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As food, the salsa may be perfectly nice to eat, but it’s also a symbol of something that’s going very wrong in the realm of human being. Consider how long it would take to reproduce that mix of tomatoes, onion, garlic, cilantro and peppers by hand. How much longer, to have grown and harvested the ingredients in your back yard?
Technology has saved you all the trouble of tilling, planting, watering, waiting, weeding, picking, washing, chopping, and canning! What’s not to love? I, for one, am a big fan of store-bought salsa. The problem is, though, that I now eat a ‘thin’ salsa, bereft of all those layers of actuality that might have gone into it.
Gradually, technology is stepping in to remove all of the messy and risky and uncomfy bits of our contact with the real world. As his experience of reality is thinned, flattened, or watered down, the human person is in grave danger of losing dimension himself. Fr. Giussani teaches that we are formed by encounter with reality, which – far from being an inert mental construct onto which we project our own preferences – has being, or actuality, that impacts and provokes, affects and interferes with our own being. This contact with the real, which used to be unavoidable, is more and more something you must consciously choose for yourself, if you would cultivate your own wholeness. Consider what your capacity for reality has to do with your capacity for Christ.
Begin by just opening your eyes to the realities being kept at a distance by prepared foods, cars, CDs, text messages, photos, glass windows, deodorants, etc… Next, choose some one thing to contemplate. Stop and dwell for a while on all the realities it re-presents to you now. Thank God for the people who made, designed, or gave it. Consider how the maker, the creator, becomes invisible behind the gifts he gives, unless we look through them. You can recover even more of life’s “thickness” if you’ll involve yourself in some real growing, chopping, making, talking, singing, or seeing. Enjoy! I’d love to hear your thoughts about all this.
For another take on the importance of encounter with reality, see this review of Matthew Crawford’s new book, The World Beyond Your Head.
I had a blast discussing this with Fr. Guy de Gaynesford, rector, School of the Annunciation, Buckfast Abbey…
Your Worst Nightmares
Might it be that some dark trends in popular culture are the manifestations of the inherent human need to grapple with the Four Last Things? Where the Church squarely faces up to the realities of death, judgment, heaven and hell, post-modern man faces a vacuum of unbelief in the very realities that most demand his attention. The rational, materialist mind – reduced as it is in power to bear the tension this produces – has one escape route left to him.
Art has a kind of power to resolve seemingly impossible tensions – at its best resulting in a newly realized response to encounter with reality, and at its worst coughing up some deformed attempt to avoid it. Perhaps the recurring, disturbing, themes in popular books and movies are the last gasps of creative responsiveness in humanity increasingly untethered to reality.
Take a look at the nightmares expressed in pop culture, from this perspective:
Death is a formidable reality that, surely, is hard for those without faith in God to bear. Perhaps if we could make the undead hideously repulsive, our mortality would be more attractive. A rollicking fight to the death against beings who are unequivocally ‘bad’ is as good as it gets…all guts and no glory of the human person to worry about as you whack ‘em. In zombie warfare we get a chance to vent all the pent up adrenaline caused by the unacknowledged fear of death we’ve been carrying around. We can actually embrace the possibility of death as a sort of counterpoint to the ugly, mindless, boring lives we perceive everyone around us living. ‘They’ are all walking dead, and ‘we’ are the ones ‘really living it up’ with zest and fearlessness.
For you, zombie straw men. For me full personhood as I die to self in Christ.
Death is threatening, but you’d think the prospect of eternal life shouldn’t frighten anyone. Think again. Eternity looms as an abyss for those whose life is already fairly empty, boring, pointless, lonely, painful or depressing. Heaven is a fantasy, and besides that, wouldn’t be very entertaining as it’s merely endless choral music, thumb twiddling and prudery. What shall we do to resolve the fear that we may have immortal souls?
At all costs, if we must live forever, we must stay young, attractive, sexually fulfilled and rich to make it tenable. Enter the vampire: our alter-ego if we identify with his suave erudition and smouldering power; our super-ego if we prefer to be the one he seduces. Whether you’re the vampire, or his ravished lover, all pre-requisites for a bearable eternity are met in this inversion of new life in Christ, whose own blood restores life to and purifies the soul who rests in Him.
For you, the same night life forever. For me, the endless newness of life in the Son’s light.
Memo to unbelievers: demons and evil people exist, and you know it. But nothing in your philosophy helps you deal with those awful realities from the pit of hell. Reject them with a smirk, and still you’ll feel the dread of them oozing up from time to time. Keep pushing your fear down and your subconscious becomes a fertile ground for some vivid imaginations you can’t quite control. What to do?
Make a movie of them. Your compatriots, who want help explaining where their own horrible imaginings originate, will come watch it. That little thrill you get when the psycho-sexual, demonic violence plays on the screen (of your mind, or your theater) helps you believe you’re actually in control. You’re choosing to be a spectator and this is all make-believe. Right? There’s nothing evil threatening you, or influencing you, or drawing you to crave more and more horrific, explicit violence in exchange for the pleasure. More important, there’s nothing in you that corresponds to evil, that resonates with perversion and demonic rage…no bloodlust…no vulnerability to oppression or possession…nothing hellish is real. Right?
For you the thrill of make-believe evil. For me, a Savior to vanquish all-too-real evil.
Magic Gone Awry
Here I include technology as a form of magic – manipulation of the material universe with a view to obtaining amazing power over it. Many plots turn magic, technology, man’s creations and his own karma against him. Thus does he face judgement for his pride and his deeds – in this-worldly terms that carefully balance the scale of retribution for him through his own efforts. Somewhere in the depths of man is the awareness that he’s going to get what he deserves. Since there is no God to make that call, he fends off that possibility by gently judging and forgiving himself.
His own creations – clones, robots, computers, dinosaurs – might turn on him. (He will need to realize he’s created the problem, but will be suitably chastened by the challenge of dealing with it.) Or, he might get a high-tech revenge on someone who deserves it. (Revenge – justified violence – is like a backfire that puts out a wildfire. There’s no worry about being judged while you’re indulging in self-righteous mayhem.) The natural world he has exploited, ignored, accidentally radiated, or destroyed might rise up against him. (Of course, he’ll win the battle to subdue it, and be absolved by the harrowing ordeal.)
Movies like these can be cautionary tales, I suppose, but perhaps numb the soul a bit to the reality of a judgment that can’t be paid off with effort, or pain, or victim status.
For you, only natural consequences and high-tech restoration of your control over reality. For me, personal judgement and supernatural means – the atoning death on the Cross – to provide reconciliation with the Creator.
Well, that’s the end of these reflections on modern art and the work of the imagination…I wonder what you think of it all….
Fr. Giussani tells us that “Freedom is the correspondence to reality, in the totality of its factors.” For some, bondage to a nightmare of unreality. For me, the surpassing reality of knowing Our Lord Jesus Christ.
I’ve just finished the Event Planning Guide, and offer it freely to the Body of Christ!
After a lot of research and interviews with Catholic speakers and event planners, I’ve pulled this together hoping to help the next person who becomes an event planning chairperson, or team leader. I’d love to hear from you about it – how it helps, or what more it needs. Please share with anyone who might need a leg up in the hard work of planning a Catholic conference, day of reflection, retreat, or speaker event.
80+ Pages of advice from experienced Catholic event planners and speakers.