Dunkirk: A Review

•July 25, 2017 • Leave a Comment


The last time I wrote about Christopher Nolan, I praised the denouement of his Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises.  In the intervening years, he has gone on to produce what many call his magnum opus, Interstellar.  But he has now ventured onto my turf in the area of history, with the newly released Dunkirk.  Having just seen it this past weekend, I thought I would give my two cents on the film.

The history that the film dramatizes is simple enough to understand:  following their invasion of Poland in 1940, Britain and France declared war on the Germans.  The British sent a large army–some 400,000 troops–to help defend the French against the Nazi attack.  But the Germans did an end run around France’s western defenses, invading through Belgium and the Netherlands instead, and wound up trapping French and British troops as they retreated to the coast at the city of Dunkirk in the Netherlands.  The Germans surrounded the Allied armies, but, for reasons that are still debated, decided to halt outside Dunkirk, and let the Luftwaffe take out the more than 400,000 troops stranded on the beach.  This gave the Allies time to organize defenses and began evacuating troops.  In the end, more than 330,000 British and French troops were evacuated with the help of civilian boats ferrying soldiers to destroyers from the beach.  (Many of the French troops were either killed or captured, however.)

Nolan’s film sets up a tripartite narrative:  it begins with a young soldier in Dunkirk looking for a place to pee, and follows him throughout the film, trying to get to a ship and out of harm’s way.  It also follows a civilian with a boat which is requisitioned to go to Dunkirk and pick up soldiers, as well as a fighter pilot engaged in combat.  Each of these strands is fitted to a different timeline:  the young soldier’s story takes place over one week (the operation itself lasted from May 26-June 4 1940), the boat over one day (the last day in which soldiers got out), and for the pilot, one hour, all converging on the final point when the survivors arrive back in Britain.

Some have complained that this device made it hard to keep track of the story, as the film moves back and forth between these three timelines, but I did not find it hard to follow. Each narrative thread had a protagonist with an identifiable goal they were trying to achieve: the young soldier’s goal was to get off the beach and back home; the goal of the boat owner was to rescue as many men as his boat could carry; and the fighter pilot’s goal was to shoot down as many enemy planes as he could before his fuel ran out.  This device was probably necessary, since everyone knows (or should know) how the events themselves turned out.  Nolan, with help from Hans Zimmer’s score, used these individual narratives to create dramatic tension which would otherwise not have been possible.  (As an aside, I highly recommend seeing the film in an IMAX theater, as I did.   Normally I would not do so, but I felt this enhanced the experience of watching the film in this case.)

The film is in some ways classic Nolan:  amazing visual scenes (especially of capsizing ships and aerial combat), a gift for building tension via dramatic set pieces, and a focus on the psychological aspects of character (well, one at least: a shell shocked soldier played by the wonderful Cillian Murphy).  As in most of his other films, his characters are not necessarily the most easy to connect with; the young soldier, played by Harry Styles, barely has any lines at all, as does Tom Hardy’s fighter pilot, and other than for the boat owner played by Mark Rylance, we are never really given much of an insight into why each character is trying to achieve their goals.  And yet in another sense, the movie is unlike Nolan’s other movies:  I am thinking of The PrestigeInception, and The Dark Knight, in particular.  There is no attempt at philosophizing, no pretentious speeches, and the very laconic nature of the characters in Dunkirk, as well as their relative lack of development, embody the spirit that is encapsulated by those iconic British posters from that era: “Keep Calm, and Carry On.”  This works well, as the film’s protagonists are really stand-ins for the British people as a whole, and their determination to fight.  The film is primarily about that, and not overcoming the Nazis (indeed, the Nazis are never mentioned in the film, and I believe the word German is spoken only once).  Fittingly, it ends with the young soldier reciting from Churchill’s speech to the House of Commons on June 4 (the “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech).

Now, it is true that one can fetishize the WWII generations too much; I’ve never cared greatly for the whole idea of “The Greatest Generation” in American history, and indeed I find the whole idea of separating people by generations artificial and unnecessarily divisive.  But it is unwise to deny that the ideal that the episode in Dunkirk inspires–the idea of the stoic Britons doing their duty with a stiff upper lip, and getting on with their job in spite of danger, death, etc.–is a real and powerful one.  It is probable that Nolan imbibed some of this from his parents; if so, his film does great credit to such an ideal. Some reviewers have complained about the story’s focus on the British, to the exclusion of the French, or its lack of minority characters (there are some black African French troops show at the beginning, for what it’s worth) but I don’t think most people will take these criticisms seriously.  Nor should they.  The film is not Nolan’s best, but is a fine one, and does justice to the people that were involved in Operation Dynamo and those to whom it symbolized what was best about their country.


Historical vs. Historically Revealed Religion

•July 14, 2017 • Leave a Comment
Bonifatius_Donareiche - edit

St. Boniface Chopping Down Thor’s Oak, by Bernhard Rode (1781)

I have been thinking a great deal about what it means to believe in eternity, but exist in time.  (No, I don’t have a girlfriend.) I am especially thinking of the ongoing controversy over whether or not communion should be offered to divorced and remarried couples within the Catholic Church.  And this leads me to this blog, which is about a distinction between different types of religion (in a sociological sense; theologically, I am a convinced Catholic).  And that distinction is between what I call “historical” and “historically revealed” religion.

