Some Thoughts on Silence

Note: This brief overview of Martin Scorsese’s Silence was originally written for another outlet, but was passed over for various reasons.

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Watching Silence with Protestants

Just to be clear, this is not a formal review of Martin Scorsese’s Silence, which is being released nationwide today. Quite by accident, I had the opportunity last night to attend a preview screening of the film hosted by John Loeks, Jr., the owner and operator of the highly successful Celebration Cinema theater chain in West Michigan. The screening, which was attended primarily by Protestants of various stripes and featured an after-viewing discussion facilitated by Calvin College’s Carl Plantinga, provided not only an opportunity for me to witness how a master filmmaker handled one of the most unsettling and contentious novels I have ever read, but a chance to see first-hand how emaciated American Protestantism has become. Keep in mind that West Michigan is no secular outlier; it is home to both the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church of America, along with countless evangelical sects and mega-churches. As recently as a decade or so ago, West Michigan was identified as the second most conservative area in the United States—just behind Salt Lake City, Utah. Whatever our faults (and there are plenty of them), a lack of Jesus isn’t one of them.

In both my casual conservations with the screening’s attendees and the audience-wide discussion itself, I found myself unsettled by how easily the heroic ideal of mission is reduced to a vague notion of “service.” One audience member, who not surprisingly is involved in interfaith dialogue, declaredly proudly that the message of Silence is about setting aside pride, particularly the pride of believing one knows “the truth.” In absolute defiance of the film’s brutal depiction of heroic martyrdom, this gentleman lauded the “enlightenment” of contemporary missionaries who go abroad not to “convince others” but to engage in public works. While missionary activity has long been connected with education, charitable giving, and even bottom-up social renewal, at the heart of all true missionary activity—particularly the Tridentine missionary activity of the Society of Jesus in the 16th and 17th centuries—is the salvation of souls. I dare say that some thought I was an alien from another world when I suggested that Jesuits once went forth to win souls for Christ, not spread multiculturalism.

If the aforementioned gentleman’s comments were an aberration, I’d think nothing of it. Sadly, that wasn’t the case. Almost without exception, every audience remark was pregnant with religious liberalism and the belief that Scorsese’s movie—just like the novel it is based on—gloriously preaches indifferentism. How that shoddy interpretation squares with the martyric witness of simple peasants is quite beyond me. Beyond me as well is the sense that many in the audience got that Endo’s story is about the spreading of neutered Christianity unmoored from a concrete Church rather than Catholicism. And at least on this point, one audience member (a professor at Calvin College) suggested that the movie’s meaning is likely to be more apparent to Catholics than Protestants. In replying to her, I was tempted to say something about iconoclasts, but I resisted.

There’s no need for me to repeat every scandalous opinion put forth. However, after leaving the theater, I spent a good 15-30 minutes going over the film in my head, wondering if I hadn’t been too quick to read the Catholic Faith into a film that many apparently understood as a lesson in why it’s important to hold hands and sing “Kumbaya” around a campfire rather than ask the only question ever worth asking, “What think ye of Christ?”

Although subsequent viewings may dislodge this belief, I remain convinced that whether by accident, design, or a bit of both, Scorsese’s Silence is neither an apologia for apostasy nor panegyric to cultural relativism. That doesn’t mean it’s an easy film. Some concerned Catholics have suggested the film, like the book, is theologically dangerous—and to some extent they’re right. Any artistic achievement that attempts to wrestle with the most difficult tenets of the Faith risks obscuring more than it clarifies. By raising difficult questions without ready-made, manulist answers, Silence inadvertently invites idiotic replies. But more than that, it offers an opportunity to reflect on the fragility of faith and the hard truth that God’s apparent silence is more often than not our obstinate refusal to listen.

Blessed Feast, Regardless of Your Calendar

My Ninth Shameless Professional Wrestling Post in Years: New Japan’s Wrestle Kingdom 11 Edition

It’s no mystery that I am a pro-wrestling fan and that my fandom spills over the boundaries of mainstream American graps such as World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) to include independent promotions in the U.S. and Europe, Lucha Libre from Mexico, and puoresu from Japan. Many moons ago, when I has but a lad of 17, I purchased two 4-head VCRs for the purpose of double taping and dubbing American wrestling matches for the purposes of trading my wares with fans abroad for their local brand of wrestling goodness. I would scour listservs and other forums for results from the biggest shows abroad and then vow to track down the bouts, sometimes waiting as long as six months before getting my hands on them. To this day, my mother’s basement storage area still houses hundreds of video tapes with countless hours of wrestling from Japan, Mexico, Puerto Rico, the United Kingdom, Germany, and even North Korea. Today, almost all of that footage is available online, either “illegally” (that’s debatable) from video websites or licitly from the growing number of dedicated pro-wrestling streaming services that have come online over the past three years. Never in my teenage dreams did I believe such a thing would be possible and yet here we are.

