Archives For First Things

lightstock_75024_xsmall_user_2741517Here are some  links and posts I came across this week that might be worth your while:

Why Christians Might Want to Abstain from the Pledge:

Now, many Christians may read this and say “I don’t have a problem saying the Pledge of Allegiance, but I agree– if I have to choose to be loyal to God or country, I’ll always choose God”. If this is the case, the third problem that arises is that such an individual, when making the Pledge of Allegiance, is actually being dishonest. You can read the rest here.

10310117_10152423618803879_7313295905510655067_nI Will Not Leave You As Orphans:

My friend and now colleague, Taylor Mertins, included a reflection about my two sons in his recent blog post. Made me cry. You can read it here.

Karl Barth’s Failure:

This essay from First Things, a conservative Catholic journal, nails it on Barth, I think, and articulates better than me my current feeling that our secular age requires a retrieval of Christian metaphysics.

Perhaps the best way to understand the spirit of modern philosophy is to see it as a dismantling of the classical understanding of God and the ordered cosmos it sustained. Classical theism names not only a way of thinking about God but a way of understanding the nature of the world and our place in it. Developed through common effort over centuries, it came to endorse a number of interlocking theses: that God’s essence is identical with his existence, that nature is governed by an act of divine intelligence and love, that rational beings find fulfillment in learning the truth about God, and that all knowledge is grounded in God’s self-understanding. You can read the rest here.

Water to Wine (Some of My Story)

My theo-friend Brian Zahnd tells a powerful story about his mid-life faith crisis:

Like Bilbo Baggins I felt “thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” I’d reached the point where something had to be done. I was no longer satisfied with the “cutting edge” and “successful.” I had lost my appetite for the mass-produced soda-like Christianity of pop-culture America. I wanted vintage wine from old vines. I don’t know exactly how I knew this, but I knew it. Guided by little more than instinct I began reading the Early Church Fathers. You can read the rest here.

 The System vs. The Kingdom

“I believe Jesus is Lord but that’s just my personal opinion. What produced that peculiar speech-act?”

Here’s a reflection perfect thinking about Memorial Day from my muse Stanley Hauerwas:

Link Love

Jason Micheli —  May 9, 2014 — Leave a comment

AE_LinkLoveHere are some things you might’ve missed this week that are worth a read:

 

On the First Things blog: If You Don’t Know the Bible, You Don’t Know Bob Dylan

 

If Christians can’t be bakers and hoteliers because of same-sex marriage, should Christians be soldiers or politicians? St. Hippolytus says said No. Here’s this thought-provoking piece.

 

Josh Luton at the Apprentice Institute has a good piece jumping off from my recent post ‘God Doesn’t Give a Damn about Your Sin.’

 

Some of you asked about my affinity for Herbert McCabe, the late Dominican theologian/philosopher. Here’s a piece from the Christian Century that unpacks why he matters.

martin-lutherI’ve got to confess.

And I’ll do it publicly here.

Because, after all, I’m a Protestant and- on paper at least, even if its seldom practiced in most congregations- I believe in corporate confession.

I don’t need to duck inside a little private booth (note to Protestants: most Catholics haven’t used those in a long while, no matter what you saw in Keeping the Faith) to have a priest mediate my confession and prayer for absolution to God.

I can do it all by myself. With and in front of others.

There doesn’t need to be anyone who comes between me and God (note which noun comes first in that subordinate clause).

Which just nicely guarantees that very little communication, to say nothing of confession, passes from me to God.

While famous corporate confession from the Book of Common Prayer:

“…We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders…”

is incredibly pointed and powerful, I daresay it’s salvific sting would be felt more keenly if I had a confessor forcing me to own up and articulate exactly how what I’ve ‘left undone’ in my life and relationships that’s deserving of the label ‘sin.’

I’ve already shown my hand without actually fessing up:

I’ve got to confess.

I’ve got a serious case of Catholic-envy.

A virus that was perhaps latent within me since John Paul but has flared up to near-fatal levels by the arrival of Pope Francis.

While my own denomination continues to sever itself over North American issues of homosexual ordination, I’ve got to admire (if not agree) with a tradition that at least has the logical consistency to demand celibacy of all its clergy, gay or not. In a denomination severing itself over issues of homosexual marriage while about 1/2 of its members- let’s not talk about its clergy- divorce, I’ve got to admire (if not agree) with a tradition that has the logical consistency to teach that marriage is a lifelong covenant. In a denomination that is inescapably ‘American’ I’ve got to admire a tradition that is thoroughly ‘universal’ even while it universality means its rate of change seems incredibly slow to this American.

