Well, the news is everywhere. Today, a Soviet-era plane carrying President Lech Kaczynski of Poland, his wife, and a good number of other high-ranking officials in the Polish government, crashed in Russia. There was no foul play, but the event is fraught with irony; today was supposed to be a day of reconciliation, and the Polish delegation was on it’s way to commemorate the Katyn massacre of 1940, where the Soviets slaughtered tens of thousands of Poles. The plane crashed while attempting to land in heavy fog; I fear that fog may not lift for some time.

Long-time readers of Saint Superman will recall my standing interest in and admiration of Poland and Polish culture. Two of my dearest friends are from outside Krakow, another few are of proud Polish extraction, and of course, the saint closest to my heart, John Paul II, was born Karol Josef Wojtyła in Wadowice, celebrated mass at Wawel Cathedral, and helped bring about the collapse of the communist regime. Poland is the lifeblood of European Catholicism, and likely to remain so for some time. As a Christian, I stand with any suffering people. As a Catholic, I stand with Poland in particular.

So please take a small moment and remember the Polish people today, the Russian people, the dead of Katyn from 2010, the dead of Katyn from 1940, and the murderers as well. Pray for them all.

Remember — if we do not repent of our sins, we will likewise perish.

Kyrie eleison

Christe eleison

Kyrie eleison

A conversation has been ongoing on the message board I admin as to the definition and substance of hipsterism. This is not a topic we have failed to cover here, but I figure it might be time to bring it back under discussion; after all, I am now myself a resident of Williamsburg, the hipster capital of the Eastern Seaboard, and they are frankly everywhere. I don’t look down on them — much as my brief exposition soon to follow might indicate otherwise — and I am sure they are largely, to the best of their ability, honest and sincere, hapless, if you will, victims of a personal and cultural crisis.

The discussion has been wending as to whether or not a particular poster is, in fact, a hipster. I’m not sure I could answer that question, because it is, in perspective, a fairly large one. It hinges on social identity, which is a pretty complex construct (about which much has been written already, and I am sure I offer little if any substance to the conversation) — it’s how one relates to society-as-society, society-as-culture, and to yourself.

I propose hipsters are existential monsters, unable to engage the concept of a meaningful world with regards either to themselves or others.

We in the twenty-first live in a post-production, almost post-consumer society. Our lives are completely automated, and we know how to do little, neither how to wire a circuit board nor build a treehouse nor distill shitty rubbing-alcohol gin. We devote ourselves largely to recreation, and find little if any identity in our work, coasting from employer to employer, and often profession to profession. We are unskilled specialists, trained for an information economy that expects little from us but to soak up the stream. Because of this, we don’t know who we are.

This is not an entirely new phenomenon; the postwar generation, the Boomers, ran into a similar situation. The first generation to grow up almost entirely free from material want, intensely educated, and obscenely wealthy, they lived in the shadow of a generation that had endured the Depression and managed to kayoh Hitler. Their existential angst was directed outward, and the Boomers dealt with their giant identity crisis by launching all-out war on social mores and hangups, and largely succeeded — but as a result, we have no such outlets. We aren’t political because politics no longer seems relevant, and if we are political, we have to struggle to find issues, but ultimately, we want less to correct injustice than we want to feel like our lives possess some kind of moral force, and so seek out injustices.

Because we have no collective outlet through which to vent our frustrations with ourselves, frustrations essentially caused by our lack of social identity, we pour ourselves into — well — ourselves. The result is a bizarre memetic collective, a latching onto irony and authenticity and a marked inability to determine which is which. Hipsters appropriate anything they can find, suck the meaning out of it — because they don’t know what meaning is and function as pure, if shallow, aesthetes — and leave mere wraith, a superficial facade where once was something true. Something ugly. Something false. Kitsch.

My favorite example of that is the kheffiyeh. It’s a Palestinian garment, and rose in prominence as something worn to show solidarity with the Palestinian cause. But now, it’s nothing but an accessory, available in every color of the rainbow. Kitsch.

Kitsch, more than anything else, defines the hipster ethos.

Everything is kitsch.

I like to think I have, to some extent, avoided this, but I’m not sure if that’s true. If I have, it has been only because I found my identity in Christ, and didn’t need to find it in pouring everything down the gullet to see what I shat out in the end. Christ is ultimately the answer to the question that plagues the Millennials more than it has likely plagued any generation before it. Who am I? What am I here to do, when it seems there’s nothing left to do at all?

You’re a son or daughter of God, and you’re here to love. Call it kitschy if you want, but at least it’s something true.

In 1993, Superman died.