For those unaware, New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) began 45 years ago as a way to showcase what became known as “strong style,” that is, Japan’s unique blend of martial-arts striking and submission wrestling in a worked forum (i.e., the outcomes are predetermined). Today, thanks to tape trading, foreign talent exchanges, and the aforementioned streaming services, strong style is literally everywhere, though arguably few do it well outside of its original Japanese context. For instance, when Shinsuke Nakamura, the self-proclaimed “King of Strong Style,” left New Japan last year for WWE’s NXT brand, everyone knew he would have to cool his jets a bit. And while Nakamura has found a way to retain his strong-style approach to wrestling, it’s clear to anyone who followed his Japanese work that it is watered-down presentation of what he can do fully in the ring. Although NJPW, like any wrestling promotion, has had its ups and downs over the decades, most agree that the promotion has been firing on (almost) all cylinders for the past five years thanks to a mixture of grizzled veterans, new stars, and (largely) top-shelf foreign talent. With the launch of the New Japan World streaming service for a mere 999 Yen per month (roughly $10), which includes new live events and a treasure chest of archival material, NJPW is finally able to reach a global audience quickly and efficiently. Moreover, because of growing interest from the Anglophone world, New Japan World now offers English-language commentary for its biggest shows, though I confess that I still love listening to the Japanese announcers, particularly when the big bouts are hitting their respective crescendos.

For the past 25 years, it has been a NJPW tradition to run shows at the famous Tokyo Dome on January 4. Though the event names have changed over the years, the company has now settled on “Wrestle Kingdom” as its premiere event where all of the major promotional feuds are (typically) brought to a close. Unlike the WWE and other American promotions today, NJPW’s booking style is pretty straightforward: Wrestler A wants to prove he is better than Wrestler B, so they’re going to lock up in the ring to find out. There are, of course, personality clashes mixed in, not to mention some colorful characters and a few guys willing to bend the rules to the breaking point to get what they need, but more times than not it all makes sense. Relying less on over-the-top angles and heavily scripted interview segments, many of New Japan’s storylines are advanced in the ring. In fact, it doesn’t take much effort to figure out the personalities, feuds, and goals in play just by watching a couple of shows, English commentary or not. Yes, NJPW, like all of pro-wrestling, is a work, that is, the wrestlers are not actively competing against each other, but when it comes to Wrestle Kingdom in particular, they are competing for the audience’s adulation and the right to be viewed as the best performers on the planet.

For those interested, here is my brief review of last night’s Wrestle Kingdom 11 event from Tokyo. Instead of running the risk of catching spoilers online, I actually arose at 3am EST yesterday (5pm Tokyo time) to watch the entire show as it unfolded lived. Since I have not had time to go back and re-watch any of the matches, these comments — and the five-star rating system I employ — are best on first impressions from seeing the bouts as they happened. In the heat of the moment, there isn’t much time to second-guess certain spots, match length, or results; the real question comes down to whether or not you are entertained. Not surprisingly, I was very entertained.

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Ephemera XVII: New Year’s Edition

It’s something of an open secret that my wife and I were married by Fr. Patrick Reardon, the pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago and senior editor of Touchstone magazine. When my wife was accepted to the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, we relocated to the Hyde Park neighborhood and left the parish. Being a foolish young man of 24-25, I didn’t appreciate everything Reardon taught me. In fact, in a foolish pursuit of “pure Orthodoxy” untainted by “Western thinking,” I can say quite honestly that I shelved a great deal of what I learned at All Saints . . . until I returned to the Catholic Church.

I have joked—and continue to joke—that All Saints is an Orthodox parish where a Catholic priest ministers to Protestants. (I mean that in the best way.) While Reardon is probably best known for his deep knowledge of the Scriptures, theology, and history, he is one of the few Orthodox clerics in the Anglophone world who vigorously upholds his communion’s longstanding—now widely ignored—teaching on contraception. Moreover, Reardon remains steadfast on bioethical questions, including the immorality of in vitro fertilization and sterilization. Most who go through All Saints at some time or another leave with sound knowledge of fundamental Christian morality. From what I have gathered, however, those teachings go straight out the window when convenience and cleric-shopping take center stage. Remember: In Orthodoxy, if Fr. Cosmas says the pill is off limits, Fr. Damian down the street is there to give you the exact opposite answer.

