On Gallicanism and Ultramontanism

CouncilofConstance.jpg

Scene from the Council of Constance, the Sixteenth Ecumenical Council (Source)

Over at Notre Dame’s Church Life Journal, there are two important pieces worth your time. The first, Dr. Taylor Patrick O’Neill’s “A Defense of Ultramontanism Contra Gallicanism,” is a theological analysis of the recent use of “ultramontanism” as a pejorative in Catholic discourse. Dr. O’Neill, a Neo-Thomist theologian, suggests that Ultramontanism is “the golden mean” by which to preserve a healthy and authentically Catholic respect for the Papacy. He writes:

But how does the historical usage of the term “ultramontane” hold any significance for us today? Given that the term arose as an insult against those who challenged the claims of Gallicanism, and given that those who championed papal primacy over local kings and bishops were legitimized at Vatican I, the term ought not to be associated with heterodoxy but rather orthodoxy.

To equate ultramontanism and orthodoxy is an extraordinary claim. While Dr. O’Neill recognizes that there are some excessively papalist versions of ultramontanism – a phenomenon he would prefer to call “super-ultramontanism” or “ultra-ultramontanism” – he fails to escape the very alienation from the term’s “historical significance” that he attempts to address.

Benigni_Umberto

Umberto Benigni (1862-1934), Ultramontane church historian. (Source)

Take, for instance, his citation of Umberto Benigni’s article on “Ultramontanism” in the 1912 Catholic Encyclopedia. The passage O’Neill cites reads:

For Catholics it would be superfluous to ask whether Ultramontanism and Catholicism are the same thing: assuredly, those who combat Ultramontanism are in fact combating Catholicism, even when they disclaim the desire to oppose it.

If O’Neill had borrowed his words merely for a theological point, we might pass over the citation. But his is an historical judgment, not primarily a theological one. O’Neill doesn’t mention that Benigni is an out-dated, partisan, and sectarian Church historian whose article manifests those faults. It is hard to imagine any contemporary historian making much use of Benigni, whose other works include a volume entitled Ritual Murder Among the Jews (Belgrade, 1926-29).

Ultramontanism arose as a coherent and self-identified ecclesiological tendency under the pressures of post-Napoleonic Europe. While Papalism has always existed in the Church, the emergence of a self-consciously “Ultramontane” party before and after Vatican I was bound up with the Catholic response to modernity. And in some places – especially France – it was synonymous with less savory elements such as antisemitism. This fact alone hardly invalidates O’Neill’s theological point. But if we want to look at the term’s “historical significance,” I see little way to escape the actual history. “Historical significance” might just as well mean “connotations” as any sort of precise theological definition. O’Neill delimits ultramontanism by confining it to the realm of ideas as a functionally timeless truth. Yet he mires Gallicanism in the muck of human history. Ultramontanism is just the consistent teaching of the Church; Gallicanism, by contrast, is the small and fractious complaint of tendentious and self-interested minorities such as French kings and the Old Catholic schismatics. This discursive move may not be disingenuous, but it does set up a problematic historical imbalance. Ultramontanism is just as historically-conditioned as Gallicanism. Both involve something rather more than mere ideas – they enlisted social, political, and ecclesiastical movements, not always with very good results. And unfortunately, some of O’Neill’s history is simply incorrect.

At the same publication, the historian Dr. Shaun Blanchard’s “A Quasi-Defense of Gallicanism” provides some helpful correctives. It is a nuanced and well-argued piece (and well-sourced, too – Dr. Blanchard has seen fit to provide his readers with eight end-notes referring to reputable historical literature).

Against O’Neill’s suggestion that Gallicanism only arose after the Reformation, Blanchard correctly notes that the Medieval Conciliarist tradition most eloquently expressed by Jean Gerson (1368-1429) and the fathers of the Council of Constance (1414-18) provide ample groundwork for what would later be called “Gallicanism.” And Dr. Blanchard is right to point out that “Gallicanism” was never just one phenomenon, but a disparate tendency that crystallized into different forms of resistance to Papal centralization – not all of which were at play in Vatican I. Moreover, Blanchard correctly argues that, against Benigni and O’Neill’s interpretation, the Gallican minority at Vatican I preserved certain ecclesiological truths later vindicated by Vatican II. One could go on. Blanchard provides a great deal more historical background than O’Neill in support of his point.

blessed_neman_winter_cappa

Cardinal Newman in his winter cappa. The man was no Ultramontanist. (Source)

Blanchard’s defense of Gallican thinkers such as Gerson, Bossuet, and Fleury is admirable. One could add to their names that of Cardinal Newman, whose soft-conciliarist ecclesiology earned the ire of ultramontanists like Cardinal Manning and W.G. Ward and Monsignor George Talbot, who famously wrote to Manning,

What is the province of the laity? To hunt, to shoot, to entertain? These matters they understand, but to meddle with ecclesiastical matters they have no right at all, and this affair of Newman is a matter purely ecclesiastical…Dr. Newman is the most dangerous man in England, and you will see that he will make use of the laity against your Grace.

