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Deconstructing “Montana” (Or, Miley Cyrus Naked on a Wrecking Ball)

When my students first told me about Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” (which together with her twerking has made her an Enemy of the State with concerned parents everywhere), I dismissed it as a fad. I saw a clip of the video, could tell why adults were upset and teens aroused, and left it at that. After of weeks of trending, however, it seems that Miley’s nude demolition has not itself been demolished. Parents are still distraught. My students are still distracted. Even Hollywood and the recording industry are discussing it (and, surprisingly, often on the side of the distraught).

I finally watched the whole thing this morning. It is disturbing, but I do not think that it’s visuals are primarily to blame. Yes, there is Hannah Montana, stripped of all her Disney accessorizing, twerking in slow-mo on wrecking ball. Having never heard the song, though, I tried to pay as much attention as possible to the lyrics. Believe it or not, I found the message of the music most distressing. The story she sings is one I have heard many times over during my decade-plus in youth ministry: girl meets boy, thinks she can ‘save’ him, throws her self at him like a wrecking ball…and ends up broken herself. Thus, the image of a naked 20something hanging on to half-a-ton of forged steel. There are many who would say that the image is pornagraphic, but within the context of the song it is something far worse: it is suicidal.

So, here and now, I would plead with anyone reading this to stop criticizing Miley for her risque behavior. She is not so much Madonna as she is Lindsey Lohan. It is not self degradation, but self destruction, that lies at the heart of all this. From a cultural standpoint, I can understand why parents are upset at the nudity, but from an artistic standpoint, they should be more concerned about the wrecking ball. After all, when a naked person of any age, sex or background rides a wrecking ball, the concern should not be for their modesty but for their safety. And Miley’s music is much closer to the edge than her video.

With that in mind, I would like to offer a short philosophical perspective on what this is really about. Miley grew up with Hannah Montana. Hannah told Miley (along with all the pre-teens that watched the show) that love is as simple as throwing your attractive-teenage self into life. If you can dream it, you can do it. If you meet some boy who has walls, give it all you got and you’ll watch those walls fall like Jericho. Only, Billy-Ray’s casual Bible references totally missed the mark. It wasn’t the Israelite’s good intentions and sweet-sounding music that felled the walls: it was their faith in God. Without that faith, the walls won’t collapse: we will. Miley hurled herself naked on a wrecking ball of self-confidence, hoping to heal achy-breaky hearts. Instead, she got her own heart broken by a world of teen-gossip, tabloids and tediously-low ratings. Therefore, she sings sincerely about being broken by the wrecking ball. That is precisely what has happened in her own real life.

That is the story we see in the music video. When the critics are right it is always for the wrong reasons: they are right to say that it is hedonism, but its not the sexuality that makes it so. It is the hopeless, whiny tragedy of it that makes it hedonistic. They say that Miley has gone of the deep end, and they are right, but they are wrong when they associate it strictly with the fact that she has taken off her cloths. Miley is merely expressing a disillusionment with candy-coated-middleclass-materialistic sort of love. It is a disillusionment that her fans share: its just that Miley is their sacrificial victim.

(Perhaps that seems too strong an ending, but, upon second glance, I’ve kept it because it expresses my thesis: Miley is to be pitied, not prodded, just as her fan base is to be pitied.)

“Fran-ces-co! Fran-ces-co!” (Or, Our World Upside Down)

In his famous biography of St. Francis of Assisi, GKC’s on-going metaphor is that the founder of the mendicants was more like the virtuoso of an artistic movement than the father of a religious order. His central image is that of Francis coming out the cave after receiving the Stigmata like an artist looking at the world upside down. So striking was this visual that Mumford & Son’s decided to write a song about it. So striking was St. Francis’ “artistic vision” that pilgrims, provinces, peoples and now Popes are righting wrongs according to it.

