of Game of Thrones centers on a handful of noble families battling for control of the Iron Throne of Westeros against the backdrop of a pseudo-medieval setting with spranglings of magical powers and ancient prophecies thrown in for good measure. George R.R. Martin claims to have taken his main inspiration from a hodge-podge of happenings during the Middle Ages (the War of the Roses is the most obvious parallel: e.g., the family names of Lancaster/Lannister and York/Stark), but his synthetic adaptation is meant to be viewed through the lens of modern sentiment as opposed to the proper historical context. Instead of painting a full-bodied picture of the goods and the ills of the period, his world tends to portray everything “medieval” as dark and oppressive as opposed to focusing on the positive elements of its legacy. While brutality was certainly a reality of medieval society, there was also much beauty and virtue to be explored as well, especially involving the nature of the chivalric code and sacramental kingship.  

    Nevertheless, the plot-line, at least in its early stages, is fairly compelling and stands on its own apart from historical accounts. There is a richness of texture that makes the geographical, cultural, and political backdrop of Westeros believable and engrossing, made more so by the complex characters that are not easily labeled as either heroes or villains. This enables viewers to observe multiple sides of the conflict with a certain degree of sympathy for all parties involved. This is a direct carryover from the books, which literally do change viewpoints frequently, even when those characters are doomed to die down the road. And many are doomed to die.  Given the predictability of most other series and their hero survival policy, Martin’s almost gleeful slaying of sympathetic main characters shocked audiences with the reality that, in Westeros, no one was safe…not even the nearest and dearest of fandom central. Depending on your view-point, this could be refreshing or distressing.  

    Still the personality traits of the main players tend to be varied enough to make their interactions compelling and open up all sorts of possibilities for their personal development. It’s easy to become invested in their struggles and keep hoping against hope that they will have a happy ending. Indeed, it has been proven that personalities in GoT are far from static, and originally, there was reason to hope that more redemption scenarios might play out as a result. However, the opposite has been the rule, with almost all the likable characters either getting killed or morphing into vengeful, blood-thirsty anti-heroes. While there are one-time villains who have become more sympathetic via the experiences they have undergone, there are very few full conversion experiences to be had. 

    Although George R.R. Martin claimed to have been inspired to delve into fantasy literature by J.R.R. Tolkien, he made a point of setting his own works far apart from fantasies such as The Lord of the Rings, where one side clearly represents goodness and the other clearly represents evil. Martin explained that he was intent upon showing the human cost of the inter-family feuding in a realistic manner, something which he felt was sorely lacking in such stories as LotR, where orc extras die aplenty…and absolutely no one cares. He also stressed that he was not so much inspired by conflicts between “good” vs. “bad” sides going up against each other as he was by human hearts at war with themselves. Hence, he wanted to show that it is not so much dark lords and mystical rings that should fill us with a dread of evil, but rather our own natures (and given his capacity for warping out his characters, he’s obviously given this quite a bit of thought!).

    But it seems Martin is missing out on a major piece of philosophy within The Lord of the Rings, which sees mythological allegory for unseen realities to be a powerful means of expressing truth. As a result, the orcs are not so much meant to be individuals as representations of the perverting force of evil itself. Nevertheless, almost all the major characters in Tolkien’s literary universe are very much dealing with “hearts at war with themselves” as they struggle against the temptation of giving into the corrupting power of the One Ring. Frodo Baggins epitomizes this, and almost every major character experiences some internal turmoil the either results in their triumph or demise. Just because the majority of them are shown as succeeding in their internal struggles against evil (not all, mind you; Gollum, Saruman, and to a lesser extent, Denathor epitomize failure on this account), it doesn’t make the former is any less “realistic” than the latter.

    Indeed, such a stance would be giving the power of evil over the human soul far too much credit. While we are certainly capable of great evil and perversion, we are also capable of great good and virtue. Also, it is often the smallest acts of kindness that have the power to redeem and restore and bring good out of even the most horrible circumstances. Tolkien was keenly aware of this, while Martin commonly allows his story to be carried away by an undercurrent of cynicism and despair, showing that the only way to win in Westeros is by “playing the game” of corruption, deceit, and violence. In fact, learning how to do so is hailed as crossing over from childhood to adulthood, from naiveté to maturity, and most of the character arcs claim this utter dissolution of the soul for their climax. Sansa Stark, the once innocent daughter of a noble father, stands out as a prime example, as she is slowly transformed by the brutality she experiences into taking pleasure in brutality herself. Many have come to see this as an intended boon towards an extreme form of feminism that decries all traditional feminine virtues, and falsely promotes a penchant for blood-letting and devious political maneuvering to be equivalent to female “liberation.” 

     Not only does this become dull and repetitive, but it also creates a false dichotomy between being wise and being virtuous. It completely fails to comprehend Christ’s injunction to be “as wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” using a well-formed mind, heart, and soul to govern our actions. Furthermore, all these examples misrepresent the true nature of maturity which is meant to build upon those the lessons and morals we learned as children as opposed to disconnecting us from them. As our intellects sharpen and we develop in our understanding of the world around us, we must strive to keep our hearts pure and innocent so that we might enter the Kingdom of Heaven. To put it simply, eating from the tree of forbidden fruit of sin under the false promise of becoming like gods through our intellectual prowess is not the way to go. 

     But the other difference between Tolkien and Martin’s worlds can best be understood as a presence, and an absence, of the power of divine grace interacting with free will. In Middle Earth, most of the characters find the strength needed to triumph over evil, and even when they stumble and fall - as Frodo did many times when carrying the Ring, or Boromir did when trying to wrest the Ring away from him - there is still the ever-present, and very plausible chance of redemption through the sometimes small movements of the heart and the providential unfolding of events. It is the submission to a higher good, and the power of true love held in friendship, that ultimately saves the day. Even Gollum, corrupted by the Ring beyond recall, still has a vital part to play in saving the world because of mercy shown to him by Bilbo and later Frodo, even though he was undeserving of it. 
    In Westeros, on the other hand, the characters seem trapped in a vicious cycle of evil with little hope, or heart, to free themselves. Acts of kindness are far and few in between, and almost always result in disaster for those daring to perform them, with the implied warning that “no good deed goes unpunished.” The characters find themselves sacrificing decency as being too costly a commodity and simply submitting themselves to “the way things are”, learning the tricks of the terrible trade for survival and dominance. Also, it is interesting to note that Martin, a fallen-away Catholic, takes great pains to develop complex religious belief systems for Westeros (some which have striking similarities with the Catholic Church), but they are shown as largely meaningless exercises, whereas Tolkien, a practicing Catholic, never mentions God directly in The Lord of the Rings, and yet the Divine presence permeates Middle Earth through and through.  

     This affects the entire structure of the narrative, for while providence is the main guide in Tolkien’s world, making all individual stories subject to a Greater Story with purpose and meaning, individual stories in Martin’s world are randomly generated causations, without a focus on the common good holding together the whole. Although both use the premise of following multiple characters on separate journeys, the former knits these together through a higher power at work, forming the overarching backbone of the tale. The latter bends the rules of traditional storytelling to the point of breaking them, and sacrifices a sense of centralizing focus. Indeed, Westeros is a world of “sound and fury signifying nothing”, from careless sexuality, to character deaths, to spiritual philosophy. While some might make comparisons with Shakespearian tragedies such as Richard III, the tone of these works maintained a much deeper sense of moral order and analytical critique that kept the ship on a straight course.

    In the midst of this spiritual abyss, Martin also seems to have a hard time sustaining genuinely intimate relationships between his characters. There seems to be a constant barrier blocking the way to true love, or else assuring that it is brutally cut short and scattered to the wind. If even a spark of hope or chance for real redemption dare be enkindled through such relationships, it is almost certainly doomed to be snuffed out in the name of “realism.” Even according to the rule of percentages, this fails to be fair to the transforming power of love and loyalty found in countless real-life stories. If Martin is so insistent upon historical inspiration, I do wonder why he has not managed to integrate elements from any of these instead of always portraying the glass of life as being altogether empty of the milk of human kindness or, indeed, gratitude of kindnesses performed, which is a sorely lacking element.  

