I didn’t really care for the latest cinematic iteration of the Superman myth. Like way too many movies today, it was made for the generation that came of age with video games and MTV and their constant, irritatingly frenetic action. When the CGI whiz-bang stuff kicks in, I just check out, and “Man of Steel” is about three-quarters whiz-bang.
However, there is a theme in this film that is worthy of some reflection, namely the tension between individual autonomy and a state-controlled society. “Man of Steel” commences with a lengthy segment dealing with the closing days of the planet Krypton. We learn that a fiercely totalitarian regime, led by a General Zod, is seeking the arrest of a scientist called Jor-El. It becomes clear that Jor-El has attempted to undermine the regime’s policy of strictly controlling the genetics of Kryptonite newborns. Very much in the manner of Plato’s Republic, Kryptonite children are rigidly pre-programmed to be a member of one of three social groups. Jor-El and his wife have conceived a child in the traditional manner and are seeking to send their son, born in freedom, away from their dying planet. I won’t bore you with many more plot details, but suffice it to say that the child (the future Superman) does indeed get away to planet Earth and that General Zod manages to survive the destruction of his world. The movie then unfolds as the story of a great battle between the representative of freedom and the avatar of genetic manipulation and political tyranny.
I first met Fr. Andrew Greeley on a cold January day in Chicago in 1988. We were brought together by our mutual friend, Msgr. Bill Quinn, who had been a mentor to Greeley many years before and who had begun to play the same role in my life. Andy walked into the restaurant wearing a beautiful parka with a great hood and carrying loads of his books, which he offered to Bill and me as gifts. I was twenty-eight at the time, and I will confess to being a little star-struck. For the next couple of hours we talked and talked about all sorts of things: the church, of course, but also literature, poetry, sociology, theology, Chicago sports, and politics. As Fr. Greeley talked, his eyes darted back and forth and a little grin always threatened to spread across his face.
Being with him was intoxicating. About a week after this initial meeting, Greeley’s secretary called and invited me to join Andy and Fr. David Tracy, one of the leading Catholic theologians in the world then and now, for lunch at the Quadrangle Club at the University of Chicago. Needless to say, I dropped whatever else I had on my schedule. That summer, and every summer afterward for many years, Andy had and Bill Quinn and me to his home in Grand Beach, Michigan for a wonderful two days of swimming, barbequeing, and endless conversation. One of my enduring memories from those many visits is of Andy sitting in his reading chair, surrounded by mountains of books, articles, and magazines. He read everything and was a man of scintillating intelligence and tremendous range. He was also deeply encouraging to those he believed had promise, and I will remain eternally grateful for his support when I first started my writing career.
Some years ago, The New Yorker
ran a cartoon that perfectly lampooned the loopy ideology of “inclusion” that has come to characterize so much of the Christian world. It showed a neat and tidy church, filled with an attentive congregation. The pastor was at the podium, introducing a guest speaker. “In accordance with our policy of equal time,” he said, “I would like now to give our friend the opportunity to present an alternative point of view.” Sitting next to him, about to rise to speak, was the devil, dressed perfectly and tapping the pages of his prepared text on his knee.
I was put in mind of that cartoon when I read a sermon delivered recently by Katharine Jefferts Schori, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in America. Addressing a congregation in Curaçao, Venezuela, Bishop Jefferts Schori praised the beauty of (what else?) diversity, but lamented the fact that so many people are still frightened by what is other or different: “Human beings have a long history of discounting and devaluing difference, finding it offensive or even evil.” Now I suppose that if one were to make the right distinctions—differentiating between that which is simply unusual and that which is intrinsically bad—one might be able coherently to make this point.
The appearance of yet another film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby provides the occasion for reflecting on what many consider the great American novel. Those who are looking for a thorough review of the movie itself will have to look elsewhere, I’m afraid. I will say only this about the movie: I think that Baz Luhrmann’s version is better than the sleepy 1974 incarnation, and I would say that Leonardo DiCaprio makes a more convincing Gatsby than Robert Redford. But I want to focus, not so much on the techniques of the filmmaker, as on the genius of the writer who gave us the story.
F. Scott Fitzgerald belonged to that famously “lost” generation of artists and writers, which included Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Ford Madox Ford, and others. Having come of age during the First World War, these figures saw, in some cases at close quarters, the worst that human beings can do to one another, and they witnessed as well the complete ineffectuality of the political and religious institutions of the time to deal with the horrific crisis into which the world had stumbled. Consequently, they felt themselves adrift, without a clear moral compass; lost. Hemingway’s novels—and his own personal choices—showed one way to deal with this problem, namely, to place oneself purposely in dangerous situations so as to stir up a sense of being alive. This explains Hemingway’s interests in deep-sea fishing, big game hunting, battling Nazis, and above all, bull-fighting. Scott Fitzgerald explored another way that people coped with the spiritual emptiness of his time, and his deftest act of reportage was The Great Gatsby.
One of the most significant fault lines in Western culture opened up in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when what we now know as the “modern” world separated itself from the classical and medieval world. The thinking of Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, Newton, Jefferson, and many others represented a sea change in the way Western people looked at practically everything. In almost every telling of the story, this development is presented as an unmitigated good. I rather emphatically do not subscribe to this interpretation. It would be foolish indeed not to see that tremendous advances, especially in the arenas of science and politics, took place because of the modern turn, but it would be even more foolish to hold that modernity did not represent, in many other ways, a severe declension from what came before. This decline is particularly apparent in the areas of the arts and ethics, and I believe that there is an important similarity in the manner in which those two disciplines went bad in the modern period.