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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"

Sunday, April 17, 2016

A Cat of a Different Coat: Spirituality, Storytelling, and the Music of Karliene

Among my favorite YouTube independent artists is a Scotswoman named Karliene. An unabashedly enthusiastic pop culture fan-girl, most of her covers and compositions are inspired by geek fandoms such as Game of ThronesThe Lord of the RingsThe Hobbit, and The Hunger Games, among others. But there is something that makes her musical style different than typical fan-based recordings.

    There is real quality to be found in her works, and a real sense of the soul, creating a beautiful sense of grace touching culture. In whatever realm her music is supposed to be set, she weaves a web of timeless story-telling brought to life through emotionally-engrossing vocals and starkly surreal music. Through it all, she always manages to bring out the deeper meaning of her material with a burning sense of realism and purpose. Indeed I find that listening to her proves to be a spiritually enriching experience.

     Although I am not a major fan of Game of Thrones (mainly because of the inclusion of sensationalist horror-sex, a nauseating level of gore, and ambiguous moral themes and sense of plot direction), Karliene’s GoT-inspired music has a way of drawing out the best elements worthy of being remembered. 

     “Sansa’s Hymn”, for example, highlights a prayer for protection and peace recited by Sansa, eldest daughter of the House of Stark, who has lost most of her innocence and faith after her father, mother, brother, and sister-in-law are all murdered by the ruling House of Lannister. In the midst of all this brutal feuding, and in spite of the bitterness that is seeping into her soul, the words of the prayer reveal the heart she is forced to keep hidden as she plays the political game. 

     Even surrounded by battle and bloodshed on all sides, the words dare to express hope for a better future. Although the prayer is directed to a one of the Seven Faces of the Divine worshipped in Westeros, as a Catholic, I cannot help but see a strikingly Marian element to it: 

     “Gentle Mother, font of mercy/Save our sons from war we pray/Stay the swords and stay the arrows/Let them know a better day…” 

     She goes on to implore strength for all women to get through the darkness surrounding them, and that someday the feuding will end for good, when the people themselves know better than to continue it: 

     “Gentle mother, strength of women/Help our daughters through this fray/Soothe the wrath and tame the fury/Teach us all a kinder way…” 

     Karliene’s voice begins softly as she sings, and then swells with harmonies of heart-felt supplication and anguish that capture the mood to perfection. Indeed, if GoT has any lasting meaning, perhaps this song embodies it. 

     “The Rains of Castamere” is one of the most well-known songs in the series and in Karliene’s repertoire. It is a haunting lament for a noble house wiped out in the feuding, which also comes to be associated with the deaths of Caitlyn Stark and her son Rob at the gruesome massacre called “The Red Wedding.” The lyrics are extremely reminiscent of the historical inspiration for GoT found in The War of the Roses, when similar dynastic struggles brought medieval England to its knees. 

     In the style of a folk ballad, the lyrics give an overview of the dispute between two noble houses (both represented by different colored lions) with dialogue: 

     “‘And who are you,’ the proud lord said/‘That I must bow so low?’/‘Only a cat of a different coat/That’s all the truth I know/In a coat of gold, or a coat of red/The lion still has its claws/And mine are long and sharp, my lord/As long and sharp as yours…” 

     The second stanza is even more dark and haunting, as the once illustrious house, now emptied of inhabitants who have been mercilessly wiped out, falls into ruin (note: the word “rains” also is a synonym for “reigns”): 

     “And so he spoke, and so he spoke/That Lord of Castamere/But now the rains weep o’er his hall/With no one there to hear/The rains fall down, yes, the rains fall down/On Lord of Castamere/Yes, now the rains weep o’er his hall/With not a soul to hear…” 

     In addition to being a grim ode to the casualties of feudal in-fighting that seems ripped straight out of a Shakespeare play, it also carries  with it an age-old moral that no man, no matter how powerful or wealthy or secure he may seem, is able to cheat death, the great leveler. The splendors of the world are doomed to crumble into dust. 

