Newsletter #3: 'Merely entertaining' and Theology of the Body

The bi-weekly newsletter: intellectual lives outside academia, Mindy Kaling and Theology of the Body, a feminist's bathroom, and more!

Happy Wednesday! I hope that you all have had a great week so far. Last weekend, Catholics celebrated the feast of the Assumption of Mary, the event in which we believe that Mary was taken body-and-soul into heaven. What many don’t know is that, instead of the Assumption that Catholics celebrate, Orthodox Christians celebrate “the Dormition” of Mary. The tradition of the Dormition holds that, rather than being lifted up into heaven (assumption), Mary fell into a deep sleep (dormition) in which she was received into heaven. I imagine Mary slowly falling to sleep in her old age and being carried away peacefully into heaven, as if she is drifting on a boat over a smooth lake to be with her Son.

It’s an image in which I hope we can find solace, as people across the world continue to die in the pandemic. Most of us know someone who has died of COVID. Many of us have lost family members. Remember that, in Christ, death is but a sleep from which we will wake and be together again. And though we grapple with the restless anxieties of the world today, I hope we can all find time this week to rest, and reflect on our final resting. To sleep is to be like Mary. And to sleep is to be like Christ. One of my favorite prayers comes from the Liturgy of the Hours:

“Protect us, Lord, as we stay awake; watch over us as we sleep, that awake, we may keep watch with Christ, and asleep, rest in his peace.”

Consider that this evening, maybe during night prayer. In the meantime, here’s the bi-weekly newsletter! What’s included today:

  • The intellectual life outside academia

  • Racism in hiding

  • A talk on remaining Catholic

  • The Cardinal with COVID

  • What I’m reading: on Catholicism’s crisis of authority

  • What I’m watching: Mindy Kaling, ‘merely entertaining’ and Theology of the Body

  • Welcome to my home: a feminist’s bathroom

The intellectual life outside of academia

I sometimes think back to a comment from one of my philosophy professors. He said he would regularly hear from philosophy alumni: "I'm way less interesting that I was in college." I work hard to make sure I can tell him the opposite.

The creative life of the mind shouldn’t be limited to professional academics and artists. But if you don’t work in academia, publishing, media, or “the arts,” then an intellectual life is something you often have to fight for. You have to wrestle professional, familial, and other practical demands on your time and energy, because a deep intellectual life requires discipline and commitment.

I’ve maintained my commitment to an intellectual life by focusing on three areas:

  1. Intake (reading)

  2. Output (writing)

  3. Committed dialectic (community)

Intake is required to keep things fresh. I need to regularly engage new perspectives to add layers to my intellectual life. If you think about your intellectual life as a web, then each new perspective or idea is an additional spot on the web from which you can draw connections. I try to be broad with my reading. It’s important to me that I regularly cycle between fiction, literary nonfiction, and philosophy/theology. I also want to make sure that I’m regularly engaging both “classical” and contemporary works.

Output is where I stabilize my intake and make connections explicit. I do a lot of my processing through writing. If intake is finding a new point for the web, output is about explicitly connecting points and sharing these connections with others. Output doesn’t have to be writing. It can be developing creative works, making tik tok videos, or doing anything that helps you to stabilize and expand what you’ve received through intake.

Committed dialectic is important for energy, inspiration, and constructive feedback. I understand it as having regular spaces where one can engage with others on thoughts, ideas, and intellectual/creative work. My committed dialectic resides largely in my creative writing workshop and my seminar series, as well as a few friends who regularly read and comment on my writing before I share it publicly. I also try to hold occasional discussions at my house on important topics. We need people and commitments that will hold us accountable to our intellectual lives. This can be done through book clubs, discussion groups, classes, and a host of other activities. The key is to find what works for you and to stick to it.