None of this broader historical context appears in O’Neill’s piece. Perhaps it’s a little unfair to demand it, insofar as O’Neill is more interested in our contemporary debates than in the genealogy of the terms at play. But if we are to properly recognize “the historical significance” of ultramontanism, then we can’t really dodge the issue. If O’Neill is right to suggest that “the term ought not to be associated with heterodoxy but rather orthodoxy,” then men like Newman are beyond the pale of orthodoxy. And that seems like rather an impoverished vision of the Catholic intellectual life. I will conclude with Dr. Blanchard’s own measured words on the matter.

My point in this qualified defense of Gallicanism is not that we should “return” to Gallicanism, if such a thing were even possible. Neither must we equate ultramontanism with Catholic orthodoxy, simply because ultramontanes triumphed at Vatican I. Catholic orthodoxy is too big to be equated with either. The Catholic faith is big enough and dynamic enough to include what is good and true in ultramontanism and in Gallicanism, and likewise to reject what is harmful, false, or exaggerated in both.

Read them both.

Advertisements

The Amish Catholic…in Translation

sky-blue-flag-poland.jpg

I’ve always wanted to visit Poland. (Source)

My review of The Benedict Option, “Benedict Shrugged,” has just been translated into Polish at Christianitas.org. I believe it is the first time any of my work has been put into any language other than English.

I must thank the lovely Natalia Łajszczak for translating what is, in fact, a rather long piece. I am sure she has done a wonderful job. I must also thank her husband, Filip, an old friend and the one who first approached me with the idea. I’m honored that they thought my review was worth the time and effort, and, moreover, that they thought it might be useful to have it in another language.

For those who can read Polish, go check out Natalia’s work!

Elsewhere: A ‘First Things’ Debut

st-peter-st-james-beatrice-and-dante-william-blake.jpg

One of Blake’s illustrations of the Paradiso. (Source)

I have to thank Elliot Milco for soliciting, editing, and publishing a short review I wrote in the April 2018 edition of First Things. It is my first appearance in that great publication. I have the privilege of sharing the page with a few other really stellar pieces; among others, Mr. Joshua Kenz and Ms. Emily Sammon have written particularly outstanding reviews of very different books. My own work covers a recent Taschen publication that examines the William Blake illustrations of Dante. Go give it (and the book in question) a read!

Screen Shot 2018-03-17 at 12.07.22 AM.png

Go buy this book. You won’t regret it! (Source)

God is Real, Not Nice

Moses-and-the-Ten-Commandments-GettyImages-171418029-5858376a3df78ce2c3b8f56d.jpg

Colorized detail of Moses Breaking the Tables of the Law, by Gustave Dore. (Source)

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the spiritual father of Modern Orthodox Judaism, launched his movement in the nineteenth century with an assault on the Frankfurt Reformers entitled “Religion Allied to Progress.” Hirsch decries the new forms of liberal, secular religion he saw animating the well-to-do populations of Jews in Germany.

“But behold! The prophet of the new message came into their midst with the cry of ‘religion allied to progress’; he filled the blank, pacified their conscience and wiped out their shame. With this magic word he turned irreligion into Godliness, apostasy into priesthood, sin into merit, frivolity into virtue, weakness into strength, thoughtlessness into profundity. By this one magic phrase he distilled the ancient world-ranging spirit of the Torah into a single aromatic drop of perfume so fragrant that in the most elegant party dress they could carry it round with them in their waistcoat pockets without being ashamed. By means of it, he carved out of the ponderous old rock-hewn Tablets of the Law ornamental figures so tiny that people gladly found room for them on smart dressing tables, in drawing-rooms and ballrooms. By means of this one magic phrase he so skilfully loosened the rigid bonds of the old law with its 613 locks and chains that the Divine Word which until then had inflexibly prohibited many a desire and demanded many a sacrifice, henceforth became the heavenly manna which merely reflected everybody’s own desires, echoed their own thoughts, sanctified their own aspirations and said to each one: ‘Be what you are, enjoy what you fancy, aspire to what you will, whatever you may be you are always religious, whatever you may do–all is religion; continue to progress, for the more you progress the further you move from the ancient way, and the more you cast off old Jewish customs the more religious and acceptable to God will you be….'”

These prophetic words came to mind as I was reading Dr. Ulrich Lehner’s excellent new offering, God Is Not Nice (2017). Published by Ave Maria Press, the book is a cannon-blast through America’s spiritual miasma. His target? The false image of God as a nice guy. I’m afraid that, as the book shows, He isn’t very “nice” at all. He’s so much better than that.

Each chapter considers one of God’s attributes as revealed in the Scriptures, the Magisterium, and Church History. How wonderful to come across a work of theology that isbrace yourselfactually about God! Gone are the boring and programmatic encumberments that so often clog up the pages of the theological press. Lehner is centrally concerned with God’s character, and only secondarily with what that must mean to us, His creations.