     The sound of rain and the mournful violin on this track is masterful, as is the reverb placed on Karliene’s vocals, making it sounds as if she is truly singing in a hall. In addition to this version, Karliene created a special track lamenting the Red Wedding, overlaying “The Rains of Castamere” with a powerful plea for an end to the killing called “Let It End.” The words repeat themselves with heartrending effect: 

     “Let it end/Bloodshed…” 
     Touching further on the spiritual side of Westeros, Karliene sings a lullaby about the seven gods of myth called “The Song of the Seven.” In the broad sweep, one might see the different figures not so much as multiple deities and the many facets of The Ground of Reality. They are often represented by the seven colors of the rainbow, and crystals used to separate the colors. Also, they can be seen to represent different members of the Stark family: 

     "The seven gods who made us all/Are listening if we should call...They see you, little children..."
          The song  goes on to list the roles of the gods as Father, Mother, Maiden, Crone, Warrior, and Smith, but appropriately leaves the last god, whose role is that of Stranger, anonymous. This is profound in that he is very much the unknown aspect of the seven-sided deity, called upon by outcasts and rejects of society.       

     Karliene sings with tenderness and also a touch of melancholy, for we know the child-like innocence expressed will soon be shattered by violence and war. And yet there is also a sense that, through it all, the powers that be are still guiding events. The harp track is quite otherworldly, and reminds of the Vulcan lyre. 

     Aside from the Stark family, another character Karliene highlights is Daenerys Targaryen in the song “Dragon Queen.” The music begins with a brief harp intro playing the TV theme for GoT and then breaking into her own individual theme. Her legacy as one who liberates slaves and “answers injustice with justice” is brought to the fore in the lyrics: 

     “She who walks in fire will strike down every master/break the chains around us…Oh, silver Queen! Blood of Dragons can be seen!” 

     Also, her claim to the throne of Westeros is strongly alluded to, as she marches with her army of loyal freemen towards the sea. Her association with dragons is one of the most overt fantasy elements in the series that tends more towards a crude historical fiction feel. These “pets” are symbolic of her own strength and fierceness, earning her the name “Mother of Dragons.” In many ways, she represents the archetype of royal savior returning from exile to liberate the oppressed and defend the weak, making her a character we can all feel cause to champion, in spite of her various faults. 

     Another cover Karliene recorded was the theme from The Hunger Games, “Safe and Sound. It is a song that manages to capture the depth of humanity found amidst the horror of tyranny and gladiatorial spectacle, speaking of Katniss Everdeen’s love of her sister Prim, whose place she took as tribute in the Games, and also for her fellow tribute Peeta, whom she nurses back to health when he is injured and refuses to kill at the Games’ end.

     Not only does it speak of the desire to keep one’s loved ones safe, but also, after watching the often tragic unfolding of the individual character stories, it has a similar effect to “Into the West” from The Lord of the Rings, and can be seen as speaking of a higher eternal plane: 

     “Just close your eyes/The sun is going down/You’ll be alright/No one can hurt you now/Come morning light/You and I’ll be safe and sound…”    

     The tune has a lullaby-like quality, and the simple piano accompaniment brings this out all the more. Furthermore, Karliene manages to bring an element of tenderness and melancholy to the piece, which I felt was lacking in the original version by Taylor Swift.

     Turning to The Lord of the Rings, one of my favorite Tolkien-esque tracks from Karliene is “Lament for Boromir.” Indeed, it was the first track that I ever heard her perform, and it completely won me over. 

     It is sung a capella with haunting harmonies, humming in chords, the songs of the bird, and reverb, perfectly fitting for Tolkien’s lengthy poem in the style of the Anglo-Saxon epics such as “Beowulf.” The singer asks the wind what news it has of Gondor’s favorite son, Boromir, and both his last stand in battle and his Viking-like funeral are recorded: 

     “Ask not of me where he doth dwell, so many bones there lie, on the white shores, on the dark shores, under a stormy sky…” 

     In addition to the richly evocative language, the thing that makes the song particularly powerful is the section of the story which it describes. Boromir had just tried to take the One Ring from Frodo shortly before his death. However, he redeems himself when he is killed trying to defend the hobbits Merry and Pippin from an orc attack. As he lies dying, Aragorn swears he will not allow Gondor, The White City, to fall, and finally rises to the challenge of being king. It is one of my top favorite scenes in the LotR film trilogy. 

