Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

A Sojourn in Anatolia: Thoughts on Cappadocia and Ephesus

Outside of the bustling metropolis of Istanbul, over 60 million Turkish citizens make their lives everyday in a land of fertility, antiquity, and variability. Anatolia, the vast land bridge between Eastern Europe’s southern fringe and the Middle East, has been a key crossroads (and stronghold) of civilizations for thousands of years, leaving a heritage deeper than almost any other place on earth. The modern Turkish people are simply the latest in a long line of stewards of this land, and their connection to its past can be visualized in the ancient site of Ephesus in the west and in the photogenic, spiritual fairy chimneys of Cappadocia in Central Turkey.

Ephesus was one of the largest, richest, and grandest cities of all of the Greco-Roman world, a wealthy port with over half a million inhabitants at its peak. It was home to the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (now scattered ruins in a swamp), and a major centre of the goddess’ IMG_4760religious cult. The import of faith to the city, or perhaps merely its importance and relative remoteness from both Rome and Jerusalem, attracted early Christian figures. St. Paul preached in Ephesus’ great theatre (whose acoustics are still remarkable today) and wrote letters to its citizens urging conversion to Christ, while St. John the Evangelist is said to have fled the Holy Land with the Virgin Mary after the Crucifixion. Legend has it that both of them lived and died in and around Ephesus, and in the Byzantine era great churches were built there in their honour. There are vistas above and outside of the modest modern town of Selçuk in which the ruined Temple of Artemis and St. John Basilica can be viewed in a direct line with the historic and still-used Isa Bey Mosque, a continuity of edifices of faith over centuries of time.

The ruins of Ephesus themselves are not so ruined. Decades of painstaking reconstruction, much of it funded and performed by Austrians, have left Turkey with one of the best extant physical expressions of ancient civilization anywhere in the world. Columns, walls, sarcophagi, avenues, market squares, forums, statues, fountains, latrines, mosaics, terraced residences, even suspected brothels are laid out in exquisite wrecks, a sketched civic plan on an epic scale. Nagging qualms about the historical ethics of such large-scale restoration and reconstruction might rise to the surface at the sight of modern bricks and mortar, but the overall effect is so staggering, so evocative of a vanished way of living, that it is impossible not to be converted to the value of the exercise.

No such reconstructions are needed to emphasize the fascinating singularity of the beauty of Cappadocia. A landscape of arid canyons, wind-carved high buttes, and towering rock pinnacles known as fairy chimneys, Cappadocia attracts tourists today (well-served by its scattered small towns, particularly Göreme, with its Wild West IMG_4966by way of Anatolia feel), but it has drawn visitors for centuries, many of them more humble and fearful for the future than European or East Asian vacationers.

A remote and inviting refuge for early Christians fleeing bursts of Roman imperial persecution, Cappadocia was widely inhabited and carries the distinctive signs of that habitation. The soft volcanic rock of the region, which rain and wind has gouged into the mysterious hoodoos of the fairy chimneys, is also easily dug into by human tools. Its caves maintained a cool temperature year-round, and housed entire underground cities, as well as less subterranean residences, storehouses, artisans’ shops, monasteries, and churches. The latter, painted with often spectacularly colourful Byzantine Christian frescoes dating back as far as the 10th Century, can still be seen today, a series of UNESCO-protected testaments to an isolated but tight-knit troglodytal existence.

The landscape of Cappadocia is almost a metaphor for Turkey in living rock. Initially appearing samey and undistinguished, formed by forces beyond the human, the variety and multitude of Cappadocia’s geological forms reveals itself with longer acquaintance. Individual pinnacles, valleys, and canyon walls have been eroded into objects of particular beauty by the forces of nature, and the fairy chimneys shaped by human hands into a more intentional art of no less aesthetic force. Like the Cappadocian landscape, Turkey has been eroded by the forces of history, and continues to be. But that erosion and purposeful efforts by Anatolia’s successive generations to carve a society and culture distinct and reflective of their milieu and experiences has given modern Turkey a uniquely appealing form to face the world.

A Sojourn in Anatolia: Thoughts on Istanbul

In spite of, if not quite in defiance of, recent ISIS-connected terrorist attacks and the agitations of the Kurdish minority in the country, I have recent completed a vacation of approximately twelve days in Turkey. Tourism and foreign visits to Turkey in general, such a vital sector of its modern economy, have been curtailed by official travel warnings and general apprehension in the West at current conditions there. This is unfortunate, as the Turkish Republic is a rich and fascinating nation with a deep and vital history and many world-renowned (and less famed) sites to explore. It is not without its issues both internal and external, but there is much about it to reward the mildly braver traveller.

Many of Turkey’s chief attractions are concentrated in its bustling, sprawling, ancient metropolis of Istanbul. One of the world’s great cities for nearly two millenia, the urban region now known as Istanbul was one of the great capitals of the medieval world, both under that name under the Ottoman Empire and before it as Constantinople, the capital IMG_4299city of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire. Most of Istanbul’s great sights date from its dual imperial periods, Byzantine and Ottoman; some, like the great bulky landmark Hagia Sophia which was a church, a mosque, and now a museum, were a focus of both regimes. Like Granada’s Alhambra or the Mesquita of Cordoba, the conflicts and divisions of history have left their signs and scars upon the architecture itself in Hagia Sophia: monumental Qu’ran scripture in Arabic calligraphy alongside sparkling golden mosaics of holy Christian figures. Norse visitors (perhaps members of the Varangian Guard of the medieval Byzantines) have even left enigmatic runic graffiti on a balustrade as a humbler witness to history’s passage.

These dichotomies, trichotomies, and multichotomies of history, politics, religion, and ethnicity are likewise writ large onto Istanbul’s very cityscape in dramatic ways. Istanbul occupies both banks of the Bosphorus Strait which connects the Sea of Marmara (and thus the Mediterranean, and thus the Atlantic) to the Black Sea and has often been considered the boundary between Europe and Asia, West and East, Christianity and Islam. The modern Istanbul echoes these divisions within the singular multiplicity of the contemporary global metropolis. The Bosphorus still separates European and Asian Istanbul (though a underground subway tunnel recently open as a tentative causeway), with the lion’s share of the major attractions and modern constructions on the western banks of the strait and a more conservative Muslim population residing on the east side.