TheBurningBush.jpg

Lehner drinks deeply of the Scriptures. He often returns to Old Testament narratives of encounter with a God who surpasses every expectation. (Source)

It is also one of the most erudite pieces of popular religious writing I have ever read. Sprinkled in among the obligatory references to the Inklings are much heavier hitters. One finds ideas drawn from Martin Buber, Gabriel Marcel, John Crowe Ransom, Rodney Stark, Robert Spaemann, Dietrich von Hildebrand, and many more. Lehner’s prodigious knowledge of philosophy was especially apparent, as he deftly maneuvered between classical Thomism and recent German thoughtnot exactly the fare one expects from a major Church Historian. God Is Not Nice also has the distinction of being the only book of popular devotion I’ve encountered that speaks favorably of Erich Fromm (and cribs some of his ideas). It is to Lehner’s credit as a teacher that the reader never feels as if he’s suddenly entered rare air. He presents some difficult concepts with a simplicity that never sacrifices substance. An eighth grader could read and, more importantly, understand the text. So could an Evangelical. The book never ceases to be Catholic, but one is hard-pressed to find many insights that are so uniquely Papist as to dissuade Protestant readers. Its broad appeal comes not from a watering down of the Faith’s distinctives, but a consistent penetration of those things which lie at the very heart of the Christian life.

The book is also imbued with a deep humanity. First, Lehner’s understated humor crops up now and again, such as the time he casually compares the Prosperity Gospel preachers to Nazis (62). Or when, at the start of a chapter on intimacy with God, he writes, “Nakedness in public is a clear no-no” (80). It is difficult to imagine Lehner writing that line with a straight face, and impossible to read it with one.

The humanity of the text lies in its content as well as its style. Although Lehner hardly ever proposes specific ideas for spiritual renewal, the call to conversion is constant, simple, and universal enough that it all feels eminently practical. It works in large part because Lehner never invests his project with the unwieldy freight of, say, the hopes and failures of socially conservative American Christianity. This book is not The Benedict Option. Sure enough, Lehner is critical; for example, I was surprised to see such a forthright condemnation of the Enlightenment from an author who has made it is his life’s study. But Lehner never carries his criticism into the unpleasant realm of polemic, as Dreher so often does in his own book. What matters to Lehner is the individual human soul, not the social conditions under which the Church must forge her way through history. He is realistic about the quotidian quality of our spiritual lives. Everything must come back to the individual’s relationship with God, a relationship largely shaped by the perfectly ordinary moments of our day. The book never leaves this vision.

That isn’t to say that Lehner advocates a purely individualistic spirituality, like some eighteenth-century revivalist, red in the face, handkerchief flailing. I was struck many times by the familial note in Lehner’s work. Instead of shying away from appearing in his own workthe hallmark of a bloodless academicLehner grounds his spiritual call to arms in his own life. Lots of the book’s wisdom is drawn from its author’s experience of parenting. We read, in a chapter on God and suffering:

In fact, many of our children learn from the first hour of Sunday school that God wants everybody to be happy. Some parents might object that a different image of God would terrify children. I don’t think so – and I am speaking with the experience of parenting five kids. (100)

Or elsewhere, in a discussion of the Redemption:

A nice god might pardon us without care for our repentance, but so would a terrible parent who is not interested in us becoming mature and responsible persons. (118)

Or this charming anecdote, while pondering human freedom and what we really mean when we say that the Lord is “a God of Surprises”:

Of course, God is omniscient regarding all our actions and thoughts, but he leaves us our freedom and seems to choose to be surprised. I cannot help but compare this to my own parenting. When my younger children prepare a surprise present for my birthday, I usually find traces in the kitchen and the living room: crayons, pieces of paper, glue sticks, and first drafts with ‘Happy Birthday’ on them. Nevertheless, I choose to be surprised when they hand me their work of art. I think that with an omniscient God, it must be somehow like this. (126)

It thus didn’t come as too great a surprise when, at the end of his text, Lehner turned to a brief yet powerful meditation on St. Joseph. In some sense, St. Joseph is the paragon of all that Lehner advocates. He dwelt with God day to day in an intimacy unclouded by the various pretty illusions to which we all fall prey. Instead, St. Joseph drew the strength he needed from a true knowledge of God’s character. That knowledge created a great love and humble awe in him. For us, as for the Frankfurt Jews of Hirsh’s day, God is little more than a plaything or bric-a-brac, “relegated to a mantelpiece long ago and…only taken down on Sundays.” (106).

It was not so with St. Joseph. He knew the awful and living God as a human being, as one beloved. But for St. Joseph, that God wasn’t “nice.” After reading Lehner’s book, we too may be lucky enough to know that God’s not nice. He’s real.