And indeed, with the election of Pope Francis, it has felt like our world has turn upside down. The Catholic Church, which one week ago was the object of annoyance to the every-man and a subject of scorn in the press, is now led by the “freshest,” “simplest” and “warmest” of individuals. He asked Rome to pray over him. He spurs limos and greets parishioners at the door. He holds “story-time” in Paul VI Auditorium. He laughs at slightest provocation. He leaves flowers at side altars like “a pilgrim among pilgrims.” And all this before he has even been installed as Bishop of Rome. The media (for the time being) has had nothing but nice things to say, even going out of their way to exonerate him from accusations that he was complacent during the Dirty War. News reporters smile confidently talking about the “Franciscan Reform” that has already begun. In short, Catholics went from being troglodytes to trendy all thanks to their new Pope. It matters not however long or short lived this perception in the press will last. All media perceptions are short lived in the grand scheme of things. I merely wish to highlight the contrast from how things were just seven days ago.

I would like to get back to St. Francis & Chesterton, though, because there is another part of this story that you will not find in newspapers or on TV. The press, for all their virtues, is ignoring the most profound part of Francis’ papacy just as they always misunderstand the most profound heart of St. Francis of Assisi. For Francis did not “rebuild the Church” so as to appeal to the public forum. In fact, GKC dwells on this story in his biography because he believes that it is the key to understanding why St. Francis did what he did. When the son of Assisi rebuilt the church there, it angered the public forum greatly. Far from popularizing his cause, the outcry of the people almost ended it prematurely. Then, as legend has it, Francis stripped before the crowd, wrapped himself in the bishop’s cope and claimed to belong entirely to the Church. St. Francis never saw himself as some outside reformer sent to rebuild the Church. He pictured himself in the very heart of the Church, surrounded by its splendor and apostolic tradition, yet simple and naked underneath it all. He saw himself as a faithful son doing chores for his Heavenly Father. I am certain that, regardless of public opinion, this is exactly how our new Pope Francis sees himself as well.

This is why I am excited: Francis sees himself as our brother. I chant his name, “Fran-ces-co,” as if I were calling on a sibling. The Franciscans took the name “friar” from the Latin “Fray” for “brother” or “frater.” The Franciscans were the first fraternity. They were the first “bros.” Their strength came from inclusion and cohesion, not outside manipulation. When Pope Francis reforms the Curia (as he most certainly will) it will not be because it has become too fraternal. It is because, with its careerism & constriction  the Curia has not been fraternal enough. He will trim and prune the branches of our Church, both at the Vatican and the Church’s other cities, according to the truer fraternity that he referenced in his opening address last week. From the porch of St. Peter’s, our new Pope has called for a return to brotherly love. Rome is now a “philadelpia.” Perhaps all Christians might start calling each other “brother” and “sister” upon Papal authority, the way Franciscans titled Brother Moon and Sister Sky on the authority of their founder. In any event, Pope Francis has inaugurated a new era in our Catholic Faith. What that new era will look like particularly is still anybody’s guess. But, in general, it should be obvious that our new Pope has not come so much as to divide as to unite. He has seen that the rich comfortable Church, too close to the world and too intimidated by its voices, was a Church upside down. In calling for a poor, simple, fraternal Church, he has flipped us right-side up again.

The Top Ten Books Read in 2012, #6

Number 6 is another biography from unlikely, although apropos biographer. On a whim I downloaded from Libirivox, James Watt by Andrew Carnegie. I honestly don’t know why I would download such a book. I vaguely connect the book with my friend Billy Newton, over at Blog of the Courtier, but I’ll let him comment with regards to the validity of that memory.

Anyway, this book was fascinating. I am not a scientist. I don’t like physics other than to enjoy the objective beauty of its equations. English was my strong suit (hence, the current mode and medium you are reading). Somehow, the fact that the business tycoon Andrew Carnegie wrote a biography on some dude fascinated me. James Watt was an extraordinary man. He ran not only in scientific circles but in philosophical circles as well. He was friends of Adam Smith, the founder of capitalism, who would have, at that time, been considered a philosopher.