The further boundary of the Golden Horn, spanned by the Galata Bridge, makes the division tripartite and evokes a political dimension special to the modern republic. The districts of Galata, Beşitkaş, and Beyoğlu in the general vicinity of Taksim Square vibrate with the artistic and commercial energy of a modern cosmopolitan capital. Iskitlal Avenue is one of the world’s truly exciting pedestrian boulevards, flanked by shops, cafes, bars, cinemas, theatres, consulates, churches, mosques, schools, museums, restaurants, and magnifcent architectural facades, with the ribs of Victorian arcades and winding side-streets snaking off from its central spine. It’s little wonder that the IMG_4328anti-civilization fanatics of ISIS targetted this hive of human activity in their recent deadly bombings, but if the continued hum of bodies and dreams on this avenue barely over a week later was any indication, the zealots have discouraged few from attending on this bazaar of mercantile gathering.

Behind the display of past fascinating history and current capitalist prosperity lie deeper cleavages in Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s ambitious (and always inherently authoritarian) republican project of modern Turkey. The conservative, fundamentally religious, and increasingly restrictive current regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has eroded the secularist nature of the nation as envisioned by Atatürk and has cracked down on political dissent in recent years, in particular since the popular protests focused on Taksim in 2013. I spoke with one of the Taksim protestors who sees little to be salvaged from a liberal, artistically-geared perspective in Turkey as it is developing under Erdoğan, a mix of encroaching Islamic prudishness, capitalist callowness, and iron-fisted authoritarianism with diminishing tolerance for the kaleidoscopic viewpoints of the modern world.

Istanbul, like the rest of Turkey, is full of contrasts, often stark, often subtle. Those contrasts can be marked clearly on its historic landmarks or almost imperceptibly to the cursory glance of the average visitor on its society, culture, and politics. It can be seen in the funky alternative spirit of the Taksim districts, the mercantile aggressiveness of its vibrant shops and restaurants, and the traditional rhythms of established life for hundreds of years. The latter shifting continuity of civilization is even more evident outside of the largely modern metropolis of Istanbul, and will be a more forefront concern of my second piece on my Turkey visit, encompassing the region around the ancient city of Ephesus and the Cappadocia area.

The Paris Attacks, Anti-Refugee Sentiment and the Precarious Democratic Order

November 19, 2015 Leave a comment

Last Friday night, November 13th, 2015, in Paris, France’s capital and cultural jewel, an evening of leisure and entertainment was shattered by vicious, politically-motivated violence. 129 people were killed in a coordinated series of terrorist assaults inside and in the vicinity of the Bataclan Theatre in the 11e arrondissement, which hosted an Eagles of Death Metal concert, and in the suburb of Saint-Denis, where the French and German national football teams played a friendly match at the Stade de France. Responsibility for the terror was attributed to and soon claimed by the group variantly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the Islamic State in Syria, and Daesh, but most popularly known as ISIS, and a series of raids by French police operating under a national state of emergency led to most surviving suspected planners of and accomplices in the crimes, including Belgian mastermind Abdelhamid Abaaoud, being apprehended or killed.

I have written before about the violent extremist ideology of the Islamic State, its origins in American military interventionism in the Middle East, and the blind spot in neoliberal democratic capitalism that it cannily exploits in its niche appeal within dissatisfied conservative currents of Islam. But the Paris attacks, or rather the reaction to them in Western democracies and especially in the United States, has exposed a much more unsettling undercurrent in those societies. Combined with the implacable, fanatical hostility of ISIS and its adherents to the West and to ordinary Muslims in its sphere of influence alike, the twisted popular outburst of deeply undemocratic, uncompassionate illberalism among its supposed most ardent defenders makes it very difficult to find anything resembling a silver living to draw from this murderous terror.

How has the West reacted to the events in France? On a lightly unproductive but essentially benign level, social media has seen a deluge of soft-focus tributes to victims, solidarity memes almost invariably involving the Eiffel Tower or the French peaceforparistricolore, and occasional dubious shared rememberances. On a deeply unproductive and fundamentally malign level, the popular grief and outrage of this latest mass media terrorist act has crystallized into a disturbing but increasingly common strain of nativist xenophobia against Muslims in general and against Syrian refugees in particular.

Europe has been reeling for much of the year from the influx of displaced Syrians fleeing the protracted civil war in their native country as well as the ISIS-controlled territory that has been carved out of the conflict’s chaos. Now, with hundreds of thousands of Syrians seeking asylum or resettlement in the safe harbours of Europe and, more recently, North America, the Paris attacks are being employed dangerously and disingenuously by (mostly right-wing) political leaders as a cudgel to buttress the blocking of Syrian refugees from their specific precincts. This has become a particularly common in America, where a conservative movement of gradually ramping-up extremism has been stampeding headlong towards fascist policies against undesirables, foreign and domestic, for years.

Despite the President’s sole control over larger refugee policy in the U.S., Republican governors from the American South and elsewhere are issuing statements of maximal NIMBYism, Republicans in Congress are introducing bills to halt funding of refugee programs, and some have gone even further. The mayor of Roanoke, Virgnia argued that Syrian refugees should be kept out of his city by reminiscing favourably about WWII Japanese-American internment policies, while leading Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump (whose increasingly realistic shot at the nomination is grounded in a muscular nativism) spoke (only partly hypothetically) about registering American Muslims in a national database and issuing them ID cards (emblazoning their clothing with crescent moon badges was not discussed, but must be the next logical step). As it often has in the wake of radical Islamist terror attacks (although not in the wake of increasingly prevalent domestic terrorism), America, especially in its more conservative circles, has freaked the heck out and aggressively blamed the visible internal other most stereotypically associated with the isolated, desperate jihad of a nasty splinter group of a worldwide faith of over a billion souls.

The particular focus of fear-culture ire on transparently helpless, stateless Syrian refugees as a sort of Trojan horse that will be employed to smuggle ISIS suicide bombers into mid-sized Virginia cities might seem a bit heartless and extreme even for the American Right. It might also seem counterintuitive on a few levels. First, Syrian refugees are fleeing from ISIS, not harbouring them; the two groups have a deep enmity forged in the crucible of conflict and displacement and very little overlap has been proven. Second, the deluded belief that the Paris terrorists were Syrian refugees was swiftly revealed by French investigators to be a purposeful propaganda plot by the perpetrators to sow discriminatory sentiment among European and North American populations, and the Syrian passports found among the effects and remains of the shooters and bombers were found to be fakes.

Third and most vitally, the openness and liberality of the capitalist democratic West is exemplified by its willingness to accept refugees from conflict situations across the globe and not to exclude and discriminate against them on the basis of ethnic, cultural, or religious difference. To discard this openness in the name of an insecure sense of security is to be duped by fear of ISIS-inspired terror into accomplishing their stated goal of extreme polarization of the secular West and the Muslim world for them.