The Year’s Top Posts: 2017

header_essay-original-ch-987332.jpg

The Bibliophiles, by Luis Jimenez y Aranda. 1879. (Source)

Here are the Top 10 most viewed posts in 2017.

1. 100 Things I Would Rather Listen To at Mass than Hymns from the 70’s and 80’s, In No Particular Order

2. Worried About the Church? Here Are Some Cardinals Playing with Cats!

3. The Five Idols of Christmas

4. The Oratorian Option

5. Fr. James Martin and the Perils of Imaginative Religious Art

6. The Triumph of Color: Notes on the Anglo-Catholic Aesthetic

7. UVA’s Honor Referendum is Undemocratic

8. Benedict Shrugged

9. UVA’s Own Saint

10. When the Sacred is Strange: The Art of Giovanni Gasparro

I hope next year will be full of even more writing!

 

My Favorite Scary Movies

Lloyd

What’ll ya have? (Source)

It’s nearly the Eve of All Hallows, and that means it’s time for some spooky stuff. I thought I’d offer up my top 10 favorite horror films for your viewing enjoyment.

I’ll begin with a few honorable mentions, including horror comedies. In no particular order: Sweeney Todd (2007), Halloween (1978), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), The Exorcist (1973), Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995), What We Do in the Shadows (2014), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Young Frankenstein (1974), The Others (2001), and Shaun of the Dead (2004). All of these are pretty good films on their own terms, and you should watch them. But for the following list, I wanted to highlight a few I though were especially worth re-viewing this Halloween.

I generally dislike slashers and body horrors, so you won’t see any of the Saw, Grudge, Hostel, Alien, or Ring series here. My tastes run towards the Gothic, psychological, occult, Lovecraftian, and atmospheric. My list reflects that tendency. I don’t claim it will satisfy everyone. Finally, while I have generally tried to avoid SPOILERS, I think I may have left one or two. So abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

10. Jack Frost (1997)

jack-frost-1997-snowman-attack

When he kills this guy, he says, “I only axed ya for a smoke.” And chuckles. Really. (Source)

Admittedly, this is a very bad film. It holds a whopping 7% on Rotten Tomatoes, and I’ve never been able to get through the whole thing myself. But what I have seen makes me esteem Jack Frost as one of the corniest and campiest of horror B-movies. And I adore B-movies, so this one’s gonna stand in for all the crap I could have chosen instead.

The plot is pretty straightforward. A psychopathic serial killer is being transported to death row when his car gets in an accident with a massive container truck full of a biological reagent. He is burned by the acid and seemingly melts away. However, his DNA fuses with the snow and takes on a new form as a Killer Mutant Snowman, hell-bent on terrorizing the community that sentenced him. Hilarity ensues. Complete with over-the-top gore, the very cheapest of special effects, completely maladroit music, a ridiculous sex scene, some of the worst acting you will ever watch, and dad-level one-liners (no, but really), this Christmas-themed whopper of a flop will liven up your Halloween.

9. Les Yeux Sans Visage (1960)

yeux-sans-visage2_0

Les Yeux Sans Visage – a classic of French horror, with profound Feminist undertones. (Source)

Now on to something actually creepy. This French horror film by Georges Franju is not overly scary, in the sense that it lacks jump scares or the typical fare of, say, slashers or sex-crazed body horrors. But it’s definitely worth seeing, as at times it actually becomes a poignant exploration of power and acceptance. Also, it inspired an eponymous song by Billy Idol.

A mad scientist and his cohort of minions murder young girls in Paris so that he can steal their faces – literally. His daughter Christiane suffers from a terrible facial disfigurement after a motorcycle accident for which he was responsible, and in his guilt, he promises he will graft a new face onto her. Every attempt is unsuccessful. Christiane wanders the halls in an eerie white mask, and we are treated to a gruesome, close-up view of a face transplant. Ultimately, the story examines how men use female bodies as canvasses to represent and expiate their own guilt, especially for violence they have committed against women. It also examines the complicity of other women – the mad doctor’s closest assistant is a lady whom he successful healed after her own scarring accident.

A sensitive, beautiful, and tragic tale with a few disturbing scenes. Worth your time.

8. Repulsion (1965)

repulsion-hallway-copy

The famous hallway of hands sequence in Repulsion. (Source)

One of Roman Polanski’s early greats, Repulsion remains a standard of Psychological Thrillers. It features some of Polanski’s classic sequences and shots: the buskers, the hallway of hands, the decomposing rabbit. The film follows the mental breakdown of a young girl (played by a youthful Catherine Deneuve) on a weekend she spends alone in her apartment in Belgium. That may sound simple, but boy is there a lot going on. Sex, murder, insanity – not to mention painfully tight close-ups in an era when that was considered artistic. Repulsion is definitely one of the strangest and most harrowing films on this list.

