Sunday, October 13, 2013

In Defense of the Disney Princess

Disney – and in particular their pantheon of princesses – has been getting a lot of hate lately 
for being “chauvinistic”, anti-woman and generally bad for little girls. This isn’t anything new, however; people have been accusing the Disney princesses of having a negative effect on little girls for years now.

Now, granted, I’d hardly agree with every choice the company’s made (“Atlantis: The Lost Empire” remains a cinematic atrocity), but I think it’s massively unfair to throw all of the Disney princesses out the window as being bad for little girls to watch. Why?

First off, I believe that, if one looks for it, one can find a lesson that is true, good, and beautiful in just about anything. But beyond that, I have this crazy theory that I want to share with you. Are you ready? Good.

My theory is thus: every Disney princess film contains a valuable lesson. Sometimes it's a lesson intended for all girls everywhere and sometimes it's a lesson for a very specific type of girl. Some might argue that these lessons were placed in the films intentionally, while others might argue it's simply coincidental (although I think this is probably naive).

Either way, the lessons are there and most of the time they're too awesome to ignore. I’ve compiled a little summary of each of the Princesses complete with (to be fair) the arguments against them and the moral lesson I believe each attempts to present. But keep in mind that there may be many more lessons in each film than the ones I mention below. Take a look at the ones I provide, then post any other lessons that occur to you in the comments section.

      1. Sleeping Beauty

The Accusation: “Sleeping Beauty teaches little girls to be innocent and stupid, that love-at-first-sight exists, and it sets them up to have their hearts broken.”

My Defense: Aurora (Sleeping Beauty) may come off a little shallow, true. She falls in love with her prince after only 5 minutes. However, she is no more na├»ve than her prince, who feels the same way. Their innocence is actually a valuable lesson. Far from the cynical worldview of their political parents, these two lovers are able to find love by ridding themselves of worldly things (the castles and such) and turning to the simple life of the woods. When their love is challenged, Philip must defend it with “the sword of truth and the shield of virtue”, as these are the keys to innocent love as God intended. I fail to see how a “shield of virtue” is anything but a BA lesson for boys and girls everywhere.

Moral of the Story: Essentially, I see Sleeping Beauty as a call to return a sense of innocence, purity, and virtue to romance. Romance in our culture has been permeated with cynicism and distrust and everybody could do to reintroduce a little purity and Disney-like trust into their relationship.

      2. Mulan, Jasmine, and Pochahontas

The Accusation: “Jasmine starts out strong and independent, but ends up selling out to a man who lies to her. Mulan abandons her femininity totally and ends up with a jerk. Oh, and Pochahontas is just a stupid movie”.

My Defense: I’m going to go ahead and lump Mulan, Jasmine, and Pochahontas together because they each teach similar lessons. Each coming from a patriarchal and strongly chauvinistic culture, they each teach their respective audience how to find competitive strength without ridding themselves of femininity, a valuable lesson in this day and age. Jasmine does this with her wit, Pochahontas with her fortitude and courage. Now, you might be arguing that Mulan has to shed her femininity; however, one must remember that she is only able to defeat Shan Yu when she embraces her womanly strength and dignity. As to Aladdin “getting the girl” by feigning charm, good looks, and appearing to be rich and famous, remember that Jasmine initially dismisses him for exactly these qualities. She eventually falls for him because of his loyalty and spirit of self-donation and sacrifice. The story of Aladdin is not one in favor of deceit. It is instead one which flies in the face of an ever-rampant class system and hostility to love-marriages that is just as extreme and awful today as it every was.

Moral of the Story: Each of these Princesses are a shout out to the little girls of different chauvinistic, woman-repressing cultures. The movies teach little girls to rebel against their bigoted systems, embrace their feminine genius, and love whoever-the-heck they want to love.

      3. Beauty & the Beast

The Accusation: “Beauty & the Beast is – at best – the story of an abusive relationship and – at worst – a nerdy girl’s exploration into bestiality (um, ew?)”

My Defense: The Beast (Adam) may seem to be a difficult character to defend, but let’s first look closer at the target audience of this movie. “Beauty and the Beast” is geared towards girls like Belle: bookish girls, the ones you see falling in love with characters they’ve only read about on a page (hello, twilight fan-girls). The problem (generally) with this type of girl is that they end up desperately searching for the kind of guy they read about in those novels. Instead of looking for a guy who has the chivalrous characteristics of their literary heroes, they turn to muscular meat heads (cough, Gaston) who can never satisfy their emotional needs. Beauty and the Beast teaches a girl like Belle to look a little deeper at the guy who, despite his decided lack of a sixpack, may be her prince charming in disguise. Additionally, let’s remember that Belle’s attitude doesn’t change as soon as the Beast becomes kindly disposed to her. She starts to look differently at him when he attempts to sacrifice his own life for her, defending her from wolves.