Like many on the Left, I may reserve pointed criticisms for the arrogant consumption, historical entitlement, cultural parochialism, and exploitations of power of Western capitalist democracy. But in its fundamentals and despites its structural biases and weaknesses, it remains a serious improvement on every social and political structure that has preceded it. And its best instincts are embodied in its ability and desire to welcome migrants of all stripes into its big social tent (even if it might harass and marginalized them and rob them blind once they settle in there).

This tendency towards tolerance is most strongly demonstrated in the current moment by wounded France itself in the wake of its largest domestic attack since WWII. Left-wing President Francois Hollande has, yes, expanded police powers and suspended many civil liberties as well as stepped up France’s military operations in the Syrian theatre where an increasingly besieged ISIS still holds sway. But he has simultaneously brushed aside the xenophobic mistrust of Syrian refugees, committing to accepting tens of thousands into his country’s borders over the next few years. It is more in the latter policy and practice that the precarious democratic order of our contemporary world will be preserved against the threat of an ISIS. These fanatic splitters cannot boast enough martial strength threaten the democratic order with conquest, but they can frighten it into making enough mistakes and discarding enough of its high-flown principles to destabilize it. Embracing some of the most morally robust and socially powerful of those principles instead of shaving them away at the merest hint of pain will give that order a big leg up in the war of ideas which, above all, must be won to thwart the fanatical, theocratic fringe of international Islam.

Film Review – Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

November 7, 2015 2 comments

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015; Directed by Alex Gibney)

Mormonism is frequently called the American religion, founded as it was within the geographical and historical bounds of the United States, playing an important role in the country’s epic narrative of westward expansion, and reflecting vital, stereotypically conservative American values of self-reliance, independence, tightly-knit community, and both an embrace and a distrust of modernity and progress. But the LDS Church is also typified by more ambivalent American characteristics too: greed and capitalist consolidation, racial, sexual, and minority discrimination, and the exploitation of the credulity of the masses by a shady and manipulative elite. Some of these characteristics have persisted into our age, but they perhaps define America in the 19th Century, when Mormonism was founded, even more.

As Mormonism was to 19th-century America, Scientology is to 20th-century and early 21st-century America. The defining essentials of the last six decades of American life are encoded in the DNA of the Church of Scientology: self-help mania, outlandish but unwaveringly certain monetized faith, saturating Hollywood glitz, institutional corruption, aggressive litigiousness and public pressure, the continuity of male privilege, capitalist predation, corporations reaping massive profits while evading taxation and legal consequences for their misdeeds, and an insistent drumbeat of creeping authoritarianism. But in Scientology, these American obsessions, anxieties, and foibles (not always inherently sinister in isolation) are heated together to a rolling boiling point. Scientology is symptomatic of American overreach whipped up to a fever pitch, its power and madness exploding into baroque grandiosity. The particulars of its practices, tenets and methods of control and abuse ought be wholly inconceivable, but in the contemporary United States, they are just believable.

Based on Lawrence Wright’s eye-opening book of the same name delving deep into the strange and alarming world of the Church of Scientology, prolific documentarian Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief chronicles the bizarre origins, fitful rise, and insidious operations of the world’s most successful pyramid-scheme spiritual cult. A two-hour documentary film must necessarily elide some details, and the surest loser in this process is the eccentric, mind-boggling life of Scientology’s deified founder, L. Ron Hubbard.

A hack science-fiction writer, U.S. Navy veteran, self-styled explorer, inventor, and philosopher, and all-around larger-than-life nutbar, Hubbard built the Church of Scientology on the basis of his popular 1952 self-improvement book Dianetics. Dubbed, among other things, “a lunatic revision of Freudian psychology”, Dianetics spun off into touring seminars conducted by Hubbard which carried the whiff of charlatanesque revival-tent preaching and eventually into a desultory sea voyage with a cadre of true believers who later formed the core of the SeaOrg, later the elite operatives of the Church of Scientology.

Hubbard was banned from various nations, denounced as a madman and a criminal and charged with fraud, his self-aggrandizing life story challenged and debunked at various turns. Scientology took on his instability and domineering nature, especially under his successor as the organization’s dictator, the imperially-minded David Miscavige, whose grandest triumph – the Church’s success in obtaining tax-exempt status from a harrassed IRS – was celebrated with a spectacular event straight out of Nero’s Rome or Riefenstahl’s Nuremberg. It also gained some prominent members and promoters among Hollywood’s glitterati, including Oscar-winning screenwriter and director Paul Haggis, screen icon of the ’70s and ’90s John Travolta, and most famously megastar Tom Cruise.

Through intensive interviews, some with outside observers but many more with the growing legion of major apostates who have broken with the church in recent years, Gibney plumbs the dark depths of Scientology. It’s true, he raises a sceptical eyebrow or two about the legendary, pulpy “space opera” mythology underlying Scientological belief (galactic overlords, space planes, genocidal volcano nuclear bombings, Thetans, all that jazz) and the quasi-scientific mumbo-jumbo revolving around the important practice of auditing (basically confessional talking therapy, only while holding electrical cans connected to a mysterious “e-meter”). Scientology is plenty weird, but as religions go, it hardly holds a monopoly on bizarre beliefs, doctrines or practices.

But Gibney is much more interested in and adept at ferreting out the abuses and corruption of unbeholden and secretive institutions. The Church of Scientology is an almost cartoonishly nasty hothouse for outrageous misconduct, if the accounts of former members can be believed (and the furious, threatening PR arm of the Church will aggressively contend that they cannot be). Their lionized palace guard, the SeaOrg, are paid so little and subjected to such menial and overwhelming labour that their plight could be characterized without hyperbole as slavery. Lavish luxuries and services are provided for star spokesman Cruise and his bosom buddy Chairman Miscavige, mostly by the indentured SeaOrg servants.

Members both fiercely loyal and potentially disloyal are subjected to squalid living conditions and sustained psychological and even physical abuse by Church authorities for the murkiest of reasons. Doubting Thomases (and especially those who become fugitives from the regime) are threatened with blackmail on the basis of the voluminous information culled from their auditing sessions (which they are told are confidential but are nothing like it, when it comes down to it). Public harrassment tactics and crushing lawsuits await former members who defy the Church, citizens who criticize it publically, and authorities who dare to attempt to crack down on it.

