Monday, July 31, 2006

The Madness of the Max

Three cheers for aggressively straight Christian hunk-icon Mel Gibson's fall from grace.

Gibson achieved the remarkable rabble-rousing hat-trick of allegedly, according to various news sources, being caught driving drunk, going on a berserk anti-semitic tirade and making rude, R-rated comments related to the physical appearance of an LA county policewoman.

However, to the probable relief of his millions of true-believing fans, he seems nevertheless to have managed to make it through the night without breaking any one of the ten commandments. (Indeed, as Gibson pere has made comments which one might associate with Holocaust denial, young Mel could be seen as fulfilling both the letter and the spirit of the fifth commandment.)

I think this points to what is thus far an underreported angle on the Gibson story: the basic insufficiency of Old Testament morality in the fight against modern anti-social behaviour.

Later, Gibson released a somewhat vaguely worded statement expressing some kind of general regret for the incidents.

That's nice.

To this point, though, he has yet to suggest that he has given up on the ultra-traditionalist Catholic doctrine of Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus, meaning that he believes those without a superior morality such as his own are eternally damned. Yes, that means - most likely - you and me. (I mean, I don't believe this sort of fairy tale, but still, it's not so nice for someone to make this kind of assumption about me.)

And, charmingly enough, he would seem to think that this would extend to his own wife.

According to MSNBC:

Gibson was interviewed by the Herald Sun in Australia, and the reporter asked the star if Protestants are denied eternal salvation. “There is no salvation for those outside the Church,” Gibson replied. “I believe it.”

He elaborated: “Put it this way. My wife is a saint. She’s a much better person than I am. Honestly. She’s, like, Episcopalian, Church of England. She prays, she believes in God, she knows Jesus, she believes in that stuff. And it’s just not fair if she doesn’t make it, she’s better than I am. But that is a pronouncement from the chair. I go with it.”

This must be it, then: what women want.

And a fine redeemer of the values of sad, degenerate and atheistic Hollywood he is.

However, since a great deal of modern Christianity seems to revolve more around 'do as I say' than 'do as I do', one might after all see Gibson's drunken foolishness as rather more mainstream than many true-believers would care to admit. But since so many self-professed Christians seem incapable of taking a joke or even understanding the notion of satire itself, it may be that we need to revert to a far more simple level of discourse in our dealings with them.

Schadenfreude, as I said, is a very useful emotion. And I for one am making the most of it.


Greta said...

Okay – let’s just hang on a minute – while I do agree that there is a certain (and often painfully clear) arrogance to be found in the Catholic church in terms of its management (the briefest of looks at the tone of writing in the ‘Catechism for the Catholic Church’ or any of the Vatican Council II documents will attest to this) let’s not assume that every catholic Christian person believes as Mel Gibson.

During my years of experience in the British education system, most of which has been within the realms of Religious Education (and no, Religious Education isn’t about producing ‘believers’ but about education believe it or not, and people of all faiths and none think that RE might have some educational worth in preparing children for the wider world beyond their immediate surroundings), it has been interesting to note that while people (by this I mean both professionals within education and pupils) become more and more sensitive, ensuring they do not offend believers of 'world faiths' – Catholicism seems to have become ‘fair game’ in their minds, and this seems to be in direct proportion with their sensitivity in not upsetting others. At a recent conference I was shocked to hear the snide comments and jokes being made about Catholicism that wouldn’t have dared been uttered had they been about, say, Islam.

Okay back to Mel – and your claim of his claim that he goes with the idea of Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus, that by your definition "Outside the Church there is no salvation" (Shame on you, Dr. Wood, for using Wikipedia as a reference – would you accept this website, that anyone can edit, as an acceptable source of accurate and appropriate information from your students?? ) There are a few things to get straight here – the first is that the statement needs to be taken in context of the document that it comes from, namely,Unitatis Redintegratio (Decree on Ecumenism, 1964, Vatican Council II). While I fully agree, as earlier stated that there is a degree of arrogance in the tone of these documents – there is more than just this throw away line. In the document, (should you, or indeed Mr Gibson want to read it) – references are made about how all Christians who have been baptised are incorporated into Christ, and as Paul points out (Romans 6. 4. Romans 1. 16 Colossians 2. 12 and plenty of other places too) it is through that baptism, and the power of the gospel, that one can find salvation and new life after death. And while the Catholic church can be accused of being more interested in their own doctrine rather than scripture at times - Unitatis Redintegratio supports this biblical teaching by saying that any Christian who engenders a life of grace have access to salvation, and that those ‘seperated churches’ in the eyes of the catholic Church, ‘have been in no means deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation.’ Again this is reiterated in the document Lumen Gentium (Vatican Council II)

