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April Fool’s 2010

There comes a time, in the course of any blog’s lifespan, when the writer must come clean and admit his mistakes. It’s always rough eating crow, always a bitter thing — and I’ve always resisted getting to that point. Why should I concede failure? Surely, this is a blog of opinion — and opinions can’t be right or wrong. But, when you’re someone like me, and your beliefs are felt forcefully, with all the conviction with which one knows that the sun is the center of the solar system, that the ground beneath me is strong, that the grass grows and the trees sway, that point must always come.

And I’ve reached it.

You see, I’ve realized I’ve been wrong this whole time. Not just wrong, but catastrophically wrong. Superman, so long the object of my devotion, is cast down; he is fallen like Babylon, exposed as little more than the spoiled son of an cataclysmic scientist who has arrived on the earth to bottle it, yet another alien bully like Brainiac. He’s the madman, the villain draped in the flag, the naked emperor, the tyrant. But if he’s the villain — where can, where must my devotion lie? As dedicated as I am to finding in superheroes some Christian mythology, something has to present itself.

The answer was the Fisher King himself, Aquaman. He’s the image of the sacrificial monarch, who gives himself up for his people, and the promised messiah who arrived to lead his hidden kingdom. Wounded, he arises. Belittled, he keeps his promised dignity. Aquaman is the life of a world, and what is best, unlike Superman, he arose here on Earth, rather than crashing down to it. He is transcendent — but utterly immanent, governing the seas with might. I cannot conceive of a more appropriate Christ-figure than the splendid, glorious Saint Aquaman.

I am a fervent student of the twentieth century, that beastly age, so much belonging to the Enemy of man. It was a time of wretched and wicked men treating men and women as less than animals. It is burned into our memories, and I am starkly amazed we survived. That is, to me, near proof of God’s grace in the world — that we have not yet perished.

With good reason, that tragedy has inspired some stunning art, not the least of which is this bit of Ukrainian performance art.

And now, let’s stand back in simple awe.

Christ stands over the broken gates of hell to free the imprisoned.

Among my particular favorite aspects of religion in general, and of Catholicism in particular, is how we sanctify time. This is certainly a species marker of man, universally followed by even the most stinkingest rationalistic positivists out there, that there are times worth of setting apart and recognizing as special. It’s so natural, we neither question nor much note it, and even children recognize the specialness, say, of birthdays. We celebrate anniversaries and holy days, and these phenomena are so pervasive, these ability and inclination so strong, that the calendar reforms of the French Revolution, so rational in their decimalization, so unsparing in their strident materialism, were full to the brim with days of commemoration. The last five days of the year — the sans-culottides — were not even a part of any month, but were a time of particular recognition of the glories of revolution and the progress of the human spirit. Even the concept of counting years implies a counting of time since an event so notable, it’s memory has written itself across the ages.

Holy Week is something special.

In that dim din of the sacramental imagination, the place that looks at rain and sees baptism, and stops to admire the flickering streetlamp as a worthy commemoration of the Lord, that endless part of the heart that, immature, longs for sex and death and revolution, Holy Week feels particularly set apart. It’s a moment and an age, an island in the expanse of time’s sea, the inner court of the Temple of the Year surrounding the Holy of Holies, Easter, and every passing hour is an inching forward, a reluctant but inexorable shuffling toward the throne of God. It’s a memory, and anevent, and a charge, and a flag, and a plea. In pagan language, it actually is what days like Halloween merely profess to be, the thinning of the veil between life and death, the slippery borderlands of heaven. Mass is mass because of Easter; Easter is the thing itself, the smoke at the God’s feet enveloping the congregation as it wreathes itself in incense and clothes itself in the crash of bells. It’s Holy. It’s set apart. It’s other. It’s ancient. It’s new.

It’s all of these things because Christ died, and yet somehow lives. It’s all of these things because we killed God, and God proved he’s more than death, that even the inexorable enemy of man, before whom we ultimately all wretch and quiver, is subject to him. It’s Holy. It’s grand. It’s sanctity itself, a cacophonous cascade, a crescendo that escalates even when you think it should peak, like the opening swell of Mozart’s Lacrimosa. It goes — and goes — and goes — because the Lord is Holy, Holy is his name. He’s even thrice-holy according to the Eastern Divine Liturgy and our own Divine Mercy Chaplet, where we pray “agios O theos, agios ischyros, agios athanatos — eleison imas” — Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and Deathless.