His scientific achievements were vast and wide. He was a practical inventor. It was his practical inventiveness that allowed him to develop the best design for a steam engine that had uses outside of coal mining.

The most fascinating part of the book though is Carnegie’s interjections into Watts life. He intrudes like an overattentive narrator. It is not your modern biography where facts are told in prose. It’s more like your rich grandfather is telling you a story about an important person in history, a person that enabled him to be rich. I love Carnegie’s commentary of Watt’s life. Although not a style in style, I enjoyed the imposition because it gave it good coloring to the book.

My only suggestion would be to pick it up via an ebook as opposed to the Librivox recording. The narrator was terribly dry and often mispronounced words, which I found distracting.

Epic Hope

I once wrote a reflection on the over-use of the word ‘epic.’ When I apply this term to the life and teaching of John Paul the Great, however, I do so in absolute confidence. There is really no other way to describe the hope of a smiling actor from impoverished Polandwhen he rose up against such towering forces of evil. Amidst the burning death of the holocaust, Karol Wojtyla wrote plays that burned with a brighter hope that outlasted the fires of Auschwitz. It was that same hope that brought color to his priesthood during the dreary years of Stalinist Poland. When he became Pope John Paul II, its luminosity acted as his spotlight on the world-stage. And though they’ve never been televised or presented from pulpit or balcony, these encyclicals of JP II bring the drama of this hope to the largest audience, to generations yet unborn. That the unborn found one of their greatest advocates in the great Pope, no one would doubt. The fact of the matter is that he acknowledged their plight and considered it part and parcel of the scourge of contemporary culture: what JP II called the ‘culture of death.’ To fight this death, he constantly exhorted us to ‘be not afraid!,” “For the mission of the Church is always oriented and directed with unfailing hope towards the future.” (Salvorum Apostoli, 31)


His use of such dramatic language shows that he had none of the blind optimism of the students and idealists: he was too much the professor. He had none of the platforms or campaign promises of the politicians: he was too pious a priest. Finally, and most powerfully, his warnings contain none of the dire pessimism of (false) prophets and preachers: he was too secure in sanctity to give up on humanity. “There is no justification then for despair or pessimism or inertia…(individual responsibility) is what is demanded by the present moment and above all by the very dignity of the human person, the indestructible image of God the Creator, which is identical in each one of us.” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 47) This hope stands like light against a shadow precisely because JP II realized just how dark is the shadow that remains over our world. “In general, taking into account the various factors, one cannot deny that the present situation of the world, from the point of view of development, offers a rather negative impression…There are many millions who are deprived of hope due to the fact that, in many parts of the world, their situation has noticeably worsened. Before these tragedies of total indigence and need, in which so many of our brothers and sisters are living, it is the Lord Jesus himself who comes to question us (cf. Mt 25:31-46).” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 13)

I said last time that JP II seems caught up in the drama of the relationship between God and man. It is in the midst of this drama that he finds our source for hope. Any realistic look at the “wages of sin” reveals, not simply fallen creatures, but a frustrated creation and a sorrowful Creator. “The Sacred Book speaks to us of a Father who feels compassion for man, as though sharing his pain. In a word, this inscrutable and indescribable fatherly “pain” will bring about above all the wonderful economy of redemptive love in Jesus Christ, so that through the mysterium pietatis love can reveal itself in the history of man as stronger than sin. So that the “gift” may prevail!” (Dominum et Vivificatem, 39) In other words, redemption is at the service of gift. Hope is at the service of love! 