There are two further things to reflect on for a moment regarding Mr Gibson's rigid adherence to his understanding of Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. The first is infallibility, and the second is conscience. Although the documents referred to here have been developed by the the second Vatican Council in the name of the Pope at that time (John XXIII) these are not infallible statements. There have only been two infallible statements to date (yes, only two!) and both are regarding Mary (Immaculate Conception Pius IX 1854 & The Assumption Pius XII 1950)– only these two statements are considered to be statements that ‘have’ to be followed by the individual to be in line with the pope. All other statements, encyclicals, declarations and decrees are not infallible and therefore the individual is asked to consider the teachings of the church in line with their own conscience, as an individual, as they are asked to do in all matters of teaching, (take a look at Gaudium et Spes for more on that) even in Humanae Vitae. What is an issue here is that many catholics don’t know what is, or isn’t an infallible statement, or indeed, the role of their own conscience within their own moral reasoning.

While I don’t set myself up as an expert in any way, shape or form – I do wonder how helpful it is to throw the baby out with the bath water and condemn Catholicism (as is the fashion at the moment) for being moralistically tyrannical. Yes, there is a moral code, and there is guidance, but it is up to the individual to reflect with calm purposefulness to come to conclusions. – one’s own conclusions, in one’s own time, for one’s own circumstances in line with one’s own conscience.

To be catholic is not offensive. To be catholic is not ignorant. To be catholic is not fundamentalist. To be catholic means a lot of different things to a lot of different people and Mr. Gibson has his understanding of his catholicism – but I find it hard for anyone to suggest that if a person of faith believed Jesus was the Son of God, and he was as compassionate and understanding as the new testament tries to portray him to be – then would he be advocating a ‘your-name-is-not-on-the-list-you’re-not-coming-in’ approach to salvation?

So, in short, I think Mrs. Gibson’s eternal salvation is safe.

J. Carter Wood said...

Well, it seems I have some reading to do.

And there's much to agree with here, I think - being admittedly far less an expert (indeed, way out of my depth) on these matters than you. However, I do think I may have been somewhat misunderstood.

First, my criticism of Mr. Gibson was not intended as an attack on Catholics en masse. By prefacing, for instance, my reference to Extra Eccelesiam nulla salus as an 'ultra-traditionalist' Catholic belief, I distinguished it sufficiently, I think, from 'Catholic belief' left unmodified. And maybe even that's an incorrect interpretation and perhaps there is a much more complicated version of the doctrine which a more intense reading of Church bureaucracy would lay bare.

But it _does_ seem there are some people who would agree with a rather, shall we say, different version of that doctrine than you believe. And they seem to think they're Catholic too.

If you have an argument with anyone, I would suggest it is with them rather than me.

My scorn for Mr. Gibson derives not from his Catholicism as such, but from his sanctimonious and retrograde views on a variety of current issues. (Additionally, it is directed at many of those who made use of his film - with his apparent backing - as a vehicle for the furtherance of the continuing cultural war in my home country, the USA.)

The official Church theology you lay out is likely to be far more thoughtful and complex than anything which has passed through Mr. Gibson's head at any point in his life, and I have no doubt that what you describe is closer to the beliefs of most practising Catholics.

However, Mr. Gibson stated his views about his wife's salvation of his own free will, and I have no reason to assume that they are not an accurate reflection of the way that he sees his own faith. Just as he has stated his own open contempt for homosexuals. Nor is he alone in those views, though I imagine the 'ultras' of his ilk are probably a fairly small group within a very large organisation.