Moral of the Story: People should learn to look past the physical and into the heart of the person, and true love always requires sacrifice. 

      4. Cinderella

The Accusation: “Cinderella plays the martyr for an hour-and-a-half of screen time and then gets ‘rescued’ by a guy she doesn’t know.”

My Defense: Ok, so Cinderella. This one is the hardest to defend, because it has the largest target audience: everybody. However, the lesson is still somehow often missed. This isn’t just a story of boy meet girl, boy marries girl five minutes later. Let’s remember that it wasn’t Cinderella’s beauty that won her the prince, but her virtue. In the ballroom scene, the Prince is surrounded by beautiful women, but he yawns and is bored by them. It’s only when Cinderella, whose virtue earned the attention of the Fairy God Mother in the first place, arrives that he sits up and takes notice. He then goes on a crazy intense hunt for her because she stood out THAT MUCH. Call it shallow if you like, but I feel that Cinderella is a “Gentleman Prefer Virtuous Chicks” story (as opposed to “Gentleman Prefer Blondes”), and that’s a lesson I’ll be happy to share with my future daughters.

Moral of the Story: Virtue makes you more beautiful than looks ever could and, when the time comes, the right guy will notice that.

Does that sound like a bad message?
Cinderella sure doesn't think so.

      5. Snow White

The Accusation: Criticisms of Snow White abound. There's the accusation that it's simply an "age vs. beauty" story, as well the familiar criticism that Princesses fall in love with their Princes just too quickly.

My Defense: Snow White is the last one I’ll talk about, but it’s easy to defend: it’s a Christ story. The reason the Prince isn’t much of a character is because he doesn’t have to be. When the story was written, and when the film was made, anyone with any sense would’ve realized “Oh, that’s kinduv like Jesus”. It’s the same reason Aslan doesn’t have a complex backstory. Look at it this way: There’s this innocent girl (man, pre-fall) who lives in the paradise of her father’s castle (Eden) but her stepmother (Satan) is jealous of the love shown to Snow White by her father (God). Out of this jealousy, the stepmother kicks her out of the paradise. Snow White has to venture out into the horrifying woods (the post-fall world), but finds shelter with 7 dwarves (there are lots of connotations with them. One could argue they’re the major prophets, while others argue that they’re the 7 Holy virtues). There is, of course, the added tidbit of Snow White eating a poisoned apple given to her by the Satan character in disguise. Snow White is then resurrected by the son of a King, and taken back to his castle to live with him in paradise. Again, I see this as a great thing to share with my future daughters.

Moral of the Story: Jesus and stuff.

Obviously I can’t write much more without this post becoming excessively long, but keep in 
mind that my argument that each Disney Princess is purposely written as a lesson for a certain 
type of girl holds true with the other princesses. Rapunzel? A message for an anorexic 
generation of girls bullied and subdued into low self-esteem by their mean-girl moms. Tiana? A 
love letter to exactly the kind of feminist that normally hates Disney films, telling them that, 
with a little openness, their dreams can come true too.

So what about you? What are some good messages you’ve found in Disney films? Let me know 
in the comments section.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Bikini Question: a Rebuttal

Recently, a post on modesty has been making the rounds. The article is simply the latest post to specifically target certain types of swimwear (namely, bikinis) as being objectively immodest, while also perpetuating a kind of false-modesty which operates under the premise that men need women to control their desires for them

The problem with the thoughts expressed in the article is that, though obviously and laudably well-intentioned, they’re not exactly in keeping with authentic Catholic teaching.
This rebuttal will attempt to explain true Catholic teaching on the subject of modesty, but before we go any further, two disclaimers:

 1)  In this post we will be operating under language and ideas which have been established in greater depth in a previous post on the subject, Modesty Once and For All. It’s not terribly long, but it is encouraged reading it if you don’t want to be confused. In addition, if you’d like to further familiarize or educate yourself regarding the theology presented in this post, check out two really excellent posts on purity at Bad Catholic Blog and Faith on the Couch.

 2) The information you’re about to discover is not widely popularized and is therefore likely to strike you as foreign. I’d encourage you to come at this post with prayer and open-mindedness. If you feel yourself becoming frustrated, feel free to take a step back, pray a little, and return to this post at a later date. The purpose of this article is not to educate you to true Catholic teaching overnight, but rather plant the seed for a greater knowledge of Catholic teaching to grow over a period of Holy Spirit-infused time.