Historically revealed religions are ones that claim to have received, in time, a definitive revelation from an eternal, unchanging God.  This means the three monotheistic religions, in other words. And by definitive, I mean that such revelation is both historically specific (the Law was only given to the Jews; Jesus was the only Son of God; the Qur’an, the final revelation of Allah, was only revealed in Arabic), and that it does not and cannot be fundamentally altered.  Hence, the supremacy of the Torah in Judaism, Jesus as the “Alpha and Omega” in Christianity, and Muhammad as the “seal of the Prophets” in Islam.

What I am calling a “historical” religion is something different.  Religion prior to Christianity was customary; it was not a matter of precisely defined dogmas.  But it was nonetheless thought to embody unchanging beliefs handed down from the golden age, even if modern history believes it to have altered over time. But its adherents did not believe this. They merely thought customs reshuffled the deck, so to speak, of a perennial wisdom.  By contrast, “historical” religion is how modern scholars, and modern people generally, view belief in and worship of the divine:  something that changes over time, but is never definitive.  This modern conception is like ancient Greco-Roman religion in not being “definitive” in the sense of being precisely defined as the monotheistic religions are, but like them in being historical in nature.

This belief in what I am calling “historical religion” has been influenced by historical theories that emphasized linear development (such as those of Condorcet, Hegel, Marx) but also evolutionary theory after Darwin.  In fact, one could say that modern religious scholarship has been dedicated to proving that claims to definitive revelation are false and their ideas are merely historical, since its inception.  This was the purpose, as I see it, of the great philological tradition that emerged in Germany in the 19th century.

I believe it is this conception which ultimately lies behind the move to open communion to divorced and remarried couples, at least as articulated by Cardinal Kasper.  If the Christian doctrine which emerged from antiquity was not a definitive revelation, but merely a historically conditioned development from Judaism mixed up with Greek philosophy, then its injunctions against divorce, homosexual behavior, and much else, can be abandoned in favor a new “development,” ostensibly guided by the Holy Spirit. (For the influence of this line of thinking on Cardinal Kasper, see this very long and dense essay on his thought.)

In saying all this, one of things that should be clear is that when I say a divinely revealed religion is “definitive” I mean something akin to John Henry Newman’s marks of development, in particular the principle of non-contradiction and the preservation of type.  Divinely revealed religions can and do change, but for those changes to be legitimate they must A) not contradict the original revelation and B) preserve the original “type,” meaning those genuine developments must logically correspond with that revelation, even if they admit of considerable variation.

What this means in practice, since it is an eternal, unchanging Deity that elects, as it were, some aspect of historical, human existence to be the vehicle of what is revealed, that certain cultural elements have to be considered permanent.  Hence, the Law came from the Jews, and much of Christian theology is inextricably bound up with the Greek language of metaphysics.  This creates problems, since many people find it hard to relate to something that is both culturally alien and vastly removed in time from their present experience.  Hence the calls for the “de-Hellenization” of Christianity by (mostly) liberal Protestants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The problem of course, is that once you do this, you fundamentally alter the nature of the religion in question.  Once admit something that contradicts the primary “deposit of the faith” and you no longer have an historically revealed religion, but a merely historical one–one which changes with the times, but does not really develop in accordance with the larger principle of the original revelation.

This difference between these types of religion is profound.  On the one hand, you have a religion which is binding, and make binding commitments, upon its believers.  On the other, you have a religion in which every doctrine, every practice, is not only mutable, but for which it is possible (and likely probable) that it will at some point lapse into changes of belief and/or practice which are contradictory and incoherent.  Thus, what has been taken to be one of the marks of divine revelation (its unchanging nature) would be lost.

Most people arguing for a change in the Church’s teaching on communion for divorced and remarried Catholics say that they are not changing the doctrine but merely the practice.  Or else they simply contend that there is no fundamental difference between the absolute prohibition the Church has for centuries proclaimed and a general prohibition that admits of exceptions.  But either way, it amounts to the same thing: whether its doctrine or practice, it undermines the definitive nature of revelation. Naturally, those who are advocating for this change don’t propose to apply the same standards to the Church’s teaching about care of the poor, for example.  But a selective, surgical skepticism is difficult to maintain when it comes to things like sacred Tradition. (This article, concerning Vatican II, is helpful in explaining why.) Use the argument once, it becomes impossible to restrict such is its force and limit it to one’s original designs. This seems to me to why the stakes are so high in this debate: the very nature of the Christian faith is at stake, and whether or not anything can truly held to be revealed by God for us or not.

The Damnatio Memoriae of Progressivism

•June 13, 2017 • Leave a Comment

            In the ancient world, when one political regime placed another, the new rulers often attempted to blot out the memory of the former by having their names and images removed from official buildings, monuments and documents.  The Roman Emperors of the late fourth and fifth century did this, for example, when Christianity became its official religion, and it wanted to blot out the name of a former official who was pagan. Charles Hedrick detailed this episode in History and Silence, a wonderful work of history which sought to approach the paradox of this erasure of memory, which modern scholars have dubbed the damnatio memoriae, since the very erasure itself calls attention to what has been erased.

I thought about this recently because of the proposed removal of monuments to figures who are considered politically controversial has become a hot topic as of late, in particular the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in New Orleans.  I have relatives in the New Orleans area, and have visited the city many times.  It is a place I very much love.  And yet I confess I had forgotten that there was a statue of Robert E. Lee in New Orleans, until news of New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s intention to remove it came to my attention.  I have always enjoyed visiting the Confederate War Museum in New Orleans, and I have some admiration for “Southern” culture, including some sympathy for the Southern position on states’ rights.  But chattel slavery was such an obvious evil that I have never susceptible to the dubious allure of “The Lost Cause” or similar temptations.  My relatives from the New Orleans area, who are the descendants of slave owners, feel much the same way.  For myself, I do not have any great feeling one way or the other about the removal of such a monument.

