Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Holy Week with the Forgiving Victim

I have just completed my blog posts with Girardian reflections for Holy Week. Some of what I say is pretty basic for those well into Mimetic Theory but I am trying to introduce this way of thinking to a broader public. You can help by liking my posts on the blog or Facebook or Tweeting them or just plain forwarding links with recommendations to whoever might be interested.

Crying out with Palm Branches in our Hands  for Palm Sunday

The First Supper  for Maundy Thursday. (a new, short & focused meditation based on a much longer-winded article of the same name posted on a website some years back.

What Humans Willed: the Passion Story  You can probably guess this is for Good Friday

A Risen Life Ful lof Forgiveness and Love  for Easter Vigil or Easter morning.

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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

A Scandalous Woman and Two Book Reviews

For Lent V, the first Sunday of Passiontide as far as I am concerned, (at the abbey we start singing the passion hymns that Sunday. After all, they are the best office hymns of the liturgical year) I posted some thoughts on the Gospel about that woman who scandalized the disciples and who continue to scandalize us up to the present day. I draw comparisons with its parallels in the synoptic Gospels. A Scandalous Woman as Extravagant as Jesus.

My blog isn't particularly a review site but I've come across to books (well, one is a trilogy) that I think so significant that I have given both a blog post.

"Stupid" Galatians, Stupid Us reviews the book "Galatians Re-imagined" by Brigitte Kahl. This book breaks a lot of new ground, ground that opens up several more layers for a Girardian reading of the epistle. I hope my comments get several of you interested in following it by getting the book.

A City Consumed by Buying and Selling reviews the Agora Trilogy by David Whitley, whose publication has recently been completed with the third volume. As I've shared before, there are several really good Y/A novels that are dealing with issues of mimetic desire and the social dynamics derived from that. The Agora Trilogy is outstanding for its depth of social mimetic processes, both good and very bad. I hope anybody who is open to reading this sort of story and/or works with young people will look into this. Maybe somebody can pass this on to people in youth ministry or education. I have started some correspondence with the author with a link to my review. He has responded and said that he has looked over my blog and is intrigued with the Girardian ideas developed there.

Holy Week is close at hand. Stay tuned for posts for Maundy Thursday and the Easter Vigil.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Contemporary Media Re-Imagines The RC Church

As one news commentator said, in the countdown to the announcement in St. Peter's Square with an enormous crowd gazing with rapt attention at the loggia on the front of the basilica, "You've got to give it to the Roman Catholic Church, they know how to do theater!"

This is not yet another blog about the 266th Bishop of Rome, but it is one about the huge amount of "theater," the symbolism or sign-making surrounding that figure and how it is shifting before our eyes. The signs are dissolving and reforming under the gaze of a media machine more intense than the Catholic Church could ever have wished for in its heyday, when it controlled most of popular culture..

The basilica of St. Peter's itself is a triumph of media, in stone, in marble, in sculpture and painting, imposing even today on any visitor who stands below its mighty faceted form. But that structure is puny in comparison to the boundless electronic machine which eats images like that for breakfast, spews them out on countless screens throughout the world, goes on ravening for sound-bites and news feeds throughout the day, and never quits displaying all night long.

The local extravaganza of symbols and signs associated with the resignation of Benedict XVI and the election of Francis I was irresistible to the electronic media. And the new lead actor did not disappoint. From the choice of the name, the one hand wave and bow to the crowd, through the ditching of designer shoes, the trip in the bus and paying his own hotel bill, to his own telling of the story of the conclave, there were signs in superabundance for the media. That story has ricocheted around the world. When it looked like he was going to get the necessary two-thirds vote a fellow cardinal from Brazil embraced him and whispered the words "Remember the poor". That is the moment the name of Francis came to him, itself an echo-chamber of themes of poverty, peace and love of nature in the Christian tradition. Then later, as a papal flunkey made to vest him in the traditional red cape trimmed with ermine, Bergoglio told him, "No thank you, Monsignore. You put it on instead. Carnival time is over!"