Now, without further ado:

Lust and Attraction: the Same Thing?

Though the article does not specifically mention it, much of the information presented operates upon the findings of a widely popular study by Princeton University on men’s mental reactions to bikini-clad women.

The study showed images of women in various states of dress to 21 heterosexual undergraduates at Princeton University, each image being shown for only a fraction of a second. It was found that men tended to associate images of fully clothed women with third-person verbs (“She does”), but it also showed that men tended to associate images of bikini-clad women with first-person verbs (“I do”).
The conductors of the study concluded, based on the information presented, that men associated a personal sense of ownership with scantily-clad women and therefore were more likely to objectify them.
Now, as previously implied, the Church has a major theological problem with the conclusion of the study. Before we get into that, however, it’s worth pointing out some objective flaws with the study itself. A journalist friend of mine writes,

“The men in this survey were rated as hostile sexists in the test that determined who would be part of the study. These men, in the questionnaire before the study, said that [they believed] women are controlling and invaders of male space. 

[Also], these images did not picture the faces of the women. The heads were cropped off. If one is looking at an image with no face, one cannot make a human connection. When one views a sexualized, faceless body which is scantily-clad and in a seductive pose, it’s no surprise that one would view said body as sexualized. 

[Finally], the reactions of the men were sub-conscious rather than willed. A man, through use of his faculties, can will a proper, humanized response to such images. Humans are not animals. We have free will and use of reason.”

All of these are excellent points, particularly the third point that men have more power to control their impressions and responses than they’re often given credit for (more on that later).

However, let’s assume for the sake of argument that this study wasn’t flawed at all. Even if this were the case – and it’s not – the Church would still take major issue with the conclusion of the study. Why? Because the Church doesn’t view sexual attraction in the same way that the secular world does.

Basically, secular society wants you
to believe that all men are like this.
To a secular society, attraction and lust are the same thing. When a woman attempts to be attractive to a man (or vice versa), she’s also attempting to arouse lust. When a man becomes attracted to a woman, he’s lusting after her. The world sees lust and attraction as one and the same.

Therefore, when a study – however flawed – shows that a man is attracted to a woman wearing a bikini, the secular conclusion is that said man is lusting after said woman. With this lust comes a sense of ownership, a desire to possess, and a desire to objectify.

To the Church, however, lust and sexual attraction are two very different things. Lust, on the one hand, seeks to own, enslave, possess and objectify. It’s a warped and incomplete version of attraction which puts both the lusting and the lusted-after in the position of being tools or objects of use. Sexual attraction, on the other hand, is not only a necessity for any creature which reproduces sexually, it is also a divine call to serve.

See, when a man is attracted to a woman (or vice versa), it is his divine obligation to turn that attraction outwards and to use it as an impulse which leads him to serve her better; to communicate to her as best he can her dignity and worth as a child of God. This original purpose and point of attraction is strikingly different than the purpose and point of lust, hence the Church discriminates lust while openly endorsing attraction.

For this reason, when the data of the Princeton University study reports that men associate bikini-clad women with first person verbs (“I do”), the Church does not join the secular world in its conclusion that they’ve just discovered a biological predisposition for lust in men. 

Rather, the Church points back to its own understanding of the point of attraction, that is, a divine call to serve. Of course the men associated first person verbs with those women who they were more attracted to! When a man becomes attracted to a woman (and vice versa), his entire body signals him to love her, serve her, and communicate her dignity as a child of God back to her, all of which are calls to action on his part.

For this reason, a faithful Catholic has no reason to buy into the secular conclusions of the study (that bikinis innately lead men to lust and that men have a biological predisposition to lust).

Alright, but even if that’s true, aren’t bikinis still immodest?

Before I get into this question, I want to make something abundantly clear: this article is not to be taken strictly as a defense of the bikini. Rather, this article primarily seeks to further correct misunderstandings regarding the Church’s definition of modesty and dispel negative stereotypes regarding men and their chastity.

With this in mind, before we can speak to the supposed objective immodesty of bikinis, we have to explore what constitutes immodesty.