    If anything, it can be said that Martin has a knack for magnifying the depravity of humanity in all its ugliness…and tragically, some find it to be more than a little entertaining. One must wonder if this has anything to do with the author’s personal experiences of life or simply his adopted pessimistic philosophy which he sought to infuse into the natural law of his fantasy world. Either way, while he has spoken at length about his stories being “sophisticated fantasy”, Game of Thrones is infamous for gratuitous sexuality and violence – which are often combined for full throttle shock factor effect. This can be traced back to Martin’s own determination to make his readers “feel” the effects of the graphic sex sequences in his books, even those which fall into the most twisted categories.

     In contrast, The Lord of the Rings champions the beauty of chaste love and life-giving relationships as a very real and substantial alternative to debasing debauchery. Instead of turning sexuality into some type of illusory play-thing of the masses to fulfill perverse sexual fetishes, Tolkien shields it as an act of true intimacy, a decision which to my mind makes him far more “sophisticated” than Martin, and lives up to a much more positive and hopeful Catholic philosophy. Similar to his handling of religion, Tolkien uses the element of romance sparingly and yet with great depth and meaning, demonstrating the power of life-affirming love, whereas Martin splurged on the superficial and perverted and fails to capture the essence of the subject. This all emphasizes the fact that while Tolkien chose the focus more on the triumph over the soul over the world, the flesh, and the devil, Martin chose to focus on just the opposite, in almost all areas of the human experience.

     Does this mean that dark themes involving violence and sexuality should not be introduced into any form of fiction? Of course not. Indeed, they are often vital topics of discussion and analysis, and tragically do play a fairly large role in the story of our fallen humanity. But I think that there is always the danger of making darkness seem perversely glamorous if not properly contrasted with the light. In essence, if there is not some good that is being pointed to through the introduction of these themes, and they are meant to stand alone for their own sake, there is something seriously wrong. But it cannot even be said that the majority of these pornographic flings and blood-soaked massacres serve much more of a purpose than to provide a cheap ratings boost.  

    Even when dark themes are introduced for the right reasons, tasteful portrayals are often hard to come by. In daily life, no one needs to see extended blood-letting and sexual abuse sequences in live time. The themes can be explored in suitably tasteful ways without having to drag everyone through the highly disturbing filth in the name of what HBO decides is suitably “entertaining.” It is mocking the public intelligence to think that we need everything explicitly spelled out in order to get the idea or appreciative the gravity of the subject matter. In the process, it transforms tragedy and horror into a consumer commodity promising the dangerous thrill of a roller-coaster ride, desensitizing our souls and making us callous to human suffering.

     All of this has helped set a cynical trend in modern entertainment. Political intrigue replaces emotional depth, world-building complexity replaces lasting truths, and sordid sensationalism replaces committed relationships between characters. Since most people are more likely to be informed by pop fandoms such as GoT than by real history, the world of our ancestors continues to be chronically misrepresented and misunderstood. Instead of a critique of violence, the graphic content morphs into something of an advertisement for it as viewers become emotionally invested in the feuding. 

   Indeed, I used to think some of the reactions to The Hunger Games were a bit unnerving, with people seemingly just a bit too eager-beaver about the arena scenes. But by and large, that franchise managed to address the darkest issues with commendable taste and nuanced analysis, keeping faith with an underlying regard for human dignity and concluding the series with a deeply life-affirming message. As for Game of Thrones, the viewers are actually starting to take pleasure in pain, even if it was fictional, as the characters die hideously gruesome deaths on screen. One online commenter wrote that observing one of the characters suffocate was "music to my ears." Needless to say, this is disturbing, because the safety zone of fiction can easily cross over into real life reactions, as the characters are *still* human beings. 

    But there is a pervading sense that we should somehow be proud of those taking revenge and relish it’s sweetness with them. It is seen as being somehow strong and even noble. But this is not the way of Christianity, and indeed the story is not set in a Christian world. In fact, Westeros could be seen as an alternate vision of medieval Europe had it never converted to Christianity or adopted the moderating code of chivalry. But should there still not be some moral law? And is our culture so eager to rally behind "heroes" who are not heroes at all, and are we still failing to see vengeance for the weak and cowardly thing that it really is? True heroism is forgiving the unforgivable. It is loving those who hate you and praying for those that persecute you and never, ever becoming that which you are fighting against. Perhaps instead of pop-culture anti-heroes, it is time to turn to the lives of saints. For Christians, we must always seek to transform ourselves through the Grace of Christ and become more fully Human, made in the Image of God. Time to raise the bar.

     More subtly, GoT has can be used to validate Machiavellian politics and shadowy character traits. Instead of mixed characters simply being portrayed as sympathetic due to the human condition, their warped aspects are made to seem acceptable and even heroic. It becomes more important to be “clever” than to be good, which is seen as nothing short of dull and unrealistic. Indeed, not only unrealistic, but illusory. To quote the character Peter Baelish: “Chaos isn't a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail, and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some, given a chance to climb, they refuse. They cling to the realm, or the gods, or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.”
    This monologue summarizes much of the philosophy behind Game of Thrones. Survivors are the ones to root for, even if they get their finger-nails dirty in the process. Indeed, true conversion of life and redemption of heart come to be seen as undesirable and simplistic. This is reflected in other popular series such as Wolf Hall, which features Thomas Cromwell as one such sympathetic survivor anti-hero. In contrast, Thomas More, renowned for his moral integrity, is recast as a priggish, masochistic religious fanatic. Moral orthodoxy is swiftly passing out of style, and moral ambiguity (not just within characters, but within themes) is en vogue.

        But secondly, perhaps more profoundly, the celebration of anti-heroes simply reflects a growing ambiguity in society’s moral compass in which “gray is okay.” While fallen human nature is a fact of life worthy of sympathy, it is not worthy of applause. Indeed, we have come to the point when we are unable to sympathize with or applaud true acts of virtue and heroism. In the eyes of many, even the historical reality of Thomas More’s courageous refusal to betray his conscience at the cost of his own life, simply demonstrated foolishness and a lack of political savvy. Even with all his internal struggles, they find him a bore precisely because he actually did conquer his fears and stand firm in his beliefs. They find more appeal in Cromwell, who might have been willing to sell out his own mother for a farthing, but at least seemed to have “street smarts”…until even he overplayed his hand by hooking up Henry VIII with homely wife number 4, an act of critical misjudgment that cost him his head!   

    Frankly, this obtuse perspective seriously damages my faith in the present generation, which dreads being challenged to rise to something higher than a lazy embrace of their own vices. Also, it is making the horrendous mistake of giving too much credit to evil as being more “realistic” than good. This reminds me of the concept of evil merely being a shadow of good. Indeed, true Goodness is the only Real thing there is. Evil is actually a perversion of the good, a phantom that preys upon our weaknesses. Yet Goodness, by its very nature, can never be destroyed, for it flows forth from God, the eternal essence of reality, and will always win out in the end. Romans 12:21 instructs us: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  

     We must be reminded of that always, and that stories glorying in goodness never grow old. To quote C.S. Lewis: “Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker.” This has nothing to do with childish naiveté and everything to do with arming oneself for the fight with the theological virtue of hope. In almost the antithesis of Peter Baelish’s ode to nihilism and claim that climbing the ladder is all that counts, Gandalf encapsulates the philosophy of Tolkien’s universe beautifully in his recognition of what is capable of defeating evil: “Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.”  

     It is also worthy of note that the rare individuals who stand out as having strong moral back-bones in Game of Thrones are almost always doomed to wind up dead, usually on account of some virtue they were unable to part with or some act of mercy that came back to punish them. Again, we see the stark contrast between Tolkien’s Catholic worldview and Martin’s secularist worldview. Firstly, I would say that this portrayal of virtue as being inherently destructive, and indeed containing within it everyone’s “fatal flaw”, is a serious breach of understanding on the part of the author. However, we must concede that it is often true to life that we suffer for doing the right thing. As Thomas More points out in A Man for All Seasons, if virtue was rewarding in this world, everyone would be virtuous.  

    But virtue is rarely rewarded in the temporal sense, and we must not expect it to be in this world. It is often a thing that causes us to be scorned, and rejected, and sometimes destroyed. But the point Martin seems to be missing in his stories is that it is worth being destroyed over, a reality More embraced when he lay his head down on the block. In doing so, he was following the example of his savior Jesus Christ, who laid down his life so that all of us could be redeemed from the snares of evil and be given the grace to be transformed through Him. It is all a matter of what is real, and what is not. If this world is all there is, noble sacrifices are matters of stupidity. However, if the three transcendents of goodness, truth, and beauty do exist, such sacrifices exercise the pinnacle of wisdom.

