Perverse Aesthetics

I’ve got a couple of nephews who delight in “bad” movies. It seems that they’d rather watch “bad” movies to the exclusion of good movies, and in the last few weeks we’ve had a sequence of Saturday afternoon film-festivals at my house in which one of the nephews shares his favorite “bad” movies with my two boys and my friend Ian, and vice versa. And so I’ve been pondering the notion of “bad” movies and of enjoying “bad” movies. by “bad” movies, of course, I don’t mean morally bad; I mean poorly executed or poorly conceived, MST3K-style bad, Plan 9 from Outer Space bad, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes bad.

I don’t have any finished conclusions, mind you. I often have to write stuff down to figure out what I think. But I’ve got some ideas and some questions about aesthetics, and where the goodness in movies is found, and what it means to enjoy a movie, especially a bad one. Please forgive me in advance if I go on a bit.

Let me climb up on my high horse for a moment. I promise I’ll climb back down afterwards, and if you leave me up there in the saddle you’ll go away with the wrong impression.

I’m somewhat bothered by the idea of habitually watching movies simply to make fun of how ineptly they are acted, directed, or conceived. It seems to me that rejoicing in another’s lack of skill or understanding is, in the long run, spiritually and morally corrosive. It ain’t good for you. It’s like schadenfreude: we all give into it sometimes, but if we were better people we wouldn’t. And there’s an attitude that goes with it: a determination to find things to belittle and mock.

I’m reminded of Uncle Screwtape’s division of the sources of laughter into Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper, and Flippancy. Of these, flippancy is the problem: it’s laughing at something for the sake of laughing at it, of treating it as funny whether it’s funny or not. It’s a laughter that masks something darker:

Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour-plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy: it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practise it.

Time to climb down. That doesn’t seem to be what my nephews are doing. As I watch them watching movies with my kids, they all seem to be having a good time. The laughter isn’t forced; they see things on the screen and are honestly moved to laughter. There seems to be a good deal of Fun in the air:

Fun is closely related to Joy— a sort of emotional froth arising from the play instinct.

And maybe even some Joy, too. Certainly it is exciting genuine affection between my nephews and my sons, and on Lewis’ definition it avoids the charge of flippancy.

So what’s going on, then?

First, it is beyond question that my nephews are watching these movies and enjoying them. And that means that there’s something there to enjoy: the movie, though a “bad” movie, has some goodness to it. Clearly it’s not the goodness the movie-makers intended, but there’s something there that is genuinely funny or entertaining, if you have eyes to see it.

…if you have eyes to see it. Now I think we’re getting closer.

Some twenty years ago, I remember being in a Usenet discussion of what it means for a book to be a good book. The notion of there being any kind of absolute scale of literary goodness was swiftly eviscerated by the other participants; beauty, I was told, is in the eye of the beholder. What you like is what you like; don’t try to make more of it than that.

I didn’t understand, then, that there is an absolute standard of beauty, God himself; things are beautiful to the extent that they express some aspect of his majesty and glory. But I digress; that’s a big topic, too big to shoehorn in here. I’ll simply note that I’m not saying that art is beautiful only insofar as it is explicitly religious. Far from it.

What was clear to me at the time is that each genre has its own aesthetic. A mystery novel is a good or bad mystery novel based on the aesthetics of that genre. A whodunnit in which the murderer is not found and the crime is never solved isn’t much of a whodunnit, though it might be a successful novel on other grounds. And similarly, a novel might be very successful as a whodunnit even if it fails purely as a novel. Some whodunnits are simply carefully contrived logic puzzles; plot and characterization are secondary. (I tend not like these, myself.)

And then, of course, some authors write gloriously well, some write adequately, and some are so awful you wonder how they got published. (In the interests of not being flippant, I’ll name no names.) There is a scale of goodness; in fact, there are multiple axes of goodness.