     From The Hobbit, Karliene also managed to salvage a song I had long rolled my eyes at as a coffee house background tune unsuitable for Middle Earth: “I See Fire.” Somehow, for me at least, her vocals brought a whole new level of emotional intensity to the song. While I had previously felt that the lyrics had fallen rather flat (and still consider some of them to be the same!), the passionate resolve in her voice brings alive the declaration of loyalty to the end between Bilbo Baggins and his dwarf friends: 

     “If this is to end in fire, we will burn together/Watch the flames climb higher into the night…If we should die tonight, we will all die together/Raise a glass of wine for the last time…” 

     Here, I can’t help find an historical equivalent in British General James Wolfe singing “How Stand the Glass Around?” before the Battle of Quebec in 1759. What Karliene achieved was to bring this connection home to me and highlight the bond of brotherhood that binds the main characters together even as the dragon Smaug takes to the sky with all his fiery destruction. 

     Apart from major fandoms, Karliene also has good taste in extracting songs from stand-alone films/video games with Celtic/Medieval themes. For example, from the 2006 motion picture King Arthur (which I admittedly found to be a rather painful exercise to trying too hard to stuff mythology into an historical context, and butchering both) she recorded a cover for the sorrowful and spine-tingling “Song of the Exiles.” Again, she manages to reproduce it with gentility and power, accompanied by haunting harmonies and the pluck of harp strings.

     The lyrics speak of the profound longing all of us have to “go home”, in the emotional sense of finding a place of belonging, as exemplified by the Sardinian soldiers forced to fight for Rome in the wilds of the British Isles. It also comes to be associated with Arthur’s decision to stay in Britain and fight the Saxon invaders, for even though his head may be for Rome, his heart is firmly set in the homeland of his mother. 

     In a more universal sense, the song also brings Arthur’s words to the fore about finding a “home” wherever one is free. Beyond the temporal, there is also a spiritual dynamic of searching for a home beyond this world, where our deepest longings may finally be satisfied: 

     “Land that gave us birth and blessings/Land that calls us ever homeward/We will go home across the mountains…”

     Another one-off song track by Karliene is “Gently As She Goes”, taken from the soundtrack from the 3-D animated version of Beowulf. As one who appreciates the original epic poem, I can’t say that this action-crazed, sex-saturated, glorified creature-feature was anything less than a total turn-off for my sense of aesthetics. 

     Nevertheless, Karliene once again managed to pull out the best element of the film by choosing this song sung by the king’s wife to the warriors steeling themselves to battle Grendel in the Mead-Hall. It is soft and delicate as the falling snow, describing the outward and inward beauty of a fair maiden, accompanied by a harp, similar to the lyre she played in the scene, accompanied by the gentle rattle of a tambourine in the last verse. 

     All this is strikingly serene in comparison with the harsh Scandinavian landscape beyond the hall, and the knowledge that Grendel and his mother are preparing their attack. It also highlights Beowulf’s own growing attraction towards the queen: 

     “Lips ripe as the berries in June/Red’s the rose, red’s the rose/Skin pale as the light of the moon/Gently as she goes…Eyes blue as the sea and the sky/Water flows, water flows/Heart burning like fire in the night/Gently as she goes…”
     In a deeper sense, it shows that even the most hardened warriors are still capable of being touched by softness and beauty, just as is demonstrated in the legend of the Japanese Samurai who had his sword engraved with pastoral images of home. 

     There are many other songs of note, including “The Dragon-Born Comes” from Skyrim, “John Snow, “Dornishman’s Wife,” “Mountain Giants”, and “You Win or You Die” from GoT, “Hanging Tree” from The Hunger Games, “The Last Goodbye” and “Misty Mountains” from The Hobbit, “Edge of Night” from The Lord of the Rings, “Bound” and “The Woman of Balnain” from Outlander, not to mention her albums with historical/mythological themes, dealing with such famous female figures as Boudica, Guinevere, and Anne Boleyn. 

     But one thing remains a universal constant in her work: her stories-in-song manage to transcend time and space and make one truly feel the heart and soul of any setting. It is a strikingly human journey into the deeper meaning of popular fandoms, and it is one on which every geek in search of grace should embark.