7. Jaws (1975)

Jaws

Duh dum. Duh dum. (Source)

One of the greatest and most popular horror films ever made. Its instantly recognizable theme is one of the few horror scores to rise to the status of auditory icon. I would argue that it’s Steven Spielberg’s finest and scariest foray into the genre, much better than his trope-heavy Poltergeist (1982). The simplicity of Jaws is what makes it so effective as a nail-biter. There’s a murderous shark, and to hunt it, you have to become ever more isolated – and thus ever more vulnerable.

There are plenty of genuinely scary moments in the film, but I think one of the best is also one of the most understated: the tale of the USS Indianapolis. Here, too, the black magic is all in the simplicity. Quint tells a story. That’s it. But it’s one of the most disturbing stories ever told in a film (and what’s worse, it’s true). While all the cast give fantastic performances, Robert Shaw exceeds his peers by that one scene.

6. Psycho (1960)

psycho-3

“We all go a little mad sometimes…” (Source)

I probably could have chosen several of Hitchcock’s films for this list. Some of his thrillers are remarkably good. Particular favorites include Strangers on a Train (1951), Vertigo (1958), and Rope (1948). But as far as frights go, nothing in the prolific director’s oeuvre surpasses his horrific masterpiece, Psycho. Long before M. Nigh Shyamalan attempted (and subsequently wrecked) the art of the twist ending, Psycho showed generations of directors how it was done. Ans like Jaws, Psycho gave us an iconic score, forever associated with an iconic scene.

Psycho was among the first real horror films I saw, one Halloween night many years ago. I’ve loved it ever since.

5. Eraserhead (1977)

Eraserhead

The woeful Henry Spencer in David Lynch’s first movie, Eraserhead (Source).

David Lynch is one of my favorite directors (I sometimes joke that Twin Peaks is my “second religion”). His first film, Eraserhead, has an affinity with the New Wave horror of Polanski et al. As in Repulsion, we are constantly made to feel the limits of the space the characters inhabit. But Claustrophobia is only one of the fears that Lynch explores. Eraserhead is a great meditation on the terrors that attend some of the most common experiences of life: work, sex, marriage, fatherhood. Jack Nance’s performance as Henry Spencer is riveting as it is tense, and the eerie Lady in the Radiator sequences foreshadow much of what Lynch would later use in his more famous works like Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive. The film also probably wins the award for creepiest baby in cinematic history; even today, Lynch won’t reveal how they made it. If you like surrealism, body horror, or pencils, I recommend this classic for your consideration.

4. The Innocents (1961)

theinnocents

Deborah Kerr gives a masterful performance in this classic Gothic horror. (Source).

If you like your horror set in creepy old English manor homes, full of candlelight and the creak of ghosts on the stairs, then you’ll certainly love The Innocents. Based on Henry James’s classic novella, The Turn of the Screw, the film follows a governess, played by Deborah Kerr, who is sent to care for two orphans in the English countryside. As time passes, she starts to believe that the children are under the malign influence of ghosts. Is she insane? Or is she battling the forces of the supernatural?

While viewers still debate the meaning of the deeply ambivalent ending, one thing’s for certain; this film is a masterful example of mid-century Gothic horror. Not to be missed.

3. The Wicker Man (1973)

lord-summerisle-the-wicker-man2

Traditional British Values. (Source)

The Wicker Man, strictly speaking, really isn’t all that scary. But it is a very good story all the same, and Christopher Lee puts in a marvelous performance as Lord Summerisle. If you like folk-horror, a subgenre the English do better than anyone, you’ll enjoy this creepy little romp through a murderous, pagan island in Scotland. Arthur Machen would have loved it.

I find it somewhat amusing that Lee, a devout Anglo-Catholic, thought that the film was ultimately a Christian one in suggesting that even nice people can commit horrible acts if they are not within the fold of the Church. Maybe. But what a poor argument for Christianity it is! The protagonist is such an unlikable and censorious prude, and the villagers are such fun-loving heathens, that you end up not caring too much about the Christian policeman’s fate in the final showdown. Alas. I suppose I’m biased, though, as I’ve long thought that Catholics are just baptized pagans anyway. Incidentally, I think the community of Summerisle gives a pretty good picture of what the Benedict Option might look like in practice.

Don’t confuse this classic with the highly memeable 2006 sequel starring the one and only Nicolas Cage. There are creepy masks, but no full-on bear suits in Christopher Lee’s version. And definitely no bees.

2. The Shining (1980)

the-shining-HD-Wallpapers

“Come play with us, Danny.” (Source)

Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece. Considered in purely artistic terms, there are no better films on this list. It shows what kind of art can happen when a genius director works with a genius actor (Jack Nicholson in one of the best performances of his career). More to our point – the frights are just as potent today as they were in 1980. Unlike a number of other works from the same decade, The Shining has retained its creepiness. It terrified and disturbed me the first time I saw it, and while I mainly pay attention to its formal and aesthetic qualities now, I still jump now and then when I watch it. I will never not find that man in the dog/bear suit (you know the one) absolutely terrifying, and I will never not relish the conversations with Lloyd and Grady with a certain perverse glee.