The point is, though, that when addressing the quality or lack thereof of a creative work, you need to consider which aesthetic to apply—and especially, you need to consider the aesthetic used by the creator. It’s no use criticizing a book according to the aesthetics of the romance genre when the author was intending to write a sci-fi thriller. Science fiction novels are notorious for whirlwind romances, where proximity leads to true love in next to no time, but that’s just to add a little love interest to a book that’s about something else.

Nevertheless, some books do succeed according to multiple aesthetics. One could list many, many works of genre fiction that are not only outstanding science fiction or mystery or romance novels, but are simply outstanding novels. If it makes no sense to ignore the creator’s aesthetic, it also makes no sense to ignore other aesthetics, if they apply.

So back to “bad” movies. The director had some aesthetic in mind (one hopes) and for whatever reason failed to achieve it. Perhaps he was too ambitious. Perhaps he was incompetent. Perhaps he was bored and careless. Perhaps he was simply meeting a contractual obligation. Perhaps he did the best with what he had. Perhaps he simply set his sights very low, and excelled at meeting his goals. (I understand that the original Little Shop of Horrors got made that way.)

And then, my nephews are applying a different aesthetic, and enjoying the movie because of how well that aesthetic applies. So what does that aesthetic look like?

In The Producers, Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder famously try to produce a Broadway show that is so horrible that it will close after the first night, leaving them with all the dollars. Instead, it’s a hit. The audience assumed that it was meant to be a campy comedy, and judged it as a campy comedy, and judged it hysterical. The producers failed of their aim, but produced a show that succeeded according to a normal aesthetic. They meant to be painful, and succeeded at being funny.

That doesn’t seem to be what’s going on here, though. My nephews truly seem to delight in these films not because of their successes, but precisely because of how they fail. There’s a sort of perverse aesthetic involved here: the movie is enjoyable precisely because of how far it falls short. It seems to be a rejoicing in what is truly bad rather than what is good.

And so I’m left to wonder: is that mean-spirited? Is over-indulgence in this spiritually corrosive? And if so, is occasional indulgence spiritually corrosive? Or is this all good clean fun?

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not looking for reasons to drop the hammer. I’m simply a bit puzzled.

French-Speaking Missionaries

So some missionaries came to my door just now, and greeted me voluminously…in French. I asked why they were speaking French, and they explained that they were looking for French speakers, and they had literature in French. They’d come to my door because my last name is French.

I told them that my French ancestor had come to these shores in the 1630′s (true story) and that my family hadn’t been French-speaking in a very long time, and they thanked me (in French) and off they went. I never did find out what denomination they were with. And I have no idea why there were looking for French-speakers around here. Korean and Armenian speakers, sure, we’ve got lots, but if there’s a colony of French expatriates anywhere around here I’m not aware of it.

Very odd.

Archie Says

Her hair started far back above the slant of her brow, and that made her brow look even higher and broader than it was, and noble and spiritual. But her eyes were very demure, which didn’t fit. If you’re noble and spiritual you don’t have to be demure. There’s no point in being demure unless there’s something on your mind to be demure about.

— Rex Stout, Black Orchids

Lawn Chair Catechism, Session 13 (and Last!)

LawnChairCatechismSquare This summer, CatholicMom.com is hosting an on-line book discussion group for Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples. Each session will focus on one chapter of the book, and yours truly is participating. Hit the link above to see all of the participants, and to find the discussion questions.

The final chapter of Forming Intentional Disciples, Chapter 12, is titled “Expect Conversion.” If you go out of your way to pray and teach and support and otherwise encourage discipleship in your parish, if you sincerely and persistently ask Jesus for his help in the matter, you’re going to get conversion.

A digression, for the benefit of my non-Catholic readers: we often call it conversion when a person joins the Catholic Church, and we call such a person a convert. That’s what most people mean by “conversion” in the religious context; but it’s not quite what Weddell is after, here. Conversion of life occurs when we follow Jesus and submit to His will. We find ourselves repenting, and reaching out, and trying things, and in general doing stuff in ways and for reasons that will surprise us. Sometimes the word “repentance” is used; when Jesus says, “Repent and be saved,” he’s talking about conversion of life. The trouble is, we usually understand “repentance” to mean, “I’m going try really hard to stop sinning.” Conversion of life is a much more positive thing. It involves trying not to sin, but it’s much more about actively following Christ and accepting the grace that he offers.