Pope John Paul II writes in Love and Responsibility that,

Immodesty is present only when nakedness plays a negative role with regard to the value of the person, when its aim is to arouse concupiscence, as a result of which the person is put in the position of an object for enjoyment… There are certain objective situations in which even total nudity of the body is not immodest, since the proper function of nakedness in this context is not to provoke a reaction to the person as an object for enjoyment, and in just the same way the functions of particular forms of attire may vary. Thus, the body may be partially bared for physical labor, for bathing, or for a medical examination. If then, we wish to pass a moral judgment on particular forms of dress we have to start from the particular functions which they serve. When a person uses such a form of dress in accordance with its objective function we cannot claim to see anything immodest in it, even if it involves partial nudity. Whereas the use of such a costume outside its proper context is immodest, and is inevitably felt to be so. For example, there is nothing immodest about the use of a bathing costume at a bathing place, but to wear it in the street or while out for a walk is contrary to the dictates of modesty.”

At this point, I understand if some of my readers may have to take a step back. This is pretty revolutionary thought!

First, immodesty has little to do with what is being worn and has everything to do with why it is being worn (intention) and where it is being worn (situation/environment).

Secondly, and perhaps more surprisingly, JPII is saying that immodesty cannot be present when an article of clothing is being worn in the way that it was created to be worn.
So, with this new and startling information in mind, we turn to the question of the objective immodesty (or lack thereof) of the bikini.

If worn with the intention of
arousing lust, even this stuff
is immodest.
Are bikinis immodest? Sometimes, if they’re worn in an inappropriate situation (church or the library are some particularly humorous examples) or if they’re worn with the intention of arousing lust. However, even when they are worn with the intention of arousing lust, they are no more immodest than any other article of clothing worn with the same intention.

Likewise, believe it or not, bikinis can sometimes also be completely modest, if they are worn in an appropriate venue (a beach, perhaps) and without the intention to arouse lust.
Therefore, to say that any article of clothing is objectively immodest is directly contrary to what the Church teaches regarding modesty, even if that article of clothing is the bikini.

What about men? Shouldn’t women help protect their men’s hearts against unchastity?

Ah, the old “let’s protect the opposite gender’s chastity for them” argument. Alright.
When we’re talking about sexual self-mastery, what we’re really talking about is the virtue of continence.

Pope John Paul II writes in the Theology of the Body,

“In order to reach mastery over this drive and arousal, the personal subject must devote himself or herself to a progressive education in self-control of the will, of sentiments, of emotions, which must be developed from the simplest gestures, in which it is relatively easy to put the inner decision into practice.” (128:1)

The journey to continence is one that each person must take largely on his or her own. Now, I understand this may sound harsh, but think of it this way:

If you wanted to get physically stronger, would you go around telling everyone else to stop working out so that you can look stronger by comparison? When lifting weights, would you lift five pounds at a time, once a month? Of course you wouldn’t. If you want to build up muscle, you have to work hard and not shy away from a challenge. Likewise, a man (or woman) cannot build spiritual muscle by hiding away or requiring everyone around him to dress in a way that directly supports his lifestyle.

To this argument, many people (including the writer of the original article) would argue that God “assigns to every woman the dignity of every man”. This is certainly true, and it’s a fair point. However, it isn’t conducive with protecting the dignity of men to cater or enable their sin. Allowing men to blame women for their lack of chastity, freeing themselves of responsibility, is not protecting a man’s dignity. It’s openly discriminating against a man’s dignity. To support the dignity of the human person is to encourage the human person towards spiritual and moral growth, but nobody grows if everyone’s constantly doing their work for them.

In a grander way, catering or enabling a man’s sin isn’t just discriminating against that man’s personal dignity, it’s discriminating against men everywhere.

Just one example of the truly terrible
theology that's out there.
As represented by the original article’s highly offensive chocolate cake metaphor, there exists a false stereotype which claims that men are, as a general rule, grimier, more carnal, and more predisposed to lust than any woman could ever be. The problem with this “chocolate cake” mindset, this “boys will be boys” mindset, this “Women should help men because men can’t help themselves” thought process is that it is damaging to the entire male gender. Sure, it might be a little easier for men to feign chastity if everyone around them is enabling and catering to their weakness. But in addition to stripping men of any moral responsibility, it also strips them of the nobility and well-deserved pride that comes with achieving continence for themselves. It forces men into a negative, self-hating stereotype which ensures that, no matter how much self-mastery they obtain, they will always feel gross or lecherous. On a personal note, I actually know of certain boys who have doubted their own masculinity when they don’t have major issues with lust, so potent is the stereotype that to be masculine is to be lustful. This is just one example which illustrates that negative stereotypes which belittle a gender – however well-intentioned – hurt everyone.