But really, like so many others, Pope Francis is the reason for my Catholic envy.

How I wish my own tradition had a globally recognizable leader in whom the life and teachings of Jesus were so palpably and incarnately demonstrated.

Just check out this picture. If not worth a thousand words, it def rates a short homily or a Broadway billboard:

Screen-Shot-2013-11-08-at-7.26.28-AM

The other Francis was right.

You don’t need evangelism when you’ve got leaders like this who are like a flesh-by-numbers display of the Gospel.

Had I not already signed on to a particular Jesus tribe and were, right now, ‘seeking’ a place to follow him, I gotta confess I’d give our Romish brothers and sisters a try.

Which but leads me to another confession that IS corporate for most my Protestant tribe:

Why are we not Catholic?

Or rather, in what ways are we still meaningfully Protestant?

I don’t know what church you attend or denomination you belong to but, chances are, you’re not ‘protesting’ anything anymore. Even if you are protesting things, odds are good it’s got more to do with ‘social justice’ or ‘the conservative agenda’ and little to do 16th century theology.

After all, the main points of contention that compelled Martin to post his 95 Theses have long since been reconciled.

Abuse of indulgences? Check.

Scripture and liturgy in the vernacular? Check.

Justification by faith alone? Double Check.

Every year it strikes me as odd that Protestant churches actually celebrate Reformation Sunday.

Even if you agree with Luther’s vision of Christianity, schism isn’t something to celebrate. That’s like celebrating your parents’ divorce- I know firsthand that even when the separation is necessary it’s still tragic.

You’d think it strange if I offered prayers every late October celebrating the rupture of family wouldn’t you?

I’ve spent a lot of time in Latin America, a region where the United Methodist Church is all but unknown so small is its population share. There, the Jesus family is divided into 2 homes, Catholic or Evangelical (usually meaning ‘Pentecostal’). Truth be told, I’ve got a lot more in common with the former there than I do the latter. In terms of worship, theology and how mission and service are to be done.

I wonder, given the changing contours of post-Christian America, if our future is to be found in Latin America?

Do our increasingly diverse cultural options make it necessary to winnow down the Christian options to two basic choices: Catholic or Pentecostal?

Could it be the Protestant affection for Pope Francis is a harbinger of things to come?

By the way, here’s a great article from First Things that echoes.

Queen’s to you:

Why are you Protestant?

Why are you not Catholic?

And does your reason trump the cause of Christian unity?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thank You, Pastor

Jason Micheli —  March 6, 2013 — 7 Comments
images
What he said.
James Rogers has this reflection in First Things. I think he overstates the difficulty pastors have in forming friendships within the congregation. At least, that hasn’t been my experience. But his thoughts here are good ones.

Pastors have hard lives.

Paul’s experience of pouring out his life into a congregation is shared, I think, by almost every pastor, no matter the size of the life or the size of the congregation.

The pastoral burden must be tremendous.

The author of Hebrews writes that pastors “keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account.” What a huge responsibility. The flip side of this responsibility is that layfolk are supposed to “obey your leaders and submit to them” so that our pastors may keep watch over our souls “with joy, and not with grief.”

And yet how often do we grieve our pastors?

Part of this seems to be built into the way pastors become pastors, at least these days. It is not a surprise that young men who show some enthusiasm for God and the gospel are encouraged to become pastors. This encouragement may come in the form of what these young men (and, one hopes, wise Christians around them) discern as an inner call from the Spirit. For others, the encouragement may come from those around them as they discern the man’s gifts.

Whatever the source of the encouragement, however, it is usually young men most zealous for God and the gospel, those who are most aware of the grace they received from God and who have responded most deeply to God because of that grace, who are encouraged to become pastors. Think of Paul’s Damascus Road experience (though calls of course do not need to be so dramatic).

This seems an obvious point: that men who become pastors usually have an exceptional relationship with God in one dimension or another.

What would be the alternative? Men becoming pastors who have little interest in God and the ministry?

But consider the implication: the same thing that draws men to the ministry also separates them from their congregations. They have experienced a richer relationship with God than those they lead; they have, as the Psalmist puts it, “tasted and seen that the Lord is good.”

