A friend of mine took me to see Gatz the other night – a theatrical reading (…verbatim!) of The Great Gatsby, a novel many of us probably read in high school. Having by chance just reread the book a couple of weeks ago, I was delighted at the coincidence of the invitation. So, even though I still find Fitzgerald’s nihilistic sangfroid morally distressing , it’s hard for me not to be enticed by the beauty of his writing.
At the play, however, I found that these major dynamics of moral meaninglessness and lyrical beauty were largely absent from the eight-hour experience.
Most of the recitation came from the lips of one man, whose feat of memorization (like that of the audience’s endurance) is nothing less than a marvel. He arrives at work one day to find the computer broken, and so, picking up a random book, begins to read aloud. Various scenarios and dialogues are performed by other, otherwise office workers. Some of the acting, (especially that of the woman playing Jordan Baker), is unfortunately quite weak. But the effect produced is something of a parallel vision, largely slapstick, as the words and scenarios are dramatically expropriated from the text to engage the audience.
This work of textual expropriation is brilliant in dramatic conception and execution. To read aloud The Great Gatsby word-for-word would exasperate just about any audience. So, the creation of parallel scenarios through new emphases and exaggerated gestures ironically helps to keep the audience engaged through distraction.
However, this expropriation is also inescapably unfaithful to the original work. It cannot but make the play, Gatz, another thing than The Great Gatsby, which is why it’s entirely appropriate to have a different title, (something more like an astounded exclamation: “E-gatz!”) What results is that the enervating side of the inane is flipped over into the mere stupid (save, I grant, for the end). For example, after Daisy Buchanan reconnects with her former love, Jay Gatsby (indeed, formerly, Jay Gatz), she beholds the material riches of the onetime poor man. Among other things, he shows her his wardrobe and all the fine clothes he now possesses.
He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one, before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel, which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher — shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, and monograms of Indian blue. Suddenly, with a strained sound, Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily.
“They’re such beautiful shirts,” she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such — such beautiful shirts before.”
Now, this passage is not without its wry humor, but it’s also not without a grander perspective about the time period that Fitzgerald’s describing, tragically full of sensuality and despondence. It also artfully conveys the sadness that Daisy, in marrying Tom Buchanan, did not marry for love but for material wealth and status. Daisy is not a serious or even very likeable character. But despite her smallness of mind, and even despite Fitzgerald’s forlornness over the inexorable ebb of human hopes, Daisy’s experience can translate into something much deeper for the reader. In being exclaimed by one of Gatz’s readers, however, she just sounds stupid and pathetic.
In our postmodern world, which prospers playful reconstruction and comedic stupidity in a last stab against the ennui of modern relativism, textual honesty is an important value to protect. The creation and preservation of literature is one of the distinguishing marks of civilization, intelligently and aesthetically articulating cultural memories and intuitions so as to become objective (… with the new danger of becoming objectified). Good words lead to great books. Projects of cultural deconstruction, then, seek to divest authorities of their hold upon privileged texts.
Now, in the case of Gatz, I do not suggest there was any motive at work other than aesthetic. But with the Christmas season soon upon us, there is a different case of the textual expropriation I’m trying to describe that is as insidious as it is barbaric.
The American Humanist Association has another trite but well-monied initiative against traditional religion underway. Their own press release states that they are firing salvos “critical of religious scripture” — (“critical,” here, failing to successfully belie the humanists’ baldly uncritical belligerence). The advertisements pick verses from the West’s three monotheistic religions’ sacred texts, presenting putatively enlightened tenets of humanism in parallel.
Now, I won’t comment on what traditional Jewish or Muslim responses to this matter would be, caught up as it is with the nature of Revelation, scriptural inspiration, and religious instruction. But for the Catholic, (and frankly, in a way not for the protestant), there is no “sacred book” as such apart from the Church that preaches and teaches what it says regarding salvation. Regardless, the intent behind the atheists’ work is to subvert scriptural authority, largely through the commercial work of arousing disgust and repulsion. Consider:
From a purely literary standpoint, this is entirely unfair to the context of Jesus’ words. At the very least, it would be self-contradictory for Jesus to ask us to hate our own lives, which our religion teaches us to save, if we were to take him… I don’t say literally, but stupidly. (One can almost imagine a Monty Python dramatization in the background.) And the idea that this massive campaign is only directed against fundamentalist Christians (say) is patently false, not least because the King James Version is not cited in the ads. At any rate, the only hateful ones here are the so-called “humanists.” How “kind” is it to attack religions during their most holy times of year?
Saint Paul tells us that faith comes by hearing (Rom 10.17); and our Lord tells us that no one comes to the faith unless drawn by God Himself (cf. John 6.44). In other words, to hold the Bible as the scriptural witness to supernatural faith depends on receiving the preaching of Christ’s Apostles and the invitation of God Himself in the heart. Both of these are universally ordered: God wills the salvation of all men (1 Tim 2.4); and Christ commanded his disciples to preach the Gospel to all (Mk 16.15). In addition to the external grace of the Church’s preaching and the internal grace of God’s hidden operations, though, there is needed the personal graciousness to give it all a chance. But the humanists’ hate would contravene all of this.
This postmodern antagonism, which intentionally subverts texts in order to establish an alternate objectivity, is the historical fallout from a modern trend of relativism. In a world that became much more aware of other cultures and contexts, and did so from a worldview that did not admit that transcendent agency or causality was naturally discernible, the relativism that seems to be cultured intelligence is simply the other side of adolescent despair, which, if not healed—and I do mean healed in the biblical sense—leads to barbaric destructiveness.