The darkest and most serious example of this is the fact that such “chocolate cake” mentalities directly contribute to rape culture. Think about it: telling a girl to avoid wearing a bikini to protect a man from lust is the same as telling a girl that, because she wore a bikini, she led a man into lust. And sadly, telling a girl that she led a man into lust because of the way she dressed is not a far cry from telling her that the way she dressed is what led a man to rape her.

Now this has all gotten very dark and heady, but hopefully by this point, you’ve discovered the seriousness of what we’re talking about.

To recap, saying that men everywhere have no choice but to struggle with unchastity is a false and hurtful stereotype. To say that women must take responsibility for men’s chastity puts unfair responsibility on women, absolves men of their own responsibility, and directly contributes to rape culture.

So what’s to be done? What’s the proper response?

The proper response is this: let’s all stop worrying about our wardrobes. Instead, let’s focus on modifying our entire culture with behaviors that directly combat unchastity.
Let’s reclaim attractiveness as a divine call to serve. Let’s remember it, own it, and be unafraid of it.

Women, love yourselves. Dress in a way that makes you feel dignified. If that’s a bikini, so be it. If it’s not, that’s also fine. As long as what you’re wearing is appropriate for the venue and is being worn with the genuinely holy motive of communicating your strength, worth, confidence, dignity and beauty to the world, more power to you.

Men, let’s start taking responsibility for our actions, thoughts, and desires. I promise you that you are capable of so much more than the culture tells you. I promise you that it is possible to become chaste relying on nothing but yourself and the Holy Spirit! I promise you that there is no greater feeling than being in the presence of a woman who may or may not be dressed immodestly and being able to look at her with nothing but love, chastity, and a desire to communicate her dignity to her in any way you can.

Isn’t this all just too idealistic? It is even possible to achieve such things?

Of course it’s idealistic! But isn’t all of Christianity? Isn’t the idea that you’ve been saved from sin by the Son of God dying on a cross and optimistic idea? Isn’t it utopian to spout off scriptures about “Peace on earth and good will towards men”? Of course it is, but we still believe and live those fundamental concepts of Christianity. Let us never sacrifice any aspect of Catholic teaching because it seems too good to be true.

Sure, we’re fallen. But, with God’s grace, we can achieve great things! We can be chaste, we can feel beautiful, we can be strong, and we can change our culture!

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Truth About the Easter Bunny

Somewhere along the line (God only knows when), people decided that the Easter Bunny is evil. 
I've come to eat carrots and pillage
...and I'm all out of carrots.

History Channel and its ilk (i.e. Discovery Channel, the Internet) started preaching a while back that the Easter Bunny was some kind of pagan demon-rabbit left over from the pre-Christian days. 

Then, Evangelical Protestants pretty quickly jumped on the bandwagon, choosing to throw the Easter Bunny and his festive eggs on the (sometimes) proverbial evil-burnin’ fire along with Harry Potter books and joy.

But here’s the thing: whenever you see History Channel and Protestants uniting to say something’s pagan, it’s usually a pretty good tipoff that said-something actually has deeply Catholic roots. This rule holds true for Santa, Christmas trees, Halloween, Valentine’s Day, and especially the Easter Bunny.

Before we get to the Easter Bunny’s origins story, however, let’s take a moment to debunk the popular argument for his paganism.

The trouble pretty much starts and ends with a 19th century piece on the origins of Easter customs written by Jakob Grimm (yeah, the fairytale guy). 
Ostara you... you have
a lil' something in your hair

In his writings, Grimm mentions an ancient Germanic fertility goddess known as Ostara who returned every Spring bringing rabbits and general sexiness. He cited this goddess as the origins of the Easter Bunny, Easter eggs, and other fun stuff like that.

The problem with this theory is that Grimm was literally the only person to ever document any such custom. In fact, the mention of Ostara is almost a throw-away comment, making up no more than one sentence in his writings. This, coupled with the fact that Grimm was strongly anti-Catholic, means that using his writings as an argument for the Easter Bunny’s pagan origins is flimsy at best.

So what are the Catholic origins of the Easter Bunny?

Our story starts with crappy science. See, despite the fact that the Catholic Church pretty much invented science, the Middle Ages still put out some truly bizarre hypotheses regarding the natural world. Many of these animal “facts” were then picked up by clergy and religious artists to make theological points.
At first I thought this was
weird, but then...
No, it's weird.

For instance, the observation of the bizarre way a pelican feeds its young (vomit soup, anyone?) led medieval scientists to conclude that pelicans fed pieces of their own body to their babies. The Church then picked this up and rolled with it, using the pelican as a Eucharistic parallel in everything from paintings to stained-glass windows.