Of course, conversion in the normal colloquial sense often involves conversion in this sense.

There are number of issues about expecting conversion that affect a parish that is trying to make disciples, but one of the biggest is loneliness. A new disciple can feel isolated and alone, with no one to talk to who understands; and according to Weddell’s research, many people in this position leave the Catholic Church to find a place where the companionship of other disciples is to be found. It’s especially difficult in Catholic parishes because (as was discussed in an earlier chapter) we don’t talk about our interior lives. The woman who sits behind me at mass, or the fellow across the aisle that I say hello to every week might very well be a disciple, but as things stand I’ll never know.

Have you ever felt isolated in your quest to follow Jesus? What are the ways you have built a community of spiritual companions? My return to the Catholic Church in 2007 definitely involved conversion of life and a growth in discipleship, and yes, I did feel isolated. I was where I wanted to be, where I needed to be, there in the pew, in the Church, with the Eucharist before me…but outside of my immediate family, I didn’t really know anybody local. My conversion was done by reading books and blogs and thinking and praying about what I read, and by attending mass with my father, who could no longer drive. I was experiencing extraordinary things, and had no one to talk with who understood.

What I did was find the local chapter of the Dominican Laity and start attending meetings. And there I found people who took their faith seriously, who prayed and tried to grow in faith and discipleship. I won’t say it was a life-saver, but it has certainly given me companions for the journey.

You’ve put a lot of energy over the course of this study into learning about the need for evangelization and discipleship, and how to fulfill that need. Do you plan to take action? In what way? I do, and in whatever way comes to hand. As a blogger I can write about discipleship, and the interior life, and about Christ, and I do. I plan to continue that. I’m also trying to become part of the RCIA team at our parish, and my hope is that RCIA can have a discipleship focus. But mostly, I have to keep following Christ where he leads.

Beyond the Echo Chamber

So yesterday evening we had a meeting at my parish to kick off the confirmation program for this year. There were around eighty people in attendance (other than the folks running the meeting), half kids and half parents. Our youth minister opened the meeting with a prayer, and then told us that the confirmation program was going to be a little different this year. And then he asked how many of us knew what the Catechism of the Catholic Church was.

Naturally, I raised my hand. And I looked around. Nothing. I was all alone. After a moment or two, my pastor raised his hand. Still nothing. Just me and him (and the other members of the confirmation team, who didn’t put up their hands but certainly could have).

The youth minister encouraged us not to be shy. Still just me.

None of the other parents knew about the CCC.

I was floored.

Now, mind you, I don’t tell this story to bang on my fellow parishioners, or to lament the low level of catechesis at my parish. On the contrary. The youth minister asked the question knowing full well what the answer was going to look like…and then he and our pastor explained a plan for changing this:

  • The confirmation program is going to be based on studying the catechism (in the form of the highly-regarded youth catechism, or “Youcat”).
  • Parents and their teens are going to be studying it together, month by month.

This is very cool, and I’m looking forward to it.

The two of them went on about for a while, and our pastor made an observation: what most adult Catholics know about the Faith is whatever they learned as a child in catechism class. For most, catechism class ended with Confirmation, around 8th grade; for some, it might have ended even earlier, after First Communion. And as he pointed out, you wouldn’t expect to have success in any adult endeavor based on a fourteen-year-old’s understanding of the subject. We But that’s the situation we’re in, and we’ve got a plan to begin to deal with it. As I say, cool.

I tell this story because my guess at the number of hands would have been much higher. I’d have guessed at least 25%, and maybe 50%. Instead, there was just me. Now, why I would I expect it to be higher?

Let me rephrase that question. What kinds of Catholic do I hang out with? Well, let’s see. I’m a Lay Dominican. I hang out with other Lay Dominicans once a month; and I assure you, they all know about the CCC. And then, on-line: I hang out with blogging Catholics. These are Catholics who care enough about the Church to write about it on-line. From the frequency with which I see the CCC mentioned, most or all of them know about it.