Secondly, though our experiences are undoubtedly different, I do have to wonder about the notion that Catholics are being unfairly singled out. My skepticism derives from the fact that this seems to be a chorus which has been emerging from an increasing number of religious groups in recent times, among them some people from Brick Lane, who may, as I write already be off to their announced book burning. Of course, none of that reflects on Catholics either. The point is: the sense of victimised persecution is a fairly equal opportunity one these days, and though I have no doubt that there are lots of dyed-in-the-wool Catholic haters out there, I know - from personal experience - that there are a lot of equally committed and vocal haters of those people, such as myself, who reject the notion that any of this talk of salvation - however you slice, dice or deep fry it - really has any meaning whatsoever.

In my own life, not only have I thrown out the bathwater and the baby, as you put it, but the bath itself was discarded years ago. Nonetheless, I would strongly assert that human morality stands (and, sadly, very often falls) quite independently of the mythical scaffolding which various faiths build around it.

I do think its a bit rich, though, to suggest that Catholics have a harder time of it in the criticism stakes than Islam. Perhaps we read different things, but it seems to me that there's been rather a lot of criticism of rather heated Islam over recent years. Some of that has been undeserved. Some has not. But it would seem that taking a broader, global view, that Catholics are not the ones at the receiving end of the biggest boots.

Or has the 82nd Airborne invaded and occupied Vatican City without my noticing it?

Such views have taken on truly remarkable proportions. Recent years have seen a rather amazing paranoid delusion spreading in America, for example, that Christianity is somehow under threat (the supposed 'War on Christmas' etc.), and this in a land in which the refutation of that absurd claim is so obvious it doesn't require stating. Perhaps Catholics are more besieged in Britain, which, if true, has of course a long and unfair history.

And if so, that is unfortunate. But I wonder. In my view, the world seems to be overwhelmingly full of 'people of faith'. And from where I'm standing, they do sometimes seem to merge into one. That might be my own prejudice speaking. Or, alternatively, I may need a new prescription.

You may have noticed that at a later point in my article, I shifted gears (I thought with a certain grinding sound that would make it obvious, but, perhaps not) from Mel Gibson and ultra-Catholics to speaking about Christians in general.

So, I did not seek to cause offence to Catholics in particular. Rest assured, I hold Catholics in at least as high esteem as I do the members of all other religious faiths. Oh yes.

I feel I have to assert a couple of points somewhat more pointedly in my defense. I feel no 'shame' whatsoever (let alone, um, guilt...) about using Wikipedia as a source in the way in which I tend to do so: that is, as a convenient general resource to provide basic background information. Were I to hinge, shall we say, a highly controversial or complex point upon the evidence of Wikipedia (or any other single source), you might have a point.

Were I, say, to launch an attack on Catholicism across a broad front - something which I hope I have convinced you is far, far from my mind - a few more sources would be in order.

However, while there have been a few high-profile cases of wrong or maliciously inserted information at that site, in general, I would suggest that on most things they are reliable. With regard to science articles, for instance, the British journal Nature did a peer-review study which found that Wikipedia articles, though often sloppily edited, were as factually accurate as those found in the Encyclopedia Britannica. (As the study points out, this may be a less than sparkling recommendation, but I assume you'd accept the Britannica as a legitimate source?) As far as I know, whether their theology articles are of equal trustworthiness has yet to be tested. But I am well aware of the weaknesses (as well as the very real strengths) of the Wiki concept.

And I would humbly suggest that - like many other faiths - Catholicism may have faults which go beyond 'arrogance' on the part of the 'management'. This is, to cite only one example, an organisation which, if this source can be believed , has deliberately spread misinformation about one potentially life-saving means of preventing the spread of HIV in areas of the world where such measures could be seen as essential. It has done so, so far as I can tell, only to defend a fairly parochial vision of human sexuality. It is clear that this is a lively and ongoing debate amongst people of your faith, and it is much to its (and their) credit to see that there are some who stand up to the semi-medieval murmurings of the corporate board which runs it.

Moreover, such retrograde views of humanity are shared by many religions, or, perhaps to be more fair, by their more fundamentalist factions.

I'll have to conclude by noting that at this point (and strictly from my point of view) the finer points of doctrine seem to recede until they appear as small as angels dancing on the head of a pin.

J. Carter Wood said...

CORRECTION. Obviously, the reference in my comment above to 'rather a lot of criticism of rather heated Islam' was a typo... It should read: 'rather a lot of heated criticism of Islam'. I don't want to be accused of casting any further aspersions on any further world relgions.

Once a day is quite enough, thank you.