Newsletter #11: deconstruction in Advent
In this newsletter: the blasphemous George Floyd icon, trolls, Advent, and more!
Happy Tuesday! Here’s what else is in the newsletter today:
The blasphemous George Floyd icon
Catholicism and conversion therapy: a recorded conversation
What I’m reading: Fleming Rutledge’s Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Christ
The blasphemous George Floyd icon
In March, the Catholic University of America’s School of Law held a program to celebrate Black History Month. At the conclusion of the program, the law school unveiled and blessed a new icon for its chapel, Kelly Latimore’s “Mama.”
The icon was originally commissioned as a way to mourn George Floyd, and was created in Floyd’s likeness. In The Christian Century, Lattimore shared that he has received death threats and “spiritual denunciations” once or twice a week because of “Mama,” mostly from Eastern Orthodox individuals in Russia and Ukraine.
“The common question that people asked was, ‘Is it George Floyd or Jesus?’ The fact they’re asking that question is part of the problem. My answer was yes. This nonanswer frustrated the hell out of a lot of people. Again, it’s them trying to protect God, and we can be pretty sure that when we try to protect God, we’re creating an idol.”
At the same time, Lattimore has received positive responses to “Mama” and his other icons because of their racial diversity, with many thanking Lattimore for not creating another white Jesus.
The Daily Signal focused on critiques of the icon at CUA. One junior shared anonymously:
“The icon has no place at The Catholic University of America; it is blasphemous and an offense to the Catholic faith, but it is not surprising at all that it was put there. It is just another symptom of the liberalization and secularization of our campus.”
A petition started by the CUA chapter of Young Americans for Freedom criticized the University for “cast[ing] another image of our Lord in this way, particularly for political purposes.” (Young Americans for Freedom failed to note the irony in such a statement.) It also wrote, “No political or social cause ever justifies depicting another in the place of Jesus Christ.”
Finally, the controversy seemed to reach its apex when the icon was stolen.
The controversy provides an opportunity to look at some history of sacred art, the meaning of theosis/deification, and what happens when artists depict Jesus in particular.
First, it should be obvious that when artists are depicting Jesus, they are always, in a way, depicting someone other than Jesus. Unsurprisingly, we have no photographs of Jesus today. So, absent a mystical encounter with Jesus, an artist’s depictions of Jesus must always rely on models, exemplars, or compilations created from people the artist has met face-to-face. A depiction of Jesus is always a depiction of another. This is perhaps clearest in the Western European tradition of sacred art, where Jesus is consistently depicted as white.
Michelangelo provides a particularly good example for many of these dynamics. Tomasso dei Cavalieri, Michelangelo’s great love interest, is often believed to be the model both for the “Victory” statue and for Christ in “The Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo also used “The Last Judgment” to settle scores, depicting the papal master of ceremonies (one of Michelangelo’s critics) as Minos, with a snake consuming his genitalia. And art historian Anna House has noted that the first portraits of Christ were believed to be self-portraits, which also helps to explain the prominence of white Jesus in Western art.
Michelangelo’s art often flew in the face of Catholic expectations. A 2011 study argued that Michelangelo may have based a number of his figures in “The Last Judgment” on persons he saw at Roman bathhouses (businesses that offered baths, massages, and also prostitution). And Michelangelo’s inclusion of nudity in The Sistine Chapel was certainly not uncontroversial. Before the painting’s completion, that defamed master of ceremonies is reported to have said: “it was most disgraceful that in so sacred a place there should have been depicted all those nude figures, exposing themselves so shamefully, and that it was no work for a papal chapel but rather for the public baths and taverns.” Others objected to the integration of pagan mythology into the Christian art, and still others criticized the work for biblical inaccuracies.
The most significant reactions came from the nudity when the painting was completed in 1541. Shortly after Michelangelo’s death, coverings were put over the genitalia, though these were mostly uncovered during a restoration by Pope John Paul II completed in 1994.