The upside is that their only aspiration is for their congregations to taste of the life, blessing, and joy that God offers us through the gospel. But what frustration, also; it’s so often like pushing a rope. We congregants are hard of hearing, we stumble, we are distracted by the world. The pastor implores those in his charge merely to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” They know, they know, that if only we taste we will, like them, want more. It’s sitting there, right before us. They would love for us to share what they have. But we don’t even taste.

They teach, they preach, they baptize and feed us. They plead, they implore, they even cajole and admonish. But so little for so much. They are poured out as a drink offering on the service and sacrifice of their congregations. They empty themselves, yet, so often, no one seems to get filled.

To be sure, God sees and rewards. But it would be nice every now and then to receive some appreciation from those of us they serve.

But too frequently we call upon them only when we’re in desperation, and ignore them when we’re not. We don’t bring our children to catechism class, and then blame the pastor for our children’s ignorance. We treat gathering together with the church as a burden, and the Eucharist as something that only prolongs the service, and then blame the pastor when our children drop their faith in college.

Pastors see the wreck that sin makes of human lives in their congregations, and the hindrance it creates for receiving God’s love. Yet we accuse them of meddling should they attempt to minister to us—until we’ve made such a wreck of it that there’s no one left to turn to. Then we wonder that the pastor is of so little help and comfort.

There’s so much to do in the church and so few layfolk willing to help.

So the pastor steps in to do the needful things, and is soundly thanked with the accusation of power-grabbing.

As if filling a vacuum he’d be more than happy for someone else to fill is power-grabbing. But we’re all satisfied enough to criticize from the sideline.

And then there is just not enough time for all the demands. People do the right thing for the wrong reason, and the wrong thing for the right reason. It would be great for pastors to have time to disciple us properly.

But we are so hard of hearing that it takes so long just to get through to one of us, and then we’re just as apt to misunderstand as to understand. It seems as though pastors empty themselves into broken cups that cannot hold what they offer.

It is a struggle as the pastor only wants his congregation to share the passion prompted by the love that he’s received from God.

But all of this also comes along with the pastor’s struggle with his own sin. Little could be more isolating for a pastor than struggling with his own sin when knowing that his congregation, often unfairly, looks to him as model of right behavior. We sometimes, unfairly, expect them to exemplify fully the life of the age to come rather than recognizing that no man can do that on this side of the eschaton.

It is little wonder that pastors seek out each other for fellowship and consolation; few layfolk understand the fine line between honesty with God and with one’s congregants, and desire not to disappoint, and a hypocrisy that can threaten one’s soul.

All of this on top of the pastor being poured out as a drink offering while keeping watch over the souls of the flock that God has given him.

Thank you, pastor.

Douthat_New-articleInline-v2Dwight Shrute isn’t the only person who loves Battlestar Galactica. Sure that probably makes me lame. Whatever, it’s awesome. It’s also theologically resonate and a spot-on imagining of the Exodus story played in out in the wilderness of space.

Apparently, Ross Douthat is also a fan. Here are his reflections from a few years ago in First Things, pairing BG with Heaven, Lost with Puratorio and Sopranos with Hell.

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There was a time in American life, not so very long ago, when the only significant relation between religion and popular culture seemed to be the tedious symbiosis enjoyed by such envelope-pushing television producers as Steven Bochco and David E. Kelley and the conservative Christians who loved to hate them. The pattern repeated itself endlessly: Some line would be crossed (a bared buttock, a profanity, a dollop of anti-Catholic bigotry) and the Moral Majority or the Catholic League or the Traditional Values Coalition would mount a protest or a boycott, which in turn only ensured higher ratings for the television show in question and incentives for further envelope-pushing the next time around.