     Virtue has value in and of itself, regardless of the consequences on this earth. In the end, life itself holds little recommend it if every good attribute is sacrificed in order to sustain it for a longer span of time. Death comes for the good and bad alike – the main thing is what state we are in when the time comes. For Christians, this world is not the end, and we hold out hope that everything will be set right on a higher plane. And from this same eternal perspective, the great moments in history will not be based on power and political one-up-man-ship, but rather on the intentions of the heart and each act of love performed, no matter how seemingly insignificant. In this light, perhaps the most courageous, mature, and proactive thing any of the GoT characters could do would be to willingly lose “the game” and save their own souls that they are gambling away far too cheaply. 

     Since Game of Thrones is as of yet an unfinished symphony, it is currently impossible to give it a full critique. Of course, there have been some moments of humanity, goodness, and worthwhile epiphany to be had, but considering the length and intensity of the series, they are fleeting and almost always reversed or rendered effectively null in later plot twists. Even many long-time readers/viewers are feeling increasingly disenchanted with the proceedings and decried them as “spiritually bankrupt”. After all, people tend to follow a story for characters they can connect with, and when they’re all dead, or otherwise have become despicable, a chasm begins to widen between the story line and the audience. This risks undermining Martin’s whole rationale for introducing key character deaths to begin with, as people are beginning to detach themselves from them, similar to the way they are detached from orc deaths, and simply accept it as a predictable part of the game.

    At this point, many of come to see Game of Thrones as something of a joke, trying desperately to out-do itself in grotesque displays and unusual means of inflicting death on characters, and feeding the fires of ever more bizarre fandom theories about far-fling-flings that result in the conception of interconnected characters X, Y, and Z. In the fanfiction community, the reactions range from the ingenious to the absurd to the obsessive as to how to save the storyline from what everyone can predict will be a typically nihilistic finale. It could accurately be called a form of therapy for the fans who find themselves consistently traumatized by developments and yet, much like the characters, cannot seem to extricate themselves from the vicious cycle of emotional abuse! Meanwhile, even the GoT actors seem somewhat desperate to reaffirm their off-screen identities, as they travel the globe proving that they are, in fact, “nice guys” whose hearts bleed for the unprivileged peoples of the planet.

    On a comic note, there have been more than a few hilarious side-effects of the series, including a flood of “brace yourself” memes, as well as cut-up jokes indicating that Martin’s marked inability to finish writing the series in a timely manner may have to do with the fact that he has, quite simply, hit a brick wall after turning as his characters into vengeful psychos, and that those characters may just decide to rub him out for the slam-bash finale! Failing that, if he carries out his threat to take umbrance with the fanfiction community over the use of his characters (possibly because he’s scared they might come up with a superior storyline than he has), the fan base might just take up the banner themselves! Also, in the interests of saving Peter Dinklage from having to go back to playing roles set in Narnia and the North Pole, and given how his appearance and psychological state as Tyrion Lannister has proceeded to plummet, some sci-fi fans have mercifully offered him the option of metamorphisizing into…a Star Wars Ewok! ;)  

     Although Martin has hinted that he might try and give the series a “bitter-sweet” ending (after 2 or 3 more volumes…and his retreating from the public light, aside from giving the odd interview in which he slobbered over the sorrow of having to “part ways” with his beloved, albeit demented, characters at the series’ close), the current state of affairs indicates that it has already plunged into the forest of no return. Indeed, after the last plot twist has twisted, and the last shock factor sprung, and the last act of retribution accomplished, what will people be able to look back and remember as a lasting legacy of the program? Catch-phrases? Contortions? OMG moments? Will anyone really care who winds up sitting on the Iron Throne when the curtain closes, if the Iron Throne still exists at all (which, according to some fandom theories, is far from a certainty)? If there is not some deeper message to be taken away, then Westeros may well become the proverbial house built on sand that will be washed away by the sea of time.  

     Yet Tolkien’s Middle Earth, often disparaged in the face of the latest hype, will endure. The reason is that, as Sir Peter Jackson pointed out, it is a triumph over the grips of cynicism and an ode to the deepest realities of the human experience. Indeed, to come full circle to the comparison with The Lord of the Rings, I think that Samwise Gamgee’s words are the ultimate worthwhile pay-off: “There’s some good in the world…and it’s worth fighting for.” Maybe this is the most profound element of J.R.R. Tolkien's works of which George R.R. Martin's saga seems to have lost sight while getting caught up in exploring the depths of depravity...there is always hope. And goodness. And light. And it is more “real”, in the purity of the word, than evil, and people can embrace it fully and passionately, and it is only through this embrace that they will be able to break the back of hate.




Sunday, June 26, 2016

Pilgrim Eagle: A Review of Charles A. Coulombe's

“This above all: To thine own self be true.”
 William Shakespeare
     Puritan’s Empire by Charles A. Coulombe is a unique tour-de-force of American history from a Catholic high traditionalist perspective. Spanning the colonial period to the modern day, the narrative is tightly-woven and comprehensively arranged. The sheer length and breadth of the volume is a testament to a lifetime’s worth of research. Although some sections are dry, the colorful anecdotes and personal analysis interspersed within the book keep the reader remains engaged, regardless of whether or not they agree with the author’s conclusions.    
    As mentioned above, the narrative is being told from a traditional Catholic perspective, and thus is unlikely to coincide with viewpoints espoused by mainstream Catholics and those of differing religious persuasions. I consider myself to be a mainstream Catholic, so my commentary reflects both where we agree and disagree, with all due respect to the esteemed author.

     I really appreciate the way Mr. Coulombe conveys the notion of sacramental kingship within a Catholic society and the nuances of the class system from days of yore. He emphasizes the nature of noblesse oblige as both a privilege and a responsibility, with each layer of the system integrally bound together through a trickle-down of interconnected duties. This was refreshing, given that I often find myself deeply frustrated by modern historical dramas which mangle the social structures of past eras by viewing them through a modernist lens and burdening the past with present perspectives and behavioral norms.

    Many of my favorite characters in history came from the upper classes, and yet still demonstrated great courage, skill, and honor, as opposed to being the foppish and cruel caricatures portrayed on screen. As with all groups, they were mixed, but undeserving of the cookie-cutter negativity reflected in popular culture. While the class system is hard to defend on the basis of equality, it did prove a vital part of preserving civilization during the Dark Ages. Afterwards, it made it possible for fairer societies to emerge for future generations.

    As a Royalist sympathizer, the author always sheds light on the philosophy and plight of monarchists from across the historical timeline. For example, one of my favorite sections gives a detailed overview of the Loyalists during the American Revolution. He not only covered the individual conditions of the Tories in each of the thirteen colonies, but also highlighted the Catholic support for King George III, as exemplified by the Catholic Scottish settlers in the Mohawk River Valley and the Irish Volunteers from Philadelphia.

     These heroes of a lost cause are often overlooked in favor of the Catholic supporters of independence, such as the prominent Carroll family of Maryland. As a long-time student of the British perspective, it was very pleasing to see them finally getting their due. Coulombe also gives King George himself a fair-handed and sympathetic treatment, countering the theory that this much-maligned monarch was a tyrannical madman. This is certainly welcome when most historians focus on his losses and later illness rather than his humanity.

    On the flip side, the book tends towards a decidedly harsh view of The Enlightenment and the interconnected ideas that spawned the age of Revolution during the Long 18th Century. My response to this would be to point out that The Enlightenment, just like The Renaissance, was a flowering of learning and culture that in of itself was greatly beneficial. Humanism is fully compatible with Catholic teaching, so long as it does not take the place of the Divine in the hearts of men. It is all a matter of balance, just as every virtue is a balance between two opposite extremes. Indeed, the Enlightenment emphasized the importance of this, which is why the “Enlightenment Man” was quite similar in his ability to change hats as the “Renaissance Man”, learning a variety of practical and artistic skills that made him a more well-rounded human being.