Having said this, the reasons for removing such monuments seems highly problematic to me.  The attempt to blot out the memory of slavery and racism is motivated, no doubt, by a desire to proclaim that history has moved on and triumphed over this evil, by denying it any hint of public sanction.  Less noble motivations are doubtless involved; removing such monuments is an easy way for politicians and activists to burnish their progressive bona fides without having to make any real sacrifices of any kind.  Whether Lee’s statue remains or no, blacks in the Desire projects and other dangerous areas of the city will continue to suffer the effects of violent crime, and such problems have proved intractable for many urban areas across the country. It is far easier to remove symbols that may be offensive than to try and deal with problems such as these.

But more objectionable than this is what this sort of view of history seems to dominate the minds of progressives.  David Blight has noted that during the late nineteenth century, communities South and North, abetted by racist historians, sought to obliterate the memory of slaves and freed blacks in the role of reconstructing the nation after the horrors of civil war.  This meant s from monuments, celebrations of the Civil War and other occasions of communal memory.  To erase that memory for him was to erase the humanity of those blacks who had suffered so much and yet contributed much to the rebuilding of the nation.  Is it necessary, then, for justice to be served, to obliterate the memory of the slaveholders in return?  Robert E. Lee is a difficult case, because he was so unique:  Lee really was a “great man,” a term I put into quotation marks for a reason, since it is a term both overused and abused.  But he also owned slaves—how can one celebrate his memory since he perpetuated such an evil? Doesn’t that mean celebrating slavery as well?

The fact of the matter is that the actions of the mayor and of the despicable campus activists who agitate for the removal of all sorts of things from public life which they deem offensive are much more about the present than the past.  They are about asserting power over those in the present who identify with Robert E. Lee or Columbus or whomever, as part of their heritage.  (Since the election of Donald Trump, I imagine such erasure of public monuments also confirm them in their conviction that they are on the right side of history.) I doubt most of them care little, if anything at all, for the past.  They use it as a prop for their future oriented morality play, in which anything deemed insufficiently progressive must be re-written or wholly blotted out.  If they really cared about the history of slavery, and the historical complexity they so often trot out to justify things like the crimes of various Communist regimes from around the world, they would find a use for a monument to Robert E. Lee.  Instead of removing it, they could put up next to it a statue of Toussaint L’Overture, the great liberator of Haiti. If Lee is a great man, then L’Overture was an even greater one:  he defeated the armies of the French Revolution and Napoleon alike, and set up a republic in what was if memory serves the only successful slave revolt in all human history.  Renowned for his integrity and charity toward former white slave owners, he was only defeated by Napoleon’s treachery.

Now, L’Overture was not an American citizen, it is true, but the creole culture in which he lived has much in common with the culture of southern Louisiana, and so I think a monument to him would not be out of order.  But mostly, the comparison between the two men would help teach the lesson that history is complicated, and does not deal neatly in partisan themes.  This is because L’Overture was a also slave owner like Lee. The comparison between the two could lead, I would think, to more healthy reflections on the nature of slavery and race relations than simply removing statues to satisfy partisan political appetites.  But then that would presume that the real purpose of those who wish to erase the monuments of Lee, Columbus, and others, are really about gaining knowledge of the past, instead of trying to censor it.

A Short Diatribe Against Catholic “Time Travel”

•June 13, 2017 • Leave a Comment

The Time Machine (1960):  the past is a foreign country.  They evangelize better there!

I recently heard a talk by a priest of Opus Dei, the organization founded by St. Jose Maria Escriva, and whose members sometimes get a undue amount of criticism for their modus operandi, at least in my opinion.  The priest, whom I shall not name, was in my town to speak to the local young adult community.  The talk was at a local shrine devoted to the Divine Mercy, and was billed as a holy hour of adoration. In fact, the talk consumed most of the hour.  In it, the priest talked at length about the “New Evangelization,” and the need for Catholics to evangelize.  He recounted his experience as a chaplain at a Newman Center (a campus center for Catholics at a very prestigious university), as well as his experience of World Youth Day in 1993 in Denver, when St. John Paul II visited the U.S.  He framed his talk by stressing the need for the Church to “turn back the clock”–not to the 1940s and 50s, but to the early Church, to the Apostolic era.  He also emphasized the primacy of the laity, saying that in the early Church this was how it was mostly spread.  He seemed to argue that the Council of Trent had erased the laity from the Church, and seemed to suggest that Vatican II had released the laity this Tridentine bondage.  It is the role of the laity, especially young people, he said, to carry out the task of the “New Evangelization,” because our society has become a modernized version of the pagan, Roman empire.

I want to be charitable, and not judge too harshly, but I disagree quite strongly with virtually everything I heard in this speech.  Never mind the fact that his tedious, repetitive sermon deprived us of any significant amount of time in silence before the Blessed Sacrament; it contained numerous clichés and emphases concerning the Church which have been prominent since the Second Vatican Council which I find insupportable.   The dubious if not outright false comparison between modern America and the ancient Roman empire; the suggestion that it was the Church’s corruption that incited the Reformation; the evocation of the clergy/laity divide, which I find pointless; the denigration of the Church’s recent past (i.e., from Trent up to the 20th century) in order to flatter the people presently in the pews; and the overuse of the slogan “New Evangelization,” all grated on my sensibilities as I listened.  I was quite glad when he had finished.