I could probably go on and on about how great this film is. But why bother? Just watch it yourself. You won’t be disappointed.

1. The VVitch

WitchWoods

“What went we out into these woods to find?” (Source)

Horror has gotten much better lately, with genuinely artistic offerings from bold new directors. The Babadook (2014), Goodnight Mommy (2014), It Follows (2014), The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015), The Eyes of My Mother (2016), It Comes at Night (2017), and Get Out (2017), among others, have all renewed the genre. But my favorite among the new horror is The Witch (2016). Genuinely creepy, trope-laden without being clichéd, atmospheric, Gothic, full of painstakingly reproduced sets and costumes from Puritan New England, and written entirely in 17th century English, The Witch represents an enthusiastic return to the old legends of Early Modern witchcraft. And it is beautifully shot. At times, it looks like the film that Goya would produce if he lived in our time. There is a black goat. It will change the way you look at the animals. In short, it is a cinematic triumph for A24, a studio that has proven itself to be one of the leaders of the new horror.

I love The Witch for all those reasons – but also because it presents a world in which Christianity is taken seriously. That rather startling quality has been in short supply among horror films since Terrence Fisher’s Hammer flicks of the 1960’s and 70’s. We see these characters as real, dignified people afflicted by indisputably real forces of the supernatural. In the world of The Witch, the Devil is real and so are his servants.

The film can also be read as a profound meditation on the doctrine of original sin. The ruin of the whole family follows from the pride of the father as we see it at the movie’s start. They are effectively damned as soon as they leave the village. There is perhaps some irony in the fact that the Church of Satan both endorsed and promoted the film. It is the only really Calvinist movie I’ve ever seen; no other has so deftly and deeply explored the Reformed idea of reprobation.

Halloween is naturally a time to seek out a good scare. If you’re looking to do that with a movie, I can think of no better option than The Witch. But you’ll get more than that. The Witch immerses us in a world we can hardly fathom, a world where supernatural evil lurks just behind the treeline and in the pale light of an attic. Dipping into that world can be salutary. After all, maybe it’s a good idea on the Eve of All Hallows – the night before the feasts of the Saints in Heaven and the Holy Souls in Purgatory – to spend some time first meditating on the damned.

 

A Sophianic Documentary

Skelligs

The Puffins of Little Skellig, featured in the show. (Source)

Recently, I had the good fortune of watching Ireland’s Wild Coast, a PBS piece. I must recommend it in the highest possible terms. You can watch the trailer here. From PBS’s description:

Emmy Award-winning wildlife cameraman Colin Stafford-Johnson takes viewers on an authored odyssey along Ireland’s rugged Atlantic coast – the place he chooses to make his home after 30 years spent shooting some of the world’s most celebrated wildlife films.

The show goes far beyond what we’re used to in the usual nature documentaries. Stafford-Johnson’s skill with the camera is peerless. Many of his shots are photographic gems in their own right. His birds are a particular delight to watch. He captures them as they move in stillnessKestrel, Eagle, Swan. Brought together with beautiful music and sensitive narration over the course of two hours, the gorgeous shots elevate each other to the level of true documentary art.

WildGeese

Irish Swans, photo by Colin Stafford-Johnson. (Source)

Stafford-Johnson couldn’t be more different than, say, David Attenboroughdistant, officious, illustrative, objective, professorial. In a word, British.

Instead, he has given us a distinctly Irish documentary. Every scene is infused with an Irish sensibility. Gone is the slightly stuffy, very British narration conveying little more than scientific data about the life cycle and behavior of various animals; gone the humanitarian appeals for conservation or legislative action on climate change; gone, too, the very American emphasis on spectacle and action. While there’s some information about the creatures that inhabit the west coast of Ireland and the threats they face, it comes across in a very different way. British and American nature shows are prose, and sometimes clunky, technical prose at that. Ireland’s Wild Coast is pure poetry. Or even—dare I say it—a prayer.

At every turn, we can sense Stafford-Johnson’s affection for and intimacy with his subject. For example, Stafford-Johnson rather touchingly says that a stag in rut “has only one thing on his mind: fatherhood.” He admires the tenacity of the humble lamprey; “Any creature that has been around for that long has got life sorted.” He has a wonderful tendency to humanize the animals he films. Surrounded by humpback whales at rest after feeding, he says, “I like to think that other animals can be happy.” In some sense, that’s the whole point of Ireland’s Wild Coast. To show us the joy of the natural world, and help us rekindle our wonder in it.

