He Shall Be Called Francis

March 15, 2013

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Pope Francis Portrait Painting

Pope Francis

The council of Cardinals has spoken. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, has been named Pope and had taken the name of Francis. What do we know of this man? He is 76 years old. He is a Jesuit, the first of this order ever elected to the papacy. He is from the Americas, again the first ever from that region. He has taken the name of Francis, the first Pope to take that name.

In choosing the name Francis, he has already started a frenzy of speculation. Did he select the name to honor Saint Francis of Assisi, a wealthy young man who turned his life to living in poverty and helping all in need? That is the current line in the news. Did he take the name from Saint Francis Xavier, one of the founders of the Society of Jesus (Jesuit order) to which he belongs? His motives have not been explained, but in the long run, does it matter?

The airwaves have also been filled with speculation of how the new Pope will make the Catholic Church “Relevant”. This is a spectacularly arrogant question posed by human secularists. They have been trying to train generations of children to consider religion to be marginalized and have had some success, probably on the order of 20 million people who really agree with them. With this backing they want to know how the Pope will make a church of 1 billion people relevant.

The question that is really being asked is, how is the Pope going to steer the Catholic Church to be more in line with the teachings of the American media and academia? Specifically, the pundits want to know how the Pope is going to embrace gay marriage and abortion. They will be shocked and appalled that he considers adoption by same sex couples to be child abuse and that he considers abortion to be murder. These are basic teachings of the Church that do not change just because of public opinion polls in New York City.

Will the Pope institute changes? Definitely. Will those changes deviate from the fundamental teachings of the Church? Definitely not. Every person in the world has their own beliefs and desires, those are not the concern of the Pope. The Pope has the responsibility of steering the largest single religious organization and organism in the world. He has to care for, speak for, answer for and teach over 1 billion people. In some ways he represents all Christians, even those who have specifically denied his authority.

Will his stance on cultural issues hold back the Church? To some the answer will be yes, to others the adherence to tradition will be comforting in a troubled world. All of us can pray that he makes good decisions and if you are religious, that he listens to the Holy Spirit and does what is right in the eye of God without consideration of the acclamations of men.


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You Know You Love Us: Art as Propaganda

July 29, 2011

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In 2007, the German Historical Museum in Berlin opened an exhibit titled, “Art and Propaganda: The Clash of Nations 1930-1945” (curated by Dr. Hans-Jörg Czech and Dr. Nikola Doll). As you can no doubt tell from the time period under observation, the show displayed artwork from Italy’s Fascist regime, German National Socialism (Nazism), and Soviet Communism. There was also an extremely controversial fourth nation represented: the United States. American New Deal-era artworks were displayed alongside those glorifying Mussolini, Stalin, and Hitler. Unsurprisingly, American viewers protested their inclusion alongside such unsavory company – virulently anti-Semitic posters showing Jewish people as bloated rats, Futuristic sculptures of Mussolini’s (il Duce’s) continuous profile, and ridiculously toady-ing portraits of an insanely idealized Joseph Stalin.

This intensely negative reaction is unsurprising, given the continuous American fascination with WWII, and our heroic place in it. Early twentieth-century Germany and Italy are colored black in our heads, although Russia was nominally on the Allied side, the degeneration into Cold War politics that followed the war knocks them into the same monstrous camp of forced deportations and genocide. To place American artworks – posters, paintings, sculptures, and other materials, alongside those of the three fiends of the twentieth century – the horror!

Generally speaking, the modern world takes a dim view of propaganda. Propaganda, to most of us, is the province of Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gadaffi (how have we as a people not decided how to spell this man’s name yet?), and the most James Bond villain-esque of contemporary dictators, Kim Jong Il. Propaganda is giant gold fists crushing Americans planes and having your face subtly displayed on two-story building-size posters. This view, however, is incorrect. Technically speaking, propaganda is the spread of ideas or information to further the cause of an institution or person. That ASPCA brochure you got in the mail this morning? Propaganda. The “Easy Ways to Redecorate Your Bathroom” article in the new Martha Stewart “Living”? Propaganda (but you knew that one). The integration of art and propaganda is not a new combination – Hitler and his ilk were drawing from thousands of years of using images to influence public opinion.

Although kings, queens, pharaohs, and emperors are some of the most obvious users (and abusers) of art as visual propaganda, I chose to dedicate much of my artistic education to considering the artistic propaganda of perhaps the largest and most powerful institution of the last two millennia of Western civilization: the Catholic Church. For Christianity’s first 1500 years or so, what became the “Catholic Church” was simply the Church, the only game in town.