There are too many things here for me to criticize, but I only want to point out the problem with one very big assumption in father’s speech.  The idea that one can just leap back in time and become like the Apostles is an essentially Protestant one.  (A similar idea is present in the theology of the Church of Latter Day Saints, from what I understand.) The idea the Church has become so corrupt it must forsake the intervening centuries and go back to the beginning, is beguiling in its seeming reverence for the past, but is in fact a repudiation of it.  This is because it ignores the mediated aspect of time for us:  we cannot have direct access to the past, but must accept the mediation of the (always inadequate) remains of that past, of the evidence which abides.  Which is another way of saying:  you can only have a connection to the deep past by staying connected to the recent past.  Any sort of violent break with it will eradicate this linkage.

In fact this urge for “Catholic time travel ” is not so much about the past as the present. The idea is that the Church is so corrupt that we have to start over from “Year 0,” as it were, to put things right.  Never mind that such “time travel” is impossible, but it would not be a good thing if it were. Our historical situation is different and presents unique challenges even the Apostles did not have to face.  Wishing to reenact what they did is a comforting idea, I suppose, because it means our problems have known solutions, that they are already “out there” somewhere.  In fact, history is full both of continuity and discontinuity; there are some things we share in common with late Antiquity, but too many significant differences exist for it to be a complete model for our times.  Of course, the Holy Spirit is with us, as it was with them, if we remain faithful to Christ.  I do not mean to suggest otherwise.  Nor do I mean to say that the Apostles and the Fathers of the Church are not the foundation of our faith, in human terms.  But we derive our connection to them the same way we derive our connection to Christ: through the human mediation of others.  This is why we cannot act as if 2000 years of Church history, of doctrinal and cultural development have not taken place, and simply act as the Apostles did.

This is why we cannot and must not try to “turn the clock back.”  The  Apostles are present with us, just as Christ is, at every mass; they worship along with us, as do the angels in heaven.  They have never left us; we do not need to go time traveling to find them.  But their eternal presence must be mediated to us by the Church in time, as it is now, warts and all.  Acting as if the Church had fallen into fundamental error prior to the Reformation or at Trent, and only rediscovered its true vocation at Vatican II, is tantamount to saying it is not really the Church, that it is somehow been “lost” or become invisible.  This was the argument of Luther, at least in Bondage of the Will, that the Church had become so corrupt it was now limited to a band of invisible believers known only by God.  The twist here is the idea that we can somehow make it visible again, make it attractive again,  by our efforts at evangelization.  I suspect part of the reasoning here is something like this:  the Church was a visible presence because of its fervor, its enthusiasm, in its early form.  Therefore, we must go back to recapture that same passion for today.

There is probably another subliminal but dubious assumption here as well, namely that increasing signs of “passion” are going to convert the “neo-pagans” in our midst.  Hence the emphasis in the modern Church on youth–World Youth Days, Life Teen, Koinonia Retreats, and so on.  To this way of thinking, the Church’s life is like the natural life of a human person: in the beginning we are passionate, and then slowly it burns out. Thus we need to rekindle it by going back to the beginning.  Now, I would not denigrate the role of the passions in a person’s life, nor would I like to say that big emotional gatherings can’t or don’t play a role in reigniting some people’s faith in the modern world. They can be a beginning for some.  But half a century on from Vatican II, I think it’s safe to say that this approach, as a general cure all for the Church’s declining observance, attendance and membership in America and Western Europe, has failed miserably.  It was all the more surprising to hear a priest of Opus Dei wax nostalgic for World Youth Day, as St. Josemaria made a point of emphasizing the faith in the daily, humdrum activities of our lives, and not merely in large, gratuitous displays of emotion.

Those in the Church need to recognize that there will always be challenges that are unprecedented for us; we are going through some right now.  We can always trust God’s providence, but we will not always (and perhaps rarely ever do) have a precise understanding of how it will manifest his will for us.  This can be disconcerting, but it is no reason to disparage the Church’s recent past in order to exalt its distant past, much less to pretend we can or even need to evangelize exactly as the Apostles did.  Only by embracing the whole history of the Church and taking our own place within it can we redeem the present by evangelizing as we should, in the light of the eternal love to which that history points us.

Pope Francis, Bullshit Artist

•May 27, 2017 • Leave a Comment


It is difficult to recall now what my life was like before I was baptized into the Catholic Church as an adult, fourteen years ago, but some things never quite vanish from the memory.  Life is always filled with confusion, but I was in graduate school at the time, being exposed the vagaries of postmodern thought was a of rite of passage for graduate students in humanistic disciplines.  (I was studying history.)  I had entered university with no faith in a benevolent, transcendent God, and my graduate study did little to quell my sense of cosmic ennui:  that the whole word was basically chaos, randomness.  I was like the ancient tourist who visited the Pyramids in Egypt, and upon encountering Egyptian hieroglyphs scrawled graffiti on one of them that declared, “I, Dioskorammon, looked upon this nonsense and found it bewildering!” If you had asked me at that point in my life what my personal philosophy was, I would have said “Nietszchean” or something like that, though I doubt I knew what that meant at the time.  Knowledge was not certain, could not be; as Nietzsche put it, “truth” was little more than an “army of mobile metaphors” marshalled for one purpose or another, none being more “true” than the rest. It was all nonsense, all the way down.