And ultimately, it’s the last one we’re rising to cheer. Holy and Deathless.

I am, and always have been, struck by death and its bounds. Boundaries are, in a sense, the guarantors of peace; the old saying is that good fences make good neighbors, that peace is achieved in respecting those borders. For all that principle holds true, we’re worshippers of a God who broke the gates of hell and emptied it. He’s deathless — and does not respect the boundaries of death. He doesn’t honor those borders. He wants no peace with death. It is his enemy.

And he destroys it.

Christ has died. But dying, he destroyed death. Rising, he restored life.

Lord Jesus, come in glory.

It is grim, cold, and rainy here in the City That Always Sleeps In, the Soggy Apple, and it’s expected to continue tomorrow. I don’t know how the weather was this weekend, though, because I spent the last four days back in Virginia for the wedding of a friend of mine from high school. Here’s a picture of me vamping for the camera in an ill-fitting rented tux:

I trust that shall be sufficient proof for you. The wedding was a sort of non-sectarian affair, neither party being particularly religious, although the service was officiated by my buddy’s pastor-dad. It was in a beautiful old plantation house outside Lynchburg, a location which turned the entire weekend into a series of four-hour drives. Four hours from New York to DC. Four hours from DC to Lynchburg. Four hours back to DC (this time from Roanoke). Four hours back to Brooklyn. It was pretty draining, but I was able, in addition to all of this, to catch dinner with my sister and her boyfriend, which was a nice treat.

Anyway, it’s Holy Week.

Guest post by True Burns of the Blarg, which I’ve been sitting on for three weeks. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

It seems the city of Ladero, Texas is now utterly without a bookstore. I’m not going to use that opening to make a “Texans are illiterate” joke. I’ve decided to instead make a horrible pun. While this sounds like a tragedy on paper, especially to the intellectual class, something else needs to be considered. The matter may not be so much “people aren’t reading” as much as “people aren’t reading books“, or at least not in the traditional sense. Discussion of the fall of print media has to this point largely been confined to newspapers and their struggle to find a newer, more profitable business model as exemplified by the recent misadventures of the Gray Lady. Despite the article’s immediate lament that people aren’t reading, it may be more instructive to consider instead WHAT they’re reading.

If this article had been written as few as 10 years ago I’d probably be jumping on the bandwagon to mourn the fall of literacy. But in that time several things have shifted, chief among the sudden commercial viability of the E-reader. Sales of Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes and Noble’s Nook have been explosive, along with their respective e-book catalogs. Additionally, Google has taken a “forgiveness rather than permission” approach to it’s mission to digitize as much of human literature as possible, and seems to have won out despite serious initial concerns over intellectual property from such parties as the estate of John Steinbeck and France. Along with the incredible degree of mobile web access provided by the iPhone, all these contribute to an environment of what can be described as bookless literacy. As video killed the radio star, once more we’re in a transition period as an old medium gives way to another. You don’t need a book or newspaper to access literature or daily news when both are easily accessibly online . Even those in the lowest income brackets can still take advantage of free web access provided at any public library in the country. As such, books are simply passing as the primary vehicle for the transmission of literacy.

But then the preceding points ignore several important facts: As of 2003 Texas actually DOES have the highest illiteracy rate nationwide, with 19 percent state wide lacking basic prose literacy skills. In Webb County, where Laredo resides, that rises to a horrifying 48 percent. In opposition to my earlier sunny optimism, people may not be reading in Laredo simply becausethey can’t. To say nothing of the fact that, while reasonably priced given all they can do, both the Kindle and the Nook, both at $260, are still expensive enough to be considered luxuries for most people in the current economic environment, let alone lower income people who could gain great benefit from free wireless access and the much lower price of ebooks compared to their physical counterparts.

