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Something to Overcome

By Justin Katz | May 10, 2020

Last night, our family watched Overcomer, which is the latest leader in the genre of “inspirational” Christian movies. It was, indeed, both inspirational and Christian, and, all in all, a good family film.

It also had a feel common to many of these mainstream Christian movies that I couldn’t previously put my finger on. They certainly have an overt didacticism (which bristling unbelievers might call “preachy”), but I’m not sure that’s the cause of their tone so much as a consequence of something more fundamental. Overcomer overcame its genre for a brief moment that highlighted what is often missing in this sort of movie, because, for a second, it wasn’t.

At its core, religion is about the most cosmic events imaginable, and this trait is especially pronounced in Christianity compared with some other religions. Yet, the alternative to conversion and prayer in these movies never seems to be quite so profound.  Conversion appears almost as a brand of therapy, because the failure to convert results in nothing much worse than a mundane life mired in ordinary human foibles.  There is no evil in the films.

The moment of exception in Overcomer arrived through one character who harbors a fifteen-year-old resentment against another. For just a moment — a single well-delivered line in the script — the resentment seemed like something more than just human-animal frailty, something more like the work of an active force of evil in the universe. And then the moment was gone.

The title of the movie played a role in my revelation, too, because it raises the critical question: What must be overcome? Is it just the characters’ hangups, or is there something more?

Perhaps one reason this question often doesn’t come through in inspirational movies is that the Christians producing them are reluctant to create characters who don’t in every moment resonate with their fundamental human value.  A production team full of people who have trained themselves to see their loving God in everybody they encounter may find it difficult to display characters in whom that deity is not visible.

This limits the range of the plots from start to finish.  The audience enters the story presented with a cast good people, some of whom are just going through bad spells. By the end credits, the characters have gotten over their hangups, experienced a good turn, and are at peace. That doesn’t feel like much of a transition, because their lack of peace never seemed existential, but merely a little uncomfortable and implicitly temporary.

Character development requires that we start with something bad and get to something good, with something real and substantial at stake.  For storytelling generally, the thing at stake doesn’t have to be your immortal soul, but in Christianity, that’s what is at stake. It is strange, then, that this is often not a palpable part of mainstream Christian movies.

This contrasts with a turn our lived world has taken, especially with the proliferation of social media.  Regular social and political discourse seems increasingly to be conducted with an existential fierceness.  Even local budget battles are handled as if the universe hangs in the balance, and the opposition is a force of evil to be destroyed — politically, personally, and professionally.

Perhaps both overly sunny Christian movies and social media zealots are missing the same concept: The person is not evil. At most, evil is using the person.  In a Christian movie, a character can play the role of a villain as a vessel of evil without being intrinsically so. (J.R.R. Tolkien did this very well.) And in real life political disputes, people can come to very different positions because they have different assumptions, not because they are bad people. In both cases, the goal should always be to save the person while limiting the harm he or she might do. 

However, if the latter objective leads us to rationalize destroying the person with whom we disagree in order to stop them, that is strong evidence that evil is acting within us, too. Now, there’s a chilling notion! Even an individual may find it difficult to separate him or herself from demons lurking within.  Sometimes, when we face the prospect of positive change in ourselves, we can hear that voice:  “You are not you without me.”  It has become part of our identity.

Who am I without that darkness? A peculiar anxiety of the pre-conversion modern can be that conversion might turn him or her into a walking inspirational Christian movie. In the face of such a possibility, C.S. Lewis’s explanation that — Don’t worry! — tadpoles probably don’t much want to become frogs, either, isn’t much of an encouragement. One can see the development inherent in that amphibian transition, whereas one can sense that something of life’s richness is absent from movies that lack an awareness or, at least, an acknowledgment of evil.

Fortunately, the reality is quite different. Conversion is development. The questions become deeper and the challenges more profound. Character development is not elevation into a condition of boring consistency, but advancement to the next level of understanding. Movies tend to stop well before a conflict arises at the new, higher level only because their producers chose specific conflicts to address in their allotted couple of hours.