   With regards to Deism, while it is certainly incomplete from a Catholic perspective, it still managed to make out the divine presence revealed in the light of the sciences, mathematics, and creation. This actually fits into the “reason” part of Catholic teaching quite well and provides an ample amount of common ground to stand on. The missing component is the “faith” part, embracing the concept of divine interaction with humanity through revelation and miracles. Nevertheless, I still find historical Deism much more commendable than a denial of God of altogether, and there is always hope that faith will come forth from reason.

     Another part of the book I appreciated was the author’s marked enthusiasm for the world of literary achievements. He delves into the major names and artistic movements with ease, and deftly explains the natures of the different literary inspirations and how they related to the historical periods in which they sprang up. I particularly enjoyed his description of the differences between the Age of Reason and the Age of Romanticism in art and culture. I can appreciate elements of both, and feel that they actually manage to complement each other rather well if held in check.

   Again, perhaps this is another manifestation of the marriage of faith and reason that is so much a part of Catholicism. We may see God both in ordered realities and scientific precision, but also in the supernatural, the mysterious, the symbolic, and all the things that fill us with that awe before the divine which C.S. Lewis calls “numinous.”  So it is with being able to appreciate the rational elegance of the Enlightenment Period and the wild, folkloric beauty of the Romantic Age. The author accurately points out that reason without romance fails to satisfy the soul, and yet romance without reason leads to reckless abandon and spiritual anarchy.

     All this ties into another fascinating topic introduced in the book, dealing with the effect of the J.R.R. Tolkien on the “hippies” and “flower children” of the 1960’s. While Tolkien himself was an orthodox Catholic with traditionalist leanings, The Lord of the Rings managed to capture the imaginations of those seeking something decidedly “out there” to fit their new identities. It was a time of change and turmoil, of both moral awakening and moral distortion, but through all of this, the story of the simple hobbits facing the depths of depravity in order to save the good in the world resonated deeply. Indeed, it tapped into an underlying need for hope in the midst of chaos that made it an international sensation.

     Continuing on in the realm of the arts, the author does an excellent job covering the story of the entertainment industry in America. Similar to the mythology surrounding the Wild West, the notion of shooting to stardom has ingratiated itself into the popular psyche. As the daughter of an entertainer who spent much of his life performing for celebrity gatherings in and around Hollywood, this topic has always deeply fascinated me. Mr. Coulombe brings to light both the triumphs and tragedies of the business, as well as the massive influence it had on Americans, and ultimately world-wide cultural development. For better or for worse, it is a business built upon the art of storytelling, and as such carries immense clout. As Catholics, learning the history and nature of the craft is vital in helping change the culture for the better.

     Mr. Coulombe takes an interesting view of America’s Civil War, demonstrating the many complex motives behind the movers and shakers on both sides. He accurately portrays Abraham Lincoln as being more concerned about preserving the union than liberating the slaves (although the slavery issue was still an important one to him, and he did desire it to come to an end), and the fact that many southerners who fought in the war actually never owned slaves. However, I disagree with his glorification of the agrarian life and southern aristocracy. While there are good elements present in every society, such a system of injustice built upon slave labor and impoverished tenant farmers could not have continued unchecked into the modern age. I believe the romanticism for “moonlight and magnolias” is largely misplaced, and willingly overlooks the suffering of the majority who made the pleasure of the few possible.

     Furthermore, although no one doubts that the South went through a great deal of suffering during Sherman’s March to the Sea (although I have a feeling it evened the score on how much suffering they inflicted on their own people, black and white), Mr. Coulombe refers to this as “unequaled by anything in the annals of Christian armies.” I simply cannot grasp this given how many brutal and barbaric campaigns were carried out in Europe alone, not to mention the New World continental conflicts, which involved all sorts of barbarity and blood-letting, using fire and sword to wrest control of the land. Sherman was simply following that long tradition of making war hell for the rebellious populace.

    Lastly, I cannot concur with the concept of some type of Utopian settlement for the continent if the south had achieved their independence. There is no guarantee whatsoever that slavery would have ended “naturally”; given the intensity of the “states rights” arguments in favor of slave owning as one of those “rights”, it would likely have been an agonizingly slow death to say the least. As Lincoln himself indicated, the only way to root out the evil seemed to be through blood. If that was the price, then the blood was well worth shedding. The way of the Old South was dying hard, but the seeds of a more just society were being planted. Democracy was finally getting the chance to assert itself, and even through the torturous years of segregation and racial prejudice, everyone knew there was no turning back.

     Another area of note was the way the author covered Queen Isabella of Spain. I appreciate his overview of the achievements of this very powerful and pious woman, and how her legacy affected the history of Christendom and the Age of Discovery. Indeed, he lent a fascinating background to the voyages of Columbus and others as not simply a search for New World riches but also missionary endeavors. That having been said, I strongly disagree with the author’s method of defending Isabella’s expulsion of the Jews from Spain. While Mr. Coulombe does make some valid analysis appealing to a wider historical context, he then proceeds to make a theologically-driven implication about non-Catholics being “outside salvation”, which he indicates would somehow justify them being cast out of their homes.

    Firstly, I would respond that even if mainstream Catholicism backed this harsh spiritual judgment against non-Catholics, it still would never justify any physical maltreatment of the aforementioned; and secondly, over the past 60 years, Catholic teaching has embraced an ever-broadening understanding of “Baptism by Desire”, and the nature of what it means to actually be a “member of the Church”. Ultimately, this is determined by the individual’s relationship with the Holy Spirit as defined by their ability to live out the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, not the exactness of “club membership”.

    Although the sacraments are invaluable portals of grace found within the Catholic Church alone, any soul truly seeking the truth and acting upon it to best of their ability is well within the bounds of divine grace. Indeed, being human makes them inherently equal to us before God, and God is the only one capable of judging the state of souls. Some may perceive this to be an alteration of traditional Catholic doctrine instead of a broadening of understanding, a shift of interpretation, and an opening of windows to allow in a fresh breeze while still upholding the time-tested structure. But the Church is a living, breathing organism, like the Tree of Life. It is always growing, always expanding, and yet springing forth from the same seed of Truth planted by Jesus Christ.

     So while Isabella was certainly a woman of her age, complete with her own unique prejudices and theological preconceptions, we need not feel the need to defend her actions on these terms. However, the author proceeds to applaud Isabella for not unleashing a Jewish genocide: “But she did not desire the death of sinners, but that they should live.” This might easily be construed as equating the practice of Judaism with sinful living, and to suggest that religious persecution of this type is somehow acceptable as long as no one dies. Other references to Christian-Jewish relations raised in this book may raise some eyebrows as well, including the injunction that Christians should send Christmas cards to Jewish acquaintances in an effort to bring about their conversion.

     As someone with Jewish friends myself, I respect their own customs and traditions very much, and would affirm them wherever I can, especially where our spiritual journeys overlap in the celebrating of events from the Old Testament. While it is certainly possible for Jewish people to come to the conclusion that Yeshua is the fulfillment of their own Messianic prophecies, I would never wish to be seen as trying to force my beliefs upon them, especially given our admittedly rocky past history of mutual mistrust and prejudice. It is a matter between them and God. Furthermore, Sephardic culture of the Jewish community in Spain holds a special place in my heart, and the scattering of that culture was a tragedy equal to the misplaced Catholic Irish and French Acadians because of religious intolerance.

     Following this trend, Mr. Coulombe makes reference to Protestants featured in his text as “heretics”, even those who were never Catholic to begin with, and tends to negatively portray most major interreligious dialogue efforts. This includes the efforts of Archbishop John Carroll to assimilate the Catholic community into American life and his failure to do more to convert Benjamin Franklin, although Carroll did care for him when he was ill and struck up a life-long friendship with him. Other names to be brought up disparagingly include Cardinal Gibbons and Cardinal Spellman, both pillars of the Church in America. He also expressed his view that Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen’s popular TV program “Life Is Worth Living” did not make a concentrated enough effort to convert the nation to Catholicism. The Baltimore Catechism also comes under fire as being too modernist.

     In the last section of the book, Mr. Coulombe inserts Paul Blanshard’s “Catholic Master Plan”, which was originally meant to paint a mocking portrait of Catholic teaching for the benefit of xenophobic Protestant Americans. It was intended to make the Church out to be a theocratic tyranny bent on suppressing religious freedom, banning secular schooling, forbidding civil divorce, marriages with non-Catholics, etc. However, the author actually seems to support most of the assertions as being an accurate description of Catholic social teaching in action. The author states as follows: “Yet this is precisely the sort of measures Blanshard describes which are required to save the nation from the twin threats of dystopia and bloody anarchy which appear to await us. Obviously, they are the bare minimum; but think on the benefits which could accrue!”