Whatever one might say about the flaws and excesses of Mormonism, it remains an undeniable religion. Joseph Smith was a huckster con artist whose shamelessness was matched only by his personal magnetism, but his heirs laboured hard over a century and a half to legitimize his conniving scam of a religion and integrate a toned-down version of it into the conventional mainstream of American life. Scientology can only barely be bothered to maintain the merest veneer of a religious institution as cover for the acquisitive oppression inflicted upon its members by the Church elite. Scientology was a relatively transparent and intermittently openly cynical mechanism for Hubbard to make money off of suckers, and others have inherited his position as beneficiary of copious member fees and donations without reforming the Church’s operations in the direction of general, socially-acceptable benevolence. Scientology as it emerges in Going Clear is a manifestation of some of the darkest spaces of the American id, and there’s little in this fascinating but troubling film to suggest that it will ever be anything more.

Categories: Film, Religion, Reviews

Film Review: Calvary

September 27, 2015 1 comment

Calvary (2014; Directed by John Michael McDonagh)

Father James (Brendan Gleeson) is a good man and a good Catholic priest, but that seems to matter not at all. He ministers to the concerns and doubts of his parishoners in a small community in Ireland’s County Sligo. He attempts to discourage the domestic violence committed against a promiscuous local woman (Orla O’Rourke); tries to dissuade a bowtie-wearing odd bird (Killian Scott) from his murderous tendencies as well as from giving them a professional outlet by joining the army; susses out the sincerity of a wealthy financier (Dylan Moran) who offers to make a handsome donation to the Church to assuage his guilt and loneliness; maintains a fond yet prickly friendship with an elderly writer (M. Emmet Walsh) finishing a book in an isolated cottage; admonishes his only altar boy for nipping communion wine; and fights valiantly to avoid losing patience with his twit of a fellow priest (Domhnall Gleeson, son of Brendan). Closer to home, he also tries to reconnect with his daughter (Kelly Reilly) from his pre-ordainment marriage, who visits him from London after attempting suicide.

Above all, though, Father James struggles to overcome the widespread contempt for and distrust of the Catholic Church in Ireland following the revelations of rampant child abuse by its clergy, compounded by the Church leadership’s concerted cover-up efforts. The notorious scandal is employed by those he encounters as a persistent trump card to his well-meaning efforts to offer comfort, solace, or guidance. James scrambles doggedly for the moral high ground, but the barrages of disdain for his chosen religious vocation and its association with organized pedophilia put him in reluctant retreat every time.

But the abuse scandal has much more dire consequences for Father James. In Calvary‘s first scene, a man enters the confessional booth and promises to kill James in a week’s time, on a Sunday morning. The man reveals himself to have been sexually abused by a priest (now deceased), and will punish the Church for its crimes by murdering a good priest, to maximize the shock. The remainder of the film builds towards this fateful Sunday encounter, the identity of James’s assassin held secret until the ending and ably concealed by the consistent shabby treatment that he receives from every man in town.

Calvary is the second film by writer-director John Michael McDonagh, following the more freewheeling and comic The Guard, which also starred Brendan Gleeson. McDonagh possesses a secondhand grasp of the scabrously crude but frequently hilarious dialogue and conflicted engagement with historical Catholic guilt displayed by his better-known and more brilliant older brother Martin, auteur of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. There is much less meta-play and genre flexibility in the younger McDonagh’s films, but his visual sense has evolved quickly while his writing has sharpened and embraced the unsettling moral ambiguities inherent to the Catholic Church’s transformed role in Irish society and culture.

Calvary has some funny snatches of dialogue (the exchange between James and the bowtie-clad Milo is probably the high-water mark) but it does not ever rise to the level of black comedy, remaining as a simmering drama of one man’s accruing suffering for the sins of others. One would likely need a theological degree to properly parse the film’s Catholic symbolism, metaphors, and referrents, but the title alone (referring to the hill outside Jerusalem upon which Jesus is purported to have been crucified) makes its core association between this humble Irish priest and the divine Saviour in whose name he serves crystal clear. The Passion of Father James contains kernels of other biblical stories, too: the Book of Job, ever a favourite for dramatized explorations of the anguish of maintaining faith in a hostile world, is an obvious reference point.

But Calvary has no truck with self-aggrandizing Christ postures. The tremendous Gleeson allows James’s troubled humanity to fill the frame but never transcend its temporal bonds; his late career renaissance continues under the creative stewardship of the McDonagh brothers, who are at last giving this great actor roles worthy of his expansive ability. McDonagh punctuates James’s fateful, pained march towards judgement with sweeping, achingly gorgeous long shots of the County Sligo landscape. These shots function like god’s-eye views, as if the director strapped a camera to an angel sent to observe the trials of a mortal servant of its ineffable master.

It cannot be said that Calvary is exactly satisfying in its moral conclusions or thematic aims. But then neither is contemporary Catholicism, at least not in the unsettled hearts and minds of its increasingly numerous doubters. Calvary feels much more vital than The Guard, a resonant statement of the fallout of the Church’s perceived betrayal of its flock in Ireland, once one of its true strongholds. The sacrifices of Father James carry lingering hints of redemption, reconciliation, and resurrection: after all, he meets his fate not on a Friday, like Jesus, but on a Sunday, the day of the rise from death. But this is not a film about achieving salvation but struggling forever in search of it, to no avail. Calvary makes that struggle seem inherent noble but also sublimely painful and hopeless, and perhaps ultimately futile, though it seems to carry a prayer that this last judgement does not hold.

Categories: Film, Religion, Reviews

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me”: The Dream and the Pain of History

September 10, 2015 4 comments

Between the World and Me, the new book by The Atlantic‘s silver-penned editor Ta-Nehisi Coates, is a fast-detonating truth bomb in the hands of its readers. At once a deeply personal memoir, an incandescent sociopolitical essay, a tight-packed literary pamphlet, and a species of impassioned secular sermon on the African-American perspective in a supposedly “post-racial” society that is inherently anything but, Between the World and Me ought not to be as essential as it is. But a civil society such as that of the United States of America that continues to target black bodies for destruction and plunder, to echo Coates’ bluntly effective terminology, requires such a searing critique.