Movies that lack this element of existential risk can fit well on a quiet quarantine Saturday evening, but they will tend to limit their effect to affirmation for those who already believe. There’s a place for that, of course, especially in a world turning against traditional beliefs, but to win converts and reverse the cultural tide, we need more art that shows what’s truly at stake in a compelling, attractive way.


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A Relationship with Reality

By Justin Katz | May 3, 2020
Vincenzo Demetz's Betrothal of Mary and Joseph at St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

One especially pressing question, these days, is how we can find meaning in a shut-down world. Shut off from others. Constrained in the unique experiences we can have. Perhaps struggling to make ends meet or keep alive that which we have labored to create — a business, an organization, a relationship.

That last is most on-point. One way or another, questions of meaning seem to come back to a relationship with God.  Even those who disbelieve in the usual notions of a deity must find meaning in their relationship with reality. And what is a relationship?  It’s an ongoing communication. 

However one defines Him (or Her), we communicate with God through our interaction with His creation. This introduces the obvious challenge:  Communication in a relationship must be two-way.  We feel meaning when, in essence, the universe communicates with us.

The universe is so fundamental to our being, though, that it’s difficult to know whether God is communicating with us or the material universe just is and those things that seem meaningful are only coincidences or the sparks from our human minds finding patterns and weaving narratives.  Often potentially meaningful events are contradicted shortly after they happen, and we have to rethink the communication to the point that it seems like no communication at all, or gibberish. 

Yesterday’s meaningful experience told you to point your life in one direction, but today’s seems to be insisting on another. Even accounting for the implausibility of communicating with a Being whom we cannot comprehend, we can’t sense communication or find meaning when the messages might as well be random.

Then, when the messages aren’t random, we face the danger of mistaking messages from other sources than God.  This would include the demonic, but also the materialist.  We certainly feel as if we are receiving positive messages when something positive happens to us, like a promotion at work or a lottery win, but if we believe that these material wins are the only (or the most important) way God communicates with us, then meaning becomes bound up with our own success and the things it brings. 

A second risk — more significant by far — is that we can forget the two-way nature of communication. When we chance to be materially successful, the important part is what we do with it. How we communicate back.

Complicating matters further for Christians is our certainty that God has told us that often we’re on the right track when the universe seems to be pushing back on us. When we are suffering.  We see this in the crucifixion of Jesus and the persecution of saints. My God, why have you abandoned me? He hasn’t. Just as a pleasurable experience cannot necessarily be interpreted as a sign that you’re improving your relationship with God, so too a painful one is not necessarily a signal that your relationship is deteriorating.

In one of those happy “God winks” that feel, at least, like a communication, just as these thoughts were settling into my subconscious, I knelt for my daily Rosary and turned to the Joyful Mysteries. As with each series of Christian mysteries, they can be applied to different subjects, but this one seems directly relevant to the idea of communication.

In the first Joyful Mystery, an angel communicates with Mary about her pregnancy.  That is, a spiritual being with a direct connection to God brings her a message from Him.  Note how very private and personal the communication is.  Calling this the Annunciation makes it sound like some major event — which it was, of course — but it happens quietly, in private. Saint Luke’s account makes no mention of a shaking Earth or beams of light or celestial music.

The Annunciation is merely a conversation, and one can imagine Mary subsequently wondering whether it had actually transpired. Just so do we wonder if the still, small voice was really there in a moment of prayer. Maybe you imagined it. Maybe you were tired and dozing unawares.

Next, in the Visitation, Mary and Elizabeth communicate with God through their recognition of each other. More profoundly, the recognition begins with the unborn child in Elizabeth’s womb, John, sensing the nearness of the unborn child in Mary’s, Jesus.  Again, though, it’s a passing moment — a sensation while greeting each other.