Likewise, Stafford-Johnson’s environmental concerns are usually framed by a winsome sense of home. These animals are Ireland; they belong to the land and sea; they form an integral part of his home, and must be preserved as such. The Irish sense of place, an obsession that has formed the country’s art, literature, and politics for centuries, colors Stafford-Johnson’s narration in more ways than one. For this film is not just a nature documentary. At the Skelligs, at Great Blasket, at Corcomroe, and in his traditional rowboat, Stafford-Johnson reflects on the Irish people in their history and culture. He wistfully wonders what kind of life the men who built the beehive huts of Skellig Michael might have led. He contemplates the dissolution of the monasteries. And he tells us a few old Irish legends along the way.

RedDeer

Red Deer Stag, by Colin Stafford-Johnson. Featured in the film. (Source).

The viewer is led to contemplate nature and history through a poetic lens. We become fellow-travelers with Stafford-Johnson as he winds his way up the West Coast on a watery pilgrimage. Any student of Sophiology will recognize in Ireland’s Wild Coast a perfect example of truly Sophianic art. As Michael Martin writes at the beginning of his essential text, The Submerged Reality: Sophiology and the Return to a Poetic Metaphysics:

For sophiology, especially as articulated from the 17th century onward, asks us to attend to the grace of God, his presence, in Creation: a presence which, despite the world’s fallenness, can only be described (in the words of Genesis) as “good.” (3)

That’s precisely the message that Stafford-Johnson most powerfully communicates. Not that the earth is in danger; not that wild animals live interesting and impressive lives; not even that Ireland has a unique and valuable ecosystem on its west coast. Nothing so pragmatic as that. Rather, we are left with the powerful sense of the goodness of creation. We are led to delight in it.

In watching the film—in rewatching it—in writing this piece—I am reminded not only of the lessons of latter-day sophiologists, but of that sophiologist malgré lui, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Specifically, the words of his great sonnet, “God’s Grandeur.”

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

No words so perfectly describe the Kestrel of Corcomroe as it hovers, hesitates, and then glides down with Pentecostal grace upon its unsuspecting prey.

Kestrel

The Kestrel, shot by Colin Stafford-Johnson. It is impossible to understand how beautiful this bird is without seeing it in motion. (Source).

Books I Have Finished This Summer

OldBooks

Old volumes. (Source).

I intend to keep updating this post as a running list of the books I have completed (though not necessarily started and completed) over the summer. I will include a short blurb and review for each title. Thus far:

1. The Benedict Option. Rod Dreher. 2017. Non-fiction.
An argument for focusing on Christian community-building in the face of an increasingly hostile secular liberal order. And a very flawed argument at that. But the book got me thinking about a better option, so as a provocation to thought and discussion, it works pretty well.
Score: 3/5.

2. A Litany of Mary. Ann Ball. 1987. Non-Fiction.
A lovely exposition of and meditation on various titles of Mary. Would recommend for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of Our Lady, her role, and her apparitions in the modern world. Particular highlights are some of the rarer titles such as Our Lady of the Cenacle and Our Lady of the Most Blessed Sacrament. If you have (or want) a devotion to Mary under one of her titles, this is the book for you.
Score: 4/5

3. Free Women, Free Men. Camille Paglia. 2017. Non-fiction.
The dissident feminist’s newest collection of essays. Gives a great taste of her style and scholarly concerns over the course of her long career. Topics range from The Real Housewives, “Southern Women,” BDSM, Puritanism, and all kinds of feminist spats. Her essay “On Abortion” is one of the most idiosyncratic and provocative takes on the issue I have yet read. Paglia never tires of displaying her acid wit and crackling prose. Perhaps her greatest flaw, beyond those points where she is simply wrong, is her irritating autobiographical tendency. I could do without the seventh mention of her childhood Halloween costumes. But all in all, a read well worth the effort.
Score: 4.25/5

4. The Leopard. Giuseppe di Lampedusa. 1958. Fiction.
The decline and fall of a Sicilian noble family. There’s romance, history, and a dollop of nostalgia that Lampedusa sprinkles with acerbically cynical observations about his characters. It’s uncommon to find a class commentary that doubles as a sensitive psychological portrait. The Leopard is just such a rare gem. Lampedusa has a knack for evocation. You can feel the heat of the Sicilian sun radiating from the pages; with Lampedusa, you can almost catch a faint whiff of ambergris over the rot. His style is a slow-moving delight, well-suited to his subject. There’s also a Great Dane, which is always a plus.
Score: 4.5/5

5. The Black Arts. Richard Cavendish. 1967. Non-fiction.
A helpful, if perhaps somewhat dated, exposition of occult history and practice. Cavendish presents a thorough overview of dark magic. His wry, understated humor makes it a great read (one quote: “[Éliphas Lévi’s] later books are less interesting, including his History of Magic (1860) and The Key of the Mysteries (1861), which he himself translated into when he was reincarnated as Aleister Crowley…The learned English occultist A. E. Waite, who was not a reincarnation of Lévi, but succeeded in translating the secrets of the Doctine and Ritual all the same” pg. 29). Would strongly recommend to anyone with a love of horror fiction, the macabre, Christopher Lee, the Kabbalah, Latin, and batsh*t crazy characters from the Victorian and Edwardian periods (including Montague Summers). It made me want to read Valentin Tomberg’s Meditations on the Tarot and watch Penny Dreadful.
Score: 4/5

