Critical and Unclear

Critical theory is a fun little tool that will get you published, maybe even laid on a college campus, but not much else. Pick whatever you wish off the shelves of any Left-leaning library and run with it. If you should be endowed with better-than-average literary chops, you might even be able to secure tenure, or the next best thing: a well-trafficked web-log. Although it stands to reason that there have been critical theorists over the past century who genuinely believed that their largely masturbatory pet projects were actually in the service of “human liberation” (whatever that means), the harsh reality is that most of what emerged from, and following, the so-called “Frankfurt School” remains a niche academic interest for graduate students who don’t really understand life and undergraduates who understand neither life nor the theories that ostensibly elucidate it. Rather, under the critical gaze, all of life is reduced to a series of power struggles, deceptions, interpersonal conflicts, and epistemological anarchy and communication becomes little more than an empty exchange of jargon-filled platitudes parading as insights.

Had I, more than a decade ago upon leaving undergrad, thought that I would still be running across the critical-theory crowd, I might have been inclined to go live in a shack in Montana. It had been my assumption that children’s things would no longer be relevant once I entered the “real world,” and for a time my “real world” was legal academia as both a student and faculty fellow. Sure, legal studies, like most disciplines at one time or another, flirted with critical theory, but by the time I was hard at study that movement had been suffocated by the equally noxious “Law & Economics” movement (one, which I am sorry to say, I actually got behind). Penning law-review pieces that quoted Marx, Horkheimer, Barthes, Habermas, etc. stopped being “edgy” 25 years ago. Sure, for obvious reasons there was still room for some Foucault, but who today wants to admit they spend serious time with the likes of Catharine McKinnon, Duncan Kennedy, and Roberto Unger?

I write this despite the fact several acquaintances of mine believe that what we need now more than ever is a refresher on critical theory, specifically its roots and the social movements some believe it inspired. I imagine this sentiment has emerged out of a general frustration with the contemporary Left, specifically the contemporary young Left and its obsession with the pettiest form of identity politics and melodramatic declarations of oppression. Although less visible, and probably not front-and-center in the mind of any Leftist, is the small but apparently growing body of Christian Leftists who, in an often confused and contradictory manner, adopt what they think is a Leftist posture in order to make themselves appear relevant in a cultural milieu that really has no interest whatsoever in what “Jesus Kids” have to say about poverty, racism, war, and so forth. Might it not be possible, some hope, for the Left to be reinvigorated by a return to a more serious time, a period when critically engaging the world and its power structures meant more than sending out Tweets and discussing “polity” with your fellow white, Ivy League graduates?

Maybe, but it seems to me that a return to seriousness is a return to the days when men would kiss their wives, hug their children, and take to the streets, mountainsides, or forests with knives, guns, and Molotov cocktails to not simply “make a point” but literally take apart the machinery of their misery. Not that I endorse such a course of action, mind you, at least not for all of the purposes and interests that often motivated such otherwise well-meaning men, but there is a great deal to be said for having, as they say, “skin in the game.” For nearly a century, a good number of anarchists, communists, and socialists of all shapes and sizes had a great deal of “skin in the game”; if you don’t believe me, just spend a bit of time perusing the history of Western Europe and the United States from the 19th Century onward. Tales of government-backed manipulation, maiming, and murder—all in the name of upholding the fruits of liberalism—fill the history books or, rather, ought to. Actually, what fills the history books even to this day is one long lie about the “progress” of human history and our arrival at its “absolute moment,” an era of unfettered access to porn, booze, and reality television.

During long stretches of highway driving, or even in just a quiet moment of personal reflection taken while in line to buy cigarettes, I have found myself wondering that if/when the “revolution” comes, who will be lined up against a wall and shot first: Me or the coffee-shop commie kid? I jest. There is no revolution coming, at least not from the Left. The steady erosion of life—its meaning and transcendence—that is and has always been part of the liberal project will likely continue unabated during my sojourn on this earth. To hope for anything else seems unreasonable, and yet it is terrifically easy to imagine three or four moves on the global chessboard that could quickly turn the relative passivity of Western (post)modern existence into a bloodbath. Perhaps that’s already happening and for reasons which are still unclear to me, I don’t want to see it.