And again, the third Joyful Mystery, the Nativity, is a quiet, humble affair.  In the Christian understanding of history, here is one of its seminal events, and hardly anybody knows it’s happening.  (The adjective is deliberately chosen, inasmuch as from an unseen seed grows an entire life and a lineage.) God draws in a few additional spectators through different communications — an annunciation to shepherds and a celestial sign to magi — but the profound moment is God’s communication by means of a gift given to Mary under Joseph’s care.

In due course, Mary and Joseph make their reply when, for the fourth Mystery, they present the baby Jesus to God at the temple.  In the expanded view of the story, Simeon speaks directly to God upon seeing the baby, and and Anna communicates God’s message to those awaiting the messiah.

An answer comes to my inquiry, however, when the Joyful Mysteries conclude with the Finding of Jesus in the Temple. In this moment, we see God communicating with the teachers as a teacher of them.  Through Jesus, still a boy, God asks them questions, and they respond by thinking about His mysteries and trying to understand what He has created and, therefore, His nature.

Implicitly, when looking for patterns, we are are seeking communication from the pattern maker. How we respond to them is our reply. In having created, He has said, “You matter to me.” And in seeking, we are saying, “I want to understand you.”

Thus — with a deity who knows our intimate thoughts — it is merely our decision and our perspective that communicates and that draws out meaning. We make moments significant by conceiving of them as interactions.  As when sitting with friends, we converse, to be sure, but even the silences can communicate. The crucial element is the bit of faith that it matters that we are in each other’s company, in a mutually meaningful way.


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Infinite Roads Diverging in a Yellow Wood

By Justin Katz | April 26, 2020

Three observations have been tumbling with the wind and rain in my mind, today.

The first involves some of the commentary related to the protest at the Rhode Island State House, yesterday, calling for the governor to reopen our economy. Specifically, I’m thinking of the comments of a political writer for Rhode Island Public Radio (now, The Public’s Radio), Scott MacKay, and podcaster Bill Bartholomew on the latter’s Facebook page.

MacKay — whose professional role presumably implies representing the public as a journalist — sneers at the protesters as “Covidiots.” Bartholomew concurs that they are “groupthinkers without a plan.” The post to which these comments are appended briefly expresses Bartholomew’s opinion as follows:

Pathetic display outside RI State House today. A miscellaneous rally, steeped in raw anger, attended by less than 100.

The exchange brings to mind a time I was invited to appear on RI Public Radio’s Political Roundtable show (which isn’t something that happens in the current reality). With the tape rolling, I mentioned that the station’s waiting area had the latest issue of The Nation (a liberal magazine), but National Review (a conservative magazine) was nowhere to be found. That is to say, “groupthink.” In an almost too-perfect response, the producers edited that comment out of the show that aired. And MacKay is the station’s greatest representative of the doctrinaire progressive unionist position.

As for Bartholomew, on one of the earlier episodes of his podcast, Bartholomewtown, the guest asked Bill if there was anybody he wouldn’t interview. The host didn’t seem to have considered the question before, but through his improvised answer, he seemed to want to insist that he’d talk to anybody while acknowledging that there was a line somewhere that he wouldn’t cross. I think the guest at that time was WPRO radio talk host Matt Allen, and to my knowledge he was the only conservative ever to appear on the show. (I can’t say for sure, because I stopped listening to the podcast when the episodes fell into the groove of progressive “amens.”)

My intention isn’t to say that either of these men is doing anything wrong (although the “Public’s Radio” displays an in-your-face pretension and even contempt when it doesn’t offset an employee like MacKay with somebody comparable on the other political side ). But when I read or listen to MacKay and Bartholomew, I hear groupthink. Often their commentary comes across to me as “raw anger,” based on “miscellaneous” ideological imperatives.

They’d surely disagree (at least Bill would), but this is my perception. We’re in different worlds.

A related observation, this week, came via another social medium, Twitter. A resident of Tiverton who isn’t fond of me went after the RI Tea Party tweeter, assuming it was me. This is a bit of a go-to assumption for him. He thinks he’s proven I tweet as the Gaspee Project, too, but I don’t.