     I think much of the problem here is the assumption the author makes that “the primary reason for us being here is to make more Catholics.” I would counter that the primary reason for our being here is to show love through living out the virtues at the heart of our faith in Christ; He is the one in charge of any and all movements of the soul towards Him, not any force of human power. Indeed, we must do good out of love for God and neighbor, not as a slippery way of tricking people into the Church. Some things are simply good and beautiful in and of themselves, with no strings attached, and are meant to be relished on that account.

    At the same time, we demonstrate the true essence of being a Catholic Christian to the world by living fully “in the world, but not of it.” To be holy is to be more fully human, and that should be the defining factor of our lives, as opposed to creating a check-list Catholics we make. It is only through this that people will get an accurate idea of what being Catholic is really all about. As St. Francis said when asked why his monks did not preach when doing good works among the poor, he responded, “We did.”

    Of course, we should have the courage and conviction to share and defend our faith, and if someone expresses interest in Catholicism, we should do all in our power to aid them in their spiritual journey. But we must never view human beings as mere projects to work on, but rather truly appreciate them for who they are and develop genuine relationships with them. Each and every human being has the image of God stamped on their souls, and entering into loving relationships with them is of inestimable value in and of itself.

     Furthermore, with regards to our country, I see patriotism as a true love for our land and her freedoms and people, apart from any desire that she become a Catholic state. Indeed, I prefer to live under a government unattached to any established religion so that all of may have equal opportunity and freedom to profess our own in the way we see fit. This is another piece of the Enlightenment legacy, that the law of the land should common good of its citizens, while at the same time refraining from meddling in matters of the individual souls, such as religious belief or sexual morality.

    Mr. Coulombe says that “error has no rights”, but the fact is that people do by virtue of their free wills. Catholicism is more than capable of flourishing in such an environment where the rights of all are suitably secured. We should not see ourselves as infiltrators at war with American society, but rather as a true-hearted part of that society with the goal of making it a better place in which to live, and by extension, to do our best to bring justice and peace to the world. The Jewish tradition of Tikkun Olam comes to mind here, meaning “to heal the world” or “construction for eternity.”

     There is also an overarching attitude projected by the author that everything uniquely American is decidedly lesser that the original European version, that any achievement in favor of the American dream should be met with a mild cynicism. Perhaps I am a romanticist, but truth be told, I do believe we are a “city on a hill”, imperfect to be sure, but also a great force for good in the world and a history of tragedies and triumphs that I am nevertheless proud of to the depth of my being. My country may have many hurdles to overcome, but she has many wonderful qualities as well. Seeing all the goodness she has to offer, I do not despair of her future. I am a part of her story, the fabric of her flag. I do not worship her, and yet I love her as I love a mother, and would defend her and work to her greater good for her own sake.

    I do, however, totally concur with Mr. Coulombe on the necessity of rejuvenating our Catholic culture in America alive by continuing to maintain our liturgical traditions and tell the most reassured stories of our heritage. I love the concept of a Catholic cultural revival, bringing back the traditional prayers, songs, prayers, and customs associated with individual feast days and liturgical seasons. We should absolutely “keep Advent until Christmas, and Christmas till Epiphany, feast at Carnival and fast during Lent.” In all this, we should enkindle a sense of community with our fellow Catholics and celebrate together the glories of our faith, and all the epic twists and turns of our redemption story. After all, our liturgy is a great tapestry of interwoven stories of heaven touching earth, and transforming it by that encounter.

    Christ ate, drank, and made merry, as well as fasting and undergoing the ultimate suffering and sacrifice. We follow in his footsteps through these celebrations that mean so much to our life of faith. Furthermore, just as Christ sat at table with the most diverse array of people, we should let these celebrations be an opportunity to keep open our hearts and doors to our non-Catholic friends and neighbors to share the many moods of our faith with them. In the same way, we should also accept the invitations of our non-Catholic friends to partake in their celebrations in any way that is not contrary to our faith and affirming the elements of truth in their own. This enables to finding of that precious common ground on which we all can stand as spiritual beings living the human experience.

     So all things considered, I found Puritan’s Empire to be a fascinating read with a decidedly unique perspective. It certainly engaged me intellectually, and encouraged me to explore more deeply the role of faith in American society and beyond. I would recommend it to anyone interested in getting a better understanding of traditional Catholicism, even to outsiders looking in, as myself. It certainly helps to open up topics for further dialogue. It is available for purchase on Tumblar House ( as are other books by the same author. In closing, I would like to remark that, in both agreeing and disagreeing, I do respect someone willing to speak their opinion truthfully, as I always strive to do in my own writing and reviews. As Shakespeare said, “This above all: to thine own self be true.”


Saturday, June 11, 2016

He Is Who He Is: A Review of Bernie Sanders' Visit to Gettysburg College

      In my capacity as a magazine editor and correspondent, I had the intriguing experience of attending a town hall meeting hosted by Gettysburg College. The guest of honor was none other than the ever-eye-brow-raising Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont (well, from New York really, but he represents “White Christmas” country so…yeah!). As it was quite the memorable excursion, with historical connotations, I shall give it a brief run-down with some of my spiritual take-aways to boot.

     My first brush with Bernie came early on in the election cycle, when I heard his voice emanating from the radio in our kitchen during the first democratic primary debate. My ears immediately attuned to the Brooklyn accent so thick you could cut it with a knife, and a certain sense of familiarity swept over me. At first I thought it was simply because my parents and their extended families both came from Northern NJ/NYC. While my parents’ own accents have lessened greatly and I sound like a true native of Maryland (well, except for perhaps the odd word!), there is something about those guttural tones from “the old country” that continue to strike a deep chord. 

     However, during one of Bernie’s later speeches to his adherents, I came to the conclusion that the sense of subconscious connectivity also derived from the fact that he actually sounded a lot like Readily-Deedily, the dragon puppet character from a NYC-based kids’ show that helped teach me how to read as supplemental viewing! These zonky associations aside, I admit that something about his general demeanor made me feel that, policies aside, there was a certain sincerity and determination about him that was bound to win grudging respect from both sides. This was heightened all the more by the prospects of Clinton and Trump looming large as the front runners.
     So as time passed, there was something of a *wink, wink* joke in my house whenever Bernie was heard. And funnily enough, the more we teased, the more he seemed to appear everywhere! On FB, “Feel the Bern” videos popped up aplenty, the most memorable being the famous incident involving a disoriented bird flapping around on stage and landing on Bernie’s podium while he was in mid-speech. The most hilarious part of this was the intimidated grin plastered on his face, as if the “wittle boid” (his words!) were some carnivorous canine preparing to nip of his nose unless he could successfully mollify it! 

     He proceeded to attach an off-the-cuff application to the event that identified said feathered guest as “the dove of peace”. My thoughts: “Dude, that ain’t a dove. Check out the Dictionary of North American Wildlife.” But still, I along with the rest of the online world had to admit it was kind of cute…even if it did sort of resemble William the Conqueror taking a tumble after disembarking from his ship, and then proceeding to convince observing troops that the ground of England was really trying to embrace its rightful king! 

     Nevertheless, the media exploded with references to “Feel the Bird” and “Vote for Birdie”, brandishing a whimsical warbler with spectacles! Some even went so far as to say it was “a sign from above” (some of the Pagans who back Bernie’s environmental policies insisted it was a cue from the Mother Earth Goddess), and a proof that animals are good judges of character…er, I guess because the bird *did not* bite off his nose?? Lastly, there was the inevitable Hunger Games connection, saying that he had been selected to be America’s Mockingjay and was destined to challenge Capitol corruption. Win, lose, or draw, his gallant up-hill battle and victories in the face of the political machine make the connection all the more viable. 

