MonthApril 2012

Kraft Dinner and Bad Sex

Kraft Dinner is an abomination.  If you don’t think so, it’s because you’ve fallen victim to a lie, one that demeans you and debases cheese and pasta.

When we first moved off campus, my college roommates and I didn’t mind eating KD, frequently.  The convenience of the stuff eclipsed all other considerations—taste for instance. We did eventually tire of it, so we changed it up a little. We added a dollop of mustard or diced onions and, of course, hot dogs cut in little pink hockey pucks. These attempts did not really redeem the meal because the core element didn’t change; it was still Kraft Dinner.

Human beings can be manipulated to exchange very good things for inferior pleasures.  Cost, convenience, nostalgia, sentimentality are just some of the forces that can be employed to get us to accept bad versions of good things.

As evidence, I give you

There are 7 million Kraft Dinners sold per week.  Canadians eat an average of 3.2 boxes each year.   What can explain these disturbing numbers?

Minions of hell, of course.

C. S. Lewis gives us an imaginative explanation as he explores the demonic view of pleasure in The Screwtape Letters.  An experienced tempter, Screwtape, offers advice to his nephew, a novice, on the uses of pleasure to ensnare a human soul.  Screwtape laments that despite their best efforts, Hell has not been able to produce a single pleasure, but pleasure can still be useful if properly degraded.  He tells his nephew,

You must always try to work away from the natural condition of any pleasure, to that in which it is least natural, least redolent of its Maker, and least pleasurable

for when dealing with any pleasure in its

healthy and normal and satisfying form we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground.

I wouldn’t call a can of Budweiser an abomination, but it certainly is incapable of delivering the pleasure that any selection for your local microbrewery would.

Still, the mass-produced lagers are the beer of choice for those who want to want to express their freedom through the “fun” afforded by alcohol.  They don’t drink one or even two, but many.  So they move through the stages from being animated to foolish to pathetic.

One of the best beers I ever had was in Rennes, France. The label said it was Picon Biere and it tasted like oranges.  I was sitting outdoors in the warm sun at around 3 o’clock in the afternoon.  I had nowhere to go and nothing to do.  The street was cobbled. Across the street was a row of 16th-century buildings. It was one of those incredible moments of joy.  I think this experience was close to what God had in mind when he invented hops and barley and yeast (and oranges).

It was the constraints of Christian morality that drove Aldous Huxley to atheism.  He says this of his decision:

For myself, as, no doubt, for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation. The liberation we desired was simultaneously liberation from a certain political and economic system and liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom; we objected to the political and economic system because it was unjust. The supporters of these systems claimed that in some way they embodied the meaning (a Christian meaning, they insisted) of the world. There was one admirably simple method of confuting these people and at the same time justifying ourselves in our political and erotical revolt: we could deny that the world had any meaning whatsoever.

But how containing is Christian morality?

In his book, Orthodoxy, C. K. Chesterton is puzzled by “the common murmur . . . against monogamy.”  Baffled he asks why people would gripe over the restriction of “keeping to one woman” and overlook the privilege of being able to love even one.

I’m not sure exactly where I heard this story. Perhaps it actually occurred in a colleague’s class. Anyway, there was an open an honest discussion of sexuality in one of his classes. One student wondered how long it took . . . how long it took to make love. The teacher wisely responded, “About 50 or 60 years.”

Is Biblical morality really opposed to pleasure?
Is one Picon Biere really inferior to a dozen Buds?
Is the long love to one marriage partner really inferior to many shorter term relationships?

The ingredients for Seafood Macaroni and Cheese are:

  • olive oil
  • large shrimp
  • chopped onion
  • chopped peeled carrots
  • chopped celery
  • garlic cloves, peeled, flattened
  • Turkish bay leaf
  • tomato paste
  • Cognac or brandy
  • butter
  • flour
  • whipping cream
  • Fontina cheese
  • gemelli pasta
  • fresh crabmeat
  • chopped fresh chives

These, properly blended and prepared, have echoes of heaven.

Objectification of the Onion

The Supper of the Lamb by Robert Farrar Capon is the most remarkable cookbooks that I’ve ever read. For one thing, it has hardly any recipes in it. Most of the book is a reflection on food, life, the world and everything, while patiently describing the preparation of a lamb stew. Chapter 2 is dedicated to considering the onion. Capon suggests you ought to set aside an hour for this one ingredient.