His own life had taught JP II that is was not enough that Hitler be defeated, that abortion be repealed, that the poor be fed and that sins be repented of. The greatness of all of these epic and edifying goals can only be measured in relation to our conversion toward God. Often we may think of hope and love as autonomous actions (I converted to Christ, so now I can love my family), but JP II saw conversion and love as part of the same movement. “Conversion is the most concrete expression of the working of love and of the presence of mercy in the human world. The true and proper meaning of mercy does not consist only in looking, however penetratingly and compassionately, at moral, physical or material evil: mercy is manifested in its true and proper aspect when it restores to value, promotes and draws good from all the forms of evil existing in the world and in man.” (Dives in Misericordia, 6) It is this “restoration of value” that JP II saw as the true goal of Christianity. Don’t become confused by the ethical connotation of the word ‘value’: JP II is not talking about a ‘return to family values’ or a spread of ‘Christian values.’ He means that human beings should find life as valuable and fulfilling, love as strong and solid as silver or gold, and a God with an infinite value and meaning.

When life fails to attain to this value, contemporary man finds himself adrift in a world of selfishness and cut off from his fellow creatures (i.e. separated from other humans, the environment, the community, the angels and saints, etc.) Yet, even here, in the midst of all the distractions of our noisy, overpaid and oversexed culture, JP II saw the glimmerings of hope. “From the depth of anguish, fear and escapist phenomena like drugs, typical of the contemporary world, the idea is slowly emerging that the good to which we are all called and the happiness to which we aspire cannot be obtained without an effort and commitment on the part of all, nobody excluded, and the consequent renouncing of personal selfishness.” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 26) Emerging from these depths of pain and loneliness, man is given the opportunity to probe even greater depths. “Faced with the mystery of sin, we have to search ‘the depths of God’ to their very depth. It is not enough to search the human conscience, the intimate mystery of man, but we have to penetrate the inner mystery of God, those ‘depths of God’ that are summarized thus: to the Father-in the Son- through the Holy Spirit.” (Dominum et Vivificatem, 32) According to JP II, this is “the deep that calls to deep, in the roar of many waters” from Psalm 42. In the very depths of God is where the sufferings of humanity crosses over from shame to joy in the almost-instantaneous embrace of conversion. In JP II’s thought, this conversion results in a “Mature humanity” that has “full use of the gift of freedom received from the Creator when he called to existence the man made ‘in his image, after his likeness.’ This gift finds its full realization in the unreserved giving of the whole of one’s human person, in a spirit of the love of a spouse, to Christ.” (Redemptor Hominis, 21) Thus, hope finds its fulfillment in more than just ‘religious love’ or ‘spiritual love’ but in a real human love, a ‘spousal love,’ which has been transformed into a Divine love. Further exploration of JP II’s use of this spousal mystery is so broad a topic that I must leave it until my next reflection.

Top Ten Books Read in 2011, #5

Number 5 is….

Curé d'Ars

Curé d’ Ars by Abbe Trochu

I had mentioned this book back when. It took me forever and a day to read this book. Nearly two years, reading a few pages each night before I went to bed. I finished during my retreat in preparation for ordination to the diaconate. I really connected with the saintly life of this man. He willingness to give himself fully to the parish and to France, especially in the confessional has been a big part of my priestly formation over the past two years. I gave tirelessly until the baker, the shoemaker, the mayor, and the whole city of Ars were living saints. I pray that I will work such great zeal and pray with such desire throughout my priesthood.

This is a must read for our readers in formation for priesthood.

How about a second helping?

My fellow blogger recently discussed The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. Well, I hope you don’t mind reading another thought about Lewis. This one is about his book A Grief Observed. And just for fair warning…my next one will be on him as well. 🙂 Anywho, on to grief! It’s a short book (less than 100 pages) and a relatively easy read, although there being some parts where one might like to stop and ponder the text a bit. I found this to be the case as I was reading.