Racism in Hiding

Everyone had something to say about Simone Biles’s decision to step out of the vault and uneven bars finals at the Olympics. Including me. Looking at responses to Biles, I considered how subtle racialized dynamics and racist cultural symbolism can be. When white men criticize a black woman for her decision to put her mental and physical safety ahead of their sense of national pride, we are seeing the replaying of racial dynamics established with America’s slave trade. Playing the “race card” here is an opportunity to jog cultural memory. Christians are especially well suited to observe this:

“These dynamics should already be familiar to Christians. We live in a world where many expect us to enter spaces such as workplaces as areligious selves. And, like black Americans, we have cultural symbols that are elicited by our sufferings, regardless of whether or not the perpetrators of sufferings intended this. Many aspects of life are seen by Christians as reenactments of the life of Christ, whom we are called to imitate. Often, such a vision comes as a realization in retrospect. Our sufferings are participations in the Cross. Our triumphs are Resurrection. We might live in an culture claiming secularism, just as our black peers live in a culture that has claimed to “not see race.” But we know better. Our secular age has a way of bringing our memory back to the Cross and the Resurrection, just as our “racially blind” age has a way of bringing black memory back to slavery and liberation. Satan is real, and racism is real, no matter how many people might claim that our progressive age “knows better.”

Slavery will stop being relevant to the experience of black Americans when the crucifixion stops being relevant to the experience of Christians. Just as experiences of suffering allow for the activation of the cultural memory of the Cross for Christians, experiences of domination, subjugation, and marginalization of black Americans by white Americans allow for the activation of the cultural memory of American slavery and its progeny. What many white critics of Biles have recently demonstrated is an attitude of entitlement not only to her performance but also her physical safety. In this, we can hear the echoes of American slavery, segregation, and racial subjugation.

You can read more here.

Why remain Catholic: the talk

I recently gave a talk to a Catholic young adult group on the topic “Why remain Catholic?” In it, I reflected on my experiences of rejection and marginalization as a gay man in the Church, the meaning of baptism, and the ways in which God chooses us. It’s helpful to keep in mind that baptism is a gift given freely by God for no reason other than that He loves us. It’s a gift that can’t be taken away. So rather than being an experience of “choice,” “being Catholic” is more an experience of radical “chosenness” by God. If you’re interested, you can listen to the audio here.

The Cardinal with COVID

I also wrote recently on the relationship between Cardinal Burke, COVID, and the pandemic’s conspiracy theories, putting together a timeline of the Cardinal’s activities and statements. If you want to know where the microchip conspiracy came from, or what “the Great Reset” means, you can check out the timeline here.

What I’m Reading: Church Authority

One of my favorite recent essays is Terence Sweeney’s “Where Does the Church’s Crisis of Authority Dwell?” In Church Life Journal, Sweeney writes about how the distinction between the Church-teaching and the Church-taught is not a distinction that falls between the bishops and the laity. Rather, we are all called as Christians to both teach and be taught, with Christ as our head. Sweeney quotes Apostolicam Actuositatem: “Lay people’s right and duty to be apostles derives from their union with Christ their head . . . It is by the Lord himself that they are assigned to the apostolate.” Power does not flow from God to the bishops to the laity. Rather, God imbues the whole Church with his power and authority.

Sweeney concludes:

“The apostles suffered from a crisis of authority both doubting and worshipping as we are today. Jesus’s response to us now is the same as it was to them then. From out of his authority, he sends us on mission to teach what we are learning. And he promises that he will be with us as our true Authority until he comes again.”

I’ve frequently come back to this essay and want all my friends to read it.

You can also follow Terence on Twitter to see more of what he’s up to. And you can follow along with my current reads at Goodreads.

What I’m Watching: Mindy Kaling, Entertainment, and the Theology of the Body

I love television. I consider television the primary art form of the twenty-first century and am especially fascinated by TV writers. Mindy Kaling, one of my favorites, is the child of immigrants, a Dartmouth graduate with a degree in classics (she once wanted to be a Latin teacher), and now a successful actress and producer. She got her fame while writing for The Office, in which she also starred as Kelly Kapoor.

I once was able to hear Kaling speak in person. During the interview, she was asked about her goal for her work. She responded:

“My goal is to entertain. My goal is to make people laugh, and to provide a respite for people. There are a lot of people in entertainment who want to get out there and get political. And power to them. But I think my goal is smaller. I want to entertain.”

I think of this as a pretty big goal. One of my philosophy professors, David O’Connor (same guy as above), once said of entertainment and our bodies:

“The sacramental power of our bodies to mean things, of great moral significance and depth, is [often] held at a great distance… That is not a message for the licentious. To become licentious, the shortest path is to think that bodily pleasures don’t count for anything, that they don’t mean anything, that they’re recreations or entertainment. Indeed, once you start to think of yourself in this way, as a living body (rather than as somebody who drives a body around, occasionally fueling it, occasionally doing maintenance on it…), it’ll turn out that things like your entertainments are of particular moral significance too. Your experience of the world of sensuous beauty starts to be of moral significance.