Thursday, April 7, 2016

Lord or Lady?: The Search for the Divine Gender

 In broad-ranging spiritual discussion circles, there tends to be a fair amount of conversation about the Divine “Life Force” which most of the world refers to as God. One of the main issues of contention is whether this “Force” has a gender, and if so, whether it is male or female. I am going to do my best to come at this complex quandary from a Catholic perspective in hopes of clarifying our position on gender in general.

     First off, it must be remembered that God is always far above and beyond human attempts to describe or categorize. Also, if there is a Divine Being outside of time and space from which all existence flows, this Being is most certainly spiritual in nature. So like angels, it is reasonable to conclude that God is indeed above and beyond gender.
Since human beings, both male and female, are made in the image and likeness of God, it would also be a logical conclusion that the good attributes found in both men and women are a part of the nature of God.

     From God comes both “the strength of man and beauty of woman,” as George MacDonald wrote, fusing the utility and asceticism that defines the world in which we live. I will go further to say that in God, who is singularly responsible for bringing forth the universe from the depths of nothingness, we see elements of both the life-giving seeding of man and the life-nourishing birthing of woman.
     In different cultures, the search for the Divine has led to a variety of expressions that emphasize strikingly different, although also occasionally similar, understandings of the ground of reality. In Judaism, the People of Israel received revelation from God in a distinctly male persona. For a patriarchal society such as their own, this made perfect sense to their understanding of the world.

     However, other peoples, such as the Druidic Celts, had a strongly held belief that spiritual wisdom was the kith and kin of female intuition. They also identified the land itself as female, which they believed was charged with a magical grandeur that was itself an extension of the Mother Goddess. Indeed, the earth was often called her body, and the rivers her blood. This inspired the Celtics to view underground springs and wells as sacred portals to the spirit world.

     Other variations of this belief in the divine feminine included the worship of the Mother Goddess Gaia from Greek mythology, who continues to have quite a following in New Age circles and is often depicted bearing the earth in her belly as a pregnant woman. Returning to Indo-European style Paganism, extending into modern Wicca, there is also a belief in the duality of the Divine, made manifest by “The Forest Lovers” or “The Lord and Lady of Nature”, according to the “Witches’ Rune.”

     All this cultural analysis aside, there are two key points which orthodox Christians must be ready to acknowledge and accept: first, that Jesus Christ is God, “I AM”, the Second Person in The Holy Trinity, who took on a human nature and an accompanying male gender; and secondly, that He repeatedly and specifically referred to God in the masculine as His Father, as epitomized in “The Lord’s Prayer.”

     However, I believe it is incorrect for men to feel any sense of superiority over women on this account. God is God, outside of our boxes, and if it had been according to Divine plan, the Messiah might have come among us as a female. Of course, it clearly was not within that plan, and I as a Christian woman am fully content with that. While I make no pretense to understand the mind of God, there are some very valid reasons I can think of off the top of my head for why this was not the case.

     Firstly, the Jewish patriarchal society would never have accepted it, and the Jews were the Chosen People from whom the Messiah would come forth. All the prophecies spoke of the coming of the Prince of Peace and the Son of David, reestablishing and continuing the royal legacy of their deposed kingship. But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, there is deep theological significance in Christ coming as a man…or should I say the Man.

     The story of the Incarnation starts when The Holy Spirit overshadows the Blessed Virgin Mary as the ultimate life-giving force, the Masculine embrace of the Feminine. In this sense, all our souls, that spiritual essence of ourselves, are to some extent feminine in that they are brought new life by the masculinity of the Christ, the New Adam. This is also brought to the fore in the masculine death on behalf of the feminine in Christ’s death to ransom humanity, acting as a lover pouring out his strength to defend his beloved. This is the crux of the chivalric ideal.

     But even with all this noted, it must also be remembered that Christ Himself made reference to attributes of God more strongly associated with feminine nurturing: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:37)

     Also, in Christian art, the symbol of the mother pelican piercing her breast to feed her young has commonly been associated with the sacrifice Jesus made by shedding His blood for humanity. After all, it has been said that a mother’s love is said to be strong enough to carry all the world…surely this also could include bringing that world into being and sacrificing oneself on its behalf?