Today those battles are all but finished, and the religious side has lost. It was beaten in part by provocateurs like Bochco and the broader left-wing campaign against anything that even hinted at censorship. But it was also defeated by forces beyond the control of either artists or agitators. Technological change, above all, doomed the fight for decency in American popular culture, as every successive technological innovation weakened the power of regulators, moral and otherwise, while expanding the venues where human weakness could be exploited for fun and profit (mainly the latter). Russell Kirk famously called the automobile a “mechanical Jacobin,” but the fissiparous, fragmenting effects of cable television, DVDs, and the Internet make the Model T look Burkean by comparison. The-Sopranos-Season-1-Bios-Tony-3

The result is the unrestrained and unrestrainable popular culture of today, where every concept, no matter how lowbrow or how vile, can find a platform and an audience. A television show that proves too violent for NBC ends up on Showtime; an FCC crackdown on a raunchy radio host only nudges him into a lucrative new spot on satellite radio; a community that manages to keep X-rated movies out of its theaters and video stores is just pushing money into the pockets of sleaze merchants who peddle their wares over high-speed Internet connections. Small wonder that America’s movies and music and television shows make us enemies in traditional societies around the world—and small wonder, too, that many cultural conservatives, despairing of their country’s future, embrace withdrawal from the world into a narrow, well-defended Christendom, where their families and their faith can be protected from the lowest-common-denominator swill that washes against the walls outside.

Yet religious believers have also profited in certain ways from the crack-up of the old middlebrow, PG-rated common culture, even if it’s sometimes hard to see the gains through the gore and exhibitionism. This is the great paradox of twenty-first-century popular culture in America: For all its profanity and blasphemy, the new culture arguably takes religious issues and debates more seriously than it used to in a more decent, less decadent era.

Or perhaps it isn’t a paradox at all: There was a time, after all, when many religious thinkers were skeptical of the kind of mass culture that had its American heyday at mid-century, critiquing its homogeneity and complacency, tackiness and philistinism. They rose to the defense of the old dispensation only because the alternative—the mainstreaming of the 1960s counterculture, with its contempt for every tradition and authority—seemed far worse. (The Bells of St. Mary’s might not be The Divine Comedy, but it was better than Basic Instinct.)

The counterculture has largely won, and our society is in many ways the worse for it. But there are opportunities in defeat as well as victory, and places where new life can spring up amid the ruins. The old gatekeepers were at best superficially conservative and favorably disposed to religion only because they believed in being inoffensive about every segment of the mass market on which their films and shows depended. Now the incentives to be uncontroversial are far weaker. Which means that, along with all the dreck and smut and mediocrity, there’s more room for idiosyncrasy, controversy, and political incorrectness as well. These can be the raw materials of blasphemy, but they can also be the stuff of popular art that drills deep into issues—theology and human destiny, sin and redemption, heaven and hell—that the old mass media treated with kid gloves.

True, God has to compete with Paris Hilton and Family Guy for attention, but at least He’s in there fighting.

Consider recent developments in science fiction and fantasy. These are genres that have traditionally provided fertile ground for metaphysically inclined fiction, but for a long time their presence in the American mass media began with Star Trek and ended with Star Wars—fun but shallow entertainments whose take on religion mixed Daniel Dennett with Deepak Chopra, secular condescension with New Age mumbo-jumbo. As late as the early 1990s, the only sci-fi show of any merit on television was Star Trek: The Next Generation, a U.N. bureaucrat’s fantasy of the twenty-fourth century, in which a crew of asexual socialists in leotards kept the galaxy safe for cultural relativism and conflict resolution.

A decade later, the landscape looks very different. The cost of bringing what J.R.R. Tolkien called “a secondary world” to life has dropped, and the possibilities for creativity have widened. The two great Christian fantasies of the century just past—Middle-Earth and Narnia—have been given vivid, wildly successful big-screen treatments. The dreadful Star Wars prequels were briefly eclipsed by The Matrix, whose blend of religious allegory, pop philosophy, and balletic violence aimed much higher than George Lucas ever did (though The Matrix descended into pretentious incoherence in the later installments). And the best sci-fi show on television today isBattlestar Galactica, a “reimagining” of a short-lived late-1970s series about the last remnants of humanity fleeing a genocide perpetrated by their own creations—a race of humanoid robots called Cylons—and searching for our species’ last refuge, a mythical planet called Earth.

The brainchild of a frustrated Star Trek scribe named Ronald Moore, Galactica is deliberately designed to be the anti-Trek: Instead of a bloodless, hygienic future in which the human race seemed to have outgrown every recognizable human aspiration on its way to outer space, the show depicts a star-faring humanity driven by familiar motivations—religious faith chief among them. At its best, Galactica isThe Longest Day crossed with Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, chronicling a gritty man-versus-machine interstellar war (fought with bullets and nuclear weapons rather than the usual phasers and photon torpedoes) that has as much to do with theology as politics. The original series borrowed from Mormon cosmology, but the newer, better incarnation pits the Greco-Roman polytheism practiced by the humans (they worship the ancient Mediterranean pantheon, and each of their “Twelve Colonies” is named for a sign of the Zodiac) against the crusading monotheism of the Cylons, who are convinced that their human progenitors worship idols and that they themselves are God’s latter-born, perfected children, destined to inherit the universe from a flawed and sinful humanity.

