Sunday, October 4, 2015

Weak Men and Old Hussies: Soap Opera Lessons Learned at My Grandmother's Knee, and Their Application to the Kim Davis-Pope Francis Story

My grandmother, the half-Irish one, was not a churchgoer (the other one, who was a convicted Southern Baptist, very decidedly was a churchgoer). But not attending church does not mean that one cannot have one's liturgies, does it? In my grandmother's case, no liturgy was more sacrosanct or more solemn than the daily ritual of "Mama's stories."

Though it may have been called "As the World Turns," when it aired each afternoon, the precise opposite happened: when Mama's stories began, the entire world of her little household came to a full stop. Nothing mattered more than that daily trinity of the turning world, the secret storm, and, somewhat later, the days of our lives that flow like sand through an hourglass.

I know this because the liturgy of Mama's stories implicated me. "We," as in my grandmother and everyone around her, prepared for the daily stories not casually but according to unvarying rubric. One did not watch one's soaps casually, lounged back in some louche "easy" chair. One seated herself bolt upright in the very center of the sofa facing the television.

Bolt upright and propped on the front edge of the sofa, one hand cupping the chin, the other exhibiting a medieval weapon of torture aka plastic shoehorn about three feet long, intended to quell any misguided grandchild sitting in reach who might dare to utter a peep as the story unfolded. "I told you, Mama's watching her stories: be quiet!" Thwack. And then blessed silence fell again. (In her defense, I have to say she didn't ever actually hit us. The thwack was produced by the collision of the shoehorn with the sofa near where we sat — a minatory enactment of what might actually happen one day to our leg, if we persisted in talking during religious services.)

The plastic shoehorn that some bank with which she transacted business had once quite unfortunately placed in my grandmother's hands served, too, as a dramatic point-maker, since this was not a woman who herself watched her stories in silence. She watched interactively, full of Irish fire and storm and drama, studying and talking all the while: hence the crouching posture in front of the television, which allowed her to examine with utmost care the nuance of each face, the hidden message in each least gesture.

"My God in heaven, can that silly little banty of a man truly not see that the old hussy is wrapping him around her little finger with that lying tongue of hers?" Brandish, brandish, flourish, flourish as the shoehorn sliced through the air . . . . "Hussy" was, of course, pronounced "huzzy," and I had no clue what it meant, except it was invariably preceded by the adjective "old" when my grandmother and her daughters used it, and seemed to belong to the same lexicon as the word "common": "Did you hear that common little woman raising her voice to her child in the street? My God in heaven."

All women were evil and all men were weak: these were the first and the second lesson of the church of Mama's stories. And no one was a hero and the "truth" told by anyone in a story — as in life itself — was conditional, colored, anything but gospel truth.

Because, you see, some people simply can't see the truth if it hits them in the head with a sledgehammer. All men being weak, any old hussy at all — and any woman has the aptitude to be a hussy (think about it: the subtext here is that women are stronger than men, and I would propose to you that this was not an accidental first lesson in the church of Mama's stories) — can get a man to do what said hussy wants him to do. 

And no one tells the truth. Because everyone has reason to see the truth according to his or her state of life, his or her condition in life, his or her motives, so that the full truth and nothing but the truth is some elusive, mirage-like goal somewhere on the horizon of history that we might all pursue with profit if we collaborate together — weak men and evil old hussies — but we'd be beyond simple if we imagined it was here and now for us to grasp in the world outside storyland any more than inside it.

Do you see where I'm going with this memoir? I've thought of Mama and her stories countless times in the last week or so as the telenovela that has engrossed all of us all week long (so much honey-buttered popcorn, so little time) has rolled out on our screens day by day. 

We have in front of us the story of Kim Davis and Mat Staver and the Vatican, and I have suggested to you — and am inclined to keep suggesting — that none of us theatergoers yet knows the full truth of that story. Not from any side. 

We all know and have long known the propensity of Mr. Staver to bend the truth. About Ms. Davis, we know less — about her personal life, that is, when it comes to matters of veracity — except that she's a tool of a man prone to paint the truth according to his own idiosyncratic and hate-tinged paint-by-numbers system.

I would propose to you, however, that those of you inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to the Vatican (to the Catholic hierarchy in general) in this or any other telenovela in which it has a starring role haven't been paying sufficient attention to the storyline — and shame on you for having failed to do that, because very much in the history of the world at present hangs on your attention to this storyline.

If nothing else — and this is hardly a minor consideration — the well-being of adults who have come forth with stories of childhood sexual abuse by Catholic religious authority figures, and who have, on the whole, been treated with great cruelty by the Catholic hierarchy as they've done this, hangs on our willingness (or not) to take the Vatican contribution to the script at face value. As does the well-being of children susceptible to abuse right now from those same religious authority figures . . . . 

We have learned — we should have learned, if we'd been paying attention to the storyline — that there are many compelling reasons for assuming that, when the Catholic hierarchy, top to bottom, tells us the "truth" about anything at all, it may not be providing us the gospel truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It may, instead, be providing us a doctored version of the truth.