The reason I make mention of this is not to jump down anyone’s throat or open up another useless debate about Orthodox moral catechesis, but rather to express openly a debt of gratitude to Reardon and other Orthodox clerics who, in various ways, taught me that a Christian life, whether Orthodox or Catholic, is replete with moral hardships that no man has a right to ignore. Mind you, knowing that and living it out are two very different things, and I cannot in any way, shape, or form claim that I have lived my life according to the full precepts of the Church. And here I should also thank Reardon for helping me see that Confession is reconciliation with Christ, the one who died an ignoble death on the Cross for the salvation of the world, rather than a rapid-fire listing of sins divided into the neat categories of “venial” and “mortal.” It would take a decade for that to really sink-in, however.

There are those out there who, for reasons both good and bad, believe that I am anti-Orthodox. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am, of course, critical of certain currents in contemporary Orthodoxy, though far less so than I am of the ongoing crisis in the Catholic Church. There are times when I am more than a bit envious of Orthodoxy’s confederate structure if only because it provides ample opportunities to run and hide from this-or-that jurisdiction’s internal problems. (How many Catholics today wish they could look over their shoulders at Francis and declare, “Well, he’s not my Patriarch!”?)

With that said, I cannot and will not ever encourage anyone to convert to, or stay, Orthodox. Lately, I have been thinking of those past acquaintances and friends who have opted to walk a dark road out of convenience in flagrant disregard for natural and revealed law. If they had not been Orthodox, that is, had they come to the Catholic Church where, despite dissenting clerics and laity, the truth of things is articulated clearly, would that have chosen to forego sterilization and in vitro fertilization by accepting the cross Christ gave them to bear? I’ll never know the answer to that; but I imagine that question will haunt me for a good long while.

Let me close by affirming, without hesitation, that I am the chief among sinners and in no way, shape, or form believe myself to be more moral, more holy, or more Christlike than my estranged Orthodox brethren. I am as bereft of virtue now as a Catholic as I was as an Orthodox Christian, only thankfully more aware of that fact. Any tempering of my character which has occurred over the past 15 years is due only to the grace of God; my individualized efforts to be a better man by sheer force of will have all ended in failure. As 2017 begins, my dear readers, I ask you to pray for me as I, in my own weak way, will pray for you.

Death to Death to the World

Things slow down this time of year. If you don’t believe me, then click over to the pop-culture website The Outline which ran a story last week on Death to the World (DTW), the Orthodox zine that comically blends superficial Eastern Christian content with a hardcore-punk aesthetic. Started in 1994 in association with the then-schismatic St. Herman of Alaska Monastery in Platina, California, the zine’s name, which in substance means detachment from “all earthly cares,” is meant to appeal to angry, disenfranchised, and largely uneducated young men for whom “death to the world” means a nihilistic disdain for all humanity. More grotesque still is the zine’s frequent use of skulls, graves, and other dark imagery not for the purposes of memento mori, but simply to look “cool.” In many ways DTW’s cheap antics are similar to numerous anarcho-punk and crust bands using pictures of war crimes and other atrocities on their 7” sleeves, ostensibly to “send a message.”

Missing from The Outline’s overview of the zine is any mention of the numerous problems associated with St. Herman’s, not the least of which being its willingness to shield its abbot Gleb “Fr. Herman” Podmoshensky from accusations of sexual impropriety. St. Herman’s and DTW are also shameless propagandists for Fr. Seraphim Rose, a homosexual Eastern spiritualist-turned-Orthodox monk who is best known for penning a series of intellectually fraudulent books on everything from UFOs to a literalist interpretation of the Book of Genesis. Rose, more than any other Orthodox crackpot writing in English, is responsible for anti-Catholic prejudices among American Orthodoxy’s convert culture and the cult of worship that surrounds him still has frustrated any sincere inquiries into his alleged holiness. It is telling that Rose’s home jurisdiction, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, has yet to canonize him despite the circulation of icons, akathists, and other pious practices in his honor.