This may sound like an allegory designed for know-nothing liberals: crazy fanatical monotheists (think Osama Bin Laden or Jerry Falwell) pitted against tolerant pagans (think Berkeley, California, or maybe Burlington, Vermont). But Moore’s show is far too clever to slide into that trap. The human polytheists, in practice, have a great deal in common with the Abrahamic monotheists of Planet Earth: They’re a people of the book, divided between fundamentalists who take the sacred scrolls literally and more latitudinarian believers who don’t, and divided, as well, on all the culture-war questions—notably abortion—that divide our own semi-Christian West. And the Cylon monotheism, too, appears riven by theological factionalism, with tenets that are open to quasi-Buddhist as well as Mosaic interpretations.

More interesting still, the fundamentalists in both faiths have a tendency to be proved right, and the skeptics wrong. Prophecies are fulfilled and ancient scrolls prove accurate, and the religious choice, in any given situation, is likely to be the right one. The Old Testament overtones of the show’s conceit—twelve tribes looking for a promised land—aren’t accidental, and as Galactica‘s quest narrative proceeds, so does the audience’s awareness that the story is unfolding according to some larger design.

Whether this design belongs to the Colonists’ pantheon or the Cylons’ single deity remains uncertain. Both sides, despite their theological differences, seem bound to a common destiny in ways that neither understand; like Jews and Christians after Christ, they’re joined in brotherhood and enmity, till the end of their quest or perhaps the end of time. But however their relation turns out, it’s likely to dovetail with the show’s overarching premise—the idea, at once old-fashioned and subversive, that human history has an Author.

The same set of issues—meaning and purpose, common destinies and divine interventions—dominates the action on Lost, ABC’s addictive serial about the survivors of a plane crash who find themselves marooned on a South Pacific island, cut off from any hope of rescue. Most of the castaways carry secret sorrows or hidden sins: There are murderers and adulterers, drug addicts and former mental patients, an African warlord and an ex-torturer from the Iraqi Republican Guard. And the island is attuned to all of them in some mysterious fashion, speaking to the survivors in dreams and visions, pushing them into strange obsessions and dangerous quests, delivering healing to some and sudden death to others.

The creators of Lost have repeatedly denied that their characters are literally in purgatory, which was a popular theory among early viewers of the series, and most of the evidence from later episodes suggests that they’re telling the truth. Still, the show’s island is at the least a purgatorial landscape—it’s no coincidence that several of the characters are Catholic, lapsed and otherwise—where the things that the castaways carry from their previous lives provide the raw material for suffering, struggle, and growth.

But the show has larger ambitions as well. The island isn’t just a supernatural catalyst for individual redemption; it’s a microcosm of Western modernity (many of the characters, not coincidentally, share names with modern political philosophers—there’s a Rousseau and a John Locke, a Hume and even a Mikhail Bakunin), and a place where the two most powerful forces in recent human history, utopian hubris and scientific arrogance, have worked themselves out with what appear to be disastrous consequences.

At some point, long before the plane crash, the island was the site of an overlapping series of experiments on everything from genetic engineering and radical life extension to parapsychology and magnetism, which apparently involved cooperation between a sinister multinational corporation and a Walden II-style commune of idealistic scientists. The landscape is littered with the detritus of these efforts—abandoned hatches with cryptic instructional videos, empty zoos and laboratories, mysterious processes that may still be working themselves out—and populated by what appear to be the experiments’ surviving custodians, a group of people known only as the Others, whose purposes remain inscrutable even as they emerge as the castaways’ antagonists. The shadow of a larger apocalypse hangs over the narrative as well since, whatever the experiments were meant to do, they seem to have created the possibility of a world-ending cataclysm.