Now, as we all know, rabbits have a tendency to multiply like… well, rabbits. Today, we recognize that this is due to insane levels of copulation, but in the middle ages they blamed parthenogenesis. Unable to fathom any species that would mate that much, medieval scholars concluded that female rabbits could conceive without the necessity of males. Rabbits began to be associated with purity and perpetual virginity, white rabbits even more so.

It is widely believe that Jesus'
 favorite story was, "Pat the Bunny".
 Soon they were being used as symbols of the Virgin Mary, as seen in Titian’s Madonna of the Rabbit. Like Mary, therefore, the rabbit was seen in art as a herald for Christ, preparing the way for the Savior and pointing back to Him. This is especially interesting when one considers the fact that the Easter Bunny is traditionally held to visit on the eve of Easter (not Easter Sunday), heralding the resurrection on the following day.

The rabbit’s popularity only grew over the years, due both to its Marian identity in art and at least one major Eucharistic miracle associated with the animal (you can read all about how rabbits protected consecrated hosts from the elements here).

Pretty soon, the animal’s tendency to be viewed as a herald of Christ got it included in Easter festivities around Europe. It also wasn’t long before rabbits got lumped in with the popular European emphasis on eggs which were used to represent the tomb (dying eggs originates from when Catholics were not allowed to eat eggs during Lent. Rather than throw them away, Christians would pickle their eggs, coloring them any number of shades depending on the pickling method utilized. Hence, colored eggs in particular became associated with Easter).

Whether or not he came willingly is another story...

Rabbits and, by extension, their association with Easter eggs became so popular that, in 1682 when Archbishop Georg Franck von Frankenau published his dissertation De ovis paschalibus (About Easter Eggs), he saw fit to include the French tradition of a hare bringing the colorful treats.

Eventually, as with most folksy holiday customs, Catholic immigrants brought the “Easter Hare” (or “Osterhase”) to America.

So there it is: The Easter Bunnies true (and distinctively Catholic) origins story. And if you’ve lived most of your life believing that Mr. Osterhase was pagan, it’s not too late! Go out, dye some eggs, buy yourself a candy bar, and make sure to pass along the truth behind this proud Catholic tradition.

Friday, March 29, 2013

3 Myths You Believe About Christ and His Passion

Nobody knows everything about Jesus and the Passion. I would venture to guess (humbly albeit confidently) that nobody living can or would say such a thing. That said, it doesn’t hurt to try to learn everything one can about Christ. With this in mind, here are a few of the commonly-believed myths about Christ and the events surrounding His death that deserved be debunked:

 1) “Jesus hated Pharisees.”

This is an easy myth to buy into because, at countless points throughout the gospels, Jesus reprimands the Pharisees. However:

It’s true. See, the Pharisees were actually a sect of Judaism that – in contrast with the highly traditional Sadducees – not only believed strongly in the Holy Spirit and Heaven but also acknowledged the teachings of other prophets besides Moses. Far from hating the Pharisees, Jesus was actually raised in the Pharisaical tradition, a fact which is obvious when one realizes that Jesus often preached on the Holy Spirit and Heaven and seemed to be constantly fulfilling the prophesies of prophets other than Moses.

Jesus was tough on the Pharisees for the same reason a skilled coach would be hard on a lazy player. In other words, Jesus was hard on the Pharisees because He knew what they could and should have been and yet He saw them failing miserably.

2) “There was a rooster at the passion.”

Any decent Christian knows the story of St. Peter denying Christ before the cock crowed. It’s a particularly tragic event in the story of Christ’s Passion, and yet it also lays the foundation for a beautiful lesson about Christ’s forgiveness.

But there’s a problem: there were no chickens in Jerusalem during the life of Christ.
 Because of chickens’ tendency to defecate where you don’t want them to, the Talmud strictly prohibited them entering the city lest they find their way into the temple.

Plus, chickens are really scary.

So why does the Bible say that “the cock crowed”?

Well, according to Because They Never Asked author and Messianic Jew Lonnie Lane, the original Greek text used the word “alektor” to describe this “rooster”. However, what the original English translators of the Bible failed to realize is that “alektor” can describe not only a rooster, but also a specially designated priest in the Jewish temple. In the days of Jesus, it was this priest’s job to arise at dawn, open up the temple, and call the people to prayer. Because he cried out at dawn, he was commonly referred to as “alektor”, or rooster, but this turn-of-phrase was lost on the English speakers who first translated the holy text.