Coates’ first book, The Beautiful Struggle, was more of a proper memoir, albeit one that sought to make sense of the fearful but joyous everyday reality of growing into one’s black adult self in America, and Between the World and Me is also firmly grounded in personal experiences, in the galvanizing force of memory. Coates is a highly prolific writer, producing more traditional but still deeply powerful long-form journalism for the prestigious East Coast magazine that employs him (such as his mighty piece “The Case for Reparations” from last summer) while also blogging and tweeting about current events and politics but also classic hip-hop, basketball, video games, learning the French language, American and world history, and whatever else strikes his fancy. His many outlets for public writing seem to be admirably treated as blackboards or notebooks to scrawl down and refine his ideas, to focus and sharpen his prose for when he needs it the most.

Between the World and Me is packed with import, composed with a sort of careful forcefulness. Sentences land heavy body blows; a paragraph can leave a reader winded, staggering. Organized as a letter to his teenaged son (which Coates admitted in a recent Daily Show interview was a “literary conceit”), the book’s observations are cohered by this “advice to a son” organizational principle, like Polonius advising Laertes without the comic foolishness. It repeats key terms like mantras or leitmotifs, linking the way that Coates understands American society, politics and history with his own experiences and those of other African-Americabetweentheworldandmens around him and in the national news.

Coates writes of the concept of White America as a mass self-justifying fantasy, “the Dream” of “people who think they are white” (the phrase of James Baldwin, whose book-length essay The Fire Next Time is a strong influence on Between the World and Me). The Dream’s foundations for 400 years and into the present day are erected on the broken and economically exploited bodies of African-Americans and the internalized fear that the ever-present threat of that disembodiment creates in America’s seemingly perpetual underclass. Not merely slavery but the attacks on Reconstruction, the systemic exclusion of Jim Crow, segregation, housing policy, ghettos, and the prison system, the deadly terrorism of lynching and the KKK, and myriad other smaller and larger effects of the dehumanizing practices that have shaped the African-American experience in the United States are noted and discussed with clarity and wisdom.

Coates comprehends the “race problem” itself as a construction that intrinsically supports the Dream. “Race” is a construct and a malleable one at that; its boundaries shift, the compartments that it arranges around certain minorities and distinct groups frequently moved depending on the needs of the society. It is anything but immutable, is not even skin deep. And yet these racial distinctions have formed a tribal identity for African-Americans that Coates recognizes and values as well, and that he comes to understand as having much greater breadth and variety than is generally acknowledged upon attending Howard University, a historically black university that he refers to as “The Mecca”.

But as important and familiar as that identity is, as much beauty and truth as it imbues, Coates recognizes it as being the product of the eternal fear of imminent potential destruction for African-Americans. He wishes his son to understand and value the quotidian struggle with that inheritance of fear, but also to experience the wider world, such as Coates and his family glimpses in Paris (while also recognizing that this city’s romantic allure is built on a Dream as well). There is ever a note of sadness to Coates’ memories, to his words to his son about his own journey, the acknowledgement of progress but also of the tragedy of retained fear and of wasted days, months, years in its thrall.

Perhaps the most interesting and unique element of Between the World and Me is the atheist Coates’ rejection of the multi-generational narrative of progress and hope imparted by the African-American church. Without the belief in eternal life and an arc of history that bends towards justice, Coates is left feeling cold by the non-violent resistance of the beknighted Civil Rights movement and the continued exhortations for contemporary black activism to emulate it. “Allow us to break your bodies without resisting,” the gatekeepers of the Dream say with this insistence, “and perhaps those of us who believe themselves to be white might one day feel enough bad about it to put a stop to it.” To an atheist, as Coates says, the body is the soul. No expectation of becoming a shimmering ghost that gazes down beneficently from a cloud as ghettos improve for their black residents or the prisons empty and close or police are punished for shooting unarmed black men until they see no advantage in continuing to do so or, indeed, as a man with a black Kenyan father and a white Kansan mother becomes President is worth the destruction of the only vessel that will ever carry one’s consciousness. Fairy tales and myths are the tools of the Dream, and Coates rejects their easy comfort with admirable forcefulness and intellectual nuance.

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes at one point in Between the World and Me that he is no cynic, though that precise criticism has been levelled at him often in the reception of the book. In the New York Times opinion pages, David Brooks gave the book backhanded aesthetic praise while castigating Coates for displaying insufficient reverence for the Dream, that myth of inborn American benevolence and righteousness that confers an aura of blamelessness in any situation. The Dream is the only recourse for the Brookses of America, however, since the waking reality (what Brooks unreflectively calls Coates’ “excessive realism”) is one of fear and plunder for African-Americans, even in a supposedly tolerant modern nation.

Americans may wish – vaguely, amorphously, and perhaps disingenuously – for an end to this state of affairs, if they even allow themselves to acknowledge it. But Coates provides no simple political, social, or even emotional road map to the “healing” or “reconciliation” of the deep wounds that racism has inflicted on blacks and whites alike (the former with the wounds inflicted upon them, the latter with the inflicting of their wounds on their collective conscience). Indeed, healing is a lie, another aspect of the Dream, no less pernicious for its soft empathetic contours. Feeling the pain of history and experiencing the struggle with that feeling is the only path to progress between white and black in America, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ lightning-strike of a book makes it even harder to contemplate taking any other.

Film Review: Noah

April 28, 2015 Leave a comment

Noah (2014; Directed by Darren Aronofsky)

Adrift in a massive wooden vessel upon the watery deluge that has drowned the world and everyone in it, surrounded by thousands of hibernating beasts and one unseen stowaway, the only living human family left alive huddles around a warm brazier. Noah (Russell Crowe), the clan patriarch and driving force of this most vital of nautical ventures, recounts his discouraged loved ones the story of the creation of the world and of life to inhabit it. The sequence of Noah’s telling of the events of the Bible’s Genesis 1 constitutes a flashback tangent from the plot of Noah, but director Darren Aronofsky realizes its thematic importance and crafts it into a remarkable audio-visual thesis statement for his tremendously ambitious but not always successfully awesome biblical epic.

Narrated by Crowe’s Noah in a sturdily poetic reworking of the familiar words of the King James Version (the cojones of that choice alone!), it moves from a light in the darkness through cosmic coalescence to planetary constitution, the flowering of plants and spread of animals, and Adam and Eve in Eden along with a slithering snake and a tantalizing fruit beating like a heart. Aronofsky moves through billions of years in enervating time-lapse photography, audaciously embedding a depiction of evolutionary science at the very core of the Genesis tale that predetermines creationism. The sequence concludes with the unforgivable sin of Cain slaying Abel in black silhouette before a vibrant sunrise (or sunset, the more likely given the ideas being expressed), the forms of both men cycling through the weapons and armour of all of the human race’s eras of war as the body of the slain falls. It’s the grandeur of Kubrick mashed together with Aronofsky’s own indie-bred existentialism run through the visual method of Madonna’s “Ray of Light” music video. The Onion‘s A.V. Club named it one of their top film scenes of 2014. I wouldn’t argue.