Meanwhile, the castaways are divided among themselves both personally and philosophically, constantly arguing over whether their lives on the island are governed by purpose or blind chance, and whether faith or reason is a surer guide in their strange circumstances. Some of the characters are Christian, others embrace a kind of New Age island-worship, others cling to a stringent materialism. At its best, the show seems capable of synthesizing all these elements and building to a metaphysical battle royale, in which the various forces at work in our own civilization struggle with one another for mastery, and nothing less than the fate of the world hangs in the balance. At it worst—well, Lost is in its third season now, and there are disturbing signs that the show is running out of steam, and that the creators may have thrown too many mysteries into the air without a plan to catch them. (This is known among television doctors as the X-Files Syndrome.)

However the saga of the castaways manages to finish up, though, it’s clear that Lostultimately shares with Battlestar Galactica a certain degree of cosmic optimism. With God (in some form) taking an active role in the narrative and nothing less than the fate of humanity hanging in the balance, it seems like a safe bet that the gates of hell won’t prevail against the heroes. This is the nature of fantasy and epic, at least in the context of a Christian culture—by raising the stakes, the genre gives away the ending. Frodo will always destroy the ring; Aslan will always defeat the White Witch; Harry Potter will always put an end to Voldemort. A price will be exacted along the way, but, however dark the story gets, the logic of eucatastrophe still holds, and with it the knowledge that the light will overcome the darkness.

This eschatological optimism contrasts sharply with the pessimism of the best realistic show on television today: The Sopranos, which is ending its six-season run on HBO this spring. Where Galactica and Lost are shows about getting through purgatory to heaven, or at least a promised land, The Sopranos is a show about what it means to go to hell. Like The Wire, another HBO production (and the leading candidate for The Best Show on Television title once the Soprano family enters the afterlife of reruns), The Sopranos offers a devastating critique of American life. Unlike the kind of social commentary that Hollywood still churns out—in which everything would turn out better if only conservatives weren’t so busy oppressing homosexuals or women or maybe unionized employees—it isn’t interested in easy sociological answers or cheap political point-scoring. And while even the best episodes of Galactica and Lost are ultimately pop-culture ephemera, HBO’s mob show is closer to real art: Dostoevsky crossed with Emile Zola, a novelistic meditation on the nature of societal corruption and personal sin.

There have been pop-culture portraits of mob kingpins descending into hell before, of course—think of Michael Corleone fading into shadow at the end of Godfather II. But the artistic temptation is always to make this fall splendid and Miltonic, a matter of a few grand and tragic choices rather than the steady accretion of small-time compromises, petty sins, and tiny steps downward that usually define damnation.

The Sopranos dares instead to explore the terrible banality of evil, depicting ordinary people held prisoner by their habits and appetites who choose hell instead of heaven over and over again, not with a satanic flourish but with an all-American sense of entitlement. Sin is never glamorized or aestheticized: The violence is brutal rather than operatic, the fornications and adulteries are panting and gross rather than titillating. The characters’ sins breed even physical dissolution: obesity, ulcers, hemorrhoids, constipation, cancer. The show offers a vision of hell as repetition, ultimately, in which the same pattern of choices (to take drugs, to eat and drink to excess, to rob and steal and bully and murder) always reasserts itself, and the chain mail of damnation—in which no sin is an island, and gluttony is linked to violence, sloth to greed, and so on—slowly forges itself around the characters’ souls.

The only players in this drama who seem capable of escape are Tony Soprano himself, the mob boss and antihero who makes repeated excursions into psychotherapy, and his wife, Carmela, whose guilt over her husband’s lifestyle coexists with an unwillingness to give up the possessions and status that his criminality has won for her. The arc of the show, over six seasons, has traced their attempts to leave their sins behind—Tony’s dialogues with his therapist and halting steps toward self-knowledge; Carmela’s religious forays, adulterous fantasies, and abortive quest for a divorce. These always end in failure, partially because the avenues they choose tend to be therapeutic rather than truly redemptive (the show is particularly hard on psychotherapy’s pretensions) and partially because actually escaping seems to mean giving up too much: the combination of bourgeois comfort and the kind of “freedom” that the Mob life offers, a freedom to do as you please, unhindered by any societal restraint, that is gradually revealed as the worst prison there is.