What’s even more fascinating about this fact is that it adds another layer of meaning to the story of Peter’s denial. When the priest would wake and call the people to prayer, he would shout three things:

"All the cohanim (priests) prepare to sacrifice! All the Leviim (Levites) to their stations! All the Israelites come to worship!”

Now imagine you’re Peter for a moment. You’ve just denied Christ when you hear the temple crier call out his message to sacrifice, serve, and worship God, the exact three things you’ve just failed in doing by denying the Lord. How much more chilling is this story – and how much more beautiful is Christ’s eventual forgiveness of Peter – when we know this historical detail?

3) "Jesus was a white guy.”

Now I know what you’re thinking: “Of course Jesus wasn’t white! Jesus was Jewish, everyone knows that!” However, this has some connotations that you may not be aware of.

Firstly, Jesus was definitely much tanner than most depictions would have us believe.
Professor Vincent Wimbush, of California's Claremont Graduate University, who is an expert on ethnic interpretations of the Bible, says the matter of the historical color of Jesus seems to him a "flat, dead-end issue".

"He's of Mediterranean stock, and it's quite clear what that means. We see people like that in the world today, and that should end the matter."

Another interesting factoid is Jesus’ facial hair. Despite the fact that Jesus is often depicted as having a neat, trimmed beard, we have to remember that Jesus was devoutly Jewish. This means that, in addition to having a long shaggy beard, Jesus also would’ve had payis. 

Payis, or “peya” as they’re also called, are the sidelocks (long sideburns) worn by conservative Jewish men. They’re mentioned in Leviticus 19:27 where it is decreed, “You shall not round off the peya of your head”.  Therefore, many modern Jewish men (and all Jewish men during the time of Christ) would have sported the long curly sideburns as a symbol of their devotion to God.

Because of this, Jesus would've looked less like this...

"I am Thor,  god of... wait"
...and a lot more like this:
"The Kingdom of God is like...
a fiddler on the roof!"

In closing, I have to reaffirm that it’s impossible to know everything about our Savior. Far better men than I have written far more on some of the lesser-known details surrounding His time with us on earth. However, it’s always nice to get some new insights into old assumptions, particularly when those insights allow us to see new detail in the story of our salvation.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Modesty, Once and for All

It seems like we hear a lot about modesty nowadays. And yet, as much as everyone’s talking about it, nobody really seems to know what it is. In the absence of a clear definition, many well-intentioned Catholics turn to non-Catholic definitions of modesty, largely protestant definitions that I’ll refer to here as “false-modesty”. Somewhat oppressive, the definition of false-modesty varies pretty widely in severity among individuals, but always focuses almost entirely on women and takes a stark, black-and-white approach to what one should and should not wear.

The fundamental problem with false-modesty, however, is that it too closely resembles the world’s view of sexuality. Let me put it this way: as a good friend of mine once put it, “Our culture says, ‘look at that woman because she’s a sex object’ but the culture of false-modesty says, ‘DON’T look at that woman because she’s a sex object.”

Put a different way, false-modesty twists true modesty so that its focus is on the negative. It commands a person, especially a woman, to cover up because either her body is evil and lust-provoking, or at the very least, the people who are looking at her body are evil and lustful.

This is simply wrong, however. The Church has always regarded the human body as a beautiful thing to be expressed, glorified, and yes, even shown off (with grace and humility and in the right context), as exhibited in St. Peter’s Basilica. A huge percentage of Pope John Paul II’s writings speak of the beauty of the body and human sexuality. Even the Bible attests to the beauty and glory of the woman’s form, saying in the Song of Songs, “Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins, which feed among the lilies.”

Not exactly what Solomon meant...
If this is all true, however, then where does modesty fit in? How do we live out modesty while still glorifying our bodies and ourselves in a deeply Catholic way?

Before we can answer the question of modesty, however, we must first look at why we must not be immodest. The fundamental problem with immodesty is not what it shows, but what it doesn’t show. Put differently, immodesty is sinful because it distracts from the dignity of the person inside, not because it shows too much skin.  For instance, many saints have stood naked in public and yet have managed to maintain a holy modesty. Lady Gaga, on the other hand, could wear a nun’s habit and still be totally immodest.

So what does it mean to be immodest? How can a person know whether they are being modest or not?