I’ve been very interested in the Eastern churches for some time, and the Copts have long caught my eye. I’m something of an admirer of Shenouda III (who is an absolute terrifying genius), and their liturgy is stunningly beautiful — ancient, foreign, and familiar. That antiquity is one of the things that attracted me to Catholicism in the first place, that something could be “ever ancient, ever new.” Ecclesia semper reformanda and all that, eh?

Anyway, via Mark Shea, Protestantism’s Eastern Blind Spot:

Even though I had been visiting Eastern Christian Churches for a few years, I myself didn’t know about the Coptic Church’s history until I visited a parish in Arizona for Liturgy. At the time, I was Eastern Catholic and I would visit various Orthodox parishes with an Eastern Orthodox friend. We both decided to visit a Coptic parish and the priest, noticing two English-speaking visitors, decided to do most of the Liturgy in English for our benefit. At a certain point, a commemoration was made for “St. Dioscorus,” who I remembered was the Patriarch of Alexandria condemned at the Council of Chalcedon. I turned to my Eastern Orthodox friend and asked: “So these people are not in communion with the Eastern Orthodox?” “No,” he replied, “we’re working on it, however.” Neither one of us could receive Communion that day. The realization hit me, from a liturgical perspective, that the Liturgy I was observing was historically quite significant. The separation between the Coptic Orthodox and the Western and Eastern Orthodox Churches was bitter and complete. What the Coptic Orthodox preserved in their liturgical tradition would give evidence of what was a “lowest common denominator” of belief when compared with the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Churches. What was the shared belief of the Ancient Christian Churches about 450 AD? What did they believe about the Eucharist, the Real Presence, the nature of Baptism, the seven sacraments, etc.?

Much of Protestant apologetics against liturgical and sacramental theology has traditionally focused on a historical approach against “Catholic inventions,” which is manifestly flawed. More recent Protestant responses to Eastern Orthodoxy often assumes that by the year 1054 AD (the year traditionally given for the East-West Schism) the Eastern Church had had plenty of time to fall into apostasy. The Coptic Church demonstrates that a liturgical and sacramental theology permeated the Christian Church 600 years before the East-West Schism. At the very least, we can say that at the time of the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD), a Protestant theological approach is light years away. Did it exist before then? Were there Christians in the Early Church who looked like the Evangelicals of today? If so, they left no mark in either the Ancient Churches nor in the writings of the Church Fathers in East or West.

I’d write more, but I have to head into the city to fetch a tuxedo.

To one extent or another, I think most Western Catholics have been following the ongoing priestly abuse crisis that has — if I may use an overextended and misused word to the full force of its meaning — rocked the Church for the last eight years. I had hoped, and I suppose most of us had as well, that the worst of it had passed: Boston is under a different bishop for whom I have immense personal respect, the policies that allowed the abuse to continue have been largely discarded, and much of the atmosphere of secrecy, at least here in the United States, has lapsed. Granted, there will be those who dispute me, and perhaps rightly; I’m not there, I haven’t studiously devoured every story or policy decision. I can’t say for sure what the attitude is in every chancery in North America, but I can say that, here, it had seemed, the worst of it had passed, and sins brought to light were being dealt with.

Jump-cut to 2010, and while perhaps things in North America had improved, new scandals broke in Europe, most grievously in Ireland. Again, I may be — in fact, I probably am — getting the timeline wrong, but the figures I keep hearing for abuse in Ireland are absolutely, mind-boggling staggering, something along the lines of one-in-four people. I, being far from the victims, can offer for them little but prayer, and well-wishes, that their abusers might never harm another. To this end, though, there is another with a far greater ability to influence events, and his name is Pope Benedict XVI.

Benedict released a few days ago a letter addressed to that perpetually-beleaguered land, where it often seems that the Devil has permanently set up shop. This letter was intended to serve both as a remonstrance and a proposal for a real solution to the problem. There is debate as to how effectively it did either, and friend-of-the- blog Nick Milne is particularly unhappy, both with the letter as a whole and with particular elements of it. Specifically raised in objection in Mr. Milne’s lengthy meditation, Benedict writes:

At the conclusion of my meeting with the Irish bishops, I asked that Lent this year be set aside as a time to pray for an outpouring of God’s mercy and the Holy Spirit’s gifts of holiness and strength upon the Church in your country. I now invite all of you to devote your Friday penances, for a period of one year, between now and Easter 2011, to this intention. I ask you to offer up your fasting, your prayer, your reading of Scripture and your works of mercy in order to obtain the grace of healing and renewal for the Church in Ireland. I encourage you to discover anew the sacrament of Reconciliation and to avail yourselves more frequently of the transforming power of its grace.