“The Last Judgment” is believed to have been so controversial as to have had influence on the Council of Trent, which began just four years after its completion. The final session in 1563 included the decree, which seemed to aim directly at the painting’s nudity:
“Moreover, in the invocation of saints, the veneration of relics, and the sacred use of images, every superstition shall be removed, ... all lasciviousness be avoided; in such wise that figures shall not be painted or adorned with a beauty exciting to lust, ... there be nothing seen that is disorderly, or that is unbecomingly or confusedly arranged, nothing that is profane, nothing indecorous, seeing that holiness becometh the house of God.”
All that is to say that Latimore seems to be working in a mode consistent with Michelangelo’s approach to his own art. As a response to his critics, I would recommend Lattimore consider painting them nude with snakes consuming their genitalia.
You can order a print of Latimore’s “Mama” here.
Because I write on things like race, sexuality, and Catholicism, I get my fair share of trolls. On the one hand, I despise trolls. They derail conversations, make everything about them, and inflame the worst passions in us. On the other hand, a part of me likes trolls. Because of the incentive structures of social media, I’m conditioned to desire their constant engagement, the way they increase the visibility of my content, and the excitement that accompanies the ways in which they inflame the lower passions.
A look at the revelations from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen can help us see how this works. Commenting on the social media giant’s use of harmful content to generate engagement, Haugen said, “What’s super tragic is Facebook’s own research says as these young women begin to consume this eating disorder content, they get more and more depressed. It actually makes them use the app more. They end up in this feedback cycle where they hate their bodies more and more.”
Social media can have a perverted incentive structure for users. Paradoxically, the worse content makes a person feel, the more it drives that person to engage with that content. Trolls on social media function like that eating disorder content: they make us feel terrible, but also a part of us wants to engage with them, which in turn drives the production of more toxic content, with which we have further engagement.
When it comes to trolls, the worst thing one can do is respond at all. Trolls, no matter their intelligence level or emotional sophistication, can be remarkably good at setting the standard for our emotions and transforming our desires. A big part of what trolls need to do is to make the person they’re attacking as egotistical as they are. Trolls often do this by implanting in the person they are attacking a desire to “win” the argument, to destroy the troll and their views. Trolls take control by manipulating your desires. They make you forget that you want to promote the truth, and convince you that what you want is to convince them they're wrong. Which will never happen, and puts you in a position to lose. As soon as the troll can get you committed to “winning” the argument, the troll has already won.
One thing I’ve learned as a professional negotiator is that, if you really want to “win,” your ego can be your worst enemy. To really “win,” you need to figure out what the other side actually wants, and then behave in a way that lets them think they won, while showing everyone else what’s really going on. What trolls want is to feed off of unnecessary dumb arguments that they create and control through manipulative tactics, like whataboutism, deflection, and meme-ish repetition. So if you want trolls to stop, then you need to stop feeding them.
At times, you can just do this by refusing to argue. I recently had a troll who decided to troll some essays I had shared on Twitter. But the troll kept saying things I actually agreed with, probably because they hadn’t actually read the essays. So I just liked their comments. And then they stopped trolling.
At other times, it’s helpful to just remove the troll’s ability to feed off of your engagement altogether. If someone begins to engage me in a troll-like manner, I initially respond with:
***this is an automated message***
And I copy a link to this post, which outlines certain behaviors I will not engage with or tolerate:
On social media, we are disincentivized to block trolls for the reasons above. At times, I’ve also been resistant to block others, out of a desire to resist being “in a bubble” and to allow others the maximum opportunity to engage with my content. But what Facebook’s whistleblower and others help us to see is that the resistance to block anyone doesn’t actually serve our best interests. It serves the interests of the social media platforms. At times, it may be our Christian responsibility to block others, both so that they cease causing us psychological harm, but also to protect others from their harmful and manipulative tactics.
People don’t have to be blocked forever. I do like Sam Rocha’s idea of having a “jubilee refresh,” where every few months all blocks and mutes are lifted. But ultimately, it’s up to each user to discern the best way to engage social media to create a healthy and interesting experience for everyone.
