Returning to the fold

I was raised under the ominous sway of the Catholic Church, and, like so many of my brethren, I have spent a large portion of my adult life trying to negate, mitigate, or at least puzzle out the results of that well-intentioned upbringing. My reasons for leaving the faith were myriad, a noted lack of role models being one. In addition to shouldering its adherents with a grown-up helping of guilt, my early dissatisfaction with the religion also owed heavily to the fact that Catholicism was just fundamentally uncool.

While my religious-minded peers were skateboarding and attending Christian rock shows on the other side of town, my introduction to the world of religion took place in a stentorian cathedral. The building seemed to take its architectural cues from some of Europe’s more impressive tombs. There were uncomfortable pews, vaulted naves (decorated with economical plaster), and an endless supply of strange smelling incenses, brought forth with the solemnity of relics.

When I was thirteen, an elderly woman actually died during Sunday service. The meager congregation rose to take its exit and this white-haired woman remained seated, waiting to be discovered after the noontime mass. The priest assumed she had just stayed behind to pray.

Add to that phantasmagoria a growing dissatisfaction with the apparent hypocrisy of the Christian world and I was more than ready to bid a permanent farewell to the fold. That was pretty much the story for a number of years, until just the last year, in which I’ve sort of had to reevaluate my stance on the faith of my potato-eating Irish ancestors. This new period of spiritual reassessment has come at the hand of several authors with whom I have an abiding obsession, all of whom are Catholic.

Flannery O’Connor, Muriel Spark, and David Milch have all been among my favorites over the past years, and they all share the combined trait of adhering to bizarre personal brands of the Catholic faith.

None of these writers are what you’d call regular churchgoers, but they all identify as Catholic and they are all very very very good at what they do; intelligent to the point where the things they say warrant close consideration, if for no other reason than to souse out the method in their madness.

It would be presumptuous of me to say I know exactly how these writers’ faith relates to their work, but in the interest of a quick primer:

Flanner O'ConnorFlannery O’Connor: The famed American short fiction writer was a devout Catholic from the beginning but espoused a curious specie of theology by which salvation was possible only through direct violence. Famous for offering cryptic remarks such as, “The best situation a Christian can be in is facing death,” O’Connor’s was a Catholicism of redemption through mortal terror.

Anyone who has read “A Good Man is Hard to Find” should be able to connect the dots as to how the “violence” end of things comes into play. According to O’Connor’s cosmology, the only way for humans to attain grace is through a violent reckoning that exposes their earthly failings. The protagonists of O’Connor’s Southern Gothic parables are often morally hideous, and the cataclysmic third acts of her stories inevitably show theses characters running up hard against their own hypocrisies. Without its connective theology O’Connor’s fiction would look like a Nietzschian hall of horrors, but the fact that her stories are being driven by such strange underpinnings makes things much more compelling.

By her own reckoning: “The assumptions that underlie [my stories] are those of the central Christian mysteries…About this I can only say that perhaps there are other ways than my own in which this story could be read, but none other by which it could have been written.”

Essential reading: “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, “Everything That Rises Must Converge”, Mystery and Manners

Muriel SparkMuriel Spark: British novelist Muriel Spark led a fascinating life that was marked foremost by her heroic force of will. Spurred by boredom and reckless inclination, she married at an early age to a colonial administrator, shortly after which she was shuttled off to Africa to be impregnated, beaten, and generally treated like dirt by her newfound husband. Having married in the first place with the goal of escaping her drab, English life, Spark was less than keen to stay in the company of her abusive spouse. She miraculously, managed to secure passage from Africa back to London—no mean feat during the height of World War II.

Once back in London Spark began writing, her prolific output eventually earning her critical acclaim and an international publishing sensation in The Prime of Ms. Jean Brody.

Spark, like O’Connor, subscribed to an odd personal brand of Catholicism. She was loathe to actually enter a church, but nonetheless maintained the Catholic faith as her intellectual center throughout all of her works. Again showing echoes of O’Connor, Spark’s novels tend to be dark and contain an active strain of mysticism. She is unafraid to venture into the surreal and this confident dalliance in the bizarre is part of what has made Spark’s prose such an active subject for criticism.

Essential reading: The Prime of Miss Jean Brody, Loitering With Intent, Symposium

David MilchDavid Milch: Though his medium differs from the above writers, David Milch is, I would argue, equally brilliant.

Originally a student of Robert Penn Warren’s while at Yale, Milch was developing himself into a healthy contributor to the American literary scene when he unexpectedly jumped career tracks and moved to Los Angeles to work as a television writer. Given Milch’s history, such a sudden change of plans was not without precedent, even if it was still a shock to his peers.

Milch had originally entered Yale’s law school before undertaking his career in literature. He was expelled from that same law school for attacking a squad care with a shotgun while on campus, and battled addictions to both heroine and alcohol before committing himself (violently) to studying fiction and writing poetry.

He graduated from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and within three years had called in a favor from a college roommate to secure himself a writing job on Hill Street Blues.

From there he went on to create N.Y.P.D. Blue and, eventually, Deadwood (and John From Cincinnati, but we’ll leave that one on the table for the moment).

Deadwood is the most extreme example of Milch’s personal Christianity. Being an unhealthy Deadwood obsessive, I learned while watching the DVD’s special features that the entire show (with its near-constant focus on murder, rape, and rampant greed) is actually an extended parable of how humans come to live together in communities. The unifying factor behind all of this is, in Milch’s particular metaphysics, God. In the series itself religion is portrayed mostly through the insane ramblings of an epileptic priest, and according to the series’ creator, it is those ramblings that comprise the philosophical basis of the show.

Essential viewing: Deadwood, N.Y.P.D. Blue, the final season of Hill Street Blues

Slavoj ZizekSlavoj Zizek: This Slovenian philosopher is only getting partial credit on this list, but I’ll still include him just because his ideas are consistently fascinating.

A devoted Marxist, Zizek has a tendency to change his other intellectual leanings on a daily basis. At present I believe he’s calling himself a neo-Paulian, having apparently decided that the teachings of St. Paul lead eventually to atheism, and preaching that the terminal point of Christianity lies in a Marxist utopia.

Zizek has a book coming out on the subject this November, which should be an interesting addition to his already titanic body of work, a collection that boasts over fifty books, one hundred fifty articles, and ten feature length films

Essential reading: Violence, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, In Defense of Lost Causes


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  1. Pingback: Books for Los Angeles « Excursus

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