As for DTW itself, despite failing to attract many subscribers in the 1990s, it now enjoys a second life as a web-zine while peddling clothing clearly meant to imitate the attire of black-bloc anarchists. How much of an impact DTW still has is difficult to measure. American Orthodoxy has a time-honored tradition of artificially inflating its numbers even though it is missing an entire generation of adherents due to intermarriage or apathy. While noble efforts have been made over the past several decades to turn Orthodoxy away from being a boutique religion for bored white people and/or an ethnic social club, the sad fact remains that Orthodoxy in America remains splintered along cradle/convert and nationalistic lines. As for giving Orthodoxy some intellectual gravitas in the Anglophone world, it should come as little surprise that the scholarly efforts of the late Frs. Alexander Schmemann and John Meyendorff are often held in contempt by those associated with DTW and its followers. For them, Orthodoxy is a pseudo-rebellious religious posture with candles and exotic pictures; nothing further need be known.

Instead of being the subject of a positive news article, DTW ought to be derided by serious Orthodox Christians who have no interest in having their religion reduced to a fad. Those who find their way to Orthodoxy through DTW and other similar resources are likely to enter with a woefully incomplete and despicably inaccurate picture of what the Orthodox Church is. This is not what Orthodoxy needs, particularly in the United States where fervent religiosity often takes the shape of barking-mad hysterics. Of course, Orthodoxy is not alone in suffering through attempts to blend its character and traditions with disposable convictions and self-important posturing. I used to listen to Pedro the Lion after all.

Y100B: Political Theology

Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty (University of Chicago Press 2005 (1922), 116pgs.)

It has been a decade since I last sat down with Political Theology, one of Carl Schmitt’s most cited and misunderstood works. Or, maybe I should say, contentious works to the extent that hundreds of readers (most of whom are academics) have put forward interpretations of mixed plausibility concerning what Schmitt is “really saying” in the text. Most infamously, Heinrich Meier — a German “Straussian” — argued that the text is the launching point for a literal political theology which privileges revelation over reason in the ordering of human affairs. All of life, according to Meier’s reading of Schmitt, comes down to a decision: “Am I with God or am I with Satan?” Granted, you won’t find this question formulated anywhere in the text; Meier has to draw it out from not only a selective reading of Political Theology, but an even more selective reading of the Schmittian corpus, including the jurist’s private reflections. Not surprisingly, Meier’s interpretation has drawn a great deal of criticism, particularly from the cabal of Left-leaning theorists who, for reasons which remain more than a bit obscure, find Schmitt’s theories of the state, legality, and the political congenial to their own pet ideological projects.

To be frank, most of Political Theology is a bore. Originally published in 1922, Schmitt’s immediate concern was to attack certain liberal theories of law in vogue during that time by highlighting the importance of the “state of exception” (or “emergency”). Moreover, Schmitt also introduces, or rather reminds his audience, of the secularization of theological concepts in modern jurisprudence. It is a sociological insight made long before Schmitt walked the earth, though largely forgotten about in the “post-theological” environment of early 20th C. legal thought. Where Political Theology turns interesting is in the last chapter, which confronts the counter-revolutionary thinking of Bonald, Maistre, and Cortes. Here, in the midst of interpreting these three men, Schmitt comes the closest to making an absolute theological claim on the necessity of deciding between man’s goodness or wickedness before proceeding with any theory of the state. Such a decision cannot be informed by a legal theory, and perhaps the defective state of human reason eliminates the possibility of answering the question philosophically. Only theology, rooted in a concrete revelation from Above, can provide a sure answer.

How much Schmitt believed this himself will likely remain an irresolvable question for as long as people bother to read him. Although it is doubtful that Schmitt shared Cortes’s radically pessimistic view of human nature, a good case can be made that he often doubted man’s intentions and certainly had no time for the liberal presumption of man’s goodness. Regardless, Political Theology — for better or worse — remains the most influential text Schmitt ever produced and has inadvertently given legs to “political theology” as a distinct intellectual and moral endeavor. Given how many Christians today, including Christian readers of Schmitt, embrace the liberal presumptions that Schmitt abhorred is no small irony. In fact, by Schmittian lights, it’s a catastrophe.

A Thought on “Thick Faith”

David Mills has penned another one of his customarily thoughtful pieces for Aleteia, “Make the Faith Thick and the Church Expensive.” In it, he discusses some recent sociological data on orthodox Jewish birthrates compared to non-orthodox birthrates. (For some reason the piece comes accompanied with a picture of an Eastern Orthodox subdeacon, but whatever.) Not surprisingly, orthodox Jews are “out-birthing” other Jews by a considerable margin, likely because they take the tenets of their religion concerning children seriously. That is to say that orthodox Jews, rather than paring down the Law in the name an inner “spirituality,” following through on the Judaism’s legal prescriptions as an indispensable part of their religious life. Critics, I suppose, will say that this is proof that orthodox Jews are only concerned with “externals” while glibly ignoring even the possibility that adherence to “externals” is reflective of deeply held religious convictions.

