Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Richard Rohr: How to be a man

Richard Rohr is a Catholic priest who writes books which are somewhere between theology and pop psychology. In Adam's Return, he writes about masculinity. He argues that most cultures have initiation rites that they make their boys go through before they can be men - you know, guy stuff like killing wolves, getting tattoos, having your teeth knocked out. He thinks that men are finding life hard these days, and that it's partly because we don't initiate them properly into manhood any more. According to Rohr, there are five lessons that male initiation teaches:

1) Life is hard
2) You are not important.
3) Your life is not about you.
4) You are not in control.
5) You are going to die.

Rohr's idea is that men need initiation and women don't because women's bodies do the initiating for them: menstruation and childbirth teach women the things that men learn from initiation rites. Interesting, this mirrors what the anthropologist Margaret Mead says in her book Male and Female which studies models of gender in different South Sea island tribes and compares them to 1950s America. She argues that girls just become women naturally: it's something that happens to them naturally, and isn't something they have to earn any more than they have to earn their wombs, whereas boys need to earn their masculinity, and men need to have a special thing that only men can have in order to be able to feel manly.

I'm kind of skeptical about the one-genderedness of Rohr's ideas, not least because motherhood is hardly a universal experience for adolescent women, and I for one don't fancy waiting till I pop a sprog to qualify as an adult female. In a society which doesn't mark or even really want to talk about menstruation, I think you'd be hard pressed to argue that it marks the transition to womanhood in any significant way. But I really like his five lessons of initiation, and I like the idea that theology has space for those hard truths as well as the fluffy ones. Jesus might be your boyfriend, but maybe he's also going to make you go out and kill a wolf.

Photo credit: David and Emma on Flickr

Thursday, 18 February 2010

The Incredible Adventures of Brother Juniper: Bells

It was lunchtime in the monkery, and Brother Juniper was meditating by the altar. It was a beautiful altar - draped in fine cloths and hung with all sorts of beautiful ornaments. The sacristan was there, guarding the lovely altar from thieves, but as time passed he got hungry, and so he asked Brother Juniper to keep an eye on the altar while he nipped into the kitchen for a sandwich. While he was gone, a little old lady came up to Brother Juniper and begged him for alms. 'I'm sure we can find you something', Brother Juniper replied. He went over to the altar, and saw that it was hung with pretty little silver bells. 'Pff' he said, 'we don't need these.' So he snipped them off and gave them to the beggar woman; and off she went.

Meanwhile, in the kitchen, the sacristan suddenly remembered that Brother Juniper tended to give away things that weren't really his to give. What had he done? He jumped up and rushed back into the chapel, but it was too late to save the bells. He rushed off into the town looking for the beggar woman, but she was nowhere to be seen. He went back to the Convent and found the General, and said crossly 'Please sir, punish Brother Juniper. Look, he's cut off the silver bells to give to a beggar woman and ruined the lovely altar!' The General replied, 'It wasn't Brother Juniper who did that, but your foolishness. What did you think would happen when you left him alone in there? Idiot. Still, I suppose I ought to tell him off.' So he called all the friars together, and gave Brother Juniper such a telling off that his throat was sore by the end of it. Brother Juniper didn't much mind the scolding (he was used to it), but felt bad about the General's sore throat, so he went into the city and ordered some good buttery gruel. Late that night he went back to pick it up, and made his way through the dark convent to the General's door, where he started knocking.

The General came to the door, sleepy and a bit dazed, to find Brother Juniper standing there with a candle in one hand and a bowl of gruel in the other. He sighed. 'What is it now, Brother Juniper?' Brother Juniper beamed. 'I noticed that when you shouted at me earlier, you made your voice hoarse with all the yelling, and so I got you this gruel. Drink it: you'll feel much better.' The General was cross. 'What time do you call this?' he said. 'What on earth makes you think I want to be eating and drinking at this hour?' He threw in some more words too, only they were a bit rude. Seeing that the General would not be persuaded to eat the gruel, Brother Juniper said to him, 'Well, if you really won't eat it, would you hold my candle for me while I eat it myself?' Looking at the simple, pious monk, the General relented. 'I'll tell you what Brother Juniper. Sit down and we'll eat it together.' And so they did.