I did not know it then, but I was suffering from anxiety and depression, something that I realize now began when I was a teenager.  It is only in recent years that I have begun to receive treatment for them, and only now do I see clearly the connection between my emotional disorders and the agonizing unbelief I experienced during my early adulthood, before I underwent my conversion.  My turning to Christ in the Catholic Church had much to do with the belief that the teaching of the Catholic Church was consistent, and clear, capable of being understood by an ordinary person over oceans of time, going back to the ancient world.  I believed, and still believe, it is the Church that Jesus Christ founded, and the primary vehicle by which God offers his salvation to mankind. The sense of permanence the Church conveys is, as you can imagine, a great consolation for someone suffers from these sorts of afflictions.

If you have read this far, you are probably wondering about the title of my essay, and how this personal history relates to the current Bishop of Rome.  My focus as an historian was on the history of the press, and so I am interested in communication, how ideas get expressed, and received.  Moreover, I have been a teacher now for many years, and as a matter of habit I think about these things obsessively. This essay is about Pope Francis’ communication style, and what it portends for his portrayal of the Catholic faith to the world—with the help of a modern philosopher, whose premise does indeed have to do with “bullshit.”



Readers may be familiar with the work of the late Harry Frankfurt, a philosophy professor at Princeton, whose essay “On Bullshit” he turned into a small book in 1986.  The term, though a vulgar one, was the one he chose to denote that category of statements that were not true but also not outright lies.  For Frankfurt, the essence of bullshit, as opposed to lies, is that the former is concerned with truth:  to lie, someone must believe there is a truth that he/she wishes to conceal.  But in the case of bullshit, that is not the point:  whereas the liar wants to conceal the essential reality behind his lie, but the bullshitter doesn’t care if what he saying matches up to objective reality.  That is not the purpose of his utterance. Nor need bullshit necessarily be false, as the lie must be, precisely because of its lack of concern for truth.  “The essence of bullshit,” writes Frankfurt, “is not that it is false, but that it is phony.”  The bullshitter is a fake, whose main purpose is to hide, not the truth, but his intentions:  the bullshitter wants to conceal his lack of concern for the truth, his unwillingness to submit to the constraints of reality to which both the truth teller and the liar in their own way must submit.   Frankfurt compares bullshit to humbug, a related term, and finds it is similar in that though it comes short of lying, it is a form of misrepresentation.  But it cannot be a misrepresentation of truth, or knowledge. Frankfurt gives the example of politician whose Fourth of July speech prattles on at length about the Founders, the greatness of the country, its divine destiny, and so on.  The speaker, Frankfurt says, cares little about the accuracy of what he is saying.  “He is not trying to deceive anyone concerning American history,” writes Frankfurt.  “What he cares about is what people think of him.  He wants them to think of him as patriot, as someone who has deep thoughts and feelings about the origins and mission of our country.”  Bullshit, then, differs from lies in that it is not about truth, or knowledge, but about the subjective state of the speaker and his intended audience.  Bullshit is not necessarily deceptive, though it can be, but even that is almost irrelevant: what matters is the effect (or affect?) it has on the audience.  The speaker might be quite sincere in his depiction of his subjective state, and still be bullshitting you.  Indeed, Frankfurt identifies “sincerity” as the correlative of an anti-realism which presumes that we cannot know what things truly are in themselves, about objective reality.  And hence, we cannot judge people on the accuracy or coherence of their ideas or beliefs, but only on the sincerity or lack thereof in their self-representations.

The kind of person who excels at this sort of thing does not care about the objectivity, the truth or falsity of the things he or she says, but about whether his statements gain him the approval of his audience.  This kind of person, though he or she is not exactly master craftsman, does possess a certain amount of discipline to pull off their bullshitting.  This is captured by the colloquial phrase “bullshit artist,” which implies not a systematic line of thought but rather the practiced improvisation of an actor or stand-up comedian.  No one cares if an actor or comedian believes what he or she says either, as long as their performance is convincing.  And this what leads me to Pope Francis.



It is no secret that Francis likes to talk, and that many of things he says publicly are, to say the least, confused and often contradictory.  This obviously has not affected his popularity.  When they elected Francis, some Cardinals were reportedly concerned about what some have called the “Catholic Brand.”  What the Church needed was not another academic or theologian, but someone with a “pastoral” touch who could burnish its image and make the Church “marketable” again.  And at least personally, this has worked: if one believes the polls, Francis is quite popular, both within and without the Church. (The Church itself? Not so much.)

The Pope’s garrulousness recalls Frankfurt’s discussion of a “bull session.”  A bull session is an informal gathering in which the participants are encouraged to say whatever is on their minds about sensitive subjects, with the understanding that nothing that is said in it should be taken too seriously.  The purpose of the bull session is to clear the air on sensitive topics, and not to communicate specific beliefs or ideas.  At the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis said that he wanted to encourage “parrhesia” in the Church—openness of speech.  His Holiness has not been shy about exercising “openness” in his manner of speaking, and it is in this that I think lies the key to understanding the way he communicates.

Linguists use the term “phatic” communication to refer to expressions people use when they “make a connection” with someone, but don’t communicate anything in particular.  For example, if I run into a friend I’ve not seen for some time, I might say to him, “hey, what’s up?”  And he’ll respond, “nothing much.  How about you?”  This is phatic communication; we exchange no real information, and I don’t expect him to tell me anything new.  It is just a way of “reconnecting” after not having seen someone for a while.  This is one way of interpreting Pope Francis’ otherwise puzzling statements: they are not meant to convey knowledge of the faith, but only to reconnect with those who have been estranged from it.  This seems to me the best way to understand Pope Francis’ often confusing attempts to communicate the Catholic faith to the wider world.