But here's the thing. It's surely not the first time that men with a concern for simplicity and the poor have occupied the official center of the RCC. But it is the first time that images and signs associated with that concern have been amplified and broadcast across the world within seconds. The impact of that broadcasting then is not simply a reporting of abstract moral or religious teaching. The effect is instantaneous and resonates deeply in the human heart, because the message of the poor and nonviolent Christ is already in some way at the core of our image-driven culture. Thus the media greets what it already knows and signals it joyfully across the world. The media becomes itself a sign of the gospel, whether it recognizes it or not. And that gospel sign flashes back powerfully and critically to the church and begins at once its radical reform. (And indeed I am talking about all churches here).

We live in times when all the old boundaries are shattering, between gender roles, between religious traditions, between Reformation distinctions of word and sign, and between the inside and the outside of the church. Suddenly church is happening beyond the confines of church, and shockingly it enters once hallowed confines to challenge them where they least expected it. I do not for a moment question the genuine sincerity of Francis, or the long personal preparation that has brought him to this point, but there can be no doubt that the effect he has had, and may continue to have, belongs to the virtual Christianity in which our world is now awash.

The RC church is not and never will be what it was. Its old legal self-concept is being loosened by the boundary-breaking Christ working from the depths of human significance. The new bishop of Rome is very aware of this situation and responsive to it. What has happened in fact is a victory for Jesus, for his own power to transform the signs and their meaning at the heart of our contemporary world. Francis said and meant as much at his first general audience, when he met with 5000 reporters from 80 countries. He said, "Jesus is head of the church, not the pope."

Tony Bartlett, Contributing Theologian

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Several new posts have been added to my blog "Imaginary Visions of True Peace."

I'll begin with a new story called The Gray Plague. I wrote the first version of this many years ago, before I knew about René Girard & mimetic theory. After getting involved with this anthropology and looking over the fiction I had done up to that point, this story stood out. After all, most of you know that Girard takes the image of the plague as a stand in for a societal mimetic crisis. It has taken me a lot of years to get it in a form that satisfies me.I have made "Girardian" aspects more pronounced so that this story is kind of a long parable of Girardian themes. Since literature serves to educate us in this anthropology, creating fiction, including fantasy fiction, should educate us further. I will be interested in feedback on this story.

Although I didn't preach the Sunday before last, I got an idea for commenting on the Gospel & then Fr. Aelred, prior here at St. Gregory's Abbey, made some insightful remarks I wanted to pass on which you can read about in The Prophet Between the Fox and the Hen.

In preparing for a quiet day I will be giving at a Pennsylvania parish this Saturday, I took material on mimetic theory from earlier blogs but wanted to do a presentation on worship from this perspective with the result being Gathering to Give Life to Victims.

Finally--for now!--some thoughts on this Sunday's Gospel with the title I prefer for it: The Prodigal Father and His Sons
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Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Virtual Papacy Of Benedict XVI

I know I seem like a dog with a bone, but I really have to go back to this. It's still big news, and at the end of my last post I included a link which had some fascinating content and I didn't have the chance to follow it further.

It was Benedict XVI's farewell address to the clergy of the Roman diocese. The audience took place in the middle of February and was noteworthy both for its elegaic tone and for a case of straightforward scapegoating of the media.

The pope gave personal reminiscences of the preparations and work of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), when "We were full of hope, enthusiasm and also of good will." He recalled the development of the various doctrinal statements. He concluded by drawing the following distinction. "There was the Council of the Fathers - the true Council - but there was also the Council of the media... And we know that this Council of the media was accessible to all. So, dominant, more efficient, this Council created many calamities, so many problems, so much misery, in reality: seminaries closed, convents closed liturgy trivialized ... and the true Council has struggled to materialize, to be realized: the virtual Council was stronger than the real Council." (my italics)

Come on now, could the pope really read my book and not honestly cite it! This distinction repeats precisely the central idea I developed in Virtually Christian: the existence of virtual Christianity in popular culture outside the official institutions. Only the pope saw as negative what I saw as positive!