Photo credit: Lawrence OP on Flickr

Monday, 15 February 2010

Meet Slavoj Žižek

I've mentioned him before, but I think it's time for a proper introduction. Slavoj Žižek is a Slovenian academic, who writes about politics, culture, film, psychoanalysis, and pretty much everything else you can think of. He's probably most influenced by three thinkers: Hegel (a German philosopher), Marx (mostly Karl, with a good sprinkling of Groucho) and Lacan (a psychoanalyst who radically re-interpreted Freud by taking his ideas to be all about language), though he also loves Alfred Hitchcock and G K Chesterton and talks a lot about popular culture more generally. He's pretty important in certain areas of the arts - he's been called an intellectual 'rock star' (by, I'd guess, people who aren't really that into rock music), and 'the most dangerous philosopher in the West'. Weirdly, though, (is it weird? It's hard to tell from within the funny old world of academia) most people still haven't heard of him.

Žižek was born in Yugoslavia when it was still a 'Communist' country. He got a PhD in philosophy from the University of Ljubljana, and a second PhD in psychoanalysis from the University of Paris. He was a big name in Yugoslavian intellectual circles in the 70s, but got kicked out of his university job for not being Marxist enough, and in the 80s he moved to Paris, only to return in the early 90s when Yugoslavia got broken up into different countries to run against the socialist party's presidential nominees. He started publishing books in English in the late 80s, and since then has written stupidly lots - roughly 200,000 words every two years - as well as starring in several films: 'The Pervert's Guide to Cinema', 'Žižek!' and 'Examined Life'.

People seem to either love him or hate him: plenty of Eastern Europeans think he betrayed Communism/Yugoslavia; academics sometimes get sniffy because the more he writes the less he sticks to the 'rules' of academic writing (things like using proper references, structuring your book around a main argument, being boring); he often seems to say things just because they're controversial or will make people cross with him, and he has a funny habit of making similar arguments in several books by basically cutting and pasting whole sections of text. Also, he's increasingly communist, increasingly angry about capitalism, and often quite violent in his rhetoric.

On the plus side, he's fun to read: he'll move suddenly from talking about 19th century philosophy to analysing jokes to talking about that time Mel Gibson got arrested and started ranting about the Jews to discussing the psychoanalytical significance of Alien. He's original and engaging; passionate and inspiring; and he has a wonderful ability to make you feel like another world is possible.

Now, Žižek's not a (conventional) theologian, but there's a crucial shift in his work around the time he starts reading Schelling, who's a theological but not a very orthodox thinker. Around that time, Žižek's political philosophy moves, roughly, from advocating some form of radical democracy to wanting something more like a revolution and an authoritarian government, but he also turns more and more to theology to articulate his ideas: he writes books with names like 'The Fragile Absolute: or why is the Christian legacy worth fighting for?' and 'The Puppet and the Dwarf: the perverse core of Christianity', and he recently wrote a book with John Milbank, one of the big names in contemporary theology. He is, roughly, a 'Christian atheist', arguing that you can only be an atheist by being a Christian first, and that the way to be faithful to Jesus is to stop believing in God. Theologians get quite excited by the fact that a non-theologian is talking about incarnation and sin and Jesus, but they're not always sure Žižek is an ally or an enemy of theology. Žižek's mostly read by academics, but is starting to influence little bits of the non-academic-churchosphere, leading to some more debates about whether he's a friend or a foe.

So, readers: meet Žižek. I think you'll find we've all got lots to talk about.

Photo credit: brechtjekeulen on Flickr

Thursday, 11 February 2010

How to celebrate Cyril and Methodius' day

To help you in your party planning (you're planning a party for C&M day, right?), here are a few odds and sods:

A prayer, possibly by Methodius.
An introduction to the Gospels, possibly by Cyril.
Some Russian recipes.
Russian cocktail recipes.
Some essential Russian phrases.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Meet Cyril and Methodius

As you doubtless know, 14th February is an important day: it's the feast of Saints Cyril and Methodius. Cyril and Methodius were brothers, born in Thessalonika in the 820s. They became priests, and were living in a monastery on the Bosphorous, when some Khazars sent a request for someone to come and teach them about Christianity. The brothers set out, learnt the Khazar language, and set up a successful missionary enterprise. Next, they responded to a request from Moravia for Slavonic-speaking teachers, and off they both went. No one had ever written anything in Slavonic before so Cyril made up an alphabet, and they translated the gospels and various liturgical texts into their newly-invented script. They got in a bit of trouble for conducting services in the local language, and Pope Nicholas I summoned them to Rome for a telling off. Fortunately, he died before they got there, and his replacement, Adrian II, approved of what they were doing and made them both into bishops. Cyril died in Rome shortly after, but Methodius was made archbishop of the new Archdiocese of Moravia and Pannonia, and off he trundled, only to be locked up shortly after for being a heretic. He was set free after three years, but the spent the rest of his life being alternately condemned as a heretic and praised as a missionary, until he died, probably quite exhausted by it all, in 885.