Except: can this communication style also be—I beg your pardon, dear reader—“bullshit,” in Frankfurt’s sense of the term?  I do not think the two are mutually exclusive.  He could be “phatically” attempting to communicate in different ways with different audiences, and yet still saying things without much care for their truth.  This is certainly what his more acerbic critics would accuse him of.  It’s worth noting he has another mode of communication he uses quite often; we could call it his “declamatory” or “prophetic” style.  He frequently denounces “Pharisees,” the “rigid,” the “doctors of the law,” the wealthy, and this plays a prominent part of his communication style.  It would be hard to argue that he doesn’t care about the content of what he is saying in that mode.  He does think those who emphasize “rules” at the expense of mercy are hindering the spread of the gospel.

But Pope Francis is vague most of the time about what “rules” he is referring to, or who those “Pharisees” are, and one could make the case that his inflammatory statements should not be taken literally.  He recently compared the detention camps for immigrants in European countries to Nazi concentration camps, and insisted when asked that they were erected for the same purposes.  This analogy is so obviously false that one hopes he was merely mistaken, and not malicious in making it.  But there is another explanation:  Julian Sanchez dubbed public statements made by partisans about former President Obama’s birth status as “symbolic beliefs.”  He meant by this that the people who said things like “Obama is a Muslim” didn’t care about the truth of the statement, but only the feeling it expressed—in that case, the feeling that Obama was not authentically American.  (In the blog post in which he coined this phrase, he cited Frankfurt.) Similarly, one could argue when the Pope denounces “Pharisees” and the like only means to convey his feeling that such people are not authentic Christians.

One other aspect of his “prophetic” mode is his emphasis on spontaneity.  Francis appears to believe that speaking in an unplanned, non-deliberative manner is more open to the Holy Spirit than planning what you say ahead of time.  This is a questionable idea; Jesus says something very like this to his disciples in the Gospels, but He was talking about a specific situation (being brought before kings and all that) where Francis appears to think this is the way you should communicate everything.  Francis contrasts this with more traditional ways of understanding the faith, and has stated that the Holy Spirit cannot be confined to past forms; to deny this in his mind seems to deny the power of God to influence the world now.  Hence the Pope’s attempts, sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle, to present himself to the world as a prophet, delivering direct God’s message of mercy to the people, while also “speaking truth to power.”  To give one recent example of this, during the ceremonies marking the one hundredth anniversary of the visions at Fatima, Francis declared he came as “a pilgrim of the Hope that the Spirit awakens…as a prophet and messenger to wash the feet of all.”  Whatever his actual intentions, Francis often gives the impression he is in direct contact with God via the Holy Spirit, rather than merely protected from error by it.

Francis’ conception of communication is almost entirely personal, as one would expect from a speaker who considers his speech to be “prophetic”:  what matters is not the specific details of what a person is saying, but rather their sincerity, their authenticity, their “spirit”—whether they are open, warm, smiling, rather than closed, cold, rigid.  This would explain why Jorge Bergoglio as a cardinal could make statements affirming John Paul II’s teaching on divorced and remarried Catholics not being admitted to communion in Familiaris Consortio in 2005 in the most absolute terms, but as Pope make statements that confirm the opposite, even while allowing the traditional ban on communion to remain where bishops call for it.  This is also consonant with Francis’ rhetorical emphasis upon mercy: mercy is preeminently a personal act, whereas justice is supposed to be blind, impersonal.  Mercy is an elective virtue, dispensed as the giver of mercy pleases, as opposed to objective standards.  This personal style is evident in one other aspect of Francis’ rhetorical strategy: silence.  When it comes to making objective, definitive statements about doctrine, he is almost wholly silent, as in his refusal to answer the dubia the four cardinals put to him last year. Making definitive statements would, of course, restrict his freedom to say whatever occurs to him in the moment.



That, at least, is the most charitable rendering I can muster to describe the way Francis communicates.  One could certainly construct a more cynical interpretation.  His most fervent English speaking defender, Austen Ivereigh, has stated in several outlets that Francis is as much a politician as pastor, and learned much of his craft as a “leader” from Argentine politics.  This would make sense, given the fact that Francis was never a pastor of an ordinary parish, and his time as superior general of the Jesuits in Argentina was a divisive one by all accounts.  Moreover, one can easily see a good deal of deliberate purpose in many of his “spontaneous” remarks.  Issuing confusing public statements is a good way to hide one’s real beliefs; a good politician will always keep his cards close to his chest.  If one wanted to believe Francis’s method was to hide his opinions till he could express them openly (to change the irreformable teachings of the Church), there is ample circumstantial evidence to support this idea.  And Francis knows that most people care for the details of what he is saying almost as little as he does.  Indeed, it is probably one of the reasons he is so popular.  His photo-op gestures, his off-the-cuff remarks, his bumper sticker like “tweets,” to say nothing of his general disdain for any sort formality or self-discipline in communication, unite him to his admirers as much as the content of his magisterium, if not more so.  His style suits the almost autistic informality of our present age to near perfection.

And yet, there is still room for ambiguity, even in this picture.  One could call Francis a politician in a more positive sense of the term:  someone who wishes to unite a fractious body divided over points of doctrine, to unify the Church with his personal leadership.  One could paint his critics as an embittered minority, whose opinions are not worth considering.  (And they are a minority, to be sure.) After a long period in which the Church has publicly taken a beating, you could argue that an extended bull session is just what the Church needs to spread its message, to let people air their grievances free of concern for condemnation.  After three decades of Supreme Pontiffs who were both academics and insisted on a strict adherence to doctrine, communicating the faith in a more informal style was not automatically a bad idea.  One could make the argument that one must win hearts first, then instruct them later in the finer points of doctrine—to start in a “phatic” mode and then move on to more formal means of communicating the faith, as a means of evangelizing a skeptical modern world.