Catholicism and conversion therapy: a recorded conversation
Over the last two weeks, I shared a recorded conversation I had with Christopher Dowling on his experience of conversion therapy in Catholicism. Christopher shared how every Catholic community in which he was a part, from the University of Dallas, to the religious order associated with the Franciscan University of Steubenville, to NET Ministries, to the Theology of the Body Institute pushed him in the direction of conversion therapy as a response to his attractions to other men.
Since releasing our conversation, I have had other priests and seminarians reach out to me to share that Christopher’s experiences match on to theirs. In institutional Catholic circles, they have been peddled ex-gay narratives that compounded, rather than relieved, sexual anxieties. And this hindered, rather than helped, their pursuit of chastity and sexual integration.
This is an important part of the clergy abuse crisis, and the crises facing the clergy today. In January, I’ll be releasing another recorded interview with another former seminarian on his experiences with reparative therapist Joseph Nicolosi.
If you’re interested in my conversation with Christopher, you can listen to part one here and part two here.
What I’m Reading: Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ
Last year, a friend recommended to me Fleming Rutledge’s book on Advent. I bought the book but didn’t read it. But it’s been a difficult few months for me as a Catholic. I’ve felt fatigue from trying to work against the dispositions and systems undergirding the clergy abuse crisis. A good friend, in a moment of candor, shared that he sees this as a sort of Sisyphean exercise, of pushing a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down as soon as you think you’ve made some progress. The analogy makes me question whether I’m just punishing myself by trying to engage in this work.
So I picked up Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ, in the hopes that it might offer some relief, in the hopes that it might re-evangelize me. I think that’s what I’ve been searching for over the last year, especially in the midst of deconstruction. I want to be evangelized. But, at the same time, I’m afraid that the people who would “evangelize” me would ultimately harm me and my faith, as has happened in the past. I think it’s a lesser experience of that had by many clergy abuse victims — they may desire to trust priests, but they also know the high cost of trusting priests. We’re all in search of a new paradigm, a new reassurance that we are loved by God and wanted by the Church.
But deconstruction is an in-between time. We don’t know how to get to that point of trust, or if we even can or should. I’m at a point where I am struggling towards finding it. And Rutledge has helped me to see that this is Advent. Rutledge notes that the early Church practiced a season of penitence and fasting in December, and that Advent has largely been seen as a penitential season in the history of the Church. It is not simply “merry and bright,” but a time of darkness and cold and steady anticipation.
Fleming notes that the early Church did not seem to connect that season to Christmas. Instead, much of the Church has viewed Advent as anticipating the second coming of Christ. This focus was the primary focus of Advent, at least until the eighteenth century:
“And so, to understand the truly radical nature of Advent, it is necessary to get its relation to Christmas in perspective. In the medieval period, the Scripture readings for Advent were well established, and they were oriented only secondarily to the birth (first coming) of Christ; the primary emphasis was his second coming on the final day of the Lord. Because the church in modern times has turned away from the proclamation of the second coming, an intentional effort must be made to reinstate it. Related to the second coming, which Jesus repeatedly says will come by God’s decision at an hour we do not expect, is the Advent emphasis on the agency of God, as contrasted with the ‘works’ of human beings. An exclusive emphasis on Advent as a season of preparation risks putting human endeavor in the spotlight for all four weeks of the season. All the Advent preparation in the world would not be enough unless God were favorably disposed to us in the first place.”
The deconstructionist in Advent can see himself as improperly prepared for that second coming, and in need of a new preparation. And just because that work is not “merry and bright” doesn’t mean that we aren’t engaged in what is truly Christian. Rutledge quotes Karl Barth: “What other time or season can or will the Church ever have but that of Advent!” Much of life can be cold and dark and dreary. But we should not feel guilty for such a life, when it has been thrust upon us, nor should we feel that there is nothing to do in such a state. When life is this way, it is a time of preparation. We are preparing for its passing, even if it may take a long time to pass.
You can follow along with my current reads at Goodreads.
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