Good sophisticated Catholics (and Eastern Orthodox) of the 21st C. will have none of this, of course. There is nothing worse in the minds of many than adherence to “externals,” ranging from counting Rosary beads to receiving Communion on the tongue to rejecting contraception. All of these “rules,” all of these “empty rituals,” went out the door 50 years ago, or so they say. Moral prescriptions, while ideal and nice, are difficult; people must be brought to them “gradually” so as not to feel isolated or alienated from God’s mercy. Perhaps, after undergoing a purely internal transformation, a Catholic may be brought, by their own conscience, to think more deeply about “externals” and even follow through on them. If they do, they should, of course, keep it to themselves so as to not come across as “judgmental.” For the rest of the Catholic faithful, however, they are fine where they are at, so long as they don’t deny global warming or harbor any reservations over open-door immigration policies.

As 2016 draws to a close, let me just come out and say that as much as I admire Mills’s call not to present a thin, cheapened form of the Faith, this is all that’s really available to most people today — and it’s the only form that many Catholic priests and bishops know how to deliver. While there are pockets of resistance out there to the liberal and secularizing trends that overtook the Church during the last century and continue to cause chaos today, they remain few and far between, largely marginalized and even openly mocked by the Ordinary of Rome himself. It’s not that people who truly wish to take up their cross and follow Christ are barred absolutely from doing so; it’s just that the Church, at this present and perilous moment in history, is so grotesquely unwilling to help them along the way.

Lord have mercy.

My Eighth Shameless Professional Wrestling Post in Years: Best Wrestlers of 2016

For the four of you who care, I have put together my list of the Top 5 professional wrestlers in 2016 from across the wrestling spectrum. I made my selections based on not only in-ring ability, but the impact they had on the sport in general. Obviously there are some factors which will always be out of a performer’s direct control, such as how well they are booked; the opponents they are given; and the overall health of the companies they work for. However, truly great wrestlers will find a way to transcend these limitations, sometimes in ways we’ve never seen before. Enjoy.

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Y100B: Kierkegaard

Stephen Backhouse, Kierkegaard: A Single Life (Zondervan 2016, 301pgs.)

As 2016 draws to a close, I found myself doing something I once thought impossible: reading a book published by Zondervan.

Backhouse’s biography of the great Dane purports to be “a fresh look” at the man and his times, but really it’s just Kierkegaard’s life and thought watered-down for generalists. Not that there is anything wrong with that. As Backhouse makes clear from the start, the extant Kierkegaard biographies available either amount to hagiography (e.g., Walter Lowrie’s classic treatment) or dense academic exercises. Backhouse delivers something slightly different, a treatment of Kierkegaard that is not entirely devoid of intellectual seriousness and yet gossipy enough for semi-popular consumption. In the end, however, the Kierkegaard of Backhouse’s biography is not all that different from the Kierkegaard of pious or academic study; he is still the tortured soul who broke a young girl’s heart on his way to attacking “Christendom,” that is, the official iteration of Lutheran Christianity that reigned supreme in 19th C. Denmark.

Mindful of his intended audience’s short attention span, Backhouse divorces his discussion of Kierkegaard’s life from his summary of the latter’s literary output, which constitutes a 50-page appendix to the book. That’s unfortunate since the summaries, rather than inspiring readers to explore Kierkegaard for themselves, are ripe for plagiarizing. Why spend a week with Either/Or or Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments when you can spend 5 minutes with Backhouse? By weaving his thoughts on Kierkegaard’s oeuvre into the text, Backhouse may have been able to entice his audience to explore Kierkegaard for themselves. An opportunity has been missed, methinks.

Overall, I can’t say too many bad words about Kierkegaard: A Single Life. Backhouse’s prose is fluid, his narrative well-paced, and his subject matter fascinating. Even so, Backhouse unintentionally stumbles into banality in a chapter assessing Kierkegaard’s legacy and influence. When he writes on Søren’s reception in European intellectual circles, I am intrigued; when he notes how pop bands and comedians reference Kierkegaard today, I am nauseated. But I suppose everyone has access to Wikipedia these days. It shouldn’t surprise me at all that the lowest elements of our disposable culture can so easily, and thoughtlessly, reference the most interesting man . . . in (1813-1855) Copenhagen.