Except that Francis never seems to get around to the second part of that equation.  A certain amount of “bullshit” is inevitable for everyone (“each of us contributes his share” wrote Frankfurt) but Francis acts as if the papacy were merely an ongoing bull session, one in which he and his close advisors can bruit anything they like about Catholic teaching without serious consequence.  The papal office is a priestly, not a prophetic one; he is not the President of the Mormon Church.  The First Vatican Council defined the charism of papal infallibility in stark terms: “the Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter so that by His revelation they might disclose new teaching, but that, by His assistance, they might devoutly guard, and faithfully set forth, the Revelation handed down through the Apostles, the Deposit of Faith.”  (To be fair, Popes have been sounding off on seemingly every “issue” under the sun long before Francis.  There is a reason St. John Paul II was called “the Pomo Pope,” and since Leo XIII, Popes have issued endless encyclicals, exhortations, and verbal interventions of every kind, as if they need to prove that the papacy is still important in world affairs to compensate for the loss of the papacy’s temporal authority.) Garrulity is no sure sign of inspiration, by the Holy Spirit or anything else.  Rabbinic commentators after the destruction of the Second Temple employed the euphemism “words of prophecy” to refer someone who spoke nonsense.  There is a reason why the Church long ago declared the era of public prophecy ended with the death of the last Apostle.  By contrast, Francis seems bent on reopening it again in his own person.




To return to Frankfurt, he ended his original essay by attacking the ideal of “sincerity” as it related to the anti-realism mentioned above.  “One response to this loss of confidence has been a retreat from the ideal of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by the pursuit of a quite different ideal of sincerity. Rather than seeking to arrive at accurate representation of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself.”  He noted how difficult our subjective selves are to fathom, and expressed incredulity at the idea that it is “the truth about himself that is the easiest to know.”  Our own personal natures are “elusively insubstantial—notoriously less stable and less inherent than the nature of other things.  And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.”  I know good and faithful Catholics who swoon over nearly every soundbite, every photo-op, every gesture of the Pope with rapture, and the difference between their reaction and my own baffles me. What sound to me like the most trite and banal slogans dredged up from the miasma of the post-conciliar Church of the 1970s, seem to them signs that Francis is a genuine man of God, an authentic Christian voice.  Everything about Francis’ public and private statements screams “ersatz” to me, but rings in their ears as sweet music to them.

If it is not clear already, I believe the Pope models Frankfurt’s description of a “bullshit artist” to a tee. I do not doubt his sincerity at all.  I am sure he believes every word he says, but his articulation of what constitutes the Catholic faith is so personal, so subjective, that it severely distorts it, with consequences that he either is not aware of or simply indifferent to.  A fair observer who disagrees might object, not wrongly, that it is unseemly, not to say irreverent, to characterize the words of a Pontiff of Rome as “bullshit,” or himself as a “bullshit artist.” I can only aver that I do not make such statements lightly.  And for the sake of those good and decent Catholics, who likely will not understand my objections, I think I owe an explanation for why I am willing to do so.

I began these reflections with an autobiographical detail about my conversion.  I should state that when Francis was first elected, and started giving his jarring interviews on airplanes, to Antonio Spadaro, to Eugenio Scalfari, and the like, I nearly through something of a crisis of faith.  To hear the Bishop of Rome saying things like converting people to the faith is unnecessary, that it is better to be a “good” atheist than a “bad” Christian, and, in general, acting as if the only thing that distinguished being a member of the Catholic Church from other Christian denominations, perhaps even from other religions and even from those of none, was personal preference, and not a matter of obedience to the truth; and, worst of all, seeming to directly contradict infallible statements made by previous popes—I felt sure I was going to lose the Catholic faith altogether, if not my mind.  In time, as I realized the Pope’s disdain for formality and rules likely preclude him from ever issuing a statement that rises to the level of an ex cathedra declaration, such fears have subsided.  But his continuous denigration of the “rigid,” of those who need “rules,” those who are too attached to tradition, etc., often feels as if it is directed toward me personally. I believe in the Catholic Church, not because of the personality of its leaders, but because by faith I believe that what it is and what it teaches is not merely “authentic,” but true. My inner life is chaos; but “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today, and forever.”  To hear the Pope of Rome, whose office is to protect the faithful from errors of belief, denigrate as “rigid” or “pharisaical” those who fear that the Church might alter the faith that God gave her—well, it sure sounds like bullshit to me.

The Revenge of the Laymen

•May 17, 2017 • Leave a Comment

A few years ago, there was a horrible crime committed in the city of Seattle, one that rocked the 24 hour news cycles to their foundation, meaning they replayed it endlessly and breathlessly for days, with talking heads railing about the injustice of it all.  What was this crime, you ask?  The officials at the end of a NFL game had botched a call that gave the game to the hometown Seattle Seahawks over the Green Bay Packers.  The deep meaning to this tragedy was the incompetence of the officials, who were replacements for the regular officiating crews, who were on strike at the time.  Commentators bewailed the incompetence of such “scabs” and demanded the return of real expert officiating.  I remember remarking to someone at the time that the professional football players who were complaining about the replacements had learned a valuable lesson about the sort of incompetence that non-millionaires have to deal with regularly, and hoped the strike would go on even longer.  Sadly, it did not.