These exchanges create something of a psychological experiment as, in his world, this guy thinks he’s interacting with me, when he’s really interacting with complete strangers.

The jarring part isn’t just the mistaken identity and the inappropriate response to a stranger. In like fashion, the same guy and his local political allies have built up an image of me in their own minds based on rumors and lies that they’ve told each other. They spread talk that is not only a difference of impression, but actually factually incorrect… the opposite of the truth. Thus, while their reactions might be justified, or at least excusable, in response to the person they think they’re addressing, that person doesn’t actually exist.

Again, we’re in different worlds.

A final observation of different worlds is, of course, fear of COVID-19. The disease appears to be pretty harmless to most people who catch it, and precautions can limit the likelihood of infection, even while out and about, yet the public response has put the worst possibility front and center. We hear that ten times as many people who catch it will die, versus the flu, yet that still means that a very small percentage of the people who catch it will die. Nonetheless, many are behaving as they would were they risking imminent death.

I don’t intend, here, to express an opinion on the hot debate of the day (to loosen or not to loosen), but only to note the different perspectives. A stroll in the woods feels very differently when you know those little black bugs aren’t just a hassle to pick off, but might give you Lyme disease.

And so, we live in different worlds, again. For some, the world is defined by dread of a disease. For others, the dread is of a collapsed economy and lost freedom. Some will experience an involuntary escalation of their anxiety when they hear about the possibility that the lockdown might soon end. Others have similar anxiety when the state’s governor promotes a poster with a socialist motif that puts chains around Rhode Island’s “hope.”

We live in different worlds. Literally. In a quantum physics kind of a way that ties with how we observe the world and understand it.

In early March, I encountered an article (that pointed to several podcasts) suggesting that brain activity just doesn’t seem capable of explaining abstract thinking. The writer, Mark Tapscott, thinks this is evidence of God’s reality, and I agree, but it takes a few (abstract) steps to get there, and as He always does, God leaves people an off-ramp to choose incorrectly, which is to say to choose to disbelieve in Him.

My belief about the brain is that it mainly processes and stores direct information observed in the world. Layer on to this direct information the chemical processes behind our emotions, which shouldn’t be understood separately from our “minds.” Emotions store and convey another layer of information, namely how we ought to interact with the world we’re observing.

A week or two after the panic had spread through our society in earnest, I saw an older couple at the grocery store, and their story was immediately clear. They had only one N95 mask between them and, for some reason, the man was wearing it. The woman was doing her best to keep a scarf over her face, but her emotions were easy to read. She was deeply agitated and her anxiety swelled whenever there was a delay in their progress. She wanted to get going and get out of there. The information her brain had collected was telling her that a deadly virus was floating around public places, and the same sources were, at that time, saying that only N95 masks could provide protection. Her emotions were supplying the information about how to react in such situations.

The next layer is abstract thought, which, I would suggest, has to do with our feel for the rules of reality. In a sense (perhaps in fact), we store this information in the world around us, probably as an intuitive calculation of the possibility of a particular future. The world in which I live is one in which this might happen. A world in which that is more likely than this is indeed a different world.

A deer that dashes from the sight of a human being is in a real sense living in a world in which that person is hunting. Another animal sees the white flash of the deer’s tail and understands the emotion and that the world is one in which to be scared and to run.

Even at higher levels of development, abstraction is to some degree only application of what we’ve seen before to what we are seeing right now, or what we can envision. We have seen birds fly, so we can imagine flight because the rules of reality do not foreclose flight. We have counted things, and so we can abstract the idea of numbers.

This brings us back to the idea that we really can live in different worlds. If your abstract ideas have to do with the rules of the universe, which you understand through what you have observed and how your body tells you to feel about it, then we can understand those rules differently. One whose observations have included a lesson in lift and drag would find it entirely plausible that we could fly, given the proper equipment.

Learning the mechanics of flight is, in fact, learning to live in a different universe. Learning to control an emotional response — whether to COVID-19 or to public speaking or to the smell of alcohol, for an alcoholic — is the same. Similarly, the most sure way to pass a lie-detector test (other than telling the truth, of course) is to believe the falsehood.