At the New York Public Library, there is a genuinely beautiful exhibit on display that gives cultural testimony to the sacred scriptures of the world’s three great monotheistic religions: Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In no way do I want the voice of a callow, discontented cleric to obscure the wonder of such an exhibit. Truly. However, in view of the above observations about textual expropriation and atheistic antagonism, the Catholic is called in these dark days to be aware. We cannot rest content with the following description:
Over the millennia, Jews, Christians, and Muslims have each created a rich body of founding texts and interpretive underpinnings for their respective faiths, each of which derives from the teachings of Abraham.
Now, I don’t expect the anthropological perspective to judge otherwise. However, if it were truly astute, it would further acknowledge that, at least according to the traditional theologies of these religions, monotheism was not “an innovation of the patriarch Abraham.” At any rate, such a pronouncement is emblematic of modern relativism, which tends to see that which is culturally distinct (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) as ideologically commensurable or even tantamount to each other, and reducible to a particular human genius.
But the doorway is thereby opened to the postmodern trend to subvert what it finds distasteful. For, if religion is given a simply mundane perspective, such that we ourselves “created… [the] interpretive underpinnings” of our faith, we can–nay, must!–un-create them as we see fit.
The interpretive underpinning of our sacred book, the Bible, is ultimately its author, God. To be sure, this is a fantastic claim to the unbeliever. But if these are our terms, we should be criticized accordingly. As our Catechism teaches, we are not a religion of the book but a religion of the word, the living word of God (see CCC 108). The “interpretive underpinning” of the entire Bible is Jesus Christ. And the only way to understand the meaning of the scriptures, as the disciples discovered on the way to Emmaus before they ran back to the Apostles in Jerusalem, is if the incarnate Word Himself breaks it open. The question, then, is where do we encounter both the Spirit and Letter of Christ so as to see his signs and hear his words?
The Church, with her sacraments and doctrine.
The best way for someone to attack what Christians believe—that is, Catholic Christians—the best way for someone to attack what we scripturally hold as true, then, would be to vet the way in which the pope, bishops, priests, and their collaborators use the Bible. To be sure, the media is not beyond taking papal words out of context, as we’ve been reminded yet again. But they would face an impossible task were they to take authoritative speeches and documents and their uses of Scripture as fodder for showing our intolerance.
A couple of weeks ago, our Holy Father released a post-synodal exhortation, Verbum Domini, on The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church. Verbum Domini is about promoting the significance of the Word of God in our lives, promoting “a rediscovery of God’s word in the life of the Church as well as a wellspring of constant renewal” (n. 1). Part of that renewal involves testifying to the world the riches of our Scripture (see especially Part III, Verbum Mundo). Therefore, in light of the adversaries cited above, and the methodology they would best adopt, I cite the following (and emphasize in bold):
The “dark” passages of the Bible
42. In discussing the relationship between the Old and the New Testaments, the Synod also considered those passages in the Bible which, due to the violence and immorality they occasionally contain, prove obscure and difficult. Here it must be remembered first and foremost that biblical revelation is deeply rooted in history. God’s plan is manifested progressively and it is accomplished slowly, in successive stages and despite human resistance. God chose a people and patiently worked to guide and educate them. Revelation is suited to the cultural and moral level of distant times and thus describes facts and customs, such as cheating and trickery, and acts of violence and massacre, without explicitly denouncing the immorality of such things. This can be explained by the historical context, yet it can cause the modern reader to be taken aback, especially if he or she fails to take account of the many “dark” deeds carried out down the centuries, and also in our own day. In the Old Testament, the preaching of the prophets vigorously challenged every kind of injustice and violence, whether collective or individual, and thus became God’s way of training his people in preparation for the Gospel. So it would be a mistake to neglect those passages of Scripture that strike us as problematic. Rather, we should be aware that the correct interpretation of these passages requires a degree of expertise, acquired through a training that interprets the texts in their historical-literary context and within the Christian perspective which has as its ultimate hermeneutical key “the Gospel and the new commandment of Jesus Christ brought about in the paschal mystery.”
Richard Dawkins asserts, in telling us “What humanists think,” that “There’s all the difference in the world between a belief that one is prepared to defend by quoting evidence and logic and a belief that is supported by nothing more than tradition, authority, or revelation.” This declaration, (which itself provides no evidence or logic for why it is the better position), is cast against a passage from Proverbs, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding” (3.5, NIV). It seems to me that, on his own terms as quoted from the exhortation, our chief shepherd is quite interested in evidence and logic. Moreover, he does not think that scriptural expertise need annihilate the mystery of trusting in the Lord with all one’s heart. Rather, we are called to understand (and therefore lovingly protect and intelligently proclaim) the mystery we believe.
Above all, then, we must live in holy conversation with the Word of God, so that we might know the ever living God and be able to speak of Him. And this is just the time for that preparation. Just as we prepare for Christ’s coming, so too do we ready ourselves to bear him forth into the world. Indeed, it is by the whole Church’s manifestation of that Word’s truth and love that the Bible continues to bear its graceful voice, echoing throughout history.
As our Holy Father says, “we can deepen our relationship with the word of God only within the ‘we’ of the Church, in mutual listening and acceptance.” Let us read that word by listening to God’s voice, such that we might truly be sent and bear His Good News to all the world.
Lo, He comes.