When you take the onion into your hand you note that it is a thing, as are you. He calls this a mutual confrontation, for the onion also confronts you. With his poetic prose, Capon leads us on an exploration of all aspects of this amazing ingredient, from the dry onion paper, both sides, to the wonder of the layers within. To look at an onion in this way, one encounters gravity and mortality, the nature of dryness and the miracle of water, the glory of discovering something never before seen, life inside death, and pressure. Because of this careful exploration, he hopes that we will “never again argue that the solidities of the world are mere matters of accident . . . [and] meaningless shapes out of nothing.” He wants us to encounter it first for what it is and not only for how it can be used. He believes man’s “real work is to look at the things of the world and love them for what they are.”

Objectification is bad, right? At least in the sense that to objectify a person is bad. It suggests that they’ve been downgraded to a lower level—the level of the object. This idea, that objects are inferior to people, is a given.

It makes sense, I suppose. We’ve inherited this idea from our past. In the Middle Ages, for instance, we understood reality in terms of the Great Chain of Being. In this view of reality, everything was placed hierarchically as if on a cosmic chain. At the top of the chain were all the things that were completely spiritual, then the human world which was part spiritual and part physical, then the animals and the plants, and at the very bottom were the things that were completely physical and therefore inferior to everything above it. In this scheme almost everything was thought inferior to human beings.

But objects weren’t then as we think of them now. Objects today are completely empty of anything but their physical properties. To know something we just need to know measure, graph and diagram it.

In the Medieval world, objects were more than just their physical properties. Garlic wasn’t just a flavour for stew, but also a repellent for evil. You had to be aware of your relationships to things like black cats and ladders because they weren’t just cats and ladders. The flowers a bride carried not only covered up her body odour, but aided in her fertility on the wedding night.

These things weren’t hard to believe for the medieval mind.  Because the meaning of things was in the thing.  Meaning was external—meaning was objective.

Meaning has moved–it no longer lives in the object, but in the mind of the human looking at it (or smelling, measuring, graphing it).

So, while objects have been held as inferior to humans for a long time, the modern world has taken the inferiority of the object in a whole new direction. It has completely emptied things of their meaning. Meaning is no longer to be found in the object, only in the subject, or, more accurately, in the mind of the subject. Objects have no inherent meaning, only that which I attribute to it. The modern person takes this as a given; it is part of our worldview.

. . . crossing the line between subject and object

But Capon warns that much is lost when we view the world of things as empty of meaning. He says that every time we look at what a thing “can be made to mean,” rather than what a thing is, reality slips away and we are left with nothing. He concludes the chapter on the onions saying, “One real thing is closer to God than all the diagrams in the world.”

To objectify something is to look at it only as something to be used. It is completely inappropriate for one to look at a human being in this way—we call it objectification. But built into the word itself is the assumption that it’s just fine to look at an object in this way.  Capon contests this view of the created world.

If it seems strange to see objects as Capon sees them, it is because we are modern.  Most people who have lived would think secular modernism pretty strange.

Pious Cliché

Flannery O’Connor says that the separation of grace and nature does a disservice to both (Mystery and Manners).  Emptied of the spiritual, nature becomes either sentimental or obscene (see the previous post).  And emptied of nature, the spiritual becomes nothing more than pious cliché.

It didn’t take long to think of a great example for this one.  What “spiritual” thing has been emptied of almost everything physical?

The Cross. The central symbol of the Christian faith.

I’m thinking of cross earrings and cross necklaces so many of the faithful sport.  Have we gotten to the point that they only suggest devotion, and are overused that it is almost meaningless?

I saw a young man in full “gangsta” attire sporting a bejeweled rosary.  I suppose it’s possible he was a Catholic, but it’s just as likely that he wore adorned dog tags the next day.  If so, I also would have doubted he was a veteran.

When purchasing a cross to wear as a pedant, charm or earring, do people actually care about the particular origin of the design, or do they just buy the one that strikes their fancy?  There are many varieties of crosses: Cathedral, Orthodox, Celtic, Greek, Russian, Byzantine, Latin, Maltese, Jerusalem, Huguenot and many more.  I have an ancestor that was a Huguenot so I could wear that one with some legitimacy.  Or is it good enough to be a Christian to legitimately wear any cross?  My concern is that, for many, the first association of the cross around their neck is not that it is actually a Roman torture and execution device.

Emptied of the spiritual, nature becomes either sentimental or obscene. And emptied of nature, the spiritual becomes nothing more than pious cliché.