And the point is, these are not typical Catholics.

The term “echo chamber” has been floating around the blogosphere for a while now. You’re in an echo chamber when your positive interactions are only with people who think about things the way you do, and you begin to think that all of the sane people in the world must think that way, too. Every month or so, I see another call to get out of the echo chamber, and to see your opponents as real people with something worthwhile to say. And this is good advice, and we’d all be wise to follow it.

But…but…there’s a tacit assumption here that what’s beyond the echo chamber is the Real World. And that turns out to be hogwash: what’s really outside the echo chamber is just a bigger chamber with more disagreement in it. The set of Catholic bloggers, whether liberal or conservative, progressive or traditional, labeled or “merely” Catholic, simply isn’t representative of the American Church. It’s worthwhile listening to the different voices, and essential to remember that there’s a person beloved by Christ behind each one, but you can’t safely generalize from that set to the people in the pews with you on Sunday.

Now, there’s good news and bad news here. The bad news is that you’re never going to get out of the chamber: no matter how hard you try, you’re going to be dealing with a particular set of Catholics, and there’s no reason to think that whatever set you’re dealing with is representative of the Church as a whole.

The good news is that there’s no need to generalize. We’re called to serve our neighbors, which is to say the people that God puts us next to. They’re the ones we need to get to know. Each of them is different, and each reflects Christ in a unique way.

Generalizations are odious.

The Rainbow or the Egg?

Yesterday, my friend Ian happened to mention a bit of dialog from an episode of the 80′s TV show Moonlighting. Bruce Willis’ character is surprised to discover that Cybil Shephard’s character doesn’t believe in God. “Well, where do rainbows come from?” “Refraction of water droplets in the air,” says Cybil. (We’d been talking New York baseball teams, and the bit of dialog ended with a gag about the ’69 Mets.)

But I was thinking about it later, and it occurred to me that the whole snatch of dialog was based on a misunderstanding of what it means when we say, “God made this.” Since that same error underlies a lot of the arguments I hear around and about, about evolution and similar issues, I thought I’d say something about it.

Bruce asks, “Well, if there’s no God, where do rainbows come from?” He’s arguing from the beauty and grandeur of nature to the existence of God: God is responsible for rainbows.

Cybil respond, “Rainbows are caused by the refraction of sunlight through water droplets in the air.” She’s using one of the only two real arguments for the non-existence of God: we don’t need God to explain natural wonders, so there’s no God.

But there’s a false dichotomy in how the question is stated: it’s assumed that either God makes rainbows, or nature makes rainbows, but not both. And to ask, “Does God make rainbows or does Nature make rainbows?” is kind of like asking, “Which came first, the rainbow or the egg?” It’s simply the wrong question.

In point of fact, God makes rainbows; and He uses Nature to do it. This is what theologians refer to as “primary” and “secondary” causes. God is the primary cause, and Nature is the secondary cause.

It is the nature of water drops to refract light. It is the nature of light that different wavelengths bend differently when refracted. It is the nature of the Sun to produce light and heat. All of these things have the natures they do because God so created the universe. Put these things together in the proper geometry, and you get a rainbow.

A skeptic might complain that I’ve just pushed the problem back one step. Now the question is, “Why do water droplets refract light?” And the skeptic might come up with a perfectly natural explanation for how water droplets refract light. This is not a problem; God is still the primary cause.

And then the skeptic might say, “But saying that God is the primary cause doesn’t tell you anything about how it really works!” To which I answer, “Yes, that’s right,” if by “how it really works” you mean, “How natural things interact to make it happen.” Secondary causes are true causes. There’s more than one kind of knowledge, and more than one way to discover the truth.

Archie Says

I pushed the button, shoved the door open when the click sounded, and was proceeding along the hall when a door toward the rear was suddenly flung open and somebody’s female ancestor appeared on the threshold. If you had deducted for skin and bones there wouldn’t have been more than 20 pounds left of her for tissue and internal parts all together. Straggling ends of white hair made a latticework for her piercing black eyes to see through, and there was no question about her being able to see.