On first pass, this is not an encouraging thought for one who wishes to reduce the amount of human hostility in the world. People who have built professional identities around their opinions, like MacKay and Bartholomew (and me!), have emotional reason not to change their universe. Such people as my local antagonists have engaged in behavior that would be revealed as deplorable if they were to change their minds. Those on one side or the other of the coronavirus lockdown debate would have to take some ownership of the severe consequences of the reactions for which they advocated, usually based on limited information and too much emotion.

Yet, beneath the chains of our human nature, there is hope. If we live in a world where redemption is real, where human beings can transcend — can ascend — then people can be drawn toward a better universe. Those who long for that good reality must lead the way in making it seem possible.


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Coronavirus Earth

By Justin Katz | April 17, 2020

For years, I’ve been meaning to ramp up a new blog for philosophical and religious essays that aren’t really a fit for the Ocean State Current, and it’s been at least a year since I determined that reviving Dust in the Light was the way to go. This year, I resolved to get the redesign done during Lent, but it was a pretty strange 40 days.  As it turned out, the reason for my delay (or the excuse) is actually auspicious, because living through the Year of the Virus has been clarifying many ideas with experience that were previously abstract.

In theological terms, interacting with the world via live streaming video has a feel almost of transubstantiation. A couple Sundays ago, my family was setting up to watch our parish’s Mass via Facebook Live or YouTube on our living room television, and technical glitches had me running back and forth between the computer and the TV trying to get the right address for the video. Somehow, the TV wound up a few minutes behind the computer in the ceremony.

In that delay — which isn’t unfamiliar in our recorded, digitized world — was the whole world. When something is happening at that moment, it’s a shared experience, even if the visual has to be transmitted across vast space. When something is recorded, it’s more like a representation. At that moment, the priest is on to other things. At that moment, the person on the video is a representation of what was, not an image of what is.

Here, we have a pretty good illustration of the difference between Christ being present in the Eucharist and His merely being represented symbolically by bread and wine. For Catholics, communion isn’t merely “do this in memory of me,” like a 2,000-year-old recording of the Last Supper. The Person is really there in the video, at that moment.

Another way in which our COVID experience fleshes out abstract thought is in the fear, itself. Almost 16 years ago, in this space, I wrote about efforts to end the process of aging and, therefore, natural death. Advocates for life extensions were doing what advocates always do and proposing that their preferred outcome would have only positives. “Life will be much more valued when it’s so much more under our control,” insisted Aubrey de Grey.

In response, I suggested that people would become more protective of their own lives, but thereby they would become as slaves to those who didn’t value others’ lives. Sure enough, we see evidence for this in our current predicament. As we gain power over more and more illnesses that threaten our lives, one for which we have no treatment is only that much more terrifying — so much so that we will quickly give up our most sacred freedoms to combat it.

If we conquer death in its mundane manifestations, how terrible will be the power of one who threatens to kill us anyway? For good reason did I quote the book of Revelation those 16 years ago concerning humanity’s ability to conquer Satan because “they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.”

A third lesson of experience that we’re gaining during these weeks in societal quarantine is the sense of deprivation. As I contemplated spending Easter with no way to receive the Eucharist (or, for that matter, to deliver it to others as a Eucharistic minister), I thought of Martin Scorsese’s movie, Silence. In that film, two Catholic priests infiltrate Japan looking for their mentor, and they find villagers having clandestine services and desperate for religious implements and the blessings of priests. When word spreads that men of the cloth are around, Christians travel from other villages in search of the sacraments. How far might I travel, I wondered, if I had word of some clandestine Mass being celebrated despite the governor’s directives?

We’re soft, these days, and hide from our shadows, but as this crisis, which is centrally a crisis of confidence, drags on and on, we’ll be faced with the need to test our beliefs.

Did I say, “need”? Rather, let me say, “opportunity.”


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