    There were other Fandom reactions to the political goings-on as well. More than a few online communities of Trekkies, suitably dedicated to the Universalist ideals of the fictional Federation, seemed quite enamored with Bernie, and posted out plenteous posters on his behalf. One involved an image of Spock telling Kirk that this was the moment when one of the most powerful earth republics finally embraced the principles that would usher in the era of the Federation. Given that Bernie’s viewpoints do rather resemble those of both Gene Roddenberry and Leonard Nimoy, I can’t say this is totally out-of-turn. But in Middle Earth loving centers, I was rather surprised to see a photo-shopped image of Gandalf as Bernie, wielding a staff and bellowing “You shall not pass!” as a giant Balrog with Trump’s head on it lunged towards him! Can’t say how the traditionalist Tolkien would handle having his works hijacked for far left promotional purposes, but it did give me a good chuckle. 

    Lastly, who could ever forget the folk songster efforts of said candidate, whose tones bear such a strong resemblance to Leonard Nimoy’s flat-as-a-squirrel-run-over-by-a-truck vocal range which he exhibited when taking a hiatus from being Mr. Spock of the Enterprise? For Bernie, it was a matter of ancient flower child tradition, and he inevitably participated in a folk album in which he “sang” (more like orated, in flawless Brooklynese) “This Land Is My Land”, which turned into his unofficial campaign anthem. However, it’s worthy to note that at one of his televised rallies, the folk band on stage seemed hesitant to incorporate Bernie in their performance. Even when the eager-beaver senior meandered towards the main mic, mouthing the words, they seemed to have made a pact to ignore his efforts to join the fun altogether! Nevertheless, as one YouTube observer remarked, Bernie’s music videos were so un-cool, they bounced off the Richter scale, boomeranged back, and became ultra-cool! 

     With all these amusing connotations fresh in my mind, I learned that Bernie would be making a visit to Gettysburg College a mere 20 minutes from home (on Earth Day, of all days). So, with nothing better to do, I decided I might as well get a piece of the historical action. Thus, brandishing a media pass, I headed off with my dad to see what could be seen at the campus, as a representative of the Catholic youth of the Harrisburg Diocese. There are a number of things that left an impression on me during the experience which I shall do my best to list. Firstly, I was pleased to discover that our local Bernie supporters, while certainly enthusiastic, were not the crazed revolutionaries marching through Red Square that some media sources made them out to be. Actually, by and large, they seemed quite friendly and welcoming, even though it was clear that were not endorsing their candidate. 
     Interestingly, in the top bleachers, a certain sense of camaraderie developed as everyone tried to save each other’s seats, and I ultimately wound up baby-sitting for the children of one of the Sanders Delegates. The three of them (two girls and a boy between the ages of 5 and 9) were really quite fun to “state out” with, as we held the seat for their mom out preparing for Bernie’s arrival. The little boy was actually celebrating his 5th birthday, with an appropriate sign declaring it to the world! This also resulted in a cupcake devouring fest, although the 11 year old was technically “cheating” as she had just had braces put on her teeth after a recent jaw operation, and her dad, who was one of security volunteers, had beckoned to her repeatedly to come down from the bleachers to take her medication (which she did, deftly navigating the tricky stairs that we warned her to go slowly on lest she take a tumble). But hey, you know, for special occasions and all…cupcakes go a long way! 

     Later on, some young guys from the college wound up sitting in front of us. In souvenir hunting mode, my dad and I had been trying to obtain a Bernie sign to prove we had been there, but they had all been handed out already to the real supporters. Leaning over to the dudes in front as they chatted about hanging their signs in their dorm, my dad teased, “Do you guys have a monopoly on those?” Without a second thought, a curly-haired, fresh-faced young man had given us his sign “for the memories.” Of course, it could have been because the kid was secretly smitten by me (*blush*), or dad managed to shame his socialist conscience into redistributing, but even after I inquired if he was sure about his decision (after all, he was a fan, and I didn’t want to deprive him!), he still insisted we keep it. 

   We had the same positive experience with the members of the Sanders Campaign. As opposed to scruffy looking radicals, we met several young men in suits and ties, brandishing Bernie buttons but not seeking to force their preference on us. They were courteous and respectful, and were invaluable in helping us obtain some more souvenirs such as a pen and a sticker, and helping us get our bearings in general. The Gettysburg College staff was also highly professional during the course of the event, making it clear that the college made no political endorsement, but rather was hosting this event for the education of anyone who wished to participate. However, one of glaring down-sides of the event however was the unexplained and extended tardiness of the guest of honor! Not only was he “a little late”…but a good 3 hours overdue! Indeed, the Bernie-loving natives and unbiased observers alike were getting quite restless. I can’t count how many times the cry of “Let’s go, Bernie, let’s go!” rose from the throng. Seriously, I’ve never seen such a fuss as when the guy with the water pitcher came out to the fill the glasses set up for speakers! 

     When Bernie finally did show up, it was something of an anti-climax. Truth be told, those expecting to encounter a wild-eyed firebrand would be sorely let down as he hobbled around on stage reciting a segment of “The Gettys-boig Ad-wess.” Frankly, by all accounts, he seemed pretty dang normal and only as inspiring as a bowl of vanilla yogurt. Besides the sheer normality, he seemed to have little sense of crowd interaction and/or manipulation. He didn’t even seem particularly moved by the love-fest of the face-painted Bernie fan-girls cheering wildly as if the curmudgeonly senior citizen with messed up white hair and monotonous voice that could be called “the lullaby of Broadway” (as in, it would put anyone to sleep) was actually Elvis reincarnated! 

     Instead, he dutifully paced about on stage, looking and sounding pretty bushed (if I had one practical thing to give the man, it would have been Ricola cough drops), with as much enthusiasm as if he were speaking before an inanimate blackboard. But perhaps therein lies the charm: in sharp contrast to Trump’s proclamations about how everybody loves him, how they would vote for him even if he shot somebody, and he alone can save America, Bernie does not seem to have let the attention go to his head and inflate it beyond recognition. What you see is what you get. As my dad aptly summed it up, “He is who he is.” For good or ill, there is a certain amount of comfort in that. 

     He’s out doing what he sees as his job, getting across the message that he sincerely believes in, but still readily admits that no president, whether his name is Bernie Sanders or anything else, is capable of fixing all the problems in the country on his own. I thought that was refreshingly honest compared with Trump’s braggadocious stump speeches. Another thing that contrasted the two campaigns was that the Sanders campaign seems to really put out to accommodate the disabled, including such things as set up wheel chair ramps and sign language interpreters, whereas the Trump rallies/events are rather infamous for having minimal accommodations of this kind. 

     Of course, there are his controversial policies, which have been called everything from insane to disgusting. He is an unabashed Democratic Socialist, and given the state of Socialist countries such as Venezuela, it certainly has made many eyes roll. But I find it very hard to decry the concepts of universal health coverage (providing private practice is also allowed), tuition-free schools (this is not novel; there were “free schools” in existence as far back as the 18th century), higher wages for the working class (yes, it might cause an economic chain reaction…but is it not fair?), back pay for parents with newborns (also a very fine thought), veteran programs (but of course!), and putting more effort into cleaning out environmental waste (snicker about Earth Day if you must, but there truly is abuse of the environment in various sectors, and Pope Francis leads the way in heightening the Christian consciousness about responsible stewardship of Mother Earth). 

    Mind you, I said the concepts, in and of themselves, not necessarily the means of implementation. When it comes to numbers on paper, his plans often unravel as simply monetarily impractical. But the bare essentials of the ideas are certainly valid to raise from the perspective of Catholic social teachings, and he does us all a service by doing so. We are, after all, living a land where different ideas for the common good are free to be spoken openly and debated. Indeed, Sanders himself says he applauds the fact that his ideas are disagreed with so often, because it is good to hammer things out with others. Indeed, the emphasis on “hammering things out” inspired me to submit a question from the audience, inquiring as to how he would “hammer things out” with the Catholic community if he came into power. Since we had to leave early, I don’t know if he got around to answering it publically or not, but I should like very to found out someday if the question ever hit home, and how he might respond to it in his own words. 