And so in the case of the story of Kim Davis and Pope Francis, we're left, I want to suggest, with "truth" told us now by not one but two parties both of which have a demonstrated history of fudging the truth, engaging in image management, spinning stories — and I simply cannot get my mind around Catholics who, following the revelations of the abuse crisis, continue instinctively to want to believe what the Vatican and the hierarchy in general tell us.

It does not help — this I will freely admit — that in the American context, the ugly old anti-Catholicism that keeps rearing its head over the course of American history was in full evidence last week, with Ann Coulter's filthy but entirely unsurprising observation that the nation's founders were suspicious of Catholics with very good reason, and with the Federalist's resurrection of hateful old whore-of-Babylon polemics from a Reformation period we should all, Catholic and Protestant alike, long since have put behind us in a world in which so much that is wrong demands our concerted action and not the resurrection of our tired old confessional polemics about each other.

Those of you who want to resurrect those polemics, and who feel entitled to make free with Coulter-type hate speech about the evil Catholic hierarchy and the organized criminal conspiracy that is the Catholic hierarchy, have also not been paying attention and should be ashamed of yourselves to end up on the side of Ann Coulter, of all folks. Those polemics help no one at all, least of all you yourselves, if your goal really is to address the problems many Catholics (who deserve your support, not to be attacked) have identified in their church and its system of governance, which affect many people beyond the boundaries of this church, because of its influence in the world.

In opting for Ann Coulter's hate speech and raising the specter of the bigoted no-nothing anti-Catholicism that has burned down convents, spread Maria Monk-style lies, and sought to block immigration of people from Catholic regions of Europe, you're simply raising the hackles of powerful right-leaning Catholics who have disproportionate influence on this culture — Have you counted their number on the highest court in the land? Have you looked at their influence in the nation's Congress? — and you're assuring that very wealthy Catholics who have much sway in the nation's governance system will continue aiding and abetting the cover-up of child sexual abuse and the right-wing Catholic (and evangelical) dominance in the nation's political process.

As I've said before, if any religious group has yet ushered in the eschaton, I have yet to receive news of that event, and so I'd propose that those inclined to agree with Ms. Coulter that the pope is the whore of Babylon and the Catholic hierarchy is an evil criminal conspiracy might want to look at your own houses first, before you throw those words around about the Catholic community. I suspect there are whores of Babylon enough and criminal conspiracies sufficient to go around in all the Christian churches.

No Christian church distinguished itself at the time of the slaughter of some 8 million Jews in the last century. Protestant and Catholic churches alike colluded in that slaughter. If anything at all should give us pause to think about the dysfunctionality of continuing the counter-productive polemics of the Reformation period, this historical lesson alone should do the trick.

The Anabaptist stream of the Reformation, in which I was raised, is often proposed as an alternative to the shortcomings of both the classic Reformation stream and the Catholic stream, but having grown up in the Anabaptist fold, I must tell you frankly, I have my doubts about that idealization of Anabaptists. I think I have never attended a meeting of churched people more hateful than the meeting my Southern Baptist church held in 1965 (I think it was '65, or possibly it was '64 and was not long after the Civil Rights Act was passed) to discuss whether we would admit black members as the world turned suddenly around us.

The hate I heard people I had long known as "good" Christian people — leaders in our church — freely venting in that meeting: I was shocked out of my skull, hearing it in the sanctuary of the church I had attended since childhood. This meeting played no little role in moving me out of that sanctuary and down the street to the Catholic parish in our town, which had long since integrated without fanfare, and which had white and black parishioners worshiping side by side peacefully.

My Anabaptist wing of the Reformation, which was willing to split the church in the U.S. over the issue of slavery, which defended slavery and opposed women's rights and then the rights of African Americans at the time of the Civil Rights movement, and which is now hotly opposing LGBT rights: it quite decidedly has not yet ushered in the reign of God. 

I do understand Catholics, as opposed to Protestants echoing the ugly old slurs of the Reformation period and of no-nothingism in American culture, who find the hierarchy of the Catholic church capable of doing great evil. Many of us who are or have been Catholic have experienced that evil, whether we be abuse survivors, LGBT people, or women. I understand Catholics who have seen women in their family broken by bearing more children than they ever should have borne, or by priests' counsel to remain with husbands who beat them, concluding that the pastoral leaders of the Catholic church can do evil, and committing themselves to work to combat such evil. 

I understand this, too, as someone who knows that the rock-star cult of the papacy is a very new phenomenon in the Catholic church, and hardly the center of its historic faith — rather, it's an aberration of that historic faith. From my study of theology, I understand that Catholics who really care about their church and its future can and must recognize that the leaders of their church are capable of doing evil, and great evil, and that the responsibility of faithful Catholics is to oppose that evil.

The responsibility of faithful Catholics is not to idolize the church or the papacy. It's to recognize that the church exists to eclipse itself and its structures, and to point to Jesus and his proclamation of the reign of God. And it's to collaborate with others of many different religious persuasions or none at all who glimpse that eschatological fulfillment as the goal of history, and who want to move together towards it.

That's the telenovela that really grabs my attention. Papal visits and Kim Davises come and go and really aren't worth the popcorn we give to them, when all is said and done.

The video of slow-motion popcorn popping is by Joel Lipton at YouTube.

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