Benedict blames the mass media, for popularizing, trivializing and de-centering what should have been closed off, serious and centered.

But, hang on again, just for a moment, I was also there right at the time... in a seminary just like he describes and, for the sake of the record, it was actually nothing like that.

We were a bunch of students and priests and the only media we read on the Council were the Catholic journals. And it was not the media that was pushing the change, it was the seminarians and priests. By far the majority of transformations in our lifestyle and attitudes came from within the student body itself and the priests who were its mentors. In meeting after meeting we abandoned elements of rule, including strict timetable and clerical dress, sought and received permission to smoke, to visit each other's rooms, to watch hours of T.V., etc. Everything was decided by the strongest voices invoking the Council principles of aggiornamento (bringing up to date) and renewal. At the same time there was a powerful self-questioning going on in many, including many priests, about whether they in fact had a calling at all. Many people simply left. Everything happened in a massive spontaneous upwelling and there was not one single source to blame, unless it was the "true Council".

If the truth is told the Council itself embraced a massive "virtuality" in the very sense I used it in my book: the sense that the church could be open to the world because God was also dynamically at work there.

Here are a couple fairly representative statements (with due apologies for the Latinate prose). "Thus, far from thinking that works produced by man's own talent and energy are in opposition to God's power, and that the rational creature exists as a kind of rival to the Creator, Christians are convinced that the triumphs of the human race are a sign of God's grace and the flowering of His own mysterious design." And "Christ is now at work in the hearts of men through the energy of His Holy Spirit, arousing not only a desire for the age to come, but by that very fact animating, purifying and strengthening those noble longings too by which the human family makes its life more human and strives to render the whole earth submissive to this goal." (From the document, Gaudium et Spes [Joy & Hope]).

But if you try to reconstruct a still-hierarchical church on sudden openness to this kind of virtuality I think you're going to get the results the pope describes. The impact is overwhelming and unpredictable. But maybe that was just what the Spirit was proposing! In which case the Spirit was saying that the days of the massive top-down institution are over. Which, again, is the argument of Virtually Christian and its chapter on the emergence of the single-cell church: a newly-evolving creature swimming freely in the sea of Christian virtuality...

Underlining this shift we have to recognize that Benedict's action resigning the post as "Successor of Peter" basically says that Peter looked elsewhere for help and authority: exactly as I pointed out in the story of James of Jerusalem taking the initiative over the actual Peter (Acts 15, see pp.175-77). It's impossible to have this both ways. Once Benedict cited the contemporary questions of relevance to faith and someone else needing to deal with them, then either Peter is not quite Peter, or he is exactly Peter---one of many brothers and sisters who reach out to each other in serving the church. In this way he has critically demystified the "eternal papacy".

Here is a quote from a wonderful interview with Dr. Tom Schirrmacher, chair of the World Evangelical Alliance Theological Commission, someone who has followed the career of Benedict very closely. It says exactly this in a gentle, clear way.

"(Benedict) once said to the cardinals that a pope is fallible most of the time. In most of his masses and addresses there are hints that he makes mistakes, that he seeks forgiveness from God and the Church, and that he can only hope that God will protect him from wrong decisions. That even applies to his short resignation announcement. This was not the case with John Paul II. That includes the continual indications made by Benedict that he is not head of the church but rather that Jesus is."

To deconstruct the papacy in this way is no accident. It is to admit that the old monolithic structures no longer do the job, indeed they are no longer necessary. Pope Benedict XVI was, whether he admitted it or not, a man of contemporary Christianity, of its intense modern "virtuality". His last act as pope was to surrender the papacy to this emerging and thrilling new meaning.

Tony Bartlett, T&P Contributing Theologian