    But after all this deep analysis, and holding my arm extended with a hand-held recorder to take notes for far too long (it hurt!!), my dad and I decided to try and get a quickie pic of the event to prove we had been there. It just so happened that my dad’s 1980’s camera decided to give up the ghost on the spot (maybe it was a Trump supporter!), upon which one of the Bernie supporter kindly offered to take pics of us with her digital camera and then promptly followed up and emailed them to us, showing me standing with Bernie on stage in the background. Afterwards, we decided to truly follow in his presumed footsteps prior to arrival (famous as a diner-hopper and fast food consumer as he is) and settled in for the odd-ish combo meal hamburger, a chicken salad, and a pistachio sundae. Hey, watching those kids devouring cupcakes proved mouth-watering… 

     So what did I take away from this whole experience…I mean, in the broad sweep, and in addition to the edibility factor? I suppose that one we should open to new experiences outside our comfort zones and be willing to hear someone out, even if rumors rail against him. Also, we should never be ruled by stereotypes, thinking that people on “the other side” of the spectrum are not orcs marching out of Mordor. I certainly cannot judge the Sanders followers in total, but the ones I met in my own local vicinity seemed like perfectly good citizens who displayed Christian civility towards us. Indeed, one man in the bleachers who saw my cross commented on how this “Socialist Jew” seemed to him to have the most Christian heart among the leading candidates. I cannot read hearts, but compared to what I have seen and heard from Clinton and Trump, I would have to agree to some extent.

     I am still deeply dismayed at his advocacy of abortion, even up to partial birth, and that will always be a major stumbling block for Catholic voters considering candidates such as Sanders, whose democratic socialism, contrary to common belief, does not instantly blacklist him on the Catholic voter’s guide. But abortion is not a matter of economic or governmental systems, nor is it a “liberal” or “conservative” issue; it’s a human rights issue, and it can’t simply be overlooked as besides the point. In his advocacy of it, he contradicts all of his life-affirming ideals by supporting the killing of the most innocent. And yet in spite of this glaring incongruence, I still feel that his intentions are far more honorable than those of his competitors. Viewing him as a man of integrity in a swamp of corruption, I would be happy to shake his hand. 

     A final item that stands out in my memory is a comparison video between Sanders and Trump. I know these things are publicity gimmicks, and can be taken with a grain of salt. And yet, from my experience and with my sentiments, this one somehow rang true. While Trump’s inflammatory “us vs. them” language flies, a clip from Sanders speech is played: “Love trumps hatred.” Is this not similar to so many things that Pope Francis has been trying to tell the world? But this follows suit, for whatever else Sanders may be, he has shown an appreciation for at least some elements of traditional Catholic social teaching. Indeed, coming from a lower income background himself, and struggling to find his career niche for many years, I believe his sympathy for the underprivileged and his desire for them to have suitable dignity is a sincere one. That he is mocked for taking a long time to find his place in the world just reflects poorly on the mockers, not on his own hard-fought climb and discovery of his talent in the political sphere. 

     Sanders himself is ethnically Jewish, but also seems to be a spiritual searcher with a social conscience, akin to actor Leonard Nimoy in Universalist outlook. He believes in God, but just not “everyone else’s God”. But his Irish wife is Catholic, and it is clear from his speeches while in Rome that he has at least some handle on Catholic terminology, drawing from both the catechism and encyclical documents. He has made clear his admiration for Pope Francis, and told him so in their brief encounter in Italy. His emphasis on the “common good” and the fact that we are “all in this together” is something that joins them together, and I think we should all be able to find some commonality in that, whatever our individual beliefs on his wider policies may be. And if that makes Bernie Sanders a rarity in the American political system, then it is a blessed rarity at that.

"Vote for Birdie!!"

Friday, May 6, 2016

Elvish Outlaw: A Review of Nancy Springer's "Tales of Rowan Hood" Series

     As most of my loyal readers know by now, I have long had a love affair with Robin Hood since first watching the Disney cartoon at the tender age of six. This love gave rise to my love of England, and from there, the whole of the British Isles. If you ever come to my humble abode, I will happily show you the abundant array of fan-girl memorabilia lovingly arranged on my display shelf, including Robin Hood books, videos, DVDs, puppets, lunch-boxes, etc.

     Hence, when I went to the library one day and stumbled across Tales of Rowan Hood in the Young Adult Fiction section, my interest was piqued. The author, Nancy Springer, had evidently written about a certain daughter of the famous outlaw, with some of fantasy elements woven throughout. At first, I hesitated. These things could be teeth-pulling-ly painful, especially if too much pixie dust and girl-power was tossed into the medieval soup. And yet, I decided to be bold and checked out Tales all the same. Ultimately, I wound up reading all five of the books in the series: Tales of Rowan HoodLionclawOutlaw Princess of SherwoodWild Boy, and Rowan Hood Returns.

     Obviously the series wasn’t bad enough to turn me off entirely; in fact, it was good enough to keep me hooked (at least to some extent)! Nancy Springer writes in a flowing, lyrical style, weaving words like a poet with an almost musical quality. She also has a clear handle on how to create colorful characters and vibrant settings, as well as balancing suspenseful pauses with exciting action sequences. As a result, her Tales prove to be page-turners from the beginning of Ro’s journey to find her father, “The Prince of Thieves”, to her climactic encounter with Guy of Gisbourne, “The Man with No Soul.”

     Springer also utilizes an original combination of the traditional Robin Hood legends and fantastical, pseudo-Arthurian elements. Some parts of her stories are direct take-offs from the legends of King Arthur, including the incident of the brother knights slaying each other in battle. In certain ways, the creativity behind this blend is appealing, and is sure to introduce a whole new generation of fantasy lovers to Robin Hood for the first time. But in other ways, I personally feel some of the glitz and glitter undermines the charm of Robin Hood that first captured my heart as a child. Perhaps it was the whole concept that it was real enough to have really happened.

     One of my biggest issues with the plot has to do with Robin’s liaison with an Elf-woman in the woods, completely refusing to even introduce Maid Marian into the stories as a character. For this wanna-be-girl-in-Lincoln-Green, this is a near-unforgivable assault. Marian is far too established in the legends at this late date to simply write her out of the script and expect to retain any credibility for it. Furthermore, the Elvish interference in the plot turns Rob into a wood-side womanizer, having flings with mythical creatures at random and throwing away his traditional Catholic morality.

     To make matters worse, the reason given for Robin’s uncanny ability to avoid capture in his outlaw career is that his elf girl-friend in the wings has cast a spell to prevent him from being recognized! This is totally ruinous to the character of Robin Hood, who has always stood out as something of a self-made-man. In undermines his foxy cleverness, his talent for disguise, and all the things that make him a swashbuckler of note. Here we see hearty realism being exchanged for easy-fix, cop-out magical solutions.

     To be fair, Robin is portrayed positively to some extent. We do get to see his tender side, both with his daughter Ro, her assortment of companions, and the ill-treated son of the Sheriff of Nottingham, young Tod. Torn between his own mistreatment and remaining undercurrent of loyalty to his father, Tod is probably one of my favorite characters in the series. He shows strength of character that is unexpected, considering how hard-core rotten his father is, and Robin Hood goes the extra mile to affirm that and become a true father-figure to him. It goes to show that even a bad man can have a good son, and no one should be judged by the previous generation.

     On the subject of the main character, I do wish that Ro’s character had been more deeply explored. Much of the time she is so absorbed in her quest to avenge her mother’s death, or live up to her father’s reputation, her own identity remains blurred and brooding. Her relationship with Robin Hood seems tinged with a sense of competition, and R.H. comes off as being unsure how to properly relate to his daughter or be a leader of men in a convincing way. Somehow, his whole persona seems limp, lax, and uninspiring. He’s gone from an Outlaw Prince to a Sugar Daddy Pushover.

     This follows suit with the constant push to create a female equivalent of R.H. I’m not opposed to a female compliment for him, specifically in the person of the spirited Maid Marion. But then she was never trying to take Robin’s place. Rowan Hood, like Gwen in Princess of Thieves, is there to out-shine her father as opposed to complimenting him. Also the whole plot gimmick of Rowan doing “one better” than her Robin by teaching the peasants how to make money belies the main point of the original tales: the people were being brutally over-taxed, and Robin was in essence stealing their hard-earned pay back for them.

     Another pet peeve I have has to do with Princess Etarde and how she supposedly comes from some “petty kingdom” in or around England. Okay, this is supposed to be King Richard’s England; there were no “petty kingdoms” in that territory. Either she is supposed to be the daughter of a chieftain from Ireland or a petty prince on the continent. But it doesn’t seem that Springer is at all concerned with historical accuracy or explanation. She is using a fantasy gimmick, taken out of the Arthurian Cycles or The Lord of the Rings. Hence, the crux of the matter is that the setting of the story is not so much “Merrie England”, but a mythical fantasy realm, complete with elves and witches and magical spells.