6. Chickamauga. Charles Wright. 1995. Poetry.
Remarkable, luminous poetry by a professor at my alma mater. T.S. Eliot’s spiritual and stylistic successor. Reading him is like reading a mystic in motionmore ornate that Wendell Berry, more apophatic than William Blake. I cannot recommend him highly enough.
Score: 5/5

 

 

Finally, Fleet Foxes

Fleet-Foxes-Press-2017

Fleet Foxes, 2017. (Source)

The day we have waited for has arrived. Fleet Foxes have finally returned with a triumph of an album. Those of us who have been longstanding fans of the band will no doubt recognize in Crack-Up, their new release from Nonesuch Records, an expansion and deepening of the artistry that marked their earlier work. A statement released by the band reads:

From the outset of recording, we aspired to make an album that could stand alongside our previous work, venture into its own territory, and that would leave a clear horizon for us moving forward.

Crack-Up does all these things and more. It is an alternately intimate, exuberant, and cerebral collection of songs. Robin Pecknold, the band’s frontman and chief songwriter, spent four years at Columbia University after 2011’s Helplessness Blues. It’s evident that he paid attention in class. Allusions to Shakespeare and Shaw and Beowulf and Goya and Muhammad Ali and classical history pepper the poetic lyrics alongside references to contemporary political events. The rhythm of Pecknold’s words at times seems to evoke the sprung rhyme of Gerard Manley Hopkins (see, for instance, the first song on the album, “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar“). Musically, Pecknold draws from sources as diverse as medieval music (even mentioning the Dorian mode in some of the lyrics) and Ethiopian jazz. It is, needless to say, a sophisticated album.

Yet its sophistication remains understated. Fleet Foxes manage to avoid the self-important pretensions of their one-time drummer, Father John Misty. Even in songs that comment on the acid politics of our time, we never hear the kind of hamfisted preaching that FJM is so fond of. Instead, we have the sense that we are listening to creative representations, an earnest testimony of experiences and impressions filtered through disparate symbols of personal and civilizational import.

Take this verse from “Cassius,

Song of masses, passing outside
All inciting the fifth of July
When guns for hire open fire
Blind against the dawn
When the knights in iron took the pawn
You and I, out into the night
Held within the line that they have drawn

What a breath of fresh air after Father John Misty’s pompous propaganda! Pecknold never allows his own agenda to get in the way of his first duty as an artistproducing good art.

Consider, if you will, the multiple layers of meaning he invests in one of his songs.

GoyaThirdofMay

A very important painting. (Source).

The painting you see above is The Third of May 1808, by Francisco Goya, circa 1814. The image seems to have influenced one of the best songs on the album, “Third of May / Ōdaigahara.” The music video of that song shows us a splattering of multicolored paint. As it runs across the screen in extreme close-up, we can catch a certain formal resemblance to the flow of spilled blood. Taking into account the album’s overall political orientation, I’d suggest that it’s likely that Pecknold probably sees something of our own social moment in the painting. I would further guess that, as with other songs on the album, the allusion refers to recent cases of police brutality. After all, the painting depicts a dark-skinned man with his hands up about to be killed by men in uniform. If my interpretation is correct, then perhaps the point of the song as represented in the video is to suggest that even the death of innocents can be transfigured into art.

Finding that meaning requires a coalescence of art history, lyrics, video, music, the other songs on the album, and the news. It is, simply put, a minor feat of artistic genius. Of course, Robin Pecknold has provided some rather different elucidation of his own which is well worth checking out (he has a great comment on the line about “carved ivory”). Great art bears many meanings.

There’s more to like here. Rarely is an album composed of such tightly-wedded form and content. An oceanic motif winds through the lyrics. Likewise, the music rises and falls with the rhythm of the sea, crashing gloriously and settling into glassy streams. Listening to Crack-Up is like diving into a steaming sea, only to feel deeper currents of cool water tug from below. The pelagic theme even extends to the album’s visualsits cover and the (very aesthetic) music video for “Fool’s Errand” both depict the rocky Pacific coast. And those astract arrangements of wet paint that move around in the video for “Third of May / Ōdaigahara” are probably watercolors.

 

FleetFoxesCrackUp

Album cover, Crack-Up. (Source).

Particular favorites include the haunting “Kept Woman” and the meditative and atmospheric “I Should See Memphis.” The titular, concluding song is pretty great, too. I can’t say that I have too many criticisms. A few of the songs are a bit bland. The album lacks some of the dark beauty that made Helplessness Blues so stirring. Alas. We can’t always get what we want. There is more than enough new spirit in this album to make up for that loss.

Crack-Up
Fleet Foxes, Nonesuch Records
8.5/10 stars