Coming where it does in Noah, the Creation sequence re-entrenches the main point of the larger tale and functions as an attempt by the fanatically devoted ark-builder to re-establish the importance of his mission to his doubting family unit. Mankind is irredeemably wicked, and so they must die en masse, with the sole scant exceptions to this holocaust tasked to sail animal life to safety before expiring themselves. At least this is how Noah interprets the dream visions that he attributes to his Creator, who is otherwise characterized as an impassive, cloudy sky who answers no queries as to his intentions. Perhaps the Creator finds this humourless zealot who purports to act in his name too insufferable to bother replying to, though not to use to achieve larger aims. This is latter-day Russell Crowe, after all, who can no longer lower himself to take on the role of anything less than a prophet or Christ-figure. Noble suffering abounds.

His family follows him, but finds it increasingly difficult. His wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and sons Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman), and Japhet (Leo McHugh Carroll) are pained that the family line will end with them, what with their lack of female childbearers. Ila (Emma Watson), adopted daughter and lover of Shem, is barren due to a childhood wound and feels guilt at being with Shem and denying him a humanity-saving chance to procreate (recall this relationship dilemma the next time you and your significant other have a tiff over househould chore distribution). And, of course, the rest of the human race is hardly chuffed at being denied a berth on the ark and left to drown. Their representive is Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), an aggressive warlord who preaches the gospel of muscular self-reliance and promises to fight his way onto the boat if it’s the last thing he does.

Noah also includes Anthony Hopkins as Methuselah, an old mystical cave hermit with a powerful craving for berries. We cannot likewise forget the single goofiest element in the film: the Watchers, glowing, lumbering CGI rock giants who help Noah build the ark and defend it from Tubal-cain’s legions. They’re actually fallen angels encased in stone as punishment for their transgressions, and though the Watchers are resolutely non-biblical, they do have some grounding in religious texts of the ancient world (they’re described in the ancient Jewish work the Book of Enoch). Scholarly backing, and a sympathetic vocal performance from Frank Langella as one of the primary giants, lends the Watchers some support, but they are the most left field of elements in a movie that frequently challenges popular assumptions about a well-known myth almost to the point of straining all measure of credulity.

The suspension of disbelief ebbs gradually out of Noah and the temptation to scoff the film away creeps in slow, much as it has into this review. It’s worth keeping in mind that the story of Noah’s ark might be the single wackiest thing in the whole of the canonical Bible, which is really saying something when you take the talking snakes and raining amphibians and parted seas and proscriptions on seafood into account, to say nothing of the phantasmagorical, hallucinatory nightmare of Revelations (which even the most grimly dedicated of scriptual literalists must admit is just a tad metaphorical). Noah’s story is already operating on the level of fantasy, Aronofsky supposes, so why not push it as far as it will go? Why not portray magic and miracles alongside the weightiest moral choices ever faced by a mere man?

It’s not an invalid approach to the material, and Aronofsky’s vision is often remarkable. But Noah has deeper and more tangled issues than those that can be resolved by an auteur’s visual mastery or a handsome visual effects budget. Noah is invested in a faith-based sense of morality that is overtly unspecific but unquestionably Judeo-Christian in character, contained in a general visual storytelling package that is less secular than outright pagan. It’s too invested in belief to appeal to rationalists and too loose with sacred detail to persuade the faithful. The creation sequence is the film’s genetic code: no matter how striking Noah is as a piece of imaginative blockbuster filmmaking, it wants to have it both ways, be all things to all viewers. Aronofsky doesn’t want to alienate, but that instinct prevents him from transcending.

Categories: Film, Religion, Reviews

James M. McPherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom”: Nuanced History with Moral Conviction

June 28, 2014 1 comment

There is perhaps no event more vital to the process of approaching an understanding 0f the history and nature of the United States of America than the Civil War. More than the Revolutionary War, westward expansion, urbanization and immigration, or any of the wars of the 20th Century, the War Between the States (re-)formed the fundamental social, political, and economic conditions of a nation that, though not even a century old as an independent state when the war ended, would not even a century later dominate the global stage.

In his mighty, comprehensive, and blazingly morally forthright history of the war and its little-appreciated prelude, historian James M. McPherson discusses the Civil War era as a practical second American Revolution. This rhetorical framing of the conflict was commonly employed contemporaneously by both sides: the Confederacy identified their perceived struggle against a tyrannical government imposing what it took to be unfair constrictions upon their fundamental rights with that of the Founding Fathers against the dictatorial powers that a distant British King exerted over his colonial possessions, while abolitionists and their pragmatic converts in the North came to see the Union’s quest to quell the rebellion of the Southern states as a completion of the formative revolution, a fulfillment of the Declaration of Independence’s mantra of equal rights for all expanded to include the Founding Fathers’ notorious blind spot of black chattel slavery. But McPherson demonstrates in meticulously researched detail how drastically and irrevocably the Civil War erected the modern American state with its bureaucratic institutions, industrial commerce, and other particular domestic variables that define the nation to the present day. It was not solely the demolition of the Southern slave system (and much of the South itself along with it) that wrought these changes, but the Northern war effort in general.

This is not to say that Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era makes the argument that the Civil War was not fundamentally a conflict over the enslavement of African-Americans, as many Confederate-sympathizing Lost Cause narratives of the war have made it their intention to advance. Indeed, Battle Cry of Freedom is notable for its insistent, persuasive habit of considering other catalysts for the intractable conflict but ultimately, fatefully circling back to the grand disagreement over battlecrymcphersonslavery as the core principle that could not be reconciled. McPherson finds slavery dragging down the American project at every turn, animating every contentious public debate or socioeconomic division that presaged the war. The urbanization and rapid industrial growth of the Northern states set their interests at odds with those of the agrarian, aristocratic South, with its millions of unpaid labourers, export-reliant economy, and highly concentrated wealth. Westward expansion threatened to stall over the expansion of slavery; every new state admitted to the Union in the 1840s and 1850s went through a painful debate over whether slavery would be allowed under its aegis or not, erupting to violence in the case of some (like Kansas). Compromises by both of the main pre-war political parties, the Southern-leaning Democratic Party with its Jacksonian championing of states’ rights and distrust of centralized power and the more progressive and economically protectionist Whig Party, would always fail to defuse tensions. Divisions over the slavery question broke the Whigs and elevated the flegdling pro-commerce, anti-slavery Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln to power, a political shift that was the final straw for pro-slavery Southerners. No lingering doubt is admitted, especially for the Southern Confederates whose descendants argue for alternate motivations for rebellion; when it comes to the war’s casus belli, it’s the slavery, stupid.