    Returning to the subject of life-giving blood: do not women shed their blood to prepare for new life through their menstrual cycles? While it tends to be a subject less spoken about in western societies, many indigenous cultures celebrate the beginning of a girl’s cycle with various rituals and festivities. It is a sign that the Great Circle of Life shall continue forward into the future. Equally so, the shedding of Christ’s blood enabled us to be reborn and know life in abundance.

     Elaborating on the same point, there is a certain feminine element of the Eucharist, the bread and wine Catholics believe is transubstantiated into the Body and Blood of Christ during the consecration during mass. Mary is the one who fully gave her flesh and blood to Christ, since He had no human father.

     Beyond that, the act of God bestowing on us this flesh, this blood, this food for our nourishment found at the Eucharistic Table, can also be seen as a form of mothering. Indeed, some Bible verses make it sound strikingly similar to breast-feeding, particularly in the injunction, “This is My Body. Take and Eat.”

     Another very striking reference to breast-feeding and the spiritual life runs as follows: “Like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation, if you have tasted the kindness of the Lord.” (1 Peter 2:2)

     In another sacramental context, Catholic author Solange Hertz makes the point that genders view baptism in different ways. Men tend to view it as waters of cleansing, whereas women view it as birthing waters. Of course, the Bible confirms that it is indeed an act of re-birth: “Unless a man be born again of water and the spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” (John 3:1,5).    

     Even the Old Testament tends towards the feminine in describing the goodness of God: “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” (Isaiah 49:15).

     Also, there is a Jewish tradition of referring to Holy Wisdom in the feminine, just as the Celts did for Divine Inspiration: “She has prepared her meat and mixed her wine; she has also set her table. She has sent out her servants, and she calls from the highest point of the city, ‘Let all who are simple come to my house!’” (Proverbs 9:2-4)

     Perhaps the tension between masculine and feminine attributes is more based on our own rocky gender relations in our fallen society than it is on any substantial theological conflict. Men too often have abused the strength of their bodies and turned their protective instinct into aggression. The life-giving force is transformed into self-gratifying gluttony that can tyrannize and dehumanize the feminine. In this atmosphere, many spiritual seekers find the concept of a female divinity to be a safer and more fulfilling alternative to a male one.

      This preference may well be grounded in a distorted image of the nature of masculinity. Sometimes I feel that quite a few well-intentioned Christian men fall into this same trap when defining the nature of manhood. There are some stereotypes which are foisted onto us by our culture, and the masculinity is made synonymous with toughness projected through visible gestures such as guzzling down alcoholic beverages, inhaling tobacco smoke, or engaging in blood sports.  
     But perhaps the real proof of manhood is not so much a tough attitude, or a proclivity towards smoking or drinking, or a tolerance for violence, but rather is grounded in true strength. And the single strongest thing that exists is love. It is the purest form of that which God is, and it is necessary seed from which all other virtues grow, as well as the pinnacle of the mountain which we climb. To be loving in a world of hatred is the true test of our humanity. This loving power is something that comes from within and is not worn on the sleeve with arrogance or for show.

     All this brings to mind one of my favorite television heroes, Kwai Chang Caine from Kung Fu. Soft-spoken, humble, and empathetic, he defies many of the stereotypes about proving one’s manhood through vulgar displays of high-handed arrogance and crude mannerisms. Nevertheless he proves to be the pinnacle of physical and mental strength. Not only is he skilled in the martial arts, which he uses for the defense of himself and others in need, but he is also able to bear the brunt of insults and prejudice with amazing resignation.

     His strength is most often revealed through gentility, enabling him to tread on rice paper without tearing it and among serpents without rousing them to attack. Also, out of respect for all life forms, he is a vegetarian, and to keep his mind clear, he drinks no alcohol. And yet in all these things, he comes off as profoundly masculine. Indeed, when asked what he is, he often simply responds, “I am a man.” While clearly set apart on many levels in both nature and comportment (e.g. Christ both ate meat and drank alcohol, according His time, place, and heritage), in the way of gentle strength, sacrificial resignation, and pure masculinity, Kwai Chang can be seen as an imperfect type of Christ, the Son of Man.