Particular attention should also be given to Eucharistic adoration, and in every diocese there should be churches or chapels specifically devoted to this purpose. I ask parishes, seminaries, religious houses and monasteries to organize periods of Eucharistic adoration, so that all have an opportunity to take part. Through intense prayer before the real presence of the Lord, you can make reparation for the sins of abuse that have done so much harm, at the same time imploring the grace of renewed strength and a deeper sense of mission on the part of all bishops, priests, religious and lay faithful.

I am confident that this programme will lead to a rebirth of the Church in Ireland in the fullness of God’s own truth, for it is the truth that sets us free (cf. Jn 8:32). [emphasis added]

To this, our faithful blogger responds quite negatively. Admittedly never able to make much sense of the Church’s mystical dimension, practically speaking, he’s baffled at the suggestion that the appropriate response to this crisis is prayer, let alone how it can be the first suggestion listed. “Stunned” is the word; he calls it an affront, nay, a scandalous affront, and “nothing more than thinking about things really hard and forcing oneself to be sad…” It’s almost as if the man doesn’t understand what prayer is supposed to be.

I want to, in fact, commend our pope for this suggestion, because what it does is immediately place the context for the recovery of the Church in the hands of God, and not in policy memos and scathing denunciations, not in courts or prisons. The sober fact is that the scandals were perpetuated because the Church lost its way, and the only way for the Church to find it again is to submit itself to God. As Eucharistic Christians, we believe that that renewal can come through adoration before the presence of God, through the offering of the sacrifice of praise.

This is true, that a community that is honest with itself and with God and remains faithful to the sacraments as avenues of grace can, in fact, receive that grace. The sacraments are transformative. That’s what they’re for. Nick doesn’t seem to grasp, at least fully, that ultimate principle we learn from the Psalmist: “Unless the Lord the house shall build, the weary builders toil in vain; unless the Lord the city shield, the guards a useless watch maintain.” And unless we are ourselves rooted in the love and knowledge of God, unless we are submitted to the Lord, no solution other than the liquidation of the Church will ever end its sins.

Yes, there is and should be concrete steps taken, but these steps must be supported by prayer as well as funds. There’s a reason we maintain contemplative orders: we believe the ministry of prayer to be one of vital importance. My own Bishop, Nicholas DiMarzio, upon coming to Brooklyn insisted on establishing the Carmelites here for that very purpose, and to pray specifically for an increase in vocations; consequently — yes, consequently — our discernment program is booming. Human effort is necessary, but God’s is far more important. Unless the Lord indeed.

So, were you all aware that I’m a fan of Superman? I know — it’s  huge surprise, what with this blog being called Saint Aquaman and all. Seriously, though. I don’t have anything against Aquaman, let along Batman or the Green Lanterns or any of the various Hawk-themed people (read: Hawkman is ridiculous), but none of them hold the special place in my heart occupied by the Man of Steel, the Man of Tomorrow, the Last Son of Krypton, Kal-El himself. Sure, Batman introduced me to the wonders of mature animation at the tender age of eight or nine via Batman: The Animated Series, and I always found the companion Superman series a little weak in comparison, but that’s hardly Superman’s fault; that show had the disadvantage of existing to capitalize on another property, and ushering in the DC Animated Universe, which grew too populous and overextended. Thankfully, it has ended.

It ended with the 2007 direct-to-DVD release of Superman: Doomsday. I’m not here to do a review of it; the movie is already nearly three years old, and I’m not a film critic.  For the first of the DC DVD movies, it had the daunting task of having to close the door on the sometimes-kiddie-but-long-beloved DCAU, which I suppose it did well. It kept elements — strong elements — of the old visual style, but used them to tell a story about love and death and goodness. What I am here to do is pinpoint exactly what I think this movie has to say about Superman as a man. And I think it’s something significant.