Any Given Sunday

Somewhere in the world a Tridentine Mass was said without the servers reciting the second Confiteor and a Divine Liturgy served without the second antiphon. Millions of complacent Christians did their weekly duty of showing up to church, pretended to pray, and silently judged the proceedings with thoughts of football, fornication, or just about anything else besides Christ on their minds. And then, in the ancient city of Cairo, dozens of Coptic Christians—mainly women and children—were torn to shreds as a giant explosion ripped through St. Mark’s Cathedral.

As honest as the Western media may want to be when it comes to the state of Egyptian politics in the wake of the so-called “Arab Spring,” the religious significance of the attack is all but lost on them. The Islamists who no doubt carried out this strike are already being referred to as “extremists” and the Copts themselves defined in terms of politics rather than religion. Lost is any sincere acknowledgment that from the days of the false prophet Muhammad, whose tragic birth is celebrated this day, millions of Christians have perished under the crescent moon.

Eastern Christians are, unsurprisingly, much more sensitive to this reality than their Western brethren. For while Latin Catholics may still give passing notice to events such as Lepanto or the Battle of Vienna, Easterners are forced to recall the fall of their ancient patriarchal sees, not to mention historical defeats at Constantinople, Kosovo, and many more. Regardless of local church affiliation or rite, the Eastern liturgical year commemorates numerous incidences of grotesque Muslim violence against the Christians of the East. It is hoped that the prayers of these holy martyrs will sustain what’s left of Christianity in the Middle East, though right now those prayers must feel unanswered.

Without discounting the deleterious effect secular liberalism has had on the West for two centuries, it is difficult at times like this to take the persecution narrative of certain Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants all that seriously. The day may come when the liberal order finally seeks to violently rid itself of the last remnants of Christendom, but that still seems a long way off when compared to the more immediate and savage violence that Islam continues to perpetrate all over the world against the followers of Jesus Christ. Western political leaders will, naturally, express some condolences before returning to business-as-usual, that is, ignoring the plight of the Middle East’s dwindling Christian population.

And what will the Church say? Should we expect an outcry followed by an outpouring of prayers for the deceased and wounded or some highly qualified statements meant to ensure everyone that the attack in Cairo, like the numerous attacks which preceded it in the past few years, was the work of “extremists,” a “fringe” not representative of Muslims generally? Shall we be scolded into accepting the lie that Muslims and Christians worship the same God? Heaven help us all.

Some Words on Encountering an Evangelical Literary Panel

Yesterday evening, as I am sometimes wont to do, I parked myself at the café of Baker Book House’s expansive facility in Grand Rapids. The store, which is still fairly new, is geared primarily toward Protestants of the Evangelical variety, though it also boasts a fairly sizable Catholic section and an extremely modest Eastern Orthodox one. The two store’s two gems are its collection of remainder/lightly damaged titles from primarily Christian academic publishers (e.g., Baker Academic, Eerdmans, and even Ave Maria Press) and an extensive used book section (though most of the volumes are Protestant). The café is typically quiet in the evening, but not always. For instance, a month or two ago, I made the mistake of sitting there while “Movie Night” was going on. The film in question, God’s Not Dead 2, won’t be winning any academy awards next year, but so it goes. Another mistake was made last night when, after 30 minutes of peace and quiet, I noticed a flood of people (mostly women) enter the store and start sitting around the small stage area across from the café. Much to my chagrin, a panel of four Christian authors were speaking about their work; offering up some readings; and answering questions about the writing and publishing process. As someone who has almost no interest in penning fiction, let alone Evangelical fiction, I wanted to flee—but I couldn’t. For almost immediately I found myself transfixed by the well-meaning but ludicrous spectacle of listening to people who sound like they’ve never read a real book in their life tell others how to write.