In one of the show’s darkest and most telling moments, Tony’s nephew and lieutenant, Christopher, plans to betray the Soprano family and go into the witness-protection program with his fiancée, who has been blackmailed into becoming a government snitch. But while refueling his glossy black Hummer in a gas station, he finds his gaze drawn to the family across the pumps from him—the runny-nosed kids, the harried parents, and above all their battered station wagon—and in that instant decides that it’s better to have his fiancée killed than to accept the constraints of life outside the mafia. The freedom to do whatever you like in this world, it turns out, is just another word for choosing your SUV over your lover.

Whether The Sopranos‘ creator, David Chase, believes in a literal hell I have no idea—but his show believes in it. Just as Lost and Galactica tease out their metaphysics through hallucinations and dream sequences, The Sopranos deals frequently in private visions—mainly Tony’s richly detailed dreams, which are more psychological than metaphysical, but also a pair of theologically fraught near-death experiences.

The first belongs to Christopher, after a second-season car accident briefly stops his heart, and it lands him in hell, which turned out to be an Irish bar—every Italian’s idea of the inferno—populated by deceased “soldiers” from his crime family, who give him a message to carry back to his bosses: “Three o’clock.” (That hour of the day, with its Good Friday associations, has been associated with bad news for members of the Soprano family ever since.) The second near-death moment, meanwhile, belongs to Tony himself, a several-episode sojourn in limbo following his shooting at the hands of his senile uncle. It concludes with him literally going toward the light and finding himself at the door of a brightly lit family reunion, where his mother (a monstrous woman who once took out a hit on him) and the rest of his departed relatives have gathered to greet him.

Whatever afterlife waits for him aside, it clearly isn’t heaven.

The question, of course, is whether the audience gets the point, or whether The Sopranos‘ faithful viewers are in it for the same reasons the mobsters are: the adrenaline rush that comes with any violent or sexual encounter, no matter how degrading it may be. This is the problem for any artist who seeks to show sin as it is. Does depicting an act make you complicit in it, even when you stand in judgment?Last Tango in Paris makes loveless sex look like hell on earth, for instance, but there are still people who watch it for titillation, just as there must be some segment of The Sopranos‘ audience—young men, in particular—who spend their time cheering on the killers, identifying with the mobsters instead of profiting from their hell-bound example.

And even if The Sopranos isn’t glamorizing sin, you only have to flip down a few channels to find a dozen shows that are. Battlestar Galactica may be a step up fromStar Trek, in terms of both artistry and philosophical seriousness, but is it worth enduring the ever-vaster wasteland of basic cable to make that step up possible? Or again, is the chance to see the story of Christ’s Passion as Mel Gibson reimagined it—blood-drenched and harrowing and brilliant—worth giving the same R-rated carte blanche to Quentin Tarantino, or worse, the makers of torture-porn thrillers likeHostel and The Hills Have Eyes?

This is an important argument for cultural conservatives to have, but for the time being it’s also largely theoretical. The old standards for mass culture, on television and the silver screen—minimal violence, no nudity, and no ideological conflict that couldn’t be solved by asking What Would JFK Do?—are long gone, and no political pressure is likely to revive them. Religious believers can take the risk of competing in this riotous marketplace, where there’s a great deal to gain but even more to lose, or they can withdraw from it and tend their own cultural gardens, like the new St. Benedicts that Alasdair MacIntyre envisioned at the end of After Virtue. There doesn’t seem to be a third way out.

And yet, whether they choose to withdraw or stay, believers should be wary of overstating either the horrors of the present era or the virtues of the American pop cultural landscape gone by. By a host of cultural indicators, American society was better off in the 1950s than it is today, and the constraint and self-censorship of that age’s mass media had a great deal to do with this achievement. But the old order turned out to be built on sand, and the generation that was weaned on the movies and TV shows of the 1950s, with their League of Decency seal of approval, grew up to think of orthodoxy as a dead hand and tradition as an epithet. Today’s generation, if they turn to the right channel and find the right show waiting for them, may instead discover the truth of Chesterton’s dictum: “Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God.”

None of this means that religious believers, and particularly religious parents, don’t have understandable reasons for trying to wall their families off from the worst of what American pop culture has to offer, whether by canceling their cable subscription or packing up and moving to Ave Maria Town.

But if they do, they ought to at least consider bringing a DVD player along with them.

The Case for Hell

Jason Micheli —  January 10, 2013 — Leave a comment

The-Sopranos-Season-1-Bios-Tony-3I’ve confessed here before that I have what my wife calls ‘man crushes.’ Russell Crowe, Cormac McCarthy, Jim James (from My Morning Jacket) and also Ross Douthat, the author of Bad Religion and a writer for the NY Times.