     In this light, it is much easier to embrace the masculine aspects of God. We see them for what they were meant to be, not bent by a warped, misogynistic, power-hungry perspective. Also, in the light of the gender identity of Christ, it is understandable why only men can be ordained as priests in the Catholic Church. In addition to being about bodily constructs, gender shapes the essence of our identity and that which we were created to be. To act in persona Christi, it only makes sense that such an identity should be shared.

     This is not to say that women are somehow viewed as being on a lower plane in Church life. According to Catholic doctrine, the only person aside from Christ himself to be conceived free from the inheritance of Original Sin was a woman: the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God. We acknowledge her title as Queen of Heaven and Earth, the most powerful and exalted member of our species aside from the God-Man Jesus Christ.

    When inferiority has been projected onto women in history, with the symbolic use of Eve’s apple and an excessively priggish attitude towards female sexuality (which, within the proper context of a life-long, sacramentally sealed commitment, is one of the great beauties of life), it has been largely the result of cultural norms and preconceptions, not any infallible declaration of the Church.

     While both men and women are called to live the fullness of the Christian life with both strength and love, perhaps we have our own unique ways of revealing it. We share so much, and yet there is still that priceless Ying and Yang factor which enables us to find equilibrium in each other’s company. That’s why it’s aptly said that behind every good man there is a good woman. As biological and emotional nurturers, women have an amazing transformative power. At the same time, good men bring out the best in women and honor their whole person with dignity and encouragement to be the best they can be. In all things, it can be truly said that the opposite of rape culture is nurturance culture.

        This brings us full circle in our search for the gender attributes of the Divine, a topic that proves to be highly controversial and even polarizing many religious circles. One such example of said polarization was when actor Leonard Nimoy (aka Star Trek’s Vulcan Science Officer Mr. Spock) mishandled an effort to promote the image of God in the feminine to a predominately Jewish audience by taking a picture shoot of naked female models, some of whom were holding or garbed in sacred Jewish ceremonial pieces. Although perhaps initially well-intended, the project quickly ran amuck.

     Predictably, the orthodox Jewish audience that had once felt a certain emotional kinship with him because of his own Judaism (albeit of a much more liberal “universalist” variant…indeed, he had previously made the controversial move of hijacking a rabbinic ceremonial blessing which became famous as the Vulcan salute!) promptly denounced the “heretical” display, which did seem pretty much on a par with girly calendar material, no matter what philosophical intro he may have included. Nevertheless, the whole project had some residual benefits for him…and he proceeded to make one of the models his second wife (which, of course, he must have decided was the logical course to take)!

     So yes, these topics can be severely mishandled and transformed into a sometimes sordid, sometimes farcical mess! This is especially the case when the subject at hand becomes less about gender and more about sexuality (ala Nimoy!). But this should not make us any more reticent to approach this important topic and treat it with the fairness it is due. Perhaps the question of “male or female” should best be answered “the best aspects of both, and way beyond either.” Interestingly, this balances the different aspects of human interaction with the divine rather well.

    For instance, in the Pagan understanding of the Divine feminine, she is meant to be pursued by a mystically male humanity, exemplified by the Celtic kings who were expected to mystically mate with the land, understood to be an extension of the Goddess.  On the other hand, in the Christian understanding of the Divine masculine, He is the one who seeks after and embraces humanity, as the Hound of Heaven and the Christological lover, bringing to the fore the Catholic mystics such as Catherine of Sienna who underwent a spiritual marriage to the Divine.

     Perhaps we, as humanity, both seek after and are sought after in turn, being purged by the Fire of the Holy Spirit (which could be seen as more masculine) and nurtured by the fruits of the Holy spirit (which could be seen as more feminine). Using a final Asian analogy, perhaps God is very like a Samurai’s sword, infused with both strength and beauty, and believed to contain the essence of the soul.

     But again, all these attempts at explaining the unexplainable are ultimately exercises in perception about a God who is beyond any labels humanity may be capable of devising. No neatly packaged box is able to take it all in. While revelation, tradition, and mysticism can all lend us glimpses of the Ultimate Reality, the full Truth must wait until we have reached a higher realm. In the end, perhaps it is the mystery of the Divine that is the most poignant reality. If it were not so, God would not be God.