Ok, perhaps that’s a bit harsh. One of the speakers, whose literary work revolves around an arsonist setting fire to her house and then purchasing a pug, was a former champion of the Moth Radio Hour’s “Story Slam” competition. She clearly knew how to string some words together and deliver them for comedic effect; she just wasn’t very funny. I say that because I find it grotesque that someone would take an obvious tragedy which greatly impacted their family and leverage it for laughs. As for the pug gimmick? Pure kitsch. When this individual began reading her work, I was equal parts mesmerized and horrified; how could anyone laugh at this? And it wasn’t just the arson; it was the fact she led off her story about acquiring the pug as if she was about to engage in a tawdry affair behind her husband’s back, and latter capped it all off with an anal-sex joke. Is that the Evangelical version of “blue humor”? I really don’t know, nor do I care to find out.

Two of the other speakers, both women, were a little easier to take. One had acquired her PhD at Princeton some time ago and spent her time writing and offering spiritual counseling. One thing that jumped out to me during her discussion is how often Evangelicals only openly confess to “positive sins,” that is, those which are typically considered virtues by contemporary secular society. For instance, this author made mention of her sins of “perfectionism” and “focusing too hard on her work,” as if neither aren’t already part of the Protestant work ethic. I also got the sense from her talk that the only times Evangelicals recognize sin is if they “feel convicted in their hearts” (or something like that). In other words, sin is defined as a subjective feeling rather than an objective abrogation of God’s Law. Strange. As for the third female speaker, she had recently penned a book of prayers that aligned with the alphabet; I must admit I had mostly checked out by the time she spoke.

The real highlight of the night was actually the panel’s first speaker, a middle-aged gentleman who writes a series of action novels revolving around a Christian cage fighter and former Philosophy major at Yale who, after beating bad guys to a pulp, tells them to go read The Bible. (No, I am not making this up.) To make matters worse, he also writes and self-publishes (of course) a miniseries about a vigilante nun entitled . . . wait for it . . . Force of Habit. (Were I a braver man, I should have reached into my pocket, removed my Rosary, and began loudly reciting the Sorrowful Mysteries.) During the course of his presentation and the Q&A session, this gentleman revealed that he had formerly been a lawyer (I knew it); that he had come to writing late in life and was often told he could never do it (obviously); and that anyone can learn to write (wrong).

And then the panel was over, and there was much rejoicing in Heaven.

Don’t Get Too Excited

Rorate Caeli sent out a tweet today congratulating the (Orthodox) Church of Greece for the low rate of out-of-wedlock births in Greece as compared to other members of the Organisation for Economic Development (OECD). (You can view the numbers here.) As Life Site News reported last year, abortions have been skyrocketing in Greece since the economic crisis, with people increasingly relying on them as a form of birth control. In fact, many historic Orthodox countries, including Bulgaria, Romania, Belarus, and Russia, have some of the highest abortion rates in the world — a depressing truth made all the more depressing by the Orthodox Church’s ostensible resurgence since the fall of communism in the East. Sad times these be.

For the Record: Francis and the St. George Ribbon

Perhaps in ostensible honor of today being St. George’s Day on the Old (Julian) Calendar, Russian State Duma deputy Pavel Dorokhin bestowed the Ribbon of St. George on Pope Francis who then, apparently, proceeded to wear it with pride.

For those unaware, the Ribbon is a symbol of Russian military and imperial might which, since the Euromaidan, has become synonymous with militant pro-Russian, anti-Catholic dissidents in Ukraine. Was the Holy Father unaware of this? Shouldn’t someone in his inner circle be world-savvy enough to know about this? Strange times these be.

Update 5/6: Read more here.

Update 5/8: Read more here.