McPherson elucidates the vital pre-conditions of the war with admirable completeness, an approach which is extended to the account of the war itself that takes up most of its 800+ pages (military history abounds, if that’s your sort of thing, though it is always grounded in the larger political and social ramifications of the battles and troop movements). His book’s most useful accomplishment must surely be this focused but nuanced comprehensiveness. It must be one of the most altogether convincing historical studies ever produced, and what it sets out to convince the reader of, beyond any reasonable doubt, is the tremendous, cynical, self-centered wrongness of the South’s defense of slavery.

The aphorism that history is written by the victors has been proven thoroughly backward in the case of the Civil War. Apologia for the Confederacy’s position of fighting to defend their inalienable rights to buy and sell human beings like livestock simply because of the colour of their skin were being produced almost immediately after the Union won the war (some written by high-ranking Confederates like Jefferson Davis, who would surely have been drawn and quartered after defeat by, say, the British). The hijacking of Reconstruction and the re-assertion of white supremacy through the rise of the KKK, Jim Crow, segregation, and housing discrimination enacted in social, economic and political circles what Lost Cause mythologizing spread in the wider discourse: the systematic marginalization of African-American emancipation.

The South lost the war, and was probably always going to in the long run; McPherson delineates how, despite the early military successes of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, the best that the Confederate States could reasonable hope for was to fight the numerically and manufacturily superior North to a costly enough stalemate to compel political change to a more accommodating administration and perhaps convince European powers (like Britain, the most lucrative commodities market for the South’s slave-processed cotton) to recognize its independence. It also lost much of the peace (the economic deprivation that underscores Southern redneck stereotypes began with the devastation of General William Tecumseh Sherman’s army’s scorched-earth march through the South), but the preservation of the arrogant core values of the antebellum South has carved out an unchallengeable fiefdom in the American cultural identity. It has also, 150 years later, rather ironically swallowed Lincoln’s Republican Party entirely, reducing a party whose economic opposition to slavery begrudgingly swelled to an inadvertent crusade of moral righteousness at a crucial moment in the nation’s history to a greedy, prejudiced pack of inward-gazing proto-authoritarians clinging to failed and disproven ideas while construing every expression of opposition to their ideological strictures as treasonous decadence.

The Atlantic‘s Ta-Nehisi Coates praises McPherson’s seminal tome on the Civil War for refusing to “entertain Neo-Confederate dissembling”. Coates sees history books like Battle Cry of Freedom as instrumental in reclaiming the narrative of the Civil War in specific and of America in general, for African-Americans and for progressives but truly for all Americans. Placing the uncomfortable implications of the system of slavery firmly in the past has long been the preferred approach to dealing with such traumas in American public discourse. It’s a statement of the extent to which the depth and breadth of these crimes have been dissolved by the on-flowing stream of history that a tome that treats the white supremacist slave order of the antebellum South as the long-running system of moral repugnance that it was is worthy of laurels. But for its depth of scholarship, argumentative force, and moral clarity, Battle Cry of Freedom more than earns those laurels as the definitive single-volume history of the American Civil War.

Film Review: Marjoe

March 11, 2013 1 comment

Marjoe (1972; Directed by Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan)

As his father relates in a later portion of this documentary film, Marjoe Gortner comes from a long line of preachers. But merely continuing the family business does not have quite enough aura to it. No, Gortner, Sr. tells a prayer meeting crowd that his prized preaching son was singled out by the Lord himself (while taking a bath, no less) to save souls as a Pentecostal revival preacher. He was chosen, and at the tender age of 3 ½ years.

Chosen he may have been, but as Marjoe (his odd name is a portmanteau of Mary and Joseph, the mortal parents of Jesus) tells it in the Best Documentary Feature of 1972 (per the Academy), there was nothing divine about his being marked for this calling. Famous in the late 1940s and early 1950s as a child preacher whose flamboyant verbosity in the name of Jesus belied his kindergartener appearance, Marjoe raked in what he estimates to be $3 million for his parents (who never gave him any of it, he claims) from gullible believers.

The boy evidently never believed a word of the fire-and-brimstone nonsense he had been drilled by his ambitious and pious parents to memorize, and rebelled against their vision for him in his late teens (the act’s novelty had also begun to dry up, and the meeting bookings did as well). The Marjoe Gortner who speaks to the production crew in a hotel room at the beginning of the film comes across as a standard hippie golden-boy, his curly blond locks, beanpole frame, and handsome confidence suggesting both a lankier Owen Wilson and Roger Daltrey in the Tommy film era.

Like Tommy, Marjoe offers a critique of charismatic religious leaders, but does so from the inside. Struggling in other career efforts as a young adult, Marjoe returns to the ministry in order to make money. The money, he finds, is pretty good; the Pentecostal faithful are quite willing to part with their dollar bills (and their $10s and $20s and higher denominations, too) for a preacher of any skill, and the skilled Gortner (who steals hip-jabbing stage moves from Mick Jagger) giddily counts out a pile of cash in a hotel room for the camera. Smith and Kernochan’s lens is repeatedly drawn to other preachers and ministry functionaries with fistfuls of dollars as well; subtle, it ain’t, but there’s little question that, to whatever extent it is or isn’t about the faith, the business is certainly about the money.

That the film shows all of this should make it pretty clear that Marjoe Gortner is not long for the Pentecostal ministry circuit. Indeed, Marjoe is his kiss-off exposé of what he views as the disingenuous crookedness and greed of this influential corner of American religion at the very least. If we are more familiar now with the racket that is evangelical revivalism, then it’s because a new generation of oily televangelist salesman have been busted with a hand in the holy cookie jar (or worse, in some cases). Marjoe offers what must have been a striking glimpse into a then-largely-unknown and little understood subculture. With the relentless sermons on salvation and damnation, the speaking in tongues, and the hand-laying healing of believers, it’s a bizarre portrait, even if we feel like we know it all well enough by now.

But Marjoe is not just a depiction of the Pentecostal faith; it’s a depiction of a well-paid conman in its midst. It is possible, with a comfortable acceptance of cognitively dissonance, to find the terms and the expression of belief in the ministry to be fantastically wacko while also feeling a little uncomfortable with how Marjoe Gortner exploits that wacko nature for his own financial gain.