— Rex Stout, in Not Quite Dead Enough

What D&D Character Are You?

Me, well…if the shoe fits. I’m a little hefty to be an elf, though.

I Am A: Lawful Good Elf Cleric (6th Level)

Ability Scores:
Strength-8
Dexterity-10
Constitution-11
Intelligence-17
Wisdom-13
Charisma-11

Alignment:
Lawful Good A lawful good character acts as a good person is expected or required to act. He combines a commitment to oppose evil with the discipline to fight relentlessly. He tells the truth, keeps his word, helps those in need, and speaks out against injustice. A lawful good character hates to see the guilty go unpunished. Lawful good is the best alignment you can be because it combines honor and compassion. However, lawful good can be a dangerous alignment when it restricts freedom and criminalizes self-interest.

Race:
Elves are known for their poetry, song, and magical arts, but when danger threatens they show great skill with weapons and strategy. Elves can live to be over 700 years old and, by human standards, are slow to make friends and enemies, and even slower to forget them. Elves are slim and stand 4.5 to 5.5 feet tall. They have no facial or body hair, prefer comfortable clothes, and possess unearthly grace. Many others races find them hauntingly beautiful.

Class:
Clerics act as intermediaries between the earthly and the divine (or infernal) worlds. A good cleric helps those in need, while an evil cleric seeks to spread his patron’s vision of evil across the world. All clerics can heal wounds and bring people back from the brink of death, and powerful clerics can even raise the dead. Likewise, all clerics have authority over undead creatures, and they can turn away or even destroy these creatures. Clerics are trained in the use of simple weapons, and can use all forms of armor and shields without penalty, since armor does not interfere with the casting of divine spells. In addition to his normal complement of spells, every cleric chooses to focus on two of his deity’s domains. These domains grants the cleric special powers, and give him access to spells that he might otherwise never learn. A cleric’s Wisdom score should be high, since this determines the maximum spell level that he can cast.

Find out What Kind of Dungeons and Dragons Character Would You Be?, courtesy of Easydamus (e-mail)

Lawn Chair Catechism, Session 12

LawnChairCatechismSquare This summer, CatholicMom.com is hosting an on-line book discussion group for Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples. Each session will focus on one chapter of the book, and yours truly is participating. Hit the link above to see all of the participants, and to find the discussion questions.

Chapter 11 of Forming Intentional Disciples is about two things: creating opportunities in parish life for people to encounter Christ in a real way, and how people can contribute to this by using their charisms.

This chapter comes home to in a big way, because I recently offered to help with our parish RCIA program. So far as I’m aware, our pastor has been leading the RCIA sessions, with some help from a retired priest in residence; but recent events mean that he’s likely to much busier than he was—as in, he welcomed my offer to help, but we still haven’t managed to meet to work out any of the details. (I am being in no way critical; some things cropped up during the last couple of weeks that he’s absolutely had to deal with.)

So RCIA has been on my mind, and in particular the kind of RCIA program that Weddell talks about in this chapter: one aimed at bringing people to an encounter with Christ, at teaching the kerygma, at bringing disciples into the parish. I want to see that happen, and since my pastor has been preaching about discipleship since the beginning of Advent I expect that he does too. I’m excited that I might be able to help make it happen.

On the other hand, I’ve been to the Catherine of Siena Institute’s Called & Gifted workship; and while I’m not entirely sure what my charisms are, there are some I’m sure I don’t have. Two key ones are Administration and Hospitality. The first is essential to bring the necessary people together to get the job done; the second is essential to make the inquirers feel welcome. I can sort of do both—I mean, I can try—but I don’t take naturally to either. I might have the charism of Teaching, which would certainly be helpful for RCIA.

So my take-away from this chapter is that I need to start praying really hard for the other folks we need to show up.

The Trinity

My latest for CatholicMom.com is entitled, “The Trinity.” Enjoy!

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