Lilla on France’s Decline

Last year I took note of “Mark Lilla’s Tragic Trilogy on France” which ran in the New York Review of Books. Lilla now returns with the first of a two-part series on France’s socio-political decline in the wake of both the Charlie Hebdo and Paris attacks. Here is an excerpt from “France: Is There a Way Out?“:

Economic stagnation, political stalemate, rising right-wing populism—this has been France’s condition for a decade or more. So has nothing changed since the Charlie Hebdo killings? Yes it has, and not simply because of the Bataclan massacre. Since 2012 France has suffered a steady series of Islamist terrorist attacks, some dramatic, some less so, that have changed the political psychology of the country. Intellectuals and politicians have been arguing about the causes of le malaise français for decades, calling on the French to change their policies and thinking, on the assumption that their destiny was in their hands. That assumption no longer holds. The globalization of economic activity, including the American financial crisis and the transfer of decision-making to the opaque institutions of the European Union, has been eroding the sense of national self-determination for some time. And now the refugee crisis and international jihadist networks are eroding confidence that the state, which the French expect to be strong, can protect its citizens.

Though there were no major successful terrorist attacks on French soil between January and November 2015, there were enough small or unsuccessful ones in the news to keep the public on edge. In February, just weeks after the Charlie murders, three soldiers defending a Jewish center in Nice were stabbed by a Muslim man, and in November a jihadist network in Saint-Denis and Lyon was discovered and dismantled. In June another Muslim man whose name was in a police terrorist database decapitated his employer at a delivery company near Lyon, and before trying to blow up the building planted the man’s head on the building’s gate next to two banners, one referring to ISIS and the other with the Muslim shahada written on it (“There is no god but Allah. Muhammad is Allah’s messenger”). He then took some photos.

In August a young Moroccan living in Spain, who was also in a European police database, boarded a high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris with a Kalashnikov and a Lugar pistol; he wounded five people before his guns jammed and he was wrestled down by two vacationing American soldiers. In October and November French police foiled what would have been two major attacks against naval installations in Toulon and Orléans by French Muslims with Syrian connections. And in December police investigating a recent female convert found in her apartment the hollowed-out mold of a pregnant woman’s belly, presumably intended to hide explosives. The French government now has a policy of publicizing its antiterrorism operations, which keeps the public alert but can also leave it with the jitters. In September the minister of the interior announced that over 1,800 French citizens had been identified as belonging to jihadist networks, triple the number recorded in January 2014.

The second, yet-published, article promises to focus more on France’s political future and the prospects of the National Front taking control of the country. And if people think the French experience has little to say to those living in the United States, think again. America, like France, is experiencing a surge in right-wing populism, only of a less principled and far stupider variety.

A Brief Remark on an Ongoing Eastern Myth

Please pardon me if I should sound like a broken record, but certain discussions in “Eastern Orthodox land” (blogs, social media, streaming radio) about Orthodoxy’s capacity to “transcend” or “stand against” (post)modernity prompt me to repeat that Orthodoxy is eastern in historic geography alone; it is not free from, nor beyond, Western culture. Although contemporary Western historians pay little mind to the direct contribution Byzantium made to the advent of the Italian Renaissance and classical studies, First, Second, and—much later—Third Rome are all built out of materials supplied by Athens and Jerusalem. And as history ambled ahead, Eastern and Western Christendom found themselves confronting the same spiritual and intellectual pathologies (albeit to different degrees), many of which continue to haunt the world to this very day.

It is convenient, and ahistorical, for the Orthodox to blame the amorphous “West” for, well, everything or to posit that the “pure Christian East” and its “authentic spirituality, theology, and liturgy” would have remained “pure” had it not been for the incursion of “Western ideas” starting in the 1500s (or some other arbitrary point in history). Although historic Eastern Orthodox powers such as Russia had a longstanding antagonistic relationship toward the (geographic) West, it was never “free” of Western currents of thought, nor somehow nourished by a “”pristine Byzantinism” which itself was unmoored from the “rationalism” which, allegedly, was an exclusively “Latin thing.” 20th Century Orthodox could write all day about the need for a “neo-Patristic synthesis” or a “return to the sources,” but let’s not forget that there is something genuinely Western (and modern) about such calls, whether certain Orthodox are willing to acknowledge it or not.