Marjoe himself was quite uncomfortable with it, to be fair, which is why he decided to get out, and with this parting bang of a documentary, too. Exposing his deceitful career in the ministry was no guarantee of other such shysters being likewise exposed, nor of the basis of belief in the church being undermined. No one can begrudge his decision to end the charade and get out (although his father does not seem aware of his son’s lack of religious dedication when he introduces him at the aforementioned meeting). But one can begrudge Marjoe Gortner’s willingness to carry the charade on in the first place, and this can be the source of some viewer discomfort in what is otherwise a fascinating and insightful document of an enthusiastic religious movement.

Note: Russian subtitles aside, this is the full film on Youtube, with sound in English.

Categories: Film, Religion, Reviews

At the End of the Pope: Benedict XVI and the Pontificate of Modernity

February 28, 2013 1 comment

At the time that this post was published, the Catholic Church had just become, if only briefly, a captainless vessel. The sitting Pope Benedict XVI (the former Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) had announced on February 11th that he would resign as the head of the Catholic Church effective at the end of the month (call it a holy two-weeks’ notice). As the College of Cardinals assembles for a Conclave to elect one from amongst their august selves to the post of the 266th Vicar of Christ (with the swing vote belonging, in hoary doctrinal tradition, to none other than the Holy Spirit), there have already been numerous considerations, analyses, and accountings of the legacy and meaning of Benedict’s brief papacy, which officially ended today.

Benedict XVI’s helicopter departs Vatican City

Though I can hardly claim to be qualified to assess the pontificate of the outgoing Bishop of Rome in the company of career Vaticanologists (they’re like vulcanologists, only they study celibate old men instead of upswelling magma), there is something of interest in the conclusion of Benedict’s reign at the top of the rapidly ossifying ecclesiastical hierarchy. Ratzinger, upon assumption of the office, was clear about conceiving his time at the wheel of the Popemobile as being a transitional phase after the long and popular papacy of John Paul II. A pinched, detail-oriented German who was the oldest Pope to be elected in 250 years and formerly headed the Vatican’s successor office to the Inquisition, Benedict had neither the inclination nor the evident ability to match his predecessor’s world-spanning celebrity and outreach to the faithful and the unfaithful alike (although he was one of the unseen architects of that opening to the world, ironically enough). That the Church pulled back into itself, focusing on conservative countermeasures to the relative openness of past decades since the Second Vatican Council, was perhaps characteristic of its leader. That this leader spent most of his time wearing the big hat in the throes of the morally-damaging, unresolvable worldwide Catholic priest sex abuse scandal, and who displayed an unwillingness to move the goalposts of justice on the manner very far at all, can be attributed similarly to his rule by inertia.

Indeed, there was something substantially contemporary about the papacy of Benedict XVI, a certain current character dancing above the immovable bedrock of millenia of clerical traditionalism and even the open derision for secular modernity that he often expressed. John Paul II, himself not much more liberal than his successor in many key push-button matters of public Catholic doctrine like ordination of women, same-sex marriage, homosexuality, or birth control, nonetheless projected through his status as the first multimedia Pope the dominant characteristics of the waning decades of the century that his papacy just outlasted. As a dissident figure of an oppressed people who resisted and was a vocal opponent of dictatorial tyranny and lived to bask in the glow of the collapse of such regimes and replacement by a species of globalized, liberalized capitalist prosperity, John Paul II’s papacy was a compressed narrative of the 20th Century. That his shimmering coda of mass adulation (mixed with the begrudging admiration of even his Church’s most vocal critics) was darkly-lined by the spreading sex abuse scandal dovetailed with the tonal mix of anxiety, instability, and inequality of power that has thus far swallowed the 21st Century.

Benedict’s papacy saw a distinct uptick of these darkening feelings, along with a renewed conservative emphasis. Where John Paul II turned his moral-rhetorical megaphone at actual dictators and their oppressive systems (to oft-inflated but undeniably existing effect), Benedict XVI turned his ire, like many a foppish “conservative intellectual”, at the inherently dubious “dictatorship of relativism”. It is never terribly convincing when the acolyte of an institution whose moral and temporal authority is slipping further and further away by the hour blames every ill of the past brace of centuries upon the subjective, self-interested refusal of people around the world to do what he and his fellow Catholic theologians say they should. If our young century has been very much defined by the stubborn firmness of those looking to preserve their prized imbalance of power, wealth, and influence, then the inability of Benedict to keep his institution from backsliding is a rare instance of that act of preservation failing.

And yet Benedict’s Church was defined not only by these anti-modern factors but also by a distinct increase in the corporatization of the Vatican, a consolidation of its activities, messages, and public image into a well-oiled transnational company that should have been expected under the influence of a longtime clerical bureaucrat. But his departing act, his wilful resignation from the Papacy and assumption of the peculiarly academic title of Pope Emeritus, is the most modern and business-world-ish element of his pontificate.

Like my hat? ‘Twas my cat. Evening wear: Vampire bat!

The last Pope to vacate the office while living was Gregory XII in 1415, who abdicated quite against his will so that the Antipope at Avignon could unite the Catholic Church and end the Western Schism (you did not need to know that, but I just really wanted an excuse to write the words “Antipope” and “schism”, as well as link to the contemporaneous but only tangentially related First Defenestration of Prague). No Pope has abdicated entirely willingly since the 13th Century, when Celestine V decided he’d really much rather live in a cave than in the Vatican, thank you very much. But then Benedict XVI did not abdicate, he resigned, like a businessman might.

Though I’m not sure there is as much sinister, hidden intent in this development in papal history as Andrew Sullivan thinks there is (Sully, like many with libertarian leanings, has a tendency to see nefarious institutional collusion almost everywhere), there is something odd and unrevealed about Benedict’s choice to become Ratzinger again. Stated health concerns aside (I have joked that he should have said he wanted to spend more time with his family, har har), perhaps the outgoing Pope preferred influencing the progression of the Church’s glacially-slow evolution from behind the curtain rather than from the dais of St. Peter’s as the Vicar of Christ himself. In a global culture so often dazzled by flashy celebrity (and the Pope, geriatric though the role may inherently be, is as flashy and prominent as religious celebrity gets), the gloved hand that manipulates the tiller is that much more easily overlooked. Ratzinger has seriously influenced the course of the Catholic Church, for good and for ill, for 50+ years. If today marked his retirement, it remains to be seen how retired he will be, even when a new Pope emerges from the Conclave.