Max Weber pointed out years ago in his lecture “Science as a Vocation” that modern societies’ knowledge was in principle open to everyone, but that in practice only experts actually possessed that knowledge.  Unlike primitive peoples, who knew all the simple tools and mechanisms by which their society operated, modern people are, by and large, dependent on The Expertise, as I like to call them–the doctors, lawyers, academics, scientists, educators, media consultants, bureaucrats, etc.–for its functioning.  There has been much discussion, with the election of Trump and Brexit, as to the distrust that many of the people who voted for them hold of The Expertise, and whether this is a good or a bad thing.  I mention this because there have been a rash of articles appearing recently in the media, decrying Donald Trump’s incompetence and general lack of knowledge about, well, most everything.

There are a great many dividing lines between peoples in the United States these days–between races, between the classes, between globalists and nationalists–but I would suggest there is another.  And no, I don’t mean that between the expert and the layman. Most people in our society, as Weber indicated, are laymen.  The distrust of The Expertise is not, I think, the result of a knee-jerk rejection of expertise as such.  Rather, I think it comes from knowing how inequitably the benefits of such expertise are distributed in our society.  The professionals whom working class people tend to distrust are precisely academics, lawyers, doctors, etc.–people who do possess real expertise upon which our society depends. Since Trump’s election, many have pointed this out.  But what many don’t seem to realize is that such expertise can be purchased by those who have wealth; those who don’t, have to deal with substandard legal representation, healthcare, and the like. This is something The Expertise only discovers when things go wrong, as in the NFL officials strike, but my guess is that working class people have to deal with this everyday, and that this, rather than any rejection of real expertise (which is hard to distinguish from the numerous counterfeits in our society, unless you are an expert yourself) is at the heart of the backlash against The Expertise.

This shouldn’t be surprising.  The failures of The Expertise in the past fifteen to twenty years have been very obvious ones–the numerous disastrous wars in which our government have involved us, the economic crisis which not only did they not predict but did little to remedy, as well as the failure to safeguard things like healthcare, and other benefits for that class of people who cannot easily afford access to such expertise. This is why I don’t think crying up Trump’s incompetence will get the media branch of The Expertise very far, at least not with the people who voted for him.  I imagine they look on his bungling as a fitting reward for those that have reaped the benefits of such expertise while denying it to them, all the while looking down their noses at the laymen who are in practice denied such benefits.  It probably won’t do them much good in the end–the media, the party elites, seemed to have learned very little from the results of the election, preferring to obsess over Trump’s personal failings rather than addressing the real problems that led to his election–but I doubt they will lose any sleep over people in the media and elsewhere getting a taste of the incompetence their fellow laymen are subject to on a daily basis.

Diamonds in the Rough (ly Secular)

•May 2, 2017 • Leave a Comment


Recently, Adam de Ville over at Eastern Christian Books extolled the virtues of studying Marx and Freud as guides to understanding modern society.  He is criticizing Rod Dreher, among others, for their lack of attention to the early work of Alasdair MacIntyre, which focused in part on Marx.  I have to confess I never found Marx to be terribly illuminating or insightful.  My impression is that truly great thinkers, even if their general philosophies are wrong will still yield many particular insights in their works. This is something I haven’t found much of in Marx’s works.  Marx had one big idea, and was right on one major point–the influence of capital in modern society–but his prescriptions for the ills he diagnosed were all wildly off the mark because of his blinding adherence to deterministic materialism.  Freud, on the other hand, I think yields some valuable observations about human nature, even for Christians, though I obviously disagree with his philosophy overall.

All of which got me to thinking:  which books by atheists/secularists (defined broadly) do I think would benefit a faithful Christian?  I came up with a provisional list which does include Marx):

  1. Sigmund Freud, Future of an Illusion; Civilization and its Discontents
  2. Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols; The Anti-Christ
  3. Max Weber, “Science as a Vocation”
  4. Bertrand Russell, “The Worship of a Free Man”
  5. Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization; Discipline and Punish; Power/Knowledge
  6. R.G. Collingwood, The Idea of History
  7. J.J. Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality; The Social Contract
  8. Karl Marx & Frederich Engels, The Communist Manifesto
  9. J.S. Mill, On Liberty

Most of these you would find familiar from college surveys on philosophy, or history. Freud has some interesting things to say about human psychology, which I think hold up even outside of his dreary view of human sexuality and society.  Nietzsche is probably the most profound, and important thinker on this list; I can’t recommend him highly enough. He is a dangerous critic of Christianity, because he knew it so well, but is worth listening to for that reason.  Weber is best known as the theorist of capitalism and bureaucracy, but his little essay on what the vocation of a “scientist” (an academic, basically) contains several keen insights on the nature of modern life.  Michel Foucault is worth reading, although for the layman or woman I recommend the set of interviews with him entitled Power/Knowledge, which gives a much more digestible view of his overall philosophy, but the two works above contain valuable insights about two modern institutions, the clinic and the prison.  I admit that Collingwood’s book is something of an outlier; I am a British historian by training, so that is how I know the book.  It is partly a history of history as a discipline, but I list it because of the latter part of the book where Collingwood makes observations about the modern academic discipline of history that are important for understanding modern society.  Rousseau should not need much justification, I think, though both his and Mill’s works are more important for knowledge about modern philosophies than modern society.

Anyway, that is a short list off the top of my head.   What books would you recommend? Feel free to list them in the comments.

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