Pope John Paul II writes in ‘Love & Responsibility’ that:

“Immodesty is present only when nakedness plays a negative role with regard to the value of the person, when its aim is to arouse concupiscence, as a result of which the person is put in the position of an object for enjoyment… There are certain objective situations in which even total nudity of the body is not immodest, since the proper function of nakedness in this context is not to provoke a reaction to the person as an object for enjoyment, and in just the same way the functions of particular forms of attire may vary. Thus, the body may be partially bared for physical labor, for bathing, or for a medical examination. If then, we wish to pass a moral judgment on particular forms of dress we have to start from the particular functions which they serve. When a person uses such a form of dress in accordance with its objective function we cannot claim to see anything immodest in it, even if it involves partial nudity. Whereas the use of such a costume outside its proper context is immodest, and is inevitably felt to be so. For example, there is nothing immodest about the use of a bathing costume at a bathing place, but to wear it in the street or while out for a walk is contrary to the dictates of modesty.”

So, according to JPII’s teaching, modesty can never be determined by the question “what are you wearing?” Instead, modesty can be figured out by asking the questions, “Why are you wearing it and where are you wearing it?” 

Didn't know that, did you?

Let’s break that down slightly:

Firstly, the modesty of anyone is directly determined by the motives of the person. If a person is wearing something because it makes him or her feel beautiful and self confident, and if that person is carrying themselves with humility and dignity, they are probably justified in wearing whatever it is they’re wearing. 

Secondly, modesty is determined by the particular situation. For instance, a tasteful, modest ball gown can be totally immodest if worn in the middle of a county fair.

Now I recognize that this is a lot to take in. Catholicism’s definition of modesty is a very cerebral and, dare I say, liberating outlook. Still, it’s important for Catholics to do their best to grasp the Church’s teaching and apply it to their own lives. Hopefully this post will have begun you on the journey to a healthier and more Catholic approach to modesty.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

I Love You Just the Way You Aren't

An oft-repeated phrase lately is “Always be yourself”. From Lady Gaga to Willow Smith, the entire culture seems to be channeling the sage wisdom of Pinkie Pie.

Pinkie pie be yourself haters gonna hate

This message is especially emphasized in romance. To paraphrase Princess Diaries, our culture now thinks of love as “being yourself, only with someone else”.
However, despite the importance of staying true to our fundamentals (and I don’t deny that this is important), have we perhaps put too much stock in “being ourselves”?
Let me explain: The current concept of what comprises “you” and “me” is a very wide definition. When I say that I want to “be myself”, what I’m usually saying is that I want to remain just as I am. The good, the bad, and the ugly. I accept every possible aspect of myself, and woe betide you if you don’t accept it too. If I plan to accept myself for “who I am”, then what you see is what you get.
Here’s the problem: If you’re reading this, chances are you’re human. (If you’re a hyper-intelligent monkey who’s learned to read, congratulations. The rest of this article doesn’t apply to you). As humans, we’re chock-full of some pretty nasty thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Maybe I’m too angry, or perhaps I’m too friendly (we all know that sometimes, that can be worse). Maybe you’re not a very clean person, or maybe you’re too clean and you make your friends uncomfortable. And no matter who you are (hyper-intelligent monkeys excluded), you know that you have a heap-ton of deep-seated emotional issues, probably all rooted in your childhood.
Sigmund Freud - How does that make you feel?
And that’s the fundamental problem with “being yourself”. Our culture has put such an emphasis on self-acceptance that any potential for growth or self-improvement has been all but thrown out the window.
This is especially true in romance and relationships. Gone are the days when hopeless romantics searched for partners who would mold and form them into better people and vice versa. Now we look for lovers who can “love me for me” or “take me for what I am”.
The problem is, “who you are” sucks. And as I’ve already said, you’re not alone in this. But that’s the whole point of being in a romantic relationship with someone! Relationships aren’t about finding someone you’re moderately attracted to who tells you every one of your behaviors and desires are just dandy. The point of a relationship is to have what’s best about you emphasized by somebody who cares enough to do so, all while what’s worst about you is slowly carved away.
Sure, weeding out your issues and self-destructive behaviors can be painful sometimes, and we’ve all been there. But the point of love is that it carries lovers through those difficult periods and brings them out on the other side as substantially better people.
Instead of accepting who you are for what you are, try working to become a “first rate version of yourself” (thanks for that, Judy Garland). Instead of looking for someone who accepts you for you, try looking for a person who brings out your best qualities and pushes you to be a better person (Of course, they need to be ok with you pushing them to be better too).
And yes, pushing yourself to be first rate is a lot harder than accepting yourself at face value. It’s even harder to be pushed to be better by somebody you really care about. I promise, however, that you and your relationship will be stronger for it.