It was more or less a publicity gimmick by DC Comics, and it wasn’t handled terribly well. They didn’t infuse his death with much story meaning — Luthor didn’t get him, Brainiac didn’t get him, Mxyzptlk didn’t get him. Instead he was beaten in random violence, when an unknown monster rose from the earth and began tearing his way across Metropolis. His death seemed very out of character, too; Superman’s primary function has never been violent. Sure, he’s fought, but he’s always done so reluctantly, with a bit of sorrow at the necessity, and tends to find the purest expression of his vocation in standing against impersonal forces, who are not evil, and against whom neither can he hold a grudge. His focus is, and always must be, the salvation of men and women and not the punishment of evil.

But still. He died. It was a big deal, because DC more or less told the world that this was it, and Superman really was dying. As in no more Superman. Sure, knowing comics, someone else might take the role, but Clark Kent was going bye-bye, and there wasn’t anything you could do about it. People lines up outside their local comic shops to pick up sealed copies of the book, most never intending to read it, but wanting, simply, some memento of this occasion and to pay, as much as they could, their respects to the man who symbolized the best part of the human soul, despite being a strange visitor from another planet.

And of course they’re going to pay their respects. He’s iconic, true, but more importantly, he’s meaningful, and I think this is very widely understood. As much as people tend to prefer Batman (I’ve had that conversation so many times I have lost count) for his human limitations, they respect Superman precisely for his willingness to give himself over to everyone. I’ve written fairly recently — in another piece about his death — that what makes Superman Superman is that he’s not a tyrant. He’s a king, to be sure, but he’s not a tyrant. He’s not petty or capricious, but he, the greatest among us, has made himself the servant of all.

So anyway, Superman dies, and the world — the honest-to-God real world in which you and I live, in which Superman is nothing more than a comic book character — stops for a moment to mourn him. Real emotions were felt. Real tears were likely shed. The comics were bought, and stored, and people for whom this character had been even a background element of their entire lives moved on to a post-Superman world. And then it happened.

He came back.

Superman had the gall not to stay dead. For all the hoopla surrounding Reign of the Supermen, for the circus of news, what strikes me the most in conversation with people is how much they resented it. It made them feel ridiculous, for one, for mourning someone who has about as much existence as Slaglon the Space Bunny (who I just made up), and for having been manipulated by a big company to feel sorrow as a marketing technique. They resented the company, they resented the character, and, having been introduced to the concept of the comic book death, they resented comics. And yet, now, seventeen years on, Superman is still kicking.

I write about all this today because it’s Easter, the day of resurrection, and Superman is sort of an icon of Christ. And if that’s true, he’s also an icon for how people respond to Christ, at least after a fashion. Thus, he dies and won’t stay dead, and rather than being grateful that he’s returned, we piss and fume and chunder at the event. He’s dead, dammit; stay dead. Death is for the living — it’s our place to make peace and mourn, and that veil is supposed to be inviolable. We don’t get to come back — and our loved ones don’t get to come back — so why should Superman? For that matter, why should Christ?

The parallels between the Son of Man and the Man of Steel only go so far, of course. Superman’s resurrection obviously never really happened, and neither did it accomplish much; he was able to reclaim his cape from a series of imposters, but ultimately, he settled back into routine. Superman was not glorified. He did not ease the state of man. He offered nothing but what he, in his limited capacity, could offer — to stop a bus here and there, to redirect the occasional asteroid, to bring peace to a city, but never to a soul. Superman, too, is fallen, if not quite as far as the rest of us. He doesn’t come from heaven, but from a cold and antiseptic technotopia where even the most distant touch is a forbidden communion. When coming to Earth, he didn’t empty himself, becoming like man, but was in fact filled with stunning power in the very act of his arrival.

And yet — he remains for many of us as Christlike a figure as we’re willing to accept, and he is rejected precisely for that Christlikeness. He’s the boy scout, the goody-two-shoes, unwilling to make the hard calls like the staunch realist Batman. And what’s worse, he died, he made us mourn him, the bastard, only to make our emotions shallow, hollow, and false by coming back.

We can’t accept resurrection easily. We can’t, and we won’t. We fill our mythologies with monsters, not heroes, who straddle that boundary, because only a monster would have the arrogance to not subject himself to directives of Terminus, lord of limits, and cross between life and death. We don’t like it. It scares us, because we’re afraid of death. If someone can die and come back — well, what else can cross that line?

But Christ could and would and did all of these things. He died, rose, and ascended, and promised us the same. He only made, really, one request of us: die with me. Be baptized into my death. Die to sin. Die to the world. Die to yourself, and live in me. The first step to eternal life is you have to die, and the guy who told us all that to begin with really did pony up and show us how that was supposed to work, and the end result is two-thousand years of people not wanting to take any of that seriously if they could possibly avoid it even a tiny bit.

Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die. We’re afraid of death probably more than anything else. It takes an entire lifetime to steel yourself against it, to ready yourself to that reality. I’ve had a gun to my chest, and I have to admit that I was terrified of that bullet piercing the veil. And yet, had I died that night, had the mugger pulled the trigger —

Christ yet lives. That’s the point. That’s the message of Easter.

Christ yet lives.

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.

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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