Alan Moore summed up Superman’s shtick in the classic story “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” that served as the character-exit for the Silver Age version of the hero, as “a perfect man who came from the sky and did only good.” This has struck me, since I read it, as both very appropriate and perhaps overly simplistic, as though what made him do good was this messianic presence of his; Superman qua Messiah is a classic motif that, I belief, misses the point of the man entirely. Granted, it’s something that has evolved into the character. As originally conceived, he was a do-gooder, yes, but a fairly violent one, more in the tradition of the Shadow, a serial-pulp hero in tights. As he grew in popularity, he adopted his famous Boy Scout persona that has defined him ever since. But since we’re dealing with a hero who is as much a traditional hero as he is a commercial franchise property, we have to examine who he is as a character, as he is known.

A classic line I like to use — it isn’t mine, but I don’t remember where it came from — is that the S-man’s greatest power isn’t his ability to fly so fast that time itself moves backwards, but his indefatigable moral sense, his ability to know what the right thing to do was. And this is demonstrably true; this is a man dedicated to doing good. It defines him more than anything else. If nothing else, if no one can be trusted, Superman can. He doesn’t kill. He doesn’t provoke. He fights when the need presents itself, but he’s just as often stopping runaway trains and rescuing people from fires as he is taking on Brainiac. Why does he do this? Why does he use his power the way he does, instead of the way most of us probably would, namely to seek revenge on our enemies, to amuse ourselves, and pursue wealth and power?

I found the answer in Superman: Birthright, a rebooting of Superman’s origin story by Mark Waid (the genius behind Kingdom Come), which tries to reconcile the opposing views of his true identity. Prior to 1986, when the entire DC Universe exploded, Superman was understood as being the real person, while Clark Kent was the costume. The famous dialog David Carradine gives in Kill Bill was true for a long time, that Kent was Superman’s commentary on humanity: weak, helpless, lacking in confidence and self-respect. He was clumsy and oafish and bit dense, while the Superman identity was brash and willful, supremely intelligent and possessed of massive ability. Writer John Byrne, in the first major reboot of the character, turned that around, that Kent was the man, and Superman — aloof, distant, but mighty — the mask.

Waid attempted, and very successfully so, to combine these two points, and what we learned was that there is a real Clark Kent. He’s a farm boy who drives a tractor, learned how to be good at his parents’ feet, and slowly discovered he had amazing powers. The Superman/Clark Kent divide is a breaking of that identity in two — on the one hand, the mighty, good, and confident Superman, and on the other, the normal, nervous, worried Clark. But neither is real. He isn’t really Kal-El. He’s not just the Kryptonian. He’s very real, very human, and ultimately, he’s those things because of the moral life he’d had in Kansas.

To return to my original point, in the movie Superman: Doomsday we find a chemical test for this reality. The question is ultimately proposed “What makes Superman Superman?” And the answer came back: What makes Superman Superman is that, with his power, he could be a monster and a tyrant, and yet chooses to be a servant.

The challenge is presented: Superman, having appeared to die at the hands of the Doomsday monster, is taken from the tomb and cloned by Lex Luthor. This new Superman, seemingly identical, exists to do Luthor’s will, but slowly comes to recognize what his power allows him to do. Luthor gave him as much knowledge as he had about the real Superman’s nature — that he was dedicated to protecting the city and doing good — but the clone had no idea what that meant. He grew mean-spirited, and eventually violent, having no qualms with killing, and justifying atrocities by muttering to himself “I only do this because I care.” As concerned as he was with protecting Metropolis, he could not trust others, and seized, as it were, control of the city for himself, turning even on Luthor, his maker.

When the two Supermen eventually — and inevitably — collide, the difference between them is illuminated in crystal simplicity. The clone says “I am what you could have been.” And he’s absolutely right; absent a moral foundation, absent respect for man and possessing mere respect for power, Superman would have been this monster. “Yes,” the real Kal-El replies, “if I had been raised by Luthor.”