The book itself is originally Lewis sort of journaling about his experience of grief after losing his beloved wife. The book is full of those all-important questions such as “why does God allow this?” “where is she?” and “is she at peace?” He does offer some thoughts on these questions, but also addresses many other things in the process. As noted, there were a number of thoughts that I had to stop and ponder. Several things in here were issues that I’ve thought about a good bit, and even some things that I’m currently struggling with. Just a couple of quotes that I found to be good food for thought:

“Only a real risk tests the reality of a belief. Apparently the faith – I thought it faith – which enables me to pray for the other dead has seemed strong only because I have never really cared, not desperately, whether they existed or not. Yet I thought I did.”

“Lord, are these your real terms? Can I meet H. again only if I learn to love you so much that I don’t care whether I meet her or not? Consider, Lord, how it looks to us.”

A good book to read to see one man’s experience of death and grief, and to maybe get a different viewpoint on a theology of death and suffering. Certainly gave me some more concrete visualizations to turn to for explanation.

July 6-Saint Maria Goretti

Today we celebrate a young martyr who died at just 11 years of age—Maria Goretti. This Italian girl was known for her strong faith at a very early age. She was so beloved in her farm town that the whole community came together to help her obtain the needed white dress for her first Holy Communion. But for her this white dress was a symbol of a true reality. She was known for her purity her entire life. In fact, it was in protecting her purity that she found the gift of martyrdom.

Aside from being pure she also had great beauty for her age. Her neighbor Alexander always had her in his sights and wanted to have her for himself, despite her desire to keep her purity. His interest in her grew so great that one day in 1902, at 18 years old, Alexander grabbed Maria and attempted to rape her. In the end, he stabbed her and left her mortally wounded. She would go on to die in the hospital not long after. But before dying Maria forgave her murderer.

Unrepentant for his crime, Alexander was sentenced to 30 years in jail. Nevertheless, one night he dreamt that he was in a garden and received flowers from Maria. He awoke a converted soul begging for forgiveness from Maria’s mother. He was present in 1950 for Maria’s canonization.

In Maria the Church has given us a model for purity. Parents can learn from Maria’s conviction just as much as our children of today can. After all, parents are the first representatives of God in a child’s life. If a parent loves purity, so too should their child.

May Maria always intercede for our youth from heaven, but also for their parents and teachers, that they may be proper role models. May we also learn her ways of forgiving our persecutors.

The Year of the Priest

The Year of the Priest is upon us. As a seminarian I am doubly excited about a year dedicated to what God is calling me and to what I truly desire. Our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI chose this as the theme of this year because it is the 150th Anniversary of the death of the Cure de Ars, St. John Marie Vianney. He was a humble parish priest who barely made it through seminary because of his difficulty with Latin. His trust in the Lord and his desire the the Holy Priesthood of Jesus Christ led to a resolve even his bishop could not deny. His ministry as a priest in the small French town of Ars was just what the town and the country of France needed. St. John Vianney grew up during the French Revolution and the tumultuous times following it. As a child he renegade priests who would move around the countryside celebrating baptisms and masses for the faithful while the utterly atheist government tried to stamp out Holy Mother Church. He knew the France and the small town Ars needed to be reintroduced to the healing and redemptive love of Jesus Christ.

He started his ministry as a humble priest doing his duty trying to bring his flock to Christ. He ended his ministry doing the same. In between he fought with demons and reintroduced countless souls to the grace pouring forth from the Sacred Heart of Jesus through the sacrament of Reconciliation. It was said that in his last years he heard upwards of 16 hours of confessions a day.
Seeing such a great model for priesthood, both ministerial and universal, Pope Benedict XVI has welcomed us to this year of the priest.
The Vatican website has set up a sub-site just for the year of the priest. It has all of the addresses of Pope Benedict on the subject as well as documents from the Second Vatican Council, Servant of God John Paul II, Pope Paul VI, Blessed John XXIII, Pope Pius XII, Pope Pius XI, Saint Pius X, and Pope Leo XIII. This will be invaluable resources for anyone preparing something dealing with this wonderful year of the priest. Here a link to the site
//www.vatican.va/special/anno_sac/priests_doc_en.html>
St. John Marie Vianney
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