“It doesn’t stop being entertaining, but it stops being merely entertaining. You won’t even be tempted by a phrase like ‘merely entertaining’ anymore. What could ‘merely’ mean? That’s like being ‘merely alive.’ So, as a Catholic looking at contemporary culture, my most significant concerns are not that our young people… grow up in an irreligious or unreligious environment. My concern is that they grow up in an environment that cuts them off from the most basic human experiences that would naturally lead us to be religious.”

I think that too often we treat things like Netflix shows as “guilty pleasures,” or that we see “entertainment” as a “waste of time,” as something that we do to “kill time.” It strikes me as more human, and more alive, to treat things like Netflix shows and our other entertainments as things that are worthwhile. If you are going to watch Netflix, then you should really enjoy it. You should recognize that you are getting things out of it, and you should think about how you can do this well. Television is a form of art. So find the art that is valuable, and allow yourself to really enjoy it.

Anyways, if you’re looking to start a new TV show, here are some of my recommendations:

  • Why Women Kill (Amazon Prime) is a clever dark comedy about… why women kill. The first season tells the stories of three women who, at various points, lived in the same house. Beth was a 1963 housewife who discovers her husband’s affair. Simone is a 1984 socialite who engages in a complex love affair herself. Taylor in 2019 is a bisexual feminist who discovers that open marriage is more complicated than she expected. The writing is smart, and the filmography is clever (often, we’ll start with a decade in one room of the house, and then the camera pans to another room, where a scene from another decade picks up.)

  • The Good Fight (Paramount+) is a spinoff of the legal drama The Good Wife. In it, white Chicago attorney Diane Lockhart loses her savings and her job but lands herself a partner position at a powerhouse black law firm. The first season starts out slow and focuses on the fallout of the Ponzi scheme that lost Diane her savings. But the second and third seasons take a contemporary political turn that energizes the show, fictionalizing real-life events including various racial scandals, the Trump “Pee Tape,” and white supremacist activity. The show is political, smart, and super funny. I’d highly recommend if you want to examine and study a complex presentation of race dynamics among the elite. (But, again, feel free to skip the first season.)

  • Killing Eve (Hulu) is not for the faint of heart. Eve (Sandra Oh) works for the British government trying to find a young talented Russian assassin (Jodie Comer). It’s a very dark comedy written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge (who wrote and starred in Fleabag, which you should also watch). I think it has some of the best writing on television, but be ready for some gore and disturbing themes.

  • Schitt’s Creek (Amazon Prime) is a heartwarming comedy about a wealthy family that loses everything and has to live at a hotel in a small rural town. It features a brilliantly ridiculous accent invented by Catherine O’Hara, as well as words she inserted into the script while secretly reading Foyle's Philavery: A Treasury of Unusual Words. If you haven’t watched the show yet, you’ve been living under a rock. It’s now time to crawl out from under it.

“It’s all right that the world is crazy, as long as I make my little corner of the world sane.” - Dianne Lockhart

Welcome to my home: a feminist’s bathroom

I host people at my home a lot. A friend once told me that, if I wanted to have a home that is hospitable to women, I should keep some feminine products in my bathroom. So I asked Twitter for suggestions and then stocked up. I got a lot of great responses, but the most common suggestions were tampons (with applicators), pads (unscented and with flex foam “if you want to be luxurious), and pain relievers (Pamprin or Naproxin). The first time I hosted people after getting them, I received compliments from guests for having tampons and pads ready, in case that time of the month came and they were unprepared.

The male feminist should have a bathroom that is accommodating to women. So think about what that means for you. Ask the women in your life for advice. If you’re like me, then you’ll go to the store to get tampons, pads, and pain relievers, but will be overwhelmed by all the options. So if you want to build your own feminist bathroom, here’s what I have:

Anything must-haves that I’m missing? Let me know in the comments!

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And that’s all I have for you today! Subscribe to get next week’s essay on “Civil Disobedience and Gay Catholic Disclosure.” I’ll share some thoughts on coming out in the Church, civil disobedience, and Critical Race Theory.

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