What makes Superman Superman is his moral sense, his ability to serve, and not reign. He understands his life vocationally.

So, a few days ago, my friend Dustin over at The Paper-Thin Hymn, did a pretty compelling write-up about how we, societally, approach Christ and the Gospel. I’ve covered some of this territory myself in the past, but I think Dustin’s approach is very insightful. Whereas I hopped on what is an admittedly-crowded bandwagon of people voicing their frustrations with the way Christ is treated in popular culture, the jokey efforts to strip him of all power and dignity and gravitas, Dustin points out something quite a bit more insidious: we do it to him, too.

Obviously, without the same fervor, moxie, or motive, we still strive to thrust Jesus into some sort of cultural construct so that we might better understand him. It’s the inevitable effect, I suppose, of how we have all been socialized into an anti-establishment narrative. There is a very strong undercurrent — even an over-the-top overcurrent — in praise of chaos. We stare at people like Sid Vicious with a sort of wide-eyed fascination and wonder, thinking a part of me wishes I could be like that, too. Anarchy in the UK, and all that. It’s the love of the wild, the rebel, the flaw, that backalley monster who writhes about on stage, or takes to the woods like Robin Hood. Politically, we’ve got our Che Guevaras, our Mumia Abu-Jamals, our anarchists and Red Brigades and part of us, part of us admires it. Because we admire courage. Because we admire bucking the system. And so, we make Christ the same thing.

He was a radical, a revolutionary, an activist bent on social justice and mercy and showing love to everyone unconditionally.  He was doing things completely against the rules of the day, and that’s why “the man” had him killed. Hence the picture is painted as Jesus being some mythic cross between Mother Theresa, Ghandi and Che Guevera.

The phrase “Jesus was a rebel” means different things to different people. Some tend to play up the “judgment” side of things, imagining a warrior Jesus in the vein of Mark Driscoll’s infamous “Jesus is a prizefighter with a tattoo down His leg” portrait. Others, like the Shane Claibornes and Rob Bells of the world, emphasize the “turn the other cheek” peace-love-and-harmony Jesus. I could say that  both types are subversive, both are rebellious, and that thankfully Jesus is dynamic enough of a figure to be an icon of rebellion/activism/subversion for pretty much any type of person or cause—whether you’re a hippie, a CEO, or an immigrant farmworker. But that’s not where I’m going with this, though that picture is curious and intriguing enough. Of all the marketing tactics wannabe hip churches might be engaged in, “Jesus was a rebel” is one of the more legitimate in a certain sense, but even then that framework is still far out on the fringe of the issue. It’s missing the point.

Of course rebellion is attractive. Rebellion is proud. It’s the epicenter of pride, its purest expression. It’s the place where we take the throne, where we demand it, where our voices carry and our power must be recognized. Rebellion is about us — and what’s amazing is how we try to fit Christ into that narrative, where he doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense. Because Christ isn’t the rebel; we are. When you consider what Christ came to accomplish, what Christ came to do, it wasn’t to tear down tyrants, but to rule over them. And he didn’t bring a parliamentary republic, he brought a kingdom. He’s a king, a prince, a power unto himself. And if he’s against the powers of the world, it’s because they have rebelled against him. His is the standard. His is the flag.

So, while Christ might have things too say to Caesar, to Rome, to Washington about how to treat the poor, about how to wage war, about plowshares and pruning hooks, he does this the way a king makes law, because the world is his, and his rebellious children need to be brought into line. He doesn’t endorse rebellion as such, although he can make use of it for his greater ends. But he isn’t some prototypical rebel. He wasn’t an anarchist or a guerrilla. He’s sovereign and lord, reclaiming his throne.

Superman is a Saint

If Superman represents the greatness contained in all men and women, written upon our hearts by the very God we seek to serve, then we represent that that very greatness can be attained by anyone, that it is a fundamentally human goal, and indeed, is the very reason each and every one of us is here. John Paul II, another superhero, once wrote to our generation "Never settle for less than the moral and spiritual greatness of which you all are capable." Let's take those words to heart, and live our lives, in Christ, the very source and inspiration for us, who is indeed the greatest hero of all.

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