How do we rectify this?  If O’Connor is right, the spiritual must, once again, be filled with the physical.  We need to be reintroduced to the physical dimensions of the crucifixion.  A lot of people have written on this and many Good Friday sermons have been preached on it.  If you have not ever heard of the tortures of crucifixion read one of these articles.

The Cross, emptied of its physicality becomes a pious cliché.  I suppose it’s fine to put a cross around your neck, but it ought to be scandalous. Isn’t it scandalous for the son of the most high to be shamed, tortured and executed on this device?  The heart of the Gospel is in the answer to the question, “Why would those who love him wear a symbol of this obscenity?”

Read “Pious Cliche – Revisited”

Precious Moments and Pornography

Realistic Moments by Rachel Held EvansI love these Realistic Moments by Rachel Held Evans.

These cartoons function a lot like the short stories of Flannery O’Connor—they too are a little disturbing, but also humourous.  And. like O’Connor’s stories, the cartoons expose a tendency for Christians to be sentimentalize aspects of their faith.

Some Bible stories are more easily sentimentalized, than others—the nativity for instance–but it is no more appropriate to over emphasize the sweetness of the nativity than it is to clean up the raw violence of David’s slaughter or Goliath, or one of my favourite Bible stories, Ehud’s assassination of Eglon.

In the book Mystery and Manners, O’Connor suggests the reason for this sort of sentimentality is that Christians often conceptually separation nature and grace—or to use different terms, the physical and the spiritual realities.  When we separate the two we Grace is degraded to pious cliche and Nature becomes either sentimental or obscene.

Although sentimentality and obscenity are a product of the same error in perception, Christians are likely to condemn only the latter.

Precious Moments and Pornography

I offer the Precious Moments paraphernalia that occupies the shelves and mantels in many Christian homes as evidence that the nature/grace dichotomy is still with us.  And even if we don’t display it in our homes, it still is part of our mental adornment.

The separation of Nature and Grace does a disservice to both.  Emptied of nature, the spiritual becomes nothing more than pious cliché.   Emptied of the spiritual, nature becomes either sentimental or obscene.  Although preferring the former, many Christians fail to understand the similarity between the sentimental and the obscene—Precious Moments and pornography.  The similarity is a result of the same foundational problem—both are nature emptied of the spiritual and as such are both are excesses of sentimentality, one in the direction of innocence and the other in the direction of the erotic.

Precious Moments figurines are nothing if not a sentimental celebration of innocence.  I don’t own the Precious Moments Nativity Scene but I saw an ad for it in a magazine.  It comes with all the requisite humans and animals—including a shepherd and two sheep.

I have raised sheep and the cute little ceramic balls of white, ceramic fluff bear as little resemblance to my lambs as I do to the figurine shepherd.  Don’t get me wrong, a natural lamb is quite adorable, but you don’t just get the adorable.  If you touch it, you will smell like lanolin, a smelly oil that permeates the wool.  The stink sticks to you and it won’t come off with soap and water.  Although I am sure lanolin is very handy for the sheep it’s not a scent that works very well in civilization.  Further, life on the farm is not conducive to a white animal, nor is the natural consequences of all the grass and feed they consume.  Now don’t get me wrong, I very much enjoyed being a shepherd, even with the selenium shots, hoof-trimming, shearing, prolapses and bottle feeding.  The point is, the there was more to a lamb than cuteness and cuddliness.

The Precious Moment sheep are a sentimental distortion of actual sheep where everything is stripped away except innocence. O’Connor correctly points out, we lost our innocence in the Fall, and “our return to it is through the Redemption which was brought about by Christ’s death and by our slow participation in it.”  The Precious Moment figurines offer simple innocence, or simply offers innocence–but this denies it’s cost, and innocence comes at great cost.

According to O’Connor, pornography, too, is essentially sentimental.  It is the erotic for the sake of the erotic.  Just like the Precious Moments lambs isolates innocence, pornography separates the erotic from sex “and its hard purpose,” by which I think she means, conception and birth and childrearing, likely followed by a life full of the joys and hardships of parenting.

How do we avoid the loss of meaning that results from this sentimentalizing?  O’Connor was insistent that our sense of the supernatural ought to be grounded in concrete observable reality.  Those of us who believe that there is a spiritual reality need to take the next step and see the physical world as infused with the transcendent.  Without the separation, the erotic is not obscene but a gift from our creator.  Without this separation, the lamb is both one of the cutest things that have walked on the planet, and one of the most annoying.  Sorta like every human being I have ever met.

There’s a reason why the Bible refers to God’s people as sheep–somehow we are both adorable and disgusting.

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