     Another factor to mention is that Christianity hardly plays any part in the series and the characters often seem to be more or less to be generic nature-worshippers. I certainly don’t mind the inclusion Pagan elements in traditional stories with legitimately Pagan influence, such as King Arthur, which welded together Pagan and Christian themes and symbolism. But in this case, we’re dealing with medieval England, which was a Christian society. As opposed to an emphasis on “The Lady of the Wood”, Robin would have been praying to the Blessed Virgin Mary, to whom he is shown as being staunchly devoted in even the oldest variants of his legend. Again, this garbling of the predominant religious beliefs in Europe during the Middle Ages seriously damages the realism of Robin Hood and the down-to-earth style of the legends. I love the relatable Robin, the man of folk songs and tavern tales, but not mythic embroidery and complexity akin to the Arthurian Cycles.

     But on the positive side, the author does do a good job with character contrasts, and I appreciate how each book is written from a different character’s perspective. This enabled it to be much more diverse and engaging than sticking strictly to Ro’s point of view. We are also given the chance to see through the eyes of Lionel, the mystic minstrel whose father believes him to be illegitimate; of Etarde, the philosophical princess whose sadistic father has locked her mother in a cage; and of Rook, the “wild boy of the woods” who is on a quest for vengeance after his father is left to die in a forest trap by the Sheriff of Nottingham. All of them are commendably multi-layered and sympathetic. I am rather disappointed that Springer ended the series before going into more detail about Beau, the faux-French-accented Gypsy with a mysterious past. Perhaps that will provide ample material for some future sequel.

     Out of all the books, I would have to say the final volume, Rowan Hood’s Return, has the most going for it in the way of a meaningful analysis of life and spirituality. The concept of Guy having “no soul”, thus preventing the elves from helping Rowan confront him, is a fascinating concept…although according to Catholic theology, even the most hardened sinners do have souls, and thus all human beings have the capacity to be redeemed, even if that redemption never comes about. Beyond that, however, I appreciated how it was shown that Ro’s obsession with revenge actually causes her lose contact with her Elvish ancestors who she has often communicated with in the woods.

     Furthermore, as she continues on her journey to track down the men responsible for killing her mother to administer vigilante justice, her legs weaken to the point where she can barely walk.
After various encounters along the route that open her heart more and more to her own humanity and calling to be a healer, the conclusion (warning: spoilers!) results in the restoration of Ro’s soul and the healing powers she inherited from her mother, the herbalist wood-wife adept in Elvish magic. I was also  pleased how, in the final confrontation with Guy of Gisbourne, Robin Hood does finally do something overtly heroic and saves his daughter life in a manner very congruent with the original source material. (That’s-a my boy…better late than never!)

     All in all, in spite of its various foibles and discrepancies, I am glad to have read Tales of Rowan Hood. The main themes of the series are the importance of familial relationships (whether by blood or emotional bond) and the power of forgiveness, as well as ostensibly “every teen’s search for self.” Perhaps that’s a bit of stretch, but still, I would say some interesting concepts about maturing are explored in the series. Even though the father-issues that the characters have to deal can become a bit redundant (which makes me wonder if perhaps the author had paternal difficulties as well), it does enable them to grow in new ways. Indeed, even though I may not be a fan of Ro, she certainly does come off as a more well-rounded and sympathetic character before the curtain finally closes.

    So overall, I give the series 3 out of 5 stars, and would recommend it as a fairly entertaining and occasionally profound non-canon fan-fiction-esque romp through the greenwood…in spite of my allergic reaction to the excessive amount of forest pixie dust, Elvish interlopers, and dead-beat dads!

Rowan Hood: Outlaw Girl of Sherwood Forest

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Emotional Depth and Imaginary Heights: Fantasy and Sci-Fi Stories That Teach Us How to Love

      In any genre or medium, it is my heart-felt believe that the worth of a story is dependent upon how much that story can reveal about our own souls, and ultimately, how much it can reveal to us about the Nature of Love. Even in a roundabout way, or by exposing realities that fly in the face of that which should be, this is still the heart of the matter. Love is often falsely made synonymous with romance, but in reality there are many complex forms of love. All of these variations must be built upon and grow out of other virtues, and can be made manifest in many ways, from steadfast loyalty in friendship to courage in the battle for a just cause. True love always extends beyond any form of isolationism and reaches out to bring others in, thereby changing our world a little at a time.

    The following are just a handful of the fantasy and science fiction stories that teach about different types of love and have come to impact me as a person and leave me with a lasting sense of appreciation for the fusion of emotional depth and imaginary heights:  

     In J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, there is the love of friendship that binds together the Fellowship in general and the hobbits in particular, as they traverse the very edge of doom. Frodo discovers the depths of devotion in Sam, who gives him the emotional strength to withstand the strain of his burden and pulls him up from the brink of despair. There are also the romances played out between Aragorn and Arwen and between Eowyn and Faramir, whose relationships are not mere emotional obsessions but are tested and purified by sacrifice and their submission to a good higher than their own personal happiness as the apocalyptic struggle rages around them. Finally, there is the love found in the mercy Frodo shows the twisted creature Gollum which, although it initially seems to be of no consequence, ultimately proves to be the salvation of all.  

     In C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, which is laced with direct allegories of the Christian Faith, the focal point of the story is placed upon the sacrificial love of Aslan, the all-powerful Lion King, who willingly surrenders himself to the White Witch to redeem a traitorous human, and meets a bloody death upon the Stone Table. The fact that the Ancient Magic dictates love is stronger than death is the saving grace which enables resurrection and restoration for all. There is also the familial bond of the Pevensie siblings, and their determination to fulfill the ancient prophecy and do right by the inhabitants of Narnia, even when defeat and death seem certain. Lastly, there is the love shown by the Narnians themselves for the old stories that have enabled them to cling to hope in each passing generation and give them the strength to rise up in defiance of the Witch upon Aslan’s return.

     In Suzanne Collins’ Panem, the depravity and perversion of the dystopian setting brings out the best and worst sides of human nature, exposing the complex gray areas that pit survival against humanity and life against love. The heroine Katniss Everdeen embodies this internal conflict through the complexities of her own personality, combining toughness and skill with empathy and vulnerability. And yet in spite of the darkness, there are always sparks of hope. Indeed, she is known as “The Girl on Fire”, and ultimately inspires courage among her oppressed compatriots to rise up against the tyrannical Capital. Her sacrificial love for her sister Prim prompts her to take her place and volunteer to compete in the gladiatorial Hunger Games from which she knows she may never return, and her growing love for her fellow district tribute Peeta causes her to make a momentous decision at the end of the games which starts a chain reaction of world-shattering consequence. Katniss also shows compassion to Rue, a younger tribute who befriends in the arena, and she is in turn shown mercy by another tribute, Thresh.

     In the Star Wars Universe created by George Lucas, the struggle between the light and dark sides of the Force challenges all the main characters to face their inner angels and demons. Luke Skywalker rediscovers his Jedi ancestry and determines to master the Force and overthrow the Imperial regime oppressing the galaxies. However, when he learns that his own father betrayed his identity as a Jedi and misused the Force to morph into the sinister Darth Vader, Luke realizes that only through sacrificial love will he be able to save both the universe and his father’s soul. The plot also emphasizes the all of the virtues bound up with friendship and fighting for a common cause. Han Solo in particular, although initially indifferent about the world around him, is changed by his bond with the other characters, especially Princess Leia, and rises to the challenge of becoming an unlikely hero.

     In the original series of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, we again see an emphasis placed upon the mutual devotion of the crew members to their respective duties and to one other. Captain Kirk epitomizes the strengths and weaknesses of a humanistic leader, while at the same time demonstrating the hope for mankind to improve and develop. Dr. McCoy performs his role as medical officer of the crew with moral impetus, and acts as Kirk’s conscience and human connection. Perhaps one of the most complex characters in the series is Spock, the half human, half Vulcan science officer who ostensibly has no emotions. His repression of his own feelings makes it more clear to us why a balance between mind and heart is needed, and we cannot help but enjoy it when, in spite of himself, some of his inner feelings are briefly and unexpectedly revealed. The friendship of this dynamic trio is a hallmark of the productions and has assured their continued longevity.

Aslan and Edmund from "The Chronicles of Narnia"