This is an old article and a shortened version of a piece he did for First Things longer ago. It’s a cogent summary of both the (often) sloppy thinking of the Universalists, who disbelieve in ultimate judgement without first taking a sober account of human sin and a sound statement of the traditional view of the doctrine of Hell.

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Douthat_New-articleInline-v2Here’s a revealing snapshot of religion in America. On Easter Sunday, two of the top three books on Amazon.com’s Religion and Spirituality best-seller list mapped the geography of the afterlife. One was “Heaven Is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back,” an account of a 4-year-old’s near-death experience as dictated to his pastor father. The other was “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived,” in which the evangelical preacher Rob Bell argues that hell might not exist.

The publishing industry knows its audience. Even in our supposedly disenchanted age, large majorities of Americans believe in God and heaven, miracles and prayer. But belief in hell lags well behind, and the fear of damnation seems to have evaporated. Near-death stories are reliable sellers: There’s another book about a child’s return from paradise, “The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven,” just a little further down the Amazon rankings. But you’ll search the best-seller list in vain for “The Investment Banker Who Came Back From Hell.”

In part, hell’s weakening grip on the religious imagination is a consequence of growing pluralism. Bell’s book begins with a provocative question: Are Christians required to believe that Gandhi is in hell for being Hindu? The mahatma is a distinctive case, but swap in “my Hindu/Jewish/Buddhist neighbor” for Gandhi, and you can see why many religious Americans find the idea of eternal punishment for wrong belief increasingly unpalatable.

But the more important factor in hell’s eclipse, perhaps, is a peculiar paradox of modernity. As our lives have grown longer and more comfortable, our sense of outrage at human suffering — its scope, and its apparent randomness — has grown sharper as well. The argument that a good deity couldn’t have made a world so rife with cruelty is a staple of atheist polemic, and every natural disaster inspires a round of soul-searching over how to reconcile God’s omnipotence with human anguish.

These debates ensure that earthly infernos get all the press. Hell means the Holocaust, the suffering in Haiti, and all the ordinary “hellmouths” (in the novelist Norman Rush’s resonant phrase) that can open up beneath our feet. And if it’s hard for the modern mind to understand why a good God would allow such misery on a temporal scale, imagining one who allows eternal suffering seems not only offensive but absurd.

Doing away with hell, then, is a natural way for pastors and theologians to make their God seem more humane. The problem is that this move also threatens to make human life less fully human.

Atheists have license to scoff at damnation, but to believe in God and not in hell is ultimately to disbelieve in the reality of human choices. If there’s no possibility of saying no to paradise then none of our no’s have any real meaning either. They’re like home runs or strikeouts in a children’s game where nobody’s keeping score.

In this sense, a doctrine of universal salvation turns out to be as deterministic as the more strident forms of scientific materialism. Instead of making us prisoners of our glands and genes, it makes us prisoners of God himself. We can check out any time we want, but we can never really leave.

The doctrine of hell, by contrast, assumes that our choices are real, and, indeed, that we are the choices that we make. The miser can become his greed, the murderer can lose himself inside his violence, and their freedom to turn and be forgiven is inseparable from their freedom not to do so.

As Anthony Esolen writes, in the introduction to his translation of Dante’s “Inferno,” the idea of hell is crucial to Western humanism. It’s a way of asserting that “things have meaning” — that earthly life is more than just a series of unimportant events, and that “the use of one man’s free will, at one moment, can mean life or death … salvation or damnation.”

If there’s a modern-day analogue to the “Inferno,” a work of art that illustrates the humanist case for hell, it’s David Chase’s “The Sopranos.” The HBO hit is a portrait of damnation freely chosen: Chase made audiences love Tony Soprano, and then made us watch as the mob boss traveled so deep into iniquity — refusing every opportunity to turn back — that it was hard to imagine him ever coming out. “The Sopranos” never suggested that Tony was beyond forgiveness. But, by the end, it suggested that he was beyond ever genuinely asking for it.

Is Gandhi in hell? It’s a question that should puncture religious chauvinism and unsettle fundamentalists of every stripe. But there’s a question that should be asked in turn: Is Tony Soprano really in heaven?

You can view the article here.