Of course, authentic Apostolic Christianity will always stand against destructive ideologies and constructs such as liberalism, historicism, positivism, nihilism, and so forth. The Gospel cannot be reduced to a “worldview” and “modern man” no less than “ancient man” will never need anything greater in life than God. If Eastern Orthodoxy—particularly the minority of Orthodox living in the (geographic) West—have any hope of enlightening others to the truth and necessity of Salvation, then it will have to be accomplished without recourse to grand cultural myths which only serve to reinforce emptyheaded triumphalism.

Liberalism Will Not Save Us

A few days ago William Tighe, an Associate Professor of History at Muhlenberg College and frequent contributor to numerous Catholic publications, left the following extended comment on this blog:

As I wrote earlier today on another blog, as a comment to a post featuring Edith Piaf singing La Marseillaise:

Why should I applaud, or even listen to, some sluttish chanteuse singing a song that encapsulates and celebrates events that constituted the overthrow of France as “the eldest daughter of the Church” and enthroned “laicite” in it place?

If this is the “French heritage” that we are rallying to defend, my call would, rather, be “pereat!” The French Revolution was the first, and the bellwether, of subsequent revolutions aimed at overthrowing any Catholic Christian social order, and the Marseillaise, like the Internationale, is freighted with anti-Christian (and, indeed, savagely neopagan) ideas. Were I a Frenchman I would have no truck with “1789 and All That” and, indeed, would take some melancholy consolation in the fact that with the Charlie Hebdo massacre and now the Paris Slaughter it seems to be expiring from, as Karl Marx wrote, mistakenly, of bourgeois capitalism, its own “inner contradictions.”

And if I were to feel moved to show solidarity with the French, the flag that I would wave would be the drapeau blanc.

At the time this remark appeared, Owen White was on Facebook rightly snickering at his monarchist and traditionalist friends who didn’t think twice about distorting their profile pictures with the Tricolour. Perhaps these folks misguidedly thought that to stand with the French Republic at this moment in time is to take a stand both against Islam and for Christendom. But Christendom has been almost entirely wiped out and the country which suffered a terrible tragedy at the hands of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) played no small part in its demise. Now well-meaning Christians of all stripes are rallying behind Europe and the United States to “do something” about ISIS, as if the destruction of one highly efficient band of Muslim madmen will rid the world of Islamic terror. And even if ISIS falls and the false religion of the false prophet Mohammed is contained in the desert, what have we—good Christians of the West—left ourselves with? Unfettered secular liberalism which holds as much contempt for us as the sons of Ishmael do.

Liberalism will not save us. The self-interested forces of capitalism and sham democracy may find a way to temporarily push back the Islamic threat, but they will leave nothing for us to glory over. The time is not far off where the ostensibly protecting hand of liberalism claps us in irons for not submitting to its perverse and ungodly ideology. Watch well the stripes liberal-democratic polities deal out to the Muslims. They will be our stripes next.

The Road Ahead

Much to my surprise, “A Closing Comment on the Synod” became one of the highest viewed posts on Opus Publicum since I reset the blog last year, though it received far fewer comments than other posts related to, say, Catholic/Orthodox relations or liturgical reform. Perhaps people are tired of reading and talking about the recently concluded Extraordinary Synod on the Family. I know I am. Several worst-case-scenarios were proposed by observers over the past year; none of them, thankfully, came to pass. As I pointed out previously, however, that is no cause for comfort. Pope Francis, who has already revolutionized the annulment process, can still set loose more doctrinal and moral confusion within the Church with his pending Apostolic Exhortation. Liberal bishops, priests, and laity, despite their alleged defeat at the Synod, now appear emboldened to continue turning a blind eye to mortal sin in the name of “mercy.” As for the conservatives and traditionalists, the immediate future looks bleak. Those Synod participants who refused to get on board with the liberal reforms championed by the Continental prelates and backed by the Pope are now exposed. No, Francis cannot lay the hammer down on all of them, but he can continue to play musical chairs with the seats of power at the Vatican to help ensure that the orthodox hierarchy won’t get in his way in the future.

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