Christianity began as a religion of the poor and dispossessed in backwater Roman provinces; they used artistic representation sparingly. Digging back to your Sunday School days (or, lacking those, “Intro to Religion” college courses), you might remember the Old Testament story (Exodus) in which Aaron created a statue of a golden calf to calm the Israelites while Moses was up on Mount Sinai. The calf was meant to be a stand-in for the Hebrew God, but greatly invoked the bull worship that was common in many cultures at the time. As if invoking paganism wasn’t bad enough, the creation and worship of such a statue was idolatry – the worship of an image – specifically forbidden by Jewish law. Of the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Christianity is the only one that dispensed pretty thoroughly with the anti-graven images rule. This is less of a commentary on specifically Christian theology and more a result of Christianity emerging at the height of the Roman Empire, a time when Roman art was at its classical zenith.

As Christianity evolved from being the religion of slaves and poor minorities to the official religion of the empire, its artistic tradition developed from its early austere, primitive style (a loaded term in the art world, but evocative) to the highly naturalistic, incredibly detailed style one associated both with the Roman classical world.

This inherited artistic tradition was perhaps Christianity’s greatest weapon in the pursuit of believers (actual weapons were sometimes involved, as well). In ages where the vast, VAST majority of Europe’s population was illiterate (Dark Ages even into the Renaissance and beyond), the Church’s use of images helped explain and spread their beliefs to millions of people who otherwise would never have understood. The official language of Christianity was Latin, a language the Church’s own priests often had scanty knowledge of, and certainly no common parishioner understood a single word said in Mass. What they could understand, however, were pictures – scenes of the Nativity, Raising of Lazarus, and the Last Judgment in stained glass, prayer books, and wall frescoes. These works of art explained Christianity better than any priest ever could, and as Christianity evolved and eventually split, what became the Catholic Church clung to images as a continued means of impressing and convincing their parishioners that their way was the correct way.

Some of the best-known artworks in the Western world are blatant Christian propaganda. The Sistine Chapel, Raphael’s frescoes in the Vatican Stanze, Michelangelo’s David – all out to convince their viewers that Catholicism is the way. The fact that these works are propaganda in no way decreases their value as art; in fact, it emphasizes the very power of images and establishes that art is an extremely powerful force that can be utilized for good and evil.

Therefore, America’s inclusion in the Berlin exhibit wasn’t an inherently negative comment on Rooseveltian politics – just a nod to our obvious knowledge of the propagandistic power of images.

Separation of Church and Fiction

January 20, 2010

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Recently, the Catholic Church voiced its criticism of the blockbuster movie Avatar, claiming that the movie encourages the worship of nature and is at odds with Christian theology.

Several years ago, the Church voiced its opposition to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.  The criticism had the effect of making the book even more popular, as many people read it in an effort to determine what, exactly, was so offensive.  As a practicing Catholic, I was intrigued.  It’s possible that I may have read the book anyway, since it’s my type of story, but the Church’s criticism ensured that I would read it.

What was my opinion of the controversy?  Much ado about nothing.  I thought that the book told a good story, but it was just that – a story.  While Brown portrays aspects of his books as realistic, they are nonetheless shelved in the fiction section.

When it comes to Avatar, I find it hard to believe that any intelligent person would see the movie as anything but fiction with some nice eye candy.

I am puzzled at seeing the Church portray works of fiction as being such a threat to Catholicism.  Fiction, by definition, is something that is made up.  Attempting to commence a serious debate about a work of fiction conjures up the mental image of Don Quixote tilting at windmills.

Another puzzling aspect is the choice of works to criticize.  The Da Vinci Code did portray certain aspects of the Church in a negative light, but it’s hardly the most negative portrayal of Catholics in popular fiction.  One of my favorite authors, the late William X. Kienzle, often portrayed seriously flawed Catholic clergy in his books – and Kienzle was a former priest himself.

If you take a look around the book store or movie theater, there are lot of books and movies that would be more appropriate targets of criticism.  It would make more sense to criticize movies that glorify senseless slaughter (and thus marginalize the value of human lives).

Honestly, if the Church wants a fair fight, they should limit their criticism to non-fiction books.  I have no doubt that they are many non-fiction books that are in disagreement with Catholicism.  Their authors may be happy to engage the Church in meaningful discussions of the differences.

It would seem that the Church is choosing targets based on the popularity of the work.  This seems slightly absurd.  When engaging in criticism, why not lash out at those that are most deserving of the criticism, rather than shooting at the targets that ensure that the criticism will spill the most ink on newspaper pages?  In the words of Martin Sheen’s character in The American President, “You Fight the Fights that Need Fighting.”

In closing, I respectfully ask the Catholic Church to avoid commenting on fiction in the future.  Fiction works are not intended to be accurate portrayals of the facts, but are intended as pure entertainment.  When I have questions about theology, I’ll consult the Catholic Church.  When I have questions about works of fiction, I’ll consult secular sources.