Cyril and Methodius are (understandably) important saints in Slovenia and other bits of Eastern Europe, and the Cyrillic script was named after Cyril. There was also a radical political movement called the Cyril and Methodius Brotherhood, a secret society set up in Kiev in the 1840s which, inspired by Christian ideals, wanted to abolish serfdom, defend Slavic culture and traditions, educate the masses and set up a single nation to unite all the Slavic peoples. Good, eh? (Except maybe the last one: those projects tend to end badly).

Now, you may not care very much about Eastern Europe or the Slavs (shame on you); the translation of the Bible into local languages might not float your boat (heathen!); but the Feast of Cyril and Methodius has two things going for it which surely you can get behind: the rejection of Valentine's Day and the consumption of vodka. That's right, vodka: what could be more Slavic than potato-based liver poisoning? In the absence of any pre-existing Cyril and Methodius traditions (though do let me know if you find any), here are a few new ones that I would urge you to try:
- Gathering together (that's what church is all about, right?)
- Eating Russian food (or Slavic food, if you know what that is - I sure don't)
- Drinking vodka (Slavic, innit?)

You can even join the facebook group. So go on, ditch the valentines and party hard, Slav-style. It's what Cyril and Methodius would have wanted.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Camp Chronicles

Roland Boer is an Australian theologian who writes what I guess is a mixture of biblical criticism and critical theory (surprisingly hard to summarise what that is: suffice it to say that it's not a way of thinking usually applied to biblical studies. If you really want to know, Google it. We are in the 21st century, after all, and I won't do all your work for you). He is fun. He also has a new article in the Journal of Men and Masculinities, called 'Of Fine Wine, Incense and Spices: The Unstable Masculine Hegemony of the Books of Chronicles.' Don't freak out too much about the long words. We'll go slow.

Basically, Boer's idea is this: our ideas of what it means to be male and female aren't eternally fixed. They're constantly changing, and so if you want (as he thinks the writers of Chronicles did) to maintain a particular idea of masculinity which makes men more important than women, you have to keep propping that idea up. There's no single definition of what it means to be 'masculine' or 'feminine', so in every society we have a whole set of tools for defining those terms: actions we do, the words we use, particular ways of talking about the world and about people. But because you have to keep doing or saying all of the things that establish our idea of masculinity, there's always the risk that you might start to subvert it: you might start acting so hyper-masculine that you end up actually being camp. Boer's basic argument is that the books of Chronicles are all about propping up a particular idea of masculinity, and a particular vision of a society where men rule, ok; and his argument is that the whole thing goes so over the top that it starts to fall apart. It's less Chuck Norris or Bruce Willis and more Conan the Barbarian or Flash Gordon.

One of the key elements to Boer's argument is the centrality of the description of the Temple to the books of Chronicles. According to the dimensions given in Chronicles, the temple vestibule would have been twice as high as the whole temple was long. This seems a bit silly, and various commentators have suggested that maybe something's wrong with the text, but Boer thinks that the ridiculous dimensions are exactly the point: they make the temple a big ol' phallus, ‘like some angular cock raised to the heavens with its balls on the ground.’

He also talks about the begats (you see! you shouldn't have skipped them: there's important stuff in there). The Hebrew idiom goes 'Abraham begat Isaac etc.', but the way the verb's used means that it could actually be translated 'Abraham caused to bear Isaac', and because there's no mention of the women it sounds like the men give birth to other men. By excluding the women, the text inadvertently ends up in the same dubiously masculine territory as Arnold Schwarzenegger in Junior (That one where Arnie gets pregnant).

Boer also points out that there's an awful lot of information in Chronicles about the duties of the priests, which seem to involve a lot of cooking, cleaning and singing; and an incredible amount of detailed concern with interior design. Just as for us, Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen has somehow failed to achieve the status of 'heterosexual icon', Boer suggests that there's something a bit girly about all of this.

Overall, Boer argues that the books of Chronicles are desperately trying to paint a picture of a deeply masculine world that probably never existed, but that their writers desperately wanted to believe in. But they try so hard that, in the end, their butch male world tips over into something decidedly queerer.